Wednesday 12 March 2008

Zoso has left the building

As you might have noticed, the Musings here have been getting rather less MMOG-y. I was thinking of changing the title or setting up another blog or something, and chatting to Melmoth it turned out he'd been contemplating a move too, so he's put a vast amount of effort into getting Killed in a smiling accident going, and I've pitched up on the doorstep to aimlessly burble around a bit. Expect a more diverse array of post subjects, until I get utterly caught up in some game and in a fierce turn of irony blog exclusively about MMOs again there (and post about flower arranging here).

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Charlie don't surf

In between sorting out inventory in Hellgate (I'm not sure what gives the greatest pleasure, shooting a bunch of zombies or arranging weapon modifications in order of rarity, type and effect and deciding which 18 to keep in the stash) and Guitar Heroism (Before I Forget cracked, now trying to work out how the hell to do the second solo of Cult of Personality) I've been getting more into Audiosurf, and have developed a few techniques for maximum fun-having-ness.

Firstly, I've given up on the colour-matching characters, and almost entirely play mono. The representation of the music tends to pick up broad themes, and works best when you step back and look at the whole sweep of the thing. The colour matching aspect forces you into looking very narrowly at what's immediately ahead in relation to what you've previously picked up, and I still can't see the representation of the music in the colours most of the time. If, say, red blocks tended to correspond to vocals I think it would work better, but that's expecting rather a lot from the song-to-track algorithms. My Advanced Brane Science Theory is that the trying-to-work-out-which-colour-to-place-where part of the brain needs so much processing power that it doesn't leave any for the listening-to-the-nice-music-and-going-ooooh-isn't-it-pretty part, though experimental analysis is inconclusive so far (the research consists of shouting "ARE YOU LIKING THE MUSIC? HOW PRETTY IS THE TRACK ON A SCALE OF ONE TO SEVEN? WHY AREN'T YOU COLLECTING THOSE RED BLOCKS? OOH, I LOVE THIS BIT OF THE SONG HOW ABOUT YOU? WHAT COLOURS ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? DID YOU NOTICE THAT SWITCH TO D FLAT MINOR JUST THEN?", and the only subject I could find is my hamster, who bit me on the finger then went back to eating sunflower seeds). I kept playing the colour-matching characters for a while, as mono felt like a cop-out, like "easy mode" for people who can't handle uber-chrominence, but then I told myself to snap out of it, it's not like there's any peer pressure (aside from the aforementioned hamster, and the derisive squeak was probably more to do with running out of sunflower seeds than me selecting Mono Pro as a character). Plus it's not wussing out at all, it's a perfectly rational action based on Advanced Brane Science.

Actually, a hideous, terrifying vision just floated across my mind of Audiosurf message boards, where a ferocious war rages between the Colour Matchers and the Mono Players over the Right Way to play. Each character doubtless has its own adherents, pleading for buffs to their favoured class and calling for the absurdly overpowered (insert other character here) to be nerfed and there's way too much gold spam and raiding needs too much time plus since pvp got all the best items there's no point and the devs hate me it is a SLAP IN THE FACE AND... erm. Sorry about that. I haven't visited the official forums, I don't know if they're anything like that, but I don't think I'll take the risk.

Secondly, I've chilled out the music I've been playing. I'd been tending towards up-tempo rhythm beat combos; Scum-era Napalm Death, the Prodigy and their titular safety-film-based tune, Slayer, Atari Teenage Riot, Pennywise, Lawnmower Deth etc. After all, faster music, more traffic, more points! And what do points make? A sense of accomplishment as there aren't any actual prizes, per se! Plus there's the mandatory online machismo associated with... well, anything really. Caffeine consumption ("I like a couple of cups of coffee", "A couple? Ha! I have thirty cups A DAY!", "Thirty? Pah. I have fifty cups of SUPER EXTRA HIGH CAFFEINE BLEND!" "Yeah? Well I make SUPER EXTRA HIGH CAFFEINE BLEND in the filter machine then I add three spoons of instant coffee to it and then NINE SHOTS OF ESPRESSO!"), chilli tolerence ("I made chilli con carne last night with a few jalapeños, man it had a kick to it", "Jalapeños, pah, I used nine Scotch Bonnets in mine plus a bottle of Tabasco sauce", "Tabasco? Pfff, I only use Dave's Insanity Sauce", "HA! I drank SEVENTEEN GALLONS of NEVILLE'S EVEN MORE INSANE REALLY YOU'D HAVE TO BE STARK RAVING MAD EVEN TO LOOK AT THE BOTTLE SAUCE for BREAKFAST!"), and, of course, speed of Audiosurf tracks ("I only play TEN BILLION BPM death-techno-hard-bass tracks FROM MARS"). The more congested the traffic, though, the more you have to focus closely, exacerbating the previously outlined Advanced Brane Science Theory. Colour matching at very high speed is madness, mono slightly better but still not optimal for musical appreciation. Instead, I've been delving around my collection for ambient, trance, dub, psychedelia, krautrock and similar (and also realising that since starting to use iTunes to organise my music, the physical folder structures are a right mess). Notable successes I've really enjoyed have included UNKLE, The Olivia Tremor Control and Can; it's a lottery, though. Dylan doesn't work too well, unfortunately, but then much of his genius is in the words and it'll probably be a while before a program can turn lyrical symbolism into playable visuals. Some dEUS songs that I thought would make nice tracks aren't too interesting either. Still, it's a fun journey of discovery; next stop, maybe some late 60s Pink Floyd jams and any Doors song over ten minutes...

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Now I'm goin' to hell

A couple of weeks in to Hellgate: London, and I'm still rather enjoying it. I've performed a highly complex statistical analysis of what I most like about the game; I'm afraid the results utilise some incredibly advanced theoretical modelling techniques to represent the concept of "fun" in a thirteen-dimensional topographical waveform that might be a bit advanced for you earthlings, but hang on to your hats and and see if you can follow along. Here we go...

There's loads of loot in Hellgate. I like loot.

Hrm. Maybe it's fairly simple after all.

Course it's not just the loot, the general running-around-shooting-demons (and zombies and beasts and freaky floating head things with tentacles that just appear right next to you and go EEEEERRRRRUUURRRURUR) side of things is also good. As a Marksman, and concentrating on passive skills for the most part, it's extremely FPS-y, there's only a couple of active skills I frequently use. Loot, though, definitely gives it an "oh, go one then, just one more round of the mini-game" impetus (the mini-game consists of three icons that appear on screen challenging you to kill x of a certain type of creature, or make x kills using a certain type of damage, or pick up a certain type of loot; once you fulfil the three criteria, voila! More loot!) Aside from the mini-game, rare mobs and named bosses are fairly common (well by definition they can't be that common, but they're common for rare things. If you see what I mean.), and they explode in a particularly satisfying shower of money and, oh yes, loot! I do seem to be getting quite lucky, though; Hellgate uses the good old green/blue/orange uncommon/rare/legendary loot classification, and I'm pretty much kitted out in legendary gear now, whereas Melmoth only has a couple of bits.

Hitting level 20, I wandered off to Stonehenge to make the most of being a subscriber. It's fun enough, plenty more demon, zombie and floating-tentacle-head shooting fun. I got the items needed to unlock Moloch, the super-uber-head-demon-beast chap, so Melmoth and I popped in to say "hi", maybe have a cup of tea, then while there it seemed rude not to unleash a devastating rain of fire and destruction upon him. Unfortunately Melmoth was much lower level than Mr Moloch and scarcely able to scratch him. On the plus side, he made an excellent diversion, enabling me to stand and shoot the beastie for the ten straight minutes to knock his health bar down to around 75%, at which point a bunch of priest things spawned that healed him back to full health by the time we could clear them. Another twenty minutes, Moloch at 50% health, back came the priests... half an hour, 25% health, oh look, it's the priests... If they'd spawned again at 1% health I think I might've gone on a mad rampage around the living room, or at least said "tsk", but fortunately they didn't, so a mere hour and a half of constantly shooting the big ol' demon netted the spoils (of a couple of legendary items for me, and... none for Melmoth. All that +luck gear must be paying off.) Next time, maybe recruiting a few more people might make it a bit quicker...

The best thing about Hellgate, though, is Lucious Aldin and Techsmith 314 (well, maybe second best, after UBER LEGENDARY LEWT). Unfortunately I seem to have finished their missions for now, I'm rather hoping they'll make a comeback later on. As a taster of the crazy madcap japes these two get up to, if you don't mind a few spoilers see the quest walkthrough for "That'll Get Infected". Already, "bio break" has been replaced in our online conversations with "I think I need to use the privy-OF DESECRATION!"

Monday 25 February 2008

There was music in the cafes at night

Still playing Guitar Hero III, I finally managed to beat Lou in the hard career (just; I thought he'd got me as the screen faded to black, then suddenly it kicked back in with "FINISH HIM!" Tried a couple more times after that and didn't get close, so I guess that was a particularly flukey combination of me hitting my attacks and him not getting particularly annoying ones at bad times). On with Expert now, where I managed to pass 3s and 7s for the first time, but Before I Forget still does me in on the bridge.

Since Rock Band for the Wii was confirmed a few weeks back, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for possible release dates in Europe (estimates vary from "March" through "2009" to "sometime after the heat death of the universe"), and news on whether the Wii will support downloadable songs. It doesn't seem terribly likely, what with the Wii's limited internal storage, and a distinct lack of other games supporting downloadable content, but I'm really keeping my fingers crossed. The extra songs available for PS3/Xbox 360 Guitar Hero III so far are rather uninspiring, so I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything there, but there's already some great stuff out for Rock Band with more to come, including the greatest ever song ever in the history of time ever.

In non-plastic-guitar related musical gaming, Audiosurf has been released on Steam. I'd noticed Audiosurf mentioned in a few places before Christmas, signed up for the beta, and played that once or twice but wasn't terribly captivated. There's a demo available on Steam alongside the full retail version, so I gave that a try, and it hadn't changed that much since the beta. It still doesn't really grab me, despite my previously professed love of music games. It's hugely impressive, the way it transforms a piece of music into a "racetrack", a Mahler symphony looks absolutely stunning, but then the colour matching gameplay doesn't quite work for me. When working with multiple colours, I can't really see the correlation between block colour and the "intensity" of the music, so I'm more keeping track of placement and colours than listening to the music. Even in mono mode, the block placement is too random; just occasionally everything really clicks, the track and blocks totally match up in an inspired way, but most of the time the music is a soundtrack than an integral part of the game (even though it created the track). Expecting otherwise would be a bit much; while obviously a somewhat different prospect, it takes a while to produce a decent Guitar Hero/Rock Band/Dance Dance Revolution chart for a single song, and Audiosurf produces a track from anything you throw at it (and I've tried a fair bit) within seconds, but for me it's just missing a final push that would turn it from a neat little diversion into a really addictive game. After saying all that, I still bought it; it's only $10, and innovation like this should be encouraged even if it's not quite the best game ever. Also, it includes the Orange Box soundtrack, and have I mentioned Still Alive being the greatest ever song ever in the history of time ever yet?

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Goldilocks and the Three Devs

Once upon a time, Goldilocks was wandering through the woods when she saw a house with an open door. Going inside for no adequately explained reason, a dev gave her a bowl of porridge. Tasting a spoonful, she spat it back out, shouting "THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! Teh porrij is cold!" A second dev took the porridge and microwaved it, and Goldilocks took another spoonful. "WAHT TEH HELL teh porrij is rilly hot now ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME I COULD HAEV BURNTED MYSELF TO DETH" she exclaimed. A third dev added some cold milk to the porridge, so it was just the right temperature, prompting Golidlocks to bellow "OMFG i haet porrij I WANT READY BREK and the chocolate one not the plain rubbish AND WITH SPRINKLES!"

After throwing the porridge on the floor and flinging the spoon through a window, Goldilocks fancied a sit-down, so a dev brought her a chair. "JESUS this chair is TOO LOW dammit my knees are SLIGHTLY TOO HIGH i bet the devs DONUT EVEN SIT ON CHAIRS" she yelled, and so a second dev placed a small plinth beneath the chair. "ZOMGZ now this is WAY TOO HIGH my feet are SLIGHTLY OFF THE FLOOR this is RIDDDDDDICKYOULESSS" said Goldilocks, a vein bulging in her neck as she provided the valuable feedback. The third dev then trimmed the legs of the chair slightly, so it was at the perfect height. "JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESUS" screamed Goldilocks "you nerfed the chair you sawed the legs of you totally nerfed the chair now the chair is not fun any more what the hell is wrong with you why did you nerf the chair why did you not just elevate the entire rest of the house by a few inches and then cut an indentation in the floor so the chair was the right height I DONUT PAY FIFTEEN DOLLARS A MONTH FOR THIS", and Goldilocks smashed the chair with a hammer and said she was never going to sit on a chair ever EVER EVER again and called for everyone else to boycott chairs.

Goldilocks then decided it was time to start playing a massively multiplayer online game, so she sat down at a PC (on a chair, conveniently forgetting the chair boycott) and logged in to the MMO the first dev had worked on. "God this is BOOOOORRRRING" said Goldilocks "there is no PvP I want to PvP games without PvP are rubbish and boring", so the second dev swiftly re-wrote the whole game to be PvP-centric, and Goldilocks was ganked and corpse camped and had all her in-game possessions stolen and Goldilocks screamed "I HAET PVP it is stupid who put pvp in this game they are stupid it is totally unbalanced and rubbish and all the pve game changed to support it i rilly liked the pve game but it is rubbish now this is a SLAP in the FACE", so the third dev unleashed three giant bears who ripped Goldilocks apart to cries of "THIS IS SUCH UNFAIR MOB PLACEMENT i'm totally going to cancel my subscription now just see if i don't".

The end.

Thursday 14 February 2008

This weekend in hell(gate)

After wrapping up Crysis, I started casting about for something else to play. A few months back, when in the midst of Orange Box fever (note to self: in typing that, I remembered I still have Episodes 1 and 2 of Half-Life 2 to finish), I tried the demo of Hellgate: London and rather enjoyed it, but had a plethora of other games going at the time. With nothing else more tempting around, I thought I'd give the full version a spin.

During installing, updating, and patching I got dangerously bored, so while creating an account I thought I might as well have a look at the subscription option, and decided the benefits weren't earth shatteringly exciting so I wouldn't bother. After another five minutes of thumb-twiddling I figured what the heck, it's only seven quid, and typing in my credit card details would at least kill some time, so I slightly subscribed a bit.

Firing up the game, stepping into the desolate ruins of London was fairly familiar from the demo. It's similar in some ways to City of Heroes, fast paced action on randomly generated maps with a limited number of tilesets, so like City of Heroes it should be fun to hop on for a quick blast now and again. I really like the post-apocalyptic setting of the game, a ruined London with survivors huddling in tube stations is obviously quite evocative of the Blitz, and the scarred barricades and shells of armoured vehicles give the impression a not-insignificant dust-up happened recently, and the people in the tanks didn't come out of it too well. Boxes, crates and barrels strewn around the place sometimes yield money or items when destroyed, and there's something terribly satisfying about vandalism on a grand scale, like City of Villains mayhem missions, or driving around in the late lamented Auto Assault knocking down road signs, barriers and especially pedestrians to gather crafting materials.

Something that wasn't familiar from the demo was the grappler. The demo let you try out the Blademaster and Marksman classes, and I much preferred the ranged weapons of the Marksman to having to get close enough to use a sword. While trying out various characters in the full game, I whipped up a Guardian, and found a grappler, a weapon of some sort. Equipping it and pointing it at a zombie wandering down the street to find out what devastation it would unleash, it shot out a hook, caught hold of the zombie and with an audible "twang!", catapulted the surprised undead shambler over to me, conveniently saving that long hike all the way over there to smite it with a sword. (Actually, I was lying about the audible "twang!", the only tiny flaw in the grappler is that it doesn't do that. Then again, it doesn't really need to, as I shout "twang!" myself every time I fire it now.) The grappler is 39 carat mithril genius, I don't know why nobody's done it before (that I can think of). There's plenty of knockdown and knockback (in CoH, sometimes far too much knockback if you're a Scrapper in a team of Storm Defenders), but no... what's the opposite of knockback? Pullforward? There's hardly any of that; maybe telekinetic type powers like in Bioshock, but it's not quite the same. It solves some of the frustrations of a melee character in a ranged world (sprinting full speed towards the enemy who get shot by your comrades just as you get there, or jumping up and down trying to poke some flying thing), and is just generally fun. I must try grouping up with a bunch of melee types to see you can play Grappler Ping-Pong with zombies... It might even work for tanking; never mind shouting "yo mama" jokes at some demon to try and persuade him to attack you instead of the squishies, twang! him away from them and over to you instead! The major drawback is that the grappler takes up a slot that could be used for a shield or gun, so unless you get very adept at twang!ing an enemy in then switching weapon sets (as well as using all your other hotkey abilities), it's not the most efficient use of gear, and disturbingly twang!-resistant enemies were turning up, even at the lowly levels my Guardian's progressed through so far. Talking of tanking, I gather that's what Guardians are supposed to do (they even have some sort of taunt, not that I bothered reading what it did, 'cos it's a taunt, pah), but I'm not entirely sure how you accomplish the role when the greatest challenge is finding a live opponent. Nothing outside the uber-bosees survives long enough to be taunted, or indeed twang!ed; I guess the fiendish army will get a bit more challenging in future levels.

Neat though the grappler is, it's not enough to lure me away from guns, guns, more guns, and a couple of spare guns in case the aforementioned guns run out of ammo (which they don't, the game has no concept of finite ammunition, but you can never be too careful), so my main character is a Marksman. I've only been playing a few days, but the story and quests are quite engaging so far, within MMO limitations. There's been plenty of boding, portents, mystery and a bit of a cut-scene, leading up to missions for Lucious Aldin and Techsmith 314, the greatest lunatic NPC double act since Minsc and Boo of the Baldur's Gate series (not that Boo was a lunatic, obviously, Boo was a perfectly normal miniature giant space hamster). I can't remember any specific lines of dialogue, but they've been very funny in a bonkers-in-the-nut way.

I can't see Hellgate as a very long term thing, but it's certainly diverting enough at the moment.

Monday 11 February 2008

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry(sis)

Back to the present after all that reminiscing, and these past few weeks I have been mostly playing Crysis (interspersed with Guitar Hero 3; I finally beat Raining Blood on Hard, the resultant victory dance being rudely interrupted by the Hard version of The Devil Went Down To Georgia being arse-bendingly ludicrous. Boss battles move gameplay away from being "hit most of the notes, if you can" to being "hit these very specific notes (as well as most of the others) *and* hope you don't get hit with particularly unpleasant attacks in the meantime", altogether too much chance getting into the equation.)

Crysis, though; I hardly need to mention its visual loveliness, which is just as visually lovely as everyone says to the point where you'll quite happily skip down the beach going "ooooh, palm trees swaying in the breeze! Coo, crabs scuttling across golden sands into sapphire-crystal waters! My, look at the detail on the assault rifle that soldier's carrying, you can see the laser sight illuminating a spot between my eyes so clearl*BANG* urgh." Once you've stopped goggling at the beauty of everything, it's a very well-done shooter. Your nano-techno-bio-suit-o thing offers some neat options, particularly the cloak; the weapons are nicely done, particularly being able to customise them with your choice of sights and other accessories; vehicles provide occasional diversions, although they usually seem to include absurdly powerful magnets that attract bullets from kilometres around the moment you climb in. The first half to two-thirds is generally excellent, as you sneak around swathes of enemy troops single-handed (or occasionally double-handed if your nano-suited chum Psycho is around). Then... well. Minor spoilers follow, so look away if you want to be totally surprised (and you've never seen Predator): then, the aliens turn up, as presaged by the various spooky happenings up to that point, and much like Half Life, it's not nearly as good as the pre-alien stuff. The zero-gravity alien ship was a neat trick, for about five minutes then it dragged rather. After you're spat out and have to escape the island, where before you could study the situation, pick an appropriate suit mode and weapons and choose your own approach, once the aliens turn up everything's armour mode (or you die in seconds) and hold your finger on the trigger in an attempt to dispatch the space-beasties. I suppose you could say that's in keeping with the story, of a covert assault that uncovers unexpected opposition leading to a panicked escape, but it's a bit annoying. In general, the story isn't going to challenge for the Nobel prize for literature any day soon, but it's functional enough to keep things moving. The cast include a requisite bunch of shouty Marines/soldiers, your aforementioned team-mate Psycho (or Jason Statham after escaping from Crank) and some archaeologist's daughter to fill the standard Doctor Who assistant role (look pretty for the dads and get captured now and again). There's a segment after you escape the island, on an aircraft carrier, that takes forever to get going as you tromp around from briefing to briefing, but picks up nicely once it actually gets going. In the final battle you're faced with a giant boss, and you have to take out several turrets before proceeding on to the final vulnerable segments, which is rather satisfyingly Old Skool.

All in all, not a bad game, and I might well have another crack on a higher difficulty level, at least 'til ET turns up. After wrapping Crysis up, I was searching for a game, and thinking back I rather liked the Hellgate: London demo, so coming up soon, Actual MMOG[1] Type Posts!

[1] Depending on whether you classify Hellgate: London as an MMOG or not. Which I do. So there.

Friday 8 February 2008

The history books tell it (part 5)

For some reason, my memory of the PCs I've owned gets worse as the systems get more recent, so after rambling endlessly on for the first few computers I'll wrap up the last ten years or so in a single post.

After the 486 was a Pentium, maybe a P133, from another random box-shifter out of PC Plus (MJN Computers, as far as I recall), during the second year of university. I probably had this longer than any other PC, as after graduating and getting a job I blew all my money on fripperies like a house. I couldn't really remember some of the subsequent upgrades, but my MMO pack-rat-ism extends to e-mail and electronic documents, so I poked around a bit and found records of a new PC pretty much every couple of years from 1999: first a Simply Computers Pentium II 350, then an Evesham Athlon 1400, a JAL Athlon 2800, and finally the bunch of components assembled into my current Athlon 64. It also turns out I don't have the best luck with PCs, as half the documents I found related to problems: the estimated delivery date of the Simply kept slipping back to the point I was on the verge of cancelling the order, the Evesham machine fell over after about a week and needed a motherboard replacement, and the original graphics card of the JAL and my current system were both knackered and need replacing. Maybe I get overexcited when new machines arrive and start emitting electromagnetic pulses or something...

Games-wise, I don't really have much of a sense of chronology either, so I'll whip through the Wikipedia video game genres list and see what I remember, doubtless missing out a whole bunch o' stuff...

I went on a wargame kick for a while, starting with a budget purchase of Panzer General (then on to others in the series, Allied General, Fantasy General, Pacific General, Panzer General 2, Hatstand General, Specific General, General Practitioner and the like, though the original was probably the best). That led on to the Steel Panthers series, and also the Close Combat games; I hadn't been very keen on a demo of the first, but a friend lent me Close Combat II, and that was superb. III, IV and V were decent enough follow-ons without quite matching up to the Arnhem campaign. The same friend tried to get me into Combat Mission, but it just didn't click, and I haven't really played wargames since.

Overlapping with wargames in the real-time/turn-based/tactical/strategic fields, like I mentioned in the previous post, after playing Dune II, Warcraft, Command & Conquer and Warcraft 2 (plus various expansions/sequels and possibly a couple of others I've forgotten) in rapid succession I was about done with RTS games, up until Company of Heroes. Warhammer: Dark Omen was a rather excellent RTT game, I thoroughly enjoyed deploying siege weapons and charging around after undead in that, and the two MechCommander games were also fun RTTs. The sequels to UFO: Enemy Unknown never quite lived up to its heights, Terror from the Deep was more of the same only harder, and X-COM Apocalypse went a bit real-time (sort of, you could switch combat engines I think) and more futuristic. Strangely, despite loving the original Civilisation to bits, the only sequel I played at any length was Colonisation, maybe I should pick up Civ IV sometime.

I can't remember particularly playing any flight-sims after the 486; space sims didn't do too badly for a while, peaking with Conflict Freespace 2 which I even revisited recently. Tachyon: The Fringe was a fairly average game elevated by Bruce Campbell's voice, X: Beyond the Frontier was interesting without being great, then there wasn't much else until I picked up X3. I always liked giant stompy mecha-robot games too, which basically boiled down to a couple of Earthsiege games and the always splendid Mechwarrior series (the PC1512 hadn't quite been up to the first, but I completed 2, 3 and 4 along with most of the expansions).

Driving games have never been my thing, though I had some compilation that included Driver and played that a fair bit. As a result, I'd never bothered with the Grand Theft Auto series, but then GTA3 got such plaudits I gave it a shot, and couldn't get enough of cruising the streets to the sounds of K-JAH. Vice City and San Andreas were similarly fantastic, so I'm hoping GTAIV makes it to the PC before to long.

Adventure games gradually faded away, though I rather liked a couple before they all but vanished completely. Starship Titanic was an interesting attempt to bring the text parser back, quite frustrating, but with some fun bits. Discworld Noir I really liked; despite being a Pratchett fan, I couldn't get into the first two Discworld games, but finished Noir, which was probably the furthest from the source material. I don't think I even had to resort to a walkthrough.

In offline RPGs, it's basically been Bioware all the way. After the Gold Box heydey, computer implementations of D&D had tailed off a bit, until the excellent Baldur's Gate and the genius of Minsc and Boo. Planescape: Torment was the pinnacle of CRPG storytelling, Baldur's Gate II a solid followup to the first. Neverwinter Nights had such great promise, but the single player campaign was a little disappointing, and though we had some fun with modules and multiplayer, it never quite worked out. Its expansions were good, though. Knights of the Old Republic was great, I missed out on the second having just got into City of Heroes then World of Warcraft instead, maybe that's something else I should pick up. The XBox exclusivity of Mass Effect is a shame, but Dragon Age could be interesting.

First person shooters have been a constant throughout; Blood sticks out in the memory from the early stuff as quite a funny, freaky over-the-top mess of setting cultists on fire with a flare gun and playing zombie-head football. I never really liked the original Quake, but Quake II was good. That was the first FPS where I used mouselook and WASD to move, which took some getting used to from just using the keyboard, but is now as natural as turning my head... Half-Life and its various expansions and sequels, of course, not much more to say about those. Call of Duty and its expansion were very good, I really ought to pick the sequels up. I loved the first Unreal Tournament for its frenetic never-mind-a-story-just-shoot-stuff action, and Unreal Tournament 2004 was one of the first games I seriously played online. Most recently Crysis has been rather fun, but I'll get onto that in another post...

Possibly the games I've loved most have been FPS/RPG hybrids; I'd be hard pushed to decide between System Shock 2 and Deus Ex for my Favourite Game Ever Of All Time (Probably, At The Moment At Least, Unless I've Forgotten Any Others). System Shock 2 was even better than the first, which made Deux Ex 2 all the more disappointing, I never got into it at all, though at least Bio(it's really System)shock(3) was a worthy follow-up, if not quite as good as System Shock 2.

So there we go, the Fairly Incomplete And Rather Badly Illustrated History of PC Gaming by Zoso, aged 33 1/3. Next up, Back to the Present for a spot of Crysis!

Tuesday 5 February 2008

The history books tell it (part 4)

The 486 Years

After the quantum leaps of floppy disk to hard drive and CD-ROM, CGA to VGA and PC speaker to Soundblaster, I can't recall any particularly astounding developments in PC hardware. After the 386SX, it was pretty much a case of more of the same (but faster, with more memory, more hard drive space, more colours on the screen and a slightly different shade of beige for the case). Somewhere around 1993 I upgraded to a 33Mhz 486DLC (a budget Cyrix chip roughly on par with a 486SX) system, just in time for Doom. What more can you say about Doom? Literally hours of chainsaw, shotgun and BFG fun. Doom also felt like the tipping point, from the PC being a bit of an afterthough for games, meekly trailing behind other systems saying "please sir, may I have a port?" to an Intel (or Cyrix) powered gaming-Cyberdemon, stomping around crushing lesser systems beneath its robo-hooves. In my mind, at least. And the mind of newsagents too (well, publishers more likely), as magazines like PC Zone and PC Gamer appeared next to PC Plus and the ever-imaginatively titled PC Magazine. PC Format had turned up a bit earlier as possibly the first not-really-business-oriented PC publication, but it was still a bit too "lifestyle" for me, rather than the ideal of games, games and extra games, with a couple of games on the cover and some extra games coverage. There might even have been magazines that didn't feature "PC" in the title, but I can't remember any of them offhand which serves them right for veering into such absurdism.

Being cash-strapped (though the knowledge gained from a few years of PC-tinkering had at least enabled me to escape from paper rounds and weekends in a godawful gift shop in favour of doing some spreadsheet and database work), magazine cover disks (still mostly 3.5" disks, though with an occasional CD-ROM starting to appear) were a major source of games, mostly shareware or demos. Doom itself had a free shareware episode, Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball... One Must Fall: 2097 was an excellent robot fighting game, a genre usually overlooked on the PC, I could probably still perform most of the special attacks of the Jaguar robot from the shareware version of it. I never really succumbed to Tetris, I think I initially experienced it as a poor CGA knock-off that rather put me off, but I did spend an awfully long time on the block-shuffler Squarez.

I took the 486 off to university, and fell in with a bad crowd there. That's "bad" in the "street" sense, my home people, because I am down with that. Noun. Though the few of us with PCs at school had copied a few games around, with photocopies of word lists or similar copy protection, it wasn't exactly a large scale operation. At university there were a bunch of us computer science students, some who'd been part of the cracking/demo scene, with access to the internet at high speed, someone had an early CD burner (though the blank disks were madly expensive as I recall, maybe a fiver a time?)... There was quite a bit of software floating around. In my defence, I did still buy a few games, even as a poor destitute student, and those years so thoroughly inculcated me into PC gaming at just the time the original PlayStation was really taking off that I barely glanced at a console until the Wii, so I'm sure I've paid my debts to society (or PC games publishers at least) since. Anyway, my chronology is pretty hazy, but around that general time were games like...

Dune II, which might've been on the 386SX come to think of it, the prototypical RTS game, and a real revelation at the time. After that was Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2, possibly a couple of others, and by the time I finished that lot I pretty much burned out on the RTS genre and only really went back to it recently in Company of Heroes.

Flight sims were going strong with Aces of the Pacific, Aces over Europe, Gunship 2000 and 1942: Pacific Air War amongst others. Comanche Maximum Overkill was one of the first games I installed on the 486 for its voxel landscapes, graphically very impressive, but I really preferred space combat (no ground to crash into, apart from anything else), so after Wing Commander 2, X-Wing - Space Combat Simulator and its sequel TIE Fighter were firm favourites. They actually had stories too, which made them more engaging than the standard flight sim that generally just packed you off to bomb/shoot down the enemy until you got shot down yourself, or got bored. Wing Commander itself was followed by Privateer, which was decent enough, but eclipsed by the Star Wars games.

I entirely neglected RPGs in the last post, I think I worked through a couple of other Gold Box AD&D games previous to getting the 486, but aside from extra dragons, they weren't wildly different from Curse of the Azure Bonds. I played Ultima VI, though I don't think I got very close to finishing it, I think the scale of the world put me off a bit, but I'm fairly sure I completed The Savage Empire, a Lost World type "World Of Ultima" spin-off using the Ultima VI engine, with extra dinosaurs. Eye of the Beholder was a Dungeon Master-esque AD&D game, but I never really got into that first person move-one-grid-square rotate-90-degrees type of RPG so much (I think Lands of Lore used a similar engine). On the 486, though hugely impressed by Ultima VII, I think the scale did for me again, and I never actually finished it, then I hardly played CRPGs for a few years. Daggerfall was probably the next one I seriously played, which might not have been on the 486.

I really enjoyed a couple of squad-based research 'em ups; the real-time Syndicate, and turn based UFO: Enemy Unknown. Researching new weapons and deploying them in the field, either in the chaotic city flame-fests of Syndicate or the tense landscapes of UFO, deploying from your transport aircraft, carefully hunting for downed alien craft, never quite sure where you'd find the occupant(s)... UFO in particular was really engrossing, right up to taking the fight back to the alien base on Mars (by which time I'd developed my psychic troopers to such an extent, I think most of the final mission consisted of spotting aliens with a hover-tank, then mind-controlling them to toddle off and shoot their comrades...)

Doom spawned a whole wave of first person shooters like Heretic, Hexen, Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, of course; one of the best was Dark Forces, a Star Wars FPS with the added fun of stromtrooper shooting. Descent as well, not really technically an FPS, was most impressive, with its total freedom. I was strictly a keyboard player then, not using WASD and mouselook until Quake II, so I played Descent entirely around the cursor keys... I think the cursors themselves for pitch and yaw, 7 and 9 for roll, 1 and 3 for strafe left and right, / and ins for strafing up and down... something like that. I got fairly handy with them, at any rate. When System Shock arrived, the 486 only just coped with it, but even with slightly jerky gameplay and low detail graphics it totally blew me away, amazing game.

Descent and Doom in particular were early vehicles for networked gameplay too, about four of us kitted out our PCs with network cards, though the eternal fun of DOS networking rather restricted the amount of time we actually played. In fact, once we got the games going over the network, it wasn't so much as a deathmatch, more a "Hey! Look! It's a (trooper/spaceship) controlled by an actual person! WHOAH!"-match; we mostly stuck with XPilot on the university workstations for multiplayer mayhem.

Aside from games, one of the early magazine cover disks included the Second Reality demo that was utterly mind-blowing, and could rapidly gather a crowd in the halls of residence, especially when followed up with Cthugha (from the same disk). The inexorable march of Windows also brought Windows 95, which the 486 could just about handle, though I was more impressed by a digitised (probably predating MP3... AIFF maybe?) version of the "Start Me Up" parody, "Windows 95 Sucks" (widely misattributed like 95% of comedy songs to Weird Al) doing the rounds.

Thursday 31 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 3)

My next PC, around 1990-91, was a 16Mhz 386SX built by whoever were the cheapest suppliers advertising in PC Plus at the time, some generic box-builders. I can't remember its exact spec, probably something like 1 or 2Mb of RAM, 3.5" disk drive and a 40Mb hard disk, but in gaming terms it was a quantum leap from the PC1512 for two reasons: a VGA display, allowing 256 entire colours instead of just 4, and an AdLib compatible soundcard, a similar upgrade in audio terms from the strangled beeps of a PC speaker (though there was at least one game on the 1512, Mean Streets I think, that included speech. Well, I say "speech", the PC speaker went "squuuuuwwwwww wwaaaafssshhhh", and you could just about distinguish words if you tried really hard, but it was speech to us). Finally, the 386sx was at least vaguely comparable to an Atari ST or Amiga for games!

As is doubtless familiar to anyone who's upgraded PCs over time, one of the first things to do was install stuff that just barely ran on the previous machine to enjoy it at blazing speed. I played through Curse of the Azure Bonds again (or maybe one of the Gold Box sequels), delighting in the ability to change the colours of my character's sprites, resulting in most of them having lurid primary coloured hair, skin and weapons (see, even then character customisation was important). I had another go at Xenon 2, probably the pinnacle of vertical shoot 'em ups (should've listed that in the previous post, as I actually finished it on the PC1512, the PC speaker doing its best to beep out Bomb the Bass; on the 386sx it turned out to be rather more difficult, as everything moved at (presumbly) the correct speed, where the 8Mhz of the 1512 must have struggled). I finally got to play through Wing Commander, and loved it. Possibly the first new game I got was Battletech 2: The Crescent Hawk's Revenge. I can still hum the theme music from it... It was a pretty good real-time squad of giant stompy robot command game, and who doesn't love giant stompy robots? I'd played a bit of the Battletech board game, particularly enjoying tinkering with the weapons set-ups, and apart from the very first I think I played and finished just about all the PC adaptations. Then there was Wing Commander 2, even better than the first, great days. Warlords, Chuck Yeager's Air Combat... I got Civilisation from a friend on a disk, no manual or anything, just a cursory demonstration of the gameplay, but that was more than enough to hook me for the longest time, with the added fun of figuring out various game/interface features as I went.

Something else I first got running on the 386sx was Windows 3.0; not really much cop for games (Solitaire excepted, of course) but kept the PC useful for "proper" stuff like word processing with Lotus Ami Pro. Games were still firmly DOS based, and started to need a few tricks playing with memory configuration and the like: you had your base memory up to 640k, then high memory from 640k to 1Mb, then after that either extended or expanded memory, I think... I'm a bit hazy on it these days! Different games would want more of different types of memory, leading to multiple configurations, and hunting around for the smallest possible mouse drivers and similar fun.

PC magazine cover disks (floppy disks, not CDs) were a primary source of software before the internet became prevalent (another momentary digression that should've been in the last post: I did actually get online with the PC1512, via an honest-to-goodness accoustic coupler; a friend had picked it up somewhere, but he had a new-fangled phone, the handset of which didn't fit; we still had a good old standard issue British Telecom rotary dial job. Unfortunately, it was in the hall, so getting online involved lugging the PC downstairs and balancing it on a stool next to the phone. Also, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, there didn't seem to be any local bulletin boards, certainly not listed in the classified ads in the PC magazines, so that meant national phone calls and only being able to stay online for about ten minutes before incurring parental wrath over phone bills. Still, it was terribly exciting to play one turn of some space empire resource game type thing. Well, not that exciting actually. Especially not at 300 bits per second.) The contents of cover disks would vary, but tended to follow the patterns of the magazines to which they were attached, lots of "serious" stuff, utilities etc., and the odd shareware game here and there when there was space. There'd been plenty of shareware games, like some of the stuff I'd originally been given for the PC1512, but text or ASCII graphics tended to be the order of the day, fast-paced action less so. As VGA and Adlib/Soundblaster cards became more common companies like Epic Games, id Software and Apogee among others were producing fast paced EGA and VGA platform-type games like Captain Comic, Duke Nukem (the platform game before the FPS), Jill of the Jungle, Bio Menace and my personal favourites, the Commander Keen games, still holders of the "Best Use of Pogo Stick in a Game" award.

After a year or so, it was time for an upgrade, in the form of a Soundblaster Multimedia pack: a Soundblaster card, which also acted as the controller for the included CD-ROM drive, and came bundled with a couple of disks: an early version of Encarta (or similar encyclopedia), and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. This was hugely exciting! Video! Of people! A minor flaw, in common with most early FMV games, is that it was totally rubbish as a game, I don't think I ever bothered to solve a single one of the cases, but any visitor was still treated to the astonishing site of real (somewhat blocky and jerky) genuine *people* on a computer! The Soundblaster was also rather exciting, having a line-in socket that, coupled with Windows sound recorder, gave hours of fun of recording stuff, adding echo, reversing it, and generally hunting for satanic messages in Led Zeppelin songs. I had a sweet setup by then, a bunch of old hi-fi separates someone else was going to chuck out (probably because the CD player would deign to bother playing discs about 75% of the time), with the PC hooked up to the amp, so when I was making mix tapes I could drop in crazy .wav files between tracks.

Towards the end of my time with the 386sx, id Software came out with something a bit different: Wolfenstein 3D. I don't remember exactly how long I ran around, shooting Germans and trying to open every single wall in the entire castle in case it was a secret door, but it was quite a while. That spawned a few similar games, like Blake Stone, which used the same engine, but none really matched up to Wolfenstein, at least not until id's next game, but by that time I'd upgraded again...

Tuesday 22 January 2008

The history books tell it (part 2)

Some time around 1988 the venerable Spectrum was showing its age, and it was time for an upgrade. The Speccy was only ever really used for games; I never mastered saving data back to tape, and we never had any radical peripherals like a disk drive or printer that might have made it more generally useful. The main driver for getting a new computer was (like every family computer ever purchased) something to help with homework, so a games console was never an option. The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga either hadn't been widely released, or else were considered too game-oriented.

I'm not entirely sure why we ended up with a PC; recommendation of a colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister or something, I think. It was an Amstrad PC1512, a cheap (compared to other PCs) IBM compatible aimed at home users as well as businesses, and coupled with a Citizen 120D 9 pin dot matrix printer made for a formidable powerhouse of a unit. 8Mhz processor, 512k of RAM, 5.25" disks storing up to 360k, this beast could handle anything you could throw at it (this might sound like excessive sarcasm, it was actually a respectable spec at the time). My main disappointment was that we had a choice between either a second disk drive or a colour screen (having both would have been too expensive, and as for the 20Mb hard drive option, I'm not sure Croesus himself had one of them. Possibly because he'd been dead for two and a half thousand years. And he preferred Macs.) The practicality of the second disk drive won out, despite my vehement arguments that a colour display would be so much more useful for... homework... school... stuff... of some sort. Probably. I didn't know at the time that the CGA graphics of the 1512 were limited to four colours anyway; if anything, the garish CGA palettes of cyan, magenta, black and white or green, red, brown and black were marginally less unpleasant when rendered in shades of grey.

So, homework was duly assisted by the bundled Ability office suite, teachers being suitably impressed when presented with printed essays only slightly torn at the edges from removing the tractor feed holes. Word processing and spreadsheets didn't provide much entertainment, though, there are only so many combinations of bold, italics and underlining you can use before getting bored. Six, in fact. There was always GEM Paint, which included a rather splendid image of a tiger, for mouse based drawing fun, but my artistic skills were (and indeed still are) limited to stick drawings. No, I was after some edge-of-the-seat gaming excitement, which was a bit of a problem. The PC wasn't exactly a first-choice gaming system. Nor third or fourth choice, for that matter. At the time it was fighting it out for seventeenth-choice gaming system with a Popeye Game & Watch. No high street shops in our town or the surrounding area sold PC games, and on one rare occasion on holiday when I found somewhere that did (three slightly dusty looking boxes in a sea of titles for other systems), they cost something ludicrous like £15 or £20. Adjusted to today's prices, and taking pocket money into account as a base salary, that would be roughly £3,812.27, so a bit much really. Fortunately the aforementioned colleague-of-a-friend-of-a-sister turned up trumps with a disk full of a random assortment games. The big hit from this was Digger, a gem-collecting monster-squashing game that was rather fun, and beeped out Popcorn from the PC speaker (Wikipedia link included to clarify I'm talking about the song Popcorn, rather than some amazing hack that created snacks from soundwaves as you played). It used the cursor keys for movement, which I found a bit tricky at the time; a fairly standard key layout on the Spectrum was to use Q and A for up and down, O and P for left and right, and space for fire. The idea of using one hand for all four directions was madness, so I squeezed both hands onto the cursor pad. This meant using F1 to shoot was a fairly involved manoeuvre, but as I had no idea you could use F1 to shoot until discovering it accidentally after several months, it wasn't really a problem.

Other games on the disk included Armchair Quarterback, a text-based American Football game (I'd picked up the basic rules from Channel 4 but wasn't entirely au fait with all the terminology, so my play calling was somewhat random; "3rd and 27? Quarterback sneak!"), some karate game that I suspect was intended for a 4.77Mhz processor (or just coded by bastards) as the opponents moved rather quickly (those cats, it could be said, were as fast as lightning; in fact, it was a little bit frightening...), and a few other bits and pieces. I got Elite from somewhere, and spent a long time working up to the titular Elite status. All entertaining enough but not exactly state of the art, most of the games were several years old by that point. I picked up the odd issue of PC Plus or Computer Shopper or similar (I tried Computer and Video Games magazine once, but that was an exercise in taunting with glossy full-colour page after glossy full-colour page of games, of which about three would be available for the PC) and gazed in wonderment at the lists of games available from mail order suppliers (much like the laminated book of dreams, only not laminated of course). With some begging and cajoling (and probably some Christmas money), I eventually got permission (and more importantly, a cheque) to send off for MicroProse's Airborne Ranger, my first "proper" PC game. Very splendid it was too, lots of sneaking, shooting and stabbing fun, infiltrating enemy encampments.

In parallel with an increasing interest in computers, I was also getting into pencil and paper RPGs (just to be a totally stereotypical nerd). Starting with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, working up to various other RPGs back when White Dwarf was a proper roleplaying magazine rather than just a miniature catalogue, waves walking stick damn kids get off my lawn etc., I even used the database component of the Ability suite to store character sheets. I missed out on adventure gaming on the Spectrum (never played the classic Hobbit text adventure, not that it stops me randomly dropping "Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold" into conversation), but that first disk of assorted PC games included Zork, so I spent a while mapping mazes and getting eaten by a grue without making much progress. The Infocom text adventure of the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy was on there too; I think I solved the infamous babel fish puzzle myself, but saw most of the game only thanks to a text file containing the solution. There was also Rogue, which I rather enjoyed, doing battle with vicious upper case letters, but never made it out with the Amulet of Yendor. Though classics, they were also several years old and distinctly lacking on the graphics front. Not long after getting that first PC, SSI got the rights to make Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games, which I seem to recall was fairly big news at the time, and I got Heroes of the Lance, a side-scrolling beat(/shoot/spell) 'em up, that was fun enough but generally forgettable, though I was quite impressed with myself for working out that you had to switch to a particular character, and throw her staff at a dragon right at the end. Well, I say "working out", I think it was just a case of cycling through the entire party trying every weapon and spell on the bleedin' night-invulnerable final beast. The pick of the early SSI AD&D games had to be the "Gold Box" series, and though I missed out on Pool of Radiance in favour of Heroes of the Lance, I played the second, Curse of the Azure Bonds, to death. A friend actually bought it, but some swift work with scissors, a photocopier, a brass paper fastener and some sticky back plastic produced an extra version of the spinning copy protection wheel, and it was off to... wherever Curse of the Azure Bonds was set. Milton Keynes, possibly. Spanning four entire disks (yes, over one whole megabyte of game data) there was plenty of adventuring there.

The real breakthrough in PC gaming came when a new kid joined our school. Chatting away, as you do, it turned out he had a PC. And games! Such games he had. He brought a disk in with Double Dragon on it, amazing arcade-perfect action on the PC! (OK, arcade-broadly-similar-if-you-squint-a-bit action, to be strictly accurate, but still.) Turned out his dad used PCs for some sort of proper CAD type electrical work, or something, and owned *hushed gasp* an 80386! With a VGA screen, capable of 256 colours! He had plenty of games too, some original, some copies with printed or photocopied lists of codes to defeat copy protection questions. A sounder basis for friendship you couldn't ask for, and we spent many weekends gathered around PCs solving adventure games (we definitely finished Space Quest III, amongst others) and playing stuff like F19 Stealth Fighter, Sim City, Prince of Persia, Falcon and Populous with even the odd bit of rudimentary networking, when the null-modem gods smiled (not often). As well as playing games, he knew about the dark and mysterious workings of things like the autoexec.bat and config.sys files, and PC hardware (we upgraded the PC1512 with another 128k of memory and a 32Mb hard card, a combined hard drive and controller card. No more disk swapping needed!) I got GW-BASIC from him, and, inspired by Zork, coded up my own amazing adventure game in which you had to escape from a POW camp. Actually, "amazing" might be overstating it a bit, I only got about three rooms in, and the text parser consisted of a couple of IF statements testing for exact phrases like "Go North" or "Take key". Slightly more usefully, I came up with a program to solve some maths assignment that the teacher was most impressed by.

By 1990, though, the PC1512 just couldn't keep up. My friend had upgraded to a VGA 386 and was enjoying his glorious technicolour games while I was stuck with mono CGA. Still, I could at least play most games, after a fashion, until... Wing Commander. Wing Commander needed VGA graphics, and it was amazing. I went round to my friend's house to play it at every opportunity, and it was a driving factor behind the upgrade to my next machine...

Wednesday 16 January 2008

The history books tell it (supplemental)

Another reason it's hard to make a Top 20 list of games is how to assess older games. Have you ever, as an adult, seen cartoons you loved as a kid? There's some timeless classics, Looney Tunes and the like, but I was channel hopping on satellite TV a while back, and found a MASK cartoon.

I loved MASK. I'd get up at some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning when everyone else was still asleep to watch it. I'd endure Timmy Mallett and the Wide Awake Club for MASK. Later on I realised it was just an extended advert for action figures, but even so had a bit of a soft spot for it. On watching the cartoon twenty years later, though... good lord, it was bad. Really terrible.

Similarly, obviously Thro' The Wall won't exactly stack up to Crysis, but after the previous post I thought I'd grab an emulator and give it a try again. It really is basic (in BASIC, ahahahaha, sorry), and today probably wouldn't be in a Top 2000 of games, let alone Top 20. At the time, though, it was the greatest game in the whole world (albeit the only game, but never mind). How to weigh that up against photo-realistic graphics, strong storylines or deep gameplay?

The history books tell it (part 1)

Nothing is particularly grabbing me in current gaming (still enjoying Guitar Hero 3 and X3, but there's nothing particularly blogworthy there). Reading Tom's Top 20 Games list prompted me to make a bit of an attempt to come up with a top 20 myself, but delving into the gaming past for candidates turned into an extended Wikipedia-driven session of extreme nostalgia, so I thought I'd go with some sprawling free-form reminiscing instead as narrowing a list down to a mere 20 would be terribly difficult.

I'll group up games according to the machine I played them on, so to kick things off... the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Like many others in the UK, my formative computing experiences were shaped by the good old Speccy in the early 1980s. We got one for Christmas, probably in 1983 or '84, and it included the Horizons Software Starter Pack. That featured the strangely truncatedly titled Thro' The Wall (perhaps an early attempt at edgy, hip street lingo without resorting to the barbarism of the more phonetically correct Thru), a Breakout clone that was the greatest (only) computer game ever seen (up to that point) in the history of time (in our house). Everyone loved Thro' The Wall, even my parents and their friends. My dad could even get to the dizzying heights of level 2 (and possibly beyond), I'm not sure I ever cleared the initial wall (damn half bricks).

In general, I was a bit too young to really get into the Spectrum (being under ten, and computers only just coming into the home). It was just one of a wide portfolio of things to play with, alongside Lego, plastic soldiers, comics, Star Wars figures and the like. I typed in a few bits of BASIC code from books without really getting a handle on programming (past the obligatory 10 PRINT "ZOSO IS SKILL" 20 GOTO 10), not helped by the cunning Spectrum system that didn't just let you type, say, "NEW", oh no. You had to hunt around to find which key it was on ("A", logically enough), and then use some combination of keys to actually get it on screen, depending on the colour of the word on the keyboard. Hours of fun. I was far more interested in Battle Action Force than any of the Spectrum magazines so critical opinion wasn't really a factor in game purchases; instead, it was whatever Woolworths happened to have on the shelves that I could afford (dependant on not blowing pocket money on sweets for several weeks), cover art being the deciding factor if that still left a choice. Although most of my friends had computers, it was a motley assortment of systems (someone's dad used a BBC Micro at work so they had one at home; one friend had an Amstrad CPC-464, another had an 8-bit Atari), so the playground wasn't a hotbed of tape swapping. Only a couple of other Spectrum games particularly stick in the mind; early on, Daley Thompson's Decathlon, a button pounding sport 'em up similar to Track & Field/Hyper Olympics, and later Saboteur. Saboteur was part of a compilation with Combat Lynx and Turbo Esprit (Googling suggests it was Durrell's "Big 4", and also included Critical Mass but I don't remember that at all), and I just couldn't get on with the other games, which was a shame as I probably bought the pack on the strength of Combat Lynx, being slightly plane-obsessed at the time. Saboteur, though... I finished Saboteur. I got the disk and made it back to the helicopter, I remember being dead chuffed about that.

The only other thing I particularly remember about the Spectrum was that, unlike those fancy-dans with... well, just about any other home computer at the time... the original Spectrum didn't have a joystick port. The keyboard was a bit tricky for anything more than the left and right of Thro' The Wall, so we got a joystick interface to plug into the back of the Speccy. Not one of those simple boards where you just plugged in a joystick and played, though, no. This thing looked like an Enigma Stecker board, with sockets for each key of the keyboard, and six plugs for the joystick up/down/left/right/fire buttons. Terribly ingenious, it let you map the joystick to whatever keyboard controls the game happened to have, though I'm not sure I entirely grasped the principle at the time. Thanks to the magic of Google, I've just found out it was a COMCON interface. Truly, the internet is a great thing.

Anyway, that was the Spectrum, my introduction to the fell world of computing, but it wouldn't be until my next machine that I really fell under its sway.

As an aside, while drafting this, I was browsing the Onion and found the terrifyingly similar:

The Onion

Half Of 26-Year-Old's Memories Nintendo-Related

BROOKLYN, NY—According to an fMRI of Philip Jenkins' brain during memory recall, his parietal lobe is activated equally for the words "mother" and "Banjo Kazooie."

Friday 11 January 2008

Starin' into space

Back to the January sale games, then. I haven't really got into Unreal Tournament 3 yet; the single player campaign, as ever, is fairly ho-hum and mostly involves getting annoyed by your 'bot team-mates stealing the good vehicles and getting them stuck on a random bit of the map. They're either incredibly stupid, or it's genius-level AI that's become disenchanted with the futility of never-ceasing virtual violence, and has taken to staging bold performance art pieces like "Goliath tank upon scenery at most unexpected cant". Multiplayer, I haven't played enough to get to know the maps, so my brief online forays consist of popping up somewhere and going "Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here?", before a tank shell/artillery barrage/sniper rifle rudely interrupts my existential crisis.

I've been cruising around the galaxy a fair bit in X3: Reunion, though. I played the original X: Beyond the Frontier sometime in the 12th century (or possibly 1999ish if not exaggerating quite so much for comic effect) but have forgotten pretty much everything about it, except it involved spaceships and had a really great soundtrack, and never played X2, so I was a bit rusty on the old spaceflight. That wasn't helped by the fact that X3 doesn't so much throw you in at the deep end as club you unconscious, tie you up, stick you in a helicopter, fly you out to the middle of the biggest ocean it can find and shove you out the door. Chained to a weight. Made out of chum. And sodium. Faced with an entire galaxy, a keyboard chock full of spaceship controls, more menus than the draw where I shove all the takeaway menus and nothing in the way of a tutorial, I thought I ought to have a bit of a look at the manual. As I got the game on Steam, the manual is a PDF which is a bad start; PDF conversions of printed manuals usually aren't terribly easy to read on screen, this one being no exception. A useful reference once you're going, perhaps, but not great for starting out, so with a bold cry of "too long, didn't read!" it was off to Google. That did the trick, and in no time I was using the Freehand Tool and Bezier options to create beautiful art, at which point I realised I'd found a tutorial for CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 rather than space-shooting type thing X3: Reunion (or X 'superscript 3', to be technically correct, but I can't be arsed to find the superscript tag). A slightly revised search turned up the deeply splendid Apricot Mapping Service HQ, which turns out to be dedicated to X3 and not old PCs. (Momentary digression: never mind the Logitech G15, the Apricot PC had a keyboard with LCD display and programmable keys in 1983!) There I found the X3 Handbook, a couple of years of collected wisdom from the X3 forums jammed together in one handy place (also available as a 156 page PDF; this one's much easier to read on screen than the proper manual, being nice plain text (with a few pictures to liven things up) rather than something formatted for hardcopy). Within the handbook are a couple of tutorials at the "press this key, then this key, then click on this icon on this screen" level, just the job to get me flying around

Having mastered the basics like "speeding up" and "slowing down again", and then the really advanced bits like "turning left and right", it was on with the plot. The X games have always been very freeform, and I've posted before about how I like a bit of structure. X3 seems to handle this quite well; upon starting, you can choose to either engage in the plot, or just start with an archetype (explorer, trader, assassin) and make your own way in the universe. The plot, such as it is, so far seems to involve me as a square-jawed ace hero investigating missing crystals with the help of a sassy space-chick, battles with pirates and assorted other staples of sci fi; unlikely to win a Nobel prize for literature, but it does the job required of setting goals other than "fly around the galaxy going wheeeeee!" Unless I'm terribly mistaken it's not at all time critical either, so you're free to break off at any point and go play in the sandbox (which might not exactly help out the narrative ("I can give you information on these crystals, but first you must free my daughter from her awful captivity." "Sure! Would you mind awfully if I went off exploring for a while first, though?"), but works for me at a game level).

After a few plot missions, I thought I'd have a potter around to earn a bit of money, pimp out my spaceship a bit (maybe get imitation fur seat covers and some classy blue LEDs dotted around the cockpit). As is traditional with space sims, there's two main ways of earning money: trading and shooting stuff. Buying stuff at one space station, flying around a bit then selling it another space station is about as exciting a prospect to me as picking up some cushions from one sofa then walking over to another sofa to drop them. For three straight hours. On to plan B, then, laser attack PEWPEW! More reading of the X3 handbook revealed that, when under attack, there's a chance that the enemy pilot will decide discretion is the better part of valour, and eject. At that point, you can carefully fly up to their abandoned ship, eject from your own ship(!), fly over to the other one in your spacesuit, claim it, return to your own ship, then issue orders to your newly claimed prize to fly off to a shipyard to be sold for profit. Thank you, step by step guide of the X3 handbook, lord knows how long it would've taken me to work that out otherwise. Again, as is traditional in space sims, you can be a pirate and attack hapless traders (while saying "yarrrr!" a lot, splicing mainbraces and drinking rum), but not wishing to incur the wrath of the intergalactic authorities I decided to instead be a Force for Good (and Profit) and go after pirates myself (though I still say "yarrr!" and drink rum while doing so). This has led to mixed results; on my first foray, I nabbed a couple of pirate heavy fighters, excellent start! (Beginner's luck, more like.) There followed a series of disastrous expeditions and much loading of saved games, where overconfidence set me off attacking anything I saw and learning the hard way about rear turret mounted plasma cannons; nobody seemed interested in surrendering unless there was a pan-sector dogfight going between many pirates and a bunch of police, in which case I'd lock on to a lone pirate, knock down his shields, he'd eject and then the collective forces of galactic law enforcement would swoop down on his abandoned ship and blow it into tiny pieces, the gits; and finally, I eventually got a pirate to eject, had his ship all lined up to claim after carefully manoeuvring over, ejected from my own ship... and a stupid twitch of the throttle accelerated my spacesuited self up to ramming speed, and I splattered myself all over the hull of my potential prize. All very frustrating. Finally last night, I went on a particularly excellent rampage, laying waste to the evil forces of piracy and capturing another couple of ships, carefully escorting them back to friendly territory in my own, rather battered by that point, fighter. They were only interceptors, so not worth a huge amount, but it was still a pretty nice profit... until I repaired my own ship, which used up all the credits I'd made and a few more besides. Ah well; I managed to upgrade my own ship with a few bits I'd stripped off the captured vessels, at least, so it wasn't a total waste.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

A casual look will do

As well as being unable to summon up much MMOG playing enthusiasm, I was getting a bit jaded of the MMOG-o-blog-o-sphere, this place included (hmmm, I wonder if there could possibly be a link?) Then all of a sudden, a bunch of stuff turned up in this morning's Google Reader trawl that caused me to adopt a contemplative pose and gesture with an imaginary pipe while going "ng, ng, ng, you're so very right, of course". Coincidental publishing of pertinent pieces, or the caffeine perk of an extra cup of coffee making the world a brighter place? Either way...

Firstly, Zubon picks out a bit of Gödel, Escher, Bach (a book I keep meaning to read) and asks "Can there really be enough content in a game to entertain you for years, not months?", which sort of ties in with some thoughts I had about MMOGs never ending.

Then Will Wallace announced a rather splendid new name for his site, The Skinnerboxer Rebellion, inspired by his previous piece, Why Can’t I WoW Like I Used To?, a great post I very much agree with. It also ties in neatly with Zubon's Hofstadter quotes, particularly "The behavior space of a person is just about complex enough that it can continually surprise other people…" with the suggestions for encouraging emergent player behaviour.

While those suggestions are excellent, one aspect they don't really touch on so much are time constraints, and how they can make social interaction difficult without some sort of asynchronous aspect, something I very briefly mentioned when looking at the average play session length of Half Life 2. And what else should be in the feed-o-matic than Tuebit's Deep... Hard... and Casual from WorldIV that includes a manifesto I can really get behind (IYKWIM) (AITYD), including asynchronous play. And just to round up the fundamental interconnectedness of the blognoverse, that post links to an intriguing pointer to Warrior Epic (not quite sure about the name, though, looks a bit much like a random juxtaposition from a pack of MMO Word Fridge Magnets) at Lagorama, which in turn thrusts hard and deeply back into the casualness with Why Is RMT In MMORPGs The Target Of So Much Hatred?, picking up the "we’ve got money now" point and running with it.

Phew. I think that's used up my 'a href' quota for the year already. Thought provoking posts, eh? They're like buses: big, red and have chewing gum on the seats. Hang on, I mean: you wait all week, then five turn up at the same time. Linked to each other. With comment threads.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

So this is the New Year

Happy New Year, one and all. I'm just back from family visits, and facing the dread prospect of work again tomorrow. Oh well.

This was the way the world (of Warcraft) ended: not with a bang but a whimper. The scroll of resurrection faded, along with any great desire to keep playing. I hardly saw any old friends, what with all the real life Christmas-type stuff going on, so never got near an instance, and ten days of battlegrounds and daily quests is plenty.

One thing January brings is sales, and I've picked up a couple of new games for the new year; firstly Steam were offering a veritable boatload of discounts, I could've picked up a bunch of stuff there, but restricted myself to X3: Reunion for a whole $10. Initial impressions are that it really needs a tutorial, chucking you in the middle of an entire universe without even a suggestion of what keys to press is a bit much. Still, found a couple of helpful user guides over on the forums, so we'll see how that goes. Wandering around town, I found Unreal Tournament 3 discounted as well, so grabbed that for some frantic FPS action. I've only played a couple of the single player "campaign" missions so far, and don't really know what's going on as leaving cutscenes to play results in the PC freezing, irritatingly. Quite why they needed some invasion story (I think, maybe), I don't know. Just make it a tournament, like the others, the clue's in the game title!

Anyway, time to see if I can remember what I'm s'posed to do for this "job" thing...