Monthly Archives: 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?

I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide

In the crazy world of smartphones/PDAs/general gadget-type things you hold in your hand (I quite like “Mobile Internet Device”, the term mooted for some future devices based around new Intel chips, though “MID” is a particularly dull TLA) the iPod Touch, the phoneless iPhone, was the answer to my prayers. Out of the box, not perfect, but so long as a few third party applications could be installed, it should be just the job. It’s very similar to the iPhone, after all, on which people are installing applications like mad application-installing-people (after overflowing a couple of buffers and generally poking around where man was not intended to poke (no, not there, you filthy minded person)), so third party stuff aplenty will be available for the iPod Touch, right?

Maybe not… OK, it’s still early days, but where I thought Apple’s approach might be “oh no, you can’t install third party applications WINK WINK, no siree bob, certainly not if you HAPPEN TO RUN THIS INSTALLER PROGRAM THING lordy where did that come from?”, it seems they’re slightly more “no, you can’t install third party applications AND I’M NOT WINKING, or even shouting the word ‘WINK’, or performing any other actions that may in any way suggest the words I am speaking are not the literal and direct truth”. And without a few installable 3rd party apps for, say, eBook reading, note taking etc., the iPod Touch goes from being a total PDA replacement to an MP3 player that can replace a PDA when in WiFi range. Bah and furthermore humbug.

While the iPod Touch becomes less appealing, feverish speculation is coming from the world of Nokia Internet Tablets with FCC documents that hint at the arrival of an N800 with built-in GPS/the promised WiMax version of the N800/a totally new Internet Tablet/a giant piece of toast with magical powers. I dunno, just as you think you’ve gone and made a decision, everything changes again. It’s a tough life, being a user of general gadget-type things you hold in your hand…

It was just that the time was wrong

Another lacklustre weekend of gaming; I didn’t particularly feel like playing much, catching up on television instead and getting back into rugby season with London Irish’s first home game of the season.

I tinkered around with the new G15 keyboard a bit, and found some splendid applets at G15 Forums for displaying date, time, CPU usage, network traffic and such on the LCD screen. I didn’t manage to come up with any uses for the bank of programmable keys, but I’m sure there’s something I can bind them to…

At a loose end for an hour, I spotted the Tabula Rasa shortcut on my desktop, so I thought I’d poke my nose in and see if much had changed. “No” would be the short answer (though as I’d spent all of an hour or two in the game since gaining access to the beta, I doubt I would have picked up many changes short of the addition of giant dancing hippos to the tutorial). I’m not sure if there’s been a character wipe or I just connected to a different server, but the pinnacle of my previous achievements, a glorious level 4 character, wasn’t there. Zapping through the tutorial again, I pushed on, passed the “meh” barrier I’d hit before, and got quite into it, reaching a yet more impressive level 7 and specialising as a soldier on the way. In so many ways it’s a good game, visually lovely, plenty of that all-important polish… Another time, I could easily see me subscribing, but I just can’t really muster any MMO enthusiasm at the moment.

Browsing around the release schedules, there’s a few other games I might take a look at; the Medieval II: Total War expansion, and World in Conflict, a Cold War RTT (Real Time Tactical, which apparently is the same as RTS only without the resource gathering, but I suspect mostly exists as a separate term so people can get into arguments over their precise definitions) game is getting very good reviews. My inner grognard really craves some World War II tank-action, though, so first on the list might well be Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, a “stand alone expansion” (i.e. it’s an expansion, but we’ll charge an extra tenner for it in case you don’t have the original game, even though many people who buy it probably will). Apart from anything else, they deserve kudos for including the British and Canadians, as some World War II games do take a slightly Saving Private Ryan-y approach to the playable forces (Eddie Izzard:”…it would have been nice to show a British soldier. Maybe we could just look ’round the edge of the frame, Hello! Hello, I’m a British soldier, this is a Canadian soldier here, Free French, some free Polish. There’s Australians and New Zealanders, there’s some Indian soldiers, South Africans. All been fighting here. What’s the name for us? Oh, The Allies, that’s it – The Allies, Hello, hello. How’re you getting on?”), and Market Garden can be a excellent setting, as in the classic Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far.

Saturday Night Fry

Neil Gaiman’s journal had a link, saying Stephen Fry had started blogging, about smartphones no less. I idolise Stephen Fry as far as is permitted under law, and coupled with my interest in the iPhone/iPod Touch (Fry is a huge Apple devotee), I hastened off to follow the link. Unfortunately it seems the rest of the internet had a similar idea, and his site was slashdotted (despite not actually being linked from /. so far as I can make out). Popping the blog link into Google Reader, though, picks up the article from the feed, so I’ve just finished reading it.

Despite his well-known love of all things Apple, removing the possibility of being an “amusing and eccentric” technophobe, I still wasn’t prepared for his almost terrifying appreciation of handheld technology. It’s a wonderful read.

There’s a particular inverted snobbery towards Apple products in some places, “lolol what loser would buy an iPod Touch when u can get a 8gb mp3 player for fifty quid”, and there’s a paragraph in there, “Design matters”, that explains precisely why, and to make some vague pretence of relevance to this blog’s nominal subject it could be applied to GUIs everywhere, in games as in smartphones.

The machine guns are roaring

Got a bit more Quake Wars in, though the single map available in the demo is beginning to pale slightly now. The (human) GDF attack, the (alien beastie) Strogg defend, and they’ve got a couple of places that, if the GDF don’t quickly attack before defences can be set up, can be fortified into total killing grounds. I actually felt pretty bad, sitting the turret of a Desecrator hovertank, next to another Desecrator, with a couple of missile turrets, some artillery and radar pointing towards the hapless GDF, running towards us over open ground (or riding unarmed quad bikes, if they felt particularly daring). It was rather reminiscent of a futile World War I attack… Feeling suitably guilty, I switched sides for the next round, and… found myself rushing over open ground towards Desecrators and turrets, lobbing a couple of grenades before being cut down, which wasn’t so hot either. A bit of variation will be nice with the full release.

I also have a new toy, a Logitech G15 keyboard (the one with the built in LCD screen). I’d been tempted for a while, but £70 is a bit much for a keyboard… Then Melmoth found a plugin for the Miranda instant messenger that lets you run games full screen, and display IMs on the keyboard’s screen, and while generally browsing around I saw that Logitech are releasing a new version, which looks a bit… orange (the current version has a blue backlight), and you can get the current version for £50, which isn’t quite so bad. So I popped one in the shopping basket at Dabs, and saw they’re now offering evening delivery, between 5 and 9pm. Brilliant! Sorting out deliveries can be a bit of a hassle, but evening delivery would be perfect. Course, it turned up at 10am this morning. Ah well, a kindly neighbour took it in, so the blue glow of LEDs in the corner of the room is a bit brighter now…

Hey! Teacher!

It’s curious how the nefarious population of City of Villains has a university; the game mechanic of the university is to give characters a place to learn about and participate in the recently introduced crafting system. Clearly the developers work on the hero side first and then transfer as much of the effort as possible directly into CoV, converting any glaringly obvious heroic insinuations.

One wonders, though, what a villain university or school would be like…

“Johnson, did you do your homework again? What is the matter with you boy? If you carry on completing coursework and paying attention in class you’ll find yourself out of this university before you can blink, and then you’ll probably have to get a job wearing spandex and helping old grannies get their cats out of trees. Is that what you want?”

“Right! Who was that? Come on, own up, which one of you wasn’t throwing paper planes behind my back? Someone wasn’t throwing them, I can tell. It was you was it, Packard? Well, as a punishment you can go and help old people cross the road for a day. Actually make that two days, because I’m fed-up with you owning up to your crimes, a good villain doesn’t own up to anything. Are you some sort of pansy hero, Packard? Right! Three! Three days, because you’re not even arguing with me over the point. Go on, get out!”

“You! You behind the bike sheds. Stand still, laddie! Right, now, why aren’t you smoking? Explain yourself!”

“Well, Franklin, apparently you’ve been bullying young Thatcher here and stealing his lunch money. What? Oh I’m not punishing you for stealing the money, Franklin. No. But you see, Thatcher tells me that you’ve been failing to steal all of his money, that he’s been keeping some of it hidden from you. You’re a slacker Franklin, so you can be in detention this evening. Top snitching there Thatcher, you can have a house point.”

“Evening everyone. First order of this detention session: you’re all in further detention for bothering to turn up to this one.”

Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic

I finally got around to finishing Bioshock last night. It’s a terrific game, but I found it peaked somewhere around halfway through, and I slightly lost interest and didn’t have a desperate urge to finish it off particularly. Apart from anything else, it suffered an all-too-common curse of first person shooters of starting you off with a toy pistol that launches a flag saying “BANG”, making combat something of a challenge, then gearing you up with ever more devastating weapons as you go through the levels until you’re toting a Gatling hyperlaser with under-barrel tactical nuclear grenade launcher, reducing the challenge of encounters ever so slightly. The difficulty level was perfect for a while (playing on medium, I s’pose I should’ve looked into changing it towards then end), with ammunition being scarce but not to the point of reloading the game if you ever missed your target, but towards the end I was machine gunning my initials into walls just to make space to pick some more ammo up (I could’ve left it on the floor, but where’s the fun in that?)

Without giving away the plot, in case anyone’s still playing through, the dramatic tension unwound a bit as well. There’s the Big Revelation (and doubtless anyone who’s played the System Shock games was looking out for the twist… Everyone’s a ghost, they’re all clones, he’s his own brother, you think it’s the future but actually it’s set in the past, it’s not earth, it’s all a dream!), and then it’s hi ho, I s’pose I’d better get off and kill my nemesis, some bastard who is presumably responsible. You flesh out a few details, but other than that I didn’t feel the narrative was as strong. Still, the game as a whole is a cracker, and probably the first single player FPS I’ve played to completion since Far Cry.

Buoyed up by this heavyweight literary inspired FPS, I thought I’d carry on the theme and play some of the Quake Wars demo, with the thought provoking and densely-layered theme of “kill as many of the other team as you possibly can” “(with guns)”. Having played against bots enough to work out more or less what was going on, and realising that their attacking scripting was like playing with the worst pick-up group ever (“HELLO! WHERE AM I? HELLO! LOOK, MA, I’VE GOT A TANK! I’VE BROKEN IT, I’VE BROKEN IT! HELLO! MY HEAD IS STUCK IN THE CUPBOARD! HELLO! OH SORRY I RAN YOU OVER! HELLO!”), I actually went online and found some real people to shoot (or more frequently be shot by, but still). It was a blast, and though a few rounds were disappointingly one sided most were good old slugfests. I don’t think I embarrassed myself entirely, apart from my sole feature on the scoreboard being for “Most Team Kills” in one round, but in my defence they ran in front of the tank gun, your honour…


The voluble Elf has tagged me, and I can never resist a jolly good memeing, especially from friends.

Four jobs I have had in my life (not including my current job):

  • Level 37 sandwich filling crafter.
  • Level 14 filing clerk.
  • Level 17 office furniture installer.
  • Level 21 teacher’s assistant.

All summer jobs I’m afraid; I’ve been at my current job since, well, forever really.

Four films I have watched again and again:

  • V for Vendetta.
  • Gladiator.
  • The Fellowship of the Ring.
  • Valmont.

Like most people, I expect, there are several more films I could list here, so I’ve tried to pick a representative sample.

Four places I have lived:

  • Leeds, England.
  • Various places
  • In the county of
  • Kent, England.

I lived in Leeds when I went to university there. Other than that, I’ve stayed pretty close to home.

Four Programmes I love to watch:

  • Battlestar Galactica.
  • Heroes.
  • Firefly.
  • The Mighty Boosh.

Again, there are plenty of others both new and old, but this is a set of those that I’ve watched relatively recently and enjoyed tremendously.

Four Places I have been on vacation:

  • Hawaii.
  • Dubai.
  • Venice.
  • San Francisco.

I think San Francisco is still my favourite place, although Venice is a close second.

Four of my favourite foods:

  • Beef Wellington.
  • Risotto.
  • Saffron cake.
  • Gypsy tart.

I like food. This is barely a pebble on the peak of the food mountain of my victual desires.

Four favourite drinks:

  • Port (Warre’s Otima is divine).
  • Tea.
  • Bitter (Waggledance is a favourite).
  • Elderflower cordial/juice.

This makes me sound like a drunkard fop. Which might be accurate.

Four places I would rather be right now:

  • In a cottage in the Lake District, writing a book.
  • On a manned mission to Mars.
  • Diving in the Red Sea.
  • On stage at Shakespeare’s Globe.

And I’d also like a pony.

Four People I Command to Do This:

Not so much command, as extend the embracing arm of memefulness. I’m only allowed four, so I’ve tried to pick people who haven’t been tagged and have commented here. Apologies to anyone who might have wanted to do it. And apologies to those tagged who don’t want to do it. Maybe you can all get together, swap out the people who don’t want to do it with those who do, and then send fax confirmation in triplicate to me, and I… ah bugger it, it’s just a meme.

As the wise Yoda once said:

“Do, or do not. I don’t give a toss, and I’ll be dead in the next installment anyway.”

Or something.

Four by four, they turn it some more

So I got tagged up by an Elf, and although this stuff seems indescribably dreary and I can’t imagine anyone being particularly interested (except maybe fraudsters gathering information for password-unlocking security questions, though I’d’ve expected more questions like “Four maiden names of my mother” and “Four favourite passwords used for online banking” if they were the originator), I was off for the weekend so don’t have anything else to particularly blog about. Off we go, then…

Four jobs I have had in my life (not including my current job):

  • Aside from the obligatory paper round, they’ve all been deeply fascinating and involved computers since developing databases at school

Four Films I have watched again and again:

Four places I have lived:

  • Wiltshire
  • Devon
  • Coventry
  • Surrey

Four Programmes I love to watch:

  • Doctor Who
  • The IT Crowd
  • Lost
  • Mythbusters

Four Places I have been on vacation:

  • Antigua
  • Barbados
  • Dublin
  • France

Four of my favourite foods:

  • Thai green curry
  • Nasi goreng
  • Rogan josh
  • Roast lamb

Four favourite drinks:

  • Sirop de menthe
  • Coffee
  • Vanilla coke
  • Vimto

Four places I would rather be right now:

  • Watching question 4
  • Eating question 5
  • Drinking question 6
  • All the above

I tag nobody else, either because I believe pernicious memes shouldn’t be propegated, or I can’t find four people in the entire blag-u-spore who haven’t done it yet.


It was a fairly humdrum weekend in the Melmoth household with respect to gaming. I continued to level my ‘Thief of’ characters in City of Comicbookclichés, but singularly failed to meet any of the fellows of our super-group over the weekend; there is an indicator in the super-group window of when people had last played their character, and it seems that we’ve all been active at one time or another in the same day but never at the same time. Perhaps we need to implement a Justice Calendar which, when attached to the Freedom Fridge with the Magnet of Emancipation, would schedule crime fighting in a single badly scrawled entry.

“Batman, remember we’re fighting the Joker tonight at 7pm. Love and kisses, Robin.”

“Appointment with Dr Doom at 4.30pm. Remember to take stool sample. To fling at him. Johnny.”


Soloing in CoH is manageable, but the real fun comes from teaming with others. Extra bonus fun points if those people are competent folk whom you know, rather than pick-up group nutters.

In a fit of desperately wanting to play a bearded dwarf with a big axe and adventure in strange forested lands where orcs roam, I once again subscribed to Lord of the Rings Online for a month to see if I could get back into that. After a installing the game from the disks and then downloading and patching several gargantuan updates, my kilt-wearing dwarf was once more smoking a pipe in the Prancing Pony and enjoying the role-playing atmosphere:

“And he said. And then she said. And then he said that she said.”

“Hello! U looks nice, wanna come back to my room??????/”

“Lord Darkbrooding looks brooding. And dark. In a cool dark and brooding way.”

“And I said to them ‘you’re not in our special club of very excellent people’ and then I stabbed them.”

“Arrgghh! I’m covered in bees!”

That last one was me after five minutes of listening to ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’ discussions: always be sure to throw in random Eddie Izzard quotes to liven the incredibly oppressive atmosphere of role-playing environs. It’s the law.

I picked-up play with my dwarf guardian who is in his late twenties, and made my way to the North Downs since I had a few solo quests there; I had considered diving straight into a pick-up group in one of the instances available to my character at that level, but thought that perhaps spending a few minutes learning what all those buttons on the screen were for was perhaps the more sensible course of action. After many, many minutes of meanderings, like some sort of peripatetic loot basket, I finally reached the fields of Fornost where I had been charged with the task of killing bears. Oh well, I guess it’s fractionally better than boars; I recalled shortly thereafter that I killed boars in the previous quest. Sigh. Four minutes of running around like a loon trying to find bears found my character stuck on a seemingly moderate slope in the landscape; a known bug, that one would think would have been fixed by now. The only way to escape the jaws of the adventurer-grasping landscape is to use the /stuck command which returns you to your last bound point, in my case the Prancing Pony where I started off some thirty minutes of faffing around ago. There was nothing to do but to type /stuck and wait to warp all the way back to where I started. Whilst I waited for the unstuckness to occur (for which there was no countdown timer to be seen) a mob decided to spawn nearby; a ranged mob, who immediately decided that I looked like fair game, and started plinking away at my health bar. I could do nothing in the meantime, other than spin on the spot in a manner which I hoped conveyed my extreme anger and annoyance at this cowardly attack, in some fanciful effort to convince the mob that attacking me was going to lead to its painful demise just as soon as I’d taken the ten minutes to run back to where it was. It was now a race, with the stuck command ticking away in the background, would it trigger before the mob finished me off? Was the stuck command even working? Maybe I’d mistyped it, and I wasn’t in fact about to escape at all. I went to type the command again to make sure, but was then struck by the thought that this might reset the timer, if it was indeed counting down, and thus leaving me with longer to wait before death or unstuckness took hold. It was while I was in the grip of the complex moral decision of whether to type the stuck command again or just bugger it all and go and get a packet of crisps, that I warped back to the Prancing Pony with a modest fraction of health left. Faced with the run all the way back to the fields of Fornost or logging off and eating crisps until everything started to take on the semblance of potato, I took the salty baked saturated fat option.

Suffice it to say that the above experience didn’t sate my need to get all medieval dwarf on some critters’ arses, so I popped my head back into World of Warcraft, rolled a dwarf alt and burned through the first ten levels of content there. Ahhhhhh. Those first ten levels in World of Warcraft are the salty baked saturated fat taste sensation of the MMO levelling world, high in monosodium glutamate and everything.

Other than that, the weekend was predominantly taken up with doing Other Things. Reading, catching up on various TV series that I have on DVD, and generally not sitting at my computer for four or five hours straight. I hope a decent MMO hits the stores soon, because otherwise I might get used to this variety which is spicing up the grand MMO of Life and find it more addictive than playing any virtual grind. Heck, next weekend I plan on taking a look at this thing that you Earth people call ‘outside’.