Classic gaming on Eee, Redux.

After Friday’s post I spent Sunday night trying to get Interstate ’76 to run on my Vista box which, as it turns out, is impossible. Enter my Eee PC! It lacks an optical drive but thanks to the power of MagicDisc I was able to take ripped image files from my discs and mount them on a virtual drive. There were a fewer other hiccups along the way but the I76 page over at ntcompatible was a major help and I finally got things up and running. I’ve only tested the game in “Super-Performance” mode (which looks like it just about halves the battery life to just over 3 hours) but it runs nice and smooth there. The keyboard is a bit cramped and I’ll be looking into other input options for it in the future, but I’m excited to play around with the game.

Curious to see how other games performed I dug out my old Baldur’s Gate 2 discs and ripped images of those as well. Once I transferred that over to the netbook things installed with no hiccups and were up and running no problem. The game looks, sounds, and runs great! I can’t enable the 3d acceleration (integrated graphics, yay!) but I haven’t patched the game yet (or installed the Throne of Bhaal expansion) so that might change.

I’ll continue experimenting with older games on my Eee PC.  My next test will be to see how games mounted on a virtual drive install/run from a USB thumb drive (the Eee PC has 3 USB 2.0 connectors).

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Guns, Tires, Fire and Funk (My Favorite Game)

Recent news of the Vigilante 8 release on XBLA got me nostalgic for its bigger brother Interstate ’76. For those that don’t know Interstate ’76 or I76 as it was typically called was (is), hands down, my favorite computer game of all time.  The game was set in, surprise, 1976 and envisioned an era when the fuel crisis of 1973 had never ended and roaming bands of auto-vigilantes brought their brand of villainy and justice to the deserts of the American West.  The game employed the old Mechwarrior 2 engine to recreate classic muscle cars tricked out with everything from machine guns and flame throwers to rocket launchers and oil slicks.

Continue reading “Guns, Tires, Fire and Funk (My Favorite Game)”

We apparently live in Spelljammer

From a space.com article about the recently discovered “dark flow” (massive amounts of our universe flowing towards a fixed point at ridiculous speeds) comes this little gem on “inflation theory”:

A theory called inflation posits that the universe we see is just a small bubble of space-time that got rapidly expanded after the Big Bang. There could be other parts of the cosmos beyond this bubble that we cannot see.

So…apparently we live (might live) in a “bubble”  of space time in a universe that exists outside of our observable surroundings.  I will give $20 to the first NASA scientist that dubs this material/area outside our bubble “The Phlogiston”.

Also, someone better plug that hole in our universe quick!  Beofre things get ugly!

Review: Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan

Thriteen

Richard K. Morgan

Del Rey, 2007

Note: I’m not really happy with this review.  I waited longer than I should to get some thoughts down.  Thirteen is really a fascinating, exciting read that sci-fi fans, science geeks, or anyone interested in discussion about people and society should read.

Thirteen or Black Man, as it was known in the UK, is the latest sci-fi novel from Richard K. Morgan.  It breaks from his Kovacs novels and is set in its own world.   Marsalis is a thirteen a genetically engineered “human” designed to be the ultimate aggressor with a nanotech  mesh that enhances his physical abilities.  Unfortunatley thirteens are now illegal and most exiled to Mars, those that aren’t are trouble and it’s Marsalis’ job (thanks to winning a lottery for a trip from Mars to Earth) to track them down and bring them in.  After a job gone wrong Marsalis finds himself pressed into helping track down a rogue thirteen who hijacked a shuttle back home.

As with all novels Morgan excels in writing slick, high impact action scenes.  The ultra-violent ultra-aggressive Marsalis is almost a monster of a creature and isn’t afraid to push limits when it comes to getting the job done.  What is most interesting when reading Marsalis is how invigorating his almost over-the-top actions can be.  Marsalis, representing the primal things either bred out or pent-up is a compelling character that oozes a dark allure saying and doing things that the niceties of human society, and genetics, prevents one from doing and saying.  Or maybe I’m just a bit sick in the head.  Could be that too.

Regardless, Morgan draws a rather distinct line between thirteens and humanity at large using the lab-created men (and women) as a means to examine the nature of humanity itself.  Morgan, as I’m coming to look at his work, tends to take a fairly dire opinion of us as a species when it comes to certain things and Thirteen is no exception.  Between the actions of Marsalis and the humans around him Morgan does an excellent job of casting his work in shades of gray that make telling right from wrong and good from bad extraordinarily difficult prospects.

The clearly intentional shades of gray serve as a means to bring some of the social discussion the novel touches upon to the forefront.  Morgan uses Thirteen to touch on a numerous social areas mainly religion, racism, and the nature of what it means to be human.  Marsalis, genetically designed to be both decisive and aggressive is Morgan vision of humanity’s response to tolerance.  Morgan explores the idea that our greater drive towards tolerance, acceptance, and embracing of our fellow man weeded out the animal instincts and cunning that had left us at the top of the food chain.  It is this idea that bred Marsalis and the other thirteens; humanity’s answer to tolerance was to create something inhuman.

Thirteen is a much more intimate story than Morgan’s other works and despite the cosntant globe-trotting maintains a very focused perspective.  In terms of narrative I think it makes for a much deeper story and allows it to resonate with the reader.  Personally, I prefer to more epic action of the Kovacs novels but Thirteen makes for a impressively meaty read.  I felt that the middle section of the novel suffered a bit because of some Marsalis’ more cerebral meanderings and overall that the message of novel muddied the actual plot, not so much as derail it completely but enough that it wasn’t as compelling as it ought to been.  Still this was a fantastic read and a prime example of how science fiction can be used to provoke discussion.

Robert Jordan Review Nostalgia!

Adam of the Wertzone has a review of Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World. It is pretty even handed in its complements and its criticism and well worth a look for those who’ve never read the series.  Adam does point out the strong Tolkein influence of Jordan’s work and I would add that I think Jordan uses that as an in for the first novel and departs somewhat as the series progresses.  He also points in his review to Terry Brooks as an author who ripped off Tolkein but whenever I think of major Tolkien ripoffs I think of Dennis McKiernan’s The Iron Tower.  As derivitive as Brooks work is his later books (specifically some of the ‘modern’ ones) at least show some originality and never really swing into the heavy handed wholesale copying of McKiernan’s Iron Tower.

If you’ve never read the book, or read it a while ago, head on over a take a look.

Upcoming Posts/Reads/Games

Thanks to certain people I may add a “vampire” month to my reading/viewing especially if I manage to get tickets to see Let the Right One In at the Angelika Film Center in NY towards the end of next month.  For now here is a list on the reviews I’m working, books I’m reading, books I plan to read and games I’m looking out for in the coming months.

Forthcoming Reviews:

Jedi Twilight by Michael Reeves (finished, but sitting on my laptop)

Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan (I just reviewed a Morgan book so I decided to hold off a bit on this review)

Current Reads:

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie (50%)

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (25%)

From Asgard to Valhalla: the Remarkable History of the North Myths by Heather O’Donoghue (10%)

Upcoming Reads:

Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe (late Sep.)

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazney (via Abebooks.com)

Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Stugatsky

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson (Oct.)

Backup by Jim Butcher (Oct.)

Games I’m Keeping My Eye On:

Duke Nuke 3D: XBLA (Sep.)

Rock Band 2 (Sep. 16 or Oct. 19)

STALKER: Clear Sky (Sep. 16)

The Witcher: Enhanced (Sep. 16)

Crysis: Warhead (Sep. 16)

Armored Core: For Answer (Sep. 16)

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (Sep. 16)

Fracture (Oct. 7)

Dead Space (Oct. 14)

Far Cry 2 (Oct. 21)

Fable 2 (Oct. 21)

Legendary (Oct. 21, maybe Nov. 4)

Fallout 3 (Oct. 28)

Mirror’s Edge (Nov. 11)

Left 4 Dead (Nov. 17)

Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir (Nov. 18)

The Last Remnant (Nov. 20)

Trashed Post: State of the Bioshock

I was going to trash this post sitting in my Drafts section but decided to let it out, unfinished, into the light of day.  I’ve pretty much come to accept what I see as Bioshock’s shortcomings.  Will I finish the game?  I don’t know.  It just hasn’t really been fun for me and there is just so much other stuff I’d rather be doing, and other games I’d rather be playing.  This will be the last time I’ll talk about the game here…unless I finish it.  So here is the scrapped post:

Just so you all know I am still playing the game…occasionally.

My previous thoughts are here so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but I still  don’t quite get what the big deal is.  I’m not going to touch the story, the art, the graphics or the soundtrack since all of those reveal a level of attention and quality unsurpassed, or even equaled, by games past and present.  No, my problem is with the gameplay.  Let me address the points in bullet fashion:

  • AI: The AI for splicers is, to put it simply, dumb as a rock.  Sure, they seem concerned about staying alive (evidenced when they run away to hit a med station, the economics of which I won’t address) but seem almost uninterested in actually taking me down.   Plus, they all do the same thing.  As far as I can tell there are only three kinds of splicers: hittin’ you guys, shootin’ you guys, and explodin’/burnin’ you guys.  Some have minor variations: climbing walls, teleporting, hacking security bots but none of them actually do anything different.  They don’t work together in any meaningful way.  Maybe it’s intentional, a fact that the smarter AI of the Big Daddies would seem to support.
  • Character Models: I can’t blame Bioshock too much for this one, every game does it.  But the splicers don’t look very different from one another…or maybe it’s just me.
  • Rails: While many reviewers harped about the organic and detailed world of Rapture I have to wonder if they were playing the same game as me.  Rapture, cool art deco architecture, creepy lighting and atmosphere aside is just a fancy dress on that same old FPS level design.  It lacks an openness (in terms of when you can go where, not in terms of open spaces) that hearkens back to the very earliest shooters.  The levels feel contrived and never organic.  In truth, and perhaps a weakness in the game, is that the level design serves the story forcing you down a predetermined path.
  • Colored Keys: Once upon a time there was a game.  In this game you would come across a door banded in red (or blue, or yellow, or green) that just wouldn’t open.  Low and behold in you travels you would come across a key that was red (or blue, or yellow, or green) which would open the aforementioned door.  This game was called Doom.  Now, Bioshock isn’t nearly as obvious but each major section of the game is, in truth, a key hunt.  Save the trees by finding the serum, assemble the bomb, take pictures of certain things, etc.  Each of these quests inevitably unlocks that mysterious door which, unfortunately, only really leads to the next key hunt.
  • Ill-timed Narrative: A minor item but sometimes my allies/antagonist chime in at terrible moments when I can’t listen (or read subtitles), which is shitty since they generally have interesting things to say.

I know Bioshock tries to do some revolutionary and innovative things but I don’t think it really accomplishes them.  I know the whole save or kill the Little Sister thing is supposed to draw you into the narrative with a serious moral quandary and, as a result, engender a deeper emotional attachment to the proceedings but I just don’t feel it really works that well.  However that single element seems to be the only real moral conflict in the game and you’re left literally no other choices in determining how the narrative unfolds.  I’ve already harped about the plasmids, but similar abilities have been tried elsewhere with more success and, the real clincher, none of your abilities ever really offer you alternative means to getting things done only slight variations on the same method.

All this leads me, almost ineveitably, to the conclusion that as well-crafted and powerful as Bioshock’s story is it actually gets in the way of the game.  Film is a wonderful medium that through the use of well crafted story and stirring visuals transports the viewer outside him/her-self and can bring them to places, and create expierences, encompassing the entire range of the emotional spectrum.  Games can do the same thing, but I’m not sure that Bioshock’s methodology is necessarily the correct one.  It takes steps in the right direction certainly, by forcing players to contemplate their moral standpoint and reaction to the decisions they have to make, but it seems to me that the game largely ignores one of the most powerful aspects of video games: the ability of the player to craft the story through their own decision making.  As ambitious as the game is it tries to hard too walk a middle ground between film and game, makes too many concessions towards the latter rather than the former, that it falls just short of being revolutionary.

Eee PC: Classic gaming platform

Now that I’m the owner of a shiny new Eee 1000H I did what any new laptop owner should do…clutter my hard drive with tons of distracting materials.  Last week really spurred things into overdrive with the release of the original X-Com: UFO Defense on Valve’s Steam service.  Once Steam was installed and X-Com purchased I ended up spending a solid portion of the weekend playing the game while making almost no kind of actual progress.  I had almost forgotten how painfully difficult the game could be, particularly when taking on the game’s Terror Sites (when aliens attack a populated area).  I’m only on my second terror site and, thankfully, have yet to come across any Chrysallids (they attack civilians and turn them into zombies which after a certain amount of time, or when they are killed, turn into Chrysallids themselves).  Regardless, the current level is bitch with my squad of mostly rookies struggling to hit the broad sides of barns.

The whole rookie thing would be less of a problem if my casualty rate weren’t somewhere well above 50%.  Maybe I should be playing on easy.  X-Com’s gameplay has held up surprisingly well over the years with game play as excrutiatingly tense as it ever was.  Given how hard this game is I’d almost be afraid to see what current AI would do to my poor squad.  It’s a shame that the sequels never quite lived up to the original (Terror from the Deep was pretty cool, but it was downhill after that) and I blame that lackluster sequels (and mediocre clones in more recent years) for the reasoning behind X-Com’s lack of a modern successor.  I hope that the Steam version sells well enough that current license holders 2k Games (if the Steam “My Games” page is to be believed) take notice.  Rumors abound that something was/is/has been in the works but there has never been anything concrete announced.

Playing X-Com has also got me interested in more “classic” PC games for my Eee PC.  I tracked down a copy of System Shock 2, a game I have fond memories of playing but never completed.  I played through the training levels and it runs extremely good on the feisty little Eee but I was struck by the undeniable similarites to Ken Levine’s latest game Bioshock.  Everything from the Psi powers (plasmids) and hypos for healing (both psi points and health), to the audio recordings, to the hacking game, to the vending machine for ammo and items everything in System Shock 2 is a template for Bioshock.

To add fuel to my classic PC gaming fire I got my beta key for GOG.com (which looking today isn’t even necessary since it seems you can create an account w/o a beta key) regardless the guys at Good Old Games have a nice little service that offers old PC game for around $5 or $6 each.  You get to download the full game, DRM Free, plus frequent bonus materials as well.  The developers have gone out of their way to provide links to relevent mods for the games as well.  To clincher is that the games are vetted to run on various operating systems including Vista (the bane of old games!).  The Eee’s lack of an optical drive means that I may end up blowing some extra cash on games I already own (looking at you Fallout) but it’s a slick site that I certainly hope suceed.  My life will be complete if they end up adding Interstate ’76.  Between that and X-Com I might never have to play a new game again.

Ok that was hyperbole, but still.

Anyhoo, needless to say I am much pleased with Asus’ little netbook with its lengthy battery life and capable Atom processor and look forward to future classic gaming when the current industry inevitably fails to meet any of my expectation.

Review: Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell

Sly Mongoose

Tobias S. Buckell

Tor, 2008

[REVERB] SPAAAAAACE ZOMBIEEEEEEEEEES!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [/REVERB]

If this were a perfect world I’d end this review now and you would all go out and buy the book now.  But our world certainly ain’t perfect so I guess I should say a little more.  If you’ve read Buckell’s previous books Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin you’re likely familiar with cyborg ultra-badass Pepper who, as Sly Mongoose begins, is plummeting from orbit to the surface of a gas giant in nothing more than a space suit.  The rather exciting introduction is certainly an attention grabber but also serves a vital purpose in forcing the typically super-powered Pepper to use a bit of innovation to get through the novels later action.

Speaking of action Sly Mongoose has plenty of it.  Buckell seems to have taken some lessons from Ragamuffin, a certain scene involving no gravity and a minigun, and pulls together some compelling set pieces starting with Pepper’s introduction, continuing through Timas’s travel on the surface of Chilo, and ending right at the titanic conflict at the novel’s climax.  The three novels Buckell has written so far certainly show a strong progession of a writer with a clear eye for action (especially those “oh shit” moments) that has only grown with each book he has written.   Pepper is a fun character, though a familiar archetype, and Buckell’s deft manipulation of his cirumstances here add a bit of depth to his personality that is great to see and damned fun to read.

Buckell, as in his previous novels, brought in a Robin to our Batman in the form of Timas.  Timas is a character I initially wrote off as a carbon copy of John de Brun’s son but who, rather early on, turned out to be a more well-rounded and likeable character overall.  Timas, thanks to his young age and small size, is able to fit inside the pressure suits used to delve to the surface of the gas giant he lives in order to perform vital maitanence on the mining engine.  In a bit of brilliant social insight Buckell introduces the fact that Timas uses a brutal combination of diet, excercise and bolemia to manage his weight and size that is at once shocking and believable given the vital importance of the need to keep the surface machinery running.  Timas proves to be a rather interesting character, thanks mainly to his strong opinion on duty and his quick thinking, that far eclipses any of the other “buddy” characters Buckell has previously introduced.

Sly Mongoose serves as testament towards Buckell’s to craft a sequel framed in a shared world but with a picture and story completely different from previous outings.  Admitedly some reference to earlier evens from both Ragamuffin and Crystal Rain might confuse newer readers but I think that Sly Mongoose stands on its own with extraordinary ease.  At the same time Buckell manages to hint at some of the grander events in store for Pepper and company.  Indeed the novel’s quick pace and action certainly left me wanting more in the end, not because it was really missing anything but because what was there was so damned slick that I didn’t want to stop reading.  I certainly recommend you check out both Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin but think if your looking for a good, fast-paced space zombie action story than you can’t really go wrong with Sly Mongoose.