Thursday, 24 July 2008

World of Weirdness: Part One

The first – and last – time I played World of Warcraft, I played as a ginger Paladin and promptly got annoyed at the number of kiddies offering to fight or fornicate with me. My character ended up hitting things with a shovel, and then got consigned to the recycle bin after two hours.

This happened about a year ago, and I've never been tempted to come back. Today, however, I was off sick from work and in need of some entertainment. In the interest of science, I decided to put my newfound internet connection to good use and install the Trial version of WoW.

The WoW Trial is so easy to download and install, a cynic might assume that the game was made for idiots. Indeed, a couple of hours in the game only reinforced this view; there is nothing that cries “lowest common denominator” louder than the sight of a giant axe-wielding bovine called “Halojunkie” bouncing across the horizon before leaping to its doom off a cliff. Of course, you can’t scoff too much at this: it’s the ease of use that sucks you in faster than a Thai hooker.

Having spent an intense eight and a half minutes conducting research on the various races and classes in the game, I created a Welsh cow, which the game calls a Tauren druid. After some initial naming disappointments – I wasn’t allowed to call my cow ‘Minty’, for some reason – I selected the old standby of ‘Notwelshman’ and entered the world of Azeroth.

Considering that Blizzard routinely touts a number in the region of eight million when asked how many people play WoW, Azeroth seemed awfully quiet. Peaceful, even. I supposed it was lunchtime, but where were all the Cheetos-scoffing students? Where were the unemployed addicts? The gold farmers? Someone tried to sell me a level 60 character, so I politely wandered off and found a quest.

WoW isn’t known as online crack for nothing. In a manner reminiscent of how nicotine hits you hard and fast to draw you in, the first few level ups are practically thrown at you, and in no time at all I was beating on piglets in a an area that reminded me of the Elephants’ Graveyard from The Lion King. Which is where I was challenged to a duel.

Having checked my opponent’s level, I accepted. With a bit of faffing around with my spellcasting – the reason I chose a druid for a character was for the ability to both hit things and heal myself – I managed to win. Then the same guy challenged me again.

The fourth time he challenged me, having been beaten three times already, I accidentally manoeuvred the fight into the path of some wandering pig-beasts, which promptly leapt to my aid and actually killed my opponent – usually, a duel ends with one player down to a few health points. This gave me a chance to wander off, as the challenger would have to run all the way back from the respawn point to find his corpse. Which he did, and then he challenged me again.

At this point, I checked the clock. It was four in the afternoon, and I realised that this person had evidently come online somewhere around the time the schools finished for the day. I was trouncing a twelve year old.

Anyway, as I finished today, my cow druid was at level seven, and had his very own stick to hit things with. I’m going to come back to WoW soon, and I’m going to blog about it a bit. If anyone wishes to join me online, I’m on the Blade’s Edge server, and you’ll need to pick a Horde race. Otherwise I’ll have to come and moo at you.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I cooked Bang Bang Chicken. This is not a joke.

There are many reasons I hate cooking. Firstly, I’m very bad at it. Secondly, it’s boring. Really, really boring. Thirdly, every time I spend an hour making something by hand, I remember that I can go and pay someone else a quarter of the price and they’ll make me something that actually tastes like food. Fourthly, it’s boring. Fifthly…

I could go on, but I won’t – except to reiterate how boring I find cooking to be. Today, however, I made a meal of my own volition.

I promised Yu that I would cook her a meal, and in typical female style she went ahead and remembered. Now, I can cook a very limited number of meals: chicken fajitas being the main one, as long as I have a Old El Paso packet mix to hand. I can do an alright steak and a mean fry-up, but that’s the limit of my abilities. Today, on the other hand, I cooked Bang Bang Chicken, a Chinese dish.

Obviously, I used a recipe. Instead of using a book, which I can’t stand, or the internet, which annoys me, I bought a copy of Cooking Guide: Can’t Decide What To Eat? for the Nintendo DS.

Cooking Guide is an odd program. For a start, it’s not a game, though it pretends to be one. It has 245 recipes on it, from various countries round the world. The idea is that you buy the ingredients and then it talks you through the process of actually cooking a tasty meal.

It talks you through well enough, breaking down complicated bits (like slicing cucumbers properly) into simple nuggets, but the problem with the program arises when you have to talk back. In order to stop the DS getting covered in greasy food-alike, the program can be worked through using simple voice commands: “Continue”, “Go Back”, “Repeat” and so on. Which would be great if the voice recognition software wasn’t always in a pissy mood.

Yes, I stood and yelled “Continue” into the microphone twenty times, only for it to interpret the sound of me picking up the knife as “Go Back”. It’s like being in the kitchen with an actual chef: he’s a moron and won’t listen to a bloody word you say.

Despite this, it’s a really good program. The recipes are uniformly attractive, although there are a few too many that involve oysters or clams. If an ingredient is difficult to find, it has suggestions for alternatives, which is useful. And my Bang Bang Chicken was very, very good.

I won’t go as far as to suggest that I enjoyed cooking my meal. I didn’t, even though the program gave me a little stamp and a sparkly display to mark the occasion. But I am seriously considering following the recipe for good ol’ fish and chips from the UK, because deep-frying things looks like it could be dangerous.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The pick of the bunch

PataponTo go with my love letter to portable gaming, here are some of the better games to catch my eye over the past year or so:

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict (DS): A superior turn-based strategy affair, this game is an improvement over its predecessor simply by virtue of having characters you don’t want to drown.

Animal Crossing: Wild World (DS): Turn it on for half an hour a day and pay off your virtual mortgage while engaging furry convention rejects in inane conversations. It’s bizarrely addictive, and I had to forcibly give it up – the fact that I succeeded gives me hope in quitting smoking.

Beats (PSP): One of the few worthwhile downloadables on the UK website, Beats takes your saved music and converts them into levels – not unlike Vib Ribbon did so many years ago. Simplistic, but fun.

Crisis Core – Final Fantasy VII (PSP): A prequel to the original FFVII, Crisis Core is a simplistic semi-brawler that wouldn’t get away with its obvious design flaws if (a) it wasn’t Final Fantasy, (b) it was on a bigger screen or (c) it wasn’t so darn pretty. As it stands, it’s good fun.

Advance Wars (DS)Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (PSP): An excellent port of the original PSX game, this is a stupidly complex and rewarding strategic role playing game. Prepare to sink in hours of preparation to get through a ten minute battle.

Final Fantasy VI (GBA / DS): A port of the old SNES classic, this game is one of the highlights of the whole series. The reduced screen size means that the old graphics still look gorgeous even to my jaded PlayStation eyes, and the story is heartbreakingly well told.

FlOw (PSP): It’s not a game, I think. I’m not sure what it is, but I lost a fair few hours of my life playing it.

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP): Everyone’s favourite Spartan kicks the shit out of more mythology. As brutal – and formulaic – as the PS2 releases, it has not lost its glossy prettiness in the translation.

Metal Gear SolidMetal Gear Solid Portable Ops (PSP): It’s Metal Gear Solid with comic book cutscenes and the ability to kidnap enemy soldiers. Stealthy goodness.

Patapon (PSP): Rhythm action battling. Save your Patapon nation by banging drums. Compulsively weird.

Platinum Sudoku (DS): I know, I know. It’s Sudoku. But there’s about 20 million of them on the cartridge, which means I’m never running out. FFVI aside, I’ve spent more time with this than with any other portable game.

Pokemon Diamond (DS): God, I wish I was joking. But underneath the kiddy graphics and plot, there really is a deep game with an incredible amount of stuff to collect and beat up.

Tekken Dark Resurrection (PSP): It’s Tekken 5, but smaller and with more stuff to do. It’s without a doubt the best fighting game available on a portable console, and perfect for a commute of any length.

Downsizing: how portable gaming has taken over from the big boys

It was a hard fight. Badly injured from the way through the mountains, I had to keep moving. Even armed with the famous Buster Sword, my opponent had the advantage – and my back was to a sheer drop. If he pushed me back…

We fought, I won. And then I got off the tube and went to work. It was eight thirty in the morning.

Portable gaming is nothing new. I owned one of the original Nintendo GameBoys – those of the ‘brick’ school of design. It saw a lot of use; mostly, I played Tetris, which was the game largely attributed to the success of the console. I had a couple of other good’uns: Probotector – the European version of Contra on the GameBoy – and BattleToads spring to mind, and I remember that one of the first games I ever actually completed was Terminator 2.

Around me, kids were starting to see consoles as something cool. Sega and Atari had their own portable entries at the time, with the GameGear and Lynx respectively. But these consoles were handicapped: the GameGear lasted about 20 minutes without a power cable, while no one ever found out how long the Lynx could be used for because no one could find any games for it.

The GameBoy wasn’t perfect; it could display four colours and had a sound system matched by the average household microwave. But it was fun, and its game library was arguably only ever matched by that of the PlayStation.

Later, I owned a GameBoy Advance. It was a mistake, in retrospect. I had no commute, and a PlayStation 2 at home, so it saw very little use. This is the problem with portable systems: portable systems are traditionally not as powerful as the beasts that lurk under our televisions, and up until recently, there has been no reason to use them if you didn’t travel anywhere.

Nintendo kicked me back into the portable market with their DS, which is backwards compatible with the GameBoy Advance. Its library of games is exactly what you’d expect from Nintendo: Mario, Zelda, StarFox, Metroid, and a million puzzle games populated by anthropomorphic animals. My problem with the games – cute factor aside – is that there is a curious number of them that seem to expect me to play them every day: Brain Age and Animal Crossing spring to mind.

Since then, I’ve picked up a Sony PSP. Only slightly less powerful than my PlayStation 2, it has all but taken over my gaming hours. Oddly, though, I am addicted to the PSP because I am being allowed to play the same games as I would at home; the difference is I don’t have to rush to finish if I want to go out.

It seems that Sony and Nintendo have finally learnt what we want out of portable gaming. It’s not such a hard list to figure, to be honest, and you have to wonder why it took them so long. We want a battery life of at least a couple of hours, otherwise what’s the point in the first place? We want good graphics, which is easy on a small screen: I played through the GBA version of Final Fantasy VI, which has the same graphics as it did on the SNES, and it looked glorious.

Most importantly, we want good games. Portable game design has gone up a notch since I last met it, mostly by directly emulating the full-sized console market. You now have the same standard of games, but with the option to switch off at any time thanks to the power-save options.

So, as I get older and my free time gets shorter, it seems portable gaming is becoming the way forward. I’ve become disillusioned with the new-gen consoles, as I still haven’t seen anything actually new. But portable gaming, previously so far behind, has now caught up, and is closer to the future than any other part of the market.