Wednesday, 27 February 2013

EuroUS Trip 2012 - 2013: Sweden


Stockholm was a good introduction to Europe  I could rely on everyone speaking English though most of the conversation around me was in Swedish, the weather was cold and snowy, but the gear I took with me was easily sufficient.Plus there was snow everywhere, it snowed at least a bit every day we were there. Including Christmas day, a white Christmas, one thus unlike any other I have ever known.

Didn't get up to a great deal in Stockholm, had a Julbord (Christmas buffet) at a fancy restaurant, wandered around Gamla stan (the old part of Stockholm) and went to Skansen, which is basically a Swedish mix between Taronga Zoo and Old Sydney Town. Scandinavian animals with good views of the city, and old Swedish buildings, complete with staff to tell you about how they were used by Swedes in the 1800s.

We also watched The Hobbit there, didn't see the 3D version unfortunately due to concerns about subtitles. That said all the subtitles were in Swedish anyway which I cannot follow, so I had to rely on the context for anything spoken in Elvish or Orcish. Turns out I am a lot more familiar with the hobbit than I thought, probably because I used to have it on tape, and so have listened through it a fair number of times. I really enjoyed the movie, look forward to seeing the later ones when they are released.


Kiruna was cold, seriously in Kiruna it was typically around -21C, and that was actually meant to be warm, the week before it had been about -30. It is easily the coldest place I have ever been to, and we pretty much did not leave the hotel unless we had an activity, because the cold weather gear we had was not up to the task of keeping us warm. Heck even with the addition of further warmer clothing from our organised activities, the cold still would seep through by the end.

Unfortunately we did not see the northern lights, the one night we did not have an activity, they turned up whilst we were warm in our bed. Fortunately the trip was not a waste, the activities we did were interesting and fun and Kiruna itself is very pretty. The snow is everywhere, and since it doesn't go above 0 degrees in the winter and doesn't encounter much traffic you never get the slush issues you do elsewhere. You pretty much just get white snow coating everything and about 4 hours of light that is always somewhat approximating sunrise and sunset.

We went up a mountain, we went on a dog sled  we ate Sami food in a lavvi (traditional Sami tent), explored the Icehotel and I got to drive a snowmobile. It was a set of wonderful experiences that made temporarily braving the cold worth it.

That said, I was not sad to leave it behind and head to warmer climes. The next stop after Sweden was Germany

Monday, 25 February 2013

Finished: FTL

FTL: Faster Than Light is a Roguelikelike by Subspace games.

This is the first videogame that I backed on kickstarter and subsequently received. As a result I actually received it two weeks before release and thus it is also the first game I finished prior to its official release.

In FTL you control a ship from the remains of the Federation, fleeing from the Rebellion trying to reach the last Federation fleet and provide it with vital information that may change the tide of the war.

This isn't a dogfighting space sim, you don’t control the combat manoeuvres of your ship, instead you control the movement of your crew, the flow of power between subsystems, where weapons are targeted and most importantly opening and closing of doors.

This makes FTL a game where retreating to the medbay and opening most of the ship to vacuum is a viable and useful strategy, helping to combat both boarding parties and fires. A game where a good long term strategy can be to target an enemy ship's life support and watch its crew suffocate, because if you can capture a ship intact you get better loot.

The game has two main components, exploration and combat. In each of the 8 sectors you visit, there is a star map with a series of beacons, your ship has a maximum range and the aim is to get to the exit, but not really to get there as quickly as possible. You need to gather supplies and resources, which means trying to visit as many of those beacons as possible whilst still avoiding the rebel fleet that is always a few jumps behind. At each beacon there is a chance of a ship (and most likely a fight), or an event.

Events can range drastically from quests, to bomb defusing to finding a crashed ship on a nearby planet. This is probably where most of the complaints of randomness come from. It is impossible to know just what event will occur at any beacon, and some of these events have no right answer. Literally red wire or blue wire, either has a 50% chance of being the right wire to cut. Much of the time you can choose not to participate and thus to get no reward either way, but that too is not a winning move.

The solution to this problem is about knowing how secure your current situation and basically trying to risk only when appropriate. Avoid situations dealing with events where you might lose crew members if you only have a few, avoid encounters with asteroids if you are on low hull etc. The other mitigating factor is that the game features blue options, ones that only appear if you have the prerequisite equipment or crew member on board. Blue options are never actually bad, at worst they bypass the encounter, at best they give better results than the standard options. In my experience they does a pretty good job at encouraging crew and system diversity.

In general you get to be a good guy,
sometimes you can choose to be pretty evil
Combat is where you will spend most of your time in FTL, the universe is a dangerous place and an awful lot of people in it would rather see you dead and all your stuff in their cargo hold. The combat is fairly simple but effective, weapons by default never miss, but piloting and engines gives ships evasion, which is a straight percentage. Ships also have shields, which absorbs laser and beam weapon fire, a large part of combat is trying to disable enemy shields and weapons. Finally there are bombs and missiles, which require consumable items to use, but have the distinct advantage of ignoring shields, bombs don't do direct damage but also rely on teleportation which makes them harder to stop.

There is also boarding and drones, boarding is done via a teleporter room, and lets one ship send crew to the other, it is extremely powerful, capturing a ship intact gives significantly greater rewards than destroying them, but it requires more risk, teleporters have a cooldown and it really sucks seeing one of your crew die because you couldn't pull them out in time, only thing that is worse is accidentally destroying the ship with your boarding party aboard. Drones on the other hand, serve a different purpose, they also require consumable items but they are used much more slowly than missiles. Drones can provide missile defence, they can augment your crew by repairing your systems or repelling boarders, they can even be a rapid firing weapon platform (that you unfortunately cannot aim) or board enemy ships for you.

4 of the ship systems, Engines, Cockpit, Shields and Weapons are able to be manned to provide some benefit, increased evasion (a cockpit with no pilot means you have basically no evasion), faster shield regeneration and more rapid weapons firing. With a crew of up to 8 that leaves an additional 4 guys to work as back up or as boarding parties.

I may have made a few mistakes in this run
I have spent far too much time on this game, I know most of the events, what the better choices are, when I should be saving scrap and when it is reasonable to spend it, and I have unlocked the two ships that I personally find to be the most powerful, though the trickiest to start with. As a result when I start a run I am confident that I will win it, but it certainly didn't start off that way. I failed and failed and failed to even get close to the end for ages and this is where I think FTL's biggest flaw lies. Player progression is remarkably opaque and this makes the game feel a lot more random than it is. I have seen this complaint repeated online that players don't feel like it is their fault that they are losing, the game is simply unfair and giving them impossible situations.

I think the reason for this is that it isn't really the last event or decision that kills your ship. It is a slower attrition of choices that didn't necessarily seem bad at the time that build up and them boom. As the player gets better at the game they start doing better more consistently but it is still hard to identify where, just that they are. I don't really know how to solve this, but I suspect that the too random description will dog FTL for some time as a result.

It is still a game I highly recommend I have spent over 90 hours on it and done some ridiculous self determined challenges on it. It was well worth the asking price for me. I hope that the developers release new content soon, but in the meantime there a thriving mod community around the game.