Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Upgrading with an SSD - the fiddly bits.

I bought a 500Gb SSD as a Christmas present for my gaming rig. As usually happens with PC upgrades things didn't quite go as smoothly as planned. Most of the difficulties arose from peculiarities of my own rig but for posterity I am recording the main issues here:

0. Peculiarities of my rig: Prior to fitting the 500Gb SSD I had two 1Tb  HDDs,  one 120Gb HDD (archives from older computer) and one 64Gb SSD being used as a cache drive. The plan was to install Windows and common programmes on the new SSD freeing up one of the 1Tb drives for additional storage.

1.Preparations: Shrinking my 1Tb C: drive so that it would fit onto the new 500Gb SSD took quite a while. Mindgems folder size was handy for identifying the main space hogs. I used symbolic links to shift programmes I wanted to keep installed to another drive.

2. Even after deleting a bunch of stuff I still couldn't shrink the C: partition below to 500Gb because of Windows immoveable files. This guide pointed me to the main culprits: Hibernation, System Restore, virtual memory and debugging information. Finally got them all disabled and managed to shrink C: partition down to 150Gb. Minitool is my free partition manager of choice.

3. Fitting the SSD: Thankfully my ageing motherboard (P7P55D-E)  is generously provided with 9 SATA ports which would be enough for my five hard drives and one DVD drive. Two of the ports are even rated for the faster 6Gb/s SATA 3 so I plugged the two SSDs into these.

4. I disabled the cache drive just in case it caused conflicts while cloning.

5. Samsung provided a disk cloning utility with their SSD so I used this to transfer the nicely shrunk 150Gb C: partition onto the new SSD. I guess Minitool could have done the same job.

6. Surprise surprise even after cloning the PC wouldn't boot from the SSD. Checking the BIOS I was frustrated to find the new SSD wasn't even an option in the boot order settings. Remember I said that I plugged the SSD into one of two special SATA 3 ports? Well it turns out these are not integral to the chipset but instead provided via a third party Marvell chip. I had to dig a bit deeper into the BIOS to make sure this Marvell chip was set up correctly and then to get it added to the boot list.

6. Eventually Windows boots from the SSD. Hurray. Everything seems to run as expected.

7. Sony provide an SSD monitor tool called Wizard. I ran this and it gave some suggestions about optimising the system for SSD. Not terribly useful. They have a feature called "Rapid Mode" which I couldn't get to work because it refuses to recognise my operating system (Windows 10???). I am not to bothered because it looks like a RAM cache and I don't need another cache on my system.

8. Gradually try to get things back where I started: re-enabling virtual memory, system restore and debugging. Didn't bother re-enabling hibernation because I don't use it on a desktop. Re-enable the cache now using it only for the HDDs.

9. Hold on a minute: Metro apps aren't all working. Some just hang. It turns out that Windows search index is confused and sometimes points to the old copy of an app on the now replaced HDD. sometimes this will run but more often it won't. I deleted and rebuilt the search index (indexing options in the control panel) making sure it was focussed on the new C: drive. Useful hint - if your metro search interface isn't working you can still access all the useful tools via Win+X menu.

10. Finally everything seems to be working correctly. I have even been brave enough to delete the old C:partition from the HDD in order to use it for programme storage.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

How do you choose a gift for an old codger (like me).

At 51 years of age I have become very settled in my ways. Nowhere is this more evident than at gifting times of year when my wife asks me for gift suggestions. I am very comfortable in my life and its patterns and I don't really need or indeed want anything new. Yes I have my hobbies and interests but over the years these have become sufficiently specialised that I cannot ask an outsider to get me something for one of my hobbies unless I hold their hand through each step of purchasing exactly the right model from exactly the right vendor. In most cases, if I really wanted something I will almost certainly have already purchased it for myself.

In my defence I am a very grateful recipient of any gift at all. True gifting is a shared experience that bring happiness to both giver and receiver. Nevertheless I know my wife and family really want to get Daddy "something he wants". I feel ashamed at the pile of unread books and unused gadgets that have accumulated over the years despite my genuine and heartfelt gratitude when they were unwrapped on Christmas morning.

I am not therefore ashamed to admit that I have put slippers on my Christmas list this year. I am very fond of a comfortable pair of slippers. Indeed I would go so far as to say I cannot properly relax until I have kicked off my outdoor shoes and put on comfy slippers. It is somewhat fortuitous that my current pair are in dire need of replacement and I can assure you that if I am lucky enough to find a pair under the Christmas tree they will be very gratefully received and extensively used.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A mixed bag of games I have played over the last few months

The latter half of 2015 has been some what of a mixed gaming bag for me. I started the Autumn with two very enjoyable games (WItcher 3 and Far Cry 4) but no game I played since has engaged me to the same extent. Anyway for the sake of posterity let us list the games:

Witcher 3: Worthy Game of the Year that ranks among the best RPGs ever made.

Far Cry 4: Far Cry 3 redefined open World shooters and will be remembered as the more important game but I think Far Cry 4 polishes things up a bit and is a worthy successor. The difficulty level is more even and there is a greater variety of stuff to do than in 3. I thoroughly enjoyed the couple of weeks I spent playing my way through Kyrat.

Pillars of Eternity: This text heavy old school RPG in the Baldur's Gate mode has received high praise  across the board but I found my interest in the game waning after about a week. Story is a big part of this game but I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of story snippets that you stumble across. I much prefer the witcher style of storytelling where a small number of "big story" arcs dominate. I did enjoy the challenging party based combat at first but I found it got repetitive after a while. This is partly my own fault because I spent too long in an optional dungeon called "The Endless Paths" which is really just a continuous sequence of combat encounters with very little impact on main quest progression. I have taken a break from the game but I will probably return to it later to finish.

Titanfall: I was really impressed by this multiplayer shooter with big stompy robots. It never really  got commercial traction but there are still hundreds of players and I never had any problem getting a game. It is regualrly on sale and is terrific value now that all expansions are included in the base game. Sadly I suck at multiplayer shooters and this game is no exception for me. It is always a race against time as to whether I can stick around long enough to learn the basics before my embarassment at coming last on every scoreboard forces me to leave in shame.

Lichdom Battlemage: I didn't get very far into this. It is a first person shooter with magic bolts instead of guns. I expected to like this more than I did. Unfortunately I couldn't understand basic elements of the combat system and I always felt that I was missing something. The  game appears to have a very complex spell crafting and use system but I couldn't make head nor tail of it and I was stuck with basic fireballs and freeze rays. Plus you cannot jump which is a source of frustration for me in a first person game.

The Darkness 2:  I can't really say much about this because I installed it in a moment of boredom and only spent a couple of hours playing through the opening chapter.

Sacrifice: This old classic from Shiny way back in 2000 is one of my all time favourite games, guaranteed to cheer me up if ever I find myself in a gaming funk. The abilty to mix and max missions from five seperate campaigns gives the game excellent replayablity. This time I played a pure Pyro campaign (High damage low survivability) followed by a mixed Statos/Persephone/James playthrough (balance of damage and survivability). Great stuff.

Edit: For some inexplicable reason I got the name of Lichdom wrong. Now fixed.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

So you want to date my daughter? Answer me first: "Which is the best Star Wars Movie"

I have two teenage daughters and nervous young gentlemen have begun  to appear on the scene. This is actually quite a traumatic period in the life of a father but there are some compensations. For example I am particularly looking forward to having the "Circle of Trust" conversation with one of these young Lothario's.  To kick things off I intend to sit him down, look him squarely in the eye and ask him slowly and purposefully to tell me which is the best Star Wars movie.

The safe answer to that question is of course "The Empire Strikes Back". That establishes nerd credibility and an understanding of accepted cultural norms.

Either of the other two original trilogy movies would also be an acceptable answer especially if it is accompanied by an analysis explaining why he believes it is in reality a better movie than the usual critics choice.

"Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" are clearly wrong answers but somewhat forgiveable given the likely age of the supplicant. Such answers would engender further searching questions but he would at least be given an opportunity to redeem himself if he demonstrates a glimmer of insight behind his youthful ignorance.

"The Phantom Menace" is perhaps the only genuinely wrong answer. Nothing further to be said. Move on.

"The Star War's Holiday Special" is the most ballsy answer. It is a high risk strategy. If he cannot back it up with wit and knowledge he may well end up being kicked out of the house but if he pulls if off then I might have to graciously accept defeat and hand my daughter over to the new master.

Edit: Wilhelm over at the Ancient Gaming Noob has chipped in with his list of acceptable answers. Reading his post and the comments to it makes me realise that there are several good answers I haven't prepared for. Need to do some further planning. It wouldn't do to be caught napping by a young pretender.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Yes it can run Crysis

How does 2007's infamous system crusher fare on modern hardware?

Crysis's system requirements were so demanding when it was released that the question "Can it run Crysis?" became a meme that was humourously asked of the most inappropriate hardware such as toasters and ancient computers. 

How does Crysis run on a modern Windows 10 64 bit system with a GTX 970? The answer I am delighted to report is as smooth as butter with all settings maxed out. I did have a couple of crashes to desktop during my play through but these were so rare that they weren't a nuisance.

I was actually surprised the game ran at all because it has been mentioned as one of the games affected by Microsoft ending support for Securom/Safedisk.  When I installed from my old disk I immediately patched up to the latest version and it ran without problems. Both 64bit and 32 bit versions are installed. It defaults to 64 bit but the 32bit version can be run manually. I didn't benchmark but my eye couldn't detect any performance difference between the two versions.

Even maxed out Crysis cannot compete with the best 2015 games for graphical prettiness but it still is far from shabby. The game play stands up extremely well with a good selection of weapons, abilities, and challenging enemies to use them against. The story on the other hand is rather haphazard. The game feels like a collection of fairly random missions with a story tacked on afterwards in an attempt to string them together. Regardless there is the inevitable progression toward an end goal encounter with a final boss so all is good.

Released the same year as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,  CoD 4 redefined  first person shooters and Modern Warfare went on to become a multi billion dollar franchise. Crysis on the other hand is probably the last great old school shooter. It allows quick save.  It doesn't have levelling up. It has (almost) no quick time events. It doesn't have achievements. There is a long single player campaign with focus on interesting mechanics and emergent gameplay rather than Hollywood cinematics and scripting. Nevertheless Crysis had plenty of innovation. The multi purpose nano suit could be used in a variety of ways and huge open maps always allowed many paths to achieve an objective. 

One thing did surprise me: The game, even on a harder difficulty feels easier than I remember. I am pretty sure my reflexes haven't improved with age. Improved response times due to better hardware are probably helping a bit. I also suspect that my play style is a factor. First run through a new game I tend to be very cautious using stealth a lot and conserving ammunition. Replaying an older title I am far more gung ho, running in guns blazing. Despite frequent deaths this tends to get through content more quickly.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Slightly longer post about the Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is one of the greatest CRPGs every made but of course it still has some flaws. How could a game of this scale and ambition not have? 

Surely the biggest flaw is that combat remains clunky. Sluggish controls and awkward camera angles mean that you can never really get into a smooth flow of strike and counter strike. This is a story based RPG and not an action combat game so you could insist that fluid combat is not actually required to enjoy it and you would be right. However as well as being a terrific RPG Witcher 3 is also almost a terrific open world action game than could compete with Assassins Creed, Shadow of Mordor or even Far Cry 3/4 if not for the clunky combat. Given a choice I think the developers were right to prioritise RPG mechanics and story over fluid combat but just imagine if they had pulled off both? 

My only major niggle is the uneven levelling curve. It seemed to take me forever to get to level 5 and during those early stages I was exploring a dangerous world where most of the monsters and quests were above my level. From levels 5 to 10 things seemed to speed up and 10 to 20 went even faster still. The world around me did not keep up with my levelling. My quest book soon became full of quests I had out levelled and the game as a whole became much easier. Plenty of others have made similar observations on forums and in reviews so this isn't just me.  Somewhere in the mid teens I made a concious decision to concentrate on the main storyline and ignore side quests in order to slow down my levelling and maintain some challenge. This approach more or less worked and I was fairly on level when I finally finished the game at level 32/33 BUT I had to leave out a lot of content along the way. 

Lets us talk for a minute about the side quests. First off there are an awful lot of them and most of them are really great.  The quest log has Main Quests. Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts. Those actually called "Side Quests" are multi stage mini-adventures with engaging storylines that sometimes overlap the main quest and can even influence the eventual outcome of the game. Witcher contracts are picked up from a noticeboard or a villager and generally involved killing a named monster for a reward. Treasure hunts often lead to high quality gear but they can be multi stage and may ire you kill monsters and clear out dungeons to find treasure. In addition to these explicit quests the world is full of villages that have been over run by monsters. Clearing out one of these abandoned villages will net you some XP after the villagers have returned and will often provide a new vendor and a new fast travel point. In addition to all of these quests there are also rich equipment crafting and potion brewing activities both of which require searching for ingredients and recipes.  Then there is a fully fledged collectible card game  embedded in Witcher 3 that you can play with characters all over the world. This incredible bounty of things to do is what makes Witcher 3 magnificent but the fact that they all seem to give experience which levels you up is a problem.  If you skip most of the sidequests as I did to try to stay on level for the main quest you miss so much of the game. 

This is a known problem in any level based RPG that tries to have an open world full of side quests? I remember Oblivion had the same issue and tried to solve it by levelling up monsters as you levelled up but that came in for a lot of criticism from disgruntled players who found them selves facing beggars in jewel encrusted armour by the end of the game. If all the enemies level up as you do what is the point in levelling up? I have a different suggestion that I think would work better for Witcher 4 if that every becomes a thing. I think that there should be a level cap and I think that most of the games content should take place at the level cap. Progression need not stop entirely at the level cap. You can still upgrade equipment and perhaps discover new skills. Progression beyond the level cap should increase the variety of options available to you rather than just give raw increases in power. I think this would work very nicely with the free roam mode than is unlocked after you finished the main campaign. 

Finally a word about endings. It has always been a feature of Witcher games that your actions have consequences, sometimes unforeseen ones.  Your decisions during a seemingly unconnected side quest can influence the fate of the characters involved and may even have wider implications on the overall outcome of the game. Many of the key decisions are heavily signalled with a timer bar which counts down while you quickly choose between a number of responses. This does seem a bit artificial but for the most part I went with my gut response and stuck with it. In several cases the outcome was not what I would  have chosen but the quality of the writing is such that even in those cases I had to agree that the actual outcome was more fitting given the circumstances that what I might have preferred. I don't want to give spoilers but I will highlight Geralt's love life as one area where the outcome definitely wasn't what I intended but actually made far more sense. I will admit too that I did cheat  at the very end of the game, After finishing for the first time and not getting the outcome I desired I realised that one of the side quests I had ignored was essential to achieving my desired ending. Happily it wan't too far back so I loaded an old save game and replayed about three hours worth to finish the game the way I wanted to. 

Finished Witcher 3

Just want to record the fact that I have finished my first full campaign in Witcher 3. What a superb game. The world is beautiful. The characters are interesting. The story telling is great. The quests are terrific and multi-layered.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Annual Utility Supplier Merry Go Round

Summer is the time when we have to rotate all of our utility suppliers (gas, electric, waste etc).

When I was young we lived in simpler times. There was only one supplier for electricity, There was only one supplier for gas. There was only one supplier for what passed as telecommunications (some arrangement of paper cups attached with string if I recall). Those state owned monopolies generally provided  reliable service but they were inflexible and not particularly good value. You took whatever service they prescribed for you and you paid the price they saw fit to charge.

Today all is deregulated and competition is king. Advertisements constantly tout the advantages of one supplier over another and not a week goes by without sales folk calling to our door to encourage us to change suppliers. Living in a large urban area we are blessed with a surfeit of choices for just about every household utility. Competition is actively encouraged by the government and is supported by strong regulations which make it simple and cost free to switch suppliers. A single phone call or  single visit to a web page is usually all that is required.

Competition has certainly brought advantages. The competing suppliers are far more responsive and flexible than the old state monopolies. The passage of time and march of technology makes it hard to make direct comparisons but I am pretty sure that services are also far cheaper in real money terms. Frictionless switching has given rise to the almost universal practise of offering significant discounts to new customers. A new customer being generally defined as someone who has not used that particular supplier for one or more years.

These new customer discounts are the reason why at this time every year we need to ride the annual utility supplier merry go round. In order to ensure the best price for our utilities we need to switch suppliers every single year. Regardless of how pleased we were with last years suppliers we must without fail abandon them as soon as our "new customer" status expires in order to avail of a competitor's new customer deal. Fear not we shall doubtless be back once the exclusion period has passed and we can once again claim to be new. There are enough suppliers to ensure we can always avail of a new customer discount from somebody.

It strikes me as an odd business model that practically forces customers to change suppliers each and every year but I can see how difficult it would be for any one supplier to break the cycle. We humans are lazy by nature and it is well reported that many customers never or rarely change suppliers. The utilities offer these juicy discounts in the hope that we will neglect to change and stick with them once the discount period has passed. If any company did not offer discounts then they would get no new customers at all and if they tried to offer a better rate to long standing customers they would lose money. As a customer I find it a nuisance to have to ride this merry go round every year but I am pleased to be able to avail of the discounts. Happily there are websites which do the hard work of price comparison and make it very easy to select which of the available offers is best value for our particular usage pattern.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Windows 10 two days later

I am delighted to report that Windows 10 is now running smoothly and stably on my computer. The initial disk chugging which marred my earlier experience has entirely stopped after I left the machine running overnight.  I am pretty sure the initial sluggishness was down to Windows trawling through all of my disks and files in order to index them. Now that this is complete the search feature works properly too which is essential. Windows 7 spoiled me from making shortcuts for most programmes I just hit start type the first few letters of a programme and away we go. 

Things I like:
In use the operating system does everything that Windows 7 did for me but feels a bit more polished and up to date. The interface is cleaner and looks prettier. 

I love the new Task view button. This instantly displays all open applications in a tiled format which is much more useful than the carousel format that win-tab gave in Windows 7. As a bonus the Task view also allow you to setup and maintain multiple desktops. AMD and Nvidia graphics cards have provided similar features for some time now and I have never felt the need to use them  but now that it is built into the operating system I might be more inclined to experiment. 

I love that ability to snap to corner as well as snap to edge. Snapping a window to a corner puts it into a quarter screen allowing you to easily tile your screen with four distinct windows. 

I like that the new metro style interface is better integrated and also seems to have more functionality than Windows 8. In Windows 8 metro always felt like a barrier you penetrate to get to the real control panel behind. Windows 10 still has this "real control panel" but I find that the metro settings menu does everything I need. 

Things I am not sure about:

I still get some unpredictable behaviour when I restart. It is hard to pin down exactly because it is unpredictable and not reproducible but on various occasions my second display and my Logitech G19 keyboard have not recovered correctly from a reboot. This may be related to a lack of stickiness  have noticed from system tray icons. Some applications don't appear to be minimising to the system tray to run in the background as I expect. Again this doesn't appear to be consistent or predictable. 

Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana is not available in my language (English with an Irish accent I guess) so I haven't been able to try it out. To be honest I have no desire to talk to my desktop in any case. I occasionally speak to Google Now on my phone for the novelty (usually to see if it can finally understand the Gaelic pronunciation of my daughter's Irish name) but I don't use it for any practical purpose. 

There appears to be some compatibility issue with my choice of anti virus programmes: Avira. Neither the system tray icon nor the Avira control panel would appear for me in Windows 10. Task manager suggested that the scanning routines themselves were still working but without any visible user interface I couldn't be sure. I have temporarily returned to Windows built in antivirus: Windows Defender.

A lot of the new integrated environment features (Outlook email, Edge Browser, Windows Calendar etc)  are not really any  use to me because I am already a committed Google user. Windows 10 does offer integration features so you can link your gmail and google calendar etc to you Microsoft ones but I don't want to use use outlook to access my gmail I want to use gmail. I don't want to use Microsoft calendar to access my google calendar and so on. 

The Windows store doesn't appear to have apps for some of the services I use. There is no Feedly client for example. Instead Microsoft offer their own Flipboard. The biggest omission though is:

There are almost no official Google apps in Microsoft store. Where is the offical Gmail app?  Where is the official Google Calendar app? You can access all of these through Chrome but that feels a bit disconnected from the new integrated Windows environment. I did manage to put web shortcuts to gmail and google calendar onto the metro start menu  but that required a tortuous multi step process involving the google task bar and an intermediate desktop shortcut. 

A thought about Microsoft and Privacy

I have read a few articles expressing concerns about privacy in Windows 10 but having considered the situation I am happy to tick all of the boxes allowing Microsoft to spy on me. Some years ago I grappled with this issue in relation to Google and I realised that the benefits of all these free services outweighed (for me in any case) the loss of privacy. While I am delighted to get Windows 10 for free I do realise that Microsoft need to earn money somehow and if my allowing them to show me a few targeted ads is the price then I am happy to allow that. The problem as I see it though is that Microsoft are already too late to that party. Everyone I know is already fully committed to an existing information eco system. Microsoft are aware of this and do appear to offer seamless integration into their own apps but this means is that they are getting data second hand from Google or Apple or Facebook. I don't see how they can ever catch up.  




Thursday, July 30, 2015

Windows 10: Perhaps I should have done a clean install.

Three hours after I had first set the automatic installer up and running control was finally returned to me and I logged into Windows 10 with excited anticipation.

Everything ran terribly.  There was constant hard disk chugging and my computer refused to recognise more than one of my two monitors and insisted on running that at 800x600. The search tool couldn't find any of programmes so I had  forced to dig through the programs directory to get anything to run. 

I suppose I should have expected this. My rig has been running Windows 7 since 2009 and the system has grown incrementally over the years with new bits of hardware added and thousands of programmes installed. It has three big conventional hard drives and one SSD all packed to the gills with game, utilities and various odds and ends. Despite all this the system was running very sweetly. Over the years I had built up a complex system with symbolic links and caching to ensure that everything ran snappily. 

I guess it was too much to expect all of this to transfer over seamlessly to an upgrade install of Windows 10. To be fair only one programme was actually flagged as completely incompatible (Macrium Reflect). Everything else I have tried seems to run although I had to manually update the drivers for my Nvidia graphics card and my disk caching software threw up a license error. Because I have three hard disks and only one small (64Gb SSD) I use cachining rather than the usual trick of installing Windows on the SSD. I have a complex scheme with different caches for each disk. When it works it works like a dream but when it doesn't work things get very painful. 

A visit to Nvidia's site sorted out my graphics problems and I managed to find the registration code to re enable my caching software. The cache is still struggling though because of the constant disk activity. I hope this is just an initial thing while Windows 10 familiarises itself with everything on my various hard disks. Hopefully when it is finished the search tool will work properly and booting will take less than the 5 minutes it currently demands. 

Frustrated by the sluggishness I set about installing a bunch of programmes and games and I even defragged my main C: drive. To be far I should probably have done this before I left Windows 7.

Better yet I should have done a clean install. 

For those who are interested my current system specifications are:
Intel Xeon 3470 processor (equivalent to I7-870) 
12Gb DDR 3 Ram
Nvidia GTX 970 graphics
2 x 1 TB HDD
1 x 500GB HDD
1 x 64GB SDD

Edit: There is one bizarre glitch that I haven't got a handle on yet. Every time I reboot my second monitor goes haywire and come up with a corrupted screen. The solution is simply to switch the monitor off an on again which would point to a monitor issue  rather than a driver issue if it wasn't for the coincidence of this happening today just after an upgrade to Win 10. I guess it is some kind of handshaking problem on power up.

Edit 2: Second monitor issue seems to have gone away. Don't know why. Also noticed that my previously chosen anti-virus: Avira doesn't seem to work. It may be working in the background but none of the control panels work so I cannot tell what it is doing. Have temporarily uninstalled it and gone back to Windows Defender.

Edit 3: Happy to report that endless disk activity has calmed down considerably and system has become a lot more responsive. This has allowed my SSD cache to start working so all is quite good at he moment. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Valkyria Chronicles

I have been enjoying this Japanese RPG with turn based tactical combat since picking it up in the Steam sale.

The game has an excellent story with well developed characters and plenty of background details all told with very cute anime graphics in a storybook format.

The turn based tactical combat feels a bit like XCom but it has several interesting differences. For example rather than each character getting one move each round you get a limited number of action points to spend on whichever characters you chose. Action points are precious so choosing the best characters each round is an great tactical twist. Also surprising is the fact that characters can move after they attack unlike the majority of turn based games that I have played. This means that it is possible for a character like a sniper to pop out of cover take a shot and then pop back into cover. The usefulness of this is somewhat constrained however by the abundance of reaction shots in the game. Most characters get a free reaction shot after you attack them and before you can move. Also they automatically fire at any exposed character  for the duration of that characters turn. There appears to be an accuracy penalty but you can easily be killed just standing around or moving out of cover. It is no exaggeration to say that more bullets are fired this way than through deliberate shots so positioning your units to get good reaction fire is a key element of tactics. It also introduces a sense of urgency to turns because you cannot afford to linger if a character is exposed.

I have read criticism of the mission grading system in Valkyria which prioritises speed over everything else if you want to get the most XP. This is not a game breaker for me however because even though I like taking a slower more tactical approach there are repeatable skirmish missions that can be used to cover any deficit in XP. Also if you are playing more tactically you don't need to maximise your stats so XP is less important.

Friday, July 03, 2015

I really hope Reddit survives

For a couple of years now I have relied on Reddit to keep my middle aged self somewhat current on what is going on on the internet. Prior to this I had already given up on the tardiness of mainstream outlets, the insufferable social graph of facebook, the chaos of twitter and the overwhelming triviality of Buzzfeed.

I will admit that I was initially put off by Reddit's reputation as the home of some of the worst scum and villainy on the internet and it is true that Reddit is host to a lot of very objectionable content and even more objectionable users. Misogyny, discrimination and racism are easily found on the site along with a generous doses of innocent and not so innocent pornography. Reddit has it's own history of outrages such as the awful trial of an innocent by social media that occurred after the Boston Bombing. Yet Reddit is so much more than this.    It is also home to terrific scholarly material on history, science and other subjects. It is perhaps the only  place on the internet where a comment on a book by an ordinary user might be answered by the author himself or a film star or even a president. Best of all the subreddit structure allows you to tailor your Reddit experience to your own interests and likes.

Reddit is also a very current source of news. Breaking news invariably shows up on Reddit long before it hits facebook, Buzzfeed or the established news sites. Indeed you only have to browse Reddit for a few days to realise how much those tardier sources have come to rely on Reddit for their content. It is somewhat galling to hear mainstream media commentators adopt a holier than thou attitude to Reddit when you realise just how much of their own material is lifted from the site. Reddit may not be the most current source of news on the internet but the sites which  regularly beat Reddit to a scoop live in  murkier corners of the internet, places that most of us dare not go. Reddit has become the established portal for the more inspired creations and discoveries of those murkier corners to bleed over into the respectable internet.

Anyway the site is currently going through upheaval and the volunteer moderators and posters who actually make Reddit what it is are very unhappy with the direction being taken by the sites management and administrators. This discontent has been brewing a long time but the flashpoint happened when former Reddit employee Victoria Taylor was let go. Victoria is legendary among the community for co-ordinating and facilitating the AMAs (ask me anything) that have become such a feature of Reddit.

I don't understand the full implications of what is happening here but this feels like a serious rift,  one that ultimately may not be reconcilable. If the management want to pull Reddit in a direction where the volunteer moderators and posters do not want to follow then the future for the site is bleak. I do hope this is not the end of Reddit as we know it. I mean where else could you find a man with two penises vying for top billing with Barrack Obama and Bill Gates?: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/search?q=ama&sort=top&restrict_sr=on

Friday, June 26, 2015

Just watched "The Appartment" with Jack Lemmon, Shirley McLaine and Fred McMurray

This 65 year old black comedy still hits the spot today. Lemmon plays a likeable minion in an enormous 1960s office building who  is bullied into allowing his superiors borrow his bachelor apartment for illicit sexual liaisons. Complications ensue when he falls for one of the girls who is being led along by a senior manager. The the story is very black and very clever. The acting is terrific and the period setting is reminiscent of some of the earlier episodes of Mad-Men.

Monday, June 15, 2015

HomeWorld Remastered

I picked up a copy of Homeworld remastered in the Steam Sale. It wasn't strictly necessary because I still have all three original games (HW1, HW2 and HW Cataclysm) and I have even played them within the last five years on a Windows 7 PC. Nevertheless Homeworld was a stunning achievement of gaming and I am happy to support Gearboxes re-release of the series.

A nice thing about the package is that you get Homeworld 1 and 2 remastered as well as the orginal Homeworld 1 and 2 all in one package. Cataclysm sadly is tied up in licensing limbo so that couldn't be included. 

I have played about five missions in HW1 remastered so far and for comparison I also played a couple of missions in the original Homeworld. The good news is that the remastered version sticks very closely to the original but with better graphics. The bad news is that the sound and music are a lot less atmospheric to my ears. This is a big deal for me. Homeworld had awesome atmosphere and the haunting sound track was a huge part of it. The new game just doesn't seem to hit the same note. To be honest I find it more enjoyable to play the older game with poorer graphics and better sound. The controls are a bit better in the new game which might appeal to a new player but I am not sure you get the full effect without the awesome sound track. EDIT: This entire paragraph may be wrong. on second look I am no longer sure that sound and music is the reason why the game feel so different. It may be more to do with pacing. The remastered game is much faster with more resources and more ships all round. 

At least the collection gives you the choice so I still recommend it.

Edit 1: I played a bit more Homeworld last night and I have come to realise that there are significant gameplay differences between the original game and the remastered game as well as the change in soundtrack. Frigates for example seem to be less durable in the new game that the original version. Perhaps the biggest difference though is that the resource economy seems to be far more generous in the new game. The prices of ships are different so it is hard to directly compare but I seem to build up a huge surplus without even trying in the new game while I regularly run out of resources in the older game. This makes a big difference to game play because in the older game you must start each level with a desperate hunt for resources. In the new game I find that  I usually have a big enough buffer that I don't need to scavenge until after the fighting is done. My initial thought about the impact of soundtrack on atmosphere have also been reinforced by a longer playthrough. It isn't just the big set pieces it the timing of incidental sound effects too. Everything in the original Homeworld is exquisitely choreographed. In the new game feels like much less attention was given to the detail of building and maintaining game atmosphere.

Edit 2: I finished the Homeworld campaign (hurray) so I am going back to look at the remastered version again. I am no longer convinced that the sound and music are the reason why the atmosphere seems different. I think it may be more to do with the pacing of the game. The remastered version seems much faster paced.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mafia: My Rose Coloured Glasses Exposed

I am replaying Mafia City of Lost Heaven, a game I fondly remember as having one of the most atmospheric cities in gaming and one of the best story lines but is the reality really as good as my memories?

Well first the bad news: Combat is awful and clunky. Camera angles when driving are frustrating.  The level design is often cruel with long difficult levels having few save points necessitating frequency reloads. I did remember that the game had an infamous unskippable race level which caused many players to quit and yes it is still a frustrating hurdle. It took me about twenty attempts on the humiliatingly titled "easy mode" before I got through. Spare a thought for those poor players who tried to play the game before a patch added  "easy" mode to the race. Some of the levels are so unfair that  wonder if was deliberate cruelty on behalf of the devs. Consider a mission where you must  shootout with a much of hoodlums in order to retrieve a payment for your Mafia boss. The clunky combat controls pretty much guarantee you will take damage but just when it looks like you have killed the last of them you get jumped not once but twice. The second of these pop up assailants grabs a car and drives off with your money so you must give chase. He is driving a powerful sportscar and you have a jalopy. Your only hope of catching him is to shoot out his tyres before he leaves you in his dust. If you do finally manage to force him to stop  (after several restarts most likely) then he jumps out and starts shooting at you. This is when you realise that you are extremely low on health and the game autosaved at the very end of the initial gunfight when you health was at its lowest ebb with no opportunity to regain health. Arggghhh ...

Happily I can report that the city is still wonderful. It looks great and it sounds great and it feels like a 1930's city. The cars are slow and awkward but that is OK because it is the 1930's. Cars should be slow and hard to drive. You can get out of your car and walk or take public transport. The other good news is that the story is still good with strong characters and a good plot.

So are my fond memories of the game invalid? I would say not. The things I remember fondly from the game are still very good. It is just that I somehow forgot how bad the bad bits were. I am not sure I can still recommend a modern gamer to try the game any more though (not that that is easy to do anyway as no digital download is available).

Monday, June 01, 2015

Warlock 2 The Exiled

I finished a full single player campaign of Warlock 2 the Exiled last week. Overall I enjoyed the game and recommend it but it does have some shortcomings and threatened to become tedious at times.

The game play is almost identical to the first Warlock but Warlock 2 has a wider variety of units and spells and a more defined single player campaign. It looks like a fantasy version of Civ V but there is far more emphasis on combat and very little emphasis on things like trade and diplomacy. The large game world is spread across a dozen or more randomly generated shards that are connected via a network of portals.  These shards are beautifully rendered with a lot of variety of scenery and resources.

The tactical turn based combat  is very good good with a wide variety of units and abilities. You are a great mage so you can support your units with spells that have powerful effects on just about every aspect of the game.  I imagine it makes for an enjoyable multiplayer game although I have no idea how many people are still playing.

The single player game is somewhat let down by weak AI. Fighting NPC mages presents very little challenge but plenty of tedium as you slowly grind your way across the shards. Happily the default campaign is more challenging because it uses the age old trick of substituting ridiculously powerful monsters for decent artificial intelligence. In order to overcome the "United One" you must first find a way across the portal network to his lair. This encourages exploration of the shards. The monsters get every more powerful as you approach the final lair so you cannot neglect economy or development in order to have any chance against the final bosses.

The unrest mechanic is a new feature since the first Warlock which adds a very interesting twist to the strategic game. If you own more than given amount of settlements unrest will cause increasingly severe penalties. At the start of he game the limit is only five which you could easily use up on a single one of the more than a dozen shards. You can increase the limit through research but even by the end of the game I could only build a dozen settlements. This has a huge influence on the strategic game forcing you to make hard choices about which towns to keep and which to abandon. If you decide to let a town gp you can convert it to a special settlement which will still provide a small amount of resources but you can no longer control it or use it for recruitment.

The unrest limit means that it isn't possible to steam-roll over the shards capturing all before you. It also means that it is somewhat pointless going to war with the npc mages for territory. This is probably a good thing. In my campaign I ended up allying with all of the npc mages in my quest to overcome the United One. This may have been a mistake however because the poor AI meant my allies were more of a hindrance than a help they tended to send swarms of weak units around after me blocking critical access points and grabbing the loot from monster lairs after I had done most of the fighting. Worse again allying with an npc immediately activates every shard they are on which greatly slows down the time between turns.

The final battle is against four ridiculously overpowered "lieutenants" and it is a classic case of Contractual Boss Immunity as they are immune to a lot of the standard spells and abilities. Nevertheless I eventually managed to overcome them with a few ridiculously over-buffed heroes of my own. Some of the buffs came from spells but a lot of them came from special equipment that could only be made in certain regions due to  the availability of special resources. The need to build or capture settlements in these regions while staying under the unrest limit became one of the dominant features of the game for me.

The campaign took me about fifty hours. Initially it was exciting as I got to grips with all the features but I found the long mid game quite tedious as I trawled across the shards fighting fairly weak monsters and doing my best to stay out of the way of npc mages. It was only when I reached the final shards that things got interesting again. The increasingly difficult monsters forced me to reconsider my strategy and my tactics.


Wooden Bread (cutting) Boards

The wooden bread board that has served us for the last twenty years finally gave up the ghost a few months back and it has been a challenge to get a suitable replacement. 

The old board acquired during the early years of our marriage was a simple circle of wood that we used to slice bread on. A simple shake and wipe after each use kept it clean and about once a week it got a run through the dishwasher. I can't recall exactly where we got it but I know it wasn't an expensive product. It was simple and robust and it did the job for many years before old age finally caught up with it and it cracked in two. 

Aside: My father worked in the building trade and when I was growing up he kept us supplied with solid wood chopping boards cut from stair treads. These were virtually indestructible so I was not surprised at the longevity of our humble cutting board.  

When I first went looking for a replacement I was surprised to find that bread boards appear to have moved on in the last twenty years. House-ware stores now display an array of designer products in many shapes and sizes carved from exotic woods. These magnificent products (with equally magnificent price tags) promised to transform our humble kitchen in to an oasis of holistic sustainability.  I was somewhat sceptical of these far fetched claims but still in need of surface on which to cut my daily bread so I bought one.

I was a little taken aback to when the instructions explained that such a refined cutting board should never be cleaned with soap and water and in particular should never ever see the inside of a dishwasher. Instead various complicated rituals involving the thighs of vestal virgins and the refined oils of exotic fruits and nuts would be required.

Life is too short to go searching out vestal virgins just so one can slice bread so I simply left the board in our kitchen to fend for itself. It lasted less than a week before warping and splitting into fragments. 

I spent the next few months  in a frustrating hunt for a better replacement. I went to far as to buy two more over priced slabs of wood but each also fell apart in turn when they were subjected to my family's understanding of "normal wear and tear".

I had almost given up hope when I stumbled across a simple circular board on sale for €3.99 in a local discount shop. To hell with  €20 and €30 designer boards. This was more like it. I bought one and put it to use that day. It has stood up to the rigours of cutting and washing (including the dishwasher) for three weeks and no exotic oils nor virgins have been required. Highly recommended. I am tempted to buy another simply to keep in storage for twenty years time.  

If you are interested it is this exact product: http://www.apollohousewares.co.uk/products/details/idProduct/1533/
The material is marked Hevea Wood which I believe comes from the rubber tree.  

Friday, May 08, 2015

Leeroy Jenkins Sufffers Digital Degradation. Is the Cloud not as secure as we thought?

An astute poster on Reddit spotted that the famous World of Warcraft parody video "Leeroy Jenkins" has apparently degraded over time on Youtube and the audio is now corrupted.

What could be going on. Are digital archives not as incorruptible as we once believed? If such an iconic work can be corrupted what does this mean for our precious memories that we are increasingly trusting to cloud storage?

Storage devices can degrade over time but this is very unlikely to be the cause of Leeroy Jenkins corruption. Any half way decent cloud storage system has multiply redundant back ups with error correction. As several respondents to the Reddit post have pointed out it is far more likely that the errors were introduced when the video was converted from an older video format to a newer format. The "copy of a copy" syndrome kicks in and quality degrades.

EDIT: For clarification: You can copy digital files perfectly so "copy of a copy" degradation isn't always a problem but digital video formats employ lossy compression so some quality is lost with each conversion. The audio distortion in this case however is so extreme I suspect this is more than just incremental loss  of quality over multiple conversions. I think something went seriously wrong in a recent conversion to HTML5 format.

Regardless of the cause however the video is now corrupted. Given Leeroy's iconic status I am hopeful that some nerd at Google will take notice and restore a pristine copy. The fact that this can happen is something to think about however. Leeroy Jenkins may still be well known enough for someone to go to the bother of fixing it. I doubt you can say the same about the videos you uploaded of your child's birthday party.

Original Reddit post from I_ama_Borat here: http://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/357s6l/eli5_all_of_a_sudden_the_famous_video_of_leeroy/ 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Late to the PS3 party

I recently came into a second hand PS3 so I am taking a whistle stop tour through some of the better known console exclusives from the last generation.

The PS3 was technically ambitious with its many cored cell processor but it failed to reach the dominant position that its predecessor held. It was late to market. It cost more than a competing Xbox360 and it was reputed to be difficult to programme. Nevertheless the platform had a number of highly regarded exclusives. Now is probably the very best time to do a retrospective tour of them. Second hand games and accessories are cheap and widely available but with the PS4 firmly established it cannot be long before PS3 stuff starts disappearing from retail shelves.

So far I have tried the following games:

Little Big Planet: Cute platformer that I enjoyed a bit of coop in with my daughter.

Demon Souls: From Software's dark masterpiece that spawned Dark Souls and Bloodborne. So far the game feels very similar to Dark Souls.

The Last of Us: post apocalyptic adventure widely hailed as a masterpiece of storytelling. The opening sequence is terrific and the plot is developing nicely but sadly I am not really enjoying the gameplay.

Uncharted: Drakes Revenge. This is a tomb robbing adventure very much in the style of Lara Croft. I am enjoying this a lot.

Red Dead Redemption: Cowboys, horses and revenge. I haven't played this yet so I about really comment but it regularly features in to ten lists.

I don't realistically expect to finish these games. I already have a backlog of games I want to play on PC. Also despite living in a house with five computers we have only one proper TV so my time on the PS3 is very limited. Nevertheless I am enjoying plugging this gap in my gaming knowledge and the PS3 itself has already become the Netflix and DVD player of choice in our home.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Games I have been playing: (Dawn of War 2 expansions, Ryse Son of Rome)

Dawn of War 2 expansion on campaigns: Chaos Rising and Retribution. I loved Dawn of War 2 and I love these expansions. DoW 3 has small squad RTS combat which is a particular favourite of mine. Chaos Rising is a whole new campaign with similar gameplay and a novel "morality" feature which impacts on the skills of your heroes, the gear they can equip and also has some story impacts. Retribution has a fairly short new campaign but you can play as any one of multiple races which gives a lot of replay. Retribution also changes the gameplay somewhat introducing resource gathering and troop recruitment as a supplement to your heroes. You can even choose to swap out heroes for squads of lesser troops which allows some variety in tactics.

Ryse Son of Rome: I got this from Humble Bundle in a sale because I love Roman History and it is supposed to be one of the prettiest games on PC. Sadly the game play has been widely criticised as boring and repetitive. I can certainly vouch for the beauty of the scenery and I haven;t played enough of the game yet for it to become too repetitive. I am a bit put out by the whole notion of a lone Roman Soldier leaping about and performing acrobatics like an action hero. Rome was all about troops fighting in close formation. The silly little shield you have is way too small for a proper Roman Scutum and why oh why does your character only slash with his gladius and never stab?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Alien Isolation: Best Use of Positional Audio Ever?

Undoubtedly the biggest breakthrough for me in learning how to play Alien Isolation was to stop panicking and simply listen to my surroundings. The positional audio in the game is absolutely superb. All of the enemies make characteristic sounds and you can pinpoint their position by sound alone. Not only can you tell where they are you can usually also tell where they are going. The Alien itself is particularly noisy as it stomps about the place and many times I managed to evade an alien with very limited cover simply by moving myself about in response to sound prompts ensuring that I never fell into its line of sight. I cannot recall positional sound every having been as important to me in a game. Please note you don't need surround sound speakers to experience the positional audio I played with stereo headphones and stereo speakers. The headphones are better but the stereo speakers work just fine.

Learning to use sound was so important to my enjoyment and mastery of the game that I would fault the developers Creative Assembly for not making it more obvious during the training levels. To be honest I would fault training in the game in general. This is an unusual style of game that requires players to rethink their normal playing assumptions in order to survive. Like many others I struggled with the first few levels of the game until I eventually figured out how to play. To be honest I almost gave up out of frustration. It is not just that the game doesn't give you direction. Very often gives you misleading direction. Here are some glaring examples:

1) When faced with an unstoppable alien monster your natural instinct is to run and hide. The game reinforces this by liberally sprinkling every level with cabinets marked "Click to Hide Here". While these can sometimes be useful they are usually death traps and running to the nearest one to hide in is a death sentence. They make a racket getting in and out and the monster can hear you breathing inside. Worse still you have no where to run if the monster does come for you.

2) The motion tracker is surely the greatest con-job of all. As a novice player I clutched it deperately trying to figure out where the monster was,  not realising that the beeping of the device was actually giving away my position. Staring at the motion tracker distracts you from the much better information that be be obtained simply by listening and looking around. In my opinion the motion tracker should spend most of its time in your pocket only pulled out occasionally when you know you are safe in order to get an idea of where to go next. It still serves some use in your pocket because it gives an audible warning if an enemy appears nearby.

3) Directional sounds are an absolutely essential tool for tracking enemies in the game but the developers delight in adding plenty of misleading bumps, creaks and other scary noises. This certainly adds to the scary atmosphere but it does confuse novice players. You start jumping at every bump and it takes a while before you learn to pick out the important sounds from the background noise.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Alien Isolation Finished

A deeply flawed masterpiece in my opinion but a masterpiece none the lest. The best stealth horror in any game I have seen. I actually got a neck cramp from the tension of playing the game. The flaws? Well the game is too long and far too repetitive.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Alien Isolation: Enemies closer still

I still suck badly at Alien Isolation. But I am making a bit more progress. One lesson I have learned is that my natural inclination to get as far away from the alien as possible just doesn't work. The creature, it seems is attached to the player by an invisible rubber band. If you do try and sneak away to the far side of the map the Alien will pop  out of a nearby vent  and surprise you. The safest place in the game bizarre though it seems is to creep around behind the alien. If you can see the creature then it cannot surprise you.

I am also convinced that the conveniently placed lockers and boxes that appear all over the game with big "hide here" pop ups are death traps. In the first instance the make an almighty racket getting in and out. They also restrict your vision and restrict the motion tracker. The alien can and will attack you in there and you have no escape route.

If you must hide then sneaking under a take is a much better bet especially one you can exit from both sides. Even a dark corner can be safer than a death trap locker.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Alien Isolation: I suck at this game

I have slotted Alien Isolation into my gaming rotation and I am not enjoying it as much as I expected. This survival horror game has won tonnes of accolade and it is both true to the movies and also genuinely scary. The trouble is I suck at the game. I keep getting eaten by the Alien which is not a pleasant experience. In my defence I offer that part of my frustration stems from the fact that while the game is very atmospheric the developers (Creative Assembly) have prioritised game play over atmosphere in a number of areas. The stealth parts of the game are genuinely tricky in addition to being scary. Further more the monster is obviously scripted to always be "some where near you" so you cannot really hide from it. For me this means that instead of sneaking through an area and being scared I try to sneak through an area, get eaten and then try again. After a few more deaths deaths I slowly  learn the pattern of the monster and instead of a scary game it becomes a Simon Says pattern matching game. To be fair some levels are worse than others but I am currently wading my way through the hospital level and it is very repetitive. Search a bunch of identical rooms for keycard A while Alien wanders around. Then Search for keycard B while alien wanders around then search for .... and so on.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A surfeit of games

I am in a unusual position (for me) at the moment that I am actively juggling several games and not getting frustrated by it. I am playing a long campaign of Rome 2 Total War (Iceni start) which is true Total War fashion is sometimes very engrossing and sometimes tedious. It makes sense to intersperse my Total War sessions with a it more action so I have also been playing "Call of Duty Ghosts" single player. If you want a militaristic on rails interactive shooter movie then Call of Duty is probably still the best in the business and I do enjoy short bouts of shooty entertainment. However I do tire of the bizarre morality of modern shooters so when Call of Duty tires me I switch to "Blades of Time". This is a fantasy third person action adventure in which a scantily clad young heroine slaughters hundreds of assorted chaos monster who have taken over a mythical land of treasures. Blades got mediocre reviews but I am enjoying it a lot. It is very linear but the combat is fun and you get a huge array of upgrades to play with.

In the past when I have tried to juggle several games it has usually led to me losing interest and failing to finish some of them but I am still  juggling these three quite successfully. Last night I picked up scary game Alien Isolation and I am thinking about slotting that into the rotation. Would this perhaps be too much?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bricks and Mortar versus Internet Retailer

What criteria do you use to choose between buying in a bricks and mortar shop versus buying online?

Last week I finally got around to fixing  a cupboard door in our kitchen that has been broken for several years. Essentially it needed two gas pistons to be replaced. Here is the page for the par on the manufacturer's  web store: http://www.clever-storage-shop.com/kompressionsfeder-softlift-beschlag-und-tuer-liftbeschlag-200n.html . I needed two of them so that would come to just over  €50 (Irish sales tax is a few percent extra). Pricey to repair a single microwave cupboard door but hey German engineering doesn't come cheap and it would be worth it to finally get that job off my list.

Before pressing "Buy" I decided to check for a local distributor. A quick email confirmed that yes there is one and yes they do have that part in stock and it costs €15. Wow that's a surprising discount. They are the far side of the city from me but €20 saved from buying two of them would more than pay for my petrol.

I picked them up yesterday on my way home from work. They guy at the counter immediately understood what I needed, handed me two of them and asked for €15.

"Uh.." I said "€15 each that makes €30. Right?".
"No" he said "€7.50 each. €15 for the pair"

To be honest the times when bricks and mortar retailers are cheaper than online are  rare enough despite this extreme example but I do think that many retailers have responded to competitive pressure and now try to match online pricing more closely.

I still buy a lot of stuff online. Living in a small peripheral European country you kind of have to because a lot of specialised stuff simply isn't available here. Thankfully the European open market makes it easy for me to import stuff from the bigger economies (UK, Germany, France mostly) and all the major retailers now collect our local sales tax (VAT) so it doesn't even feel like smuggling any more. There is even a solution to the annoying issue of never being at home when the UPS guy calls. I now use  a collection service that holds my parcels at convenient local point that is accessible 24 hours a day.

There are still many reasons for buying stuff in a  real shop. It is great to be able to touch and see things before buying. Essential for any big ticket items I think and certainly for anything with a significant aesthetic value (clothes, furniture). The returns issue should also be considered. Returning stuff bought online is frustrating and can often incur expensive postage costs.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Some random observations on Total War: Rome 2

Finished the prologue campaign last week and I am now alternating between a Roman grand campaign and a Briton grand campaign. Here are some random thoughts:

1. The game was criticised for bugs and technical problems when it first came out for. This is not unusual for a Total War game but happily Creative Assembly tend to stick with their games and diligently work to fix them up. At this stage a year and a half after release the game seems stable and works well. I can only guess how poor the initial release was from the fact that whole sections of the in game documentation are separated into "Old" versus "New" and from the fact that they felt it necessary to give the patched game a new name "The Emperor Edition".

2. In true Total War fashion I managed to screw up the tutorial (Prologue Campaign). I thought I was faithfully adhering to advisors  instructions when a large Samnite army managed to sneak around me to march on a weakly defended Rome. Happily the prologue now allows saving after a certain point so this wasn't a complete disaster. 

3. I find that I am using the auto-resolve for battles a lot more frequency than in previous games. this is despite the fact that tactical battles in the game are very enjoyable. Possible reasons: 
  • a)  To save time.  Massive battles with hundreds of soldiers are no longer the novelty they once were so I am happy to skip through unimportant ones to progress the game faster.
  • b) I tend to play a cautious game and I try to make sure I always have an overwhelming local advantage before initiating combat. Therefore there are very few battles where the computer needs my help to win. 
  • c). The auto-resolve has gotten a lot better over the years and throws up fewer surprises. I particularly like  the fact that Rome 2 allows you to select aggressive, defensive or neutral tactics. Aggressive tactics work very well at annihilating enemy armies, something that auto-resolve did poorly in previous games. 
4. Learning to love velites (well at least not to hate them). Roman velites light skirmishers fall between two stools. They make poor melee troops because of low damage and light armour and they make poor ranged troops because of low range and limited ammunition. In the original Rome game I skipped over Velites as quickly as possible to get a decent ranged unit: The Roman Archer. Rome 2 doesn't have Roman Archers. I believe this is more historically accurate but it means that Roman armies cannot recruit a decent ranged combat unit until they travel far afield to recruit ranged auxilliaries or mercenaries from the local populace in somewhere like Crete or Iberia.  With no other choices available I had to reassess the humble velites. Their limitations are obvious but they have some advantages: They can run far and fast, their javelins do high damage while they last, and they are cheap to recruit and replace. I have come to the conclusion that mobility is their best asset. They don't have enough ammunition to stand on a hill raining down a continuous hail of fire and they will not win a ranged battle against archers or slingers. Far better to put them in front of the line of battle to taunt the enemy into engaging before running to safety once the enemy starts to attack. Then when the front lines are engaged the velites can  circle around behind the enemy and punish them with javelin fire from the rear. You might be surprised how quickly this breaks even hardened troops. Of course you cannot safely do this while enemy cavalry is around so careful management of unit position and timing is essential. 

5. I find the in game documentation alternately comprehensive and frustrating. There is a huge amount of documentation and just about every item in the game has multiple levels of explanation. If you hover over it briefly you get a name and quick explanation. Hovering for longer may bring up an expanded explanation. Selecting units and buildings will bring up further information panels with numerical details. Right clicking on an item will almost always bring you to the relevant page of the comprehensive in game manual. So far so good. The problem arises when you want to find information about an item that isn't immediately in front of you to select. The search function is terrible and regularly fails to find answers to the most straightforward queries. That leaves two choices: try to navigate through menus or try to build a path from something you can find to the item you want. Both of these approaches fail because of the vast number of choices and paths available in the game. Any given building for example might allow you to recruit one of twenty different types of unit depending on the campaign you are playing, the dlc you have installed and the region you are building in. All of these units are listed in the documentation making it hard to find the ones that apply in your case.

6. The blurring of lines between navies and armies is both interesting and confusing. Any army can hop into a boat from any shore and any navy can land troops to fight land battles. Dedicated naval ships are definitely superior on the water than improvised troop transports but a lot of sea battles still end with boarding parties and hand to hand fighting so landlubbers can certainly play their role.  For the most part it adds a great extra dimension but I have noticed that defeated generals have a frustrating habit of fleeing out to sea which makes them harder to hunt down. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Backlog Blues

January is the cruellest month for gamers trying to keep their backlog of unplayed games under control. The combined impact of Christmas gifting and online game sales has ensured that our Steam, Origin and other digital libraries are stuffed with unplayed titles.

Here is a list of titles acquired since Christmas that I fully intend to play but haven't gotten around to yet:

Warlock 2: The Exiled
Assassin's Creed Unity
Guild Wars 2
Rome Total War 2
Batman Arkham Origins
LA Noire

I am particularly vexed because I thought I had become much more selective of late.  I have stopped buying bundles of games I never heard of simply because they look cheap. I am restricting my purchases to games I genuinely intend to play and I have broken an insidious habit that I had fallen into of treating myself to a new game each week whether I needed one or not. I do intend to play the games above but I have been playing Dragon Age inquisition exclusively since Christmas day and those titles remain neglected.







Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The tank is holding"

I wonder if there is a more welcome phrase in all of PC gaming than these four simple words: "The tank is holding"?  They mean that you have reached that  point in a battle where your defensive capabilities have proven themselve capable of surviving anything the enemy can throw at them. It is the tipping point. Prior to that moment the battle is a desperate struggle for survival with an uncertain outcome. After that moment you know that they cannot kill you so it is your turn to take the initiative and find a way to kill them. Knowing that you cannot lose all that remains is find a way to win.

According to Wikipedia the use of the word "Tanking" to describe a unit or team's ability to absorb damage originated in the text based Multi User DUngeons (MUDS) of the 1990s.  The concept probably reached its full potential  in the Tank, Heal, Damage triumvirate of massively multi player games such as Everquest. With classes specialised in each of these roles player groups can work together to overcome PVE monsters (Raid Bosses) that are enormously more powerful than themselves. The tanking classes have special skills to keep monsters focus upon themselves and then rely on heavy armour and defensive abilities to reduce the damage sustained to a level that the healers can heal.  Knowing that "the tank is holding" means that your combination of mitigation and healing is sufficient to survive the incoming damage and is a vital first step to victory. 

The terminology is widely used in role playing games and real time strategy games but the principle can be applied to just about any game against computer opponents (PVE) even when the phrase "tanking" isn't commonly used. In a shooter for example once you have found a reliable piece of cover to crouch behind you are able to survive incoming fire (your tank is holding) and you can now focus on picking off opponents.

The concept of tanking is not as useful in PVP games because human players can change their tactics at will.   Once it becomes obvious that they are failing to make a dent in your defences a human player is likely to try a different approach. It would be foolish to think that you have won the battle just because "your tank is holding" against one line of attack.Nevertheless the ability to survive incoming attacks is important and tanking still essential. EVE online for example  uses the term "tanking" extensively to describe the defensive capability of both individual ships and of fleets in PVE and PVP online space battles. One of my favourite depictions of  of "The tank is holding"  comes from EVE in the Clarion Call 3 video from Rooks and Kings

The entire video is worth watching but the particularly relevant bit starts at minute 29:00. A small fleet of specialised spacecraft is taking on a much larger and in theory more powerful fleet in the opponent's home territory. The upstart intruders are using  superbly co-ordinated tactics to minimise incoming damage to a level that they can repair while they whittle down the opponent fleet. In short their strategy relies on their tank holding. The vital sequence starting at minute 29:00 begins with an expletive from the pilot of their repair ship (carrier) because one of the armour repair units (reppers) that is keeping him alive burns out through over use. You can hear the despair in his voice when he tells his team what has happened. There is a short dreadful pause as it dawns on everyone that the battle is surely lost but that thought is interrupted by the explosion in the background of one of the enemies main damage dealing ships (a Moros dreadnought). Then we get the deadpan reply of the fleet commander: 

"It doesn't matter. One Moros is dead. The other one is held zero cap" (This means its guns are neutered and cannot fire).
"You can tank all their faction battle-ships on one repper".
"We've won"

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Exploring My Families Broadband Usage

In an idle moment I checked our families monthly broadband statistics and I was quite surprised by the numbers.

The last time I actively perused these figure was perhaps eight years ago when we had a 30Gb monthly allowance and I remember that our usage rarely ever exceeded 10Gb per month. Internet speeds have increased a lot since then, the web has become more data rich, game downloads have become bigger, my teenage kids have developed insatiable appetites for online connectivity and of course Netflix has happened. Taking all of this into account I think that I would have expected a ten fold increase in internet usage - perhaps 100Gb typical usage per month. 

Here are the numbers for the last few months: 
Broadband Usage History
Billing period
Downloaded
Uploaded
Total
07 Dec - 06 Jan
336.66 GB
69.10 GB
405.76 GB
07 Nov - 06 Dec
218.61 GB
75.39 GB
294.00 GB
07 Oct - 06 Nov
154.22 GB
76.86 GB
231.08 GB
07 Sep - 06 Oct
182.66 GB
493.38 GB
676.04 GB
07 Aug - 06 Sep
196.54 GB
196.62 GB
393.16 GB

Wow. I didn't expect the numbers to be that high. A monthly average usage of 400Gb peaking to 676Gb last September. 

The large upload numbers are surprising but I can explain them. My wife is a very keen photographer and in August we started to use cloud storage. The high uploads for August and September were the initial uploads of the archive and the ongoing monthly uploads are mainly new photos. 

Our normal monthly downloads are 150Gb to 200Gb but it looks like we watched a lot of extra movies on Netflix during the Christmas Holidays (plus I may have bought a few big games).