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Archive for November, 2009

New Customs

Forget dumping all that legendary gear into a trunk or bundling it in a display case... Oblivion mods mean you can have them ALL out on display and flaunt your wealth

Although most of my gaming has taken place on either the Amiga or PC, I’ve never actually ventured into the murky forest of modding games or even customisation in any way.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was merely how it played out over time and so I’ve never enjoyed Fallout 3 with pornographic propaganda posters or Left 4 Dead with Teletubbies.  In fact, the closest I have ever come to in-game customisation was one particular evening when Pete and myself downloaded a custom track for Command And Conquer Generals and spent several hours at war with each other within a sprawling metropolis rather than a dusty plain.  I have to admit, it was perhaps the best head to head we’d ever played.

The PC is clearly the best way to achieve game customisation, due to the fact that it’s non proprietary and doesn’t restrict access in any way, as opposed to the console which is, I suppose, a sealed unit when it comes to tinkering internally.  One game, however, sparked my interest in terms of customisation and, in turn, prolonged longevity… Trials HD on the XBox 360.

I’ve discussed this game before as it was the one which first peered into my competitive nature, albeit stemming from nothing more than my desire to have my good friend Victor spout profanities in his home as his completion times were left in the dust.  It was, I must admit, Victor’s comments on that same Trials HD blog which prompted me to internalise a little and consider why, after all this time, I was still playing a game that most people had moved on from months ago.  The answer wasn’t hard to find, in fact it was probably presented before the question had even finished being asked – customisation.

Admittedly, I don’t happen to know that much about which games have customisation available on the XBox 360 but I think it’s a safe assumption that there will be very few.  By “customisation” I don’t mean that you can change the appearance of a character or select which clothes they will be sporting on a particular day, neither do I mean that you can change weapons around or select a particular vantage point during gameplay… I mean creating something which, until it formed within your mind, had not previously existed.

Initially I played around with Trials HD custom level editor purely out of interest as I wasn’t sure exactly how manageable a track editor could possibly be on a console as it relies on a controller for movement which, to be fair, doesn’t quite have the same range of flexibility as a mouse.  It did take some getting used to at first but, after a while, the muscle memory set in and all of the selections and rotations became second nature.

The Trials HD track editor is surprisingly intuitive and comprehensive, considering it's available on a console

My first track was very simple, it was created simply to let me find my way around the menus and get an idea of how certain objects interacted with others and what impact they would have on the complexity of the track.  The resulting track was certainly interesting, because it was mine and nobody else had played it, but it wasn’t worthy of publication and so I started thinking about other concepts and set to work on my first proper custom track.

Looking back at it now, my first “real” track “Fumblerunner” seems pretty simple on the face of it and yet it is actually a reasonably difficult track to complete in under the 35 seconds with no faults for the Platinum Medal.  The next track, “How Do You Do It?” had three specific ways to reach the finish line… high ground, ground level or, if you had a keen enough eye to notice the actual drop at the start, the sub level which is essentially a straight underground tunnel leading you directly to the finish line with no obstacles.  Inspired by watching tracks created by KatamariUK, I decided to embark upon a track which would be more than a straightforward track and would utilise the physics engine in a much more creative way.  The first of my creative tracks was “Fruity Loops”, featuring a moving rollercoaster in the background, a ferris wheel that the rider has to drop in to, ceiling mounted reversed loop, trap doors in walls, pendulous platforms, self-building loops and half pipes as well as a spiral loop.  It may not be as difficult as my other tracks, but it’s much more inventive.

For me though, it has always been the same.  Whenever I’ve played Sims 2 it’s been more about the construction aspect than the management side.  I couldn’t really get excited about progressing my Sim through any particular career or guide them towards any specific aspirations, mainly because I don’t want to spend hours in front of a PC watching someone elses life flash before my eyes whilst my own does the same.  The construction aspect, however, has always excited me… how far can the in-game tools be taken, how much is too much, and so any time spent playing Sims games has been in construction mode.

All those hours of building up the perfect base... wasted!

Even head to head Command And Conquer campaigns with Pete follow the same protocol.. the agreement is that we’ll spend as much time as we feel is necessary to build up our bases to the point where we’re really happy with them and have taken them as far as we can in a particular direction whether it’s with an aerial army or simply infantry.  At the point where we are both satisfied, we’ll discuss going to war… and the hours that we spent building our perfect armies come to a close in what tends to be a 10-15 minute all-out attack until one army has been defeated.  The war is always fun, and can sometimes see one or both of us changing tactics to survive… but the fun, for me, is in the building… the customisation.

I never once considered using a lightsabre in the Capital Wastelands but, now that I see how effective it can be, I want!

She's not only cute, she's the best dressed woman in a post apocalyptic world where hubcaps and tyres are the fashion of the day!

Now that I have my new gaming PC up and running, I will be doing something that I’ve never done before… modding the games that I love.  I’ll be able to have all my legendary Oblivion armour on display in Rosethorn Hall, each one being worn by a mannequin made available through modding.  I’ll also be able to play custom levels and enjoy whole new factions within Oblivion and Fallout 3 as well as wave around a whole new set of fanmade weaponry.  Imagine tearing towards a Deathclaw with your lightsabre buzzing away when all around you are making do with a poxy plasma rifle, or running through the forests of Cyrodiil sporting a rather fetching embroidered cloak that would make Altair look like he’s wearing sack cloth… mods make all this possible, and more.

Bring it on.

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The Price of Passion

State of the art today could very easily be unusable tomorrow

As mentioned in a previous blog, my current system was struggling to play even a demo of the new Risen RPG game on what I would call “acceptable” quality settings.  To most, that would simply be medium texture quality, zero antialiasing and maybe 1680 x 1050 screen resolution but, to me, that means 1920 x 1080 with everything up as high as it’ll go whilst still maintaining a playable frame rate.  Sadly, my current system wasn’t even capable of the medium settings with Risen even though it was sporting 2 x GTS 8800 GPUs, 2Gb of RAM and a pretty meaty AMD processor which escapes my memory at the moment.

I called on my trusty friends at Premier Computing and asked them to see what they could build me for £600, and explained that this was going to be a dedicated gaming system.  I immediately got an email back asking “Is that including or excluding VAT?”… and at that point, the small snowball was gently nudged over the edge of the mountain.

My response, after fiddling around with my calculator, was that the £600 would be excluding VAT as I’d rather not compromise on quality and performance for the sake of £90 and so they came back to me with a spec for a system which would undoubtedly do the job without breaking the bank any more than it was already.  Their proposed spec was as follows…

  • ASUS P7 P55D EVO Motherboard
  • Intel Core i5 750 Processor (4 x 2.66Ghz)
  • 2 x 2Gb Ballistix DDR3 PC3-10600 RAM
  • 1Tb SATA hard drive
  • ASUS GTX-275 896mb GPU
  • 600w OCZ PSU
  • Standard ATX chassis
  • Windows XP Pro (because I’m scared to upgrade!)

It wasn’t, if I’m honest, the kind of spec that would have you trembling at the knees wishing it was already out for delivery… but it was affordable, especially considering I was being given the opportunity to pay for the system of a three month period, which is one of the benefits of using the same people to build all your systems for the last twelve years or more.  I’d look at the spec and wonder whether I should go ahead or not, whether I should take that reckless leap and suffer the financial consequences and yet I would still end up closing the email and trying to forget about it.

A week or so later, after very much careful consideration, I decided to go ahead with it.  After reading Ben’s gaming benchmark charts several times over, I spent some time researching between the higher end ATI and Nvidia cards and eventually decided on the GTX 295 rather than the GTX 275.  It was less than twice the cost but with a huge difference in performance and it was powerful enough that it didn’t require two cards.

I also had to consider which operating system to use because, quite frankly, I couldn’t hang on to XP Pro for the rest of my life… it just wasn’t possible.  It was stable, effective and did everything that I wanted it to do and wasn’t, most importantly, VISTA!  That still left Windows 7 though, and the option of 32bit or 64bit… would I want to risk a 64bit operating system to have more RAM at the expense of compatibility?  After asking Dan and Ben what they thought, the decision was made to go with Windows 7 64bit and see what happens.  My system was now ready to be ordered.

The GTX 295 video card... the size of this beast has to be experienced to be believed! I heard Victor say that once too 🙂

Only an hour or so after giving the go-ahead, I received an email explaining that the GTX 295 cards were out of stock everywhere and that the expected delivery would be either the end of January or mid February.  This, as I’m sure you can imagine, took the wind out of my sails quicker than you can say ZX80.  It was at that point that I started the quest to find a GTX 295 on my own.  I had compromised with my last system, opting for 2 x GTS 8800 cards in SLI mode rather than the 2 x GTX 8800 cards that I had originally wanted, because they were also out of stock at the time, and I wasn’t going to compromise again.  It had taken days of research to decide on the GTX 295 and that’s what I wanted.

Enter eBay.  Several people were selling the cards, many of whom had as many as ten units each.  To err on the side of caution, I sent messages to all of the sellers to ask if they actually had the cards in hand and all but two of them admitted that they were awaiting stock and that it could be as much as ten weeks before they would be able to send out the card. To me, this was unacceptable because there was nothing on their listing explaining about any sort of delay… but that’s for another blog entirely.  Ultimately, I went with someone called Andy_Lakes31 who had assumed I was close to Colchester as he asked me to drop by and see the card working.  When I explained that this wouldn’t be possible, he said that he’d be happy for me to send him half of the payment just now and half when I received the card and could confirm that it was working perfectly and so I agreed.

The following morning, I had a message from eBay saying that they had been monitoring the activity on Andy_Lakes31’s account for sometime and had decided just after midnight to cancel the account, and that I shouldn’t send any money to him.  Too late.  I had sent him half by bank transfer the previous evening, and now his auction had disappeared from eBay along with his account.  I contacted them and they confirmed that they had indeed cancelled his account due to shill bidding and when asked whether he had read my final message to him, which contained my address details, they confirmed that it was still unread.  Andy Lakes had my money, but no address to send the card to, and eBay weren’t prepared to help me out because they had warned me not to send him any money… the day after the auction closed, and 12 hours after I had paid the money.

Long story short, I have no way of ever clawing back my money and my bank has said that the only way would be if Andy took it upon himself to ask his bank to reverse the payment.  I can’t see that happening, and so I had to buy the card from another buyer who, even with only seven feedback, has been absolutely fantastic and very friendly.

The utterly gorgeous OCZ Reaper RAM sticks.... wow!

Between placing my order for the system, and waiting for the graphic card to arrive, I receive another call letting me know that the Ballistix memory wasn’t available and so I’d have to decide on another set of RAM instead.  That RAM ended up being the sexy as hell “OCZ Reaper” 12800 7-7-7-24… and at a price I couldn’t ignore, I ended up with 8Gb instead of the 4Gb that I was originally getting with the Ballistix RAM.  I also discovered that the 650w PSU wouldn’t be enough to power the system now that the GTX 295 GPU was on the way, as it required around 430w of dedicated power when running at maximum output.  This had me looking around for an alternative power supply, and opted for the Coolermaster Silent Pro 1000w and, along with that, the standard ATX chassis was replaced with the Coolermaster Dominator 690 chassis complete with three built in fans, and room for four more.

The GTX 295 card arrived today and, within 30 minutes, I was on my way to Glasgow to pick up the brand new gaming system.

It’s sexy.  It’s beyond sexy in fact, it’s incredible.  The silent PSU really IS silent, even during the extensive 3D benchmark tests that we ran the system through.  The case is functional, yet stunning, and is HUGE but has plenty of space inside for air circulation and more gizmos.  The RAM… wow, the RAM… I couldn’t stop looking at it.  In fact, I couldn’t really stop looking at ANY of it… from the cobalt blue heatsinks to the GTX 295 (which is as big as a baby’s arm holding an apple), and even the processor iteself.  This is no longer a gaming system.  It is a work of art.  Considerably more expensive than the original spec but, in all honesty, more value for money and more worthy of the term “gaming system”.  The finished spec reads as…

  • ASUS P7 P55D EVO Motherboard
  • Intel Core i5 750 Processor (4 x 2.66Ghz)
  • 4 x 2Gb OCZ Reaper DDR3 PC3-12800 7-7-7-24 RAM
  • 1Tb SATA hard drive
  • 18x SATA DVDR/W
  • Zotac GTX 295 1.792Gb GPU
  • 1000w Coolermaster Silent Pro PSU
  • Coolermaster Dominator 690 chassis
  • Windows 7 Premium 64bit (because I need to move on!)

Yet again, Paul and Jim at Premier (0141 221 8716 for anyone who wants a serious PC) come through with a fantastic piece of kit.  It’s testimony to their systems when you consider that my mum still uses a system that they built for me back in 2002 and it still runs like a dream.  I hope this system will still run like a dream in seven years time, although I seriously doubt it’ll even be able to cope with some of the newer games in three years time, let alone seven.

Until then, I can enjoy every 16 x antialiased pixel.

Fancy angles aside, this case is HUGE, and entirely tool-less

You can just about spot the monster GTX 295 graphic card and the OCZ Reaper RAM

This photo doesn't do the case any justice, neither do any of the online images, but it is truly beautiful

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Oops, I didn’t it again

I promised I’d blog today, and it’s now too late to even start it.  It’s not like I’m capable of writing short and sweet blogs, so why waste my evening doing so when I could waste it in front of 2009’s final episode of V.

All going well, the new gaming PC should be ready tomorrow.  Believe it or not, that will prompt me to write about the ups and downs leading up to it finally being built.  No, I WON’T be playing it all night 🙂

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Powermad

I’m about to cheat on my sweetheart, and feel really quite ashamed about it. I didn’t actually mean for it to happen, but she’s dropped the ball a few times lately and I feel like I need to start looking elsewhere so I can get my kicks from more than one arena. Last week I wanted to fool around a little, and got myself settled with a view to really let loose and have fun but she wasn’t having it. Instead of being beautiful to look at, something just wasn’t right. Where I should have been in awe at the sight before me, I was instead faced with a rather mutated form… the smooth movement and beautiful curves were still there, but the features and the details were distorted and ugly.

My XBox Elite had been compromised or, at least, the game within the drive had.

I first tried playing Risen on the PC after downloading the demo. Some had said it was difficult to control while others had complimented it by saying it was better than Two Worlds but not as good as Oblivion. As anyone familiar with my gaming history will know, I loved Oblivion and adored the much maligned Two Worlds almost as much. Actually, that’s not strictly true… I loved things about Two Worlds that Oblivion didn’t have and vice versa, so they may end up on par with each other when all is said and done. The point is… if Risen is comparable to these two great role playing games then it was a game I wanted to get my teeth into.

Unfortunately, my beastly PC wasn’t capable of rendering it on full resolution at the highest texture quality… and THAT is how I want to play all my games. I am, unashamedly, a graphics whore. If I can’t experience the highest possible depth of realism within a game then I find that my enjoyment is somewhat hindered, and so I borrowed a copy of Risen for the XBox 360 to see how it would perform in the console arena where every game has no choice but to conform.  The difference in quality between the PC version and the XBox version is really quite staggering, with very visible polygons and smudged textures which made the main character look like someone had stubbed out a couple of Havanas into his eye sockets.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  It should have looked as good, or perhaps slightly less impressive than the XBox 360… but not like this.  Heavily compressed textures and characters that resemble the “removal guy” from the (cutting edge at the time, apparently) Dire Straits “Money For Nothing” video just don’t do it for me. Not at all.

I want photorealism. I want splines in abundance. I want smooth, delicate curves.

Enter the new gaming PC. It was officially ordered today, pending me approving the final quote for the build. It’ll be a gaming PC unlike any other in our household, in that it will be shared rather than just being mine or Lorna’s. It won’t be doubling up as a workhorse, or a music production suite, and won’t have pornography or Farmville. It will be in the gaming room, straight through the projector, used solely for serious gaming. It is, I have to admit, a somewhat unjustified expenditure when money isn’t exactly flowing like the Côtes du Rhône when Victor visits, but it’s something that I’m willing to do in order to enjoy my favourite games on an entirely new level and with all the modded weapons and custom levels available for Oblivion and Fallout 3 and, who knows, I may even indulge myself in Sims 3 and whack up the anisotropic filtering to nonsensical levels with whatever levels of antialiasing EA have managed to squeeze in to their latest life sapping life sim.

For now, however, I can only live in antici……. pation.

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