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Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Hello 2016, bye 2015

1 January 2016
Posted in: Gaming, Scratchpad, Writeside, Writing | 2 Comments

2016Oh well, time for the traditional end-of-year/beginning-of-another post. A somewhat sheepish one, for 2015 was a year wasted. In all fairness, some of it was out of my control, but some definitely of my own making.

Here’s what my plan for the year was and how I fared:

  1. Another 52 weeks of blogging. (Done!)
  2. Start on Satin 2. (I thought about it many times. Does that count?)
  3. Go swimming in the summer. (I went twice. :D)
  4. Learn a language. (Um… I already know four…)
  5. And, of course, try to finish Amazing Grace. (I didn’t finish it, but I made a decent amount of progress.)

And this wasn’t on the list, but there’s a new design ready for Writeside.net. Now I just have to code it…

The list for 2016 is:

  1. Implement the new design for Writeside.net.
  2. FINISH WRITING A BOOK! No, seriously, I’ve got four of them going right now.
  3. Stay healthier than I managed in 2015 (shouldn’t be too difficult!).
  4. Travel somewhere fun.
  5. Work on the workshops (details later, if relevant).
  6. Play more games.

Happy 2016 in case you’re reading this. May you read lots of wonderful books or write some yourself—and may other good things happen too.

~PD

(Graphics courtesy BSG Studio on all-free-download.com)

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Review #47: Thief (2014)

22 December 2015
Posted in: 2015 special, Gaming, Reviews, Tech | No Comments

52 reviews of 2015First things first: the 2014 release of Thief is actually the fourth instalment of the cult stealth series by the same name. Only, it’s a reboot of the original series, and while fans of the previous Thief games can expect to resurrect their gameplay as Garret, the slate has been wiped clean and he has a new back story.

The story opens with Garret the master thief with his apprentice/partner Erin in a prologue, which puts you right in the thick of the excitement. You are catapulted into a heist that is a sort of tutorial, teaching you how to control Garret, to make him run, jump, climb, sneak and, of course, steal. The major objective is learning how to stay hidden, use shadows and stay silent. By the end of the prologue, Garret has stolen Erin’s ‘claw’, an instrument that helps her scale high walls, while Erin herself falls through a glass roof right into the middle a strange ritual that is taking place, and she’s presumed dead.

The story unfolds as the chapters commence. Garret, having returned to The City after a period of time, finds that it is being terrorized by the evil Baron, while being in the throes of a deadly plague called the Gloom, which is killing off its less fortunate residents. A lockdown is in place, while a rebellion simmers. Garret’s hub is the Clock Tower, from where he starts his missions or sets out to explore The City. The gameplay progresses in the form of chapters, peppered with a number of side missions. While in the former you find out more about the Baron, the plague and what really happened to Erin, the side missions help you make some extra cash to purchase upgrades and weapons to keep yourself sharp. As for the main story, truth be told, it isn’t terribly exciting and I lost track of it after a point.

Thief is a brilliantly immersive environment. The City, with its alleys and backstreets, houses and shops, is a joy to explore—until, that is, you get sick of going up and down the same lanes and tunnels. Garret can not only sneak about at street level, but also climb on to roofs, walls and various other conveniently placed ledges and parapets, go through houses, and in some cases swing across using a rope arrow. The lighting effects are fantastic, the dark, gloomy atmosphere just perfect. There are places where the non-playing characters get stuck in a dialogue loop, repeating the same things ad nauseum, which is annoying, but you learn to ignore it.

The sneaking about is fantastic, even though in many places the more fancy stealth-work needs you to work with predetermined routes. For example, the rope arrows can only be used in specific places. Another example is Garret’s cat-like agility, but which comes into use in a few predetermined situations, where he nimbly shimmies up pipes and ledges, and more or less climbs up the side of a building or structure. Even getting on to rooftops and parapets is limited. It would have been great if it was a fully open-ended world, but perhaps that’s too much to ask for in terms of graphics. There is a map provided to aid in navigation, but the annoying part is that it is broken up into numerous locations, so you need to get used to load screens. There are times when getting from one part of the city to the other is a tad painful, having to endure all the map sections and numerous load screens.

Garret, apart from his bordering-on-the-superhuman agility, also possesses something called Focus power. It’s rather like Instinct in Hitman: Absolution, letting him intensify his senses. Focus helps Garret pick up on loot as well as places of interest, spot traps and slow down time. Focus also goes some way in helping pick locks faster, but I never needed to use it. You can run out of Focus pretty fast, so it helps to be prudent with it, at least in the beginning. The Swoop power lets Garret get from cover to cover in double-quick time, but for some reason it didn’t work for me.

I played at the ‘normal’ difficulty level, called Thief, in which the AI was alternately extremely stupid and incredibly challenging. Arguably the most difficult level was Chapter 5: The Forsaken, which takes you to the Moira Asylum in search of answers about what happened to Erin. Apart from being supremely creepy, this is also the level when your deal with non-human ‘enemies’—the Freaks. They are sensitive to sound, but can’t see you, so you can get past them if you are extremely quiet, which is difficult given the environment, which is strewn with glass shards that crunch under your feed. They are also deadly in a melee so engaging them in combat is foolhardy. Figuring out how to defeat them is part of the fun, but don’t play this chapter in the dead of the night when you’re alone in the house (I did, and regretted it).

If you’re looking for a game that features non-stop action, Thief is not going to be your cup of tea. Unlike various other stealth-based games, Hitman and Deus Ex come to mind, where stealth is just one of your strategies, here waiting, watching and creeping about is the whole point of the game. Combat is possible, but quite difficult, almost impossible with multiple attackers. Most of the time, you find yourself lurking in the shadows, waiting for exactly that right moment to slip past a couple of unsuspecting guards. Using the shadows is rather nifty, though aided to a great extent by the light ‘orb’ on the corner of your screen that lets you know if you’re visible to those around you. The exhilaration of crouching just inches away from a passing guard or sneaking up behind an unsuspecting quarry and silently picking their pocket is quite something else.

That said, the gameplay feels repetitive after a while and the story just isn’t exciting enough. I love stealth games and I loved Thief, but not enough to play it all the way through to the end. Will I go back to it some day? Yes, definitely!

RATING: 7/10

~PD

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Review #11: Hitman Absolution

27 March 2015
Posted in: 2015 special, Gaming, Tech | 2 Comments

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution continues the story of our favourite shiny-headed, barcoded and stony-faced assassin, Agent 47. The player takes on the role of this genetically-engineered killing machine to carry out a series of contracts—ahem, and we don’t mean the kind of contracts you and I usually sign. Mr 47 is skilled in all manner of grisly things, such as sneaking up undetected, throwing sharp things with grim precision and leaving the earth a few vile humans short without anybody realizing he’s been visiting.

52 reviews of 2015Absolution is the fifth in the Hitman franchise and coming as it did six years after its predecessor Blood Money, there were a lot of expectations from it. Needless to say, though most 47-parched gamers loved it, there were those who found a lot to complain about. More on that later.

Absolution is a continuation from where the previous game Hitman: Blood Money left off. Diana Burnwood, 47’s handler, had sabotaged the Agency (the shadowy organization that hires 47 and probably others of his ilk) and exposed all the agents. 47 survived by shooting his way out of his own funeral and has now been contracted by the revamped Agency to assassinate Diana.

And thus begins another Hitman, this one being different in that unlike a series of unrelated assassinations for 47 to pull off, he is drawn deeper into a conspiracy that is disturbingly close to home. Had Diana really betrayed him? What is the new head of the Agency Benjamin Travis’s agenda? Who is Victoria, the mysterious teenager 47 must keep safe? There is a linear story arc that many fans of the series have complained about, and though it is a complex and well-developed narrative, one does tend to lose interest in the twists and turns by the time it draws to a close. That said, the immersive quality of the game is incredible. If your hardware can manage it, the graphics (and sound) are quite stunning and there is a cinematic quality to the gameplay. Even without ‘high’ settings, Absolution is a joy to play and don’t be surprised if you end up wasting a couple of hours just exploring your environment.

There are some gameplay changes, of course. Agent 47 now possesses what is called Instinct, which allows him to scan his surroundings for enemies and points/objects of interest, as well as predict enemy movement. It allows him to go into a slow-motion mode for precision shots called Point Shooting. It also helps him blend in. Blend-in is a welcome addition to the disguise system. Just donning a disguise doesn’t guarantee invisibility any more; people in the same job/profession will be suspicious of you and they will see through your disguise in a matter of seconds. Thus, you will need to use your Instinct to go undetected. Think that makes it all easy? Well, Instinct depletes as you use it (and only regenerates in Normal mode when you complete objectives and generally do anything a good assassin should do), so you need to use it judiciously.

As mentioned before, Absolution is supremely immersive. Walking around, hiding around a corner, shimying up on ledges, popping inside a handy cupboard—it all feels quite intuitive. The cover system has also changed—going in and out of cover with the press of the spacebar (I was playing on the PC), movement under cover, shooting or subduing victims from cover feels much more natural. The once-favourite sedative of those gamers who favoured Agent 47’s stealth approach is now history, but the good news is that our man now has a deadly subdue option to silently take down enemies. 47 may choose to just incapacitate the victim or go all the way and kill. Oh and this needs Instinct to carry out, so another reason to plan you use of it. As with most games, the AI tends to be somewhat moronic, but is still much improved from before. If 47 is spotted, matters can be contained by subduing eyewitnesses before an alarm is raised. 47 also has an option to pretend to surrender, lead an unsuspecting guard or cop to a quiet corner and take care of him.

The biggest hassle with Absolution is the lack of a save system. All you have are in-game checkpoints, but they only last as long as your gaming session. So if you end up making a teeny mistake—or a game glitch strikes just as you’ve spend half an hour creeping up on your victim—have fun doing it all all over again. The checkpoints too are not without bugs: I’ve had characters respawning or items disappearing, requiring me to restart entire levels. Fortunately, each mission is subdivided into sub-levels, which makes the lack of a save system a tiny bit less painful.

The abundance of empty bins and cupboards to conceal bodies—or for 47 to hide in—is a little too convenient. There are also gas canisters and proximity mines lying about with abandon in certaion locations, not to mention weapons. Speaking of weapons, 47’s trademark Silverballers only make an appearance mid-game. You’re also not able to choose weapons at the start of a mission. Neither of these made much of a difference to my stealth-based gameplay, however. As in the other Hitman games, you are free to choose your style of play: sneak about like a ghost or go in all guns blazing. However, a major grouse is that one of the missions forces you to use Point Shooting, which required a certain amount of desperate Googling to remember the correct commands.

Unlike many gamers out there, you’ll find no complaints from me abouts Absolution‘s single-player focus since I prefer solitary gaming. That said, it game is not free from the ubiquitous social networking of our current lives: at the end of every level not only are you given a score, but it is pitted against the average scores of players across the world and also in your region. There are also Challenges that add to your score—various achievements that are unlocked when you finish certain objectives including remaining undetected, the manner in which a target is eliminated, collecting evidence and so on. Which reminds me, every level has an ‘evidence’ tape, presumably incriminating 47 in some way, that can be collected for extra points. Side note: it is impossible to clear every challenge on a single playthrough.

In addition to the regular story mode of Absolution, there is also what is called the Contracts mode. This comprises player-created chapters played on any of the game’s existing levels, including a custom challenge and up to three targets for 47 to eliminate. This is a great way to revisit the scene and keep the game going once you’re done with it. Any player may create and share a Contract online, provided that they’re able to complete it themselves first.

In sum, Hitman: Absolution was a briliantly immersive, thoroughly enjoyable episode of getting into the skin of Agent 47 with his impeccable suit and shiny red tie. (Point of interest: he gouges out his barcode early in the game, so you get to see the back of his head with a bandaid on it instead of the familiar barcode.) It’s already been too long—almost three years, but it feels like an eternity—since Absolution has been out and word is that details of a new game will be revealed later in the year. I can hardly wait and have my fingers tightly crossed that we shall see more of Victoria in it.

RATING: 8/10

~PD

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