Halo 4 is a Bad Game

I love the Halo games. The first lacked polish and was greatly improved when it’s remastered edition was released. The second succeeded in doing something different in the face of endless WW2 shooters. The third was an elegant, if mildly absurd thrill ride. ODST was a practise run for something better, while Reach was that something better, blending slick gunplay, over the mechanics and solid and emotive plot. I remember plot points from all of them, and can trace the layout of some of the Halo 3 multiplayer maps in my memory.

Master ChiefHalo 4 though – the first game following the breakaway of original series developer Bungie from Microsoft – leaves me cold. I had to look up my Xbox achievements to see if I’d actually finished it, its that forgettable.

The Halo series has never been one to avoid tropes, which can be a sign of bad in itself. Since Halo 3, the games have also been pretty reliant on collectable items, some of which can be missed, to both tell the story and give background and insight into the Forerunners, the race that built the eponymous ring structures. Well used, this can be an effective story-telling tool, rewarding that that are interested in collecting digital trinkets or want to learn more about the setting, but done badly and you end up with games like Assassin’s Creed Unity, where the player is overwhelmed with pointless map icons that are only there for the sake of ticking off a rewardless checklist.

h4_002-f3df874bc11f452d91133674a13f033c Halo 4 does have these tipbits, and they are used to tell a story. Unfortunately in this case, the main enemy, the Diadact, is first named in a missable movie. When he later appears, the AI character Cortana, who provides instructions to the player character, immediately starts using its name with no name and little way of any explanation or exploration of what the enemy is. Halo often had Go There, Do That instructions, and at their best, they using saving entire planets or making a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds. But without any explanation of why the enemy is the enemy, who they are, what they are, its hard to care about why you are fighting onwards. Just being told something wants to destroy you doesn’t make for compelling storytelling and hiding information that provides crucial understanding of the plot and provides motivation is not just poor writing, but poor game design.

h4_005-4f9cdb0532ac44beb85976cd4369531eMaybe I’m reading too much into Halo 4. In terms of design, there are a number of design elements which have become as token as a beach assault in a WW2 game or breach and clearing an office building in Call of Duty : the a level with wide open spaces and plenty of Warthogs and Ghosts, a level with a pitched battle fought across a bridge, a level set in badlands and lots of soaring spires and light-bridges. The real meat of the other games, excluding the story focused ODST, is the multiplayer. I haven’t tried Halo 4’s multiplayer, after letting my Xbox Live Gold subscription expire, but I put more hours than I care to remember into Halo 3 and Reach with friends from Glasgow. The fast, arcade style shooting, jet packs and squabbles as a complete stranger repeatedly drives a tank into a cliff-face and brilliant hilarious fun, and presumably remain so. But if that’s the main selling point, then why bother with a story-based campaign at all when greater resources can be deployed to increase the number of maps, or improve other aspects of the game. The success of Bungie with the multiplayer only Destiny certainly suggests that this is a viable business model.

Images courtesy of Microsoft and 343 Industries.


A Song of Sand and Wood

Carpets are expensive. Or at least good quality carpets with separate underlay and professional firing do. So, faced with a mouldy old carpet that needed replacing, I did the only logical thing.

Using the drum sander.

Using the drum sander.

I sanded down the floorboards and covered them in varnish.

Sanding and varnishing a wooden floor still isn’t massively cheap. A days hire of a drum sander and a edging sander clocks in at about £120 before delivery, with enough varnish to cover the twenty square meters three times coming in about £50. The cost of dust bags, sandpaper and painting supplies brought the whole lot to around £200, which I’m pretty sure is less than getting laminate or a decent carpet put down.

Sanding 2The sanding work was reasonably easy. The drum sander which I used to strip the body of the floor handled a bit like a petrol lawnmower, although with more power. It was extremely heavy though, and had to be lifted off the floor frequently so it could be turned round without gouging the floorboards

The floor in our spare bedroom was in shockingly good condition before I started. All that really needed to be taken off was the top layer of grime, water stains and some markings from the sawmill. I started with a medium grade of sandpaper, sanding in a diagonal direction to even out the boards and take off the worst of the muck. Two hours work saw the floor much more level and with most of the stains gone. To finish I used the medium grain sandpaper and worked along the length of the floorboards, before a couple of finishing passes with fine grain paper to give a smooth finish. Continue reading

Clearing the Gaming Backlog

Steam Screen Shot 1I own far too many games. They are a major vice for me. The beginning of the end for the Xbox 360 as a platform hasn’t helped, with many games from the past few years reduced to £10 or less, making them an easy impulse purchase, further compounded by the regular PC game deals on Steam, Humble Bundle and Good Old Games which see recent titles reduced to pennies.

This year, I want to actually play as many of these games as possible.

I also want to blog and write more. So I’m going to play these games and write stuff about them.

I have more games than I can realistically play to completion and good few games on Steam that I got as part of bundles but which I’m not desperate to play, so this isn’t some kind of completionist effort or an attempt to play every single game. I just want to make sure I justify my collection and my hoarding. Continue reading

Building a New PC – Build Day

In mid-October, I managed to get all of the components for my new PC together. Building something like this – knowing that so many of the options involved were solely my decision and not dictated by a console maker or a PC manufacturer – was extremely satisfying.

Computer Components

You can read about my reasoning for the various components here. I have been very happy with performance of the components so far. Both the graphics card and the processor fan are much quieter than I was expecting, even when running a new game like Arkham Origins with the best graphics options. It isn’t completely silent, but it’s difficult to hear over ambient noise and impossible to hear over noise from a game or DVD. Compared to both the original Xbox 360 and the Xbox 360 Slim, it is much, much quieter.

Assembling the computer was relatively easy. The biggest problem I had was running out of desk space for everything I needed to have to hand. Access to a large kitchen or dining table would have been really helpful.

Other problems were extremely minor. Having no experience using modern Intel sockets, I was expecting the processor to fit into place sharply. When the bracket closed with a noise that is more of a creak than a snap, I was quite surprised and it took me a few minutes to make sure I had inserted everything correctly and wasn’t mashing the pins on the bottom of the processor into a pulp.

Cable Nest

The final problem I encountered was a cable from the processor’s cooler catching on the fan. This prevented the fan from spinning, leading to a rather toasty processor. Thankfully, I spotted the higher than expected temperature in the BIOS screen when I was checking that everything was correctly set-up and was able to loosen the cable. Ten years ago, that could have led to a fried processor, but most modern chips shut themselves down before damage can be done.

Other than that, I can’t believe how simple the overall process is. I think I’ve had more grief when trying to assemble larger items of Ikea furniture. Of course, a sideboard doesn’t have a dozen fiddly cables which have to be coerced into some vague state of tidiness or very, very small connectors which have to be slipped on to tiny pins.

In terms of performance, it far exceeds what I was expecting. The GTX 760 is more than powerful enough to handle Arkham Origins and Skyrim at 1080P without having to increase it’s fan speed. Both games easily deliver 60 frames per second or higher. In the case of Skyrim, this is delivered without any of the stuttering or texture tearing visible on the Xbox 360 version of the game. The beautiful aurora and near endless landscapes in Skyrim very nearly justify the spend on a gaming PC on their own and I cannot wait to try out some of the higher resolution fan-made texture packs.


Building a New PC – Components Picked

After nearly a year of research and deliberation, I have finally taken the big step and ordered the components for my new gaming PC. There have been a few changes in the last few months – particularly the case.

PCPartPicker part list: http://uk.pcpartpicker.com/p/1OfqF

CPU: Intel Core i5-4570 3.2GHz Quad-Core Processor
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z87N-WIFI Mini ITX LGA1150 Motherboard
Memory: Crucial Ballistix 4GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory
Storage: Samsung 840 Series 120GB 2.5″ Solid State Disk
Storage: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive
Video Card: MSI GeForce GTX 760 2GB Video Card
Case: Fractal Design Node 304 Mini ITX Tower Case
Power Supply: Corsair CX 500W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified ATX12V Power Supply
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 (OEM) (64-bit)

I chose the RAM and hard-drives on the basis of good quality products coming up on offer. I managed to save about £40 this way. The majority of the rest of the components aren’t subject to such big price fluctuations.

I backed off from my previous choice of case due to it’s size, instead opting for some discreet Scandinavian design in the form of the Fractal Node 304. It unfortunately doesn’t have space for a DVD drive, so I’ve picked up a cheap external drive to go with it. Sadly, the internet speed in my area of London isn’t good enough to let me rely solely on software downloads.

Some of the Haswell processors have dropped in price recently, which did make an upgrade to the slightly more powerful i5-4670K, which can be overclocked, but as I have no real interest in overclocking, I stuck with the more than adequate i5-4570.

I’m inclined towards nVidia graphics cards over AMD’s products anyway, so when they GTX 760 came out at the right price point I was half sold on it already. The MSI version of the card is reputed to run both coolly and quietly. I may yet regret going with nVidia over AMD if the use of AMD components in the XBox One and PS4 leads to major games performing better on AMD systems.

Finally, after a long debate with myself, I decided on Windows 8 as an operating system. I really like Windows 7, which I previously had on my Mac and which I use at work. It’s very slick, very simple and looks fantastic. I decided that I didn’t just want to stick with what I know in terms of Windows. I’m sure I can deal with the loss of the Start menu. Anyway, there is always SteamOS if I really don’t like it.

Interestingly, the finished computer will be very similar to some of Valve’s prototype Steam Machine PCs. The main differences are the amounts of storage and RAM.

Choosing the Right Components: Holding Out for Haswell

Intel P4 Processor by Eric Gaba, CC BY-SA 3.0

Intel P4 Processor by Eric Gaba
CC BY-SA 3.0

For a long time, the desktop computer processor market has been dominated by two companies: Advanced Micro Devices (better known as AMD) and Intel. After the PC boom of the 80s when Texas Instruments, IBM and other semiconductor companies were competing on a equal footing only Intel and AMD emerged with high powered, innovative consumer products for the late 90s and 00s. Except for a brief period in the mid 00s, Intel has always been the more dominant of the two companies, despite struggling to gain traction in the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets in recent years.

Back in 2004, I would have been stupid to buy anything other than an AMD processor. While Intel struggled to get faster clockspeeds from the Pentium 4 chips due to heat dissipation problems, AMD had introduced a 64-bit extension to the x86 instruction set, produced a successful consumer 64-bit processor and begun what was to become a near domination of the server processor market. To all intents and purposes, it looked like AMD were about to go from being an underdog to replacing Intel as the dominant power in the processor world.

The situation is completely reversed today. Intel abandoned a large part of the Pentium 4 processor architecture in favour of the Core architecture and have found phenomenal success with it’s increasingly powerful derivatives. AMD are struggling financially and have seen their most recent processors struggle to compete against faster and cooler Intel chips (Ars Technica has a good article about how AMD arrived in this situation).

Given that Intel processors run at much cooler temperatures and use less power while giving greater performance, I am firmly in the Intel camp. Next month, Intel will be launching their next generation processor, based on the Haswell architecture. These are expected to reduce power consumption and heat generated further while retailing at the same price point to the current generation of processor. The Haswell chips also use a new motherboard socket, meaning that a compatible motherboard should last for at least four to six years before needing an upgrade.

As far as models go, I see my choice as being between the enthusiast orientated i5-4670K or a more budget orientated i3 chip. The i5 is a four core processor, due out in June and will likely provide my system with an excess of computing capacity. The i3s haven’t yet been announced, but are expected to go on sale sometime towards the end of the year. The current generation of i3 processors have only two cores but due to poor use of multiple cores by game developers, they are more then capable of running high end games.

There are some arguments for going for an AMD processor over an Intel chip. Xbox Infinity is expected to use an AMD processor and it has already been confirmed that the PS4 will use a customised version of AMD’s Jaguar laptop processor. Some argue that this will lead to games being better optimised to run on AMD hardware. I’m not familiar enough with the diferences between AMDs mobile and desktop processors to comment on this, but given Intel’s dominant position in the market, I find it hard to imagine that developers wouldn’t take the time to optimise games for both Intel and AMD systems. This may, of course, be rather naïve, but only time will tell.

The Rise of RPG PDFs

It’s been a very long time since I last bought a pen and paper RPG book. It’s been well over two years since I last played in an RPG game at all. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember where my whisky tin full of dice is, although I know my collection of RPG books is safely buried in a mound of boxes somewhere in my mum’s house.

It’s a bit depressing – even after I’ve effectively abandoned the hobby – to read about how eReaders and tablets have taken over from giant hardback tomes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I bought a Kindle and I found my iPad invaluable when I was still gaming, but I found that neither device could replace my RPG books. My Kindle hasn’t even come close to replacing any type of book in my life thanks to a nasty habit of buying the same book in both hardback and digital forms.

RPG books are a particularly special case though. There is something about the scent of the paper, the glossy illustrations and the crack and snap of the pages that is an essential part of the role playing experience. It’s a particular joy when someone has a newly released book which is getting handed round a group or when you find an old, out of print game in a FLGS or on eBay.

There are also advantages to paper books over their digital equivalents. It’s not unusual for game masters to ban players from reading or referring to particular books to prevent cheating, reading ahead in stories or rules lawyering. If the source books are 300 pages of glossy A4, you can’t really hide them at the table. With a Kindle or an iPad, you could be reading anything at the table.

On the other hand  PDF game books are a massive benefit to independent game designers and small publishing houses because they cut out the overheads and the middlemen, allowing direct sales to fans. Which is why they are here to stay.

Choosing the Right Components: The Case

When you start to look at PC components  the range of parts available seems bewildering. Even the differences between pre-built models can seem impenetrable. Intel, AMD and Nvidia all use note entirely straight forward numbering systems where the performance difference between products is not always clear.

It is quite easy to decode the naming schemes, although it takes time to learn. Websites such as Logical Increments or groups like BuildAPC Reddit provide guides and advice on choosing parts and how to find the best bang for your buck. Of course, you still have to take a lot of time and care to select the components that will work best for you. I’ve been looking at the various components and getting up to speed with the modern PC market for several months now and with the exceptions of the processor and motherboard, which I’ll finalise after the release of Intel’s new Haswell processors, I’ve made my choices.

The first component I chose for my computer isn’t generally something you would pick first: the case. In many ways, the case is a non-critical component: all it needs is sufficient ventilation to cool the processor and the graphics card, something to keep dust out and mounts for the various components. It doesn’t even need to be new – the standardisation of the ATX motherboard means that cases that are nearly 20 years old should comfortably hold modern components (albeit with a bit of bodging).

I remember PC cases in the 90s being uniformly beige, generally boxy and normally uninspiring. Concepts like airflow didn’t play a big part in the design of these cases, which often came without dust filters and with a tangled mess of wiring. So it was surprising to find out that cases now look like this.

While Corsair’s Graphite series cases are pretty unique, they are representative of modern cases. The beige is gone. Now cases are built from high quality aluminium or steel, power supplies have been relegated to the bottom of the case to keep them cooler, there are trays underneath motherboards to allow for the neat routing of cables and there are modular internal components allowing you to customise a case to your needs. Importantly, the ‘designer’ cases no longer look like glowing, plastic monstrosities but take their design queues from companies like Apple and BMW. It’s a different world.

My first preference for my own system is Obsidian’s 600T in white because it looks like a Star Wars Stormtrooper’s PC, however building a full size ATX system just isn’t practical while living in a London houseshare. If nothing else, I will need to move it at some point and I’m not prepared to drag 30 to 40 kilos of PC across the city on public transport. So, I’m compromising by going for a Mini-ITX system.

BitFenix ProdigyThe main advantage of a Mini-ITX system is it’s size. The motherboard is the fraction of the size of an ATX board. You do lose some features as a result of this, but enthusiast quality ITX boards are more then capable forming the basis of a good gaming and home media system. A lot of ITX cases are extremely cramped and designed for use with low power processors and integrated graphics processors, so an ITX gaming system does need something a bit roomier and with space to ventilate a graphics card and a decent processor.

Thankfully BitFenix, one of the more innovative case manufacturers, have brought out the Prodigy. It looks like a squat Mac Pro and can fit all but the largest graphics cards but it’s small enough that it can be easily carried in a sports bag or similar. It also supports water cooling, which I find amazing. Ten years ago, water cooling was the preserve of madmen and the elite overclockers, now it’s almost standard, even in cases this small.

Small but powerful and versatile – it’s all I really want in a PC.

The End of a Console Era

Xbox ConsolesThe video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.

Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.

In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.

There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.

The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.

My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 19.10.04Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.

It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.

I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.

The Best Hangover Game – Civ4

A while ago, the Guardian’s Games Blog did a piece on the best videogames to play when hungover. I rather disagree with some of the selections: the vivid colour pallet and slightly unwieldy controls in the Nintendo DS remake of Super Mario 64 make it a rather distressing experience when you are trying to hide from the infernal daystar. On the other hand, space-goth styled Eve Online needs too much number crunching and carries a high risk of losing your valuable in-game ship to player pirates if you don’t pay attention. Much to my distress, the brilliant Harvest Moon series of farming simulators has been concentrated on the GameCube, Wii and DS for the last seven or eight years, preventing me from using them as a hangover cure without investing in a new console.

I don’t begrudge these selection though. I’ve played all three games and enjoyed them and I understand why they often feature amongst people’s favourite games. My problem with the Guardian article is the omission of what is possibly the best game to play when you are hungover: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

Civ 4 is a good game at the best of times, with the addition of it’s expansions – Warlords and Beyond the Sword  – it is an excellent game. It takes a number of features which were introduced in Civilization 3, but which didn’t work well as well as they should have – such as culture, borders and resources required to build units – and refined them. It also re-examined a number of the best features of Civilization 2, a game which regularly features highly on lists of the best video games of all time, and improved them, making managing individual cities far more interesting and some much needed personality to diplomacy. Civ 4 also a certain something over the more recent Civilization 5, although it’s hard to nail down exactly what “it” is.

What makes Civ 4 an excellent game for dealing with the morning after is its sheer simplicity. The game can be controlled using only the mouse and the screens feature clear menus and text, allowing you to slouch away from the screen to your heart’s content. Aspects that you don’t feel like dealing with, such as building roads, micro-managing cities or planning tech research can be semi-automated, allowing you to concentrate on your favourite aspects. If you are feeling particularly delicate, you can even turn off features such as the barbarian invasions to make the game easier (although it’s more fun to desperately rush the building of the Great Wall to prevent the barbarians getting near your cities).

With a random map, Marathon game speed (giving you 1,500 turns to complete the game) and playing against 11 other civilisations, a game can go on for most of a day. This should be more then enough time to either win a technology victory or to shake off the hangover, whichever comes first. The time flies past as you start to plan ahead and wait for your resources to accrue, only to have a neighbouring civilisation take over the iron resource node that you so desperately needed to build Swordsmen so you can take over their cities. You will feel accomplished when a carefully crafted military strategy works out and or when an opposing civilisation’s city swears allegiance to you on the basis of your advanced culture. You will find yourself muttering “One more turn…” as you forget about how bad your stomach feels, which is exactly why Civ 4 is the best game to play when hungover.

On Steam, £15 will buy you copies of Civ 4, the expansions and the remake of Colonization in the Civ 4 engine for both Mac and PC. An absolute bargin for hundreds of hours of gameplay.