Sunday, 23 December 2012

EuroUS Trip 2012-13: There

As I start this entry I am about 45 minutes from landing in Bangkok and feeling pretty tired. Local time at home is 1am and the flight has been less restful than might have been ideal. This plane is packed, noisy and the entertainment system is on the fritz. It took them two attempts to get it going and my screen still refuses to stick with English. Fortunately I am a little overprepared to entertain myself. I am carrying a phone stocked with audiobooks and podcasts, my tablet, an external hard drive with various media on it and my kindle. I even supplemented this with an issue of APC for the take off and landing.

I have spent a lot of time planning this trip with my girlfriend, organising hotels and flights, packing, sorting out trains, stressing over whether or not things would arrive in time and yet travel plans always feel a little unreal to me until I am at the airport and checked in. Then it starts being concrete. I still worry a little about having made a stupid mistake somewhere in the planning or execution but it feels good to be on the way.

For the first roughly 6 hours I read through Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster-Bujold which was a fantastic read, makes me want to reread the rest of the series to refresh my memory at all of the call backs to previous Vorkosigan saga books, which do get a little heavy at times. The story overall is equal parts comedy and romance whilst still keeping the political machinations that I find interesting in the series. I found Tej and Ivan's interactions pretty adorable at times, frustrating at others as so many of these stories revolve around characters not communicating. At least here there reasons for not doing so seem pretty clear.

After that my planning kind of fell apart a bit with fatigue, started charging my phone from my tablet as I had drained it somewhat at the airport, fitting in the most internet I could before the flight would cut me off and I need it at the end of this days travel, it has the address of the hotel and the map of Stockholm cached on it. I somehow expected a USB port on the plane but thus far have been sadly disappointed. Really glad that my tablet has a ridiculous pair of batteries it can share power from.

Bangkok Airport was okay, you can get an hour's free wifi if you give them your ame, country and passport number, but this wifi is terrible. I spent most of the time tiredly waiting for the gate to open then waiting for boarding to commence. My hopes for a plane with a better entertainment system were dashed as the next plane the old school set up with one screen for everyone in a given section of economy. This meant I couldn't even get flight information. At least the plane is less full.

Spent most of the flight sleeping, took my fleece out of my bag and used it as an improvised travel pillow. Unfortunately I would wake up every to often to find my hands partially asleep, I just couldn't fine a way to position my arms to prevent this from happening.

Arlanda Airport in Stockhom was pretty straightforward, used the wifi whilst waiting for my bag to arrive then caught an express train to Stockholm C and walked the 1.1km in the dark to my hotel where I was surprised to find I was able to check in rather than just hand over my bag and go for a walk.

So now I am there, time for a shower and a nap until my girlfriend arrives and then the holiday really begins.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Finished: Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line, there isn't actually that much I can say about this game that hasn't already been said by many others, I will give it a shot though.

Spec Ops is a game where the mentality of always pressing forward, making the judgement calls as they come in the field is likely to get you.

It isn't a game where you know you are in the right, even if you make a questionable call every now and then,   but you also aren't playing a deliberate villain, it is about the road to hell paved with good intentions and determination to do what needs to be done.

You won't walk away from this game thrilled, nor pleased with overcoming a significant challenge, the gameplay itself is only competent, not outstanding. It is however a story told very well, using a mix of cut scenes, in engine dialogue and animations, to reflects its shifting atmosphere, progressively getting darker and more vicious as you get closer to the end.

It is not a game I would describe as fun, it is however, a game worth playing.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Finished: Orcs Must Die 2

What motivated me to finish off Orcs Must Die was the incipient release of Orcs Must Die 2. Finally I was motivated to pull open the game and push through the last half a dozen levels.

The biggest change between OMD1 and 2 is the addition of co-operative play. It has been integrated to such an extent that playing solo has been slightly compromised, there are conversations with one side missing and the new levels often have enemies fighting fairly far apart and there are significantly fewer teleporters than in OMD1.

The game does subtly scale the enemies, I actually did not notice until after I finished the game, but the weakest orcs tend to not appear in coop mode. You also do have the twin advantages of getting all of the cash (rather than 50%) and twice the number of slots for weapons, traps and trinkets.

Most of the old traps and enemies return along with a generous helping of new ones. The game itself feels very much to be more of the same. As a bonus, those who own the first game get a good chunk of those levels available for solo and coop play in Orcs Must Die 2. Allowing you to tackle The Finale with two players, vastly improving that level in my opinion.

Robot Entertainment also changed up the skull and upgrade systems. The 5 skull scoring system still stands, but now there are bonus skulls. Even if you manage to leak that one kobold, it is still worth continuing through to the end, because finishing a level will give you at least one bonus skull, if not more, you get bonus skulls for killing lots of orcs, for not using traps, for not using mana, for not taking any damage, for not leaking any enemies. These can really add up, on Nightmare I can fairly reliably get 15 bonus skulls.

This helps with the new upgrade system, rather than the single step upgrade system from OMD1, each trap and weapon in OMD2 has a bunch of upgrades. A main path with 3 levels, a choice of two unique upgrades (than can be freely swapped between outside of levels) and possibly special upgrades. Combined with some traps having an initial unlock cost it can cost upwards of 40 skulls to unlock and fully upgrade a trap or weapon.

This means that whilst you earn a lot of skulls you will be spending them like water, even having gone through the normal campaign, the classic levels on normal, and some of nightmare and skull farming on Chasm I still have plenty of traps, weapons and trinkets to unlock and upgrade.

Trinkets are a new element, they take up a slot and provide a passive and an active benefit. Increasing health and regeneration, or giving enemies a chance to drop coins, decreasing trap reset time. They don't directly kill orcs but I find that I almost always spend 1 to 2 slots on them because the passive effects are so damn useful.

Despite these changes, overall the game just feels like an improved version of the first game, if you don't play coop you aren't really doing anything particularly new, it is more of the same. As the game ramps up you get increasingly long levels and no checkpoints. I honestly don't think I would have finished the game, or continued to come back to it for quick sessions were it not for coop. With coop, the longer maps are just a slightly bigger commitment with friends, but you can divide and conquer levels each able to focus on your own chokepoint, swapping positions to coordinate trap placement and generally having a great time coordinating on creating your orc killing machine.

As a result I easily have 5 times the number of hours in Orcs Must Die 2 compared to the first, the cap of 2 players is both annoying but useful, because I only need to find a single buddy willing to play to get a game going I get games a bit more frequently, it just feels like we are excluding any other friends who go online during the game.

All in all, Orcs Must Die 2 is a great game and I recommend that you get it if anything I have said has interested you. You also should pick up Orcs Must Die 1, but only because that unlocks the classic levels in OMD2. They are currently 75% off on steam, they even have a demo if you just want to check it out.

Games list at time of post: 410 unfinished titles
Changes since previous update: Finished 0 titles, dropped 0, added 0

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Finished: Orcs Must Die

Orcs Must Die is a third person shooter/tower defense game by Robot Entertainment.

The premise is pretty straight forward Orcs are attacking the fortresses of the order, trying to make their way through the Rifts they protect to get through to the juice vulnerable lands beyond. Most of the orcs and associated forces are very single minded intent upon reaching their target rift via the shortest path possible.

The order is unfortunately mostly out of commission, save that is for The Apprentice who is able to take up a trusty magical crossbow and conjure defenses to prevent the orc hordes from pouring through.

For the most part it is a pretty standard tower defense game, though on a closer and more personal scale. You have a budget provided each wave, but you also earn money per kill, earning more money for long killstreaks and combos, which doing multiple damage types to the unfortunate victim before it dies.

The game excels in providing a wide range of traps and weapons. There are only a limited number of slots a player can fill with weapons and traps, so choices are made around level layout, expected enemies and personal preference.

Performance in levels is scored, both with a score based on kills and combos, and a 5-skull rating system. 4 skulls are based on rift points remaining, 1 for beating par time.

These skulls are then spent on upgrades, every trap has an upgrade that will cost a certain number of skulls, this system is final, you cannot ever refund the skulls, and you can earn a maximum of 5 skulls from any given level, which does potentially mean that if you spend them badly it will be very difficult for you to progress late in the game.

I loved the traps in this game, there are floor traps, wall traps, ceiling traps barricades and minions. I particularly liked a combination of barricades (fortunately orcs can't jump or climb), grinders, tar pits and swinging maces where the terrain allowed it. I picked up this game just after it came out and I had a lot of friends also playing through it and having a great time. We all had a great time watching orcs get flung into acid pits, set on fire, shot with arrows, exploded with bomb, sucked into grinding machines and knocked down by gigantic swinging maces.

Unfortunately the late game really starts to drag, the levels get progressively longer and there is no mid level saving or check pointing. This is especially bad when aiming for 5 skulls, a minor mistake can set you back a significant amount of time.

As a result there was a significant gap between when I bought this game and when I finished it, it took Orcs Must Die 2 coming out to convince me to play through the rest of Orcs Must Die 1.

Games list at time of post: 410 unfinished titles
Changes since previous update: Finished 0 titles, dropped 0, added 3

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Finished: Alan Wake's American Nightmare

American Nightmare is a gaming equivalent of the bottle episode. While it progresses the Alan Wake story beyond the original campaign and the two DLC episodes, it has been structured such that it can easily justify the reuse of a small number of level, art and character resources.

Personally I think it is a decision that pays off really well. To give a minor spoiler (skip this paragraph if you want to avoid it), the justification used is a time loop, each time you reach the end of the final map you are sent back to the first one. Except that you aren't just doing the same things over and over. Alan is not the only one aware of the time loop  meaning that while assets are reused, you don't just do the same damn things over and over.

It seems pretty clear that the focus of American Nightmare is combat, the horror elements are still there, but they have been pushed into the background, mostly surfacing in the Mr. Scratch videos. Instead the gameplay emphasises faster paced combat with a larger variety of enemies and weapons. The flashlight has been tweaked such that it no longer passively removes the darkness, Alan has to focus (and use battery power) to make enemies vulnerable and even to provide the temporary stun.

They added a bunch of new enemies, some that split when exposed to light, big enemies, ranged enemies (including grenadiers), even non-human enemies, making fights more varied and challenging. Finally rather than pistol/shotgun/rifle there are a range of guns allowing players to trade off between accuracy, rate of fire and firepower. Some guns are clearly better than others, but unlocking those are tied into the page collection mechanic.

The game has a few different modes, but I only played the single player campaign once. I found that the focused story and tweaked combat system really worked well for me and it was great to be able to pick it up at a cheaper price point than the main game. I am curious as to what other developers would do if they were to make a bottle episode in their franchise. Anyone able to name other examples of this kind of approach?

Now exams are over I want to get through this backlog of game posts before I head overseas. The plan is to continue the Note Taking App project as well.

Games list at time of post: 407 unfinished titles
Changes since previous update: Finished 21 titles, dropped 3, added 30
Been a while since I added this at the bottom

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Completed: Blackwell Deception

Blackwell Deception is the fourth game in the Blackwell series by Wadjet Eye Games. It is a point and click adventure game that takes two to three hours to complete and continues the story of Rosa Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey. I have posted about the previous three games on this blog.

The gameplay is not much different from the previous Blackwell titles, though Rosa's smartphone purchase tightens things up a bit, it holds her notes, lets her look up information online and even lets her make the occasional phone call! It helps to reduce the tedious revisiting of the apartment that the previous games required when Rosa had to do a bit more research.

Rosa has become more public about her sideline of work and seems to have become more accepting that this Medium thing is her calling and that she can't quite get away from it, she has even started to advertise her services, allowing her to help more unfortunate souls. I am not sure that she really needs it though since she seems to stumble across ghosts around every corner.

I really enjoy the story of these games, Dave Gilbert has been continuing a fairly interconnected story since Blackwell Unbound, with each game revealing a little bit more about Rosa, Joey and the Blackwell family. I really liked seeing more about the Countess and the relationship between mediums and their spirit guides. I hope that Dave expands on this further next time, along with the other supernatural entities introduced in this chapter.

According to Dave posting on the Wadjet Eye forums, there are still another two to three games left in this story, it will be interesting to see where it goes.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Completed: Back to the Future: The Game

Back to the Future: The Game is an episodic adventure game series by Telltale Games, one of the few companies to actually do episodic game releases successfully.

The series follows the movies, the initial tutorial scene is set about 7 months after Marty gets back at the end of Back to the Future 3, the bank believes Doc is dead and has started to sell off all of his stuff. By the end of that scene, sure enough there is a reason to get into the Delorean and head back in time, to where a significant portion of the timeline is set, 1931. Prohibition era Hill Valley.

I think Telltale games did really well with the art style, they avoided going for a realistic view, the character models are all recognisable, but have exaggerated features and simplified colours and shading. It means that the game is attractive without the system demands being too high, after all this is a game available not just for the PC, but also for the wii, PS3 and iPad.

The voice cast features actors from the films including Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown) and Claudia Wells (Jennifer) and even Michael J. Fox, though his voice is used in a cameo role. The VA for Marty McFly, AJ LoCascio, does an admirable job imitating Michael J. Fox's voice from the films. The entire cast did a great job, it has been some time since I have watched the films, but none of their performances jarred with my memories of the films.

The downside of the episodic structure that Telltale uses for these adventure games is that you can see the reuse of mechanical plot and settings. Very few environments are used only once, instead the same locations are used over and over again during the course of the series, with changes to account for time jumps and new people being in charge. Each episode opens with a fairly simple puzzle to get you going then seems to flow into a familiar structure where you have a few different puzzles that can be tackled in parallel before more plot will occur.

Overall though the story fits very well with those of the Back to the Future films, time travel inevitably causing changes not due to intent, but just because being present introduces new elements. Always the goal being trying to fix what went wrong and having the bad guys get their comeuppance. Somehow, after all of the problems Marty faces trying to get back to 1986, the final timeline results in everyone being happier. Oh and of course a Tannen always ends up in manure at some point. It just wouldn't be back to the future without that.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Complete: Quake 4

Quake 4 is a direct sequel to Quake 2, it was made by Raven Software in collaboration with id Software.

It turns out, whilst the main character in Quake 2 won a major success against the Strogg, the war is far from over. Now the Big Gun and the Strogg Emperor have been killed a ground invasion of Stroggos is possible and Earth has attacked trying to do remove the threat of the Strogg once and for all.

It was really interesting playing Quake 4 so close to Quake 2, you can really feel the impact that time and technology has made, the id Tech 4 engine is capable of significantly better interactions and improvements in AI, animation and storage technology means that friendly soldiers not only exist but play an active component in the missions of the game. Admittedly they do restrict the amount of time you spend actively fighting as part of a squad, this is still very much a single man FPS, they justify this by making your character a scout, often being sent on ahead to find and deal with other routes and finding a way to let your squad inside.

What makes Quake 4 so interesting to me is that the enemies you are dealing with haven't significantly changed. Most of the Strogg you fight are recognisably the same or very similar to the Quake 2 enemies, though they have much improved models and more impressive sounds and a few minor new tricks. The crude attempts at horror in Quake 2 where you see the results of Strogg processing humans are painted in entirely new lights. You get a lot more detail in game as to what it entails and how the Strogg control and use their human resources.

Doom 3 and Quake 4 still have the best computer interaction I have seen in first person shooters, the way it smoothly moves between pointing your gun at things and pointing your mouse at interfaces feels a lot more natural than zooming in on the interface and having it fill the entire screen when you press an interaction button. While it results in some laughably simple interfaces, but I feel that the trade off is worthwhile.

Quake 4 also avoids the problems of Doom 3 by spending a lot more time in outdoor environments and areas with nice big windows, it doesn't rely on darkness as much to create tension and lets you see pretty vistas. I really like the approach of using what appears to be concept art as skybox backgrounds, it continues the tradition seen in Quake 2 and it gives you a better idea of Strogg cities and other background elements.

The guns in Quake 4 almost all feel good and filling an identifiable role, you get weapon upgrades at various points through the game, a techie will ask to see your gun, play around with it and suddenly it has a new ability. Unfortunately the Railgun has been significantly nerfed, it has a terrible fire rate and its upgrade (shots go through people) is of such minor utility that it isn't really worth being handed out.

I had a great time with Quake 4, it really helped having only recently played through Quake 2 and having it relatively fresh in my mind to contrast and compare.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Completed: Cthulhu Saves the World

Cthulhu Saves The World is an 8/16-bit RPG parody by Zeboyd Games. It is available from Steam for an amazingly low price. I picked it up on launch but it took me quite a while to finish it.

It is built to be a very silly game, it has no respect at all for the fourth wall with Cthulhu only learning what is going on and determining his end goal by listening in on the narrator's opening spiel. Cthulhu has awoken ready to destroy the world, unfortunately (for him) an unknown holy cleric strips him of his powers. The only way Cthulhu can get them back is to become a True Hero.

Mechanically and graphically it looks and feels like an old SNES jRPG title, you have fixed characters interacting in a party, a limit of 3 characters at a time can be used in fights and it has random encounters and turn based combat. It seems pretty clear that the makers wanted to keep this old game feel, but didn't want to actually get bogged down in the flaws of these systems.

Random map encounters discourages exploration, so each location has a maximum number of random encounters, when that number expires you stop being interrupted. Not only that but you can trigger the fights by pausing and selecting fight from the menu at any time, meaning you can get all of the required fights out of the way when you are in a nice convenient location. You can also continue to have fights after the counter has expired as a way to grind XP if you want an easier time later on.

Similarly, whilst characters are fixed, their equipment types and abilities have a fairly linear progression to them, but the game lets you customise your party to your playstyle to a degree through a fairly elegant system. Whenever a character gains a level, you get a choice. Typically it will be between two variants of the same skill, or two different stat ups, you can gear your characters towards high damage single target spells over AOE, high defense and health over speed. I mostly aimed my party at doing high damage area attacks all the better to get the random encounters quickly finished, though at a hefty MP cost and leaving me in a more difficult position against bosses.

The game encourages quick and strategic combat in two different ways, monsters get more powerful the longer a fight lasts, and the player recovers MP based on how quickly a fight lasts, if you can throw a few heavy hits and finish a fight in one round, you may recover most of the MP you used. The game heals you up at the end of every combat, so MP is the resource that slowly dwindles as you explore a dungeon hoping you will find a save point to recover it rather than teleport back to town.

I really liked the use of the theme, I have to admit I haven't read deeply into the lovecraft mythos but I do enjoy it where it crops up in horror elements and it was good to see them parodied so thoroughly during the course of this game. It features all manner of lovecraftian names and locations taking advantage of the parodic nature to include them even though they don't make complete sense.

One of the key uses of the theme is insanity, here it is a condition that can be inflicted and removed upon your enemies. Insane enemies deal out and take more damage, it can be a good tradeoff to have a fast character use a move that inflicts insanity if the extra damage will let a move by a slower character to finish them off.

Overall, I think that the entertainment and length of this game are amazing for the price, I am not exactly nostalgic for 8/16-bit RPGs, I never really played them since my first home console was an N64, but this game is a bargain at the RRP.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Completed: Blackwell Convergence

Blackwell Convergence is in effect, the other half of Blackwell Unbound. In fact, Blackwell Unbound was intended to be an extended flashback sequence in this game until it ballooned out of proportion.

As a result it is full of returning characters, people that Rosa's aunt interacted with make their return as she attempts to allow three seemingly unrelated souls to pass on. It is interesting seeing Joey draw the connections between this game and the last, trying to deny the truth until enough evidence builds up.

I was pleased to have the Internet back in this game, I didn't really like the different item set up in Unbound, even though it made sense that Lauren would use a phone and phonebook. You still require a fair amount of trekking back to your apartment just to look up the next piece of information to let you progress to the next puzzle.

I think the links between this and the previous game really help pull me into the story, whilst I knew who the villain was, I still did not know how they were able to operate despite the mechanics not really changing. They make for an interesting character and help to give a little bit more of the previously missing information about the setting.

The game takes about two to three hours to complete and is a good third chapter for the series. I have to admit that I do have a tendency to mix up the titles a bit, I never remember which title goes with which number in the series, which is a minor problem given that these games have a clear continuity and don't make quite so much sense on their own.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Completed: Analogue: A Hate Story

This was a game that caught my eye a long time before I picked it up on Steam. It is a visual novel game, which I mostly associate with fairly terrible games I downloaded in my teens. The basic concept caught my eye however, you are an investigator sent to an old colony ship which has mysteriously appeared with no living crew on board.

Your task is to find out what happened and salvage any useful data from the ship, upon getting close you quickly find that the onboard AI is still there, and is in fact quite lonely and wanting to talk to you. She is a bit fuzzy on what has happened, a side effect of having been around so long apparently, but she has some files to show you and can pass on information as you go through them.

The ship's population was Korean but somewhere along the voyage they seem to have forgotten their origins and undergone a strange cultural shift, including resetting their calendar and history.

Analogue: A Hate Story is an interesting examination of relationships, male and female gender divides and a much more oppressive society than I am used to. I found the story fascinating and really enjoyed learning about the various characters and events, it has 6 different endings, I only finished the game once, but can definitely see myself coming back to it at some point in the future.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Completed - Saints Row 2

Saints Row 2 is a third person sandbox crime game that takes the model coined by the GTA series and emphasises the more extreme free and silly end of the spectrum. It is a game that I knew had a very good reputation, I have had friends recommend it to me repeatedly and I definitely can see what they meant.

I really enjoyed the freedom you get in this game, it technically forces you to do sidequests or just respect generating activities before you can progress through the plotline, but I found doing them rewarding enough that I always had enough respect stacked up to progress at any pace I desired.

The freedom does result in some odd dissonance in some places. Part of it is a common issue with have several different storylines that can be tackled in parallel. Every gang story begins with the story treating you as if you had just begun the game, the problem being that I handled each gang separately, so the final gangs were treating me as a little dog when I owned two thirds of the city.

Similarly the character creator and clothing systems are fantastic, you can make a character that looks and wears pretty much whatever you want, you can be a crossdressing black guy, a classy crime king pin, a scrawny young woman or even a morbidly obese old person. You can in fact be all of these sequentially during the game, since it merely costs $500 and a visit to a plastic surgeon to re-enter the character creator.

The only problem is that this is purely for the player's amusement, none of this makes a jot of difference, your gang does not notice or comment on your sudden penchant for not wearing any pants, or turning up the next day as a tiny slip of a woman after being a large british guy. The Boss of the Saints is not really your character, they are a distinct character with slight flavourings based upon whichever voice you have used. In Saints Row 2 you don't make any choices, you don't have any dialog trees, the only customisation elements are irrelevant to the plot and behaviour of your gang.

The game itself was great, and I have since moved on to playing through the sequel. Personally I would probably grab the sequel over this, but only because Saints Row the Third has a better PC port.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

My Baby Brother

Today would have been my youngest brother's 18th birthday. Unfortunately he passed away in January 2010 dying from a rockfall in the bush.

He was a bright, fit, active kid who was at a point in his life where anything was possible. I have no idea what subjects he would be doing or where he would be aiming in life if he were still with us. I mostly talked to him about games since that was our primary shared interest, the last conversation I ever had with him was how he planned to spend the rest of his summer holidays split between Call of Duty and Maple Story.

I and my whole family miss him dearly.

I have been musing over what to write for this post since I started this blog, but now all I really want to say is that I love him and miss him.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Completed - Quantum Conundrum

Quantum Conundrum is a light colourful family friendly first person puzzle game by Airtight Games, the Creative director for this game is Kim Swift, one of the minds behind Portal. Unsurprisingly it feels pretty similar, you have a constrained indoor environment that moves the player from puzzle to puzzle and a complete lack of violent conflict.

The player is the nephew of Professor Quadwrangle sent to keep him company. The Professor is not particularly pleased by this turn of events, but this is apparently now a semi-regular event. He is voiced by John de Lancie who does a good job portraying an arrogant egotistical professor who isn't above accepting a little help when necessary and whom does seem to feel a little responsibility for the player.

The core mechanic of the game is dimension shifting, there are a total of 5 dimensions used during the game normal, fluffy, heavy, slow-time and reverse gravity. Each puzzle will give the player access to some or all of these, sometimes they won't be available from the start so part of the puzzle is locating and retrieving the batteries required to unlock the other dimensions.

These puzzles get quite complicated as the interactions between dimensions increases, swapping between fluffy to lift large items and throw them, slow time to then jump on them and use them as a platform, heavy to get the item unharmed through lasers and reverse gravity to keep it in the air. This is definitely more in line with Portal 1, where you can become pretty frustrated because you know the solution to the puzzle, but you cannot quite get the dimension shift timings right.

That is where I think Quantum Conundrum biggest flaw lies, as a game it feels fiddly, most of my deaths were because I pressed accidentally pressed the wrong button or I managed to simply mistimed the next shift. I know what I needed to do, I knew what I did wrong, but it still took me another 5 attempts to pass couch surfing without dying from bumping the ceiling. I think this makes it more frustrating than it is aiming to be. I was especially disappointed with the DLC because it was more of this fiddly timing based content rather than more story.

I really like the way that the dimension shifts alter the art style, you would never miss which dimension you have shifted into. Everything changes drastically in appearance, but each object remains recognisable. It is especially cool to see how the paintings on the wall change. I recommend trying to find all of the variations. I also recommend trying to find all of the titles of the books in the game, they are all Science! variations of other works. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack, it is appropriately light and fits well with the overall aesthetic style of the game

The game tries to soften your (too frequent) deaths for you by popping up a little screen with "Thing #N You Will Never Do". I understand the attempt at humour and think it works for most people, but I really wished you could turn it off. Things they will never get to do are one of the things that make young deaths tragic. I am probably a little oversensitive to this particular issue but that really left me cold.

Overall, it is a very good first person puzzle game, I enjoyed the story and most of the puzzles and would like more storyline content. It ends with a very clear sequel hook and I was surprised and disappointed that the DLC does not seem to continue it, seems that I will be waiting for Quantum Conundrum 2.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Streamlining - Skyrim

I often see streamlining being used as a dirty word, a lot of gamers seem to think that it is just a codeword for 'dumbing down' mechanics. I think that the leveling system in Skyrim is a great example of taking what was a terrible system in Morrowind and Oblivion, finding the core of it and bringing out something great.

First, to look at the previous system. It seems like the designers had the thought:
"I love RPGs but they are so unrealistic, why does shooting a bunch of people with arrows let me increase my speech or make me better with swords?"

I have been struggling to describe the system used in Morrowind and Oblivion, so here is an excerpt from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages

Each class has five Major skills, five Minor skills, and seventeen miscellaneous skills. Each time your character increases any combination of Major or Minor skills ten times, they become eligible to gain a level. Both Major/Minor skills gained by paying a Trainer to teach the skill and those gained by reading books count towards a level. Miscellaneous skills do not count toward this progress at all. You can check your count of major/minor skill increases toward a level at any time by hovering the mouse cursor over the Level line of the Stats menu.

Upon gaining the tenth increase of Major/Minor skills, and at each subsequent increase of any skill type, a message will encourage you to "rest and meditate on what you've learned". You will gain a level the next time you rest for any length of time. Using the wait command is not considered resting for this purpose. You must use a bed or other resting object, or rest outside of towns or cities.

For each level, a short explanation of the character's sudden, if not unexpected, increase in power is shown along with an illustration of adventuring gear, and the attribute multiplier list. While you rest, you will choose three of the primary attributes to increase. Usually one or more of the attributes will have multipliers next to them, meaning that those attributes will increase by more than one point if you choose them. The multiplier for each attribute is determined by the total number of times that skills governed by that attribute have increased since the last level up

Note that all skills advanced during the level count for the multiplier. These advances do not roll over to the next level for multiplier calculation, though your major and minor skills still count towards determining your level.

The outcome of this system is that two character who have done similar activites but slept (and thus levelled up) at different times will have different statlines. This leads to the strange concept of "Efficient Leveling" where in order to maximise your character you advance skills only by specific amounts each level, it requires careful planning and preparation and is pretty easy to stuff up.

I think that Skyrim benefited from Bethesda making Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was built in the same game engine as Oblivion but uses a more conventional RPG leveling system. You get XP for killing things, doing quests, picking locks etc. What it doesn't have is classes or stat increases. If I want to be a thief in Fallout, I advance my sneaking skills at every opportunity. I don't need to decide this at the beginning, I can decide to start investing half way through the game and it still will work.

What does Skyrim do with the Elder Scrolls system? It takes the core "You only get better at something by doing it" and bases everything around that. It eliminates classes, it eliminates most of the stats. It actually uses an XP system but never shows the player XP values.

When you use a skill in an applicable way, you gain XP for that skill, when you get enough of it, that skill advances. When a skill advances you gain Character XP equal to the new level of that skill. When the character gets enough XP they level up. The progress can be seen through various bars in the skills menu, the bar for character level is also seen whenever a skill advances.

Once again, this means that player actions determine the type of character that they play, not a choice they make right at the beginning. It gets at the heart of the systems used in Morrowind and Oblivion while removing the complications that weighed down the old system and made it terrible. It is a case of streamlining taking a clunky bad system and creating a great system that achieves the central purpose without creating strange side cases.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cloud Security

A friend of mine recently mentioned this article in a chat. It involves a US technology journalist who had his apple account compromised and through that, his phone, iPad and computer remotely wiped, his social network accounts compromised and his Google account closed.

Despite the generic security advice at the end of the article, there is nothing that the end user can realistically do to protect themselves from a social engineering attack against the support staff for a vital cloud service they use.

The problem, like many in security, is that security has costs. The cost here is the appearance of good customer service; it seems like good customer service to bend over backwards in order to help a customer in need, especially if they are nice or at just the right level of pushy, it seems like it is good customer service to fix their problem in a single phone call.

Most of the time, it is probably safe to do so, I imagine the ratio of malicious customers to innocent people on the other end of the phone is pretty low. There are plenty of people who have screwed up and just want to get access to their account back but don't have access to their email right now. It feels bad to tell these people that you can't help them right now. Maybe if they could find or contact someone else who can find that important email, you can help them get access to their account/their daughter's (who was recently in an accident, we need to get access to help sort out her belongings).

Good customer service is really important to most companies, they pride themselves on it, it is a major selling point that you can get help, quickly and easily and without stress. The thing is, actual good customer service is more than just helping people in need, it requires care and precision. It means getting things right, not getting things done fast.

Protection against social engineering like most security is a trade-off with convenience. It requires testing staff to ensure that they are appropriately suspicious and it requires policies that support this behaviour and training that makes staff understand why those policies exist.

It is going to be interesting going forward seeing how companies react, email has for a long time been treated as a low priority for security. The underlying sending and receiving mechanisms were not built for security and are still insecure, and yet they are the hinges for most of our online dealings. Most services I use will send a password reset to my email with little to no verification required, meaning that if you get into my email, you can get into pretty much everything I use. This applies more so to smartphone users as those account can be used for remote access to phones, providing location information and also the ability to as seen in the article maliciously wipe out information.

Companies and users need to start looking at what each system they use represent and what someone with hostile intent could do if they gained access and start adjusting where their security priorities lie.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Completed - Blackwell Unbound

Blackwell Unbound is the second game in the Blackwell series. Rather unexpectedly it does not continue the adventures of Rosa and Joey, instead it takes place in the 1970's following Rosa's aunt Lauren and Joey. It was originally going to be a flashback sequence in a sequel following Rosa but it grew too much, becoming its own tale.

Blackwell Unbound is longer than Blackwell Legacy. It focuses on two originally seemingly unrelated cases that of course turn out to be much more related than they initially appear.

Rather than having a trusty computer and internet connection to look up people and places, Lauren instead has a phone book and landline phone. This means that you often end up briefly heading to your apartment just to turn a name into a phone number or location so that you can head on to the next location. I like how the reliance of these everyday tools means that we can venture into a large variety of locations without either Lauren or Joey have a mysteriously complete knowledge of location geography, people and businesses.

Lauren and Joey also have a very different relationship than Rosa did, Lauren clearly has accepted her role as a medium and that Joey isn't going away. They have a reasonably good working relationship and they banter a bit more.

The game has a hidden timer to it. Lauren is a chain smoker and there are 2 achievements that are possible, one which is to finish the game before she finishes 20 cigarettes and one for finishing the game with Lauren smoking at least 100 cigarettes. It is an interesting idea and one designed to get people to play through it multiple times. I kind of liked how you got some of these meaningless statistics when you finish the game.

One thing I do not like about the achievements for the various Blackwell games is that Dave Gilbert really seems to like achievements for solving a puzzle without making any mistakes. I find this really annoying especially since it is possibly to encounter these puzzles well before you have the information to solve them, before you really even know that it is a puzzle. It basically means that they are a set of achievements that can be gained either by playing through the game twice or to just use a guide to finish the game. Adventure games already have a significant problem relating to guides, they don't need to give players more incentives in that area.

Blackwell Unbound is a good prequel and it sets up the events of Blackwell Convergence, it took me about 2 hours to finish it.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Graphic Novels

Digger - By Ursula Vernon

Digger is a story about a wombat. Certainly not something I had expected when I grabbed the Hugo voter packet. It is a story about a stranger in a land that is stranger still. A land that seems to have a lot more magic and gods interfering than any sensible wombat should feel comfortable with.

This entry is the complete Digger story, which makes it extremely long, the PDF is 830 pages, it is split into volumes with each volume giving a brief summary of the story so far, and also containing extra backstory near the end.

The cast of characters is quite varied, but my favourites are probably Shadowchild and Ed. Shadowchild is a pure innocent and manages to ask some really interesting ethical quandaries, it listens earnestly and has no malice. This in some ways makes it even more dangerous as it follows advice more closely than it possibly should, and Digger is not always the best teacher, though she tries her best her advice, like most people teaching when they are inexperienced is incomplete in ways that she does not expect. I like Ed because he gives a lot of interesting backstory and completes some of the moral picture, despite the way Ed speaks, he seems to have thought a lot about how people should try to act.

It has a good mix of drama and humour. Sometimes in would be very cheesy dramatic scenes there is effectively some colour commentary from other characters there. Otherwise very serious characters are occasionally tripped up by events that Digger experienced. It was a fantastic story well told. It also can be read online here.

Schlock Mercenary Book 12: Force Multipliers - Written and drawn by Howard Taylor

I have been a Schlock Mercenary reader for years, I actually have all of the printed books and am currently up to date with it where I am not with most of the webcomics I read. It is a consistent and funny sci fi series where the author has clearly put a lot of thought into the setting. This particular run features only a rather small set of characters from the series and a location that constrains Sergeant Schlock from using his plasma cannon, a move he finds rather upsetting.

It was an interesting story with various characters changing allegiance, strange deaths and antagonists that are both less and more sinister than they initially appeared. The first time I read this story I actually missed a late game reveal which reveals information about a character in Tagon's Toughs that has not yet paid off. I am going to have to keep a closer eye on that one.

It is the characters I like most about Schlock Mercenary, from the psychotic and cheerful Sergeant Schlock, the cheerful, dim and tough grunts like Shep and the hopeful and stable Dr Bunnigus. They all have something to offer and are a bit more multidimensional than those descriptors really indicate, I like they way they interact and also the way Schlock occasionally eats people and burns things down.

A quick note, if you do go to read Schlock Mercenary, the initial art is terrible, but it has improved much over the years. Also there is a lot of it, it has never missed a day (save for one instance of server troubles, and even there the strip was uploaded to an alternate site), and it has run for over 12 years now, Book 12 is somewhere around the 1 year mark in length.

Fables: Rose Red - written by Bill Willingham, various Artists.

I am not up to date with Fables, but it is a comic that I try to catch up on every year or so, grabbing the volumes if I see them in a store. I don't think I am too far behind, because in the Story So Far and Who's Who of Fabletown I don't really see anything new. As an aside, in the PDF provided for this, the text is a much higher resolution than the images, the speech bubbles must have been added digitally and it is initially surprisingly distracting, it probably isn't noticeable in the print version.

This volume is pretty cool, there is some further development of Mister Dark as the big nigh unstoppable villain, a lot more backstory for Rose Red and Snow White (and how Snow White appeared in the two seemingly contradictory fairy tales), and a really awesome fight. I also like the hints regarding the Mundy world, they really have not yet explained how the heck fairy tales come about, they are merely people in other worlds, but the series has always shown that the Mundy world is linked, stories that are popular here result in more powerful and resilient fables, even off world. Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf are both characters that can take a lot more punishment than other less popular fables.

I am pretty happy with the plot advancement, but like a lot of graphic novels, whilst progress is made, the stories are never quite self-contained, and not nearly as much is resolved as I would like. I guess it comes from their serial nature.

The Unwritten Leviathan - By Mike Carey and Peter Gross

I have to admit I am a bit of a sucker for meta-stories. It is one of the reasons why I like Fables, The Unwritten has the same themes brought by a different mechanism. A large part of it takes place inside famous books and stories like Moby Dick and Sindbad the Sailor. It even features Baron von Münchhausen, one of my favourite characters purely because of a game I like based upon him.

This comic does not give any useful information for newcomers to the series, so I am not sure who most of these characters are or their significance. It is pretty clear that Tom is the protagonist, but I have no idea why it is significant that Liz calls him Tom at one point. The copy in the Hugo voter packet does not even give me a blurb to work from. It just gives me quotes from a bunch of writers and magazines about how great the series is.

Whilst I still remain a bit confused at the relations between the characters, where these abilities come from and what they are trying to achieve, I did enjoy the romp through those famous tales and I also liked how the art style changed with stores. Both colour selection and artistic techniques change. I don't have enough knowledge to really describe them, but each story brings their own voice into the tale through the changed aesthetic.

Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom - Written by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez

Unfortunately Locke and Key is a series that I do not follow, which means that I spent the first part of this book trying to work out who the various characters are and the basic concept. I really should have read the blurb (which is of course on the final page of the PDF).

It was an interesting story, the core conceit is a series of magical keys and doors found within the Locke family home of Keyhouse. It follows a group of children that now that they have found out about these keys are in mortal danger. The book focuses on a hidden internal threat within the group, all of the keys being used seem to have been previously established, but the concepts are pretty cool, there is one that lets you literally play around with another's mind, one of the characters has removed her fear and her ability to cry, there are various others that let you travel, change into an animal, etc.

It is an interesting concept, maybe sometime I will try to find the earlier volumes so that I can get more of a feel for the continuity. Plot was advanced during the volume, but nothing was really concluded.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Short Stories

I had previously listened to almost all of the Hugo nominated short stories as part of Escape Pod and PodCastle. These podcasts are great ways to get to listen to short stories, they release new episodes weekly and are my primary exposure to Sci Fi and Fantasy short stories. As such I am including links to the relevant episode of each podcast for the short stories here, so that you can listen to them for yourself.

The Homecoming - Mike Resnick

A son visits his parents in order to see his sick mother, his father is angry with him, feeling that his son abandoned them when he made choices earlier in life. The dilemma of pleasing your parents and achieving your personal goals and ambitions.

The Paper Menagerie - Ken Liu

A touching story about a relationship between a mother and son. A child who wants to fit in can be very cruel and make pretty poor choices. Especially since they often don't take the time to understand why others make the choices they do.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees - E. Lily Yu

I loved the imagery in this fantasy story, the different cultures of the wasps and bees and the way that wasps feel completely superior to the bees, they don't even consider trying to coexist as equals.

Movement - Nancy Fulda

This was an interesting story, it is written from the perspective of a child with a flavour of autism. Who should make choices regarding achieving normality, especially when steps have to taken early in life. It is the child's life that you are irreversibly altering, but they are too young to be trusted with making an appropriately considered decision on their own.

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One - The Dead City - John Scalzi

This is actually the prologue to a fantasy trilogy, the tone of it is very light hearted, but it does not shy away from implied blood and violence. An impossible threat against a fantasy kingdom. But the reason why it is impossible cannot be publicly acknowledged.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Novelettes

The Novelette is a category of fiction I had not heard of prior to looking at the Hugos, I had thought that it went Short Story < Novella < Novel. But the Hugos have the Novelette as another category between Shot Story and Novella, I guess this gives you more rewards to give out.

Here are my thoughts about the novelettes in the order I intend to vote for them.

Ray of Light - Brad R Torgersen

A single dad trying to raise his daughter in a underwater station deep in the oceans, where it is still warm. A wonderful tale about acceptance, loss and trying to regain what has been lost.

Features some very lucky kids.

Six Months, Three Days - Charlie Jane Anders

Predestination vs Free Will, a tale of a doomed relationship between two clairvoyants who each see the future very differently and yet still seem to agree on major points. Attracted to each other, yet both knowing that the relationship is going to last only six months and three days. One of them has to be wrong, but which one?

Fields of Gold - Rachel Swirsky

A tale about death and responsibility. It seems that death is a series of parties as newcomers keep arriving, got to find some what of spending the rest of your existence I guess. It is interesting to see the two central characters going trying to work out what they want, what they were really looking for all of their lives.

What We Found - Geoff Ryman 

This is an examination about both science and the old ways, it features people growing up and ideas wearing out.

The Copenhagen Interpretation - Paul Cornell

I found this one pretty odd, it is a steampunk story featuring spaceships, theories about the weight of souls and thus the location of life on a grand scale and murky international politics balanced on a knife edge. It was kind of fun, but missed the mark for me.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hugo Month 2012 - Novellas

This is my ranking of the novella nominees in order.

Countdown - Mira Grant

Countdown is a prequel novella to the Newsflesh trilogy. It recounts the story of the Rising, the focus is primarily upon characters who are only mentioned in a historical context in the main trilogy, though there is also a fair amount from the perspective of the adoptive parents of Shaun and Georgia Mason.  

Being a prequel most readers will know what is going to happen, pretty much all of the events were mentioned in some way during Feed and Deadline, and Mira Grant provides a lot of foreshadowing for those readers.

I think that a reader completely new to the series would still be able to enjoy Countdown, but it feels very much written for the fans. I really enjoyed the story a great deal, it was great to be able to see and get to know Dr. Kellis and other characters which have such a significant and direct impact on the setting but don't really appear in the main series.

The Man Who Ended History - Ken Liu

I found this story very powerful, mostly because the science fiction elements are a framing device to discuss history, observation and the human desire to try to forget and diminish terrible things.

The central concept is that there is a technology developed that allows a person to directly observe the past, with the limitation being that this can only be done once for any given time and place. The mere act of observing destroys the ability to observe again. The very public test of this technology? The Pingfang district, where Unit 731 were located. This really is the focus of the work, what was done by Unit 731 was terrible, horrifying and astounding. Medical experimentation without any real ethical boundaries.

The story discusses the political ramifications, who owns the past, since control of land constantly shifts between areas. Similarly, this is a political conflict between Japan and China, Japan was clearly historically in the wrong, but China is not as well regarded by the West. Besides, what governments really want to allow any areas of their history to be closely observed? History is sadly filled with terrible atrocities that society for better or worse would rather forget than reflect upon. 

The Man Who Bridged The Mists - Kij Johnson

This is a fantasy story about civil engineering. The mist is a dangerous supernatural boundary that splits the empire. It runs over a river and makes crossing very dangerous and communication difficult.

The man who bridged the mist is about the first permanent bridge constructed over the mist connecting both nearside and farside. It is a complex, lengthy and dangerous task, but one that is not trully opposed by anyone.

The only people likely to lose anything are the Ferries, a family who make their living ferrying people across those dangerous waters, it is a calling and whilst they are extremely good at it, it is an occupation which will inevitably kill them after only a short number of years on the craft.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Kit and Rasali Ferry, they work well together and I enjoyed the talk that went into building the suspension bridge.

Kiss Me Twice - Mary Robinette Kowal

Kiss Me Twice is science fiction noir tale about a murder and a kidnapping. The story is told from the perspective of a police officer who is perhaps a little too attached to the police AI.

It was pretty cool to have a police department that is heavily assisted by an AI that mostly communicates with them via AR. I liked the twists and turns that the story took and the conclusion was one that I did not see coming though probably should have.

The Ice Owl - Carolyn Gilman

This is a science fiction story about the education of a young girl, forgiveness and a holocaust. I quite enjoyed the lessons that the girl was taught and the puzzles that she solved using that education. I didn't really get into the setting and the story was good, but just not one that I have much to say about.

Silently and Very Fast -  Catherynne M Valente

This was a very confusing novella about AI and the turing test. It swaps between modified fairy tales and the primary narrative around the development of an AI and its ties to a particular family. The swapping between these two perspectives really did not work for me, it pulled me out of the story and I found it harder to track what was going on.

I did like the point about the turing test though. Basically it indicates that we will only accept an AI when it limits itself to our level, when it thinks like us and has similar limitations. This is often seen in movies where bad robots and AI inevitably seek omnipotence and to strike humanity down for its hubris. Why would a superintelligent AI even care about us?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Completed - Dungeons of Dredmor

Dungeons of Dredmor is a humourous roguelike by GasLamp Games that I ended up obsessing over shortly after it introduced Steam workshop support and the associated "You Have To Name The Expansion" expansion back at the beginning of June.

For reference, the defining characteristics of a roguelike are:
  • permadeath - Your character dies, they exist pretty much only as a high score entry
  • random dungeons maps - The layout of each level is procedurally generated via a random seed. The overall dungeon can have consistent themes (i.e. level 10 is always an ice level) but the layout, placement of monsters and treasures are all random
  • RPG levelling: You get XP and you level up mostly by hitting things with weapons.
  • Turn based: The entire game system is based on discrete units of time that only advance when you perform an action.
There are other common features found in games like ADOM, Dungeon Crawl and NetHack such as starvation as a motivation for continuing deeper, races and classes, and a default display based purely on ascii characters. Dungeons of Dredmor only fills the 4 characteristics I list, and even then only using the defaults, you can turn off permadeath if you so desire.

When you create a character in Dredmor, you pick a name (and a gender if you have the Diggle Gods expansion) and 7 skills. These skills are not all balanced and range from Swordfighting to Veganism and Vampirism, they determine your starting stats and equipment and when you level you choose to advance one of your skills. Some skills work really well together, others don't. I would be surprised to find a viable character that has both Veganism and Vampirism for example, since simply attacking in melee would trigger a significant debuff.

Dredmor's tone is very light hearted and silly. The skills are fairly silly and strange with each ability it grants having its own funny description. This is a game where the final level of the Perception skill is Eye-lasers, you can gain experience for "Heroic Vandalism" and being an archaeologist lets you realise a translation was off and fundamentally change the powers of an artifact.

The game also has achievements for many of the deaths you will face during the game, which is good because you will die, and you will die a lot. Winning the game requires a combination of persistence, caution and luck. Finding great gear at the right time will extend your character's life significantly, finding a monster zoo when you were looking for a place to hold up and heal will put a premature end to a promising character.

The game has a very simple graphical style, it does not even try to show your character wearing and wielding your equipment. It has a set animation for each weapon style and a set of generic spellcasting animations. It is fairly easy to mod, you simply need to know the right xml structure and this approach also makes it easy to add your own items with their graphics. The Steam workshop makes it really easy for players to find and add mods to their copies of the game, in particular Meltdown is fantastic for crafting based characters.

The aim of the game is to reach the final level of the dungeon, either level 10 or level 15 depending on your game mode and kill Dredmor, saving the world for now anyway. I found that the game outstayed its welcome with me on my winning playthrough; I had chosen the longest possible game settings and the dungeon simply went too deep and I felt that I was in the final hour or two of the game for the last 8 or so hours. This is a great way to keep me playing despite becoming increasingly weary of the game.

That said, I spent 69 hours and 30 characters in order to actually finish it. It was overall a fun experience, and definitely worth the $3 it costs to get the complete version on Steam right now.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Completed - Q.U.B.E.

Q.U.B.E. (Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) is a first person physic based puzzler developed by Toxic Games. Like all games of this genre, the obvious comparison is Portal, but in Q.U.B.E. this comparison is even more apt, the game takes place in a sterile environment with the environment and walls composed of primarily of white cubes. There are occasional opportunities to peak behind the scenes and see something a little more messy and run down.

The game is split up into 7 sectors, each one introducing and teaching new mechanics in a gradual process and creating a theme for each section. The titular block extrusions are split into 5 different colours, each with their own properties. Red blocks can be extruded and retracted, blue blocks are retracted to become springboards for the next thing to touch thing, yellow blocks are always found in threes and extend to form stair structures, green produce a sphere or cube to move around in the puzzle and purple blocks rotate a section of room.

There is no voicework at all to be found in Q.U.B.E. nor text to explain the story. This makes for a strange contextless game, you are given no clue as to how you found yourself at the start of these chambers nor to what end you are completing these tests if they are indeed tests. The ending was particularly baffling. I won't spoil it, but it definitely caught me off guard and I given that I would love to play another game in this series to find out what the heck was going on, so on that level it certainly worked for me.

This certainly was an intriguing title and one I would suggest people pick up if it goes on sale during the current Steam sales, it didn't take me very long to finish and this is one of the rare games where I then went back to find the one achievement you do not get from doing a run through of the main game.

One thing I was intrigued to find out when doing a little research on this game is that none of the developers were programmers, the game was created using the Unreal Development Kit and at no point did any of the creators have to interact with the source code. It is pretty amazing that a game of this quality can be created using what are freely available tools even without low level programming knowledge.

Games list at time of post: 400+ unfinished titles     
Changes since previous post: Finished 1 titles, added more

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hugo Month - Embassytown

Embassytown is science fiction novel by China Mieville. It is written from the perspective of Avice who was born and raised in the titular Embassytown. A town that exists to maintain relations between humanity and a unique species called the Ariekei.

The Ariekei have no interest in spaceflight and so can only be found on this one planet but are significantly more advanced than humanity in terms of biotechnology. Their cities and most of their equipment are strange biorigged devices even the very buildings themselves are living organisms.

What really defines the Ariekei however is their language. They evolved with two mouths, making their language impossible for a human to speak independently, their speech is in many ways mixed up in their thoughts. They require another united mind to speak the words for them to register as language, this prevents the use of speech synthesis and language translation software. Whilst human can learn to understand the Language, they cannot speak it save in remarkably well synced pairs. The Ambassadors in Embassy town are specifically bred and raised as clonepairs for this purpose.

The Language is very literal and inflexible, at the beginning of the book Avice becomes part of it, she is a Simile, the girl who ate what was given to her, allowing the Ariekei to express ideas that were previously more difficult.

I found the events of the book particularly interesting as they related to the Language, what makes it special and the moral choices the characters are confronted with. Is it right to teach a species incapable of lying how to do so? How does that then change a society and its language?

This book hooked me in as it started exploring more of what the Ariekei were and what their language actually meant. I enjoyed it a lot more than I initially expected to.

My Hugo 2012 Novel rankings are:

1. Deadline
2. Embassytown
3. Leviathan Wakes
4. Among Others

I have chosen not to read A Dance With Dragons, the other novel up for a 2012 Hugo, it is the fifth book in the Game of Throne series and I have not read any of the other novels, I tried reading some of it but I was far too lost for my reading to be fair to it. Instead I have moved on to reading through the Hugo nominated novellas.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Death of a Laptop

My laptop, Ran11x, has alas ceased to be useful as a laptop. It is an m11x, a model of laptop that Dell has now discontinued. It served faithfully for about 2 and a half years. Like many 1st generation m11x's it developed hinge problems that resulted in it ceasing to be very portable and with an update last night, it ceased to display anything on its screen.

As a result I am currently extracting my data from it and trying to decide two things: What to do with it and what to replace it with.

What to do with it

The laptop still actually works, I can plug it into an external monitor and use the projector shortcut to get it to use that display. Given that I have a desktop I really don't need it on my desk, I don't have a spare display and even if I did, I would rather use that as an extra screen on the desktop.

That said, it is a separate machine which means I can use it to experiment with things, one idea is to install Windows 8 on it. I can format it and do a fresh install, I don't need to worry about update woes and I don't need to care if the new machine isn't quite so useful. I had actually already planned on doing this sometime during my holidays.

Since it takes HDMI I can plug it into the TV as a media PC. We already have one running Linux in my house and we have a spare wireless mini-keyboard and mouse. It seems a bit silly to have two machines set up to do the same thing, but this means that we can use them for different things. The Linux machine is there to play media and to access remotely via SSH, Ran11x can be used for gaming. It has a 500GB drive which isn't quite enough to fit all of my Steam games on it, but I can try to pick games that can either be played with the mini keyboard and mouse or games that can be played with a 360 controller. This is option is especially tempting because I can even use it for Artemis which is a game that I really would like to play with friends before I move out.

I should be able to do both of these. I can still play around with Windows 8 on the TV and have a set up for TV gaming. Does anyone have any other cool ideas? Everything other than the screen appears to work without difficulty.

What to get to replace it

I don't necessarily need to replace Ran11x, I could instead try to repair the screen, I would rather get the parts and try to do this myself if I can do it cheaply. The laptop is now old enough that this isn't really a priority, I probably won't really need a laptop until I head overseas later this year.

Whilst I have my Transformer Prime, it is not quite good enough to be a laptop replacement. As I found earlier this year when going away with just the tablet, Android is simply too limiting to be my only OS. Having only mobile and webapps can be really painful. Especially if I am trying to use office. The mobile versions of Google Docs are awful. They are slow and have really strange behaviours at times and I have regretted trying to use them every time. The limitation of having only 1 application on screen at any time is surprisingly annoying even when using a small screen.

I really would like a PC of the same kind of size, about 11". Ideally one that can play a good selection of games (because it is my primary hobby) and one that can run real apps. I guess this is what ultrabooks are intended for. Does anyone have any recommendations for good 11-12" laptops that can run modern games at a decent framerate?

The other thing that I conceptually find really tempting is the Surface Pro, tablet form factors, still has the ability to use a physical keyboard, an OS with a fair amount of work put into the touch interface that still has a good keyboard and mouse interface that lets me run office, steam and any other desktop apps I want; provided that it has decent battery life and isn't too noisy or hot it seems like a great idea to me.

Ideally I would like to replace Ran11x with a new laptop before I head to Europe in December. Probably close enough to the trip that I can claim back the GST.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Hugo Month - Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes is a novel by James S. A. Corey which is published by Orbit Books.

It is the first book of the Expanse series, and it begins with a mysterious attack on an outer belt freighter.

The beginning of this book reminded me a lot of a version of firefly set within our solar system. There are the old established inner planets of Earth and Mars who nominally rule via a join space fleet. Then there are the outer belts, significantly poorer in terms of both population and military power but they have significant raw mineral resources which the inner planets are reliant upon. It quickly became its own story and the similarities with firefly quickyl fade away.

The novel is ultimately about the beginnings of a war that no one wants, the inner planets have a massive military advantage in terms of forces but being mostly planet bound are incredibly vulnerable to the comet drop offensive technique that would be the obvious last ditch response by the outer belt.

Outside of the prologue the novel is written from the alternative perspectives of two different characters, an earthborn independent ship captain and a corporate policeman. Their stories initially start quite separate but quickly overlap and intertwine for the majority of the book.

I enjoyed reading through this book, it was a much closer fit with me than Among Others but I was not quite as invested as I was with Deadline. Hence, my Hugo 2012 Novel rankings are:
1. Deadline
2. Leviathan Wakes
3. Among Others