corollary: Computer games

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Gold Farming

Listening to:

Villem Kapp’s 2nd symphony.

Today’s link: from the NYT

An interesting article about industrialised game-playing: Chinese loot-farming in World of Warcraft.

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

It’ll never work... Indeed, how could it ever work?

Listening to:

Then I kissed her, The Beach Boys.

They (you know, them) are apparently planning a Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game based on The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what stage of things they’re up to with their development, but there is a home-page where you can read all about what is to be.

How this is supposed to work in a way that retains any of the books’ flavour is completely beyond me. Surely the game will become an arena containing a lot of people running around with stupid names, behaving in typically juvenile fashion. “Endie” nails it nicely with this post (one rich with typical MMORPG jargon). The longer article he links to on the Terra Nova blog is also worth a read if you have the time.

This is not to knock the idea of MMORPGs in general. Indeed, I have become a contented player of World of Warcraft, a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously (the players can be another matter), is peopled by characters drawn in a rather cartoony manner, and strives to succeed as a game rather than as a meaningful work of embodied literature.

Thursday, 21 July 2005

FPS Survey IV

Listening to:

Bach, prelude in G minor, BWV 929, played by Igor Kipnis on a very quiet clavichord.

Unreal Tournament 2004

← Back to FPS Survey III

My fourth venture into the land of first-person shooters was rather different from the previous ones. This time I bought Unreal Tournament 2004. It had won some amazing reviews, and we had a good enough Internet connection that I figured that getting maximum benefit by playing online against others would be quite doable. (Moreover, the reviews claimed that the bots were sufficiently intelligent that solo play was quite reasonable too.)

UT2k4 is quite a different game from the previous shooters because it is completely plotless. There is no enthralling story to act out. Instead, the premise is that you are a contestant in a virtual reality competition (the tournament of the title), where the competition requires you to shoot, kill and destroy the other contestants (but in a purely virtual sense, you understand). Being killed in such a setting doesn’t stop the “story”; it is part of the story. Indeed, you’d have to be doing pretty well not to ever get killed. And being killed is no big deal either: you almost immediately respawn in a random location and get right back into it. Your score at the end of a round of play is typically a function of how many opponents you’ve killed.

A complete free-for-all is called a Deathmatch. But there are (more interesting to me) team events as well. In these, you are a member of a team fighting against another team, and the aim might be to kill as many of the enemy team as possible. That’s Team Deathmatch, but there are also more interesting team games to play. For example, a shooter classic is Capture the Flag. UT2k4 comes with this and a variety of different game styles, including one that is a bit like handball or football, but where you can shoot the opponents.

But I’d say the real highlight of UT2k4 is its Onslaught mode. Not only does this feature lots of vehicles to drive (some with multiple seats), but it focuses on semi-strategic play with teams required to fight their way across a map of inter-connected nodes until they reach the enemy master-node and can attempt to destroy it. Having played a little against the bots (they are pretty good), I then played a lot of Onslaught online. I was never particularly good, but I did progress past being a “noob” (newbie, or novice).

The online experience can be absolutely amazing. The game comes with built-in voice-chat, so you can even talk to your team-mates if you have a microphone. You can always type too of couse. If the team is co-operating well, it can be very satisfying. Perhaps these successes were valued all the more because of their comparative rarity, but it really was neat to pull off some co-ordinated manoeuvre, with a bunch of people all working together to achieve some objective or other.

The world has moved on now, and there are far fewer people playing UT2k4 online than there were. (I suspect it doesn’t help that I’m in Australia where there is a smaller population to start with—playing over trans-oceanic links can be pretty fraught, so I do feel as if it’s a local game.) Instead, people are playing newer games. The latest as I write is called Battlefield 2 (with even more support for the “squad experience”), but I haven’t succumbed to that one just yet.

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

FPS Survey III

Listening to:

Schubert, Quintet for piano & strings in A, D.667 “Trout”.

Halo

← Back to FPS Survey II

Halo was the game that made Microsoft’s dedicated gaming console, the Xbox. It was one of the games that people could buy as part of a standard bundle, and was enormously successful. I played it on the PC, in the version of the game that was ported to that platform quite a bit later. The ported version featured exactly the same content, but used the usual PC-shooter interface of keyboard and mouse, rather than the Xbox’s controller. The PC version did lose the ability to play the game co-operatively, but picked up Internet competitive multiplayer in its place.

Halo definitely has an appealing “feel” to it. The story immediately drops the lone player into a dramatic situation that is very immersive. This is partly because of good graphics, but also because of the way in which allies talk to you during battle scenes. The basic premise is that the player is a specially engineered soldier called “Master Chief”. Many of this soldier’s battles take place in the company of various “normal” human marines. These soldiers are quite chatty, and seem to make appropriate comments without unduly repeating themselves. In addition, there’s a computer in Master Chief’s head that pipes up every so often.

After the first scene, the action shifts to an artificial ring-world of mysterious origin and nature. This is the Halo of the title (clever name, huh?). When outdoors, this strange world looks pretty stunning. The scale of the game forces the use of vehicles, which are brilliantly implemented. Some can be driven by one player with the driver also able to control the vehicle’s weapons. Another, the Warthog (a form of jeep), forces the driver to just drive (fun in itself), but with two other positions that can be filled by other soldiers, who can use weapons. (This would clearly play brilliantly in the co-operative mode.)

Two other impressive innovations are the way in which the Master Chief’s shields automatically regenerate if left undisturbed for a little while, and the fact that the Chief is only capable of carrying two weapons at once (plus grenades). This latter serves to force interesting decisions on the player. Finally, it is also worth lauding the impressive artificial intelligence in the bad guys (those that are supposed to be intelligent anyway), and their variety. The principal bad guys are called the Covenant, and the Covenant features four different enemy types, each with typical and reasonably clever behaviours. This is very good.

But what about Halo’s weaknesses? Unfortunately, there are a few. I think the biggest is that some of the level design is extremely uninspired. In fact, big chunks of the game feel like repetitive padding. There’s lots of combat in rooms and corridors that are drawn from a very small set. This is very weak, for all that the combats are reasonably interesting in themselves because of the tactical niceties. Another weakness is that the plot is pretty feeble, and its one big “twist” is just an excuse to push the player through a particularly tedious corridor crawl, and against stupid opponents. These secondary bad guys are called the Flood and are zombie-like cannon-fodder that attempt to overwhelm with numbers rather than intelligence. Yes, the religious vocabulary is pretty overt, but it does help with the atmosphere. (Unfortunately, I first misheard “Flood” as “Flub” which didn’t help.)

The atmosphere, feel and play of the game are great, but Halo also features significant design flaws that make it less enjoyable than it should be.

Forward to FPS Survey IV →

Tuesday, 4 May 2004

FPS Survey II

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano sonata in B flat major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”, played by Alfred Brendel.

Half-Life

← Back to FPS Survey I

Half-Life is undoubtedly one of the most famous first-person shooters out there. It’s credited with demonstrating that shooters could be full of action and also tell a neato story too. To get credited as being epoch-making in this fashion inevitably means that it’s pretty old. In fact, it came out in 1998. I didn’t play it until much more recently, but still thought it pretty impressive.

Graphically, it’s not as good-looking as NOLF2, but the story is pretty good. Nor is the story simply something that goes on in the background while the player sits, twiddling their thumbs and thinking, Yeah, yeah. But when are we going to see some action? Instead, the player is central to the story. Lest you get the wrong idea, this is not Pride and prejudice. The story is the hero getting himself out of an underground lab that has been overrun with aliens that have appeared through an inter-dimensional gateway. Cliché-city then, but it’s well-paced, told with an effective rhythm, and has one or two interesting developments too.

The story is also completely linear, and obviously so. The only scope that the player has to change the development of the story is in the way that enemies are dispatched (some can even be avoided): there’s always just one door through which the player needs to pass in order to advance the story. By way of comparison, NOLF2 is really just as linear, but provides more open environments in which to run around. Another difference that makes a good impression is that Half-Life presents its story in one seam-less whole: there are no real cut-scenes, and story’s development always unfolds directly in front of the player with the same interface visible, and with the player free to move around and shoot things.

As in NOLF2, the game features good variety. There is some variety in locations because you do eventually make it out of the underground lab to the surface, and there’s also a final segment set on a variety of miniature alien worlds. Better, there’s great variety in the enemies that have to be defeated. There are a number of alien species, and there are also humans that need defeating too. All of these different enemies behave differently, and usually quite believably.

It’s a deserved classic, but there are still two relatively minor problems with Half-Life:

  • There are too many jumping puzzles: areas that can only be traversed by pulling off some feat of minor acrobatics. For example, there’s an area early on consisting of crates hanging on cables above an enormous drop. You have to jump from one crate to the next, and avoid falling into the chasm. This is just tedious.

  • The final section, set in weird alien worlds, is not very satisfying. The motivating story takes a back seat. Instead, each little world is no more than a series of enemies that must be killed in order to gain access to the world’s magic teleportation gate. This then takes you to the next little world. This doesn’t make any real sense, and it’s all capped off by a fight with a great big boss monster. Pshaw!

Forward to FPS Survey III →

Wednesday, 24 March 2004

FPS Survey I

Listening to:

Bach, Well-tempered clavier, book 2.

No-one Lives Forever 2

The first first-person shooter game I ever played was No-one Lives Forever 2 (GameSpot’s review). I’ll compare it to other games I’ve played subsequently, and the others will be found wanting in a number of ways, but rather than mention their failings here, I’ll concentrate on NOLF2’s strong-points. (I’ve mentioned NOLF2 before incidentally.)

NOLF2’s strengths are humour and variety. When I first bought the game, I was a little worried by this humour aspect: would I be being encouraged to laugh at the death and destruction that I knew would be an inevitable part of the game? No. I found that the humour derived from the game not taking itself too seriously. The good and bad guys alike are often rather ridiculous. There’s one cut-scene set in the good guys’ HQ, and half of the staff seem to be jiving in a retro way to some sort of naff 60s pop.

As for variety, this comes in both trivial and interesting ways. At the trivial level, there’s a nice cosmetic variety in places and opponents. The game takes you from Japan, to Siberia, India, the Antarctic, an underwater base, an underground base, a trailer park in the US, and a Mediterranean island. These locales occasionally have an impact on the plot development too (in India, the underwater base, and even the trailer park). In these cases, the geography is not just a different set of coloured obstacles to negotiate or hide behind. All of this looks pretty good too.

There’s a corresponding, cosmetic variety in bad guys: ninjas, Russian soldiers, secret evil organsiation soldiers from the US and India, and gangster mimes (!). They look different, are armed differently, and have different bits of amusing dialogue, but they’re all pretty interchangeable in terms of behaviour and intelligence. Later in the game, you meet “Super Soldiers” that are quite different, and there are also four “boss levels” that feature specially tough opponents, but no extra variety. (One of the boss levels is also exceptionally annoying in its stupid difficulty.)

More importantly, NOLF2 features variety in its missions, which calls for different behaviours on the part of the player. While the Japan mission allows a fairly gung-ho approach, the Russian mission really calls for a stealthy approach when infiltrating the base and killing the bad guys. (In this mission you also get to drive snow-mobiles which is pretty cool.) The mission in Ohio and the various chapters in India are more varied still. This is really good. The stealthy approach is well-supported too. You can lean around corners, walk, run and sneak, and there’s a nice interface that tells you if you’ve hidden yourself successfully The simple RPG-like method whereby you can invest earned skill-points in skills such as marksmanship, searching, gadgets and the like, is also appealing: it gives the player a method of tailoring their alter-ego to suit their playing style.

Less good bits:

  • That annoying boss level (featuring a jack-in-the-box opponent);
  • In some missions, an infinite supply of spawning opponents. This makes it difficult to be perfectionist about taking everyone out in a stealthy way (as one might do in Thief), and is a slight count against in the realism stakes.

Forward to FPS Survey II →

Friday, 27 June 2003

Online games and common sense

Listening to:

Bach, Orgelbüchlein.

Some links about online games and their development:

In the less virtual world, common sense makes a comeback: the US Supreme Court strikes a blow for human rights by overturning laws making sodomy illegal, and the EU plans to reduce farm subsidies.

Friday, 13 June 2003

Games

Listening to:

Bach, Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 1091, an organ prelude from the Choräle der Neumeister-Sammlung.

Time to talk about games again. Here’s a simple one: a computerised version of Twenty Questions. It claims to update itself and learn from what people tell it. I reckon it’s a third year AI programming problem, but a good one.

At home, I have been playing quite a bit of Age of Mythology. After reckoning it not much chop a while back, I have since definitely come 'round to it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the computer opponent was good enough to keep me coming back for a while, and then I tried online games against human opposition. This is particularly good because of the rating system that the online service (ESO) uses. This means that I play against people who are roughly my level, and keeps things interesting.

The rating system used at ESO is the Elo system, used extensively in the chess world. It’s zero-sum. I don’t know if this is a good idea or not. Researching the issue on the Web, I found a description of the more recent Glicko system, which isn’t zero-sum. There are lots of hairy formulas lower down, but the initial prose explains the motivation well.

Wednesday, 16 April 2003

Internet Diplomacy's usual problem

Listening to:

Eric Clapton, Crossroads, from a compilation album, The Cream of Clapton.

The Diplomacy game that I’m involved in has fallen prey to what I think is a common problem; one of the players has abandoned his position, meaning that the game is on hold until someone else volunteers to take over the abandoned power. Needless to say, the abandoned position is not a very attractive one, so we may be waiting for a while. The Internet hobby maintains an openings page, so the vacant position is being advertised. Maybe someone will want to sign up a two-centre Russia, but I’m not holding my breath. When I’ve played enough and demonstrated that I’m not in the habit of dropping out of games myself, I will qualify to join the Vermont Group, a bunch of players who like playing games to completion without abandonments. Or so they say.

The Mozilla project has released a new roadmap. Much of the plan is just about plumping for one technology over another, but it also includes this objective:

Continue the move away from an ownership model involving a large cloud of hackers with unlimited CVS access, to a model, more common in the open source world, of vigorously defended modules with strong leadership and clear delegation, a la NSPR, JavaScript, Gecko in recent major milestones, and Phoenix.

Anarchy as a model for software development just isn’t viable.

One famous open source project, Linux, has a penguin as its mascot. And this gives me a seamless segue to my final link of the day, a story from a couple of months ago about penguins behaving strangely in San Francisco Zoo.

Monday, 14 April 2003

Computer games: Freecell et al.

Listening to:

Brahms, piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, op. 5.

Still reading:

Dickens, Our mutual friend. Just finished book 1 of 4 on Sunday.

Games, games, games. I haven’t said much about the computer games that I’ve been playing recently in the log, so here’s more than you ever wanted to know. First up, Freecell, that ubiquitous computer game, installed on all Windows operating systems since Windows 95, and available elsewhere too. The documentation that comes with the Windows version says that it is believed that every game has a solution. This is a great marketing ploy, and it is the case that a very high percentage of games can be solved (high being on the order of over 99%). Nonetheless, this interesting solitaire site claims that even the authors of the implementation knew their strong claim was likely false when they made it. I was also interested to read that there was an Internet project to play through all of the 32000 possible games in the original implementation (based on a 16-bit seed for a random number generator). Now that really is something useful to come out of the Internet.

Freecell is the sort of game that will be with us forever. But I’ve also played games that are of more transient interest. (Strange but true, most computer games get stale. Why is this?) I recently completed No One Lives Forever II. This was a very entertaining game, and one that convinced me that a First-Person Shooter could be a reasonable game to play. (Positive reviews from, for example, GameSpot and AVault are accurate.)

Just this weekend, I bought a copy of Age of Mythology. I haven’t been able to give this a whole lot of time yet, but so far, I am distinctly underwhelmed. It has positive reviews just about everywhere, but I am finding it very samey in comparison to its predecessor, Age of Empires, and think that the new divine/mythological aspect to things is just indictive of glitzy featurism. I’ll give the main campaign a bit longer to see what playing with the Norse and Egyptians is like, because the reviews do indicate that the Greeks are most conventional.

Over the weekend, I played some Go, which was great, as it has been a long time since I’ve found time for regular face-to-face Go, and I’ve also got myself into an Play-By-e-Mail game of Diplomacy. You can see the current situation on the floc site. (I’m Italy.)

Friday, 14 February 2003

Star Trek: Nemesis & Stronghold

Listening to:

The compact Coward, a compilation CD of songs by Noel Coward, most recorded in the 1930s. Currently up to I travel alone, recorded 29 October 1934. This one is melancholy, minimalist, but appealing. Others are quite comic. The Ivor Novello character in the film Gosford Park sings similar songs.

A recent movie:

Star Trek: Nemesis. This was an entertaining film, though totally undemanding. As an attempt to scratch an S/F itch, it wasn’t much of a success, but it was enjoyable enough. From the science-fiction point of view, the most disappointing thing about the Star Trek universe is the dreadful lack of variety in the aliens. They are all too obviously people with plastic prostheses on their heads. For all that they don’t get big roles, at least Star Wars has more interesting looking creatures.

The Star Trek universe is also less imaginative in its conception of the future than, for example, Banks’s Culture novels. There clearly hasn’t been much thought put into what technology advances might achieve. If a space-ship is “intelligent” enough to automatically put a force-field over a hole in the ship’s structure, surely it should be smart enough to maintain motion detectors and person identifiers throughout the ship. In particular, a tedious on-ship battle between the ship’s deputy boss, and the enemy’s deputy in the bowels of the ship should never have happened.

Anyway, with engaging hero and anti-hero (Jean-Luc Picard vs. Shinzon), you can ignore all of these sillinesses and enjoy the bad guys, and their eventual downfall.

A while back, I waxed lyrical about the enjoyment I was getting out of Stronghold Crusader. I got about two thirds of the way through the Crusader Trail, up to a mission that starts you off between two instances of the Richard the Lionheart opponent. The problem is basically that the scenarios get harder by making the initial conditions more and more disadvantageous for the human, not by making the opponents any smarter. It eventually gets boring playing against opponents that never get any better. What I’d really like is a human opponent. In the meantime, I am playing customised skirmish games where I can control the initial conditions.

Thursday, 7 November 2002

Wall-building

Listening to:

Vivaldi, concerto for two flutes, and strings in C major, RV553. Up to ‘V’: the CD traversal is close to done. The big question is: will I finish before we leave the UK?

Since my entry on Friday, and my talk of games with wall-building, I have succumbed, and bought the next Stronghold game, Stronghold: Crusader. It features new Arabian units and, more importantly, a skirmish mode that should definitely increase longevity. (Reviews at Games Domain and IGN.)

I'm enjoying it anyway, and what with Thief II and Europa Universalis II waiting in the background, I think I probably do have more computer games than I know what to do with.

Friday, 1 November 2002

Black and White

Listening to:

Chopin, Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52.

I’ve been playing quite a bit of the PC game Black and White of late. It’s a fascinating game. At an abstract level, it’s Yet Another God Game, where you have to lead the villages that worship you and come to dominate the Land. It’s rather hands-off, distinguishing it from the Real-Time Strategy genre. In fact, there’s no inter-village combat at all; instead you have to take over enemy and unaligned villages by impressing them with your divine powers. Enemy villages are those that already worship an enemy god, and of course that enemy god is trying to subvert your own villages. The game is also hands-off in that you don’t get much fine control over what the villagers do.

So far, rather dull. The big innovation is the presence of Creatures. Each god gets their own Creature, an embodied animal that grows to monstrous size and can stalk across the Land. Here’s where the hands-off philosophy really wins because the Creature is quite autonomous and develops its own personality in response to what it sees around it. It’s clear that a lot of work has been done on the Creature AI, and it really is satisfying to have one’s Creature do something unexpected yet appropriate. Creatures can learn from your example, and can cast the same miracles to affect the world as you can.

And now there is to be a sequel. This looks as if it could well be a big improvement. Having battles appeals to the armchair general in me, even if I don’t get to control much of the action directly, and what’s really appealing is being able to build walls... Ahhh. Peter Molyneux is clearly a man after my own heart; in this interview about the sequel he says I love [building walls] in RTSs.

Thursday, 12 September 2002

I am a virtual criminal

Listening to:

I was doing all right, from Oscar Peterson plays the Gershwin songbooks.

I was walking through the centre of town this morning, and went past a shop that was recently vacated (the business moved down the road). This morning I saw that, like the emergence of weeds overnight, the shop had gained red "Sale now on" posters in its windows and an interior full of tat, including cheap luggage. I have this mental picture of luggage sellers roaming the streets, looking for empty shops into which they can decamp while a proper lease-holder is found. Over a period of years, shop fronts in town must present quite a kaleidoscope.

I've been playing quite a bit of a computer game called Thief II recently. It's quite suspenseful and enjoyable, for all that it's two years old. Most of the missions I've played to date have featured quite a variety of routes to success, which makes things appealing. No-one likes being rail-roaded. It's also nice to have the choice of degrees of violence: to sneak past the guard, to knock him unconscious with a black-jack, to swipe at him with a sword, or to shoot him from a distance. Options, gotta just love 'em.

But then, computer game violence is a contentious subject. Just don't attempt to debate it on a TV talk-show.

Wednesday, 26 June 2002

Morrowind & Harry Potter

Listening to:

Brahms, Fantasien, op. 116. Played by Emil Gilels.

Some perceptive comments about the Harry Potter books.

Good things about Morrowind:

  • It looks very nice. Wandering the country-side at night, with stars to look at; admiring the massive pyramid-like architecture in the city of Vivec; the haze of dawn mists. The first-person perspective heightens the sense of immersion.
  • It really does seem open-ended and free-form. The thrust of the “main” story-line is far from clear, and there’s still lots of interesting stuff to do on the fringes. On a couple of occasions I have just taken my character on wanders through the back-country, testing my archery skills on wild animals, and poking my nose into various ancestral tombs that you occasionally bump into.
  • Related to this, the guild/faction structures are nicely done. Yes, they have “quests” for you to do, even in the Imperial Legion (joining the latter gets lots of comments from guards along the lines of Why aren't you at your post?, but you're not forced into barracks for months at a time); but these are all pretty well varied, and seem to admit multiple methods of solution. My character has joined the Fighters’ Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Imperial Cult and the Imperial Legion. I'm aware of seven others that could be joined (though some of them are mutually exclusive), making for lots of different ways to play the game.
  • The underlying game system is refreshing. Though there are player levels, these govern just health and magic-point totals. The system is primarily skill-based, and though there are sample classes provided (with their skill-sets already chosen), you can design your own. A class picks 5 major skills and 5 minor skills that start off at higher levels, while all of the game's other skills start low. But the system is that all skills improve if used successfully. If and when D&D makes it to a 6th edition, it might have evolved to a system as nice as this.
  • It continues to engross me, many hours after first starting.

Things that could be better (for the next version):

  • NPCs are static; they don't move around except within very constrained patrol routines for some guards. This breaks the illusion a little because they obviously have no lives of their own.
  • Relatedly, there is no real day/night cycle in the towns: it might be the middle of the night when you arrive in Balmora, but everyone is still up and about and will have exactly the same conversations with you. They should all be in bed!
  • There is no scope for the multiple character adventuring. When you are occasionally lumbered with an escort duty, the escorted person follows you around like a stupid pet, and you can't wait to get rid of them.
  • There are occasional graphical glitches that look peculiar but have no real effect on the game.
  • Monsters will occasionally get stuck when they should be charging at you (a pathfinding failure this), making it possible to pick them off with bow and arrow.
  • There are too few people in the towns. This really is a difficult one for any game designer to solve: how do you invent a complete village? Either you make all the people the same, which is boring and worse than not having them, or you spend an incredibly long time inventing hundreds (thousands) of lives, most of which the PC will never interact with. Morrowind actually does a fabulous job on this front, so I'm really being impossibly (?) perfectionist.

Friday, 21 June 2002

Soccer and first-person shooters as recruiting tools

Listening to:

Felix Mendelssohn, Song without words, op. 30 no. 3.

England are out of the World Cup after losing to Brazil 2-1. The US is playing Germany, and currently down 1-0. The game this morning was quite exciting, and I think this not even having seen any of the goals. I came in on it just before Brazil had their man sent off. They seemed to play quite well to keep England's chances to a minimum.

I thought this preview article was quite fascinating. The US Army is going to develop and release a free first-person shooter computer game as part of its recruitment efforts. They are going to try to be quite realistic in their depiction of military combat. This is clearly the future for recruitment everywhere: Fancy a job with us? Here, first play this game to give a virtual reality sample of what it's like. Of course, with my job, they'd just need to sit the potential recruit down in front of a screen and leave them there.

Thursday, 13 June 2002

Bumps and graphics cards

Listening to:

Dvořák, Slavonic dances.

I should have written yesterday, but I was caught up in the University Bumps. I was coxing a graduate boat from St. Catharine's, the men's 4th boat. This is a “grad boat”, and I’m subbing for their regular cox, who will be coxing today and on Saturday. You can see us at position 88 on this chart. We rowed over, and it was really quite exciting.

In computer game news, I really should put in a good word for the latest craze to hit the home PC: Morrowind. This is definitely a very slick game. It induced all sorts of angst as we installed a new graphics card for our PC. (On setting it up 2 years ago, we were confident that we wouldn’t need anything in the way of 3D acceleration, because We don't play that sort of game. Heh. Things don’t need to be first-person shooters to make very impressive use of 3D acceleration.) But once the card was in place, and DirectX 8.1 correctly installed too, it all worked, and there was much rejoicing.

Reviews at:

Thursday, 23 May 2002

Europa Universalis II

Listening to:

Bach, Pastorale in F major, BWV 590. Organ music.

I've been playing quite a bit of Europa Universalis II recently. It's quite a compelling game. I started out as the Kingdom of Castille in 1419, and I've since been renamed the Kingdom of Spain. Unfortunately, I still haven't managed to completely take over the non-Portugese bits of the Iberian peninsula. Not only does Aragon still exist, but when western Europe started to fall apart around 1600 (you should see the state of France, even fifty years later: France proper, the French Catholics in the Loire valley, the Huguenots and Brittany: all separate states), a third state appeared in Iberia: Catalunya. This has since been absorbed by France, but I can't see this lasting: the game does a pretty good job of modelling things like nationalism, so I suspect there may well be some serious rebellions against foreign overlords in that part of the world.

I'd quite like to be aggressive and encourage changes of leadership myself, but I have a "rather bad reputation" and if I try anything at all, Austria immediately declares war on me. So, I'm playing it very quiet, and attempting to repair that reputation, while cultivating a network of small state allies with which to make the lives of the other big powers difficult.

And when I play my next Grand Campaign, I want to play as the Papal States and unite Italy. Or maybe one of the Muslim states in the near East. This is definitely a game with legs!

It's a shame that the computer I'm playing it on seems to be becoming more cantankerous by the day. Its DVD/CD drive still automatically recognises and plays DVDs and audio CDs, but for quite a while now it has been refusing to automatically execute CDs with programs on them. More recently, we seem to have lost a high level of networking. It's no longer enough to double-click on IExplorer or SSH to bring up the modem dialog; instead we have to go through Dial-up Connections in the My Computer window. The operating system's internal state is evolving quite independently of our wishes.

Wednesday, 20 March 2002

Not that I’m a games obsessive or anything

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong and his orchestra playing That Rhythm Man, a recording made in New York on 19 July 1929. Louis Armstrong is such a star.

Two new games

I recently acquired a couple of new games. The first is Combat Mission, a tactical level simulation of WW2 combat on the Western Front after D-Day. It’s quite an amazing game, featuring 3D graphics in combination with a real dedication to historical accuracy. For instance, the fact that the Sherman tanks that the US used were prone to catching on fire at the least provocation (well, being shot at by German tanks, usually) is modelled, as is the fact that their steel plating was initially of somewhat low quality. The only advantage they had over their German counter-parts in the Tutorial scenario that I played was that their turrets could swing into position faster. The game also models infantry, artillery and other armoured vehicles. Being animated in 3D does make it rather visceral. After seeing the devastation a pair of tanks could wreak on enemy infantry, I actually felt quite horrified by it all.

The other game is much gentler, and sociable to boot, being a board game, rather than a computer game. It’s Carcassonne, and is really quite snazzy. A game (for two anyway; I’ve yet to play it with more) plays out in under an hour, and features the laying of square card tiles on the table, and the strategic placement of little wooden figures, representing your attempt to control various abstract resources. The game mechanics are very slick.

Others’ reviews for both games are linked to from my reviews page.

Finally, link from the BBC, saying that a study has shown that playing computer games is good for a child’s development and general education. If that’s true, they must be good for my development and education too!

Friday, 8 March 2002

Towboats, games and reviews

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson and his trio playing Thags' Dance. Weird title. If you look up Thags' dance on Google, you mainly get links about this very album (The sound of the trio). I did find something purporting to be Tibetan, where a Thag was some sort of tiger-like evil spirit, though.

Update: the liner notes reveal all. Thags was a nickname for the trio’s drummer, Ed Thigpen.

I attempted to link to a neat set of pictures on Wednesday, but a keen-eyed reader pointed out that the link was broken. Here's an alternative link (“don’t try this at home”) and also to some text, claiming to explain it all.

I have just finished a stint of Civilisation 3 playing. I remember seeing the first Civilisation game on a friend's computer in the early 1990s, and being quite entranced. Civ3 is very good in the same mold, and with lots of extra enhancements. I have won a couple of games at the easiest difficulty level (sending a space-ship to Alpha Centauri as the Romans in one, and dominating two thirds of the planet's surface, principally through conquest, as the Germans in the other). I will have to crank up the difficulty another level.

I've started a page of interesting game reviews (the word “interesting” qualifies “game”, not necessarily “reviews”).

Wednesday, 12 September 2001

Educational games

Listening to:

Shostakovich, 24 preludes and fugues, op. 87.

I don’t think I can possibly add anything useful to the reams of newsprint and all of the web opinion about the disaster yesterday, so I think it’s best to leave that to others, and to keep on as usual.

I’ve got loads of work on, so I provide just a single link:

Saturday, 14 July 2001

Blog Logistics

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67.

I’m again writing at home. Yesterday was too busy by far. I have figured out how to write my entry at home and then transfer the resulting HTML file to my Comuter Lab machines. I use Lynx to look at the page, hit \ (backslash) to get the HTML source for the page, and then p to print that onto a file, and then I’m done. It would be marginally easier if I could transfer files from the PC to the Computer Lab directly, because I could then download from the Web using Explorer and then move things from home PC to Lab. Unfortunately, SSH1 doesn't support file transfer (or so my software claims), so I have to do things the non-obvious way.

At some stage last year I waxed lyrical about a neat article I found on Games Domain about realism in war-games. The guy that wrote this is one Bruce Geryk, and it turns out he has a home-page, with links to lots of stuff he’s written elsewhere on the web. A nice resource.

Tuesday, 22 May 2001

Entry #176

Listening to:

Marin Marais, Sonnerie de Sainte Geneviève du Mont de Paris. French Baroque music is quite distinctive. It took me a while to get used to it, being much more familiar with German music of the same period (by Bach, for example).

A recent movie:

The dish. This is an Australian movie starring Sam Neill, and tells the story of the radio telescope in the small Australian town of Parkes that helped relay television pictures from the moon landing in 1969 to the rest of the world. It’s quite lightweight really, and handles its comic moments a little better than its dramatic ones.

The real strength of the film is in its portrayal of the excitement and tension of being involved in such an important project. The film also makes sure that the Australian scientists conform to the typical Antipodean stereotype of unassuming, witty competence.

For genuine details on what really went on, you can refer to the Parkes Observatory home-page.

Game Progress

I’m pleased to report that I have made progress with AoE2. In particular, I have got through scenario Joan VI. It seems that you need to use your big initial army to knock out all of the Burgundians (two bases) and the Shrewsbury army before you attempt to establish your own base. Doing this behind Shrewsbury's old walls worked well for me.

Thursday, 26 April 2001

Computer games

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, Rocks in my bed, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. This is from a CD titled Ella Fitzgerald day dream: best of the Duke Ellington songbook.

Games I’m playing

I have been playing a bit of Age of Empires II recently. Over the last two nights, I have found myself completely stuck on the sixth scenario of the Joan of Arc “campaign”. Earlier in the week, I had another go at my previous gaming bête noire, the Novgorod scenario in Panzer General II. I did better than in my previous attempts, but I still failed. Sigh. Really, this phenomenon is a good one; games shouldn’t be push-overs, but it's doing no good for my image of myself as an armchair general extraordinaire.

I am unwilling to admit that these games require practice to acquire the necessary skills. I want to be an instant expert just from doing a little bit of thinking “on the spot”, and figuring out what the right thing to do is. I don’t think that I should be able to play Chess like this, and it took me a good while to get to the level of skill I have at Go (about 5 kyu), so why are my expectations different with computer games? Perhaps it’s because they present such a seductive interface, one that gives you a gratifying illusion of control over vast armies. It’s hard to reconcile this superficial picture with the need to actually do some learning.

Heck, I even get given a good run for my money by the standard Windows game of Hearts every time I play it. I can only console myself with the fact that my Go skill makes me stronger than any extant computer program. See this page from the American Go Association, and this nice article from the New York Times (extracted somewhere else so probably a copyright violation, but not thereby subject to their new restrictions on access to old content).

Finally, something nice from David Chess’s log. I can attest to Canadians’ hardiness with respect to swimming outdoors. As for writing about real people, my intention is always paranoid; nobody else is identified here. Perhaps this makes things a bit anonymous, but hey, I plough my own furrow.

Thursday, 12 April 2001

Mahler, Mission Impossible and new games

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9. Mahler was apparently a little affected by a superstitious worry to the effect that nine symphonies is as many as a great composer is allowed. Bruckner didn’t even manage to comlete his ninth, and Beethoven’s ninth was his last. As it turned out, Mahler’s ninth was indeed his last completed symphony. (There is a “performing version” of his drafts for a tenth symphony.)

Thirty-five years later, it seems quite likely that Shostakovich deliberately thumbed his nose at this tradition of great ninth symphonies (and thereby thumbed his nose at the Soviet government, who expected something great of him), by producing a ninth symphony that was short, not overtly dramatic, and which seemed very slight.

Anyway, Mahler’s ninth is quite a mysterious work. Its opening and closing movements are both slow movements (an Andante and an Adagio), while its two internal movements are quite raucous and full of strange eruptions of sound. However, it’s definitely coherent and melodic at the same time.

A recent movie:

Mission Impossible 2. We got this out on DVD. It’s slickly done, but it suffers from a number of faults. It has a serious case of Bond-envy; its plot is ridiculous; Tom Cruise smirks far too much; the other good guys are far too marginalised (the best part of the first MI movie was the initial segment when you saw a team of operatives working together; Cruise as lone operative dominating the plot destroys that interesting, and distinctive, flavour), and those bloody masks are used far too much.

Plot holes range from the typical ridiculous science (why didn’t the operatives that stole the magic medicine pick up the disease from the scientist carrying both the medicine and the disease on the plane?) to the implausible assumptions. Why, for example, on knowing where the bad guys were (great location, Sydney Harbour), did the good guys not get in several truck loads of police to arrest them? The Australian authorities would be more than willing to arrest people that special US agencies fingered as terrorists.

Computer game options

I’m thinking of buying a new computer game; maybe Baldur’s Gate II or Age of Empires II. It’s interesting that they’re both sequels. Both are apparently significant improvements on their predecessors, which does at least suggest that their developers have paid attention to what users have said, and thought about how to improve what they’ve done.

I’ve recently been playing Panzer General II a bit. (Another sequel! And then there’s Railroad Tycoon II...) I like PG2 as a relatively mindless, but entertaining way of consuming 30-60 minutes.

Wednesday, 21 March 2001

Films and Games

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 3 (Sz 85).

A recent movie:

Best in Show. I saw this on a plane from Hong Kong to Heathrow and thought it very good, even in those rather trying conditions. (Although I have to say, I think I find it a lot easier to get to sleep over the muted roar of jet engines than over the neighbours’ distant pop music when the latter is the only thing disturbing the night’s quiet.) Anyway, what about this film then? Very amusing. It’s what is apparently known as a mockumentary. This means that while taking on the outward form of a documentary, it is actually an extended satire.

This film succeeds because it verges just a little into the unrealistic to make its jokes. The characters seem as if they just might be real people. The film is based around a big dog show, and the principal characters are the various contestants that attend, hoping that their dog will win the grand prize. They are all a little weird and stereotypical, but very funny as they negotiate all sorts of quandaries.

The Computer Game

I’ve been playing quite a bit of a new PC game called Europa Universalis. It’s quite an addictive game in the Civilisation/Imperialism mould, but better than both, in my opinion, because of its very well-researched historical setting. Other people seem to think pretty highly of it too; for example this review at StrategyGaming is very positive. It finishes (in incomplete sentences, he’s clearly that rapt):

I can see if you don’t have much time, or don’t have an interest in history at all. But outside of that, if you don’t buy this game, you’re nuts.

Friday, 23 February 2001

Getting up early and a game recommendation

Listening to:

Bax, symphony no. 3.

Up early for the career...

Well I got the conference submission off, so it’s all in the lap of the gods now. I got up at 6am yesterday and today to do it, so I’m feeling pretty tired as I write this on Friday evening. Getting up an hour earlier than normal, and then rushing through the morning routine produces a result that is gratifying at the time: you get into the office that much earlier, and because you're only just out of bed, you feel quite fresh. Working late has never been as appealing to me as working early. By the time you get ’round to being there late, you’ve been there far too long, and you’re sick of the place. Whereas going in early means that your day’s extra hours are all the beginning of the day when you’ll feel positively raring to go.

Of course, it’s possible there is a flaw in my reasoning...

The latest game at home is The Longest Journey. We finished this a week or so ago, and thought it pretty neat. The finale seemed to be doing some seriously angling for a sequel it was so underplayed, but otherwise the story and the puzzles combined really well. So, that’s a recommendation, and you will note, a brand new link. I like to throw them in occasionally; the blue underlining looks so cool.

Friday, 27 October 2000

Computer Game Reviews

Listening to:

Haydn, piano sonata no. 46 in E major, Hob. XVI: 31. This is classical piano music. It’s quite elegant in its way, and definitely easy on the ear. I don’t think I’m experienced enough that I could tell this from Mozart. I think I could with their respective symphonies, but piano sonatas offer fewer clues because you can’t listen to things like orchestration.

I continue to be fascinated by computer games. I don’t necessarily play them that much (far too busy for all that, you see), but I make a point of regularly checking the What's new section of the Games Domain Review site. It’s perversely reassuring to see how many games get fairly negative reviews. All these games that look crap on the shelves really are crap.

Better yet, games attempting to make quick bucks out of crap TV shows really are stinkers:

But instead they released this hastily produced pile of cack which, and I’m not kidding here, has no value whatsoever - even if this cost 20p to buy instead of the £9.99 it's being flogged for, it still wouldn’t be worth buying. In fact if this wasn’t a family site, the whole review would be naught more than a string of expletives. This game is so worthless, it doesn’t even deserve to end up as mug mat.

Wednesday, 11 October 2000

Panzer General progress

Listening to:

Mozart, string quartet in B flat, K458 “Hunt”.

I did the Kishinev scenario in Panzer General again over the weekend. I’m now up to the Novgorod scenario. I failed miserably at this last time, but now I'm going to have another go. It’s quite an addictive game, but it’s also a bit silly in many ways. Every scenario I’ve played so far requires you to be the overall aggressor. I’d quite like to find one where you had to hold onto objectives rather than take new ones. Of course, it’d be bad game design to make you be completely passive, but I suspect the more fundamental issue is that the computer AI isn’t up to the job of planning attacks.

It’s a dull day out there folks.

Friday, 25 August 2000

Planescape: Torment and others

Listening to:

Chopin, Ballade No. 4 in F minor, op. 52. Beautiful, soft music; rhythmically fascinating.

We have been playing a lot of Planescape: Torment recently. This is a so-called role-playing game. What this really means is that it’s an adventure game (complete with exploration, puzzles and the like) combined with a real-time strategy aspect when your party of characters gets into a scrap. Here the mix is very good; there’s not too much combat, but there’s enough to make things tense as we sneak around the world looking for clues to explain our situation. At the moment, we’re learning stuff at a gratifying rate, and the world really does seem to be opening up in front of us.

Compare this with Riven, which has no combat at all, and much less internal state. Riven is very good, and we enjoyed it a great deal, but its strength has a lot to do with the beautiful screen-shots and the elaborate nature of the puzzles. I’d much rather play either of these games than Diablo II, which gets reviews (for example, at Games Domain) suggesting that it’s completely mindless. Give me plot any day of the week!

Friday, 28 July 2000

Wargaming articles

Listening to:

Puccini, La Bohème. This is the only opera of Puccini’s that I know. I have listened to it a few times, but haven’t followed the libretto yet, so I really have no idea as to what is happening.

OK, this is absolutely the last time I do a Harry Potter link: check out this hilarious article from The Onion.

While searching for reviews of possible PC games to buy, I recently found a good discussion of what realism means in the context of war-games. From another article by the same author:

Usually, what you get is a bunch of hardcore wargamers complaining about the historical faults in a game and a bunch of even harder-core wargamers saying, Hey, that’s nothing compared to the fact that the Salerno-Syracusa railway could only handle thirty supply trains a day, so there is no way the First Armored Division could ever wind up with so many doughnuts.

These articles are from a good while ago, so it’s particularly heart-warming that I can still discover them and read them through. To be a really useful resource, the Web needs to become much less transient.

Friday, 2 June 2000

The Green and Slender Willow

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Six Romances on words by Japanese poets, op. 21 for tenor and orchestra. The current poem is called An immodest glance and reads (in English):

The green and slender willow
had her swaying trunk laid bare,
when the wind blew, and drew
the branches aside.

And today, my beloved,
I glimpsed your legs,
when the wind blew
and played with your light dress.

Racy stuff, classical music, you know!

The makers of the computer games Thief (and its sequel, memorably called Thief II) have gone out of business.

I would have liked to have written yesterday, in order to help clear the entry deficit but my computer was down and out all morning and receiving the ministrations of a qualified professional (i.e., not me!).

Tuesday, 25 April 2000

Computer games; Forster

Listening to:

Brahms, double concerto for violin and cello in A minor, op. 102.

Still reading:

E. M. Forster, The longest journey. I didn’t get a whole lot further this week. Rickie Elliot is rather less sympathetic now, and it s starting to become clear that this novel could well be one where the main characters are all more or less irritating. I’m still enjoying it though. The writing is good, and the characters are interesting, even if they do deserve a come-uppance.

I didn’t write yesterday because I was away in London, on a brief Easter holiday. Although we did venture out into the big smoke on Saturday, much of the rest of the time was spent playing computer games. I played two games new to me, King of Dragon Pass and Pharaoh. Both are strategy/simulation games, just like Railroad Tycoon II, which I’ve already described briefly before.

Today is ANZAC Day.

Friday, 25 February 2000

Railroad Tycoon II

Listening to:

Bruckner, symphony #9 in D minor.

I feel as if I’m setting myself up to pose as some sort of bastion of anti-popular culture conservatism. I’m not a reactionary old fogey, honest. My take on it all is that pop culture gets quite enough attention as it is, so I see no reason to add my voice to that hubbub.

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Economist about the hype surrounding e-commerce. (I won’t bother linking to it because it won’t stay at a fixed URL for long before being consigned to subscriber-only archives.) It suggests that many of today’s e-companies are going to crash and burn, just as early railways, car makers and airlines did when those industries had their bubbles. (One has to wonder quite how the wonderful folk at pitas are making their money.)

Anyway, this allows me to segue gracefully into a brief word about my title above, Railroad Tycoon II, a great computer game. I got it as a Christmas present, and we’ve been playing it pretty much every weekend since. I just finished the Cape to Cairo scenario, and thus the first campaign. I felt this was a great achievement.