Thoughts & Reviews

The Secret World

Funcom have caught some flak from gamers over the years, but The Secret World is turning out to be a pleasant surprise due to the way it handles certain aspects of this kind of game.

First, it's in a modern setting but magic (aka "Anima") exists.  Characters use guns and/or melee weapons combined with magic.  My character's assault rifle can kill things with bullets and grenades, and some abilities use magic to add extra effects like stuns and healing.  I'm also packing a shotgun (great for taking down large groups) and, alas, a magic book.  Never mind, I can overlook that last one.  Even if it is the size of a yellow-pages mysteriously attached to my back.

Second, the story is good so far.  The lluminati's members all seem to fall under the "so hip you want to puke" category.  Shame - I'm glad I chose the Templars instead.  Once you leave your starting city and get to Kingsmouth the writing gets much better, with reasonably deep characters and most cliches being left in the writer's bin.

The atmosphere of the game is excellent.  One minute you're in the streets of London, the next you're entering a subway station, but there seems to be a garden growing there... and where's that light coming from?

There's no class system, you just pick a pair of weapons and spend points gained by killing stuff, completing missions and PvPing, on abilities for those weapons.  There's no limit to the number of abilities you can unlock and no restrictions on which two weapons you can use at the same time.

But the best thing about TSW is the missions.  The basic go somewhere > kill stuff > pick something up > deliver formula is there but there's no avoiding that.  Unlike other MMOs though you can only have a small number of missions active at a given time.  Instead of having hubs where you pick up a laudry list of many missions all at once then hand them all in at once, they're spread out.  You tend to find more stuff to do along the way.  It flows well.

The best missions though are the investigation missions.  They're very detailed and require alot of thought, attention to detail and actual investigation and research both in and outside the game.  The in-game web browser turns out to be essential.  I was delighted to see that I could find the location of a business in Kingsmouth by looking it up in a phone directory.  No, not the one strapped to my back.

As an example, the mission "Dead Air" required me to do the following, without any in-game hints.  Minor spoilers ahead.

1: Find a radio mast.  Found it on top of the airport control tower, easy enough.
2: Repair the radio mast.  This involved looking up the mast's serial number on the manufacturer's website to figure out the required spare parts (fake company, real internet).
3: Record the signal the mast picked up.
4: Decipher the signal.  It was morse code.

Pen, paper, a whole load of replays as I note it down character by character, wikipedia for the international Morse Code chart, and a quick google of what I suspected was an acronym (I was right - ADOA = Air Defense Operations Area).  Mission done.

Step 2 was harder than it sounds - who'd think to check the internet for a fictional company's fake website?  Thankfully a previous mission had used the same site so I already knew it existed, though frankly I wish I'd done them in the opposite order since this one had a pretty obvious clue leading me to the website.  It took me a long time for me to figure out the previous mission!  As for step 4, have you ever tried noting down morse code?

That might all sound like a pain in the arse.  But it's not.  The investigation missions boil down to puzzles of a kind we're not used to seeing in video games.  You have to think outside your little MMO quest mindset, and although the puzzles are difficult they're well-written and varied, and they're extremely satisfying to slowly figure out even with the temptation of googling the solution right at your fingertips.

It sure makes a refreshing change from following a big red arrow to a circled area on a map, killing an arbitrary number of bandits, and bringing their teeth back to the quest-giver.


Tribes: Ascend open beta

Once upon a time, internet access moved at a stately 5KB/s if you were lucky.  In that age, a game was made.  That game was Tribes.

Tribes was a futuristic multiplayer first-person-shooter (FPS) featuring enormous and varied maps, lots of different weapons, different classes of armour, special "packs" such as cloaking and energy regeneration, jetpacks and skiing.  Its main game mode was Capture The Flag (CTF)

Skiing might sound out-of-place in a FPS.  In Tribes it's a word used to desrcibe how you hold a key down to activate your fancy boots' friction reduction system, allowing you to slide along the ground with little to no loss of speed.  Using this, your jetpack, and any convenient hill you can reach very high speeds both horizontally and vertically - in point of fact, maintaining and redirecting your momentum using the terrain is the art of tribal skiing in a nutshell.  To this day it remains the defining feature of the Tribes franchise, creating a unique FPS experience.

Though Tribes and its sequels never "went mainstream" they generated a very loyal fanbase and can be considered cult classics.  Even though I wasn't interested in online FPS gaming at the time I still heard about Tribes, as some rumour of far-off gaming perfection.

Last but not least, Tribes is one of the few games considered to be an e-sport - that is, a game that can be played at a competitive and even professional level where successful teams can earn a living through sponsorship and prize money.

Some time ago, the rights to Tribes franchise were purchased by a small development firm call Hi-Rez studios, known before only for their previous FPS title Global Agenda (sort of a futuristic Team Fortress 2 - with jetpacks! also free-to-play).  The modern-day successor, Tribes: Ascend, is currently in open beta and will be free-to-play on release.

I've been in the beta program since late 2011 and have seen a great deal of progress.  I have high hopes for this game.  It will feature both public and private servers so we can expect some modding and custom rulesets.  The importance of these is often underestimated.


If you're interested, please please please click THIS LINK to sign up, so that I get free stuff.


Rip-off Britain, and false advertising

OK.  Despite the bad things I have to say about it, I'm shopping for an iPad.  Because it's simply the only tablet worth buying - laptops with screens that flip over don't count, and there aren't any true Windows 7 tablets/slates available.

Here's a little more about my rip-off Britain rant from the last entry.  You may also notice a super-subtle reference to one of my other pet peeves.  Table-iser... on!

iPad price table


Note : Squarespace does bad things to my tables, like ignoring the border, padding and spacing attributes.  This is a Screengrab from Calc.

You'll notice that 16GB, 32GB and 64GB are nowhere in sight.  That's because those are the raw capacities of the flash memory in the device.  When a file system is applied to memory during formatting (a necessary step to make the memory usable), some of that capacity is used up by the file system.  If my iPhone is a good indicator, Apple's file system reduces capacity by about 8.5%.  The figures above are estimates based on that assumption, but rest assured that when you buy anything with a HDD or flash memory, the usable capacity will always be lower than listed.

I think it's acceptable to list the raw capacity when you're selling unformatted memory - such as a USB flash drive or a HDD - because you don't know what file system the buyer is going to format it with.  But when you're selling a device with a specific file system you should just be honest about it and tell your customers what they're actually buying.


Back to the pricing.  Yeah.  I want the 64GB 3G version so that means I'm getting ripped off by about £140, or $200.  Not to mention that it's a tad overpriced to begin with - I don't think a 3G chipset costs $130 somehow!  They could at least have managed a webcam for that much.  Time to shop around.  If I'm lucky my employer will agree to a staff discount and I can pick one up for £630... when there's one available.


I has a website?

But little creative energy.  And most of that's going towards re-learning the piano.

To actually get something interesting posted here, I'm thinking of adding anime, books, films, tech and whatever in a micro-review format.  Like just a paragraph and a score.  Random thought, but it might go somewhere. 


Windows 7 Firewall

Since I'm currently on on pay-as-you go mobile broadband until I get a proper connection, I've been watching how much data I'm transferring.  At £15 per GB, it's an issue.

It's surprising just how much data you burn through.  Websites are flashier, and almost every application you run has an auto-update feature or automatic download of some description.  With that in mind, seeing my bandwidth usage climb from 10MB to 50MB within a couple of minutes of opening Winamp prompted me to take another look at the Windows Firewall.

My last look was when I was still using Vista.  The options amounted to turning the firewall on and off, and the ability to add exceptions (ie. allow communications) on a per-app basis.  Very basic, though that's all it needs to be for most users.  The first thing I noticed in the Windows 7 Firewall is the "Advanced settings" item.

W00t.  A nice list of fully-editable firewall rules, split into outbound and inbound.  You can add your own rules and apply them to applications, computers/IP addresses, ports, specific networks, and even services.  Winamp and iTunes are now blocked so I can actually use them while I'm online without worrying about them eating my credit.  It's also very handy for blocking apps that you'd rather only use in an "offline" mode (such as "Games for Windows Live" - no more spying on my gaming), or those background apps and updaters that never seem to stay disabled.  Like the nigh-immortal Adobe updater.

This is the sort of functionality that was previously only available with 3rd-party products - but built-in, free and on by default.  In addition, Microsoft Security Essentials - anti-virus from MS using the same technology as their enterprise-level solutions - is available for free, though not installed by default.  This adds up to security that I'm actually comfortable with... for free.



Microsoft has Graphophobia.

Today at work (a tech support line), I found myself with another caller who couldn't locate internet explorer's address bar or the start button.

This isn't because they're stupid.  They just don't know that the nice shiney windows logo at the bottom-left corner of the screen has a name.  They don't know that websites have domain names that should be typed in a specific location - I've lost count of the number of timesI've asked someone to type and received a verbal description of a Google search results page in return.

This never used to be an issue.  Internet Explorer used to have the word "address" in front of the address bar, and a "go" button after it.  If I wanted someone to delete the contents of the address bar I'd say "delete the text in the address bar at the top of the screen."  Now I say "delete everything in the bar that starts with 'HTTP,' at the top of the screen"  The Start button used to be exactly that, a button with the word Starton it.  Now it's "the windows logo at the bottom-left corner of the screen."

The "back" button in Windows Explorer or a web browser is "the blue circle with an arrow pointing left at the top-left corner."

The latest - and worst - example of Microsoft's fear of text is the Windows 7 taskbar.  Now I love Windows 7, it's a fantastic product.  It looks delicious.  It is highly responsive.  Home Group removes the arcane collection of settings & tweaks required for 2 windows PCs to, after hours of tinkering, finally see each other's shared folders & printer over the bloody network.  I can drag objects around the taskbar so the order is "just so."  Pinning items to the taskbar is a highly intuitive and convenient way of maintaining a permanently visible shortcut to an app, game or file.

But who on earth thought that removing the names of items on the taskbar by default would be a good idea?  Probably - and this is just a guess - probably someone who is intimately familiar with using windows already, or someone who wanted a way to force people's attention to the window previews.

In Windows 7, the text labels are disabled by default and multiple windows are stacked up even when the taskbar is not full.  To the new and/or non-technical user this means that shortcuts look the same as open windows.  Subtle differences in appearance distinguish shortcuts from open windows and stacks of open windows.  In its default configuration the Windows 7 taskbar is just a big splodge of nameless icons.

However, enable text labels and it transforms into a logical and intuitive method of managing always-visible shortcuts and open windows.  And it's all down to a simple distinction : shortcut icons have no text labels, open windows do.


You can restore the taskbar's text labels through the following method:

1: Right-click the taskbar, click Properties.

2: Change the "Taskbar buttons" setting to "comine when taskbar is full" or "Never Combine."

3: Click OK.