Monday, February 13, 2017

Too much stuff. How can we choose what to watch / play / read in an era of over abundance.

This morning  I signed up for Amazon's Kindle first service. It is a kind of book club where you pay a monthly sub and get to pick one of six pre release books on Kindle every month. At only £0.99 per month it is a very low risk commitment and it can be cancelled any time. My reason for joining has nothing to do with hoping to read the next blockbuster at a bargain price before it goes on general release. It is simply my latest attempt to solve the ever growing problem of what piece of media (book, film, game) to consume next. There are too many new books out there just as there are too many news game, too many new TV series and too many new movies. I am willing to give Amazon's editorial staff a go at suggesting what I should read next.

 There is simply too much stuff out there. How on earth does one choose which stuff to spend the time and effort consuming? Mega corporations like Netflix, Google and Amazon have spent millions trying to answer this question with algorithms that analyse your profile and your past behaviour to predict what you would like to read, watch, play or buy next. Facebook and its ilk try to leverage the power of social connection to answer this question on the premise that if your friends like something then maybe you will like it too. None of these services answer the question to my satisfaction however. Their recommendations are wrong as often as they are right and the very mechanical nature of their algorithms puts me off.

Trusted reviewers are another obvious approach but in today's world of instant access to everyone's opinion that is simply swapping one problem of overabundance for another. On YouTube for example there are thousands of video game reviewers and the more popular ones often have widely differing opinions. Which reviewers should I follow? Can someone start reviewing the reviewers please? Aggregate review sites can sometimes be useful for highlighting the all time classics that everyone really should sample but the mechanical nature of their algorithms obscures as much as it reveals. A quick look at the top rated video games on the last 90 days on Metacritic will quickly convince you that that approach is fraught with hazard. While there are likely to be some gems on the list I defy anyone to play and enjoy all of the eclectic assortment of titles that pop up.

Over the last year I have had great success with Humble Monthly's curated bundle of video games. Of the six or seven games in each month's bundle I have always found one or two that have held my attention long enough to more than justify the bundle price. More often than not it is one of the lesser known indie titles that grabs me rather than the headline game. Last month I spend a lot of time playing Neon Chrome. I am currently enjoying Steamworld Heist from the February bundle although I do intend to sample XCOM 2 later. Teh key word for me here is "curated". I really do get the impression that each of these games are chosen by someone for a reason. Some of the choice are more "experimental" that others but with very rare exceptions I don't think any of the games are just thrown in to meet a price target.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Finished Broforce. What to try next?

I do love finishing games even when they are relatively casual indie games like Broforce.

I highly recommend the game by the way. It is an action platformer with a couple of twists. Twist 1 is that you play as a random selection of "Bros" (translate: thinly disguised action heroes from 80's movies), You never know which character you will get next and they all have very different weapons and skills. The second twist is that the terrain is completely destructible. Altogether this adds quite a bit of strategy to the usual shooty carnage. A major bonus is that the game is very co-op friendly and it is a complete blast in co-op.

Now what game will I try next? Another indie game will be quick to pick up but I have a few AAA titles in my queue that I also want to try. Deus Ex Mankind Divided is tempting.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Asynchronous Multiplayer in Hill Climb Racing 2

The original Hill Climb Racing was something of a misnomer given that it was a single player game with no actual racing involved. The sequel addresses this and features four vehicle cross country racing. Hill Climb 2 has topped the app charts and the game's leader board is filled with thousands of players from all over the world. It is a lot of fun and it certainly adds excitement to the game as you speed past Joe from USA and Jim from Bulgaria on your way to winning a race. 

It is all very slickly presented so it took me a while to realise that there is some slight of hand going on. It wasn't until I noticed that you can pause and restart races that it dawned on me that I wasn't racing other players in real time. The game actually pits you against pre-recorded runs by other players in asychronous multiplayer.

Asychronous multiplayer is very common in mobile games and I have tried several where you create an army or a base which other players can attack while you are away. This tends to be a very stale affair though because attacking AI controlled troops can never compare to the excitement of a human opponent. In a race game the illusion is much better. The recorded player drives just as they would in real life. They struggle at the same tricky bits and they speed up to try and steal a victory at the end in recording just as they do in real life.

There are many advantages to asychronous multiplayer in this case. You can race whenever you want and never have to wait for suitable opponents. It also allows every player to be a winner or at least to win more often than they lose.

Does knowing that it is an illusion spoil it at all? Perhaps a little. My thrill at crushing Joe from the USA is a little diminished when I realise that Joe is oblivious to it. Indeed Joe may actually have won the race the first time that particular run was recorded. For all I know strings are secretly bring pulled by the boffins of free to play to ensure each player achieves the optimum win loss ratio for monetisation.

Asychronous racing could have real world applications especially if used with virtual reality. Amateurs could pit themselves against Olympic athletes and those same athletes could train using past races of their competitors.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The games of Christmas 2016

A combination of Winter sales, Christmas spirit and a few days holidays always puts me in the mood for some video games. Here are the titles which have gotten some of my time since the start of December: 

1. Neverwinter Nights 2: A buggy launch cast a shadow over this sequel but fully patched it remains an engrossing gaming experience. Even though I have a boxed copy I rebought it from gog.com to save the hassle of patching it myself and I got all the expansions as a bonus. This is actually the third time I started the main campaign of NWN 2 and each time I get about half way through and then move on to something else. That is still many hours of gaming goodness each time however. 

2. Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone. Witcher 3's expansions have been on my wishlist for quite some time so when isthereanydeal.com informed me that they had finally fallen into my price range I jumped and bought them both. I have only played the shorter"Hearts of Stone" and it was excellent full of dark gritty witcheryness. The send expansion "Blood and Wine" is supposed to be even better so good times are ahead. The passing of more than a year has not dimmed my admiration for CD Projects Masterpiece. 

3. Titanfall 2: I played a small amount of Titanfall 1 but it was multiplayer only and I suck at multiplayer shooters. When I learned that Titanfall 2 also had an extensive campaign I was delighted and picked it up in an Origin sale. Much stompy  robot fun was had in the campaign although I have yet to try the supposedly excellent multiplayer. I guess I know I will still suck. 

4. Deus Ex Mankind Divided: I loved Desus Ex Human Revolution so odds are good I will like Makind divided. Haven't had time to more than scratch the surface yet though.

5. Battlefield 1: I keep buying these multiplayer shooters even though I am terrible at them. Battlefield 1 seems to be winning the shooter popularity ratings on Youtube which is unsurprising considering it has Zeppelins, tanks and mounted combat. I have only sampled the campaign so far. 

6. Rise of the Tomb Raider: I loved the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot so I was quite looking forward to this sequel. Unfortunately I only played it for a couple of days before getting distracted and moving on. The game is extremely polished and objectively very good but it also feels so similar to every other "Ubisoft Open World" game these days. You get a huge open world to explore chock full of  well crafted side missions and diversions with a tentative story to tie them all together. Gameplay is slick and there is a character advancement system so polished that you seem to level up along multiple axes without even thinking about it. I can't actually find a flaw in any of this except that the formula has become so polished that has become boring. 

On the PC hardware front you may be surprised to discover that I am still gaming and playing modern AAA titles on a seven year old platform with a 2010 era LGA 1156 motherboard. I originally though to replace it back in 2014 but  I decided to wait until Windows 10 came out and did some  upgrades instead.  By the time I had fitted extra memory, an SSD, modern graphics card (GTX 970) and a mildly overclocked 8 thread Xeon processor I realised that my rig ran Windows 10 perfectly and was still able to keep up with modern games so I held tight.  Now almost two years later I think it really is time for a complete replacement but there is a new AMD processor family (Zen) being launched in the Spring so I will wait for that. Zen / Ryzen may or may not live up to the hype but extra competition should bring down CPU prices. Currently my budgetary comfort zone only extends to the four threaded Intel I5 family but I have a gut feeling that multi-threaded gaming is coming of age and that an 8 threaded system will ensure better longevity. 


Thursday, August 25, 2016

I much prefer "live chat" to phone calls for customer support.

If a company has a live chat service I will always use it in preference to phoning the company to try and get customer support. I find it is is quicker to get in contact with someone and I find that it is generally quicker to get a problem resolved using live chat. This is despite the fact that the actually chat responses can be slow coming and the support reps are almost certainly multitasking multiple customer queries. I suspect that companies put a higher level of support staff on their live chat lines than on their phone lines because of the savings associated with multiplexing.

An added bonus of live chat is that you can keep a transcript of the conversation. Many companies will actually email a transcript but you can usually screen capture it yourself. This can be handy if ever you need to refer back to it.


Enderal, free RPG built on Skyrim is Great

I am currently playing Enderal a free total conversion mod which offers a totally new RPG using the Skyrim engine.

It is great. Not just great for a mod or a free game. It is just great. The story is great. The quests are great. The graphics and sound are great. The voice acting is great (even in English translation). The game is remarkably stable and bug free.  How did they achieve all of this on a budget of zero euro? I have no idea.

If you have Skyrim (any version) then you can download Enderal here in either English or the original German versions. You need to download both the installation package and the launcher. Put the launcher into your Skyrim directory (probably C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\skyrim). Run the launcher and hit "install now". Navigate to the installation package when prompted.