Friday, December 30, 2016

The games of Christmas 2016

A combination of Winter sales, Christmas spirit and a few days holidays always puts me in the mood for some video games. Here are the titles which have gotten some of my time since the start of December: 

1. Neverwinter Nights 2: A buggy launch cast a shadow over this sequel but fully patched it remains an engrossing gaming experience. Even though I have a boxed copy I rebought it from gog.com to save the hassle of patching it myself and I got all the expansions as a bonus. This is actually the third time I started the main campaign of NWN 2 and each time I get about half way through and then move on to something else. That is still many hours of gaming goodness each time however. 

2. Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone. Witcher 3's expansions have been on my wishlist for quite some time so when isthereanydeal.com informed me that they had finally fallen into my price range I jumped and bought them both. I have only played the shorter"Hearts of Stone" and it was excellent full of dark gritty witcheryness. The send expansion "Blood and Wine" is supposed to be even better so good times are ahead. The passing of more than a year has not dimmed my admiration for CD Projects Masterpiece. 

3. Titanfall 2: I played a small amount of Titanfall 1 but it was multiplayer only and I suck at multiplayer shooters. When I learned that Titanfall 2 also had an extensive campaign I was delighted and picked it up in an Origin sale. Much stompy  robot fun was had in the campaign although I have yet to try the supposedly excellent multiplayer. I guess I know I will still suck. 

4. Deus Ex Mankind Divided: I loved Desus Ex Human Revolution so odds are good I will like Makind divided. Haven't had time to more than scratch the surface yet though.

5. Battlefield 1: I keep buying these multiplayer shooters even though I am terrible at them. Battlefield 1 seems to be winning the shooter popularity ratings on Youtube which is unsurprising considering it has Zeppelins, tanks and mounted combat. I have only sampled the campaign so far. 

6. Rise of the Tomb Raider: I loved the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot so I was quite looking forward to this sequel. Unfortunately I only played it for a couple of days before getting distracted and moving on. The game is extremely polished and objectively very good but it also feels so similar to every other "Ubisoft Open World" game these days. You get a huge open world to explore chock full of  well crafted side missions and diversions with a tentative story to tie them all together. Gameplay is slick and there is a character advancement system so polished that you seem to level up along multiple axes without even thinking about it. I can't actually find a flaw in any of this except that the formula has become so polished that has become boring. 

On the PC hardware front you may be surprised to discover that I am still gaming and playing modern AAA titles on a seven year old platform with a 2010 era LGA 1156 motherboard. I originally though to replace it back in 2014 but  I decided to wait until Windows 10 came out and did some  upgrades instead.  By the time I had fitted extra memory, an SSD, modern graphics card (GTX 970) and a mildly overclocked 8 thread Xeon processor I realised that my rig ran Windows 10 perfectly and was still able to keep up with modern games so I held tight.  Now almost two years later I think it really is time for a complete replacement but there is a new AMD processor family (Zen) being launched in the Spring so I will wait for that. Zen / Ryzen may or may not live up to the hype but extra competition should bring down CPU prices. Currently my budgetary comfort zone only extends to the four threaded Intel I5 family but I have a gut feeling that multi-threaded gaming is coming of age and that an 8 threaded system will ensure better longevity. 


Thursday, August 25, 2016

I much prefer "live chat" to phone calls for customer support.

If a company has a live chat service I will always use it in preference to phoning the company to try and get customer support. I find it is is quicker to get in contact with someone and I find that it is generally quicker to get a problem resolved using live chat. This is despite the fact that the actually chat responses can be slow coming and the support reps are almost certainly multitasking multiple customer queries. I suspect that companies put a higher level of support staff on their live chat lines than on their phone lines because of the savings associated with multiplexing.

An added bonus of live chat is that you can keep a transcript of the conversation. Many companies will actually email a transcript but you can usually screen capture it yourself. This can be handy if ever you need to refer back to it.


Enderal, free RPG built on Skyrim is Great

I am currently playing Enderal a free total conversion mod which offers a totally new RPG using the Skyrim engine.

It is great. Not just great for a mod or a free game. It is just great. The story is great. The quests are great. The graphics and sound are great. The voice acting is great (even in English translation). The game is remarkably stable and bug free.  How did they achieve all of this on a budget of zero euro? I have no idea.

If you have Skyrim (any version) then you can download Enderal here in either English or the original German versions. You need to download both the installation package and the launcher. Put the launcher into your Skyrim directory (probably C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim). Run the launcher and hit "install now". Navigate to the installation package when prompted.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Doom (2016) is great

I have 46 hours recorded in single player mode on Steam and the campaign only takes about 11 hours to beat. This game seamlessly combines old school running and shooting with new school collecting and achievements and it is a tonne of fun.

Favourite weapon has to be the Gauss cannon. It fires a high damage accurate single shot which works great for running and gunning. You can't afford to stand around waiting for the automatic weapons to whittle down opponents. The Gauss cannon takes low level enemies out in a single shot even the really annoying shielded guys. The siege mode upgrade path allows it to charge up a massive area of effect shot. In my opinion the most powerful weapon in the game apart from the BFG. The only disadvantage of the Gauss cannon is that it does some much damage that it kills enemies before you can pull off glory kills.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Is Humble Monthly Worth it (with Spreadsheet)?

I have been subscribed to Humble Monthly for three months. There are usually one or two games I like along with a bunch of stuff I have no interest in or already own.  Every month I dither about whether or not to cancel my subscription so I have decided to go about this in a more scientific fashion. I present to you the Humble Monthly personalised value spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet takes a conservative approach and values games at the lowest price they have ever been on sale at according to isthereanydeal.com. I have multiplied each price by my own level of interest in the game on a subjective 0-100% scale. In this way games I have no interest in are valued at zero. I have also set the value of games I already own to zero even though I may be able to find a home for some of the duplicate keys with younger relatives.

The summary shows that the Humble Monthly bundles are worth an average of over $21 to me which compares favourably with the monthly subscription of $12. Also of note is that there each month has paid its way with at least $18 worth of personal gaming value. A supporting piece of evidence is that every month there has been at least one game that I immediately downloaded to play. Science proves it: Humble Monthly is a good investment for me.

It is worth noting that there are other benefits to Humble monthly not included in the analysis above. It has brought some games to my attention that I would not otherwise have considered and having an active subscription gives 10% off purchases in the Humble Store (although there is a risk of the same item later appearing in a monthly bundle).

Full spreadsheet is available from the link below. Feel free to customise it for your own use:

Humble Monthly Spreadsheet (Google Docs)

Monday, July 04, 2016

More Stuff = Less Happiness.

I used a gift voucher to buy three PS3 games I don't have time to play. I am feeling somewhat perplexed about it even though the voucher was a gift. 

Over the years I have paid real money for hundreds of PC games I never got around to playing but somehow this feels worse. Most of those PC games are digital products that can be hidden away in my Steam library causing no offence to anyone. These PS3 games however will sit accusingly under the TV, increasing clutter and reminding me of the fact that they add negative rather than positive value to my existence. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I don't like roguelikes.

To be more specific I don't like the combination of permadeath and random chance that is a hallmark of all true rogue-likes. It has taken me a while to admit this because serious gamers are supposed to like rogue-likes and respect the many classics of the genre. 

I know that permadeath is supposed to make a game more engrossing by increasing the stakes. I know that it makes your achievements seem more worthwhile when you finally do overcome the game's challenges. 

I also know that randomness makes a game interesting. It means you never know what to expect. Randomness is one of the things which differentiates a game from a puzzle. 

However when you combine randomness and permadeath you condemn yourself to the bitter despair of losing many hours of effort due to a random toss of the dice. In most true rogue-likes a pointless unavoidable death is almost certain. You may die nine times out of ten. More likely you will die ninety nine times out of a hundred but the odds of success are heavily stacked against you and you have go into these games expecting that you will lose. 

The theory is that if you adopt the right attitude you can appreciate the losing playthroughs in their own right and will be all the more ecstatic when lady luck finally smiles on you and grants the impossible victory. 

Well I reject that theory. It doesn't work for me. It doesn't work for me because I like finishing games. I enjoy conquering the final boss and then moving on to another game. Rogue-likes are not designed to be finished. You are supposed to lose and start over again and again. If you ever actually get to kill the final boss it is an unexpected miracle.  This theory also doesn't work for me because it abuses  the one gaming talent I actually have. I don't have instant perception. I don't have  razor sharp reflexes. I don't have incredible dexterity and I don't even have have great strategic vision, All I have is dogged persistence. I tackle a challenge. I fail. I try again with a slightly different approach. I keep doing this until something works.  Rogue-likes demand persistence because they force you start over and over again but they give you no reward for it. Lessons learned in previous  playthroughs become irrelevant when the random number generator rolls against you. 

Grumpiness brought to you courtesy of "FTL Faster Than Light" which I have been playing for the last few days. To be fair I really like the game and repeatedly come back to it over the years. I have even overcome the final boss on more than one occasion. I still don't like rogue-likes though. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Xonar DGX sound card update

I have had my Asus Xonar DGX for  few days now and I have had a chance to try it out in a few games.

First impressions are a little bit mixed. On the one hand the card sounds good and the Xonar control panel has a few nice features that work well with headphones (which I use a lot). On the other hand my attempts to use the Xonar to get EAX support in older games has met with mixed success. and has even led to a few crashes. I tried enabling EAX in the following games: Far Cry (seems to work but occasionally crashed), Painkiller (seems to work), Rome Total War (EAX 2 works EAX 3 doesn't), Prey (seems to work), Battle for Middle Earth 2 (says no supported EAX hardware found). I also tested the card in a few more modern games (Alien Rage and Fallout 4) and it works without any problems but neither of those games use EAX. Asus claims that the GX2.5 feature on their xonar cards supports EAX 5.0 so I am a bit surprised it seems to have problems with EAX 3.0. There are very few games that actually support EAX 5.0 so  it is really the earlier versions of EAX that I need.

A lot of people recommend a set of modified drivers that claim to fix bugs in Asus' own Xonar drivers: http://maxedtech.com/ so I installed these drivers and I haven't had any crashes since. Unfortunately the creator of these "Unixonar drivers" is very scathing about EAX support and recommends against using it.

So that leaves me with a new sound card that by all accounts gives much better sound quality than my on-board sound (larger presence with richer mid tones and a hint of citrus or something  like that) but which only intermittently supports EAX. Given than EAX was the main reason I bought the card I am a bit disappointed.   In hindsight I might have been better to buy a card from Creative to be sure of EAX support. At least the Xonar control panel allows EAX support to be toggled on and off so I am going to leave it off to avoid any possible problems except when I am playing EAX games.

On the bright side the Xonar is working well in modern games and it also has one very useful feature. It can map 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround sound into the two speakers of a pair of headphones. This seems bizarre but it actually works very well and gives you a very realistic surround sound effect.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Buying a New Soundcard. Is it 2001 again?

It is at least ten years since onboard sound became good enough to obsolete discrete sound cards yet I have just bought an ASUS Xonar DGX for my PC. I have no illusions that this €30 card will give any noticeable improvement in sound quality for modern games. I bought it because it comes with an emulator for Creative Labs EAX technology.  EAX was the dominant environmental sound method used in PC games until the advent of Windows Vista. EAX was proprietary to Creative labs but every sound card manufacturer had some form of EAX compatibility back in the day and a huge number of games used it . Vista and all later versions of Windows changed the way sound is handled and EAX no longer works. Modern games achieve rich audo environments through other means but older titles that relied on EAX are left high and dry.

I enjoy playing older PC games and it always irritated that I could no longer get the full experience due to the lack of EAX. Many of these games relied on EAX for positional audio as well as for envronmental effects so the game's soundscape is much reduced without it. There is a software emulator available called indirectsound that can be used to restore 3D postional sound  but it does not  implement environmental effects (eg the way things sound  differently depending on the environment around you).

Asus GX2.5 capability claims to emulate all the features up to EAX5.0 and because it is pure emulation as opposed to a hardware/software combination like Creative's own "Alchemy" it should work for every EAX game. I haven't had much opportunity to try it out yet but I will report back when I have had a chance to test it. Here for reference is a review comparing Asus GX2.0 (an older version) agains Creative's Alchemy: http://techgage.com/article/creative_eax_vs_asus_ds3d_gx_20/.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Revisiting my gaming past: Far Cry

I am currently about two thirds of the way through another replay of the 2004 classic fps Far Cry. It is one of a small number of games that I repeatedly return to. The PC has always had the best back catalog in gaming and it is one of the joys of being a PC gamer that it is possible to play the old classics on a modern PC.

The lush tropical setting is still beautiful and the monsters are as ugly and nasty as ever. The huge open levels are still magnificient. The gunplay is still  good as are are the stealth features. I am enjoying Far Cry but I also have a niggling concern. The experience has not been as satisfying as I expected this return to one of my all time favourite games to be.

The cause of my discomfort is straightforward enough. I find myself wondering if the effort required to get this classic game to run on a modern system is justified by the experiece. Time is doubly cruel to older video games. Every new generation of computer makes it harder to get old games running while every new generation of game exposes the flaws of the past more vividly.

I couldn't get my original DVD copy of Far Cry to run on Windows 10 at all. I trawled various resource sites looking for a solutions to no avail. I tried several patches both official and unofficial. In the end I was more or less convinced that the DVD itself may be faulty so in desperation bordering on panic I spent €8 to buy a new DRM free digital download version of the game from GOG. GOG's compatibility magic did its trick and the game ran first time but it looked pretty bad with with horrible graphical anomalies popping up in game. Happily the gog.com forums pointed me to an unnofficial patch which fixed my graphics problems and even added a few small enhancements, the most important being the addition of quick save. http://www.moddb.com/mods/farcry-addon-mod-fcam/downloads/unofficial-farcry-patch-1505. Finally I had to force Vsync in my Nvidia control panel to prevent adible coil whine from my graphics card but at last the game was playable.

On release Far cry was a sensation. The graphics were stunning if you could afford a beefy enough computer to play the game. The game had massive open levels with huge draw distance unlike anything seen before. The AI was strong resulting in tough unpredictable enemies that required intelligent use of the  stealth system as well as excellent shooting skills to overcome. Of course the 12 year old graphics would not impress anyone in 2016 and open world games (including Far Cry's own sequels) have gone far beyond what this 2004 classic achieved. The once vaunted AI is not so impressive any more and enemies' uncanny accuracy from half way across the map feels unfair in 2016. The game also had a horrible checkpoint save system but thankfully the  unoffical patch adds quick save.

I am still enjoying the game. It is still a classic PC game deserving a place in the libraries of gaming nostalgics and students of gaming history. Sadly however, considering the limitations of its age and the difficulties involved in getting it running I can no longer recommend it to new players.

Aside: One annoyance when playing older games is that almost all of them use EAX environmental audio which hasn't been supported since Windows Vista. I don't have a discrete sound card any more (who does?) but apparently it is possible to emulate EAX on a modern system if you have a sound card from Creative (Alchemy) or Asus (GX 2.5). I am actually thinking of buying one just to experience retro games as they werre intended.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Would you organise an overnight charity event on Friday 13th...

.. in a 200 year old creepy building with a bunch of teenage girls?

Well apparently the school my daughter goes to would. Have these people never seen a slasher movie?

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Games Recently Played

Divinity Original Sin: This is a wonderful content rich turn rpg that manges to combine old school turn based party combat with modern graphics and a lovely bright aesthetic.  I have over 130 hours played and still plenty more to do in game.

Civ V (again): Despite having 70+ hours in game I don't think I have every finished a full campaign of Civ V but it is a perennial classic that warrants revisiting over and over again.

Just Cause 3: I actually bought this to entertain some young nephews who were visiting. It did the trick and after they left I played through the campaign myself.  It is temperamental (on PC) and the story is rubbish but it retains  the whacky go anywhere do anything and blow everything up style of its predecessor.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III: Even though I have long since given up any hope of keeping up with teenagers in multi player shooters I still try to play each Call of Duty single player campaign. Black Ops III is actually one of the better ones of recent years. There are a couple of very hokey flying sequences but most of the game is solid single player action with enough sci fi themes to appeal to an old nerd like myself.

Mad Max: Is another Ubisoft style open world game. This one  focusses on driving around a post apocalyptic landscape. Like most games of this sort it is an enjoyable way to pass a few gaming hours but ultimately forgettable. In terms of quality I would place this above Just Cause 3 but below Far Cry 4. The car combat is rather excellent however.

Halo 2: I loved Halo Combat evolved and I eventually got around to playing the second episode  which was treated so badly on Microsoft Windows. I really would like to play more Halo. I just amn't prepared to fork out the cash for an Xbox One to be able to do so.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Battle for Middle Earth 2: I loved the original Battle for Middle Earth but until recently I never got around to playing the sequel. One of the great joys of PC gaming is that it is almost always possible to find a way to get older games to work so I finally got around to trying this. It has the same wonderful Middle Earth atmosphere (the Peter Jackson version) as its predecessor but the game play has evolved somewhat with an array of new races and abilities. It feels less story driven than its predecessor but instead presents a variety of game modes and scenarios to play through.

Fallout 4: I have only recently gotten this so I haven't had much time to play it. So far it feels very like Fallout 3 which may be a good thing or a bad thing. I hope it has enough newness in it to keep me occupied.

Singularity (Again): I was in the mood for a Sci Fi shooter so I dug this one out of my library. Enjoyable if somewhat patchy.

EDIT: Secret Confession - I actually downloaded World of Warcraft and played for five minutes. My excuse is that they gave me a free upgrade to Warlords of Draenor and seven days of game time. I couldn't find any of my old characters but I created a new Orc warrior and played for five minutes and then logged out. Been there. Done that. Don't need to do it again.

In which I am revealed to lack the courage of my own convictions.

How do you feel when something you like is judged to be worthless by the court of public opinion?

I recently starting watching the SyFy show Z-Nation on Netflix. I like the show a lot. Unfortunately I am not going to explain why because I cannot do so without sounding like I am trying to justify my opinion and make excuses for it. 

The problem is that Z-Nation was panned by critics. It was reviewed so poorly that if I had read reviews before watching the show I would never have risked it. Instead I stumbled across it by accident and didn't look at a review till I was six or seven episodes in. It was only then I became aware that the show I was enjoying was actually terrible according to most knowledgeable critics. 

How should one react in such circumstances? Shouldn't one dismiss the views of critics because in the end it is only our own opinion that really matters? That sounds like a sensible position but I think we need critics. Today's world offers every one of us a ridiculous over-abundance of  media content to consume and far too little time in which to consume it. Some form of selection process is essential. Even accepting that every critic has their own specific quirks I have come to rely on review aggregation scores. It isn't a precise science. A lot of worthy content ends up with a mid ranking critic score which can mean anything. However if a product is universally praised then it surely has some value and contrarily if a product is universally panned it is probably best avoided. 

So If I like something that the majority of knowledgeable critics have panned does this mean that my opinion is wrong? Can I even continue to enjoy the show knowing that it is actually a bad show? Even if I do continue to enjoy it will it be forever transformed from a worthy entertainment into a shameful guilty pleasure? 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Where have all the great Eve writers gone?

EVE online used to inspire the best writing about games. The sandbox universe of New Eden gave rise to a million stories and the uncompromising ruthlessness of the game ensured that many of those stories were worth reading. Epic stories like the Guiding Hand Social Club's meticulous evsiceration of Ubiqua Seraph  caught the attention of main stream media but I have always enjoyed more mundane stories of the day to day experiences of capsuleers: tales of piracy and revenge, tales of exploration and discovery, tales of incompetence and mastery. I myself was never more than a very casual EVE player and yet it inspired some of my own favourite writing

Where have all these great EVE blogs gone? Some stalwarths like Wilhelm over at the Ancient Gaming Noob  still write regularly about the game but these are stories of participating in mega alliances and huge wars. This seems to have become a feature of EVE writing lately. The politics of mega alliances dominates everything and gripping tales of the achievements and failures of individual capsuleers don't feature. If you want plenty of examples of the worst of EVE writing head over to Reddit's r/eve. There is a mega-war on in EVE at the moment and this reddit sub is filled with partisan tales and boasting that is unreadable for an outsider.

The last Eve blog that really gripped me was Doyce Testerman's series about "Life in Wormhole" . Wormholes are the most remote and most uncontrollable environments in EVE so back in 2012 when Doyce was wormholing there was still plenty of room for stirring tales of individual exploits.

Why aren't there still great EVE blogs about individual capsuleers? I can think of a a few possible reasons but I am not sure which if any of them are the real reason:

1. It is possibe the game has been running so long that there are no new stories to tell.
2. It is possible that the decline of EVE blogging is just a reflection of the decline of game blogging generally.
3. It is possible that EVE has changed from being a game of individual efforts and small groups to a game of mega-alliances and power blocs. The efforts of individuals are no longer relevant and no longer worth writing about.

of course there is also a more hopeful possibiliy:

4. It is possible that there are still players out there writing great indivudal stories that I haven't found yet. Please let this be the case and if you know of such writing then please direct me to it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Very brief thoughts on finishing "The Last of Us" (PS3)

I actually bought a second hand PS3 in order to play this highly acclaimed game. 

I love the strong characters. I loved the atmospheric music and settings. I loved the attention to detail in the rendering of a post apocalyptic world. 

I loved the fact that  the game had such a strong story line. I am still trying to figure out whether or nor I actually enjoyed the story but that doesn't take from the fact that I know it is an exceptionally well done story. 

I have more mixed feelings about the game-play. Shooting was awkward although it did get easier towards the end when I had a better selection of weapons and was more used to it. Melee combat is actually easier than shooting and more effective but melee weapons break after a few hits which severely limits the usefulness of melee. The stealth abilities in the game are really superb but there are many section s where you still have to kill all the enemies even if you use stealth. My biggest gripe with the gameplay though is there is just too much of it. Too many enemies to kill and too much loot to scavenge for and collect.

Despite my mixed feelings about aspects of the game play the game is superbly crafted. Even the things I have misgivings about are there for a purpose. Combat is awkward so you dread fights and hate it when enemies arrive and try to hide if at all possible. Having to constantly scavenge for loot forces you to explore the incredible environments. Even the relentless killing you have to do is actually integral to the plot.  

Friday, April 08, 2016

Virtual reality scares me.

Perhaps that is not surprising but you might be surprised to know why it scares me.

I have dreamed about virtual reality and virtual worlds since I was a kid back in the 1970s. The distopian fiction of William Gibson didn't put me off virtual worlds  instead it opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities. Virtual reality would offer humans a chance to escape from physical limitaions and the fictional representations of virutal reality in books, TV and movies whetted my appetite for it. During my formative years in the 1970's and 80's the hardware available could barely host crudely pixelated 2D environments and yet they fed the spark of my enthusiasm. When three dimiensional game worlds became possible with 1990's hardware I got further sucked in and PC gaming became my main hobby. The advent of online multiplayer worlds in the noughties was further proof that this was really going to happen. At the time I thought  / hoped that the mmorpgs might develop over time to be more than just games and instead become fully immersive virtual alternatives to the real world. This didn't happen. The public voted with their wallets for mmorpgs that focussed on being a games rather than being worlds and then most of the public lost interest in the mmorpg genre altogether.

Even though gaming hasn't yet proved to be the path to full virtual reality it has been a driving force behind the development of technology that would underpin full virtual worlds and this development has progressed ever onwards. The release of 3D virtual reality headsets such as the Occulus Rift and HTC Vive this year is an major step. Of course these early products are somewhat crude with high prices, rough edges and somewhat impractical space and supporting hardware demands but they have caught the public imagination. There is a definite feeling out there that virtual reality is going to be the "Next Big Thing". I think it is particularly significant thet many people are looking at applications beyond gaming for virtual reality: in business, education and other fields. If the public show a demand for applications or virtual reality then the march of technology will bring down the price and increase the usability of virtual reality infrastructure.

It may be another false dawn but it may also be the start of virtual reality becoming actual reality. I am excited about this but I am also scared. I am scared because if virtual reality takes off it is likely to render the 2 dimensional gaming that I have spend so much time indulging in obsolete and irrelevant. I am scared because I am not sure that I myself am going to be able to make the transition to fully immersive VR. Despite longstanding enthusaism for virtual reality I have no desire to don a headset and jump around a room while immersed in a 3 D simulation. Pehaps I am too old. Perhaps I am too set in my ways.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Internet Devices in my home 1991 - 2016

It must be middle age that has recently inclined me towards nostalgic comparisons of past and present technology.  Last week I was musing about internet speeds but today I got to thinking about the prolifieration of internet connected devices in our home over the last couple of decades.

1991: 0 devices (I hadn't even met my wife at that stage  but I give this date as a zero reference point) (1 adult living in my home, Peak internet speed 0 kb/s)

1996: 1 desktop PC with dial up
(2 adults living in my home. Peak Internet Connection speed 28.8kbs)

2001: 1 desktop PC with dial up modem
          1 Laptop with dial up modem
(2 adults and 2 infants living in my home. Peak internet connection speed 56kb/s )

2006: 2 desktop PCs with wired broadband
           1 laptop with wifi connection to broadband
(2 adults 2 children living in my home. Peak internet connection speed 2Mb/s)

2011: 2 desktop PCs with wired broadband
          1 Laptop with wifi connection to broadband
          2 smart phones with GSM and Wifi connections to
          1 Kindle with wifi connection
          1 game console with wifi connection
          1 Cable TV box with wired connection to broadband
(2 adults and two children living in our home. Peal internet connection speed 20Mb/s)

2016: 2 desktop PCs with wired broadband
         3 laptop computers with wifi
         4 tablet computers with wifi
         4 smartphones
         3 kindles with wifi
         2 game consoles with wifi connection
         1 Satellite TV box with wifi connection to broadband
         1 Raspberry pi with wifi
         1 wireless printer
(2 adults 2 teenagers living in our home. Peak internet connection speed 240 Mb/s)

Note these are all devices that access the internet and are in active use. I am not counting old devices that may be buried in drawers around the house.

For bonus nerdyness I plotted a couple of charts.







Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Playing Halo 2 for the first time in 2016

The iconic Halo series has had a poor relationship with the PC. Halo 2 didn't come out for PC until two full years after the Xbox 2006 release and even then it was artificially restricted to those who had upgraded to Microsoft's unpopular Vista operating system. If all that wasn't enough to annoy PC gamers the port was badly optimised and buggy. The game has never been made available as a digital download so it has pretty much been forgotten by the PC community. Yet Halo 2 remains an important milestone in gaming history and I have long intended to play it so I finally bit the bullet last week and did so.

The original Halo (Combat Evolved) was important because it showed that first person shooters could work well on consoles and introduced a number of innovations that have become standard to this day (the game pad control scheme, the two weapon carry limit and the recharging health/shield scheme). Halo 2 introduced on-line multi-player with automatic matchmaking  and its massive popularity paved the way for the success of Call of Duty and other online shooters which are so dominant today.

Is the single player game any good? Does it still stand up in 2016?

Yes and no.

Yes the shooting is still very good. There is a wide variety of enemies who hit hard, move constantly and use a variety of  tactics to keep you on your toes. You have an equally wide variety of weaponry to kill them with.

On the negative side this is a very linear corridor shooter and after a while you begin to notice that one corridor looks very much like another. This isn't just an impression - it is a fact because artwork is reused over and over again. No doubt this saved time and money in development and it may even have been required due to hardware limits of the original Xbox but it does get very monotonous,  It only takes about ten hours to complete the campaign but I think they should have chopped at least a third of that off for a shorter tighter experience.

Compared to the first game Halo Combat Evolved, Halo 2 has more of everything: more enemies, more weapons and more vehicles. You even have the novelty as playing one of the Covenant but this doesn't introduce any real variety sadly because you end up fighting the same enemies with the same weapons as when you play as Master Chief. Bungie somehow managed to craft a storyline where you play as a member of the covenant and never actually shoot any humans.

One positive thing I realised while playing the game is that the Halo mythos has evolved into a very rich back story that has grown  beyond the games into books, comics and animation. It is reminiscent of the Mass Effect universe and I would like to experience more of it. Unfortunately the remaining Halo games are not available on PC and I do not have an Xbox to play them on.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Just Cause 3 breaks the 8Gb ram barrier

If you want to get Just Cause 3 to run smoothly in high quality settings then you need more than 8Gb ram in your PC. I have 12Gb which is enough but even so I still need to be careful not to have too much stuff running in the background in order to play the game. For some reason the games official requirement is only 6Gb but many players have criticised the game for being a poor quality buggy port and adding more ram  solves most of the issues. Whether this is due to bad programming or not the fact remains that you need more than 8Gb ram to get the best experience out of Just Cause 3.

This is the first game I have come across that actually needs more than 8Gb. Until fairly recently even 4Gb was enough,  a legacy of the memory limitations of 32 bit Windows but just over a year ago games like Witcher 3 started demanding up to 8Gb. Now it seems even that barrier has been breached.

As for Just Cause 3 itself? Once I got it running I liked it a lot. It is very repetitive and the storyline is completely forgettable but running around blowing things up never really gets old. I found the game quite relaxing to play in the evenings for the couple of weeks it took me to capture every town on the map. The relatively easy difficulty level (which cannot be changed) might be a disappointment for some but it means you can be as creative as you like in causing destruction. Foolish attempts are never harshly punished. Just Cause 3 out does Just Cause 2 in pretty much every way with bigger guns better vehicles and a much improved grappling hook. The devs did try to ape Far Cry and populated the country with many mini missions but I ignored most of them. Enjoy the game for what it is: a riotous feast of mayhem and destruction.

Friday, March 18, 2016

3Gb download in under 2 minutes

Back in the 1990's I connected to the internet with a 28.8k dial up modem. I remember one one occasion trying to download 20Mbytes of data over this ever so narrow pipeline and it proved such a long and tortuous experience that eventually I had to leave the computer running overnight in order to complete the download.  Yesterday I downloaded a 3Gb file in just under 2 minutes at an average rate 25 M bytes per second. I just had time to browse a couple of web pages before the download was finished.

We take it for granted that everything to do with computers has gotten orders of magnitude faster over time but this still strucke me. Three billion bytes is an enormous amount of data. Back in 2000 I bought a computer with a "massive" 10Gb hard drive that managed to serve all of my IT and gaming needs for several years.

EDIT: Make that 25 Mbyte per second. Seems I got the math wrong the first time.


Saturday, March 05, 2016

Windows Laptop Frustration

It takes so long to boot my Windows laptop that it just isn't worth it any more. I am not talking about the minute or two delay caused by booting from a normal HDD. I am talking about the 10 to 15 minute delay due to Windows updates that seems to be required every time I want to use the laptop.

I guess this wouldn't be as much of an issue if used the laptop every day but I don't. I use it perhaps one every two to three weeks in order to give a talk or presentation when I am out of the office. I can assure you from first hand experience that three works worth of accumulated updates makes booting into Windows a slow nightmare. I do have a nice Samsung tablet that I use for normal mobile computing (meetings / email / web browsing) and I even have a HDMI adapter for that tablet but if I am going to an unfamiliar location with untested facilities it is still far safer to bring a windows laptop with old fashioned VGA connector to ensure everything works out.

Solutions:
1. Buy a Mac. Sorry but that is way outside the budget and remember I only need to use this machine occasionally.
2. Install updates in advance. I try to  to do this but it doesn't always work out. Last week for example I did exactly this and the laptop did indeed download a bunch of updates. Unfortunately when I next booted up the machine to give a presentation I got the "!Windows is installing updates screen" for 10 minutes before I could use the machine.
3.Install Linux. A stable version of Linux that doesn't need constant updates might solve my problem. I have Linux  few times over the years and on each occasion I start out excited but end up frustrated due to compatibility issues.
4. Disable all windows updates: Tempting to try this but surely a major security risk. Is it even possible to do this on modern Windows? Internet connectivity is not optional unfortunately so an un updated machine will be at risk.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Switching from Cable TV to Satellite

A recent price increase from our long time cable TV provided prompted me to bite the bullet and switch to satellite. It isn't a whole lot cheaper but the satellite service offers more channels and some better channels hat were not available from our old provider.

Almost every channel we regularly watch is actually a free to air channels. This means that anyone with the appropriate equipment  can receive these for free along with hundreds of other channels without any recurring subscription. A disadvantage of living in Ireland is that we would need both antenna and satellite dish to receive all the relevant channels but a once off investment of perhaps €500 would ensure we could watch hundreds of channels for free without paying a subscription.

Why on earth did I opt to pay €20 every  month (rising to €30 in a years time ) for a curated satellite service?

Because we don't watch TV the way we used to. Instead of sitting down to watch scheduled programmes at the same time every week we record them to view at our leisure. We use series link to record entire series. We use streaming services to download films and box sets. We use catchup services to watch programmes we missed. Even if we just want to sit in front of a telly and vegetate we still hit the electronic programme guide to find a channel and programme that tickles our interest.

The electronic programme guide, the ability to record whole series, the ability to pause live TV, the ability to record programmes in the background while you watch others, the ability to watch catchup programmes and box sets and movies on demand. These are not just nice things to have they are essential requirements of the modern television experience.

The cheapest subscription free systems don't have any of these services. The more expensive ones include hard disks and offer some of these features but everything I have read suggests that they are a long way behind the paid services in terms of usability and convenience.

This is why I pay a monthly subscription. There is no point getting hundreds of channels for free if we cant watch them the way we want. The fact that the paid service comes with a few extra premium channels is just a bonus.

Edit: I should mention that I did investigate the option of IP TV but the range of services available in Ireland is extremely limited and they are all tied to internet service providers.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Coop versus Solo: The same game but different.

I am currently multi-tasking between two seperate games of Divinity Original Sin, one solo and one co-op with my daughter. It is exactly the same game played on exactly the same computer and yet it feels like two completely different experiences. (Side note: Divinity allows split screen local co-op on one PC (couch co-op) as long as you have two game controllers. It would be nice if one player could use keyboard and mouse but it is still pretty sweet).

My solo game is slow and thoughful. I regularly spend half an hour in the inventory screen sorting gear and comparing stats. During combat I ponder skills and tactics carefully before making a move and sometimes I go back and re fight battles I have already won just to see how a different strategy might work.

In the co-op game momentum is everything. You can't spend long browsing your inventory if your partner is barelling along to the next encounter. Each new area is looted at twice the speed and snap decisons are made about the best home for equipment: "Want some poison arrows?", "Is +24 armour any good to you?"

At least the turn based nature of combat gives us a chance to discuss tactics and act in a co-ordinated fashion. After all we are sitting right beside one another so communication is not a problem. Nevertheless decisions are made and acted upon far more quickly than when I play solo and fewer alternatives are discussed or tried. We never go back and replay an encounter just to see "What would happen if ... ?"

My personal campaign has advanced far beyond the co-op game so my familiarity with the game does speed things up a bit: "Talk to this guy. He has a quest". Nevertheless  we have chosen different skill sets and we are using a different control scheme (controllers instead of mouse and keyboard) so there is still a lot of new stuff to figure out as we play.

I would hesistate to say which playstyle is better. The social dimension of the co-op game is special but I defintely get more engrossed when I play on my own. One game, one computer. Two completely different gaming experiences.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Lichdom Battlemage

Somewhat surprisingly the game I spent most time playing over Christmas was Lichdom: Battlemage. The game is an intense first person zapper with lovely graphics and an incredibly comprehensive magical system. I enjoyed it enough to complete the full campaign but there are a few things worth knowing if you ar ethinking of playing it yourself.

First off the good bits: It's a first person game with fireballs instead of bullets. What is not to like? Better yet you are a kick ass battle mage who never runs out of mana meaning you can rain down destruction to your hearts content. You fight your way through a series of frenetic battles across an array of stunning maps. The graphics in the game are really lovely both in design and implementation. Once you figure out how magic works you have a huge range of options for winning battles and eventually you will develop y our own blend of destruction and control for dealing with all of the enemies the game throws at you.

Before you dive into the game however you do need to know some things things: First off the  magic system is very badly explained in the game and there is a limited amount of information available on-line so it takes quite a while to figure out how things work. This is particularly problematic because the game has a very complex crafting system and you need to keep upgrading your spells to deal with the ever tougher waves of enemies the game throws at you. This is very hard to do until you figure out how everything works. .To be honest I found crafting to be quite tedious and I would prefer a much simpler system even if it reduced the variety of spells available. I mustn't be alone in this feeling because the devs released an optional  "smart crafting" system in a later patch which recommends upgrades. I used this a lot to overcome the tedium of crafting but it isn't a panacea because its recommendations are not always the best. A given spell might have five or six properties and I regularly noticed the smart system recommending upgrades which would enhance less important properties while diminishing the property I was most interested in. In short this game badly needs a comprehensive wiki because even if you use the smart crafting system you still need to understand how things work.

Another thing to be aware of is that the game is quite long and becomes repetitive. It took me 54 hours to complete the game according to Steam and I would have preferred if it took me half that long. The main campaign is long enough but the need to scavenge for loot in order to fuel crafting drags things out even further. A teleport system even allows you to revisit previously completed parts of the game for farming purposes but thankfully I never really had to resort to that.

There is a new game plus mode that unlocks when you overcome the final boss but it seems to be very much more of the same so I am happy to put the game to bed at this stage.

As I mentioned above web resources are quite limited for the game even though they are sadly needed.  I did find some useful nugges spread between the following sites:

A very imcomplete wiki: http://lichdombattlemage.gamepedia.com/Lichdom_Battlemage_Wiki
The Steam forums: https://steamcommunity.com/app/261760/discussions/
Xaviants official Lichdom forums: https://boards.xaviant.com/

My preferred spell combinations:
I experimented with all of the spells as I worked my way through the game and I think there are many viable combinations but towards the latter half of the game I settled on the following combination that worked well for me:

Destruction attuned fire for maximum damage. I used fire lob as my main damage spell because the splash damage is very useful.

Mastery attuned Kinesis: This roots enemies to the ground and also applies lots of the mastery debuff which amplifies damage. This is essential for taking down tough mobs. I used a combination of lob and AOE pool to apply the debuff.

Destruction attuned Necromancy: Necromancy raises an army of undead from the corpses of your slain foes. Destruction attunement makes your army focus on damage which creates more corpses and an even bigger army in a chain reaction. I didn't get necromancy until late in the game but once I started using it it made things much easier. It even makes boss fights easy because all of the bosses spawn minions who become fuel for your undead horde.

My spell combination is a little bit unusual because I didn't have any use any control attuned spells to to disable enemies. The rooting property of kinesis gave me some crowd control and since my undead minions were doing most of the killing I could focus on running around and staying alive.

I stuck with a strategic shield in the end because it gave me the best combination of toughness and avoidance. It does restrict the use of Nova spells I rarely used or needed these.