Friday, June 26, 2009

Doctor Who Was With Jackson, Believed to Be a Cardiologist

Thank you Fox-news for the best headline I have seen about the sad demise of Michael Jackson. How fitting that the timelord himself should sneak in disguised as a heart doc to whisk the boy who never grew up away in his Tardis time machine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why I amn't Playing Multiplayer (Company of Heroes)

1. I have mislaid my original game box and I don't think I can patch the game or add expansions without it. This is a pretty lame excuse, I know I could find it if I wanted to.

2. Patches: "Last year everybody spammed tiger tanks, patch 923.11 nerfed the tiger but water pistols are way overpowered now." I'm a slow learner, I want the rules to settle down so I can figure out what's going on. Chess has survived as a popular strategy game without any major rule chages for almost two centuries. Why do computer games need to change the rules every few months?

3. I am a little concerned about the level of maturity of the games player base after reading some fan forums.

4. I am a big wuss. I am afraid I will get my ass whooped.

5. I am a slooooow player. Recently I spend a leisurely four hours completing the "Hill 192 mission". The medal reward required it to be completed in 40 minutes. Chance are I would still be figuring out where's the best place to put some barbed wire when my opponent turns up on my doorstep with a full division of panzers.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Getting the medal: Company of Heroes St. Fromond

Each mission in Company of Heroes gives a unique medal for achieving certain bonus objectives. In the St. Fromond mission playing through in the obvious way pretty much guarantees you won't get the medal so here for what it is worth is the strategy I used last night to clear all objectives in the mission and get the medal. (My play through was on hard mode).

SPOILERS AHEAD naturally enough.

A brief description of the mission and objectives:
You start at the Southern end of the map and are tasked with repairing the only bridge leading to St. Fromond and then with taking the adjacent moderately defended town centre. Once you have captured the point in the town square you trigger the main objective of the mission which is to defend the town square for 30 minutes. You get a brief period to set up defences and then must hold off against wave upon wave of German attackers including tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy infantry. To add to your woes three Nebelwerfer batteries start bombarding the square with rockets triggering an optional secondary objective to take out these three batteries which are deep behind enemy lines. Shortly afterwards (while you are fighting for your life around the town square) it is revealed that a German headquarters in the far North of the map is co-ordinating these attacks and you are tasked with destroying the headquarters in order to win the medal.

The problem with playing through the obvious way:
If you follow the game directions (repair bridge, take town centre, defend town centre etc) you will find that the town has a myriad of entrances and you do not have time to prepare your defence properly before the assault begins. It will take everything you have got to defend the town centre in a deperate firefight. Forget about winning the medal because the headqaurters in the North is heavily fortified and would require most of your troops to attack it leaving the town square inadequately defended.

The approach which worked:
Using a cloaked sniper as spotter you are able to clear out the German bridge defences (including a couple of nasty flak guns) with mortar fire. Once these are gone you are free to capture the nearby munitions resource point and can then wait in complete safety (protected by the damaged bridge) while amassing an army.

Once you have sufficient strength (or you get bored) you can repair the bridge and begin the assault on the town. I recommend leaving a couple of machine gun nests and an antitank gun guarding your base against any stray German that try to wander in. Mining the approach road also a good idea.

There is no heavy armour defending the town so as long as you have a couple of tanks with supporting infantry taking the square is not really a problem. The most important step in the whole game is "DO NOT CAPTURE THE POINT IN THE TOWN CENTRE YET". Capturing this point will trigger the 30 minute timer and wave after wave of attackers. If you don't capture this point you can take time to establish defences only having to deal with a few sporadic infantry or light armoured vehicles.

Its a good idea to capture some resource points (especially munitions) around the town. You won't get the benefit of them yet because they won't be connected to your base until you capture the town centre but eventually you will need these resources. Don't allow any of your troops to stray too far North though as this will automatically trigger the next stage of the game.

Now use engineers to ring the town and bridge with tank traps except for an exit to the East from where we will launch our assault. The key is to prevent ANY German armour getting in to the Town square so that we can defend it with a light infantry force. The computer AI is very diligent at searching out gaps in defences so test it with your own vehicles to ensure there are no leaks.

Once the ring of tank traps is built you can then split your troops into an assault force who will take the German headquarters and a defending group who will remain to protect the square. I left only a machine gun squad, a sniper and an anti tank gun in the town square to repel any infantry who would try to retake the point.

My assault squad consisted of three Shermans, three squads of engineers, one squad of Airborne and an APC which allowed me to re-enforce infantry troops in the field.

Once I was ready I led my assault forces on a North East path towards the German Headquarters clearing any resistance they found. Once I got close enough to the headquarters the 30 minute timer triggered automatically and the town centre magically turned to my side.

Spearheaded by the Shermans the assault force headed into the German Headquarters and started levelling everything in sight. Defences included anti tank guns, flak guns panzers and numerous panzerschrek wielding infantry so a lot of micromanagement was required. I used the paratroopers to take out anti tank guns and engineers to repair the vehicles. I had to replace any lost engineers quickly from the APC. The engineers also helped level the buildings with demolition charges.

Back at the town centre my meagre defence force fought a heroic battle to prevent recapture. Once ownership of the point changed to my side I had quickly converted one of the buildings into a field base so I could re-enforce from it but it was eventually levelled (withthe loss of my sniper and machine gun squad). The lone anti-tank gun firing from a a corner actually survived and did a terrific job of deterring anyone who tried to recapture the point while I dropped in a couple paratrooper squads to bolster the defences.

The three Nebelwerfers are an optional objective but recommended it because their rockets really chew up your town defences. You don't really have any spare troops to take them out so you could use the calliopes rockets to hit them from a distance. I actually forgot about the calliopes and left it sitting in my base the whole game. Instead I used command points to purchase the aerial strafing ability. One well aimed strafe run takes out a nebelwerfer. It's a bit expensive in munitions though because an aerial reconnaissance run is required first to light up the territory before you can strafe.

Level the headquarters, wait out the 30 minute timer, Mission completed, medal earned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Company of Heroes: Vicariously Enjoying Multiplayer

I heartily recommend the Tales of Heroes videos on Gamefire TV. Each show is based on a replay of a multiplayer Compny of Heroes match complete with commentary. If you have never played the game the epic battles featured in these shows will surely whet your appetite. If you have played then you will be fasciniating to see how skilled players choose and use their forces.

The commentators are knowleagable but apt to use a bit too much jargon. If you have never played then here are a few terms that may help you decipher what they are talking about:

PE: Panzer Elite a playable german force focussing on speed and vehicles
Wer: The Wermacht, another more balanced German playable force.
Resource Point: Territorial points that must be captured in order to provide an ongoing stream of resources (manpower, fuel or munitions)
VP: Victory Point, capturing and holding more of these than your opponent will reduce their score down towards zero at which time you win the game.
Tank Killer: A lightly armoured fast vehicle that uses speed and a bbig gun to take out enemy tanks.
Calliope: A US sherman tank that can launch a devastating barrage of rockets.
Crocodile: Another variant of the Sherman, this time with flame throwerr attachment.
Faust: Panzerfaust, a powerful innfantry anti-tank weapon.
Full Retreat: A unit can be clicked into a retreat mode in whihc they wil run towards their base. It is much cheaper to re-enforce an existing squad than to build a new one so this is often used to prevent annihilation.
WSC: Weapons Support Centre a building which produces machine gunners, mortars and snipers.
1 Second Artie: A US ability that can lay down a devastating artillery barrage with very little warning.

Single Player gaming in a multiplayer World

Nope, I am not talking about MMORPGing. I am actually replaying the single player campaign of Company of Heroes. Despite enjoying it very much I am aware that the real value of CoH as in any RTS lies in competitive multi-player matches.

Single player RTS gaming is a fairly ponderous cerebral affair favouring a slow defensive strategy (turtling). In almost every case one's computer opponent starts out with the lion's share of territory and resources. A players best strategy is almost always to mount a strong defense from a small region around your base, holding off any attackers while slowly amassing resources. Don't attempt to break out and actively engage the computer opponent until you have managed to build up a substantial army.

An unfortunate consequence of this is that tipping point often occurs long before the end of the mission after which the player is clearly in a winning position but must still go through a long tedious process of mopping up enemies and ticking off mission objectives. Another consequence of this "turtling " strategy is that by the time a player goes on the offensive they have already advanced up the tech tree and only the most advanced units are used (in CoH's case this usually means tanks).

To be fair to CoH's single player campaign they do try to stir things up a bit by triggering new objectives as you progress through the mission, often spawning enemy re-enforcements to try and upset your careful advance. This forces you to pay attention once you go on the offensive but it only emphasises the need to turtle early on. The last thing you want is to spawn enemy re-enforcements while your own forces are still weak.

I doubt that any human opponent would be content to sit back and let you slowly amass resources and troops. Hard fought battles over resource points from the earliest stages of the game are a much more likely outcome in multiplayer.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is video game violence immoral.

In a cut-scene from Company of Heroes last night I watched a frenzied young machine gunner mow down dozens of retreating German soldiers. The scene was meant to be gritty rather than glorious and an officer halts the slaughter with the command to "stop wasting bullets". Nevertheless it caught my attention and made me think. Was it wrong for me to enjoy a game that portrays the infliction of suffering and death?

Almost every game I enjoy is based on violence. Company of Heroes is perhaps one of the starkest examples because it offers a photo-realistic portrayal of a conflict that still remains in living memory. Real people died in the battles of Carentin, boys and men with mothers and families who mourned them. Is there something immoral about my enjoyment of a simulated re-enactment of their conflict? Would it make a difference if the setting was fictional or if the victims of my simulated violence were not human?

I know that there has been yet another call to ban violent video games in Germany but I am not really qualified to talk about the issues it raises. I am not asking about possible links between video game violence and real life violence. I have no evidence of such links from my own personal gaming experience. Despite my love of violent gaming I am in truth a fairly gentle man in real life. No I am not asking about such links, instead I am asking at a more fundamental, moral level: Is it wrong to use simulated violence for entertainment?

The very fact I am writing this piece indicates that I do have some moral qualms about the issue but I am not going to stop any time soon. Indeed if I think about it it may well be that the simulated violence of gaming provides a safe outlet for my normal male aggression.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

STEAM now publishes Weekly Top 10

Steam's weekly top 10 sellers by revenue can now be seen at this link. Valve's own titles "Left 4 Dead" and "Team Fortress 2" are still selling strongly. It is perhaps more surprising that titles like "The Penumbra Collector pack" and "Freedom Force freedom pack" are in the top tell sellers by revenue despite having ticket prices of less than €6 each. Valve have already admitted to us that selling stuff cheaply works. Now we can see the truth of this for ourselves.

It is annoying to miss a special offer on a game you want to buy so it is nice to see that Valve have made it easier to keep up with their special offers by including a new "specials" tab on their main page. I wish they would make this into some kind of feed but I guess they still want folks to visit the website to checkout all the full price titles.

Do video games ever make you nauseous?

I splashed out on Steam's "bargain of the week": the Penumbra Collector pack giving you the complete set of this episodic horror adventure including "Overture", "Black Plague" and "Requiem" for only a fiver.

The general review consensus seems to be that the low budget series is a bit rough around the edges but does deliver genuine scariness. I planned on giving it a go with the lights off and headphones on for maximally terrifying immersion.

Sadly I cannot give you more than the barest of first impressions because I quickly found that the low quality graphics and dimly lit corridor setting combined to make me nauseous. Back in the days of Doom I actually forced my way through nausea to play but those days are gone and unless I can find a graphics setting that solves the nausea issue I will write off my €5 investment in this game.

Suggestions welcome.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lessons from an Examination Leak

It is examination season in Ireland and thousands of 18 year olds are taking the official state examinations (the Leaving Certificate) that will set them on the path towards college education or a career.

Yesterday there was an error made in one school which resulted in a small number of students seeing an examination paper the day before it was officially intended to be sat. Once the error was spotted it was decided to pull the compromised paper nation-wide and replace it with a backup which has resulted in a delay for every student taking this exam. There are checks and balances in place to prevent this type of thing happening but what ever went wrong it appears that human error in one small school has resulted in disruption for every student who is taking this exam. You can read more about the story here.

The story is currently getting its 15 minutes of fame on Irish media but two things strike me about the occurrence.

Firstly it is noticeable that within hours of the leak a storm of txt and internet messaging had spread key details of the leaked exam nationwide. I may come from the generation who created the modern information society but I am still amazed at what it can do. These kids have never known anything else.

My second observation that there is clearly something wrong with an education system whose critical output can be irrevocably compromised by a single short text message. Educationalists have long agreed that examinations are not ideal . The problem is we can't seem to settle on a better alternative.

MMeow is Giving Away Lotro for Free

The excellent Lotro blog MMeow has six codes for the US version of Lotro to give away free. These give you the full game (SoA and Moria) and 30 days free play. If you live in the USA and haven't tried Lotro yet that sounds like an unbeatable offer to me.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Some handy files to test your audio set-up

To test your surround sound speakers use a 5.1 surround test file from Lynnemusic available here.

To test the frequency response of your audio system use the free audio sweep generator available from David Taylor here. I reccommend listening to a 20Hz to 20kHz slow loop. I find it easy enough to pick out highs and lows in the response but if you want to hear the "ideal" version test your system with a good set of stereo headphones first. Just remember that your high frequency hearing starts dropping off very significantly after the age of 25.

I had to use both of these tools recently to set up a new set of 5.1 speakers that came with a wildly over enthusiastic subwoofer. Some carefully placed padding and duct tape calmed down the subwoofer and the sweep generator allowed me to check that I hadn't done too much damage to the overall frequency response.

Mixed Feelings about Valve's Left 4 Dead 2 Announcement.

Valve have announced a sequel to their 2008 Zombie survivial hit Left 4 Dead to be released later this year.

I am slightly confused by this. A hallmark of Valve's previous multi player games has been longevity. There has almost been an unwritten contract between company and players. The company provided games like Counterstrike and Team Fortress 2 that were superbly designed to withstand the test of time and backed them up with ongoing support and updates. Players for their part continued to buy these games years after launch knowing that they would still find an active community and a well supported game.

Bringing out an incompatible sequel only a year after the launch of L4D is a change of business model which surely signals the death knell for the original game. Why are Valve choosing to do this? Even in business terms it doesn't seem to make sense. Why kill off your own cash cow? Surely a few low budget updates could keep the original game alive and selling for quite some time.

It is true that the original L4D was a little short on content with a small number of maps and a limited number of multi player modes. Players did complain that they exhausted the options available fairly quickly but there was expectations that Valve would continue to add content to the original game.

Melf_Himself surmises that it was all a cunning plan with the original release being no more than a tester for the real Left 4 Dead which we will get later this year.

If Melf's surmise is true then L4D/2 will hopefully have the longevity factor built in that L4D/1 lacks. I wonder though why they chose to break continuity by not releasing it as a paid upgrade to L4D/1? I certainly hope it isn't the precursor to a never ending sequence of annual releases (L4D/3, 4, 5 .....) because I for one will give up following the game if that turns out to be the case.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Jade Empire Finished

Two weeks and 43 hours of gaming later and I have finally done in the big bad guy and righted the wrongs of the Jade Empire World. The picture is me and my buddy (I'm the pretty one :) ) tackling a bunch of stone demons in the penultimate fight, a battle that took me longer to overcome than the final boss himself.

Great game and the story telling doesn't let up until the very end. I even came to terms somewhat with the combat system in the latter half of the game. The difficulty of the encounters ramps up nicely and there are far fewer easy matches in the closing chapters. This in turn gives greater scope for exploring the variety of skills available. You need to abandon your rpg mindset though. You cannot really focus on any line of skills, all have their uses and you need to pick the best skills for the job you are doing regardless of your characters specialisation. The manic button mashing never really lets up and the movement and attack buttons continue to get hammered in every battle.

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...