Outcasts

  01:21:35 am, by   , 968 words  
Viewed 8195 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.

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On Skyrim and UESP

  11:47:25 am, by   , 427 words  
Viewed 34776 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 11436 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.

Fallout: New Vegas - Letdown

  05:41:38 pm, by   , 863 words  
Viewed 19769 times since 26/10/10
Categories: Games, Fallout

If you'd told me a week ago that I'd be writing a blog post with this title, I'd have told you that I found it unlikely in the extreme. Fallout 3 was one of the most addictive and brilliant games I've ever played, to the extent that I had to take two days off work to get it out of my system. When I heard a followup was due I was overjoyed, and got more excited as the Bethesda publicity machine ground into action and released little tid-bits of information on what the game would include.

I eagerly did the pre-install thing on Steam (for those who don't know, this downloads the game ahead of time but leaves it encrypted on your computer so you can't play it until the official release date), and even left my PC on overnight on the day before release so it would be ready to play when I awoke. Immediately after the morning cup of tea I dived into the game - the advantages of contract work are many and varied.

Ninety minutes later I quit it again.

And didn't go back for a couple of days. It's been five days now and Steam reveals I've played it for a total of two hours. This is not what I was expecting. So what's the problem?

I always watch intro movies on first play-through and this one was decent enough without setting the screen alight. The character-generation sequence, though, was rubbish compared to Fallout 3. The earlier game started at the moment of your birth and took you through important early stages of your life, to the point you finally left the vault. It left you feeling involved with your character and genuinely caring about it. In this one you basically fill in some forms.

Stepping outside you get the usual lovely graphics, but a slight sense of disappointment too. When I first played Oblivion, my reaction to leaving the sewer at the start and seeing the gorgeous landscape in front of me was simply "wow!" In Fallout 3, I had the same reaction largely because the vista was so different: instead of blue skies, lush foliage and shimmering water, you had a fractured, blistered landscape that evoked the post-armageddon feeling perfectly. In F:NV, my reaction was "Oh." because it didn't do anything new. Sure it's pretty, but I was expecting another step up, not more of the same.

It's probably my imagination but the NPC interactions were a little better than before, and the voice acting has taken another leap forward too. Oblivion's biggest failing was the painful process of talking to NPCs, and the two Fallout games have made it much more bearable. Hopefully in TESV the NPC might move around a bit instead of standing like a statue when you talk to them. Even Morrowind-style head-turning and neck-scratching would be a start!

F:NV has added a few new things to the original's limited "making stuff" option. In addition to oddball new weapons, you can now craft ammunition and medicine. Weapons can get upgrades too, to make them more powerful in various ways. Some people are going to like this. I don't. FO3 was a tad unrealistic in the way it had ammunition practically oozing from very ground, and so having to break down some ammo in order to make more is better, but then you're already in a post-apocalyptic world with one foot in the 1950's and the other in the 2280's, so realism has already jumped out the window anyway. I can't help but feel that these new features are so much tinsel on an old Christmas tree - it adds a superficial prettiness to something that really needed a structural overhaul to work properly.

Most reviews you'll see will tell you that the graphics look dated. They do, largely because they're exactly the same as the original game. Sure some new models have been added, but I hardly noticed them. Combat's the same. Gameplay's the same. In other words, it's the same game as Fallout 3... but while I couldn't put the first one down, I can hardly motivate myself to pick this one up. What has changed?

The only thing I can think of is that while I cared about by FO3 character, I honestly couldn't care less about the F:NV one. "Yahtzee" Croshaw always goes on about "immersion" and this is the first game where I've found a lack of it really makes a difference. I suppose I should want to find the people who shot me in the head, but I don't. I suppose I should want to find out what the message I was delivering was about, but I don't. The intro to the first game gave me a huge desire to find my dad and restore the world to rights: in this one I just thought "I suppose I'd better go outside now" when the doctor was done with me.

Another common line in reviews is "If you liked Fallout 3, you'll like Fallout: New Vegas". You might. If I give it a few more hours, I might like it too... but it's not the done deal you might expect.

A New Civilization

  10:12:24 am, by   , 845 words  
Viewed 11501 times since 02/10/10
Categories: Games

Well it's been over a week since I got Civilization V and the inclination to play it 24 hours a day, forgoing sleep and basic hygiene, has finally passed. It's time to write down what I think about this latest version in Sid Meier's most famous series.

It's good. It's very good, in fact. But first, a history lesson.

The original Civilization was released in 1991 and was an incredibly simple game. You founded cities and built things in them - either buildings or units. Some buildings gave you money, some gave sped up later construction, some made people happy and so on. The units either let you improve the area around your cities, found new ones, or act as your army and let you attack other people. You could also research new technology that gave you access to more advanced buildings and units. You could win either by building a spaceship to take you to Alpha Centauri or by wiping out every other civilization.

I spent a LOT of time playing that first version, as did my flatmates. Five computer scientists living together in a flat doesn't lead to huge, pulsating parties at the best of times, but when all five of us were playing Civ at the same time, it was quieter than a wet Sunday in Wales.

I never played Civ II, but I understand it was basically the same game with prettier graphics. After that, there was been a tendency for each new version of Civ to add things in the mistaken belief that this improved the game. By the time Civ IV came out in 2005 it was far too busy. In addition to the basic game, you had to trade resources, found and spread religions and do various other things that made the game more involved but detracted from the essential simplicity. Civ V seems to be a conscious attempt to go back over the series and build a game around the best features, eliminating the extraneous details and adding new ones that make it the best Civ yet.

So what do we have? Well it's still about building cities and units, obviously. Religion has gone, which is good because it didn't add anything much. Wonders of the World that confer huge, one-player-only benefits have gone too, which is also good because in previous versions games were essentially won or lost depending on who managed to build certain wonders first. Trading is still there but has been reduced to "can do" rather than "must do", which is also good. But the biggest change is that you can now only put one unit on one tile at one time. When I first heard this it sounded like a disaster but this also turns out to be good. Previous games let you build a huge army and put it all on one tile, meaning you could advance into enemy territory with an unstoppable force and wipe out any resistance. You could have 100 workers ready to build railroads and 50 tanks ready to advance over them, and often you could destroy even a big enemy in one turn by careful movement. Not very realistic. In this version, it's much trickier. First, cities defend themselves; second, the stacking means you can only attack with a few units at once. This turns aerial bombardment from a largely pointless sideshow into a must-have.

The other new feature is "social policies". In previous versions, these were (roughly) included in the technology tree, but are now separate. There are ten sets of policies (Tradition, Liberty, Honour, Piety, Patronage, Autocracy, Freedom, Rationalism, Commerce and Order) that let you choose the sort of empire you want to build. Some of them work better for small empires, some for large; some for militaristic empires and some for peaceful. It makes more sense for things to work like this. Suddenly switching from a dictatorship to a democracy the moment you research it was always a bit odd, but now there's a gradual shift as you implement more policies in your chosen trees.

One problem I had is that the hardware requirements are pretty stiff for such a simple game. My old nVidia 8800GT card simply couldn't take the strain and couldn't run the DirectX 10/11 version, meaning I had to play with the much less pretty DirectX 9 graphics. At least it gave you the option, but my computer ran games like Oblivion, Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 without complaint so why should a turn-based strategy game cause such a problem? Luckily, I'd been meaning to upgrade for ages and a cheap GTS 450 card made things a lot better.

In summary, this is a great Civ. It lets you concentrate on the important things rather than fretting that some religion or other refuses to spread to one of your cities. It must be good given the sheer amount of time I've spent playing it (curse Steam and the way it keeps track of these things!) If you like RTS games, and particularly if you like previous versions of Civilization, this version is a game you will really enjoy.