Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best Games of 2012

Yes, I play games.

Despite being not-so-young any more, I still play the odd game. I've always enjoyed playing games, and I've basically never stopped. One thing that perhaps has changed is that I feel I've become more discerning, more selective. I buy very few games in a year, although slightly more when they are $2 or so on the phone - but overall I'd be luck to spend $200 per year on games these days. On saying that, I've been playing quite a lot recently, even for me.

Some Contenders
So what has been absorbing my time? Well, there have been a few fads games that have come and gone fairly fast. Most of these are the cheap phone games, but I'd almost throw Diablo III into that basket. I didn't finish it, it just didn't seem worth my time, it was too much of a grind and I felt that the items I was finding were all fairly average. Overall, I was expecting a lot from this game, and unlike Skyrim before it, I was fairly disappointed. To put things into perspective, I played Diablo I and II quite extensively. I think I play Diablo II through about 5 times.

And the Runner up is...

This is a little unusual, it's not what you think.When I say that its Plants vs Zombies, you probably go "Yeah, well, that's a good game". And you'd be right, but the thing is that I've played most of it to death and I'm bored of 95% of the game. But one mini-game still has me completely hooked - "It's raining seeds". It takes about 10 minutes to play (with almost no variation in time) and can fill any of life's little waits very nicely. The thing I like about this game is that it's very random what you get - it's actually quite counter most of the rest of PvZ where you have to manage the resources to plant things. Instead you need to quickly form a defense and sometimes all you get are flowers and lillypads. You need to think reasonably fast, but there are times when you should wait with a drop until the very last second before placing it. There is one minor irritation - sometimes it registers a double tap on my phone and I inadvertently place something in the wrong spot. This can be very frustrating, as it's often something you really needed somewhere else. Anyway, I think I've played this mini game more than the rest of the game put together. It's an absolute cracker, and very satisfying when you beat the last wave.

but the WINNER is....

This is easy, we have a very clear winner. And I would not be surprised if it wins next year too, and maybe even the year after. When you fist see this game, you might go "I don't get it". It seems slightly plain in it's graphics compared to most blockbusting games, and pales next to Diablo III, which as I mentioned above I ditched some time ago. It's not really about the graphics, although I think they are ok. It's about the playstyle, the complete sandbox experience and the creativity and community it brings out in those that play it. Do you know what game I am talking about? I'll give you a hint...

Yes, it's Minecraft. Now before you roll your eyes and click away, please hear me out! Although, It's kind of hard to know where to start. Ok, well, let me tell you how you start. If you are playing "survival", which is in my opinion the best part, you start empty handed in a random location in a part of the minecraft world. It could be a tropical rainforest (and raining) or a desert, or wild mountains, or a swamp, or a nice field. Things look a bit chunky, as everything is made of blocks. And here is what the game is all about - you can collect various blocks, and build things with them. You may start with nothing in your inventory, but you can carry a surprisingly large amount once you get going. First of all if you hit (left click) the ground you end up with a dirt block. Then you can go somewhere else and place (right click) that same block. In this way you could build stairs, or a house, or... anything you want.

The "Craft" in minecraft is important, and shows another side to the game. You need to make some better tools for yourself, as you can't do certain things without them or at the very least it's easier. For example, you can get wood from punching a tree (it's a funny game in lot's of ways) but it's much quicker if you have an axe. To make an axe you need a crafting table. To make a crafting table you need wooden planks. To make those you need wood, which you get  from initially punching a tree.

There are nasties in this world too - things that want to kill you. So crafting a sword is a good idea, and later a bow. They mostly come out at night, and you start in the daytime, so you have a little while to prepare, but time goes quickly in your first game as you fumble about. It helps if a seasoned user is explaining things to you as you go, and this introduces the concept of community - as players often play together. You just need two computers, a network and you are set - it's really easy to join a LAN game.

Friends (and family) can play together in a virtual world with a common purpose. In this way, you might think this is something like Second Life. I have played that, and other virtual world style games, and they are not the same. Minecraft is not commercial in-game. If you are stuck on how to do something, you can ask, or chat in game (typing), or visit the online wiki which has all the items and recipes for things. But don't hit the wiki too early, you'll freak out at all the items there and it makes it look complicated. There is a lot of stuff you can do but that doesn't mean you have to do any of it. If you want, you can make a simple hut by a river and fish by day, or perhaps grow some wheat to make bread. Or keep some livestock - a few chickens, cows and pigs. That's because you do have to eat every now and then or you starve.

As the name suggest, minecraft is really also about mining. You can go caving too, there are plenty around, and crafting a torch is one of the first things you learn so that you have some light. In a slight quirk of the game, you have to place the torch somewhere for it to light up though - you can't just carry one around and see. Mines offer you precious ores - iron, gold, emerald and the most precious of all, diamond. You can only find diamond in very deep mines, and you need to be careful, because there is lava down there and monsters in the darkness. You can make better tools and armor with these ores, and other things.

You can find abandoned mineshafts, strongholds, vast caves, pyramids, temples, villages complete with odd villagers. Once you really get into the game, you can craft portals to two completely other worlds - the "Nether" which is like Hell and has never ending fires and lakes of lava (and new monsters), and the "End" which has Endermen and the final boss of the game, the Ender Dragon.

Yes. You can do all that. Or you can just build yourself a really nice house. Or perhaps make some pixel art out of wool of your pet. Or build up into the sky and make a castle in the clouds. There is even a form of basic electrical circuits you can make, so that you can construct automated doors or even larger complicated machines. The world of redstone is vast if you want to explore this side of things.

So what is minecraft all about? Once you learn the basics, it's about pretty much whatever you want it to be. With some restrictions (which are more motivational than anything else), you can do pretty much anything. And I think this is minecrafts biggest appeal. If you want a big adventure, knock yourself out. If you want to become a simple farmer, go for it. Feel like being a miner and going digging? Sure. One thing you will learn though is that activities are subtly linked, so that one thing you may want to do requires you to do something else first, and that requires other things, etc. If you want a glass window in your house, you will need sand to melt, a furnace to melt it in, and fuel to do the melting, for example - so you may go mining to find coal, or on a quick adventure to find sand in a desert or beach.

There are often two or more ways of doing the same thing - and most of it is logical. There are, however, a few illogical things in minecraft - for example, when you take a block of wood out of a tree trunk it doesn't fall over. It just hangs in space with a bit missing. Sand and gravel fall down, but most other blocks don't. What else? You can carry several thousand cubic meters of stone. Try doing that in real life! There are other examples but really it's a game, and it's part of the charm of the place and you just have to go with it. It seems perfectly normal very quickly.

So anyway, I strongly recommend this game. It's cheap and the developers are continuing to improve and expand it and it just keeps getting better and better.

Now two words of warning if you play this game for the first time. Firstly, watch out for "Creepers" which are the signature monster in the game. They are green things with sad faces that silently come up to you and then briefly "hisssss" then blow up, possible taking you and a part of your nice house with them.  Kill them with a bow, run like hell, hide somewhere, build a protective fence or wall, do whatever you need to do to stay the hell away from them.

Lastly, just be prepared for this game creeping up on you. It's such a wonderful game you will want to play it over pretty much any other, particularly if you get into it with your friends. I think it's a healthy game to play though as it encourages creativity and cooperation. Enjoy it, I know I have in 2012, it's my game of the year - easily.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Windows 8 - Good or Bad?

I have been using windows since, well, since it started really. Here is a brief history of Windows as I see it.

I've used Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, but I try and forget about that.

Windows 95 was a revelation, a real boost into a modern OS compared to DOS and at the time MacOS and OS/2 warp. Ah, those were the days. Actually, no they weren't. They all sucked - even at the time, for various reasons but mostly due to god-awful drivers and DLL issues. Just getting a printer or scanner to work might be days of your life gone.

Windows 98 fixed a lot of the problems with Windows 95, and for many people this was as good as an OS needed to be to actually make a computer useful. 

Windows ME was a joke. A bad joke. 

Windows 2000 was good though, but fairly business orientated due to it's windows NT heritage. Most home users stuck with 98. A lot of businesses ditched old NT domains for the new Active Directory in Windows 2000 and have been using an evolution of this since, as it scales well.
Windows XP was the next good, stable jump that a lot of people were hanging out for to upgrade from 98. Again, it made a lot of small improvements, and overall was a slick customer. It did well for both business and private sales. Many people still use Windows XP today, and see no reason to ditch this for something new - but probably will when the computer they are using finally dies.

Windows Vista took a long time to come out - too long - and was overbaked. They had ambitious plans for this OS actually, notably a reworked file system. This made sense on paper but in practice was too big a change to swallow. When Vista came out it looked ok, but was unstable and very resource hungry - and got a bad reputation with geeks from the start. It was telling that Microsoft sold XP licenses while Vista was on sale for a LONG time because, well, people actually preferred XP by quite a wide margin. Very few businesses took on Vista - most stuck with XP desktops.

Windows 7 came out on schedule and it was more the vision that Vista was going for. It was stable, modern, lowered system requirements and just seemed to work. The "Start" menu turned into a Windows ball, and applications got a bit more iconized in the taskbar, there is some transparency here and there, but more or less it was business as usual. People like Windows 7, in general, and so do I. Mostly because it works, I can find what I am looking for, it get's out of my face so I can get things done. It doesn't crash much either, truth be told. That's good.

So a recap of the good = 98, 2000, XP, 7

And the bad = 95 (well, it was ok), ME, Vista.

It's almost 50/50. This is all just my opinion mind you. You may love or hate one of the things in complete opposite to me. More power to you, I say - even if you are obviously wrong! Haha.
Anyway, and to the point of this post, I have been thinking about windows 8, and where this will fit into this somewhat patchy history of windows. In a nutshell, I think it's going to fall fairly heavily into the "bad" list, and I will explain why.

We have all been using personal computers for the better part of 15 years, or more, and gotten used to certain things. I work in businesses within the IT department, and I have supported literally hundreds of users with all manner of problems. Some people "get" computers, some don't, and I understand and accept this without judgement. 

Now here it the thing - Windows 8 throws out a lot (everything?) you have learnt over those years for a new user interface. I'm betting that for most people, who are naturally resistant to change, this will not go down well at all. Hell, I still hate the "Ribbon" interface in Office - and it's been there a while now. Why? Well, it was more or less change for changes sake, and it didn't improve anything really. Worse - screens have become very wide but not tall, so losing an inch of height is the wrong thing to do. I hate letterboxed documents. Ahem, I think I have gotten sidetracked a bit, but perhaps not much, as I think this does illustrate my point - which is that people don't like change and can sometimes be quite passionate about it.

There is another serious issue for Microsoft, and this is that there is more decent opposition these days. For a start, Apple is doing well and they are going to get a lot of migrating customers who are bewildered by the Metro interface. The premium on Apple hardware has come down somewhat, it uses more standard ports unlike days of old and has the cool factor. 

On the uber-geek side, and for the tinkerers and the penny pinchers is the all-free Linux. I have played with Ubuntu, for example, and once you get over the first few days it is pretty good. Firefox in ubuntu is EXACTLY the same experience as in windows. I will add that I dropped my Ubuntu dual boot when they changed UI a few versions ago though. Anyway, you can download the CD image and try it for free with no effect on your current hard drive - so why not try it (and open office - the free office replacement) and see if the free alternative is any good?

Time will tell how well Windows 8 will do. As it will ship with most new PC's, it will sell at least OK to start off. I think though that there will be a situation much like with Vista, where people DEMAND windows 7 licenses for the simple fact that they prefer it. Perhaps windows 9 (or whatever it will be called) will be the next good version to jump to, that would make sense from a historical perspective.

By the way, I get the concept that Windows 8 is an attempt to merge a phone OS, a table OS, a desktop OS. To get to this point, they have had to make a lot of compromises to deal with the massive variations in screen size and input devices/touch abilities. If windows 8 early reviews were all glowing positive about the change, then I would hold reservation - but the ones I have read have all had basic usability issues in just doing the simple things like opening a program,  changing some settings or organizing your files. This is not a good omen. They might pull a rabbit out of their hat before final release, but I'm not overly hopeful at this outcome.

Perhaps I'm just jaded because I am not remotely excited by Windows 8. I can think of 100 ways they could improve windows 7, and a lot of people would have been very happy about a new version like that instead.

Feel free to add your thoughts on this!