Monday, December 23, 2013

Tip for dealing with noisy feeds in your reader

If you use a feed reader like Netvibes or Feedly you are probably familiar with the problem of noisy feeds that clog up your reader with dozens of posts every day most of which are dross (like Buzzfeed). You can leave these out of your feed entirely but then you miss the occasional funny or interesting item that they do post. I have found that a good way of dealing with them is to create a new category (feedly) or tab (Netvibes) called "Noisy Feeds" and stick all your noisy feeds in there. That way your less prolific sources do not get buried and you can still occasionally dip into the noisy category occasionally to keep up with the zeitgeist.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Over-preparation for Lotro Helm's Deep leads to rapid burnout.

The title says it all. I spent two months levelling a character from the mid 40's to the cap of 85 just in time for Lotro's Helm's Deep expansion. Once the expansion launched I lasted 2 days. I loggeed off after two days and haven't logged in since.

I cannot even blame the expansion. From the little I have seen it looks like an excellent expansion. In my opinion actually Lotro is getting better and better with each expansion. The devs are clearly lavishing care and attention in to the world they are re-imagining and the continue to tweak and improve the game play. Yes I do have some minor niggles which I will talk about in a minute but ther are not the reason I stopped playing. I stopped playing because the eight weeks I spend preparing for Helm's Deep burned me out on the game. I simply wanted to take a long break. So much for my grand plan to finally catch up with the herd and enjoy the thrill of discovering new content along with everyone else.

As for the niggles (remembering that my overall first impression of the expansion is very positive):

- The complete overhaul of the skills and traits system created a learning barrier. I don't think the changes are bad. The little experience I had with my Lore-master indicates that there is still plenty of flexibility in the system and it is probably more straightforward that what it replaced. It is just another new thing to learn and for a burned out player that is a bridge too far.

- My character had become ridiculously overpowered. I thought my mounted character was overpowered at the end of Rohan able to solo mobs of enemies including elites and even elite masters but Helm's Deep seems to take this to another level. My once wimpy pet can now kill landscape mobs before I finish a single skill induction.  This is particularly frustrating after the major changes to the skill system. I have a bunch of new powerful looking skills that I never get to use because the mobs die so quickly. There is some initial pleasure to be had from rolling over groups of mobs but that quickly become boring.

- The quality of global chat took a nosedive immediately after the expansion. Although I am in a kinship (guild) most of the other members have left the game so I am really a solo player. I like to keep an eye on the general chat channel, it reminds me that there are other folk in the game too and occasionally I respond to requests for groups. Before the expansion general chat was usually inane, sometimes helpful and sometimes entertaining. Immediately after the expansion global chat started to fill with offensive and insulting comments. I assume these were returning players, not too numerous but certainly vocal. There wasn't that many of them and a bit of attention to the /ignore function quickly filtered out the racists, the homophobes and those who are just plain nasty but it left an unpleasant taste. Lotro has long been famous for having a friendly helpful community so it is a rude awakening to realise that there are obnoxious players too. 

Response to Tobold's Question about whether older games are still relevant.

Being lazy here. Tobold asked "How Long Are Games Relevant?" and I was inspired to write a fairly long comment. This poor blog is a bit short on attention recently so I though it would fit here as well.

It isn't just games. In every area of culture we humans have an insatiable demand for novelty. Extremely worthy contributions from a few years back are ignored in favour of the "next big thing".

The issue is muddied somewhat in the field of games because the rapid pace of technology means that older titles are often uglier than modern games. However I do not believe that this is the main reason people do not play older games. Minecraft became a major mass market success in recent times even though it looks like a 1990's game. How many folks are still queuing up at movie theatres to watch Finding Nemo? How long has it been since The Da Vinci Code was in the best seller lists? Technology has not moved on substantially in the fields of movies or book publishing and yet those blockbusters of 2003 have largely been consigned to history.

There will always be a niche market of enthusiasts who learn about and enjoy older works. Gog.com and to a certain extent Steam are catering very well to those markets in PC gaming.

For the mainstream mass market however older works get forgotten except for a small number of stand-outs that have become cultural reference points like the works of Charles Dickens or the movies of Alfred Hitchcock.

I think it is fair to say that some older games have become such cultural reference points and are therefore still relevant. Super Mario springs to mind immediately. In PC gaming Doom probably qualifies even though I believe it is almost unplayable for modern gamers. Call of Duty certainly qualifies because of its enormous legacy even though most of today's players have probably never seen the original.

Please note I am not talking about the "Citizen Kane of video games". While "Citizen Kane" is a stand-out movie that has become a cultural reference point it is most noted for having revolutionised the genre and raising the artistic bar for all future movies. Not every cultural reference point has to do this.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lotro again: Ready for Helm's Deep

A couple of years back  I logged off my level 65 Champion and I really thought I was done with Lotro. This September however I was tempted back to the game while pursuing an excellent Coursera course exploring Lord of the rings in game, book and movies. (https://www.coursera.org/course/onlinegames, highly recommended if they run it again).

I figured I would only play for the few weeks of the course so I picked up a mid level Loremaster alt  and pottered around with him in original Shadow's of Angmar content. By the end of the course I had hit the original level cap of 50 but I was still enjoying the game so I decided to hang around for a bit longer.

Lotro has changed over the years and for the most part the game is a lot easier to solo. Oddly enough this suited me and I was happy to play the game on my own for a few weeks. The Loremaster is a very fun character combining crowd control, Pets, debuffs, modest heals and moderate damage. It probably isn't the fastest character to level (due to moderate damage) but a well rounded Loremaster has so many get out of jail cards that they are very hard to kill.

Playing a levelling game below the level cap has other benefits. There is no incentive to grind. Why repeat old content for a miniscule bonus when new content and higher level rewards await?

Anyway I was 40 levels behind the curve when I started and I had little hopes of getting to level 85 before the Helm's Deep expansion moved the goal posts by another 10 levels.  I got into Rohan about two weeks ago bang on level at 75 and I decided to go for it and try to reach 85 before the expansion came out. Even with an XP bonus however I had only just hit 83 when Sunday came and I decided to call it a night before the big shut down on Monday morning. Then catastrophe struck Turbine with a data centre outage. The result was that launch has been delayed to today (Wednesday) and I managed to hit 85 just before logging off last night. Hurray.

By the way I enjoyed Rohan a lot even though I went through it rather quickly. Mounted combat is superb if somewhat overpowered. When I say somewhat I mean ridiculously overpowered. I hear stories of mounted players soloing raid bosses and I can believe it. Once an enemy is on foot  (or dismounted) they can barely scratch a mounted player. I am not sure that such a huge bonus is warranted. Mounted players already have a huge mobility advantage over foot bound monster so I don't see why they need additional protection.

Anyway no Lotro today I guess because servers are likley to be down for a long patch. Roll on Helms' Deep tomorrow.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Goopple Announces Ambitious New Open Search Initiative

Goopple Press Release: 1 April 2018

Our recent takeover of FaceWitter combined with the strategic assets acquired from the liquidation of MSoft means that Goopple Group can now truthfully say that "We control the internet. All of it."

Goopple group is determined to leverage its strength in this space to deliver world beating, exciting new products and services to our many users worldwide. Today we are delighted to reveal our brand new Open Search Heuristic Information Template (OSHIT).

OSHIT is a direct embodiment of Goopple's firm commitment to openness and transparency on the Internet. From now on all of our users will have instant searchable access to Goopple's vast archive of stored data on everybody. Electronic interactions, posts, messages, web searches, webcam captures, browsing history, emails, voice calls, texts, financial transactions public and private records all go through our servers and for some time now we have been recording all of them.

This massive database of information, unparalleled in human history will for the first time be made fully accessible to everybody. Our Smart Search (tm) technology means that everybody will be able to get any information about you that they they want when they want it. Everybody will be able to search by  user, by organisation, by activity, by picture, by sound. Simply touching a name when it occurs in any form of electronic communication will now bring up a quick menu with interesting highlights and one click access to all the other information in our databases about this person.

Goopple firmly believes that OSHIT will herald a new era of openness and transparency but we realise that some users may prefer not to participate. Therefore we are pleased to announce a range of opt out packages available at reasonable cost.

Under 18's and full time students: No opt out is possible but Goopple is delighted to announce a new "Free Goopple Pad for Every Learner" scheme. Everyone under the age of 18 and all full time students will be able to claim a brand new free Goopple pad.

Unemployed: No Opt Out available

Employed and  Single: Opt out available for an annual fee equivalent to 10% of annual earnings (as calculated from our database of your financial transactions)

Employed and in a Relationship: Opt Out available for an annual fee equivalent to 20% of annual earnings (as calculated from our database of your financial transactions)

Company CEO's / Owners Managers: Opt out available for annual fee equivalent to 10% of your organisations annual Turnover. Joint owners will be liable in proportion to their stakes (as calculated from our database of financial transactions).

Public Officials and representatives / holders of elected and non elected offices: Fee opt out scheme available. See note below.

Note: Goopple recognises the value and importance of public service and we are delighted to offer free opt out to all public office holders both elected and non elected, who meet our qualifying conditions. If you are a public office holder you will shortly be contacted by a Goopple agent who will explain to you what you need to do to qualify for free opt out. In order to keep the process as straightforward for you as possible this agent will remain in regular contact with you and will continue to inform you of the actions you need to take in order to remain in compliance with the conditions of our free opt out programme.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Windows 8 impressions from an old old timer.

A side consequence of getting a new computer for my wife is it has given me my first opportunity to look at Windows 8. Of course I have read and heard lots of things about Microsoft's latest operating system.  I have been using MS operating systems since the original IBM PC Dos back in the early 80's so I have seen bad ones and I have seen good ones but Windows 8's attempt to marry desktop and mobile interfaces has spawned more controversy than most so it was good to finally get a chance to make my own mind up.

Having played with it for a week or so I think I can sum up my opinion with a car analogy: Brilliant Engine, Schizophrenic Dashboard. 

Brilliant Engine: This is definitely the slickest, fastest, most stable version of Windows I have ever used and after the brilliance of Windows 7 that is saying a lot. Everything pretty much just works and works well. It also seems to be highly compatible with legacy programmes and I haven't discovered one which doesn't work yet.

Schizophrenic dashboard: The juxtaposition of traditional desktop with touch screen focussed Metro is quite bizarre and at times downright confusing. Although it is very easy to swap from one mode to another it is not always obvious which mode you should be in order to accomplish certain tasks and basic functions like viewing files or even shutting the machine down are very confusing. Microsoft's decision to include two versions of Internet Explorer adds further to the confusion because it never seems obvious which browser you will get.

Let us talk about the elephant in the room: Do I hate the new Metro interface? No I don't, it is sleek and fast and quite pleasant to use. Do I think it is ready to replace the traditional desktop?: No I don't. It has clearly been optimised for small screen mobile devices and is missing a lot of basic functionality that users of large multi screen desktops expect. Multi monitor support is non existent as far as I can tell and the configurability of the metro interface is poor. Do I think that Metro will eventually replace the desktop?: Yes. Yes I do. It is pretty clear that this is what Microsoft intends. You cannot opt out of Metro. Removal of the start button was a clear indication that MS wants to force users to engage with Metro even if they are using legacy windows applications. I think there is a lot of work to be done to make Metro really useful on desktop computers but I am sure that these things are in the works.

I cannot help thinking back to the transition from MS Dos to Windows back in the late 80's / early 90's. There are many similarities. Back then Microsoft wanted to transition folk from a nerdy command line interface loved by techies to a more visual graphical interface that appealed to the general public. This move was also inspired in part by developments from Apple. The early versions of Windows were in fact much worse and much less useful than this early incarnation of Metro but then again you weren't forced to use it. Computers still booted into command line DOS and you actually had to run Windows as a separate overlay. Forcing users to engage with Metro is a much more aggressive approach on Microsoft's part particularly at this early stage when Metro is not yet a complete replacement for the old desktop. It remains to be seen whether this will speed up adoption of the new standard.

Aside: One peculiarity of using a Windows 8 machine is that this all new all singing all dancing touch screen enabled interface has brought a very old concept very much back to the fore. Keyboard shortcuts have become absolutely essential once again. Windows has always had keyboard shortcuts but it is many years since I regularly used anything more than the most basic ones (alt-tab for example). It has quickly become clear that the easiest most straightforward way to cut through the schizophrenia of the Windows 8 interface is to learn and use the many keyboard shortcuts. Simple key combinations will swap from desktop to metro and back again for example and many other handy functions can most easily be found using a keyboard shortcut. Here is Microsoft's own list:http://windows.microsoft.com/en-IE/windows-8/keyboard-shortcuts

Pro tip: Quickest way to shut your machine down is to press Alt-F4 while on the desktop.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lotro: Revisiting Urugarth, alone this time.

When Lotro was first released (Shadows of Angmar) the six man Urugarth and it's sister instance Carn Dum were the "End Game". Level 50 Players used to  run them repeatedly to collect the class items which dropped only from the instance bosses. Nowadays those items can be more easily obtained from soloing skirmishes so Carn Dum and Uru' are neglected even by players levelling alts. Howeevr when I decided to try and get those class items for my level 47 Loremaster I had a mad notion to try it the old fashioned way (albeit using my level 65 Champion Throg to solo the instances) and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

The elite and elite master mobs hit surprisingly hard despite Throg's 15 level advantage. It took multiple attempts and several hours to clear the place out. The Champions AOE abilities proved very useful at burning down mobs as did the ability to switch to tanking mode when more survivability was required. I will admit to cheating on the "nemesis" bosses by using a stack of cash shop morale potions. These heal for less than standard potions but have a much shorter cooldown so they are more likely to be available when you need them. 

What really struck me during the solo run was that I never really understood how the instance worked before despite running it many times in groups back in the day. I tagged along on several kin runs while we amassed class items but I always found group instances to be rushed and frenetic affairs. Some folk clearly knew the way and knew what to do but I was never one of them. I followed along and hit what I was told to hit. Going solo you get to see everything and you get to do everything. It is a very different experience to tackling content in a group and I think I actually prefer it which is an odd admission to make about an mmorpg.

Aside: It has been a while since I played Lotro and a lot of skills have been adjusted. This exercise proved a great way to relearn how things work. I discovered that the Champ's old favourite "Fervour" stance is even better than it was at maximum dps, minimum defence and I used this for most of the instance. "Glory" mode which emphasises tanking and defence over dps has become much more useful for solo survivability because it now reduces the cool-down of a Champs main self heal: Bracing Attack. I used glory when tackling three or more elites and on elite master bosses where the increased survivability outweighed the lack of dps. "Ardour" has obviously been re-purposed as an aoe stance but I couldn't really get it to work. I found that I did more aoe damage in fervour mode despite ardour's bonuses. Perhaps it would work better if I were traited differently. Also worth mentioning is the small but significant change of making Second Wind  a "use any time" skill rather than "only after defeating an enemy" as it used to be. It has become a bottomless source of power and means the Champion never runs out even in Glory mode.

Second aside: The reason for my return to Lotro is that I have signed up for Prof Jay Clayton's course Online Games: Literature New Media and Narrative. The course is hugely impressive so far. Hopefully I will blog about it later.






Sunday, September 01, 2013

Perhaps Reddit can save me from awfulness of Buzzfeed.

About a year ago I added Buzzfeed to my reading list in order to try and keep my middle aged self even marginally connected to the Zeitgeist of popular culture.  To be fair it has more or less served that purpose and I no longer feel completely clueless when everyone on the internet suddenly starts talking about "Gangam Style" or  "Sharknado" or "Twerking". Unfortunately in order to glean these precious nugget of knowledge you must endure an awful lot of truly dreadful content on Buzzfeed itself. Stuff like this for example: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alannaokun/products-that-will-vastly-improve-your-relationship. The sad part is I am not sure that article was even supposed to be tongue in cheek.

Anyway the good news is that I have been lurking on Reddit for a while and I have come to the conclusion that Reddit, despite its somewhat murky past appears to have become respectable and extremely topical. Prime Ministers even use it and the murkier bits are well hidden if they are even still there. Better still Reddit is extremely current. I have noticed that many of the better articles on Buzzfeed seem to appear on Reddit a day or so earlier while the really crappy stuff comes directly from Buzzfeed's own editoral staff.  Sure you still get some dire stuff on Reddit but the "many eyeballs" filtering system seems to bury the really objectionable stuff pretty well.

I signed up for a Reddit account today moving from  lurker to a participant but I have yet to figure out how the whole contributing and voting system works. In any case I think Buzzfeed's days on my reading list are numbered. There is only so much more of this  that I can take.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dead Space 3 - Very Enjoyable

Having previsouly enjoyed Dead Space  and Dead Space 2 I am delighted to report that Dead Space 3, which I have just finished, is also a great game.

Like its predecessors delivers a good old sci-fi shooter with a long (27 hours for me) campaign and plenty of nasty monsters to shoot.  It adds to the formula with a really great weapon crafting system that is massively customisable. In fact the weapons in this game are downright great. Each frame holds not one but two separate weapons. Want to build a flame thrower with assault rifle attached? You can? Want to build a shotgun with a rocket launcher? You can do that too. I finished the game with a kick ass assault rifle / shotgun combination in one hand and a surprisingly powerful electric bolas thingy in the other but I am sure many other combinations work too. 

There are a few niggles that it is probably worth mentioning. The checkpoint save system is pretty dire. In a previous post I have already talked about some of the problems it causes but the arbitrary spacing of checkpoints that actually save the game is also very poor. If you live in the real world then I guarantee you there will be times when you have to stop playing but because you are nowhere near a checkpoint you will need to leave the game running or lose progress. Even if the devs did not want to include a save anywhere feature they should have given the player more control over when to quit. A simple fix might have been to save the game every time you use a workbench (upgrade station). These are scattered at regular intervals through the game and at least that would give the player control over when to save. 

The other big thing to realise about this game is that despite appearances it is quite different from Dead Space 1 or Dead Space 2. It is less scary for a start and the monsters come in bigger numbers. Weapons and tactics that worked well in the earlier games don't work so well here. To my mind it more than makes up for this with it superb weapon crafting system but you might take a while to adjust if you are used to the earlier games.

I think it is also worth mentioning the games uneven difficulty. I found the game much harder at the beginning than at the end and I think the upgrade system has a lot to do with that. You start out with crappy weapons and you tend to get surrounded by monsters. The lack of an effective melee attack is very annoying because the monsters always rush you and the guns I tried are useless at close range.  Once I crafted some better weapons things got much much easier and I could kill the monsters before they got to me. By the end of the game with upgraded weapons and armour I was a walking tank. I have no doubt that you can google uber weapon builds for the game but I wouldn't bother. Have fun experimenting for yourself. The game (on normal difficulty) showers you with crafting materials so you can afford to play around with crafting. I will give one tip for starting out players though - build a shotgun early on.

Should I mention the games awful love story? Perhaps it is better left unmentioned. Suffice to say Dead Space 3 proves once again that  video game writers would do better to stay well away from romance. Either that or hire someone from Mills and Boon to write the soppy bits. Even M&B would do a better job. They could hardly do worse.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Maybe she just isn't into fantasy.

Watching "The Hobbit" with the family and the kids were explaining to my beloved spouse all about dwarves and hobbits and humans. At that moment Gandalf appears. Towering over everyone else on screen he has to stoop low to get through Bilbo Baggins' doorway.

"So is Gandalf a dwarf?" She asks.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Exploiting Checkpoints in Deadspace 3

Dead Space 3 has a rather strange save system where inventory is saved when you quit the game even though progress through the story is lost.

The game has both "hard" and "soft" checkpoints. The soft checkpoints are far more frequent but are not permanently saved. If you die while playing you respawn at the last soft checkpoint but if you quit the game  you will return to the previous hard checkpoint. Since hard checkpoints are relatively infrequent you can lose quite a bit of progress unless you are disciplined enough to always wait till the next hard checkpoint (indicated by a symbol in the corner of the screen) before quitting. This sucks of course and is the type of thing which convinces me that save anywhere is much better than rigid checkpoints. The developers of Dead Space 3 decided to soften the blow of losing progress by allowing you to keep your entire inventory and health when you quit even though you lose your progress in the story.

Collecting loot to upgrade your weapons and gear is a  major element of Dead Space 3 so being a allowed to keep your loot is a big deal. It is also open to exploitation. Most containers respawn when you restart so all you have to do is start the game, loot a few nearby containers and then quit. Restart and loot the same containers again. Repeat for infinite resources. The loot seems to randomise every time so it is pot luck what you get and to the best my knowledge really special stuff doesn't respawn but you can get plenty health ammo and basic crafting components.

Before you dismiss me as a no good cheating exploiter let me point out that the game showers you with loot anyway (on the standard difficulty setting) so the exploit isn't worth the effort in most cases. It can be essential however if you get yourself stuck in a bad situation as happened to me at the very first real boss fight:

There is a trick required to kill the boss so even though I started the fight with a full inventory of health and ammo I died a few times while I figured out the pattern. Not a problem because each time I died I respawned back at the start of the fight with my original full inventory. Dying doesn't preserve inventory. It was getting late however so I decided to call it a night and finish off the boss the next day. I saved and quit.

Restarting the game the next day I was first pleased when I started back in the boss arena but then horrified to see that I had low health and was completely out of health and ammo packs. There were a miserable few pieces scattered around the arena itself but no where near enough to actually kill the boss. I simply did not have enough bullets to kill it even if I managed to avoid ever being hit. This was all due to the unusual save system which saves inventory but not progress. I had quit the game at the end of an attempt on the boss at a point after I had run out of supplies but before I had actually been killed. I restarted in my very depleted condition but with the boss back to full health. 

Thankfully the exploit saved the day but not without considerable tedium. There was one loot crate  that I could reliably get to before the boss jumped me so I would start the game run and loot that crate  and then save and quit before I got hit. Restart and repeat ad nauseam. The loot randomisation made the whole process a lot slower but at least I got a lot of crafting material en route to getting enough health and ammunition to finally renew my assault.

It is worth noting that the same inventory quirk which allowed the exploit was directly responsible for me getting stuck in the first place. In the circumstances I think I was justified using it in this case.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Photographers PC for around €1000

The time has come for my wife's old photo-shop warhorse is to be replaced. Her photography has become far more serious and this places particular demands on any new machine. When put alongside a fairly limited budget this means compromise as desirable features which are not essential to her core purpose will have to be dropped.

Aside: To be honest €1000 is very very low for a real photographer's PC but my wife is determined to reserve the bulk of her photography budget for cameras and lenses so the computer must make do with what is left over.

Requirements (some desirable some essential)

Processor / Memory: Intel i5 or better + 8Gb Ram desirable. Using photoshop for photo editing (as opposed to video)  isn't as processor intensive as you might think. Yes it does complex number crunching when altering images but reading and writing to disk actually takes more of the over all work flow so a faster processor won't have that much impact. The quad core i5 seems to be the best value compromise at the moment. More memory is always good particularly as my wife has a habit of running multiple heavy applications at the same time.

Graphics Card:  Ability to run two displays is essential. Once you have gotten used to two monitors you can't really go back. A discrete graphics card is desirable because Photoshop can use it to speed up number crunching but  just like a very fast processor it is not essential. The ability to upgrade to a discrete graphics card if one is required later is however essential.

Main Monitor: Screen size is a minimum of 24", resolution to be 1980x1200 or better: Required.  My wife's hobby had gotten to the point where she needs a photographic quality "wide gamut" monitor that covers the adobe rgb colour space so that the colours you see on screen match the colours that will be printed. Most monitors only cover the smaller sRGB colour space. Needless to say wide gamut monitors are expensive and this has turned out to be the dominant requirement of the whole build. Also of note is that IPS monitors are preferred for their wide viewing angle but all wide gamut monitors seem to use this any way.

Monitor Calibration: A wide gamut monitor is no use unless you regularly calibrate the colours. A calibration tool itself is a minimum of €100 and we are going to have to get one but I am not including this in the price of the computer.

Hard Disk Drives: Raw images eat disk space and my wife fills hundreds of Gb every month all of which has to be duplicated externally for back up.  A big internal HDD is essential for storage and processing of current photo's. Fast USB connections (USB3) are essential for connecting multiple external disk drive for backup and access to archives. The ability to replace existing drives and add additional internal drives is highly desirable. When an internal disk fills up it is nice to be able to replace it with a bigger one and keep the old one for archive. It would also be nice to be able to upgrade to a big SSD when they fall to a competitive price.

SSD Drive: At present we cannot afford SSD for bulk storage (also I believe they can slow down if they get too full).  However it would still be highly desirable to have a small SSD for the operating system and key programs. This should make the machine feel much more responsive.


Clutter Free All in One Design: The  ergonomically beautiful iMac has spawned a host of Windows PC lookalikes.These sleek clutter free machines make the traditional big black box seem very old fashioned. It isn't just the appealing looks. I firmly believe that a tidy desk free from the clutter of wires would make the computer more enjoyable to use and speed up work flow. Desirable but not essential and sadly not really compatible with the upgradability requirement.

Software: Operating system Windows 7, 8 or IOS as required. Office. Photo shop, Bunch of other photographic tools my wife has bought / installed.  A new photoshop license would blow the budget on its own so we are going to have to carry over  as much software as possible from the old machine. Given that the existing licenses are for Windows versions that would make a move to Apple very expensive.

Built By Husband (Not): Although I have been building our PCs for more than dozen years I want someone else to build this one for me. This time I want someone else figure out what version of ram to use with this years version of processor and motherboard. I am not looking for state of the art performance so I don't want or need to spend days trawling forums and websites looking for this information.

The bitter moment of truth: What we can afford and what we can't.

The requirement for a wide gamut photographic monitor dominates all else. Entry level wide gamut monitors cost around €500 which is half of our budget.That doesn't leave much room for eveything else so here is what I am currently thinking:

Computer: Primo i50i from overclockers.co.uk with i5-3330,  8Gb Ram, 250Gb SSD, Windows 8
I have regularly bought stuff from overclockers and I trust their judgement. This is a fairly basic i5 system but it comes in a big box with room for expansion. It isn't clear whether or not the rig as supplied has USB3, I am awaiting the response to my query. If not then USB3 could be added as a plug in card. approx cost: €620 with options.

Graphics Card: None for the moment. I want to see how well the onboard intel graphics can handle two displays. If a discrete graphics card is needed then I have an old Geforce 7600GT which should be adequate.

Main Display: Dell U2413-24". This is actually the cheapest wide gamut monitor I could find but it is reasonably well reviewed for the specific job of photography. approx cost €459

Second Display: We will use an existing 17" monitor as a second display.

Additional hard disks:  Due to our habit of replacing HDDs when they fill up the drives in my wife's current computer are fairly new and I will simply move them into the new box. That saves money and also saves time since nothing has to be copied over.

Total cost is currently around €1080. Apart from the display it is a fairly modest machine for the price but it has flexibility and room for expansion should it be required. The SSD should make it feel fairly responsive and the display meets the requirements of photography.  

Side note: Are you sure we can't get an all in one? 
I was surprised to discover that Dell actually make an all in one computer with a full gamut display (something that not even Apple provides) the Dell XPS 27 is advertised as having an Adobe RGB quad HD panel. It also ticks a lot of boxes in terms of processor, memory and ssd drive. The price is 50% more than my big box set up but  I will admit to being tempted by the ergonomic clutter free simplicity of an all in one. Unfortunately I cannot find any reviews of the panel from a photographers perspective though some reviews do mention over saturated / washed out colours which paradoxically is typical of a wide gamut display being used with normal non adobe rgb software (ie everything other than photo shop). Dell do make well regarded wide gamut monitors so they have form in this area. There is the issue of all in one computers being built with notebook components so their performance is a good deal slower than desktops that appear to have similar specs. The lack of upgradability is the real killer though.

Note to non eu readers: Prices include European sales taxes of around 20%. If you read my € price as US $ then you will get a reasonable idea of what these components might cost in a lower tax regime.

Edit: A call to over-clockers support confirmed that  the Primo 150i does not have USB3 as standard. However they are very flexible with regard to component changes so they allowed me to change the i5-3330 for a newer i5-4430 and suitable motherboard that has USB 3 and SATA 6gB built in. As an added bonus the '4430 has considerably better integrated graphics so I am unlikely to need a separate video card. I was particularly impressed with Overclockers sales reps, two of whom I talked to. Both were able to give technical advice in addition to just taking my money. 






Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A chat with a telephone scammer

Over the last few years fake telephone support calls have been a persistent nuisance. The scam is well known, you can read about it here  or here. You get a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be from Microsoft who says that there is a problem with your computer and they will try to charge you a fee to fix the problem. Often they will actually cause a problem by tricking you into visiting an infected website en route to charging you for an unwanted repair.

 I work at home a lot and I get one of these calls about once a month, always during office hours. Some time ago I decided to do more than just hang up so I made something of a sport out of playing along and baiting the scammers. At first I tried to milk it for humour: deliberately misinterpreting their commands and generally wasting their time. To be honest most of the jokes were stuff I had read others doing (like pretending to be really really dumb or entering their Windows commands into a Linux machine). I did add a particularly nasty twist of my own though. At the point when I was supposed to have landed on their infected web page I would instead pretend to get a miraculous message from a heavenly spirit. I would read out a divine warning supposedly directed at them threatening eternal damnation if they persisted in their dishonest work.


I was angry at people who had the audacity to contact me in my own home and try to rob me. If I managed to scare the daylights out of them with my bizarre performance I was glad but perhaps I was also hoping just a little that I might be able to convince someone to leave behind their dishonest career. I am not a great actor so I doubt I fooled many people but I did have a few genuinely upset reactions. I even felt a little guilty about it afterwards.

I have softened my tone nowadays. Now when I get these calls I let the person know that I am aware of the scam I also try to quickly point out that these calls hurt people and that they should really try to get a better job.  While that usually ends the call sometimes they hang around for a chat. Today a young gentleman from India asked if I could help him get a better job. I can't unfortunately, but chatting to him about his circumstances did highlight the differences between our lives and our societies.

I can't claim to have learned all that much about Indian society (the scammers who ring me all seem to come from India) but I guess I have a better understanding of why someone who feels they are caught in a poverty trap might be prepared to take dishonest employment. I am still not prepared to condone what they do though.

Monday, August 19, 2013

In Praise of Jam

Recently I have rediscovered  the simple pleasure of Jam. Growing up in the pre-industrialised Ireland of the 1960's and 70's jam, often home made,  was a staple of our diet and one of our few regular treats. The vast array of manufactured delicacies now available have sadly reduced the importance of jam and the shelf space allocated to it in shops. I myself neglected it for decades but the increasing health consciousness of middle age encouraged my re-acquaintance with this delicious food as a better alternative to cholesterol laden pastries and biscuits. Fibre rich wholemeal bread covered in jam may not exactly be good for you but it is better than many alternative treats and does not come with a payload of artery clogging saturated fat.
 
When it comes to flavour I tend towards traditional fruits:  I believe that blackcurrant jam has the best flavour of all jams although the pulped berries do give it a somewhat uneven texture. Raspberry jam is also a very strong contender with excellent flavour and superb seedy texture.

I have never been a fan of strawberry jam. To my palate it has a somewhat bland flavour and the texture is always lumpy. I did enjoy some very high quality home made strawberry jam once and it came out of the pots brown. This has prejudiced me against the bright scarlet jams found on supermarket shelves even though I believe that the red colour can be preserved well enough  with purely natural additives.

Apricot jam is a favourite in may countries although it wasn't common in Ireland when I was growing up. I do like it better than strawberry but not as much as blackcurrant or raspberry.

Gooseberries also make very good jam and it is always surprising that these sour green berries can make a delicious red jam. 

There are of course a vast range of jams available in all price ranges and qualities. Happily I have found that one simple parameter can be used as an almost infallible guide to the quality of a jam. Look for a product with around 50g of fruit per 100g. Significantly less than this indicates a cheap sugar rich product that lacks flavour. Significantly more than 50g becomes less of a jam and more of a fruit conserve.

The better mass produced jams actually stick to this 50g formula and to my taste the best of them are just as good as the expensive artisan jams on offer. Perhaps this is because the simplicity of the jam making process (boil fruit and sugar in a large vessel) lends itself to mass production. There are of course intangible benefits to artisan jam. It is always feels good to enjoy a hand made product and artisan jam makers often offer unusual and creative flavours.

I have no time for the clear, fruit free spreads that American's call jelly. To my mind removing the fruit pulp removes all enjoyment from the spread. I do have time for the citrus fruit preserves known as marmalades but that is a story for another day.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Shogun 2: Those Infernal Priests

There is a danger I may lose my first ever campaign of Shogun 2 and it will all be due to the actions of a few (now martyred) Christian priests.

It all started so well. I picked the Shimazu clan with a sweet bonus to katana wielding samurai. Heavy infantry win battles in Total War games and these buffed samurai helped me to dominate in early battles. Soon I had annihilated my first enemy and set about building some infrastructure and a decent army.

My rivals were not idle themselves and by the time I was ready to march the Otomo had captured the rest of the westernmost island that we shared. They had five provinces to my three and I was dismayed to find that their armies outnumbered mine by more than two to one.

Happily the AI (on normal difficulty) is no great tactician and careful use of terrain and my aforementioned samurai troops allowed me to prevail against larger Otomo forces. Unfortunately while I was dominating this ground war the Otomo were undertaking a clandestine war of another sort which completely undermined my economy.

Three things that beggered me and two of them are directly attributable to the Otomo's early conversion to that Nanban cult called Christianity. In the first instance every province I captured from Otomo was 100% Christian. Their dissatisfaction with my clan's Buddhism led to unhappiness and required that I leave a substantial garrison in each town to quell unrest. Not content with this the Otomo then sent priests to convert my own provinces. Before I could apprehend them they managed to convert a hefty percentage of the populace and to ferment a number of religious based uprisings. Keeping a lid on the resulting unrest restricted me to very low tax rates denying me a major source of income. When the Otomo then turned out to have a substantial Navy which blockaded all my trading ports I was left in poverty.

My armies were winning every battle but I could barely afford their upkeep. I couldn't afford reinforcements and I was forced to keep the majority of my troops on garrison duty waiting for them to slowly replenish. I was even forced to disband several regiments while the Otomo wallowing in money from their Nanban trading partners had money to burn on soldiers ships and infrastructure.

I almost gave up. I had been totally unprepared for the damage that a few priests and their insidious  Christian message could wreak. The road to recovery was slow and painful for me. I managed to break the blockade on one trading port  which gave me a meagre positive income. Recruiting a Metsuke helped to root out those damnable priests and other enemy agents. Levelling Christian churches and replacing them with Buddhist temples and monks finally stemmed the tide of Christianity. All the while my armies undertook a holding action worthy of Horatio repeatedly defending against superior Otomo forces while they waited for for my economy to improve to the point where further expansion was possible.

It took years but I am nearly there. The Otomos are down to their last two provinces and I will soon eradicate them and their annoying cult. Lasting damage has been done though. For more than a decade I have neglected spending on infrastructure and my armies and towns have fallen far behind those of the richer clans on the mainland.  It may be too late to catch up.

Damned priests.




Monday, July 15, 2013

Fond thoughts about an old computer.

My wife's computer is acting up and as the self appointed "computer guy" in our house it is up to me to try and fix it. To be honest the ageing machine needs to be replaced but for assorted reasons we would like to nurse it along for another few months.

I have a fondness for the old beast myself having built with my own hands. Almost every component has been replaced at some point so like Johnny Cash's Cadillac is defies any attempt to put a definitive date upon it's eclectic collection of parts.

The oldest extant component is an ancient tower case dating from circa 2002.

The Windows XP operating system was first installed in 2005 and the PSU and monitor hail from that same year.

The processor was upgraded (to an Athlon 64 X2) in 2006 but the motherboard was replaced sometime in the intervening years.

It still has 1 Gb of the original 2005 memory but the remaining 2Gb were added later, I suspect in 2010.

The 7600GT graphics card comes from circa 2007.

Mouse, Keyboard and other peripherals have been replaced many times over the years.

My wife's photography hobby has a voracious appetite for storage so the machine currently carries 1.5 Gb of internal hard disks and 3Gb of external USB connected storage all of which date from post 2010.  

Said photography hobby is also the reason why no trendy tablet or laptop will suffice as a replacement. My wife needs the power and flexibility of a desktop workstation. When it is eventually replaced (later this year hopefully) I would not be surprised if my wife opts for the ergonomic convenience of an Apple machine particularly given Microsoft's apparent determination to make the Windows ecosystem irrelevant. Nevertheless I will make a strong case for another "Built by Husband" machine. The core of her current set up has given good service for 8 years now and I doubt that any shop bought replacement could hope to match that.



Thursday, July 04, 2013

Thinking of cancelling my Netflix account and starting a new one.

Grghhhhhh.  Netflix has finally become useless to me.


My kids use Netflix a lot and they watch more TV than I do. The net result of this is that the viewing preferences reflect their tastes more than mine. Today I have the TV to myself and I am trying to find a movie to watch and I cannot find a single thing in the menus. Even the old reliable menus (Sci Fi, New releases, Recently added) have finally disappeared and all I get are suggestions like "Because You Watched Boy Girl Thing".

This is despite my going into the preference menus and trying to tell it what movies I like. Obviously past history carries more weight than stated preference.

There is no way to wipe the slate clean.

There is no way to get a simple flat list of menus of the major genres.

At this moment in time I hate Netflix. It is a particular cold form of hate that is reserved for automated systems that think they are cleverer than I am. Just give me the God damned tools to make my own mind up and stop trying to second guess me.

The only way I know to wipe the slat clean is to start a new account. Perhaps I will start a new free trial account to tide me over until the kids come back and I hand over the TV again.

I hate Netflix.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Flagging enthusiasm about Hotline Miami

At first Hotline Miami gripped me. This is not surprising as it is one of those rare indie classics that receive universal praise and mega sales.

As many others have pointed out the gameplay is superb. You must kill all your enemies without getting hit once. You will get hit over and over and have to reload many times but the rapid pace of the game means you don't care. It is a perfect addictive blend of quick fire tactics and precise control.

The atmosphere is even better than superb. Ugly blurry graphics and a sublimely dissonant soundtrack really nail the retro 1980's drug fuelled gangster vibe for me.

Surprisingly the thing which increasingly disappointed me was the story. At first I didn't expect the game to have a story at all or perhaps to have a very wierd one. As I play through the game however it is slowly becoming clear that there is a fairly mundane story hidden behind the frantic killing. Knowing that I wouldn't have the patience to hunt down all the story clues through multiple play throughs I googled it. Sadly the story is pretty silly and in no way a fitting reward for all the effort retired to unlock it. Worse still the story affects the gameplay in an undesirable way. Some of the games later levels are actually easier than early levels which is a disappointment.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Embarassing list of games I have played in the last month


Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter (Played a couple of chapters, will prolly go back)
Serious Sam 3 (Played main campaign up to final boss.)
Trine 2 (Ongoing campaign with my daughter)
Torchlight 2 (Played a few hours and got bored)
Shadow of the Colosssus (finished main campaign)
God of War (Played a few hours. No inclination to continue this inferior clone of Darksiders (joke))
Katamari Damacy(played about half an hour to see what all fuss was about)
The Last Remnant (Played a few hours, interested in trying some more)
The Walking Dead (Finished first chapter)
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (Played through to end of main campaign)
Dishonored (Played through to the end of main campaign)
Stacking (Played with my daughter for a few days)
Shatter (Whiled away some time a few evenings)
Dogfighter (can't remember what I did with this)
EVE Online (only logged in to take advantage of skill changes in patch)
Star Wars The Old Republic Online (Played for a couple of hours and got bored)
Open TTD (Played this with my daughter for about a week)


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Playstation 2 Emulation: PCSX2

A recent Twitter conversation with Jonn Shute from How to Murder Time got me wondering about the current state of PS2 emulation. A quick google search revealed that the leading contender is a programme called PCSX2  which is a highly developed emulator that already works with over 1800 PS2 games. Impressively there are Windows Mac and Linux versions available.

Disclaimer: The combination of hacking and gaming makes emulation a facinating subject but there are legal issues. You might feel that it is morally justifiable to emulate older systems and games that are no longer commercially available (abandon-ware) but I am not sure that a court of law would agree with you. In any case the PS2 only went out of production in January this year so even the abandon-ware argument is a bit unconvincing. The two main points of legal contention with regard to PCSX2 are the games themselves and Sony's PS2 bios. You can still buy PS2 games in second hand shops and on Ebay but the only legal way to get a copy of the PS2 bios is to get your own PS2. Even then I am not sure the law allows you to copy the bios from your console and install it in another device.  In any case, just to be clear, the following post is in no way an admission that I did anything illegal. It is merely a summary of observations that I have gathered from browsing publicly available websites and youtube videos. It is not my intention to give the impression that I undertook any of the activities described below myself.

You can pick up a second hand PS2 for as little as €20 these days so you might wonder about the need for an emulator. The PCSX2 website points out that there are advantages to emulation:  The ability to run games at higher graphics resolutions with features such as anti aliasing, greatly expanded storage facilities for games and save games, the ability to take screenshots, the abilty to save game states other than at checkpoints (you might consider this cheating but it is a biggie). It is important also not to overlook the fun that comes from hacking around with a complex piece of software that will reward those who invest time in it with control over just about every aspect of their games.

The disadvantage though is that emulation is not plug and play. The PCSX2 has been in development since 2001 and is very polished but even so it come with a choice of plugins for graphics, sound, controllers etc. and most of these plugins have further options to tweak on a game by game basis. Happily the default pugins and settings work well for many games. Advances in PC technology allow a fast modern processor to brute force its way through many of the difficulties that were encountered in earlier days. Nevertheless you do have to be prepared to get stuck in and play with individual settings on a game by game basis to get the optimal experience. There is a wiki which can be searched for individual game settings. There is no guarantee these settings will work on your hardware but they are a good starting point.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic - replay

After finishing Dishonored I got a notion to revisit an old classic: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic from way back in 2006.

"Classic" is perhaps an exaggeration because the game got mixed reviews when it came out. Some reviewers praised it's innovative physics based combat others criticised its unimaginative story and repetitive game play.

Replaying the game seven years later I can certainly see flaws. The voice acting is really dreadful at several important times and the writing in general is poor. The two main female characters in particular are awful. They are supposed to be sexy I think but are really just embarrassing. 

Despite this I did enjoy replaying the game to the end and the combat is innovative and fun. It reminded me a lot of Dark Souls (high praise) where blocking and timing are everything. Sadly there is an overall lack of balance in the game which overshadows a lot of the combat. It is generally easier to kill an opponent by kicking them into an environmental hazard than by actually winning a contest of blades. Playing on the middle difficulty setting (called "Hard") I was hugely disappointed in how little damage my weapons put out at the beginning of the game. It took a dozen or more blows from me to fell the humblest opponent while they could kill me in one or two. No wonder then that kicking enemies off cliffs or into the bizarrely common spiky grates were the most common ways of killing them. It wasn't until the end of the game that I got my hands on decent weapons and skills and could finally win fights without the aid of the environment. In hindsight I should probably have chosen the lowest difficult setting (called "normal") but sadly I was well into the game when I realised this and there is no option to change difficulty mid game.

The game has a choice of skills that will suit melee and ranged, magic and stealth users. Happily you get more than enough skill points to explore several paths. I invested heavily in melee and archery with points left over for some handy magic skills like Healing and Sanctuary.  To be honest I doubt you will get through the game without some melee ability because mana recharges very slowly so even mages are going to have to duke it out (with their boots) often enough.

Dishonored

I finished Dishonored last week and was very impressed. Highly recommended if you haven't played it yet.

High points:
Strong Storyline, Engaging gameplay, enormous freedom of action. Great set of skills and upgrades. Many ways to play and all of them enjoyable. Stealth in particular is very satisfying.

Not so High points:
Despite the freedom of how you go about them the missions themselves are linear.Rewards for sticking to one style of play may deter you from experiencing other side of the game. The ending(s) are a bit of a let down.

To elaborate on the issue about people sticking to one play style: Dishonored follows the model of other Bioware games where the ending you get depends on the way you play. If you want a "good" ending you need to play non violently which more or less obliges you to play stealth. While stealth is well supported and enjoyable in the game it does mean that you miss out on a lot of the games weapons and power ups.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A scary thought about the new Xbox and PC Gaming

The new Xbox One is going to run a version of Windows. Good news for PC gaming? Surely that means that new AAA games will be easily ported to PC from the Console version.

Well yes but it could also mean that you will only be able to buy those games from Microsoft's own App store. If that happens then say bye bye to the fierce competition between digital retailers that has led to so many PC gaming bargains in recent years.

I have no doubt that Microsoft have long looked with envy on Apple's App store model where the only place to buy software is from themselves and they get the retail mark-up on everything that goes on the device. Microsoft could do that on their new console but I don't think they will for a few years yet because a lot of consoles still aren't  connected to the internet and bricks and mortar retailers still sell a heck of a lot of console games.

In the PC world bricks and mortar retail is already dead. The vast majority of PC game buyers are buying games from digital retailers like Steam, Amazon, Gamers gate etc. PC gamers are used to buying games online so why not force them to buy them from Microsoft directly? Microsoft wouldn't even have to force the issue. All they have to do is provide development tools that make it very easy to port an Xbox game to Windows as long as it uses the Microsoft store. I think that could result in a lot of "Microsoft Store" exclusives especially for new AAA games.

EDIT: According to this Kokatu article the Xbox One will need an internet connection at least once per day.  That is another nail in the coffin for Gamestop and other bricks and mortar games retailers but I don't think Microsoft will abandon them just yet even though I strongly suspect there is an end game plan that will do just that as soon as they can woo a sufficient number of their customers onto digital purchases. 

EDIT: The evidence keeps mounting up: Xbox  marketplace is becoming a one stop shop for all games.  I think you can sell any remaining shares you hold in Gamestop now.

The Walking Dead: Point and Click meets interactive Novel

Over the last week or so I have taken finishing my gaming evenings with a short spell of Tell Tale Games  point and click adventure "The Walking Dead". (My current main game is Dishonored but more about that in a later post).

I am a fan of the recent trend for very strong story lines in games like Spec Ops: the Line, Max Payne 3 and Bioshock Infinite. The Walking Dead is a logical next step for me because it is acknowledged to be an episodic story first and a video game second.

I have only played episode one so far and it has for the most part lived up to my expectations of being a very good example of comic book story made interactive. The biggest surprise for me is that some of the gameplay is more challenging than I expected. Its been a while since I played a point and clicker and I had forgotten about non intuitive puzzles that require clicking every item in your inventory with every object on the screen in the hopes of getting a result.  Walking Dead has a very limited inventory thankfully but there were a couple of head scratching occasions where I had to randomly click every location until something responded.

There are also a few timed events which are good in theory but not so great in practise. The controls are not the most responsive which isn't a problem for normal point and click stuff but is a big problem when you are forced to make a life or death decision in mere seconds. I have had to make a few frustrating reloads because of this.

Not every decision is life or death of course. There are plenty of mundane choices such as whether to respond positively or negatively to one of your colleagues. The game flags these events with messages saying that your actions have been noted but I haven't determined yet how big an effect these decisions have on the overall storyline. My gut feeling so far is that the story runs pretty tightly on rails and that your choices mainly affect the incidentals.

Overall though I am highly enjoying The Walking Dead and playing it for half an hour or so every evening at the end of my gaming is proving to be a great wind down before bed.

Spec Ops: the Line


Spec Ops the line: pretty decent third person shooter with a very dark and disturbing storyline. All in all I found the experience to be well worth it.It may not reach the literary height of Heart of Darkness or the Cinematic brilliance of Apocalypse Now but it is nevertheless a fitting homage to those two forebears. To my mind this game handles brutality far better than Modern Warfare series. In Modern Warfare it always feels like brutality is just put in for shock value. In this game it is a serious attempt at storytelling.

Note: I played this game back in January 2013 and wrote this snippet then but somehow never posted it. Posting now for completeness. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Whatever happened to "Essential PC Games" lists?

For about a decade I maintained a monthly subscription to a PC gaming magazine called PC Zone. Perhaps my favourite bit of the magazine was their list of essential PC games. This buyers guide changed format a few times over the years but the basic principle remained the same. It was a ranked list of essential PC games classified by genre. The genres included Shooters, RPGs, God Games, Space games (for a while) and a few others I can't remember. There were about ten games in each category.

For several years this list was a cornerstone of my PC gaming. I strove to acquire and play every game on the list in the categories I was interested in.  I even tried to get the top titles in those categories I wasn't so enthusiastic about.

I miss that list because gaming seemed much simpler then. I could play perhaps ten games and consider myself an expert on shooters or RPGs or whatever. Once a game got on the list it usually held its place for some time so this was an achievable goal. Some games (most famously Deus Ex) maintained  their place for years.

I don't know of any equivalent list today and I don't know if it would even be possible. There are many many more games around than there used to be and also there are fewer games that stand head and shoulders above the crowd. This is natural in a maturing industry where innovation has become incremental rather than radical. It is also natural that the difference in quality between best and worst has become smaller. This is actually a good thing. Games have gotten better and even mediocre titles from today are better in many respects than classics of the past although we older gamers tend to forget this when we don our rose tinted history goggles.

Another difficulty with recreating the list is that the gaming public has grown and has become more segmented. Gamers have their own individual tastes, which is a good thing but it means we no longer all speak the same language and we no longer agree on what are the essential games.  A quick Google search for "Essential PC Games" will confirm this. The various lists thrown up differ as much as they agree.

It is not all good news however. As AAA games have grown into mega brands reviewers and their scores seem to have lost much of their power. Nowadays it all seems to be about pre-order and first week sales which owe more to multi million marketing budgets than to the commendation of professional reviewers.

I still miss the list though. Nowadays my game purchasing algorithm is more haphazard, an ad hoc combination of "games in a genre I like" with "games I have heard good things about" with " games that have a reasonable meta critic score" and of course the all important "games that are on sale this week". 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Max Payne 3 finished

I enjoyed Max Payne 3 although I am not sure it is fair to call it a game. Interactive movie might be a more appropriate title given how little control you actually get over your characters actions and how much time you spend watching the game story unfold in cut scenes. You literally spend most of the game watching your character go through a series of long cut scenes interspersed with brief hectic firefights.

This actually sounds worse than it is because the story is actually very good, the characterisation is very good and the cinematography (if that is the correct term) is also very good. You could watch this as a movie in its own right. I have previously criticised shooters like the latest Medal of honour and Call of Duty games for restricting the players freedom too much. However Max Payne 3 does this far better than those games smiply because it is a better interactive movie. In terms of story telling it is up there with Bioshock infinite. A huge factor is that we finally seem to be breaking through the uncanny valley in terms of lifelike game characters. Max Payne goes for hyperrealism and still managed to produce characters with real empathy.

Surprisingly the worst part of the game is actually the "game bit" i.e. the fire-fights where the player is actually in control. You are forced to endure hundreds of mind numbingly repetitive encounters from beginning to end of the game. Every single time you go through a door the following happens:  

You go through a door. A cut scene triggers which advances the story a bit and then a gang of bad guys appear. The cut scene ends with you moving to some handy piece of cover nearby. Once you regain control you find yourself under a hail of fire from half a dozen or so enemies. You proceed to pick them off one by one using the powerful bullet time ability, all the while accumulating injuries from the onslaught. A couple of the enemies will try to flank around behind your cover. When you clear the first batch a second batch inevitably appears.  Hopefully your health packs (tablets) are sufficient to last you through the fight because when you finally kill the last guy (cue slow mo bullet cam) you have to go go througha newly unlocked gate to trigger a save checkpoint and more than likely to lead into another identical combat encounter.

These encounters are always hectic and fun enough at the beginning but by the hundredth time they become extremely tedious. What a shame.

Quick summary: Combat is poor because it is very repetitive but everything else is great. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe (OpenTTD)

I stumbled across OpenTTD a couple of days back and the game is wonderful. This is an open source success story with a large active community of developers and players that have re-imagined and expanded upon Chris Sawyers 1995 classic game.

Coming straight from the flash and polish of Max Payne 3 (of which more in a later post)  it was quite  refreshing to see a game that solidly votes for substance over style. This world building game has huge complexity with many many layers that I haven't begun to understand yet. For example: I am trying to grow a town in the desert. Turns out I need water and food, which makes sense. Water comes from a nearby water plant so I build a road and send some trucks for it. Food comes from a food processing plant but that in turn needs maize and fruit. These are too far apart to reliably transport by road so I need to build a network of railways to ferry all this stuff about. To speed things up I want to run multiple trains on the tracks but that needs signalling to prevent crashes. All of this has to be paid for so I need to look for some lucrative transport route ...and so it continues.

Lest you be put off by my substance over style comment I should point out that the graphics, sound and music are  great and must have been produced by accomplished artists.Custom graphics  (including a recent 32 bit update) are also available thanks to the creative game community.

I have never played a Transport Tycoon game before so I am learning as I go along. I still haven't really figured out what the whole objective is. From what I have seen so far it could be one of a number of things:

1. To make profits from you transport company.  Although this seems like an obvious objective for a business game it also seems to be a boring objective. Even though I have barely scratched the surface I have already noticed that some things are a lot more profitable than others but if you only do the very profitable stuff your game will be very limited.

2. To survive till 2050. I read somewhere that you win the game if you keep playing to 2050. Are there disasters and challenges which make this difficult or it simply a question of patience? I don't know.

3. As a competitive game. There is a multi-player mode. I assume that players build competing transport companies. Perhaps there are bot competitors in single player mode. I haven't seen any yet but this would certainly increase the challenge of the game.

4. As a sandbox building game. Look at pictures of the game showing thriving cities and busy transport networks. I want to build a world like that.

5. All of the above or something else entirely. Possible I may still be missing the entire point of the game.

If you are interested you can get the game here: http://www.openttd.org/en/
I recommend the 32 bit graphics set zBase. You can now download this from the start menu of the game by pressing "Check On-line Content" and searching for zBase.

By the way when looking for info about OpenTTD I discovered yet another free transport simulation game called Simutrans which seems to have its own strong following.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Darksiders II: Tackling the Deposed King (Big Hint)

The optional Deposed King is one of the hardest bosses in Darksiders II. I stumbled across him first at level 13 and was soundly defeated and I didn't eventually overcome him until level 17.  He is not a very complex boss. Most of his attacks are slow and easily avoided but he hits very hard and one particular hammer attack leaves you frozen for about 10 seconds while your health drains away at an alarming rate. Even one of these can be enough to kill you so there is absolutely no room for error as you whittle away his large pool of health. This is the source of the difficulty and frustration with this encounter. You spend a long time getting his health down only to die because of one mistake. Anyway the simple hint I have is to stack resistance gear. Gear in Darksiders II has two mitigation factors:  defence, which protects against most normal attacks and resistance, which protects against elemental attacks. Defense is more generally useful so you have probably maximised that at the expense of resistance. Well the Deposed King's ice attack does surprise, surprise elemental damage. If you abandon your normal gear for high resistance stuff then you will take far less damage from the King's freezing attack making the whole fight much much easier.  You can choose your own method of hurting him. I took the cowardly approach of using the gun to build up wrath and then unleashing wrath powers. You can also get a few good hits in when his hammer is stuck in the ground.

Having finished the game I can confirm that I enjoyed it very much. The gameplay was more polished than the first Darksiders and it had none of the difficulty spikes of the first game. I preferred the settings of the first game though. I think they were more varied and more colourful.

Friday, May 03, 2013

EVE Frustration

I re-subbed to EVE yesterday and spent two hoour in game without getting even a single frigate out of the dock. The game has been in the news a bit lately with their annual fan fest in Reykjavik. I am also aware of forthcoming changes in skill trees that make it very beneficial to skill up destroyers and battle-cruisers before the next patch so I decided to buy a months sub to finish off the training needed. This is perhaps not the best motivation for returning to a complex mmorpg and indeed I am at a bit of a loss to decide what to do with my month of play time. Implementing my skill training plan took about an hour - downloading the latest version of EVEmon, setting up APIs and ensuring that I can get the skills required before the patch deadline. After that I decided to play around with some frigates partly because there has been some significant changes to frigates since I last played and partly because frigates are cheap to lose if I screw up. The once humble Slasher seems to be the new go to Minmatar frigate so I decided to try one out. That means downloading EFT, figuring out what will fit, realising I have none of the required parts, scouring the local market and so on. By the end of my second hour I was still sitting in a hangar staring at spreadsheets when real life intervened and I had to log out of the game.

I really don't think I am in the mood to return to an mmorpg.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Memories of my father and his penknife

My late father always carried a penknife (pocket knife). He was a practical man, a carpenter by trade who later started his own building company and he firmly believed that every man and boy should carry a handy knife. I was seven or eight when he brought me into one of those wonderful old tobacconist shops to buy my first penknife. Even though that shopkeeper convinced him I was too young for such a sharp implement I acquired one soon enough and obeyed his tenet of carrying a penknife through most of my school days. I remember it being somewhat unusual even back then for a middle class urban kid to carry a pocket knife.

This was back in the days before high tech pocket multi-tools had come to Ireland so I mostly recall my father carrying a simple single bladed knife. He used it for everything. The same blade that cut carpet tiles served to peel the apples that my father loved to eat.  It never seemed to do him any harm.

My father is dead almost twenty years now and I have a small regret that I never bought him a really fancy Swiss army knife. I think he would have greatly appreciated the quality of steel in the blade. He was an accomplished sharpener with a selection of whetstones and carborundums that allowed him to hone any piece of metal to a serviceable edge but he would complain that cheaper steel couldn't hold its edge. On the subject of sharpness I still recall his advice that a blunt edge is more dangerous than a properly sharpened one. The sharp blade cuts where you want it to. The blunt blade skips and jumps and finds its own uncontrolled path.

I have my own Swiss army knife now (a Victorinox huntsman ) and an even fancier Leatherman surge. Perhaps more importantly my daughters have penknives too. They know this is partly in memory of their grandfather who died before they were born but it is still surprisingly useful to carry a handy knife around in these days of blister pack frustration.

When my father passed away my mother asked each of his children to choose a personal memento to remember him by. I chose his penknife. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too late to explore the Wii?

We have had a Wii under our living room telly for many years and it has always been my intention some day to explore what it could do beyond family friendly titles like Mario Kart and Just Dance. Monster Hunter Tri in particular was a title that I intended to try out someday having heard good things about it from many sources and given that it isn't available on any other platform. Somehow that "someday" kept getting pushed back and today I was a bit miffed to read that the servers are shutting down this very day. I don't think this affects the single player game but it is disappointing to realise that I will probably never have the full experience.

Apparently Capcom are shutting down the Wii servers in the hopes of encouraging folk to migrate to their newer game on the WiiU platform. This strikes me as a pretty dodgy business strategy. There are almost a hundred million Wiis out there. There are no where near as many WiiUs and I strongly suspect there never will be.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Google Brother is Watching You

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about Bioshock Infinite. A few days before that I went looking for graphics cards on the internet and at some stage I visited the website of a company called Overclockers. Today I log into Youtube and the first ad I am presented with is this:


Has someone invented the sport of trying to deliberately confuse advert profiling yet? Sci Fi Fans for instance who set their log on page to the romantic novels section of Amazon for instance.

By the way I should point out that http://www.overclockers.co.uk/ is actually a very good shop so I don't begrudge them their bit of targeted advertising. It is just another jarring reminder that big data probably already knows more about me than I know myself.

And the prize for most overpowered rocket launcher ever goes to ...


I am all for challenge in gaming but sometimes it is fun to get a weapon so overpowered that you can wallow in the visceral joy of annihilating hordes of enemies, particularly if you were previously struggling against those same foes. Darksider II has just such a weapon. It comes at a part of the game where you are facing swarms of weak but deadly mobs backed up by tougher mini bosses. The weapons at your disposal up to this point are barely adequate to deal with the onslaught and then you pick up the Gorehammer.

It's a rocket launcher I guess firing exploding projectiles but two factors combine to make it the most overpowered rocket launcher I have every come across in a game. The first is that it constantly replenishes ammo at a rate of about one rocket per second. You never have to worry about running out of ammo and a generous magazine means you can let loose a rapid volley of rockets whenever required. The second factor is the doozy: there is no friendly fire. You cannot injure yourself with this thing. Think about that for a moment. Imagine a rocket launcher that you can unload at point blank range into your enemies with no fear of hurting yourself.

It even has a couple of other features - rockets do initial kinetic damage which is enough to take down weaker enemies but explode a few seconds later for additional area of effect damage. You can  control the timing of the explosion using the left trigger so you can lay down traps and minefields. It even has a ground pound function for point blank area of effect but that is hardly even necessary when you can just fire rockets straight into the face of any hapless enemy standing beside you.

The weapon only seems to be available in one region and you need to leave it behind when you return to the rest of the game. Perhaps that is for the best.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bioshock Infinite. Gaming has come of Age.

Wow.

Just wow.

I have finished my first play through of Bioshock Infinite. I sat through the entire credits with a glazed look of euphoria on my face. The game has restored my faith in AAA gaming. What a triumph. Of course there are details that you could nitpick about but what a genuine masterpiece. Perhaps for the first time ever we have a video game that can stand beside any other work of human creative endeavour, any movie, any book, any song or symphony. This game truly is a triumph of human creative expression. This game truly is a work of art.

I had thought of titling this post "Video Games are done. They don't need to make any more". Thankfully though human creativity doesn't work like that. This isn't the end. With any luck this is just the beginning.  

Word of advice: don't be afraid to lower the difficulty to a level you feel comfortable with. This is a game that should be experienced, not struggled with.

Steam is no longer the value king when it comes to PC gaming

It has been over 6 Months since I bought anything on Steam. These days my bargain conscious euro's go to Steam's competitors including Amazon, Green Man, Gog, Gamer's Gate and others even when I am buying games that install on Steam. A few years ago Steam sales of AAA games were the pinnacle of gaming value and at that time I was spending hundreds of euros in the Steam store. Nowadays however whenever I see something for sale on Steam I automatically look around to see if I can get it cheaper somewhere else. My lack of Steam purchases in over half a year shows that I almost always can. It is particularly telling that I didn't buy a single game from the Steam Christmas sale because I had already acquired everything I wanted at better prices from other online retailers.

I suppose this is a natural consequence of Steam having such a dominant position in PC gaming. Competitors know that they have to beat Steam to get business and they do. This is free market competition working like it should.

I still like the Steam platform and I install games on Steam as a first choice if that option is available but I am a little bit worried that someday they will decide I am no longer any value to them as a customer. I don't think that Valve gets any money when I buy a game from someone else. A few minutes googling couldn't answer that question definitively but I am pretty sure it is the case.

I doubt Valve would ever really kick me off their service for not spending any money with them but who knows what could happen: a change of ownership, a change of management, a change of business policy.

Perhaps I should make the occasional "insurance" purchase  in the Steam store.

Hmmm ...May Payne 3 only €7.49 today from Steam.

Ah why not?

Just in case. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Checkpoints done wrong, Checkpoints done right

Regardless of whether you prefer checkpoints or saving anywhere there are a number of features that every checkpoint save system absolutely should have.  This isn't a PC versus Console issue any more. Plenty of console games have excellent save systems. It is simply a matter of good practise in game design.

Checkpoints done right:
*No more than 5 minutes game time between checkpoints.
*Checkpoint IMMEDIATELY before every tough encounter / boss fight.
*Have a chapter select so player can replay any section without having to go back to start of game.
*Allow player to stop game at any time and resume from where they left off.

Checkpoints done wrong:
*Arbitrary spacing of checkpoints sometimes more than 20 minutes.
*Long  section of tedious trash mobs between checkpoint and boss fight.
*Only one save and no chapter select. You want to see it again - start a new game. You just hit a bug? Tough luck, you have to start a new game.
*You want to go to bed? Well keep playing you should reach a checkpoint in half an hour or so.

With regard to the philosophical question of whether checkpoints are better than save anywhere I am somewhat neutral. I like the automatic nature of checkpoints and I think they increase immersion. I also like the flexibility of save anywhere.  I do think however that it is far easier to mess up a checkpoint save system than a save anywhere system.It is hugely disappointing how many other wise excellent games mess up their checkpoints. Recent examples of bad practise I have come across:
Darksiders 2: No chapter select.
Bioshock Infinite: Arbitrary spacing of checkpoints with many long gaps.
Far Cry 3: No chapter select (Want to replay that sublime drug fuelled mission in the marijuana field, tough luck).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Buggy Whips

Imagine it is sometime around 1910 and you are the worlds largest producer of buggy whips. Your last product the Model 7 was a big success but the young folk don't seem at all interested in buggy whips any more because they are excited about these new fangled auto-mobiles. Of course no self respecting gentleman would be seen in a noisy smelly auto-mobile so buggy whips are going to be around for some time yet but you cannot deny that the real growth business these days is motoring goggles. Do you:

a. Develop a brand new buggy whip (the Model 8) that has a buggy whip welded on to a set of motoring goggles. It is a pretty good buggy whip but unfortunately to bind the two parts together you had to dispense with the handle of the whip. Users wear it like a pair of goggles and they crack the whip by nodding their heads vigorously.

or

b. Accept that the buggy whip market is going to shrink but make sure that you keep the lion's share of it by making Model 8 the best buggy whip you ever produced with all the good features from Model 7 and improvements specifically tailored to those folk who are going to stick with horses. As for the automobile business ... well you could have a chat with that young engineer in the design office who has some foolish idea about putting a glass panel on the front of an automobile so that drivers don't need to wear goggles.

So, what do you do? 

The other ball Microsoft is dropping: Skype

What the hell is happening to Skype?

Five years ago Skype had an absolutely dominant position in the field of voice over the internet. I am sure it still has a lot of users today but I suspect a heck of a lot of them are over the age of 40. There are several new kids on the block that seem to have pushed Swype completely off the stage for everyone younger than that. My 12 year old daughter is all excited about Viber at the moment because it allows her to contact her friends without using up any precious credit. True but Swype has been doing that for years. WhatsApp also has a growing following. My very unscientific survey suggests that WhatsApp is capturing the 20+ market while Viber is winning the 20- and nobody but nobody is getting excited about Swype. The bizarre thing is that Swype is still probably a better service than either of these competitors. It has more features and is available on more platforms.

Of course competition is a good thing for us consumers right? Well, yes, but ... in the field of communications competition can lead to competing standards. Viber can't talk to Skype which can't talk to WhatsApp. Instead of a connected planet we end up with a series of walled gardens.

Can Microsoft who bought Skype in 2011 do anything to restore their dominance in this market? I still believe they have a superior product but it clearly isn't being positioned properly for the younger generation. Viber and WhatsApp feel like products made for phones (I don't think they even have PC clients) while Skype feels like a product designed for a PC but surely that could be fixed with an interface tweak.

Do Microsoft actually care about losing the voice over internet market? Well I think they should. It is after all growing market unlike the ailing desktop sector even if it isn't a huge revenue earner.  If they continue to sit back while young competitors mop up all the new entrants though and let the competition continue to rob all new customers then they are going to lose it entirely. Even now their smartest move might be to buy Viber and WhatsApp and consolidate them all into Skype.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Watching Star Wars in 2013

Last night I introduced my 12 year old daughter to a cornerstone of nerd culture by watching the "original" Star Wars, now known as Episode IV, A New Hope.

It is 15 years since I last watched this myself so I was really surprised at how well this 1977 story has held up. I know Lucas has spent millions of dollars over the years fixing some of the hokier special effects but I think there is another reason why the movie still feels fresh and exciting. Star Wars has been so influential on just about every space opera film and video game made since that it feels incredibly familiar. Its blasters, its grey metal corridors its junk strewn depiction of alien planets have all become absolutely canonical to the genre. This struck me forcibly watching the scene where Luke and Leia are trapped on a narrow platform looking for an extending bridge while troopers try to break down the door behind them and another trooper shoots from a higher ledge. I have played versions of that scene in many video games.

We are watching the 1995 DVD release. I took the executive decision to watch the films in historical order despite my daughters puzzlement at starting with episode iv. There was no episode iv when I was a teenager!