Saturday, November 28, 2015

So you want to date my daughter? Answer me first: "Which is the best Star Wars Movie"

I have two teenage daughters and nervous young gentlemen have begun  to appear on the scene. This is actually quite a traumatic period in the life of a father but there are some compensations. For example I am particularly looking forward to having the "Circle of Trust" conversation with one of these young Lothario's.  To kick things off I intend to sit him down, look him squarely in the eye and ask him slowly and purposefully to tell me which is the best Star Wars movie.

The safe answer to that question is of course "The Empire Strikes Back". That establishes nerd credibility and an understanding of accepted cultural norms.

Either of the other two original trilogy movies would also be an acceptable answer especially if it is accompanied by an analysis explaining why he believes it is in reality a better movie than the usual critics choice.

"Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" are clearly wrong answers but somewhat forgiveable given the likely age of the supplicant. Such answers would engender further searching questions but he would at least be given an opportunity to redeem himself if he demonstrates a glimmer of insight behind his youthful ignorance.

"The Phantom Menace" is perhaps the only genuinely wrong answer. Nothing further to be said. Move on.

"The Star War's Holiday Special" is the most ballsy answer. It is a high risk strategy. If he cannot back it up with wit and knowledge he may well end up being kicked out of the house but if he pulls if off then I might have to graciously accept defeat and hand my daughter over to the new master.

Edit: Wilhelm over at the Ancient Gaming Noob has chipped in with his list of acceptable answers. Reading his post and the comments to it makes me realise that there are several good answers I haven't prepared for. Need to do some further planning. It wouldn't do to be caught napping by a young pretender.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Yes it can run Crysis

How does 2007's infamous system crusher fare on modern hardware?

Crysis's system requirements were so demanding when it was released that the question "Can it run Crysis?" became a meme that was humourously asked of the most inappropriate hardware such as toasters and ancient computers. 

How does Crysis run on a modern Windows 10 64 bit system with a GTX 970? The answer I am delighted to report is as smooth as butter with all settings maxed out. I did have a couple of crashes to desktop during my play through but these were so rare that they weren't a nuisance.

I was actually surprised the game ran at all because it has been mentioned as one of the games affected by Microsoft ending support for Securom/Safedisk.  When I installed from my old disk I immediately patched up to the latest version and it ran without problems. Both 64bit and 32 bit versions are installed. It defaults to 64 bit but the 32bit version can be run manually. I didn't benchmark but my eye couldn't detect any performance difference between the two versions.

Even maxed out Crysis cannot compete with the best 2015 games for graphical prettiness but it still is far from shabby. The game play stands up extremely well with a good selection of weapons, abilities, and challenging enemies to use them against. The story on the other hand is rather haphazard. The game feels like a collection of fairly random missions with a story tacked on afterwards in an attempt to string them together. Regardless there is the inevitable progression toward an end goal encounter with a final boss so all is good.

Released the same year as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,  CoD 4 redefined  first person shooters and Modern Warfare went on to become a multi billion dollar franchise. Crysis on the other hand is probably the last great old school shooter. It allows quick save.  It doesn't have levelling up. It has (almost) no quick time events. It doesn't have achievements. There is a long single player campaign with focus on interesting mechanics and emergent gameplay rather than Hollywood cinematics and scripting. Nevertheless Crysis had plenty of innovation. The multi purpose nano suit could be used in a variety of ways and huge open maps always allowed many paths to achieve an objective. 

One thing did surprise me: The game, even on a harder difficulty feels easier than I remember. I am pretty sure my reflexes haven't improved with age. Improved response times due to better hardware are probably helping a bit. I also suspect that my play style is a factor. First run through a new game I tend to be very cautious using stealth a lot and conserving ammunition. Replaying an older title I am far more gung ho, running in guns blazing. Despite frequent deaths this tends to get through content more quickly.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Slightly longer post about the Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is one of the greatest CRPGs every made but of course it still has some flaws. How could a game of this scale and ambition not have? 

Surely the biggest flaw is that combat remains clunky. Sluggish controls and awkward camera angles mean that you can never really get into a smooth flow of strike and counter strike. This is a story based RPG and not an action combat game so you could insist that fluid combat is not actually required to enjoy it and you would be right. However as well as being a terrific RPG Witcher 3 is also almost a terrific open world action game than could compete with Assassins Creed, Shadow of Mordor or even Far Cry 3/4 if not for the clunky combat. Given a choice I think the developers were right to prioritise RPG mechanics and story over fluid combat but just imagine if they had pulled off both? 

My only major niggle is the uneven levelling curve. It seemed to take me forever to get to level 5 and during those early stages I was exploring a dangerous world where most of the monsters and quests were above my level. From levels 5 to 10 things seemed to speed up and 10 to 20 went even faster still. The world around me did not keep up with my levelling. My quest book soon became full of quests I had out levelled and the game as a whole became much easier. Plenty of others have made similar observations on forums and in reviews so this isn't just me.  Somewhere in the mid teens I made a concious decision to concentrate on the main storyline and ignore side quests in order to slow down my levelling and maintain some challenge. This approach more or less worked and I was fairly on level when I finally finished the game at level 32/33 BUT I had to leave out a lot of content along the way. 

Lets us talk for a minute about the side quests. First off there are an awful lot of them and most of them are really great.  The quest log has Main Quests. Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts. Those actually called "Side Quests" are multi stage mini-adventures with engaging storylines that sometimes overlap the main quest and can even influence the eventual outcome of the game. Witcher contracts are picked up from a noticeboard or a villager and generally involved killing a named monster for a reward. Treasure hunts often lead to high quality gear but they can be multi stage and may ire you kill monsters and clear out dungeons to find treasure. In addition to these explicit quests the world is full of villages that have been over run by monsters. Clearing out one of these abandoned villages will net you some XP after the villagers have returned and will often provide a new vendor and a new fast travel point. In addition to all of these quests there are also rich equipment crafting and potion brewing activities both of which require searching for ingredients and recipes.  Then there is a fully fledged collectible card game  embedded in Witcher 3 that you can play with characters all over the world. This incredible bounty of things to do is what makes Witcher 3 magnificent but the fact that they all seem to give experience which levels you up is a problem.  If you skip most of the sidequests as I did to try to stay on level for the main quest you miss so much of the game. 

This is a known problem in any level based RPG that tries to have an open world full of side quests? I remember Oblivion had the same issue and tried to solve it by levelling up monsters as you levelled up but that came in for a lot of criticism from disgruntled players who found them selves facing beggars in jewel encrusted armour by the end of the game. If all the enemies level up as you do what is the point in levelling up? I have a different suggestion that I think would work better for Witcher 4 if that every becomes a thing. I think that there should be a level cap and I think that most of the games content should take place at the level cap. Progression need not stop entirely at the level cap. You can still upgrade equipment and perhaps discover new skills. Progression beyond the level cap should increase the variety of options available to you rather than just give raw increases in power. I think this would work very nicely with the free roam mode than is unlocked after you finished the main campaign. 

Finally a word about endings. It has always been a feature of Witcher games that your actions have consequences, sometimes unforeseen ones.  Your decisions during a seemingly unconnected side quest can influence the fate of the characters involved and may even have wider implications on the overall outcome of the game. Many of the key decisions are heavily signalled with a timer bar which counts down while you quickly choose between a number of responses. This does seem a bit artificial but for the most part I went with my gut response and stuck with it. In several cases the outcome was not what I would  have chosen but the quality of the writing is such that even in those cases I had to agree that the actual outcome was more fitting given the circumstances that what I might have preferred. I don't want to give spoilers but I will highlight Geralt's love life as one area where the outcome definitely wasn't what I intended but actually made far more sense. I will admit too that I did cheat  at the very end of the game, After finishing for the first time and not getting the outcome I desired I realised that one of the side quests I had ignored was essential to achieving my desired ending. Happily it wan't too far back so I loaded an old save game and replayed about three hours worth to finish the game the way I wanted to. 

Finished Witcher 3

Just want to record the fact that I have finished my first full campaign in Witcher 3. What a superb game. The world is beautiful. The characters are interesting. The story telling is great. The quests are terrific and multi-layered.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Annual Utility Supplier Merry Go Round

Summer is the time when we have to rotate all of our utility suppliers (gas, electric, waste etc).

When I was young we lived in simpler times. There was only one supplier for electricity, There was only one supplier for gas. There was only one supplier for what passed as telecommunications (some arrangement of paper cups attached with string if I recall). Those state owned monopolies generally provided  reliable service but they were inflexible and not particularly good value. You took whatever service they prescribed for you and you paid the price they saw fit to charge.

Today all is deregulated and competition is king. Advertisements constantly tout the advantages of one supplier over another and not a week goes by without sales folk calling to our door to encourage us to change suppliers. Living in a large urban area we are blessed with a surfeit of choices for just about every household utility. Competition is actively encouraged by the government and is supported by strong regulations which make it simple and cost free to switch suppliers. A single phone call or  single visit to a web page is usually all that is required.

Competition has certainly brought advantages. The competing suppliers are far more responsive and flexible than the old state monopolies. The passage of time and march of technology makes it hard to make direct comparisons but I am pretty sure that services are also far cheaper in real money terms. Frictionless switching has given rise to the almost universal practise of offering significant discounts to new customers. A new customer being generally defined as someone who has not used that particular supplier for one or more years.

These new customer discounts are the reason why at this time every year we need to ride the annual utility supplier merry go round. In order to ensure the best price for our utilities we need to switch suppliers every single year. Regardless of how pleased we were with last years suppliers we must without fail abandon them as soon as our "new customer" status expires in order to avail of a competitor's new customer deal. Fear not we shall doubtless be back once the exclusion period has passed and we can once again claim to be new. There are enough suppliers to ensure we can always avail of a new customer discount from somebody.

It strikes me as an odd business model that practically forces customers to change suppliers each and every year but I can see how difficult it would be for any one supplier to break the cycle. We humans are lazy by nature and it is well reported that many customers never or rarely change suppliers. The utilities offer these juicy discounts in the hope that we will neglect to change and stick with them once the discount period has passed. If any company did not offer discounts then they would get no new customers at all and if they tried to offer a better rate to long standing customers they would lose money. As a customer I find it a nuisance to have to ride this merry go round every year but I am pleased to be able to avail of the discounts. Happily there are websites which do the hard work of price comparison and make it very easy to select which of the available offers is best value for our particular usage pattern.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Windows 10 two days later

I am delighted to report that Windows 10 is now running smoothly and stably on my computer. The initial disk chugging which marred my earlier experience has entirely stopped after I left the machine running overnight.  I am pretty sure the initial sluggishness was down to Windows trawling through all of my disks and files in order to index them. Now that this is complete the search feature works properly too which is essential. Windows 7 spoiled me from making shortcuts for most programmes I just hit start type the first few letters of a programme and away we go. 

Things I like:
In use the operating system does everything that Windows 7 did for me but feels a bit more polished and up to date. The interface is cleaner and looks prettier. 

I love the new Task view button. This instantly displays all open applications in a tiled format which is much more useful than the carousel format that win-tab gave in Windows 7. As a bonus the Task view also allow you to setup and maintain multiple desktops. AMD and Nvidia graphics cards have provided similar features for some time now and I have never felt the need to use them  but now that it is built into the operating system I might be more inclined to experiment. 

I love that ability to snap to corner as well as snap to edge. Snapping a window to a corner puts it into a quarter screen allowing you to easily tile your screen with four distinct windows. 

I like that the new metro style interface is better integrated and also seems to have more functionality than Windows 8. In Windows 8 metro always felt like a barrier you penetrate to get to the real control panel behind. Windows 10 still has this "real control panel" but I find that the metro settings menu does everything I need. 

Things I am not sure about:

I still get some unpredictable behaviour when I restart. It is hard to pin down exactly because it is unpredictable and not reproducible but on various occasions my second display and my Logitech G19 keyboard have not recovered correctly from a reboot. This may be related to a lack of stickiness  have noticed from system tray icons. Some applications don't appear to be minimising to the system tray to run in the background as I expect. Again this doesn't appear to be consistent or predictable. 

Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana is not available in my language (English with an Irish accent I guess) so I haven't been able to try it out. To be honest I have no desire to talk to my desktop in any case. I occasionally speak to Google Now on my phone for the novelty (usually to see if it can finally understand the Gaelic pronunciation of my daughter's Irish name) but I don't use it for any practical purpose. 

There appears to be some compatibility issue with my choice of anti virus programmes: Avira. Neither the system tray icon nor the Avira control panel would appear for me in Windows 10. Task manager suggested that the scanning routines themselves were still working but without any visible user interface I couldn't be sure. I have temporarily returned to Windows built in antivirus: Windows Defender.

A lot of the new integrated environment features (Outlook email, Edge Browser, Windows Calendar etc)  are not really any  use to me because I am already a committed Google user. Windows 10 does offer integration features so you can link your gmail and google calendar etc to you Microsoft ones but I don't want to use use outlook to access my gmail I want to use gmail. I don't want to use Microsoft calendar to access my google calendar and so on. 

The Windows store doesn't appear to have apps for some of the services I use. There is no Feedly client for example. Instead Microsoft offer their own Flipboard. The biggest omission though is:

There are almost no official Google apps in Microsoft store. Where is the offical Gmail app?  Where is the official Google Calendar app? You can access all of these through Chrome but that feels a bit disconnected from the new integrated Windows environment. I did manage to put web shortcuts to gmail and google calendar onto the metro start menu  but that required a tortuous multi step process involving the google task bar and an intermediate desktop shortcut. 

A thought about Microsoft and Privacy

I have read a few articles expressing concerns about privacy in Windows 10 but having considered the situation I am happy to tick all of the boxes allowing Microsoft to spy on me. Some years ago I grappled with this issue in relation to Google and I realised that the benefits of all these free services outweighed (for me in any case) the loss of privacy. While I am delighted to get Windows 10 for free I do realise that Microsoft need to earn money somehow and if my allowing them to show me a few targeted ads is the price then I am happy to allow that. The problem as I see it though is that Microsoft are already too late to that party. Everyone I know is already fully committed to an existing information eco system. Microsoft are aware of this and do appear to offer seamless integration into their own apps but this means is that they are getting data second hand from Google or Apple or Facebook. I don't see how they can ever catch up.