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.