Monthly Archives: November 2007

MMOon on a stick.

I was reading an article over at Kinless’ blog about areas of meaningful activity, where they ask at the end:

Do any of you have more ideas about “meaningful activity” that could be incorporated into the game to get people out of Shattrath and back into the world?

As pitiable as it may sound, I quite enjoyed the photography element in Bioshock. For those of you who haven’t played that game, the photography element was a mini-game where you took photos of enemies and, once you had collected enough shots of a particular enemy, it earned you a ‘research’ bonus which granted you various character improvements, such as extra damage, for example.

I think that a mini-game along the same lines within an MMO could be quite a lot of fun. It would have players searching out locations, flora and fauna and taking pictures of them to earn bonuses or vanity items. For example, take a picture of all the various species of tiger in WoW and get yourself a mini tiger vanity pet to run around after you. It could well have players visiting old areas to find various mobs and locations. If mobs or items were deep inside some of the old-world dungeons then you could even get people running those dungeons again to get to the photo bonus objects.

What better than photography to make one open their eyes again, focus on more than the mundaneness of their immediate surroundings and see the vast expanse of the world anew.

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?


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!

Thought for the day.

I was reading a thread on Usenet about pornography recently and it got me thinking. Firstly I was marvelling at the improbability of finding a thread about porn on the Internet, I mean, what are the chances? Shockingly, however, the discussion was at least attempting a sane and rational look at pornography and erotica, especially with respect to the strangeness that is sex as a fully-fledged industry. Admittedly it became progressively stranger, as Usenet threads are wont to do, until it veered wildly into considering what aliens would make of our sex industry if they visited the little pit of abasement at the end of the universe that we happen to call Earth. At such a point one can only surmise that the topic of tentacle porn would shortly follow, which is as good a Godwin’s Law for porn threads as one is going to get, and hence your humble narrator left forthwith.

It did however, as I have already related, trigger a train of thought.

Pornography has been with us for quite some time, but it would seem safe to say that it is only in mankind’s recent history that a true industry has sprung up around the luxuriant idea of sex as relief through performance and art. The basic premise is this: as mankind has advanced, sex has become less of a basic fundamental need for survival and more of an indulgence. With indulgence comes over-indulgence, and with over-indulgence comes abstinence and a desire to attain a more seemingly healthy balance. And here is where the porn industry steps in, for the desire is still there within many people although they do not wish to carry out their desires themselves, and thus they live out their fantasies through others, while they remain safely ensconced behind the protection of a glass screen and an ‘off’ button.

The thing is, it’s not just related to the porn industry, and this is where I hope to drag this discourse, kicking and screaming, back on to the topic of MMOs. Firstly though, let’s look at the food industry. Again, as mankind has advanced (and obviously this outlook is taken from a western world perspective) food has become less of a basic fundamental need for survival due to its abundance, and therefore has become more of an indulgence in certain areas of society. As the obvious signs of over-indulgence set in, with obesity and heart disease becoming far more prevalent than these societies could hope to counter, people start to enter the abstinence cycle and eat less, and more healthily. Here is where industry steps in, and what we have now is essentially porn for food lovers, with TV shows abounding with luxuriant foods, celebrity chefs travelling the world to indulge themselves in an orgy of gastronomic gangbangs, and adverts with hot, steamy puddings, naked from the oven and just begging to be covered in cream.

So what does this have to do with MMOs? Well, in recent times there have been numerous concerns relating to the amount of time indulged in MMOs. Many players themselves are starting to realise that the sheer scale of time that they devote to nothing more than a pixelated spreadsheet simulator is possibly unhealthy, perhaps bordering on clinical obsession. Is it long, therefore, before we enter the cycle of abstinence with respect to MMOs? Has it already begun? I believe it has. MMO porn thy name is Raids.

“Oh yeah, show me the epix baby, show me the epix.”

The similarities are stark: bold, brash starlets are presented to the viewer, prostrating themselves on the bed of raid content as they display their epic assets, but peer behind the facade and more often than not one will glimpse the unhappiness, insecurity or personal sacrifice of the superstar raider. The top raiders are the porn stars of the MMO world, gazed upon with the hungering eyes of players who, despite desiring the epic image that these starlets portray, are secretly happy that they have not had to suffer the trials and degradation that these raiders have gone through to thrust themselves into the public eye. Instead, the average player will observe, sate their epic-itemed desires, and then return to the comfort and safety of an ordinary adventuring life.

So the next time that you see an MMO raider standing at the post-box in a major town, with their purple bits proffered for all to see, just remember that raiders, like porn stars, are people too.

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…

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

WoW fhtagn.

At the behest of Sir Bildo the Creepily Gazed, I decided to play a little more of my Draenei priest in World of Warcraft last night in order to see just whether the latest patch, 2.3.x, could really improve what I dub the ‘mid forties death grind’, where all but the most exceptional of one’s characters are usually abandoned, floating in the lifeless inky void of the quest hole.

A little back story: I currently have two level seventy characters, the druid was my main for the majority of the game when, I think it’s safe to say, fully half the known world was playing WoW. I played my paladin in the rare gaps when friends weren’t online in an attempt to not advance my druid too many levels ahead. After the initial rush, pun intended, was over I had a level sixty druid and a paladin in the mid forties where he’d been abandoned in the dark depths of questing hell, where even the light of the holy often failed to reach him. After a significant break I returned to WoW, as any player who has been touched by the game’s dark chaotic tentacles is wont to do, and found that a friend, who was looking for a change from their raiding main, had a character who was also stuck in the mid forties. We teamed-up, worked our way through various quests that wouldn’t have been possible solo, and mutually boosted one another through the slog, like a couple of mountaineers battling their way against the blizzard to eventually break through the cloud cover and, gasping frosty breaths, lay eyes upon the sunny summit. From then on it was the plain sailing of sunken temples and black-rocked depths as others succumbed to the Cthulhu-like pull of the Elder Game, allowed a little of the insanity to enter their lives once more, and returned to adventuring with us. Come the time of the Burning Crusade I found little trouble in getting both my level sixty characters to level seventy, and although many a group adventure was had, soloing was always an option when others weren’t around. The Burning Crusade came and went, extinguished as quickly as a candle in a waterfall, and the migrating players took wing and looked for the warmer climes of other games. I hung around though, and took the opportunity to explore the new content at the other end of the scale, creating my Draenei priest and blasting through the first twenty levels of excellent new quests, slowing somewhat as I went through the enjoyable but many-times-undertaken quests in Darkshire and Redridge, until eventually (having worked through all of the Night Elf areas up to Ashenvale in order to become Exalted with Darnassus by level forty, and thus be able to buy my Draenei a graceful, lithe kitty as a mount rather than some monstrous waddling mutant pachyderm) I hit a wall at around the mid forties and I drifted away from the game on the flotsam of disenchantment.

Fast forward to yesterday, which is an impressive manoeuvre if one thinks about it, and it was with some anticipation of disappointment that I took the five and a half hour journey from Ironforge to West Feralas where it had been determined that there were probably quests that I had yet to undertake. I found some quests of suitable level range, some below my character’s current level which are always good for warming-up and getting back into one’s stride, and a few more challenging ones. What followed was a couple of hours of insane experience gaining, loot gathering and general all round OMG and indeed, as those kids say, WT to the F. Yo. My character gained a level and half in what seemed like the blink of an eye and, although I’m not sure if this was due to the recent patch or that luck was having a day off from being a shrewish harridan and was now a lascivious lady of loot, I gained my first ever epic world drop, a mountain of green items, a fourteen slot bag and more pearls than I’ve ever seen.

Certainly, if Blizzard are trying to entice players back to the game, then this is a fine way to go about it, much to the chagrin of the ‘dedicated’, ‘hard working’, ‘skilled’ ‘elite’ of the game’s upper echelons I’m sure. I shall certainly be returning to my priest again tonight, and although lady luck might not be putting-out with the amply lubricated lootual favours this time around, I can already see the summit of Mt. Grind where the Outlands Express awaits to whisk me onwards to the golden land. Either that or I’m being fed a pleasant dream, an enzyme-induced euphoria, while the Elder Game wraps its dark velvety tentacles around my head and sucks away the last remaining ebb of life force through my brain.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh WoW R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

WoW fhtagn.

Stone the crows.

The current character that I’m playing in City of Villains, as part of the Monday n00b Club‘s excursions into all things Strike Force, is a true favourite of mine even though the power-set combination that he utilises is deemed to not be amongst the more ‘uber’, ‘down with the kids’, ‘too hip to be cool’ combinations. Inspired somewhat by other’s detailing of their characters I thought I would ramble on a little about the character that makes me smile every time I come to play them of a Monday evening. A Stone/Dark Brute, he is an absolute joy to play, and despite having not yet gained some of the signature powers of either power-set, nevertheless each gaming session sees me with a face of childlike wonder and merriment, grinning through a bottom jaw set firmly away from the top one as if each had been magnetised as an opposing pole, watery eyes wide open trying not to blink and miss a moment of the utter carnage that is centralised around the ground zero, the focussed point of fury, that is my character.

Stone Melee and Dark Armour are interesting power-sets because they both give up a little of their primary function – that of damage for melee and resistance/defence for armour – in order to have a little more capacity for utility. For these two power-sets the utility provided is that of soft and hard control elements through which develops a very nice synergy, alas it is a synergy at a price, and that price is three pounds, fifty four pence.

Oh, sorry, that’s the price of my lunch. The price of synergy for these power-sets is in fact Endurance, great oceanic swathes of that beautiful bright blue bar which is the steam locomotion, the petroleum ignition, the controlled nuclear reaction, in essence the ‘power’ to any hero’s ‘super’. It’s a high price to pay, and it leaves the player running a tightrope between not taking mobs down quickly enough and not being able to take them down at all. There’s nothing worse than hearing that dreaded “BWOOOoooo” as all your toggle powers (generally these relate to armour and status protection) shut down and you’re left standing amidst a horde of angry hooligans slavering for blood, at which point your character’s limp and impotent body allows for nothing more than a meek smile and a gentle covering of the wibbly bits before taking a beating that would make the eggs in an omelette admit that life was really pretty good, all things considered.

Stone Melee

New Improved Inferno, now with headings! It’ll never catch on.

In short: stone melee rocks in all senses physical, metaphysical and metaphorical. It is for me the quintessential melee power in the City of Supers series of games, with its huge thundering attacks that encapsulate everything that the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff preached unto us in their song about the joy of boom, right down to the shake-shake-shaking of the room; one feels an instant urge to let rip a wild eyed maniacal roar of laughter as foes walk headlong into fists of solid stone or are flung through the air on the end of a rock mallet, and the dangerous part of this adrenaline rush is the need to fuel it further, to continue smashing saints and pummelling the penitent for as long as your fingers will maintain a point with enough resistance to depress a key, until several hours later you are mashing chunks of keys at a time with the bruised and bloodied knuckles of what remains of your abused and ravaged hands. Now take into consideration the need, nay the very desire of a Brute archetype to keep fighting, for the more that the character fights the greater his rage builds, and as we all know, with great rage comes great responsibility.

I jest of course, because with great rage comes wild abandonment of reason and the reduction of intellect to that of a gibbering marmot that never bothered with school and instead spent all of its days down at the Nevada arcade playing Bubonic Fighter Alpha and Virtua Groundhog.

It is hard to describe to anyone who has not played a Brute just how completely the developers have managed to tap into the essence of our cave dwelling ancestors, to hit that primal nerve that triggers ancient genes long forgotten in the darkest depths of the brain, from a time when the RFC for flight as a method of survival had yet to be ratified, and fight was the protocol of the day. When you are beating upon enemies and they, in turn, are beating on you, then the rage bar builds, and with that comes a seemingly exponential increase in damage; when you stand still and are not in combat the rage bar will decrease until it is nothing and hence, therefore, are you. Given such a choice: between glorious, dry-mouthed, heart-pounding combat, raging amidst the waves of the enemy as they crash and break against your coastal form, immovable as the land itself, and like such, only to be gloriously defeated if the waves determine to rise up so high as to drown you beneath them in a tsunami-like torrent; or to stand limp and feeble, like some frail old man unable to summon even the strength to draw up his incontinence pants to maintain his dignity at the bus stop where he stands, and where moments ago the elastic on his underwear decided unkindly to fail him.

Then I say there is no choice at all.

Having said that, it is clear that allowing the combination of the stone melee power-set with the Brute archetype is in absolute contravention of several articles of the Geneva Conventions.

It is worth noting that I’m feeling this way without having taken a couple of the signature powers of the stone melee set yet. My character is currently level twenty five and has been developed more on the Tank side of the Tank/DPS hybrid scale that Brutes straddle, mainly due to the fact that as the rest of the formation of the Monday n00bs consists of a Stalker and a couple of Corruptors, it seemed like a good idea to have someone to absorb the bulk of the enemy’s ire. This meant getting Dark Armour’s shields and damage aura (which acts as a very nice field o’ taunt and beats having to shout “Yo Mamma!” all the time) set up early along with the requisite power pools of Fitness (for the lovely and ever-needed endurance booster that is Stamina) and Leaping (for not only the essential travel power but also Acrobatics, which prevents my character spending most of the game getting up from being knocked down); the tank-like setup left little room for actual attacks, and so he has the minimal number of attacks that I felt would put out a decent amount of damage once the rage bar got going but also wouldn’t suck down a lot of endurance before I had Stamina and various other powers slotted with Single Origin enhancements, which make all the world of difference to how a character plays. As such, he has Stone Fist, Stone Mallet and Heavy Mallet only, and is missing the lovely soft-control Fault power, and the insane damage with extra disorienting goodness that is Seismic Smash.

Considering how much fun it is to play with just three powers, I can’t wait to see how things go when the entire arsenal of smash is fully assembled and he realises his full potential. I foresee much tongue-lolling, dribbling and drying-out of the eyeballs.

Dark Armour

Dark armour has toggles, and plenty of them. A toggle power is one that is turned on and left on until you decided to turn it off or it is forcibly turned off by the enemy. In return for whatever ability this toggle bestows upon your character you pay a small debt of endurance that constantly ticks away at a set amount over time; inherent endurance regeneration and the extra boost to this provided by powers such as Stamina mean that you can invariably run one or two toggles with little effect on the overall, um… endurance of your character in a fight. However, the more toggles that you run the more likely you are to chew through your endurance once a fight begins in earnest since you will eventually overcome your natural regeneration from simply running the toggles alone, and the larger amounts of endurance required to power your attacks, especially with an endurance hungry power-set such as stone, becomes very noticeable indeed, until the point that you hear the dreaded “BWOOOoooo” and big bald men in leather jackets come around and repossess all of your toggle powers due to your lack of payment to the endurance lenders. So a few toggles are manageable, more toggles become a problem, and dark armour has a lot of toggles; there are toggles for basic resistances and obscure forms of damage such as fire; toggles to counter status effects such as sleep and hold; there are toggles for damaging your opponents and for fearing and disorientating them, and there are toggles for repelling small Yorkshire Terriers in smoking jackets, for defrosting your car in the morning and for washing wool at sixty degrees without shrinking it.

In return for this drain of endurance the dark armour wearer is blessed with respectable protection from nearly every type of damage that the enemy can throw at them, and on top of all that they get some lovely soft-control powers to prevent the enemy from even having the chance of attacking them in the first place. Alas, the control power of the dark armour set doesn’t come until the later levels and as such my Brute will have to wait some time for this pièce de résistance of the set, irony intended, since all the powers I have taken up until now are actually to do with the resistance of damage, whereas the pièce de résistance is not.

So far the tactics for dark armour – as much as I have developed any tactic other than a Leeroy Jenkins-like charge into the midst of huge crowds of angry protagonists accompanied by a vague hope that the rest of the team noticed my disappearance beneath the angry writhing mob, and more importantly can be bothered to help dig me out again – is the common sense option of only turning those toggles on that are required at the time: if the enemy is mainly firing guns and punching my character, then I only need the most basic armour, if they shoot flames or energy beams then I use the specialised ‘Other stuff that isn’t punching or shooting’ shield for dealing with that while turning off the basic armour, and when a boss or arch-villain comes along, well, it’s a case of turn everything on and hope that he runs out of health before I run out of endurance.

And so far, fighting alongside an awesome team of fellow villains, the tide has always turned once it hit the rocky coast. Or, at least, when the rocky coast hit it back.

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…

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?