Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two games finished in one day !

Today was somewhat unusual in that I finished campaigns in two separate games: Total Warhammer 2 Lizard men campaign and Vanquish single player campaign. Of course I had played the majority of bot games over the last few weeks and it is just coincidence that I managed to finish them on the same day.

The Lizard-man campaign (Kroq Gar to be exact) is perhaps my favourite Total War campaign of all those I have played. I just love the tough Lizard units and big stompy dinosaurs are awesome. The Vortex campaign is much more story line focused than previous Total War games which is an great direction for the series to go in. You race other factions to take control of the vortex through a series of rituals which spawn increasingly challenging waves of Chaos and Skaven armies. The race is a bit artificial because apparently even if one of the other factions beats you to the final ritual you get a second chance to stop them in a fairly easy final battle. I guess Creative Assembly had to include this  get out of jail card to frustrating players who spend dozens of hours on a campaign only to lose at the very last hurdle. I am happy to say I won the race fair and square although the Dark Elves of Naggaroth were only three turns behind and the High Elves of Lothern were right on their heels. Through out the race I made several attempts to slow my enemies down by sending intervention armies to stop their rituals but enone of the 10,000 gold intervention armies achieved anything before being wiped out. I can't help wondering if the intervention army mechanic is deliberately crippled to ensure the race stays tight.

I have a soft spot for scifi shooters and Vanquish fits the bill nicely. You play an augmented soldier with an array of weapons and some cool bullet time abilities tasked with stopping some evil Russians from blowing up NewYork with a big space ray gun. The movement and shooting are all fine but the game has horrible quick time events at key moments during boss fights.On several occasions I survived a challenging fire fight only to die instantly because I didn't mash button "E" fast enough. For this reason I got completely stuck on the final boss fight because of one QTE. Today I switched to game controller for that QTE and found I can mash "X" on game pad faster than I can mash "E" on keyboard. I finally completed the game but I still really hate QTEs.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Total War Dinosaurs

I have been playing a lot of Total War Warhammer 2 and I am really enjoying Kroq Gar's Lizardmen vortex campaign.

As seems to be the case with every Total War game it took me a few false starts to find a rhythm.  Initially I started a Skaven Campaign but made some early strategic mistakes. I expanded too rapidly leading to problems with money and food supply and I wasted even more money on intervention armies.  Bankrupt and running out of food I have put that campaign on hold. I still love Skaven game play:  swarming enemies with cheap disposable units while pelting them from afar with magic and powerful artillery is very satisfying as is the ability to spawn clan rats(menace from below) behind enemy lines. I was able to pull off several heroic victories against impossible odds using spawned spawned clan rats before food shortages made this tactic un-affordable. I will definitely come back to the Skaven but I may start a fresh campaign.

Second attempt was a High Elf campaign. This went more smoothly but I didn't warm to them. I guess the snooty Elves annoy me and I am not a big fan of their ranged play style. The High Elves actually have some excellent if expensive melee units but High Elf game play is summed up for me by the fact that even their most popular infantry unit (Lothern Seaguard) is good at archery as well as melee.  On the other hand I do like their special mechanic that allows them to influence diplomatic standings. You can use this to secure trade agreements and alliances on your own behalf but perhaps even more interestingly you can use this to interfere with the relationships between third parties. This is definitely something I want to explore further.

My High Elf campaign was put aside when the Mortal Empires expansion came out and I started a new campaign with Volkmar Grim of the Empire on the expanded map. I had no intention of playing him beyond the first dozen turns or so but I did want to experience the huge World of Mortal Empires (which combines the maps of TWW I and TWWW II).

Returning to the Vortex I started a new campaign with Kroq Gar and his Last Defenders (Lizardmen) and I am absolutely loving it. Saurus Warriors are fantastic melee infantry and they are complemented by massive dinosaurs smashing into enemy lines. Even the lowly Skinks can help out by harassing the enemy and adding to the general hurt. Lizards have strong magic options as well although I have yet to properly explore the Slan Mage capabilities.

Lizards do have ranged units but these have very short range and are designed more for harassment than for winning archery battles. I am not too sure about the point of Lizard Artillery units yet. These are big guns mounted on top of dinosaurs. In the first instance the guns have shorter range than competing artillery and in the second instance they are mounted on top of dinosaurs. You can generally do more damage charging the dino in to smash enemies around than standing off firing the gun. Lizards do have two nice aerial terradon units however one with javelins and one with bombs.  These can be sometimes be used take out enemy artillery and to otherwise compensate for the lizards general lack of range.

Lizardmen and dinosaurs  have a habit of losing self control and running amok but this has advantages as well as disadvantages. Careful micromanagement goes out the window if half your army is on the rampage but as long as they are in the middle of a bunch of enemies when it happens the it can be useful because rampage seems to hold off units from breaking.

Lizardmen's unique gameplay mechanic is called the Geomatic web which gives extra bonuses for fully owned provinces. It does give great bonuses at higher levels but I don't find it as interesting to play with  as the Skaven or High Elf special mechanics. Nevertheless Lizardmen and their massive dinosaurs are still a really fun faction to play.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Thoughts about cryto-currency mining, gsync and buying a new graphics card

I built a new gaming PC about six months ago (Ryzen 5 1600) but I had a nasty shock when I went looking for a new graphics card. Crypto-currency miners were buying up graphics cards by the dozen to perform the hard sums needed to unlock virtual currency pushing prices for graming graphics cards through the roof. The €300 price bracket that I consider to be my comfort zone seems to be particularly affected with the result that there were no cards available in my price range that would give a reasonable upgrade over my three year old GTX 970.

Aside: Bitcoin was the fore runner and still the most widely known crypto-currency but this year a new player called Etherium seems to be demanding all attention. A key feature of Etherium is that it is resistant to mass extraction using customised chips called "Asics" and therefore requires actual GPUs for mining. It is my understanding that AMD Radeon architecture is the favourite for this process leading to complete lack of availability and sky high prices for cards such as the Radeon RX 580. Nvidia cards are less popular with miners but the lack of competition in the market place has ensured that the price of Nvidia cards remains high even on the second hand market. My gut feeling is that crypto-currency is a bubble waiting to burst. I believe this despite knowing someone who has made hundreds of thousands on an early bit coin investment. It seems to me that the majority of miners are just selling to themselves and to speculative investors. I suspect that like most bubbles a few insiders will make fortunes but most will lose their shirts.

Anyway rather than spend €400 on a graphics card I decided to spend slightly less than €400 on a new monitor instead and bought a Dell 2417DG monitor. The 2417DG has three features that make it a significant upgrade from what I was using previously: it has QHD resolution of 2560x1440, it has high refresh rate of up to 165Hz and it has gsync synchronisation. Gsync is the killer feature for me and it means that the refresh rate of the monitor dynamically adjusts to the frame rate being produced by the GPU. It is an absolute game changer (apologies for the unintended pun). Synchronising monitor and GPU refresh rates leads to a very smooth visuals with no tearing effect. My ageing GTX 970 is quite under-powered for this  QHD monitor. In graphically intensive games such as Witcher 3 and Total War Warhammer my frame rates drop to below 40 fps. This would be quite unpleasant with an old fixed refresh rate monitor but on the gsync monitor it looks butter smooth.

Buying a gsync monitor really did allow me to extend the useful life of my old graphics card but there are a couple of disadvantages. The first is the nagging feeling that I am not getting the most out of my lovely 165Hz monitor when my current graphics card struggles to get frame rates above 60fps in any modern game. The second issue is that buying a gsync monitor has locked me into Nvidia graphics for the foreseeable future because AMD cards use the similar but different Freesync technology. This is not a major issue today given the ridiculous pricing of AMD GPUs but it may be a problem in the future.

My cunning plan, as you may have guessed, was to rely on gsync technology to extend the life of my old GTX 970 while waiting for the crypto currency madness to pass. It was a good plan except for the weakness of human nature. Six months passed and GPU prices remained sky high. There is only so much browsing of Amazon, Ebay and a human can endure. Last weekend I crumbled and bought a GTX 1080 for €460. This is more than I have ever paid for a graphics card and to be honest is a silly amount of money. The only justification I can give is that it should give me frame rates about twice what the old 970 could achieve and it didn't seem worth it to settle for anything less.

TLDR: I strongly recommend gsync (or presumably freesync) monitors and they can extend the useful life of an old graphics card by delivering smooth visuals even at low frame rates. They will only save you money however if you have strong willpower and can resist the impulse to buy a new graphics card as well.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

My experience with very cheap ink

In February 2016 I ordered a set of really cheap ink for our Canon Pixma printer: . That is just over €12 for four complete sets of ink. Contrast that with the official Canon price of €57.99 for a a single multi-pack of four colours:

I am fully aware of the razor and blade model  that inkjet printers use and I had often bought third party ink before but I had never gone so cheap. At some stage you do get what you pay for and that ebay ink is only 1/18th the price of official Canon ink so I bought it as something of an experiment. Well here we are 19 months later and that ink is finally running out. I would like to share some of the fears I had when buying such cheap ink and my eperiences with it. 

1. It won't work at all or have some annoying incompatibilty. Nope. Ink worked perfectly and is 100% compatible. Even has a little LED on each cartridge to show its status and it reports ink levels correctly to the printer softeware. 

2. Cheap ink like this will clog the jets and damage the printer. Given a brand new printer costs no more than a single refill of ink I was willing to risk this. Happily I can report that the printer has chugged along nicely on the cheap ink and doesn't seem to have suffered at all. To be fair we aren't heavy printers but with two adults and two school going kids there is probably something printed most days.

3. The print quality will suffer. If it has I haven't noticed but we aren't printing wedding photos. We are printing graphs for school projects and tickets for the cinema. We neither know nor care if the colours are a little off.  

4. The ink will fade. Again I cannot say if it does or not. The bar code I printed a couple of months ago has long been discarded. There are some craft things my daughters printed a few  months ago and they seem to have held their colour.

5. The cheap ink cartridges won't be properly filled. This hasn't been our experience. The twenty cartridge set has lasted us over 18 months (and only two colours have actually run out so far). It seems to me that the cartidge itself complete with circuit board and LED probably costs more than the ink inside it so there isn't much of an incentive for them to skimp on the ink. 

Overall conclusion: A very sucessful experiment. Am going to order the same set again.

Aside: I bought this printer just over two years ago and I remember that it cost about €60. That is pretty much identical to the price of a single refill of official ink. The thing is that the printer came with a free set of ink cartridges. I have seen suggestions that these initial cartridges are only half full but that has not been my experience. The awful truth is that if you insist on buying own brand printer cartidges you may as well just buy a whole new printer everytime you replace the ink. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Do you carry a pocket knife?

My father was a practical man. He grew up on a farm and enjoyed hunting and fishing. He apprenticed as a carpenter and built houses for a living.  As a crasftman he knew the importance of good steel but he wasn't a knife nerd. I remember him  carrying a succession of knives over the years both cheap and expensive. The one constant is that he always had a pocket knife and he used it for everything. The same blade that cut carpet tile in the morning was used to peel the apple my father ate that afternoon. He firmly believed that every boy and man should carry a pocket knife and  I still remember him bringing me to buy my first knife at age seven or eight. The salesman talked him out of it that day sadly and I didn't get a knife of my own for a few more years.  I still have his last  pocket knife before he died. It is an old and battered knock off of a swiss army knife. It is my most treasured momento of my father.

Given my father's habit it is hardly surprising that I myself carried a pocket knife through my teenage years and right through college. A boy's life is full of adventure and a boy's pockets are deep and full of things. Carrying a pocket knife made sense when it was the only tool I owned but even in the 1970s this was somewhat unusual. I was the only boy in my middle class surbuban secondary school  classroom who carried a knife although I did meet other tool carriers later in engineering college.

Then I grew up got and got a job in an office and somehow a pocket knife didn't seem essential any more. Adult pockets are filled with keys, wallets, jangling change and later phones. In the adult world we have dedicated tools which are better for any given job than a pocket knife. In the office we have real scissors, guillotines, box cutters and other dedicated tools. At home I have a kitchen full of chopping, peeling and paring implements, and a shed full of tools. No matter what the job there is almost always a proper tool at hand to do it.  Why carry a pocket knife?

I do still have several pocket knives. I keep a battered single blade folding knife in my tool kit and I keep a Leatherman in my car for emergencies. My favourite knife however is Victorinox Huntsman that I bought in Zurich airport about thirty years ago. It is about as large as I can comfortably carry in my pocket and it does have a number of useful tools including a long and short blade (I prefer the short), a scissors, an awl and a corkscrew. I don't carry it every day and I don't need to but I know where it is and it regularly gets called into service when we cannot find a corkscrew or a package arrives from Amazon that needs opening. Occasionally I put in in my pocket in memory of my father. I think I will carry it today.

Looking good for a thirty year old. The toothpick and scissors spring have been replaced while the corkscrew mini screwdriver was a later addition. 

Aside #1: This post was inspired by my stumbling down the rabbit whole of Youtube knife videos. Knives are a big deal for some people and humble Victorinox and Leatherman tools are only begnner models in a hobby that rises to $1000+ custom made pocket knives.

Politics  warning: There is some overlap between knife collecting and gun culture / survivalism  / militarism  particularly in the US so some knife channels may annoy more liberal viewers. Nick Shabazz on the other hand is a very non political non controversial Youtuber who has a great knife channel so go there if easily triggered. Wranglerstar is another channel I really like. It is more of a homesteading / general tool show although he does cover knives. Colby who hosts the channel is a gun loving Trump voting republican who occasionally voices his political views. However he comes across as a very decent down to earth nice guy. He hasn't managed to change my views on politics or on Trump in particular but he has certainly made me reconsider my opinion of Turmp voters.

Aside #2: I now know that the modern parlance for the sort of knife my father carried around is EDC (every day carry).

Aside #3: Irish law is occasionally a source of puzzlement to knife lovers. On one hand Irish knife law is very strict and bans every knife and all other sharp implements. Even screwdrivers have been cited as items that it could be illegal to carry. On the other hand it is an acceptable defense that you have a reason for carrying that knife for legitimate work or leisure purpose. This means there are no hard and fast rules about legal blade lengths or legal blade shapes. If you have a legitimate reason for carrying that knife in that location then it is legal but the onus of proof is on you. Who decides what is legitmate? In the first instance a garda officer (policeman) and then ultimately a judge.  The law is ambiguous however and in theory you could be arrested for bringing a swiss army knife into a public place if a garda thought you meant to cause trouble with it (although given the choice I would rather bring a scewdriver into a knife fight than a swiss army knife).  It probably isn't ideal to have such ambiguity in the law of a modern nation but in practise it seems to be applied reasonably.  You won't get into trouble for a multi tool or pocket knife but you will have a harder job explaining away a dagger or a machete unless you are actually using it to chop down trees.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The day I was witness to a very professional display of policing.

I was reading an article today about a rather shocking recent  incident where a policeman in Utah abused his powers to arrest a nurse who was doing her job. For some reason this reminded me of a situation I was in a few years ago where I was witness to a much more professionally handed policing incident. Time plays hell with memories so I thought to record what I still remember here for posterity.

It started on the top floor of a double decker bus. I was coming home from work and I sat near the middle as I usually do. This day there was a rather loud gentleman sitting several seats back from me who was clearly intoxicated on alcohol or something else. He was determined to engage in loud conversation with those around him as he expounded his opinions in rather colourful expletive laden language. This happens occasionally on public transport and while it is annoying you learn to ignore it or perhaps move seats. I did my best to ignore the loud gentleman although those sitting closer to him didn't have that luxury and a few of shuffled forwards, some even going downstairs.

There is this thing with some drunks where even when they are being outwardly friendly there is an ominous threat about them.  There is a sense of violence is waiting just below the surface and that if you don't respond in the right way it could explode. It was only when the bus pulled over to make an unexpected stop that I put together the pieces in my mind and I realised that this gentleman was one of those drunks. I put together the half heard snippets of conversation and the fact that some had obviously reported him to the bus driver.  I realised that the object he was loudly  displaying to the other passengers was a  knife and the semi joking rant he was making took on a much more sinister tone.

What to do? Those of us who were still on the top of the bus slowly realised what was going on. Should we continue to keep our heads down adopting ostrich armour or should we flee. The fact that the drunk had noticed and begun to comment on those who had already left made this decision harder.

We didn't have to wait for long because two police cars arrived and at least four Gardai (Irish policemen) boarded the downstairs of the bus. Happily the drunken gentleman didn't immediately  notice their arrival but those of us who had remained on the top of the bus did and were concerned about the likely reaction of this knife wielding gentleman should four uniformed Gardai storm upstairs to arrest him.

Four uniformed Gardai did not storm upstairs. Instead one casually clad Garda officer came up and started to engage the drunk in conversation. I cannot recall the details of what he said but I do remember that  he started to banter with him in language as expletive laden and colourful as the drunk's own. The policeman was non threatening and convivial. He talked the drunk down with tenderness and compassion. He even managed to convince him to hand over the knife and got the gentleman to come off the bus and into a waiting police car. There were no handcuffs involved and no obvious signs of arrest.

The whole incident was so low key it is hard to remember details of what was said and how exactly the policeman had managed this. Shortly thereafter the bus continued on its way. Thinking about it I realised I had just witnessed a master at work.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Halo Single Player Version 3 (SPV3) is a rather wonderful fan made re-imagination of the original Halo Combat evolved. The mod is free but does require a valid key code from an original game to install.

Sadly only the first two Halo shooters made it to the PC along with a more recent RTS game called Halo Wars but I still love the series. SPV3 replicates all of the missions of the original game and extends them with extra sections, extra enemies,  new weapons, new vehicles and new abilities. Did I mention the extra enemies? There are a lot of new enemies.  Happily they game supplies you with a lot of extra firepower to deal with these enhanced threats.

The mod is incredibly polished and feels like a professional game. If you are interested you can grab the latest version from this Reddit thread:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Spending money on DLC

I don't have a moral objection to DLC but as a general rule I don't buy it. I don't go for cosmetic enhancements and I already have  too many games and too little time to play them so mission packs don't make sense. Furthermore the modern trend is for DLC to retain its price even after the base game has been heavily discounted. "Game of the Year" bundles with all DLC included used to be a thing but that practise seems to be dying out. The net affect of all of these things is that I don't buy DLC ...

Except ....

Occasionally I enjoy a game so much that I just want more of it and in those rare cases I am happy to spend the money. Two cases in particular come to mind. Several years ago I did a marathon play through of  the Mass effect trilogy and I got so sucked in that I really wanted the additional story line DLC. I spent far more on DLC missions than I did on the games themselves but I didn't regret it at all. I even felt happy to give a bit more money to Bioware for making such a wonderful trilogy once I had gotten over the awful awful Bioware points system they force you to use to buy the stuff. More recently I have spend more on DLC for Total War: Warhammer than I spent on the base game and again I don't regret it. I really love this game and I am happy to spend a few more euros on it. I even bought the much criticised blood and gore effects add on just to have the complete package. To be fair to Creative Assembly they were quite generous with the base game and gave several free DLC updates including the magnificent Brettonia campaign. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Thoughts about "Inside" and "A Story About My Uncle"

"A Story About My Uncle" and "Inside" are both puzzle / platformer games set in weird quirky worlds that are beautifully imagined. Inside is a 2D game with a dark almost monochrome aesthetic while Uncle is 3D and wildly colourful. I recommend both but Inside was a more enjoyable experience for me overall. 

The thing about this type of game is that there is very delicate balance to be struck between offering the right level of challenge and frustrating the player to the point where they quit. This is made all the more difficult by the range of player abilities in both puzzle solving and precision jumping. However there are plenty things a developer can do to make things better or to make things worse. The position of checkpoints is huge. Never put a tricky challenge at the end of a long boring section. Good visual clues are also ideal so that the player always know what they are supposed to go even if it is not obvious how they are going to get there. Inside get s the balance very right in my opinion. I had to replay many sections more than once but I never felt really lost and I never felt like quitting in frustration. Several sections seemed impossible at first but there were always subtle clues to point the way and none of the jumps required nano-precision. If you can interact with an object in the game then you can be pretty sure you will need it to solve a puzzle which is very re-assuring. 

A story about my uncle on the other hand is a lot more frustrating. It is often not clear which way you need to go (including several sections in dark caves where you cannot actually see). The checkpoints are often cruel requiring the player to repeat long boring sections over and over just to  fail at the same difficult bit. The game is to be praised for having some wonderful movement abilities including a grapple and rocket boots but some of the jumping is just to hard for me requiring multiple attempts before I can get the timing right. I am currently in a section called the ice caves and even though I am pretty close to the end of the game I am thinking of abandoning it because a particular challenge with falling blocks I have to jump between has beaten me at least ten times. This is not the first such roadblock I have encountered and these hurdles do diminish the overall enjoyment of the game for me. If I try a challenge three or four times and then succeed I feel a sense of triumph and elation. On the other hand if I have to replay a section twenty times to overcome it then I feel jaded and weary particularly in some sections where it isn't even clear that I am on the right track.  The game is still worth playing just to experience the thrill of navigating a beautifully imagined world but don't expect to finish it unless you are very persistent and willing to put up with a good deal of frustration along the way. 

I have no such reservations about Inside. The difficult level is very well balanced and it is never cruel to its players. However if you do play the game be prepared for some very dark weirdness. It starts off with a little boy running for his life from nasty men with tranquilliser guns and it rapidly gets blacker and weirder from there. The final section in particular is downright bizarre and I have no idea at all what it is all about. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Total War Attila is being malicious

I am playing a "Franks" campaign in Total War Attila and having a bad time of it. I am currently at war with six other factions each of whom seems able to field multiple full armies while I struggle along with depleted units and a few mercenaries. The Thuringians are being particularly annoying at present and after overwhelming my tentative attempts at expansion they followed my armies home with two large armies intent on destruction. For some reason (perhaps related to difficulty setting) they just seem to be better than my armies. Their troops are more robust in battle than mine and they seem to replenish faster between battles. Particularly annoying is the fact that they seem to be able to travel further than I can in a move. They always seem to be able to catch my armies when the odds are in their favour while I am unable to catch them when the situation is reversed. Happily they finally made a mistake. Their main stack captured one of my settlements (a crushing defeat, rather not talk about it) and moved into the town leaving the smaller army exposed on its own. Even better news: the smaller force walked right into an ambush I had set. Even though my army was smaller the ambush allowed me to attack them in an unprepared state giving me an excellent opportunity to utterly destroy them. I knew this could be a turning point because once the smaller army was out of the way I could cobble together a force of mercenaries to besiege the settlement trapping the larger army.

The ambush battle went well. I squeezed their marching line between a wall of infantry and a barrage of missiles with some cavalry charges thorn in for good measure. I then chased down every last one of their routing soldiers including most importantly the general. Army annihilated and battle over I recruited some of the captives into my own army and was waiting for the loading screen when ... Errors Message: "Attila Total War has crashed". Arrghhh,

I reload a save from just before the battle, use the same strategy and cross my fingers when I get to the same loading screen: It crashes again.

I tried auto resolving the battle and it didn't crash but instead of a total annihilation I got a Pyrrhic victory leaving my opponent alive and my forces in a sorry state. More experiments revealed that I could also avoid the crash by playing the battle myself and not winning as convincingly. It seems like the game only crashes if I am doing well! Is the game just being spiteful?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Total Warhammer: Dwarves and their grudges

My biggest mistake with the dwarven campaign in Total War Warhammer was not really playing it until after I had already spend a lot of time with other factions (Empire, Bordelaux and Vampires). Having a good grasp of the basic game world and game mechanics from those other campaigns the only challenge remaining is dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of the dwarves themselves.

Dwarven strengths: 

Even low level dwarven warriors are very tough  and tend to win battles just by standing still and letting the enemy come to them.

Dwarves have easy access to some of the best ranged troops and artillery in the game.

The dwarven economy is very strong so it is easy for them to make lots of money.

The dwarven building tree is very streamlined that and allows a player relatively quick access to high quality units.

The dwarven starting position is easy to defend with nearby access to weak green skin armies and settlements for early game combat experience.

Dwarves have a huge technology tree that is chock full of good things. You can buff up your already tough warriors to a huge degree as well as getting massive buffs to your economy.

Dwarven weaknesses:

No cavalry.

No magic

They are slow.

They are very slow.

In the multiplayer game dwarves are considered one of the weaker factions hampered by their lack of mobility but sadly the AI doesn't seem to be able to exploit this so dwarves are a very easy faction to play. Easy doesn't mean fun unfortunately because their lack of mobility leaves you with very little choice of tactics. Dwarves play a slow defensive game using artillery to taunt enemies to dash themselves against the  impenetrable ranks of dwarven warriors while dwarven ranged troops rain death from a distance.  They win these battles very easily but it isn't a whole bunch of fun.

There are nice things about the dwarven campaign: The book of grudges is a lovely idea that is well executed. If anyone wrongs you (eg conquers a settlement or raids your lands) it goes into the book and gets added to the list of offenders you must punish. If the AI was better I could imagine dwarven attributes could lend themselves to some epic last stand defence battles but sadly it isn't and increasing the difficulty level just increases the number and stats of enemies not their intelligence.

Perhaps I am getting burned out of TW Warhammer. Certainly this campaign isn't keeping my interest. There are some interesting mods out there (Steel Faith Overhaul has caught my interest) but it may just be time for me to move on.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

For The Lady: Total Warhammer Bordelaux Campaign

Confession time: The Bordelaux campaign is the first full total war campaign that I have completed since Napoleon. I have explained before that Total War campaign games have a habit of bogging down into tedium so I usually give up before achieving the final campaign objectives. The fact that I persevered this time reinforces my belief that Warhammer is indeed the best Total War game to date.

The Bordelaux campaign is a free DLC campaign that was only released in February but it is both unusual and interesting so I can highly recommend it. Bordelaux like all Bretonnians are a knighly race who love their horses and put chivalry above everything. Indeed the main victory condition for the Bordelaux campaign is to amass sufficient chivalry. Chivalry governs how you must play a Bordelaux campaign. Several common actions such as raiding, ambushing and pillaging human settlements  actually cause you lose chivalry so they are best avoided. Victory on the battlefield gains chivalry while defeat loses it. Somewhat surprisingly an easy win overwhelming your enemies will grant lots of chivalry while a heroic last stand will lose chivalry unless you pull off the impossible and actually win. Another unusual feature of Bordelaux is that the economy is based on peasants in the fields. You can make money very quickly from farms but if you recruit too many peasants (pretty much any unit that isn't a knight) then your economy takes a hit. This limitation applies to all of your infantry and ranged troops and it is particularly onerous in the beginning of the game when you have very few settlements and cannot afford to recruit knights. 

The beginning of the Bordelaux campaign is quite tightly scripted. You start off at war with the Vampire armies of the Red Duke in Mousilon and almost immediately a triggered event causes public order to drop ensuring a stream of goblin incursions on your lands. These circumstances fill the first twenty turns or so with constant combat. This is a great opportunity to level up your lord and your starting forces but you need to be wary of the particular demands of chivalry and the peasant economy or else you could mess up badly during these early turns bankrupting your economy and losing rather than gaining chivalry. 

Once you survive these first twenty turns things settle down and you can look to your next real objective which is the unification of all the Brettonian provinces under your rule. However Chivalry raises it head again here. There are large chivalry penalties for warring on your Brettonian neighbours so confederation is the only game in town. In order to confederate you need to train a particular set of technologies called "Heraldries" and you need to impress your Brettonian neighbours with your own might and prowess. This is actually harder to do than it looks because you are surrounded by friendly provinces that you should not wage war on and I actually got stuck for a bit around this point (turn 40 or so). Happily there is a quest chain for your main lord which takes you to a nearby province called Estalia. The Estalians are a passive race who never caused any harm to anyone but they are not Brettonian and that makes them fair game for conquest. The conquest of Estalia and their similarly unaligned neighbour Talia gave a significant boost to my ranking and prestige and pretty soon my Bretonian neighbours were queuing up to confederate with me. 

Playing as Bordelaux it is very easy to quickly get on best terms with all of the human faction in the game which results in constant invitations to ally. This is an area where, I think, you need to choose very carefully. Non aggression pacts, trade agreements and military access treaties are almost always a good thing. Defensive and especially military alliances no so much. Defensive and military alliances usually result in your being dragged into pointless wars with factions you would far rather be friendly with. I prefer to choose my own enemies thank you. In my campaign I maintained excellent relations with all human factions and with all dwarven factions while I waged war on goblins and orcs. I stayed away from Vampires and the forces of Chaos so they never troubled me. The Elves did seem predetermined to dislike me (something lore related I suspect because they kept making disparaging remarks about our beloved Lady)  however I played a careful diplomatic game to ensure they never got unhappy enough to actually leave their forests and declare war on me.

Good relations with so many factions led to healthy trading income and the combination of farming, some industry, lots of ports and healthy trade make sit easy to amass wealth as Bordelaux. By the end of the game (turn 120 for me) I had a gross income of 18,000 gold per turn which was more than enough to field four full stack armies. One word of warning: be careful mixing industry and farming in the same settlement because the top tier buildings in each interfere with each other.

What about the forces of chaos you may ask? Well Bordelaux starts on the southern edge of the map and Chaos comes down from the North. There are enough buffer regions in between to ensure that Chaos will not bother you unless you choose to go North to meet it. The final Erranty War quest in the Bordealux campaign gives you a choice of fighting Chaos forces in the far North or Greenskins in the South. Teleportation isn't an option and since I had spent the whole game in the southern section of the map it was an easy decision for me to pick the Green-skins. The fact that the Chaos battle is even an option however makes me wonder if some play the campaign differently and go North for their conquests rather than south as I did. 

One point worth mentioning is that Brettonnians forces can benefit from many buffs and blessings. Chivalry itself gives benefits as do many of the Lord traits and a few legendary buildings. These buffs go some way to making up for the fact that most Bordelaux's forces have low armour and low morale while their peasant based infantry forces are particularly underwhelming. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Thoughts about a $1000 USB Cable

I have enough background in electrical engineering to be able to say with certainty that there are several absolutely objective criteria that can be used to gauge the overall performance of an audio playback system. Criteria such as distortion and frequency response can be measured and compared with high precision. I can also say with certainty that the build quality of a USB cable in a purely digital signal path has no impact on these objective criteria once the cable meets the minimum standard to ensure that the digital signal is transmitted in the first place. Yet experts who have spent years enhancing their knowledge of audio systems are adamant that they can hear the difference when they use $1000 USB cables:

Frederic Brochet's famous 2001 study showed that expert wine tasters cannot even distinguish between red and white wine in a blind taste test. Yet we have a multi billion dollar industry based on perceived subtle variations in flavour between various wines. 

What is happening here. Are we humans just gullible idiots who fall for any old hype? I have in the past when felling in a less contemplative mood than today concluded as much and I have even revelled in the fact that those of us smart enough to see through the ruse can benefit from cross subsidisation by those who willingly pay extra for no tangible benefit.

Today however I am feeling contemplative and I am prepared to admit that there is more going on than meets the eye (or ear or tongue as the case may be). That RealClearScience article about Frederic Brochet hints at the bigger picture when it points out that there is a huge link between what we taste and smell and what we see. I think it is even broader than that. We humans are complex creatures and the overall experience that we think of as tasting a glass of wine is a combination of many tangible and intangible factors.The chemical composition of the liquid features of course but so does its visual appearance in the glass, so does the shape of the bottle it comes in and the label on that bottle. The shop you bought it in, the company you are sharing it with, even the voice in your head of the expert you heard on the radio recommending this vintage: all of these factors and many more contribute to the taste experience that is a glass of wine. 

I am pretty sure that Hi Fi audio appreciation has become a similar phenomenon. The perception of hearing is such an intangible and subjective thing that many tangible and intangible factors contribute to the overall audio appreciation experience. Faithful reproduction of the sound is one aspect of course but the intangibles also contribute strongly. For those who are into such things the the warm feeling they get from seeing the build quality of a $1000 USB cable actually does influence their perception of the sound. 

In case you are still inclined to dismiss these intangible issues as hype and bullshit consider another much older industry that has long understood the value of the intangible: perfume. The size and shape of the bottle and the package it comes in are all unashamedly part of the perfume experience. Do you imagine you would be thanked for delivering to your loved one a best value gallon can of their favourite Chanel scent? 

Aside: Several decade ago when I was a youth the basic technical issues of audio reproduction had not yet been solved for the mass market so it was easier to distinguish between Hi Fidelity and mass market audio on purely objective technical grounds. Mass market equipment had measurably bad distortion that even an untrained ear could detect and Mike Oldfield's tongue in check admonition on the album cover of Tubular Bells that "This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes" was not all that far from the truth. Over the intervening decades however the quality of mass market equipment has improved enormously and even relatively modest systems are now capable of un-distorted  audio reproduction over a wide bandwidth at reasonable volume levels. This is one reason I suspect why  intangibles have become a large part of what distinguishes high end from low end. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Total War Warhammer is probably the best Total War Ever

I have put over sixty hours into Warhmmer Total war at this stage and despite my earlier love/hate post  I haven't gotten bored yet. Here is a quick summary of reasons why I think this is probably the best Total War game ever:

1. Streamlining: Total War has been getting more streamlined for the last few iterations but Warhammer has brought a new ruthlessness to this process and has not been afraid to sacrifice once loved aspects of the game-play to deliver a slicker faster paced game. I miss the old epic city assaults for example but have to agree that the simplified versions in Warhammer speeds things up a lot.

2. Polish: Total War games have always looked and sounded great but they were often let down by niggles underneath the hood. Thankfully Warhammer seems to have overcome this and the game is very polished. Everything seems to work pretty much as it is supposed to and for the most part it works as you would expect it to.

3. A combination of streamlining and polish means that this is probably the most accessible Total War game ever for newcomers. Creative Assembly have produced some horribly bad tutorials in the past but in Warhammer the tutorial process has been streamlined and semalessly tied into the campaign. the ingame help files are still somewhat lacking (no search facility?) but active tooltips make up for a lot of that and for some reason the active tooltips give more detailed information than the help file.

4. Despite the streamlining and simplification this game still has great depth and variety to enthrall old timers. Moving to a fantasy setting has freed Creative Assembly from the shackles of history and brings new elements such as monsters and magic to the table. The various factions look and play completely differently and they have completely different objectives and motivations. This leads to a huge variety of strategic and tactical gameplay options. I started playing Empire a fairly traditional human race with a mix of units but even then I had to adjust tactics to deal with the monsters I was fighting. For variety I also started campaigns with the Dwarves, with the Greenskins and with Brettonia. Each has a completely different play style and objectives. Even playing a different human faction is completely different. The chivalric Bretonnians for example have a feudal society which treats peasants as disposable but they are shackled by the often bizarre constraints of their own chivalric code.This code frowns upon many standard Total War activities such as ambushig or looting.

5. Total War Warhammer knocks it out of the park in terms of ambience, setting and attention to lore. Total War games have always been good at this but it is great to see that nothing has been lost in the move to a fantasy universe. This was actually one of my biggest concerns before I stated playing the game. My enjoyment of previous titles has always been strongly linked ot how much I liked the era. It is no coincidence that I have spent most time in Rome I and also Rome II of any of the previous games becaus eI am just fascinated by that historical setting. I was never a Warhammer buff so most of the Warhammer lore is new to me but Creative Assembly's evocative realisation of the rich Warhammer universe has sucked me in.

So for all these reasons I am willing to concede that Warhammer is probably the best Total War  game ever an honor that many observers had previously given to Shogun 2.

Aside: Even though I give the crown to Warhammer on objective grounds Rome is and probably always will be my own most played and most fondly remembered Total War game. I have always loved the period and Rome was the first Total War game I really got stuck into. Rome was wildly over ambitious and deeply flawed yet totally wonderful all at the same time.

A few examples:
Cities in those days were sprawling metropolises with narrow street and you could actually see a city map from the campaign world before going to fight in those very streets. Assaulting a city was a long drawn out affair as you first picked the locations to assault and then employed artillery or sappers to break down the walls before streaming in to engage in close quarters fighting on the walls or in the narrow streets.

Town management was far harder than in later games and demanded a lot of micromanagement. You could try to automate things but that invariably led to problems for example Unfettered growth led to squalor which in turn often led to unrest. Rebellions were a constant nuisance and you had to garrison every town with an army of troops.

Troop recruitment and replenishment became particularly challenging in long campaigns because troops could only be replenished at their own recruiting centres and it drew from the local population to recruit.  If you were fighting at the outskirts of the empire there was no way to replace losses of your elite troops so you had to guard them carefully while padding your ranks with the limited offerings that were locally available.

Mercenaries were a thing. With enough cash you could hire mercenary troops from other races. Often these were just needed to make up the numbers but sometimes you could get specialists that were better than your own troops in a particular role (Balearic Slingers ftw).

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Ryzen Hopes Fallen

I am posting this here rather than on something like Reddit because I don't want to get involved in the usual internet fanboy wars but the plain fact is I find myself somewhat disappointed by the release of AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUs.

Brief background: My current gaming rig is long overdue an upgrade (currently running a 2009 era Xeon 3470). In 2014 I was due to replace this system completely but put it off in favour of an overhaul initially to wait for Windows 10 and then later to wait for AMD Ryzen. Well here we are in 2017. Windows 10 is old news and Ryzen 7 has finally been released. I have run out of excuses.

I am old enough not to have completely gotten lost in the hype about AMD Ryzen but I was very much looking forward to a new competitive CPU market that might bring bring high end CPU power down into my mid market price range.

I guess my hopes were that Ryzen would bring i7 level performance at i5 level prices. Realistically I was expecting half way between i5 and i7 performance at slightly better than i5 pricing. Instead the release of Ryzen 7 appears to be offering i5 level of performance in gaming at i7 prices.

To be fair Ryzen is a terrific step forward for AMD and is genuinely competitive with Intel in many applications that require multiple cores. Ryzen gives you far more cores for your money than i7 and excels in tasks such as video editing. Unfortunately gaming relies heavily on single threaded performance and Intel's CPUs still shine here because they have faster clock speeds and they do slightly more per clock cycle.

Bottom line is that for gamers AMD still has no CPU to compete with Intel's i7-7700k and because Ryzen 7 is priced to compete with i7 they dont even have a CPU to compete with the i5-7600k yet.

Having allowed my initial hopes to dash upon the harsh rocks of reality I will allow a bit of optimism to climb back into the boat.  Ryzen is a brand new product and there are indications that BIOSes and Windows itself have yet to be properly optimised for it. I wouldn't be surprised if Ryzen performance numbers get better as experience with the part grows and systems are patched. Even more significant from a gamer's perspective is that the next Ryzen parts to be released (Ryzen 5) will have fewer cores and cheaper prices. It is quite likely that these will be just as good for gaming as Ryzen 7 so these could finally be the i5 killers I am really hoping for.

There are other benefits attached to the launch of Ryzen: Competition is likely to bring down the price of Intel parts. Also AMD based motherboards have generally offered more options and more flexibility than Intel based motherboards for a cheaper price.

So I still don't know whether to upgrade with another Intel or switch to AMD but I have decided to wait a bit longer. Ah well My 7 year old CPU is still coping with modern games like Total War Warhammer but it won't win any benchmark contests.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Total Warhammered

Thanks to Humble Monthly I am playing Total War Warhammer. Now a few days in I am once again reminded of why I absolutely love Total War games and also why I absolutely hate Total War games.

I love them because of the ridiculous ambition. Every total war game allows you to play grand strategy with empires and kingdoms and then zoom in to fight individual battles with thousands of soldiers on each side. 

I love them because of the incredible scene setting and ambience. Every single total War game really knocks it out of the park in terms of sound, music and graphics when it comes to portraying their chosen world. 

I hate them because of the many things that just don't work as well as they should. I am not even talking about many bugs that each new iteration of the game launches with because I always wait a couple of months until they are patched out. I am talking about the basic structural flaws that never get patched out. The AI which struggles with pathfinding in battle mode and struggles with just about everything in campaign mode. Confusing tutorials that are never quite clear on when they start and end. An in game manual without a search function (really?). 

Most of all though I hate Total War because when it boils down to it the single player campaigns can be very boring. Once you get over the initial heady rush of commanding real armies on the battlefield it doesn't take too much longer to figure out how to overcome your neighbours, hampered as they are by the games lacklustre AI. Then starts the long slow grind as you tackle army after army and capture province after province on your way to dominance. I have done this too many times in too many Total War games and I find it very tedious. Creative Assembly themselves are obviously aware of this because almost every long campaign has a special "Triggered Event" in mid to late game which usually results in you losing about half of what you have accumulated to date and all your erstwhile friends becoming enemies. Does this suddenly make the grind more exciting? No it does not. It simply sets you back about fifty moves and forces you to recapture all those territories all over again. Read the final part of my blog series on a full campaign of Rome Total war if you want to know exactly what it feels like to complete a Total War Campaign:

So what do I think of Warhammer so far? I am playing the default Empire campaign and still in the very early stages but so far I am impressed. The interface remains familiar but streamlined and the new features of magic and heroes seems to be handled well. One unusual change for a Total War game is that you can no longer conquer all the territory. Playing as a human I can destroy an Orc faction and I can raze all their towns but I cannot occupy their settlements and I believe the opposite is also true. I have yet to see what impact this has on overall game strategy because there are still plenty of human territories for me to conquer / annex.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was seeing how well the Total War formula translates  to a fantasy setting. I have always loved Creative Assembly's dedication to capturing the ambience of whatever historical setting they choose and I am happy to report  that Warhammer does not disappoint in this respect. The game drips with lore and ambience and even though I am far from expert on Warhammer the devs seem to have done their usual meticulous homework on this one. Of particular note is the map. I don't know if there were any existing Warhammer maps before this but freed from the constrains of real world geography CA have gone to town with the map and produced a wonderful playground of fields, forests, treacherous mountain passes and deadly marshes.

"What about the AI?" you ask.   I haven't experienced any disasters on the battle map yet but a couple of experiences on the campaign map have convinced me that normal Total War standards apply:

First off is sieges. In previous Total War games I have used the tactic of laying siege to a superior army that is garrisoned in a city because I know that eventually they will be forced to leave the city to try and dislodge me. This robs them of fortification advantages and allows me to  fight from a position of defensive strength. In previous games the defenders would wait till they were nearly out of time and then sortie to try and dislodge me. I tried this twice in Warhammer and both times the defenders never sortied. Despite having superior numbers the defenders waited behind their walls until starvation had devastated their numbers (a new mechanic I think) allowing me to walk into the city and mop up their miserable remnants. This is surely broken because it makes sieges an "I win" button.

A second observation relates to diplomacy (always a sore point for Total War AI). In the relatively short time I have been playing I found myself becoming friendly with a dwarven faction. Initially this arose from a shared mutual enemy as we worked together to annihilate a goblin faction and from this we established a non aggression pact and a mutually profitable trading relationship. Green smiley face and a positive friendly attitude all round. Unfortunately these particular dwarves were also at war with the powerful Wood Elves. This required some deft diplomatic manoeuvring from me because the Wood Elves were the strongest faction on the map and maintaining my trading relationship with the dwarves while not attracting the ire of the Elves was  stressful. I thought I was managing it until suddenly the dwarves declared war on me out of the blue marching on one of my towns. What? So much for friendly relations.  I marched my own army down and sent them packing. For good measure I followed them back and looted their capital city. Now they want to be friends again declaring peace and offering new treaties! The only good thing about this idiocy is that it has improved my standing with the Wood Elves quite a bit. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Too much stuff. How can we choose what to watch / play / read in an era of over abundance.

This morning  I signed up for Amazon's Kindle first service. It is a kind of book club where you pay a monthly sub and get to pick one of six pre release books on Kindle every month. At only £0.99 per month it is a very low risk commitment and it can be cancelled any time. My reason for joining has nothing to do with hoping to read the next blockbuster at a bargain price before it goes on general release. It is simply my latest attempt to solve the ever growing problem of what piece of media (book, film, game) to consume next. There are too many new books out there just as there are too many news game, too many new TV series and too many new movies. I am willing to give Amazon's editorial staff a go at suggesting what I should read next.

 There is simply too much stuff out there. How on earth does one choose which stuff to spend the time and effort consuming? Mega corporations like Netflix, Google and Amazon have spent millions trying to answer this question with algorithms that analyse your profile and your past behaviour to predict what you would like to read, watch, play or buy next. Facebook and its ilk try to leverage the power of social connection to answer this question on the premise that if your friends like something then maybe you will like it too. None of these services answer the question to my satisfaction however. Their recommendations are wrong as often as they are right and the very mechanical nature of their algorithms puts me off.

Trusted reviewers are another obvious approach but in today's world of instant access to everyone's opinion that is simply swapping one problem of overabundance for another. On YouTube for example there are thousands of video game reviewers and the more popular ones often have widely differing opinions. Which reviewers should I follow? Can someone start reviewing the reviewers please? Aggregate review sites can sometimes be useful for highlighting the all time classics that everyone really should sample but the mechanical nature of their algorithms obscures as much as it reveals. A quick look at the top rated video games on the last 90 days on Metacritic will quickly convince you that that approach is fraught with hazard. While there are likely to be some gems on the list I defy anyone to play and enjoy all of the eclectic assortment of titles that pop up.

Over the last year I have had great success with Humble Monthly's curated bundle of video games. Of the six or seven games in each month's bundle I have always found one or two that have held my attention long enough to more than justify the bundle price. More often than not it is one of the lesser known indie titles that grabs me rather than the headline game. Last month I spend a lot of time playing Neon Chrome. I am currently enjoying Steamworld Heist from the February bundle although I do intend to sample XCOM 2 later. Teh key word for me here is "curated". I really do get the impression that each of these games are chosen by someone for a reason. Some of the choice are more "experimental" that others but with very rare exceptions I don't think any of the games are just thrown in to meet a price target.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Finished Broforce. What to try next?

I do love finishing games even when they are relatively casual indie games like Broforce.

I highly recommend the game by the way. It is an action platformer with a couple of twists. Twist 1 is that you play as a random selection of "Bros" (translate: thinly disguised action heroes from 80's movies), You never know which character you will get next and they all have very different weapons and skills. The second twist is that the terrain is completely destructible. Altogether this adds quite a bit of strategy to the usual shooty carnage. A major bonus is that the game is very co-op friendly and it is a complete blast in co-op.

Now what game will I try next? Another indie game will be quick to pick up but I have a few AAA titles in my queue that I also want to try. Deus Ex Mankind Divided is tempting.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Asynchronous Multiplayer in Hill Climb Racing 2

The original Hill Climb Racing was something of a misnomer given that it was a single player game with no actual racing involved. The sequel addresses this and features four vehicle cross country racing. Hill Climb 2 has topped the app charts and the game's leader board is filled with thousands of players from all over the world. It is a lot of fun and it certainly adds excitement to the game as you speed past Joe from USA and Jim from Bulgaria on your way to winning a race. 

It is all very slickly presented so it took me a while to realise that there is some slight of hand going on. It wasn't until I noticed that you can pause and restart races that it dawned on me that I wasn't racing other players in real time. The game actually pits you against pre-recorded runs by other players in asychronous multiplayer.

Asychronous multiplayer is very common in mobile games and I have tried several where you create an army or a base which other players can attack while you are away. This tends to be a very stale affair though because attacking AI controlled troops can never compare to the excitement of a human opponent. In a race game the illusion is much better. The recorded player drives just as they would in real life. They struggle at the same tricky bits and they speed up to try and steal a victory at the end in recording just as they do in real life.

There are many advantages to asychronous multiplayer in this case. You can race whenever you want and never have to wait for suitable opponents. It also allows every player to be a winner or at least to win more often than they lose.

Does knowing that it is an illusion spoil it at all? Perhaps a little. My thrill at crushing Joe from the USA is a little diminished when I realise that Joe is oblivious to it. Indeed Joe may actually have won the race the first time that particular run was recorded. For all I know strings are secretly bring pulled by the boffins of free to play to ensure each player achieves the optimum win loss ratio for monetisation.

Asychronous racing could have real world applications especially if used with virtual reality. Amateurs could pit themselves against Olympic athletes and those same athletes could train using past races of their competitors.

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...