2005/08/12 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six seven seven two point three
Grr

This is taking longer than I imagined. I had to suddenly come up with a way for comments to be enabled on permanent text like the Philosophy and Media bits (both of which have undergone rennovations). Got the theory sorted out now - shall we say tomorrow lunchtime?

Sniff

In other news, Mark Sutherns finally left for good tonight, as did Duncan Leigh of X-Box World. Dan Griliopoulos left to edit the games section of the official X-Box 360 mag a few weeks back, and I hear that's working out well for him. Like I care - I don't wish any of these people well in their future endeavours. They should all have stayed doing the same thing forever because I liked having them around.





 
2005/08/09 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six seven eight one point six
Hola Bro

This will be my last post on the current incarnation of this site - I've been redesigning it furiously and I think the result will be go up here on Friday. My disc deadline at work is Wednesday, so hopefully I can lay into it properly after that. The new one uses WordPress, will still confusingly be called James, and will let you leave comments, which I will beg you to do at the time. Please ready your typing fingers.

I may also have some mag-related news that has something to do with this event.





 
2005/07/21 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six eight three four point one
Sex Is Worse Than Murder

GTA San Andreas has just been recalled because of the Hot Coffee mod - a hack that let you play a lame sex minigame that looks like it was half-made by Rockstar, then abandoned and never entirely removed. My A-Level Computing teacher had a thirteen year-old son, and we once got talking about censorship (it was that kind of course). He said he didn't want his son, Tom, to see graphically violent films, but he didn't really mind if he saw pornography. The reasoning being that violence is a despicable act of stupidity that he'd never want his son to engage in as long as he lives. I had to admit, this made an awful lot of sense.

It wasn't an 18 for all the face-shooting, hammer murders, compulsory cop-killing or profanity. It's now an 18 because you can mod it, with third party software, to show a feeble imitation of clothed consensual sex between adults. Look, I have no desire to play a game with sex in it, I don't like it in books and it makes me mildly uncomfortable in films - I'm just generally not wild about the idea of me watching other people doing it. But I do at least concede that it happens, it is not a crime, and it's generally a force for good in so much as it momentarily stops people hating each other quite so much. Luckily the internet already affords minors in-depth graphical demonstrations of sex, but if it didn't, it would honestly be quite a good thing for them to see early on - they'll only obsess about it anyway, and the fewer illusions they have the less screwed up it'll make them.





 
2005/07/07 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six eight seven zero point nine
Terrorists Win!

We followed the London thing today in typically geeky fashion - browsing Google's news aggregator, comparing it to Yahoo's (theirs is edited by a human, while Google's is automated based on popularity - Yahoo is quicker to recognise the significance of stories) - checking to see if the BBC site was back up, and eventually installing a digital radio card in my PC to listen to the news. The Guardian blog was very good right up until it reported a bomb had gone off in Leicester Square when it hadn't, which is a fairly big thing to get wrong. Quickest and juciest, though, was the Flickr pool for photos of the bombing, and most authorative - as ever - was the extraordinary Wikipedia entry, which is beauitfully organised, totally comprehensive and eerily up-to-date.

At lunch I wanted to try the new cs_assault map in Counter-Strike Source, and the moment I joined the server, "Terrorists win!" blared out of the speakers over the radio casualty reports. Counter-Strike exists in this kind of isolation bubble for gamers - the fact that one of the teams - the one that I virtually insist on playing as - is called Terrorists is utterly unconnected to the language of 9/11 and, now, 7/7 (you have to like that they picked a date that's the same in American and British formats). It's not until the two shout at you at the same time that you notice the similar sounds. It remains meaningless.

My sister and both my cousins live in London. Before I knew Anna (the former) was in Scotland, I entertained the idea that she might have been killed. It's never injured, is it? Every event like these sees hundreds of times more injuries than deaths, but that's inconceivable - in your head, if they were there, they're dead. Examining my emotional response to this possibility, I didn't come across any hatred or anger. It would have been exasperation, at the fact that her bike was recently stolen, and that she might have been riding that instead if it hadn't been. For fuck's sake, mankind. You had to steal her bike?

She actually always took her bike (which was collapsible) on the tube anyway, because cycling in London is dangerous (you laugh, but Stereolab lost a vocalist that way). But it's interesting that only the theft would have really irritated me. Explosions are a force of nature, suicide bombers are psychopaths. If someone's prepared to kill themselves for a cause, they are, by any definition, mad. It's hard for me to get angry at a mad person.

Bike thieves are assholes, though. They stole my bike, so I got a new one and a better lock. They stole the wheel, so I bought a new one and locked it to the frame. They stole the other one, then stole my sister's bike from her house. God damn it people! Leave the bikes alone! Why can't you steal a form of transport that kills people and pollutes?

Cowardly Act

Cowardly? How so? I mean, brutal yes, evil, random, sure. But the current understanding is that these were suicide bombers. Say what you like about that, it takes guts. It might not be honorable or whatever, but cowardice is about shying away from danger for your own sake. It's so wildly inaccurate for suicide attacks that you have to wonder if anyone's checked to see if our soundbites and clichés make any sense in the last few years. They just come out subconsciously now, the logical part of the brain having given up vetting the garbage that passes under it every day for the sake of just fitting in with the other illiterates.

It's a disappointing misuse of language, because this is a time when our language should be gleaming with zeal, bringing us together with passion. If you've seen the West Wing you've seen a glimpse of this - how did Bartlett's speech after the pipe bombing go? "I don't know if it's one person or ten, and I don't know what they want. All I know for sure, all I know for certain, is that they weren't born wanting to do this." We need writer Aaron Sorkin in government, even if he is on magic mushrooms and cocaine.

You don't need to emphasise the brutality of this. People get that part. You don't need to call them names that you don't even seem to understand yourself - that's a playground response, and it's sad to watch. The thing to note, the thing that does need emphasis, is that these attacks were stupid. Al-Qaeda terrorists aren't Muslims, they're idiots. They're killing for a religion that forbids killing. They're trying to stop Western powers by really, really pissing them off. They just haven't thought it through.





 
2005/07/05 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six eight seven six point five
War Of The Worlds

I don't really see how anyone could walk out of War Of The Worlds feeling satisfied. I know it's scary, and has great aliens, and things get blown up - I know also that it is a fairly fundamental part of the story that the aliens just catch a cold and die - but Jesus. It doesn't have an ending, it just stops playing. It's one step short of having a Billy West voice-over saying "And then they all died for some reason!" It makes the conclusion of Revenge Of The Sith look leisurely.

The tripods are great. It's mostly their lights - the night scenes involving them are strikingly beautiful, and their size and luminance is used to scary effect. Effective too are the little hints at the degree of humanity's desperation - the guy clawing his way through the only working car's windscreen with bloodied hands, the people hanging on to people hanging on to the rising lip of a departing ferry.

But people are calling it a predictably masterful work of directing, and it's so not. Building up this visceral impression of the tripod's devastation, sheer power, utter dominance of humanity - it all works, but it works to get you thinking "Man, everything is fucked. How the hell are they going to defeat them?" That huge build up prepares you for an epic conclusion - even if you know enough not to expect a battle, you're waiting for the apocalypse, the infection, the spreading, the explosions. What happens is: one of them falls over. Later, a second stumbles a bit and they shoot it. It falls over. Morgan Freeman spouts some hilariously pretentious vagueness about humans having a right to live on Earth. DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG. Just like Sith, you wince a bit at someone so proudly reminding you of their association with something so clumsy. One step away from "I'm Greg Evigan. I MADE THIS."

It has a third painful feature in commmon with Sith: a one-line attempt at a political conscience. "Is it the terrorists?" Because I hear terrorists destroy things, and have never seen any sci-fi in my life so do not understand the concept of an alien. In my spare time I represent the fragility of the still-stunned American psyche.

Score: WRITTEN BY TOM FRANCIS.

Batman Begins

There's probably not a lot of virtue in talking about Batman Begins properly now, but I feel the need for some bulletpoints at least:
  • I never read the comics, and appear to have missed the apparently excellent animated series, and this is the first time anything's really attempted to explain what the point of Batman is - i.e. that he scares bad guys. The trappings of the role have become so important in every other incarnation that the central ethos never got mentioned to me. Here, it's not just mentioned, it's cleverly brought out by a mirror-image bad guy, Scarecrow.

  • Scarecrow, in this, is one of the greatest villains I've ever seen. His by-day human face is so perfectly acted - fresh-faced and pleasant in a way that is utterly and immediately creepy. His mask is almost comically exaggerated in its attempt to look scary, but the speed and frequency with which he dons it makes it terrifying - it's so halloween that it seems absurd for this respectable person to suddenly don it, and that lack of comprehension gives a nameless horror to the act. The scene when he first uses it - against a crime boss - is one of the most magnificent pieces of cinema I've seen in years.

  • Batman isn't really a superhero in that he doesn't really have any powers. He's what we City Of Heroes players would term a Natural Scrapper. Essentially, he achieves his goals by punching people in the face. That's hard to make cool - as a tubby Adam West once demonstrated. Batman Begins explains that Batman is basically a ninja, and that is very cool indeed.

  • The Batmobile looks silly in stills, but in the film almost immediately makes all previous Batmobiles look silly. There's even a sports car with Batmobile style doors in there, as if to mock the low-clearence ponciness of previous models.

  • Another Scarecrow one - his first defeat - when Batman contaminates him with his own weaponised hallucinogen (I, like everyone else, love referring to that stuff by its proper name) and becomes a brawny black red-eyed mutant to him - is incredibly cool and neatly symbolic. His second defeat - rearing up on his flame-breathing horse and informing Katie Holmes' character that "There is nothing to fear but fear itself!" immediately before being tazered in the face and galloping off screaming - is hilarious.
Score Bat out of bat.





 
2005/06/17 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine two eight point one
Batman Begins

I am too tired to adequately review this, so I'll hand over to the ever-informative Qwantz.


It is completely ace - see it if you like action films even just a little bit. It's also very funny. Lazy reviewer! Bad reviewer!

If I Set Fire To You Now, Would You Even Make A Sound?

I'm off to the Future Publishing 20th anniversary party tomorrow, which is a kind of festival camp-out kind of thing in a field. The last Future party had a fountain of molten chocolate into which you could dip skewers of marshmallows and strawberries, so this one had better have fried gold or something. Then on Sunday there's a street party on our street, then on Thursday I'm going to Glastonbury for five days.

Ticker Tape Tales will return on Sunday, I would think. I also hope to write about the wildly exciting things I've found on the net. In the meantime, LiveJames is redesigned and now has tags (and an RSS feed and comments, as ever), and my Flickr Photostream has loads of Battlefield 2 shots which I will eventually annotate with little stories not long enough to form full Ticker Tape Tales. The game, the demo rather, produces story-worthy game experiences like it's a factory for making them or something.

Things you should do: play the Battlefield 2 demo or, if your PC can't handle it, Eve Online. Watch Batman Begins, and if you have the DVDs or have always meant to give them a go, Firefly. I had, until today, never been more excited about a film than I am about the Firefly one, called Serenity, out in September. Today I learned that the Futurama guys are hoping to make some straight-to-DVD films of it. WHOA.





 
2005/06/12 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine four zero point five

Ticker-Tape Tales - Episode 1: Defibrillate This

This is mostly Tim's idea - he was telling me about Battlefield 2: "I was watching that ticker-tape text in the top left, where it reports each kill and what it was done with, and I realised every one of those lines is a little story." It strikes me that they're not terribly descriptive stories, though, so I have taken it upon myself to give some background on a few lines that scrolled past me in the demo yesterday.

Locutus [SVD] mrbuzzard

Fuck. They're swarming us. This beachhead strategic point looked safe, but they're pouring in now and that guy just got it in the face. I sprint over to him and whip out the defibrillators. I'm a medic, you see.

"Clear!" Tzz.

He gets back up and I chuck him a medikit for good measure. "You're gonna be okay buddy," my character automatically says. "Thanks man, I owe you one," his automatically replies. The tank we're standing next to explodes.

mrbuzzard is no more.

Fuck! The concussion from the blast is so strong I can barely see, but as a medic you See Dead People regardless. I stagger over to his body and-

"Clear!" Tzz.

-shock some life into it. I don't have time to patch him up before the ground explodes again and the troops pour in.

^^andy^^05 [AK-101] BlueBall
^^andy^^05 [AK-101] $uper_Gang$ta
hammi [T-90] tOMMy

Jesus Christ. I make a beeline for the bodies and an enemy troop rounds the sandbags ahead of me. I hit the deck and spray him with M4 fire, and he goes down before he can hit me.

Pentadact [M4] pHk

I get BlueBall-

"Clear!" Tzz.

-and tOMMy-

"Clear!" Tzz.

-fixed up, but $uper_Gang$ta fades away before I can get to him. God damn it, I hate it when I lose one. "You'll be fine, get back to the fight." I wish I could believe or stop myself saying that.

nofear [T-90] Squire
nofear [T-90] tOMMy

Shit! The tanks have rolled in, and I'm-

Mr0 [Artillery] mrbuzzard
Mr0 [Artillery] easydog
Mr0 [Artillery] Sigmax

Everything explodes. You hear it before you see it, but not by much. Then you can't see anything at all, and pretty soon you can't hear anything either. The dust-clouds a blast like that kicks up would blind you even if you weren't in shock, and your ears just hum a monotonous song instead of reporting the outside world. When my senses return it's to a beige world of loud noises. Through the smoke I can still make out the gleaming white trails of more artillery shells slamming down into us. I know with a grim certainty that almost everyone will die before I can get to them, and before I even make it to the first one I'm shot three times and hit the deck. I have no idea where the shots came from, or even if there's any cover nearby - all I can see is the corpse bar on my singularly selfless HUD. Biting the dust seems to have saved me, and I'm on the mend all the time my medikit is out, but I'm not any closer to the bodies and I'm not going to hold this post on my own. I get up and immediately come face to face with the guy who shot me. I throw myself backwards over some sandbags and frantically hammer the number keys. My Beretta 9mm comes up and I shoot him three times in the face.

Pentadact [Beretta] ^^andy^^05

In retrospect he was probably more surprised to see me than I was him - it was a fair bet I was dead. More fire rains in, either a Support troop or a tank judging by the sheer fire rate. Shots thwack into the sand all around, and a final artillery explosion kills-

Mr0 [Artillery] BlueBall
Mr0 [Artillery] wpmike

-two more and-

Mr0 [Teamkills] th0ry

-ha! One of their own. I'm hit again but I'm not ducking this time. I pelt straight for the very patient body of my patient, dive through the smoke over an ammo box and land prone on top of him, immediately-

"Clear!" Tzz.

-defibrillating. He gets up and-

neurax [AK74U] easydog

God damn it! I shock him back to life. He's learnt his lesson and stays down with me, but by this time I've lost everyone else for good. I chuck him a medikit and we scramble to the bunker by the flag.

easydog [M16A2] Bleak
easydog [M16A2] neurax
Pentadact [M4] Parliuus
easydog [M16A2] Monterto

He might be stupid but he's a good shot. But there's still the APC, and when its not scattering heavy fire at our little window on the world, it's smashing up our empty vehicles with guided rockets. Worse, an enemy chopper I thought was just flying by has come around for another pass.

But something's not right about it. I don't know anything about anything, really, but consciously or otherwise most of the Western world now knows a Black Hawk when they see it. Black Hawks are ours. I focus on it and sure enough, friendly nametags pop up - green ones, in fact: my squad. Then, inevitably yet surprisingly, gloriously and loudly-

D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] nofear
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] hammi
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] DanMM
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] Jage

It's their turn to explode. The much-killed idiot and I sprint out to meet them. There's still a body out here I can res, which I promptly-

"Clear!" Tzz.

-do. Half my squaddies throw themselves out of the chopper and parachute down to meet us, while the pilot takes it to a safer landing just outside the base.

It's a fantastic sight, but I don't have time to admire it - I'm seeing more Dead People. Scampering around the wreckage of the base rubbing my shock-pads together gleefully at the prospect of more life-saving fun, I suddenly discover where these fresh corpses are coming from. An enemy Spec Ops commando an inch from my face, silenced pistol raised to my neck. I don't have time to think.

"Clear!" Tzz.

Pentadact [Shock Pads] FaR2SiNiSTeR

YES.





 
2005/06/06 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine five eight point two
What We Really Need Now Is An Emotional History Of The Lower East Side

I have a new favourite expression. I will relate it in context, taken from one of the most idiotic threads on the most idiocy-friendly type of forum - one for a game that isn't out yet, but is far enough along that suggestions are too late.

Idiot: "PC CD-ROM" Unfricking acceptable, Bethesda. I'm not buying a game with 6 cds.
Genius: Want me to call a waaambulance for you?

The idiot's quote comes from the little placeholder icon at the end of the extraordinary, mind-blowing, Patrick-Stewart-voiced Oblivion trailer that came out a while back. The PC, of course, doesn't have a real logo because it's a type of computer rather than a brand, and games publishers have been admirably reluctant to adopt a Windows logo to indicate the nature of a game's compatibility. Evidently they've been a bit sluggish getting "PC DVD-ROM" logos made up too. They're also slow to give a God damn about the install process when they're in the middle of revolutionising the genre.

So yes, self-pity, complaining about trivial things, and superficial criticisms are hereby outlawed. Violators will be prosecuted with an icy "Oh, can I call you a waaambulance?" Get it together or be zung!

Also, and this isn't really related, but can we stop capitalising 'mod'? I'm not sure when people started assuming it was an acronym for something, but what would it even stand for? And another thing! MMO isn't a noun, MMOG is! God damn it people! Always with the three-letter TLAs!

Yes, I know.

Because It Was Wild


I've signed up to Eve again. It turns out I bought myself a huge hauler just before I quit last time. I took it out for a glacial cruise and tried playing the cattle market. Within an hour I'd lost my ship, five million in cargo and a few thousand skillpoints. I knew there was a reason I loved this ship:


It's a Cormorant-class Destroyer, and it's named after a Low album. It has searchlights all along the bottom that wiggle around searching for stuff. It has missiles, guns, mining lasers, invulnerability and a micro-warp drive. In WoW terms this is only about level twenty stuff, but it's mine, and I have all of it on the same ship, which is actually pretty rare. You can't upgrade from a Destroyer and get something better in every way - if you don't lose speed you lose cargo capacity, and if you don't lose that you lose guns too. I trade, do combat missions and mine, and oddly enough any upgrade means being worse at at least one of those things.


I choose a missile type good against armour and hulls, but not so hot against shields. Why, Tom? Because my railguns are loaded with slugs that are excellent against shields, and by the time the first missile gets to them armour is all they've got. Then, they're a constellation of debris. If I don't need my capacitor's power for shield regeneration or invulnerability (because, for example, suckas be frontin') I can keep my micro-warp active in combat, meaning I'm zooming around at a kilometer a second. In a moment that made no sense but was, relatedly, bristling with awesome, I caught up with one of my own missiles in a fight earlier, just as it hit and destroyed my target, meaning my (awesome, awesome) ship burst through the explosion at the exact moment of his demise. Windscreen wipers activate! Tea, Earl-Grey, hot.


Which is the thing I still long for in Eve - walking around you ship. I'd also like to get out at space stations and go for a wander while work is being done on my ship, or cargo is loaded and unloaded. Everyone has spectacular human beings as their characters in Eve, beautifully formed features genuinely unique to them and at the same time uncannily face-like. They're already 3D models, all they need is a body and some animations. Trading always takes me to impossibly exotic-sounding solar systems thousands of Astral Units from home, and if I could just wander the already lush interior of the station I'm docked at, sit in a café, look at the faces, check the news, fiddle with the jukebox... basically Eve is already a sci-fi dream come true, now I'd like it to be all my sci-fi dreams come true.


This wasn't supposed to be a post about games, but whatever! Here are the names of player-jettisoned cargo containers my scanner picked up while I was touring constellations looking for a fugitive hideout earlier:
  • drugs
  • druqz
  • no drugs here
  • drugs kill
  • wtf i cant scoop it back up
  • destroy me
  • Hey! You! Hands off!
  • Have you heard of Eve Lotto? Mail Godspeed for details!
  • GSV What The Hell
  • TO THE CONTAINER THIEF - HAVE IT, BUT ALWAYS SLEEP WITH ONE EYE OPEN
  • Gate 1
  • Gate 2
  • ...
  • Gate 20
  • Finish line!! Finish line!! Finish line!!
  • can't sell it/can't reprocess it/u have it
  • Where all the rocks went
  • Hey, I'm empty





 
2005/05/29 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine eight zero point two
Lost

Well, we don't find out what's under the hatch. I consider this an anti-spoiler, hence the lack of warning, since it pre-empts a half-expected disappointment rather than an exciting surprise. Lost is almost inexplicably better than it sounds - JJ Abrams' last series Alias was good, but it's not any more and it was never this good. This is genuinely brilliant television, the kind you could just string together to make a great film.

If Alias was defined by its ridiculous cliff-hangers, Lost is defined by ridiculous mysteries. Since the start of the series twenty-five episodes ago, the following elements have cropped up and been developed to the extent detailed here:
  • The Monster: We don't know anything about the monster. It might be big. It might not exist. It could also be robotic or organic, or ethereal, or none of these.

  • Jack's Dad: Jack's Dad appeared. We don't know why or what was going on.

  • The Hatch: Locke discovered a hatch. We don't know what it's doing there or what's inside, or what the thing is it's built into. Since the hatch was discovered, virtually every episode has been about it. So far, we have discovered: nothing. Once the hatch lit up. We don't know why.

  • The Numbers: Hurley won the lottery with some numbers. They might be cursed, or not cursed, or it might be fate. Or magic.

  • The Others: There might be others on the island, or there might not, or they might not be on the island, or they might not be others. If they are and they are we don't know who they are or what they're doing there or what they want.

  • The Kid: The kid knows something about the hatch. We don't know how or what and now he's gone forever.

  • The French Woman: There is a French woman on the island. Something killed the crew she was with. We don't know what and now she's gone mad.

  • The Polar Bear: A polar bear appeared. We don't know why or where it came from or how it got there. It was killed and never mentioned again.

  • The Other Half Of The Plane: We don't know where it is or what happened to the people on it. They might be still alive, or dead, or trapped sixteen years in the past with a magic time-traveling radio.

  • The Island: The island might have a will of its own, though it might not and if it does we don't know what it is, why it has it, or how it works.

Whichever of these wildly vague concepts you might be hoping for clarification on, you're perpetually disappointed. The appeal is that by failing to resolve any of these plot lines, they're never cheapened by specifics. Their enigma gives them a lasting menace that only improves the tapestry of sinister threats mounting around the ever-diminishing survivors. All of them verge on the mystical without being scientifically inexplicable - given a degree of imaginative license. We still don't even know what genre we're working in - sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural or real-world.

But the writers seem content to leave that ambiguous too - they've got plenty of stories to tell in flashbacks to the castaways' previous lives, and some of those have been extraordinary. The glimpses of the mysteries, too, have been expertly judged. The one 'Other' we've seen - despite being just some guy - is one of the most unsettling bad guys ever. Even small things like making sure you realise dynamite is dangerous - they have the dynamite expert annihilated by it when handling it as carefully as he can, and from then on you're screaming at the characters to walk slower, don't put the dynamite in their packs, don't use flaming brands for torches.

Locke: Hugo, take these extra sticks back a couple hundred yards.
Hurley: Me? Oh, okay. Got it. ... Can I have a flashlight? 'Cause, er, the torch-near-the-dynamite thing's not making a whole lot of sense to me.

Which leads nicely into the other reason it's great: Hurley. On paper he sounds awful - a fat comic relief character who just says "Dude," "Yo," or "That was messed up" at oppourtune times. But that fails to take into account the sheer brilliance in the timing of his Dudes, Yos and That-was-messed-ups, and also that he says them flatly, rather than in the Keanu Reaves surf-slang drawl. Essentially he's just a guy who watches a lot of TV, in a TV series, saying the things you feel like saying yourself (as above).





 
2005/05/25 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine eight eight point six
You Didn't Have To Do It, But You Did It To Say

Oh wait! I write about games. There's only one summery game, most gamers have it, and you should play it right now. I'm talkin' Far Cry. Do you like paradise? Do you like speedboats? Do you like explosions? Then come to Kabatu, Micronesia! Still the best-looking game on the planet, still the most refreshing burst of escapism, and still the most ridiculously action-packed shooter ever made. If nothing's exploding, you're not playing Far Cry. What did I just say?


I absolutely love the action - these are the best vehicles ever, and they've been sprinkled generously around vast open-ended environments. But I'll admit that its beauty is so overwhelming that this is what it'll always be remembered for, and deservedly so. It's a revelatory game for the sheer variety, scope and quality of its flavours of fun, but the visuals are beyond a revelation, they're a small miracle. Only Half-Life 2 has this level of visual polish, and the scenes rendered in that are much less ambitious - and less attractive. And that was by the most professional developer in the world, eight months later. In fact, Far Cry is virtually the only shooter that didn't suffer from Half-Life 2's release: everything else went slightly weak at the kness when you went back to it after that glorious game, but Far Cry's still just sitting on a beach sipping cocktails, looking amazing. It's a phenomenon. Looking good eight months on - being the best looking game in the world eight months on - is ridiculous. So play it and/or peruse the extremely shiny Flickr set I just made of my best shots.


That You Didn't Have To Do It But You Would Anyway

And I only just now got why it's called LiveJournal. RSS feeds! Click the little orange icon when you're at LiveJames in Firefox, and you'll be able to see from your bookmarks menu whether there's a new post. Ace!

Incidentally, my sources tell me forty percent of you use Firefox. It sounds bad, but that's actually an extraordinarily high percentage - more than eight times the web-wide average. I have decided to call this my page's Firefox Coolness Quotient, and declare that I am eight cool and so are you.

I don't know if it's compensation for the horrible time I've had on the last few deadline weeks, but work and life seem excellent at the moment. It helps that I'm spending most of my time writing for the mag, which of course only means harder work on the disc later, but it's worth it. At least from the present-day Tom's perspective. The near-future Tom may feel differently. Sorry, that got a bit journal-like for a sentence or two there. LiveJournal... spreading to... brain...





 
2005/05/25 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one six nine nine one point two
I'll Be The Platform Shoes, Undo What Heredity's Done To You

It's summer, so you'll be needing some of these: summer songs! Here are two ace ones:

Mates Of State - Goods (All In Your Head): possibly the catchiest thing ever, and a song which TV's Dan Williams calls: "STUPIDLY addictive. it's all awesome, and you're totally thinking 'this is awesome'. then about half way through it gets even more awesome and you're all like 'THIS IS AWESOME'." This guy knows his stuff. Do not, under any circumstances, miss this video, which is even summerier than the song and yet so perfectly captures the spirit of it. If there's two things this song says, it's 'THIS IS AWESOME' and 'dance like a loon'. Let's put our neck out: best music video ever. Let's give context: this is not the real video for the song nor is anyone featured a band member. The band asked people to make their own videos for the song, so this is a fan creation.

Imogen Heap - Hide And Seek: that song from The OC finalé. Yes, I know you hate The OC, but good lord is the music good. This one was new on me, but I - like most people who listen to the music on it - was like, WHAT. Dan says: "ROBOTS CAN SING?" Is it summery? Yes. Goods is catchy pop, this is the other summery - sparse, wistful, perfect for dazzling blue skies. Wake up to this.

You Won't Have To Strain To Look Into My Eyes

Okay, I now have a LiveJournal. Weird, I know, but you can comment there and also I'm toying with the social networking aspect. So far it's rubbish, but rubbish at using its flexible data on its mind-bogglingly huge userbase, and that's the kind of rubbish we can work with.

In other news, I've paid the king's ransom of $24 for a year of Pro Flickrage - that means several gigabytes of upload capacity a month, massive res photos and some other cool things. I'm already a member of some intriguing groups, have found some fellow screenshotters and one of my not-entirely-mine photos has been favourited. Result: loads more photos up here. I'll be crowbaring more and bigger ones into this page in future too.


Quasi





 
2005/05/19 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven zero zero four point eight
Annoying This Quickly Gets

Once it became clear, during Phantom Menace, that there weren't going to be any likeable characters, good lines or cool bad guys, I got past it and kind of enjoyed the sense of adventure. Clones was heavy on meaningless politics and the least interesting romance in the history of cinema, but it had some great fights and luscious CGI. I guess Sith has good CGI too, and for the first half hour I was planning commments in its defence along the lines of "It had some really nice-looking sci-fi scenes, though." But no, I'm not defending this. It's pathetic and we laughed in its face.

From The Oh Jesus Category

Anakin: You are so beautiful.
Padme: That's only because I love you so much.
Anakin: No, it's because I love you so much.

From The What Does That Even Mean Category

Guard: We haven't found the body, sir.
Palpatine: Double your search!

From The Put The Verb First You Dick Category

Yoda: If the security tapes you view, only pain you will find.

From The I'm Laughing But Also Hurting So Very Badly Each Time You Say That Word Category

Obi-Wan: He murdered the younglings!

From The Script Margin Notes Accidentally Said Aloud Category

Obi-Wan: Anakin, the Chancellor is evil.
Anakin: From my point of view, the jedi are evil.

From The Emote, Dammit! Category (Thanks Craig)

Darth Vader: Nooooooooooooooooooo!

I wish I was joking. Further along the line of awful delivery (that last one being highlight), the one line a kid has is so bad - even for a kid - that his subsequent death seems only fair. And when the (sometimes very good) Palpatine gets carried away he strays far and deep into scoff territory. The ridiculous rubber crinkles they smear on him mid-scene for no coherent reason don't help. There is so much more wrong than the dialogue, but there isn't much mirth to be had in trudging through the rest of the embarrassing amateur dramatics. Suffice to say-

Score: Suffice to say that this is the first time the awfulness of nu-Star Wars has been so unbearable as to more than negate even the inherent joy of the lightsaber.

Tom: I hated, hated this film.





 
2005/05/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven zero one eight point seven
Everyone You Forgot, Everything That You Need

It's one of the ironies of the nerd that we love the films that misunderstand our world so wildly, demonise or trivialise it for mainstream audiences. Hackers? Brilliant! We even like The Net. Every time we see a black screen with a green blinking cursor we think "Awesome! Haxor!"

I'm currently watching Every Mother's Worst Fear. In it, a sixteen year-old girl is 'got to' through her computer when her computer date goes bad! Apparently, the internet can get you involved with people from all over the country.
"All over the country?" A police woman asks, incredulous.
"As soon as she crosses state lines it becomes a federal case," her colleague explains. Some extremists even believe there may be other countries in the world, though these would be populated entirely by murderous gays.

Naturally she speaks to an internet expert. He explains that the only way to find anything on the internet is to know the exact code. Friends tut. Well of course if you're going to use the internet you'll be kidnapped and forced to appear on a porn monster's website (he lives in a porn dungeon). Also sold.

It's excellent.

Everybody Gonna Make It To The Cemetery

The above was actually written a long time ago, I just came across it and realised it was never posted. Speaking of coming across things written long ago, I just re-skim-read my dissertation for the first time since- well, actually this is the first time I've ever read the finished version. I made several dramatic alterations at the last minute, including two Edit > Replace operations that I didn't have time to check. This was because, twenty-four hours before the deadline, my supervisor read my latest draft and suggested I ask for extra time and start again. I was, like, no.

It's an odd piece. It was about how the way we think about killing would have to change if teleportation were invented. I concluded that people are data, not bodies, and it's only wrong to kill unique people. It reads like a convoluted trebuchet - it keeps winding back, getting more boring with definitions being set up and apparently irrelevant cases considered, then suddenly a sentence appears that claims something ridiculous and all the winding-back comes into play to convince you of it. I didn't see any of the major points coming, and I wrote it. In fact, when reading a quotation I describe as 'famous', I found myself thinking "It can't be that famous, I've never heard of it." I think it convinced me, but I'm surprised the marker liked it. It was the deciding positive factor in my degree classification, so I'm lucky they did. If anyone wants to read it, e-mail my G-Mail and I'll upload.

Actually during those last twenty-four hours, I also had to take my bike in to get it fixed (I know!) and they horribly over-charged me. I'd been up for two days by this stage, so I was just, like, whatever man. The second they invent telelportation, I'm killing you all.

The Cemetery! The Cemetery!

Flickr has got rid of Flash! The biggest e-hating photo-sharing site on the web is now actually usable! I always loved the idea of a huge site where everyone can upload their photos, because I like photos, I'm short on webspacea and neutral on privacy (although that's an option if you want it). But when Flash was being used to display the photos it was just rubbish. They were tiny, you couldn't right click and save, they took three seconds longer to load, and if you had a Flash blocker (useful because Flash sucks so hard) you couldn't use it at all. I even posted on their forums asking "Doesn't Flickr suck?" The thread was controversial, naturally, and a staff member even joined in eventually to say "We like Flash, we don't care about the people who don't, and we're not going to change it." I repeat these words here in case said staff member is passing by and feels like a snack.


Now, though, ahh. So much nicer. So much nicer, in fact, that I've started using it. I have something like 3GB of photos on my hard drives, and I've always wanted to have a huge collection online. I've already hit my quota for this month, so I won't be able to upload my next batch for a while. So far I've put up the best of my TV grabs (you'd be surprised), a few choice screenshots, some old classics from my school days collection, and more from my recent US excursion.

Flickr has secretly been a good site all along - I see that now the fatal flaw has been ironed out. Tags connect people's collections without any real effort, hotspot notes let you annotate the more interesting shots, making sets is genuinely quick and easy, and the slideshows people can watch of them are oddly compelling. I now see why all the trendy internet types use it, and why it's the one all the genius hacks and integrations come out for.

You have photos, right? You should sign up. I say this because I don't have any Flickr contacts yet. I've entered yet another new world that requires me to make all my friends again.





 
2005/05/10 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven zero two nine point nine

I was flicking through my Half-Life Source shots, and for some reason that one immediately evoked those words. Having seen the collaborative webcomic Whispered Apologies (featuring TV's Ryan North), I'd recently realised that speech-type captions ought to be hovering above people's heads in bubbles, rather than written beneath or in a pop-up. Interesting: virtually all of my captions are speech, I love writing captions, and have always wanted a webcomic. So screenshots willing, I might carry on doing this - single panel gamics.





 
2005/05/05 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven zero four two point nine


We've Got Deserts, We've Got Trees

I was on a press trip - exciting! Before that, actually, I had the minor thrill of walking past a "Sorry, reserved for private function" sign in Revolution, a local vodka bar. This was followed by the more significant thrill of being killed again and again by Fatal1ty (pronounced 'Fatal-wonty', if I'm to be true to my 'Driv-three-ar' standard) at Painkiller. This was a Creative-hosted event - apparently annual - where they come down to beat us or give us prizes if we win. This year they were lazy and got the best pro-gamer in the world to thrash us instead, so they lowered the prize condition to getting a kill of any kind at any point. Nobody won anything. In fact, I got beaten twenty-nil by a guy who then went on to be beaten twenty-nil by Fatal1ty. That's a whole new power of not-very-good.

The press trip was to Santa Monica and San Francisco, for seven days. I wasn't fully aware of this before, but on these things the company showing you stuff pays for everything, including alcohol. In fact, you have to quite impolitely refuse a lot if you don't want to be drunk every night. This is why a lot of journalists are assholes - you get treated very well and very little is expected of you, so it's only human nature to fall short of that. For me, the mind-boggling expense of accommodating, feeding and drugging me scared me in the opposite direction; I took thirty pages of notes, two hours of dictaphone recordings, four hundred photos and seven movies.





Both the hotels we stayed in were breath-taking - at least to a trip-virgin like me. Dan noted with a hint of sadness, "I hate to say it, but I've actually stayed in nicer." I am informed that I will quickly become jaded, but disc editors on press trips are pretty much unheard of, so 'quickly' may take a long time.

I think there were about eight UK journalists there, and over the course of the week I managed to find out their names enough times that I eventually remembered half of some of them - but for whom they worked I couldn't tell you. It seems a high percentage of UK games journalists share a common cultural pool not directly related to games, though - we could talk sci-fi novels with some degree of common ground, webcomic tastes overlapped, and few of us could stop laughing at Dean's account of the mysterious incarceration of our bags.

After staring longingly at other people's luggage rotate endlessly by, Dan - looking the other way - had noticed mine in a cage behind us. Sure enough, all our bags were locked up in these, and we had to pester an elderly Chinese man and show him our passport stickers to get him to unlock them. When none of us could see what our bags had done wrong, Dean proposed the theory was that this man did not work at the airport and, if asked, would reveal himself to be named Mr Mischief in a high-pitched and gleeful voice. He would then perform the Mr Mischief dance and float away.







I saw three really amazing things while out there - one was on Venice Beach, one was in the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art, and the other was a game. The first was a giant crowd, away from the main drag and on the sand itself. Dan and I couldn't see what they were looking at, so we went over to investigate. There was some tribal music coming from it, but when we got there the only thing in the center was some slightly delerious people dancing unimpressively to it. It took a while to notice that the music was coming from the crowd itself - over thirty people had their own bongos, steel drum, saxophone, xylophone, or just a bucket and a stick. This was the event, and apparently it happens every weekend - people just come along and jam.

The sound is extraordinary - unmistakably music, hypnotic and not at all chaotic or discordant. It had a tide to it - instruments would die down and let others take the stage, which would themselves recede to create a kind of consciously collaborative silence, then people would come in with something new or the same thing as before, and the music would come back with a different texture. The sheer number of instruments made it feel like a rich, cohesive performance, but if you looked at any of the players you could immediately isolate his contribution from the fabric. It somehow made a lot more sense than live music - it felt like the original form of it, and highlighted that the purpose has kind of got lost in our need for recognition; the familiar. It should be about instinctive interactions through an abstract medium, celebrating individuality and community simultaneously - as if to say "Look! They're not exclusive!" The only sense of community in live music now is that of shared subservience in an act of celebrity worship, and the only individuality is that crazy guy dancing too hard near the front. I joined that crazy guy once - he was a friend of mine, and he seemed to be having more fun than anyone else in the room. We had a two man moshpit at an underpopulated gig in a tiny venue by a band we didn't like, and we did indeed have more fun and bruises than anyone else in the room.





The art exhibit was a small circular room with video screens on the walls. Each was showing a view from a revolving restaurant in a different American city, all at the same time of day in local time. The footage was accelerated so that a day - and hence a rotation - took about five minutes. Essentially this made the room a very rapidly revolving restaurant with no food and whose windows were scattered across the country - a dizzying yet beautiful experience. My new philosophy of art is that if it doesn't grab me, I hate it. I've spent ludicrous amounts of my time in galleries looking at things I don't get, and while I've had plenty of good experiences, they've all been with things I got right away. No amount of staring improves something incompatible with your sensibilities. Art is useless if it challenges you to like it. I have never won that challenge.







The game I'm not going to talk about until it comes out, except to say that it was significantly more exciting than anything else I saw on the trip, made me say "God I love PC games" within ten seconds, think it every ten after that, and had me writing notes faster than I could understand them.

These last two are videos - click to download.








 
2005/05/03 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven zero four eight point eight
Guild Wars

I'm not alone in having thought, about Guild Wars, "That looks really interesting. I'll be interested to play that. Interesting." Now it's out, and everyone's playing it, and they're saying "Hmm. Interesting." What do I think? Well, it's interesting. It has that same exhilerating disregard for the rules of a MMOG that City Of Heroes had, and right up until half an hour ago I was loving every minute of it.


I'm a Necromancer, because Necromancers and I go way back, so it would feel rude to sit with another class when my old friend is right there. Apart from my fondness for the undead, the name Pentadact sounds almost unmistakably like that of a Necromancer. This time I was a girl, though, and my name had to be two words, so I am Miss Aisle (you've got to want it). The first of the taboo-breaking excitement was when I found a bow and tried using it as my weapon - it let me. And why the hell not? In real life my class is Maths Nerd, and even I can use a bow. What the fuck is your problem, other RPGs? It'd kill you to let a mage shoot an arrow? A thief hold an axe? Jesus!

Actually a lot of the Guild Wars experience is a process of realising how much you hate RPGs, because this is very different in ways that make an astounding amount of sense.
  • I didn't need arrows - good point! Why should the player have to worry about arrows? How fun is that?
  • I can click on a city on my map to teleport there - yes! Why not? What am I, a pack mule? Why can't I just be wherever I want to go? You're thinking stone-age, rest-of-genre!
  • Quest-givers usually come along with you to help with the quest - of course! Haven't we always wondered why these idle morons don't just do it themselves? In Guild Wars it makes sense - they can't do it alone, they need help.
  • Enemies show up on my map - brilliant! That means I know where they are! Searching for something to kill isn't actually fun. It's not even fun to get ambushed.
  • And on the subject of the map, you can freaking draw on it! Your party can see what you scrawl! I was with a slightly scattered group, and encountered a boss the others hadn't seen. I drew a quick circle around his red dot on the mini-map, then wrote an ! next to it, and in a second, I had two friends bashing it with me. That alone is up there with City Of Heroes' sidekicking system as one of the genius concepts of the genre, destined to be copied by anyone who actually wants their players to have fun.

Soon, I was a Necromancer with a pet panther, an eternally re-dying zombie friend and bow-specific skills borrowed from the Ranger class. Each part of my armour was dyed a different colour, and no-one else in the world was using the same eight skills I'd chosen. My main quest thread had been leading up to an expedition outside the city, and when I finally got to that part of it, I was told it would start in a minute or so. When it did, I found myself on a hillside with three other characters I'd never met, all of the same level, dressed in natty team-coloured capes. The quest-giver warned us that the gate in front of us would open shortly, and we'd be facing the enemy. That turned out to be four other same-levelled heroes, to be battled in the Team Deathmatch style. We thrashed them ten nil, battled our way gleefully through the final part of the quest together, and even sat back and watched the pivotal cut-scene of the game together. The next paragraph is a bit of a spoiler.


The plot skips to two years later, and the lush hills and villages are a barren wasteland blasted by crystal meteorites, and roamed by weird rock monsters. It's a jarring moment, not least because you never quite expect a MMOG to say something like "Two years later", but the blow is softened by the fact that you're still with your new friends. In fact, you've been with them for two years apparently. It's an ingenious simultaneous enhancement and exploitation of the camaradery of MMOG partying, and a wonderful social gaming experience - for which, I might add, you didn't have to talk to anyone or organise anything. /clap

Oh yes, it went wrong. The party inevitably disbanded. The new location is relentlessly bleak, full of identical stone enemies and virtually no quests. The difficulty ramps up unreasonably, so that my previously uber character can no longer hack it against more than one of the basic enemies. The one quest I did get broke, removing the crucial NPC from the game world but leaving him on my minimap, causing me to get mobbed trying to get to his location. It had - until I wrote this and got all enthusiastic about what it does right - robbed me of all desire to play it again, despite an interesting-sounding armour-crafting system. But perhaps I need to give it another chance.

Update on where the hell I've been coming up!





 
2005/04/03 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven one three one point eight
Technology That Broke Last Month
  • MP3 Player: Corrupts a load of music I copy to it, crashing when any of those tracks come up in a playlist.
  • DVD Writer: Randomly creates what we affectionately term 'coasters' - utterly nonfunctional discs. This can happen at excruciatingly critical moments.
  • Work PC: Starts making a distressing throbbing noise. It's the day before deadline. I call helpdesk. "I'll see if someone's available, but to be honest it's not going to die just like that."
  • Work PC: Dies, just like that, ten seconds later. Goes straight to a Blue Screen Of Death on startup. Hard drive is corrupt, a lot of recent work unrecoverable.
  • Digital Camera: Screen displays random mess of colours. Unfixable.
  • DVD Writer: Creates disc that has all the files on it, but refuses to run an arbitrary selection of them. It is deadline day. It is, in fact, deadline hour.
  • MP3 Player: Turns itself off after being connected to the PC for more than thirty seconds.
  • Portable Hard Drive: Turns itself off after being connected to the PC for more than ten seconds.
  • Portable Firewire 'Shuttle' Drive: Disconnects itself from the PC after one minute of having files copied to it.
  • Virus Checker: Throws up a false positive on the disc. Everyone except the QA guy nearly dies - I may have actually been technically dead at one point. QA guy observes that the other four virus-checkers - including one which actually fucking works passed it with flying colours, and the one that complained is known for false positives.
  • Work PC: After fitting a new hard drive, it is now polite enough to wait until the CPU is actually under load before locking up and refusing to boot.
  • Work PC: After being taken away and having its heatsink, fans and cabling replaced, it is now the loudest PC I have ever heard, and it still doesn't work. The new hard drive is corrupt, and has to be wiped. Everything I've done since the last corrupt hard drive is lost.
  • Home PC: Resets when under heavy load. Then artifacts appear, then it stops running games at more than 1 fps or taking less than 3 seconds to scroll down a line in Windows applications. The graphics card has died.
  • Home PC: CPU core temperature is 75c. Heatsink is cold.
  • Work PC: FTP stops working.
It was annoying at first, then infuriating, then a total crisis, then ridiculous, then grimly amusing, then by the sixth thing it just became routine. I had to assume everything would break forever, and it did, eight more times. It's a very peaceful way to live - when you're expecting everything to work, it always falls slightly short of your expectations or usability hopes. When you know it will fail, it's probably the only time technology ever functions exactly as you expect it to.

Doom 3

I wasn't going to talk about it here because I don't like to whinge too much - unless there's something to be said about how the good and bad mix, like with World Of Warcraft. But it had me in stitches just now. It's not that it's bad in an amateur way (although the monsters do appear to have been copied studiously from the back-page doodles of a fifteen year-old's exercise book), it's just that everything about it is so lame.

There's this bit where you try to open a door and it says "Hazard present, initiate clean-up procedure first." So I found the control room, and there's a claw thing and some toxic barrels behind the window. And sure enough, just like that arcade thing everyone hates, you have to painstakingly direct the claw to hover above the barrels, then manually lower it, then tell it to open, then close on the barrel, then manually raise it up and move it to over over the chute, then manually release it. The room is lit from the side, so you can't use shadows as a guide to where it's going to fall, and you're looking side-on so you can't judge depth.

It's not that that's the most tedious puzzle I've ever seen in a game (although I can't off the top of my head think of anything worse), it's just that I kept thinking of the bit in Half-Life 2 where you control an enormous crane, and troops pour out of a hangar, and you can sweep them away by picking up enormous storage containers and swinging them wildly, or you can crush individual ones by dropping the huge magnet on them, or even pick up your car and throw it into the fray. I have this image of Id painstakingly lowering, closing, lifting and repositioning their little claw while, at the Valve offices, playtesters are wiping out five people at a time swinging metal objects the size of houses. Id are all, like, "Man, this claw thing is going to floor them!"

Apparently it's coming out on the X-Box soon - it'll probably be well-received. The console gaming world seems from the outside like an abused dog. It suffers a steady diet of 3D platformers with nightmarishly uncooperative chase-cameras and first-person shooters sapped of any life by the agonising unsuitability of a gamepad for games in which you actually have to shoot, so anything with the most superficial of positive qualities causes wildly disproportionate tail-wagging. It's a dark, dark world where lookspring and auto-aim are defaults.

Anyway, I've been wanting to use this Adam And Joe quote for a while, and it's finally appropriate: I've played worse, but I can't remember when.

Good Things

Sorry, that got a bit depressing. I have actually been enjoying many great things lately, and life is good. In fact, even during that insane panic last month, I was on my way to another building to try another DVD burner, listening to something brilliant on my then-working MP3 player, and it hit me that everyone with a job they can endure which pays more than the rent (as yours does), and free time that is actually theirs, is in a very decent approximation of paradise. Entertainment has exploded into a galaxy of extraordinary works of art in our lifetimes, and anyone with access to it and time to enjoy it has nothing significant to complain about.

What kinds of things are good, you ask? Sleater-Kinney's new album is, like, wow. If you don't know them, they're not so much a girl rock band as a rock band made of girls - encapsulating all the 'fuck you' of feminism without any of the 'women are great' (myth). Actually they have nothing to do with feminism, they just play music loudly and aren't idiots.

M83 - a cross between My Bloody Valentine, Air and 'total sex' according to the NME, who are for once in the ballpark with their name-check cross-breeding - also have a new one, suspiciously soon after I discovered their last. They make music to see amazing things too, so either take hallucinogens or play World Of Warcraft when you're listening to them. Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun is the new On A White Lake Near A Green Mountain, don't you know. (Turns whatever you're doing into an incredible and profound experience - mix with a good mood for optimum results!)

If you don't require that the soundtrack to your life be new, you can always download a track so good it actually brought me to tears. That was on my two-hundredth listen - it keeps getting better. I'm scared of what might happen if I listen to it again. It's not emotional or anything, it's just unspeakably magnificent in its towering power-pop might.

Game-wise, Brothers In Arms is excellent. I don't really like World War 2 games - it never struck me as something it would be desirable to recreate (you don't hear a lot of veterans saying "Man, that was fun. Can't wait for a way to relive it in graphic detail.") - but this is just a good squad-combat game. The three keys you need to command your teams are super-intuitive, and soon you're setting up complicated tactical maneuvers without breaking your stride. It is also ace to climb on the back of a tank and then use the ordering system to tell it where to go. Woo! War!

An old woman said something pretty extraordinary to me recently. I don't know if any fellow young people have experienced this, but whenever I'm with my parents and they have a guest, and in trying to explain what I do/like they trivialise or demonise it, the guest will stand up for me and say why it's valid. On this occasion the woman, who is over eighty but I can't remember by how much, said "No, it's the next thing, isn't it? It's going to be like when man discovered tools, our brains are going to develop differently." She's not kidding. It's hard to convince people of this because it's entertainment, but gaming is the new frontier of human experience. Fear it, or play Pendulumania.

Avril

On April 1st 1976, the British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room.






 
2005/03/17 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven one seven seven point six
Hey, We Were Living On That!

The new issue of PC Gamer - 147 - is now in shops, with a twelve-page feature by me in it. It's about the tricks, treats and backstory that Half-Life 2 keeps quiet, and the idea really is to make you want to play it through again - and get more out of it when you do. 'Linear' is a bit of a misnomer - Half-Life 2 is different every time through, and the more tricks you know the more diverse and ridiculous your experiences with it become.

Also, the article contains the title of this post. I was as pleased to get that in as Craig was with sneaking "My precious torso!" into his Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory review in the same issue. Actually I'm mentioned in that, as I teamed up with him to test the co-op part.

Little Eye On The World

I once mentioned that my journey through hundreds of weblogs had revealed that every one of them is unreadably dull. I have since found one that isn't! Rob Brown's curiously titled site achieves that rare feat of judgement whereby posts are about things that are actually of interest to someone who doesn't know or care who you are, isn't going to click on a link you post unless you explain why they should, and has heard your view on politics from six other people this week alone. That - take note, authors of boring blogs - is everyone on the internet.

I've been meaning to link it for a while. He is primarily a film obsessive, but also a gamer and is about - I am sure - to post on "why [Darwinia] is so damn sexy". Other potential post-type encounters include memes (Nanaca Crash appeared there before I'd heard of it), gems (Blockland - the building MMOG - also covered early) and Joseph Manderley (not really, this is an odd Deus Ex reference). He has also recently added me to his link bar. This is a coincidence. Goodnight.





 
2005/03/10 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven one nine six point six


We wait. That's what we do. We play World Of Warcraft all the freaking time and that does, occasionally, involve waiting for things to spawn. It also occasionally involves waiting in a queue to get on the server. The spawn delays put me off in the beta, and I irritated you by whining about it then, noticed I was being irritating and vowed not to write about it until I had something positive to say. So please count each of these pictures as an "On the other hand, this is ace." point.




If it was called Game Of Warcraft, I might ask for my money back, even though I didn't pay for it. But World it is, and exploring that world is one of the most incredible gaming experiences I've ever had. Each region is stunningly beautiful, and more importantly profoundly distinct from the last. As an Undead from Tirisfal Glades, I started to get homesick while questing in the Barrens of Kalimdor - it's that different.




In fact, arriving in Kalimdor was ace. Lots of us - Future people - are Undead, so we'd been ganging up on the humans in our homeland and standing around together waiting for creatures and named bosses to re-appear (only to have their 'aggro' snatched from us by some jerk who just turned up). But the Orcs and Trolls both live on another continent, and were fighting together in Durotar, the region containing The Horde's HQ metropolis: Orgrimmar. So we all hopped on a zepplin, which at the time I considered to be the best thing in the game and the primary reason for playing it, and wafted gently over The Great Sea to Kalimdor, dancing, emoting, summoning unnecessary minions and peering off the edge as we went.




It was night when we got there, and so our first proper sight of the huge canyons and deserts of the Orcish nation was with the moonlight gleaming off the sand. Guildmaster Hank informed us that he and the others were directly south of Orgrimmar, so we zombies trundled malcoordinatedly across plains and through valleys until we met him - a lone greenskin, bulkier than any of us, in a ridiculous white shirt. There was much waving and pointing at each other's pets, then we all joined up with the others, who were battling harpies in a gulch of some kind. We stormed through this quest we didn't have or understand, then trekked off across the vast expanses of The Barrens to Crossroads, an isolated outpost that is the true epicentre of Kalimdor.




I picked up a quest there that mentioned the word Wharfmaster, and immediately decided I would go wherever it was talking about on the promise of a wharf of some kind. I love that word, and the associated location is always atmospheric. Never more so than Ratchet, though - it turned out to be a sleepy frontier fishing village. The wharf - really just a single pier - is what makes it frontier: the boat that sails from there (every bit as awesome as a zepplin, by the way) goes directly to Booty Bay, an uneasy truce town in Alliance and Horde eye each other worriedly under the suspicious glare of the mixed-race guards, who frown upon any inter-faction violence pretty hard. It is - though this seemed impossible before I left - even more beautiful than Ratchet. Interconnected wooden huts on waterborne stilts, built against the cliff-face below a tropical jungle, a stunning waterfall cascading down from the river above.




So I have to recommend it. It would be tragic to miss out on probably the most comprehensive and exquisitely realised fantasy universe ever created. But I suggest you treat it as a tourism experience with RPG elements. My misgivings about the 'game' bit of the game were echoed pretty much universally among the large guild I play in, even as I was starting to see the pay-off for enduring the annoyances. One month in, only a few of the annoyances still grate painfully - the impossibility of escaping a hairy situation, the arbitrary creation of sticky situations by monsters materialising immediately in front of you, and the fucking chat box that won't let you get back to the game to deal with said randomly spawning enemies without sending what you've written as it is or losing it entirely - the decision between which is utterly impossible to make when having your face eaten by a goddamn bear the size of an affordable car.




What still prevents me from enjoying the business of killing things and completing quests (which is 95% of the game - there are no exploration quests and seeing these fantastic places means either grinding to an appropriate level for them for days, or spending most of your time there as a ghost, running back to your corpse) is the soulless RPG at the heart of it all. Combat is a mess of error messages,° progress bars,¹ hits that shouldn't be hits² and people walking through each other. Quests are a matter of collecting a certain number of a certain item which may or may not drop when you kill a certain monster: they drag on for hours of random frustration. Elite quests, for which you must group with others, are identical save the enemies having more hitpoints. Levelling is a ruthlessly mercenary affair - you never have to choose between skills or spend stat points, you just buy everything available to a character of your class and level, and become qualitatively identical to all other characters of your class and level.

° "You're facing the wrong way! Invalid target! The target needs to be in front of you! That's still recharging! You need to be standing to do that! Your target is dead! That's not ready yet! That's too far away! You don't have a target! Not enough mana!" City Of Heroes fixes every single one of these automatically. Error messages are not fun.
¹ Seriously, almost all spells require you to wait for a progress bar to finish before you can cast them. Sometimes the progress bars go backwards. Progress bars are not fun.
² Combatants are quite happy to stand five metres from each other swiping repetitively into the air immediately in front of them, and worse, the game is happy to award these as hits. Fans of turn-based RPGs might see this as a minor graphical shortcoming, but as far as I'm concerned this means the close-combat system is basically missing. It doesn't happen. Cahracters gesture vaguely in each other's direction and numbers rise from their heads, but that is not fighting. In City Of Heroes, it always feels like you hit. In fact, short of something like Riddick, City Of Heroes has some of the most visceral face-punching in any game, let alone the broadly airy-fairy Massive genres. I never thought I'd say this to you, Blizzard, but perhaps it's time you played other people's games. For the first time, you're in a genre where someone else is doing it better, more intelligently, and it's more fun.




You've got to be the same as other characters of your class so that Blizzard can know you'll be balanced against others of your level. You can't be allowed to make choices about how your character develops because you might regret them and cancel your subscription. Quests have to take ages because you can't be allowed to get through them or you might stop playing when you do. The combat system doesn't have to suck - they just didn't play City Of Heroes before they built it. But they're terrified that anything other than the painfully predictable might happen, and that's not how a MMOG should work. It's a joylessly teleological approach to game design, and it has resulted in a game that I can never love despite the passion, brilliance and herculean effort that went into crafting the exquisite world in which it takes place. If I were an artist at Blizzard, I would be stabbing WoW's project lead in a dark alley.

Score:






 
2005/03/05 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven two one zero point nine
Sixteen Military Wives, Thirty-Two Softly Focused, Brightly Coloured Eyes

I was up till two thirty Thursday morning writing a review that I then decided not to post until Friday. I feel like I shouldn't use my 'insider access', such as it is, to write things for my own website that I wouldn't otherwise be able to do. So I wrote an interim entry to indicate this, and that swelled to over two thousand words, and in the end I never got round to making the links links and picking some images. I didn't even get either piece up for Friday, because I ended up going back to my parents' almost immediately after work. So, as ever, there comes a deluge of text after a desert of silence. And I don't have my screenshots here so this will be text-only until Sunday night.

Last week was deadline week, and since I'd written twice the amount for that issue as I did in my entire first year at the magazine, I was a bit behind with disc stuff. Then my PC died the afternoon before deadline day, then when I took all my drives home to do it there, the DVD writer produced a coaster at the last moment, and I had to rush between the various Future towers of Bath getting the last bits burnt. The sheer panic and related lack of sleep has given me ulcers and a sore throat, neither of which have gone away yet, and this annoys me.

The disc vs writing thing is a pain, because writing - let's face it - is very easy and a lot of fun, even when you're stuck or don't care for your subject matter. Writer's block is nothing compared to the total shutdown your brain undergoes after renaming one file too many, resizing the last screenshot that you can bare to resize to those muscle-memorised dimensions you can bare to resize.

Hence: me writing into the early hours for a thing no-one reads. Hence also: there will be a big and awesome thing in the next issue of PC Gamer (147, on-sale March 17th) by me. How awesome? I'm credited as Agent Tom Francis.

Darwinia

The process of understanding Darwinia goes a bit like this:
  • It's what, a Tron RTS?

  • Oh, you control squads like Cannon Fodder, and you've got to wipe out the virus.

  • Ah, but it's like Lemmings. You have to get the green guys to the machines by getting one to direct the others.

  • It's all about the souls! They're the resource and you have to take them from the enemy to win. Hey, what are those ants doing? OH GOD!

  • Now the green guys have guns? So are they my army or are the squads? Who are the red guys? OH GOD!

  • Ooh, I liked the blue cubes. What do the red cu- OH GOD!
It keeps on opening up. By the final level you're playing six different games at once, and they intersect with each other so intelligently that the result is a kind of uber-game, or meta-game if you want to be a bit trendy about it, that lets you play across the surface of these aspects to it, and dive into whichever you feel like or needs your attention at the time.

The new things are scary, but the chain-of-islands structure of each level lets you take it a bit at a time; do the bits you find easiest first, and establish a safe-haven and tackle the tricky stuff from there. When it plays with that structure a bit - as when a Triffid on one island is firing virus-filled eggs onto your island - your craving for a sanctuary means you instinctively plan and execute aggressive surgical strikes into infested lands without even realising the game has lured you out of your tactical shell.

The aforementioned final level takes this even further by making each island of the map a microcosm of a previous archipelago, so that each one requires a completely different tack, and your degree of success in one informs your strategy with the next - and even your choice of which to tackle next.

It has a story, too, and that gets breezed over a bit, which is a shame because it's beautiful. The Darwinians are an AI experiment a research doctor has created within a game-like world, to see if he can evolve a virtual life-form. As you might know, real researchers are doing almost exactly that to advance AI - grow it rather than program it, like an organic thing. Dr Sepulveda, though, wanted his experiment to be a digital theme park when it was done - people could float around inside it and watch the little green guys doing stuff.

A virus got loose, bien sur, and it's taken over most of the virtual world. As you clean it up, rebuild the Darwinian population and get the machines that form its delicate and magnificent ecosystem of souls back online, you start to wonder how much of this is background fiction and how much is actually going on inside your computer. The system seems so carefully and intelligently constructed that you don't see why it shouldn't work as an AI development experiment, and the Darwinians themselves are forever doing unexpected things that seem to bely an intelligence beyond their aimlessly meandering facade.

Even if you can resist the charm of their aimless individuality, your heart melts when Sepulveda gets talking about their history. When you come across polygonal head-shaped monoliths on one map, he explains that he once messed up a texture replacement and a live image from his webcam was plastered all over the sky of his digital world. Long obsessed with their creator, the Darwinians were so delighted with this glimpse that - after days of celebration - they built the statues in tribute and put them up at 'sacred' locations like the Biosphere.

This obsession with their creator actually lands them in some trouble, and the minor revelation at the end of the game is a wonderfully charming missing piece of the puzzle that is the game's premise. There's even a brilliantly knowing crossover into reality when Sepulveda's gift to you for ridding the land of the virus is the level editor with which you can add to and modify his - and Introversion's - life's work. There's a very pointed passing of the buck to the community, and an encoded admission of the limitations of a small developer relative next to the creative powerhouse that is their cult following. Like nearly everything about Darwinia, it's satisfyingly digital, heart-warmingly organic and profoundly intelligent.

Score: this is the Deus Ex of strategy, a wildly ambitious Whole New Thing that fuses an ecclectic mix of existing elements in such a clever and excitingly open-ended way that the result soars over the achievements of its precursors.

Staring At The National Ten, Thirty-Two Gently Clutching Wrinkled Little Hands

Kieron, mentioned here once before, is some kind of natural magnet for praise and respect, so of course I instinctively resent him. This is offset slightly by his association with Deus Ex and respectable musical taste, but when I read his Cradle article in the current issue of Gamer, I still did so with the kind of scowl that says "This had better be extremely good for me to even think it's okay." And it is, dammit.

The juicy bit of the piece, though, isn't him talking about the genius of what is officially The Scariest Level In A Game Ever, nor the interview with its creator or breakdown of its innermost secrets. It's the fictionalisation of its story into a straight narrative describing the history of the place - the stuff you would normally need to do some digging, piecing together and imagining to discover for yourself. Elsewhere he says the great thing about its story is this piecing-together you have to do, but feh to that! I played the level and missed out on masses of the stuff in the article, and it's not until you read it as a story that you realise how remarkable it is, and how many characters are involved.

The level is one of Thief 3's, and if you read what I wrote about that when it came out, you may have deduced that I didn't like it. I did not. But the piece is still a great read. It'd be a great read if I wasn't even interested in games. It will be a great read for you, when you read it, which you will, because you can. On-sale now! Hopefully when it goes off-sale some scans may be floating around the net, and I will link those if that happens. I don't know if it's the kind of thing to which the New Games Journalism manifesto refers, since it's not terribly subjective, but it is certainly games journalism that is New.

This all ties in to something that is popping up more and more - in Jim's words: "we're not in fucking Kansas anymore... there's nothing unreal, fake, or virtual about it." We have always known this, of course - it's the intro to the Games section of my Media page (which I will update this week, promise). But perhaps now things so undeniably remarkable are around and being talked about that it will become more believable to the outside world.

Seventeen Company Men, Out Of Which Only Twelve Will Make It Back Again

Everyone wants a Succubus, but my reason wasn't the normal one. I actually think the Succubus model is a bit crude, and the chin glows oddly like it has a small white goatee. The reason I wanted one was that the first time I found the Warlock trainers in Undercity, I tried to talk to the Demon Trainer's Succubus thinking it was a person. It is a pet so impressive that it's not at first clear which is the master, or even that there is a relationship between the two. I'm a witch, with makes the parity all the more interesting. If I strip down to my underwear, and for various reasons I often do, we are essentially two crazy monster women in bikinis - she with wings, I with the missing bits of flesh.

People stare. Males of my race - Undead - stare with glaring eyes and jaws agape, because their vitreous humour has been replaced by a firey hatred of the living and their facial musculature is in disrepair. Sometimes they emote at her - coy shoegazing, kiss-blowing, dancing - one orc simply pointed and ran off. It's cool. We - the burning legion, the forces of evil, simply The Horde - are all friends. I get into it a bit. I played Warcraft at 12, and its rich fiction is embedded in my subconscious and exciting in a way that only things reminiscent of childhood can be.

That's why when I saw my first Alliance, I ignored the eighteen-level difference and stabbed him in the neck again and again until his pet crab gored me. Then I ran from the graveyard to my corpse, got back in it and did it again. A Troll hunter and I eventually killed the offending Gnome, but the ghost-runs and eventual resurrection delays were time-consuming, and I eventually learned to restrain myself in some of the more hopeless cross-faction encounters.

Some people take it too far. A Tauren was fishing off the pier while that battle was raging. Others wave at passing Alliance, welcoming them to our lands. Usually they're technically Contested territory, but there are areas that are pointedly ours, and pink-skinned trespassers are not always killed, and it bothers me.

This time, it was firmly Horde territory. Even on a PvP server, Alliance can't attack Horde on Horde turf unless "They started it!" It was a mixed group, Humans, Dwarves and Elves, all in their thirties. They stopped when they got near me and a few other zombies in the area. I glared at them. They waved. A zombie waved back. One of the Alliance started dancing. I kept glaring.

It was the Dwarf - he blew a kiss to her. I clicked. She whipped him in the face with her lash, I cast Curse Of Agony and then Searing Pain on him, then jabbed my staff into his head. The group exploded, spell effects showering everywhere, ice encasing my feet while fireballs flew, axes hacked into me and unpleasant-looking icons started appearing on my Active Effects list. I went down as nearby Horde rushed to the scene. It was territory only really suited to twenty-somethings, but Horde territory, and they came out of the woodwork - not all twenty-somethings, either. War broke out, and every one of what was now officially an Alliance raiding party were slaughtered by giant bull-men, zombie assassins and shape-shifting Orcs. When the smoke had cleared I clicked Reincarnate - a handy Warlock trick I had set up in advance - and got up, dusting off my robe. My Succubus returned to my side, and I blew a kiss to the Dwarf's dead body as I left.





 
2005/02/05 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven two eight nine point five
Numb And Number

As promised, I've got a sample chapter from my abandoned sci-fi book for you here. It's chapter three, because that's the first one with the three main characters in it, and it has both words and actions! It's a chick-flick for the guys! The only things explained by previous chapters are actually fairly obvious from their context here, which makes me realise the exposition-heavy first chapter was probably a big waste of time. E-mail me with comments, should any occur to you.


Pablo

By a slim margin, Pablo never saw me with my hair; I met him the day Alex and I shaved it off. We did this kind of on a whim - my whim - and what I didn't know at the time was that it would never grow back. I've kept my static clipper-stick at the same setting since, and it's never so much as nicked a strand. I hadn't grown any stubble since becoming super-human, but I just thought they turned it off because they thought my facial hair was long enough - I hadn't considered that they might have felt the same way about my primary hair. Anyway, we shaved it off that day and it's still the same length now. Probably. I'm not sure where my corporeal form is at the moment.

"Gah! Look at my hair! It's ridiculous!" I'd left the drying phase of her shower before it was done with my hair, and was putting my trousers on. Realising I'd just asked her to look at me, I put my T-shirt on as well, just before she got up the energy to shuffle across the carpet on her back to see through the bathroom doorway.
"It looks okay."
"It's all spikey and wild!"
"It's always spikey and wild."
"I know! It's ridiculous. Look:" I held up a hand and, with the other one, some of my hair. "My hair is longer than my fingers!"
"I feel like I've missed something here."
"It's just... consider the ape." She looked at me. "The ape has hair all over! It keeps the ape warm."
"Don't apes live in tropical climates, under forest canopies?"
"... Okay, go to hell. Now consider the... this cup. This cup has no hair. It needs no hair, for its environment is never too cold for it."
"But it didn't evolve."
"Pah, design, evolution; they end up the same. Okay, now consider me."
"You seem okay."
"Thank you. But I'm never cold. My whole environment is permeated by a special magic field specifically to stabilise the climate to suit me perfectly in a T-shirt."
"You often leave NV. You were cold when we walked around in Alaska last week. I had to mother you like you were a tiny child."
"Well, you lent me your scarf."
"A tiny child with a big coat already."
"Then you took it back, and tried to steal my coat."
"A child with a freezing mother."
"But this is a good point - when I'm cold, I have to put on protective clothing anyway. Why have this absurd tuft covering just a tiny patch of my surface area?"
"70% of body heat lost is through the head."
"So the hair isn't working anyway!"
"You know that doesn't follow."
"But if it's really there for warmth, couldn't it be thicker rather than longer?"
"You could try a wig."
"Not with all this hair in the way! Okay, let's put this another way - Alex, I want you to shave all my hair off."
"Okay." She stood up. "You're going to have to take your shirt off again."

When I was human, I was human and a programmer, meaning a) if ever I were fit, I did not stay fit without exercising, and b) I did not exercise, nor was I ever fit. One of the many weird things I discovered when I woke up as an android - when I got up in that dressing room, in fact, if you remember - was that I was inexplicably sinewy. Not exactly muscular, in that my frame remained as skeletal as before, but now hard and interestingly contoured rather than soft and blank. I would later discover that no amount of decadence or inactivity could ever change this, and I was doomed to be strong, fast and attractive for evermore.

My long-term reaction to this has been, underlying the guilty pleasure, shame. I've always been politely modest about nudity and never wanted to spontaneously subject anyone to the sight of my body, but now it's like a dark secret that my stomach actually looks kind of good. If someone sees, nearly sees or is about to see me shirtless, I get the same panicky, hot-headed feeling I get when someone says something that, for a microsecond, makes it sound like they know I'm an android. I think I'm scared they're going to say "Hey, you don't exercise, why are you so lean? What are you a robot?"* Or maybe just think I cheated, that I care enough about this stuff to achieve it with drugs.

* This is an Alexism - she doesn't quite say "What are you, crazy?", and she doesn't quite say "What, are you crazy?", so I just don't commit myself to a comma position.

This time, though, I'd walked right into it. There might have been a way out if she hadn't already commited us to the shirtless school of haircutting, but she had, and it would at least be out of the way and I could start accepting her invitations to go swimming in interesting places. She went off to find some clippers and I took my T-shirt off again.


I met Pablo that night; it was Alex's birthday, so everyone was coming for an awkward social event in which almost any pair of people attending would have no common link other than her, and she would be far too busy with other people whose only common link she was to act as an intermediary. She'd even called it her Awkward Social Event, because so few of her friends knew each other. Her sister was coming too. She's a few years older than Alex, and her name is Claire Alessandra Morshower, which you'll notice bares an interesting relation to Alex's name: Alessandra Claire Morshower. The first two names are switched, you see? Apparently her dad came up with the name Alessandra Claire for her sister, and her mother wanted some way of ensuring he wouldn't be entirely fulfilled by this first daughter so they'd have to have a second, as opposed to a son or no other children. She didn't want to give the first a name he actively didn't like, so she came up with the switching idea, which made it tantilisingly close to what he wanted without being good enough. None of this would have done much to quell Claire's inevitable resentment of Alex when they were young, so they didn't tell either of them until they were older and on good terms. Claire is a 2D designer. I'd vaguely wanted to go along with Alex to see her parents that day*, but didn't say anything, so I was planning to say hi to her sister, and talk 2D.

* Parents like me, and parents of people I consider cool are usually also people I consider cool: the kind of personality I like is too mild and friendly to be the result of rebelling against an opposite, so virtually the only way you can get it is to be raised by people who have it themselves. I already liked the sound of her mother from the crazy naming trick. Also, I'd feel like an ersatz boyfriend, which would be kind of cool.

I looked insane. I looked like I'd had amateur brain surgery, or joined a cult. I looked really intense and raw, and when I made a face everything was expressed threefold. It was like how drama students wear black - it focusses your attention on the expressions and makes them more vivid; although my transition had involved losing a lot of black rather than gaining any. I tried to look serious, and looked scary. It had turned out to be a rather bigger thing than I'd anticipated, but I was still convinced it was the only logical length to have it, and it would therefore ultimately grow on me in a way that any less logical style could not. Over the next month, I would begin to realise with a very slowly mounting sense of panic that it would not, in the literal sense, grow on me at all, ever. I ran my hands over my head. It felt like nothing else.

Alex asked permission to feel it, which I was hardly going to deny because she'd had to touch it to cut it anyway, and an artist has a right to admire their work. She called it fantastic, and I announced I was heading home to do some things. Her fingers burnt like crazy on my head, much more so than when she'd been cutting the hair - being touched for the sake of being touched is a deeply unpleasant experience. This wasn't why I left, we'd already arranged that. I wanted to come back when the Awkward Social Event was in full swing, to get the maximum awkwardness from all directions, rather than one by one as people turned up, because that way I might actually get good at it or have a meaningful conversation with one of them.


It was mid-day, so there were a lot of people on the waterways and my bike's speed was down to fifteen m/s in places, having to stop totally at a few intersections, hanging over the still black surface and smiling at some people walking on the pavement, neurotic about looking mean with no hair. It hit thirty on the stretch out of Central towards my sector, the rushing air cold on my head, making me feel a bit more extreme and in touch with stuff. I let it slow to a stop under the cold shade of my balcony, sitting sideways as I got close then jumping off at about three m/s and stumbling in through the big open doorway.

I call that floor the bar - it's just a circular table-top in the middle, eight high sofa-chairs around it and foliage towards the ends of the elliptical floorplan. The tall jungly plants make it feel like a hotel cocktail bar near a swimming pool or something, which I like. I've kept the house I woke up with, but used a lot of the impressive credit God gave me to customise, and this has given rise to the names: the big circular basement below this is the cave, and the small circular level above it is the kitchen. Actually not a lot of imagination went into that one. Oh, and the balcony I left the bike under is called the deck. It's really big, and - as the only naturally sunny part of the house - a great place to eat.

I poured a Nuclear War from the apparatus at the back of the room, sat in a high sofa-chair and flicked into overlay mode. I'd had an idea to get some kind of absurd thick-haired wig for Alex's thing, so I was browsing, and a message from Alex herself turned up. My voice explained that Pablo was saying he wasn't coming, and Alex was going to be too busy being sociable to other people to talk him into it, so if I wanted an early start on the awkwardness I could try and persuade him. I decided she hadn't realised I had no idea who he was, so asked her. She said his name was Pablo Picasso and she knew him from work, which - and not just because I'd thought she was unemployed - only raised further questions.

I didn't ask them and decided to do it, because I'd be kind of a jerk not to, and - having not actually dealt with any awkwardness yet - I still had my aggressive enthusiasm for social clumsiness and uncertainty. I toyed with the idea of getting the wig first and wearing it to meet this bizarre new person, but my imaginings of how that would work out seemed more like a fevered dream than a good idea, so I drank the rest of my War, winced and left.


He had black hair, a bit like the stuff I'd had earlier that day - rather slick on top and regular on the face - only he was genetically and phonetically American. He made a negative face and said "I just think it'll be awkward, you know?"
"She's calling it the Awkward Social Event." He laughed.
"Well, she didn't tell me that." He changed his expression. "D'you think it's not going to be awkward, or that it doesn't matter that it is?"
I looked blank. "Actually I'm just asking you to come because she made me to ask you to come. Now I know how her sentences must feel."
He looked serious. "So you've got no logical backing at all on this?"
"Well, it has a self-ironising title."
"Uhuh, but I can enjoy the title from here."
"That's true." I was slowtiming to think of witty things to say to impress the new person, but it wasn't working. He had a glass of something red on the balcony rail, though, and I was going slow enough to see that the arm returning to his side was going to knock it off; by the time it did my hand was already in position, and I caught antipodal points of its rim between thumb and middle finger, letting it swing ponderously from the momentum of its tiny drop. The drink slow-splashed over my hand.
"Wow, nice catch." It was a phenomenal catch.
"Thanks. I try, you know." I instinctively licked my wet hand, then felt a bit weird about having done it. Wasn't it a bit like taking a sip of someone's drink without permission? No, clearly, but I still felt weird. I changed the subject. "Well, I can see you've thought this through and I really haven't, so I'd like to concede and check if my wig's arrived yet."
"I th- what? No, don't answer that. I think you want to sit here and think of reasons why I should go. I think you're the arguing type. Also you could wash your hand." He pointed me to the open slide-door.
"I think you want to be talked into it." I slipped off the railing and walked over.
"Oh, I do."
"Oh. Well that sort of takes the edge off what I thought was a biting psychoana... ah! Fu-" Something stung me on the back of the head during the word 'psychoanalytical' and I lost control of my body. I decided to say something other than '-lytical observation', but by that time my slow collapse had brought me headfirst into the closed half of the door. As I slid lazily down the glass, the friction dragging my cheek up toward my eye in an undignified way that brought shame upon me and my family,* I noticed I could see Pablo behind me in the reflection, pointing a sleek gun at where my head used to be. It was a cool gun.

* I don't mock my (genetic) ancestory as often as I do my (AI) version history. Sometimes I even sing 'Daisy, Daisy' out of tune, but I don't know if anyone would get that even if they knew I was a synthetic lifeform.


I'd been hit by a Q-Round, I reckoned - Zee-Rounds don't sting, I think I heard in some film once, but then neither should Q-Rounds because the whole point is that they knock you out instantaneously. I thought about two things:

1) Maybe androids are immune to knock-out drugs: our bodies might be basically human, but the drug must work by doing something to your brain, and when it got to mine it would have found a dark, glistening palace of semi-conductive soft metal, and squirted ineffectually onto its gleaming surface. I would think.

2) Q-Rounds are even more restricted than guns themselves - the only kind of person who could possibly have them, we're told, is a State Agent (the type of law enforcer who's effective enough to be ordered around the world to places where they don't have people that good) or someone a State Agent has just shot (because they stick in).

The problem with the idea of Pablo being a State Agent is primarily that he wouldn't have just shot me if he was, but also that he's not wearing a uniform. This left three scary possibilities branching off from that one:

2i) People are getting hold of Q-Guns without our knowledge - whether because the State doesn't know (scary), or because it didn't tell us (worse).

2ii) A State Agent has gone crazy and is trying to kill me (odd. A bit inconclusive).

2iii) The State knows about androids, and... wants them (terrifying beyond words).

My paranoid fantasies about people discovering my secret have never been entirely clear on what the people would do to me if they knew, but I am filled with nameless dread by the very idea of their knowing. The State setting out to subdue all androids and take them into custody or something would be like my worst nightmare. No, in fact, within my worst nightmare, the Efty enduring the endless terror and suffering of that, when he sleeps, his dreams would all be nightmares, and nightmares of a situation much worse even than his own, and this is that situation. The facts that a) no Efties based on me would be capable of sleep (whatever the point of sleep for humans, it's not an issue for androids), and b) Nightmare Efty wouldn't be allowed to sleep even if he was capable of it; are ignored for the purposes of this illustration.


I didn't get up. I should be unconscious, I reasoned, so no-one could blame me for just lying here. I might be unconscious. I have plausible deniability on the consciousness issue. I plausibly denied my consciousness for a while, sans comfort or dignity.

When I was human, I used to absolve myself of the guilt of ignoring people's messages by arguing that I could easily be asleep for all they knew, so it couldn't be any more wrong of me to ignore them than it would be to be asleep, and presumably going to sleep at weird times was morally conscionable. It didn't make a lot of sense then either, but it helped anyway. I don't think I really care about the moral implications, just so long as no-one finds out I don't. It irritated me a little bit that I wouldn't get to go inside and wash my hand.

As I watched Pablo's reflection from my wierd angle, he walked over to me. My heart was beating with an uncomfortable force and frequency from having stupidly thought up this possibility #3, which I now couldn't shake, and some kind of instinct kicked in. I had a decent idea of where he was in the real world behind me, so I jerked my foot into the side of his knee. The nice thing about slowtime is being able to see how slowly everyone else's minds are working relative to yours. I outclass you guys insanely. Pablo, though, insofar as anyone can look something other than idiotic in slow-motion, was pretty on the ball. By the time I'd twisted over to kick him properly off balance, he'd recovered from the surprise and had the gun nearly in my direction. I batted it left with the back of my hand whilst rolling right and kicking out with both feet. You can also exercise a satisfying sort of perfectionism in your movements in slowtime - the feedback loop between your efforts and your awareness of the physical results is going at five times the speed, so you can control everything precisely. My feet both hit his left shin, unpleasantly hard, but he balanced on the other foot as that one was knocked from under him. I was in full survival mode now, and when he brought the gun round for another try at shooting me (despite the fact that it didn't knock me out even when he actually hit) I grabbed it with both hands and yanked it toward the space above my shoulder, hoping to use my grip on it as a sort of anchorage point from which to bring both feet up into his stomach. Unfortunately he let the gun go immediately, making me kind of throw it into the ground above my shoulder as I realised in time to let go myself, but not in time to stop my arms.

He ran backwards with his hands up, I grabbed the gun and jumped to my feet.
"Okay, okay, you're hired!"
I tried briefly to understand this, then shot him three times in the chest and called Security. Even if 2iii was true, maybe the City Agents weren't in on it. Funnily enough I knew one of them; he was a nice guy.





 
2005/02/02 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven two nine seven point eight

I've Been Writing This Letter For Too Many Years - Post Version 1.0: Now With Links And Hover-Captions


I've been playing Eve - so much that I didn't even manage to update this the weekend that was followed by four days off, nor the weekend after that. But right now I'm making a four-jump trip to a distant region of The Forge to pick up a boatload of Mexallon at an unbelievable price, and contrary to paranoid newbie guides to the game, you can go and do something else on long journeys.

I'd dabbled in it before, early last year (it's eighteen months old, but doesn't look it), but after the tutorial I wasn't really sure what I could do except mine. Mining is not immediately exciting, and I gave up. In fact, I think I spent more time designing my character's face than actually playing the game. Since you can change your ship, the only persistent visual identity you have is a tiny thumbnail portrait, but the customisation process for that is the most stunning and organic character creation I've ever seen. Here, for example, is my character:


This time, at the part of the tutorial where I had to buy a Shield Booster, I had a quick glance at the prices in other solar systems in the same region, found a much better deal and flew there to get it. It broke the tutorial - the guide kept telling me to buy a Shield Booster when I already had the exact model he suggested, and had even fitted it to my ship. It seemed I needed to take the bad deal at that station. First, though, I looked up buying prices in other solar systems, and a short while later I'd sold it at a profit, come back and bought the necessary Shield Booster and also a cubic meter of Spirits. The tutorial sucks, but the game does not.


If you fancied wildly understating matters, and we most of us sometimes do, you could call it an open-ended sci-fi space game. It's a game so open-ended that at first it appears not to be there at all, it's as sci as fi gets, and its vision of space and the ships that warp through it is breathtaking in its ambition and elegance.

Provided a game doesn't do too much to offend me, and its setting is one I find exciting, the business of completely obsessing me is fairly simple - give me enough game concerns that there's no room in my head for real-life ones, and I will forget to stop playing. Largely because of a fluctuating player-driven economy and time-based skill learning, Eve genuinely becomes a second life that you have to keep checking up on and dipping into to make sure everything's okay in there, to keep your character developing and making profit.


When you're not in a war or hunting down player outlaws, you only half-play Eve - most people run it in a window, listen to music, browse the web or pretend they're listening to loved ones on the phone while playing. In an appealing way, it mirrors what a real space trader might do while his ship autopilots from solar system to solar system. And like a space trader, you're well used to the extraordinary vistas and dazzling stars that surround you on your long journeys. But every now and then you'll sit and gaze out at them in wonderment anyway.


I am a space trader. I have no actual trade skills, but I know what a good price for Mexallon is and I buy at it when it appears. The trade aspect is wildly addictive on a level that other trading games are not, because you're buying from and selling to humans. I'm never sure if my insanely profitable and short trade routes are helping people out or outwitting them - the buyer could have flown to the nearby system and got it from the cheap seller himself, but whether he doesn't have the time or just didn't know about it is something you never discover. Certainly there are many players who are too big-time to make half-hour journeys to save a few bucks. But sometimes it's not half an hour, and sometimes it's not just a few bucks.

The upshot of this lifestyle is that I often make more money than I've ever seen from my latest brilliant deal, and then immediately check the markets for my favourite commodities. If there's a big sell order and the unit price is right, my newfound fortune is gone quicker than it arrived, and I'll only get it back if I can find buyers for the stockpile I've just acquired. I've started saying things like "Buy, buy, buy!" "The market's crashed!" "I'm going to have to liquidate my assets," "My money's all tied up in Radar Clusters," and "I don't have the investment capital to make those kinds of margins work."


This is as far as I've got, the passive life. After this, once I've got some important skills, I'll get into player-versus-player ship combat, and join in with the apparently constant war the Corporation of which I am a token member is waging. The level up from that is faction politics, the relationships between player-run Corporations and their standing in the galaxy. Territory is valuable and contested, and an excellent account of a major recent event exemplifying it exists on the State Wiki.


The Trumpet Sounds

Darwinia - oh my God. The demo is out now, and a measly 10MB, of which 9MB is sounds. I'd played a little bit of it before, with no guidance or real clue what was going on, but the world was so weird and beautiful that I enjoyed just poking around and seeing what I could do. Now that I've played the demo and got to grips with it properly, it turns out there's a game in there too. An extraordinary one at that.

Much of the appeal is that it feels so fresh. Not just visually, although it's hard to name a more imaginative game environment, but in terms of what you do. To call it an RTS is misleading - it's more like a Lemmings meeting Cannon Fodder via their mutual friend Mr R T Strategy. You blast swarming virus-snakes with your squaddies, and they leave souls behind. Vulnerable Engineer units can collect these and take them to Incubators, where they'll be turned into Darwinians. Darwinians are probably a metaphor for humans from a machine's perspective. I will explain through the medium of a Seinfeld quote:

Elaine: My goldfish are dying!
George: Your goldfish? Who cares? What do they do?
Elaine: What do you do?

The Darwinians don't appear to do anything at first, you're just told to look after them and something about their ambling, defenceless nature makes you willing to oblige. They need herding. They can't be controlled directly, you can only suggest where they might like to go by an intermediary Officer. It soon becomes apparent that everything is designed around the Darwinians, and so they're the only things that can operate the machinery you find. Of course, the ultimate point of those machines and the game itself is to ensure the Darwinian's survival, so their purpose is as circular as that of the human race. It's funny how a purposefully primitive, over-digitised game can both look and feel so organic. It's a profoundly liberating and soulful experience.

The Devil Speaks

Half-Life 2 still obsesses me. It's finally crossed to that special set of games for which I no longer know how many times I've completed them in total, and can only offer a monthly figure. About once and a half.

I've probably got as much new life from it because of my new £27 ($(‚¬)) 5.1 surround sound system than I have from the various mods, although they do inlcude some pretty substantial ones now. My last speakers had precious little bass, and that aspect is as big a difference as the surroundness. Both enhance Half-Life 2 unspeakably - the whole room shakes from what used to be faint explosions in the distance, and the shotgun sounds like the end of a small world when you use the alt fire. It is as the sage Moby once put it: "Sound system rocking massive."

Oh Virginia

Garry's Mod has pretty much surpassed JB Mod as the discerning player's preferred way of messing with Half-Life 2's physics, and tonight I decided to let my frazzled brain toy with them inanely for an hour or so. I clicked on spawn-buttons randomly, then tried to make something out of what I got. After some false starts, I got a wrecked car. I shot car wheels onto its busted hubcaps with the Wheel Gun, then scrolled the mouse wheel up to make it go forwards. It worked. I had tried this before, on Sandtraps, so it was no wild thrill this time. (Last time I'd turned the wheel velocity up to maximum and sent it crashing through a fence to crush two soldiers against a house).

I looked over at the lake that is new with this version. I wondered what it would take to make the car float and - when it was floating - whether the spinning wheels thrashing at the water's surface would propel it along. It took about twenty medium-strength balloons, and yes, they did.

I shot a balloon onto Breen's corpse. The top strength of balloon is such that it will almost counter-act a person's weight, causing them to hang upright but not take off. Breen hung upside down. I swung him over to the water, and he hung on its surface, his head just submerged but the rest of his body above water. It was oddly poetic.

All this lacked direction. Surface-skimming in the near-hover-car was great, but limited. I spawned a floor-piece - a big square platform - and shot balloons onto its corners while standing in the middle of it. It wasn't quite enough to lift it, so I shot another dead in the center, and we rose. It was a moment of childish glee - I had achieved safe, thrilling flight. My direction would be 'up'.

I hit the invisible ceiling, as I knew I would. It's a bit like hitting a cloud, in terms of altitude, and it makes no more sense. I was wedged between a hovering platform and the roof of the world. I turned God Mode off and saved my game. This was my game: to get back down safely.

This is actually the objective of the demo level of Tespasser, probably the first FPS to use physics any real way. I never worked out any ways to do it - my options were pretty limited: knock small crates over clumsily, shoot at Velociraptors on the ground.

Here my options, as I saw them, were thus:

Method: My first thought was a stepping stone - I could freeze something lower than this platform, jump onto it, bring the platform down and freeze that, and so on. I couldn't really see anything I could pull towards me, though, except a failed hanging-body sculpture that went wrong because the women have lower mass than the men in Half-Life 2, meaning she shot up to the ceiling while the men still hang face-down on the water surface. A body hanging by a helium balloon is not usually your first choice for a platform, but freezing does wonders in that direction so I pulled the body over. I was able to lay it out in a star-formation to give maximum steppable area, and jumped onto it safely.
Outcome: I slipped on a downward-sloped limb a few jumps later and plummeted to my death. This drove home just how far above the ground I still was after a few minutes of careful manoeveuring. This would not do.

Method: Lift the weirdly light Ravenholm graveyard statue from the ground, and use its larger shape to make longer, more confident jumps down.
Outcome: On my third jump I accidentally unfixed the statue while I was standing on it. My gravity beam was holding it as I fell, so it experienced a sudden downward jerk on one end. As the two of us plummeted sickeningly, the other end swung round so violently that it batted me halfway across the map before I hit ground level. But not ground. It had knocked me all the way over to the lake, and I sunk safely. Success!

Method: Lift the near-hover-car up to my position, hop on it and float elegantly down to safety.
Outcome: Easy enough to get up to my level, thanks to its weightlessness, but freezing it there after the fast journey made the balloons wobble wildly. I hopped on nonetheless, and the car duly sunk. A little faster than I fell, in fact, causing me to fall further down onto it, which knocked it further down, which caused a fall more dangerous still. I froze it, to be safe, and slid off to my death.

Method: Lift the near-hover-car up to my position, hop on it and float elegantly over to the water.
Outcome: This actually worked perfectly. I kept good control of the car, brought it easily over the lake, and was even able to guide it gently down with me still on it. It stroked the water's surface as it landed, and I hopped off onto the surrounding pavement as it drifted on through my hanging-body acquatic sculpture garden. Success!

Method: Lift the jeep up to my position, climb in and drive off. I felt sure I wouldn't take fall-damage in the car.
Outcome: Jeep too heavy to lift off the ground. I dived to my death in misery.

Method: Shoot balloons onto the jeep with the Balloon Gun to raise it up, get in and drop to safety.
Outcome: Sucessfully raised jeep up to my level with balloons, dragged it over to me with the Physics Gun, climbed in and hung there, now upside-down. My weight was insignificant next to that of the car, even less next to the lift of the balloons. I got out and fell sadly to my doom.

Method: Shoot just enough balloons onto the jeep to make it liftable, pull it over to the platform, get in, float down.
Outcome: Pulled it over to the platform so hard that it knocked me off. Fell to death. Subsequent attempts saw the car shooting straight past me, slipping off the edge or being dropped too soon. This was taking a long time to re-do for each mistake.

Method: Shoot just enough balloons onto the jeep to make it liftable, drag it up and - before it falls - attach it to the platform with a rope so it can't fall all the way back down.
Outcome: All went according to plan. Now the car is hanging beneath the platform, and I am on top.

Sub-Method: Swing the car up onto the platform, which is easier now that it's constrained to it quite closely.
Outcome: Went to plan. I got in, drove off the platform and swung underneath the platform, upside-down, clutching the wheel tightly. After swinging there for a moment, I realised that I should have detached the rope before I got in.

Sub-Sub-Method: Get out of the car in mid-air, detach the rope and get back in while it falls. Shades of GoldenEye, I admit.
Outcome: Got out, fell. Landed alive - incredibly - on five health. Unfortunately, had already pressed the rope-detach key. Crushed by falling car.

After this, my brain was no longer frazzled. And that is why you should play Garry's Mod. The new version has pulleys. Ignore the ragdoll posing that everyone else gets caught up on, the mod is really all about the physics. You can almost tell from the intro paragraph on Garry's site:

"So you've played Half-Life 2... and you loved it. Now you want to mess around with the physics. This is what my mod is for. I wanted to mess around with the physics too and that's why I made this mod. You could say that I made this mod just to mess around with the physics - but then released it to the public. PHYSICS."

Here's To Believing...

Okay, so you've heard about the Counter-Strike Source bots now. But did you know there was a script-mod to turn them into a slavering pack of zombies? Zombie-Strike Source actually just puts them all on the same team and restricts them to knives - an idea a lot of us have had before - but ZSS does it all for you and does it with flair. It even renames the bots to have 'Zombie' in front of their names - yes, you've just been killed by Zombie Quentin. I think that's what I like about it most - it turns the enemies into zombies by simply telling you that they are, and putting them in a situation that forces them to act like zombies.

And act like zombies they do. They swarm in huge numbers, lurch out from dark corners, attack you from behind just when you thought you were safe, and run directly into your line of fire regardless. The idea is that you team up with friends on a LAN or online, and I can testify that two is an excellent number. One is also very doable, and a lot of fun, but the advantage of two players is in moments like the one earlier tonight, in which Rich and I both had to reload at the same time, while one zombie was still scampering towards us. We both finished reloading and blew him away in a musical alternation of shots. It was a little - but not a great deal - like this scene from Pulp Fiction:


Then suddenly the bathroom door BURSTS OPEN, and a FOURTH MAN
(as young as the rest) comes CHARGING out, a silver Magnum in
his hand.

We DOLLY into a MEDIUM on him.

FOURTH MAN
Die...die...die...die...die...die!

The Fourth Man FIRES SIX BOOMING SHOTS from his hand cannon in
the direction of Vincent and Jules. He SCREAMS a maniacal cry
of revenge until he's DRY FIRING.

Then...his face does a complete change of expression. It goes
from a "Vengeance is mine" expression, to a "What the fuck"
blank look.

FOURTH MAN
I don't understand --

The Fourth Man is BLOWN OFF HIS FEET and OUT OF FRAME by
bullets that TEAR HIM TO SHREDS.

He leaves the FRAME EMPTY.

FADE TO BLACK


So put Jeffrey Lewis' definitive zombie-shooting anthem If You Shoot The Head You Kill The Ghoul on a loop in Winamp, start a game on de_dust2, exec the zombie script, buy a pump-action shotgun, a high-explosive grenade and a magnum, and consult your book of Bruce Campbell quotes. They come.

Rich - who assisted me with this grim duty into the early hours - happened to visit the official site of the mod earlier, and it currently bears a single quote, by of all people me: "They might not look like zombies, but when sixteen of them swarm mindlessly toward you, you realise that they are zombies." I don't often add comments to news posts, but the one on ModDB reporting the release of this mod had only negative or apathetic feedback, and I thought it deserved better. The title of my post was "Awesome." I'm glad he liked it, and a little freaked out that it was on his page a few hours later.

To Virginia

And now, a word from our psychopaths:

"After my fasting and prayers, I asked God to make his choice and direct me to a honest Christian or the chosen ministry that deserves this fund by his Grace. I then came across your address on the Internet as I was browsing through a Christian site, and as a matter of fact, it is not only you or your ministry that I picked on the Christian site initially, but after my fervent prayer over it, then you were nominated to me through divine revelation from God, so these are how I received such a divine revelation from the Lord, how I got your contact information, and I then decided to contact you for the fund to be used wisely for things that will glorify the name of God."

My friend, your God is screwing with you.





 
2005/01/02 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven three eight zero point nine
Is It Me You're Searching For?

Kieron Gillen linked to me just before Christmas, because he knocked me down some stairs while he was falling down them at Tim's Christmas Soirée. I was very nearly as drunk as he, didn't feel a thing and couldn't even imagine where the graze on my knee had come from the next morning. I drink in rare but intensive bursts.

So that broke down the social barrier previously preventing him from reading my blog. The preceding evening broke down the social barrier that had previously prevented me from talking to him much - the invisible wall that forms between you and anyone whose stuff you've been reading for years. Communication through this wall is very limited.

Anyway, the number of visitors James had received had been climbing inexplicably over the last three months, but the influx on that day dwarfed that rise completely. So 'mad' 'props' to Mr Gillen for the exposure and kind words.

The other interesting thing I discovered looking at the Webalizer statistics for James is what people searched for when they arrive here from Google. A lot of people list this stuff on their website, and yes, it is often amusing how inappropriate your site is for some of these strings. But I would like to help these weary travellers in their quests, and I think I have much of the information they seek. Here, in descending order of popularity, are those strings and everything I know about them:



Funny you should ask, I'm something of a black headcrab fan. These, for anyone who doesn't know or care, are the scariest form of face-hugger type enemy in Half-Life 2. They take you down to 1 health with a single pounce, irrespective of your prior status. Interesting corollary: that means they can't kill you. Another interesting note: your health will shortly climb to its former glory, thanks to your HEV suit's automatically-administered antidote. So black headcrabs on their own are no problem at all. They're kind of a liability in a firefight, though - you wouldn't want one as a pet.

The best way to deal with them is the crowbar, if you can get to them. Be bold, run straight at them and hit before they can - I even like to pounce (duck-jump) at them in a kind of wild attempt to be scarier-than-thou. Confidence, Cohen. If you can't, Zero Point Energy Manipulate a breezeblock or a spanner in their direction.

Psychological note: despite all that reassuring counselling, black headcrabs are terrifying. There's the unmistakable cat-hiss they spit that means it has seen you and is about to pounce, and just the massive trauma of losing all your health like that. Even when you realise it comes back, it leaves you totally vulnerable. I also like that they have stubbly hairs and blotchy freckles.



Yes, hello! I'm the most important Tom Francis on the internet, according to Google. I'm twenty-three at time of writing, and Disc Editor of PC Gamer UK. I'm predominantly male, and on a scale with heterosexual at 0 and gay at 10, I'm about a 3. So is Dave Eggers, my favourite writer.


You can and should e-mail me at pentadactgmail.com. Tell me, if nothing else, what your favourite colour is. And where were you at mid-day on New Year's Day? I called, but nothing.



A great chapter, but I don't know why it starts when it does - two-thirds into the buggy section along Highway 17. It should start after the lighthouse battle, when you leave the car and take the cliff path to the bit with the Antlions. Anyway, maybe you're looking for help. The very start is I think that bit where you take the car through a zombie-infested tunnel. There's a vent on the right that leads to a dark room - go in there and crowbar the headcrabs. Now the fast zombies can't get to you, and you can take them out at your leisure. Awesomely, a regular zombie bangs against the reinforced window trying to get at you. He just keeps slapping his clumsy claw-hands against it. It's absolutely chilling. It's not that you think he'll get through, it's that you know he can't, but he doesn't. They're mindless, and they hate you. All they want to do is kill you.

The lighthouse defense bit - you can actually go straight to the lighthouse, get to the rocket crate and shoot at the dropships as they come in to offload the troops. If you shoot one while it's offloading, it'll kill the troop it's offloading, explode a bit, then hover off in fear without unloading anyone else. Do it to all three and neither you nor your comrades will take a hit before the gunship cometh.

Tip for the Antlion Guard (the big thing - it's not a queen. Why would a queen be the most effective fighter? She would be all about the eggs) - the crossbow, as in the original Half-Life, is the ultimate anti-boss. Run straight to the far end so you're near the turret, shooting all your crossbow bolts into it as you go. When you run out, if it isn't dead, super-shotgun it. Easy to get all your spread to hit even at mid-range, lots of damage, commonplace ammo.



I have Jane Austenesque sideburns, Al says. So I merged my face with his and created that oddly convincing visage.

Colin Firth is okay. He was going to be Arthur Dent at one point. That would be okay. I find it quite hard to have any strong feelings about Colin Firth. I did once read a short story by him, it was part of The New Puritans collection - a load of short stories written according to a very realist stylistic manifesto, a literary equivalent of Dogme. Compiled by Nick Hornby I think, to raise money for autism. I'd recommend it, except that I really fucking hated it. It had several stories in which truly horrible things happened, and that was it. I hate that. Yes, you can appall me and scar my brain with an image of cruelty I will never truly forget. And I can never read you ever again and tell everyone I hate you. But it seems like that isn't how the entertainment thing should work.

This is actually why I don't read much. The popular stuff is romantic or tragic, both of which bore me, and the alternative is a minefield with a good book in every ten, and a pointless, miserable attack on your psyche in every three. Stop thinking you're an artist, you'll produce massively better art.


Oh, right, Colin Firth. His story was actually perfectly innocuous. Sorry to rant on your space, Mr Firth, but I was essentially assaulted by that book you wrote for, and it has made me feel better to lash out. Perhaps people would like to see your IMDB profile, where it lists films you're going to be in over the coming year or two. I'm sure they'll be reasonably good. I will watch The Edge Of Reason if it'll make you feel better.

Two more things on these subjects: 1) please don't tell me grisly stories or tales of emotional cruelty, anyone. I will never, ever forget it and will think about it at least three times a day for a month. Each time, it will be lived out in spectacular detail in my mind. I would much rather you punched me in the face as hard as you can, but even better: don't.

2) I have mild versions of lots of trivial symptoms of autism: avoiding physical contact, unusually good marks in maths, actually liking maths, having strong and usually negative reactions to smells and tastes - and hence disliking a whole load of foods most people consider perfectly reasonable. There were some others, but I forget. I am sure this is not a coincidence, I think whatever it is that gets called autism when you've got it bad, it's possible to have it in other degrees than bad. I have it in good.

Here is Oprah Winfrey's list of books Colin Firth likes. God bless the internet.



Oh stop! Google, you flatter me. I guess I use this word sometimes. Here are some things that are hilarious:

Overcompensating, South Coast Diaries, A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible.



Ah, corks, we meet again. My nemesis ever since I moved to Bath, the first story of my woes with corks and corkscrews occured on my first night in this flat, and I end it with the fate-tempting claim that, from that moment on, everything was just fine. Since then corks have split both lengthways and laterally, disintegrated, refused to come out, and then finally about a week ago my corkscrew itself actually snapped in two inside a cork. The metal snapped. Sheared clean off. Defeated, I asked for a new one for Christmas. In a much-appreciated gesture of wild excess, my dad got me the most effective corkscrew in the world.


It's called the Connoisseur, but I think of it as the Corkfucker 9000. You can't destroy the cork - if you strike it down, it will become more annoying than you can possibly imagine. No, the 9000 simply removes it neatly, quickly and with a silent but terrible force that no cork can resist even like a little bit. It clamps the bottleneck in its steel yet rubber-softened grip. You pull the lever and the screw piece drives down in such a perfectly calculated spiraling descent that it appears not to move at all. Rather, there is a moment when it is not in the cork, then a moment when it is. And while it sinks deeper, the actual shape of the remaining section of the screwpiece is absolutely unchanged. The metal is gliding down into the soft flesh of the cork like a razorblade on a waterslide. Removing the cork is just a matter of moving the lever back up, and both motions are so slick that it feels like there is no cork, no bottle. It is an epiphany.



A game with so much tactical freedom that to play it is to create collaborative art with the developers, art in the medium of infiltration. Right now I'm in one of my "Half-Life 2 is better" moods, but that changes from day to day. Deus Ex remains top of my Games section in Media because it is definitely a bolder work, a call to arms for developers to stop filtering the player down a single path, stop telling him what to do, stop asking him to jump through hoops. Games can be so much more than that.

It's the only RPG in which I've created so many diverse characters that I've actually exhausted my imagination before I've exhausted the possibilities of styles of play. It is dizzyingly liberating, and some people don't like heights.

My favourite moments are here.







Easy enough, just use Winamp. If you want to listen to Half-Life 2's music while playing - and I can recommend that - you'll either need to extract the MP3s from your GCF files using GCFScape, or download the soundtrack. Is that legal? It hardly seems relevant. It's not wrong, and you won't get caught. More than that you cannot ask.

Something people have searched for in previous months is the possibility of bots in Counter-Strike Source. There aren't any legitimate ones. Apparently there's some code in there for them, and the pirate version unlocked this, but I seriously doubt they were much cop. This does suggest, though, that they might be coming somewhere further down the line. I love bots too. I wonder if they'll have have them for Half-Life 2 Deathmatch - I imagine that would be difficult.


Yeah, the idea there was that you have to drink the pieces you take, so that the winning player gets more drunk and is at a disadvantage, evening out the game. It's a lovely idea, one that seems contrary to the ill-conceived ethos behind most drinking games, which seem to view drinking as a punishment. Here it is both a reward and handicap, which mirrors its real-life role neatly.

Outside of this glorious fusion of nerdiness and intoxication, my favourite drinking games are generally TV ones. Frasier invented the Antiques Roadshow drinking game, whereby 'veneer' is the only trigger-word. There is also a Frasier drinking game in which, amongst much else, you are obliged to drink everything in the house if Frasier is seen wearing shorts.



My old Action Quake 2 clan; Killing For Jesus. The name lives on as the IRC channel we hang out in, and it's become a social circle involving a lot of people who were never in the clan. No bad thing.

I was the knife-man in KFJ. I could hit a rooftop sniper in the forehead from ground-level before he could reload his bolt-action, and wherever possible my special item was The Slippers. I didn't take them to intentionally try to sneak up on snipers, it's just that everytime you run into anyone, they're surprised and you're not. It was a beautiful game.



I don't find the idea of people searching for 'psychopathic' too disturbing, but I am not a high result for the word. The people who get here searching for that are on page 108 or so of Google's search results for the word. The first 1079 results didn't contain enough psychopathic action for these people.



Eventually it will explode. My one-off webcomic. It wasn't at all hard to think up, and as you can probably tell it didn't take a lot of effort to draw, yet I have never had a single idea for a strip before or since. I had only one comic in me. Now it is out.

If you love someone, that can be quite problematic. But loving something is often entirely safe, so I recommend you indulge. If it's 'killing', however, exercise caution.



Bender: Spare a penny for the anti-mugging-you fund, sir?
Leela: Bender! We're not that desperate.
Fry: Oh yeah, well what do you suggest? A daring daylight robbery of Fort Knox on elephant-back? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard!

Homer is stupid, but Fry is usually just very confused. He is a caffeine-addled gamer capable of just enough academic success to drop out of college, and he occasionally gets himself confused with other people. He's my hero, and I am honoured to be a result for his wise words.

The scene occurs in The Cryogenic Woman, an emotionally traumatic episode heavy on bleakness and despair, and biting commentary on a loser's helplessness before a girlfriend and also on LA. If there is any Futurama you haven't seen at least twice, no matter who you are, obtain it immediately and watch it again and again. It was beyond question the sharpest, funniest and most compelling comedy of any kind ever. The Simpsons is banal next to it.

Also worth noting is that the DVD commentaries are actually worth listening to. Producer David X Cohen comes through as the soul of the series, as funny as the characters themselves and an irresistable visionary.
"Those are the Segways. They haven't caught on yet in a big way, but by the time you listen to this I assume you're standing on one right now."
"Did you hear those jerks in San Franciso tried to outlaw them?"
"Why, they pollute too much?"
"No, because they get in the way or something, I don't know."
"If you ask me, they're getting in the way of the future."





 
2005/01/01 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven three eight three point two
2004: The Year In Review

The hotly anticipated sequel to well-established indie developer God's 2003, 2004 picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. Fans of the twenty-three part series will remember 03 ending on something of a high note - you'd just got a job at a games magazine, and you were finally able to wake up at noon and not get dressed for days at a time without the paralysing guilt that provided 03's toughest challenge: the burden of having to look for work. You're at home with a few close friends, drinking sherry and listening to Death Cab For Cutie's The New Year at impossible volume. The soundtrack throughout 2004 is superb, and littered with similarly appropriate choices. Early on in the year, for example, you find yourself humming The Futurehead's First Day continually throughout the nerve-wracking opening sequence to your job.

The new characters are generally more interesting and likeable than 2003's, but there are some odd decisions in this area. Your predecessor Jeremy, for example, barely features after the first few months. Similarly, recurring character Matt is almost completely absent, despite working for the same company. These are nit-picking flaws when you consider the excellent ensemble cast of your colleagues, many of whom were referenced in previous chapters without any indication that you would eventually meet them. But they cast a phantom of doubt over the feasibility of the story, and there are bigger plot holes to come.

God's fanatical dedication to realism is as dominant here as ever, and the visuals in particular are near photo-realistic. But the question of exactly why you get the PC Gamer job is never satisfactorily answered. When questioned, the characters responsible cite your enthusiasm as the deciding factor, but it's hard to believe the other applicants couldn't muster a few keen words to say about computer games. Worse, you have virtually no technical knowledge of discs, and toward the end of 2003 you were rejected at the earliest possible stage for a cryptanalysis job at GCHQ for which your qualifications were perfectly appropriate and well in excess of the 2-1 grade minimum. There's even a wry nod to this inconsistency in the final few months, when a GCHQ game is featured in the mag.


Once the job storyline picks up momentum, though, any doubts about feasibility are forgotten. The atmosphere in the three office levels is great fun, and the aforementioned new characters are hugely entertaining and likeable. The introduction of a boss - a convention the series has avoided since 1998's headmaster - is expertly handled: editor Mark Donald is at first noticable by his ominous absence, so his actual introduction comes at a time when you're already comfortable with all the other characters. Even during this time, though, a kind of affinity forms when your suggestions for the magazine's impending redesign turn out to conform almost eerily to what he's already privately planned. This relationship is strengthened through general agreement in the excellent monthly meeting sequences, and it feeds into the engaging dynamic that only truly comes into play during the boss fight: the momentous annual Top 100 discussion. In it, your character spearheads a daring movement to raise Deus Ex to top of the list, a move way above his station. Excitingly, it quickly gathers support and even a majority vote. We can't spoil the ending, of course, but we will say it's neither defeat or victory, but feels oddly like both. At first it seems an unsatisfying conclusion to an intriguing thread, but on reflection feels more like a statement on the virtue of compromise.

On the subject of mini-games, 2004 introduces the most remarkable yet, and it comes to dominate the later sections of the year. It's enhanced by another subtly intelligent touch: the emphasis of your character's life has already been profoundly shifted toward games by the time Half-Life 2 is introduced, and comparisons to those you've been playing until that point - excellent though many of them were - work very much in Half-Life 2's favour. It's remarkable that God are so willing to make more work for themselves by making the mini-games almost as rich and detailed as 2004 itself, but if this is a hint at the direction of future instalments, it's a surprise we can be thankful of. The mini-games have long been the soul of the series, and in 2004 they finally seem to be fulfilling the potential they've always promised.

Another aspect that's come a long way since 2003 is the humour - series regular Rich has some excellent lines, and while the protagonist still falls back on cheap surrealism and Futurama quotes too often, he has the odd laugh too. The new characters are all sharp and sometimes unrealistically quick, but even the silly puns are so sublime that it's hard to hold that against them. Mark Sutherns has some particuarly hilarious lines - memorably during one of the two office move segments: "Oh God, a crate of beer. How are we going to get rid of that?" Other highlights include:

Ross: (wearing a San Andreas bandana and a Boris Johnson T-shirt) Any of you motherfuckers want a Jaffa Cake?

Tim: I need three joypads in the next twenty-four hours or I won't be able to eat for a month.

Craig: Everything cultural I know, I learnt from The Simpsons - usually Lisa explaining it to Homer.
Tom: You are Homer.
Craig: Actually if Lea and I get a kitten I'm going to call it Homer. Because kittens are clumsy and dumb.
Tom: But then when it grows into a cat it'll be all sleek and elegant.
Craig: No, I'll just keep it stupid by feeding it harmful chemicals.

Inevitably with a creation of this complexity, there are bugs. The most serious of these prevents your character from responding to even the most basic organisational commands, flatly refusing to tidy up, pay bills or contact his landlord about serious problems with accommodation. At one point this almost lead to a crash when his inability to pay Council Tax led to serious warnings, but it seemed to rectify itself in time to escape any long-term problems.

There are also non-technical problems, such as the near-sexist exclusion of major female characters, which is made less forgivable by some memorable, if flawed, examples in past episodes: 2002's Jess, for one. Familial instances, one real-life and one text-only friend recur, and the latter - Susan - remains one of the most interesting and superbly-written characters yet. 2004 doesn't feel incomplete for this deficiency, but the series will have to rectify it eventually if it's to avoid becoming repetitive.

2004 is an amazing experience, superior to 2003 in almost every way. God continue to show an uncanny knack for recognising each instalment's shortcomings and fixing them, but more importantly, 2004 sees the introduction of a wealth of exciting new elements that will define the saga for years to come. It ends with your character and Rich dancing drunkenly to The New Pornographers on a hilltop overlooking Bath at night, aglow with streetlights and fireworks, and the comparison to 2003's low-key end sequence visually highlights 2004's exciting advances.

Score: 91%

Developer: God
Publisher: in-house
Release: 1/1/2004
Multiplayer: up to 7 billion players
System Requirements: ran smoothly on my mid-range IQ 136 brain, with only slight frame rate reduction during visually intensive scenes such as those with strobe lighting.
Alternatively: Death (0%)





 
2004/12/19 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven four two zero point eight
It's Just That It Was Powered By Ten Thousand Imprisoned Demons

I've cut my clicking finger! What the hell do I do now? How will I indicate what I want to watch? Who to shoot? What to download?

Actually I used a bit of logical reasoning and now it's fine. My instinct was to keep sucking the blood, and common wisdom is that if it's dripping a lot you need a plaster. Both kind of work against the body's own solution, which is that blood automatically solidifies on contact with air, sealing the wound and letting it heal quickly. Also I didn't have any plasters. But if you just leave it, the blood seeping out turns to a static gel in a matter of seconds and a structurally stable scab in minutes. The body knows its stuff.

Half-Life 2 Deathmatch

I mentioned I was playing this in the last post, but forgot I hadn't said anything about it. It is ridiculous joy. At first it was all about the Gravity Gun, and I stuck to it resolutely even when it was less effective to do so. This is a tactic I picked up in Action Quake 2 - use the most satisfying weapon, even if you have better ones. It was masses of fun, I got to feel superior to those lowly weapon-users, and I still came at least third, even in the big and high-scoring games. Once, when running down a tight corridor, I ran into a Combine soldier with an explosive barrel held in his Gravity Gun's jaws. A more trigger-happy player would have switched to a weapon and blown it up in his face, but I kept my Gravity Gun out as he froze and looked nervous about how close I was to him. I said, under my breath,

"Throw it, bitch."

He threw it, I caught it, I lept back and fired it at him. He didn't catch it. It's full of moments like that - the throwing and catching of objects is a wonderful and elegant interplay. If someone catches the radiator you try to crush them with, fires it back and kills you, you sit back and think "Wow! That guy's an artist." When you shoot someone in Counter-Strike and they shoot back, hit you in the head and kill you, you think - and usually say - "What the fuck? What the fuck was that?" Then there are duels - they catch it, throw it back, you catch it, throw it back, etc. You know at any moment it could come at the wrong angle, or you'll get too close and the momentum will be too much, but you're locked into it. And as long as you get it right, you remain unscathed.

Since they've nerfed the Magnum, the other weapons make much more sense, and I'm having fun using those too now. The shotgun - best shotgun ever - is an artform, just weak enough to require the right fire mode in every situation for success. The Crossbow is now a good weapon, which is the big change from when the Magnum was a one-hit-kill. There are also death-screams now, and when you tear through the level nailing six different people to walls, their successive model-specific sounds collectively give rise to the impression of genuine slaughter.

It's tacked-on, of course - not at the last minute but about three weeks after the last minute. But apart from the tiny selection of maps, it doesn't feel it. It's truly unique, immediately fun, yet also a subtle artform.

Score: A rare case in which: radiator + face = fun.

Numb And Number

This was the title of my book, of which I have written seventeen thousand words - about a quarter of the story. I haven't been working on it frequently - I don't think I've even touched it this year - but I wasn't bored of it and still liked the idea. Today, while reading a book (The Eye Of The Beholder by Marc Behm - my cousin Will, who is a literary agent, sent it to me) I realised there's a problem with it. One of the two narrators is secretly an android, and there's absolutely no reason for him to be. Unless you count a weak and unargued philosophical point that AI will eventually pass the Turing test with flying colours.

It's too big a problem. My favourite part of his character is his irrational paranoia that people will find out he's an android. There's no way to make androids make sense in the universe, and it's such a huge and pointless leap of faith to believe in him. So I'm abandoning the whole project. I'll re-read what I have and post my favourite chapter here, so you can see what it was going to be like. I still quite like what I've written, which is good because it means I'm stagnating stylistically, and therefore have plenty of time to write stuff before I get sick of my old style and hate the start of it.

I will, of course, write a different book instead. One of the ideas I was playing around with fits well with a lot of other ideas I wished I could have got into Numb And Number, and I'll keep the Big Idea behind Numb too - it's probably the only good idea I ever had. Actually I might even keep the title.

I Think I Know My Geography Pretty Damn Well

I've been looking at my site stats and actually understanding them, and there's some great stuff there. The next post will be exciting and informative because of it. In the meantime, I have a photo of me and some of my colleagues at the company Christmas party. Remarkably, it was a Mardi Gras themed masquerade - refreshingly unChristmassy. More on that later.







 
2004/12/12 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven four three eight point zero
And Though It Broke Your Heart

I used to hate websites that just linked stuff, but I also used to hate websites that were just a list of stuff the author liked, and this one is already that. The fact is, there is a lot of stuff out there, and there is no great central linking resource that makes sure you see all the cool stuff. Waxy.org is a good start, though - pay attention to the right hand column and you won't miss much.

The best thing I found on that recently, and it's probably scrolled off by now, was How To Kill A Mockingbird - an insightful school-report analysis of the similarly titled novel. It really hots up around the point when they leave earth's atmosphere on a fleet of burning sharks.


You Had To Sell The Farm

For much of last week and the week before, my daily routine involved reading Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar with coffee (or hot lemon and lime squash, actually - try it) before work, playing Half-Life: Source at lunch (improvements are small and far between, but make a surprising difference), playing Half-Life 2: Deathmatch after work, then coming home and playing Half-Life 2. Right now I'm wearing a Half-Life 2 T-shirt.

I have crossed the line from enthusiast to fan-boy. I know there are things wrong with Half-Life 2 - the cinematic sequences are essentially unskippable cut-scenes; there are invisible walls all over the place; the infinite-rocket crates that are an annoying pre-requisite to taking down a gunship are annoyingly hard to find on your first time through, and it's annoying that you have to take some of them down to progress. But I remain a zealot, a devotee, largely because I can be and it's more fun. To begrudge Half-Life 2 those tiny flaws is to be down on gaming in general - everything else has many more faults, all of them more serious. Which is something I used to say about Deus Ex.

Is it better than Deus Ex? I have said so. I have also said it isn't. More often, I have whined about not knowing. I don't know. It ought to be an easy choice: Deus Ex lets you deal with its challenges with any of a huge range of tools, all implimented well enough. Half-Life 2 gives you one tool at a time, every one of them perfect, and presents you with interesting challenges that can only be dealt with by one or two of them. Choice counts for a lot, but so does perfection, and neither has the edge in the variety or adventure stakes. Time shows no signs of helping.


Nights Were Just Too Long

I'll tell you what I do know: The Great Destroyer is totally amazing. No-one really knows why they've knocked it up a notch, so to speak, but the results are so fantastic I keep moving them ahead of the track I'm listening to in my Winamp playlist. This is rare for me, I don't overdo it on one album, but this has been half of everything I listen to for weeks. Outside of work, that is.

At work, we now have an office music collection. We found ourselves with £100 worth of HMV vouchers for doing such a great cover for the Half-Life 2 issue (I can only imagine they would have given us ownership of the chain itself if we'd gone with my "Gordon Bleurgh!" tagline). Mark thought we should all choose an album, and the office playlist would be a rota of those rather than being dominated by the fascist Francis FM regime previously in place, broken by the odd fascist motown day from Ross. Here's what we chose, album names omitted where they elude me:
  • Mark: Lemon Jelly
  • Ross: The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
  • Sutherns: Pavement - Slanted And Enchanted
  • Me: The New Pornographers - The Electric Version
  • Craig: Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, in a sneaky two-for-one
  • Tim: Primal Scream - Best Of
  • Tony: Jethro Tull

With All Your Children Gone

That sentence about the infinite-rocket crates typifies what little style this page has, to me - if a sentence ends up clumsily over-elaborate, I re-read it and check it makes grammatical sense. If it does, I see it as a kind of triumph over anyone who won't understand it, rather than a mess that needs rephrasing. It's not the kind of thing you'd get away with in text intended for a wider audience - however! This brings me forcefully to an interesting discovery: last month this site got 27,000 hits.

Is a hit still what it was when I were young? To what extent do web crawlers and the like artificially boost this kind of thing? Would that account for a dizzying rise over the last few months? It's been on Google for over six. Can people actually be reading it?

It sometimes feels like we're part of a bit of a software revolution, a quiet and civilised one. Firefox's popularity keeps exceeding everyone's expectations, even as they raise them in accordance with its last excession. Google is the internet, and it works. The people who are doing it right are growing, and that feels new.

I guess these feel like more than just good companies because when they work together, the internet fulfills its promise. You just type what you want into Firefox's address bar and you're there immediately. It's barely a contortion of the language to phrase a question or topic in a way that will get you exactly what you want. If you used voice recognition, anyone out of touch with this stuff would gawp at your sci-fi wizardry.

It's because that part of it is so vital, the searching for things rather than the typing of addresses or the following of links, that Google owns the internet in a way Microsoft never will. Google are like the multinational of a utopian future, or an enlightened alien race here to help. This is their recruitment drive. This is their brilliant entrance exam. Are we really here? A world where a company that encodes job opening URLs into absurdly difficult maths problems - and lets its employees devote 20% of their working time to any project they like - is the dominant force in the new world widely recognised to be The Future? Does being good really work already?

I hear they've put an ice-rink in the Eiffel Tower. So yes, probably.

Here is the best holiday-related joke you are likely to hear this year:

Sutherns: My new year's resolution is sixteen hundred by twelve hundred.





 
2004/11/25 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven four eight six point seven
It's incredible. I'm not the quietest of players when I get involved in a game, but Half-Life 2 didn't just make me yelp or chuckle occasionally. I screamed, I jumped out of my chair, I cracked up, I clapped my hands in delight on five separate occasions. I love precious little in the world, but this I love. And so, if you'd be so kind as to click the title image below, I present to you my unapologetic gushing:


Since this is pretty much the best game ever, it's crucial not to spoil it. So if you haven't played Half-Life 2 but intend to at some point in your life, don't click the image above. If you're playing it at the moment but haven't completed it, you can go ahead - I'll stop you when I'm getting to the bit you're on. Otherwise, indulge recklessly.

If you're not planning on playing it, I hate you. No, sorry, I meant to say that I would paste some people's reactions from our forums to try to convince you of just how big a deal this is. Interestingly, now that I look at it, I was the first person to post after playing it.
  • Tom Francis: Well, I think I speak for us all when I say O.M.F.G
  • craigp: I agree with Tom's stance on everything.
  • little_bear: I would just like to say OH MY FUCKING GOD!
  • JonnyFriendly: Jeeeeesus. It is incredible. My name is Jonathan, and I've fallen in love with a piece of software.
  • hiphat: Utter genius.
  • Daniel: It's fucking amazing.
  • Markachy: I've just been blown away. Astounding. Amazing. Superlative defying. Ahhhh. Its far beyond what anyone could expect. Perfect.
  • Dabs: Been playing for most of today and I think Tom summed up my thoughts best: O M F G
  • Euronymous: I can't even think of words to describe this experience. I have only played a bit so far, but it has stunned me nearly to tears. The pinnacle of gaming perfection has been achieved. This is stunning.
  • Dan++: I am officially in love.
  • Karnage: Just... in awe.
  • Tyler Durden: BEST GAME EVER!
  • DarkPoet: Oh. My. GOD! This game roxors my boxors. Wowzors! It's incredible. LIKE ALL MY MOST AMAZING DREAMS JUST CAME TRUE!
  • Bard: Words don't describe the gaming experience I just had. The first time an in-game character looked up at me, I had a sense of actually looking into another persons eyes. At the moment I'm taking a breather; having a discreet joint, sipping a beer, mulling over what I've just experienced.
  • rumblebee: I've got work in the early hours of the morning, but I can't stop playing. I've been left almost speechless. It's the best game I've ever played without a doubt.
  • Mashed: A standard to which all game developers should aspire, technically, stylistically, artistically and in terms of gameplay and emotional involvement. No other game even comes close.
  • Tron: All I can say is OMG! I've had to drag myself away to eat otherwise I may pass out. Pure gaming genius!
  • The Baron: Guards of Columbus, this is groin-grabbingly amazing! A tear came to my eye. I nearly fainted, I was so mesmerised.
  • Monkey McBain: Incredible, every single flesh-tearing, bullet-rippling moment of it. I've never quite enjoyed myself to the same extent.
Danny (primary school friend, member of the mighty Kill Kenada and, most importantly, Guestbook signer) e-mailed me to say "Oh my God." I e-mailed Jim (who reviewed it in the mag a few months back) to say "Holy shit!" Basically the entire internet community is swearing and blaspheming at each other publicly and privately at the moment. This is the tip of an iceberg of gush, but all I have the effort to replicate here.

This is beyond gaming, it's the thing non-gamers should play to see what games can be like. It's also a stunning testament to what your PC can do, even if it's low-end. The characters and settings are more convincing and stunning than any CGI film I could name, and you're inter-freaking-acting with them. O - frankly - MFG. Click the picture!

A New Low (Album)

Called The Great Destroyer. That's from a line from Silver Rider, a B-side of last year's Murderer EP and one of my favourite Low songs. And curiously enough, there's a new version of Silver Rider on here. It's not upbeat, as such, it's just... louder and shorter. It's quite nice, but one of my favourite things about the EP version was its slow, cold atmosphere. This change is partially indicative of a broader style shift, but you don't care and neither do I. I hate reviews that harp on about progress or reinvention, it saps the life out of loving a band. I don't care why the songs on Great Destroyer are predominantly shorter and louder than most of their other stuff. I care that it's fantastic.

What worked on the Canada works here - Low's precise melodies turn from beautiful tones to catchy hooks when compressed, and I can't get Step, Just Stand Back, California or Broadway out of my head. It's not necessarily single-friendly stuff, though - each track's production and instrumentation has a different feel to it, and most of them are pretty cacophonic. Step might be infectious, but the attractive chorus bursts out of a pounding, crashing drone of a verse. Everyone's Song is rock with a headache, an angrily buzzing I Don't Understand, but with an infinitely more appealing hook straining to be heard over the pounding beat (which Mimi appears to have created by whaling on an oil drum with a two-by-four). Cue The Strings is as emotional as its title mockingly suggests, but stretches its mournful notes so long and loud that they almost become atonal.

All this makes it a pretty intense album, almost exhausting. But the ordeal leaves you as stunned that it all sounds so good as at the sheer sonic energy of it. It's like pop and noise put in a blender, and if that doesn't appeal then there's probably something a little bit wrong with you.

Score: turns out it's time.

Happily, I appear to have forged one of those great game-album associations you get when you listen to one for the first time while playing one for the first time, despite the fact that I never played Half-Life 2 whilst listening to Low. I never listened to any of my music while playing Half-Life 2, because Half-Life 2 has its own sparse yet frequently bangin' techno soundtrack that kicks in at key moments to enhance the tension, excitement or signifcance. I echo a great many people when I say that while this is not normally my sort of thing, it works brilliantly.





 
2004/11/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven five one three point nine
How Good Does A Game Have To Be?

Mr Sutherns and I have an ongoing argument about City Of Heroes - despite the fact that he's the one who put me onto it, I'm defending it against his criticisms. He says he wants more from a MMOG, stuff he can't get from a single-player game. Economy, culture, crafting and trade. He's not down on it or anything, he's just saying that's what stops it short of true greatness.

I have a softer definition of true greatness - City Of Heroes does these things right:
  • Character Creation: and I speak as someone who thinks character creation is at least 63% of the point of playing games at all. In City Of Heroes, I would have paid the sign-up price for the character creator alone.
  • Combat: I've never seen a MMOG in which it actually felt like you were hitting people before, and it's streamlined and intelligently handled to a fault.
  • Groups: even if you're a recluse like me, you just stumble into groups. It's not just the incredibly simple and intelligent "Look for group" and "Form a group" systems, it's that any missions can be done with anyone, and classes genuinely need each other. Plus, the diverse powers look beautiful together - even a small skirmish is like a box of fireworks on fire in a firework factory that is also on fire.
  • Being A Superhero: you just feel like one. Your enemies are genuinely doing bad stuff, civilians thank you, and you stand like you're about to save the world. The models and animation for heroes are impeccable, and it reflects the satisfying perfection of their comic book counterparts precisely.
For me, that's enough. It gives you ace group combat without asking you to understand anything or learn silly systems, and that's something no MMOG has ever done before. It's a Truly Great MMOG because, for many, it's the only MMOG. I can't play Lineage, I just don't care enough to work out what the hell is going on in it. I like the look of Eve, but not enough to learn what the five million skills do. You have to give me something before you can ask something of me, and the respective awesomeness and difficulty of those things have to be balanced in my favour, or it's not something I want to spend my spare time doing. Which brings me neatly to the next MMOG hope for impatient, irritable morons like me:

World Of Warcraft

I'm in the American beta, and I don't like it. I love Blizzard, usually, and apart from Starcraft I've completed everything they've ever made. Usually they just make such intelligent choices about how things should work, make it all so accessible, simple and easy. World Of Warcraft is sadly unusual.




My first few quests:
  • Go to place X and kill ten Ys: oh God, I hate these missions. They're the worst part of City Of Heroes. I go to X. I can't find any Ys. After a while, one materialises in front of me. I stand toe-to-toe with it casting my Warlocky spell while it swipes at me, although I'm facing in the wrong direction and its blows fall a good metre short of my character. It takes about a minute to die. I wait for another one to spawn. Someone else attacks this one first, so it doesn't count as 'mine' and I don't get the credit for killing it or looting rights. I try to group with the person. They accept, but I can't share my quest with them because they are "not suitable for this quest," so the problem continues. It takes me about half an hour to do this rubbish quest that I don't care about and am not enjoying.




  • Get me five skulls from this type of skeleton at the abandoned Smith: the same hated type of quest, but at least only five this time. But when I get there, there aren't any - just some corpses. After a while one spawns, but there's a whole crowd of people here clamouring to get their kills, so most of the time someone else gets it before I can. Eventually I attack one soon enough after it appears from thin air that I'm the first to hit it. It doesn't 'drop' a skull. They only 'drop' the skulls that they clearly have about 20% of the time, so I have to kill dozens to meet my quota, which means waiting for many more than that to spawn, because so many of them are poached by other players.




  • Kill Samuel Phipps and bury him with his wife: a nice backstory, and killing a specific person seemed like it could only be better than the mind-numbing precursors to this quest. I go to the place, and find a zombie with a completely different name. I kill it. I look around, and see the awful reality of the situation - there are five other players standing here waiting for the zombie of the right name to spawn for them, and if one of them attacks the wrong one first, as I have just done, they have to wait all over again. I join the queue and wait in awkward silence. Eventually I ask "So, who're you in for?" Nobody replies. A tumbleweed rolls past. Someone scratches their neck.



It's a horrible travesty, because the world is achingly beautiful. As with Warcraft 3, it has rather fewer polygons than most of its contemporaries (and doesn't run any better for it), but their artistry in their design and texturing is so exquisite that they ooze more life and character than any other game around right now. The Trolls in particular look like fantastic charicatures of faces you've never seen before.

And it extends to the environments. From my dark and foresty home I hopped on a Goblin Zeppelin, which took me on a three-stop tour of the world: an Orcish outpost in the jungly southern provinces of the otherwise Alliance-controlled Eastern Provinces, with a gorgeous sunset over the clear, reflective water and crazy dinosaurs stalking the lush vegetation. Then to the stunning dusty orange savannahs of Durotar, where a vast Orc fortress-city sits among Grand Canyon-esque scenery, dotted with flowering cactii. It's the first time in-game travel has actually had the same breath-taking impact, that all-encompassing disparity, that real-world travel has. When you go to a new continent, everything is different, and in every content, everything is beautiful. It's also helped enormously by the fact that travel is achieved by walking of your own free will onto a giant flying object - you can jump off any time, and the scenery that passes below you is very real. You can see other players carrying out their mind-numbing rat-hunting down there.




Dawn Of War

If you've played the demo, you're familiar with the mix of awe, joy and even affection that zooming in to watch your dreadnought flame, gun down, punch, smash and crush five orks at a time. It doesn't go away. And I don't mean because you get bigger and more awesome things to play with - although you do - I mean I still zoom in on my dreadnoughts and feel like clapping my hands together with what can only be called glee as he ploughs his way through fields of Eldar and Chaos. Only Battle For Middle-Earth - which isn't out yet and will probably suck - is anything like this spectacular, and Dawn Of War is here and superb. Let's look at why:



  • Things That Send People Flying Or Juice Them Or Cut Them In Half: I just talked about this. Editor's note: I seem to have lost my screenshots for this one, so I'll be peppering it with unrelated images.

  • Upgrading Individual Squads With Heavy Weapons: For the Space Marines, the only faction you play as in the story mode, there are four heavy weapons you can give a space marine squad, and they can have four total. Since you can also regenerate the number in a squad by having it auto-reinforce, this makes sqauds feel more like troops in Cannon Fodder than units in a regular RTS. Sure, you can afford to lose a few, but each feels unique and valuable, and if you're careful you can hang on to them. I find myself matching the 'personality' of a squads heavy weapon configuration to the hero I'll attach to them: the possibly evil Inquisitor gets all flamers (the evil weapon), while the Librarian gets a mixture of Missile Launchers and Plasma Guns because they're both long-range, and he has a 'Smite' ability that I like to use from a distance. The Captain, being a straight-shooting vanilla sort of guy, gets a squad with one of each heavy weapon, for maximum versatility. Silly, I know, but caring about your troops revolutionises a strategy game.

  • Strategic Points And Requisition: capture points to increase the rate at which your main resource increases. I look forward to the day when no RTS expects you to mine minerals on the field of battle with which to, what, construct people? That never made any sense. In Dawn Of War requested troops are flown in, and your structures are simply landing pads to facilitate this. The fact that advancing makes you stronger and able to build up faster coaxes base-building reclusives like me out of our shells and gets us into the business of fortifying forward bases and spreading our forces around intelligently.

  • Quick Build Times: overwhelmed? You can have a new army in the field before the fight is even over. It means a failed assault is never catastrophic, and even a decimation of your defences is redeemable.

  • Everything Rocks: this is Warhammer 40,000. Everything is incredibly cool. The Space Marines are by no means the good guys - they're a viral army of human clones fanatically dedicated to a technically dead emperor, and their masks make them look every bit as evil as they actually are. The Orks are murderously insane aliens whose technology is nailed together on the spot, and whose 'tech tree' is replaced by what can only be described as 'Waaaaaagh!' - a resource of pure bloodlust fuelled by conflict, and used to attract more orks and better kit. Chaos - specifically the Khorne cult in Dawn Of War - are zombified parodies of the Space Marines, with a mirror-like equivalency corrupted by diseased mutants and horrific machinations of technology, flesh and evil spirits. And thirty-story daemons. Lastly, coolest of all, the almost spectrally thin Eldar are the oldest and bad-assest race in the universe, and such know everything and hate everyone else for being so stupid. And dirty. The Eldar's own armour is impossibly sleek and immaculate, constructed of beautifully carved bone-armour plates and intricate meshes. They're faster than anyone else, sexier, more technologically advanced (with a fascinating tech-tree involving Aspect Stones that a building has to possess before it can summon the themed warriors of that aspect), have stronger psychic powers, and the awesomest dreadnought of them all. It's like a giant spindly ninja of bone that can shoot jets of flame from each hand even as it karate-chops people with them. They also see all the twists of the plot coming, which leads me to one of two negative points...



The end is absurdly unsatisfying. It's literally the most abrupt and ungracious end to a story since Douglas Adam's unfinished Salmon Of Doubt. It's not just that it's a ridiculous cliff-hanger, it's also that the unresolved conflict is against the same faction you've been fighting for over half the game, and you're only about ten hours in. I was all ready to defend it against criticisms of shortness before I completed it, but now I see the point. It's not like it came to its natural conclusion within those eleven missions.

The second is a naming mistake, but nevertheless a serious one. The 'Normal' difficulty mode, which is the lowest of the three, is clearly supposed to be 'Easy'. I'm rubbish at RTSs, but if you've ever completed one of any description you'll breeze through this. I never failed a mission or had to restart, and no mission took me more than ninety minutes. A fair few times you'll think "Sheeeeit," but that's always at the sheer spectacle of your opponents' attack - when the smoke clears you'll find you were fine after all. Nothing wrong with that, for me - I would have played on this mode even if they had called it 'Easy'. But most people will play on Normal because they presume there'll still be some kind of challenge, and even to a bungling moron of a general like me, there isn't.

Score: I was in the middle of an epic three-way clash with Orks and Eldar, easily a hundred units on-screen, people flying in all directions and the whole battlefield thick with a three-way confluence of glowing fire, and I thought, "How could anyone give this eighties? How could you miss that this is something we've never seen before?" It's a short but profound revelation, and it makes everything else look lame.




Half-Life 2 Release Nonsense

Usually I just laugh or groan at how bad Gamespot's writing is, but by some freak of nature there's suddenly a superb article up there. The Final Hours Of Half-Life 2 should probably be called Every Single Freaking Hour Of Half-Life 2, and by Half-Life 2 we mean Half-Life 2's Development. It's a fascinating and incredibly engaging ride through the painstaking work that went into the game, and that's the kind of lame-sounding superlative babble I would avoid using if I could help it.

The day after tomorrow - if you look at one of those JavaScript countdowns so many fan sites have, it does it in a D HH MM SS format, so the 'Days' figure is actually '1' right now. I have heard two things that have excited me more than one might expect:
  • In Jim's review for Edge, he describes an early scene in which a Combine soldier intentionally knocks a drink can onto the floor and orders you to pick it up and put it in the bin. I would appreciate it if you would join me in an: O... M... G.
  • Tycho, who has played three levels from various parts of the game, can reliably inform us that we are "not ready for this jelly." That's so exactly what I want to hear, and from an enormously trustworthy man.
In a last wild twist to the endlessly twisty release debacle, some shops are selling it early even though it still can't be played because you need to activate it via Steam. Weirder still, Valve want to activate it now for the sake of these people, and yet weirder, Vivendi won't let them. For the first time in this bizarre affair - and so close to the end of it - I'm finally a bit confused. Is that bad? Who's to blame? At last, I do not know. I find discussion of the morality of the whole thing wildly boring anyway, and summarise my views thus:
  • Electronic distribution is good.
  • A game can require whatever the hell it likes.
  • Steam will work. There will be some down time, half an hour to an hour for me, then it will work. I am freaking psychic.
I enjoy the grammatically flawed phrase "Me and the guys at work", and will use it now: me and the guys at work are going to come in early on Tuesday, for the eight am release of Half-Life 2 via Steam, and hopefully play it for a while before work officially starts at nine thirty. This plan doesn't make a lot of sense, since I have a super-fly 64-bit gaming monster at home whose case fan looks like this:


My machine at work is nowhere near as good, and playing it for the first time in a brightly lit environment on a small monitor with other people around is not how such a momentous event should be handled. But let's face it, this is at least partially not so much about the game. It's about the event, the most anticipated launch ever, the start of a bold new era of distribution and fairness to developers, a new and sturdy platform for the legions of ingenious modders, and just a specific time for us all to get silly about. Craig and I camped out at work with chinese food for the release of Counter-Strike Source, and despite the fact that we didn't get into a single good game that night, it was fantastic. It's just the atmosphere we want.

Craig is looking forward to looking forward to playing it - he's not taking time off like Ross and I are, and plans to enjoy the eagreness to get home or play it at lunchtime, etc. I sympathise vaguely, so I'm pleased I'll have one day of this, but I'm also pleased that I'll then have five days of darkened-room action with a stockpile of snacks.

Unwisely, Vampire: Bloodlines is released the same day. I'm really excited about that, but I don't have a credit card or any cash at the moment, so I won't be buying it. The reason I'm excited about it is that the super-long talkthrough trailer I saw is the first thing that's reminded me of Deus Ex since Deus Ex 2.

Politics

It wasn't hard to refrain from discussing politics here, but there will now follow a short and entirely visual breach of this agreement from Jeffrey Rowland of Wigu and the new and excellent Overcompensating:


The Best Three Songs Of The Year

As I've often irritatingly whined, the wonderful yet entirely dead John Peel held an annual 'Festive Fifty' chart in which listeners voted for their favourite tracks of the year, and my blind trust of it got me into more fantastic bands than I could count. Gloriously, it will go ahead this year regardless, so vote like it matters. Absurdly, I do actually vote in this thing, despite finding democracy and indeed voting itself philosophically flawed on an individual level. I just do it for kicks. I hope things I vote for will get in there even though they would have whether I voted for them or not, just to say "Ooh, I contributed to that!" When I did not. My shortlist:
  • A C Newman - The Town Halo
  • Clinic - The Magician
  • The Delgados - Bits Of Bone
  • Múm - Weeping Rock Rock
  • Gomez - Do One
  • Ted Leo - Me And Mia
  • Modest Mouse - Float On
Seedling's Last Gig Ever

The reason I didn't update last weekend is that Rich, Miles and I went to London to see Seedling on Friday night and Bill Bailey (with loads of other people) on Saturday. At some point during the research for where it was and how much it cost, I discovered the Seedling gig would be their last ever because they'd broken up a month before. Nobody tells me anything.

So it was sad, but also one of the best gigs ever. Three other bands were on before them, but we came wisely and fashionably late so we only caught Magoo, who probably aren't the same Magoo that collaborate with Timbaland (shudder) and Missy Elliot (supress nausea) because they were ace. I can't get hold of any of their music, though. Their first and best song contained the line "It's like you've known it all along." Do you know it? Alas you do not.

I often feel a bit disillusioned with live music - I keep thinking I could have sat in a comfortable chair at home and listened to my favourite songs incredibly loud, and there would have been no irritating jerks in front of me. It's largely because a lot of bands don't seem to be enjoying it very much. Notable exceptions: Les Rythmes Digitales, The Flaming Lips, Clinic, Seedling.

And for a band who broke up a month ago because they felt like they were just repeating themselves, they were... I believe the adjective is 'hella' enthusiastic. Short of the aforementioned Les Rythmes Digitales, I can't remember seeing anyone play their songs with such wild zeal and even something you might call relish. It helps that the singer smiles wryly through all her lines, and glances upward slightly on the important words to indicate a certain touch of dementia. Interestingly, it turns out the violinist and backing vocalist actually takes lead vocals for two of my favourite songs. Interesting.

The set list was ace. Let's see, I've got it written down here somewhere...




It's like I always say - it's sad when your favourite Dutch indie-punk girl band breaks up, but less so if you get the chance to beg them not to in person, shout out requests like "Can one of you form a side-project with the other three?", witness a truly brilliant last performance, then hug them all afterwards and get them to sign the setlist you stole from the stage while you were rocking out like a loon in the front row. To be honest, I'm a little surprised it actually came up.




Agh

I have to stop there, it's late. Worthy of note: new images, this posts' included, now have on-hover captions. They give me a smarmy air I wear well.





 
2004/10/28 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven five six zero point nine

John Peel Is Dead
How Sad Is That?


My reaction when I heard this yesterday, after an optimistic bout of disbelief, was to think about the nicest thing you can think about a recently departed celebrity: what are we going to do without him? It's not something I thought about Douglas Adams - that was a huge loss, of course, but a loss of nebulous future works and exciting - but as yet unannounced - forays into gaming.

When you call someone an 'institution', it's important - I only now realise - to remember that they're not. A middle-aged, slightly overweight human body is far less stable. Oddly, part of the reason this is so upsetting is that I didn't like a lot of what he played on his programme. The point was, no-one did. Every time you listened to it, you couldn't help thinking "No-one else on Earth would play this." He wasn't just unique, he was both vital and utterly irreplacable. Each of the bands he played has a cult following, of course - largely thanks to him in fact - but the intersection of all their cults was a set of size 1, and is now empty.

I spent a while on the two-paragraph BBC news page where I read about his death, unwilling to do something else and thereby 'move on'. I should have listened to the tribute show, of course, but I feared the premise behind it would be "Okay, so you never liked his show - but look how popular some of the bands he championed became!"

That was a little pessimistic. It was an incredibly affectionate tribute to him, and the selection of music was based solely on the man's personal favourites, not shrinking from such glorious headaches as The Fall and Melt Banana. The highlight is a beautiful duet version of I Lost You, But I Found Country Music by Ballboy, and you'd only find a more fitting song if you rewrote it with "Country Music" replaced by "Screeching Japanese Industrial Electronica, Powerhouse Dutch Riot Grrl Rock, Happy Hardcore, Gentle Scottish Indie, Reggae, Gorgeous Icelandic Ambient Prog-Pop And Country Music".





 
2004/10/24 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven five seven two point two
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow!

Italics and exclaimation on loan from the dramatic voice cryogenics guy from Futurama. I can't say the title of this film aloud without mimicing him for at least the last part, usually all of it. It's an ace title, and it appeals in the same way that an element of Futurama's concept - perfectly embodied by Dramatic Voice Cryogenics Guy - does. That element is the flavour of nineteen-forties sci-fi - dark, greyscale cities being smashed by enormous, boxy robots. Gloriously, that's exactly how Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow! starts. And in one last burst of wild interconnectivity, everything aforementioned reminds me of, and appeals in the same way as, this hastily snatched TV shot I took from a documentary about visions of the future through the ages:




It's a stunning and terrifying sequence. Nothing that looked futuristic or cool could instill such fear as it stomped through the streets of an art deco New York. The very fact that they look ridiculous and make no sense makes their eerily convincing forms all the more terrible. It's worth noting at this point that the only things I'm ever scared by are things that cause some part of my brain to think "Why?" as the rest recoils. I don't think that's too peculiar to me - if you understand it, it's not scary, right? And that these outdated visions of robotic horror should be so enormously and vividly realised, and so devastating, is inexplicable and awful. And, of course, thrilling.

The whole thing is thrilling, though never so scary as that again. There is an inevitable suspicion of tongue in its cheek for apparently taking such absurd visions of the future so seriously, but it has the exact same relationship to its source material that Futurama has. If you hate that stuff, it satirises it uncannily and hilariously. But if you love it, you can't miss that the film's creators do too. It's exactly what sci-fi film makers would have done with CGI if they'd had it sixty years ago, because it's so respectful and passionate about their vision.

As a film, it's expertly paced and always exciting. It's also visually gorgeous, with an impeccable style stretched as far as it will go around wildly diverse settings (it has robots, mutants and dinosaurs - what more do you want, vampires? That's dumb). The writing doesn't actually joke much - it's mostly about archetypal classic movie characters behaving exactly as they should, and unfortunately that makes the hero pretty boring. But here's a joke from it anyway:

(Dex has cut power to a deadly electricity plate blocking their way)
Joe: Is it off?
Dex: There's only one way to find out.
(Joe takes Polly's hand and they step on to it together)
Dex: I meant throw something.

Score: I loved it. If you like the style of old sci-fi in a retro-kitsch or genuine kind of way, you will too. If you don't, you will like it slightly less than that but still quite a lot. End score.




Why I'm Still Playing Counter-Strike Source Even Though It Makes Me So Very Angry

Seriously, I swear furiously and in a way most unbefitting a gentleman when I die in this. I am outraged. Some form of cheating has occured. The game is unreasonable. I could not have prevented my death!

I made mental peace with this when I decided that while your score in Counter-Strike is related to your skill in it, the frequency and manner of your death is related only to the skill of your opponents - in essence, mad skills may pay said bills without necessarily increasing your chances of survival beyond the boost it inherently gets from the pre-emptive strike that your killing opponents constitutes. I notice the 'essence' of what I am saying is longer and harder to understand than the full version.

But then you spectate, post-death, and watch the really good players, and it becomes clear that something else is going on. He didn't even see that guy for a good three seconds, but that guy couldn't hit him. He wasn't jumping around or anything, and the other guy is a high-scoring player, there's just some aura of skill eminating from this superior player that renders him invulnerable to the fire of lesser combatants. It sucks.




Oh yes, so why do I play it? Partly, it's that I no longer suck so consistently. I would say that more than half of the time I am not sucking, relative to the rest of my team. If the enemy team has a lot of what I like to call 'star players', there's a limit to how well you can perform: every team tactic is invalidated because every member of their team trumps a member of your team in any situation. But within those constraints, I do okay. Tonight I was top of a losing team on my most hated map (Aztec - too many open areas mean that the loser of the first round can't afford the long-range weaponry essential to success in subsequent rounds, and can only win by luck or - gasp - superior skill), and later I appeared to be the the very reason that my team was no longer losing. That was on Havana, which immediately became my favourite map. It's always been close to Office in the looks department, but tonight it allowed me a manner of ownage that I am denied on larger, fairer maps.

But the other reason is that, on top of being satisfying and dramatic, this is essentially the national sport of gamers - the only subset of humanity to which I'm vaguely proud to belong. It's a part of game culture in a way that no other multiplayer game is, and so it's the most valid and important way in which to be able to beat humans. If we can fare well against our readers in the inevitable tournaments of this, we will attain a legitimacy that won't be lost by our later humiliating defeats in mods and Battlefield 2.




You'd like to see some stats, you say? Well, this refers to the original Counter-Strike, but the Steam website notes that in the average month three and a half billion man-minutes are spent playing Counter-Strike over Steam. Assume that this rate of play, sustained for the whole of this yea,r so far constitutes as much Counter-Strike as has ever been played - which is almost certainly an underestimation - then, in terms of what humanity could achieve if it worked on something else instead of playing it, we're talking sixty-four thousand two-hundred and twenty man years. Sixty four man-millenia. As an aside, these survey results could hardly be more interesting.

Games

I've totally redone the games section - new intro, many new entries, many old entries dropped off, ranking now reflects current feelings and, specifically, what's worth playing today. I've excluded:

Dawn Of War and Counter-Strike Source: because it's too soon to know whether their brilliance will remain brilliant for long.

Cannon Fodder, Blood, Oni, Die By The Sword, Ultima Underworld, Crusader, Hitman 1: No Remorse: because they're not actually worth playing today. Great at the time, old now. Ultima Underworld is surpassed by Morrowind in every way. Blood - the most painful of these exclusions - is just unplayable now. The Duke engine (Build to its friends) is falls apart the second you look up or down, and keyboard controls are just silly now. Hitman 1, though it had some great missions, is not really worth playing when Hitman 2 is around. Neither, incidentally, is superceded by Contracts. That just isn't very good. The mission design is just: do it the puzzle way, or do it the shooty way. The genius of the previous games was that almost all successful methods struck a compromise between the two - try a clever tactic, have it go wrong at some point, kill everyone. Contracts allows no room for that, and the great missions they recreate are a) set at night, in the rain, making them drab, and b) completely different in layout, look, and even the most fundamental mechanics. All appeal is lost.





 
2004/10/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven six zero zero point zero
Dress Sexy At My Funeral

I think the only way you can make a load of PC gamers look cool is to put them in the same building as a load of bank executives. We mope around the corridors of our new office unshavenly, in leather jackets and faded cords, while crisp suits stride confidently around and fail pointedly to notice us. In our first week here an e-mail was sent round reminding us that bare feet or socks were not appropriate in the deli. I'm not sure that's cool, exactly, but the intro to The Big Lebowski makes it out to be admirable in some way.

For The First Time In Your Life

I bought an Athlon 64 3200+ processor, appropriate heatsink, motherboard and case, and a wildly inappropriate fan with four different colours of LED. The multicoloured light streams out through the ventilation perforations in my case making my room look like a mirror-ball disco. It's incredible.

My old processor was an Athlon XP 1600+. Summary of the difference in preformance: !

Essentially this thing seems to have unlimited power. Far Cry, Dawn Of War, UT2004 with 32 bots, Counter-Strike Source, Half-Life 2 Sress Test - you name it, it runs in 1600x1200 with maximum detail options at 50fps. The only thing that doesn't, so far, is Invisible War. This is because it has a shitty, shitty engine that sucks and I hate it. It says something that it's also the worst-looking of all the games I've tried, and that includes the original Deus Ex (which hardly altered its Unreal technology, and will therefore remain beautiful forever).

Interestingly, considering Far Cry is on the list, UT2004 is the most impressive of these. Its insanely sharp, detailed textures, characters, weapons and effects glint with fierce clarity, and the game glides so smoothly it feels dreamlike.

It took me a long time, a lot of effort and nervous exhaustion, then a lot of technical problems to get it set up, and this was immediately after an insanely stressful deadline, so I'm taking a few days off to enjoy its wonders now. I will take photos of the technicolour light streaming out of it and put them here at some point this weekend.





 
2004/10/10 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven six one zero point nine
Doctors Know Your Mum And Dad, But

Deadline weekend. This was becoming a weekly thing, but I think it'll have to end up thrice-monthly - aside from the odd short note like this. By way of bolstering the 'content' of this update, I supply you with a screenshot from Counter-Strike Source that I find both funny and strangely sad:



I spent the whole of yesterday trying to work and failing, meaning I felt like I'd spent the whole day working but had achieved nothing. It was rubbish. Worst Saturday in ages. So today I just worked from 0930 to 1800 with a normal lunchbreak (spent playing Dawn Of War. Review: Ace). This worked really well. Better, in fact, than when I'm actually at work working those hours. I should start taking days off when I need to get stuff done.

Incidentally! I have conceived a way to host files - clips of the films and series I rave about in Media, music for the Music section and also for here, when I say stuff like "Me And Mia by Ted Leo And The Pharmacists is astounding, everyone should hear it." I'm going to invite myself to GMail, and set up a public account and publish the username and password here. 1GB! Score!

Me And Mia, Anne And Anna Know How Hard You Tried

Also since the last update: I bought the Silver edition of Half-Life 2 on Steam. On this I have the following to say:

1) Electronic distribution means your money goes straight to the people who made the game, and cuts out the shop. You know how we all think publishers are evil and take all the money? We're right, but as a publisher once said to me: the shop get by far the biggest cut. They're like the mafia of the games industry. Wanting a box is a pathetic excuse for screwing the developers out of what they deserve and, frankly, financing the mafia.

2) Silver is an eerily good deal, and almost everyone has gone for it. You get everything Valve have ever made and everything they'll make this year, for $10 more than the absolute basic package. It gives you much more stuff than the collector's edition they'll sell in shops, and costs much less.

3) Counter-Strike Source - it's a ruthless meritocracy, it's brutally visceral and spectacularly good-looking, and the destructability and knock-over-ability of stuff makes a huge difference to how satisfying and cinematic gunfights are. It's completely brilliant.





 
2004/10/02 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven six three three point four
Confessions Of A Teamkiller

It hadn't been going well; it seldom does. Usually I play until I start getting a few kills, then leave on a high note, but it was clear that this would not happen tonight. My only moment of glory was a daring rush into open-air on the CT's side from which I scored a lucky double-kill with the Krieg. Pleased but scared, I dived back into the safety of the corridors and was gunned down by two terrorists mistaking me for the invading CT's from whom I'd just saved them.

I would quit. In fact, if I was leaving I could get my revenge on my incompetent friends and the consequences would be irrelevant - skip next round, or get auto-kicked from the game at worst. Why even limit myself to revenge? From behind, playing as a friendly face, I could wipe out my whole team!

I looked at the terrorist creeping along the corridor to my left. I tracked his head smoothly with my Glock, then with a sickening crunch blew his brains onto the wall. I grabbed his shotgun before it hit the ground. The terrorist in the dome ahead had spun round to find the source of the gunfire, but he hadn't noticed the T-on-T kill message yet. It took two blasts to send him skittering across the floor, and his MP5 dropped into my hands as I tossed the shotgun on his body. I checked the scoreboard - one to go. No-one else in the corridors, and the CTs were on their way, so I backed out, took the right path and jumped down into the underpass, twisting in mid-air to face the tunnel, landing in a crouch and immediately headshotting the figure in front of me. Kicked by console, but definitely on a high note.

Analysis: there is something gloriously exciting about breaking a very serious law because you're in a position to be unaffected by the consequences.

Conclusion: I should not, for any reason, be granted diplomatic immunity.

Corollary: morality is, as people have long suspected, an illusion created by the fear of consequences and humanity is fundamentally evil.

Half-Life 2

People are starting to get our Half-Life 2 issue, a whole week earlier than the on-sale date, and that's made us the first in the world with a Half-Life 2 review out. I imagine this is some kind of mistake with distribution - now is about when subscribers would receive copies if the on-sale date for the issue hadn't been put back by four days to conform to the NDA on the Half-Life 2 trip. That must have been a hell of a trip. All the journos went to Valve at the same time to play it, and our Jim was meeting up with the Zone guy in the breaks they had to take from the game because it was so intense.

It's getting us in the news all over the net, and the sudden exposure of quotes and illegal scans of our stuff to a wide and largely American audience is excellent. Lots of people wanted to know the last paragraph, of course, and the first guy with an issue eventually typed it out. It includes the sentence - addressed specifically to those whose current machines might not be able to run the game - "Sell your grandmother, re-mortgage your cat, do whatever you have to." Some people didn't believe this quote could be genuine, because it was funny. American games journalism seems to be some kind of desert of humour in which any morsel of facetiousness is assumed a mirage.

The 45 screenshots that Jim took, which came in on deadline day for me, all went on our discs. I didn't have time to watermark them - it was incredibly tight as it was, and I didn't get as much as I wanted to check what will be my most-used disc ever - but it doesn't stop me wishing I had. They're now all over the net, and even though in a way it doesn't matter, and in another way it actually makes us look good (they're incredible shots), in a third way it matters and is bad and my fault. The equation that would tell me which of those ways is more significant is too complex to calculate, though, so I'm left just feeling it would have been nice to see our logo desecrating all those copies.

It's looking more and more like the rumoured 23rd of November date will hold true for the American release date, and presumably the Steam one. This is ridiculous. They've had the finished game for weeks, it could be out early this month if they wanted. I'm talking about Vivendi, here, not Valve - this is out of their hands unless they decide to breach their contract and release it early on Steam. The current legal battle is about whether Steam already breaches their contract - from a laymen's perspective, that makes it sound like using it to release Half-Life 2 early would only worsen the breach rather than create a new, separately actionable one. I'm just saying.

Vivendi are essentially Sierra, whom I have always loathed, and I deeply resent being made to wait for a game while it's held back to the most marketable period. That said, Vivendi probably don't care what I think because I've long intended to help Valve screw them over by buying on Steam. And also because they don't read this or know who I am.

Oh, this is ace. I only just found this. Listen to this. Seriously, this is great:

"In its current state HL2 is brilliant and astonishing. Vivendi Universal Games is in the midst of determining whether HL2 meets the gameplay standards of the company."

You published The Cat In The fucking Hat! A game so utterly worthless it even let down the pathetic film! You do not, you seem to need reminding, have any standards. This is, remember, Half-Life 2, and it has - let's not forget - already got the highest score we've ever given anything. We tested it for you, and we're happy to say that it meets - nay, exceeds - the giddy watermark of quality set by the Cat In The fucking Hat. Jesus Christ.

Anyway, I can't hold out until what is essentially December. I can't stay excited for another two months, it'll just get tedious. I seriously hope the release candidate is leaked onto Suprnova during Vivendi's irritating stalling. How d'you like that electronic distribution system, huh? Actually, again they wouldn't care. They get no more money from Steam sales than from Suprnova downloads. But I like to say things that would sound good out of context, and:

"How d'you like that electronic distribution system, huh?"

Is a great one. So if I really have to wait that long, I'm going to start ignoring news on the game, avoiding screenshots, and limiting my knowledge of other people's reviews to the score. My bet for the US PC Gamer is 97% - they never give a big name less than we do, but at the same time this isn't the one they'll go overboard on. Not more than 97% overboard, I don't think.

Anyway, this will be the last thing I write about Half-Life 2 until I've played it. Everyone else is being much more tolerant of this than me, and this is probably because they were expected it over a year ago. By some stroke of luck I never heard that release date from anyone, and had always assumed it was still about a year off. Now that it's been delayed a month, I've given up. I make everyone else look like saints.

You Know What? Fuck Blogger

The tool I use to update this page was redesigned a few months ago, redesigned so it sucked. I tolerated it for ages (a few months, you might say), but while trying to edit this post it started 'correcting' my corrections to the line breaks. Line breaks are sacred. Do not screw with my line breaks, Blogger, I got those set up just how I like them.

There is a greater principle at stake here, and that is that you don't fuck up someone's HTML, ever. Do not touch anyone's HTML ever. Do not think you know how to format or arrange it better than them. It's like rearranging their haircut because you think you could do it better - unless they're actually dating you, don't do it. Even then, in fact, do not. In my case the distinction is actually rather academic, and a site updating tool probably wouldn't need to prepare for the possibility.

This is a declaration of war. Blogger has gone too far. I'm using TextPad to write and update this page from now on.





 
2004/09/18 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven six seven zero point seven
Disclaimer

Okay, the thing I probably subconsciously wanted to happen has happened, despite my half-hearted attempts to prevent it: some people from work have found my private, personal, secret website which I publish publicly! Who would have thought being the top result on Google for my own name would somehow enable people to connect a website to me? How did they crack the code? We may never know.

So I need to disclaim a bit, which I should have done anyway: I'm wildly unfair to games here. It's the kind of stuff a person should never say on a forum, or to the face of someone who disagrees with you, because for the most part it's stuff you can't back up, it's not constructive (except the times I explain how a game should be - that's constructive, entirely true, and undiluted genius) or intellectual or even very polite. I'm going to continue being wildly unfair to games, I just want it known that I realise this is what I'm doing.

As if to demonstrate, I'm now going to talk about Half-Life:

Half-Life

Half-Life exhausts me in three different ways:

1) It's atmospheric and relentless, the levels never end, there are no cut-scenes interludes or pauses, you never see your character and you never stop playing as him (that may have been more than one). This is a good thing.

2) I'm currently on Surface Tension, or just after that, and that's the hardest part of the game. The tanks contribute to that, but mostly it's that there are truckloads of marines everywhere. Marines actually put me off the game the first time I played it - while everyone else was wowed by their use of cover, co-operation and grenades, I felt hopeless in the face of it. What could I do? None of my weapons were powerful enough to kill them before they could do an unacceptable amount of damage to me, and I couldn't even take cover in between bursts of fire because the grenades they threw when I did were more problematic than their machineguns. I have, it should be mentioned, never been very good at computer games. That part of it gets better, because you do get weapons that can take them out quickly - starting with the revolver - and MP5 grenades become more common. Still, earlier today I took cover behind a bench in a garage and one of them hit the 'down' button on the winch that was holding up the truck above me. This, now that my combat tactics have improved, is a good thing. It's nice to be challenged, and once the game gives you a varied arsenal, it's fun to find ways of coping with it.

3) The levels hate you. I'm forever wondering where I'm supposed to go next, what I'm doing here, why the power isn't on, and - more generally - what the hell the game wants from me. Each time the solution turns out to be 'go back fourteen rooms and you'll notice a door that was shut before has now opened'. No I won't! I don't have a photographic memory! The only way I eventually stumble upon these arbitrary changes to long-passed areas is a tedious method I heard once for getting out of mazes - hug the left wall continually, and eventually you'll go everywhere. When you stop the player from progressing beyond a certain point because their actions have opened up a new section of an area they've already visited, you have to tell them where it is. Just before the On A Rail section (the most tedious and irritating is yet to come), there's a convoluted puzzle to turn on the power to the tracks so that you can rotate a section of rail to get the tram going. Once you've done both stages requried to turn on the generator and power is restored to the area, you go back to the track control room and find the light is still off and nothing works. Eventually I had to read a FAQ to remind me of the bizarre solution that had also completely stumped me the first time I played it - apparently one of the doorways out in the track area, 60% of which is occupied by a monster the size of a house that can kill you in half a second, wasn't open before. a) How the hell was I supposed to notice and remember that? The only other time I'd seen the room was in the three-second dash past the monster as he was killing two marines at the start of the level, half an hour ago, during which I was not examining the area in its entirety and memorising its surfaces. b) I don't have the luxury of tediously re-exploring that particular old area to check that you haven't arbitrarily unlocked some unmarked section of it because it's 60% full of a monster that kills me in half a second, and c) I've already turned on the fucking power! Why the fuck isn't the fucking power on! I spent twenty fucking minutes doing that! It's fucking on! I saw the generators start up! What the fuck?

3.5) The number of times I've walked into a new room that immediately explodes and kills you is now in double figures (I've actually counted), and I'm not close to finishing the game yet. Don't kill me for walking into a room.

All these things exhaust me, but I didn't encounter 3) or 3.5) for a few hours this morning, and I didn't stop playing until I did.

I was incredibly excited about Half-Life before it came out - I even made a fansite devoted to it. I was disappointed by it because of 3) and 3.5) (and also because none of the early weapons are powerful enough to be satisfying to me), so there's a case to be made for trying not to get my hopes up about Half-Life 2 - vain though that would be. The reason I'm not even trying is that 3) and 3.5) are byproducts of Half-Life's setting, which in turn had a lot to do with the limitations of technology at the time - corridors and rooms had to be the staple, and a collapsing underground lab was the reason for the instant-death rooms and the backtracking puzzles.

Also, I had no valid reason to be excited by Half-Life, I just liked the scientific theme and coloured lights being used in a real-world environment (we had Quake 2, but its endlessly orange levels couldn't hold a candle (ho ho) to the red glow of the coke machine in one of the first Half-Life screenshots). Half-Life 2 is one of the first games the world has good reason to be excited about: the new engine isn't just an improvement in graphics, it lets physics become an integral part of what you do in the game, and the flexibility of that presents dozens of improvisational possibilities in every little situation. Options are everything to me - if you reordered my top games list by descending order of methods of tackling the most common siutations that arise in each, none of them would move.

Other grounds to believe Half-Life 2 will be great:

The shotgun is perfect this time.

You can - and I may have mentioned this in my previous post - cut people in freaking half with a circular goddamn saw blade.

The locations are real-world, largely topside, very open, spacious and clean and gloriously beautiful.

The Striders are so distinctively terrifying that psychiatry may have diagnose a new phobia before long.

Vehicles + physics = awesome, unless there's a mistake in my working.

The characters are so uncannily lifelike that there's the potential for a level of emotional involvement to which interactive media have never before come close.

Valve, for all my gripes with Half-Life, know what they're doing in a way no-one who makes bad games does. Gabe has expressed regret about everything I dislike about Half-Life, and the parts of Half-Life's philosophy of design I agree with will stay: player always in control, no cutscenes, and the main character is neither seen nor heard.

New Office

I was a bit rude about the new office in my last post, and now that I'm there I'd like to retract my snide comments. The free coffee machine is a) within chair-sliding distance of my desk and b) great - you can't have an Americano white even if you want to. It's as much of a coffee pseud as I am.

Other ace things about the new office:

My desk is huge, and everything I need fits in my drawers (although I had to get down on the floor and put both feet on the cabinet to get enough leverage to force the drawers open in the first place, and couldn't get them to stay open until I'd broken four different things off). This means masses of space, and calm, serene feeling that should increase productivity but probably doesn't.

Also contributing to the serenity is the almost eerie accoustic dampening - I can hardly hear what Tim and Craig say to me, and they're a metre away.

Also contributing to the aceness - Craig and Tim are but a metre away, and Mark Sutherns is actually next to me. This is particularly ace because he has impeccable musical taste, and so likes all the stuff I play, and also because he knows stuff about my job and is the only person who really cares how cool the latest UT mod I'm playing is.

It's five minutes closer to my house. I was actually on time on Friday, for perhaps the third time since I started in January. It was deserted.

Score: 11.3 serenity points, plus 9.0 coffee points. Equals good. Uh.





 
2004/09/11 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven six eight nine point seven
And How His Guts Were All Suspended In His Fingers, And How He Held Them

I had my first appraisal last week. I was supposed to have one after three months, to tell me whether I'd passed my trial period and to what extent, but by the nine month mark this seemed almost implied. You have to score yourself first, on each of the 'Core Competencies' of your job, then during the interview part of it your appraisers shift these scores up or down as appropriate.

Later Craig said "I think everyone walked out of their appraisal thinking they were the greatest person on the planet."
"That's because we are," Mark Sutherns explained.

Speaking of being much better than everyone else, our publishing company recently acquired our only rival - PC Zone. You'd think this would be an end to the war, the start of a new age of co-operation, but it's basically just bad news - now the enemy is better-funded. Everyone seems to have the idea that one-upmanship and bargaining for exclusive demos is what spurs writers to produce entertaining and even-handed articles.

Soon we're moving office to a weird modern complex built around a Starbucks-enabled Deli nexus, transactions with which are carried out with 'cashless' cards. It also has free vending machines for coffee and stuff, which is all terribly impressive, but in our current office we have a kitchen. It's an old-fashioned solution, but it has a versatility and 'cashlessness' that I admire.

How He Held Them

Politics is really boring. I'm never going to talk about politics here, or even 'issues'. I mention this because everyone else's blog seems to be about current affairs or exposés on things nobody thought were any good in the first place. Yeah, we get it. Bush is bad. Everyone with a computer already knows that, there's no point in saying it on the internet.

You know what else no-one will shut up about? Who's attractive. Not celebrities, just people they see, and people they know. It's not just that I don't care, I really don't want to hear it. It's like talking about your toilet habits or something. I don't want to know what any part of your body below your neck is doing.

Held Them In

Without more than a few lines of further ado, here's another lousy episode of Tom Reviews Things, In His Underwear, When He Should Be Working.



Counter-Strike Source

Craig got me a copy of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero before the beta of this started, because that gets you into the beta automatically. The most immediately exciting thing about it is that the executable it runs is called hl2.exe - seeing that in Task Manager is pathetically exciting. The next most immediately exciting thing about it is that it runs really, really well. There are some figures here. After that, it's the way combat looks: the models are beautiful, dark swathes of blood flick onto everything when you mow them down, and their limp bodies slump more convincingly than you've ever seen before. Running into a grenade explosion as a corpse flies out of it drives home just how much good rag-doll and clean, coherent, bug-free effects matter: it's the most cinematic multiplayer experience ever, and it feels entirely appropriate that the world goes silent at that point, then fades back in to a numb ringing before you can hear anything again.

Something odd happened to graphics while we were waiting for Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 - Far Cry appeared, and everyone was bowled over by its stunning tropical vistas, gleaming metal surfaces, stupidly intricate shadowing and stenciled, bump-mapped opponents. But it was kind of assumed that this was just a taster of where technology would go next - this but better! Nope. That was pretty much the peak. It's downhill now for about six months, then the rest of the world will catch up with what those crazy Greek brothers finished and had on the shelves six months ago. Doom 3 tried a similar thing, but effects-wise it was inferior, technologically it was wildly inefficient and artistically it was just funny. That's fine. I don't care what an Id game looks like because I'm not going to play it. The only thing I really want to be stunned by visually are escapist shooters set in Micronesia and Elder Scrolls games. For everything else, I want exactly what Counter-Strike Source has: clean, perfect visuals with sharp, perfect textures and versatile, perfect physics. And Source makes all that run on a GeForce 3.

I never got into Counter-Strike originally - I just died again and again and had to wait a whole round watching fights that were over in half a second of incomprehensible machinegun fire, and that put me off. Meanwhile Action Quake 2 was fun even if you never got a kill, it was mostly played in straight deathmatch - so no waiting - and it had two things Counter-Strike would never have: throwing knives and the 'puck!' noise for headshots. Really, the headshot noise was that good, it was around 35% of the appeal of the game. Counter-Strike will probably never have throwing knives, and that wasn't even the point, really - I've since learnt that it's not throwing knives I love, it's Action Quake 2's throwing knives: the weight, the arc, the 'chink!' as they slot into a man's chest, the armour-ignoring one-hit kills. But it does now have the headshot noise - that exact headshot noise. If AQ2 hadn't stolen it from somewhere else in the first place and they owned the rights to it and neither mod was free, they could sue.

Anyway, Condition Zero got me into CS via the friendly learning curve of bots on 'Easy', and soon I was ownzoring 32 'Medium' bots at a stretch, and knew the Terrorist Krieg was my one true love. CS: Source is much better - the cinematasticness of the engine dramatically increases the appeal of every fire-fight, even the ones you lose, and every tweak, refinement and change is for the best. The Tactical Shield of CS 1.6 is gone, for example. I loved playing with that thing (particularly as a 'knight' - Tactical Shield and Knife only), but I'm happy to admit it was a stupid addition to the game and threw both the balance and the feel of combat way off. Flashbangs are still in, and if anything more devastating than ever, but the new effect really makes it into a "Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Fuck! Aaaaah! Fuck! My eyes! Fuck!" experience, rather than an "Hurray, I can't see and I'm dead." one.

I'm now at the dizzy heights of 'below average', online. I'm usually hovering somewhere in the upper echelons of the lower half of my team's score ranking, my deaths significantly outnumbering my kills and my funds rapidly dwindling. I always join the losing team, which is only polite, but that's almost invariably the Terrorists because Dust is a CT-friendly map. So I have an affinity with the Terrorists. But happily one in three or four servers is full of inferior players, and in this environment I almost consistently end up second in the game, which usually means top of my team. This is awesome. Every kill in CS feels profoundly satisfying - a combination of the inherent gratification in defeating a human opponent and the impeccable way in which CS: Source renders this. And since you can't actually control the difficulty of a multiplayer game, that's as much as you can ask of one.

Score: Terrorists Win!



City Of Heroes

I got this about six weeks ago - my first ever MMOG, and a nice simple one to start with. One of the elements of its easy, shallow nature that people compliment is its fast-levelling, but actually the slowness of levelling is probably my biggest problem with it. I'm sure it is faster than other MMOGs, but that dot that doesn't mean it's fast enough. It would be if it didn't have an XP 'debt' system as a penalty for dying, because the levels I've made it past alive went by at a fair old rate. Once you've died a second time without having worked off your debt from the first, though, you just feel like giving up.

The other thing they need to get rid of to make it even more accessible than it already is is the Endurance thing - attacking exhausts you a bit, and when you run out of Endurance you can't attack at all until it regenerates. This - and it's hard to imagine how they failed to see it coming - leads to situations where you're just standing there in a fight waiting for your endurance to recover. I guess they thought you'd run away, but no-one does - it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do if you're really tired and want to get your breath back: sprint off at top speed. My level 15 character can't take on a mob of more than two enemies without exhausting himself bashing them, and so he's just no fun to play with any more. The Endurance cost of your powers goes up as you level, your Endurance doesn't - not by much.

Still, every other MMOG has nine worse limitations for each of City Of Heroes', so it remains the best MMOG for me and a lot of other people. I imagine it's one of the quickest-selling, particularly for a non-sequel from a relatively unknown developer, and such a minor tie-in (I'd certainly never heard of the comic book, and I into comic books for a long time).

I should also mention that City Of Heroes is brilliant. The character creation system produces the most colourful, interesting and distinctive avatars ever seen in a computer game, and the knock-on effect for the game is that wondering around popular areas is fascinating, and meeting people is interesting even if the people aren't.

It's also slick, polished, graphically beautiful and always satisfying - blows seem to really connect in a way they never do in other MMOGs, and they're good blows - I still find myself gaping at some people's powers. Back when I was just watching over Al Bickham's shoulder, and he was in trouble with a shotgun-wielding goon, his life-threatening opponent suddenly flew twenty feet into the air and slammed back down again dead. Then a tiny green woman called Esmeralda walked over.

Once I was playing myself, my first glimpse of what I would later find out was Super Speed was when my low level team and I were crossing a highway at night. I stopped to look at a tiny yellow speck on the horizon, and in the five seconds I watched, it became a glowing fireball hurtling towards us, then in the instant it passed I could see that it was an eight-foot-tall battle-axe wielding robotic knight. The next instant it was just a glowing trail and a speck on the other horizon.

Another time I saw someone in a back alley put their fingers to their temples and fire a stream of screaming skulls from their face. Seeing that he had an audience, he turned to me and said "they chase em too :)"

Score: Super.

The Incomparable D. Fenestrator
Level 15 Claws/Super Reflexes Scrapper

Diel Fenestra was a top scientist and engineer for his country's defence organisation when his design for a 'Light Combat Suit' was rejected for being too 'crazy'. Enraged, he threw the entire board of directors from the third-story window, donned the prototype suit himself and took to the streets to prove its effectiveness in the field. Incredibly, 'The Defenestrator' was already taken.


D. Fenestrator and his trusty sidekick Ms- actually, who is that?



At level 14 you can pick a completely awesome 'transport' type power - Flying, Teleporting, Super Speed or Super Jumping. As a frog fanatic, and a chooser of the least obviously appealing option where possible, I had to go for Super Jumping.



I can also totally kick people upside the face.



Did I mention I could fly? I can pretty much fly.



Scrappers aren't as tough as Tanks, have no long range attacks and don't do as much damage as Blasters. They compensate with enthusiasm.



I find it's best to duck when the coloured light starts to fly.



My Supergroup uniform. The guys in my Supergroup are jerks and I never fight with them, but dear God do I look good in the uniform.



D. Fenestrator and his trusty sidekick Nukenurse, played by Mark Sutherns. Not officially his sidekick. More on her below.


The Citrus Punch
Level 5 Dark Melee/Invulnerability Scrapper

An amateur dabbler in the dark arts whose powers, hair colour and resilience were forever changed - for the better - by the radioactive explosion that spawned the Contaminated. She claims to bring a fresh and zingy twist to the traditional hitting of bad guys, but from the sidelines it's hard to guess what that might be. One thing is clear, though: her hair really does look better this way. It was pretty drab before.


As a superheroine it's important to check other heroines out to make sure they're not better dressed than you. The Citrus Punch has nothing to worry about.



The Martial Arts Scrapper Orange Maid lends a hand, in what must be among the ten best fruit-themed multiple-blows-oriented Scrapping teams I've been in this week.


Nukenurse
Radiation/Radiation Defender

Not one of mine, as I say, but rather Technical Editor Mark Sutherns'. Defenders and Scrappers always compliment one another well, so she and D. Fenestrator have generally been an effective duo. There was a time, however, when we found ourselves unable to cope with the enemies we'd aggro'd around the entrance of Perez Park. We retreated to the safety of the outer gate, where people gather to form teams and prepare before entering the park proper. A near-epic war erupted between the hordes following us and the dozens of super-heroes hanging around waiting for friends, and multicoloured explosions filled the air while Nukenurse and D. Fenestrator lamely apologised to the desperate combatants.


The thing we're all blasting here turned out to be invulnerable. I jump-kicked it just to make sure, though.


Other Heroes
At Whom I Have Gaped


The Painbow, one of my own but not one I've ever really played with. The rainbow blend was 'inspired' by another character you will find among the below.



This flying, high-level Defender used her device to heal me and a few others nearby, then took to the air and zipped off, calling over her shoulder - by way of explaination - "Drive-by healer coming through!"







Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of Freaking War

The Dawn Of War demo is out, and it's a hell of a thing. Even the rabid fans on the developer's forums were a bit taken back by our bold 92% score, but now that people are playing a bit of the finished thing rather than the beta, they're all, like, "Wow, PC Gamer were completely right. I'm sorry I ever doubted them. I should learn to have a little respect." Despite being wildly busy on Friday, I played it for an hour and a half at lunchtime and just forgot where I was.

It's so wildly exciting to be in command of realtime Space Marines who move and shoot exactly as you'd always imagined, or to get a unit called a Librarian and know in advance that he's a stone cold bad-ass psyker who will completely fuck people up for you. Actually intimate knowledge of 40K would still lead you to under-estimate a Librarian - they're insanely powerful in this. The basic Smite power will send eight guys flying - flying and dead.

But it's not just that. Dawn Of War left me with a feeling I haven't had since Z (which I rather liked, but I realise you didn't) - it's the feeling that what you just played wasn't Warcraft. I didn't mine a single thing. Nobody said Zug-Zug just now. This is actually different. I don't get that a lot because I don't play stuff like Homeworld or Medieval or the other greats that Al namechecked in his review, because I need Blizzard's spit and polish to find an RTS accessible. The fact that every strategy game I understand is basically the same as Warcraft would be a great thing if it weren't for Blizzard's knack for nailing a whole genre in one deft game. As it is, they all come off as weak clones and Dawn Of War is the first game with Blizzard's level of accessibility, inherent logic and ability to excite that didn't copy them to get it.

I had this idea for an RTS where you don't harvest resources to build stuff, because that's stupid - who builds tanks on the battlefield? No, instead you earn credit with HQ by showing that the fight is winnable, and worth investing resources to win. I was going to call this factor 'Clout', but Dawn Of War calls it 'Requisition' and that's fine too. I know, there are probably a dozen strategy games to do this first, but that doesn't matter to me. None of them let me use Clout to requisition a goddamn Hellfire-Class Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought is a revelation. Yeah, it was powerful in the tabletop game, and the current model has been awesome ever since we got over feeling it was too fat when it first came out. But to see it stomp around, punch Orks thirty feet into the air, Heavy Bolter them in the face while Flaming three others... it's like an angry house that stomps.

The best thing, though - and I say this with the lofty, authoritative air of someone who hasn't played the full game yet - is upgrading individual squads. For an appealingly low Clout cost, a button click and a few seconds you can add any specific heavy weapon to that group, increase their number or give them a Sarge to rally round. Your basic four guys can quickly become an ubersquad of nine bionically enhanced marines with two Missile Launcher carriers, two Flamers, a power-sword-wielding sergeant and a Force Commander on detachment from Over By That Tree. Not only does it allow for mixed-unit tactics that you don't even have to think about because the one controllable entity is, within itself, mixed, but it also encourages you to give a damn. You really make your squads, you don't just churn them out of a factory.

It still feels oddly like a wild dream that a truly great strategy game, a graphically stunning Warhammer 40K game and a next-generation spectacle-based RTS in which people totally go flying could all coincide in one beautiful package. Maybe because it is, still, it's not out yet.

Half-Life Freaking 2

No, I haven't played it, but I've been hearing a lot about it recently and my excitement - already at the stage where I was dreaming about it three nights in a row - is now at fever pitch. Two things keep running through my imaginings of the game: one, the Gravity Gun will be fun. Look at the Ravenholm video - not only can you slice someone in freaking half with a circular goddamn saw blade, but the environments are packed with stuff to fling at people, and a warehouse palette is enough to smash a zombie off this mortal coil once and for all. Two, I read about someone from the by-then-evil PC Zone playing the game a year ago and having a zombie shuffle toward him on the pier we've seen in videos. He shot a plank in front of the zombie and it fell through into the water. Whoa!

Film Round-Up

The Terminal: This was surprisingly like Cast Away - minimalist, tragic, occasionally funny and commendably neglecting to hook the main character up with his love interest in the end. It's also good, though not as good as Cast Away.

Score: It's also good, though not as good as Cast Away.

The Bourne Supremacy: The Bourne Identity was everything to me that Bond tries to be but is not: exciting, action-packed, and starring a likeable secret agent. The sequel is more or less as good, which is brilliant. People with some notion of taste are basically denied non-ironic enjoyment of the whole action genre, and in that cultural climate something that isn't so stupid it makes you want to cry seems like genius. Its best feature that distinguishes beyond Action You Can Watch Even If You Have A Brain is Bourne's improvisational technique - breaking a gas pipe in a hitman's home and putting the magazine with which he killed him in the toaster as he leaves is a hell of a thing.

Score: Not stupid.

Music Round-Up

Clinic - Winchester Cathedral: This hasn't had very good reviews, because it's not a big departure from the last three albums. What the hell? Why would you want a departure from that? That's what they do. It's like wishing Mozart would move on from the classical genre. They're getting better at it, too: The Magician and Thank You (For Living) start with piercing harmonica melodies that knock around your head for days afterwards, then launch into their stompy sound at its absolute best. Vertical Take-Off In Egypt is more exciting and intense than even Hippy Death Suite, and it does it without the clangy volume that occasionally irritated. Even the acronym titles are taken to a new level with WDYYB - whose full title could justifiably be WDYYBYYBMO. If you're bored of this sound you're bored of Clinic, and a half-hearted venture into anything more conventional or avant-garde wouldn't have cured that. Go and listen to a band who can't make the verse "Thank you for living | Thank you for giving | Thank you for being there" sound like a death threat.

Score: Better.

The Delgados - Universal Audio: Somehow I'd assumed they'd stick with the booming orchestral sound they'd started with The Great Eastern and refined on Hate. They haven't - instead, it's a stripped down version of that on some songs, and a more electronic, synth-augmented version of that on the rest. Is This All That I Came For is the first of the latter, and it sets a trend for them being uncharacteristically weird. It actually has a superb and endlessly catchy chorus, but it's such an odd one that at first it seems challenging and abstract. Once you've become accustomed to the sparser, less conventional arrangements of Universal, though, they start to seem warmer and more emotional than Hate or Eastern. Something in the insular, muted quality to the instruments and the slightly freaky harmonies stirs a more powerful response than anything short of Favours from their old stuff. Bits Of Bone is the zenith of the weirdness, the sparseness and the synths, and by this stage they're beyond deciding whether a song's going to be nice or nasty. The gorey title and eerie backing vocals are repeated over brief stretches of warm, positive tunes and gospel handclaps, and the combination is so fantastic that it makes convention look silly for suggesting they shouldn't go together. This is still unmistakably The Delgados, but they're off in their own bizarre world this time, and it's a privelege to hear what they do in there.

Score: Pro Delgado!

A C Newman - The Slow Wonder: A C Newman is the guy from The New Pornographers, who are ace. Unlike Ben Folds, Newman going solo does actually mean a reduction in the number of instruments and the sheer spectacle of the music, but surprisingly his neat lyrics and explosive pop work just as well without. Perhaps even better - The Slow Wonder is full of songs that sound unable to adequately express the energy that surges behind them, and they're all the more addictive for it. The immediate appeal and sonic punch of The New Pornographers is gone, but what replaces it is a tighter, more subtle sound that never ceases to seem fresh and exciting. Don't miss The Town Halo or Miracle Drug, whether you like The New Pornographers or not. Town Halo is out as a single now - the best single by anyone ever, in fact - so there's a legitimate way to try before you buy the album.

Score: Check it out, he totally made it to the Fantastic section of my Media page. Er, 9!





 
2004/07/11 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven eight five nine point eight

Qwantz: Dinosaur Comics

A while back I did a round-up of the best webcomics and said why they were great. Incredibly I missed off Qwantz; probably the funniest one around at the moment. It is - as its subtitle excitedly proclaims - a 'Dinosaur Comic'. It boasts this fact like it's trying to appeal to eight year-olds, and simple statements ending with exclaimation marks are a staple. Its most distinctive feature, though, and undoubtedly the key to its genius, is that every comic uses the same panels in the same order, with only the text changed. It's an extreme limitation, but it causes the author's fearsome imagination and uncanny knack for the anti-punchline ("Fuck homecare!") to wildly over-compensate. Its sheer variety and insanity defy analysis, and long reviews of webcomics are slightly silly because the subject is free and easily available, so I'll do something actually worthwhile and link some extraordinarily funny strips: for the very best strips of the last six months, click these words!

Score: Bracheasaurus.

Spiderman 2

You probably don't need me to tell you Spiderman 2 is brilliant, but it is noteworthy that for once I can side with popular opinion. I enjoyed the first one a lot, but The Green Goblin was always a deeply lame bad guy, and there wasn't much they could do with him. This is much, much better, not least Doctor Octopus (who should so be called The Doctopus, particularly since he was named by a tabloid) is a decent idea. He's even better in CGI, and his fights with Spiderman are just the most exciting, visceral and dramatic action sequences special effects have ever achieved. The pounding strength of his robotic arms is fantastic to watch, and contrasts beautiful with Spiderman's dependance on Hook's law and agility (both used far better and more extensively here than in the previous film or what I've seen of the comic). It's also frequently hilarious - one scene involving him coming out of a storage cupboard and trying to keep all the mops and brooms from falling out before he can shut the door combines tension, awkwardness and repetition to an effect even Monk would be proud of. There are also half-funny, half-sad touches like Peter Parker having to wash his costume in a Laundromat, half-intentionally staining his whites to avoid splashing out on separate washes.

Score: 315.

Thief: Deadly Shadows

Speaking of popular, positive opinion, I've been keeping fairly quiet about this, but I really can't make myself like Thief: Deadly Shadows. What's odd is that my problems with it aren't subtle, ineffible qualities, they're glaring errors in the game that the mechanics seem to shove in your face almost intentionally. The very first second of freedom - the last objective in the tutorial mission, whereby you have to steal the Lord's purse from under his nose as he talks by the fire - immediately goes horribly wrong. The fire is illuminating the purse and the two people talking, and would evidently illuminate you if you got close to it. So I fired a water-arrow at the fire, straight between the two conversationists, not caring that they would see because everything was going to be dark. It extinguished the fire with the horrible cartoon plop! noise with which they've replaced the gentle hiss of old, and the two continued talking without so much as a pause. It absolutely forbids you to forget that this is a game; a flakey, flakey game that almost never makes even a little bit of sense.

What were my other options? Unless I extinguish the fire, I have to take the bag in broad firelight, with both people looking at it - which I can do, it turns out, since I can pick things up from three metres away with an invisible arm that also renders people unable to detect whether the item I have taken has gone or not for a good thirty seconds. My third and last option would be to use a noisemaker arrow to distract them - but the conversation is important to my next mission, so the game can't let me avoid it, and the two won't be distracted. The horrible, gaping flaws in the game's mechanics absolutely surround you from the word go, and are far harder to evade than the City Guard. Worse, all their immersion-shattering interventions to force you to hear this boring, badly acted conversation fail anyway - every method of getting the purse takes less than a quarter of the time it takes the two of them to get to anything relevant in their conversation, even including planning time, and so you're indoctrinated into what turns out to be an inescapable staple of the game - moving on to a new area, having no idea what you're supposed to be doing, having no objectives to complete on your objectives screen, only to be scared witless in five minutes' time by a voice that you'll later realise is your own character loudly and crudely voicing a summary of what you're supposed to have just heard, despite the fact that the conversation is now several hundred metres away in a closed room. Later this will happen even when the participants in the conversation are not only in a locked room three floors underground on the other side of town, but also long dead by your own hand because you'd become so achingly bored and insulted by their poorly written and over-acted lines.

Over-acted is the best the voice-acting gets - it may be a feeble attempt to make the guard's relentlessly vocalised 'thoughts' about your location funny, but either way it's just atmosphere-shattering and intrusive. The worst it gets - as far as I've heard - is Black Market Bertha, a 'fence' for your loot whom it is sadly impossible to avoid visiting. I think she's trying to do a sort of smouldering voice, and her character is meant to be impressed by Garrett but trying to hide it (they like to rub your face in the idea that men fear or respect you while women desperately desire you - something I particularly like because I'm a pathetic husk of a man who plays computer games in an attempt to live out feebly conceived and embarrassingly puerile fantasies about my social status and sexual prowess). It's hard to tell, though, on account of how spectacularly, agonisingly bad the voice is. I'm only able to accurately express how low on the scale of bad voice acting Black Market Bertha is by actually drawing the scale of bad voice acting. There are no words with which to label her position on this in descriptive terms, so I've resorted to simply marking it with her name:


The flakiness of how characters in the game react to you is so chronic that I ended up slavishly obeying what I could only guess the developer's wishes were, going away to make tea when I heard a conversation because moving would break the game and listening would destroy my mind. I hate hoop-jumping, but I'd rather that than having to jump through invisible hoops that are on fire with invisible fire that kills you and if you save whilst near the fire that also ruins everything. If you save when someone's talking to you, expect them to stop, say hello, then walk off leaving you without an objective critical to the game or a save before you broke the game. I still have two critical artifacts I stole near the start of the game because I saved while the person to whom I was supposed to give them was talking, and my current mission objective is to recover these again from a monster that later steals them from the person I never gave them to me. I have them both right there in my inventory. I have no idea what would happen if I got the motivation to play the game long enough to find where these artifacts are now supposed to be. Naturally his not taking them prevented me from getting the next objective from him, so I had to wander aimlessly around four different areas until I did it by accident, which gave me the objective without marking it as complete, then gave me two more no-one had mentioned.

Encounters with enemies go wrong slightly less often - now and then a guard will hear you for no reason and run directly to your location, and if an enemy randomly detects you as you creep up behind them with the kosh, what would have been a one-hit takedown will take more than fifty hits. They've even recorded special lines for your victims to insult you with as you rain what would normally be consciousness-depriving blows down on them - "Was that a joke?" - as though your victim's awareness of your existences renders their skull all but impervious to a ten kilo sack of metal being brought down on it with your full strength. The actual problem with enemy encounters is not that they break often, but that there's no situation that can't be solved with flash bombs - they blind everyone looking as you, they're dirt-cheap, you can carry hundreds of them, and they even kill undead creatures that weapons can never defeat. And because you'll be using them a lot, they were sure not to iron out an easily solved realism-shattering defect in their mechanics - blinded enemies can see perfectly well as soon as you hit them or interact with them in any other way.

It has positive features: zombies are scary, The Cradle is scary, there is a story - albeit a frequently dumb and nonsensical one - and it's fun to have The Hammerites on your side and watch them beat your enemies to death (although they won't recognise that someone if your enemy just from them chasing you and cutting you up with a sword - you have to make a 'gesture' hit on them before an ally will recognise what's taking place as being combat). But the flaws, oh God the flaws.

Score: Grr.





 
2004/06/23 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven nine zero eight point seven
And He's Damned If He'll Take One More Day Of It

Yarr. This is my deadline week, but I have some time to write partially because I haven't taken the time to write until now, and partially because I thought my deadline was a day earlier than I today discovered it to in fact be so I worked really hard this weekend, and most of what I had to do turned out to be easier than I expected. In computing (and writing, I guess) this beggers belief, and the slack it creates is an eerie and magical time.

The first issue of the redesigned PC Gamer was released into the public last week, and reactions have been deservedly fantastic. The new magazine is a thing of beauty, and having seen some of the creative process I've come to appreciate print media in new and overly critical ways. What's so good about it? You'll have to buy one to see how good it looks (scanned pages don't do it justice, it only works as a whole), but also there's a huge chunk of space given over to the life and soul of gaming. The structure now goes news (announcements and rumours), previews, reviews, and Extra Life. It may not end in 'ews', but it fits there perfectly because it covers everything to do with games after they've been released: mods, communities, crazy social stuff, and what we think of games now we've played them a lot. There are so many fantastic stories from online gaming to tell - including the one we've kicked off with, Mr President For President (of how the titular character enlisted JC Soprano of the Sims mafia to rig the Sims Online presidential election).

Anyway, my part in it was the coverdiscs, and they and I have received some shockingly nice words. So far no-one seems to have actually noticed the new interface, though, which is what I spent ten days doing at the start of that issue, making the rest of it a mad rush even when it was going to be a single-sided DVD, then it got upgraded to a double-sided one in the last week and my brain melted. I actually coped with that okay - I went into overdrive mode, but not in an unhealthy way. What nearly killed me was discovering there were some omissions afterwards, and one fairly major thing is on there but hard to get at. To varying extents I've felt like I'm treading a minefield since, because the redesign issue was so important and everyone worked so hard on it, and for all I know there could be all kinds of other things wrong with the discs, and at any moment someone could say "I can't find X" and Z would transpire to be something horribly important I forgot to put on or didn't realise I was meant to. Going to a double-sided DVD with over a hundred and sixty things on it in one week is an organisational explosion.

It seems to have gone okay, though. Everyone's made it very clear they appreciate my efforts, and the only real problem hasn't caused much fuss at all. It was the Sims 2 character creation tool - it's on there, but hard to find - and the only people to ask for that have been claiming to do so on behalf of younger sisters. I feel the same way towards it as I did my dissertation for a while - creating it was so traumatic that I find it hard to look at, and just want to forget it ever happened. I allow for the possibility that it might be great, I'd just rather never see it again.

This issue's going really well. I have a system now - a huge checklist that's up-to-the-second inclusive, and I've remembered so many things that it seems unfeasible that there could be anything I've forgotten. I've never felt that way about a disc before.

But He Already Must Be, He's Said That For Years

It's now post-deadline, and I have even more free time. The deadline went well - several emergencies, all of which I could handle with time to spare because I was so ahead, and also because I'd done it all before this time. I'm pretty good at things I've done before. I was thinking a while back, "I know how to do all the technical bits of this job, but there's nothing about this kind of experience on my CV and I didn't mention it in my interview, because I didn't think the job would entail any of it." I think in long sentences. Anyway, apparently they were only too conscious that they didn't know of any real technical skills I had, they just gave me the job because I was the only candidate who sounded genuinely enthusiastic about games. What a great way to get a job.

I love the first week of an issue. It's been a while since I really had one, since the redesign issue one was spent frantically redesigning the interface, and last issue was essentially a three-week one. But this week I'm just sitting around playing games and mods. Yesterday I spent about an hour cleaning my desk, then today I came in with nothing really to do, it was gloomy and stormy outside, specks of rain blew in through the window and I played Frag Ops and drank coffee. Then at lunch time, we all went to the pub, the editor bought me a whiskey, we sat around and talked for an hour or so, then we all went home. The paper part of the mag got sent today; this was a post-deadline treat. One of the things we talked about was that I was at one point going to go into insurance, and my favourite parts of maths suggested actuarial work - working out probabilities of things happening - which reaps a salary of up to £100,000 ($181,670.02 (‚¬150,252.27)) a year in London. But doesn't involve days like today. And I suddenly find myself unable to remember why money is appealing; a nice house of my own would be good, but that's all I can think of.

Life is weird. I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing now. In the past there's always been a long-term objective, and so free time was always over-shadowed with a guilt that doing more work would help secure this long-term objective. Now I only have little monthly objectives, and it makes the future span out in front of me in a dizzyingly regular pattern. But a nice one.





 
2004/06/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven nine zero eight point eight
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

What, you might ask, is so great about Harry Potter? How can otherwise discerning persons like myself and Penny Arcade's Tycho go crazy for it? I was first interested in it because it appeared to be a phenomenon - everyone loved it. I hate popular things, but things that are popular among incredibly diverse groups interest me, because they must be appealing on different levels, which suggests a kind of intelligence in their inception. The Simpsons is the paragon of this, and like everyone else I love it. There's an artistic perfection to something that can appeal so universally yet so strongly. It's not achieving accessibility by mediocrity, it's really doing something profoundly right.

The Harry Potter books do too - not to the same extent, but the simplicity of style and the way the phases of the book are paced and pitched make it impossibly compelling. The style is like a catalyst for your enjoyment - it's so clear and straight that you can plough through all the good stuff in the substance of the books at a faster rate, thereby achieving greater pleasure-per-minute. The pacing is what made it fun to me - each book always starts miserably, and Harry spends just enough time trapped in an awful real life to make you long for the magic stuff and to set up a grey background on which to splash its colours, without letting you get bored with the negativity. So when he gets to Hogwarts, you're as excited to be there as he is.

Hogwarts is great because school could have been great - if you've ever had a fun lesson in anything, you can imagine that if all lessons were similarly or more fun that the organised and education recreation of the whole thing could be much more enjoyable than just screwing around all day. Also it's like the lessons where you just got to watch a video - the fact that you're doing it in school makes it massively more interesting and enjoyable than if you were doing it for fun. It's almost like you're being paid to do it. So learning about magic feels even more exciting and magical than it would if it were merely an excellently designed magic system.

Then - or more usually before - there's the reunion with his two friends, who are cool; Ron because he's poor, Hermione because she's a nerd. After the first book these are our old friends too, and the fact that we have to wait a chapter or two to see them again each time magnifies their appeal. From then the books always develop their magic-related main plotline, and the only remarkable thing about that is how smooth the curve of discovery feels, and the fact that it always hits at least two genuinely interesting twists.

The films - as The Onion has pretty much said - were simply pixel-perfect imaginations of the books for the first two, which is an amazing accomplishment and a rare treat for book-fans. The third, which I just saw, retains all the faithfulness with an injection of style and grace that the series would have soon needed - the visual realisation would eventually have ceased to be impressive on its own. But in Azkaban the most impressive and convincing effects are shoved to the sidelines any time they're not the most plot-relevant thing going on, which makes them feel naturally part of the world we're seeing, and thereby effortless and indubitable evidence that the world on-screen is a real one. When we first meet the hypogriff there's no awe-inspiring close-up of it rearing up, it's just in the middle of a clearing in a long shot, and is treated by the camera just the way a real animal would - focussed on where relevant, but not glorified. And the Whomping Willow doesn't thrash itself around like any old CGI monster - for the most part it simply shudders off its leaves now and then.

Actually I've just watched the first film again and it's not a patch on the second, and it would make an awful introduction to the series. It needs to introduce everything carefully and bit-by-bit, like every book does, but instead it skims over it too fast, like every film does, and it makes the locations feel like the arbitrarily cobbled-together weird-and-wonderful worlds of other kids' films. Not a problem in the other films, because it's reasonable to demand that people have read the books or at least seen the first film, but non-readers need a slower introduction to the world, even if that means cutting out chunks of the plot.

The one thing I don't like about Harry Potter is the surname - it reminds me of those horrible children's books that think bloated, rotund syllables with spitting Ts are all it takes to appeal to kids. That kind of opulent fixation with fat, gaudy language only encourages kids to keep talking like kids. Stuff written for kids should be simple but mature, and unafraid to use words the target audience probably won't know when context makes it obvious what they mean. That's completely true of everything about Harry Potter but his surname, and it bothers me that this is most people's only glimpse of the whole series. It makes it sound silly, frivolous, smug, when in fact it's mature and intelligent stuff.

The one thing I don't like about any of the films' interpretation of the books is that the scar on Harry's forehead - perhaps because it was crudely drawn this way on the cover illustrations of some editions - is a ridiculous felt-pen drawing of some lightning. When the books called it a lightning-shaped scar, I think they meant it in the way you might think a certain cloud is wolf-shaped. It's supposed to be a jagged, nebulous thing, preferably of white scar tissue, that coincidentally features the characteristic kink in a cartoon lightning bolt. Not an actual cartoon lightning bolt. I don't know why I'm bothering to talk about this.





 
2004/05/26 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one seven nine eight five point four
Hope Grows Greener Than Grass Stains

I hate posts apologising for not posting more often, but I think I hate blogs that never update, so sorry I haven't updated more. I've just finished working on the first issue of the re-designed magazine, and I redesigned the disc interface out of some weird sense of duty, and that took a week, and then we went up to a double-sided DVD in the last week of the issue, which effectively doubles my work (although Sutherns and Al kindly helped out), so it was insanely hectic. I'm just starting to recover now, and today and yesterday I've mostly been playing games and surfing all day, which is awesome. Except for the stress of worrying about the discs that have now been sent, which is towering and hellish.

I've been playing Ski Stunt, Gish, Stick Soldiers 2, Thief 2, and Aliens Versus Predator 2. For your gaming pleasure, those words are all links to the things they're the titles of, or demos thereof. The things you haven't heard of are freeware, except Gish which is shareware. Briefly, Ski Stunt is a phenomenal 2D skiing game where you control your posture by moving the mouse, and have to do flips and stuff just by moving it up and left; in Gish you play a sentient blob of tar that has to make itself sticky or slippery to get past obstacles - it's a platformer with impressive blobby physics; Stick Soldiers 2 is a deathmatch side-scrolling stickman game, and incredibly slick; Thief 2 is by the same people as the best games of all time - Deus Ex and System Shock 2 - and has more in common with both than I knew; while AVP2 is just a revival thing I've been going through because I miss playing as an alien. The pounce is beautiful, and head-biting just makes you ever more hungry for heads. Heads!





 
2004/04/12 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight one zero six point zero
The Future's Looking Colourful

Word up, dwindling readership. I went home for Easter, and because I was away from computers I spent a lot of time writing about computer games - specifically ideas for the one I'm designing. People don't really eat real eggs at Easter any more, do they? I think they used to paint them and then maybe eat them, or was it just an empty-then-paint thing? Anyway, eggs used to be involved, and now not really. So we're accidentally moving towards a more coherent celebration of the true meaning of Easter - it seems a bit messed up to celebrate rebirth by stealing another species' young and eating it. And now, as I say, not so much with the real eggs.

Anyway my game is one of many projects that occasionally get blasted by the backburner of my attention, and the one for which I have the most to show - about forty-thousand words of design. It's a dumb thing to design, because wanting to be a game designer is somewhere between wanting to be the singer/song-writer of a famous rock-band and wanting to be king of a small country. You get to make all the interesting decisions and everyone else has to deal with how impractical they are. But they're all pretty stupid, so I will now list them to illustrate:

Game - Agent Alpha: a futuristic cross between Hitman, Invisible War and Vice City's motorbikes, starting from the willfully contrived premise of an amnesiac secret agent. You join an agency that gets covert-ops work for freelance secret agents, and travel the solar system killing people or arresting them. The skills and allegiances you develop - no matter what they are - turn out to reflect your former life, and your actions thereby determine the backstory of your character. You find this out in the middle of a finalé op with interplanetary consequences, and have to decide whether it affects your objective. It's an action-RPG in which your weapons are much like Hitman's, your gadgets many and varied, and your pay - which is like experience - goes toward upgrading your weapons - which are like your stats - or buying you new stuff - which is like learning new skills. How about that, huh? Pretty good, huh? Anyway, the zest is not in the vague outline but in the many specifics, and I don't think I'll publish any of those yet.

Book - Numb And Number: this is a nice one because I can actually finish it myself, it's not dependent on any external unknowns. The title - which is hilarious, by the way - refers to the two narrators who are an android and a drug-addict; but the book is about a third person, named Pablo Picasso, who is unusual in a profoundly different way. His curious name is largely a red herring - it is explained by the way in which he is unusual, but you could never get back to that just from the name; it's not a clue, there's no way to use it. This vaguely alluded-to twist is the best thing this book has going for it - with the characters I only want to emulate Dave Eggers and Douglas Adams, and the flesh of the story will just be these people forced into a cheap sci-fi thriller plot interrupted by lengthy descriptions of uninteresting futuristic interpersonal relationships. Sounds good, doesn't it? What I mean is that everything else about it is fairly derivative, whereas I've never heard of anyone using this particular twist.

Film - Numb And Number: I can't help but imagine it as a film. I have no idea what it'd be like to write fiction that you don't imagine as a film while you write it. How the hell do you know what it would look like? I even had to cast my story before I could get a grip on how certain characters would talk. John Cusack is in it. I've written a soundtrack-tracklist.

TV Series - The System: about the security staff of an enormous benevolent space-station-ship that - like many others of its home planet fleet - just wanders around giving medical aid and stuff to the other planets in the system. All races are human, but some with minor aesthetic evolutionary deviations from when the race was split over planets and unlearnt space travel. I haven't written anything of the pilot episode of this for ages, and although I've discovered I love the form of a teleplay, my enthusiasm for this premise is intermittent.

The Von Neumann Catastrophe - No Wonder Vegas Wants You Back: this would be an album, but I had to put the band name before the dash just so you can appreciate the glory of the two together. The band name is one Rich stumbled upon while trying to explain to me that The Erdos-Strauss Conjecture was a great name for a band. The album - or song - title No Wonder Vegas Wants You Back was just something somebody said, and I or someone else said it would make a great title. I - or they - was - or were - right - or wrong. The jerk.

The band name is almost unbearably jazz, but also just so obviously the best band name anyone will ever think of, so either we go jazz or we just put up with a name/sound discrepency. I kind of imagine vocals, and jazz with vocals is worthless, so maybe we should ditch the jazz. Or me. I can't play anything, and I can't sing (actually I haven't yet decided whether it's that no-one can sing, or that everyone can, or that no-one can but it doesn't matter, and if everyone can then I can, and if it doesn't matter then I can't but it doesn't matter), and I'm surprisingly unable to write either lyrics or music. Well, music you'd expect because I can't play anything and never learnt how to write music or even how that whole thing works - I always wonder, where do they get this stuff? The way people who don't understand fiction wonder "Where do they get this stuff?" when they read books. The answer there is "They make it up," but that's no more enlightening as a response to one question than the other. But lyrics, you'd think I'd at least like writing lyrics. But in fact if I so much as rhyme a pair of words I have to delete it and pretend it never happened. Lyrics cannot be written by people like me.

Anyway, 'Catastrophe' is I suppose not necessarily just jazz, it works well for any large ensemble of a lot of different instruments. And my philosophy of music is that more different things are better than fewer - fewer than two vocalists is absurd, and every song should feature between ten and twenty instruments. That makes it sound like I'm talking orchestral, but that's the lamest way to get a lot of instruments in - there are only really three instruments, the rest are just slight variations or more people playing the same thing. That's pointless - just do that stuff in production afterwards. And every instrument should be working to a very different tune - slight variations are pathetic, and having two things playing the same tune is just wrong. The writer should always be doing enough work to keep every player busy in a different way. It's like in games when sometimes female guards will say something the male guards also say, word for word - they had the actors, they had the time, they'd paid for the lines, but the writer was too lazy to think up something new to be said, so you have an illusion-shattering dupe that totally undermines any immersion the player might have been experiencing. Why not just show the enemies reading from scripts? What the fuck is your problem? Jesus.

It's The Colour Of Blood, Chaos And The Corruption Of A Happy Soul

I should qualify my bold score for Far Cry, and also my ravings about it - it's an extremely difficult, often frustrating game. I still haven't completed it on Easy, and that's largely because I just stop playing every time I get stuck on a dumb level. There are dumb levels - almost exclusively the indoor ones - and some of the mutants are just a chore to kill. The big guys with rocket launchers - what are you going to do? The only thing that can kill them quickly is a car, and on the lame indoor levels there are no cars. So no matter how you go about it, you're going to be standing there firing for a long time, and it's just awkward. Even if you don't find automatic-weapon-slogs dull, it just costs you so much ammo and makes the weapons feel puny. It's horrible. A more widespread problem on the indoor levels is that there's very rarely a better tactic than shooting everything in short bursts with the OICW. That weapon is so effective - and the game's difficulty soars so high to compensate - that nothing else is viable except avoiding combat altogether, which you frequently can't do on the indoor levels. It's the indoor levels. They suck.

That said, the outdoor levels get even better later on - I hadn't even got to Boat when I wrote the mini-review built into that post, and that and a later one - River - are the two best so far. And while the 'extremely difficult' comment applies to every level, the 'frustrating' one largely excludes outdoor levels like that. You'll get stuck, but replaying boat sections is the most fun you'll have in this or any other recent game - if you complete River on your first attempt, you're not really playing the game right.

I also over-rated Deus Ex 2 - it is a great experience to play through the first couple of times, and it'd be madness not to buy it, but the problems I mentioned at the time actually kill the game's longevity. It's half the length of its predecessor, and I've played it through perhaps three times, and now I just never want to go back to it. It's not worth it, the themes aren't engaging enough. The interface, movement and engine are clunky, but so were Deus Ex's and I still play that through at regular intervals (I'm well into double-figures now). Invisible War fails by being too scared to suggest a morally acceptable faction, and thus systematically destroying the philosophical appeal of each of the ideologies to which your character can subscribe, and thereby any spark to the plot that could make it enjoyable for repeat plays. It's fun to replay Deus Ex even when you know the twist is coming because there are real, compelling things involved - UNATCO resembles the US government unwaveringly and believably, and the NSF are exactly like certain terrorist groups with a good cause but not enough organisation to keep their methods moral. In Invisible War, you're not interested in the factions because they're all murderous hypocrites with nothing but vague, philosophically feeble rhetoric to justify their actions. You don't even believe that they believe it, let alone that it's worth fighting for or caring about. It was such a disastrously bad design decision to 'balance' them with flaws rather than working on convincing you of their merits.

The other thing that makes the prospect of going back to it unappealing is that I've now tried every type of character. The biomod system just wasn't an adequate replacement for the skill system - it was far too simple. It was probably better than Deus Ex's augmentation deal, but augmentations could basically be ignored - the skills were the main way in which your character improved, and it was those you got excited about. It's because they improved the way you used weapons - you had to specialise in just one or two types if you were going to get really good, so it was specialisation of effectiveness, rather than just choosing which tricks you want. Worse, they barely tried - and completely failed - to balance the biomods; there were some you just couldn't do without, so you never got to use the interesting but ineffective alternatives for that slot.

Far Cry's score probably stands, actually, but Deus Ex 2 should be demoted from Spectaculoso! (oem) to merely Belissimo! (oem). But, aha, which game should you buy, if you only buy one and you don't have either? Depends if you've played Deus Ex. If not, you need to get and play that before I can even talk to you, but if so then you're probably better off with Far Cry. It's so much effort to get past Invisible War's clunkiness and differences from the original Deus Ex, and compelling though the experience then is, the lack of longevity depresses me. It doesn't mean it's not worth it at all - it definitely is - it just means that with all those flaws hanging on it, it can't compete with Far Cry's fresh, nutritious tropical joy.

You know what game I'm not irritated with? Morrowind. Its beautiful world and serene pace - particularly on a modern machine (helps both those things, because loading times are negligable so the serenity is never interrupted by frustrating delays) - make it an addictive holiday destination, and it's free of annoyances that aren't fixed by the plug-ins I have (slow running speed, Cliff Racers). I might be writing an article for PC Gamer to this effect, as part of a new page where we write about old games that are - for whatever reason - still worth writing about. It's going to be awesome.

A Happy Soul Will Ride In The Fields

I've come into a lot of new albums lately - here's what they're like, in order of how well I've listened to them, most first:

Gomez - Split The Difference: for some reason they sent an advance copy of this to us at work, addressed to the editor of five years ago who hasn't worked there since. Just to remind you - and the person who sent it, should they one day read this - we're a PC games magazine. Thanks, though. It's really good. It came with a flier from Fly magazine, saying it's their best thing yet and "no record collection should be complete without a copy" - which seems to imply that most collections are complete without it, but that this is bad. If you don't find that confusing, you've missed something. Anyway, I'm not yet convinced this is better than In Our Gun, which was not simply Gomez's best album but which made basically everything else they'd done look like worthless shit (except California and Here Comes The Breeze, which are both strangely timeless in the same way). Split The Difference competes with it - the deafening opener Do One would have fitted on there nicely, and a lot of the subsequent tracks are loud and stunning in the same way, which is a good - nay, great - thing. But In Our Gun had some fantastic downbeat or slow-burning tracks and Split The Difference doesn't - Extra-Special Guy is just rubbish. I was going to cite another one as being merely okay, but I couldn't remember the title, and in looking for it I tested about seven tracks and each time thought "No, it's not this one, this one's amazing," so maybe it has a good chance of surpassing In Our Gun. Their sound on it is - amazingly - even richer than the mess of guitars and electronics on Gun, and almost every track explodes into screeching multi-faceted life at some point. At first it almost just sounds like fuzz, but after one or two listens you can hear everything going on and it's just brilliant. I suggest the downloading of Do One, Catch Me Up, We Don't Know Where We're Going, Chicken Out and Me, You And Everybody. Ah, I've just found the mediocre one - it's Meet Me In The City.

Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News: everyone should hear Float On, the happy single. Lots of people were wondering what happened to the songwriter to spur this generally up album and very firmly up single - according to the recent Onion interview, the answer is loads of really bad stuff. He just wrote it like this to cheer himself up. Outside of the single, the album is good to great - there are lots of great ones like World At Large, The Good Times Are Killing Me and The Ocean Breathes Salty, but only Float On is better than great, and the others don't really do anything for me. It's also hard to get a studio version of the album because live and radio ones have been floating around for so long - search for 'modest good news advance' and you'll get the wheat.

Preston School Of Industry - I Forget What The Album Is Called: actually that would be kind of a good name for an album. This is all good stuff, different yet neither better nor worse than their first album, and still as summery as you'd expect. Don't miss Walk Of A Girl (mis-spelt on the album, but I can't repeat the error here because I'm physically incapable of intentionally publishing a mistake) or Her Estuary Twang.

Wilco - Again, I Couldn't Tell You What The New Album Is Called: they're delaying this one to stay in synch with the tour, which is itself delayed because the singer's in rehab for an addiction to the painkillers he takes for his migraines. A slightly chess-club reason for a rockstar to be in rehab, and much respect for that. Y'all probably know their last effort Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because it was absurdly well-received, and indeed great. I couldn't guess at how critics will react to this new one, but they won't slate it and they shouldn't. I've barely listened to it twice so I couldn't name good tracks, but they are definitely there. I'm A Wheel is dumb, though. No-one else will think so. Everyone will love it.

Until The Rain Dies Down

Ooh, I almost forgot to mention that the issue of PC Gamer that goes on sale this week features a whole load of my stuff and also my photo all over the place. If you're reading this on or after Wednesday the 14th, next time you're in a UK newsagent have a look at the Moderator page, the review of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and the start of Disc Gamer to read my stuff; or the first page of the Reviews, the Best Of The Forum page and the Money Games feature to see photos of me.





 
2004/04/02 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight one three four point six
Blizzard Entertainment Announces 0.999~=1

The Sims - Milkin' It

Pimps At Sea

ThinkGeek EZ-oven drive





 
2004/03/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight one eight seven point two
We'll Remember This When We Are Old And Ancient, Though The Specifics Might Be Vague

I got to write another review of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth this week, this time a little quarter-page one for The Official Windows XP Magazine. They - and dozens of other specialist magazines, particularly technology-related - are part of the same publishing company as us, and we've got particularly close ties with XP, 101 Games and in some ways PC Format. It's common for staff members of one to do articles for another on a freelance basis, and the staff writer at XP does a regular feature and a fair few reviews for us. Four different members of the PC Gamer team reviewed Far Cry, each for different magazines. I qualify PC Format's inclusion because I don't know that we use many or any of their people for freelance stuff, and we gang up on them in Far Cry. In other news, Far Cry.

And I'll Call Your Cambersoles A Sprightly Light Magenta, When In Fact They Were A Nappish Bluish-Grey

Having played a lot of the multi-player beta and demos, both at home and on variously amazing PCs at work, I already knew it was unspeakably attractive. It's - oxymoronically - literally beyond words; there doesn't seem to be anything I can say that could possibly communicate its sparkling gorgeousness, and even that - by definition - doesn't do it justice. Luckily it's also unnecessary (philosophers love things that are not only impossible but also pointless, which is probably ironic because philosophy itself is by many accounts ultimately both) because I can just show you screenshots:



And The Water Rolls Down The Drain, And The Blood Rolls Down The Drain

I've got a lot of sub-titles to get through, so that justifies a new one. Anyway, I knew Far Cry had mutants in it, because it's an Island Of Doctor Moreau type plot, and so I was bleakly confident that it would start brilliantly: shooting human mercenaries with real-world weapons on tropical beaches you would happily give up your current life to frolic on; but soon get rubbish: blasting ungratifyingly over-tough genetic abominations in drab metal interiors. To its enormous credit, it's not structured like that at all - it isn't The Island Of Doctor Moreau so much as The Archipelago Of Doctor Moreau (a much better title, actually, and rhythmic enough to work as lyrics in an absurd samba-beat song) and Doctor Moreau hasn't been very busy because (so far, at least) there aren't that many mutants. And since it's not just one island, it's not a case of working your way inside and then ploughing through steel corridors until you inevitably reach some feeble attempt to spice up the end-section in the form of a living interior or lava. Instead, you're island-hopping by boat and by swim (is there a swimming noun? I need a swimming noun), sometimes infiltrating installations or camps for a quick blow-something-up mission, but more often driving, running or sneaking around the hilly islets whichever way you like, somehow never missing the objectives or ever feeling restricted. It's a masterstroke of game architecture, and I couldn't really tell you how it's done.

Oh What A Lonely Thing

I'm playing it on my Athlon XP 1600, with a Geforce 3 - in fact, the very worst Geforce 3 money can buy - and it's entirely acceptable. They didn't test it much on low-end machines, so scaling down some of the options causes artifacts to appear ('artifact' is a technical term meaning 'thing'), but it's better that they include these options untested than not at all. Turning Lighting to Low drastically alters both the appearence and performance of the game, making it smooth even on my lowly machine, and so simple on the lighting front that the Flashlight just flat-out doesn't work. But the performance boost means you can turn the Water setting to High, and even without that it's a better-looking game than, say, Battlefield 1942, which is what people actually play these days. Or a Half-Life mod. You can't contest that those graphics are servicable, and that forbids you to complain about Far Cry at any detail setting. In my world, that's logical.

In A Blood-Red Drain

Anyway, on an unrelated note I've just bought a Radeon 9800 SE. A type of Radeon 9800 SE that can - I'm 86% sure - be 'softmodded' to a Radeon 9800, which is significantly better. The softmodding is a wholly reversible process that simply involves installing a new ('hacked') driver that enables four of the dormant pipelines on the card - it's one of those insane quirks of capitalism whereby it's cheaper for the company to make all the cards the same and then cripple some for a cheaper model than to actually manufacture a less capable card. Anyway, a 9800 is about five generations ahead of my current card, and simply not something you can buy for £100 ($180 (‚¬147)) in England at the moment. Neither is a 9800 SE, by any sane price-list, but the low-low prices at Aria.co.uk are insane! I couldn't believe my eyes!

July, July, July

Seriously, a Plextor DVD re-writer that works with both types of DVD (there are two, it seems: + and -. Only the really expensive drives can write both) for £100 ($180 (‚¬147))? Are you trying to blow my mind? I didn't get one, but if I could have thought of any conceivable use for one I would have. It's the first time I've ever just browsed for hardware, seriously considering an impulse buy. Wow, I think that's my fifth single-sentence self-contradiction this post.

Never Seemed So Strange

The supernumerosity of the sub-titles is in celebration of the fact that - among many others - The Decemberists are now on my Media page under the prestigious heading of Fantastic, and my deliberation has concluded that July, July is their best song. It's weird that it should be both musically and lyrically so, because music seldom has anything to do with lyrics, but I can't see it any other way, and so I'm left with no choice but to upload this profoundly astonishing work of staggering genius and link to it from the first - yes, first - mention of its title in this post. It's a puzzle, if you like.

Among the others added are The New Pornographers, under the same esteemed category, and people like Architecture In Helsinki and Franz Ferdinand. What? That's a type of band. Those two. They go together in some meaningful sense. Hey, I'm not on trial here. Ooh, also, before I forget or end this post at an arbitrary point, Far Cry needs a score.

Score:







 
2004/03/06 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight two zero seven point seven
It's Like The Unfinished Symphony

"Hola amigos. I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I've been pretty busy." Is how I had a strange urge to start this post. Like so many things, you can click on it to find out where it's from. Anyway, welcome to the biggest post ever.

I said I'd tell you when you could see my name in print in the shops, so I'm going to do that now: you can currently see my name in the magazine, in the shops! I'm, like, fifth down from the top in the staff list, because I'm an editor of sorts. You can also see my name in other, bigger letters in the Disc Gamer section on page 137, because I got the Tom Says box I was so excited about. I also wrote everything on the next two pages, excluding the body text for Hidden And Dangerous 2 (I did write some for that, but Tim Edwards beat me to it). I also did the recommended movies section on the page after that, and - in co-operation with my predecessor - the discs that come on the front. That's all if you look at PC Gamer in a shop before the 18th of March - after that, you'll see the issue for which I did most of the discs myself and also took over The Moderator section, and in the issue after that I really did do the discs by myself, and I've got a review, my photo and probably some more Disc Gamer stuff. Here ends your guide to Tom in the media. Ooh, except, and I don't know why this is good, but another staff member mentions me in the 18th of March issue, saying how I ruin Unreal Tournament 2004 by camping like a jerk. It gets me right there.

Writing a review was great. It's just a one-page one, but I didn't expect to get into reviewing for ages, if at all. It seemed like a lot of work, but that may be because - for no clear reason at all - I worked about six hours of overtime to get it done as soon as possible. I suppose I was eagre to impress, but in fact it probably just made me look amateurish, and the issue deadline isn't for about a month. I'm starting to accept the one-two combo of facts that I'm incurably awkward and screw everything up. For some reason, though, I'm not at all nervous about how fair I was - I don't know if I'm allowed to tell you what I thought of the game, but I'm sure of my judgement in a way that I'm seldom sure of anything. I guess you could call ten years of playing games and having opinions 'experience', but it doesn't adequately explain it to me.

It's Like The Sun On Your Fingertips

I drew this ages ago, in response to a newspaper board outside a Bath newsagent's that, in marker pen, repeated the latest edition's headline.



It's Like Pounding Tequila Shots

I should do a cast list for this thing at some point, and it really needs a bar of quick links like Intro Post, E-Mail Me, and now Cast. But I can't fit that in aesthetically for some reason, so here's what's relevant for the next few paragraphs: I am Tom, I live with Rich who I knew from the internet. His uni course is four years, so although he's the same age as me he's still a student. Two of the people he previously lived with at uni, Miles and Gemma, live together, near us, and we go round there a lot.

It was Miles' birthday on Valentine's Day, and for both that and a cocktail party they held some time before we all dressed smart. This rendered both events photo-worthy, but the birthday was doubly-so because Rich and Gemma's present to Miles was an alcoholic chess-set, whereby the pieces are all shot glasses - singles for pawns, doubles for everything else - and when you take a piece, you have to drink it. The idea - which is at odds with other drinking games but actually makes a lot of sense - is that the winning player gets drunker quicker, impairing his ability to play and hopefully evening the balance. Miles and Gemma have a huge range of spritis and liquors, but we realised drinking doubles of a wide range of crazy things would be dangerous and - worse - unpleasant, so Rich made a jug of White Russian and filled the doubles with this. I took charge of the pawns, filling each of the 'frosted' player's with a different drink, then flipping the sequence but keeping the elements the same for the 'clear' player. Miles and took alternate turns as the frosted player, Rich was the clear one and Gemma doesn't like chess. Through a combination of chaos, spirits and Nice Weather For Ducks by Lemon Jelly, it was a truly great game of chess. Rich won, as a single man would a three-legged race. A grainy video of the merriment - which everyone on Earth should see at least six times - can be found at the bottom of these photos:



The hat is a Christmas present from my Gran, who bought it in New Zealand, where they made it out of the fur of Merinos,
which are possum-like pests that they kill anyway.







Miles' "Milesday" card, to which Rich's and my contribution was the not-entirely-relevant equation "Tom+Rich=Rock"






In drinking chess, no two pieces are alike - one pawn might be easy to take but full of noxious banana liquor, while
an adjacent one has reinforcements but also a delicous peach schnapps reward.







The best - perhaps only - way to play chess. Notice that I seem to be experiencing a sense of achievement.








And lastly, since the clip includes sound, you have to click here to get it. You actually have to.







It's Like A Pig In A Gypsum Mine

Have you heard this Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do thing by Sigur Rós? Di Do is an impressively unsettling experience, but Ba Ba and Ti Ki are boring beyond words. Some boring music is okay to have on in the background, but this is so boring you actually notice it and ask "What the fuck is this boring shit? Jesus!" It's almost the last thing you'd expect from a band previously only responsible for music that was a) great and b) insanely nice. Other than the fact that it's alternative, it bears no relation to their previous albums, and I don't think it's unreasonable to find that annoying. We were listening to that! Why did you change the channel?

On another musical note (ha!), I'm pleased to see Franz Ferdinand - specifically Take Me Out - doing so well. They supported Belle And Sebastian when Rich and I last saw them, and even hearing it for the first time, live, I came away thinking "Man, Take Me Out is really, really good." Half-way through the set, the singer had to use his asthma inhaler, and Rich said "Rock and roll." I also noticed Tell Her Tonight in a good way, and that's almost catching up with Take Me Out now that I have album versions. Their guitarist is one of the most appealing people I've been in the same room as, and the fact that his wild, incomprehensibly indie voice graces the indelibly catchy verses of Tell Her Tonight is basically the core of its greatness. Anyway, I've long since grown to loathe virtually everything by The White Stripes and The Strokes, so it's vaguely good to see a band I like succeed.

The most important musical note of late is the existence and overwhelming incredibleness of the New Pornographers. They're a sort of multi-band supergroup featuring Neko Case, who you may have heard of, but who is lame on her own or with her Boyfriends (that's the name of her band - Neko Case And Her Boyfriends), yet mysteriously incredible here. It helps that she almost certainly doesn't write any of it, but it's amazing how enthusiastic she can sound about music so utterly unlike her own. Anyway, she's not the main feature, really, because she only has a lead vocal on about a third of the songs: the real attraction is the writing - mostly the musical writing - which is wildly busy, richly textured, toweringly multi-dimensional psychedelic power-pop. Their second album, Electric Version is probabaly the most consistently brilliant album I know of - Belle And Sebastian and The Delgados have albums with tracks so good that they beat this one overall, but neither can get through twelve tracks without playing something inessential. I kept all but one track of my download of Electric Version, and now I've re-downloaded that one and intend to keep it. Faint praise coming from most people, but I've just never done that with an album before. Anyway, it does have a couple of astonishing masterpieces as well as being so thoroughly unmissable, and the clear best of these is The Laws Have Changed, which you can get just by clicking on those words. E-mail me here if you'd like to sue me.

It's Like Failing Your Driver's Test

I did say I'd eventually photograph my more photogenic Christmas presents, and somehow that kind of got combined into this, which I made a while back but didn't like enough to post on its own. It was going to be called The Annotated Geek, I think.




G - Glasses: they have red lenses, and I bought them in Amsterdam. People look good through red lenses, because it makes it harder to discern complexion variation, so I am under the wildly mistaken impression that these glasses make me look cool. They would, of course, if I put them on the person judging my coolness, rather than myself. Although I guess 96% of all coolness appraisals conducted on me were also by me, so maybe I am putting them on the right person.

W - Wallet: folded out as though I have a badge representing something important, when in fact I only have a Young Person's Railcard, a Shakeaway loyalty card and a piece of paper that says 'NERD' on it. In fact this piece of paper is a Caffé Nero loyalty card, which says 'NERO' in a very square font across the top, but I've cleverly altered it to look distinctly like 'NERD'. Also in the wallet are a neat Swiss Army Card - a credit-card-shape version of the established pen-knife format, out of which useful tools such as a knife and a pen may slide - and an access card for work: it embues my wallet with the apparently magical quality that, when held near a pad by the office's front door, it unlocks the door.

K - Knife: long, sharp, given to me for Christmas. It's a Kitchen Devil, and I'm posing with it because it's cool, but you can in fact barely see it.

B - Black Gloves: bought by myself and then given to a relative to give back to me for Christmas. They're faux-leather, for a faux-pro-killer feel. Gripping things while wearing them makes you feel like you're stealing their soul.

O - Onion T-Shirt: black and white, with the headline "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg" and a picture of the Titanic. The sub-heads include "Did Jazz Sink The Great Ship?" and "Spaniards Ruled Out In Iceberg Placement - But Are We Being Too Hasty?" I have other cool T-shirts. One says "This shirt keeps you warm despite the ravages of the cold, dead earth." Another has <GEEK> on the front and </GEEK> on the back.

U - USB Storage Device: from Crucial, and called a 'Gizmo'. It hangs around my neck and stores up to 128Mb of stuff. This is unspeakably useful, because I do a lot of PC hopping at work, and I like to have a backup that wouldn't get lost in a fire or a virus, and it means I can work on stuff at home or bring in music or videos and keep my book, game, website, etc. all together and with me all the time.

J - Jacket: black, leather, supposedly second-hand but given its condition, this is probably a trivial case of the word's meaning. Having short hair and a black leather jacket quickly makes you realise how many other people have short hair and a black leather jacket. My favourite feature of mine is that its light and comfortable enough to wear indoors.

C - Chain: connecting wallet to trousers. I need this so that I don't leave my wallet anywhere, and its total security means I can also attach my keys to my wallet, rendering everything important unlosable. I once left my wallet on a plane and never got it back. The chain, also bought by myself for myself for Christmas, is not quite long enough for me to comfortably fit my key in my front door's lock, so I have linked it with a cool extendable string thing that the company I work for gave me with the aforementioned access card.

T - Torch: tiny, super-bright, white LED. It's on, that's why my trousers are glowing.

N - Notepad: with a good pen tucked into the ring-bound spine. Since I am now technically a journalist, I feel I should have a notepad with me wherever I go. It actually fits this pocket perfectly, so I had to put another object in the bottom of the pocket first so that the notepad would stick up out of it for this photo. I suppose I'm a journalist in spirit as well as technically, in that I document new things of interest, for publication. My Gizmo, mentioned above, also enhances this apparently non-misleading feeling, because it's worn like a press-pass.

S - Shoes: which I have had for nine years. When I got them, people were surprised that I was wearing shoes with some credibility - they're Spalding, who make sports equipment that's actually used by people. These days, the shoes seem less credible.

It's Like Your Soviet Counterpart

It's nice to be writing freestyle after working so much on this review lately. I mean, I like correctness, but there's official correctness and personal correctness. Officially h-words need an 'an' instead of an 'a' before them, and 'smoky' is a correctly spelt word. Personally, that can go to a hell both firey and smokey. But the best thing about not having to meet print-quality standards is that, when a comma is the appropriate punctuation mark for the context, I'll use them five or six times a sentence.

I had this great idea to do a feature on this page called PC Gamer Gold, where I post anything I wrote that was too crazy to get through the various editting processes, thus giving you hot-hot-hot PC Gamer content without actually breaching any copyrights and also letting the good stuff see the light of day. This collapsed in on itself when they printed my best and craziest caption yet: page 138, Hidden And Dangerous 2, the top left shot. Other than the words 'he just' missing from the middle of that, it's exactly what I wrote.

It's quickly become apparent working at PC Gamer that I really, really like doing captions. I had fun with them in my review, too, and one shot in particular I just couldn't go wrong on. It captioned so well, in fact, that I ended up with five possibilities I couldn't decide between. Thus, I've decided to put it here and enlist you for even more suggestions. Just try it, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. It's the most captionable shot ever. I'll post submissions here if I get any, and they can be uncredited if you're embarrassed. Click on the shortest word in the last sentence to send one in. I won't tell you the one I ended up using, but my other possibilities are there:



"Whoa! Humans!"

Somehow Corporal Allen managed to tell the only joke offensive to both women and pterodactyls to an audience comprised solely of those.

"Do you ever get the feeling that somewhere, somehow, a pterodactyl is watching you?"

"Normally I'd shake with my left, but it's covered in blood at the moment."

"Guys, check out the size of this coconut!"








 
2004/01/28 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three one three point three
Webcomics are kind of a weird form of story-telling, when they're being used for story-telling, because plot twists and jokes have to happen very regularly: often, together, and evenly spaced. Sometimes the combination of joke and plot development makes the event seem throwaway or unreal, and it's not until the next strip starts that you realise it really happened. Also, plot events and jokes merge into one bizarre entity, frequently forcing the story to take insane twists on the whim of humour, which is no bad thing. It worked for Douglas Adams. I suppose I'm talking about one comic more than any other here, but I can't link into it just yet because I want to include it in a descending rank order of my favourite webcomics, and it's not my favourite. That would be:

Penny Arcade: a gaming community institution, and to my knowledge the only good computer-related comic. It seems to have a kind of rivalry with PvP, which is strange because one is fantastic and the other is worthless shit. Anyway, it's an extremely pretty bi-daily comic featuring two gamers - who quickly came to correspond to the two authors (one writes, the other draws) - and, basically, their dialogue. It's frequently a satire of recent games or games-related news, and that's when it's at its best. Rather than continue this pointless description of an easily observable quantity, I'll further facilitate the easy observation of it by linking to the best seven strips in chronological order: look at these, they're really very good!

Boy On A Stick And Slither: this was almost first, and I usually think of it as my favourite webcomic, but it isn't as regular as Penny Arcade (Monday and Friday) and it hasn't been going as long, so archive-wise there's much less there. Its best strips are on a higher plateau of humour, though, and nothing else can touch them. BOASAS, as it pleasingly shortens to (pleasingly because it's pronouncable, and sounds like a team of British commando snakes), has a more philosophical bent, and almost never pertains to anything going on in the world (the exception being war, which it satirises in a more gentle and powerful way than anything else), despite having no plot of its own. It's characterised by an apparent absence of a punchline, but for the few who get it, the last line - often merely by virtue of being the last line - is unbearably funny. Graphically it's both cute and atmospheric - the backdrops are always brilliantly themed, and some of the early pastel ones give the whole mood of the strip an intoxicating tranquility. You'll notice I can't shut up about BOASAS, probably because it's easy to be verbose about its lofty, subtle genius, so I'll cut to the hardcore linking: top seven strips ahoy! Click them all!

Wigu: an unpromising premise - little kid and immediate family, plus adventures - somehow never seems to get in the way of Wigu's sprawling brilliance, perhaps because Wigu himself is a pleasant chap, and his friends and family are all wonderful characters: his sister is an essentially clement but darkness-obsessed goth who recently dyed Wigu's hair bright green for not knowing the capital of the Ukraine in a game they were playing; his shirtless dad makes music for adult videos; and his school-friend Hugo is fantastic. It's a bit trite to have the black character speaking street, but when it's such wonderfully over-polite street, and Hugo himself is so modest, it's hard to be bothered by it. For the story-based comics I won't link individual strips, you should just go there and start at the beginning of one of the stories - maybe the latest or the first.

Scary Go Round: this one has got better for me recently because, previously, I'd always worried that I liked it for its eerily perfect artwork. Over the new year, though, the author kindly changed his style from good to bad, so now the characters look puny and big-headed, and I'm finally sure that it's the writing I really like. It's a very English strip, and you can even get a Scary Go Round tea-towel that says "In this day and age, tea is all the rage!" on it. It's about a fairly broad cast of almost interchangeable female twenty-somethings - with a couple of males thrown in - but the dialogue and insanity is so well-crafted that it doesn't need a good cast to support it. This is the one I was talking about in the intro - most of the stories feel like a daydream of one of the characters, and the author even parodied this very feeling quite recently, in this strip. Interestingly, this strip also has a single black character who alone speaks street. Bizarrely, he's also called Hugo, and unsurprisingly he's also great - he owns a sandwich shop, to fulfil his dream of "making Subway leave this country crying. Maybe crying blood."

Cat And Girl: to a large extent, Cat And Girl is too hip for me. It's insanely referential and intellectual, despite featuring a giant humanoid paint-drinking cat as one of its two characters. When I understand it, though, it's frequently brilliant.

Triangle And Robert: this doesn't actually work very well as a webcomic - a single strip seldom works in isolation, and it basically ignores the aforementioned pressure to end on a plot twist and a punchline. Instead, I check it once every couple of months and read the backlog. It's drawn by someone who can't draw, even after doing it for some years now, so the characters are all simple shapes. The plot is pretty hefty and involved, but the sheer inventiveness of it wins out, and the frequently brilliant humour helps too.

One Over Zero: a rather fascinating and sometimes very funny attempt to write a comic from first principles. It works because it weaves an enjoyable sense of freedom into a set of rigorously obeyed laws, which themselves serve to control a potentially chaotic environment. Like Triangle And Robert, it has no 'fourth wall', meaning the characters (or most of them, at least) realise they're in a comic, and talk to the narrator. One of them actually despises the narrator, and builds difficult-to-draw things to spite him. It's run its course, now, so there's just the archives to read, but since that's exactly one thousand strips, you could pretend it was a new daily comic and avoid the painful truth for three years. It worked for my second marriage! Er.

If You Love Something, Eventually It Will Explode: I once actually tried doing a webcomic myself. I justify this horrific crime by clarifying that I did this one, single story because I had the idea and couldn't fit it into any of my existing projects (a book, two games, a film of the book, a TV series). The worst webcomics happen when someone starts one because they like the idea of doing one, but don't actually have any ideas for what to do in one. Some of the best start that way too, I suppose. Anyway, the only series of strips I ever did is largely about GTA 3, so if you're not familiar with that game you'll get little out of it. I don't know much about what I've done: I don't know who these people are or why they're in crazy sofa-chairs... I think I imagined the room as some kind of space-age lounge. I guess it would also make sense to suppose that the girl was an ex-girlfriend of the guy, and while not a gamer herself, gained a familiarity with the curious mechanics of GTA 3 through her prior familiarity with the guy, who evidently plays it a lot. She seems pretty bored with him. The strip also vaguely references a host of other things, so I drew up a list of what and where. You might like to go to the strip before you read this, if you're going to.

Obviously, Grand Theft Auto 3: I still can't spend five minutes in a car without doing something spectacular or stupid, which inevitably leaves the car upside down, whereupon is spontaneously ignites and then violently combusts. I still have no idea why the game does this - even if none of the developers thought of the obvious idea of letting the player get out and flip the car, a la Halo, why make them explode? It's not just that it makes no sense, there doesn't even seem to be a game-design motivation behind it. It doesn't mean the engine can forget about that car, because it has to keep track of the burnt wreck and even call out a fire engine and keep track of that and then control the AI for putting out a fire and everything. It's a hilariously crazy piece of design. Oh, also, the way things disappear when you're not looking. The girl is wrong, that almost never happens to your own car because the game remembers vehicles you've used for longer.

Obscurely, Out Of Sight: it's a glossy cousin of the better-known Jackie Brown, because it's based on a novel by the same author but stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez rather than Pam Grier. They also share a single, minor character: the Bruce Willis look-alike fed who offers to cut Jackie a deal, and who's dating Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight. He drops round to her house at some point near the start, wearing a T-shirt with 'FBI' in huge yellow letters on it. Her dad - who is the film's best feature - says "Do you have another one that says 'Undercover'?" The Undercover guy here was actually supposed to look like him, but bizarrely the Real FBI agent - who I drew to look as different as possible - turned out looking almost eerily like the guy. In conclusion, I suck.

Subtley, Alias: this wasn't conscious, so it may not even really be a reference, but the strip shares Alias' original premise: that an organisation could pose as a secretive government agency, and the veil of deniability would prevent its employees from realising they weren't part of the real one. I suppose I could have extended the whole thing by having the third surveillor being SD6, maybe Marshall, and then have a fourth one who's actually CIA: maybe Vaughn.

Lastly, it ain't no thing, but the CIA agent is driving an FBI car in the game. It could even be that he's just watching the original guy's game, because he still has the FBI car until the 'Boom!' at the end. I think I prefer to think the CIA agent is just good at GTA.





 
2004/01/26 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three one six point six
I Guess I'm Something Of A Ne'er-Do-Well

This is the start of the third week of my new job, which is a slightly strange time to report on it, but you can think of it as a two-week review that got postponed, if you like, because that's what it is. In case you missed the relevant post, my new job is at the magazine PC Gamer. I do the coverdiscs.

It's quite unlike any temp job I've had, and I imagine it's quite unlike any businessy or high-paying job. We had a meeting in the first week on Features (in-depth articles in the magazine about certain concepts or phenomena in gaming), which consisted mostly of people recounting tales from the world of massively multiplayer online games and us laughing hysterically at them. This included a story about vicars being hired to play Ultima Online or something, and to play as a vicar character, so that his character could marry a couple's characters in the game, while in the same act he married the two actual people, being authorised to do so in both worlds. The editor was heard to say "That's it, I want to open the mag and see a big picture of a vicar playing Ultima!" It's difficult not to have fun at work when your work is solely about computer games.

Even Though That's Something I Could Never Do Well

The game we've all been playing is the achingly tropical FarCry, a fantastically beautiful first person shooter with a military theme to the weapons. Much of my work involves playing games, but I refer to the free-time gaming going on, specifically the lunch-hour LAN games and - more often than not - post-work team matches against PC Format. It's a testament to the non-strenuousness of working there that when you finish at six, you're still up for playing more games for an hour.

Relatedly, today I exhibited my first-ever signs about giving a damn about something I'm being paid to do: I stayed on for ten minutes to try and help someone having trouble with last month's coverdisc (which I didn't even make! I'm a fucking saint). I suppose when I did disc-checking for another department of the same publishing company, last year, I did actually care about what I was doing because it was pointing out mistakes. Being pedantic and annoying is work I can get really passionate about. I actually rather over-estimated the standards I should be working to, when I was doing that, and this year discovered that I am known, in the company, as the guy who suggested alternative wording to avoid clumsy-sounding sentences on a disc interface. Known in a good way, though, I think, because they gave me a job, and encouraged me to maintain that ferocious level of smart-assery on the discs that I'll actually make myself. That's what I was doing today - checking the stuff my predecessor and I have done so far, on next issue's disc.

The reason I haven't given a damn about anything before is that I've been doing stupid, pointless idiot things before. My main jobs have been carting textbooks around, and ritually reformatting Excel spreadsheets for a marketing information company that provides information to car dealers, which was more menial but less strenuous. I did once work for the NHS, but for their Leadership Center, one of these abominable bureaucratic institutions whose actual function is beyond human comprehension. I read the introductory pack twice without encountering a single fact, and my supervisor there had worked for them for thirteen years and still didn't know what they did.

This new job is hugely enjoyable, and until I start writing more of the magazine pages there's a lot of slack time. But in terms of raw slack, one of my temp jobs did actually beat it: 'stewarding' for the Goodwood Revival (car) races. I expect stewarding is usually a very tough job, but my job was to be near an emergency exit gate, and have the key to it, and my walkie-talkie on. It was 0600-1800, for three days, but I had a hut, and the sun came up around seven, and after the first day taught me what I was doing, I came equipped: cushions, tea, coffee, books, notepads, several picnics, magazines, extra clothing. Fully twelve hours of my working day were free. I read Vurt (Jeff Noon) and About A Boy (you probably know who), and on the last day a deer got into the grounds, so I had to open my gate in case it came near me. It didn't, so I went back to sleep.





 
2004/01/11 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three five eight point zero
Tom Firth

* Clone looks at Tom's webpage. Wow, plush kitchen. Is that a Smeg fridge?
Pentadact: Nope, Hotpoint. Apparently a stolen design.
Clone: The facial hair was surprising. The sideburns are amusingly Jane Austen-esque.
Clone: She was a lady of high testosterone.
Clone: Uncanny.
Clone: http://www.aqwf94.dsl.pipex.com/alex/tomfirth.jpg <-- why yes, I am trying to revise.

I've mentioned Clone before - he's the Al refered to in this: "(oem) stands for Original Exclaimation Mark - it's a convention me and Al came up with to avoid sounding unintentionally enthusiastic." Anyway, I said I'd post that image, and Rich suggested I actually combine the two, and now I have:




There was a rumour that Colin Firth was going to be Arthur Dent in the Hitch-Hiker's film. I'd go along with that choice, and I saw someone in something about whom I thought "Man, he'd make a great Arthur Dent," but now I can't for the life of me remember where I saw him or who he was. I don't think it was anyone very famous. I never liked the guy who played him in the series - much of the role is complaining or expressing exasperation, and That Guy had one tone of voice for both. It needs someone who can integrate enormous variety of complaining and exasperated emotions into the lines.

Ooh, I've just remembered who it was - Mark from Peep Show. He most certainly isn't famous - he's David Mitchell, from comedy-duo-even-I-haven't-heard-of Mitchell And Webb. The reason he'd be great is that his voice and mannerisms seem to place him exactly in Arthur Dent's social group. There's an element of me inferring things about the actor from the character he plays, but that only signifies how good he is at playing that type of person, thus making him an even stronger choice. Ha! You see how I turned that around to my advantage? I did Aikido when I was a kid. It was lame, actually. But Douglas Adams said he got the idea for the improbability drive from a martial-arts program - they were teaching how to use your enemy's strength against him, and he decided to use the improbability of Ford and Arthur's survival as a reason for it.

Anyway, you don't want an upper-class fop like Hugh Grant, a comedy-face charicature like Hugh Laurie, the rather mean-looking Jack Davenport, or the astonishingly good-looking Colin Firth.* Mark from Peep Show comes off as normal yet pathetic, which is the essence of Arthur Dent. A picture doesn't really do him justice, so I won't link this one, but if I ever manage to download an episode, I'll put up a clip. It's a wonderful series, by the way - filmed from first-person perspective, and with the thoughts of the current narrator (usually Mark) constantly articulated. It's used to magnificent effect, especially in the second-to-last episode of the first and so far only series (1x05, if you like it in that code, and I do).

*  Although many people do consider Colin Firth attractive, this is a play on the recent comparison between his and my appearences, or at least one aspect of them.





 
2004/01/09 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three six five point two
How I Abhor This Place

It seems - according to their televisual and cinematic output at least - like most Americans stand up for themselves in conversation and arguments, and are more interested in defending their point of view than in avoiding confrontation. And it seems - from the reality TV I've seen, at least - like the English are going to be more like that soon; believing in themselves and being outspoken. It's really bad. If everyone stands up for themselves, you end up with a load of people all standing up, and it can only get worse from there. Sit down! Sit down for yourself, and sit on what you believe in! That's what I think, anyway. If you disagree, I'll back down immediately.

I think what's going wrong, at some point in the brain, is that we imagine it's more important that the truth comes out than that we all get along. The two main problems with this are a) it's not, and b) we are usually wrong about what is and isn't the truth. Even when we're absolutely sure of it, we're usually wrong. You can tell this must be true, simply because millions upon millions of people are absolutely sure of each opinion on any given subject, and the opinions are all mutually exclusive. And the thing that people miss is that, if you're one of these people who's absolutely sure of something, there's absolutely no way for you to tell whether you're one of the people who's absolutely sure of something completely wrong.

If you don't remember being completely wrong in the past, that's probably because we have to expunge mistaken beliefs once we realise they're not true, so we don't end up thinking them again. It could also be because in most cases, we never really get any objective evidence on whether or not we were right. All we have to go by is whether our views worked out well for us, and you don't really know that until you die, and even then there's no way you can ever know which of your views worked to your advantage and which didn't.

The upshot is that, while you can't help being sure of stuff, you can and should not start or participate in a fight about it. This is what politeness was for - people are always going to disagree, and conflict in personal ways too, and unless everybody can be nice about it and repress it all, it's going to spiral horribly out of control. Politeness isn't like a social lubricant (love and alcohol are, though - people who say that should continue to do so), it's like holding your gear away from someone else's when you feel it start to grind.

Anyway, pro-politeness is a pretty banal stance, so I should add that you can also replace 'politeness' with any of the following, all of which are thoroughly positive traits: repression, two-facedness (the right word is duplicity, but sometimes people don't recognise that one for what it is. Poetic!), near-constant lying, deceitfulness, manipulation, and cowardice.

Its Sweet And Bitter Taste

I've updated the Media section to add Deus Ex 2 and Hitman 1 to my game listings, re-did my piece on Monk to reflect the fact that I've actually seen quite a lot of it now, added a million quotes to my piece about Frasier, and added to the Firefly section that there's now a DVD of all the first series, including the unaired ones, and there's going to be a film. I already knew there was going to be a film before Penny Arcade told me, but I didn't know about the DVD, so word yo to them about that and whatever. Everything I just said about anything is a link to that thing, so happy thinging.

Has Me Wretched, Retching On The Floor

I got seven hours' sleep last night, but even after Dr Stuart's Supposedly Energising Tea I was still insanely tired, to the degree that I couldn't do anything that required my brain. Eventually I gave up and went back to bed for another two hours, which is a good way to do it - oversleeping you just feel lousy for getting up so late, but if you get up for an hour or so then go back, you feel like you took the time to investigate this consciousness option before you decided - on balance - to reject it. Anyway, this completes a week that quickly degenerated into crazy sleeping patterns, including one thirteen-hour stretch and bed-times and wake-up-times that almost intersect. In fact, I will draw you a graph:




The bars are number of hours' sleep for the night preceding the day named, the upper of the smooth lines represents the time I woke up, the lower of them is the time I went to bed, and the trembling line is my general mood, on a scale of one to ten. I drew the mood line right to left, because I could remember the more recent days better, and I didn't quite get the upward curve I meant to get nearer the left hand side - I was around six or seven for that time, certainly never dropped below a five, as the actual line seems to suggest. The later I got up, the worse my mood, until the night after my thirteen-hour sleep, when Rich and I watched Wonderful Days with wine and fancy crisps, and I woke up early of my own accord the next morning. The first Friday on the graph could have been a nine or a ten on the mood scale if I'd realised it was a Friday at the time - I feel Fridays even when I'm on holiday, and this time I missed the good TV.

If you've noticed I'm a pestilent leech on society, you should know that a) I'm not on any kind of unemployment benefit because b) I have a full-time job that starts next Monday. I'm scared of it, of course, particularly since the piece I wrote for them (the magazine) freelance appeared this month, and I have absolutely no idea why any of the changes they made were made. I welcome editing and correction, but I'd feel a lot better if I thought "Ah yes, I can see why they did that." It makes me nervous that there might be a style clash I can't see. Still, I am in print (for the second time, weirdly, and neither time credited), and soon I'll be doing it regularly, and this is unavoidably exciting. I'll tell you when the first issue with my name or a significant quantity of my writing is available, so you can look at it for free in shops. Er, I mean buy it! Yes, I support the company. I'm a team player. Yes. I'm going to get incredibly fired.

Los Angeles, I'm Yours

The Christmas music haul, or Musicmas, or Christ!Music! has been fantastically fruitful this year, as in fact it was last year. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can click here to see the relevant part of the Media section. The God whose best-of lists on The Onion I take very seiously is named Josh Modell, and this year I knew very little of what he liked, so he got me into a lot of stuff. Not only is he the Onion writer with the best taste in music, he also has the most useful 'extra bit' (they each list their top ten albums, then get to do a mini-feature or three on other highlights/lowlights of the year) - a whole separate chart of the best songs that aren't on albums that made his albums list. It's genius, he's a genius, and it's great. Anyway, highlights:

From The Onion:

The Decemberists - The Soldiering Life, and As I Rise
Death Cab For Cutie - The Sound Of Settling
Clem Snide - Happy Birthday, and Action
The New Pornographers - All For Swinging You Around
Broken Social Scene - Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl
Low - Murderer
Jet - Are You Gonna Be My Girl?
Longwave - Everywhere You Turn
Clearlake - Almost The Same

From John Peel's Festive Fifty:

Architecture In Helsinki - The Owls Go
Camera Obscura - The Lunar Sea, and Teenager
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Maps
Half-Man, Half-Biscuit - Tending The Wrong Grave For Twenty-Three Years
Neulander - Sex, God, Money
The Vaults - I'm Going

From My Friend Kevin:

Essex Green - The Late Great Cassiopia
Air - Run, and Universal Traveller
The Firm - Radioactive

Actually Kevin didn't recommend that last one recently, or indeed at all, I just found it on his computer while I was snooping around, and liked the title, and it's fantastic. The Onion win for bands - the list is of albums, and so the albums are truly great, and so the bands are too, which is not always so of bands responsible for a single great song. John Peel wins for quantity of good songs - there are fifty in there, and though some are atrocious, even an okay success rate works out as great once you've listened to all fifty. But Kevin wins for best song, I think, with The Late Great Cassiopia, an irrepressible song by yet another band I've never heard of that careens through about twelve emotions a second. There are none on that list above that aren't completely essential, though - it's a best of the best best-ofs of the year, and it's short, and I left off some truly amazing ones, so the ones that made it are really, really special.

Are You Gonna Be My Girl? by Jet isn't my sort of thing at all, and in fact I didn't take to Danko Jones, another Onion album, who is rather similar. But that song does it all perfectly, and provides the perfect accompaniment to leaving the Mako Ballistics Facility in Deus Ex 2 having stealthily and coolly ransacked it. Rich and I later discovered that All Night Diner by Modest Mouse is even better for moments in computer games when it's wildly inappropriate to be exuberantly cocky. The first such moment was coming back to base after a wild, insane and death-defying assault on the Statue Of Liberty in which both his legs were blown off, twice. Luckily he - JC Denton in the original Deus Ex - is a cyborg of sorts, and was able to heal himself enough to be dancing on his return.

Ooh, I've just discovered this site is finally on Google. Come one, come several!





 
2004/01/05 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three seven six point one
Deus Ex 2: Invisible War

This is the sequel to the best game ever created, and it's very nearly as good. It doesn't knock its predecessor off the top spot because it's not long enough to feel so epic, and the warring factions aren't as compelling. Of course 'not as good as Deus Ex' and 'too short' are the two mildest criticisms you could ever level against a computer game - nothing's as good as Deus Ex, and no bad game is too short. But it's a shame that they couldn't have come up with better factions - one of them kidnaps a friend of yours towards the end of the game, and kills her if you don't do what they tell you to. It just feels like the writers stepping in and saying "These are the bad guys, by the way."

The more obvious bad guys are responsible for nuking a whole city and numerous other counts of genocide, but the game never makes any real attempt to explain their motives beyond some vague rhetoric about the notion of 'purity', which seems to mean not using artificial modifications. The arbitrariness and hypocrisy of their philosophy reaches absurd levels when you discover that they plan to reward their top agent - assigned to kill the most important character in the game world - by giving them a mod canister. But much worse is that the whole plot hinges on the enormous popularity of this completely fanatical group, whose motivation is so unclear that its members just don't seem human.

The NSF terrorists in the first game were brilliantly human, to the extent that killing them sometimes seemed horrific, and it contributed immeasurably to the appeal of the plot. It was a big reason why the first one was great, and it's largely absent in Invisible War. The main reason Deus Ex was so good, though, remains perfectly intact. Lots of reviews claim it's hard to articulate this element, but only because they're written by jerks - it's easy to articulate, it's flexibility, freedom, or 'open-endedness'. Between me and Dr Nassif, there's a Bulldog-class security droid, a security camera, a gun turret, a set of laser trip-wires, and another Bulldog. There are approximately thirty-eight different ways to get to her, and when I do, I can either kill her to stop her knowledge falling into the wrong hands, interrogate her to make sure it falls into the right ones, or just get what I need from her and leave. And every objective is like that, and both my method and my result come back to haunt me later - I might miss out on a mission or reward, or I might actually realise I've done The Wrong Thing. And if I just ran past everything, I'll be a mod-canister worse off.

The modifications I mentioned earlier are actually a lot cooler this time round (which I guess doesn't help the appeal of an organisation dedicated to banning them), and useful enough that your choices of which ones to install create genuinely different character types. You're not going to start from scratch to investigate the uninteresting factions much, but if you like the game at all, you'll be forever inventing new play-styles and new characters to play them with. My last one was my first male character (the male character-model is hideous, but there are gameplay differences between the sexes, so I felt I had to try it for one play-through), and I played with the rule that I was never allowed to directly injure anyone - I couldn't shoot them or hit them. I could, however, shoot the explosive crate next to them, possess a security droid to mow them down with its guns, set a turret to shoot them on sight, blow a hole in a gas power-generator to create a jet of flame that they might accidentally walk into, throw a spider-bomb to create a tiny evil friend to electrocute them, introduce them to a transgenic creature with toxic spit, kick a flaming barrel into them, re-activate the Yellow Beams Of Death whose path they've just stepped into, hang back and let a friend shoot them up, or just hide until they go away. My point, which may need restating, is that you have a lot of options.

The thing that makes most first-person shooters so tedious is hoop-jumping - you've just got to shoot the guys. Some try to get around this by giving you several hoops and a choice of which to jump through - shoot them or sneak around them. That helps, but the game has to have a lot of other stuff going for it to actually be of interest. The triumph of both Deus Ex games is to take a totally different approach - give them a wide range of tools, a wide range of obstacles and opponents, and see what they can do. The plot choices are multiple hoop-jumping, but then only a few other games actually ask you to jump even one plot-hoop - the rest just give you a cut-scene in which you watch your character do it.



This is a Standard Security Corporation guard - they're stupid, confused and hilarious. This one is attacking a spider-bot, which did nothing wrong and is anyway immune to fire.



Some Of The Great Things About Invisible War

The Baton: unlike the flimsy-feeling telescopic baton of the first game, Invisible War's is a tonfa-style one (kinda T-shaped, you hold the stem of the T and the long bar runs along the underside of your forearm) that looks totally vicious to use, and punching out glass with it is wonderful.

Klara Sparks: a fellow trainee, who at first seems like a clueless naive rich girl, but soon turns out to be a dedicated and efficient agent who defends her organisation because she truly believes in it. The reason this makes her great is that a) at first she seems like a stereotype, so when she deviates from that impression she suddenly feels human, and b) the organisation she works for is the rather right-wing capitalist society that opposes the spiritual balance-oriented religious one. I like ditzy fascists, for some reason.

The Rag-Doll Physics: people are right to complain that everything feels a bit light, but this is still the most convincing and involved physics system around, and the things you can and will do with corpses are sick, wonderful and hilarious. Hitman 2 had great rag-doll physics, but you could only drag corpses - here you can fling them across the room, toss them onto rooves, into skips, or onto a fully-laden table, knocking everything all everywhere and stuff.

The Red Greasel Hunter: the regular pistol has a torch attached to it that you can turn on and off - enemies can see the beam and will be alerted if you shine it in their field of view. The Greasel Hunter is one of about five special customised weapons found in secret areas throughout the game, and other than its boring functional modifications, it's been fixed with an infra-red torch. A key fact they miss off the weapon description is that you can see infra-red, and no-one else in the game can, so you can shine this in someone's face from your hideout and they won't suspect a thing. It's like being that moth guy near the end of Silence Of The Lambs. As an odd side-note, the red greasels were supposed to be a nastier version of the green greasels from Deus Ex, but they don't actually appear in the game. We don't care, because greasels are jerks and the last thing we want is tougher ones, but it's weird that they left a million references to the things all over the game.

Upper Seattle: the plush, futuristic part of the city for rich people only, and your first taste of fresh air in the game. It's a softly glowing serene haven of peace and technology, experienced (as ever, in Deus Ex games) in the dead of night. Its beauty has, on occasion, almost persuaded me not to batter innocent people to death with a crowbar. People have complained that Deus Ex 2 is a bit of a departure from Deus Ex's near-future real-world type setting, but they should shut up - Deus Ex should move into the future, because the future is cool. Are there people who still haven't noticed this?



If you look at the poster in the previous screen-shot, you'll see it's of international pop-star NG Resonance. Later on you meet her, and she has some luggage trunks with her. I looked at the name of her luggage trunk, looked back at her, looked back at the name, looked back at her, and did the only reasonable thing I could do in the circumstances.



Some Annoying Things About Invisible War

The Damage: even on Realistic difficulty you are a tank, and even on Easy difficulty - even after the patch - shooting someone in the goddamn face doesn't make them flinch. I'm putting this complaint first because - unrectified - it's a crippling flaw. But in practice it bothers me not at all because it can be rectified, and here's an excerpt for a technical Readme I did for PC Gamer magazine (score! I am famous!):
There's a 'System' directory in the folder you installed the game to, and in that directory there's a 'Defaults.ini' - open it up in Notepad. Go to Edit, Find, and type in [Difficulty] - there should be four blocks of values. I recommend you just change the 'Real' line for each - that corresponds to the Realistic difficulty setting, and realism is sort of what we're going for. The main one to change is the last line of the first block - the damage AI characters take from the player. A value of 3.0 works well with the patched game, without rendering Strength or weapon mods unnecessary. You should also up the damage AI characters do to you - the end line of the next block - and I use 6.0. That actually works out as less than what you do to them, for some reason, but if you put it up any higher than that, fall damage and hazardous gas become instantly fatal.

Tolerance To Treachery: you can screw a faction over again and again, killing their people and ruining their operations, and they'll always forgive you and give you new jobs. It sounds like a minor realism issue, but in fact it's quite a big gameplay one - it means there's no point in sticking to one faction or having any kind of alleigences or beliefs at all, you should just go for whoever asks the easiest tasks, or gives the best rewards. This combines badly with the unappealing nature of each faction, and becomes absurd with the aforementioned one who kidnap your friend - they do it even if you've done everything they've ever wanted, to the exclusion of all else, at enormous personal cost. You still get the same bitchy message from the leader about how sick he is of you trainees disobeying orders. If you reap the best rewards at every point, undermine this organisation any time it suits you, and then kill the leader's wife and spiritual leader of the free world, he treats you the same way. Even right after you widow him, he sounds irritated at worst, and brightens right up when you change the subject to the next sensitive operation he's going to entrust to you. I'm focusing on the absolute worst example of this because it shows why the issue is significant - it totally undermines the notion that your choices have real consequences in the game world. For me, that was never the main appeal of Deus Ex, but it was certainly nice.

Mutual Exclusivity Of Arbitrary Trimvirates Of Biomodifications: sesquipedalianism gone mad! Here's what I mean - if I install the Speed biomod, which lets me run fast, I can't have the corpse-eating biomod. There are three possibilities for each of your five biomod slots, and whichever of the three you choose, you can't have the other two at the same time. This is a quirk inherited from Deus Ex, where a biomod canister contained two specific augmentations, and you had to choose which one you wanted. But back then the pairs made sense - invisibility to organic targets or invisibility to security droids? In Invisible War, not only do the biomod canisters no longer work like this - any canister can install any mod - but the sets of three are completely arbitrary. Why shouldn't I be able to have Speed and Corpse-Eater? Is that some lethal one-two combination that dominates the game? No! Invisibilty to people and invisibility to droids is, but the sequel permits that combination. It was a questionable system even when it related to the nature of augmentation canisters and the choices made sense. Now neither is the case, it's absurd that the system hasn't been dropped.

Other Than That: the game world has rules and content that take time to get used to and learn, but just like Deus Ex, once you've done that you've got an amazingly flexible set of tools and an intricate, changing environment, and you truly play with it - no hoop jumping. My point is that, from the moment you get used to this game, almost nothing will annoy you. Your concerns will be about what to try and what to do in the game world, never 'This bit is boring', 'Where am I supposed to go next?', 'Why won't this door open?', 'Isn't this the same as the last level?', or 'How many shots is this fucking boss going to take, and does his diamond-like resilience stem from some actual physical trait, or does social significance act as some kind of dermal hardener in the game world?' I may be one of the only people who wonders about that last one. I've played a lot of new, big-name FPS games in the last few months, and Halo was probably the highlight. But Halo had all of those moments I just mentioned, and next to Invisible War it's worthless trash - the Deus Ex games are just in another league of experience, a higher form of art, and engage more of the brain than anything else you'll play.

Score: Spectaculoso!



In contrast to real life, in Deus Ex 2 I am a psychopathic bad-ass secret-agent woman.



An Idea For Biomods In Deus Ex 3

I think I heard there's going to be one, but I could be wrong. This bit is only really for people who've played one or preferably both of the Deus Ex games. It's not my usual type of game-design, where I totally replace the way the game works with an idea of my own - it's actually almost like a logical extension of the changes between Deus Ex 1 and 2. Here's how it would work:

Like in Deus Ex 2, you only get biomod canisters (no separate upgrade modules), and they're non-specific. There are no mutual exclusivities; you can specialise in just a couple of similar mods, if you like. Why stop the player from doing that?

When you use a canister to install a mod of your choice, you choose which type of biomod you want it to be, and then which of three different 'modes' you want it to work in. For example, one of the types of mod is 'Cloak', and you can choose whether you want it to work against humans, bots or security devices (cameras and laser trip-wires). If I went for humans, then found another mod canister, I could upgrade my human-cloak, or add bot-cloaking, or go for a different type of mod. I can have both types of cloaking effect, but they're part of the same mod - I couldn't activate them separately. That means if I want both types, or all three types, every time I use my cloak it's going to drain a lot of bioelectric energy.

Each 'mode' of each mod can be upgraded up to level three, and I've just added the idea that having level three of all three modes of one mod should improve them all one more time and give you extra bonus functionality. Anyway, here are the nine types of mod, the three modes of functionality for each one, and the three levels of effectiveness for each of those:

Vision:
A Brightens view - three different levels of brightness, but because this is a special 'free' mod, you can choose which level you want, for free.
B Sees through walls - people at short range; bots at short range, people at long; items at short range, bots at long, people at very long range.
C Wide-angle vision - 180 degrees; 270 degrees; 360 degrees. The wide-angle view appears as a strip across the bottom of the screen, so it doesn't get in the way of the regular view.

X See everything through walls at very long range, no green tint.

Defense Drone:
A Sucks up environmental hazards - toxic; flame; electricity (by de-ionising the air). Defense is total - i.e. level one makes you totally immune to toxic hazards.
B Deflects a percentage of incoming bullets - 25%; 50%; 75%.
C Detonates rockets and grenades before they reach the agent - they only do splash damage; they do no splash damage; they explode near the firer, doing splash damage to them.

X Invulnerability.

Attack Drone:
A Fires toxin darts at opponents - knock-out in five seconds; knock-out in two seconds; knock-out instantaneous.
B Fires bullets at opponents - single shots; short bursts of rapid fire; constant rapid fire.
C Electrocutes opponents - damages bots, is ineffective against humans; seriously damages bots, stuns humans a bit; deactivates bots, damages and stuns humans.

X Death bolt for first attack since activating.

Strength:
A Strength of close-combat attacks
B Ability to lift and throw objects
C Capacity to carry a lot of stuff

X Can break down doors with close-combat weapons.

Health:
A Use biocells to restore health - half health; three-quarters health; full health and recharges bioelectric energy.
B Use nutrients to restore health - 5% per item; 10% per item; 20% per item.
C Eat organics to restore health - can eat animals; can eat human corpses; can eat live humans, in 10-health bites.

X Health regenerates slowly of its own accord.

Cloak:
A Invisibility to humans - invisible when stationary, hard to see when moving; invisible even when moving; decreased bioelectric drain.
B Invisibility to bots - invisible when stationary, hard to see when moving; invisible even when moving; decreased bioelectric drain.
C Invisibility to security devices - invisible to lasers; invisible to cameras too; decreased bioelectric drain.

X Can fire while invisible.

Accuracy:
A Accuracy with pistols - good; excellent; perfect.
B Accuracy with rifles - good; excellent; perfect.
C Accuracy with heavy weapons - good; excellent; perfect.

X Chest-shots fatal (aims for the heart).

Electronics:
A Ability to hack keypads - one in three chance of success, but three failures sets off an alarm and shocks the hacker; one in two chance, and three failures only sets off alarm; certain to succeed.
B Ability to hack computers - camera rights only, time-limited; turrets, bots and cameras, more generous time-limit; total access, including special features, and no time limit.
C Ability to hack bots - can possess most bots, but bots remain active when the hacker relinquishes control; can possess nearly all bots, bots shut down when hacker relinquishes control; can possess any bot, bot continues to fight for the hacker after he relinquishes control.

X Keypads, computers and bots give up on touch - doesn't need to bother with interface or anything.

Movement:
A Speed of movement
B Quietness of steps - level three is completely silent.
C Jumping height and falling distance - at level three the agent can survive impact at terminal velocity.

X Can 'mantle' all the way up vertical surfaces.





 
2003/12/28 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight three nine eight point five
If You Were Born Today

I'm going to take a risk and assume you've already been "Happy Christmas!"d by at least one website or other periodical, and not do it myself. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I do wish you a happy Christmas. I mean, I'd like everyone to have a nice life, but if they don't, it's probably best that they don't have a good Christmas either - the brief respite might make them feel okay about their situation generally, and not try so hard to improve it. And if they do have a nice life, then a) they'll probably have a nice Christmas, and b) if they don't, it doesn't really matter. You don't need me or anyone else for anything.

One of the biggest philosophical things they teach in philosophy that separates a good philosopher's philosophy from the philosophy of a non-philosopher is that the philosophy of good philosophy is being specific - the more general the statement you make, the less likely it is anyone's going to know what you mean, and the more likely it is you're going to be wrong. I was just thinking about that after I wrote the last sentence of the last paragraph.

I had a good Christmas, but as I've hopefully demonstrated, there's no reason why you should care. I exclude friends, I guess, and thereby exclude probably everyone reading, making everything I say pointless. God, I'm so depressed.

We'd Kill You By Age Eight

I tend to get what you might call an embarrassment of presents - it's a family tradition to spoil everyone, and as the youngest I get the fullest effect of this. Family members are always on at each other to call some kind of ceasefire between certain sets of people, but the only time this has been effective - to my knowledge - was this year with certain uncle/aunt-nephew/neice, and it caught me off-guard to the extent that I think I thanked an uncle who didn't give me anything under the terms of a cease-fire for a book that was actually given to me by another uncle, not covered under the treaty, because I mis-remembered another book received in my stocking for a main present, which circumstances would have suggested must have been given to me by the uncle who did in fact give me the book. I thought I was completely on top of who gave what this year.

It's also kind of a tradition - though not a socially accepted one - for most people to buy themselves one thing that they then give to someone else before Christmas, for that person to give back to them, wrapped, at Christmas, allowing the recipient to get what they want without the giver having to resort to giving money. Of course, it can still feel like a cop-out for the giver - even if the recipient has long forgotten they have the thing coming - and today, when I tried to put on the black leather gloves I'd given to my grandma to give to me, I found £15 rolled up inside one of the fingers.

Hmm. I was going to say that, other than being needlessly generous, slightly confusing and surprisingly crafty, this represented a conspicuous departure from my grandma's usual high-security policy about money (if she encloses some in a letter, she will always say so in the letter, so that if it gets lost I'll realise). But thinking about it now, I think this is my mum's doing - they got to my grandma via her, and she had planned to reimburse me for them. They didn't cost that much, but I think my mum's forgotten to pay me back for a video and a book I got for her to get for someone.

Man, this post has really become boring. I'm going to start a new one about less real-life stuff. Summary of remaining things to say in boring post: I was ill for much of Christmas; and I will photograph and list a selection of interesting presents I got.





 
2003/12/14 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight four three four point six
When Rich and I first moved into this flat, in September, we thought we should have a sort of low-key housewarming - i.e. get drunk. I'd brought a bottle of wine from home, but we were going to the shop anyway, and figured we would eventually need another, and it was cheap, so we invested. The one I'd brought from home had been in the fridge, so we thought we'd drink that one now because it was cold. Unfortunately, neither of us had a corkscrew.

Usually pushing in the cork would be an option, but I'd done this quite recently and the cork crumbled horribly into the wine. It put me off the method permanently. Rich, however, had bought some flat-pack furniture earlier that day, and there was a long screw left over from the construction process, so he suggested we try screwing this into the cork and then pulling it out. We did have a screwdriver, and in fact we managed to screw it in with some success. Getting it out, though, was tricky.

When it wouldn't come by conventional means, I got my Swiss-Army-style pliers, which have a million things that fold out from their handles. Rich gripped the screw with them while I pulled the bottle, but we only succeeded in embedding the folded-away blades and utensils into Rich's hands. I tried another method, which involved bridging a gap between the radiator and the table with the pliers, the bottle hanging by its screw below, so that no-one had to hold the pliers too hard. Finally, the screw pulled the top half of the cork out - we didn't screw it in far enough.

At this point it occured to us that we live above a wine bar - it seemed reasonable to suppose they might have a corkscrew. I was about to take the bottle downstairs and ask them, but I was a bit embarrassed about the state of it. A master-stroke occured to me - take the newly bought bottle, which we don't intend to drink yet because it's still room-temperature, just so I can pretend that's the bottle we need to open, then use the corkscrew to open the real bottle, take the corkscrew alone back downstairs (because why would you take the opened bottle anyway?) and the perfect crime has been executed!

The people at the wine bar were very nice when I explained that I'd just moved in upstairs, and gladly leant me their corkscrew. I thanked them, opened the bottle, and gave it back. When I'd got half-way up the stairs back to our flat, a certain discrepency between the plan and the execution occured to me: I was now returning with an open bottle of warm wine and no corkscrew, and it didn't seem like this could easily lead to the goal of us drinking cold wine.

I stand by my original prediction that it would have been quite embarrassing to take the maimed bottle down to the people in the wine-bar, but to take it down after having already borrowed their corkscrew and opened a bottle with it not thrity seconds earlier would be outright awkward. It wasn't, for people like us, an option. More drastic measures were now needed. My high-school report cards, particularly the sections by my various maths teachers, have sometimes praised my problem-solving skills, lateral thinking and refreshing new approaches. It's hard to say which of these best describes my idea of breaking the neck off the bottle.

Rich was to hold it steady, and wore rubber gloves for safety reasons - we're not, after all, crazy. The sharpest thing I could find with any momentum to its swing was a dessert spoon, so this was to be my weapon. I've broken things intentionally before, and I've found there's a certain amount of mental preparation necessary to take an effective swing: even if you hit something in anger, you generally hold a little back; and if you hit something to get it to work, you instinctively do it with a modicum of respect for the object or device. Since you've got a specific objective in mind when breaking something for some reason, it's tempting to slip into one of these frames of mind - particularly if you're not a violent person. But like the jedi, I have impeccable mental discipline, and am able to take my mindset to a whole new level of hitting stuff. There is no 'too hard'.

The spoon hit the neck of the bottle, the bottle didn't break, the spoon flew out of my hand and hit Rich in the head. You can tell I'm not making this up because I'm not a terrible writer, and that's one of the dumbest plot developments in this story so far, and it's perhaps the dumbest story ever told. It's the kind of thing a ten year-old would make up; I don't know what kind of person it takes to make it actually happen.

It was now time to push the cork in. If it would go in reasonably intact, there might not be an undrinkable level of cork debris in the wine afterwards. Unfortunately, corks seem to have been invented by someone trying to keep fluids inside the bottle, and so the seal is pretty much airtight - even with just half of it left, it put up a lot of pressure-related resistance. Eventually some part of the seal gave, a spurt of wine shot out of the bottle, and it seemed to re-seal. We now had a small measure of wine in the neck above the airtight cork, some air below it and - importantly - a lot of wine below that. I'm still not quite able to account for this, but surgery was now inevitable.

After we were done with the cork, the fragments weren't large enough to be caught by my colander, and we didn't have a seive. I still felt, though, that there must be some way of filtering the mixture, and I was as determined as ever to avoid drinking cork. What I did have, I remembered, was some translucent green cellophane I'd bought for present-wrapping, and the pin that forms part of my Swiss Army card (a credit-card sized thing with lots of useful slide-out bits). I also have a large jug I use for water.

I wrapped the cellophane around my fist, put my fist a few inches down into the jug, so that when the cellophane stuck to its rim (it was slightly wet), the membrane it formed over the jug would be concave, and thereby able to contain wine while it filtered through the many holes that I then punched with the pin. It was a slow process despite the number of holes I punched, but we arrived at a jug of cork-free wine just before the point at which the steadily increasing temperature of the cold wine would have met the steadily decreasing temperature of the open, warm wine that had been - when not in use - stored in the fridge.

We were then able to achieve our long-term goal of becoming moderately to quite drunk before the end of linear time, and life has been universally easy-going and convenient ever since.











 
Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight four four one point zero
You've Been Compliant, Kid

I've updated the Music bit of the Media bit of this place, with a couple of new entries and a couple of modifications. To save you actually looking at them, here's the new stuff with explainations:

Radar Brothers (You And The Father; Shifty Lies; Rock Of The Lake) - I have no idea why Shifty Lies wasn't in there before.

Seedling (The Upshot; Endora; Every Match Must Crash And Burn) - The Upshot and Endora are both from their new album, which has rocketed them all the way from the 'Great' section to the 'Fantastic' one. They now appear just above Sleater-Kinney, because of the alphabet, but in fact I'm happy ranking them as such because they are in fact better.

French (Porn Shoes; Canada Water; The Stars, The Moon, The Sun And The Clouds) - A new project by two people from Hefner, including the main guy. They use a load of electronic noises instead of guitars, but it's still soft, slightly folky indie. Everyone deserves to hear Porn Shoes, except maybe people I hate.

Erin McKeown (Slung Low; La Petite Mort; Blackbirds) - She only makes it to the 'Good' section, but 'Good' she is. Slung Low, or 'Slung-Lo' as you might see it annoyingly spelt, is irrepressibly happy and catchier than fish-hooks. If anyone reading has seen a Korean film called The Isle, I'd like to apologise for mentioning fish-hooks, which - for me, you and everyone else who's seen it - now causes a kind of internal flinch every time. The Onion noted this first.

It's Kind Of Sad To See

I found the public index-thing they make of all the most recently updated Blogs, and there are like forty updated every minute of the day, so I read about two-hundred of them, to see if there were any interesting people out there, and there aren't. I tried to hold them to standards that this Blog would pass, and those are some pretty damn low standards, but none passed.

They're all boring, and other than the curious number of commentaries on American politics, they're almost all straightforward documentations of day-to-day events or shout-outs, references and updates regarding things or people that mean nothing to the new reader. This, I suppose, is because the index by which I found these things is heavily weighted toward the most frequently updated Blogs, which are almost invariably going to be the worst.

Anyway, it made me think that I may have started this section with the wrong intent, and hence the wrong title - it should really be a place where I note / write up interesting, bizarre or entertaining things, and say nothing if I have nothing of that kind to say. I think I will rename the section to Notes.

I was looking at the Blog index thing because it seems like with the whole global community thing going on, it should be possible to somehow use the internet to find like-minded individuals or at least non-jerks. I write stuff here on the grounds that, if someone else wrote equivalent things relating to themselves, I'd enjoy reading it - thus, if there's anyone significantly like me anywhere, there must logically be a website I would enjoy reading. The obvious answer to this is that, while such websites must exist, they're probably rarer than one in every two-hundred, and two-hundred was anyway an exaggeration, I probably only looked at about twenty-five.





 
2003/12/09 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight four four eight point four
She Still Has Hope To Take And Give

It feels Christmassy in our flat now. Christmassiness seems to get harder to come by after childhood, and it's hard not to miss being as excited as you were then. This year putting up fairy lights in our kitchen did it, but next year it could take tinsel too. By the time I'm thirty I'll need an industrial-size Christmas tree, tinsel connecting every conceivable vertex of my environment, and lights of two-hundred and fifty-six distinct hues. Actually, I'm not sure Christmas trees really have any industrial applications. Anyway, going downstairs to make late-night coffee by fairy-light is adequately atmospheric for now. I took a photo:




Then it occured to me to take a photo of myself, so you could see how that stubble thing (a couple of posts ago) worked out. I trimmed it at first, then forgot for a while, so the end result is basically what it was before I did so. Also, I think everyone who reads this read the old site, and most of those people know me in real life, and almost none of them have seen me in ages, so this will serve as an appearence update. It's kind of weird that there aren't any pictures of me elsewhere on this site - unless you count the icon, which is an artist's impression of an abstraction of me. The last incarnation of James had a whole Personal section with, like, a gallery, and now nothing. I prefer it this way. It's not that I imagine this gives me mystique, it's just less... obscene. However "Fuck you!" I get about the idea of trying to make this accessible or popular, there's always the implication, when you put something on a website, that you expect someone will find it interesting. But for this one picture, I have the above justification.




I heard they were going to ban shops from playing Christmas music before December, at some point in November. I think I would ban Christmas music from shops altogether, outlaw street decorations, talk of Christmas and the thinking of happy thoughts until the fifteenth at the earliest. Early decorations don't feel Christmassy because it's not even nearly Christmas, and then by the time it gets near Christmas, you're already used to them and their effect is lost - it neatly negates festive atmosphere altogether.

She Has Half Her Life To Live

I got my first full-time job a while ago, as the Disc Editor for PC Gamer. An editorial position kind of implies I'll be over-seeing and directing efforts in that aspect of the magazine, but in fact it's just me doing it all. That's a level of creative control I'm rather pleased with - in the interview, the editor said they want the Disc Gamer section of the magazine, where I talk about the month's demos and stuff, to become like a mini-mag with guides to fun things to try in the games, and whatever else. There'll even be a box on the 'cover' of this 'mini-mag' entitled "Tom says...". It's crazy.

She Has Loved Ones To Endure It All, And A Doctor To Forgive

This site recently attained anonymity - I removed my surname from the intro entry. Or, ahaha, the 'Entryduction'. Ahaha. God, I'm so depressed. Anyway, my thinking was too avoid potential employers finding it with a Google search for my name, but then I immediately got a job and found that my site isn't on Google anyway. But anyway, there's no reason not to be anonymous, and I hope the lazy, alcoholic web-spider Google employ will one day get round to adding me. I'm not hoping to make it impossible to connect this site to me - it's incredibly obvious if you know both that the one describes the other ("My website is green and blue." Ahaha).

And In Five, Maybe Six Years She'll Be Gone

Oh, back to the Christmas modifications to the kitchen - I bought nuts, because they're Christmassy, but no nut-cracker, because they're expensive, so we're using an elaborate noise-muffling / shrapnel-catching system of tea-towels in conjunction with a chopping board and my toolkit's claw-hammer. Yes, I have a toolkit. I consider it more of a geek accessory than anything masculine - when I had to fit new wheels to my bike, it took Rich and I several hours to work out how the chain was supposed to go back on. I actually got a headache thinking about it. It was my first glimpse of what it must be like when regular people try to do maths, and I have a newfound sympathy for them.

One More Breath Exhaled Than Withdrawn

I got Max Payne 2 quite recently, and I thoroughly dig the noir atmosphere. I don't know how I missed the first one, really - I love noir, and it was absurdly noir. Anyway, this one is brilliant, and the shoot-dodge action in it feeds straight into the common bond all men share, according to Spaced, of wanting to mow each other down, throw grenades and shout 'Motherfucker!' in slow-motion. The last line of the ending scene is wonderful - one of the many times I've thought, during something, "Man, if it ended now it'd be so great." and one of the only times it actually has. One time, when watching the remake of The Day Of The Jackal with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, I so wanted it to end with Bruce Willis getting away in the tube station after assassinating the first lady (I've spoilt the plot now, so you don't have to endure the film) that I actually closed my TV application and thought "Wow, what a great ending." I find Richard Gere repellent beyond words, except perhaps the words "I find Richard Gere repellent beyond words", which actually sum up my feelings on the subject quite nicely, which means of course that the statement is completely untrue, which makes the only appropriate words inappropriate, meaning there are no words, making it true, and also false, true and false. But then that's it.





 
2003/11/15 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight five one three point eight
The Light Is Fading, But The Stars Are Dancing Bright

I can't decide whether to shave my stubble to a stubbly length, or let it grow to a facial hair length. I stopped shaving after one of my now quite regular revelations about humanity in which I - in reference to a different thing each time - think: "But... why?" ° I mean, it makes sense as a stylistic choice for a few people, like shaving your head, but more than 95% of all the adult males I meet shave every single hair off their face every day of their lives. If it's to make us look younger, would it also help to speak in a pre-adolescent voice too? Who the hell do we think we're kidding?

°   Long-term readers, stalkers, elephants and psychics will remember that the first of these was in reference to the popular supposition that there's a God of some kind. I think Santa Claus featured in the sixth. ¹

¹   I'm joking - as far as I can remember, I've always reacted reports of a costumed man climbing down chimneys with the kind of "Oh, really?" I use when anyone says something so glaringly untrue it would be impolite to correct them. I was just trying to imply that God is a more obvious fiction than Father Christmas. It didn't really work. I'm sorry.


No-one, that's who, so shaving completely is out of the question. I've been decrying the shaving of womens' bodies and the wearing of make-up for years, and no-one called me on the hypocrisy of going to all that trouble and discomfort for the sake of my own appearence. It's not that I don't care about my appearence, it's just that once I realise an aspect of personal grooming is insane, it ceases to be aesthetically pleasing. Like that thing they used to do in China where women wore tiny shoes to crush their feet to a delicate size: even if you like small feet, it's easy to see from a modern cultural perspective that this is insane, and for exactly that reason a woman with crushed-small feet would be less physically appealing than one without them.

It'd be nice to think there is no objective notion of 'insane' or 'normal', because to other cultures our own practises can seem absurd or disgusting. But I think it's more likely that we're all doing a lot of insane stuff, and it just takes another culture to notice it. I mean, probably no culture thinks it's insane to eat food. If you want a more specific rule: if it takes effort and isn't beneficial to your health, and some culture finds it insane, it's objectively insane. That goes even for things that make you happy: we're not talking about happiness, we're talking about sanity. If you want happiness and don't care about sanity, auto-lobotomise. But if you realise it's kind of crazy and it still makes you happy, you should probably keep doing it. Realising shaving is crazy has soured the whole idea for me. Realising speaking in a varying tone (singing) over arranged sounds (music) is crazy (crazy) hasn't stopped me liking music a lot. It has stopped me from writing lyrics, which I used to try now and then.°

°   Bizarrely, I'm terrible at it. I mean, I never expect anyone else to like anything I write, but usually I like it.¹ Not so my lyrics. Every song I've ever written and then re-read, I've deleted off the surface of my hard drive, then curled up into a crouched ball and hopped around clutching my head, like John Cleese did that time.

¹   For instance, I think the book I'm writing is an incredible masterpiece-in-progress, but I don't think for a second that it'll ever get published. It's a good way to think, because you can be satisfied with your work (which encourages productivity) but not sound arrogant to other people (unless you tell them you think like this, but only some kind of incredibly stupid moron² would let that slip).

²   I wrote this line down, in a text file, that I heard in a film or something, and found hilariously funny: "What do you think I am, some kind of incredibly stupid dickhead?", but I can't remember what film it was. Do you know it? It was one of those films, like some of Jim Carrey's, that does nothing for me except one or two scenes that crack me up completely.³

³   The start of Ace Ventura, when he's pretending to be a delivery man and treats his parcel badly; and in Liar Liar, where he involuntarily tells his boss what he really thinks of him, and his boss takes it as a joke, and the other directors all have to pretend to find it funny too, and insult each other. The boss, mid-laugh, says something like "That's exactly the kind of spirit this company is lacking. Dickhead!"*

*   The word 'dickhead' seems to work as some kind humour catalyst.


My Mind Is Racing Like A Cloud Across The Sky

My dilemma is this: on the one hand, trimming it to a fixed length is maintainence, and in a way still tries to disguise that I get as much of the stuff as I do. On the other hand a beard is a rather masculine thing, and for someone like me to look masculine is probably a violation of the Trade Description Act. On a third, previously unseen hand, perhaps belonging to someone else, I only get facial hair in the goatee, moustache and lambchop areas, so there's probably not much danger of me looking very masculine. On hand number four, which is an ugly, callous hand of truth, there is a danger of just looking bad. I'm going to have to go back and re-read this post to find out whether or not I find stubble-trimming for the sake of appearences acceptable.

How Did You Make Me Go This Far?

It turns out I've just been rambling about unrelated topics, so I'm going to have to make up my beliefs now. If I claim I trim my facial hair to a universal length because I think it looks better that way, I'm just like the 95% who would probably say they shave completely for that reason. It's not really feasible that 95% of men would, if they hadn't been brought up to, prefer their appearence sans chaume, so we can ridicule them for being suckers for convention. Facial hair, trimmed to a certain length or not, is by no means the convention, so I'm okay to prefer either.





 
2003/11/07 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight five three six point four
Can You Hear The Bells?

Having a broadband connection again after so long without one has lead to a predictable downloading frenzy. Well, first I had to snap out of contented mode because disconnection had numbed me into being happy with my lot, but then I started remembering what stuff I like and need, and started getting it all via eMule, which has now overtaken Kazaa Lite and DC++ in my estimation as Most Efficient Stealing Tool. Actually DC++ is probably still faster, but it's too much effort for me, and I've been banned from most servers for so many different crimes that I don't even understand, let alone am capable of committing. Anyway, if you're interested in eMule (if you're not, jump to the next paragraph), and have the kind of connection that can, at best, get about 60K/s, here's my recommendation: in the options, set a download limit of 64K and an upload limit of 10K, then tell it to store its temporary files on a hard drive you don't mind having no space on, but let it put the finished files on your main one. That way, it does as many transfers at once as it has space for, you get a better download to upload ratio than, frankly, you deserve, and it only hogs space where you don't mind it. If you don't have two hard drives or can't follow this advice for any other reason, give up immediately.

I - and Rich (flatmate) - have been playing Halo, Jedi Academy, and Elite Force 2 - three recent mainstream sci-fi first-person shooters that are all stupid, boring, repetitive, clumsy and irritating. However, emphasis on the 'recent' and 'sci-fi' parts of that - you know they'll be terrible, you know that (even though you expect them to be terrible) they will disappoint you, but you're powerless to resist your noble desire to explore commercially polished new worlds and be forced by the game structure to mow down wave upon wave of goo-filled insectoid aliens who come from nowhere and leave nothing but glowing ooze. Well, no, you don't really have a desire for that 'forced' part, but it seems to come with the package.

I'm going to talk about all three, but since I disliked all of them, I'm going to talk about the positive features. Although Jedi Academy and Elite Force 2 don't really have positive features worth talking about, so instead I'm going to tell you how they should have done it, because I know what is best for everyone.

Oh, Can You Hear The Bells?

Halo has positive features worth mentioning. Once you get off that God-forsaken ship, you crash-land on a stunningly beautiful wintery mountainscape. I was cold when I was playing it for the first time, and got so caught up in the magical lustre of the game world that it felt like some hyper-real dream or a halucination or something. I hadn't eaten in quite a long time.

The wave-upon-wave of goo-filled aliens kind of ruined this, of course, so at first I just hid from them and pretended they weren't shooting at me. But once you snap out of the trance and jump through the achingly familiar hoops, you find a few happily unfamiliar differences:

a) There's a button to hit the jerks with your weapon, which is hilarious and - thankfully - effective.
b) There's a button to throw a grenade, irrespective of what weapon you're holding - you don't have to switch away and then back, you can be laying down machinegun fire before its first bounce.
c) You can only carry two weapons at a time, streamlining the weapon switching controls to compensate for the fact that there are two types of grenade.
d) There are vehicles, and yet they don't suck. In fact, they're incredible. The Warthog - or as we like to call it, in an excited voice, 'truck!' (even though it's a buggy) - has stunningly convincing suspension and handling, and gleams in the sun and is generally wonderful.
e) You can kill all your team-mates. It all makes sense, and it flies in the face of first-person-shooter convention, and that's some well-established convention. This makes the combat almost fun, and frequently funny, and since your surroundings are massively more beautiful than the other two games, it beats them both hands down. And this is a Microsoft console game, versus man's most advanced incarnations of the two greatest sci-fi institutions ever. It's all messed up, I tell you what.

It also proved a more enjoyable playing experience because of one minor but hilarious detail: your character, who has no name, holds the insanely grandiose rank of Master Chief. Thus, we referred to him throughout as variations on the theme of Super General King and Lord President; theorised that - since his unorthodox methods involve (if I have anything to do with it) beating all friendly troops to death on sight - Master Chief is actually the lowest rank in the military, introduced for his sake alone, to make him feel important without having to put him on any real operations; and invented a new verb - to 'Master Chief' - to refer to his practise of solving every problem by hitting things with his gun and throwing grenades.

Neither Can I

Instead of Jedi Academy, they should have shut up. Sorry, I mean: they should have made an interesting story involving three key characters: a Han Solo type mercenary; a jedi in training, learning how to use the force for good; and an already-trained jedi falling to the dark side. The end of the plot would involve some kind of critical situation that pitted all three against each other. Then, you'd play this story-line through with first the mercenary, then the light jedi, then the dark jedi. At the end, you'd be back at the now-familiar climax of the plot, and you'd be given the choice of which of the three you wanted to play it as, and your choices when playing as the other two would determine which - if either - would ally with you.

The mercenary bit would be shortest, and just introduce you to the blaster (which would kill in one hit) and thermal detonators (which would be much more powerful), and serve mainly to introduce the story. The mercenary would be all about freedom, and when he realises his objective is deeply unethical, he can either decide to go along with it for the money, or switch sides and fight for a safer galaxy.

The light side jedi would introduce you to basic jedi abilities and saber combat. The light jedi wouldn't have much in the way of force powers: unnaturally high jumping, yes, but I don't remember Luke magically regrowing his hand with Force Heal in the films - they had to use medical technology like everyone else. Lightsaber combat would be much more down to your character: holding fire would make him swipe at any enemy in range and vaguely in front of him however he saw fit, and swipe again until they're dead. And unless they're a jedi and blocked the first blow with a lightsaber, they are dead: lightsabers cut stuff! If they don't do that - and in JK, JO and JA they frequently don't - they're just magic fairy sticks of happy light. The skill is in when you dart back or to the side to make your enemy swing at nothing, then dart in before they can defend themselves. Also you can throw the lightsaber, but it just clatters to the floor and you have to pull it back to your hand manually. You can still bat blaster shots away with the saber, but you have to press attack to do it, so it's not a full-proof or passive thing. There are no push or pull powers, but if you try and use a switch or an obstacle from a distance, you can. Tapping use on an enemy knocks them away, holding use on them pulls their weapon. This drains force power. Other than that, the only light-side power is a kind of stealth thing whereby the better jedi you are, the less enemies notice you when your lightsaber's sheathed. Remeber Obi-Wan in the Death Star (or was it a Star Destroyer?), where no-one noticed him walking around? I submit that that was cool.

The dark jedi would start with all this stuff, except the no-noticing thing. His plot would start with him losing control to his anger (against the Empire) and involuntarily using the first dark side power: the one whereby Darth Vader stops that blaster shot in Bespin. When anything gets past his lightsaber - if he's using that - he can absorb the damage it does with the force, but this increases his anger level. He doesn't have a force power level - he's got as much of that as he likes, that's why dark side is so powerful. But if his anger reaches maximum, the absorbing damage thing won't work and he'll take regular damage, which just to remind you is probably going to kill him (blaster shots kill). When he finds the guy he's so angry at, he finds himself instinctively using the next dark force power - grip - to choke him to death. Grip doesn't increase his anger level, and now that he's that much more dark, he can absorb more damage before his anger level tops out. By the way, killing people decreases his anger level, and it subsides by itself anyway. Lastly, when he's going crazy killing everyone, he eventually acquires the lightning thing, which shoots everywhere and kills everything. It increases his anger level to use it, but decreases when it kills and destroys, so it's a balance. If he doesn't get lucky with it and over-angers, he'll black out.

And I Don't Hear Trumpets

A Star Trek first person shooter would be wonderful. You see how I said 'would' instead of 'could'? That's my ingenious way of implying that they haven't made one yet. They changed everything about Star Trek to contort the resulting game into the exact same alien-blasting shooter we've been playing for years, so that they get the simple fans of mediocrity and the geeky fans of Star Trek. That works for the mediocrity fans - never a hard crowd to please - but it impresses no geeks.

Here are the guidelines for a Star Trek first person shooter:

a) The phaser is the only weapon (except your bare hands). Tapping fire once fires a beam that, if it hits, will knock out any humanoid. In kill mode, the beam it fires will disintegrate any humanoid. That's how it works! If you don't like it, don't make a Star Trek game! The other thing you should be able to do with a phaser is that great overload trick, where you set it up and a while later it explodes like crazy. Maybe that could be done by holding down the switch-mode button and fire, maybe for a few seconds. Then you'd drop it, and would have to run away. When you don't have a phaser, running into someone and pressing fire gets into a struggle with them, holding their weapon away. If you win the struggle, you hit them.
b) Humanoid aliens only! No insectoids, no goo-filled oddballs you can kill without remorse. It's about morality, and also foreheads.
c) No armour! For the love of God! You wouldn't think I had to say this. Starfleet, remember? Explorers! Not the Klingon Empire, not the Hirogens, not in fact warlike! Élite Force doesn't just have armour, it has muscle-contoured armour. It's a joke, a sick, fucking joke, surely, please, tell me it's a joke.
d) How about we explore, and have to make ethical decisions about whether to intervene and who to trust and stuff? Can you guess why I'm suggesting this go into a Star Trek game? I'll give you a clue, it's something to do with whether or not that what the series was all about.
e) If there's no Earthly reason why not, you should be able to request your ship beams you to certain co-ordinates, which you can find by using a map on your tricorder, or by extrapolating from your own co-ordinates. Let's put the find-a-way-to-open-this-door puzzle to rest now.
f) You should get to choose your speciality: command, security, medical, science, engineering. Command would be able to order other members of the group to cover him or beam out, etc. Security would have better physical training and always win struggles. Medical would obviously have the ability to help injured - himself or others - but this would work rather differently: if you get non-fatally injured, you're bleeding to death and will eventually die. A doctor can stabilise your condition, but can't restore you to full health without the use of a proper sickbay. Science would be able to use the more advanced functions of a tricorder to spot how to deal with unconventional problems like high-tech security systems, invisible enemies, alien presences taking over the minds of other crew members, illusions, new enemy weapons and how to protect against them, weaknesses in new enemies, etc. Engineers, obviously, would be able to fix stuff and use alien technology and bypass things. Maybe you could switch between members of your team depending on who you wanted to control. But if you were currently command, you would always have the option of just telling the relevant crew member to do something, or ask their advice or whatever.





 
2003/10/28 Captain's blog: stardate minus three one eight five six five point three
I didn't feel this thing would be complete without an actual post, aside from the introduction (below), so I'm going to do one of the things I'm going to use this thing for sometimes: a review of something I saw or otherwise experienced recently.

Kill Bill, Volume One

I went to Kill Bill expecting, foremost, to wish I hadn't. A lot of reviews say it's unfulfilling even if you're not expecting a complete film, which is crazy, because, like, what less could you get? Still, like a fool, I believed them, and like fools, they were wrong. I thought I was going to wish I'd waited for the second film and watched the two back to back, but I don't, although I will do that too.

Things I Expected That I Was Right To Expect

An old martial-arts-movie feel: it's tacky, over-done, and fantastic if you like samurais. If you don't like samurais, don't see it, weirdo.
An old revenge-movie plot: it swings heavily on the ethically questionable idea that if crime X is vicious enough, revenge Y can be as brutal as you like.
A martial-arts-revenge-movie.

Things I Didn't Expect That I Was Right Not To Expect Because They Weren't There

Directorial restraint: everything is wildly over-done - most scenes will make you laugh before you secretly think "Cool!" Although not everyone says stuff like "Cool!", even in their heads, so you might think "..." instead.
Slick, modern titling: on-screen text is tackier, more old-fashioned and more abundant than in Jackie Brown, and on some counts that's saying something. I kept laughing every time giant yellow letters came up identifying a character as a member of "The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad".
Vampires... everywhere!

Things I Didn't Expect That Were There, But Maybe It Was Just As Well I Didn't Expect Them Anyway, Because I Did See A Hell Of A Lot Of Clips On TV, And Some Stuff Should Be New

Animé: the thing's divided into six or so chapters, and one of these is the life story of Lucy Liu's character told entirely in animation. This works.
Quite that level of humour: the ultra-violence and extreme suffering are broken very frequently by laughs - it doesn't take itself seriously for any length of time, even though the actual plot involves a lot of really horrible stuff. The 'crime X' part of the revenge story starts with the beating and shooting of a pregnant woman and gets worse from there.

Conclusion

I don't think it's unfulfilling. I mean, you realise she's not going to kill Bill in this one, right? This film is really about Uma Thurman's character on her own, and Uma Thurman's character trying to kill Lucy Liu's character. This film, Volume 1, is not itself better than Pulp Fiction. The Kill Bill whole, when it arrives, probably will be, but in my book two films never count as one choice, so it won't really beat it, unless the second volume alone is that good. The old Star Wars trilogy came top of Channel Four's Top 100 Films list when they had that, but you didn't really feel it had won, the way you wouldn't feel Nigel had won a boxing match if three guys all called Nigel all whaled on just this one guy called Ian, or whatever.

Score: Great





 
2003/7/12 Introduction: stardate minus three one eight seven three five point eight
These Grey Subtitles Are Usually Lines From Songs

Hi. My name isn't James. It's actually Tom; the site is called James because I think personal sites should have names instead of titles, since they're seldom really about anything. I mean, before I came up with the idea of naming it, this site was called:

Pentadact's Site: 'Pentadact' is a conveniently unique alias I use for usernames.
Ugly Fruit: after the hybrid Jamaican tangelos of a similar name (see next title).
Ugli Fruit: the actual brand name of these cross-spliced blotchy giant satsumaesque things.
The Open Focus Network: words chained together by the same stupid part of the human brain used by bad surrealist poets the world over.
Politics: because it was stupid and pointless.
Locust Pincushion: not really. This was one someone suggested in a "Why 'Ugly Fruit'? Why not-" type question. It may be relevant that the person who suggested it is called Pig Foetus.

I don't have a problem with the fact that none of the previous titles have meant anything (except the lame first one), I just don't like the way they're made up of words. Words do mean stuff, I don't like saying "These ones don't, here." Also, which words you choose when you have no actual criteria to meet probably reveals embarrassing things about your subconscious.

And Multiple Subtitles In The Same Post Are Almost Always Successive Lines From The Same Song

Anyway, I don't know anyone called James so I've always thought of it as a pleasantly neutral name - not masculine like John (it seems to be a law that unless your character in a computer game is called something bizarre like Duke Nukem, his first name must be John) or humourously anti-climactic like Dave. Or stupid and rubbish, like Tom.

Actually, now that I've mentioned my real name, the Pentadact alias, the names of all my ex-websites, and also the word 'satsumaesque' (that's not going to put me at the top of a lot of Google searches, but if anyone actually tries it I want them brought here immediately), I should also mention the word 'frog'. Frogs are my favourite animal, and 'Pentadact' is derived from the latin name for a certain frog, and some actual real people, in real life, call me Frog because of it. Or because there's often more than one Tom in the room.

I Didn't Invent This Song-Lyric Subtitle-Convention, But I Think I Invented The Successive-Line Multiple-Subtitles Thing

I date stuff by stardate largely because I can. I found some reference points on a fan site, worked out when stardate zero is going to be, then wrote a JavaScript algorithm to work out today's from that. Incredibly it worked, and I threw my fists up triumphantly in case some of my credibility still needed destroying. The real point to using them is to give a spacey kind of atmosphere, and remove it from real-world stuff like deadlines and birthdays. And also to get the line "Captain's Blog, stardate-" in somewhere, although in the design process I demoted myself a few ranks, then forgot about ranks completely and settled on Personal Blog, then decided that wasn't really Star Trek enough to show and went back to Captain's blog. Then added the real-world date, neatly defeating the point of everything.

Star Trek isn't like my one true God or anything - I hate most of the Next Generation characters, and I can't stand Enterprise or the original series - but don't be misled, I am a loser. This whole Star Trek and TV thing, and also a whole lot of my geekiness, turns up in the Media section, which I've accidentally made incredibly easy and, frankly, satisfying to navigate. I don't know how it happened, but once the page is loaded, it's almost fun to jump around the links. Actually that reminds me to make a general note about how this place works: clicking on something that shouldn't really do anything, like a decent-size picture or the title of the section you're already at, will often take you to a menu of some kind. Also, I don't usually use a different colour or any underlines or anything for links, but this should be counteracted by the fact that I only use links when it's painfully obvious from the context that I'm linking something. Lastly, and as an exemplary case, e-mail me with anything you think, ever.





 
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