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 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.