Monthly Archives: June 2008

Humph in a Glasshouse

I like to listen to the radio while wandering around doing housework, or exercising, or grinding level 20 mobs at level 46 thanks to someone deciding that when you learn armour crafting (level 40 at the earliest) you’ll have to make innumerable pieces of light and medium armour, and the rough leather you need for them won’t drop from level 40+ mobs, oh no, despite decimating the wolf, lynx, wolverine, marmot, wombat and shrew population of the Fields of the Dead apparently their combined pelts are barely sufficient for a single glove (and a fingerless glove at that), you’ll need to go back to the lower level zones and speed-slaughter your way through the wildlife there…

… sorry, slight digression there. Anyway, dull-but-necessary tasks can be enlivened by a good radio programme, and the joy of modern technology means you’re not restricted to what’s broadcasting at that moment (which is handy if you’re doing the dishes when The Archers is on). A mobile internet thingy, the BBC’s “Listen Again” service, which streams programmes from the last week whenever you want, and you’re set. Last night I was listening to Chairman Humph, a tribute to the magnificent trumpet-blower and panel show host Humphrey Lyttleton.

I love Radiohead’s post-OK Computer albums, especially Amnesiac, and one of my absolute favourite songs is Life In A Glasshouse with its mournful New Orleans sound; I was just Audiosurfing it the other day. I hadn’t the faintest idea that it was Humphrey Lyttleton and his band playing on it, until it was mentioned during Chairman Humph (with Stephen Fry helpfully informing Radio 4 listeners that Radiohead are a “modern indie band”).

In this age of digital music and streaming media, I can’t remember the last time I looked at an album’s liner notes; maybe a quick flick-through while waiting for an MP3 ripper to work through a CD then back on the shelf to gather dust, and not even that since digital downloads became prevalent. Still, you catch up in the end.

Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up

You know, games are like buses. You wait all day, then it turns out that in a deregulated public transportation system the route you’re on is considered insufficiently profitable to keep running. And then three come along at once.

So a couple of months back there wasn’t really much going on games-wise, provoking an Attack of Opportunity Impulse Purchase, whereas now quite literally several games all clamour for attention. Mass Effect is just out on PC, which I’ve been looking forward to since everyone raved about the 360 version, but I haven’t even got around to buying that yet; there’s still Audiosurf, and Dawn of War, though after conquering 90% of the planet in the Dark Crusade campaign I’ve run out of steam slightly there. Issue 12 of City of Heroes has been out a few weeks, and I’ve rolled up a new Arachnos Soldier for some rather splendid villainy, though not nearly as much as I’d like, plus there’s a new zone I must get around to exploring with my trusty old hero. What I’ve mostly been playing, though, is Age of Conan. There are the glitches of a new MMOG, bugged quests and such, but that’s the price you pay for starting at launch instead of giving it six months (or a couple of years), and the patches are coming thick and fast. The problems are offset by the fact that it still has that New MMOG Smell; everything is fresh, there are new areas to explore, new levels to gain, new abilities to learn, new things to craft, wave after endless wave of new people/monsters/demons/wildlife to mercilessly slaughter.

Well, I say “new”…

Age of Conan isn’t exactly revolutionary. The combat system is a bit faster, and involves pressing a few more buttons, than other MMORPGs, some of the classes are quite interesting, there are tweaks and flourishes here and there, but at its heart there are stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot, it’s an MMORPG (according to the standard definition, where ‘RP’ obviously stands for “stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot”, ‘cos it sure doesn’t stand for Role Playing); if you didn’t have to kill ten rats to gain 20XP to get to level two it wouldn’t be an MMORPG, and if you didn’t want to do that you probably shouldn’t be playing an MMORPG in the first place but…

Now none of the following is at all new or original, most of it’s been going on since the dawn of (MMOG) time, I’ve blogged about similar things before, you’ve probably blogged about it, there are several libraries worth of blog posts and forum posts and web pages and magazines and books and pamphlets and flesh-consuming shadow swarms that cover the same ground, but sometimes Age of Conan is just so exasperatingly… MMORPG-y. It does try. Some quests do things a bit differently, and you have to feel for the designers who know that any attempt to be witty or innovative or different in the quest text will be lost on the 99% of players who click “next… next… next…”, then look at the quest log to see what the actual goal is, and that any attempt to mix things up, do much other than send you to a named person or to kill clearly specified mobs, will send half the players straight off to Google while the other half make thousands of forum posts and GM petitions and eternal loops in zone chat saying “ZOMGZ KWEST IS BUGGED WOT TO DO???” So I understand entirely why it happens, but sometimes…

You pitch up at a village, look for the people toting giant floating punctuation, have a quick chat, and find out there’s bandit trouble. “Perhaps I could seek the underlying causes of the conflict” you offer, “determining what unfortunate events drove the bandits to crime in the first place, and then offer an independent conciliation service bringing bandits and villagers together to forge a peaceful outcome beneficial to all parties”.
“Yesss…” replies Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager “… or you could just kill ten of them.” So you toddle off to dispense some rather presumptive sword-based justice, and find the bandits have most distinct social groups. There are Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Chartered Accountants and Bandit Certified Accountants and Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Constructivists and tucked away somewhere amidst them all is Geoff the Bandit Leader. Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager was most specific, though, and only wants you to kill ten Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants. Who knows why, he’s Arbitrary like that. It’s 2am, and there’s nobody else about, just you and the bandits, so you make a start, picking off a lone Bandit Chartered Accountant scout. Moving closer to the main camp, there’s a Bandit Campanologist, only he’s standing next to a Bandit Philatelist. Oh well, bells, stamps, it’s all the same, in you wade, smiting them both down, though of course only the Campanologist counts towards your quest tally. Further and further into the bandit encampment you go, picking off the bandits in ones and twos as their fellows stand idly by; then you get a bit too near a group of three who all notice you and leap to the attack, and as you pop a health potion and back off to try and deal with them a pair on patrol decide that would be a really good time to wander past and join in the fun, and the five of them mash you into a pulp. Tum te tum, corpse run, back to the camp and resume the hunting of Bandit Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, who are still inconveniently hanging around with Philatelists and Neoclassicisits. After some gruelling combat, another death caused by respawns in the middle of a fight, and innumerable kills of all types of Bandit except Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, you finally kill precisely ten of the requisite mobs. And you’re now stuck in the middle of a bandit camp, with a host of rather cross bandits (all of whom, naturally, are Campanologists and Chartered Accountants now you don’t specifically need to hunt them down) between you and the village. So you decide you can’t be arsed to fight them all, again, and just start running as fast as you can, occasionally activating the /train emote as about three hundred bandits follow in hot pursuit, at least until the gates of the village where a couple of NPC guards nonchalantly swat aside the pursuing bandits, wiping them out with such ease you wonder exactly why the village is in such peril when the pair of them could take out every bandit within thirteen miles without breaking a sweat. But never mind.

Neville T. Arbitrary is so delighted by your martial prowess that he gives you a handful of loose change he found down the back of the sofa, and a piece of armour carefully selected to be utterly useless to your class, if you’re even allowed to wear it at all. And then another bit of punctuation appears over his head. “What now?” you ask.
“I was wondering if you’d mind awfully killing 10 Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists”, he says; “ten minutes ago I was firmly convinced that only Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants posed any sort of threat to our village, but no, I realise now that they’re irrelevant when compared to Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists.”
“Oh” you say. “Well, luckily for you, in the process of killing those Campanologists, I happened to mow through a bunch of Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists as well.”
“Oh, no, they don’t count at all” explains Neville. “You were killing them *then*. This quest is to kill them *now*.”
You sigh. “What about Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants?” you enquire.
“Oh, no, I don’t care about them at all” replies Neville.
“You’re *absolutely sure* about that? It’s just that once I’ve killed these Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists, I have this funny feeling you might want me to kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants, and really, it would save us all so much time if I just killed them all at the same time.”
“That wouldn’t be very Arbitrary, would it now?” says Neville in a shining example of nominative determinism.

You turn to the farmer standing next to him, Neville S. Arbitrary. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any more sensible quests?”
“Well… you could kill some wolves, I suppose, they’re causing havoc with my livestock”
“Wolves, right. That doesn’t sound too bad. Hang on a minute… is it just Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose that you want killing?”
“Not Youthful Wolves, or Adult Wolves, or Wolves With No Stripes Down The Nose, just the Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose?”
“What are you drivelling about? No, any wolves. Any wolves at all. So long as my flock is safe.”
“Oh. Right. That sounds quite sensible.”
“Only when they’re in my fields, mind.”
“You can only kill the wolves when they’re within the boundary of my fields, or they don’t count.”
“What is this, restrictive rules of engagement in an attempt to prevent the wolf/human conflict escalating? Is there a demilitarised zone surrounding your fields? What about if I attack a wolf outside your field, but in the process of the fight end up inside your fields and kill him there? Or what about if I’ve got a bow, and stand inside the field shooting wolves outside? Or stand outside the field shooting wolves inside?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. No, wait a minute, that’s not true at all, I do make the rules. Hey, that’s why they call me Neville Spatial Arbitrary.”
“Ohhh. That explain a lot… And the bloke next to you is…”
“…Neville Temporal Arbitrary, yes.”

Unable to face the Arbitrary brothers, you log out. Next day, you log back in at 8pm, determined to hunt down those Constructivists for Neville T. At peak evening time, the camp looks a bit different. There are players everywhere, and not a hostile to be seen. Every now and then a bandit materialises from thin air and looks a bit surprised as he instantly vanishes in a hail of arrows, swords, flames, bolts, ice shards, maces, stuffed marmots, socks, geese, inflatable hammers, lightbulbs, zeppelins etc. With a sigh, you start doing laps around the area, very occasionally having the good fortune of a bandit respawning right in front of your face enabling you to get the first hit in before it’s annihilated, though it’s impossible to be choosy about exactly what you’re attacking as if you paused to check exactly which sub-type of bandit it was, it would be far too late. On one lap, you happen to land a blow on Geoff the Bandit Leader, who’s faring no better than his men, and eventually, after an awfully long time and an awful lot of killstealing, you manage to tag ten Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists. You head back to Arbitrary Neville.

“Well done”, says he, favouring you with a bit more loose change and a dagger that you instantly throw away, spearing a passing chicken. “Now go and…”
“I should warn you” you interject “that if you say ‘kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants’, I’m going to flip out, like a ninja”
“Oh no” says Neville “wouldn’t dream of it. I was going to tell you to go and kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accou…”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“…. AND! And! Also Geoff the Bandit Leader.”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader?”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader”
“Look. I’ve already killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. That bloke over there has killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. Those three over there, where two of them are 10 levels higher than everyone else, they killed Geoff the Bandit Leader 73 times to try and get their low level friend a certain sword that he drops, only it turns out that got changed in the latest patch so he no longer drops it and they’re writing a stern forum post even as we speak. There is currently a line of people, and when you join it an automated voice says “you are number 113 in the queue to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader. We greatly value your bandit killing, please enjoy this music as you hold to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader”. I’ve seen Geoff the Bandit Leader die so many times he makes the killer at the end of a film who everyone thinks is dead but suddenly pops up going “GRAAAGH” look like a rank amateur in the not-actually-dying stakes. I could just about suspend my disbelief at the constant stream of random Bandit underlings with peculiar hobbies popping out of thin air with some unconvincing theory about constant reinforcements emerging from underground tunnels or something, but unless Geoff the Bandit leader has SIX! BILLION! identical clone brothers this is frankly silly.”
“I’ll give you this rare ring”
“Oh, all right then”

A man’s character is his fate

In the four years since City of Heroes launched, nobody’s managed to rival its utterly magnificent character customisation. Just the other day I got a second costume slot for my Arachnos Soldier, popped along to the Facemaker to quickly sort out a new costume, and nine and a half hours later emerged blinking into dawn’s early light having deliberated for quite some time over whether the goatee really worked with the skull mask or not. Most recently Age of Conan has a fairly promising array of sliders and options at character creation which let you do a pretty decent job when zoomed in peering closely at yourself in a skimpy pair of shorts, but make approximately bugger all difference once you’re standing next to twenty other people wearing generic chainmail with a tin bowl on your head.

APB, though. Oh my, APB. I just saw the APB character generator on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. If that’s really what we get to play with, frankly I don’t care about the rest of the game. I don’t care if there *is* a rest of the game, the camera could just pan around the newly created character for the rest of time to the sound of Massive Attack and I’d still buy it.

Reviewlet: Doctor Who – The Commentaries

Commentary tracks over films or television programmes are hit-and-miss things; sometimes fascinating insights into the writing, filming and/or acting process, sometimes lengthy awkward pauses interspersed with “uh… yeah… it was really cold that day”. I don’t often get around to them on DVDs, but the ever-splendid BBC offer Doctor Who commentaries as podcasts, and I can quite happily listen to them while wandering around doing other stuff. Very occasionally they don’t work too well without the accompanying visuals (“ah, now *that’s* very significant later!”), but so long as you can remember the episode reasonably well they’re mostly just fine in isolation.

There are a good mix of people involved in the podcast: writers (including the sporktastic James Moran), actors (David Tenant, Catherine Tate, the lovely Freema Agyeman), members of the production team, regular monsters (the actors who regularly play monsters, that is, not the monsters themselves; you couldn’t let a Sontaran loose in the commentary booth). I guess it’s still generally the preserve of somewhat-more-dedicated-than-is-normal (or healthy, for that matter) Doctor Who fans, but the latest commentary, for The Forest of the Dead, is well worth a listen. It’s Steven Moffat, David Tennant and Russell T Davies, not long after the announcement that Moffat is to take over from Davies as lead writer and executive producer for the fifth series, and there’s a lot of excellent banter between the three, with an occasional digression to talk about the episode.

Greater Blessing of Insomnia

Astute readers may have noticed that Melmoth has been a bit quiet recently; readers with a keen memory may remember this piece from the dim, distant past of a couple of weeks ago. Astute readers with a keen memory may be be able to therefore deduce from these two pieces of information that Melmoth has finally gone into deep cover, infiltrating a pernicious gang of hardened criminals who use the amazing realism of MMOGs to plan their heists. Oh, crap, that’s blown his cover, forget I said anything (though if you read a story in the paper about a gang who were planning to rob a bank by immobilising the Longbow security forces by summoning rocks from the very earth itself to hold them in place, then blow the bloody doors off the vault with the help of robot henchmen before flying off to freedom using jetpacks, you’ll know who foiled their attempt).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, astute readers with a keen memory who don’t confuse reality with MMOGs quite so much may have deduced that Mini Melmoth has arrived. Melmoth, Mrs Melmoth and Mini Melmoth are all doing well. I think. Communication has been somewhat garbled, along the lines of “onlee 17mins sleeeep in lst 34hrs kwite tyred”, but everything seems to be OK, so many congratulations to the Melmoths from all at Killed In A Smiling Accident, and if you’d like to leave any messages of goodwill as a comment, he’ll almost certainly pick them up in about 18 years time when Mini Melmoth is no longer quite so mini and leaves home.

Hat News Now Today: The Wilderness Years

Badadadadada dum dum dum dadada daa daaa dum dum daaaaaaaaa! Welcome back to Hat News Now Today, Today’s source Now of Hat News, Now, Today.

After a slightly disappointing hat collection amassed in Tortage, your Hat News correspondent performed some heroic and world changing act of some kind involving a volcano or something (no particularly exciting hats were involved, so it wasn’t worth recording in detail) and moved on to explore some of the rest of Hyboria.

The bad news is, bowls on the head with nosepieces are still very in. Leather, hide, iron, steel, copper, strontium, they all rather blur into each other after a while, and the photographer dozed off before being able to catch all the nuances of the leather helm with iron banding versus the iron helm with leather bindings.

On the plus side, new sets of enemies bring new opportunities for mass killing sprees in the search of a new hat! If you’re looking for something a bit cold, a bit Viking, something that would let you get a bit part in an advert for Skol lager, then you’ll want to hunt down the Vanir, and maybe steal one of these helmets.

If, on the other hand, you’re after something a bit more classical, something that says “yes, I could take you on in a fight, but afterwards I could also find the length of the longest side of a right angle triangle and write an epic poem about it”, then perhaps one of these, wrenched from a Nemedian, is more your scene.

Or finally, there’s always one group you can rely on to take the approach of “working metal is a bit tricky, I know, lets just grab the nearest animal and stick it on our heads!” Yes, it’s those crazy Picts again.

So there we have it; something of an improvement, but still not exactly a vast and thrilling range of headgear options. Rest assured, though, your Hat News Now Today team will work tirelessly to perform their mission: to explore strange new hats, to seek out new headgear and new headwear, to boldly place bits of animal on their head that no man has placed before (and for very good reason in most cases). B-bye!

Bring the Noise

Just to prove my own point I fired up Audiosurf for a quick five minutes last night, and wound up playing through most of the Solaris soundtrack, which produced some amazing looping tracks. Oh, and then the Ying Tong Song.

While on a music game kick, there’s been a whole bunch o’ plastic instrument type news in the last few weeks. Still no sign of a UK release date for the Wii version of Rock Band; I’ll keep an eye on reviews when it’s out in the US in a few weeks, see how it measures up to the other consoles, but I suspect I’ll give it a miss thanks to a slew of rivals out there. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is out at the end of June, so I’ve stuck an order in for that to get an immediate fix of plastic guitaring. I don’t know much Aerosmith past their singles, but the song list looks like there’ll be enough to keep me going for a while at least. If nothing else it means I shouldn’t be so tempted to do something rash like get the Nintendo DS release, Guitar Hero: On Tour, though watching the promo video had already altered my interest level from “hmm, possibly intriguing” to “FLEE! FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES!”

The biggest news, though, is Guitar Hero IV, or Guitar Hero: Roman Numerals Are So PassĂ©e And Colons Are In So It’s Not Guitar Hero IV But “Guitar Hero: World Tour” Just To Sound A Lot Like “Guitar Hero: On Tour” So You Can Get Them Confused A Lot, to give its full title. World Tour, perhaps inevitably, brings drums and vocals to the Guitar Hero series, as well as a few other new features like the ability to create custom songs. With the Wii version of Rock Band being somewhat cut-down compared to the PS3 and 360 versions, notably lacking Downloadable Content, it remains to be seen how many World Tour features will make it to the Nintendo system, but there are encouraging noises about downloadable functionality for the Wii. Scheduled for an October release in the US, with a bit of luck we might see it in the UK before the end of the year if the Guitar Hero III release dates were anything to go by, though if Rock Band is any precedent then the mid-23rd century may be more likely. In the past couple of days, word is also emerging of Guitar Hero: Metallica for early 2009.

Not content with the possibility of a mere two plastic drum kits cluttering up your living room, Konami have announced Rock Revolution, though I haven’t seen much about that apart from the drum set. There are murmurings of Rock Band 2 for this Autumn as well, so October/November may see a Plastic Instrument Battle Royale on a scale not seen since the Bakelite Beatles vs Rolling Polyethylene Terephthalate Stones duels of the 60s.

Based on the current situation, it seems unlikely that many, if any, of the instruments will be compatible between games, which is a shame. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said “to have one plastic guitar cluttering up the living room may be tolerated by an understanding wife, to have three plastic guitars, a bass or two, three drum sets and an assortment of USB mics is probably pushing it a bit”. We’ll have to see how UK pricing and release dates pan out, but it’s looking like interesting times in the world of pushing buttons and pretending to be a rock god.

It’s full of colours!

When not playing Age of Conan, I keep going back to Audiosurf. In a strange coincidence (that isn’t strange, and in no way a coincidence), I’ve also been getting back into music generally. Sometimes I can go through periods where I’ll pick up the iPod, select shuffle, and go through about 50 tracks hitting “next” every couple of seconds before giving up entirely. Other times, like recently, I’ll quite happy listen to just about everything that gets randomly thrown up, so either my iPod has a cunning Evil Shuffle mode, that periodically just picks songs I don’t like, or I just go through phases. The second option seems more likely, as exactly the same songs crop up both times.

Anyway! I’d been mostly sticking to the Mono modes, but they only work really well on some songs. Too slow, and there just aren’t enough coloured bricks to keep life interesting, too fast (especially on Mono Pro/Elite), and the focus is more on dodging grey bricks than hitting colours. One of the tweaks in the recent update was that the Vegas vehicle got an extra ability, generating random power-ups, which seems to make quite a difference, and I can quite happily kill a couple of hours going “oh… just one more song, then”.