Monday, 24 December 2007

Happy Christmas (war is over)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?

Alterac Valley, mostly. What with it being bonus honour weekend, in between assorted family festivities I've managed about 724 rounds[1] of AV.

[1] not to scale.

I have to say, post 2.3 Alterac Valley doesn't seem so different to the previous version. On our battlegroup, at least, there's seldom any defence, and when there is it tends to be from the Alliance. Standard issue zergs are still the order of the day, the typical ending being a narrow Alliance win. Every now and again some decent defence will net a win with all Alliance towers intact (though seldom with Balinda alive as well), though those battles tend to last somewhat longer, sometimes ending with Horde reinforcements gradually being whittled down in a pitched battle rather than Drek'Thar being defeated. Ironically the greatest honour per minute actually comes from a couple of occasions of meeting Horde premades, 30+ players from the same server, who ride directly up to Vanndar (stopping briefly to take out Balinda) and take him out. As all Alliance towers are still standing, that's a hefty amount of honour (better still if Galvanger goes down) in a few minutes.

So the honour points have racked up, enough for a couple of bits of Vindicator's leather armour, with a final piece to come tomorrow (so long as the estimated honour total isn't wildly off) as an extra Christmas present, and that'll probably more or less wrap up my brief return to Azeroth. It's been a bit of fun, but not that much has changed in the last six months. It's on to 2008 to see what that brings...

Friday, 21 December 2007

Them that defend what they cannot see

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. (That's French for "same shit, different day".) A year ago, almost to the day, I was posting about Arathi Basin, and I've just spent the last few days in... Arathi Basin! Though not exclusively, thankfully.

I kicked off the World of Warcraft Scroll of Resurrection, so I've got ten days to poke around and see what's been happening in the last six months or so. One addition is the daily quests, covering, amongst other things, cooking, regular and heroic 5 man instance runs, and battlegrounds. Battlegrounds, you say? Let's rack up some honour for those season 1 arena epics!

With that legendary Dwarven sense of humour, our Lieutenant-General set me the task of winning a round of Arathi Basin. Sure, boss, I s'pose you'll want me to hand in the moon (on a stick) at the same time. Ah well, into the queues, and first good thing: it was a couple of minutes. In the last four days, the very longest I've had to wait for any battleground is ten minutes, and that was Alterac Valley at an ungodly time of the morning. The average has been five minutes for Alterac Valley, a couple of minutes for the others. I don't know if the Alliance/Horde populations have evened out recently, or if there's some strange magic going on behind the scenes, but it makes the whole business much less tiresome. So, a couple of minutes later, I'm riding around scenic Arathi as the Alliance mindlessly wander and fail to ever hold more than two nodes, displaying their usual technique of mounting up and buggering off if there's been no action at a node for more than seven seconds (this technique also extends to Alterac Valley bunkers and graveyards, it seems). It's good to be back... no, wait, not good, the other one.

Still, in a triumph of hope over experience, I queue up again, and in a freak turn of events, the Alliance somehow win. Bonus honour, woo!

Next day, our Lieutenant-General punishes me for the insolence of claiming to have won a round of Arathi Basin by sending me back there. Oh well, here we go again... I met some interesting characters that day. Captain Defeatist, for one. "The trouble with the Alliance" he pronounced "is that they don't know when they're beaten. Just lose this quickly and get the mark. I only want the mark. I've lost 85 AB's in a row." Really? I wonder what the common thread through those 85 battlegrounds might possibly have been? I actually felt my will to live being physically drained into the screen at that point, and despite such stirring optimism inspiring all around to ever more heroic deeds, we strangely lost that round. Next up was the Frightfully Cross Tactician. You could tell he hadn't read my aforelinked pickup tourist's guide as he gave out his instructions: "grp 1 LM, grp 2 ST, grp 3 GM" shouted he. "Sure!" responded the valiant battlegroup, milling around aimlessly. Maybe we hadn't heard, so he repeated his shout a few times, that would surely work, right? Well, obviously we took the stables, and a big enough group turned up at the gold mine to take that, but the Horde made a major effort on the lumber mill, turning up en masse. Our master tactician would surely note this, and revise his plan accordingly, right? Suggest checking the farm and blacksmith, and attacking the more lightly defended? Oddly, no. "Get LM" he shouted. A lot. As others probed the other nodes, he'd encouragingly shout "[name] obviously cannot read, GET LM". As time went on, and somehow the heavy Horde defence continued to hold out in the face of occasional disjointed Alliance sorties, his language became progressively worse, the rest of the team were retards and noobs; I'm sure anyone who's spent more than 30 seconds in battlegrounds has seen the same. You'll usually get a quick "OMG ally aer noobs", and if you're lucky an ever-amusing cascade of "no wai u r noob" "no u r" (etc.), or possibly a hugely ironic discussion on how the problem with the Alliance is they're always holding discussions on whether they're noobs or not in battleground chat. This chap was the most persistent I've seen, though, he just kept at it, non stop, telling everyone to attack the lumber mill and castigating anyone who dared go anywhere else. Oh, and shouting at people not to hang around the stables, then being surprised when they all buggered off so shouting at them not to leave it undefended (file also under "DUH!").

Now, I've never reported another player for anything so far in MMOGs. Partly it's my easy going, laissez faire, live and let live attitude. Mostly it's my British sense of reserve and desperation to avoid confrontation ("somebody pushed into the queue? Why, that's outrageous! I'm going to... raise my eyebrows in a most disapproving way at them, just you see if I don't! Wait, they're looking this way, I'll pretend I haven't noticed.") Some people live for that stuff, providing ever-entertaining forum threads as they inform ne'er-do-wells in no uncertain terms precisely what they've been reporting (offensive names, kill stealing, whatever they consider to be exploits, etc etc), and then other people wade in and call them Nazis (oddly enough, I don't remember a key feature of SS Panzer Divisions being that they got in a big huff over the risqué nose art of American aircraft and reporting them under the Geneva Convention or something), and everyone has a tremendous amount of fun. You could probably make a perfect game for some people by releasing a flood of bots programmed to shout obscenities, tag any monsters another player was trying to attack, etc., and automatically respond to all complaint tickets with "[reported player] has been banned", they'd love it. Anyway; I've never been driven far enough to actually bother to even find out how to report another player in a game yet (that's another reason for not doing in, pure laziness), but this drivelling idiot in Arathi Basin was really getting on my wick, so I finally snapped and filed a complaint against him for swearing. Not that I give a fuck about the language, but I sense it's a more straightforward issue for GMs to deal with than "Reason for complaint: the most amazing display of idiocy coupled with a total inability to learn. I mean, really, he's obviously been in Arathi Basin often enough to know what the nodes are called, which means, unless he's solely been fighting with pre-made teams, he's witnessed the fact that pickup groups will inevitably rush around with no co-ordination and the only hope is that the Horde are similarly bumbling, and surely after five minutes of total failure to capture the lumber mill even a goldfish might have twigged it's perhaps not going to be a genius battle-winning tactic, and look, with the points as they are we're still going to lose if we somehow freakishly managed to capture four nodes so there really isn't any need to go on about it."

So that was fun. A couple more average AB losses, interspersed with a few goes in Alterac Valley, and the Alliance fluked another Arathi win, and thankfully the Lieutenant-General's come to his senses and sent me to Alterac instead, so I'm never going back to Arathi Basin, ever! Unless the daily quest winds up there again...

Monday, 17 December 2007

I was thinkin' about diamonds and the world's biggest necklace

Is there anything in MMOGs quite as divisive as loot? (If you're playing along at home, the answer is "Yes: PvP, raiding, forced grouping, soloing, class balance, skill systems, crafting, grinding, how long you should grill cheese toasties, and who'd win in a fight between William Shatner and Mr T. (Results 1 - 10 of 214,822)") Still. Loot. Treasure. The shinies, the rewards that keep us desperately pushing those levers. To paraphrase Danny DeVito in Heist, "Everybody needs loot. That's why they call it loot!"

I'm poised to kick off my World of Warcraft scroll of resurrection (not long 'til work is finished for Christmas and I can go back to glorious studenthood, crawling out of bed around lunchtime then gaming for twelve straight hours... for a couple of days, at least, before needing to be vaguely sociable for a family Christmas), and obviously the reason I'm going back is to spend some time with old friends, meet up with the guild again and casually enjoy the game at a relaxed pace, which is why I've been furiously googling away to see what "lewt" (preferably of the "phat" variety) might've been added while I've been gone. A couple of areas particularly stand out from the recent 2.3 patch: season 1 arena items being available for honour points, and additional epic items obtainable with Badges of Justice from heroic dungeons (together with only needing to be Honored, instead of Revered, with an appropriate faction to get into heroic dungeons in the first place). Cue massive outcry over "welfare epics" (principally applied to the arena gear, but you know how forums love pithy phrases like that and start applying them to... everything, really. I think my hamster might be a "welfare epic" now), and much learned discussion over the same Badges of Justice coming from both heroic dungeons and 10 man raids, the power of PvP weapons in PvE compared to the suitability of PvP armour, and the relative difficulty/effort required to gain items from battlegrounds, the arena, 5 man dungeons and raids. Well, I say "much learned discussion", that might be a slight overstatement. The ideas of "earning", and "rewards", and particularly the word "welfare" map all too easily (and badly) to vague political notions of capitalism, socialism etc., and we all know there's no better way of keeping a discussion sane and rational than chipping in with something like "handing out epic weapons just for turning up in the arena is the kind of UN-AMERICAN COMMIE LOVING FILTH that is CORRUPTING the NATIONS YOUTH". It's a marvellous flamewar, raging from hardcore vs casual to PvP vs PvE to raiding vs small group vs solo play, and really... what does it matter? Why is it an issue if Neville the Undeserving is wandering around in the same shiny gear as Reginald the Devoted?

Ah, now there's the nub, crux and/or nexus, if you will, of the matter (Mr Fotherington, and an extra point for being so clever). Why do we want those lovely epic items? (Why do we want anything? Why do I want an automated bean-to-cup cappucino maker and a heated towel rail? Because I like coffee and warm towels, actually, but I fear I've strayed from the point somewhat.) Why do we *not* want others to have them? For some people, gear is all about the statistics, the improvement that better gear offers, enabling more challenging encounters to be attempted or giving an edge in PvP combat. For others, looks are the thing; who cares about stats so long as it's stylish? World of Warcraft gear is also about accomplishment, though, it's the main way of showing that you've defeated a certain boss (and been lucky that he dropped a particular item that you fluked the Need roll for) or that you've slugged it out in battlegrounds or the arena, and I think it's that latter case in particular that can cause great annoyance with "undeserved" epics.

It's a bit of everything for me. I've made quite a few posts about avatars and visuals, that's quite important to me. If I'm going to have a crack at heroic dungeons, I sense my old gear is a bit lacking, so some upgrades from battleground honour (if I have any left, I really can't remember) would be handy, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't take a certain amount of pride in the odd epic item I do get hold of. If there was nothing at all on offer from running instances or battlegrounds, I'm not sure I'd bother (due to my achiever streak, but then I wouldn't keep playing some aspect of the game I didn't enjoy just for something shiny.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure there was a point to all this, except perhaps "WOO! FREE EPIX LAWL! TO ALTERAC VALLEY!"

Friday, 14 December 2007

The sun went down and the music did play

Guitar Hero! Ah, Guitar Hero, three weeks on and I'm still hooked on Guitar Hero 3 at any available opportunity. Yahtzee's latest Zero Punctuation reviews it (as usual in the most magnificent possible fasion), nailing the primary appeal of pretending to be up on stage as GOD of ROCK (holding a small yapper-type dog) (possibly feeding it Caesar). It works well as a game in a number of other ways, though. One great advantage it has is that a song provides a natural 3 - 6 minute chunk of gameplay; short bursts of frequent achievements that can hook you in for hours with that "go on then, just *one* more" feeling familiar to anyone who's done those early WoW quests (the very first time when everything is still shiny and new and fresh, not on your 17th alt as you pilot through Westfall with the cold dead eyes of an automaton on your way to level 19, dual boxing through the Deadmines eight times for that optimal twink gear so you can butcher poor innocents in Warsong Gulch with all the joy of a 1978 East German public information film), or eaten Pringles. Equally, if you have a shorter chunk of time (like the average play session of Half Life 2: Episode 2, now down to 25 minutes), you can still feel like you've achieved something. It would almost be verging on genuinely casual (as in Bejewelled-casual, not the MMO-casual definition of anyone who spends more time sleeping than gaming; there are, of course, the hardcore three armed spider-trainers of Guitar Hero and people who rack up *billions* of points in Bejeweled, but still) if it didn't take five minutes to get the Wii going, load up the game and click through the SEVEN HUNDRED AND THIRTY NINE loading screens.

Though Yahtzee's right about the game hitting a bit of a difficulty wall in the final tier of the Hard career (still haven't got One and Raining Blood), the song based nature of Guitar Hero gives it another advantage in replayability. Where I tend not to re-read books or re-watch films (at least, not for a few months/years), I'll quite happily listen to songs or albums several times over (though not quite to the extent of a friend of mine who'd take a single song, endlessly loop it on tape and play that in his car for weeks at a time), and I'm getting into the Guitar Hero 3 songlist to the extent of uploading a good chunk of it to my iPod (even some of the bonus tracks, Naast's Mauvais Garçon is rather fun. There's something about foreign lyrics... in another "weird things to wake up to on the clock radio" experience, there was a trailer for Pop in Translation this morning, playing a German version of Petula Clarke's "Downtown" that was a strangely confusing thing when not entirely awake). There's even "grind" (lots of practice to get through songs on expert mode, sometime more frustrating than trying collect assorted livers and spleens from seemingly internal-organ-less wildlife) and "PvP" (I've played a few online matches, winning most, though only playing on Medium difficulty; the range of Hard means I'm pretty decent on the earlier tiers, but would be hopelessly thrashed on the last couple by the legions of trained spiders).

All in all, the musical base of the game gives a number of inherent advantages, so I'm most intrigued to see how Audiosurf turns out.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Hi Ho Sky Raider Lining

Inspirations behind popular songs, part XVIII: Hi Ho Silver Lining

While wandering around a recent City of Villains mission, our intrepid duo were beset by Sky Raiders, a paramilitary cabal formed by people who've seen The Rocketeer rather too many times. Among their number are be-jetpacked Wing Raiders, and Porters, so named because they can teleport around the place (and not because they carry luggage around. They get quite touchy about that, I asked one to take my bags to my room, and he shot me with a submachine gun.) This makes them a bit mobile, and in the absence of someone like a Dominator with a group immobilise power (or a hammer to nail the buggers feet to the floor) they run, swoop and teleport all over the place when you're trying to punch them in the face with the POWER of DARKNESS. M'colleague was moved to comment at one juncture "they're everywhere!", at which point the three Porters in our vicinity promptly vanished and the Wing Raider flew off, leading me to rejoin "... and nowhere, baby." And that's when it hit me, Scott English and Larry Weiss, writers of the nether popular Hi Ho Silver Lining, were clearly fighting Sky Raiders at the time:

You're everywhere and nowhere baby, that's where you're at
(The aforementioned Porters appearing and disappearing)
Running down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat
(A reference to the standard Sky Raider headgear. Far out, man.)
Flying across the country, and getting fat
(The Wing Raiders must get a bit portly, the lazy sods, flying everywhere on their jetpacks instead of walking)
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat
(English and Weiss must've been playing characters with the Caltrops power)

And it's hi ho silver lining,
(Silver being the prevalent colour of Skiffs and Jump Bots)
No matter where you go now baby
I see your sun is shining
(The "sun" being the targeting reticule that remains fixed on Porters, allowing you to keep track of them when they teleport away)
But I won't make a fuss, though it's obvious
(But don't tell the mobs, they think they've lost your aggro)

Flies are in your pea soup baby, they're waving at me
(Well that's obviously... erm...)
Anything you want is yours now, only nothing's for free
Lies are gonna get you someday, just wait and see
So open up your beach umbrella, while you're watching TV

OK, my bad. Hi Ho Silver Lining isn't about Sky Raiders at all, the authors were probably just off their tits on acid.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Everybody got to move

Woo! My Nokia N810 arrived today, so I'm blogging on the go (well, on the sofa, to be strictly accurate)

Thursday, 6 December 2007

I've tried running but there's no escape

I thought it was finished, over. Finished with. Over. Finished and done with. Over. Completely finished over. But then... the Steinbeck file. It was like Aylesbury all over again...

Well, not Aylesbury so much as World of Warcraft. Daily battleground quests... Season 1 arena items available for honour points... an inquiry about Rogues that sent me over to talent calculators...

With Christmas coming up, time off work, relatives around (making impromptu Guitar Hero concerts in the lounge slightly less popular), it could be fun to run a few instances, head back to the battlegrounds, so I dropped a couple of hints, and there's a scroll of resurrection beckoning to me at the moment...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Time will tell just who fell

So, I've been playing Guitar Hero 3 during every spare moment for the last week or so, much to the consternation of assorted neighbours and a hamster (I don't know if the songs themselves the hamster objects to, or my butchering of them on Expert level, but either way she starts chucking stuff around the cage when the rock kicks in). I'm 92% through the Hard career (just One (tricky solos!) and Raining Blood (tricky... all of it!) to go), 54% through Expert (the introduction of Holiday in Cambodia is doing my nut in).

In other news, after my amazing futurologism in predicting a Wii shortage, obviously the only conclusion that can be drawn after the Activision/Blizzard merger is that they're working on my genius MMOGPR (Massively Multi-instrumental Online Guitar Playing Romp).

In moments between plastic-guitar-button-pressing, I've also been playing a bit of the new issue of City of Heroes, starting a new dual blade wielding Brute (being able to select each weapon individually, on top of all the usual options, meant I spent so long in the costume creator I only actually played enough to get to level 3), and travelling back in time with my level 50 Blaster to help the Ourororororobous put right what once went wrong. My first mission saw me leaping into the body of a struggling soul singer in Memphis in the late 60s... no, wait, that was something else entirely... my first mission saw me tangling with the good old 5th Column, then the second was quite a fun take on the tutorial, sending you back to the same map, at level 1, only this time the mobs had taken the helpful-hint dispensing NPCs hostage! Better still, it meant I could finally get the Isolator badge, though it took a while with only one attack (thank heavens for veteran reward powers). The only slight hitch was a later mission, when I got sent against an Elite Boss at level 25 or 26, which meant I lost all my useful Ancillary Pool Powers and defences and ended up with a travel power, Stamina and a handful of attacks. Still, a quick bit of assistance from a kleptosockomaniac sorted that out, so history turns out OK after all. Or will turn out OK. Or had already turned out OK. Confusing stuff, this time travel.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Runnin' numbers too

After turning on some analysis-type-stat-counter-thingy a while back, this seems like a good opportunity to root through some logs for a bit of crazy statistical hit-counting fun.

World of Warcraft demonstrates its crushing dominance in the most popular post charts; leading the way is The Draenei with no name, almost exclusively from people searching Google for "Draenei name" (and probably going away disappointed; maybe I should append a list of suggested Draenei names to the end of it, starting with "Neville", "Geoff" and "Steve"), and hot on its heels is The Pickup Tourist's Guide to Arathi Basin, mostly coming from Scoot's blog, where people presumably land after searching for an Arathi basin strategy guide. I hope a couple of people have taken away the idea of defending nodes with them, or failing that at least put on a decent interpretive dance version of The Brothers Karamazov. Rounding out the top three, a fair way behind, it's Are You Ready For That Terrible Swift Sword?, which people usually stumble across when searching for one of the specific swords named therein (either "people", or one particular person with terrible memory who keeps landing on that post).

Enough of the dull stuff, though, onto that perennial blog-o-favourite: responding to some of the keyword searches that somehow landed up here.

"captain zep theme tune"
Captain Zep, Captain Zep! (ooo eeee ooo)
Super space detective!
Captain Zep, Captain Zep! (ooo eeee ooo)
Super space detective!

There's something about tyrants falling as well, but basically he's Captain Zep, and he's a super space detective.

blackheart the inciter benny hill music
No, no, no, Ambassador Hellmaw plays the Benny Hill music when he fears you. Actually, come to think of it, Blackheart the Inciter should play it too. Note to Blizzard: just play Yakkety Sax constantly in the Shadow Labyrinth.

blackheart the inciter worst boss ever
Only if you're not playing the Benny Hill music

da na na na na na na na na big chubby checker
That's not Chubby Checker, that's I'm In The Mood For Dancing by the Nolan Sisters!

nolan sisters blogspot
See, told you so! (If that was someone looking for the official blog of the Nolan Sisters, I'm afraid you got to the wrong place.)

daaaaaaaamn graphics
Dammit twice round the car park and back in for a chaser of hellblast, Peter, what's wrong with the graphics? I'll wager Marjorie is behind it somehow...

hat fetish
It's a fair cop, guv.

hey how u get duel blade city of heroes
Hey! yourself, not nearly enough people take the time to greet Google as they search. Dual Blades are a new powerset in Issue 11, so get rolling a new character to make use of them.

how sweet would it be to be an idiot

i like the look of vindicator's brand
Really? It's a bit purple for me...

mmmmmmf pic
Stop mumbling, I can't make out a word you're saying.

Ha! Ho!

stepmania duck billed platypus download
I'm not entirely sure you can download a duck billed platypus, and if you do manage it I really don't think it's going to be very good at Stepmania...

wow alliance suck incompetent afk
Good day in the battlegrounds there?

Wednesday, 28 November 2007


Happy birthday to meeeee, happy birthday to meeeeeeeee, happy birthday dear Musings... Yes, it's exactly one of your earth years since I started this "blogging" business, and my, how times have changed. Why, to think when this blog started the Berlin Wall was still standing, the EU was still the EEC, Patrick Troughton was still playing Doctor Who and nobody had even thought of this "fire" business, let alone the wheel. It's been an eventful twelve months and no mistake.

But what have I been doing? An excellent question, and thankfully part of answer appears to be "keeping a blog", which I can flip back through and go "Ahh, good/bad times, delete as applicable". Exactly a year ago, I was on my second stint of World of Warcraft, picking up the Rogue I'd got to level 60 in the first stint; November through January was largely taken up with running the old end game instances as a team of four and the FREE EPIX!!1! fever of battlegrounds while waiting for the Burning Crusade. Mid-January, I packed up along with the rest of the world (of Warcraft) and headed to the Outlands, and spent three months (punctuated by a few days in Second Life to see what all the fuss was about) happily wandering around the instances, battlegrounds n' stuff found therein (well, I say "happily", going strictly by the blog posts it actually seems I spent three months whining that I hadn't got any "phat" "lewt", WAAAAH, but I remember it as a much happier time than that, especially as the withered husk of the original guild I'd joined the game with was rejuvenated by a few returning players and some new blood as other guilds disbanded). May and June brought Lord of the Rings Online, which only just made it into a second month of playing, and a new issue of City of Heroes, the only game I've remained subscribed to for the whole year. Peace was shattered for a couple of weeks of July by some extreme Guitar Hero rocking, and a free trial of Star Wars Galaxies, then in August I bought my first ever console in the form of a Wii (and I'd just like to congratulate myself on my uncanny prescience in predicting Wii shortages later in the year, even though the cause turned out not to be giant Wii-eating badgers). A few holidays and a dead PC processor later, the gaming highlight of September was Bioshock (the Tabula Rasa beta not really inspiring), October brought the rather splendid Orange Box, and here we are in November, with my hands oddly cramped from over-Guitar Hero IIIing and another issue of City of Heroes due to go live today. There was a chance for a poetic "cycle is complete"-type return to the start, as honeyed words of short queues and well-matched WoW battlegrounds reach my ears (apparently daily quests there have made battlegrounds as popular as they were about a year ago after the revised honour patch) and tempt me back to Arathi Basin, but the combination of Issue 11 of City of Heroes and the extreme rocking of Guitar Hero III have been enough to stop me reaching for that subscription button.

Astute readers may notice a trend, of the games becoming less Massively Multiplayer and more Offlinely Singleplayer over the year, I'm not sure if that's more to do with me, or the wave of MMOG delays and cancellations that's postponed the most likely looking next MMOG candidates to 2008. Let's hope it's the latter, or I really will need to change the title. Anyway, here's to the next year of blogging, and whatever games that holds!

Monday, 26 November 2007

Rock this joint

Guitar Hero 3 was finally released in the UK on Friday, so this weekend featured a not inconsiderable amount of rocking, at least until my hands cramped into twisted claws at which point they weren't much use for anything except raking leaves up in the garden.

The wireless Les Paul controller is most splendid, the song list is generally pretty good, the stuff I didn't know is mostly decent, even the cheesy 80s anthems are quite fun to play (now and again, when nobody's looking). Disappointingly, a couple of the songs I was most looking forward to (Sabotage and Reptilia) only show up in the co-op career, so I had to use the "unlock all songs" cheat to get to them. I could also live without the boss battles, at least against the CPU; another human might convey the idea of duelling guitars better, the computerised Slash and Tom Morello are just implacable automata who hit every note precisely until you happen to "attack" them.

I also hooked up the Wii guitar to Frets On Fire on the PC (as per a previous post, plus a handy GlovePIE script I found on HonkeyKong). The bluetooth connection can be a bit temperamental, and something somewhere along the line randomly beeps on the PC speaker, but that hardly matters when the volume's up to 11. With a little tweaking, that GlovePIE script could be used for inputs to other games too... Hmm; Daley Thompson's Decathlon, with strum up and down as the running buttons and one of the frets for jumping hurdles etc... In fact someone should write a new version, Daley Thompson's Guitar Decathlon, with different coloured hurdles corresponding to the different frets, and your athletic avatar on screen playing crazy riffs as they sprint...

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Capture the 26 minutes I'm in

Valve recently published some play statistics from Half Life 2: Episode Two (Episode One also available). The thing that really jumped out at me was the average session time: 26 minutes (at the time of typing) for Episode Two, 34 minutes for Episode One.

I'm not sure exactly what constitutes a "session" (their definition: "The average length of time that a player played before quitting. This is calculated by dividing the total number of sessions played by the total recorded play time."), whether you need to actually be playing the game, or whether just getting to the initial menu counts. If the latter, then I can see the average being brought down a bit by people who accidentally click on the wrong entry in their Steam "My Games" list (what kind of buffoon would do that, though, ha ha ha yes, all right, I did it myself just last night), and people who are violently repulsed by pictures of people with stopcocks embedded somewhere in their heads who quit the game as soon as they can after the splash screens come up. Then there's the ones who load it up, and are appalled to find it's some kind of disgusting, violent shooting game rather than a simulation of carbon-14 decay as they assumed from the title, they probably bring the average down a bit (presuming they quit after a couple of minutes, rather than waiting 5730 years just to be really sure). On the flip side, unless the stats exclude time when the game is paused, those aberrations are more than offset by people who stick the game on pause and wander off to answer the phone, or cook dinner, or sleep, or mix enough custard powder into the English Channel for it to become a non-Newtonian liquid, become the first person to walk from Dover to Calais and back again (without using some tunnel thing) since the pre-Cambrian era, get home, have a nice shower then resume playing.

Anyway. 26, or 34 minutes. Split the difference, half an hour; what could you do in your MMOG of choice in half an hour? Farm a few mobs, check a few auctions, run a quest or mission or two, fly from one place to another on autopilot while reading the paper? That's got to be one of the major challenges for anyone wanting to make MMOGs more mainstream, serving up content in half-hour chunks. More to the point, being MMOGs, half-hour *multiplayer* chunks, including the time for people to find each other, decide on what they want to do, travel to an appropriate location in-game... The latter aren't (entirely) in-game issues, of course, but perhaps an opportunity for the "ecosystem" NCSoft are talking about, which touches on social networking, and asynchronous play, and all sorts of other goodness dealt with in one of Raph Koster's recent posts...

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Some speak of the future

As Stephen Fry's recent "Dork Talk" column starts, "Gazing into the techno-future can be fun. We all dream of utopias involving benign robots, food for all and fusion power that is free, safe and unlimited, but then there are the cacotopias too – nightmare visions of malevolent machines that turn on mankind."

I'd been thinking about the malevolent machine (or "robot nutters") myself after finishing Portal, with GLaDOS taking her place with the likes of HAL 9000 and Shodan in the upper pantheons of the Robotic Nutter Hall of Fame not least due to "Still Alive", which easily leapfrogs HAL's rendition of Daisy, Daisy to share the number one spot of the Machine Dystopia Top 10 with "Robots" (I would've added spoiler space in case you've still to play Portal and wanted to be totally shocked by the revelation that the nice computerised voice you hear isn't entirely benevolent, but really, has there ever been a case of a synthesised-voice-AI-type-thing not going bonkers in the nut and trying to kill all meatbags? To really subvert expectation, someone should set a game on a spaceship controlled by an AI that never tries to systematically kill all on board. Call it Starship As Much Cake As You Can Eat (No Death), perhaps.)

The mechanised loon is a marvellous staple for a single player game, giving a convenient explanation for the fact The Humans Are Dead (or murderous cyborgs, mutated zombie-fiends or other form of creature not particularly interested in a nice cup of tea and chat about last night's telly). By and large, the less direct human-to-human interaction you can get away with in a single player game, the more immersive it can be; valiant as efforts at NPC AI have been, most still come off second best to ELIZA in terms of stimulating dialogue, so the worlds of Portal and System Shock, where your only contact with humanity comes in the form of corpses, audio logs, scribbled notes or pictures of cake are particularly chilling (and conversely in Half Life 2 it's difficult to build up a rapport with the nameless resistance fighters who join your squad from time to time due to their sub-Doctor-Who-assistant levels of self preservation: "I'll follow you, Doctor Freeman! Right down the middle of the road! Cover? Nope, not ringing any bells, that. Hey, over here, a rare form of beetle, I must take a closer look! Although it seems to be somewhat mechanical, and it just turned red and beeped almost like it was a landmine or something... awww! Doctor Freeman, you didn't have to throw the nice beetle away. Hey, look, down this road, it's a laser show! I can't hear the Pink Floyd, though, I'll just wander a bit closer... oooh, that laser beam is lined up right between my eyes, it's almost like it's attached to a sniper's rifle or something!")

I think there's a great opportunity there for MMOs as well, a scaled up version of the post-machine-apocalypse with all players as fellow-survivors instead of just you vs The Machine. Basically... Terminator (the future-y robot infested bits, not chasing around after a curiously accented cyborg in 1984 LA). Only not exactly the same, to avoid copyright infringement and having to acknowledge the existence of Terminator 3. This would be very much a PvE world, humans vs the machines, with all machines being computer-controlled rather than a playable faction. After all, if you want to log in and repeat a set of mind-numbingly simple tasks over and over again until you log out, you've got plenty of options already (*badum-tish*, thank you, I'll be here all week). You could get PvP in there with a couple of human factions (say, a suitably generic EastBloc and WestBloc, who haven't quite been able to let go of traditional animosities, then you can play entirely PvE, just taking on the machines, or have a zone on the borders of their territory for a bit of PvP as well), but mostly the unending supply of implacable machine opposition would give a slightly more believable and ethically justified framework for your standard PvE quests, rather than "Kill ten spiders. Now kill ten snakes. Now kill ten bears. And vultures. And wolves. ANY WILDLIFE YOU SEE! DESTROY IT! WIPE OUT ALL NATURAL LIFE ON THE PLANET AND BRING ME ITS INTERNAL ORGANS!1!1!!"

Course, for a dystopian machine-ruled future MMO, we've already had The Matrix Online. And I still mean to get around to trying that at some point, only last time I could be bothered to look I couldn't find anything saying "HAY FREE TRIAL THIS WAY!", and I must've searched for at least thirty seconds, maybe even a minute. There's a couple of things that put me off, though, namely The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions (I mean, they're not the most appalling films in the history of time, but after the first they're a terrible anticlimax). Also, I gather one of the careers you can follow in The Matrix Online is a programmer, and me, a programmer, on a computer, playing a programmer, who finds out that "life" is an artificial construct, wakes up, hacks back into the matrix... that's getting just a touch meta for me. I'll stick with big guns and robot nutters, I think. I need your clothes, boots and your motorcycle...

Thursday, 15 November 2007

All along this countryside, he opened a many a door

I've been playing Portal in 15 minute chunks every few days, so I s'pose I should've finished after 1.2 sessions, but I just completed it last night, and am therefore now singing that song, which really is superb.

I did have to resort to spoilers once near the end (I was convinced four hydraulic platforms, with one at a slightly different height, were vital to progression somehow when they turned out to be entirely superfluous), but other than that the puzzles continued to be nicely balanced.

The only mystery I'm left with is... what's the the companion cube-mania? Having seen the carved pumpkins, full size costumes, plush toys, freezers etc., I thought at some point there'd be an amazing, cube-defining moment in the game but... erm... no. It's just a box. Isn't it?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

In one, numbers were burning

I started my MMOG life in City of Heroes, which shaped a few of my ideas about How Things Work. What constitutes a normal encounter, for example; true to CoH's comic book roots, as well as dealing with the odd city/country/world/universe/multiverse-threatening creature of extreme power, you need a bunch of henchmen to wade through accompanied by suitable "BIFF!" and "PAF!" effects. Accordingly, opponents are graded as Minions, Lieutenants and Bosses (with the odd Elite Boss and Archvillain for team challenges). Very broadly, the idea is that one player hero should be challenged by 3 minions, or 1 lieutenant and 1 minion, or 1 boss (or maybe 2/3 of a boss, I start get a bit hazy at this point... possibly 1/2 a boss, 3/4 of a lieutenant and 14/17 of a minion. Something like that. Maybe it's one boss, a squirrel and a weasel that are a challenge for one player hero, a stoat and a badger. Wait, that's not fair, swap the stoat for the weasel, and give the boss a marmoset. And an elephant shrew for the hero. Anyway!) The important thing is that 3 minions are the basic spawn you'll run into, even as a solo player, from the start of the game, and the more players, the more mobs you face, up to the point that a full team of eight will face... erm, hang on... carry the one... then four plus minus one plus ten is fourteen minus one 'cause addition is commutative, right... a full team of eight will face spawns of 243 minions, 12 lieutenants, 3 bosses and a duck-billed platypus. Hrm. I think I shifted a decimal point somewhere. Anyway, that's in the current game; back in the Good Old Days you got the same spawn sizes, only they were such a trifling challenge you'd get your Tanker to go collect the *entire map* and bring them back for the Blaster to annihilate in a single blast, but we don't talk about Those Times or it attracts people whose sense of a fair fight is still calibrated to 2004 settings, and regard anything less than instantaneous defeat of several hundred enemies at no risk to yourself as "UNACCEPTABLE SLAP IN TEH FAEC", a frequent complaint being "I don't feel Super any more" (which I s'pose is difficult to argue with if you're taking Superman as your minimum-power benchmark, but it would be pretty tricky to have a game world with Supermen everywhere.) For any WoW players who haven't experienced CoH... you know Zul'Farrak, when you rescue the prisoners? And you're barrelling down the steps like a pram in Battleship Potemkin, and there's trolls everywhere, and you're AoEing for all you're worth... CoH is like that, with more particle effects.

So! City of Heroes prepared me for three opponents as an absolute minimum, wholesale slaughter arresting as a matter of course, and saving the galaxy a couple of times before breakfast. World of Warcraft took a bit of getting used to after that, with its crazy idea that one mob is a challenge for one player. "I need some murloc eyeballs... and look! A flange[1] of murlocs! ATTACK INDISCRIMINATELY WITH DAMAGING POWERS fireball fireball fireb... oh..." It was at that point that another difference from City of Heroes became apparent, where after level 14 most characters can fly, teleport, leap tall building in a single stride etc. This makes legging it a slightly easier process (so long as you haven't been knocked to the floor, rooted to the spot or otherwise mesmerised) than WoW, where your typical escape attempt consists of running away at almost exactly the same speed as your opponent, before bumping into another flange of murlocs ten feet away and getting killed by them.

[1] I'm not sure if that's the right collective noun.

Neither approach is inherently better, it just takes a bit of time to adjust from one to the other, and I sometimes wonder what it's like to come from the other direction.

In other random happenings, when an ambush last night caused a cry of "Dudes!", I was reminded of Fargo's fantastic Automated Online Role-Player, resulting in much saying of "Dude!" and "Lag", and when flipping through feeds this morning I noticed there's a new xkcd shirt based on a comic that's strangely appropriate for the "how to fit blogging in to work" conversation...

Friday, 9 November 2007

With music in my ears

With an unusually free evening, I went on a bit of gaming rampage last night, kicking off with City of Heroes. After my careful and detailed planning of my blaster's new build, I had a shopping list for invention enhancements to turn the mild-mannered distributor of moderate amounts of flaming peril (causing moderate singing, unless facing opponents whose interior décor favoured older soft furnishings not compliant with recent stringent non-flammability standards) into a powerhouse inferno of blazing destruction. The only snag in my plan is that somehow everybody else is after those same enhancements (it's almost like they confer some benefit to the character, or something), so I'm left with a bunch of speculatively low bids on stuff in the hope that someone makes a typo when putting an item up for sale, and a few successfully purchased recipes that were doubtless as cheap as they were because they need particularly costly salvage (on which I have some speculatively low bids...)

While on the subject of CoH, I might as well make a brief mention of the news that NCSoft are acquiring Cryptic (plus some more links). You might have noticed I tend not to really bother with MMO News here, as there's at least nine hundred and seventy three other sites covering that stuff, and very roughly 62.432% of them are updated more often than once every when-I-can-be-arsed, but seeing as I'm actually playing CoH at the moment I thought I might be able to offer something slightly more than copy n' pasting a press release and adding such piercing analysis as "CoH is... a... game! And has... some... updates! So this news might affect that in some way." Except I can't, really; ever since it was announced that Cryptic was developing Marvel Universe Online something had to give. Splitting CoH off to NCSoft makes a lot of sense, the whole thing seems to be progressing very smoothly, the CoH team appear to be excited by the future yet slightly regretful at leaving, generally very little drama and thus not nearly as appealing to commentators as the whole Sony/Vanguard business. There's talk of staffing up and vacancy postings, and I get the impression that the second expansion mooted after City of Villains might well be back on the table, though it'll take a while for the dust to settle. Exciting times! The most immediate benefit is a few bonuses being chucked in either now, or shortly after Issue 11: free CoH or CoV access if you had one but not the other (City of Villains wasn't, strictly speaking, an expansion, as you could own either of the games and only play Heroes/Villains if you really wanted, but I believe the majority of the player base have both), a debt wipe, and bonus prestige for supergroups. Nothing to complain about there, right? Course not, unless of course you're one of the tiny, yet oh-so-vocal, minority who manage to display the unerring ability of grabbing the gift horse, prising its jaws open, sticking your head right inside to look at those teeth good n' close then complaining it bit you.

Anyway, the whole "game where the second two words are 'of heroes' and the first one begins with 'c'" business suddenly made me remember I still had Company of Heroes: Opposing Front on the go, I hadn't played it since all the excitement of the Orange Box, so I fired that up for a couple more missions in the Allied Caen campaign. When I left off, I'd just been handed the defence of a key hill. I really though it would be a repeat of Hill 314 from the original game, where you got a handful of infantry and a few crew served weapons against a couple of panzer divisions. I was expecting 25 pounders desperately firing over open sights, heroic attempts to get PIAT attacks in from flanks etc. As it turned out, it ended up with me having an armoured company including several Fireflies, lead by a command tank, charging around the map to wherever a couple of Panzer IVs turned up while the commanders yelled "LOL TANKRUSHZERG KEKEKEKEKEKEKEKE!", helped out by the fact that apparently a slit trench makes five blokes with a Bren gun utterly invulnerable to the attentions of a Panther, which was nice.

After all that calm, considered strategy (KEKEKEKEKE!), I felt the need for some hyperactive twitching, so fired up Team Fortress 2 for a couple of rounds. I haven't really settled on a favourite class yet, I'm flipping around all of them if for nothing else than the achievement of playing a full round as each class. I quite like Medics, apart from the huge frustration of latching on to a Heavy to form a fearsome duo, only for them to wander off (very slowly) to a bizarrely pointless bit of the map to admire the scenery. As an Engineer, I frequently manage to set my sentry gun up somewhere that might, in other times, be strategically vital, but it turns out none of the enemy team come within range of during that round. As a Spy or Sniper, I'll manage an occasional inspired round of dominance, then spend the next ten minutes getting killed without even seeing it coming. Still, it's a bit of twitchy fun. While in Steam, I carried on with a few more rooms of Portal, which continues to nicely balance challenging puzzles, but not to the point that they become mouse-beatingly frustrating. I'm particularly liking the conservation of momentum through portals, flinging yourself from a great height through a portal to emerge in a totally different plane at high speed is brilliant.

To round things off and really wind down into a nice, relaxed state, I finished off with a bit of Rayman Raving Rabbids. My wife and I (several games work quite well co-operatively, with one person pointing/waving the Wiimote while the other furiously waggles the nunchuck (that's not a euphemism, by the way)) completed the "Story Mode", playing through the mini-games sequentially, so they're all unlocked for "Score Mode" now (where the aim is, oddly enough, to get the highest possible score). I think my favourite of the lot is "Bunnies Have A Great Ear For Music", where you're presented with a choir of rabbids singing (in a manner of speaking) "Ode to Joy". One of them, though, is playing up and shouting "blah blah blah blah blah", so you have to point at a rabbid, press "A" on the Wiimote to zoom in, and if that's the one mucking about, slap him with the nunchuck. Once you've found the culprit, another one starts misbehaving, so repeat the process until time's up. To help out, if you zoom in on a tuneful bunny standing next to the miscreant, they'll surreptitiously point in that direction to give you a clue. I've no idea *why* I like it so much, on any rational level it's just bizarre, if any blogger had posted "I've got a brilliant idea for a game, it's all about slapping out-of-tune rabbid-creatures in a choir!", I'd've filed them away with the ones demanding a *realistic* magic system in a fantasy MMO, but somehow it works... La la la la laa la la la laaaa la la la laaaaaaa la la *slap*

Some of us'll wind up to be lawyers and things

MMOG idea of the day: World of Lawcraft. In this exciting, roller-coaster ride you're presented with an incomprehensible end user license agreement, and must work out what it actually means and whether it's legally enforceable. If you accept the EULA in order to get on and play the game, you lose...

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

He's badly built and he walks on stilts

Via a bunch o' blogs, Nick Yee's Daedalus Project has a nice piece on the MMO player life-cycle. It looks like a pretty good description of the path I've followed through City of Heroes (all the way through to "Recovery") and World of Warcraft (once round the block, then back again for the expansion, currently sitting in "Burnout" for the second time; it wouldn't take too much to shift to "Recovery" there, but one game sub's enough really, especially with so many other games around at the moment). Assorted others (Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Auto Assault off the top of my head) never quite made it past "Practice".

Though City of Heroes is pretty firmly in "Recovery", I had a slight twinge of a "Mastery" flashback last night. I'd dusted off my original hero, a level 50 Blaster, for trick-or-treat badge gathering, and after filling the supergroup storage bins with large inspirations that dropped as treats, ran a few Rikti Warzone missions to make some use of them. After filling up with salvage and picking up a few recipes, well, you've got to hit the auction house, haven't you? With the Halloween event over, I was just checking to see how my sales were going, and all of a sudden felt the need to re-slot my powers and create a bunch of invention enhancements...

I've barely touched my Blaster's build in I don't how long... the last time I respecced was probably a couple of years ago when Enhancement Diversification came in (or "When the sky was rent asunder, and the boards were filled with insane over-reactions not seen since... well, whatever the last change in any MMO was"). In fact I've hardly planned a character at all since then (other than my level 50 villain). When craftable inventions were introduced six months ago I made a few, but didn't seriously investigate the options; firstly, there's a frankly brane-bending array of choice. There are one hundred and eighty two thousand different types of invention enhancement sets, containing no less than six billion and twelve different individual enhancements, with eight frarglillion possible bonuses for your character (note: figures may have been seasonally adjusted). Also, the overnight introduction of an economy meant prices were fluctuating like crazy for a while, especially as heroes with three years worth of influence earnings went on spending sprees (I had a fair amount kicking around myself, but I'd also converted millions into supergroup prestige, back when there wasn't anything to spend influence on after you'd kitted yourself out at level 50).

Now the market has (more or less) settled down, and it's been niggling away at me that I ought to slot up some invention sets for nifty bonuses. What finally pushed me to doing something was picking up a Sting of the Manticore recipe, plus the bits of salvage needed to create it. The Sting of the Manticore set has some pretty spiffy bonuses, like a 7.5% recharge boost, but for that you need five enhancements from the set slotted in a single power, which meant I needed another four enhancements (to the auction house!), and another slot in my sniper power (to the respec-o-meter!). A respec would've been a bit of a waste just to shift one slot, so I did a bit more digging to find out other benefits that can be obtained from invention sets; powers like Health, that used to be a grudgingly taken pre-requisite for Stamina, now offer interesting slotting options for a character without other healing powers, and before I knew it I'd downloaded a post-Issue 9 hero planner and was trying to decide between six-slotting Combat Jumping for the full set of Red Fortune bonuses, or going for Scirocco's Dervish in a PBAoE...

Then I snapped out of it, and switched back to my low level Corruptor, built around the principle of taking whatever power looked most fun at the time. Back to "Recovery" for me!

Friday, 2 November 2007

To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free

So I got Dance! Online up and running, and it's a bit of a disappointment really. The awesome power of 800x600 graphics means it either runs in a tiny window, or extreme stretch-o-vision fullscreen on a widescreen monitor. Not a major problem, I've never had time to pay attention to graphics in any DDR-type game, being too busy staring intently at arrows moving up the screen, but still. Then there's the interface which, presumably being aimed at those crazy kids rather than gaming codgers, uses plenty of bright colours n' pictures n' stuff, rather than those laughably outdated "word" things that, y'know, convey meaning n' stuff. It's also not terribly responsive, but hey, it's a beta, and none of that stuff would matter too much if the "dancing" itself was up to much. Sadly there's a bit of a problem there; firstly the game, theoretically, supports dance pads, but doesn't let you re-map the buttons, and it obviously wasn't happy with whatever my PlayStation adapter was sending out. A joystick to keyboard emulator lets you play on the keyboard setting, but even on the easiest levels I found the keyboard steps pretty challenging (I'd hope the pad versions are a bit simpler... either that, or I'm just hopeless at dance games).

Anyway, if nothing else it made me dust off the dance pad and plug it back in, so while it was there I fired up Stepmania, and cavorted in a peculiar manner to, amongst other things, the Fight! Kikkoman song.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

She's got that dark rhythm in her soul

I have a bit of a fondness for rhythm games. It started at the Game On exhibition five years ago, where they had a couple of dance pads hooked up to a PlayStation version of Dance Dance Revolution. I'd never seen it in arcades (having stopped frequenting them sometime around the Teenage Mutant NinjaHero Turtles game), so this strange and mysterious concept of stepping on arrows in time (well, vaguely in time) with music was rather interesting. A group of us picked up the game and a couple of pads, which was good for a giggle, but no good for non-console-owning me, until a bit of Googling turned up Stepmania and a PlayStation-to-USB connector.

Stepmania also had a huge advantage over the PlayStation game in that you could download extra songs, rather than be stuck with the fairly small collection of not-entirely-rubbish tunes on the official version. My personal favourites were the classic rock n' roll songs (Johnny B. Goode, Surfin' USA etc.), which bizarrely seemed to come from "DDR: Disney's Rave". As games go, it's not a bad workout either, which is no bad thing for me.

Then there was Guitar Hero and its open source PC equivalent, Frets on Fire, as I posted about a few times, basically the same thing only pushing buttons on a plastic guitar instead of stepping on a mat but very much more my style of music (I can't believe the scarcity of user-made thrash metal songs in Stepmania) , and I'm eagerly awaiting the third instalment of that for the Wii (and slightly miffed that it's already out in America). Rayman Raving Rabbids on the Wii also has a nunchuck-shaking rhythm game which is rather fun (and has the bonus of weird dancing mutant bunny things). As a result of all those (and general laziness), my dance pad's been folded up in the corner of the room for a while, but I may have to dust it off after spotting Dance! Online (follow that link to sign up with me as your referrer for... er... I dunno, really, but still) over at RandomBattle. I thought after the 600Mb-ish initial download I might be shaking my groove thang (as I rather believe they say on the street), but it turns out it wants to patch itself up with another couple of billion files, so looks like it'll have to wait 'til tomorrow before I strut my funky stuff (man).

Friday, 26 October 2007

Curiously Orange

It seems like the entire rest of the PC gaming world has been swept up by The Orange Box, and after a brief attempt (mostly during the installation process while trying to remember previous Steam login details) to be the cool hipster, swimming against the tide and not liking the popular thing, the current caught me and pried loose my tenuous grasp on an upturned tree-root of curmudgeonliness, dashing me against the jagged rocks of really-quite-goodness... erm... quick, someone throw a lifebelt to get me out of this increasingly strange aquatic metaphor...

Anyway. It says something about a software compilation when the least exciting bit of it turns out to be the multi-award-winning game-of-the-year/decade/century/millenium/aeon/last-five-minutes Half Life 2 and its two expansions. I've worked through a bit more of the original game, but it's vying with Red Steel for "FPS that I'll probably get around to again sometime, maybe, if there's nothing else really". Then there's Portal. I'm rationing myself, as the two things that everyone seems to agree on is that it's a sublime work of genius, and also short. Actually it's probably only the latter that *everyone* agrees on, so I'm not too far in yet (or possibly really near the end, depending on just how short it is). Reduced to component parts, it's a standard WASD first person game with hints of The Incredible Machine, some crazy gravity/physics like Prey, and the dropping-stuff-on-a-pressure-pad-to-keep-a-door-open-centric gameplay of Eye of the Beholder (and probably about a billion other places, but that's the one that sticks in the mind), but, like a shot of espresso, caramel syrup and a bunch of ice cubes, when blended together they become this new and exciting thing that surpasses the individual elements. Unless you're one of those coffee nuts who go crazy for perfect espresso, in which case you're watering down the good stuff and turning it into some undrinkable sludge, for heaven's sake, you probably didn't even hand-grind your own hand-roasted beans you hand-picked; if that's the case, you can hand-craft your own metaphor here. Finally (if not counting Peggle, which is... Peggle! Mental note: must try running City of Heroes and Peggle in adjacent windows, that could liven up trick-or-treating) there's Team Fortress 2. I never played the original Team Fortress, and TF2 didn't immediately seem to offer much over any number of other team-based online shooters, most recently Unreal Tournament 3 and Quake Wars: Enemy Territory which are both with Hellgate: London on my "rather enjoyed the demo but there's just too many darn games around to justify buying the full thing at moment" list. The cartoon graphics didn't really do much for me, but hey, it was in The Orange Box, and Melmoth was online and fired up about it (side note: Incredibles MMOG, top idea!), might as well give it a go...

Initial impressions weren't great. Picking a Heavy as a fairly simple-looking (in all senses) chap, death came frequently from all sides (snipers half a mile away, a spy right behind you, any number of other exploding and/or projectile based assaults), and nobody was obliging enough to stand still so I could shoot them back. Flipping around a few classes led to similar results, with varying levels of ineffectiveness in attack with whatever peashooter I'd been handed compared to the clearly superior lethal instruments everyone else had been issued with. Not a great start.

The first breakthrough was the Pyro. This class eschews nonsense like "aiming" in favour of getting really close to people and setting them on fire. Of course there can be a great amount of skill in playing a Pyro well, lurking in ambush points, carefully setting up short range attacks on unsuspecting opponents... or! You can exhibit a total lack of self-preservation, and hurl yourself towards the enemy screaming "Mmmmmmf mmmm mmmmmph mmmm mmmmmm mmmmmff!" (your mask slightly muffles your speech, see). You'll still die, but with a bit of luck you might set a few of them on fire in the process, possibly even fatally. Playing the Pyro for a while, I got a bit more into the swing of things, started figuring out what was going on a bit, learning the maps. I flipped through the classes some more; playing a Sniper had two possible outcomes. If the rest of my team were dominating, I could get set up somewhere, usually next to a couple of other snipers, and ruthlessly pick off the enemy as soon as they stuck their heads into the open. I got my all-time kill record that way, but felt terribly guilty about butchering poor unfortunates who barely had a chance to fight back. If the teams are balanced, snipers usually get into a cat-and-mouse, Enemy at the Gates-esque duel, where one of them gets a helmet on a stick and pokes it up out of their hiding place, and the other one calculates the angles involved and ricochets a bullet off the inside of the helmet to take them out, and in those circumstances I'm usually slightly slower on the trigger... I'll have them all but in my sights, finger poised, butPOW! Dead again. The Scout is fun, speeding around the place with a baseball bat; Soldiers and Demomen are OK. I must try the Engineer again now I have a bit more of an idea what's going on; as a Spy, when in diguise I seem to be carrying around a giant placard labelled "HELLO! I MAY APPEAR TO BE ON YOUR TEAM, BUT I'M NOT REALLY! SHOOT MEH!" Either that, or with no friendly fire, everyone shoots everyone... I suspect it's option B, actually. I know I do.

The one class I didn't play at all was the Medic. I've done my rants about support classes, blah blah blah, I want to shoot things, yada yada. Then, last night, after being counter-sniped for the umpteenth time on the 2Forts map, I was trying to decide what class to switch to, and thought... why not. Just to prove I'll hate it. Just the once, I'll play the medic. Finding a nearby Soldier I fired up the old healing beam, and off we went, storming up the map, pushing past a chokepoint in a hail of explosions. It wasn't too bad after all... After dying, I figured I'd give it another shot, latched on to a Heavy, lasted long enough to get the Ubercharge off for a few seconds of invincibility, and somewhere along the line our team grabbed the intelligence, I managed to heal the capturing scout a bit before he vanished. It's not as if there's any hanging around, carefully assessing team-mate's health and deciding which powers to use, it's slap on the healing gun and try and keep up with whatever nutter you're following, while maintaining situational awareness so you're not in the line of fire, and keeping an eye for bastard spies who are usually your nemesis. It's not all jam and sardines (even aside from the aforementioned spies); you need to find someone to be healing to start with, which can occasionally be tricky (until your team notice someone's playing the doc, at which point you'll hear nothing but "MEDIIIIC!" for the next month or so), and while your healing beam can turn a good player into an awesome dispenser of death, it turns rubbish players into rubbish players who survive ever so slightly longer before pointlessly dying (I'm more the latter than the former myself with a gun, but still). I'm not going to exclusively be a Medic in every TF2 game ever, but if nobody else is playing one (quite probable, judging from the random public servers I've been hopping around so far), I'll give it a lash.

The whole style of the game has really grown on me too, the cartoonish graphics, the magnificently over-the-top accents. It just lightens things up a little; most online shooters take themselves pretty seriously, even the latest incarnation of Unreal Tournament seems to have toned down it's bright shiny colours into drab dystopian-future industrial landscapes, everyone's terribly grim faced. They're a SERIOUS BUSINESS! Team Fortress 2 emphasises the fun, and is all the better for it.

The ticking of the clocks

I'm still flailing away in a vast sea of games; quite literally, in the case of Rayman Raving Rabbids. Its peculiar sense of humour and simple but varied range of mini-games are strangely compelling, plus I get to kid myself that furiously waggling Wii controllers is an efficient cardio-vascular upper-body exercise. I know, like in Wii Sports, small, quick movements give the same (if not greater) accelerometer results as huge, sweeping swings, but that's not the point is it? If you're going to play motion sensitive baseball, you might as well launch yourself into a ludicrously exaggerated spin while pretending to hit a virtual ball.

In MMOGland, City of Heroes trick-or-treating continues apace. Well, I say "apace", it's quite a slow pace. Standing entirely still, actually. My main badge-gathering hero has most of the previous Halloween event badges for killing assorted witches, werewolves, giant pumpkin-things, ghosts, zombies, people with really cheap plastic tridents and pointy teeth who can't make up their mind if they're a demon or vampire and surly teenagers in casual clothes who might stick a plastic mask on if they're really making an effort before demanding stuff. Something like that, at least... I've also got extra costume slots from the event salvage, which I think just leaves the three new badges they added this year, for collecting costumes. In the cold light of efficiency metrics the best way to get these is to stand in front of the same door (you could move around, but there wouldn't be much point), and click on it once every 60 seconds in the hope of getting appropriate treats. This isn't the most scintillating activity ever devised, but I just love those badges... On the plus side, the hectic one-click-per-minute (with occasional blasting of spooky villainy) action affords ample time for reading, watching television, chatting, or anything else you can squeeze into roughly-57 second chunks. It's also proven me entirely wrong in predicting that I'd never use the stopwatch feature of the G15 keyboard.

Mostly, though, I've succumbed to the delights of The Orange Box, which I think deserves a post of its own...

Monday, 22 October 2007

More games to play

Games! So many games, oh my.

First up, The Orange Box turned up last Friday. This is a perfect compilation for me; I got Half-Life 2 with an ATI 9600XT graphics card a while back; at least, I got a voucher for it. Then it got delayed for a while, as I recall, and by the time it actually came out, the system only just supported it. I played through a bit, but was mid-CoH and/or WoW, so never quite finished it, and never got around to re-installing Steam on subsequent builds for that or Episode 1, so to get them in a box along with Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal and (of course) Peggle Extreme? Sorted! In theory, I could gift Half-Life 2 itself to someone else, but only if I could remember those original Steam account details, and though I'm fairly sure I remember the address I used I got bored five minutes after clicking "send my account details/password" and created a new account.

First priority on installation, naturally, was a quick game of Peggle... which took care of Friday. I've restarted Half-Life 2, with a view to finishing that before going on to Episodes 1 and 2, haven't even fired up TF2, and then, of course, there's Portal...

Friday evening, we had friends round, when once again the Wii came into its own, allowing a veteran hardcore gamer and total non-gamer to duke it out in Wii tennis on a level playing field. I think the hotly contested match wound up at one set apiece, after a couple of epic games that stayed at deuce for ages... The hardcore gamer had already finished Portal on Steam, and spoke of it so highly we had to have a go at the first couple of levels right then, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of it. Inspired by the multiplayer Wii fun, and a handily placed newspaper advert for game discounts at Argos, I then went and picked up Rayman Raving Rabbids (utterly insane game, lots of fun) and Red Steel (seems like a fairly average shooter, but uses the Wii controls well). Oh, and stuck a pre-order in for Guitar Hero 3 while in town.

Then! there's the Hellgate: London demo, I had to give that a try, and I rather liked it. Hard to make much of an assessment from such a short time, but it was a lot of zombie-splatting fun, with extra loot. Where Tabula Rasa puts a little bit of shooter electroplating on an MMOG, but is really quite conventional at heart, Hellgate seems first and foremost a first person shooter (for the Marksman class, third person stabber if you're a Blademaster) with a MMOGy veneer of levels, skill trees and loot aplenty. Didn't really like the Blademaster, but I've never been much into 3rd person games, I much preferred packing a pair of pistols as a Marksman. The real classics of the FPS/RPG hybrid (Deus Ex, System Shock 1/2) stood out for their powerful story, but I could easily see myself being drawn into a not-quite-so strong story for more piles of random loot... The post-apocalyptic/alien/zombie London setting looks quite fun too. If not for the huge pile of other stuff I'm building up I'd certainly pick it up; as it is, I might leave it a while. Probably wouldn't go for the subscription as well, though, I think I'd be happy enough without those extra features (though the extra storage would be a huge temptation for my pack-rat-ism).

Finally, like that little lot isn't enough to keep me busy for the next six months, it's Trick-or-Treat time in City of Heroes, with an event almost identical to the last couple of years, only now with added mob-group costumes which are rather neat (and just as importantly, have associated badges) and our villain posse wrapped up the first strike force, despatching Bat'Zul to whatever pit he came from without too much trouble (though with three Shivans, which certainly helped). Phew!

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The sound of the keys as they clink

Back in the world of hand-held gadgets, Nokia announced the N810, and it's looking really rather nifty. All the WiFi/Bluetooth/open source goodness of the N800 in a more compact (and better looking) package, with added sliding keyboard and GPS. The N810's single miniSD slot is a slight step back from the N800s two regular SD slots (I've got a bunch of regular SD cards kicking around already), but not the end of the world.

Course, just to keep life complicated, Steve Jobs also announced an iPhone/iPod Touch SDK, so they can finally get proper 3rd party applications without going through the "jailbreak" rigmarole. That's not coming until February 2008, though; maybe the next generation or two of Apple tablets will finally nail my perfect hand-held.

In the meantime, about the only potential sticking point left for the N810 is the price. The N800 managed to turn a US price of $380 to nearly £300; the N810's been announced at $480, heaven knows what that'll work out to in the UK. Under £300 I'll go for it, more than £350 is pushing it, between the two... Well, let's see...

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

When the time is right to strike

Our villainous posse had a good old crack at the first City of Villains Strike Force last night, kicking arse and taking names (only having lost our notepads, and chewed the ends of our biros so all the ink leaked everywhere). My previous fevered ramblings seemed to act as a kind of catharsis, and I managed to keep the AoE attacks down to a sensible level. I spent a while preparing, buying up cheap, unpopular, high level invention recipes and selling them on to make a bit of infamy (I could've just transferred some from a higher level villain, but that would be a rather un-villainous act of charity), and picked up a couple of invention sets with handy bonuses like +Recovery, and an assortment of other Single, Dual and Invention Origin enhancements to beef up my powers, particularly the recharge rates on the Kinetic buff/debuffs. This was a great help in reducing the temptation to let fly with every attack, almost removing the downtime while waiting for something useful to recharge, when a wandering Corruptor's thoughts could all-too-easily turn to FROST BREATH! ICE STORM! FREEZING AoE DOOOOOM, MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!1!

I wasn't the lone support-type this time either (though "support" is a somewhat relative term in CoV, where the archetypes tend to be more DPS-who-can-hide, DPS-that's-slightly-less-squishy, DPS-with-a-bit-of-support, DPS-with-holds and DPS-through-pets), with Bob's Dark/Dark Corruptor dishing out the... dark. Dark Miasma, like Kinetics, has a heal that needs to hit a target, so if one of us missed, the other would usually land (though naturally when really, *really* needed, they'd both miss, demonstrating Murphy's law laughs in the face of cumulative probabilities). Between our fearsome powers of hero-smiting, and the occasionally slightly more circumspect technique of getting an invisible person to find the boss we needed to defeat and teleporting the rest of the group there, nothing could stand in our way... except Real Life(tm). When it comes to stopping evildoing, The Assembled Crimefighting League Of Avenging Justice have nothing on having to get up for work the next day, so we didn't quite get to defeat Bat'Zul himself. Next week, Bat'Zul, next week! (So long as no more important commitments take priority, that is...)

Thursday, 11 October 2007

I need something to support me

A little while back, there was an interesting post on Keen & Graev's splendid blog, "Why do players prefer a DPS role?". As I said in the comments at the time, it's not so much DPS that I like, it's "enemy focused combat" (as inspired by the episode of People Like Us that goes into the difference between "pupil centred teaching" and "teacher centred learning"). I hate hanging around, seeing what happens, reacting appropriately...

Perhaps it's something ingrained from years of single player gaming prior to getting into MMOs, where the idea of a "support role" doesn't really exist, it's just you, and a whole bunch o' the enemy (or some pegs, if you're playing Peggle). The only way to play is to focus on the enemy (usually in order to inflict large amounts of damage somehow). Starting with City of Heroes as my first MMO meant I didn't get exposed to the "holy trinity" of mandatory tank/healer/DPS. Almost any combination of classes worked together; instead of a healer, you could bring along a force-field defender to throw up a shield so you didn't get hit in the first place; instead of a tank taunting and soaking up damage, you could have a controller holding and immobilising mobs to stop them getting near you. It's like they didn't *quite* trust themselves to break away completely, though, so you still had tanks (you can tell, 'cos the archetype is called "Tanker"), and you still had healers. Sort of. You actually have "Empathy defenders", whose initial powers are heals, but they also get a bunch of nifty buffs later, and a whole secondary powerset of attacks.

Anyway, after trying a few different characters, I never really liked the ones who helped out fellow heroes, or stood around getting punched a lot. Raining flaming death upon all and sundry? Much more like it, so I continued down the "never mind the team-mates, here's a fireball" path, and again into World of Warcraft with a Rogue (though more swords than fireballs in that case). I'm not sure if I went with those classes as they suit the way I play, or after playing those classes my playstyle has adapted to suit them (nature vs nurture, hmm...) Whatever it is, I've tried to diversify into support characters now and again, most recently with an Ice/Kinetics Corruptor in City of Villains. Corruptors have access to a set of ranged attacks (Ice, in this case), and a support powerset; Kinetics is quite interesting, generally debuffing an opponent to buff your team, so there's a power that slows a mob while boosting your own speed etc.

The first challenge to the support-mindset is, every two levels, you get to pick a new power. So at level 16, I'm sitting there, looking at what I can select... I should really be picking pre-requisite powers that will lead up to Stamina, as the endurance boost it gives makes life so much easier, but they're so terribly dull. I could pick Increase Density, a way of freeing allies from holds, very useful in teams, excellent support power. Or I could take Ice Storm, SHOWERING FROZEN DOOM UPON MY FOES, MUAHAHAHA! Guess which I took?

So then we're off on a jail break, me, a Brute and a Stalker. The Brute and Stalker are DPS archetypes, their raison d'etre is DPS. The most efficient course of action is for me to support them doing this damage, buff their damage output, heal them, generally be supportive. And I try. Honestly, I do try, I check they're standing near, fire off the damage buff, check their health bars, they're looking OK... pom de pom... damage buff recharging... tum te tum... single target ice blast to finish off the Brute's target... health bars still OK... what harm could be done by a quick FROST BREATH! ICE STORM! FREEZING AoE DOOOOOM, MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!1!

The answer is, of course, "plenty". And not just to the mobs, who (quite unreasonably, in my view) take a dim view of their frosty assault, and start hitting poor, squishy me, causing desperate popping of inspirations and flailing for the heal (which needs to hit a mob to take effect, fortunately doing so in this case).

Next lot of mobs... well, it's pretty similar. I know AoE attacks aren't a particularly bright idea, but there's all those guards, standing so close together, just a tiny little attack, sure n' they won't even notice, ah go on, just a quick FROST BREATH! ICE STORM! FREEZING AoE DOOOOOM, MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!1!

They do notice. And kill me (again, really quite an overreaction, if you ask me). After finishing them off, a team-mate passes over an Awaken inspiration so I can resurrect and carry on. And I really have learned by lesson now, no more ill-judged AoEs, certainly not! This resolve lasts a good couple of minutes, then the temptation just gets too much, and it's FROST BREATH! ICE STORM! FREEZING AoE DOOOOOM, MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!1!

It's not so much I feel I have to be doing damage, if I was a Dominator I'd be happy lofting holds at anything that moved. It's not entirely a "DPS" thing, it's more I need to be doing something, and while the buff/debuffs are recharging, attacking is all that's left. Yes, I have the attention span of a gnat, and not even a particularly attentHAI WHAT'S THAT OVER THERE??, though once again, m'lud, I blame society. Or games with a focus on MOVE! JUMP! SHOOT! RUN! TWITCH! Inaction is DEATH! CLICK! CLICK FOR YOUR LIFE!, reinforced by playing MMOs that same way as DPS-types. It's not that I can't spend hours contemplating minor adjustments to the tax rates of all my cities in Medieval: Total War, or carefully equipping a squad in UFO: Alien Invasion (a nifty open source XCom-alike I was playing last night); I was just whining about needing a pause option in RTS games, after all. MMOs have just got wired into the "twitch" part of my brain.

There were a few other challenges in the mission, like annoying enemy group proxomitiy that meant chasing a final mob from one group tended to aggro another, and Longbow flamethrowers, flaming AoE attacks being particularly damaging when we're all clustered together for my buffs to take effect, but we did make it through in the end (albeit losing 2 of the 3 NPCs we were supposed to rescue on the way, but hey, who cares about NPCs?). There were a few deaths, but fortunately my itchy trigger-finger (or icy-palm, or whatever is used to launch cold attacks) mostly just to lead to my own doom, except in a couple of cases where the lack of support from my twitching corpse led to the whole team getting overwhelmed.

I don't know if there's a cure. I suppose I could take my AoE attacks off the power bar, so I can't use them. Some sort of self-help hypnosis tape, involving taking deep breaths, perhaps... "Apply buffs, now breathe in... hold... 3, 4, 5... and out. And relax, while not launching attacks." Maybe there's a patch, or a chewing gum? "Feel like launching an AoE attack? Just chew a stick of IcyFresh gum! That same cool hit, but with no aggro drawn!" Or I could wire up the attack keys to a battery... FROST BRzzzzzzzzapOW! Aversion therapy, that ought to do it. Or! I could just be so poor that my team-mates get exasperated, roll a support character themselves, and play it properly. Decisions, decisions...

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Wii pointed out the way to go

I'd vaguely seen a few gadget-blog headlines around about using a Wii remote to control PC applications, but not paid too much attention. Then, you know how it goes, you're sitting around one evening with a USB bluetooth dongle, a Wii remote, a pot of marmalade and half a sliced loaf, and you think to yourself... "I really fancy some toast and marmalade. Oh, and I wonder how easy it is to actually get the Wii remote recognised by the PC."

Turns out, it's a piece of cake (getting the Wiimote working, that is. The toast and marmalade isn't a piece of cake, that would be weird. Unless you'd made bread and butter pudding with it, or something, but then that's more pudding than cake, surely?) Just follow this handy guide (though it seems to be in reverse order, start with 9 and work back), and the splendid WiinRemote and/or GlovePIE can translate your frantic waggling into PC input! I couldn't be bothered to drag the sensor bar over (or light a couple of candles on top of the PC monitor, despite that clearly being a flawless plan) so didn't try the IR sensor/pointer, but the motion sensors and nunchuck joystick certainly worked.

If you have a PC connected to a television, the Wii remote could be a handy wireless pointer, and it might be interesting trying PC games with it, but what really prompted me to give it a try was the closer-looming release of Guitar Hero 3 for the Wii (or the further-away-looming release for us Europeans, as various online stores release predictions move from the end of October to early, mid and/or late November). As the Wii remote slots into the guitar, hopefully the inputs can be picked up for Frets on Fire, for extra rocking-type fun! (I tried Frets on Fire a while back, after having to hand back Guitar Hero, but it turns out it's far easier to believe yourself to be the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix when standing, legs akimbo, pressing buttons on a small plastic guitar than sitting at a PC pressing F1-F5 on a keyboard...)

Monday, 8 October 2007

... of Heroes

I had a fairly quiet weekend for once, so managed to get in a bit of gaming (between rugby world cup quarter finals). I'd picked up Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts when it was released, and finished off the German Market Garden campaign last night. Generally it was fun, though it did seem to be monstrously unfair attacking paratroops in Arnhem (heaviest armament: a PIAT, the anti-tank equivalent of launching baked bean tins with a spring) with massed armour. Accurate, perhaps, but not terribly sporting... Next up, the British campaign to take Caen, when at least I shouldn't feel quite so guilty about completing mission objectives. I also got to use the programmable-key functions of the G15 keyboard, even if it was only to put the pause key in a more convenient place for the left hand.

As widely reported there was a stress test for Pirates of the Burning Sea, covered by an NDA, but I would imagine such a test would prominently feature overcrowding, queues, collapsing servers and/or more lag than you experience on a Monday morning before drinking a lot of coffee (or is it just me who misses when trying to put a foot into a trouser leg, falls over backwards onto the bed and shouts "LAAAGGGG!"?) 'Cos, y'know, that's rather the point of a stress test. Still, I'm sure a bunch of people took the opportunity to have a bit of a peak, so it'll be interesting to see how that's going once the NDA is lifted.

I did actually get a bit of MMOGing in, in City of Heroes (just to keep up the theme of playing three word games, the second two being "of Heroes" and the first beginning with "C". Look out for Cheese of Heroes in the shops soon, unless Crinkle-cut Crisps of Heroes gets released first...) There's lots of shiny looking stuff coming in Issue 11, notably time-travelling to go back to content you have have missed, and weapon customisation. For a game with such amazing costume options, it's always been slightly ironic that everyone got issued the exact same katana/axe/so-called "assault rifle" that really resembles a super-soaker water pistol on Day 1 of hero school, and has never bothered changing it. Digging around my list of characters there was a distinct lack of weapon-wielders (not to worry, I'll doubtless roll up somebody with the new dual blade powerset in Issue 11), though I did turn up a Claws Scrapper in his mid-20s, and had some fun slicing up some villainy in preparation for slicing up more villainy, with slightly different slicing-things.

Finally the ever-splendid Rock, Paper, Shotgun had a link to a demo of Escape from Paradise City. I set off the download, then promptly forgot all about it until last thing last night, hastily installed it, and played for all of a couple of minutes, but it has me intrigued with the suggestion of Syndicate-meets-GTA-meets-XCom-meets-Baldur's Gate and Freedom Force and... stuff!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Time! Got the time tick, tick, tickin' in my head.

Time, that fickle mistress, sometimes smothering you like giant flannel, other times flitting out of reach like an escaped pet hamster with a jet pack. Currently I'm experiencing the latter (lack of time, that is, not an escapee hamster with a jet pack, I don't think rodent technology has progressed that far). Not much time for playing, still less time for blogging, though that itself prompted this post... Time is money, as they say, and as another round of "RMT: alternative payment model, or satanic abomination from the lower reaches of Beelzebub's pit?" sweeps the blag-u-spore, I say to you this: a man doth have two sons, and to one son he gives land and geese and sugar and socks, and to the other he doth give but a tangled slinky... no, wait, wrong parable.

A man doth have two sons, and one son toils for forty hours in Lord of the Warquest to gather the materials he requires and creates a Helm Of Teh Uber. The other son toils for forty hours in a small newsagent or shoe shop, and with ten dollars from his paycheck he buys a Helm of the Uber. Which of these brothers truly earned his helm, hmm? Ahhhhhh! For bonus points, would any of the following affect the answer:
i) Buying items for real currency is forbidden in the EULA of Lord of the Warquest
ii) Items can be bought with real currency from the publishers of Lord of the Warquest
iii) The gathering of materials for the helm in-game is a long, involving quest sequence featuring much travel and fierce battles
iv) The gathering of materials for the helm in-game is a tedious, repetitive business that could be performed by a 'bot with five lines of BASIC programming (10 RUN UP TO MOB 20 KILL MOB 30 LOOT MOB 40 PRINT "LOLOLLOL" 50 GOTO 10), if such things weren't forbidden in the EULA

Friday, 28 September 2007

How sweet to be an idiot

We all want more intelligence in games. MMOG mobs are so stupid, developers just give them loads of hit points to make them a "challenge", BORING!, it would be much better if they were more intelligent (we say, until they actually exhibit any signs of intelligence like going after squishy healers no matter how many "yo mama" jokes the tank knows, at which point the mobs are obviously cheating and it's not fair and we're not coming back until you make them stupid again). Worse than stupid enemies, though, are stupid allies. How frustrating are escort missions in any genre (space sims, FPS, RPG, any of 'em) when whatever you're escorting has as much imagination as a caravan site; YES I SHALL JUST PROCEED AT A RATHER SLOW PACE IN A TOTALLY STRAIGHT LINE TOWARDS MY OBJECTIVE OVER THERE (UNLESS I ENCOUNTER PATHING ISSUES IN WHICH CASE I MIGHT JUST SPIN ON THE SPOT UNTIL I GET KILLED)! How many times have you cursed 'bot team-mates in an FPS or NPC allies in an RPG?

I downloaded the demo of World in Conflict, which seems to be a fairly regular Real Time (Strategy/Tactical/Continuation of Politics by Other Means) game, and was pondering its use of "special abilities". Your M2 Bradley IFVs will happily plunk away with chain guns at anything sufficiently Soviet within range, but will only fire TOW missiles when you click the appropriate "special ability" button and designate a target. It seemed like somewhat excessive micromanagement, typical artificial lack-of-intelligence ("there's a T-72 ahead that's all but impervious to the chain gun, whatever shall we do? I know, keep shooting at it with the chain gun unless our commander specifically tells us to fire a TOW!"), but then... if the unit did always employ its weapons effectively, and had a sensible approach to cover, and was generally "intelligent", what would be left for you as its human overlord? You'd just sort of generally wave somewhere and say "off you go, chaps, give those commies what-for, eh?"

I remember a similar situation in Baldur's Gate (1 or 2, or possibly both...) It had a rather nifty scripting system for controlling your party in combat; you could directly give them orders, otherwise they'd behave according to an assigned script. Included in the game were some fairly basic scripts, like "Hit stuff with swords" (IF enemy near THEN hit it with a sword OTHERWISE make a beeline for the nearest one and hit them with a sword) and "Shoot stuff with arrows" (IF enemy in range THEN shoot it with arrows UNLESS you've run out, in which case I dunno, I don't think there's a command for wandering off to a convenient fletcher's shop mid-battle). A marginal improvement over standing around like lemons, but they still needed a lot of coaxing for optimal tactics, but then that's rather the point of CRPG fights.

It didn't take the community too long to get the hang of the scripting system to improve things somewhat so you didn't need to get quite so annoyed at the "Hit stuff with swords" fighter plunging into the middle of mortal peril with only three hit points left because his script has no sense of self preservation, or the "Shoot stuff with arrows" ranger blazing away with really rather expensive +3 arrows at a near-dead kobold posing almost no threat whose main use would be to give the fighter a chance to use that Cleave feat he just picked up. Some of the scripts they ended up with were pretty amazing, they'd prioritise opponents, select appropriate weapons and/or spells to deal with them, heal both themselves and other members of the party, make a slap-up breakfast and analyse radio telescope data for the possibility of alien life. The only drawback is that they could leave you feeling slightly redundant; your party, under the control of their scripts, was quite capable of defeating the majority of encounters with no intervention from you. So too much intelligence/efficiency in scripting can cause problem of its own (that slight feeling of redundancy as your units work perfectly well on their own, naturally leading up to computers developing cognitive powers and taking over the world)

A bit of stupidity in your companions/troops can be a good thing, then, as it gives you something to do, so long as (and it's a big "so long as") you don't have to try and do it in real time. That's my beef with a lot of RTS games these days, they don't have slow time options, or the ability to give units orders while the game is paused. Perhaps it's because they're mostly aimed at multiplayer gaming where obviously pausing isn't going to work (I just can't get into online RTS gaming, probably because the whole point of *Strategy* for me is careful pondering, not frantic hyperclicking), but it does mean that, nine times out of ten, the most efficient possible approach is "stack up a whole load of units in a really big mass and rumble around blowing stuff up". Your staple of military planning, for example, the two progned assault is right out. You send one group off one way, one the other way. One lot hits a minefield, the other lot encounters a dug in anti-tank gun. Because your chaps are a bit dense, you need to personally oversee them; unless you can pause the game to issue orders, or at least slow time right down, you have a bit of a problem. Either you find that first group, select them again, tell them to halt, find the engineers and send them forward to clear the mines while their comrades give covering fire, in which case your second prong merrily drives slowly over totally open ground getting picked off by the anti-tank gun ("OH NO! Geoff's tank just exploded, what should I do? I know, continue driving slowly in exactly the same direction as before!") Or you concentrate on that second prong, halting out of the firing line and either calling in an artillery strike on the gun or sending some commandos up in a stealty flanking attack, in which case the first prong demonstrate the impressive minesweeping technique known as "driving forwards until something explodes".

In conclusion, then: make stuff stupid, and also make it really slow. How could that fail?