Saturday, December 5, 2015

Best Games of 2015

I am a little early this year, but what the hell, I think I can call it already. Yes, it is time for the highly anticipated "Best games of the Year" post. For a quick recap, feel free to look at the previous years winners and discussion, as I have been doing this for a while now.


Best PC Game 2015 : Fortresscraft Evolved

I'm getting right down to it here, with no suspense. "FCE" for those in the know, could be considered a minecraft clone, at least, that is what I first thought when I purchased it in early access. But really, it is quite a different game to Minecraft, although I think it is every bit as good.

The game is in very active development, and so may in fact change a lot (and get better, or possibly worse). I think so far though the game has improved dramatically with each version, and is a whole lot of fun. The survival has a very fine "just one more thing" level of play which can see you playing for a lot longer than you might have imagined.  

After 150+ hours playing I think I can say : this is a great game! I am a veteran of Minecraft, FTB, MITE and various other custom maps and challenges particularly in survival mode. FCE is similar, but different, to all of these and is centered around your base. You get most of the tools you need from the beginning, and from there it is up to you to build your base around the ore you find, and to automate it. Automation is really cool - you can do things the hard way, yourself, or build a conveyor belt and laser power and it does it all for you! You can just stand there and watch it go, and I often do! After a while you will have to deal with mobs too, so base defenses come into play. There is a tech-tree for you to discover which unlocks a lot more of the game, and the "limits" are not what you are used to - there is no bedrock, you can just keep going and going. Super-dig and build-to-me features are "wow" as is the x-ray vision mode, grappling hook and jetpack.

You might think that after all those hours I have done everything there is to do in this game. Well, I have played out a few worlds but no, I still have plenty of things I want to try.

If you loved Minecraft, but are a little over it and want something similar with a fresh spin, this game may well scratch that itch. 

Runner Up 2015 : Fallout 4

For many gamers, this will be their game of the year, and I think well deserved. I am playing it actively now and after almost 120 hours I still feel like I have only just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It has some new and interesting mechanics over the previous fallout games, as well as some carry over things. It is somewhat of a mixed bag, as I will explain, but mostly it is great.

I will say that one issue with Fallout is that you might, like I did, be inclined to upgrade your gaming rig just to play this game. For me, this involved a new power supply and video card. For my son, he got a PS4 to upgrade from his PS3, to play this and other games. So this game might be a negative in that it is likely to cost you more than just the sticker price of the game itself!

Without turning this into a full review of the game, or somehow giving out spoilers, I want to say that every gamer should play this game. When Bethesda release a game, and it does not happen that often, it should be a serious contender for purchase even if you only buy one game a year. The other franchise they have is the Elder Scrolls, which with Skyrim shows you the quality of their work. There are similarities in the way these games play too. Only read on further if you don't mind minor spoilers!!!

Anyway, some of the new things that Fallout 4 brings to the table are a junk -> crafting system which enables you to use crap you find to upgrade your weapons, armor and base. This is a system I like as it rewards the slower player who explores all the maps and collects things - which is how I play. If you are a twitchy run-and-gun then you would probably find this boring/unnecessary. I am constantly getting to a full inventory, but with the power armor, as well as the armor "pocket" upgrades, you can still carry a bunch of stuff.

Then there is a the whole base-building mechanism that is new. This allows you to scrap in-world objects for resources and instantly build new things, such as buildings, furniture, defenses. It is a whole optional mini-game in itself really.  In practice, you need to do this to build up settlements. Is Fallout trying to be, gasp, some sort of Minecraft clone too? Well, I don't think so, but it is a step in the direction of world building / crafting in the Fallout world, rather than just killing everything in sight. It took a while to get the SPECIAL points in Charisma enough to get the "local leader" perk to fully use this mechanism, and I am still working out how it all works. Overall though, I like it and it enables you to become more of a community builder rather than just a lone gunman. Not everyone will groove to this though.

Not played, but possibly very good : Witcher III
I just wanted to mention that this game looks good to me, but I have not played it so I can't really comment.

Best iOS Game : None!
I really have not been taken by any game in particular this year on the iPhone. PvZ v1 is still a go-to game if I have 10 minutes to kill. Note that the original PAID version does not work well on the latest iOS or larger screens sizes BUT the PvZ "free" version DOES work perfectly.  Put up with the ads, or pay the fee, and play it with this app. I played once through again just to get access to the "It's raining seeds" minigame which is my clear favorite.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Best Albums of all time

Best Albums of all time? All time?? Really, am I going to do this? It seems so!

Music is a wonderful thing to have in your life. It can energize you when you are feeling low, calm you when you feel tense, make you feel happy when you might feel down. As we go through life our musical tastes can change and broaden, well, that is certainly what happened in my case.

To make it on this list these albums all have some things in common. The first is that I am happy, delighted even, to listen to them at any time. I also like to listen to the whole album, not just a song or two. They have stood the test of time too, these are not things that have been out a few weeks, many are decades old.

Clearly this is my list, and come from my tastes and experiences. You may or may not like any of these, however, I will say, if you have not HEARD these albums I think you owe it to yourself to check them out. They are all excellent. I would also recommend headphones to really hear them properly - many have strong stereo effects that are lost otherwise.

There are a couple of genres you will NOT find here - Country and Western or Heavy Metal for example. If that is your thing, more power to you, but I've never gotten into it. However, there is a fairly large mix of stuff here, let the journey begin!


Best Albums of All time

If I was stuck on a desert island with only this music to listen to, I'd still be a happy man.

Roxy Music - Avalon

This is probably my favorite album of all time. Do I like everything Roxy Music made? Absolutely not. But they really nailed this one. It is a calm, dreamy album that I listen to when I want to chill out. It makes me feel good, and it is a great album to put on when preparing a meal, reading, or just sitting around talking with friends. It takes you somewhere else too if you let it, some faraway place.








St Germain - Tourist

This is a more up-beat album, although I am not certain what genre I would end up putting it into. Modern Jazz maybe? Most of St Germain stuff is pretty good, they have other albums worth checking out too, but I think this is the best. You might hear this in a hip cafe or background to a casual dinner party or something like that. That might put you off - don't be - it is one of the great albums of all time.








Tom Middleton - Lifetracks

I discovered this only a few years ago, but it has become a staple when driving or again, just chilling out at home. This album does not have a single harsh note in it, but yet gets up a pace in places and also has a decent base note at times. It is an instrumental, no singing in this. But it is all very gentle and agreeable, and I have listened to this one over and over and I still love it. This is soul food, it can heal and calm you.

Simple Minds - New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) 

One of the artists that resonated with me as a teen was Simple Minds. I have seen them in concert, and for a time they we almost as big as U2. A minor criticism would be that some of the lyrics are hard to understand because of the accent Jim Kerr has, but you just have to go with it.

INXS - Shabooh Shoobah

This is almost certainly the most commercial album here, and you probably know it, depending on your age, or at least some of the songs. I find that it is an exquisitely balanced 80's rock album. There is not a dud song in the bunch, and Michael Hutchence (RIP) has a unique voice which is flexible and allows for a lot of passion to come through, like some people think of Mick Jagger (who I don't like in particular). There is some great guitar work, and the base is always keeps you toe tapping. This is from 1982, but I think it still sounds fresh.

Christopher Lawrence - Rise

This is a cat amongst the pigeons! A dance trance album in the top of all time? Well, when I want a great rhythmic beat to get energized from, but don't want to go all the way to Deadmau5 or one of the Ministry of Sound compilations, I often turn to Christopher Lawrence. He has some really good other albums too - Around the World, United States of Trance are both good. Actually, I have a recording called "Live at the WEMF 2000" which is my all time fav of his, but it not a real album as far as I can tell. If you want to disconnect your consciousness and drift along to an melodic, ever changing sound - this is the one. On the face of it you might think this is repetitive, but I can assure you that it has complexity and depth to rival the best.

John Dowland - Complete Lute Works, Vol. 1

OK, well let's slow things down a bit, and wind back the technology and electronic music all the way back to a LUTE. That's right, this is an album of lute music, and it is fantastic. My children have grown up to this as a soundtrack, particularly when they were toddlers and is known as the "quiet music". It is like throwing a warm blanket of calm over the house whenever you put it on, and although it might sound all the same on first listen, after a few you get to know it and understand how brilliant it is. I'm happy to listen to this at any time, if nothing else to re-feel the magical time when my kids were small. There are other volumes actually, but we never got past the first one - don't ask me why, considering we love it so much.






Honorable Mentions (almost as good)

If I was stuck on the same desert island and had the albums above, I would be glad to have the additional albums below to fill out the styles and add some variety. Depending on my mood, I might have mixed some of these into the top list.



Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

You could argue that this should be in the top list, and I would have trouble arguing against it. The only reason it isn't, is simply that I find I don't actually listen the album much. Pink Floyd have a lot of great albums (I like Animals, and Wish you were here), and we have seen them in concert, and that was awesome. 


Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

If you are going to own just one Jazz album in your entire collection, this is the one to get.  It is from all the way back in 1959, but boy, what a cracker.

Radiohead - Kid A

This is a great album but the only issue is that it is depressing! It has a lot going for it, much like Pink Floyd "The Wall", but I will only listen to it if I am in the right mood. 



ABC - Lexicon of Love

This is a new wave album from the 80's, and yeah, is one that probably shows my age a bit. Sorry.



Icehouse - Primitive Man

Another album from the mighty musical year of 1982. This has an Australian flavour, which is partly why I am fond of it.





Monolake - Polygon_Cities

This is very much ambient electronic music.I find that it goes to unexpected places, and I enjoy the sound a lot. This is a fairly recent discovery.

Tosca - Suzuki

This is similar to St Germain in many ways, and almost as good. I've written much of this Blog entry while listening to this, and it just bounces along happily.



Alan Parsons Project - The best of (vol 1)

What can you say about this? Hmmm. It is a fairly dated sound now, but there is something sing-along about most of the songs, or perhaps whistle along.



K.D. Lang - Ingenue

I almost didn't include this, but really, it is a standout album.The reason I rank it lower than it perhaps should is simply due to the fact that I don't really like female vocals. But she is an exception, I think. This is quite an emotional album.



Ferry Corsten - L.E.F

Well, this is a superb dance/electro album, if you are into that sort of thing. Perhaps more commercial than Christopher Lawrence, and with vocals. 



The B-52's - The B-52's

My lucky last pick, and it is a very weird one really.  This is a mind-expanding experience, and it helps if you are somewhat already in that state when you listen to it. It also reminds me of some old and departed friends, and the wild times we had together.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Games of 2014

2014 has now been an gone, and I thought I'd take a minute to announce again my favourite games of the year, like I did in 2013 and previous years. Note that it is "favourite games" and not game, as I will give out the best PC game and best mobile game, even though potentially they could be the same game.

PC Game of the Year - Winner

So, let's get down to business shall we? What is the best game on the PC for 2014? Well, that is easy. For me, this is...

Elite Dangerous! Yay!

I'm a fairly old gamer, as I have said before I think. It is a guilty pleasure of mine that I don't look to be growing out of any time soon. "Gamer for life", that should be on my T-shirt I suppose, or tattoo perhaps! Nah. Anyway, I am actually old enough to have actually played as a young man (boy?) the original Elite on the BBC micro, and I enjoyed it back then too although I recall it being quite hard to dock without crashing and burning. Fast forward from the heady days of 1984 to today, and a lot has changed in the world of computing. Except perhaps my Model-M keyboard, which I am typing on now, but I digress.

Elite is a fascinating game on several levels. One such level is the whole Kickstarter-to-Release development process that Frontier Developments went through. I bought into the Premium Beta phase, where it was not too expensive and it started to actually look like a playable game. I also went out and bought myself, after some quick research, a cheap but cheerful magnet based joystick, the Thrustmaster T.16000M, which I really like using. You really, REALLY need to use a joystick to get the most out of this game, I really would not recommend playing it without one. The Thrustmaster is a fine choice if you don't want to spend too much and don't want to think about it. Otherwise you may want to extend your budget to a full HOTAS system with a joystick for one arm and throttle control for the other. There is a learning curve for your brain on how this all works, but if you start of slowly with the basics it becomes as natural after a while as driving a car.

I am not normally into flight sims, although I have enjoyed some over the years. I am also not really into space sims, and Elite is very much a change of pace from MITE, the ultra-hard Minecraft variant I was playing previously to this. What drew me in initially, apart from nostalgia of the original game, is some of the astronomy aspects. I'm not really into astronomy either, to be up front, although I do think the night sky is something magical and special.

Anyway, the idea that they have integrated as much of known space into the game as they can is a great idea to me. That is, by an large, the stars you can see at night and have been named within our galaxy are likely to be in the game and you can, potentially, travel to any of them. How is that for a sense of unlimited freedom? Although I would stop short of saying that this was educational, I think it does provide a sense of scale to the actual galaxy that we are part of - ie it is huge, mind bogglingly enormous. Even inter-solar system travel at fractions or multiples of the speed of light give you an understanding of these distances. You kind of need to get your head around these things to play the game effectively. And I believe it goes further to even try and simulate the planets and stars themselves to be reasonably accurate in terms of their appearances and specifications. Exploration of new systems provides you with an income, so exploring the far reaches can be a career choice in game, although it is not particularly profitable (ie balanced) at the moment.

Then there is the whole combat thing, which is rather cool. If you grew up in the "Star Wars" generation then at some stage you probably wanted to be in a space fight. This game certainly caters for that need. I sort of suck at combat, but through practice I am getting better. I think I have about 250 NPC kills to my name so far, and I am slowly getting more confident. Other human players are typically a LOT better than the NPC's, so they need to be treated with respect. PVP is a whole other thing which I am not really into, and is quite rare, but can provide some of the most intense gameplay moments there are.

Or you can be a space trucker, and ship goods between systems for profit. In fact, you kind of need to do this to afford most of what the game has to offer, and it encourages you to get out there. Some people see this a s a grind, and like all things, it can be if you are in a certain frame of mind. An alternative to this are missions, which can be picked up at stations and can gain you local reputation.

There is a background story that is slowly developing via the "Galnet" news system visible in each station. This can lead to new trades, or combat zones, or perhaps other things. This is really still on the bleeding edge of the development of the game though, so I think we have only seen a little of what this can offer.

And this needs to be said : at the time of this post the game is still, if we are being honest, being written. It is not perfect, and in some places quite far from it. Some people are disappointed with it, hitting a bug or limitation or under-developed feature and having tantrums about it (aka Rage-quitting). The Elite forum is excellent for the most part, but this is where these player complains are heard. I think there is a higher than usual proportion of older gamers attracted to this game, so often there is reasonable discourse, which is a rarity in many forums. I have at times spent almost as long reading the forums as I have playing the game. One observation is that Frontier Developments appear to be very good developers - responsive, capable and enthusiastic. I have faith in them. The version change logs are often extensive and a joy to read - even if they are somewhat illegible. There are plans to add two major features to the game - planetary landings and the ability to walk around your ship and stations. These will be paid expansions unless you bought into the lifetime expansion pass, which I didn't.

I have at the moment a Cobra and Type-6 ship almost as fully kitted out as you can get. In trading "rare" goods I am able to make close to a million credits in about 1 hour, which is far from the best you can do but it is not too bad. On this basis I can afford to upgrade my ships and save up for some of the more exotic ones. In some ways the game does not scale very well, but in others it is just fine - it is a difficult thing to get perfectly right but I think it is more of less on the right track. The most expensive ship is over 100 million credits, and that is just for the basic hull with a crap loadout - you need to spend half that again probably to get it into a good state.

So, in summary - Elite Dangerous is providing hours of fun and is a game that has massive potential to get better and better as the development continues. It has finally shifted Minecraft away as my go-to game.

And now a quick word on mobile gaming!

Mobile Game of the Year - Runner Up

This game blew my mind, I had really never played anything like it. The game is Monument Valley.

This is simple on the surface, but the puzzles get a little more complex as you go on, and there is a play on perspective that is disarming at times. It looks impossible to solve until you break the normal rules of 3D space. This is the closest thing to playing a game in an M.C Escher world as you can imagine. The game is a real delight to play, the only reason it didn't win is because it is simply too short - the whole thing can be done in a glorious few hours. Worth it though, I even bought the extra levels, and I rarely buy any game add-ons or content.

Mobile Game of the Year - Winner

This is a simple game on the surface, not quite as deep as chess but more than checkers, and with a ancient greek flavour. It is "Hoplight", a funny name, but a great game.

What you see here is the game screen and all the kinds of monsters on it. This is the whole game, really, and it is turn-based so you can take your time to plan your next move or moves. There is a fair amount of strategy, some luck and it is a perfect game to pick up an play for 10 minutes while you are waiting for a bus or an appointment. Check it out, I think it is really good and it will get you thinking. There are plenty of reviews of this around, but this one will give you more of an idea of the gameplay if you want to read more about it.