Saturday, 29 November 2008

Return to the Citadel

If I were to be honest, I would have to admit that sometimes I play games that I do not expect to entertain me a great deal. Sometimes that is because I have bought the thing and want to see it through, if only to see if I can salvage some value. Other times it is because I am intrigued enough by the story to do battle with the dodgy game to see where it leads. There are times when I have to fill an afternoon and playing a game on autopilot is better than the alternative (wandering round the 'net trying not to spend money) and then there are the times when all the critics say I should be enjoying something but, despite this encouragement, I really am not. Sometimes (very occasionally) the tedious experience I expect from the game doesn't materialize and I am pleasantly surprised.

This leads me nicely on to Half Life 2: Episode 1.

If you read my last post you will know I am not a fan of the original Half Life 2 for a whole variety of reasons, not least because it is lengthy and empty and the characters are almost entirely unlovable. Somehow, HL2E1 manages to address these problems without any gaping gaps in logic or dramatic alteration in personalities and I think the secret to all this is a greater sense of immersion in the world you are wandering around (and destroying).

HL2E1 opens up with a bit of a rewrite of the end of the previous game, then you being rescued from a huge pile of rocks by Alyx and Dog. Alyx is, predictably, pleased to see you and for the first time playing HL2 I genuinely felt she was pleased to see me. She moves around in a believable way, talks to you about your previous experiences in a way you can relate to and then the two of you call her father and decide to head back into the Citadel to stop a cataclysmic explosion. The set piece dialogue is still slightly odd in that you aren't saying anything, but the NPCs make up for it by successfully expressing a whole range of emotions, which lead up to one overriding fact: you are going into the Citadel and you aren't expected to come out again. Whilst this may seem like a trite bit of storytelling, it was conveyed in such a way that I could feel Alyx's sadness as she told her Dad not to worry and her sense of desperation at the task, but bizarre confidence that Gordan Freeman would get her through it alive. That's you, that is. I cannot get across the difference it made to actually be able to relate to the characters in my vicinity and it gave me a wonderful sense of purpose. I would not let Alyx die in this place, and I would get her back to her father. And thus, immersion was injected into Half Life 2.

Technically speaking, HL2E1 is a step forward from HL2. The graphics have been noticeably tarted up. The set pieces are tighter and closer together - far less wandering from one place to another for no apparent reason - and there are puzzles within the combat encounters which need solving before you are overwhelmed by the continual stream of badguys. Alyx follows you around for most of the episode and it is the first time I have played through such an experience without developing a strong desire to blow apart the second character. Alyx is intelligent enough to stay out of the way when she needs to, as well as tough enough to hold her own in combat and not die (with inevitable mission-failing results) the moment she is exposed to a stiff breeze. Coupled with that, she has enough lines to be an entertaining companion - firing off a selection of one-liners that are amusing and in character and chatting to you like you are a human being (as opposed to a crowbar-waving mute gorilla). Alyx is genuinely likeable and it's great to see a character as well scripted as her.

The second big problem with HL2 as far as I am concerned is the length. It takes hours to play though and that time is spent driving from one abandoned place to another shooting faceless nameless goons, monsters or zombies. Since Valve have moved to episodic gameplay for the next part of the HL saga, HL2E1 is much shorter and it is all the better for it. The lengthy, tedious driving sections have been removed. The sections of the world populated entirely by people with no name and no personality are gone and instead the good ideas are packed together. This has the added benefit that if you find yourself in a section you are not enjoying you can push onwards, safe in the knowledge it wont last much longer. Unlike, for example, Ravenholm in the original. I can only approve of the compressed nature of this game as it makes it far more entertaining.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, inevitably yes. The sections fighting the striders, whilst very exciting, do have a very contrived feel to them - you have to keep running and dodging and you find just enough medpacks to keep you alive whilst finding single rockets in what amounts to a breadcrumb trail. At the end you find a big box of rockets which you can use to finish the strider off. You can't use any other tactics because a combination of the ammo restriction and the sheer number of shots the striders take before they do the decent thing and die forces you to follow the planned path - and woe betide you if you stray off it by mistake because then you are stuck in a place with no ammo and an enraged walking thing out for your blood. This obvious linearity draws attention to the fact you are playing a game, not fighting a battle for humanity and acts a bit like the modern equivalent of collecting floppy disks for bonus points in a platform game as far as damaging atmosphere goes. Gordon not talking or showing any emotion grates a bit when you are part of an emotionally charged set piece and you want to interact with it, but that is part of what makes Half Life what it is, so I can see why that happens. The requirement to use the gun the game expects is another big flag being waved with the words "Hey! This is a computer game!" written across it, but it is tempered by occasional caches of ammo for other guns so if you're a good shot you can just about get by on these secondary weapons. Oh, and why didn't it save my key mappings from HL2? Finally, the plot still lacks direction. Whilst it is very clear someone knows where it is going, because the NPCs don't share their long term plans with you (well, their plans any more specific than "save the human race") you still don't feel like you're fighting for anything much. True you now like you're striving towards something but the lack of specifics is quite frustrating at times.

So; to conclude: HL2E1 is HL2 with the biggest problems ironed out and a nice sense of humour added in (towards the end of the episode Barney gives you a new crowbar - there is no point to it by this stage, but it's nice to see the NPCs as well as the players think a Freeman without a crowbar is just wrong). This makes it brilliant and by far the best reason to play through HL2.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Half of a Life

Many years ago I played through an excellent first person shooter. It redefined what was possible at the time with its puzzles and excellent set pieces. It went on for quite a long time and at by the end I was shooting things on an alien world. That game was Half Life - the game staring everyone's favourite mute physicist Gordon Freeman (aka Jeff Goldblum) and his crowbar. Rocking along with him were a pile of expendable scientists and guards (to talk to) and a platoon of marines (to shoot). That game was good. Now it is time for the sequel. And by Now, I mean four years ago. Bring it on.

So, HL2 then. The game opens with you being brought out of some kind of suspended animation by the G-Man - a sinister bloke in a suit without a name. You're stuck on a train and sent into a dystopian city run by your old boss along with some aliens. You meet some old friends, shoot some people and head off to meet some more old friends. When you get there everything goes wrong, the place is attacked by the police and you run off elsewhere. Eventually you meet up with the people again and get attacked again and run off again - but this time with a gravity gun and Physics on your side. And so it goes on. And on. And on.

I'm going to lose all credibility by saying this, but I did not particularly enjoy Half Life 2. Although the graphics were beautiful, the controls slick and the physics engine very clever I found the game far too long with too much wandering from place to place with little or no reason for doing so. The set pieces were still very well put together, but that did make it feel like all I was doing was walking to the next one and the plot was purely to string it together.

I have moaned about plot in first person shooters before, and I still think I am quite alone in caring (certainly I am alone in criticising HL2 - it has a phenomenal 96% in metacritic) but for me the plot means immersion. Although I understood the world that HL2 presented me, I just didn't understand my place in it. Everywhere I went I was saluted as a hero - the one who could save mankind - but I never really understood why. They seemed to be doing well enough forming their little rebellion against the aliens and all I seemed to be doing was wandering from place to place with the authorities chasing me. It wasn't until right at the end I felt my actions had any kind of influence on the plot (at this point I was storming a stronghold with a load of insect things at my back) and then I was suddenly sent off with a girl who was invulnerable. Why on earth she needed any help from me I cannot imagine. And still it dragged on and on...

Maybe I'm being a little unfair - although the vast majority of characters you meet just say their piece and get blown to pieces, those that have a name are genuinely likable (or hatable in the case of the villain) and you do start to bond with some of them. The girl (who is clearly the long-term love interest) is actually very cool and behaves credibly which makes a nice change for a character you are supposed to like and the various scientists are all pleasantly eccentric. There just isn't enough character development or plot hooks for my liking - wandering round a base trying to free the girl's father doesn't feel like you're engaged in a rescue mission; it feels like a series of tunnels with people to mow down with your shotgun. This in turn makes it very difficult to get lost in the atmosphere - I found myself playing on autopilot a lot of the time, occasionally surfacing to wonder how much further I had to go. The only place I felt any kind of atmosphere was during the (as far as I can determine) utterly pointless Ravenholm section - and I got so sick of things jumping out at my face that I stuck on some happy disco music and charged round with the shotgun trying to get to the end as fast as possible.

It wasn't until the very end when things really picked up. At this point your allies have taken your signal to start the rebellion (although you set that off by accident I think - it's not like you've made any choices for yourself) and you're left running round the ruins of the city taking on giant walking things. At this point things are very cool - and they remain so whilst you break into the citadel for the end gunfights along with a supercharged gravity gun.

I'm not sure what else to say about Half Life 2. I honestly can't see why it has gotten so much praise. That isn't to say it's bad - bits are great fun and you'll love the set pieces. But the thing goes on for so long it is very easy to lose the will to live as you just wish that all your cool shooting would actually accomplish something. And that's it. Worth playing, but only if you have a lot of free time and some good music to stick on the stereo whilst you're doing it.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

I'm an artist

It turns out someone on the internet likes my art.

That's about all really, I'm just slightly surprised.

For more pictures by (and indeed of) me why not visit my flickr pages.

Another Crysis Averted

I was supposed to be playing Half Life 2 these last few weeks, but due to a social schedule which actually included Things and a room with no obvious way out (in Half Life that is, I didn't get trapped in a cupboard somewhere in real life) I didn't get very far. Then EA irresponsibly released Crysis Warheard and I decided nanosuit powered gunfighting was more tempting than wrench waving in an underground labyrinth. Half Life 2 will no doubt bubble back to the top of my as Warhead has done the usual FPS thing of dying without a fight.

So anyway, Warhead. Set during the events of the first game, you play Jason Statham-alike Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes as he rocks around the other side of the island shooting Koreans and aliens in what is basically Crysis - again. This time out there are a couple of new vehicles (which, mercifully, you don't have to drive very often) and a couple of new guns, a new range in totally useless explosives and an all new plot. During this plot you discover you are not the only Delta Force nanosuit team on the island which does raise the question of quite why you're being sent to the other side of the island alone when they could have sent another team but lets not quibble as everything else is really well put together.

For me, the biggest problem in the original Crysis was the massive lurch in gameplay when the aliens appeared - most of your moves became redundant and you ran around in a normal FPS blazing away with whatever gun the game decided you should be using at a time. This time around Crytek have realised that Koreans are more fun to shoot than aliens so right through the game your primary adversary are the KPA with the occasional appearance by the aliens for some all-out shoot em up shenanigans. The pacing is a huge improvement over the original and because you are raiding bases and strong points throughout your various suit modes remain useful. I'd also say the nanosuit is better catered for this time out - I found many more situations where using Speed or Strength was worthwhile (last time I stuck almost exclusively to Shield and Cloak) although that could be extra experience on my part and an extra dose of creativity in solving the problems put before me. Even the graphics have been overhauled and now look even more impressive.

So is there anything wrong with Warhead? Well, there is a mine section which gets quite irritating as the level wanders all over the place and it's very easy to get turned around. There are a couple of times when things get quite difficult simply because your chap doesn't seem to like talking to HQ on his radio (in fact there were a couple of occasions where I felt quite rude because HQ would call up to give me some new info and Psycho wouldn't even bother to acknowledge - maybe that's just me) and the end boss fight is truly pathetic, although you do get to play with Das Uber Gun and this time around the thing is actually as badass as the NPCs are promising. These are all trivial gripes though - Warhead is generally an excellent game, really good fun from start to finish and even pretty well written as a story, fleshing out a character I genually liked from the first game and filling in holes in that games' plot.

There is one concern I have about Warhead though, and it is to do with the plot. Crytek have released it as a stand alone game, you don't need the original Crysis to run it. It plays better than Crysis, looks better than Crysis and stars a more interesting character than Crysis. The concern I have is that I'm not sure how well it would work without the original. The plot is heavily tied to Crysis' as you'd expect and I'm not convinced it stands up on its own - there are many references to what is going on behind the scenes and the characters sometimes discuss your chap from the first game which I would imagine would make no sense if you didn't know who he was. It also lacks a clear beginning and end - you suddenly start on the island under assault by Koreans and the end has you flying off to the carrier to take part in the final scenes of Crysis. This is fine when you fill in the blanks yourself, but may be unsatisfying if you are just playing Warhead without the backplot knowledge. That said I think I'm about the only person in the world who cares about the plot in a FPS so I doubt it will impact too many people.

Oh, and you don't have to pilot that bloody VTOL over the carrier as Psycho does in the final scenes of Crysis. For this I am very thankful.

So Warhead then. It's great. Buy it.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Lost on Micronesia

Whilst awaiting Force Unleashed to arrive on the PC, or another Mass Effect episode to appear to give me the excuse to play it through again I decided to track down the Half Life 2 Orange Box and play through one of the biggest PC games of the recent times - one which inexplicably managed to pass me by entirely. Sadly that failed to arrive in time to entertain me this weekend so I found a copy of Farcry for a fiver and sat down to play through the predecessor to Crysis.

Farcry is very much a game of two halves. For the first half you are sneaking round an island crawling with mercenaries, using stealth to... wait - this is strangely familiar. I did this a few weeks ago, although that time I was wearing a nanosuit instead of a horrific Hawaiian shirt. Let's be honest here - Farcry is more than eerily similar to Crysis both in setup and execution. For the first half you're sneaking round an island shooting mercs (although in the earlier game you don't get the luxury of a cloaking device - or even a silencer for your gun, bah) then you turn a corner, meet a girl and suddenly you're up to your appallingly gelled hair in weird mutant creatures. What is surprising is how much better it holds together than its successor. In Crysis half way through there is a huge bang, everything becomes cold and the human badguys de jour are replaced by the alien things. In Farcry the mutants escape and the mercs have fun battling them whilst you sit on the sidelines enjoying not being in everybody's crosshairs for a change. Gradually the island is overrun and you see the mercs engaged in more and more desperate battles as they are pushed back to the central labs, which you then gleefully run in and blow up. It is all quite credible and helps the atmosphere no end. And helps you survive and you can let the two factions get on with annihilating each other whilst you run around the side - and believe me you're going to need all the help you can get.

Farcry is hard. From the moment you start playing through to the final scene there is rarely a moment when you're not afraid for your life, whether it is crawling slowly through the undergrowth to avoid the notice of yet another mercenary patrol or ducking behind rocks in case that lovely empty field ahead of you is actually a deadly crossfire between guard towers stationed on the surrounding hills. Ramp the difficulty up a little and you'll find your life expectancy drops even further. I played it on Challenging because I am getting sick of wandering through games in a daze, waking up with a start when I suddenly realise it's all over, and the first scene saw me getting mobbed by mercs all intent on shooting me in the face. All of this is great - a game that puts up a fight is a rare thing these days (and yes I know Farcry is more than 4 years old, humour me) as long as it plays fair - and this is where things go a little wrong. Whilst the game is totally within its rights to shoot me dead with extreme prejudice when I sneak into a hut only to find it is full of mercs standing around chatting I feel it is less fair to carefully eliminate the guards to a small camp then, as I run through the middle to grab the objective, find myself being cut to ribbons by deadly accurate fire from the turret mounted machine gun of a jeep parked inside a closed garage, firing through the wall. This is clearly a bug, but generally speaking the mercs seemed to be blessed with prescience and an amazing ability to acquire a target as you flash past windows and blow your head off. At least they announce their every thought to you ("I can see him!" "I can't see him anymore!" "I'm going to shoot you in the face!") so you can work out how long before you're filled with holes.

Despite these annoyances though, Farcry is great fun and I think a lot of this is to do with the superb pacing. The initial sneaking, sniping and surviving keeps you interested for a while and then just as you are thinking that maybe you should take your chances swimming to safety instead of massacring yet another outpost you are thrown underground for some linear tunnel-based action and a trip to tradition first person shooters-ville. Then you're introduced to the mutants which are the genetically enhanced animals / people. There are various flavours of fiend and in an excellent piece of storytelling you actually meet most of them as corpses left over from a merc clean-up before you face them in combat. "Doyle! These things are huge!" remarks your chap just as you're staring at the screen thinking "oh balls" and your contact Doyle then discloses a little more of the plot as you continue exploring and generally being scared. Eventually you meet the creatures in the flesh and they turn out to be super-hard - fast moving and blessed with the ability to take an entire clip to the face before dying. Eventually the game gives you a shotgun which helps (a little) then sends you further into the depths to massacre more of the damned things. Things quicken up considerably at that point and it is a little while later you are suddenly thrown back into a section where it pays to be stealthy - something which by this point requires a serious shift in mental gears and consequently a couple of very messy deaths.

The vehicle sections, the bane of Crysis, make an appearance here too. Again I was surprised by how much better they were the first time round - it is rare you actually have to get into a vehicle and most of the time the roads are easy to navigate and you can blast through firefights by simply running over anyone in the way. The worst part of driving is the weapons - turrets depress realistically, which is to say not quite enough, and getting the camera to let you see what you're doing as well as shoot is deeply irritating. There is also a section where your friend drives your jeep whilst you shoot that had the potential to be unbelievably annoying but thankfully my skillz were on fire at this point and I left the enemies in smouldering ruins using the turret grenade launcher. In fact, despite introducing the bullet-resistant mutants then the also-bullet-resistant special forces troops, Farcry manages to maintain its fun right until the end when it sadly all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Picture the scene - you've fought your way through an island of horrific monsters and tooled up mercenaries, then the game designers decide to throw frighteningly hard special forces troops into the mix. But how to make them hard? Well, they have the best weapons of course. They have super-effective body armour. They have helmets which can absorb gunfire of course, but what next? How about giving them bullet resistant riot shields so they looks like some bizarre modern day Roman legionnaires marching into battle impervious to your gunfire. You've sighed at the need to, once again, empty entire clips of ammunition into the enemies heads before they drop. Ok, now we have the special forces troops what do we do with them? They need an explosive encounter. How about forcing the player into a lengthy entrance corridor, locking the door behind him (literally NO previous doors have done this) then having a dozen of them run up the corridor towards him? Sound fun? Well, if that is not enough why not have a couple armed with rocket launchers and give them a huge suicidal streak so their tactic is to run right up to you and unleash their rockets of doom killing you, them and their friends in one huge explosion? Of course the player cannot advance up the corridor at this point because he will be instantly caught in a crossfire and cut to pieces.

I got through this section by getting very angry and switching to the semi-automatic grenade launcher attachment on my rifle. After carpet bombing the halls for the twentieth time I got lucky and killed them fast enough to avoid being splattered up the walls in the process. Cue a cut scene then straight into an impossibly hard boss fight with another posse of troopers and a huge mutated man who seems to be able to spot you and shoot you the instant you step out of cover. This fight, whilst rock hard, is at least moderately fair. Sadly next you're thrown into the finale proper in a giant arena assaulted by a squadron of walking tanks (one of which cheerfully walked through nine rockets to tear my head off - I'm not making this up) which, while hard, are at least slow. Luckily for them they are backed up by the mutated soldier things armed with machine guns who can shoot you with deadly accuracy whilst they are so far away they are outside of draw distance whilst you are using your goggles on maximum zoom. Oh yes, and you are trapped in a corner again too so if you sit still for too long the slow tank beasts track you down, crowd you into a corner and mortar you. From point blank range. Bastards. It's a real shame because up until this ending all is going well and much fun is available. This ending comes close to ruining everything though - the finale was so annoying I actually dug out the god mode cheat. I didn't use it, but that was more because it didn't work for me than any sense of honour on my part.

So that's Farcry then. Great fun, great pacing, shite ending. I bought it for a fiver - well worth that price. Oh yes, a word on the sequel. To my knowledge it is by a different group of developers, set in a different place, has a plot completely unlinked to the original and lacking any of the characters from the first game. I must admit I am struggling to see how it can be called Farcry 2. Apparently they thought of putting in Jack Carver (he of the hideous shirt, your character in Farcry) but the gaming public thought him too unlikeable and unmemorable. Presumably because he doesn't fall instantly in love with the female character and is more interested in saving his own skin than solving the mystery of the island and was hence believable and interesting, an anti-hero in the loosest possible sense of the word. Maybe if they put him in some kind of futuristic armour, turned the mercs into Koreans and made the mutants aliens...

Friday, 8 August 2008

Playing with Technorati

And why not? Here is my Technorati Profile.

Facing the Invasion

After a weekend of playing, plus a couple of hours in an evening, I have completed the PC-eating Crysis and, for once, it was pretty good fun. The game kicks off with your Delta-Force type being dropped off on a Korean island to rescue some US hostages from the evil clutches of the invading KPA and you rock around in a futuristic nanosuit mowing down Koreans with a variety of weapons. Delta Force Command helpfully declines to send you a decent supply of ammunition so you spend most of the game using the Korean's own toys, which in practice means you want to pinch an assault rifle and you're set.

Your nanosuit gives you the ability to modify your personal skills, boosting strength, shields, speed or cloaking you. This is demonstrated in the exciting introduction as your character leaps over a leap whilst blasting away with his assault rifle then punches an enemy through a wall. Sadly in game life isn't quite as exciting - I found myself switching between Cloak and Shields for the first part of the game and just stuck with Shields for the second part. Aside from some set pieces where you HAVE to use Strength to jump or avoiding boredom trudging across the landscape (and hence kicking in Speed) I barely used the other modes and I can't help wondering if they would have been better served leaving those modes enabled at all times and giving you the choice between stealth and shields for your distributable energy.

Crysis is very much a game of two halves. For the first half you are sneaking round an island crawling with the KPA, using stealth to creep around the edge of bases, sniping enemies unsportingly, then racing across open areas, leaping walls and hosing the remaining defenders. All the while they are hunting you in packs, closing in with their superior numbers (excitingly there are moments when there are FAR too many badguys and your best option is to employ all your stealth abilities to escape rather than attempting to take them all on). It is all tremendously exciting, if not quite as "open" as you might hope - you can rarely tackle objectives in an order other than the one presented to you for example. This does not deminish quite how thrilling it all is though, as you pop up from a bush and scan the land ahead with your binoculars before popping off badguys from half a mile away with single shots of your silenced rifle. Sadly you only pick up a telescopic sight much later on, which is a shame because they add a whole extra level of tactical planning.

Towards the end of the KPA section some cracks start to show as you start to face enemies seemingly encased in steel who take forever to kill which knocks stealth out of the window somewhat as you pop up, snipe a person, then switch to full auto and empty a clip into his face before he finally does the honorable thing and dies. Fortunately it is about this point the aliens put in an appearance and you forget all about stealth. So, cue entrance to the alien ship, a frustrating zero-G section where it is unbelievably easy to get turned around (saved by the beauty of the environment you are in and your character saying "this looks familiar" if you start going back the way you came) and finding a use for the shotgun. If you are blessed with quick reactions, switch it to narrow-burst mode and blast the alien squid-things at point blank range with it as they swim towards you. Very satisfying, and I did find myself shouting a variety of lines from Duke Nukem whilst blowing away the enemies.

Unfortunately this section sees the end of multiple entry point bases and any need for stealth and the game reverts to being a standard FPS. It holds up reasonably well at this, but personally I found far less satisfaction picking up a gun with unlimited ammo and using it to hose jumping aliens than I did in the previous commando-stealth sections. Then there is the end sequence on an aircraft carrier which gives you the most disappointing gun ever - a tactical nuclear grenade launcher which sounds phenomenal until you realise you can't use it on anything other than the mothership. Not, for example, the flying alien planes, or the huge walking thing that takes ages to blast out of existance with conventional rockets. The game reasons this by refusing to lock on to these targets and the gun doesn't fire without a lock - but this isn't really explained so if you're like me you'll die several times trying to work out why your new gun of coolness doesn't appear to work.

So is Crysis any good? Well, yes. I had a great time playing through it, even if I wouldn't rush to do so again (the vehicle sections induce keyboard-destroying frustration and some of them you cannot avoid - I'm a commando, why do I have to fly a damn plane?) and the best bit about replaying is that all the really good stuff happens in the first half so you can just forget about the aliens once you've seen the plot through once. Maybe recommending throwing away half of the game is a sad statement, but I think the first half stands up to the rest of the world of FPSs much better than the second and you'll have far more fun in it. So yes, I'd recommend Crysis although cautiously - and do remember to check the specs on the back of the box (as I was told four times in the shop) as it does require one hell of a PC to run well.

Monday, 4 August 2008

What the critics say...

In a blatant attempt to massage my own ego, I thought I'd record some of the feedback from my talk:
  • "A presentation worthy of Expert Village. I liked how I could watch both you and the screen move about." - Choik-Sing Li
  • "Nice video! I think all this self-deprecating was just a compliment fishing exercise lol. One which appears to have worked, though!" - Dani Tynan
  • "Thanks for the session to-day, a VERY useful practical session, I now have
    RSS feeds working." - Chris Carr
  • "The bit where 'information is chasing you all over the internet' has just made me laugh out loud at work. And I work in a comedy department. Lovely illustrations." - Lyndsay Fenner
  • "Tell the one about the bus!" - Gareth Gwynn
How nice. If you missed it the first time round, they are referring to a talk I gave on the basics of RSS and Atom feeds.

Friday, 1 August 2008

My face on TV

A short while ago I delivered an entry-level talk about RSS and Atom feeds in the University of Bath. It was a very simple talk - what a feed is, why you should care, how to spot them and what to do with them once you've found them. Despite a 6 week gap between writing it and performing it (damn that illness) it went down very well, with much praise and thanks being heaped on me.

This talk was the second in a series of talks given by my team and was the first to be filmed in front of a live studio audience. The film can be found here. It's not the most polished piece of presenting I've ever done, but it was good fun.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Upgrading to Hardy Heron

Finally, mere months behind the rest of humanity, I have upgraded my machine at work to the latest release of Ubuntu. It's too early for any fair impressions but there is one thing that has come up that has annoyed me a great deal and I thought I'd share a solution for it. For some reason the gnome devs have seen fit to remove Multimedia tab from the Removable Drives and Media Preferences window in the Preferences menu which prevents you changing your default actions for when (for example) a CD is inserted. Strangely the icon is still CD, but that's another annoyance.

So how to make this change in Hardy? These options have been moved to the Nautilus Preferences menu (Edit -> Preferences -> Media tab) but thanks to a change in the way mime types are handled in Gnome you may well find your favourite applications are not listed in the drop down lists provided. For some reason you can't manually specify a program to run (thanks guys) so until the various package applications catch up with Gnome and this is done automatically we'll need to make changes to the application's description file.

  • Go to /usr/share/applications (or /usr/share/applications/kde for a kde app)
  • sudo vi $application.desktop
  • Add the appropriate MIME types. I used this line:

(I was playing with grip in this case and there is almost certainly more than I need here, but I was in a hurry)
  • sudo update-desktop-database
  • sudo update-mime-database /usr/share/mime
Bingo. When you open Nautilus and look at the options menu you should see your application in the list.

The solution came from here, I am merely distilling it to avoid having to hunt through pages of comments

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Tourist of Albion

I've spent about a week playing through Fable: The Lost Chapters and I just can't decide about it. It's certainly good looking, and the attention to detail in places is lovely but there is something missing.

Ah yes, that's it. A challenge.

So I've hacked my way through the monsters populating the unbelievably weak plot (some generic nonsense about a masked man who looks like a reject from a Shredder convention trying to Destroy The World because He Is Evil) and valiantly managed to ignore the temptation to vaporise the airheads populating the world until I finally faced off against EvilDude himself. I slapped about the supporting minions as you do, charged up my sword with the MultiSlap spell and let fly. And he died. Not took damage, not swore revenge whilst retreating to a new corner. No, he died. Cue rolling credits, me saving the world and then a trip into the expanded areas - something like 3 more hours of happy hacking before a second encounter with EvilDude except now, inexplicably, he's a dragon. Wonderful.

Admittedly this second fight, to finish The Lost Chapters (as opposed to the original Fable) is a bit tougher - I had to hit him maybe 20 times and use a couple of potions - but the main reason it's hard is because the swine flies above your head where you cannot hit him with your sword or even see him because of the restricted camera views and rains fiery doom on you. Ok, so you can shoot him with your bow but for reasons unexplained you don't appear to be able to lock in on him (you can on literally every other badguy in the game) so you're reduced to using the manual aiming on a moving target. Good luck there. Anyway he lands eventually so it's back to MultiSlap with DoomSword and you've won. Cue more credits and everyone lives happily ever after.

So why am I undecided? Well I think I had fun playing Fable. Trouble is, it doesn't seem to know what it's trying to be. Sometimes it's a light hearted rpg, such as when a Demon Door (hiding secret treasures) wishes he was a chest instead. But sometimes it gets very dark, such as when you discover your mother alive and well then spend years in prison being tortured. It moves between these ends of the spectrum with shocking regularity and this really stopped me engaging with the plot or world at any level higher than simply hanging on and wondering what madness would appear next. Such as communing with an oracle by doing the YMCA. I kid you not.

Another barrier comes in the form of the game's bizarre morality. Lionhead have clearly attempted to design a world where you can behave however you like letting you choose your alignment as you go on. However this means you have a Hero Guild happily handing out missions such as "Slaughter The Traders" alongside "Save The Picnic Area From Wasps" and this Hero Guild is central to everyone's life - the residents of Albion seem to exist purly as fodder for these people to chop their way through or around and then massage their ego afterwards. There is no sense that the world operates without you in it which seriously strains any credibility. And why does everyone have a painfully jarring stereotypical west-country accent?

Overall though Fable is good fun. Combat is reasonably intuitive, you have freedom to wander round beating monsters / traders / children / chickens / guards to death with your sword and it requires no brainpower or particular skill to enjoy or progress. A good way to spend an evening unwinding, as long as you're not expecting a game which requires any brains or skill to progress...

Monday, 26 May 2008

Return to Flickr

Due to a variety of reasons, not least my own personal lameness, I have been extremely quiet on Flickr for the last few months. Since I've summoned the enthusiasm to go back and have begun a quest to lower the barriers between me taking a photo and it appearing online. First on my list was a memory card reader. Previously I was using Bluetooth to shift photos around but the software was flawed (Float's Mobile Agent 3 - lovely right until it crashes, which it does with alarming regularity) and Bluetooth just too slow for me. After a false start I now have a Maplin's home brand card reader - don't be put off by the thing needing you to put your card in upside down (of course), once you've worked that it's fast and flawless to a big thank you to the chap in the shop who helped me out.

Secondly I've installed the Flickr Uploadr 3.0.5. I've heard bad things about this (mostly from Phil Wilson) but so far it is working brilliantly for me.

With these bits in place I hope to upload a lot more often, and then to start working my photos a bit more.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Facebook thinks I'm a loser

I think I'm going to have to change my relationship status on facebook as the left menu on my homepage is being filled with adverts for dating websites:

25 and Still Single?
Why not join $latest-slappers-R-us-site?
And look! Here is a picture of someone you'll never meet on our site!

I particularly love that phrase:
"25 and STILL single?!"

Which may as well say "Are you a LOSER?" Thanks facebook - and I thought you cared.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008


Rubygems on Ubuntu seems to break itself when you update:

sudo gem update --system

I've lost track of the number of times I've had to fix this (and inevitably forgotten how to do it each time) so for anyone interested here is the fix:

* Open a terminal
* sudo vi `which gem`
* under the line:
require 'rubygems'
require 'rubygems/gem_runner'

Job done.

I can't remember where I first saw this fix, but I know I've found it here at least once, so thanks for the help Nick.

Leaving Neverwinter

So I've finished Neverwinter Nights 2. Took a while - well over a year including the gap in which I (finally) bought myself a new computer. I chopped my way to the end of this RPG slaying giants, dragons and anything else that got in the way and finally defeated Das Uber Evil - the scarily named King of Shadows. Turns out he wasn't that tough after all. So now my hero, who has become a knight of the realm, ruler of a keep and a member of the Neverwinter Nine (the nine elite warriors who act as bodyguards and advisers to the Lord of the area, not that anyone I met ever cared...) can return home and bathe in the glory of being somewhat leet? Oh no, that would be TOO easy...

I don't know what it is about endings these days. People seem to hate the Happily Ever After ending. You'd think that after several days playing you'd be entitled to hear your chap headed off with the girl to be venerated and respected to the end of his days. But it seems that's too much to ask. Instead
you're politely informed that "whilst trying to escape after killing BigBad, the roof falls in and your party is never heard from again". Thanks guys - I guess this is an attempt to add some mystery to the ending? Maybe set things up for a sequel? Doesn't feel like much of a reward though.

It wouldn't annoy me this much if this game wasn't so close to being great. Storyline (up to this point) is interesting, plenty to do, characters are usual fantasy fare but not too bad for that, control is reasonably intuitive, even the graphics are good. Thing is, for every thing of which you approve there is a tiny niggling thing that makes you doubt the care taken. Mostly, it has to be said, it comes down to the characters. Dialogue is extremely weak. One great example is where you spend a passionate night with the love interest who then totally forgets about it in the next scene and gives you the same conversation options you've had since you met her. Then there is the choreography of the characters when they are speaking. Think back to Monkey Island, where the characters would stand in a room and wiggle their heads whilst talking about things all around them, never pointing or making any indication the object of their discussion was in their immediate vicinity. Now imagine that, but in 3d. Add some vague lip sync and there you have it. It divorces your character from the world they are in and manages to seriously damage the atmosphere the game tries so hard to build.

I'm now playing the expansion pack and I'd have to say the character interaction seems a much happier prospect so I'm tentatively interested in what is going to come next. That said, despite memories coming back from the previous game your character doesn't seem overly bothered his love has gone missing along with all the people he had been travelling with. God forbid the roof falls in again...

Friday, 1 February 2008

Worst Ending Ever?

I've just gone back to Heroes of Might and Magic 4. My esteemed colleague Kelvin Gan would say I'm a sucker for punishment. Right now I'm thinking he's right.

So here's the scene: the final battle of the Nature campaign involves you hacking your way through untold masses of enemy armies to defeat your nemesis - the less-than-scary Lord Harke. You then have to return to your true love who is safely on an island. She'll know how things went because you've previously agreed to use blue sails if you win, or red sails if you lose and someone else is coming with bad news. Rather than, for example, simply waiting a few minutes for the messenger to dock and tell her. Anyway, you stumble upon Harke and his posse of badness hanging around by a small town. I found this a surprise as I was simply exploring. Nevertheless my band of happy psychos cut his army to ribbons and killed him. Cue a piece of dialogue where you spare his life, then rather than simply ending the game with a happy story you have to go hunt down your ship. This is where it gets fun.

You can look up "Scenario Information" at any time. This may tell you more, less or something entirely different from the initial mission brief. In this case it says "Kill Harke. Sail the correct ship back." No hint as to which colour ship that might be. Oh no. So if, like me, it has been some time since you've played the thing you have NO idea how to end the mission successfully. I had to save the game, reload the level to get the briefing back, then reload my save. Great.

Now if you think that's a genius piece of game design how about this: you find the correct ship (blue if you're stuck) and sail over to the island. Then you get a lovely dialogue from some of the other people there saying your love has seen the sails and gone off to kill herself. What? It appears you've sailed the wrong ship. But the game doesn't end? Queue reloading and getting in the other boat - this time you don't even reach the island before being told she's dead. So back to the other boat and we finally find out what's going on. It seems that in order to create a "dramatic" ending the authors decided to have your crew change the sails to the wrong colour! The swines! Anyway, the woman runs off to kill herself but if you go inland (not that there is any reason to do so - you've been told she's dead remember) you trigger another event where you start with a bit of angst before going a bit further and finding out she's not dead after all. Queue happy endings all round. Seriously, what were they thinking when they put this wonderful twist in? Are they just trying to alienate anyone playing for any length of time? A dangerous game considering you can beat the entire game using pretty much the same set of tactics. And there is a lot of game...

That said, this is the game where one of the 6 campaigns ends up with your character having no legs and a miserable-ever-after. You lose your legs in the final cut scene - AFTER you make your last move. No choice, no chance to do anything about it.