It MUST be said

  07:28:10 pm, by   , 43 words  
Viewed 10055 times since 26/02/11
Categories: Elder Scrolls

The bit of the teaser trailer where the music changes to the new version of Reign of the Septims and the dragon takes off? Well it brings a tear to my eye. Yes, I'm an old softy. But... wow... *sniff*

 Permalink1 comment »

Soule Music

  06:15:29 pm, by   , 588 words  
Viewed 7395 times since 26/02/11
Categories: Elder Scrolls

It's an oft-overlooked aspect of The Elder Scrolls, but the music in the games is incredibly important. The latest update to elderscrolls.com has allowed us all to look back to the dark days when, to be frank, music wasn't an important part of gameplay. Take a look at the Battlespire Intro. My Battlespire manual credits the music to "Absolute Pitch", a company based in Bethesda whose website claims that they did work on Oblivion; a claim not supported by Oblivion's credits. But... well anyway. Listen to the music on that video (it kicks in about half way through).

Now listen to the Morrowind theme. Now the Oblivion theme. Now the Skyrim theme.

Aren't those three better? Aren't you glad that Absolute Pitch didn't do more music? Look at the way the same theme has been woven into three different games: we have the slightly bucolic Morrowind; the imperial Oblivion and the martial Skyrim all borrowing from the same inspiration. It links the games together but gives each its own interpretation of the music. Comparing even just the first of the three to the Battlespire music is almost unfair: it's like comparing a Mozart opera to something written by a six year old. (Yes, this is a joke - for those who need this kind of thing pointed out, and those of you who still don't get it.... yeah okay, it was a pretty obscure joke).

It's true that when Battlespire was made, the venerable SoundBlaster card was still something to which people aspired. By the time Morrowind appeared, a decent sound system was de rigeur. This probably goes some way towards explaining the difference, but even so it makes a huge difference.

The genius behind the music is Jeremy Soule, and he's two years younger than me, which is simply unfair. He's been described as the "John Williams of video games"; John Williams being the guy who did music for Star Wars and Jaws, inter alia, and if I have to explain what those two films are and give you links, then please wait ten years and come back when you're fully grown.

For me, TES wouldn't be the same without Soule's music. Sure, the games would still be superb but it'd be like trying to eat beef without just a dab of horseradish sauce: brilliant, but you know it could be even better. Sure, I've installed other music for Oblivion, but even though it's good, I still appreciate the Soule music when it returns. Sure, some people don't think music is that important... but they can bugger off. Sure, I'm getting too wound up over this and need to finish off.

Watching and listening to the new Skyrim trailers has been brilliant for all sorts of reasons. I'm not going to pretend that it was the audio on the first trailer that made me stare, slack-jawed and drooling, at the screen. On the other hand, subsequent watches (I'm up to about 15 now, but don't believe this makes me sad) had me listening to the music in typical Soule-worshipping mode. Certainly the highlight of the over-hyped podcast with Todd Howard (nothing against Todd - but the questions were pretty soporific) was right at the end where what seems to be a whole new piece of Soule Music was previewed.

And frankly, if any of you can read any piece of Skyrim-related news without thinking "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Dovahkiin! For the King!" (etc) running through your head... I shall cleave your skull in twain for such heresy!

For the king!

Outcasts

  01:21:35 am, by   , 968 words  
Viewed 8360 times since 18/02/11
Categories: TV/Movies

I'm British. That makes this a difficult admission, but frankly it's impossible to hold out any longer. Americans make better TV than we do.

This probably won't come as any great shock to the majority of people reading this, but it's only within my lifetime that the change has come about. While I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, American TV consisted of the Dukes of Hazard, Dallas and Dynasty. American TV was renowned for its bad acting and general awfulness. Of course, there was always Star Trek, but that was also badly-acted... it was the special effects that made it stand out (believe it or not).

In Britain, our TV was generally cheaper but better-acted. We had seminal crime series like Z-Cars, original soap-operas like Coronation Street, and most importantly (from my point of view), outstanding Sci-Fi like Quatermass and Doctor Who.

The last couple of decades haven't been kind to British TV. Sure, we've kept our lead in comedy with series like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and The Office taking up the baton from Q and Monty Python's Flying Circus, but in almost every other respect we've fallen badly behind.

The most obvious decline is in Sci-Fi. We led the world. The early episodes of Doctor Who were utterly ground-breaking, and other series took up the baton and ran with pride. We could even do Sci-Fi/Comedy crossovers like Red Dwarf and make those brilliant too. Meanwhile, though, America was plotting. First came the... well let's call it "patchy" Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. These were programs that were more about effects than writing - par for the course in American TV at the time. That was in 1979-81, and then there was a bit of a gap. On this side of The Pond, Doctor Who was still going strong, and we had things like Space 1999 around then too. Then came the various "tech" series like Knight Rider, Street Hawk and Automan that weren't really Sci-Fi but were close enough to keep me happy. Except for Automan, which was rubbish.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and in 1988 came Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was round about here that the tide started to turn. At the same time ST:TNG was stumbling through its first - and let's be honest, pretty awful - series, Doctor Who was dying a death due to bad writing and lack of interest from BBC executives. When Sylvester McCoy left the screen in 1989 it looked like the Doctor was gone for good. Star Trek, however, started to get good. Once things had settled down and they stopped trying to remake old Trek episodes, we were treated to some decent stories. With Patrick Stewart came exceptional acting, and the writers started to take advantage. When ST:TNG ended after seven seasons in 1994, American Sci-Fi was going strong.

Even though TNG had finished there was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, almost certainly the best Trek series. There was Star Trek: Voyager, a testament to missed opportunities but still worth watching in places. There was the X-Files, often overlooked in the annals of sci-fi, but sci-fi nonetheless. Later came Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly; three utterly fantastic bits of sci-fi writing. Add in Babylon 5 and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and the other stuff I've missed out, and you have some seriously good TV.

In the UK, we had... err... nothing.

It wasn't until 2005, when Doctor Who was taken out of the deep freeze, that we started making SF again. Then, of course, the BBC basically attached a milking machine to the still-defrosting teat and sucked the franchise for all it could give: not just Doctor Who, but Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, K-9, Doctor Who Confidential and Totally Doctor Who. It's a credit to the writers that the output has remained broadly decent despite the pressure.

This has all been a long-winded way of saying that the BBC has made a new Sci-Fi series, and it's called "Outcasts". And it's bloody awful.

Fans of the re-imagined BSG will recognise Jamie Bamber in the first episode, and might start to hope that the series will be as good as that one. It's not. It's boring, dry, humourless and generally awful. The lowlight of the first episode is a point where a character gives a speech to the crew of an incoming transporter and they applaud him instead of vomiting loudly into the zero-G sick bags. I suppose the writer (Ben Richards) had to give himself a round of applause because everybody else was facepalming instead.

Instead of BSG's tense, taught plot we have a flabby series of events that are only loosely linked from one episode to the next. Some of the acting is right back in Star Trek days for sheer awfulness, and the sets look like they were lashed together from material found lying around in a nearby skip.

What really annoys me is that I have to keep watching. If the BBC is going to start making proper SF again - and I want it to do so - it needs viewers. The ratings for Outcasts have been very bad so far, and even though the first series ends on a cliffhanger (apparently - I've heard it does but I don't know for sure) there's no guarantee of a second series. What's worse is that if this program tanks, there's less of an incentive to make any more SF.

So to all Brits: watch the damn thing. If you've missed it so far, catch up on the iPlayer. Even if you don't watch it, just download it to boost the viewing figures. The UK can be a world leader in SF again, but we have to get through this first.

On Skyrim and UESP

  11:47:25 am, by   , 427 words  
Viewed 38043 times since 22/12/10
Categories: Elder Scrolls, UESP

Obviously, my first thought when TESV: Skyrim was announced was about how much I'm going to enjoy playing it, but as more and more articles appear, we're beginning to get an idea of what we can expect and how it's going to affect UESP.

One of my own first reactions was annoyance at hearing Mysticism is no longer going to exist as a skill. Not because I'm a fan of it in particular, but because this was just days after I wrote UESP's Lore:Mysticism article. I hope there's a book in Skyrim explaining the change so I can reference it.

The new "Radiant Story" system is going to have a huge impact on how we write up quests. Since the death of a quest-essential NPC can now lead to another giving you the quest instead, we'll have to think about how the Related NPCs section works. Todd Howard's latest interview suggests that even the location of a quest can change, depending on which dungeons you've visited already. I imagine there's still going to be a set list of locations, and that we'll be able to discover that using the CS, but it's going to be another change to make.

Howard also mentions that there are over 200 "perks" in the game, and these will influence quests as well as just your skills. The perks are arranged in a tree, which presumably means you can only get some if you've already got others. We'll need to come up with a friendly way of documenting that too. The new perks and skill system is going to lead to a huge amount of flexibility in the way your character develops. I can only imagine the number of "My 1337 character" pages we're going to get...

My big concern is the format of the game files. Many of the pages for Morrowind and Oblivion (and the addons) were generated by writing code that reads the .esm and .esp files containing the game data and turns it into human-readable text. That's how we know we've got all the NPCs, items, places, quests and so on. Although there'll definitely be some way of reading the new files, if they're too different from the current format it'll take a lot longer to do.

I wasn't around on UESP when Oblivion came out, but I can imagine how chaotic it was then. With Skyrim it's going to be even worse. Part of me is horrified at the thought, but another part is looking forward to the challenge. I guess we'll find out in just over 9 months!

Journey to the Stars

  10:36:04 am, by   , 839 words  
Viewed 11566 times since 08/11/10
Categories: Games

I briefly mentioned X3: Terran Conflict in an earlier post but given the amount of time I've spent on it in the last few weeks, I think I ought to say a little more about it.

My love affair with space-based games started in 1984 when I first played Elite on a friend's BBC Model B. You began the game with 100 credits and a spaceship armed with a laser roughly as useful as a pea-shooter. You had to go from system to system trading resources to make money to upgrade your ship, avoiding the pirates that infested some places until you became strong enough to take them on. That's... about it. There were some special missions that came up from time to time, but trading and shooting things was about 99% of the game. To keep track of how well you were doing, you had a combat rank: starting at "Harmless", you moved through "Mostly Harmless" - a nod to Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to "Poor", "Average", "Above Average", "Competent", "Dangerous", "Deadly" and finally "Elite" - a sequence I can still quote from memory. Reaching the final rank meant shooting about 5,000 enemy ships, a process that took a very long time.

Of course I didn't own a BBC, I had a ZX Spectrum and we didn't get our own version of Elite for a couple of years. Instead, we had a game called Codename MAT and another named Starion. These haven't left the same impression on me, but I recall them being simple space-based shoot-'em-ups rather than trading games.

There things sat for a number of years, during which I basically stopped gaming. Then in 2003, I saw a review of a game called X2: The Threat that called the game the closest thing to Elite they had ever seen. I wasn't going to let a comment like that past, so I bought a copy straight away. It really was Elite updated for the new millennium. Set in the "X" universe, cut off from Earth for various reasons I'm not going to bother relating, there were humans, friendly aliens, hostile aliens and even a hostile AI race. It turned out X2 was the sequel to "X: Beyond the Frontier", but I never played that game. The "X Universe" is a series of sectors, many of which are joined together using jump gates. Most sectors are owned by one of the alien races: Argon, Boron, Split, Paranid and Teladi, by the AI-like Xenon or by pirates.

One minor gripe with Elite was that you were stuck with your original ship. You could upgrade it, but you could never buy a different type. In X2 you had a choice of about 60 different types, from the tiny but superfast Paranid Pegasus to vast trading ships like the Boron Dolphin and huge battleships like the Argon Titan. Not only could you trade with existing space stations, you could build your own and fashion an immense trading empire - some players had thousands of stations. The main plot involved an invasion by an alien race called the Kha'ak that you had to fight off, while trying to find your father. You didn't have to bother doing the missions unless you wanted, as the game was entirely open-ended, although you got some nice rewards if you did. The usual ship-to-ship combat was very well done, with a large range of weaponry to choose from, and even had the added joy of being able to capture your enemies' ships if you were lucky. I spent a huge amount of time playing that game. I smoked at the time, and cigarette breaks at work were often spent contemplating what factory I would build next or planning which enemy sector I would attack to boost my combat rating. Once I reached the top level (X-treme) in both trading and combat, I moved on.

In 2005 came X3: Reunion. The main change was a massive upgrade to the graphics engine and redesigns of the various ships to make them more plausible. The "Reunion" part comes from the main quest, which ends with the opening of a jump gate back to Earth.

At this point, it's worth mentioning that the X games have a modding community nearly as large as TES. Egosoft, the publisher, even let modders into the inner circles and participate in beta testing and development. One absolutely massive modding effort, called Xtended, was so good that Egosoft bought the rights, hired most of the modders and used their efforts to create the next game in the series: X3: Terran Conflict. In this version the number of flyable ships has gone through the roof, there are loads of new missions but otherwise it's basically the same as Reunion.

The reason I mention all this is to give you some background into why I love this game so much. It's not just a game, it's the culmination of a quarter century's gaming for me. If you're looking to start in a new genre, you could do much worse than start with this.