April 2009 Archives

The Gargoyle

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I don't often post about the books I read, but I completed The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson recently and found it worth posting about. At it's heart it's a simple love tale, but it's similar in tone to The Time Traveler's Wife in that it tells a rather unconventional story, avoiding the trap of slushy sentimentality.

Told in the first person, which seems to be fashionable these days (or at least I've ended up reading quite a few first person novels lately), it tells the tale of an unnamed drug addicted porn actor who crashes his car and is horrifically burnt in the resulting fire. Much of the early part of the book is spent describing in vivid and almost painful detail his burns and the agonising treatments he receives in hospital. Rather understandably, he spends his time between treatments planning his suicide.

He is constantly tormented by a snake which has taken residence in his spine which is only quieted by large doses of morphine.

He then meets a rather strange woman who wanders in from the psychiatric ward who claims they first met centuries earlier. Intrigued, he allows her to keep visiting and she tells him the story of their medieval life together. Things progress and without spoiling anything, by the end of the book the last thing the last thing on his mind is suicide.

The edges of the pages are printed black to fit in with the burn theme, which forms the only problem with this novel as the black ink transfers onto your hands as you read it.

I'm not really doing the story justice in my description as it probably just sounds a bit odd, but I've really enjoyed reading this book which is even more amazing for being Andrew Davidson's d´┐Żbut novel.

Mass Effect

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I seem to be catching up with a few older Xbox 360 games lately, and Mass Effect has been the latest game I have completed.

According to my save game I played for almost 32 hours. I actually think I played for longer than this as I'm not sure whether it includes cumulative time spent dying and retrying sections. Either way, this is pretty long for a single playthrough of a modern game, bucking the recent trend for shorter (and arguably higher quality) experiences. However, in this case there was little lack of quality, and I now consider Mass Effect to be one of my favourite games of all time.

However, that's not to say it's perfect. There's the incredibly far reaching storyline, interesting dialogue, deep characters, fascinating background information in the codex, fun combat and truly significant moral decisions on the plus side, but a lot of annoyances that keep it more than a hair's breadth away from genius. The long elevator rides and poor inventory system (at least on the Xbox 360 version) have been mentioned a lot around the internet, so I won't repeat that here, but I think other problems detract from the experience in more significant ways.

The Mako vehicle has awful handling, especially since I played this game right after Halo 3 with it's fantastic Warthogs. It'll drive up near vertical slopes, but bounces wildly around all over the place going over the shallowest bump. There seems to be a huge amount of autorighting to prevent it from rolling over but this just feels like a physics code hack. It has the ability to do a little rocket powered jump for a couple of seconds but this facility is little more than a novelty. However, the most annoying feature of the Mako is that it's not upgradable, unlike all of the rest of your equipment. I think I ended up with a more powerful shotgun than the Mako's cannon by the end of the game. Also, there was no tutorial for the Mako, so it was purely by accident that I discovered its cannon and zoom features to go with the machine gun.

I also had surround sound problems which made some dialogue hard to hear - particularly when characters started chatting in the lifts. Sound designers for games seem unaware of the golden rules of speech that film and TV follow, which is to almost always keep it on the front speaker channels, rather than treating it as a normal 3D positional sound and panning it round to the back to be drowned out by background noise and music.

On the non-story arc planets, there is a lot of repeated geometry which breaks immersion slightly, though this is forgiveable as to produce unique environments for every single planet in the game would be an immense undertaking.

The difficultly curve occasionally has massive spikes, though for a branching storyline where you can't predict what skills and equipment the player and their team has it's quite impressive that the curve is as flat as it is.

For all these problems, I've been totally absorbed in Mass Effect, playing this game most nights for the last couple of weeks or so, till 1am and beyond (much to the annoyance of my wife - Sorry!).

One other problem remains. I downloaded the Bring Down the Sky DLC and decided to leave it till the end of the game to play. It was released after the game, so I think it's a fair assumption that I would be able to play it with my character after completing the game, but it turns out this isn't the case. I played the game using one save game and my last save would be in a position where I couldn't get back to the galactic map so couldn't go to the system that triggers the DLC. I could start a new game, but that would leave me with a low level character that would make the DLC very difficult. This leads onto another problem...

I'd like to do another playthrough, making totally different decisions along the way (be a renagade!) and specialise in biotics rather than weaponry. However, the press releases for Mass Effect 2 state that the game will use your Mass Effect save game to set up the story, which sounds great, but I'd like it to use my first playthrough as a template as any decisions I made were based to the information available to me at the time, so the consequences are real (or as real as you can get in a game). If the game uses your last playthrough, that's kinda like cheating to me. Therefore I'm leaving my save game well alone until Mass Effect 2 comes out, unless someone can clear up this quandry for me.

HTC Google G1

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For ages now, I've been suffering from a poor to non-existent Orange phone signal in the office. A couple of days ago I'd missed one call too many and snapped, so I'm now the owner of a shiny new HTC Google G1 on T-Mobile.

I decided to keep my old Orange phone anyway as Orange Wednesday 2-for-1 cinema tickets are not worth sacrificing, and the phone was on Pay as you Go so it won't cost me anything to keep. However, this does mean my new phone is on a different number. Contact me directly if you want the new number.

As with any new piece of technology there are good and bad things about it. Here's the good, in no particular order...

  • A consistent phone signal in work!
  • Hardware keyboard - The lack of a hardware keyboard is one of the thing that has put me off buying an iPhone for a long time, despite the phone being a great piece of technology otherwise (the overpriced, fashion item, DRM riddled status of the iPhone is another reason I don't own one). The G1's hardware keyboard works well, even with my fat thumbs (you end up holding the phone at each end with your fingers and typing with your thumbs). This is why I wasn't tempted to wait for the G2 which has moved to a touch sensitive soft keyboard.
  • Big screen - This seems obvious (big photos, video, web pages etc), but it also allows some nice user interface improvements over my old phone. It treats SMS like an IM conversation, so you can read the history of messages to a person on screen which is a lovely touch. Also, any notifications (new text messages, missed calls etc) can be seen instantly by dragging the top of the screen down.
  • Wireless - 3G sucks for proper internet browsing, so it's lovely to have a decent wireless connection on a mobile device, either through the open guest connection at work or at home through my secured wireless router.
  • Open source - I can do what I like with it, I don't have to use iTunes or any other proprietary sync software. If I want to download a piece of music, I simply do so (legally of course) from whatever site I fancy, directly on the phone. I haven't installed the SDK yet, but when I do I'm sure I'll be writing a blog post or two about it.
  • Web Browser - A lovely web browser that seems to work well with pretty much any site I point it at. It's based on WebKit (the same tech as Chrome and Safari) so it's not really a surprise that it works well. My old phone did a good job too using Opera Mobile, but the screen was far too small to make this particularly useful, plus data charges prevented me using it much (data is free on the new contract).
  • Soft case - It was nice to find a fabric case in the box with the phone. It's a bit cheap looking, but it'll stop the phone getting scratched in my coat pocket or bag.
  • Everything works - Unlike my last phone which took a day and a half and several phone calls to customer services people who didn't seem to believe me when I told them it hadn't activated. This new phone was activated within seconds.

Unfortunately, there are a few bad points...

  • GMail - There's nothing wrong with GMail as such, but I really hate being forced into something. I've already got a Google account (registered with my Hotmail address which gives me a little perverse pleasure). I can login to Google Reader and other services using this address, but I don't see why the phone insisted I create a new GMail account as well. In fact I was in such a rush to get this step over with that I mistyped my email alias, so now instead of having an extra email account I probably won't use, I've got one I definitely won't use. Just to rub salt in the wound, there's no way to correct the spelling in the email alias, and it has promoted itself to being the primary email address for my Google account, meaning it sits there taunting me at the top of Google Reader. No other Google service I use forces me to have a GMail address, so why does this phone?
  • Size - While the big screen is lovely, the phone itself is a bit big in my pocket, though I suppose that's the sacrifice you make for buying a smart phone (they all seem to be of similar dimensions).
  • Proprietary headphone socket - Nuff said. There was a set of compatible headphones in the box though, so at least it isn't going to cost me any extra money to listen to a few tunes on the walk to work.
  • It's locked to T-Mobile - But so what? Unless you spend a fortune on an unlocked model, pretty much any phone in the UK is locked to the network you bought it through.

It's only just occurred to me that I should have written this blog post using the phone as a good test for the web browser and keyboard, but I've written it on the PC. Never mind, I guess it's a bit of a mindset change to get used to.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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