Monday, December 15, 2014

In which I make a killing (not!) selling Steam trading cards.

I don't really understand Steam trading cards. I know they appear in my Steam inventory when I play games and I am vaguely aware that they come in sets which can be collected to make something else (badges apparently). I have never made a badge and I never even been fortunate enough to acquire a complete set. In fact I don't think that is even without actively buying cards. I would happily ignore the whole business except for the fact that they are trade-able. Trading cards can be bought and sold on the Steam community market for real money (well actually Steam credit but given that I have an ongoing healthy expenditure on games it amounts to the same thing).

Every time you examine a trading card in your inventory it tells you how much similar cards are selling for on the Steam market. This causes me angst. There is a market out there with buyers and sellers. There is money to be made and money to be lost.  I image that Gevlon Goblin, if he ever discovers the Steam market will quickly figure out a way to acquire every game on Steam for free through repeatedly playing the first level of Portal over and over all the while berating morons and slackers like me  who can't figure out how to win the market. 

The trouble is most of the cards you get are worth only a few cents and Valve takes a cut of any sale reducing the proceeds even further. It hardly seems worth the effort of placing such cards on the market. I have in the past sold a few rarer items that sold for 50c or more but these are rare drops and my inventory was stuffed with cheap cards. 

This week Valve introduced a new auction mini-game that involves converting unwanted cards into gems that can be used to bid for games. However little I understand trading cards I understand gem auctions even less. People seem to be bidding crazy amounts for run of the mill games and there has already been a duping scandal. Regardless the demand for gems seems to have injected a bit of life into the trading card market and I noticed a slight upward trend in prices and as being a little bit bored the evening before last I decided that this would be a good time to sell everything. 

I listed around all my trading cards at what I judged to be the going market rate and they have been selling actively since.  I have sold about 70 cards so far netting a grand total of €4.51 and if the 45 remaining items sell I could end up with more than €6 worth of Steam credit for the half an hour of effort it took to list them all. Ignoring the fact that I had to buy and play the games originally that is slightly better than minimum wage for the time spent listing cards.  

I strongly suspect that Steam Trading tycoons would laugh at my clumsy sell off. No doubt there are ways to cleverly double and triple profits by crafting this and trading that. Regardless it feels somewhat refreshing to have a clean Steam inventory. I am also going to try and use the few euro in credit somewhat creatively. I will buy something in the Christmas sale that I would not normally buy. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Shadow of Mordor - Like a Chinese take-away

They say you feel hungy again an hour after finishing a Chinese take away and that is sort of how I feel about Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor. I really enjoyed the game but now that I have just finished it I am not sure if it will leave any lasting memories. The game play, the setting and the whole presentation are absolutely terrific but overall it is a collection of fun gaming activities rather than a massive integrated work. The story itself (of the game not of Lord of the Rings) is fairly forgettable which doesn't help but I actually think the enormous freedom the game give you also contributes to this lack of overall purpose.

Come to think of it I felt very similarly about finishing Far Cry 3. Perhaps this is a feature of what are being described as Ubisoft style open world games.

Another gripe is that the game forgoes a final epic boss fight in lieu of a sequence of quick time events (press X to not die sort of thing). This is a let down in my opinion and is somewhat surprising given that an earlier boss battle half way through the game actually required you to battle the boss.  

The next game in my "to be played list" was Assassins Creed Unity. I am really looking forward to the game because it looks so beautiful but given that it is the very definition of an Ubisoft open world game I am beginning to wonder if I should try something a bit more substantial first. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

PC Update: Final piece of the puzzle

Over-clocking the Ageing CPU was the final stage required to bring my ageing gaming rig up to 2015 specification.

Original post here:

Earlier trials had proven my i5-760 had plenty of over-clocking headroom while maintaining stability but that the stock Intel heat-sink was unable to dissipate the additional heat generated. A Zalman CPS10X  heatsink addressed that problem for a modest €26 additional investment.

Zero points for neat cabling but at least the airways are clear. 

I had taken  measurements well and fitting the large heatsink posed no real problems although it took a while because I had to remove the motherboard to fit a rear retaining plate. The i5-760 has a factory locked multiplier so over-clocking is a trade-off that requires adjustments to cpu, ram and IMC voltages and timings. I used the utilities that came with my ASUS motherboard to get a ballpark position before manually tweaking. In the end I settled for a rock solid 25% over-clock that keeps the peak CPU temperature below 79°C under severe torture testing and to the mid 60's during actual heavy gaming. My i5 now runs at a nominal 3.6GHz but this isn't directly comparable to a modern 3.6GHz processor because of the older architecture. Nevertheless it should serve me well enough for the next year's gaming. 3D Mark Fire-strike score for the final rig is 8,717 which is less than 5% below their modern "High End Gaming PC" benchmark. The rig runs Assassin's Creed Unity smoothly as butter in high quality mode with Vsync at 60 frames per second. I got the game free with my GTX 970 graphics card and it looks absolutely gorgeous. It is probably the most beautiful game I have ever seen.

An interesting side story: Modern CPUs vary their internal clock rate and disable cores depending on temperature and load. In order to test over-clocking it is normal  to disable these energy saving features while doing stability and thermal testing. Once I determined that my CPU ran stably  within acceptable temperature limits at 3.6GHz.  I went back into the bios to re-enable these  features in order to avail of the energy saving benefits. On rebooting I was quite surprised to see that the processor was now running at 4.1 GHz rather than 3.6GHz??? It seems that my efforts had also enabled turbo mode which over-clocks the processor when less than half of the four cores are in use. I was worried that this would invalidate my careful stability tests but further torture testing didn't show up any glitches and I decided to leave it as is.

Here for reference is a full list of the before and after in my project to bring a five year old gaming PC up to 2015 standard with a budget of only €400.

Cost of Upgrade
2.9GHz /3.3GHz
I5-760 3.6GHz/4.1GHz
€26 for new Heatsink
4Gb  x 1333MHz
8Gb x 1666MHz
€25 for extra 4Gb
64Gb SSD Cache drive
€39 for SSD
€24 for Software
Graphics Card
Radeon HD 5850
Nvidia GTX 970
Total Cost of parts


Note 1: Total shipping costs came to another €18 for a total delivered cost of €442
Note 2: For an estimate of US equivalent prices just take the euro figures as US $. Our high sales tax pretty much cancels out the euro dollar exchange rate.

A little over my €400 budget but I should recoup the difference by selling my HD 5850 and the bulk of the investment will still be useful in a new build next year. The GTX 970 should be good for two years at least. I intend to keep using the SSD cache as long as I still use large spinning HDDs. Even the heatsink may be useful on a new motherboard. Only the ram is almost certain to be obsolete.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

PC Update 3: SSD Caching Software: PrimoCache or VeloSSD?

This is third in a series of updates about the steps I am taking to extend the life of my gaming PC. You can read the original post

My error in buying a 64Gb standard SSD rather than a dedicated cache drive means I have to look for separate caching software. Owners of newer Intel motherboards may be able to avail of Intel's Smart Response caching service but I have to look for a third party solution and the two leading contenders seem to be Romex Software's PrimoCache and EliteBytes VeloSSD.

There is only one desktop version of Primocache and the cheapest single computer personal license is $29.99. This doesn't appear to have restrictions in terms of number of disks or disk size and it supports two level caching (ram and SSD). The base version of Velossd does not support ram caching but they offer a new product MaxVeloSSD which offers two level caching and is directly comparable to Primocache.  Elite bytes offer a confusing range of licensing options as outlined on their rather amateurish looking website: with different limitations in terms of number of disks and size of cache. The closest direct competitor to Primocache is probably MaxVeloSSD professional which costs an identical $29.99 but you can get a personal edition of Velossd for only $9.99 that doesn't have a ram cache, can only cache one disk and is limited to 64Gb ssd cache. VeloSSD's free trial is a disappointing 7 days and the trial version is limited to caching only one disk. If the trial period is so short why on earth limit the functionality as well?

I downloaded and tried trial versions of Primocache and MaxVeloSSD. Both worked marvellously at speeding up my machine. After a couple of days of general use including web browsing, some office programmes and game playing hard disk access has become much less frequenct and disk thrashing is a thing of the past.

Performance wise I cannot tell them apart (other than the fact that the trial version of VeloSSD only caches my c: drive). Boot up times are within one second of each other (and about a third of the uncached bootup time). The machine takes longer to shut down with  Velossd though for some reason.

In terms of general presentation PrimoCache is the clear winner for me. Just look at the two websites for one example. PrimoCache's setup tool is also far more useful allowing you to vary many of the cache parameters. It can even be used to monitor the cache performance with details on reads, writes, cache storage and a handy graph of cache hit rate. The trial version of MaxVelossd offers no such tools  - it is pretty much press the button and go. I am fairly sure the paid version doesn't offer much more but I cannot tell because of their stupid decision to limit the features of the trial version.

Result: I strongly recommend an ssd cache for ssd like responsiveness from traditional HDDs. I will be buying a license for Primocache.

Aside: I need to decide how much of my ram and ssd to use for caching. I have seen people advocate very large caches of 100Gb or more but my experience of caching is that performance increases with cache size until it hits a point of diminishing returns. My 1Gb ram cache is constantly full but I have only 8Gb ram in total so I am reluctant to allot more than 1Gb to this. Over two days of general use including some large games (Shadow of Mordor and AC Unity) the ssd cache has not filled more than 12Gb  and I am consistently getting 80%+ cache hit rate. I have therefore decided to go with 1Gb ram and 32Gb ssd. I will use the remaining 32Gb partition on my ssd as a regular disk to store files that I frequently use.

Asassin's Creed Unity first impressions

Nvidia are giving away free  Ubisoft games with their GTX970/980 video cards and I chose Assassin's Creed Unity. Eighteenth century Paris was too tempting a prize to turn down. There is a lot of forum discontent about the game because the initial release was apparently badly optimised and buggy in places. The  minimum system specs are huge but Nvidia cards seem to fare better than AMD in this game so I reckoned that AC Unity was a good a way to test my recent upgrades.

I have only played for about an hour so far but I am delighted to say that the game is running very smoothly so far. I am playing in Very High quality, 1680x1050, 60fps with Vsync on. I am a little surprised at it running so well because my ageing cpu is below minimum spec. No evidence of glitches or stuttering yet. Fingers crossed.

I am even more delighted to say that the rendition of 18th century Paris is absolutely stunning.   The clothes, the architecture and the furniture are completely gorgeous and the city throngs with life.

It is too early for me to make much comment on the game-play but early comparisons with Shadow of Mordor suggests that the controls of Unity are not as intuitive nor as fluid as that game. For the moment I don't care though it all just looks so beautiful.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Extending the life of my gaming PC (Update)

Original post here:

The parts I have ordered to extend the life of my gaming PC are beginning to come in. First up was the additional 4Gb memory. Although I bought these second hand to keep costs down they turned out to have almost identical specifications and timings to the memory already in place. This could be useful for over-clocking of which more later.

The second part to arrive was my Inno3D GTX 970. I haven't had much opportunity to play with it yet but I am very impressed so far. Shadows of Mordor on my HD5850 benched at 42fps average with medium settings. The GTX970 is hitting over 120 fps with the same settings a 3x improvement. It manages 100+ fps with ease in very high settings. In practise I always enable Vsync for gaming so the practical implication of this is that I can play modern games at 60fps again having gotten used to settling for 30fps on the HD5850. This uses a non reference 2 fan cooling design which keeps the card cool and quiet but also allows it to be remarkably compact. Winner all round.

I got an email from Amazon to say that my SSD is on the way only to discover that I had somehow ordered the wrong part. I wanted a 32Gb cache drive instead I ordered a 64Gb standard SSD. 64Gb is too small to be useful as a stand alone drive so I was resigned to returning it and sucking up the additional transport fees but then I discovered that it is possible to get caching software that works with a generic SSD. Romex Primocache and Elitebytes Velossd seem to be the most likely contenders. Both are non free programmes but they offer trial versions so I will try both to see if either meets my needs.

Did I mention over-clocking? Well as a rule I strongly recommend against it.  The downsides in my experience almost always outweigh the upside. Unless you buy expensive high end components and cooling the small gains that are possible do not compensate for the reduced stability, higher power consumption, higher noise, reduced component life and all round extra hassle. However in this case I find myself with a machine that has a fast modern graphics card that is almost certainly going to be bottlenecked by an ageing processor: an ageing i5-760 processor that was widely noted for its over-clockability with increases of 40-50% over base speeds widely reported. I played around with my clock setting a bit and the CPU does indeed appear to have plenty of headroom.  A 10% over-clock is as far as I am willing to go with the stock Intel cooler but it appears that a rock stable 20% overclock is within easy reach if I can keep the processor cool. Back to Amazon for a Zalman CPNS10 Optima. This was well reviewed and is selling at a good price. It will probably remain useful for my new Windows 10 build next year. A 20% over-clock will raise my I5 from its normal 2.9GHz up to 3.5GHz which should allow it to deliver acceptable levels of 2015 gaming performance.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Over the last few weeks I have found myself getting  sucked in to Shadow of Mordor. I don't normally indulge in recently released AAA games but the combination of Tolkien and Arkham was enough to convince me this one time. 

The game ambience owes more perhaps to Petr Jackson than to Tolkien and it is unusually violent (albeit the spouting blood is all Orcish black). Nevertheless I am enjoying it greatly. 

I have seen this style of game called "Ubisoft like Open World"  similar to the recent Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games. You have a beautiful open world to explore with many optional side-quests and mini games in addition to a main quest line.  I have also seen criticism of the repetitiveness of it all. 

Shadow of Mordor does have many repetitive elements and yet it offers a large range of different game play opportunities. When you are first thrust into the world the  vast array of things to do is quite over-whelming. You gradually learn how it all works by simply playing. There is never only one thing to do next and the game is very happy to let you develop your skills at your own pace. It is true that once you master one aspect of the game you will find that it crops up over and over again and yet I find a certain satisfaction in that. To be honest I am enjoying the game more now than my first few hesitating days when any given enemy could kill me. Indeed several lowly grunts managed to feed of my repeated demises to grow into powerful adversaries. Now I find I have slipped into a groove and it gives me quite a bit of satisfaction to slaughter these uppity Captains who boast of killing me in the past. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Extending the life of my gaming PC

Update here:

Further update here:

Yet another update:

I realised it was time to upgrade my gaming PC when I read the minimum specifications for Far Cry 4:
  • Win7 64bit
  • Intel i5-750
  • 4Gb Ram
  • Radeon HD5850 1Gb 
I have a marginally faster i5-760 but otherwise this describes my PC perfectly. 

Very few games have such steep system requirements yet but I suspect that FarCry 4 and the even more demanding Assassin's Creed Unity may be the fore runners of a new wave of hardware hungry games. For the last few years system requirements have been held artificially low by the need to support last gen consoles and the 32 bit memory limit. Now Xbox one and PS 4 are firmly established and the 32 bit limit has been breached. So it is time to upgrade.

There is a problem however. Windows 10 is expected to be released in late 2015. Everything I hear about Win 10 suggests it will be a significant improvement over the current Win 8 particularly for gamers. I don't want to take the chance of building a new Windows 8 machine today and finding it obsolete when Win 10 comes out so I have decided to put off a full upgrade until then. 

In lieu of a full upgrade I have decided to see if I can extend the life of my current rig by spending a few euro on it. My budget is €400 which has a similar purchasing power to $400 in USA once sales taxes are taken into consideration.  

€400 is a non trivial amount of money so I would like some of it to be spent on things that will still be useful in a new PC later in the year. This brings me face to face with the first dilemma of the computer upgrader. Just as in other areas of commerce you tend to get what you pay for and high quality parts cost more but usually have a longer life than cheap ones. The rapid pace of progress in computer hardware however invariably means you will be able to get even better parts for less money in a few months time. Buying a cheap part to tide you over for a few months can be optimum strategy in such a deflationary environment.

Here are my thoughts about the various aspects of my gaming machine: 

CPU & Motherboard: These will have to stay as is. Any change to CPU would require a new mother board, new memory and probably a new Windows license. Luckily most modern games are far less CPU dependent that they are GPU dependent.  Tom's CPU hierarchy Puts my 760 in a fairly respectable third rung from the top suggesting that it isn't all that far behind. I am also pretty good at housekeeping and maintenance so I can often get better than average performance out of the kit I have. The i5-760 stays.

RAM: 4Gb ram doesn't really cut it any more. Assassins Creed Unity needs a minimum of 6Gb. However given my decision to stick with my existing motherboard that means that any new memory I buy today may well be incompatible or under specced  for a new rig built later this year. For this reason I have decided to go cheap on ram. I bought an extra 4Gb of PC3-10700 for just €25.

Disk Drives: I am still using old spinning drives and I long for the responsiveness of a modern SSD. I gave strong consideration to a 256GB SSD for around €100. Unfortunately I have almost 2 Tb of games stored on conventional hard disks so while such a small disk could be used for windows to make my machine feel a lot more responsive it was unlikely to do much for my gaming. The price of SSDs is falling and maybe I will be able to get a much bigger SSD drive later this year at a reasonable price. In the meantime I have opted for a €40 Sandisk Readycache. According to reviews this should give me much of the responsiveness of an SSD without having to reconfigure my existing drive structure. Better still it will cache all drives so it may even benefit may games stored on conventional disks. It is hard to say whether or not it will still be useful in a new machine built next year. I think that depends on how quickly the price of SSDs falls. If can can replace my conventional drives entirely then the cache becomes unnecessary but if I still need to use spinning drives for bulk storage then the cache will still be useful.

Graphics Card: I always intended that the bulk of my budget would go on a new graphics card because I know that will have the most impact on gaming performance. I have decided to go with an Nvidia GTX 970 based card which will set me back about €300. This is a modern high end GPU that should give excellent performance for some time to come. AMD Radeons like the R9 290 offer slightly better bang for buck performance but the Nvidia card has some important advantages. It is designed to be compatible with DirectX 12 which should help when Windows 10 comes out. Another major point is that the GTX970 is a smaller card with a lower (only 150W) power requirement which means I don't need to upgrade my PSU or case.

PSU and Case: I have a good Jeantech 500W PSU in an old but reliable Antech Sonata case. Unfortunately modern graphics card have become bigger and more power hungry so I was concerned that PSU and case would need to be upgraded. Happily the GTX 9xx family bucks that trend and will fit nicely in my existing rig,

Monitor: I have two monitors on my PC at present but the one I game on is a Samsung 226BW. This is a 22" screen with resolution of 1680x1050. It is tempting to consider an upgrade to a more modern  true HD display. However the DPI of my existing screen is almost identical to that of a 24" 1080P display so that upgrade wouldn't give a noticeable increase in quality and anything more is outside of my budget. The monitor stays.

Peripherals: I am an advocate of spending money on good peripherals to enhance one's gaming experience but I am very happy with my current setup: Logitech G19 keyboard, Logitech G300 mouse, 2x Xbox 360 controllers, Creative Gigaworks T20 speakers and supremely comfortable  Sennheiser HD 555 headphones. No need to replace any of those yet.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A personal video card history

My trusty Radeon HD5850 has served me well since 2011 but the time has come for an upgrade. I have long been a fan of Tom's Hardware recommendations and the Nvidia GTX970 which offers great performance  with low power consumption is tempting me at the moment..The  video card performance hierarchy chart at the back of Tom's guide sparked a bit of nostalgia so I have used the chart to plot the cards I have used over the years to power my gaming hobby.

Here is my personal video card history (all credit to Toms Hardware guide for providing such a useful chart): The image is large so be prepared to zoom in and pan around a bit. 

EDIT: Graphic now fixed. It was harder than I thought it would be to convert a large table in Word into a picture file. 

The dates are the years that I recall acquiring each card which is not always the year that model came out. Some allowance has to be made for hazy recollection but I think they are broadly accurate.

1999 TNT2 32MB: My first real graphics card. What a step up from software rendered heavily pixelated games of he mid 1990's to hyper-realistic smoothness of  Half Life and Home World. 

2000 Geforce 2 MX 64Mb: A budget card but still a good step up. This had hardware transform and lighting and the large memory gave it some longevity. 

2002 Geforce 4200 64Mb. A highly regarded card bought for my first self built PC. Sadly an incompatibility with my chosen motherboard meant I couldn't get it to work properly. I returned it for a refund and held on to my 2MX for another few months. 

2002 Radeon 9500 128Mb soft-modded to 9700. This is the stuff of gaming legend. Some particular variants of the budget 9500 card could be tweaked in software to double the number of pipelines effectively turning the card into a much more expensive 9700. It didn't work for everyone but it did for me. The resulting soft modded card was good enough to power my gaming for three years. 

2005 Radeon X800 XL 256Mb This was a lovely card which outperformed anything else in its price range but my Asus branded version proved very unreliable. It failed after six months and I got warranty replacement. The replacement failed again just out of warranty. Asus's customer support was less than impressive. 

2006 Nvidia 7300GT DDR3 128 Mb This was a cheap stop gap replacement for my broken X800XL. The 7300GT was a budget card but I managed to get a turbo charged DDR3 version which gave excellent performance for the price. 

2006 Nvidia 7600GT 256Mb A big brother of the 7300GT proved a more lasting replacement for the stopgap card. 

2008 Nvidia 7900GTX 512Mb. This was a $500 monster, the fastest card on the planet when it was released in 2006. I bought a second hard version a couple of years later and it was still able to keep up with contemporary  mid range cards.

2009 Radeon HD4850 According to Tom's chart this is the biggest performance leap I ever made, a full seven rungs up the performance ladder from my previous card. It was a very nice card but I don't remember getting the same wow factor that I got from my very first TNT2 or my 9500 to 9700 Softmod.

2011 Radeon HD5850. This model had been out for some time when I bought it for a ridiculously good price (€150 if I recall) in 2011. Even a year after initial release it was still competitive with more recent cards and actually outperformed its nominal successor, the more expensive HD6850. I still have this card and it has not let me down but now in late 2014 it is time to upgrade from this five year old design.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Games I have been Playing

Hostile Waters: A bout of Nostalgia cause me to drag out this overlooked classic from yesteryear.

Medal of Honour Warfighter: I will generally play any shooter good or bad but I am struggling to finish this one. The execution is competent if unoriginal but to be honest the game feels over the top racist to me.

Brutal Legend:  I played a couple of hours of this was was reasonably impressed but other games have since distracted me.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - An unexpected pleasure a short third person action adventure with a good story and fun gameplay. As a bonus the PC version comes with an extra adventure "Pigsy's Perfect 10" which has a completely different play style based more on stealth and guile than strength and athleticism. The only downside is that your sidekick for the main campaign is an annoying beyond belief at times and does everything possible to put themselves in dangerous situations which you are left to sort out. The fact that this sidekick is a cute girl while you the protagonist are a muscle bound man smacks sadly of sexism.

Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3: I have completed a full play though of Bioware's magnificent Opus (ME1 58 hours, ME2 51 hours, ME3 80 hours) . Yes I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 but that doesn't take from the fact that this trilogy stands at the very pinnacle of gaming achievement. The depth and variety of storytelling in particular is astounding while the game-play is fun too. In fact I thought the gameplay improved substantially from one game to the next. Advice: If you are going to play this game spend the money for the single player DLC campaigns. Yes they are bizarrely expensive compared to the main games and Bioware seems stubbornly resistant to ever discounting them but this is a series which deserves to be experienced in all its glory and the DLC stories add substantially to the overall campaign.

Dawn of War 2 single player campaign. I loved this. Instead of resource gathering , base building and and army recruitment you just get a small squad of space marines with which to compete each mission. It reminds me of the original Ground Control. This is one of my favourite types of game and I wish more games did this.

Aside: In between playing games I have been taking the University of Alberta's online course "Understanding Video Games" though Coursera:  This was not quite as intense as Prof Clayton's Lotro based course on Online Gaming New Media and Literature that I took last year but it is still a great learning opportunity for me. My background is in hard science and technology so I sometimes struggle with the concepts and analyses of art and literature but I love language, I love new ideas and  these courses definitely gives me a new perspective on the games I enjoy so much.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The ending of Mass Effect 3: Loss of Agency.

I am trying to figure out why I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 so much. (Spoilers abound).

I played the game several years after release and I had the benefit of the extended edition patch so I didn't feel the pressure to engage in forced multi-player or to buy unwanted dlc that so incensed early players. Merely by playing the game the way I wanted to I managed to amass a high enough score to unlock all endings. 

I can understand why the perception of forced dlc and forced multiplayer upset people when the game was initially released but these were not my concerns. My dislike is more fundamental and has to do with the ending itself. It made me think about the relationship between games and stories and about the conflict between narrative and agency.

Mass Effect is a monumental role playing game series that offers the player many choices about how they develop their character and how they interact with the game world. This gives the player a tremendous feeling of agency: the ability to control events within the game world.

Mass Effect is also a story: a galaxy spanning saga of epic conflict. That story must come to an end and the right of authorship allows the game designers to conclude the narrative in the way they see fit.

The first problem is that I really disliked all of the endings on offer to me. Each of them represented a deep betrayal of everything my character believed and had striven for. All of the agency, the power to make things happen, that I had built up during the game is rendered useless at the ultimate moment of the game when I was forced to choose between such deeply unpalatable alternatives.

This is not a new problem. Every narrative must come to an end and ending requires a loss of player agency. It would be a tedious world if every story had a shiny happy ending and games have explored ambiguous or unsettling outcomes before. Spec Ops: The Line is a notable example. BioShock is another. In Bioshock and Specs Ops your loss of agency and the unexpected outcomes are explained with  clever plot twists. In a strange sense the surprise of the plot twist lets the player down gently. Yes the game is finishing in a way you didn't expect and perhaps didn't want but at least you have gained a deeper understanding and now know why this outcome is necessary.  

There is no big reveal in Mass Effect. You don't actually learn anything new at the end. You do finally get to see your nemesis personified but apart from appearances it is the same nemesis you have been fighting since the beginning of the series. You cannot defeat or overcome this nemesis. Instead you are forced to accept one of a number of deeply unpalatable outcomes that the nemesis offers you. The nemesis tries to justify these choices according to its own logic but since you have been fighting against this nemesis and this very logic the entire game there is absolutely no reason why you should suddenly start believing in it now ... except that you have no real choice. In actual fact the nemesis has won the game and gets to decide on the possible outcomes. All you can do is decide which one is slightly less unpalatable.

Mass Effect 3 doesn't just rob players of their sense of agency at the end of the game it does it in a brutal and thorough way. The last half hour of the game sees your character, once a heroic saviour of the galaxy, reduced to a shambling cripple with very limited freedom of action. This is not an enjoyable part of the game to play through. You cannot skip or save the game at any point during this long shamble towards the conclusion. If you want to experience alternate endings you must play through this unpleasant section all over again. Finally you are presented with your unpalatable choices by the haughty avatar of your nemesis. You may not like them but they are all you get. All of your previous activities, all of the weeks you spent playing through the game making choices and building your character are rolled up into a single number which impacts on your choice and its consequences in a non intuitive and unsatisfactory way.

To add insult to injury when I was playing I couldn't find any signpost or hint as to which path to take for which ending. Red, white or blue: pick one. It makes no difference anyway you won't get an outcome you like. At that point I really felt that Bioware was rubbing my nose it it, making it brutally clear that the few weeks I spent playing their game was trumped by the man years they spent developing it. Authorship trumps agency. They get to decide the outcome.

In the end I was so frustrated that I just turned around and shot the little brat. If I had done more reading in advance I would have realised that this course of action gives the worst of all possible endings but that small act of rebellion was the only thing I could do that gave me some feeling of control.

EDIT: I have watched videos of the ending again and I now realise that if I paid more attention during the speech I would have noticed the colour code of the different decision paths, Better than nothing but still not very clear. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wizmouse for Windows: Scroll the window under the mouse cursor without changing focus.

I regularly have two documents open on my screen and I try to make notes in one while I read the other. Having  a big widescreen monitor helps. Twin monitors are even better but there is an annoying windows feature that slows things up. Only one window can be active at a time (has focus) and if you want to do anything to the other window you must activate it by clicking it. Typically this means clicking a window to scroll up the text then clicking the other window to start typing again. It doesn't sound like much but the constant switching of focus disrupts my work flow and inevitably I get it wrong occasionally and try to type in the wrong place.

WizMouse from Antibody software is a simple, fix for this with an unlimited free trial. When it is active then the mouse wheel controls the window under the pointer WITHOUT CHANGING FOCUS. In practise this allows you to keep typing away in the active window while using the mouse wheel to scroll through the other window. Brilliant.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Edward Castronova (Terra Nova) offers a brilliant but poignant summary of why mmorpgs are history.

For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin. 
Edward Castronova final post on Terra Nova, 25th September 2014

This succinct analysis strikes a poignant chord with me. Having grown up with 1980's Sci Fi I have always had a secret hankering for Gibsonesque virtual worlds that would allow humans to escape from the tethers of the physical world. For a brief moment in time it seemed that mmorpgs might be the first tentative steps towards making those virtual worlds a reality. Sure they were games but they were also so much more than games. They were entire social eco systems for millions of players. Some virtual worlds such as Second Life and possibly Eve offered a more complete simulation but all of these games taken together suggested that something important was really happening.

The failure of any subsequent title to emulate the success of World of Warcraft and the cancellation of the long promised successor to WoW are pointed to as indicators of the declining health of mmorpgs but I think Castronova's comment addresses the real issue. We no longer believe that these worlds are going to be anything more than just games. The naive hope that these games might be the first steps towards something that would completely transform humanities relationship with reality has proven unfounded.  The dream is over.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Spellforce - Sometimes Slow is OK

I have been re-playing a bit of Spellforce-Order of Dawn this last week. I find it curiously compelling even though I can't really recommend it to a modern audience. The rts/rpg hybrid gameplay was probably innovative back in 2003 but the game feels dated today. Moreover it plays very very slowly. A key feature of the game is that your character and accompanying army spend a lot of time just walking slowly around large maps to find enemies and other objectives. A curious design decision is that every time you load a game or use a fast travel portal the entire map covers with fog of war again. This means that unless you have a photographic memory the only way to search a map properly is to walk the whole map area in one long (an hour or more) session without quitting the game and without availing of any fast travel abilities.

The game is also rather easy (played on normal at any rate) and encourages a turtling strategy. It is very easy to defend your base from sporadic enemy attacks while you build up an unstoppable army and only then bring it out for the slow walk around the map steam-rolling any opposition you find along the way.

All of the above makes the game hard to recommend and I suspect many players would find this slow unchallenging gameplay rather frustrating. Yet I find it suits my mood at the moment. I doubt i will stick it out to the end of the campaign but it is keeping my occupied for a while at least.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A month of gaming - Those I have finished and those I have not.

In the last month I have played about twenty different games. Rather I should say I started to play about twenty different games. In some cases I stuck with the game to the end of the campaign. In others I gave up with no intention of going back but there is a third category of game which just  got sidelined when my attention wandered to something else. These games remain in my "to be played list".

Analysing the list it breaks down like this:
A. Games I am currently actively playing: 1
B. Games that I played to the end of the campaign I started: 6
C. Unfinished games on hold that I will probably get back to: 4
D. Unfinished games I am unlikely to go back to: 9

Categories A and B are not really problematic except to comment that I really like finishing games. Those games in category B where I have finished a campaign give me warm fuzzy feelings. Given that the large number of unfinished games in categories C and D might seem worrisome. Ten years ago I would have been horrified to think that I started nine games in a month just to give up on them. Today however with online sales and bundles there is a surfeit of games and a shortage of time. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I cannot play every game so it makes sense to try out a game and quickly move on once I have had enough of it.

The only really problematic category is C. These are games I really would like to get back to. Unfortunately there is a similar number of games from last month and again from the month before. This is my real backlog. If I am honest most of these games will never be finished, forever being pushed aside by something newer and shinier. They will remain on my "to do" list for a few months until they fade from memory. Some of them may come back to the fore in later years, perhaps with my starting a new campaign. I can remember specific instances of this but I haven't analysed it well enough to put a percentage on it.

For Reference here is a list of the games, each of which I have actually played within the last month, (The preceding letters are the categories from above put in to help me count):

C Splinter Cell, Blacklist: Enjoying it but got distracted. Want to get back to this.
D Dungeon Siege 2: Quick Look: Seems OK but I am not sure if I have time for this.
D Space Hack: Quick Look: Seems OK but I am not sure if I have time for this.
C The Witcher 2: Enjoying it but keep getting distracted. Want to finish it eventually.
D Magrunner Dark Pulse: I played a lot of this before eventually getting bored. Not sure if I will ever go back.
A  XCOM,  Enemy Within: Actively Playing. Will Probably finish the campaign
B  XCOM, The Bureau: Finished the main campaign.
B  Serious Sam 2: Finished the main campaign.
D Gears of War: Replay got about 75% of way through before getting stuck. Have finished before so don't feel any need to continue.
D Fez: Quick Look. Didn't really grab me.
C The Bridge: Quick Look. Seems OK. Want to explore further.
C Shadow Warrior: Quick Look. Want to explore further.
D GTR Evolution: Got it free and had a quick look. Probably won't play again.
D Saira: Got it free. Probably will not play again.
D Really Big Sky: Quick look. May keep on hand for instant gaming gratification but probably won't play again.
B Bioshock: Replay. Finished the main campaign again.
B Bioshock Infinite, Burial at Sea episode 1: Finished.
B Bioshock Infinite. Burial at Sea episode 2: Finished.
D Divine Divinity: Quick Look. Seems OK but I doubt I will ever get around to playing this.
B Bioshock 2, Minerva's Den: Finished

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Splinter Cell Blasklist: Would the real Sam Fisher use non lethal takedowns?

Splinter Cell Blacklist offers three distinct playstyles: Ghost mode where you focus on stealth and non lethal take-downs, Panther mode which combines stealth with lethal take-downs and Assault mode which is guns blazing shoot outs. Different weapons and perks cater to each style and you are more or less encouraged to focus on one style. 

Happily though you are not forced to stick to one style and I don't think that you miss out on any story elements by swapping between styles. This is important to me partly because I like variety but also because I tend to engage in a bit of subtle role playing in a game like this. I won't choose a course of action just to get the next achievement but instead I like to act in manner fitting with the protagonists mind set. When highly trained special agent Sam Fisher encounters a humble security guard just going about his job it makes sense that he would try to sneak past unobserved or at worst put the guard to sleep for a while. On the other hand when he encounters room full of ruthless killers who have just shot up his buddies there is no way he would let them wake up the next morning with nothing more than minor headaches. He is going to shoot as many real bullets into them as he can. 

I find that this almost subconscious role playing greatly enhances immersion and my enjoyment of the game. I remember doing it in Deus Ex HR where my character gradually morphed from non violence into furious vengeance as he became more and more aware of how nasty his opponents were. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Bureau, XCOM Declassified: Turkey or Hidden Gem?

Is "The Bureau" a bad game or has it just been judged to an impossibly high standard? Firaxis's 2012 reboot of the iconic series XCOM, Enemy Unknown met with universal praise so why did "2k Marin's 2013 tactical shooter set in the same universe receive such lukewarm reviews?

After reading some of those unflattering reviews I approached the game with hesitation. Now having played for a little over an hour I am confused.  I have only completed the long introductory chapter and one real mission but what I have seen so far is wonderful. This doesn't feel like a bad game. This feels like a superbly crafted great game. When does it start to fall apart? 

The atmosphere so far is terrific. There is a beautifully constructed 1950's vibe going on with hard smoking square jawed men and women in severe suits who working for a mysterious government agency which is the last chance to save the earth from alien invaders. Lots of sound effects and incidental details carry over from Firaxis's triumph so it all feels wonderfully XCOMmy. As an added bonus your character is a dead ringer for Boardwalk Empire's troubled prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). This is a world that feels both familiar and exciting. 

So if it isn't the setting that annoys people it must be the game play. How bad can it be? From the little I have seen so far the gameplay feels very similar to the Brothers in Arms games: tactical shooters with a combination of first person and squad based elements. As it happens I loved the Brothers in Arms games and so far I am equally loving The Bureau. 

Of course it may all fall apart later. Tactical shooters like this struggle to balance the first person elements with the squad tactics. Lacklustre AI can mean that it is often easier to ignore your squad and just fight it out yourself. I am very familiar with these difficulties from the Brothers in Arms games however and I have made my peace with them and when you do pull off a clever manoeuvre with your squad it feels very satisfying. 

I wonder though how much of the disappointment with this game stemmed from the fact that it is a departure from the turn based tactics formula that XCOM fans expect. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bioshock DLC Blitz: Minerva's Den and Burial at Sea

I recently played the Minerva's den DLC for Bioshock 2 and greatly enjoyed it which prompted me to get the Season pass for Bioshock Infinite which included Burial at Sea parts 1 and 2.

Minerva's Den is a very fun stand alone adventure set in the Bioshock 2 Universe. It is has a self contained story about a scientist who invented the computing machine which controls much of Rapture's infrastructure (the Thinker) but who was double crossed by his partner. The story is well developed and engaging and the gameplay is fun too. It is intended for people who have already played Bioshock 2 so the difficulty level is reasonably challenging but you get a few new weapons and plasmids to play with which gives it a bit of variety.

Burial at sea episode 1 is an add on for Bioshock Infinite which brings Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt from Columbia into the world of Rapture. I found the gameplay very challenging but a lot of the blame for this is down to my stubborn insistence on sticking with Hard level. However the high difficulty highlighted the game's frustrating lack of the ability to save anywhere and the checkpoint spacing is generally terrible. There is a storyline but it is quite forgettable and all in all I would rate this one of my least enjoyable Bioshock experiences. The only real function it serves is to establish the link between Rapture and Columbia.

Burial at Sea episode 2 is the follow on to episode 1 but is surprisingly a much better experience all round. You play as Elizabeth and the game introduces a new stealth based playstyle which is a fun new way to experience Rapture and later in the game Columbia. I enjoyed this a lot and actually found it easier in many ways than the normal kill everything approach, particularly later in the game after I got upgrades which allowed me free instant invisibilty. Episode 2 is also overflowing with story snippets although much of these don't make sense unless you have played through previous Bioshock games. This is definitely a wrapper up for the entire series which endeavours to tie up all loose ends.  There are plenty of opportunities to wander off the direct path and explore stuff often gaining insights into previous elements of Bioshock. The opening scene deserves a particular mention because for the first time ever it gives you the ability to wander through pre-cataclysm Rapture. It is really only a snippet and a tantalising one at that but it makes me sad that Irrational never set an entire game during this period.

Burial at sea ties up all the loose ends from the Bioshock storyline but sadly it also appears to have been a final swan song from developer Irrational games. How sad it is that such a group of talented game developers was wound up and dispersed earlier this year. Look at the following list of games taken from theWikipedia article on Irrational. Every single one of them is a triumph of gaming:
1999System Shock 2YesN/AYesN/A
2002Freedom ForceYesN/AYesN/A
2004Tribes: VengeanceNoN/AYesN/A
2005Freedom Force vs the 3rd ReichNoN/AYesN/A
2005SWAT 4YesN/AYesN/A
2013BioShock InfiniteYesYesYesYes
Source: Wikipedia,, accessed 31/07/2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Google Now comes into its own while on vacation.

I and my family have just returned from a multi week vacation around the USA during which Google Now proved invaluable time and time again:

1. It became an essential navigation tool whether travelling by car, by public transport or on foot. Its accurate prediction of bus and train times was particularly impressive and it generally offered a choice of routes.

2. It proved invaluable for its ability to locate nearby services:  "OK Google where is the nearest Post Office" etc.

3. It magically extracted details of flights, car hire and hotel reservations from my email and provided updates and useful reminders such as "You should leave at such and such a time to get to this flight".

4. It provided weather information about our current location as well as our home.

5. It provided up to date currency exchange rates

6. It provided us with tourist information about popular sites near our current location the clicking of which would provide further information including reviews and navigation details.

7. It also provided regular updates on topics that I was interested in such as the World Cup well as updates on some of the blogs I follow.

Without a doubt the most surprising thing about Google Now is that it does all this stuff without any specific instructions. It just seems to know what information is useful to you at any given time. This is either very impressive or very creepy I cannot quite decide which but I will admit the first few times Google popped up flight reminders it had read from my emails was spooky.

Before this holiday I had been using Google Now at home for several months but it never really became an essential part of my life. I don't really need directions to the places I go every day of the week and Now's helpful suggestions cannot compete with years of local knowledge. When travelling however all this stuff becomes invaluable.

I use Google Now on an Android device so I got the full experience but there is a pretty good app for the Iphone which gives you most of the benefits. It helps a lot if you also use gmail and google calendar.  The Iphone implementation is not as slick as a native app but I would be surprised if Apple isn't working on their own equivalent. Whether Apple has data processing cleverness to pull it remains to be seen.

One minor niggle is that you really need to use the local name for services in order to get the best search results. In America you need to search for a "drug store" instead of a "Chemist" for example. This type of thing crops up surprisingly often but we have watched enough Holywood movies to generally know the correct American phrase and we got a few chuckles out of it. I imagine this would be a bigger deal in a country that speaks a different language entirely so it would make sense for google to include some form of local translation option for search terms.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Android Tip 3: Sharing a Folder between multiple users of an Android device

Android has allowed multiple user logins for quite a while now. This is can be very useful for tablets which are shared by family members. Normally Android erects strict Chinese walls between users preventing them from using each others apps and viewing each others files. This is a useful security feature and ensures your kids don't mess up your work spreadsheets when screwing around on the tablet and should also prevent them from buying €1,000 worth of Clash of Candy coins on your account. Sometimes however you really do want to share stuff with other users and this can prove surprisingly difficult. For example on a recent holiday I realised that I wanted to share a folder full of travel documents with my wife. Here are some ways to achieve this.

1. If you have guaranteed internet access  then you can create a shared folder on either Dropbox or Google drive. Either of these has the great advantage of being able to access the files on any device and the great disadvantage of being useless without an internet connection. Neither Dropbox nor Google drive keep offline copies of files on Android. PS in my opinion Google Drive is better for folder sharing than Drop box. It is slightly more fiddly to set up but if gives you more control - you can set up read only sharing for example.

2. If you don't have internet access then things get a lot trickier. You could share a folder in Dropbox and use Folder Downloader for Dropbox to create separate offline copies. this does work but if both users are on the same tablet you are using twice the storage space and the two folders will not remain in sync if anyone makes changes.

3. The holy grail of file sharing is a common folder that both users can access. Android doesn't advertise such a feature but am XDA contributor called BigJArm found one called android/obb. This is a system folder that every user has read write access to. If you stick a folder in there everyone using the device can use it. Here are some quick instructions on how to set this up:

1. WARNING: This is an unsupported, undocumented use of Android so use at your own risk. I have not encountered any issues myself but I recommend making sure that any files you put in here are duplicated somewhere else just in case that directory gets deleted or otherwise rendered inaccessible in any updates to Android. According to this post an OBB is an obscure binary blob, an encrypted package of files that some apps use for storing data.

2. You will need a file manager to do any work on files so grab ES File Explorer from the Google Play Store.

3. Navigate to sdcard/Android/obb.

4. Ignore all the stuff in there and create a new folder using the "+" button at the bottom of the screen. Why not call it "Shared Folder"?

5. Copy or move any  files and folders you want into this new shared folder and every user on the device will have read write access to them.

6. I recommend that each user creates a desktop shortcut to this shared folder using ES File Explorer as explained in this tip: How to put a folder short-cut on your home screen

Note: I don't have a good method of sharing apps between users on the one device even though I know this could be useful. For free apps you may as well just download multiple copies from the store. I do not recommend adding your account to someone else's log in just to share paid apps. This will give that person full access to everything on your account including email, calendar and Google drive. If you are going to do that why bother using a separate log in? One approach that might work to share paid apps like games with family members would be to create a brand new Google account for the family and use it to purchase apps you want to share. You could then add this account login to each family member's login via the Android accounts menu under Settings (edit: but don't because you would be breaking the terms of Google Play - see below) . Android is nice that way,  it allows you to be logged into multiple Google accounts at the same time. Of course this could leave you open to your kids racking up bills on your credit card and it may be contrary to Google's terms of service. I haven't tried it myself so I do not know.

EDIT: I looked for a reference to account sharing in Google's terms of use and it is pretty clear cut in the Google Play terms and conditions:
Sharing. You may not use Products as part of any service for sharing, lending or multi-person use, or for the purpose of any other institution (including, without limitation, libraries), except as specifically permitted and only in the exact manner specified and enabled by Google (for example, through "Social Recommendations").

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips

Android Tip 2. Put a shortcut to a folder on your home screen

Apps are all very well but sometimes you just need a short-cut to a bunch of files in a folder. Android doesn't have any built in method of doing this so you need to rely on a third party app. The one most commonly recommended for this purpose these days seems to be ES File Explorer. This is a powerful file manager so chances are you will find lots of other uses for it but here are quick instructions on how to use ES file manager to create a short-cut to an Android folder on your home screen.

1. Grab ES File Explorer File Manager from the Google Play store.
2. Make sure you have place on your home screen for at least one standard size icon before you begin.
3. Run ES File Explorer and navigate to the folder you wish to create a short-cut to.
4. Long press the folder (it should highlight with a tick).
5. From the menu at the bottom of the screen select "More".
6. Press "Add to Desktop"   and you are done.
7. Go back to your home screen and the short-cut should be there. Pressing it will launch ES file explorer and display the contents of that folder.
8. Remember this is just a short-cut. You can safely move or delete the short-cut without affecting the files in the folder itself.

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips

Android Tip 1. Download a Dropbox folder for offline access

Dropbox and Google drive are great for storing stuff if you have an internet connection but both of them use cloud storage and only download a temporary versions of files when you access them. Sometimes it is useful to keep a permanent offline version particularly if you are going to be without an internet connection for a while. The app Folder Downloader for Dropbox does exactly what it says on the tin.It downloads an offline copy of any Dropbox folder.  The app  is straightforward to use and does not require any dodgy permissions.

1. Grab Folder Downloader for Dropbox from the Google Play Store
2. Make sure you have Dropbox installed on your Android device and that you are logged in.
3. Run folder downloader. Initially it will ask for permission to access Dropbox so say yes.
4. Now Folder Downloader should be showing you your Dropbox files. Navigate to the folder you want to download and click "Download all to".
5. The screen changes to your Android device folders. Navigate to the folder you want the downloaded folder to appear in. If you are not sure then why not stick them in "My Documents".
6. The download may take a while if there are a lot of files in the folder and some files make not download if the internet drops or if the phone sleeps during the download. Don't worry - Folder Downloader will tell you which files didn't download and give you the option to retry.
7. Remember the downloaded copy of the folder is not synced in any way to Dropbox. Any changes made on another computer will not appear in your offline download and any changes made to the downloaded files will not be uploaded to Dropbox. 

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Witcher 2: The trouble with Nekkers

I am having a love hate relationship with Witcher 2 at the moment. I love the detailed world, the gritty characters and rich storytelling in many of the quests. I hate ... well let me give you an example of what I hate.

Last night I started playing the game in the hope of knocking off a few of the side quests that had accumulated in my log. An hour and a half later when I switched off the game to go to bed I was only half way through a single trivial noticeboard task called "The Nekker Contract". Here is what that task entailed:

I got a quest from a noticeboard which explained that the woods near the town are infested with  Nekkers, aggressive goblin like creatures who attack in groups.  Geralt decides to put an end to this menace by finding and destroying the Nekker nests. The nests aren't marked on the map so I had to wander around the very confusing forest until I blundered across one. Witcher 2's useless rotating mini-map was no help at all. Once I found a nest I had to kill the horde of nekkers guarding it and then click on the nest to destroy it. Only that didn't work. The screen said "Press X on your game pad to destroy the nest" but pressing X did  nothing. The nest seemed to be made of twigs but various attempts at burning it did nothing.

So .. what I was  actually supposed to do was navigate to an obscure sub menu of a sub-menu where Geralt stores all the information he has learned about various creatures. Then, providing I had killed enough nekkers to get 3/3 knowledge about them I could read a line that says "grapeshot bombs are the best way to deal with nekker nests".   I am not joking about a sub menu of a sub menu - the exact process is press left trigger then select meditate then select the character menu then select attributes then scroll over to the knowledge tab and then scroll down to nekkers. None of this is explained in the game.

Now I knew that grapeshot bombs were needed to destroy the nests but I didn't have any and I didn't know how to make them. You might be lucky and it might be the first merchant you visit or you might be unlucky like I was and not find them until the very last merchant I tried.

Eventually, equipped with grapeshot bombs I went back to the nest, fought off the newly respawned nekkers again and clicked X again. This time I got an animation of Geralt dropping a bomb down the nest hole and "boom". It was destroyed.

Unfortunately I wasn't yet finished. That was only the first of four nests I have to destroy. I wandered around the confusing forest for a bit longer and finally got a second one but after that it was late and I needed to go to bed with only half the quest completed.

The Nekker Contract is a long tedious quest with ambiguous and arbitrarily obscure requirements. Thankfully it is the worst example I have seen in the Witcher 2 so far but some of the other quests have come close. I find myself compelled to compare my Witcher 2 experience so far with Dark Souls. I loved Dark Souls and it had plenty of long obscure and ambiguous tasks.  However there are differences. In Dark Souls these difficult tasks are absolutely central to the challenge of the game. Completing such a task in Dark Souls brings a major reward such as rare weapon or access to a new area of the game. The Nekker Contract in the Witcher is a completely optional side-quest whose only reward is a handful of experience points.

To be honest at this stage after playing the Witcher 2 for about twenty hours I feel like I have been the victim of a Bait and Switch exercise. I was immediately hooked by an opening sequence that is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Out hero is in chains and subject to interrogation, through his recollection we experience  rapid succession of dramatic events: a sexual encounter with a beautiful woman, a massive castle siege and subsequent assault, an encounter with a dragon. After that roller-coaster ride it is quite a comedown to get bogged down in a forest searching for vermin nests. Admittedly there have been some interesting side quests including a boss battle with an octopus creature and cleansing a restless spirit from a ruined asylum. Unfortunately these exciting scenes are gated behind a series of tedious errand quests. Overall the pace of the game feels slow and it is not helped by how much I have come to hate navigation in that confusing forest. Hopefully later areas of the game will be more open and easier to navigate.

EDIT: I finally completed the Nekker quest last night (after resorting to an online guide to help find those last two nests) and I did get a schematic for a pretty nice sword as a reward in addition to those experience points. I believe the sword schematic is only given if you complete both the Nekker Contract and its sister quest the Endrega Contract which I had done earlier.

EDIT 2: To be fair I should also point out that the sister quest "The Endrega Contract" was much better designed despite being apparently similar. In the first instance the Endrega Eggs that needed to be destroyed were closer together and easier to find than the Nekker Nests. In the second instance instead of having to figure out and then track down an obscure bomb to end the menace the Endrega Contract requires you to fight two spiderlike minibosses. These were very challenging fights but at least it was fighting and I felt a sense of achievement from finally overcoming them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What I have been playing

Alien Rage: Am old fashioned corridor shooter with up to date graphics and great meaty weapons. What is not to love? Well lots apparently because it got mediocre reviews but I really enjoyed it. There is nothing very original about the game but so what? It is great fun.

To the Moon: This is more of an interactive story than a game but it tells a good story and it tells it very well. Be warned it's a love story and a tear jerker at that.

The Witcher 2: Finally gotten around to installing this and starting it. Twenty hours played and still enjoying it but I am still in the first settlement. After a very action packed opening with a huge siege battle and and dragon the pace slowed down considerably. I did have one boss fight with a giant Octopus but I found it more annoying than epic.

Age of Wonders: An old classic that appears to be one of the inspirations for Kings Bounty. There is plenty of clever tactics required and the game-play quickly distracts you form the ancient graphics but from the few maps I have played it would be hard to recommend this to a modern player over King's Bounty.

The Incredible Adventures of VanHelsing: A Diablo/Torchlight like game featuring the famous Vampire Hunter. It looks great and the combat is fun but like all of this genre it gets very repetitive. Kill monsters collect loot level up an kill tougher monsters, repeat.

Wolfenstein: Not the new one but a replay of the 2009 video game. I liked this one but then again I like most shooters. It has a clever combination of magic and shooting that gives it a bit of variety over other WW2 games.

Gears of War: Replaying another old classic. This is a great game and if I recall it is largely responsible for the popularity of cover shooters. It is not without flaws however. They story is really bad, so bad in fact it feels like they just didn't care whether they player understands what is going on or not. The checkpoint save system is uneven and some of the boss fights are annoying.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Call of Duty makes me feel so special

Having enjoyed Black Ops 2 a few weeks back I am now sampling another Call of Duty title I missed first time around: Call of Duty World at War. The game is enjoyable so far and being a World War 2 game it feels closer to the series' roots than the Modern Warfare and Black Ops games.

My enjoyment of the game was initially hampered due to my foolishly selecting a high difficulty level. Missions became exercises in repetitive frustration as I died over and over at each choke point. Playing in such a frustrating fashion reveals several of the flaws that have existed in every Call of Duty game since the beginning: The games give you the illusion that you are fighting huge battles along with many of your colleagues but in reality the only person the enemy cares about is you. Every sharpshooter and machine gunner on the opposing side will aim directly at you  a split second after you pop your head up and there is little point trying to manoeuvre to a hidden spot because they instantly know where you are. This feeling of specialness is compounded by the behaviour of your squad mates who won't venture anywhere until you go first. On top of all that there are many choke points where enemies re-spawn endlessly until you and only you manage to cross  magic threshold.

Turning the difficulty back down to normal made the game a far more enjoyable experience for me. I still die occasionally but I am making more regular progress and the flaws mentioned above are not so obvious when you progress through the game at a normal pace.

Would it be possible to make an enjoyable first person shooter that didn't make the players specialness quite so obvious?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A tale of Three Shooters Jericho, Timeshift and Black Ops 2

I have been over dosing on first person shooting over the last few weeks with  single player runs through Jericho and Timeshift (both from 2007)  along with the more recent Call of Duty : Black Ops 2 (2012

I have written about  Jericho already, a second rate game to be sure but one that I enjoyed none the less. You can read more of my thoughts here:

Timeshift came out at almost exactly the same time as Jericho to somewhat better reviews. Timeshift does have better graphics and more varied gameplay that Jericho but it wasn't good enough to survive comparison with the ground-breaking Crysis which was released around the same time. 

Timeshift's main claim to fame is a suit which allows the player to slow, stop or even run time backwards for a short period. You can use these features anywhere in the game. In theory this would appear to open up all kinds of interesting game-play possibilities but in practise it pretty much boils down to "Arrghh I am surrounded by enemies - better slow time so I can shoot them one by one".  There are a few puzzles that need time shift powers but these are so contrived. and so well signposted that they are generally pointless. For example every gate in the game seems to have a spring loaded switch  requiring you to slow down time in order to get though the game before the switch toggles the gate closed again. 

The combat is enjoyable however. The inclusion of time shift powers allows the game to have a lot more and a lot deadlier enemies than other shooters. I suffered many deaths at their hands while I came to grips with my abilities. Thankfully the game has regular checkpoints and allows quicksave so it is always possible to continue making progress.

The game has a limited selection of weapons and you can only carry three at a time but most weapons have two fire modes which adds to variety. They fall into two broad groups. For the first half of the game you are limited to assault rifle, shotgun and pistol with occasional opportunities to pick up a sniper rifle.  About half way through the game a new set of weapons appears which make those traditional stalwarts redundant. For example the assault rifle which required the best part of a clip to down an armoured enemy is replaced by a repeating plasma rifle (think Halo) which can do the same with three or four rounds. The most overpowered weapon though is a crossbow which fires exploding bolts and has a sniper scope. It is a guaranteed one hit kill at any range. I found these new weapons made the game much easier and even though you start seeing special enemy types (including shielded enemies and time shifting enemies)  I never felt the difficulty balance was restored. 

The game has a story told in flashbacks which is pretty incomprehensible. As far as I can make out there is  a scientist who steals a timeshift suit (model Alpha) and goes back to an alternate reality to set himself up as a dystopian dictator. You go back with a Beta model suit to stop him. There is also a love interest. I think. Graphics and sound effects are pleasant enough but a lot of the levels feel very similar. Nevertheless an enjoyable romp if you can get it at a budget price.

The most recent shooter in my list was Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Although I was once a big fan of Call of Duty I stopped buying them after Modern Warfare 3 partly because I felt the single player campaigns were being neglected but mainly because the games are too damned expensive for me and almost never go on sale. However when Black Ops 2 came up in a Paypal sale for about a tenner I decided to have a look not expecting to much from the single player campaign. 

I will admit myself very pleasantly surprised. BLOPS2 is a very superior single player shooting experience. Of course the action, the graphics and sound effects are all top notch - the millions that went into developing the game are all on the screen. The game-play is fun and enjoyable. Most surprisingly for me it has a rich and complex story with multiple endings possible depending on your actions in game. In some ending s the "bad guys" even win and there enough moral depth in the game that you can understand their motives. 

I do have some criticisms:
- The opening chapters are fairly weak and confusing. 
- There is a bit too much straight jacketing of your actions and a good smattering of unskippable cut scenes. 
- The game has several of new type of mission called "Strike Force" which are mini RTS games BUT they only give you a limited number of attempts at each one. In this way a feature that should have been a triumph instead becomes a frustrating point of failure when you run out of attempts. 

BLOPS2  has whetted my appetite for other recent Call of Duty games (I have yet to sample World at War, BLOPS 1 or Ghosts) but they almost never come down enough in price to fit into my price range.

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