Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Music from The Bard’s Tale

A few years ago (for the PS2, I think) there was a slightly unusual game called The Bard’s Tale. It was a comedy with quite a bit of music, as might be expected, given the name. The Bard was a self-interested rogue, and the narrator a dry and sarcastic fellow. It was flawed, but fun, and here are a couple of the musical numbers the game featured:


Monday, 28 November 2011

Review: Skyrim

Review: Skyrim

This is a bit delayed because of an unfortunate issue, namely that the PS3 version reportedly suffers game-breaking lag beyond a certain point. I went for a broad and shallow approach (I have a number of characters with varying play-styles but no one high levelled character) so can’t definitively confirm or deny this. I was going to wait until I had such a character before writing this, but decided it’d be simpler to just give a score with and without the bug (on the basis that it may be patched or not universal, and that it may not apply across platforms).

At the time of playing I’ve played with characters of most races, completed or gotten very far along multiple quest lines (a few guilds and the main quest) and clocked probably 45-50 hours, maybe more.

Character Creation

Much improved on Oblivion, although the humans (Redguard excepted) do all look pretty similar. The scars and war paint options are nice, and the weight slider is very welcome.

The beast races are the best done and most improved, I feel. The Argonians can have a range of skin colours, but also benefit the most from the options to change various face colours (neck, chin, lower cheek etc). Khajiit also look fantastic, and the only race I might have a slight downer on would probably be the Dunmer, who really were beaten with the ugly stick a little too hard.

In the First Impressions post I said character creation was mostly cosmetic, and whilst that’s partly true I underestimated the importance of different skill levels. This is disproportionately important from one skill to another (for example, increasing the skill level with one-handed weapons is a piece of cake, but something like smithcraft takes more time and effort).


My biggest problem with Oblivion was the awful levelling system, which made it quite easy to become progressively weaker the higher your level. Skyrim resolved this by axing attributes (Strength, Willpower etc) altogether, and instead make levelling contingent upon increasing skills.

At each level gained you increase Health/Magic/Stamina by 10 points and get a perk (eg increasing the damage done with a one-handed weapon, cutting the cost of Destruction spells etc).

This system is simple, very similar to Fallout and, thankfully, works very well. There are many perks that are either good or great and few fillers. In addition, there are often extra branches to the perk tree (each one takes the form of a constellation, with each perk a star) so if you’re a two-handed weapon sort of chap who only ever uses warhammers you can specifically increase the damage that warhammers do.

Many perks require a given skill level, which makes sense. Skills can be increased through use, reading a skill book (tip: these typically have a value of 50-70 and usually have a hint in the title as to what they improve) or getting training.

The system works very well, I’m pleased to say.

Gameplay (particularly balance of play-styles and combat)

I took a broad and shallow approach to testing this out, so I’ve got half a dozen or so characters, mostly low level, with two at 20+. My higher level characters were a pure warrior (Asgerd Njalsdottir) and a stealthy archer with some warrior skills (Shadowfang).

The pure warrior worked pretty well, but the game was easier (arguably too easy) with Shadowfang. He was able to kill people from a distance, often with a single shot, then kill the other foes who came to investigate what had happened. The use of certain warrior skills (smithing, one-handed and block) also meant he was pretty good in a toe-to-toe fight. I am glad, however, that the archery skill has been slightly beefed up and remains useful throughout, unlike in Oblivion where it became a bit rubbish at later levels. Also, you cannot run backwards (only walk), constantly firing arrows. A strong archer will be able to kill or halve the health of a feeble or average opponent with one arrow, but stronger enemies will be able to close the gap.

I did try a pure magic character, whom I fitted with stereotypical gear (ie enchanted clothes rather than armour). This was the trickiest of all options, as the damage potential was high (both in terms of receiving and delivering). I think the magic skills would work best with a hybrid character. There’s also a big leap between Novice and Apprentice level magic, as I discovered when some vile bugger put an icicle through my character’s head.

On the whole, combat is quite easy, but there will be times when you realise quite suddenly you’re out of your depth. I was climbing a mountain with Asgerd when a certain enemy appeared and kicked her arse. I tried a few more times but it was too tough so I left to level a bit, then came back and introduced its face to her sword.

The crafting skills are pretty damned good, especially smithing. This can seriously improve your gear and you can make your own. Firewood can be acquired with use of a chopping block and woodcutter’s axe, ore by mining with a pickaxe and smiths generally have a range of ore and ingots for sale.

Locks are perhaps a little too easy to pick, but the mini-game (basically the same as Fallout 3) is much more enjoyable than that of Oblivion.

Dragon shouts are excellent. I haven’t found too many, but a few, and most are either ones that are often useful or at least make sense (so, not many fillers here either). Some dragon battles are a bit easy (being a Nord gives a 50% frost resistance, so against a frost dragon this is rather handy) but others, particularly named dragons, can be more challenging.

The World

The world is fantastic. It’s massive (it does feel larger, to me, than Oblivion) and the changing landscape adds to the sense of scale. The mountains are often enormous and the game has a number of different climates (snowier in the north and east, forests in other areas, mountains, tundra etc). It is darker in both tone and colour than Oblivion, which fits well, although can make the world a shade gloomier.

Dialogue is improved upon, with people speaking whilst doing things (sharpening a sword on a grindstone, say) and the world continues to move around you. It’s also very similar to Fallout 3, with options that sometimes appear including Intimidate, Bribe, Persuade and Brawl (a bare knuckle fight that doesn’t give you a bounty).

Most of my characters are law-abiding, but Shadowfang’s a murderous bastard and so occasionally got a bounty. It’s rather immersion-breaking to slaughter someone in broad daylight, get caught and then get asked to, er, pay the fine. If you choose to go to jail then you lose the progress you’ve made towards improving one or more skills but the skill level does not decline.

There seem to be more varied points of interest on the map than before. There are often lumber mills, farms, caverns, mines, watchtowers, crypts and Dwemer ruins. On the whole, dungeons tend to be larger and more distinctive than in Oblivion. There are some puzzles, which tend not to be too hard.

There are 9 cities, 5 of which are major and walled and 4 of which are minor. You can buy houses in the major cities, although this does involve jumping through hoops (some of which are not at all obvious), which is more tedious than engaging. The cities themselves are reasonably large and there’s plenty of opportunity for heroic questing/villainous theft.

I’ve not joined every faction, but have done at least a few missions for most of them. The main quest is better than Oblivion’s, and the other factions I’ve joined have had interesting questlines, although the Dark Brother (so far anyway) isn’t quite as brilliant as it was in Oblivion. The civil war’s particularly interesting, as it’s possible to see both sides of the conflict as reasonable.

Exploration is, perhaps obviously, enjoyable, but also more difficult than in Oblivion. Occasionally you’ll come across a creature that will just slaughter you (my first sabre cat took me to pieces) and traversing mountains is more difficult. You can sometimes go up steep slopes but often there are sheer rock cliffs that cannot be climbed. I haven’t come across any “You cannot go any further” messages, as I think the boundaries are marked with mountain ranges, which fits well with the province and is more natural than a message telling you to stop. An exception’s probably made for the far north, but I haven’t tried swimming to the North Pole to find out.

There are many occasions when you either must have or can choose to have a companion (generally I went without) which can be a great help. You can give your companion(s) superior equipment so they last better in the fights, or load them up like a donkey to free up your own inventory.


Generally improved from the last instalment, and the faces and water effects are the biggest changes for the better. Dragons look damned good, except for the rare occasions when they talk to you (and I mean talk, not shout) when their size means their snout is practically thrust into your face and all you can see is the end of their snout, which looks a bit rubbish.

Dogs and other creatures also look good, and inventory includes not only every item but also graphical representations of every magic spell and power (a power is either an innate passive advantage a race has, or an activated once-a-day ability, or something of either type that has been acquired through questing, or a temporary bonus).

The draw distance is better than Oblivion. (Draw distance means how far you can see more detailed versions of things like mountains and trees, and see smaller things like grass and little plants at all). However, sometimes I did see rather long-distance crude tree shapes when I should’ve been close enough for the better version. This wasn’t much of an issue for me, though. Looking around at soaring peaks, winding rivers and varied landscapes was excellent throughout.

The spells look a lot nicer, both single-hand and double-handed, and the effects upon enemies, such as burning, is a bit better. Third person is a lot better, but I think the game’s better in the first person (horses, weirdly, can only be ridden in third person).

A word on armour: it’s a lot more varied than in Oblivion, often with multiple varieties of a single material such as steel or leather. It also looks better and some (I can’t say without significant spoilers, alas) looks bloody fantastic.


I liked Oblivion’s soundtrack, but didn’t love it. However, Skyrim’s is absolutely fantastic, featuring the best game music I’ve heard for a long time. Everyone knows the main theme, which is great and sounds even better when fighting a dragon in-game, but there are also a number of other tracks that add to the experience when doing everyday things like climbing mountains or exploring caves.

Voice-acting is improved upon and there are, thankfully, many more voice actors. Most of them do a good job, and the proper Nordic accents add a lot to the atmosphere, (only for it to be destroyed by a character with a blatant and strong American accent… oh well). There are few duff characters, though, and having played through the early bits a few times I’ve decided the wizard in Whiterun is one of them.

Sound effects are a little better, although this isn’t an area where great improvement can be made.

Bugs and other issues

First of all, bugs and the like I personally encountered:

Freezes –

Infrequent, as I only have four in total to date. Annoying but not game-breaking.

Lag –

Not a reference to the super-lag mentioned above, but your standard slowing. Happens now and then, more so at higher levels or at certain points (the entrance to Whiterun being a prime example). Irksome, not too bad.

Mini-menu lag –

Occasionally it takes a second or two for menus (including the favourites mini-menu) to respond. Happens reasonably often, and it’s a bit tedious.

Arrow of Doom! –

When Shadowfang first acquired some great armour I’d sometimes flit into third person. It was then I noticed he had a bloody arrow sticking out of his head. Dropping arrows didn’t remove it, but thanks to Juhmel on the official Bethesda forum I found the answer: put all your arrows on a corpse and then retrieve what you want. The arrow disappears.

I have not, as yet, experienced the game-breaking lag bug. Apparently it kicks in around when you have save files of 8 or 9MB, and mine are 7.5MB or so. This would be a pretty horrendous bug.


Skyrim is an epic and engaging game featuring a wide range of potential playing styles in terms of combat, morality and race, all of which is backed by a fantastic soundtrack. There are occasional letdowns when it comes to voice-acting, but it’s a league better than Oblivion.

However, the game is a victim of the 11/11/11 release date, and if it’s the case that game-breaking lag begins at around 8MB saves (which I’d guess is level 25 to 30) then that’s a huge problem as it cuts down enormously on the scope of a playthrough.

Based on my own experience, I’d give it 9/10 (would’ve been 9.5 but for the freeze bug and other small issues).

If the game-breaking lag comes in I’d slash that to 6/10. [Reason for not being lower is that it still gives 30 odd hours or more per character. It’s not any higher because the cut-off means you can never have a really high level character or experience the top end armours, dungeons and so forth].

There’s a second patch out shortly, so maybe that’ll address the super-lag. If not, it’s a terrible shame.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay) by Chris Wooding

This is the third book in the Tales of the Ketty Jay. Although they’re pretty much self-contained stories I would advocate reading them in order as there are some references to past events, and it fits with the progression of various characters.

The Iron Jackal sees Frey and his crew of assorted miscreants and psychologically defective lunatics in the unusual position of being famous, fairly well-off and with a ship that actually works. Naturally, this doesn’t last long and Frey finds himself plunged into a race against time to save his own neck.

Rather bizarrely, this book reminded me a bit of when I was reading The Outlaws of the Marsh. Whilst brilliant, The Outlaws of the Marsh is an ancient Chinese mega-novel of over 2,200 pages and has little in common with Tales of the Ketty Jay (although both do feature rather violent criminals who are mostly good). Eventually I realised that it was the great sense of familiarity with the characters that reminded me of the ancient book. During the months it took me to finish The Outlaws of the Marsh I grew to like a few characters quite a lot (Wu Song, Sagacious Lu and Li Kui especially) and got a similar feeling reading The Iron Jackal.

One of the series’ great strengths is the fact that the entire crew is made up of characters who are three-dimensional and have realistic dreams, ambitions and flaws. Even better, they have genuinely believable relationships to one another and they actually do develop and change over the course of the books.

The Iron Jackal is no exception and a number of characters have some more of their past history revealed or are developed a bit more.

The central premise of the plot is sound, although I found the storyline to be of secondary interest behind the significant character development that occurred throughout the book. The pace was pretty lively, and there were quite a few nice scenes of considerable bullet-ridden destruction.

The back cover reveals some quotes from sci-fi organs and authors, which mildly surprised me as I’d always thought of Tales of the Ketty Jay as being fantasy. The tech level is similar to an alternative reality late 19th or early 20th century (revolvers, rifles, airships, rail and so forth) but there’s also daemonism, which is a scientific take on magic.

It’s an old-fashioned rollicking adventure, a ripping yarn of theft, adventure, deceit and misfortune which I thoroughly recommend.

I’m fairly sure I read that the 4th book had been written, so presumably that’ll be out relatively shortly.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Churning out the word count

It’s been a little while since I did the first draft of Bane of Souls [pencilled-in title], but I remember the sometimes difficult task of trying to write X number of words per day. As a part-time would-be writer my daily target was relatively low, at 1,500 words. I’d try to write about 500 per sitting, as that’s a nice round number and also roughly one page on Word.

A post on Chrons recently highlighted a very interesting and probably helpful article regarding how to crank out more words. Rachel Aaron put forward three features that could really improve writing productivity: namely planning, enthusiasm and time.

Based on my limited experience (I’ve never even tried to get to 5,000 words a day, let alone 7,000 or 10,000), I think she’s very likely to be right. The easiest and most enjoyable piece of writing I ever did was some years ago. I was very clear about what I wanted the scene to be about and the impression I wanted the reader to get, and wrote something like 3,000 words in 30-45 minutes (which is break-neck speed, for me). It was also one of the pieces that I’ve liked reading back the most.

For Bane of Souls I adopted the unusual strategy of actually planning what the world and, roughly, the storyline would be before starting to write anything. Normally I just dive straight in, but I found myself enjoying the world-building, considering how the political, religious and cultural structures should co-exist in Highford and what sort of people should live there.

This also made the process of writing a lot easier, as I had the constant backdrop of the world-document I’d written. For someone who is atrocious at continuity and occasionally gets stuck having a fairly comprehensive document of characters, organisations and geography helped me bridge some gaps more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

I imagine it’ll be a little while before I’m back to writing a first draft (pretty glad the damned redrafting is done), but I’ll definitely re-read that article before I do.


Monday, 21 November 2011

Searching for cover art

Still not settled on a name (to be honest, I spent most of the weekend pondering Christmas gifts rather than trying to decide on one), though Bane of Souls or The Beast Within sound like potential titles.

I also need to decide on a cover, in terms of both content and trying to pick an artist. Technically, an e-book doesn’t really need a cover but I think it definitely adds something, if only avoiding an unsightly blank space where a picture ought to be when people are browsing.

Particular challenges for e-book covers are that they need to be ok in colour and black and white (colour for browsing, black and white for the e-reader) and look ok as a thumbnail as well as full-size.

I’ve already made a conscious decision to avoid the Man In A Dark Hooded Robe stereotype, and there are one or two potential cover pictures I have in mind. I’ll make a firm decision on that (and, obviously, the title) prior to selecting an artist.

There are a few sites that can be checked for artists, and I had a quick look at the Deviant Art site on Sunday. There are some very impressive pieces, though I do wonder how much a commission would be. Along with all the other technical things (I had the horrid realisation over the weekend that I need to find out where things would stand regarding tax/self-employment) that need sorting prior to publication I’ve been considering creating a small new website dedicated to the book, and future releases. It would be updated on a far less regular basis than this blog, but would provide a handy repository for information regarding books, forthcoming releases and so on. I’ve even considered commissioning a few pieces of art; one for the cover and a few of key moments in the plot which could be added to the prospective site.

However, the order of things to happen has the title first, and then either approaching an artist or two for quotes or seeing how tax matters stand. Then there’s formatting, finding out about ISBN, and looking at how Smashwords and Amazon work for publishing. Grah. I really hate this sort of thing, and have to keep forcing myself to work on it. On the plus side, the entire book is done.


Friday, 18 November 2011

Human species

Yes, it’s unusual, but today’s article is based on science (but there are some fantasy applications, which is why I chose this subject).

Right now human = homo sapiens. There are no Neanderthals running around, or Cro-Magnons or Homo Erectuses (Homo Erecti? And stop giggling). However, it wasn’t always so. Separate human species have not just emerged through sequential evolution but have lived side-by-side.

It’s quite hard to imagine, but not so long ago we shared Europe with Neanderthals for a prolonged period. On one island or other (I shall endeavour to remember where) people lived alongside a hobbit-like race of rather diminutive humans. These other people were apparently exterminated after causing serious harm to the local homo sapiens, who took rather serious and understandable offence.

There’s a region in South Africa that’s very secluded, and for a long time a group of homo sapiens there slowly began to evolve into a separate species (or perhaps subspecies). The key difference was language, with this isolated race developing a bird-like method of speaking utterly unlike the divergent but fundamentally similar languages with which we’re all familiar.

Could we, if we discovered them in a rain forest or cave system, live peacefully alongside another race of humans? I find it impossible to believe, sadly, given that we can’t even tolerate the same species of humans very well. It is, however, an intriguing thought.

Differing human species or subspecies also present fantasy writers with an alternative to the popular but not especially innovative standard of having humans, elegant elves and dumpy dwarves co-existing. Although modern humans have some racial differences (Chinese people have single eyelids, for example) we don’t have multiple species today, but it’s not too hard to imagine.

So, what differences could be used, and what differences existed between real world human species?

I remember watching a programme (Horizon, I think) about Neanderthals, which was fascinating and described in some detail the appearance, voice and other features of the extinct race. For a start, they had much longer rib cages, and didn’t have a waist. This made them sturdy but inflexible. In addition, their inner ear was different to ours, so they had inferior balance. Their voice would be nasal and high-pitched and I think that they would have better endurance/strength than us.

The hobbit race I mentioned above were, obviously, much smaller than us. In addition, they had a rather nasty habit of stealing things, which did not endear them to their neighbours.

A fundamental difference is whether a species is exclusively bipedal (like gibbons, or us) or can pick and choose (like gorillas or chimps). If a species were bipedal and quadrupedal then its eyesight might be worse and sense of smell better, and its arms and legs would probably have to be equal in length.

The three human species I use in the still untitled (I’m thinking of Bane of Souls, perhaps) book are quite similar. The Felarians and Dennish are almost identical, save that the former have darker skin, but the Kuhrisch are taller, stronger and somewhat resistant to the cold (but, unlike the other two races, they’re almost never magically gifted).


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Downfall of Empires

An often pondered question is “What caused the fall of the Roman Empire?” After all, Rome survived the military genius and crushing triumphs of Hannibal, and spanned the world from Arabia to Britain, from Germany to Egypt.

However, the question could also be broadened. What causes the downfall of empires?

An interesting case is the numerous empires that dominated Arabia. The Assyrians fell to the Medes, an internal enemy (I think), who then succumbed to the Persians (also an internal enemy), who were smashed by Alexander the Great. After Alexander there was what could perhaps be described as a bloody enormous Macedonian civil war over his empire, and eventually Seleucus ended up with most of what was Persia. The Seleucid Empire then fell to the Parthians (arguably an internal enemy), who were taken over by a rejuvenated Persia.

Persia ended up falling, permanently, to Islamic armies. However, that means that there were just two clear examples of external armies (Macedonian and Islamic) taking out Arabian empires, compared to a more common pattern of internal enemies (rebels or not quite subjugated peoples) taking over.

Both Roman and Byzantine Empires suffered a tremendously damaging pattern of civil wars in the prolonged preamble to their final destruction. Naturally, both fell to external enemies ultimately (rather bizarrely, Byzantium briefly fell to a Western foe prior to the ultimate end at the hands of the Ottoman Turks) but their strength had been severely sapped (Rome especially) by interminable infighting.

This leads to another question: why was there so much infighting? Rome was acknowledged as the centre of the civilised world, filled with wealth and wonder. The problem was that its leader was the emperor, but Augustus had never actually defined any sort of legal qualification or anything similar regarding who the emperor ought to be. And, as he came to power by the sword, so that system remained. The problem was twofold: firstly, anyone with a bloody big army (and Rome had quite a few of these) might be tempted by the purple. Secondly, and worse, the armies themselves got massive bonuses, effectively, every time there was a new emperor (Danegeld, almost) so they’d often force an unwilling man to assume the imperial title. The poor sod in question could refuse, at which point he’d be murdered, so most did not.

The constant infighting decreased manpower (which was also ravaged by a persistent and virulent plague for much of the 3rd century) and killed off many fine generals and veteran soldiers, creating easy in-roads for the barbarians. Lack of manpower then caused many of the same barbarians to be enlisted in the armies, but they lacked the discipline and patriotism of Roman soldiers, exacerbating the rebellious tendency of the army.

The secret of Rome’s victory over Hannibal was not Scipio Africanus, great though he was, but the burning fire of patriotism and willingness to fight and die for Rome even after Cannae. That fire was suffocated by insensible luxury, undeserved riches inherited from a bygone era of glory and the gates of Rome ended up being thrown open to barbarians who were not fit to lick Hannibal’s boots or be slain by Africanus’ legions.

Still, the joy of history is that we can read and learn, and avoid making the same mistakes today. After all, it’s not like Europe is gripped with perpetual infighting, lack of discipline and economic incompetence, is it?


Monday, 14 November 2011

Review: Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian, by John White

After reading the first three volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Aurelian seemed to be the best Roman emperor to me. So, I bought this book to find out more.

Aurelian is not a name that’s well-known, and I’d guess more people would identify him as the French rugby union player rather than the emperor. He ruled Rome in the 3rd century, and the book examines not only his achievements as emperor (which are numerous) but also the aftermath of his rule and what occurred beforehand.

The author provides a brief summary of the distant past (the founding of Rome etc) and a more detailed run-up to Aurelian’s life and reign. Similarly, the immediate aftermath is written of in more detail than more distant events.

This is something I liked a lot because the context of the world in which Aurelian grew up and the ailing state of the Roman Empire is critical to understanding how impressive and important his victories were. It was also enjoyable to read about another emperor, the Gothic Claudius, who was Aurelian’s predecessor and began a string of excellent general-emperors.

The writing style is concise and easy to read, and the author makes it plain where information is considered dubious, suspicious or is blatant tosh. As well as looking at the many military victories and defeats of Aurelian and others economics are also included. This might seem a bit dry, but actually it’s of interest and significance because rampant inflation fuelled by the increasingly powerful and regicidal armies helped to weaken the Roman Empire.

In addition, the role of a very long and deadly plague (lasting decades) upon the manpower of the Empire helps to explain why the military prowess of Rome declined.

Books of this kind usually have a number of photographs in, and this one is no exception, with several of various ruins and coinage.

Another area of interest was the array of enemies that Rome faced (namely, rebels and break-away empires, the return of Persia and a host of barbarians). The author paints a vivid picture of the very long front of the Empire (the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates mostly) and puts into context the particular threats posed and the reasoning behind the numerous break-away empires/emperors.

However, the greatest enemy Rome faced was her own armies, which had become increasingly ill-disciplined, prone to pronouncing (often unwilling) generals emperor and essentially throwing their weight around.

I hope that John White writes some more emperor biographies, because this book was thoroughly enjoyable.


Saturday, 12 November 2011

Skyrim: First Impressions

This is a preliminary review based upon a few days’ play. I will give a proper, full review later, but there are certain elements of a game that can easily be reviewed very quickly, and it’ll be a while before I can do a proper review due to the size of the game. The version I’ve got is the PS3 (mine is an old, fat 40GB one). Install size is, contrary to reports, 4.3GB.

My initial character was a lady Nord (my favourite race in Oblivion, so it’s nice to be in their home province) named Asgerd Njalsdottir. I focused upon a primarily warrior approach with a sword and shield. When I write the proper review (which will also cover factions, wider ranging exploration, how the game feels at higher levels and so on) I will also have some experience with a stealthy character and a mage.

Character Creation

Mostly an improvement, although given Oblivion’s character creator was amongst its weakest points this doesn’t mean much. They’ve shifted to a more Dragon Age type system where you get to choose various eye, nose, mouth etc presets and then fiddle with them.

Pleasingly, the spray-on beards have gone. Particularly nice are the options for scars and war paint. However, it’s not all for the better as gone are the RGB options for hair (you get a number of preset colours now), hair length changes (must admit this doesn’t bother me much) and skin colour, where you also have just a few preset options. I’ve not fiddled extensively with all the races, but I’ve got to say that the Argonians and Khajiit have very nice ‘skin’ tones, with the cats able to look like Siberian or Bengal tigers or very dark, almost like black panthers. It’s also great to be able to choose weight/muscle.

Because stats have been thrown overboard, and encumbrance and speed are equal across the races, the racial option is largely cosmetic.

User Interface (menus, conversations, first/third person)

The menu’s pretty user-friendly, although the removal of the ability to see your own character in-menu as you equip or remove items is a step backwards. This can be gotten around by going to the third person and then fiddling (the menu is transparent, so you can see what stuff looks like on your character).

I would’ve preferred a menu that wasn’t quite so generic, however. It’s functional and pretty intuitive, but Oblivion’s was instantly recognisable as a fantasy/historical game menu.

Conversations work in a similar way to Fallout 3, with options to try and intimidate or persuade people, or just beat the crap out of them until your fists make them see reason.

I did play with the third person briefly, and it’s clearly a lot better than Oblivion. Personally, I prefer first person, because I think it fits the game better, but the alternative is now a reasonable option.

Levelling system

The worst thing about Oblivion was the damned levelling system. From what I’ve gathered in a day or two of playing, Skyrim’s is much, much better. Levelling depends upon skill increases, which occur when you use a particular skill or get it trained by an expert, or when you read a skill book. Higher skill increases lead to faster levelling, I think, so a narrow character (like Asgerd) levels more rapidly (she’s level 10 right now).

It’s quite hard to choose between different perks even with an archetype warrior (my only non-Combat skill is lockpicking, which is identical, basically, to Fallout 3). Some have multiple levels (usually 3 or 5) and most require a certain skill level to be acquired. There also appear to be very few ‘dud’ perks. The first time I levelled I didn’t take a perk, because I pressed the ‘back’ button and it closed the menu rather than returning to the constellation list. The use of constellations, incidentally, is simple but excellent and dovetails nicely with the destiny theme of the Dovahkiin.

Combat and crafting

I was surprised by how different melee combat felt compared to Oblivion. As I wrote in an earlier piece on Skyrim, it’s essentially unchanged (except that you can dual-wield now, if you want to). However, you can only really tell the difference when you play the game. Everything’s a little slower, and at first it feels clumsy, but later it becomes more enjoyable because it’s rougher round the edges and more realistic because of it.

There’s been much talk of the finishing moves (which come in first and third person regardless of which you use for playing). Occasionally they can be irksome (like when you’ve got six more people to kill) but sometimes they’re a very satisfying end to the fight, particularly when it’s been close and difficult. There’s nothing better than a miniature scene of you ramming your sword through someone’s torso and reminding them who the Dovahkiin is. On the whole, I think they’re a decent addition.

Being a good Nord, Asgerd’s very into ye olde smithing. It’s the Combat crafting skill and can be used to both improve weapons and armour and create your own, as well as making bits and pieces that can be useful (leather and leather strips, for example). The system’s easy to learn and enjoyable, and really can improve your gear. At level 7 or 8 I improved the damage of my weapon from 11 to 15 using the grindstone, and used some components I had to make a shield that was 5 points of defence better than the one I had equipped.

I haven’t fiddled with alchemy or enchanting yet, but imagine that they’re also not too hard to learn and of great use (my second character will be a Khajiit rogue, so I’ll learn about alchemy then).


Better than Oblivion, basically. The biggest difference isn’t with the landscape and plants, better though they are, but with faces and water. Faces are now more varied, especially between races (admittedly, Imperial and Bretons are bloody hard to tell apart) and realistic. The water was a pleasant surprise, and looks great (with the slight exception of rapids, which look not quite so good).

Level/landscape design is greatly improved. Even within the first hour or so it’s clear that the game has more varied regions, with lots of mountainous areas, flat tundra and so on. It’s also worth pausing occasionally and just looking around at the jagged mountains piercing the clouds. Regarding dungeons, they’re distinctive and (on average) larger than those of the predecessor game.

The world is much more alive and active than Oblivion. There are wild goats, deer, rabbits, foxes, fish, chickens and probably more. Wolves are back, as are rather vicious sabre-toothed cats.


The music is very good, as might be expected and sound effects have been improved upon. Voice-acting’s harder to assess without many hours of gameplay, but I’d say it’s a bit better than Oblivion. What jars is that, initially, there’s a nice effort to go for a Nordic accent by many characters, and then someone appears with a blatant American accent. It’s like The Hunt For Red October where everybody has a Russian accent except for Comrade Connery. However, generally, voice-acting is better than Oblivion. A special mention is deserved by the wizard in Whiterun whose voice actor sounded like he really couldn’t be bothered. I’d like to think the character’s meant to be disinterested (it would fit, as he’s haughty and a pratt) but even the very nice Asgerd wanted to murder the bugger.

Bugs, quibbles and other things that fit nowhere else

After six hours, I had a freeze. Obviously, this was not to my liking, but, at the time of writing, I haven’t had another (touch wood). Occasionally the frame rate could be a little better and there’s sometimes a little tearing, but these two points aren’t major negatives (for me, anyway). I’ve briefly read about others’ experiences and it seems that the freezing has been more common for others, so it might be that the fat 40GB model is luckier (I’ve also turned off auto-saving, as this irritated me and I’m a compulsive saver anyway, and it seemed to work for Dragon Age 2). Incidentally, the first auto-save lasts longer than most and may make you think it’s frozen. It hasn’t (unless it has, obviously. Ahem).

Encumbrance is much much much better. All characters have 300 to start with which is plenty for quite a long time, and increases by 5 every time you improve your stamina at levelling up. Furthermore, weapons and armour seem to weigh a bit less and the absence of degradation means you don’t need spare shields or sword, or repair hammers.

Early conclusion

The freeze pissed me off, but if it’s a rare occurrence or a one-off I can live with it. The game’s enormous, combat feels more dangerous and exciting, there’s a huge range of possibilities and I like it a lot. On the downside is the freeze, some lacklustre voice-acting and, er, I think that’s it.

If the freeze is rare or a one-off I think the game will end up being 9/10.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The shadow of the Roman Empire

One of the things I like most about classical history is that the principal states (Sparta, Athens, Rome) still dominate, in many ways, the modern world.

Over two thousand years have passed since Athens and Sparta faded, and even the mighty (Western) Roman Empire fell about 15 centuries ago. But, despite that, the shadow, especially of Rome, continues to loom large.

For a start, when you visit my blog you’re reading the Latin alphabet, essentially. A number of names that are either Roman or Greek, or modern derivatives, remain popular (Marcus, Alexander, Lucy etc) and many terms (particularly of a scientific nature) are Latin or Greek.

Architecture is a more concrete, if you’ll pardon the pun, example. Indeed, concrete was used by the Romans in the construction of the Colosseum. A great many modern buildings make use of pediments, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns (the White House being a prime example).

Today, democracy is seen as essential for a modern constitution. Indeed, the Lycurgan idea of a mixed constitution where genuinely powerful monarchs (or diarchs) and the elite also held sway would be rather frowned upon. Indeed, it’s a supreme historical irony that it was the Spartans who helped safeguard the cradle of democracy (Athens) at Thermopylae. Concepts about law and justice are also heavily influenced by Rome, which, although a harsh mistress, did have a series of properly codified laws.

The national borders of modern countries occurred after the Western Empire fell. Despite that, the idea of Britannia was a Roman one (even if the stupidly designed new coins have axed the splendid icon for what seems to be an idea cooked up by an educationally sub-normal second former, but there we are). It was also the Eastern Empire that effectively acted as a shield for most of Europe to grow out of the Dark Ages without being overrun by the Persians and then the Ottoman Turks (although they did finally, tragically, crack open Byzantium and make their way west, without the Eastern Empire they would have gotten far further far faster).

Culturally, the Roman/Greek world also made a permanent impression upon the collective psyche of Europe. I’m not just speaking of the excellent works of art that the Renaissance harked back to, but the idea of imperial glory and civilisation which was aped and admired by the Czars of Russia, amongst others.

The further back in time you go the more significant every event becomes. It’s like a line, and a different decision marks a deviation. The nearer to the end, the smaller the final change of course. If Scipio had lost at Zama, or Pompey had won at Pharsalus the world might very well be unrecognisable. And if the Gothic Claudius or Aurelian had been rubbish… well, I’ll get onto that more in the next piece.

It’s worth recalling that both Western and Eastern Empires (the former especially) were defeated as much by infighting and bickering sapping the strength of the military as by external foes. When patriotism and loyalty to the state is eclipsed by ambition and loyalty to individuals empires wane and fall.


Monday, 7 November 2011

Redrafting, and related wittering

I recently finished checking through the latest draft of the book-yet-to-be-titled (I will think of a name. At some point). As expected, there was the odd error in the old stuff and some changes needed to make the new bits fit in better, but overall not too much to do. Earlier today I began actually changing the documents on the computer, and I’ve got to say that the Kindle’s bloody convenient when it comes to this sort of thing. Before I had to use a level arch-file, a pint of ink and seventeen oaks’ worth of paper (and my printer’s ancient, so it would take literally hours to get that much printed). I’ve probably saved more money redrafting using highlights and annotations (avoiding ink and paper and file costs) than I have actually buying books.

Assuming another snag doesn’t arise then the text itself (title excepted) will be done relatively shortly, leaving me with all the finickity practical things at which I am useless. Off the top of my head there’s the ISBN number, whether I can use a pen name on Amazon, whether I can copyright it using a pen name, deciding on cost (I’m thinking of £1.97 at the moment) and (probably the most fun) sorting out the cover. Oh, and trying to make it readable in multiple formats (Kindle should be alright as I can fiddle with and test that myself).

My cunning plan is to try and get all the chapters done (18, including a brief epilogue) before Skyrim comes out, and then taking a couple of days off as a reward and break before getting stuck into the other thingummyjigs.

The first time the technical stuff might be tricky and time-consuming, but hopefully it’ll become relatively easy for the next book.

The present draft is number 5, which isn’t all that high a number, and I think I’ve become a bit better at redrafting (admittedly, I was bloody awful when I first started doing it). Being objective is hard twice over; firstly because it’s your own work so it can be difficult to stay on the straight and narrow between being too harsh and too over-confident, and secondly because liking books is very subjective anyway.

When it comes to promotion I’ll obviously bang on about it on this august blog and emotionally blackmail, er, encourage people I know to buy it. I might try hunting down magazines and offering them a sample. Hmm. Now I think of it, when I get the cover done I could get extra art work and that might help to drum up some interest, especially if it’s particularly dramatic and thrilling.

So, the plan is to update the chapters with the latest changes, then take some time off to play Skyrim (and think up a title).


Saturday, 5 November 2011

Review: The Final Empire (Mistborn Book One), by Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book by Mr. Sanderson I’ve read, after The Way of Kings (which is the first part of a separate series). It takes place in a world reigned over by the Lord Ruler, an apparently immortal tyrant who has held sway for a thousand years or so. Under his rule the nobility have held their position for generations and the majority (called skaa) have been oppressed. The sky is darkened with ash clouds, the volcanic precipitation making the entire landscape dismal and grey.

A chap called Kelsier and his criminal associates are intent upon on bringing down the Lord Ruler, and hatch a plot to do so. Magic plays a significant role in the book, and, as in (although different to) the Way Kings, the system the author has invented is simple but works very well. Essentially, there are 8 basic metals and 2 higher metals, and these can be swallowed and burnt by mistings or mistborn. The former can only use one specific metal, the latter can burn any or all of them. Each metal has a different advantage, and some burn faster than others.

The Lord Ruler is quite interesting, and I’m glad that he wasn’t overused. The author’s use of small passages from an ancient journal recalling the Lord Ruler’s journey (before he became Lord Ruler) at the start of chapters is a small touch, but one to which I always looked forward.

Generally, the world is well-described, and the obligators and Steel Inquisitors were interesting. I think some more instances of the skaa oppression might have helped, but that’s probably a bit picky.

The last third is definitely the strongest part of the book. Along with a few unexpected twists, the pace is more rapid and events more engaging. After the initial set up of the book’s premise it feels a little slow, and although the protagonist is well-developed a few of the main characters could perhaps use a little more fleshing out.


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Gaming: how much is too much?

Bigger is better. With a bigger game you get more playing time, and hence better value for money. More customisation increases replay value, and a bigger map means that you can discover things on playthrough number 7 that you never saw before.

However, I do think we’re pretty much at the limit, and going further might actually make games inferior.

Take map size. I’ve played a few free-roaming games, where you can go anywhere on the map, such as GTA: San Andreas, Oblivion and Fallout 3. The bigger the map, the more varied and interesting you can make the landscape, the more nooks and crannies you can put in to intrigue and delight exploring players and so on.

The problem is that if you make a map too big then a few things start getting worse. For a start, unless you have (and use) a fast travel system, it can be a pain in the arse to trek a huge distance. Secondly, it makes the work of a completionist (ie someone who likes to do, collect and experience every part of a game) almost impossible. Last, but perhaps most importantly, it makes a game’s production time longer, meaning that by the time it’s released it may be nearly or actually outdated by other releases that took years less to create.

Then there’s customisation, both in terms of character creation and options for variable gameplay (in Skyrim terms: the archetypes of warrior, rogue and mage and various mixtures between two or three of those). Would you want to play a game with 100 races to choose from? I wouldn’t, because the team making the game would have spent a hell of a long time fiddling with microscopic racial differences instead of spending their time on more important things. Likewise, a one-handed and two-handed (or blunt and blade) categorisation of melee weapons makes sense, but if you had specific skillsets for umpteen weapons (daggers, spears, halberds, maces, morning stars, swords, longbows, shortbows, crossbows, cestus, slings etc etc) character management would, for most people, become bloody tedious.

Whether a game is free-roaming, entirely linear or something in between (Skyrim, Final Fantasy Whatever The Last One Was and Dragon Age: Origins, say) also affects how big a game can be before it’s just become as fat and bloated as an oaf who gets a documentary made about how they have to be lifted in and out of bed with a crane. Skyrim (and its predecessor, Oblivion) will get away with being 300 hours long because if you play a character for 100 hours and then start a new one, the remaining 200 hours of questing, exploring and murdering poor people can instantly be got at with your new character. But if you’re playing Linear Fantasy 19 and forgot to do something important (I’d offer a specific example, but didn’t buy it and therefore cannot) in the 127th hour then your options are to play for another 173 hours of regret, or start a new game and plough through 126 hours of gameplay to do the thing you wanted to do, but missed.

So, let’s assume I’m right (no sarcastic comments, loyal readership!) and games such as Skyrim have pretty much reached the natural limit of geographical size and character customisation (there are 10 races to choose from. Any more would just be silly). That’s actually a good thing. Because instead of trying to make Black Marsh (or whatever the next Elder Scrolls will be) even more enormous the development team will be able to spend the extra resources they have on things that make the game better, rather than just bigger. Things like de-fusing trousers and shirts, for example, and making even more intriguing quests instead of standardised quests.

I wasn’t going to write any more Skyrim stuff until I got the game, but I did hear a snippet (it’s a non-spoiler) worth mentioning. Unlike Oblivion or Fallout 3 you don’t get to fiddle with your character at the end of the intro, so make sure you get everything right at creation, or you’ll have to quite and redo it.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Alphas, on 5* at 10pm

A while ago I saw a discussion about this programme, but, as is often the case, it wasn’t on Freeview. I don’t watch 5* often, but yesterday caught some of the 2007 CGI Beowulf film and saw an ad for Alphas.

The next episode (airs tonight) is number 3, and the second can be seen (for a few hours anyway) on the Channel Five website. Unfortunately I didn’t see the first episode, but there we are.

The premise is not all that original (people suddenly start developing cool mutations that give them strange powers), and will be familiar to anyone who watched the excellent X-Men films or Heroes.

Episode 2 was a little hit and miss, but it is a new series and I’ll probably give it a go for a few weeks and see how it progresses. Some of the powers do look to be a little more interesting than usuak (one chap has a sort of rational predictive power, not quite prophecy but similar to it), although there is the obligatory strong man and persuasive woman.

I hope it ends up better than Heroes. I watched almost all of series 1, but missed series 2 (it clashed with House) and didn’t really feel the need to watch it later. People not getting killed (in both books and series like this) is something I dislike and (Isaac, I think his name was, aside) Heroes was pretty bad at that. It’s hard to build up dramatic tension or feel worried for someone if you know that the man next to them who has just been introduced and is wearing a red Star Trek uniform is going to be the one taking the bullet.

The Walking Dead has also made a return, but has jumped from Channel Five to FX (not Freeview) so hopefully, like Alphas, it will make a free-to-air appearance in a little while. I enjoyed the first series, but was surprised by how brief it was (just six episodes) given the American habit of mega-series with 20 or so episodes.

I hope the next time a British firm tries making something they spend a little less on special effects and a bit more on writing. I tried to like Outcasts. I did. It even had the (occasional) good moment, but you can’t transmit a virus by vibrating air molecules and even if you could the virus wouldn’t stop being there when the transmission halted.

Last (but very much not least) The Big Bang Theory returns this Thursday at 8pm on E4.