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Friday, September 07, 2007

Big Brain Upgrade

For the CheapBox++ last night. Installed a Pentium 4 3Ghz and 2GB of RAM. Was pretty damn easy, except for nearly losing a finger to those darn retention arms on the heatsink. The Girl and I discovered those are best accomplished with two man teams.

BioShock plays at full clip with a 1024x768 resolution keeping all the bells and whistles, or 1280 with a most of the fancy rendering features turned off. I'll have to see whether this means the machine has a new lease on life for upcoming titles like Unreal Tournament III (which I imagine will be even more intensive than BioShock).

Course, now I have a Celeron D and some old RAM chips laying around.

Game Play: BioShock Mechanics

As Winkyboy pointed out in a recent comment, BioShock is something of a mixed bag when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. I'm not talking about the excellent use of the Unreal engine or the amazing water effects - I think we can all agree BioShock looks good.

And it plays good - don't get me wrong there either. In fact, it plays better than 90% of the shooters ever made. It's solid and holds its own against heavyweights like Deus Ex.

But how does it hold it up against heavyweights like System Shock? Or System Shock 2? It's easier to compare them since it is a direct development evolution. BioShock clearly pulls from System Shock 2's playbook. It corrects some things and simplifies some things - with interesting outcomes.

Firstly, the use of plasmids and other mods seems more user friendly to me than SS2's power ups. Here the streamlined nature, while not providing nearly as much variety as Deus Ex did, is a lot more user friendly than SS2. It feels harder to have a bad set of mods and the frequently available Gene banks makes sure your decisions can be temporary.

Which brings us to the Little Sisters. Winky pointed out that as ethical decisions go - this is a pretty light one. Oddly, I've heard arguments for both sides - either always harvesting or always rescuing the girls. Personally, I've fallen on the latter simply because the gift mods seem to offset the additional Adam one might get - and I haven't really been starving for Adam anyway. The Big Daddies provide mini-boss fights sprinkled throughout the game and quite honestly the whole setup seems magnificent.

I'm enjoying the hacking minigame as well, although there seems to be little punishment for failing. Sure, you get hurt and sure eventually you might get assaulted by security drones ... but why waste an autohack or cash?

Especially when you have the Vita-Chambers. I can't get a handle on these things ... if I like them or not. I think they are better than many of the alternatives. Basically a combination of quick save (which is either absent by design or the save files or too big to allow) and checkpoints - they are at least very convenient. They seem to make the game really easy though - and if that doesn't at least draw away from immersion it takes away some of the scare factor.

Which is a shame, because it is one of the game's real strengths.

I only have one real suggestion - but first, let's talk about the weapon modification and invention system. I love that you can collect random objects, put them in that bottomless pocket all shooter heroes are equipped with, and then convert them into something useful ... like bullets. So why can't I take the rubber hose, some batteries, a sump pump or whatnot, and increase the damage on my shotgun?

Well, clearly because that might make the game too easy. Halfway through the game you'd have a full set of souped up weapons.

Two things would have adjusted for that - one being a mod system more like Deus Ex's where weapons can only be upgraded to a certain point. So you could turn that assault rifle into a high rate of fire sniper - but not a cannon. Also if there was a penalty to dying.

How does the Vita-Chamber reconstruct all my weapons anyway? I suppose it teleports me wholesale, fixes me up and sends me on my way. But that's some deathgrip I've got on the shotgun there.

It would have been interesting to use a Halo style inventory, with only a couple of weapons capable of being held, and you lose whatever gun you had on hand when you died. If you had another one, you get to keep that. You can try and go back and fight your way back to your gun, or get a new one.

Just something so that I can't use a strategy of constantly bum rushing my enemy right after death.

Winky also pointed out that some of the design decisions seem to be console-biased ... a trend which is becoming more and more pervasive for PC games.

Anyway, it is a great game - and with the Big Brain upgrade for the CheapBox++, plays great now. I really wish they would release an editor and SDK for it though, because I'd love to try some different concepts with it.

I've also got a rant on BioShock's story. how it falls in line with Valve's notion of a narrative (and that's not a good thing) coming forth, but I feel I should finish the game first.

Note From Management: Somewhat Incommunicado

Crazy busy at the new job, so I hardly have any time to browse through the feeds. Even with my nifty new starred items overview page, which I'll share with the class next week, I can't keep up with the news right now. Will be like this through at least the next couple of weeks.

So in honor of this occasion, I bring a picture of a girl talking in one cell phone while texting in another:

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Long Load Times? Crashes To Desktop? Try Some Tonic!*

* - I don't actually have any tonic. Still it's one of my favorite words, at least for the moment.

So I had BioShock running pretty well last night - and allow me to share with class just how I got it that way because it wasn't terribly straightforward (and probably won't be until I get the new hardware upgrades).

The problem is, I think, that with just around 1GB of memory - games loading large textures off the hard drive and into memory conflict with existing system resources (and with Windows XP ... those are often somewhat considerable). Hence doing something like loading a large level and binding these textures taxes virtually everything at once ... and if anything goes wrong in the process you get your Crash To Desktop (or complete lockup).

So here are some tips which might help:

Everything you can - even if it doesn't need it. Optimize the drive so that the files won't at least take as long to load and might reduce read errors (this was actually all I had to do to get BioShock to load the first time).

Virtual Memory
If you have the HD space and you've defragged, it seems to work best to increase the page size for the virtual memory. I've got two setup on two partitions - system and the one with Steam on it. I've read posts which go back and forth on this point but this is where I ended up yesterday, so there you go.

Go Low Res
At least at first. Arcadia simply refused to load for me last night until I reduced the game down to 640x480 at low graphics and reloaded. Your mileage may vary, especially if this is not BioShock we're talking about here, but after I got the game to load the first time I could crank everything back up a modest amount. Last night I was playing at 1280x1024, high textures and models - but with a handful of the rendering options turned off.

Hope that helps. Course, RAM is cheap these days and may be the solution in the long run.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Game Play: BioShock

I downloaded BioShock Sunday morning in the hopes of getting a few hours with it this weekend. I had downloaded the demo from Steam and since we had an In-Law weekend, I wasn't getting to Best Buy anyway, so I went ahead and downloaded the full version as well.

So it seems that despite myself, I'm getting used to Steam as a delivery method.

I can tell that BioShock is largely the game that was promised - if not completely overhyped. Which is good, because this is the kind of shooter we've needed for a while. This is the kind of shooter that Doom III wanted to be and is the first shooter that really rivals Valve's accomplishments in terms of setting mood and environment. What's quite excellent about much of BioShock is not the set pieces where there are predetermined portions of animation (although those are quite good and often very spooky) - BioShock best delivers when it offers somewhat random moments. Like when I got ambushed heading for a teddy bear by a spider slicer.

See, statements like that aren't possible with lesser games.

There's some interesting mechanics at play here, but I'll save that for a later post. Foremost my concern with the game is that it is totally bring the CheapBox++ to its knees. High detail will, in fact, crash the game more often than not. This digg thread sums up much of my experiences - long load times, erratic jumps to desktop, etc.

If Oblivion hadn't been guilty of the same, I'd be much more inclined to blame the software over the hardware - but the similarity is too much. Reducing the graphics load in either situation seems to smooth things out. So I might pick up some more RAM in the near future to see if that helps the old box out, or perhaps finally look into upgrading the CPU.

What I'm not going to do is buy a new video card, or invest in a new chassis or anything like that. Pretty much any component approaching the price of a 360. I'm somewhat pessimistic towards the future of gaming with it if Oblivion and BioShock can tear the heck out of it. However, RAM is cheap and I've wanted to try and put a proper Pentium in it for a while ... so if that isn't too expensive, we'll wait and see.

Book Review: Blindsight

I finished Blindsight by Peter Watts a little while ago, having found that it was released via Creative Commons and hence perfect for shoving onto the phone for reading when I got a chance.

I'm not a big reader anymore - which is a slight character flaw considering I've got an undergrad's in English and love to write. If I can get more things that will fit on the phone, I might stand a better chance of finishing more books since I've pretty muc always got my phone on me.

As for the book - it is really damn good. It is hard science fiction with dashes of speculative. Watts is a biologist and it shows ... the choice quote for the book is Stross' "Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize."

Actually that quote isn't terribly accurate - but not worth nitpicking for the details. Blindsight is an extremely cerebral read, but that's where the strength lies. Watts has methodically thought out nearly every aspect of his backdrop and in some ways his appendix describing how he derived certain concepts is just as much fun to read.

I'm strongly considering, even though it would probably disqualify me because it wouldn't have the word count and much of it wouldn't be original, to write a screenplay based on Blindsight for NaNoWriMo this year. It would just be an interesting exercise to go into an existing novel and edit the hell out of it, methinks.

Anyway - strongly recommend.