Why did you say six months?
He's coming.
This matters. This is important. Why did you say six months?
Why did you say five minutes?

Saturday, April 30


NoSQL Update

Redis is getting Lua.
Cassandra is getting CQL.*
MongoDB is working on actually writing your data to disk.**

* Not actually SQL, but a useful albeit minimalist subset.
** It's just bizarre looking at a list of features and the excitement not being over the fact that your data is now actually stored in the database, but that the shell has tab completion.  Kids these days.

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Mass Effect 1.9

I haven't finished Mass Effect 2 yet, but I've played enough of it to form an opinion:

It's a damn good game.

There are some changes I'd rather they hadn't made - stripping out the inventory system rather than fixing it, removing two thirds of the skill tree, the galaxy-wide technology downgrade, the omnigel thing, the tragic loss of the Mako.*

The game and the story it tells are somewhat uneven, and feel disjointed at times, but when it's good it's very good indeed.  The settings are generally more varied and more effectively used than in the original - the spaceship interiors in the new game are so much better than before that there's really no comparison.  And the combat, once you've adapted to it and stopped getting shot all the time, is fast and fun.

How does it stack up against the original?  I can compare a few aspects:

Environments: Mass Effect has a few environments that were extremely well done - Eden Prime being a good example - but also a lot of dull concrete bunkers.  Mass Effect 2 matches it in awesome moments but delivers them more consistently.  Definite edge to the sequel here.**

Combat: Where Mass Effect is a shooter, Mass Effect 2 is specifically a cover shooter.  Enemies in the new game have insane fire rates and unlimited ammo, and your armour and shields won't stop them from turning you into hamburger if you get caught in the open.  Both combat systems work well, but the difference is jarring at first.  I've had a lot of fun with combat in both games; but in Mass Effect 2 incendiary rounds can actually set things on fire, so it automatically gets my vote here.

Vehicles: Mass Effect has the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle made out of rubber and concentrated awesome.  It has GPS, radar, a detailed engineering console, and four-level telescopic zoom on both the main cannon and the machine gun.  It can climb a 60° slope and survive a fall down a mountain with only minor damage to the paintwork.  There's nothing like taking out a geth sniper by blowing it 30 feet into the air and setting it on fire, or scooting backwards away from a thresher maw while taking alternate shots with cannon and machine gun.  Mass Effect 2 has the Hammerhead, a flying tank that can neither fly nor tank, and both sounds and handles like a soup can in a washing machine.  When it's a relief to get out and walk, you know your vehicle has a problem.  Original game all the way here.

Story: Since I haven't finished the sequel yet, I can't say for sure, but the story of the original seems both deeper and more focused.  There's a sense at times with Mass Effect 2 that you're just going through the motions, playing through a series of set pieces that, while individually excellent, don't really form a coherent whole.  The original was greater than the sum of its parts, but I get the feeling sometimes that the sequel is less.  So far, edge to the original.

Equipment: In the original, you carried four weapons: sniper rifle at your left shoulder, assault rifle at the right, a compact shotgun at the small of your back, and a pistol at your hip.  All characters had access to all the weapons, though non-combatants were generally hopeless with anything but a shotgun at point-blank range.  You also had grenades for when the enemy decided to hole up behind a wall.  The sequel adds a heavy weapon to the mix, which is all a bit much, and you can't choose not to carry one of the weapons just because you never use it.*** 

The original had far more diferent weapons and armour options, and far more upgrades, but in the sequel the different weapons are more distinct - the machine gun is not just an improved assault rifle; it sounds and handles completely differently.  On the other hand, in the original you could get a better weapon that was just plain better; if you had the cash you didn't always have to trade off between firepower and accuracy.  By the end of the game I could basically fire non-stop and on-target; of course, by the end of the game I was facing heavy turrets and giant alien robots that could kill me with two shots if I was lucky (and one if I wasn't) so being able to whittle away at their armour and shields with steady small-arms fire didn't remove the need to run and hide.

In the original, all the weapons were railguns, firing tiny hypervelocity rounds and effectively providing infinite ammo, but having a constant overheating problem, requiring short careful bursts of fire to prevent a meltdown.  The sequel has ammo clips - it calls them "thermal" clips and claims they're used to cool the weapon down, but that's just a lie.  They're ammo clips, and they make no sense given the technology established in the first game.  And where in the first game after wiping out a squad of baddies you could loot the corpses and take their weapons, the sequel has you running around after every battle looking for dropped clips.

Oh, and where in the original special types of ammo (armour piercing, incendiary, explosive and such) were clips that you could find or buy and fit to specific weapons, in the sequel they're character skills.  Which works great as long as you never ever think about it.  Original game wins here.

Characters and Continuity:  Hmm.  Let's see.  In the original, the Citadel Council were democrats a bunch of arrogant jerks who couldn't see past the ends of their noses (and two of them didn't have noses) and threatened the entire galaxy through their idiocy.  In the sequel after you have they act exactly the same.  In the original, Cerberus are a bunch of smug, arrrogant, criminally insane lunatics out to destroy the galaxy in the name of saving mankind.  They're also not terribly bright.  In the sequel they're just the same, only now

Of your original team, only two rejoin you as permanent crew members, though all who survived the original game do show up at various points.  One nice touch in the continuity between the two games - and there's four different possible outcomes, and the sequel adapts appropriately.

I played through the original game almost exclusively using Ashley and either Liara or Tali, as the mission required.  If you needed a tech for a mission, you needed a tech, and that was the end of it.  In the sequel, you don't need techs, though they can be useful.  That does mean that you can choose pretty much anyone for any mission, at least once you've progressed into the game a bit and everyone's at a decent level.  I really like Kasumi, the thief from the Stolen Memories expansion; her ability to sneak up behind people and shoot them in the head is even better than a sniper.

I think the characters are actually better characterised in Mass Effect 2, but I'm not so convinced that they're better characters.  I much prefer characters who are in over their heads but do their best to get the job done to ones who are hyper-competent but complain all the time.

You know, I think that's actually a key difference - in the original game, at all times you felt that you were in over your head.  Every time you thought you had an angle on things, they shifted and grew more complex and more dangerous.  I'm not getting that feeling from Mass Effect 2.  Compare Liara the archaeologist from Mass Effect to Liara the information broker from Mass Effect 2.  That's what I'm talking about.

Anyway, edge here goes to the original.

Number of Crew Lost: Mass Effect:    Mass Effect 2:       No question, Shepard I ran a tighter ship than Shepard II.

Ending: In Mass Effect, running the spoiler down the spoiler past all the spoilers firing at me, through the spoiler and into the spoiler where it crashed into a wall and left a flaming wreck was completely awesome, and then I got to save the galaxy.  The ending was entirely satisfying, and I sat and watched the credits all the way through, the way I do when I've seen a particularly great movie and don't want to leave the cinema just yet.  Haven't finished Mass Effect 2 yet, so we'll see.

While Dragon Age II was a train wreck and no sort of sequel to its inspired predecessor, Mass Effect 2 is a solid and very enjoyable, albeit imperfect, followup to a very good game.  The third part of the Mass Effect trilogy is due at the end of the year, and I'm definitely looking forward to that.  There's a Dragon Age III due out at some point too, but I doubt I'll be buying that one at all.

Oh, and both games are set to spawn anime OVAs.  I predict that they will be awful, but I'm willing to be surprised there.

* In a lovely touch, one of the expansion modules allows you to find your original Mako and hold a memorial service.  Another module gives a nod to the omnigel thing.

** I was disappointed with the interior of one of the derelict ships you visit the first time I played that particular mission.  However, when I came to go back and replay it (for reasons I won't go into, because they involve spoilers) I realised that the scenery I'd been looking at - the boring catwalks and dull banks of machinery - was stuff that had been installed by the human research team, and that if you looked around a bit more you could see the weird alien architecture behind it all.

*** Actually, in the section I'm currently playing through, I've had reason to use all five of the weapons I'm carrying.  But that's partly because I put away the machine gun because it's too inaccurate - and too noisy when playing late at night.  The machine gun is the second-best weapon for any combat situation, but it does have a huge amount of ammo and lets you bull your way through most fights by sheer weight of metal.

**** Well, I did.  I wonder how it plays if you make a different choice there.

***** In the original, at one critical moment you went and stole .  If you had any sense, this is the first thing you'd do in the sequel too.

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Monday, April 25


Five Day Weekend

I almost forgot.  I've been relaxing over the Easter long weekend, playing some Mass Effect 2, and just realised that tomorrow is Anzac Day, which is of course also a public holiday in Australia.

So, five day weekend.  I don't know how often Easter and Anzac Day coincide, but I can't remember it ever happening in my lifetime.

I'd been getting towards the end of the main part of the game, where you prepare for the big suicide mission, and then realised that I hadn't looked into the DLC.  I had about a gigabyte of DLC waiting for me, and another 1.5GB in the Lair of the Shadow Broker expansion, which I definitely want to play, and there's another three DLC bundles to buy (albeit of mixed quality, to judge by the reviews I've avoided reading).*

What's that you say?  How's the game?  Well, it's not the same as the original, but Bioware certainly didn't butcher it the way they did Dragon Age II.  I'll post full reviews of both Mass Effect games later, but for now suffice to say that while there are some changes I don't like - and they're mostly by way of consolisation - there are also some things that the sequel does better, or at least more consistently, than its predecessor.

A couple of disappointments - Liara is mostly gone from the core game, but she's the subject of the largest and best-regarded expansion, so there's that at least.  And the Mako is gone completely, which is a tragedy.  That absurd cross between a Tonka truck and a superball was one of the most engaging characters in the original game, and its absence makes baby Shepards cry.  I had to take out a thresher maw on foot.  On foot.

* Looks like each of the other three major DLC packs clocks in at about a gigabyte too, for a total of 4.5GB of extra content.  I hope that's not just pre-rendered movies.

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Sunday, April 17


Dear Hosting Company

If you don't have the exact configuration the customer ordered, it's generally acceptable to substitute a more powerful configuration at the same price.

It's not so acceptable to substitute a less powerful configuration.

Particularly if you don't bother to tell the customer.

And when you do this, it's really not a good idea to argue that this less powerful configuration is actually better.  Apologise and fix it.

Update: They apologised and fixed it.

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Saturday, April 16


Dororon Enma-kun

It's a Go Nagai story.

It's from 1973.

They've remade it almost untouched - it's still set in 1973, with 1973 sensibilities (i.e. none whatsoever).

The artwork and animation are surprisingly good; there are some lovely scenes amid all the craziness.  Very much old school, but taking full advantage of modern digital production.

It's kind of awesome, and at the same time kind of unwatchable.  That's a difficult combination to navigate, and whether you like it or loathe it will depend very much on your personal tastes.  You'll know which way you fall in the first 15 minutes; it's not a complex show and if you hate it right away it's unlikely to win you over.  But worth a shot; it's not like anything else I've seen recently.

Personally I give it three kappas out of four, will watch again.

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Friday, April 15


The Heavens In Their Glory

This is a slideshow of astronomical photographs made by one of the members of the JREF forums through homemade telescopes.

The pictures are beautiful in themselves, but the fact that he built his own 16" Newtonian telescope to take them is inspirational.

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Dragon Age II

This is the review I posted at Gamespot, with some italics added.

We all knew that Dragon Age II wasn't going to be a direct sequel to Dragon Age: Origins.  Since, depending on your choices in the first game, your main character might well have ended up dead at the end, that would have been tricky.  But that doesn't mean we can't compare the second game to the first - it's called Dragon Age II after all.  And when we do, it comes up short in almost every way.

Other reviewers have covered some of the glaring flaws, such as the mindless reuse of assets and the way the plot has you on rails from beginning to end, so I won't go into those.

The combat in the first game was somewhat stodgy but certainly allowed you to plan out your tactical assault.  Dragon Age II on the other hand has your characters leaping about like crack-addled squirrel monkeys with ADHD.  The combat is as easy as it is mindless, but most of all it betrays the same laziness and incompetence of the designers that shows up all through the game. 

The original game had such a fetish for surprise attacks that the true surprise ended up being not having your face ripped off the moment you opened a door, but Dragon Age II lacks any factor of surprise at all.  Enemies jump on you, you stab them, they explode for no readily apparent reason, then more enemies fall on you out of the sky as if some giant monster-crapping pigeon was circling overhead.  And repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.

But none of this is the actual problem with the game.  The unlikeable main character, the unlikeable secondary characters, the uninspired story, the fact that the combat system has been targeted at preschoolers, even the fact that the entire game relies on a set of art assets adequate for a half-hour tech demo, none of that is what's really wrong here.  Even with all those flaws, there's still fun to be had.  Not a lot of fun, but some.

The problem is that while the story itself is uninspired, the telling of the story is a hundred times worse.  The game seems determined to yank you out of any immersion you might achieve.  Right at the start of the game, a family member and a companion are killed before your eyes.  And you will not care.  You don't know these people, and they're portrayed with all the liveliness of frozen oatmeal on a stick.

Once you get out of your darkspawn-infested village and make your way to the city of Kirkwall - which is where you'll be spending most of the game - you need to find enough money to bribe your way inside because they're not accepting any more refugees.  You have the choice of signing on for a year with either a smuggler or a mercenary company, and I chose the smuggler because it sounded like the missions would be more varied. 

Whichever one you choose, your first mission - to prove yourself and get hired - involves you killing a bunch of identical thugs, and your second mission doesn't ever happen.  The moment you're accepted, the game forgets about that part of the story, the part that would have established your character and made you glad to eventually return to the safe confines of Kirkwall, and simply skips ahead a year.

That's so inane it left me dumbfounded.  Give me something.  I don't expect or even want to play out every day in the life of Pirate Penny but give me something to indicate that it actually happened.  Because otherwise, as far as I'm concerned as a player, it didn't happen, and I was magically teleported into the city with no involvement on my part whatsoever.

What follows is an attempt to raise enough money to mount a treasure hunting expedition, which makes no sense because, as your own character points out, if you had enough money to fund the expedition you wouldn't need to do so.  When the characters in the story are pointing out that the plot is broken you have to assume that the writers have simply stopped caring, and if the creators of the game don't care then I see no reason why I should care about playing it.

And I don't.

As a standalone game it's just not very good.  As a sequel to Dragon Age: Origins - and don't try to tell me that something with a II on the end shouldn't be considered as a sequel - it's an embarrassment.  The only thing Bioware can do to recover at this point is to pretend that this game never happened and go back to the drawing board.

As a standalone game I give it 4/10.

As a sequel to the exceptional (though flawed) Dragon Age: Origins I give it -1/10.  It not only has nothing to offer in that respect, it actually detracts from the original.

Verdict: Wait for it to hit $5 on Steam and then buy something else.

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Thursday, April 14


Well, That's Not Very Good

During an idle moment last week just before things blew up at work and I ceased to have any idle moments for a while I bought a copy of Amiga Forever 2011 Plus.  I have the 2006 edition somewhere...  Probably.  But while I can find the activation key I have no idea where the software has got to, and repurchasing it was only $10 more than the upgrade and would save me all the usual upgrade hassles, so I did.

First impression: It comes with Mind Walker!  Awesome!

Second impression: In the previous version there was a little control panel where you could custom-build your Amiga configuration.  Where's that got to?

Third impression: Oh, how cute, it plays Amiga floppy-seeking sounds on the speakers when it boots.

Fourth impression: I'm not sure that resolution is right.  That looks like I've somehow booted into a 320x200 Workbench.  I wonder what happens if I go into full screen moooooooooooooooooooooooooo - Crap.  I think that's actually the first time this PC has ever blue-screened.  And yeah, I mean the realio trulio blue screen.   I saw plenty of them on its predecessor when one of the memory modules went bad, but my past two years have been pleasantly BSOD-free.

What prompted this is that there was an amazing but little known Cinemaware game called Lords of the Rising Sun, set in feudal Japan, with an actual genuine tactical combat system where you could array your tiny troops into formations and carve your way through the enemy's ranks that I had and loved on the Amiga until one day the disk went bad and I never thought I'd see again but is now downloadable free of charge and fully legit from their website (how they are even still in business after all these years is a question I won't ask).  I bought Amiga Forever because it's a nice conveniently bundled and supported edition of UAE that really isn't supposed to blow your entire machine into tiny pieces of flaming crap, but that is apparently what it does, at least in my case if I go into full screen mode which is thus something I will endeavour to avoid in the future.

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Tuesday, April 12


Master And Collector

Adobe has just announced Creative Suite 5.5 and it looks like their subscription program has gone global and now also includes the other suites rather than being limited to Design Premium (when what I wanted all along was Web Premium, since I don't exactly do a whole lot of DTP work).

I could actually get their entire Master Collection and not really have it cost me any more - I need a copy of Contribute to test integration with Minx, and the cost of buying that outright equals the difference in subscription costs for the first 12 months.  Or I could drop InDesign which I have never used once and save myself fifty bucks a month.

Only it's not actually shipping yet, and you can't order the same subscription under CS5 and wait for the upgrade to ship out to you. 

I also wonder if it comes with a new icon set because after the clean style of CS3 and 4 the icons for 5 were hideous.  I actually went through and changed them all on my computer back to the CS4 icons because I couldn't stand looking at them.

Probably not.

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Monday, April 11


Foreshadowing, How Not To Do It

In Dragon Age: Origins* there are as far as I can tell three ways to end the game; two are tragedies and one is a very, very bad idea indeed.  From an in-game point of view, that is; from a player's point of view it might be kind of fun.  The game doesn't end until you win the war, so there's no actual way to lose, no bad ending (unlike, say, Planescape: Torment, which had quite a number of different endings, from ignominious to sublime), but the implications for your character and your companions vary considerably depending on your choices.

You don't actually know how the game will end until very close to the end; in fact very close to the end a couple of different and unexpected possibilities open up, though one subsequently falls three hundred feet onto a stone pavement and effectively removes itself from the game.  But while the broad scope of the ending is never in doubt - it's just a technical matter of somehow killing an immense immortal dragon with the soul of an Elder God** - while you know all along you'll play a part in this outcome, you do get to decide what part.  And if you do it again, and make a different decision, it will end differently.

In Dragon Age II*** you play the Champion of Kirkwall.  That's handed to you by the framing narrative.  You don't have any say in the matter and it's never in doubt; you're going to succeed at this and this is what you're going to succeed at.

Even without all the other signposts that would have had me feeling like I was running through a maze in some insane psychology experiment this is something of a turnoff.  And it's not an interesting maze, either.  I start out as a dirt farmer and become a hero, hurrah, except that there's no notion as to why the place needs a hero at all.  It's just an occupation, as if champions were as commonplace as chartered accountants.

But it occurred to me overnight (I couldn't sleep because things blew up at work on the weekend and my sleep schedule got screwed up again) that there are two very obvious ways that the creators could have made this a much deeper and more interesting story.

First: The framing narrative I mentioned has some chick who looks, dresses, and acts exactly like Servalan from Blake's 7 - i.e. pretty much a textbook slinky female villain - interrogating the dwarf who's recounting your story, seeking information about this champion.

You know what I would have done?  I would have kicked Little Miss Slinky out of the meta-story and replaced her with an earnest greying soldier type looking for the Butcher of Kirkwall.  That is, you know that at some point in the future you're either going to do something horrible or be blamed for something horrible, and then the entire game has you doing good things for good reasons that lead you, one way or another, into disaster.  From which you would perforce extract yourself in the upcoming Dragon Age III, given that II ends on a cliffhanger.****

Second: Alternately, if you keep Slinky-san where she is, you pick up a little throwaway item that's already there and run with it.  The first you see of the main character is when our dwarf starts telling the tale and you drop into a tutorial mode with the Amazing Emo Twins single-handedly battling a darkspawn army.*****  Then a dragon pops up to eat everyone.

And then you cut back to Slinky-san who's saying That's not what happened.  And the dwarf admits that maybe he embellished just a little and picks up the tale as it really was, you create your character, and off you go.

So run with that.  You're playing in a framed narrative with an unreliable narrator.  At any dramatic junction you could be suddenly be dropped out of the story back to Slinky and the Dwarf and get spun off into a different version of events.  Now that I would have played, regardless of the many other flaws in the game.

But no, the writing of Dragon Age II*** is about a subtle as a sack full of pigs.  You know, when you have a rushed game what you usually see is an attempt to produce something good that didn't pan out due to lack of time or money or both.  Here we just have lazy storytelling.  Lazy or simply incompetent, and actually probably the latter because they honestly don't appear to have any idea how badly they've screwed things up.  I think they hired Firefox UI engineers as scriptwriters.

Update: Seems that they did think about the second option but didn't bother to do anything with it.  Which maybe tilts the balance back towards lazy, not that this improves the game in any way.

* That's the good one.
** Answer: Shoot it in the eye.  No, wait, that's FFX.  Answer: You spent the entire middle of the game raising an army.  You have a battle you cannot possibly win on your own.  You work it out.
*** That's the bad one.
**** Warning sign eleven.
***** The ones I wanted to see eaten by darkspawn.

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