Tuesday 30 June 2009

Reviewlet: Spook Country by William Gibson

I started reading William Gibson in the late 90s, by which time Neuromancer was a strange mix of past, present and future; possibly as a result I preferred his Bridge trilogy. When Pattern Recognition came out I didn’t pick it up; I’m not really sure why, possibly from a snap first impression that it was something to do with advertising. Spook Country, on the other hand, sounded much more like it; espionage fiction had been a bit quiet since the end of the Cold War.

Typically for Gibson, Spook Country kicks off in median res, the first few chapters being slightly hard work as you assimilate the main characters, then it’s off on the trail of a container via virtual locative art, medieval history filtered through tranquillizers and the orishas of Santeria, ending with almost as many questions as you started (albeit different ones). Gibson’s prose is as vivid as ever, and on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed Spook Country, though the “lead singer of a cult indie band” background of the lead character jarred slightly.

For a slightly more acerbic (but obviously spoilertastic) take, it’s also the feature of one of The Guardian’s rather excellent Digested Reads.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Thought for the day.

If there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to hear in Lord of the Rings Online it’s ‘Let us Hunt Some X’.


And where Us means You.

Honestly, it’s like the bastard offspring of Hemet Nesingwary and Hunter Van Pelt moved to Middle Earth and spent the First and Second age having an incestuous love-in, before finally unleashing the resulting deranged generations upon the world.

Time gentlemen, please.

One of the interesting debates with respect to Star Wars: The Old Republic, or TOR as it’s supposed to be referred to, but then I have to add “blimey Mahwey Poppin’s” after it, and then I break out into the whole Chim Chimney routine, which gets a bit dull after a while, especially trying to get back down from the neighbour’s rooftop for the fourth time in a row. Anyway, one of the interesting morsels of information that Bioware has dangled tantalisingly above our heads and let us jump for with clamouring maws is the fact that TOR (blimey Mahwey etc.) is set approximately three thousand five hundred years before the original films.

I wonder if it’s not perhaps a little too far back?

I understand that they’ve done this to give themselves room to manoeuvre with respect to the Star Wars IP, but honestly, how much room do you really need? Think of the human race’s history, from today and reaching back three thousand five hundred or so years. Consider all the things that have been and gone in that time. If, for example, there are starship manufacturers from the original Star Wars films back in the time of TOR, it’s like having Mr Horus’s Olde Egyptian Pyramid Shoppe still building pyramids today; admittedly they’d look a bit different now, they’d be all futuristic and cube shaped. However, the Star Wars universe has always been a very futuristic setting, it’s a weird mix of technology, religion and tribal shamanism, and it may perhaps be a reflection of the enduring nature of a suitably advanced intergalactic society. We have no experience of this, as of yet, so perhaps such a thing is indeed possible.

It’s amazing, however, that in three thousand five hundred years no manufacturer has managed to come up with a voice synthesizer chip for an R series droid.

The Jedi and Sith I can sort of believe, however. Ok, I think that the ol’ lightsaber might have been adapted a little more in the three millennia that we’ve witnessed it, and that the Grand Master Jedi Tailor might have come up with something a little more inspiring than incontinence brown for the colour scheme of the greatest fighting order the galaxy has ever seen in the meantime, but perhaps it’s something that can be happily overlooked. One just has to look at our religions, some of which have been going for a thousand years or more, to see that they are one of those rare things that man has invented which can endure across vast spans of time.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Bioware approach this problem, to make the game feel both Star Warsy enough and at the same time alien enough that fans will not begin to wonder when exactly they’re going to get to meet Darth Vader or fly the Millennium Falcon. Although in the case of the latter, the clue is perhaps in the name.

Saturday 27 June 2009

They shall also strip thee out of thy clothes, and take away thy fair jewels.

Whilst browsing through the Battlefield Heroes FAQ I came across this gem instead of any useful information:

I took off all my Hero’s clothes. But when I enter the game, I’m fully clothed again. What’s the deal?

Even if you strip off all of your Hero’s clothing, your character will, by default, have the items applied to his empty slots when he enters the game.

If you want to play the game without a shirt, or in your underwear, you will need to purchase the Naked Chest and/or Naked Legs items from the Store and equip them in the appropriate slot.

Yes, they’re going to make you pay to take off your pants, it’s like a kind of strange inverse stripping where you pay to take off your clothes and horrify others with your fleshy extremities.

Welcome to the wonderful world of micro transactions.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Reviewlet: Guitar Hero Greatest Hits

In a shocking turn of events, the European release of Wii Rock Band 2 has been put back again. Current estimate from game.co.uk is 31st July; a Harmonix developer has posted “… we ran into several technical issues that required attention before the game could be finalized”, which I believe may be a code for “we sent a second raft to try and find the first, and located it beached upon the shore of the lost island of Atlantis. Namor the Sub-Mariner is looking a bit miffed about the whole business.”

Still, not to worry, I’ve still got the latter half of the Guitar Hero: Metallica setlist to conquer (quite chuffed about passing One the other day), and Guitar Hero Greatest Hits has just turned up in the post too. Known as Guitar Hero Smash Hits in the US, presumably renamed to avoid the kids/teen pop magazine connotations of the name in the UK, Greatest Hits follows hot on the heels of Metallica, but with less Metallica, and… er… more Hits. That are Great. With 48 songs taken from previous Guitar Hero games, Greatest Hits is probably one to avoid if you’re only interested in playing the plastic guitar and have played the other games extensively. If, on the other hand, you only came into the series with Guitar Hero World Tour, it’s a good way of getting a bunch of rather excellent songs, and with full band support.

Greatest Hits has all the good stuff of World Tour like customisable characters and instruments, and keeps the Metallica approach to the career in which you need to achieve a certain number of stars over all songs in a tier to progress, rather than having to play through absolutely everything, which works rather well. There seems to be some sort of plot involving the classic Guitar Hero characters being summoned to rock out across the world, or something, but plot in a Guitar Hero game is about as relevant as plot in a porn movie, something to rapidly skip through to get to the strumming.

All in all, probably not a mandatory purchase at full price unless you’re desperate for something new, but well worth picking up when they knock a few quid off.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Norrathian Resignation

Steinbeck lured me back in for one last mission. I was tempted, blast it, damn tempted by the offer he put on the table, and I couldn’t say no. It went pretty well at first, we cleared the beach without too much trouble, accomplished the initial tasks, but when I reported in to Secondary Terkenil Niba’Xi like they told me, and he wanted yet another ten Haoaerans taken out, something snapped. I threw Mak`tu’s Mending Staff down on his desk and told him it was his own damn soufflĂ©, he could use his own damn eggwhisk. It was over. Finished. Done with. Over and finished. Done over and finished with. Over. You understand? Finished over with. Done. I’m out. Finished out and overdone.

I can’t say I won’t miss anything from the old days: creating a new identity, the camaraderie, the Tesco clubcard points, but you can’t eat camaraderie and clubcard points when you’re stuck on a beach in Chrykori and Tykor Gi’Lok is busting your arse to take down a patrol of Haoaerans and haul a bunch of gravel around the place. Unless you cashed in the clubcard points for some groceries.

So. Yes. Steam suggestively waggled its cheap EverQuest 2 at me and I couldn’t resist, but playing up to level ten or so has confirmed I’m burnt out on MMOGs for a while. It’s not you, EQ2, it’s me; character creation offered a wealth of options, albeit something of a curate’s egg (excellent in parts), the starter zone introduces everything nicely, there’s much to look forward to, but… it’s an MMOG. There’s a red bar, and a blue bar, and skills and abilities that cause or heal damage, and I can’t muster much enthusiasm for killing ten bird-things or collecting five bits of rock or reporting to some NPC somewhere. I haven’t logged into Warhammer Online for any of the Land of the Dead stuff, or City of Heroes for even longer than that, so I guess it’s time for the annual MMOG break. On with the most excellent Empire: Total War, where Britannia are (in some regions) ruling the waves, and I’m hoping the delicate network of protectorates and trade agreements in Central Europe will hold while I continue taking more territory in the Americas.

Monday 22 June 2009

Top Gear.

Some say that she can lick her own back.
And that she once opened a coconut using only her thighs.

All we know is that she’s called The Trib.

She's called Tri Badism.

Oh, and she fights in leopard print leggings. We know that too. With two swords. And high heels. And… I’ll be right back…

It’s a very pretty game, and I don’t just mean the character designs and their outfits. The whole world (that which I’ve seen) is fabulously realised and very attractive. However, having dabbled only in the latest beta weekend – and then only finding time for about an hours worth of play – I haven’t had enough opportunity to play in order to know whether it’s that sort of forced ‘beauty pageant’ beauty which is essentially vacant underneath, or whether it also has a PHD in complicated surgery, likes rugby, a good pint of bitter, is able to name all the characters from Twelfth Night and can kick one’s buttocks in Soul Calibur and in real life.

So far it’s very much of the standard fare from what I’ve seen: not a bad thing per se, but I’ll be interested to see if it has any tricks up its sleeves beyond the accomplished starter area shimmer and shine.

Don't be deceived, she's the one that will be doing all the stabbing.

It’s certainly one to keep an eye on. To find out if that outfit gradually transforms into a full-on ‘Olivia Newton-John in the Grease finale’ number, if nothing else.

Saturday 20 June 2009

It was sixteen years ago today

October 1993. Military forces stormed the Russian parliament, Benazir Bhutto was elected in Pakistan, and I’d bought an issue of Computer Shopper. For £1.49 it had a hefty 582 pages, much of it advertising in the era of catalogue adverts, companies like Software Warehouse and Computers by Post taking ten to fifteen pages to showcase their wares. Inside the front cover fold-out was the familiar Dell logo; their Dimension range started with a 25Mhz 486SX with 4MBb RAM, an 80Mb hard drive and SVGA for £859, and went up to a 66Mhz 486DX with 8Mb RAM and 230Mb hard drive for £1,819. Anyone who’d bought the “Pentium ready” machine from August ’92 must have been a bit miffed; still no sign of Intel’s latest uberchip, and Dan were selling a 64 bit “dantium” system, just poised to upgrade to a FULL BLOWN PENTIUM(tm) via a CPU card as soon as it became available, at £2848 for the 486DX2/66 model with 1.05GB hard drive. Amstrad were still going, with their 7486SLC coming it at a fairly reasonable £699; rather more intriguing was their “MEGA PC”, a curious hybrid of a 386SX PC and a Sega Mega Drive. I remember someone at school talking of this mythical beast, a PC that transformed at the slide of a panel into a console, and I thought it was their fevered imagination, but no, such a thing actually existed; this very advert was on page 511. Notebook PCs with beefy processors and colour VGA screens offered power on the move, but at a price; £2699 for a 486/33 from Mitac. More compact than that, Time were offering a Sharp Palmtop PC (though you’d need pretty big palms) weighing a mere 1lb, toting DOS 3.3, a CGA LCD screen and 1Mb RAM for £239. Alternatively, if you wanted to eschew the keyboard, Amstrad were branching out with the PenPad PDA600 for £229: “with the latest in technology Amstrad bring you the PenPad PDA600; a comprehensive Personal Digital Assistant which is as natural to use as a traditional organiser. Just pick up the pen and write on the screen!”

As part of a fairly thorough buying guide, the PriceTrack feature tracked average prices of some sample systems over the course of the past six months; as would be expected, desktop PC prices had been fairly steadily falling, but the column advised buying sooner rather than later, or holding off for a while, as an explosion at a Japanese epoxy resin plant caused a worldwide Ram shortage. Notebook PCs also fell in price over the six months, albeit by a smaller percentage, while printers had held steady, indeed the average 24 pin dot matrix had slightly increased in price.

After 276 pages of almost solid adverts, the news pages started. Microsoft were beta testing the final upgrade for Windows 3, codenamed “Snowball”, a stepping stone towards the 32-bit “Chicago”, at that point due to appear the next year as Windows 4.0, while Windows NT has finally arrived in the UK after many delays. IBM had announced a record quarterly loss of $8 billion, but hoped the latest round of cuts would return it to profitability. Apple had just unveiled the Newton MessagePad, the £599 price tag doubtless contributing to its subsequent lack of success. Colour LCD displays were taking off, Compaq being unable to clear an order backlog for its TFT-equipped laptops, prompting Philips to invest in a TFT LCD screen factory. Microsoft and Borland were duking it out in the 32-bit development space with Visual C++ for Windows NT and Borland’s C++ for OS/2; the caption of “yes, honestly, a third-party product for OS/2” suggests how well IBM’s operating system was doing.

With the introduction of Apple’s Newton, the Analysis section looked at the new buzzword in town: Stici. Pronounced “sticky” (apparently), it stood for “Self-teaching interpretive communicating interface”, the successor to the GUI. US analyst BIS Strategic Decisions predicted this would be the next big thing, with 60.4% of the US installed base of PCs and PDAs using a “Stici” interface by 1998. Maybe not, eh?

Group reviews included a bumper roundup of 21 386s, with machines from Acer, Brother and Watford getting the Best Buy nod, and budget databases, rounding up a number of packages under £100.

The “Using MSDOS” column in this issue was on creating multiple configurations in the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files, extremely useful for gamers when you had to juggle expanded, extended and high memory, along with assorted drivers for mice, soundcards and other gubbins, depending on the game. DEVICE=C:\DOS\EMM386.EXE RAM i=e000-efff x=A000-c7ff x=DC00-DFFF 1024, eh? Those were the days… Other columns covered Windows, programming, and, being a multi-format magazine, the Amiga, Atari and Mac. Although 99% of the advertising was IBM-compatible focused, it was often interesting to see what was going on with other systems, and this month’s Amiga column included news of the CD32 Amiga Console launch from July at the Science Museum that involved “drinking champagne and being sprayed with a water pistol by Chris ‘Big Breakfast’ Evans if we weren’t paying attention”. The basic machine cost £299.99, with a full-motion video (FMV) cartridge add-on for another £200. Phil South wasn’t impressed, though, having several problems with the name (“CD32 is a crap name with as much charisma as a boiled egg”), the case (“the CD32 is charcoal grey and all sharp edges like a cheap stereo out of a home shopping catalogue”), and the idea of the idea of music CDs also containing an FMV video. His suggestion: “follow the advice of a firm that Commodore consulted early on in the life of the CD32: make some really good soft-porn FMVs to pull in the adults, and have some really gory games to pull in the teenagers. Get some of the software banned and you won’t be able to shift the machines fast enough.” Wonder if that consultant was Jack Thompson?

Presumably some old charter or something compelled all PC magazines to have a section called “After Hours”, Computer Shopper being no exception. A whole two pages, this month saw reviews of Beauty and the Beast, a tie-in for the Disney film, Patience Games, 15 solo card games for DOS, and DesignaKnit. Not really the cutting edge of PC gaming, but no matter; though no one would have believed, in the last months of the the twentieth century (give or take seven years) PC gaming was being reported upon elsewhere in the timeless worlds of publishing…

Wednesday 17 June 2009

The sparkling waves are calling you to touch their white laced lips

I’ve been cruising towards an MMOG break for a while now. Although the server move in Warhammer Online seems to have perked things up greatly on the RvR front I’ve scarcely logged in the last few weeks, and the prospect of the Land of the Dead doesn’t excite me greatly, though I should probably give it a try before dismissing it entirely. It’s been a good run, though. After getting a bit sick of it all almost exactly a year ago I wasn’t sure if I’d stick with another MMOG for more than a month, but I’ve been fairly active in WAR for six months or so, popped in and out for another three, and managed my first level capped character since hitting level 70 in The Burning Crusade. Time for a bit of a break, then, to recharge the massively multiplayer online batteries for Champions Online, or APB, or The Agency, or whatever next catches the eye.

Away from MMOGs, Grand Theft Auto IV is still fun to pop into now and again for a few missions, or a race, or just to cruise around the city looking for shiny cars to purloin. Empire: Total War is also excellent, I’ve been paying more attention to the naval battles which are quite manageable with a fleet of up to four ships (more than that and I find it tricky to micromanage them for optimal broadside-delivery). I’ve got half the setlist to go in Guitar Hero: Metallica, getting the hang of heavy strumming (Shortest Straw and Disposable Heroes passed), but the longer solos still need work. I’ve finally got around to playing Left 4 Dead’s Survival Mode with a few friends, and would like to try some more. For quick pick-up-and-play fun there’s Plants vs Zombies (I say “quick”, inevitably a five minute game somehow stretches out to a couple of hours…) Summer is traditionally a quiet time for game releases, which is good, I’ve got plenty to be getting on with. I really don’t need any new games.

Naturally, then, I’ve been buying stuff from Steam. First, it popped up the news that the two Freedom Force games were available for a fiver, just as I’d been reminiscing a bit during a podcast invasion, so I stuck the double pack in the shopping cart (after all, if you get one you might as well get the other… even though the boxed game of Freedom Force vs the Third Reich was sitting on a shelf not four feet away). And seeing as I was in the Steam store, sorting the options in ascending price order to see what else could be had for under a fiver… While doing my series of articles looking back at old PC magazines and thinking back to early gaming I’d remembered how much I’d enjoyed the original Civilisation but totally neglected the rest of the series, and the complete Civ III was on Steam for about £3.99. Two Freedom Force games and a boatload of Civilisation for less than a tenner, lovely! About the same price as a cinema ticket, and many more hours of fun.

To digress for a moment, when did a cinema ticket become the benchmark for hobby cost/time ratio, why not something else? Say, books? A shiny new hardback can run to somewhere around £20, you might finish it in three or four hours if you’re a fast reader… comparable to the cinema ticket, I guess, maybe slightly better value. You’d probably get it at a discount from Amazon or somewhere, though, or maybe in a three for the price of two deal, and you could always sell the book after you finish it, or keep it to re-read, and who only gets brand new hardbacks anyway? Poke around the charity shops and jumble sales, you can pick up plenty of stuff for 50p or less, radically reducing the cost per hour. Why spend money at all, in fact, a bracing walk around our delightful countryside is entirely free (as in beer, not necessarily as in speech, depending on the right to roam etc.) Let’s not get the ramblers involved, though, and lack of cost plays havoc with divide by zero errors in the spreadsheet. Tell you what, Sherbet Dip Dabs. 39p (in the shop at the end of the road, at least), and, providing you don’t go crazy and start chewing the lolly straight away, you can get ten minutes out of a packet, giving £2.34 as an hourly cost benchmark. That’ll do.

So, two Freedom Force games and a boatload of Civilisation for the price of three and a half hours of Sherbet Dip Dabs, and they won’t make you sick if you play the whole lot at once. The money isn’t really an issue, though, that entire previous paragraph was just an excuse to crowbar Sherbet Dip Dabs into the post in a desperate attempt to secure some kind of sherbet-based sponsorship for the blog (not Sherbet Fountains, though; liquorice, eugh!). I’m hardly lighting cigars with twenty pound notes, but then I’m not so boracic[1] that buying a few games here and there means I need to forego other luxuries like food or rent in a month.

Except money *is* the issue, if the Steam update had popped up and said “Buy either Freedom Force game for £19.99, or £34.95 for the two!” I’m reasonably sure I wouldn’t have bothered. Civilisation IV was available, presumably a better game than III, but for the massive sum of about £12.99 instead of less than a fiver. To the immortal question of Mrs Non-Gorilla, “What d’you buy that for?”, I can but plead “Oooh! It was a bargain”, and I’m hardly alone. As the figures put out by Steam show, major price drops result in kersquillions percent sales increases, particularly when they’re for a limited time.

Anyway. The result of all that was more games than I could possibly play plus three extra, but that was it. Whatever the siren call of the Steam bargain of the week, I’d plug my ears with cheese and lash myself to the mast, even if it’s Cheap MMOG Weekend. What’s that you say, Narrative Inevitability? It’s Cheap MMOG Weekend on Steam? Well, it’s a good job I’m taking an MMOG break not about to go and buy something just ‘cos it’s cheap.

So. Yeah. I’ve got a level seven Inquisitor in EverQuest 2. Oh come on, it was a bargain!

[1] Fun fact, etymology fans: I’d assumed the word was ‘brassic’, and somehow related to cabbages, perhaps being so poor they were all you could afford to eat; it actually seems to be rhyming slang, ‘boracic lint’ for ‘skint’.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Honestly, I put half a Mars bar in the glove box once and he chased me around the garden with a bit of wood.

In a move which can only be seen as a deliberate affront to a small collection of individuals who come together on a Tuesday evening to play console games, Microsoft have decided to update their XBox Live service today, taking it offline to apply the first of what I imagine to be a number of patches which will update the system with the shiny new features announced at their conference at this year’s E3, thus ushering in a new world order, global peace and hence delivering the catalyst to mankind’s colonisation of the stars. Or some streaming HD video and a new dashboard skin, depending on who you speak to.

This is doubly treacherous as the Console Club… No. Sorry, no. No, I just can’t do it any more. It’s that name – Console Club – it just does not do our little group of gaming geeks justice. It needs more power, more marketability. It needs to project the noble nature of our little band of beings. We need a name that other gamers will come to recognise with a mixture of awe and fear. Now, I’ve had a look around at the gaming industry and observed how their naming conventions work, and clearly the trend is to associate a brand name with the game’s title to give it more impact. I look at games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland or American McGee’s Alice and I see imposing, impactful names that strike a chord deep within the gamer psyche.

So where was I? Oh yes, so this update to XBox Live is doubly treacherous to Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] because, since the time of our last gathering, that stalwart enabler of our eight-player tenuously co-operative pleasure, Burnout Paradise, has been updated with the new Big Surf Island downloadable content expansion. Therefore we have all individually been driving around, grabbing the time when we can to ‘burn’, and indeed ‘out’, around the new zone. We’ve all been twitterating about our enjoyment of the ludicrously large and improbably placed jumps that are dotted all over the island, but have yet to arrange a gathering of the eight regular players in order to experience that exquisite sense of enjoyment that only occurs when one leaps at one hundred and fifty miles an hour from the roof of a multi-story car park, only to realise too late that seven other people have had the same idea, but from an adjacent building and in the opposite direction. Paradise City doesn’t need traffic lights, it needs air traffic control.

So Burnout has been on my mind today, and in considering the joys of the game my mind wandered off the general path, got lost in the forest of ponderings, tripped on the roots of curiosity and fell into the thorny bush of idiosyncrasy. Eventually it made it back home long after dark, cut, bruised and exhausted but with a new outlook on the game, struck by the light of revelation as it struggled its way out of that dark place, and like a messiah it preached its new insights to me, to whit:

Where the blazing arse are all the pedestrians in Burnout Paradise?

The city of Paradise is indeed a meticulously crafted adventure playground for cars, but there are simply no people to be found. Not a one. This might not seem so curious until one considers that there is plenty of other road traffic. Oh yes, road traffic abounds, specifically it is to be found in precisely all the wrong places: on the apex of that corner you’re trying to negotiate at eighty miles an hour, sideways, whilst trying to fend off two other racers and looking in your rear view mirror for others. When you’re trying to take that intersection flat out in order to hit the jump beyond it at maximum velocity, why of course there’s a sudden surge of traffic all desperately needing to cross at a tangent to your path at the same time. And it often seems as though there’s always a city-wide emergency radio broadcast that all traffic must exit the highway at the exact same junction that you’re currently approaching at two hundred miles an hour, with your tail pipes on fire, and the entire offside of your car missing.

So here we have this detailed city, clearly heavily populated as evidenced by all the idiots in cars who just don’t seem to comprehend that you’re trying to get up enough speed to do a triple barrel roll over the railway and you don’t have time to mess about with petty contrivances such as driving on the correct side of the road, or even on the road. So where are all the pedestrians? One might think that they may not approve of these highly skilled street racing drivers who yes, admittedly, occasionally make the odd error in judgement and end up driving along the pavement. At one hundred and eighty miles an hour. On their roof. On fire. But there’s plenty of pavement in Paradise, surely we can all share? Perhaps it’s due to this slightly fiery cross traffic that the pedestrians are hiding in the buildings and making mad dashes from place to place when there are no Mad-Max-like V8-powered death machines within a ten mile radius. This most certainly isn’t the case, however, and I should know: I’ve checked out the interiors of many a building as I’ve shot through the front entrance in a flaming ball of gasoline and nitrous oxide, and there wasn’t a charred corpse to be found amongst the wreckage, no siree bob. There’s simply nobody around.

My theory? Zombie apocalypse.

No really, zombie apocalypse, it explains everything. Bear with me here. So at some point in the recent past there was a viral outbreak in Paradise City, now this makes sense from a dramatic point of view: where else would a zombie virus first make its way into the world than in a place called Paradise? It’s the sort of unoriginal irony that Hollywood bigwigs love to roll around and rub themselves in, like a small dog in horse manure. And in the grand tradition of all ‘great’ movies, I can then continue my exposition with “We’re not sure what happened next, how we came to be this way (because it would probably rip a horrid great hole in the plot of this film, and we’re condescending enough to think that you won’t see it if we don’t spell it out for you explicitly)”. So we’ve now established that there was a viral outbreak and that people were all turned into zombies. Except… for those in their cars! See? It’s brilliant! Ok, ok, so basically everyone lives in their cars now and all the zombies are dead because they all got run over by a car at some point or other. Nobody is brave enough to leave their car in case the virus is still out there, so everyone is content to just carry on their lives from within their car. Admittedly everyone being in cars all the time does make it more awkward for some: traffic cops are swamped with work, and this probably explains why the eight current regulars of Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] get away with such highway hijinks without punishment. Pulling at a nightclub just isn’t the same, especially if you were hoping to stick your fuel nozzle in their petrol tank, as it were. Not to mention that when the recent preliminaries for the Olympic Games were held in Paradise City certain events had to be cut, including all swimming events after the first race ended in eight drownings. On a brighter note though, world records were smashed in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 800 meters, and the long jump finalist has yet to actually land. You’ve got to love those Burnout Paradise Super Jumps.

So there we have it, the reason for no pedestrians in Burnout Paradise is all due to a zombie apocalypse.

And the reason you had to suffer through this drivelling insanity is all due to Microsoft taking XBox Live offline on the day that Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] convene for their high speed sideways shenanigans. If you catch my drift.

Monday 15 June 2009

Reviewlet: 21

A few years back there was a wave of interest in card counting, specifically the antics of the MIT blackjack team, largely sparked by the book Bringing Down the House, later made into the film 21.

Though based on fact, Bringing Down the House and thus 21 employ a substantial amount of artistic license, so while the methods of card counting get an airing they’re really something of a MacGuffin for the Pygmalion-esque transformation of Jim Sturgess’ character from broke MIT geek to Vegas high roller. It’s a lightweight frothy romantic-comedy-thriller-heist-type film, the young leads are charismatic enough, especially with the more heavyweight backup of Kevin Spacey and Larry Fishburne; nobody really needs to get out of first gear with pretty one dimensional characters. There’s a bit of a twist to give our requisite happy ending, but it’s somewhat Ocean’s Eleven-Lite (when it’s not as if Ocean’s Eleven is that heavy in the first place).

Fun enough for a throwaway film, but if you have more of an interest in the mechanics of card counting then the Horizon documentary Making Millions the Easy Way is worth a look.

Thought for the day.

Blizzard will announce a new expansion for World of Warcraft some time in the foreseeable future, others have speculated on where this next expansion will take players. I, on the other hand, simply have a burning desire.

I want the next epic class to be the Pandaren Brewmaster, with all the pandary, kung fooey, brewery, awesomeness that that would entail.

You can’t defeat me! You… you’re just a big… fat… panda!

I’m not a big fat panda. I’m *the* big fat panda.

Sunday 14 June 2009

A public service announcement.

If you happen to be new to Lord of the Rings Online and have just completed the dwarf starter area quests and are now in the world proper, you will be told to go and see Guard-Captain Unnarr who is just inside in Thorin’s Hall. After running around for a few hours trying to find him, you may well be wondering if you’re cut out for this MMO lark, and that you’re not sure that an online version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is really what you were looking for. Luckily for you KiaSA is here to help. There was a recent revamp of starter areas in LotRO, and the developers have cheekily moved Unnarr to Frerin’s Court, the location of which you should know since it was the major quest hub in the tutorial; it’s at the bottom of the large stairway that leads to Thorin’s Hall.

For those of you who refuse to read quest text and instead followed the small unassuming quest location arrow on the mini-map which guides you in the correct direction, well done. It seems that it really does pay to ignore quest text in MMOs these days.

And for those of you, like me, who have completed the starter zones before and are now running around in circles trying to find the NPCs whose locations you once knew off by heart, my sympathies. Suffice it to say that it’s doubly interesting when the quest text lies to you as well.

Interestingly – and when I say ‘interestingly’ I mean ‘bloody frustratingly’ – the quest line The Wisdom of the Thrushes is utterly broken with regards to quest text. I raised a ticket because I couldn’t speak to Nos Grimsong when I was being told that I should. According to the GM one does indeed need to follow the automatic quest tracker (the little arrow on the mini-map) because that shows the right place to go. Once I’d visited the stable master in Frerin’s Court and Rothgar down in Nogland I was finally able to talk to ol’ Grimsong.

Notch one up for the customer service department, if nothing else.

This is curious because a) The automatic quest tracker might not necessarily be turned on for any given player, although I would hope that it is on by default for new players, and b) following that arrow across large distances can be a lesson in frustration, especially when you find yourself on the wrong side of a mountain range and have to run all the way back.

Curiously, the end stages of the quest line seemed to have the correct text, so it’s almost as though they’ve half updated the quest line and then got bored.

Thursday 11 June 2009


In a recent press release CCP announced the forthcoming announcement of their forthcoming MMO.

A CCP insider told our KiaSA reporter in an exclusively fabricated interview, that CCP had high hopes for the forthcoming announcement and that Hilmar Pètursson, Chief Executive Officer of CCP, would deliver a highly polished AAA speech.

In fact, it’s claims like this that make this one of the most significant announcements this week about a forthcoming announcement to announce a forthcoming MMO.

Rumours also have it that Blizzard are preparing an announcement to announce that they will soon be announcing an announcement revealing the date for their forthcoming announcement about an announcement detailing an all new announcement that will announce to players around the world just what announcements they can expect to see announced in the third quarter of 2009. World of Warcraft forums exploded with joy and speculation at just what the announced announcement would announce. Blizzard was unavailable for comment, but they did release an entirely fabricated press release to our KiaSA reporter which simply said “Got hype? Coming soon. 2009”.

More on this news story and others, as we make it up.

Reporting live for Oh MMO Emo News, I’m Melmoth Melmothson.

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host:This week, teams, news of an online money-laundering operation. According to The Guardian, a gang are “alleged to have made several songs which they gave to an online US company, which then uploaded them to be sold on iTunes and Amazon. Over five months they bought the songs thousands of times, spending around $750,000 (£468,750) on 1,500 stolen US and UK credit cards”, claiming the royalties as “clean” money

Zoso: Police are also investigating allegations that a gang known as ‘Blizzard’ set up a similar operation, with a rudimentary online game just realistic enough to fool a casual observer, but were quite surprised when millions of actual customers started subscribing in addition to other gang members.

Melmoth: A temporal rift was quickly closed by local enforcement agents after another criminal gang tried to commit fraud by selling game time using game time cards that had been purchased with in-game currency that had been purchased with stolen game time cards that had been purchased with ISK that had been stolen from an illegal duping operation.

Zoso: Police are also investigating allegations that a gang known as ‘Aventurine’ set up a similar operation, with a rudimentary online game just realistic enough to fool a casual observer, but were quite surprised when hundreds of actual customers started subscribing in addition to other gang members.

Melmoth: Didn’t you already do that gag with ‘Blizzard’?

Zoso: Just covering all the bases.

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Reviewlet: Guitar Hero - Metallica

Guitar Hero – Metallica is… Metallica-y. This isn’t terribly surprising, what with it having “Metallica” in the title and everything; 28 of the 49 songs in the game are by Metallica, you play them as motion-captured Metallica, the rest of the tracks can be played as one of Metallica, on signature Metallica guitars, if you buy/unlock them as a character, and there are lashings of Metallica extras on the disc.

If you’re unsure whether you should get the game or not, here’s a detailed in-depth questionnaire to help you decide:

1) Do you like Guitar Hero?
a) Oh yes! It’s a work of plastic instrumental genius!
b) It’s OK I guess.
c) No, it’s a stupid waste of time, learn to play a real guitar.

2) Do you like Metallica?
a) Oh yes! Who doesn’t like the genre-defining multi-Grammy winning fourth highest-selling music artist since 1991?
b) They’re OK I guess.
c) No, I hate them and everything they stand for.

If you answered:
Mostly (a): buy the game right now
Mostly (b): maybe rent the game, see how you like it
Mostly (c): don’t buy the game

Hope that helped.

You may be experiencing a strange sense of deja vu around now, as Guitar Hero: Metallica is a very similar idea to Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, taking a core engine (Guitar Hero III for Aerosmith, World Tour for Metallica) and building a band-centric game around it.

I have most of Metallica’s albums and saw them live a while back, so the Metallica-y-ness a major selling point for me compared to Aerosmith, whose songs never really gripped me even after a few playthroughs of their game. The non-Metallica tracks are a slightly mixed bag, some strong stuff from bands like Slayer, Motorhead, Queen and the copper-bottomed Thin Lizzy classic The Boys Are Back In Town, but generally the Metallica tracks are the highlight, as it should be (my favourite tracks from GH: Aerosmith remain the Kinks and Mott The Hoople covers from the first couple of tiers). Being based on World Tour it’s also full plastic band game, which may or may not be a major factor depending on whether you stick resolutely to pretending to play the guitar, or are more of a living room skinsman.

By crikey, though, it’s a bit tricky. I (just about) managed all except the final tiers of Guitar Hero III and World Tour on Expert, but I’ve started running into difficulty about halfway through the Metallica setlist, mostly thanks to Kirk Hammett solos. If you’re not familiar with the oeuvre these contain, on average, seven hundred and sixty two notes every second, and are often long enough to outlast any star power you might have saved up to assist your desperate flailings. I haven’t made a serious attempt at drums, bass or vocals yet, but being the drums have the extra-bass-pedalling Expert Plus difficulty, I can’t imagine they’re going to be proverbial strolls in the fake plastic park. Still, that’s what multiple difficulty levels are for; I imagine I’ll switch down to Hard to try and complete the guitar career (hopefully I won’t have to resort to Medium), and it’s good to have something to aim towards. Overall, seven thumbs up out of two with an extra “OH YEAH!” and some toast.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Kiasacast Episode 4

For those of you who are not monitoring our podcast RSS feed or stalking us on the Twitterverse, brace your main hats and hang on to your sails, because we’re pleased to announce that it’s time for Kiasacast episode 4: E3 special!

This episode of the podcast includes:

– An admission

– E3, including:

     – Beatles rock

     – Alan Wake plans

     – Project Natal hurts

     – Sony Wands massage

     – Molyneux hypes

     – Barnett entertains

     – APB impresses

     – The Old Republic juices

     – Jumpgate delays

– Search term of the period of time since the last podcast


     – Can you identify the music from the end of this episode’s show?
        Answers on an aldis lamp, and then email an MPEG of the lamp to us.

     – Last episode’s tune: Magic Pockets, intro from the Amiga version,
        outro Betty Boo – Doin’ the Do

Download Kiasacast Episode Four

Monday 8 June 2009

We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion.

Have you noticed a change in the people who you play MMOs with? It could be the close friends who you play with on a regular basis, or the random people with whom you group to complete that rare quest; rare in an MMO these days at least, because it isn’t soloable whilst your character is naked with one arm tied behind their back. And blindfolded. And unconscious.

It’s perhaps a subtle change at first, that one person of the group who is always late, you know the one, they always keep you waiting around outside an instance, and when they finally get there and are invited into the group they have to go and have their dinner and will ‘be back in 5 mins’. Which is actually code for ‘be back in about half an hour, or when at least two other members of the group have quit out of boredom and frustration, whichever comes first’. That person suddenly starts showing up on time, as soon as you form your party, bam, there they are, geared-up and ready to go. Next to change is the whiner, the person in the group who finds fault in every little thing, from the way the game plays to the way party members play the game. They don’t so much grind XP as grind down the good intentions and will to live of every other member of their party. All of a sudden though you’re noticing that they’re not whining much – at all, in fact – instead, they offer a chipper little greeting and then start merrily crawling their way through the dungeon with nary a grumble. You start to get a funny feeling that something is not quite right when the whiner starts making light banter with you, offering witty one-liners and quipping ‘take that’s and ‘have at you’s and generally seeming to enjoy the whole experience as much as anyone else. Enjoying it perhaps a little too much.

Gradually, slowly, inexorably, your fellow MMO players change, one by one. Generally for the better. They become less whiney, more helpful; less greedy, more cooperative; less emotional and more amenable. And then it hits you one day, as your party forms up on time, all geared-up and ready to go, with the correct skill sets for the dungeon you’re going to delve into, and all their equipment repaired and in tip-top condition; nobody needing anything from the bank: they’ve all got the key to the dungeon door; everyone has the same set of quests, all at the same point, all requiring the same dungeon that you are all now formed-up in front of, after having been online and in-game for all of forty five seconds or so. It’s perfect. The perfect MMO group experience. Too perfect, it feels… wrong somehow. Where are the laggards who always make the efficient people wait around outside the entrance to the dungeon for half an hour? The sort of delay that leads the waiting players to have some light banter while they wait, where they get to know each other a bit better; discuss how their days went outside of the game; maybe discuss the news for a bit; discover that sexy Selina the elf is really Alan the construction worker in real life. Where is the conflict resolution? The fights over loot where we discover that the Warrior likes to roll on every sword, even the ones clearly meant for a Rogue; the fights over strategy where we find that the Mage clearly thinks that they’re a better tank than the Warrior since they seem to constantly be buried under a pile of angry enemies. These are the real fights in an MMO, the ones that develop not the player character but the character of the player.

And that’s when the realisation comes crashing down on top of you. These aren’t other people that you’re playing with. Like some nerdy virtual online recreation of the Stepford Wives you find that all of your friends and fellows are gone, replaced with artificial constructs designed to mimic them in every way except one: these new companions are perfect. No flaws. No tardiness, no complaints, no huge hairy fifty year olds pretending to be jailbait prostitutes with pointy ears. No arguments, no ninja looting, no drama. But also, ironically, these companions also can’t offer the one thing that comes from dealing with real people, and the problems that come with real people: companionship.

Guild Wars has offered companions for some time. You can play the game – outside of its PvP element (and possibly you can even play PvP with companions if the match is set to allow it) – entirely without dealing with another player. However, there is no pretence that this is anything but a mechanic to let you play the game when you can’t find enough people to form a full party. These aren’t simulacrums of real players, they are artificial constructs attempting to fill a defined and well recognised role in your party: tank, healer, dps, cc, etc. These aren’t companions so much as mindless slaves, drafted in to your party where they perform their role unquestioningly and, AI weirdness excepted, unerringly. Lord of the Rings Online has hinted that it will be adding a similar feature to its comprehensive list of ‘everything every other MMO can do, we can do too’ features, and these soldiers will be trainable and customisable, such that you could almost begin to treat them like slightly more than pixelated slaves, perhaps considering them more like a loyal guard dog or other faithful pet. It’s still far from the idea that these characters are companions and not just party fillers, much like those flying saucer sweets that parents used to pack by the fistful into the little plastic bags that kids take home from a birthday party, mainly because they were cheap and took up a lot of space while constituting ninety percent air.

Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic claim to offer a new take on companions, the next generation of companions if you will. TOR in particular, with their claims of compelling player character story and development, leads us to believe that companions in that game will offer us story hooks with chances to help companions or alienate them. To discuss your story with them and find out their background story. Fight alongside them. Fight with them. Love them?

Hey, it would be a fine way to make an alt, it being the offspring of your main character and some fox/hunk (delete as applicable, no foxy hunks allowed unless they’re Nathan Fillion). Although perhaps we’re veering slightly too much towards the Firefly definition of companion here.

The danger that I see here is that in trying to fulfil that oft lauded idea of character story in an MMO, of feeling a part of a world and of having an effect upon it, developers are potentially sacrificing the one thing that should always be the fundamental part of any MMO and which should never be sacrificed: other people. If TOR is playable without the intervention of other players, if the story of the game is interwoven tightly around companion characters that you meet on your adventures, and if you need not require anyone but these companions in order to make your way through the game, then what are you playing other than a single player game with a monthly subscription fee? I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t think that this would be a bad idea, who think that a version of Knights of the Old Republic where you can meet and chat with friends in the cantina on Bespin’s Cloud City before going on adventures with your perfectly formed group of perfectly formed companions, all perfectly on time, perfectly polite and perfectly functional, would be heaven compared to the hideous pain that is involved in actually playing alongside real people who are, by Nature’s design, flawed and imperfect. So with all your companions performing their roles correctly and without question – no Wookies chasing after enemy droids in order to pull their arms off, or Jedi trying to tank everything using only a blaster – the game is really all about you: failure or success is down to you. The twists and turns that the story takes are down to you. You are the hero of the game. Story and ‘being the hero’ then, if true, means they’ve got the two biggest desires for MMO players sorted out right there. Haven’t they? Not really, it is smoke and mirrors, they’re trying to convince you that what you’re playing is an MMO, when in actual fact you’re playing a single player RPG with some online connectivity. Sure you’ll be able to go off and team-up with your friends and run an instanced dungeon, but the bulk of the game will be about you and your companions, rather than you and your friends.

Developers need to be careful with where they take the MMO genre next. Enforced grouping as found in EQ and elsewhere is just as bad as the increasingly prevalent solo MMO as exemplified by World of Warcraft, where the levelling content is now nothing more than a quick solo slog in order to get to the group content. Yet the group content in WoW is just a perversion of the solo arcade games of yore, playing the same content over and over in order to progress slightly further and post your highest score. Gear upgrades from raid dungeons are the equivalent to level codes in arcade games, allowing you to skip the early content that you have comprehensively beaten and move on to the harder levels. The difference being that WoW raids require you to a) rely on other people – a Good Thing in my opinion, it’s part of the MMO experience, drama and all – and b) dedicate at least a couple of hours solidly in one sitting to make any progress. This is where it falls down: if I play an arcade game I can drop it at any moment, move off and do something else and come back to it, most of the time I can hit pause, come back to the game later and continue. I may have lost my ‘gaming groove’ by that point, but it’s very easy to do and there is no pressure, self inflicted or from peers, to carry on.

The Tuesday Console Club plays Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode on occasion. We’ve started off on the lowest difficulty and have to fend off wave after wave of enemies represented by fifty levels of content. When we’ve finished it on easy mode, we will up the difficulty by one notch. Why is this so much better than raiding in an MMO? For a start it takes all of thirty seconds from when everyone is online until we’re in and playing the game. We can select which level to play from, so we can carry on from where we left off. The characters do not develop, do not improve with gear or experience, only the players do. Anyone joining us in the middle of a game will be a bit out of their depth for a while, but they will be able to play a part from the very beginning: their character will be just as powerful as any other character in the game, the only difference in the effectiveness of that power will be how the player behind the character utilises it. So what makes this repeated content fun? The unpredictability of other players. I could play the game with bots, but it is a stale and mundane affair, like a drizzly overcast autumn morning, everything looks the same, no variety. When you play with other people there is a random element added to the game that no developer could encapsulate in code, there is no set of algorithms which can capture the camaraderie, that can encode the variation of experience. Never in a game would you share with a bot the exhilarated laughter from the launch a mortar down a street which wipes out an entire wave of oncoming enemies with a well placed yet knowingly fluky shot, and in the next instant share an embarrassed laugh as that same bot launches the next mortar accidentally from within the confines of a building, blowing themselves and all their teammates to kingdom come. And you can laugh, because restarting a level is as near to instantaneous as a game can get. A quick score table appears and then you are off again. Playing the game, having fun. Is repairing gear, recasting buffs, eating more food for buffs, running back into an instance, fun? Is it because it’s an MMO that grindy tedious monotony like that is expected and tolerated? It’s certainly what makes causing a raid to wipe a painful experience, something to be ashamed of for not performing well, for not being dedicated enough, for not executing your job perfectly. Because it is a job, it’s not game-play, not at that level. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you cause a wipe in Gears of War 2, it’s a matter of hilarity, of light-hearted ribbing and joviality, and then you reset within seconds and are playing again. Mistakes forgotten, only camaraderie remains.

The balance in MMOs, therefore, comes from allowing structure and story in the game whilst at the same time maintaining that element of randomness which no computer generated content can provide. No mean feat. It takes a special kind of companion to enable that element of game-play, and it has taken nature millions of years to perfect it. To think that we can substitute for it with a few years worth of simplistic AI and procedurally generated content is a mistake. The focus needs to be not in replacing other players with unnatural copies that perform perfectly and to script, but to remove those elements of game-play which punish people for being… people. I look at raids in popular MMOs and see something strange, I see people reduced to robots, they have a defined role, a defined pattern of action, a defined place they need to stand. Then move over there. Then run over there. You know, I had a toy when I was a child called a Big Trak with which you could do essentially the same thing: program it to turn on the spot, shoot its laser cannon, run fowards a bit, turn, shoot, run backwards, dodge an obstacle. The curious thing now is that MMO developers do in fact seem to be trying to compensate for this trend, creating more compelling story and game-play by not reducing players to robots, but at the expense of replacing all their fellow players with robots instead.

I wonder if a balance can be struck between compelling story-based game-play and the fundamental basis of an MMO: that being massively multiplayer content. Developers perhaps need to concentrate less to start off with on how the game plays, and instead build the foundation of their game on how they will enable players to come together, play together and have fun together. Not only that but they need to take randomness and imperfection and make it a part of the enjoyment of the game. Developers of MMOs spend man-months trying to encapsulate and encode randomness into their games, and yet they neglectfully ignore, nay more often than not punish the greatest source of randomness the world has ever known: human nature.

Friday 5 June 2009

It was seventeen years ago today

And so we move on to 1992. By this point I’d upgraded to a 16Mhz 386SX system with colour VGA display, so could finally run Wing Commander and the like, and after subscribing to PC Plus for a couple of years I was also branching out to other PC magazines, in this instance the “does exactly what it says on the masthead” PC Magazine.

PC Magazine was pretty new in the UK, only being up to its fifth issue in August 1992. It was a rather heavyweight tome, both in number of pages (426) and the depth of its articles. The cover story of this issue was Windows vs OS/2, obviously something of a foregone conclusion in hindsight, but while Windows 3 had sold incredibly well for Microsoft and they’d recently brought out the improved Windows 3.1, OS/2 was technically superior, breaking away from the DOS infrastructure that Windows still sat on.

PC Magazine had in depth analysis of many aspects of the two systems over 22 pages, concluding that “OS/2 2.0 is just too big, too slow, too clumsy, too buggy and too incompatible – despite its superior multitasking and technical advancement”, and awarding Windows 3.1 the Editors’ choice. It wasn’t an unreserved recommendation, though: “Not that Windows 3.1 is perfect. To say that a major new software release crashes less often than the previous version is like saying that strychnine is less poisonous than arsenic.”

Alan Holland, author of the letter of the month, didn’t hold with these fancy GUIs, though, he was perfectly happy with DOS and hoping PC Magazine wouldn’t entirely devote itself to Windows. Peter Lloyd went one better; not only did he “hate the Windows environment”, but he had “yet to find a programmer who doesn’t hate DOS”, and generally was disgusted with the whole world of PCs. Alan Norman of Siemens Nixdorf also sounded slightly miffed that a previous issue had performed a “drop test” of their notebook without telling them, and returned it broken.

In the editorial columns Steve Malone highlighted the prospect of a worldwide 3.5″ disk shortage as programs got bigger and bigger, Windows taking up seven disks and many of its application a similar number, but forward thinking suppliers were already starting to move to CD-ROMs for distribution. Then, as now, the economy was in recession, and another piece offered some warning signs to watch out for when buying kit to avoid companies on the brink of collapse.

In reviews, Autodesk had brought out version 2 of 3D Studio, an “excellent upgrade” for £1,950. ATI’s 8514 Ultra graphics card brought “instant relief from sluggish Windows” for £499 for the 1Mb model with an unusual design with an ISA connector on one side and MCA on the other. Intel hadn’t yet released the Pentium, but the DECpc 400ST from Digital Research incorporated Intel’s Xpress architecture, designed to fully support the “P5 (586) family of processors”, at a bargain £6,337 for a 33MHz 486. Intel were being challenged on the processor front by AMD and Cyrix, the big group review of the issue being 28 AMD powered 386s, the Editors’ choices coming from Western Systems and Dan. Elsewhere in the magazine, the 8086 and 286 were all but extinct. £999 would get you a 25Mhz colour SVGA 386SX with 4MB RAM and a 100MB hard disk from Viglen, or for a bit more power MJN offered a 50Mhz 486 with a 325MB SCSI hard drive for £2945, pre-loaded with MS-DOS 5, Windows 3.1, Excel 3.0 and Word for Windows 3.0

PC Magazine wasn’t really a bundle of laughs, though; a Windows section on calling DLLs got four pages, the “After Hours” section got three. Of those three pages, one was devoted to the crazy knockabout fun of “The Perfect CV” and the training program “Professor Windows”. A second covered an electronic version of The Qur’an and the Gravis Mousestick, a joystick that could impersonate a mouse (in function, not form), an idea only hampered slightly by the fact that “it’s more cumbersome and less precise than using an ordinary mouse”, cost £90, and needed its own expansion card. There was a game review, though! Yes, in one slim sidebar, SimCity for Windows got a positive write-up, a be-Windowed update of the DOS version, yours for £44.95. The final item of After Hours was quite interesting, though: “The Logitech Fotoman aims to be the Box Brownie of the digitised picture. It’s a portable, easy-to-use unit that takes simple, monochrome snapshots which transfer to the PC with as little fuss as possible.” It took 376×284 pixel images with 256 shades of grey that transferred over RS232 in about a minute; seems almost unthinkable in this age of multimegapixel ubiquity, but it was quite remarkable at the time, though the review suggested the “£559 price tag is way too high with fully-featured colour cameras with better transfer rates coming onto the market”.

Wednesday 3 June 2009


Protagonist names that make good game titles:

  • Duke Nukem
  • Brian Bloodaxe
  • Max Payne

Protagonist names that make your game sound like a local councillor or former keyboard player from a 70s progressive rock band:

  • Alan Wake

Tuesday 2 June 2009

If you need me.

I’ll be hiding around the back of the blog, trying to avoid the hype enema that you Earth people call E3.

Monday 1 June 2009

Reviewlet: Masters of Doom

I’ve been on something of an early 90s bender recently, starting with digging out a stack of old PC magazines for the “It was (x) years ago today” articles (1992 coming soon), then within a couple of days of each other Gamasutra had a great interview with Tim Sweeney of Epic Megagames (prompting fond memories of Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball and One Must Fall: 2097 amongst others), and Eurogamer had a piece on “The Shareware Age”, generally very good, though I’d disagree slightly about its pre-1993 PC gaming “Dark Age” suggestion. Off the back of all that I picked up David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, “How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture”, the “two guys” in question being John Carmack and John Romero of id software.

Masters of Doom is a fascinating read, thoroughly researched, covering the genesis of id, their early games (Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D), and the seismic release of Doom. Though the supporting cast are well fleshed out it’s the relationship between Carmack and Romero that’s the focus, the way it clicked to kick-start the first person shooter revolution, their contrasting personalities complementing each other perfectly. Unfortunately, though, the differences that initially sparked such creativity turned into a rift that forced them apart, like Lennon and McCartney or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before them. After Doom there’s the rocky road of Quake leading to Romero’s departure to found Ion Storm and the debacle of Daikatana, while id stuck with Quake and Doom sequels.

It would have been interesting to have a little more context around the effect of id’s games on the wider PC gaming scene, comparative sales figures perhaps, or the reaction of id to rival games and vice versa; there are brief mentions of e.g. Half Life, Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex, but further depth would be outside the scope of the book, really, so it’s hardly a flaw. All in all an excellent book for anyone with any interest in the formative years of the FPS.