Thursday, December 31, 2009

Retro-Gaming : Strike Commander

 There are times when I wonder if I play video-games solely for the graphics. It's hard not to be impressed by the visual splendor of modern games; they are quickly coming to match the visuals of modern movies, with the added advantage of being interactive. I admittedly take pleasure from high-polygon models or multi-pass lighting; I won't deny I watch some cut scenes repeatedly just for the spectacle. And is it coincidence that some of the games I've liked least in these past few years were those which had the worst graphics? Am I, I sometimes wonder, a graphics whore?

When doubts such as these begin to cross my mind, there's only one way to resolve my uncertainty. In order to prove that graphics are not a pre-requisite towards my enjoyment, I dig into the gaming archives and pull out a title from years past. Surely if I can enjoy a game from fifteen years ago, then I'm taking more from the experience than simply the visuals.

Thus, I return to the graphically antiquated world of Origin's Strike Commander.

Of course, the irony is that, at release, Strike Commander was one of the most graphic-intensive games of its time; few machines could run it with the smooth frame rates necessary for an acceptable experience. I remember that I had to unStac my hard-drive not only to free up the necessary RAM, but because the on-the-fly decompression caused too much additional overhead; Strike Commander demanded every erg of computing power you could throw at it, and more. Nowadays, I actually have to CPU-limit the emulator simply to keep things from running too fast.

I'm immediately drawn back into the setting of Strike Commander. A large part of this is the awesome soundtrack, an exotic mix of hard-rocking guitar chords and Middle Eastern sitar (or as close to either as the FM-synthesized MIDI can match). The forgotten art of dynamic soundtracks quickly prove their worth; the music always matches the pacing of the action. Less impressive are the talking-heads used to move the story forward; the animation is stiff and unrealistic; the voice-acting is stilted and amateur. The actual storyline - the usual tale of betrayal and revenge- doesn't grab my either.

I love the actual gameplay, though; Strike Commander balances flight-simulator realism and balls-to-the wall arcade action in a unique mix all of its own.  It takes more than just quick reflexes to win this game, but at the same time you don't need to worry too much about airflow and flight envelopes. It's the best of both worlds and I can't think of any flight-sim from that era (or in the fifteen years since then, for that matter) that has struck a balance between the two genres as well as it did. The air-to-air combat is intense and extremely satisfying, whether I engage enemy fighters with missiles or guns. The air-to-ground combat is less so, due to some twitch controls. It's a thrill dodging SAMS and flak, but targeting the bad guys on the ground is more difficult than it should be and lining up for bombing runs is a chore (this game demands a joystick but DOSBox only has limited 'stick compatibility).

As for the graphics? Aged but still capable of getting the point across. DOSBox offers some edge-filtering which I used to minimize some of the "jaggies" but even without the graphics held their own. Whether it's at 1600x1024 or 320x240, splashing an enemy jet is still a satisfying spectacle no matter how many pixels are involved. My only complaints on the visual front were with some oddly warping textures and occasional difficulty in separating the gouraud shaded terrain from the fog-shrouded skies.

I quite enjoyed the retro-gaming experience of Strike Commander. Aside from the occasionally difficult ground mission, the game never stopped being fun and offered numerous action-packed thrills even after all these years. I was also once-again reassured that graphics are not the only thing that draws me to computer games. A classic game is a classic game and can be enjoyed no matter how ancient the visuals.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9 - now on DVD

District 9, Peter Jackson's low-budget sci-fi mockumentary released to theaters earlier this year, came out on DVD in the last few days. As is usual, I didn't bother to see this movie in the theaters (the I find the theater experience to be anything but pleasant) so this was the first chance I had to see this movie.

District 9 reviewed fairly well (90% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, and 81/100 score at MetaCritic). I find Peter Jackson's films to be generally enjoyable and more sci-fi is always welcome, so I went into this movie with good expectations. I wasn't disappointed, although I don't hold the movie in as high regard as the critics.

I appreciated the movie's setting; the gritty slums of Johannesburg were a welcome change from the usual aliens-invade-America; the use of native South Africans enhanced the movie's authentic feel. The realities of low-budget film-making  (a "mere" $30 million, pocket-change compared to the hundred-plus millions usually spent on summer blockbusters) resulted in a low-tech feel; the alien science may have allowed them technology ahead of ours, but not so much that it felt like the usual fantasy pabulum Hollywood feeds us). As a geek, I've always been more partial to "hard" sci-fi than space opera anyway. And as a gamer, I couldn't help but react favorably to the epic battle at the movie's climax; battle-armor with lightning and gravity guns? How could I not love it?

Unfortunately, I was less taken with the characters and pacing of the movie. Ironically, I liked the main character -Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley- less and less as he became more likable. Initially a bureaucratic, self-interested nebbish, by movie's end he has had the customary change-of-heart and sacrifices himself like the typical action-movie hero. What started as a fresh and unique take on the role of a sci-fi movie protagonist ended up completely unoriginal and predictable. Meanwhile, his CGI-rendered alien counterpart was interesting only when he remained alien; contrary to expectations, I rooted for the bipedal cockroaches as long as they remained mysterious and strange. Yet as soon as they revealed themselves to have the same emotions and motivations as the humans who oppressed them they became far less interesting. Finally, the heavies - David James as sadistic Colonel Venter, Khumbanyiwa as the Nigerian warlord and Louis Minnaar as Director Smit - were all too one-dimensional to have any appeal.

The mixed style of the movie worked against it as well. Opening as a mockumentary, it segues into a more traditionally paced film a third of the way through. The transition was somewhat jarring, and made all the more so by the shift back into "mockumentary mode" at the end of the film. The producers never seemed sure whether or not to play it straight either; was the film intended to be a straight-up action film with the usual one-liners and requisite explosions, or tongue-in-cheek message-film (the anti-racism and anti-corporatism themes came on a bit strong in either case).

Still, I have to give District 9 credit for being original in intent even if at the end it does devolve in the usual pap. It relies far more on its own style than on special effects or big-name actors and even if it does not succeed entirely that alone makes it worth watching.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dell Inspiron Mini 10v

Christmas brought me a new netbook, so now the total count of computers in my house is up to eleven. Although I had no incessant need for an ultra-portable laptop, as the resident geek of the family, I felt it necessary to "do the research" so I could give the family good advice if (when) they come asking about whether they should get a netbook. And anyway, I never turn down the opportunity to play with a new computer!

The netbook in question is the svelte Dell Inspiron Mini 10v. It's a tiny little thing, weighing in at a little more than two pounds. Like all netbooks, it's powered by the Intel Atom processor, the N270, with a top speed of 1600 MHz (it steps down to 600 MHz to save power when running on battery). Although it only has one physical core, it utilizes Intel's Hyperthreading technology so it appears as if there are two cores. I still get a kick seeing two processor graphs in the task manager.  It has only 1GB of RAM, a standard limitation of netbooks that I would otherwise gripe about except that in this case it doesn't seem to be causing a problem. Typical netbook usage does not require a lot of RAM-hungry applications so 1GB is more than enough to scrape by. The Intel GMA950 onboard-video is less capable; for common desktop applications it is sufficient but even rendering low-quality video from YouTube obviously stressed its capabilities. And forget about games entirely; beyond the simplest of titles, this computer isn't up to the task (although it didn't fare too badly with the nine-year old Uplink, which I inevitably install on every portable just so I can play it in public and freak people out).

The 160GB hard-disk may not sound all that impressive compared to the terrabyte-plus behemoths available in more capable machines, but it is more-than-sufficient to hold all my music and data; it may not be able to hold a lot of video but I'm not going to watch that on this machine anyway. The battery pack is an ungainly mass that protrudes from the bottom of the machine; it doubles as a foot to elevate the screen and offers almost five hours of operation on a single charge (nearly ten if you're careful), but it ruins the slim esthetics of the chassis. The system also boasts additional features such as a webcam (with disappointingly poor resolution), three USB ports, an ethernet jack, a 3-in-1 SD card-reader, Bluetooth and built in 802.11g/n Wi-Fi.

The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable. This was my biggest concern about using a netbook -my hands cramp easily on all but the largest keyboards- but I actually find it easier to type on the Inspiron Mini than on my 15" laptop. It is fairly responsive and has good travel. The touchpad is less useful; it is exceedingly twitchy and difficult to perform simple tasks with it. When I can't plug in a wireless mouse, I rely almost entirely on keyboard shortcuts rather than fight with the touchpad. The screen is suitably bright, but the 1024x600 resolution is very tight; for simple text-editing it is acceptable but work with any application with more than one toolbar -including the web browser- results in a lot of scrolling up and down the pages.

Still, none of these issues are surprising given the form factor of the computer; some sacrifices have to be made to fit everything into a 10"x7" package. I spent more time focusing on the the operating system than concerning myself with the hardware. The Inspiron Mini 10v comes with Windows 7 Starter Edition, which is Microsoft's stripped down version of Windows 7, intended for netbooks and "developing markets". The core of the OS is Windows 7, and shares all its strengths (and, depending on your opinion of these things, all its weaknesses). Originally limited to running only three simultaneous applications, this limitation of Windows 7 Starter Edition was fortunately removed prior to release. Nonetheless, it is missing many of the bells and whistles that makes Windows 7 stand out, including the Aero effects, DVD playback, remote media streaming and -oddly enough- the ability to change the background wallpaper.

The last is such an odd thing to remove from a modern OS that I spent much of my time trying to reclaim the ability (the moreso since the default wallpaper is so bland and unappealing). But Microsoft went all out ensuring that end users would not be able to reclaim this capability that has been standard to operating system for twenty years and I was unable to do so short of installing a third-party tool. Despite all the advantages Windows 7 otherwise brings (stability, security) this lack of so basic a feature makes the OS appear backwards compared to its competitors and Starter is thus a poor advertisment for an otherwise impressive OS.  Ultimately, I expect I will either downgrade to Windows XP or switch over to Ubuntu Linux; certainly I have no intention of paying Microsoft for an upgrade for features that should be standard to the operating system from the get-go.

Despite this, I am relatively satisified with my gift. For an ultra-portable laptop, the Dell Inspiron is very capable little machine. Much to my surprise, I found myself carrying it around everywhere almost immediately; its light weight and small size ensured it was never in the way when I didn't need it and was up to almost any task I'd throw at it (within reason) when I did. It will never replace my full-sized desktop -I'm too spoiled by all that raw horsepower to ever be satisfied with such a paltry CPU- but I already find the netbook  to be a more convenient supplement to the "big machine" than a proper laptop.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Why every boy should learn to cook

Over the holidays, I followed tradition and visited family. It's the easiest and best way, after all, to ensure that I get all the gifts that I have coming to me. But a not inconsequential side-effect of this is that I get to see many of my relatives that I otherwise ignore for the rest of the year. Amongst these are my various cousins and -pertinent to this post- their own younger brood.

I mention all this because this is one of the few chances I have to interact with the younger generation; by and large, I rarely have much to do with the under-twenty set. The holidays are that one occassion I get to learn from kids what it's like to grow up in the 21st century. And the question I asked this time was, "Do you cook?"

See, when I was growing up, boys didn't cook. That was "girlie" stuff; Mom cooked; Grandma cooked, the Aunts cooked... but the boys tended to avoid that stuff. This attitude was starting to change during my youth, but slowly. So I was naturally curious whether -given how much family life has shift in other areas- there had been a radical shift regarding food preparation since my younger days.

Well, one piece of data aren't any sort of proof regarding a larger trend, but if my younger cousins are any indication, then the answer is a definitive "no". Cooking is still, for all intents and purposes, for girls.

Wrong answer, boys! Here's why every boy should learn to cook

Eat what you like: Forget that it's a useful life-skill. Forget that it promotes independence. Reason number one that you should learn to cook? Because otherwise Mom is going to make liver and onions and then expect you to eat it. But if you can cook, you get to chose what the meal is. And trust me; if you're doing all the work getting the dish onto the table, Mom isn't going to quibble too much about the content.

Knives and fire: Two things you usually aren't allowed to play with -knives and fire- suddenly become acceptable tools for you to work with when applied to the culinary arts. Chopping meat with tempered steel is every bit as much fun as you might imagine.

Make a mess Who doesn't like to make a mess? Normally, though, the fun of gratuitous spillage is tempered by the work it takes to clean up. But share whatever you are cooking and people tend to reciprocate by offering to clean up your dirty pans and dishes (note: unless they're your friends or siblings; never depend on them to clean up after you. Parents or other adults are fair game, though). It usually doesn't take much more effort to cook for two than it does for one, so make yourself some food, share the extra and get the unlucky recipient to clean up after you.

Junior chemistry Cooking is nothing more than applied chemistry, and learning to cook is a useful step towards learning the "real thing". And why should you care about chemistry? Because you can do all sorts of interesting things with chemistry that will appeal to boys -from Gluep to stink bombs to (once you get older, and if you have a decent AP Chemistry teacher) gunpowder.

Girls dig it Okay, when you're just a young boy this probably doesn't count for much, but as you get older this benefit starts to become more and more important. Girls love a guy that can cook anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich. Women jest about how the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but I'm not convinced the opposite sex is any different; make them a meal and you're a "keeper".

So, there you have it boys; sex, food, and the option to play with weapons of mass destruction. Sure a few Neanderthal throwbacks might claim otherwise, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no reason not to learn to cook. Open those cookbooks, fire up those burners, and start cooking!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Terminator Salvation - The Whole Story

Terminator Salvation, a.k.a., Terminator 4, was released on DVD today in the USA. Given its poor showing in theatres, that may not be all that exciting to you, but I really like the Terminator franchise so let there be no doubt in your minds that I rushed out to buy the director's cut as soon as it came out.

Terminator Salvation was not that popular with the fans though, and I can understand why. For one thing, it was a significant depature from the series; no time-travel, no Schwarzenegger (except for a brief CGI cameo in the final battle) and the heroes hunted the machines rather than the other way around. The stakes also felt dramatically lower in Salvation; the previous movies were all about the war to keep John Connor alive in order to prevent The Destruction Of The Entire Human Race; Salvation felt like a minor skirmish in comparison.

Still, I liked Salvation simply because it finally showed us the War Against The Machines in all its glory instead of just the snippets we had previously seen in the earlier movies. This was something I had been waiting for since the first movie came out in 1984. Plus, I felt the whole time-traveling aspect of the series was the weakest part of the shows and I was glad that had been finally dropped. So while the acting and the characters (not to mention the action and special effects) may not  have been up to the standards set by the first three movies, the setting almost made up for it.

Still, the story of Salvation felt weak and unfulfilling; the movie felt more like an episode of some action TV show rather than what we'd come to expect from a Hollywood blockbuster and I wasn't too surprised when the movie quickly fell under the radar. The directors meant well, but they just didn't give the audience enough of what they wanted.

Now, oddly enough, this was pretty much my opinion of other Terminator Salvation spin-off products: Terminator Salvation, the video game and Terminator Salvation The Machinima Series. The former suffered from a lack of content; it had too few maps, too few monsters, too few weapons and, in fact,  you could finish the game in an hour or two. The latter probably suffered most from the fact that most people never heard of it, but its story and acting were never going to win it any awards anyway. Still, they were both interesting takes on the Terminator franchise but individually were not very strong products any of them.

However, taken together the story is different; they support and each one makes up for the flaws of the other. The movie didn't have enough gunplay and explosions for you? The game made up for that. The game was too short? Combined with the movie and machinima series and there's a good amount of content. Want that old "hunted by the machines" intensity? Watch the machinma. The three also complement the franchise with added material and characters.

I won't try to argue that, even combined, the trio matches the balls-to-the-wall action of Terminator 2. Still, if you are a fan of the franchise but found Salvation dry and unsatisfying , then see if the additional material from the video game and machinima make you change your mind.  Sometimes the whole taken together is greater than its component parts.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dragon Age : Origins

That Dragon Age Origins is another quality fantasy CRPG from Bioware is no surprise. But then, "no surprises" describes this game in almost every way. As a fan of the genre, I wasn't disappointed with Dragon Age, but neither did it blow me away.

That's not to dismiss its production values; there are games with nicer graphics than DA:O, but I can't think of any isometric RPG that tops it (personally, I think Mass Effect looks better overall, but that's probably because it has much smaller levels). More to the point, the story is also very well done; if you're a fan of George Martin or Raymond Feist, you're going to love Bioware's latest opus.

Where Dragon Age falls short, however, is in its gameplay. The game style hasn't evolved at all since Baldur's Gate was released ten years ago. I was still running through a limited, fairly linear levels; I was still talking to NPCs with the usual nice/neutral/nasty conversation options and I was still whacking monsters with a +1 sword that I was sure I'd soon upgrade to a +2 and then +3 sword as the game progressed. I knew at some point my closest ally would come to a crisis point and possibly betray me, and that ultimately I'd have a choice between leading the world towards a light or dark ending. It was all enjoyably epic, but it was also terribly, terribly predictable.

I enjoyed Dragon Age enough to play it through to completion, but not enough to even go and play through its much-vaunted "Origin" stories again. The tales may be different every time, but I still know how they are going to end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2 - First Impressions

After Modern Warfare 2, I think Left 4 Dead 2 was the most anticipated release of the year. Well, neither were "most anticipated" by me but, you know, by the general populace. I liked the original game -I thought it a very high-quality product- hampered only by its lack of content. But none of the previews for the sequel promised anything as exciting.

But, not surprisingly, I ended up buying the damn game on release day anyway (hey, I've resisted buying COD:MW2; I mean, $60? Really? But I digress). My initial playthroughs of the first few campaigns more or less confirmed my initial suspicions: this is basically an expansion pack to the original where the goal was simply "lets give them more" without any real attention to whether more was actually needed.

So, the first impression is the opening cinematic; remember that terrific movie that Left 4 Dead started with? It gave you the setting, the situation, the characters and the mood of the game all in four exciting minutes of CGI battle. Left 4 Dead 2's opening cinematic, however, has none of that. It plays out more like a movie trailer, with snippets of the most exciting moments haphazardly stitched together. If you're not familiar with the original game, L4D2's cinematic is not going to set the stage for you at all.

But forget the opening movie; I mean, okay, how often do you really watch that? What about the gameplay?

At its heart, its basically the original game with more... everything. More zombies, more mini-bosses, more weapons. Unfortunately, the levels lack the same intensity and quality of the first game. For one thing, the level design is not quite up to par with other Valve titles. The levels don't look as good, lacking many of those tiny details that make the levels so appealing, and the flow is not as instinctual (which is my clumsy way of saying I often got lost because I couldn't tell which in direction I was supposed to go).

But the big difference is the game doesn't feel as balanced as the first. Four players, four main weapons, four types of special zombie); it all had a very simple balance. All the additions in L4D2 makes the game feel too busy and complicated. It is starting to play more like Counter Strike with all the different goals and weapon mixes. Now, given Counter Strike's popularity, one might argue that is a good thing but I miss L4D's unique style.

On the plus side, the game does ship with five campaigns as opposed to the original's four; although they still only take about an hour each to complete, at least now you're talking five hours instead of four. A variety of additional game modes which provide some additional length. Oh, and apparently there's a multiplayer mode too. ;-)

I'm not done with the game yet but I don't expect my opinion of the game to change to much. This isn't a bad sequel but it doesn't match the standards of the original. It definitely could have used another six months or a year more of Valve's famous iterative level design to polish off the rough edges and make the game shine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


If you haven't noticed yet, there's a little slideshow applet running in the corner of this blog. It points to a collection of screengrabs I've made over the years. You can find them at Flickr.

Modern game engines being so powerful, it's hard for developers not to make a good looking game these days, but there is still room for artistry. It takes more simply throwing together a few high-resolution textures onto some high-poly models and and wrapping it all together with HDR lighting and bump-mapping. Good game designers understand how light and color can set mood and style and turn pixels into art.

And like any good tourist, even one who only visits virtual worlds, whenever I see art I can't help but take a picture.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Twitter, too

In my never-ending quest to modernize myself, I now have a Twitter account as well. Go to Twitter and search for SpallsHurgenson and you'll find me.

Of course, so far the only announcements I've made so far are that I have a Twitter account and that I have a blog, so it's all quite self-referential and circular and, ultimately, quite pointless. But that pretty much describes all of Twitter...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I'm an unabashed fan of the Gothic series. The first two games were masterpieces; the third game was still an awesome experience despite its numerous flaws. Risen, developed by the same team that produced the Gothic series (and quite obviously so; it is impossible to review Risen without comparing it to Gothic), is exactly the sort of game I love to play.

Or is it? On the surface, there is no doubt about it; it has the same open game-world, multiple character classes, and gorgeous graphics of the Gothic series. Despite its developers insistence that Risen is an entirely new property, the gameplay is the same as in their previous games. And I don't mean "the same" as in "an evolution of work they did before"; I mean, it's exactly the same. The combat uses the same mechanics, as does the magic, the questing, the dialogue and the inventory.

Now, as I said, I loved the Gothic games so this poses no problem for me. But it does start to feel very "samey" only a few hours in; there's nothing new in this game that we haven't seen in Gothic 3 (perhaps the "god ray" lighting effects). There's an incredible reuse of materiel from the original series; sounds, textures, models. The story plugs in fairly well with the direction the Gothic series was headed and even the nameless protagonist is a clone of Gothic's hero.

But what is truly disappointing is how short Risen is; the original Gothic 3 occupied me for an entire month as I explored every corner of Myrtana; I completed Risen in a handful of days. Some replayability is ensured by the different career paths but since those quests only occupy the first third of the game that won't add more than a few additional days of entertainment. The main game-world is smaller than introduced to us in the original Gothic (and less than a third of Gothic 3's massive continent) and much of that area is "dead space" broken into narrow canyons. And just as the story starts to pick up, it suddenly ends with the most embarrassingly poor boss-fight seen in years.

This tighter focus is not without its advantages, however; for all its breadth, Gothic 3 felt bare-boned, populated by space-filling NPCs that had nothing to say and quests that had felt artificially lengthened by having you cross vast distances. Risen offers tighter gameplay; most NPCs have at least one -usually two or three- quests to offer you and the mid-game addition of teleport spells mitigates the travails of back-n-forth questing. Furthermore, the smaller game-world allowed the developers to put more effort into quality assurance; Risen's has fewer bugs and performance issues that plagued their previous series.

Risen feels entirely like an expansion pack, which it was probably was intended to be before Jowood and Piranha Bytes had their falling out. As an expansion, Risen would have been a tremendous value for its money; Gothic fans would have been ecstatic. As a stand-alone game, however, Risen doesn't give its fans enough of, well, anything. It's too short and doesn't offer anything innovative; it's hard to justify paying full price. Fans of the previous series should definitely pick it up (after it drops in price a bit, of course); for all its lack of length, it is, ultimately more of a good thing. Just don't expect anything new.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Google Wave

There's a lot of talk amongst the tech community about Google Wave, which Google announced as the 21st century replacement for e-mail. It incorporates features from e-mail, web-forums and chat into one glorifious multimedia mess. People were begging for invitations to sample this latest masterpiece from Google.

I guess it's exciting for some people, but I'm an old-school curmudgeon who thinks Usenet is still the best way for a community to communicate. But I was willing to give Google Wave the benefit of the doubt, at least until it became publicly available and I could make a more thorough investigation of its advantages. That is, until I saw this.

The above may not be the use that Google intended for Wave, but undoubtedly that is the sort of communication that it is going to be used for once the public gets their hands on it. I'm the sort who will frown at you if you use HTML in your e-mail; I have no interest in that sort of pointless distraction being added to a conversation. Google Wave's primary feature, it seems, is the ability to add unnecessary noise to the signal.

As a collaboration tool, Google Wave might have a future; as a replacement to e-mail I hope it dies a slow and painful death.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Batman Arkham Asylum

Seeing as this is a blog nominally about video games and other geekly esoterica, I suppose I ought to post something about video games. Rather than write up something original, I think I'll just repost a quick review I did of the recently released "Batman : Arkham Asylum". Originally posted on the Usenet newsgroup, in the interest of laziness and sloth I'll simply paste it verbatim to this blog. This isn't intended as a full review; it's just a quick overview.

Enough prologue. Here's what I think about the game itself:

Batman has had a spotted past as a video-game franchise; a few have achieved those the heights of mediocrity, and most have outright stunk. Arkham Asylum, though, may be Batman's first really good incarnation as a video game.

But despite rave reviews from certain quarters, I didn't find this game without fault. It's competent, stylish and unabashedly true to the source materiel and it achieves that delicate balance of combat and platforming that so few similar games match. But the game does have a few flaws. For one, its boss battles are a chore, largely because they often artificially increase the difficulty by locking down the camera at a certain angle (all of a sudden, your reflexive grasp of the controls which served you so well in the other 99% of the game have to be tossed aside to learn a new control scheme). Its reliance on save-points (or, more to the point, the disturbing absence of a quick-save) also frustrated me unnecessarily at points. But most importantly, there is little new to this game that you haven't seen before in other titles; its all very well done, but Batman doesn't break new ground.

But on the whole, these are all minor complaints; Batman Arkham Asylum is a solid title and I had a lot of fun with it. The World's Greatest Detective might not have the World's Greatest Game, but I expect I'll revisit it again and again over the years.

So, there. Something about games at last.

Monday, November 2, 2009

My First Post - VirtualBox

So, I've created a blog. What to write about?

Well, since it's what I'm currently working on, how about I talk about VirtualBox?

I love this thing. I've always had a soft spot for virtualization, whether I was emulating the Sega Genesis with Fusion or a classic soundcard with Timidity or even reliving fond (albeit geeky) moments with DOSBox. There's just something really nifty about software that emulates other hardware.

But VirtualBox is more than a neat toy; its also incredibly useful. I use it to preview software all the time before I actually install it on one of my live systems; why let it run rampant on my "real" computer when it can cause all the havoc it wants in a virtual image? My primary use for it is as a test-bed for different operating systems; I'm the family's resident tech geek so I have to keep up with this stuff, you know? And walking Pop through Control Panel over the phone is hard enough even if I don't have to take into consideration all the differences between, say, Windows Vista and Windows 2000. So I just keep an image of all the operating systems; if I need to help somebody with a Windows98 problem (don't laugh, there's at least one die-hard Win98 user in the family), I just fire up the respective image and I see what they see.

Plus, its a great tool for me to try out various software. Take Windows 7, Microsoft's newly released opus. I'm not ready to dedicate a whole box to it yet, especially since I'm not that familiar with the system. VirtualBox lets me play around with the new operating system first. Same thing with new applications; eventually my job is moving over to Office 2007; I'm getting a leg ahead of the rest by learning the ins and outs of the new interface without cluttering up my primary (and largely gaming-focused) PC with all the extra services and bloat an Office install brings with it.

Security is another bonus; if I have to use Internet Explorer (renowned vector of viruses and malware), I fire up a Virtual image and view the web through that; when I shut down, I erase any changes. Spyware may infect the image, but it won't linger past the reboot. And all my VPN connections are done to the virtual PC; even if the connection does get hacked, they aren't going to find much of use on the image.

So, yeah; VirtualBox. A nerdy toy with lots of potential. Best of all, its free (alternately, you could use VMware or VirtualPC; it's such a cool idea it seems everybody is doing their own implementation.)


After lurking in the dim dark recesses of Usenet for the past twenty years, I've decided to move forward with the times and get a blog. I'm not so self-centered as to believe that anyone will actually read this, but I am ego-centric enough that I want another outlet for my verbal ramblings. I love Usenet (and no, not because its easy access to adult or illegal material) but the audience there is extremely limited.

So, if you've stumbled across this blog, this is a welcome of sorts. How often I'll actually post to this thing I can't say - the current odds are that it'll go the way of my never-used Twitter account in less than a month- but I'll try to post a few things to it before giving up on the whole escapade. Topics will range from the geeky (video-games, computer hardware) to the ultra nerdy (D&D, Star Wars vs Star Trek) so reader beware.