1738: Aces High

Page_1After I beat Ace Combat 4 a few days ago — spectacular, incidentally; a game that still holds up marvellously well today, even on a big-screen HDTV — I moved pretty much straight on to its sequel Ace Combat 5, or Ace Combat: Squadron Leader as it is inexplicably known over here in Europe.

While superficially similar, Ace Combat 5 is definitely a more refined package on more fronts, though both games remain well worth playing in their own right.

To clarify: Ace Combat 4 had an interesting, unconventionally told narrative and gameplay that, more often than not, boiled down to “score [x] number of points before time expires”, with the odd break for “destroy all the marked targets before time expires”. This is a huge simplification, of course, because it was the context in which these missions took place that made Ace Combat 4 interesting rather than the actual mission objectives themselves.

Ace Combat 5 mixes things up a bit by having a wider variety of mission objectives. 17 missions in, and I’ve only just had a “score [x] number of points before time expires” mission; prior to that, I’ve had everything from “capital ship” battles against submarines to air support missions flying cover for an aircraft carrier escaping a besieged city, and one particularly memorable (if challenging) mission where you had to locate a downed member of your squadron, then support the rescue helicopter as it came in to pick her up.

Ace Combat 5 also tells its story in a different manner to its predecessor. While Ace Combat 4 framed its narrative as a letter written from someone who knew the primary antagonist to you, the player, Ace Combat 5 tells a more “present-day” tale about the jet fighter squadron which you’re a member of. Like Ace Combat 4, you gradually become known as a legendary pilot that enemy forces speak of in hushed tones, but there’s a lot more humbleness and humility about it this time around; there’s a strong emphasis on questioning the actions you’re being asked to take in the war, and whether what you’re doing is really justified. It makes for some compelling drama both during and between missions, and it’s a big part of what makes the game so interesting.

Flying and fighting is an absolute joy, though, and that’s what really matters here. Each plane feels noticeably different from the others — though all kind of throw realism out of the window in the name of fun — and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. The different weapons you’ll be flinging around all have their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies, too, and it’s interesting to gradually learn which plane (and attached special weapon) is most appropriate for which situation. Plus there’s a fun little “levelling” system whereby scoring enough kills with a particular type of plane unlocks better variants in that family tree — you can gradually upgrade from the F-15C Eagle to the F-15E Strike Eagle, for example, and you can do this for an impressively wide selection of real-life planes.

I’m impressed quite how good the game looks, too. It features native 16:9 support, for one thing — something you couldn’t rely on in the PS2 era, even with widescreen televisions becoming more widespread — but its visuals lack that muddiness that many PS2 titles often have when viewed on an HDTV. It’s not pin-sharp, no, but it looks good — and my goodness, does it ever move smoothly, maintaining a solid 60fps at all times, even when all manner of scary shit is going on around you.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty smitten with this series. And, as I think I’ve said previously, I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to try it out when it first came along.

1737: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Bomb

Page_1I had the worst morning today. I say worst; at the time it was happening, it was already apparent to me that the unfortunate combination of mishaps that befell me were the stuff of farce, and looking back now it’s just faintly amusing. But at the time it was spectacularly irritating, and put me in a rather grouchy mood for much of the day.

Things started badly when I woke up at the ungodly hour I need to wake up to go to work and I had a horrible pain in my back that made it difficult to bend over (to put my socks on, pervert) or indeed to operate in a normal manner. After downing a couple of painkillers, the pain subsided a bit, so after a quick breakfast I took to the road, carefully avoiding the bin lorry that had decided the time I was leaving the house was the optimum time to park almost across our driveway.

Five minutes down the road — thankfully no further — I realised that I’d left my work ID badge at home, and I need that to get in and out of the building. Now, I know full well that a little grovelling at the security office would have probably secured me a temporary visitor’s badge to use for the day, but I’m still in that phase where I want to be seen to be doing things “right”, and so back I went to pick up my badge (the lanyard for which also had the key to my desk drawers on it, plus a nice pen). By the time I got out the door again, it was getting on for half an hour later than I’d normally leave for work, and I just knew that this meant I was probably going to hit the pointless, meaningless, seemingly causeless traffic jams that are on the motorway every single day of the working week.

Sure enough, the dear old M27 didn’t disappoint. Much of my journey was capped at about 40mph, often dipping below that, and I wasn’t able to get up any sort of decent speed until the stretch of the motorway where I was almost at work. Time was ticking on by now, however; fortunately, I have fairly flexible hours, so the concept of being “late” is a little more fluid than in many other places, but I was still rather later than I intended to be.

I pulled up at the lorry park where I typically park my car at the start of each working day and prepared to hand over my cash for the week’s parking — though I had noticed several huge containers blocking the small patch of concrete out the front where cars arriving a little later were typically shepherded. I had a sinking feeling.

“We’re full, buddy,” said Lorry Park Man — yes, there are people who really do say “buddy” out loud — and I knew there was no point arguing. Those who pay for weekly tickets were typically given priority over those paying on a daily basis, but I could see from a cursory glance around that there really wasn’t any room to put any more cars — not without putting them at risk from the lorries that the park was actually built for, anyway. I nodded, and Lorry Park Man shrugged apologetically at me, so it was time to go on a small adventure to find somewhere to park.

I eventually found somewhere about a mile up the road from where I work — the lorry park is already about 15 minutes walk, and this was quite a way further — but there was nothing for it; my only other option was to park right in the town centre and have an even longer walk to contend with. No thank you.

I eventually made it to work — still before 9am, pleasingly — and tried to get in my usual door with my ID card. The door was, of course, broken, and I wasn’t even surprised by this by this point, so I simply wandered down to the next one along and went in. Then I sat down at my desk, turned on my computer, fired up Outlook to check my email and was helpfully informed that the server was not responding.

The perfect start to a perfect day, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Thankfully things picked up a little from that point onwards — though I did nearly forget to retrieve my desk keys and had to come back and get them — but man. That was one hell of a lot of bad luck in one go. Hopefully that’ll be it for a little while now; let’s have the rest of the week go a little more smoothly, hmm?

1736: Traffic Report

Page_1It is traffic that drives the modern Web, whether we’re talking about a commercial site or a personal social media page, but I’m gradually coming to regard the relentless pursuit of this easily measurable but sometimes quite misleading metric as something I’m keen to step as far away from as possible.

Why? Because the behaviour of the Internet hivemind — they who create the traffic — is predictable. Write something interesting and compelling — but, crucially, not controversial — that you’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into and came away from feeling yes, this is one of the best things I’ve ever written, and you’ll inevitably barely register a blip on the graphs. On the flip side, write something controversial or angry — preferably with plenty of finger-pointing — and you’ll get hundreds, thousands of hits. But are they the kind of people you want to be attracting to what you’re writing?

In the case of a commercial site, it doesn’t actually matter all that much; in the case of the biggest sites like IGN, the comments section moves so quickly with all the commenters’ vapid nonsense that there’s no time for anyone to be able to fixate on the actual people who have been reading it in most cases — unless, of course, it becomes clear that the community at large has an opinion contrary to that of the writer, in which case it usually degenerates into a battle of snark via Twitter within hours of publication. But even on smaller sites, comments sections are easily ignored; ultimately, it is those traffic figures that are totted up at the end of each week to determine how “well” things are going — the theory runs that if you lure people in with more “clickbaity” stuff, they will hopefully enjoy it and stick around to click through to some other, less controversial but much better pieces. It doesn’t necessarily work like that, sadly: bounce rates are high, and tricky to “fix”, particularly if you contemplate how your own personal browsing habits tend to go.

In the case of a personal site like this one, however, it very much does matter who you’re attracting to read the things you’ve written. I have a small group of semi-regular to regular commenters on this site, all of whom I’ve gotten to know and come to regard as friends. When someone new shows up, their first comment is important; it determines whether or not I actually want to engage with them, or whether I never want to speak to them ever again. It’s nice when the former happens; when the latter happens, however — something which is seemingly exponentially more likely on a high-traffic day — it can be anything from mildly annoying to actually quite scary, particularly for someone with anxiety issues around certain social situations.

It’s for this reason that I’ve come to dread the WordPress notification that reads “Your stats are booming!” because it means that, for whatever reason, lots of people have come to my site and are doubtless just itching to leave a comment on something and tell me how much I’m wrong. (The side effect of the aforementioned anxiety is that one negative comment counts for about 20 positive comments, making it very hard to get a nice, calming balance, and making me very anxious and nervous about the possibility of arguments, even over the smallest of things.) Today was one of those days: something I wrote a little while back — something which I stand by, but am also keen to put behind me now my life is moving forwards — got linked a whole lot. Judging by my stat reports, it seems it was linked from Twitter, Reddit and a few other places and, at the time of writing, has produced my “best” traffic day for a very long time.

I can’t say I’m particularly happy about that, though, because all it means is that I’ve written something contentious that I anticipate those who agree will stay quite and maybe give a Like, while those who disagree will jump in the comments and yell at me. (The comments on the aforementioned piece are now closed, so this makes prospective yellers’ lives at least a little bit more difficult, which is something.)

Since ditching the hustle and bustle of social media, with its constant pursuit of validation through Likes and Comments, I’ve become much more content to simply continue along on my way without interference from wider society. And while you may point your finger at me and say that I’m just trying to live in a bubble or an echo chamber, to that I simply say so what? We don’t need to open everything we say and do up to public scrutiny, and just because you publish something online for family and friends to read doesn’t mean that you particualrly want it shared with the wider world.

It’s a fact of life, however, that with this modern, connected world, if you publish anything online, whatever it is, you open yourself up to it being shared more widely, possibly well outside of your own safe place, and consequently run the risk of attracting… undesirables, shall we say. And that sort of thing is starting to make me increasingly uncomfortable — particularly after I’ve been the victim of an organised Twitter harassment campaign in the past; something I’m really not keen to repeat in any shape or form through any online medium.

Oh, don’t worry, this blog isn’t going anywhere; personally speaking, it’s been a valuable outlet and almost a form of “therapy” for me over the course of the last four and a bit years, so I can’t seem myself giving it up any time soon. I would, however, ask anyone reading any post on this site and contemplating sharing it or leaving a comment to take a step back for a moment and think about the person behind the words: a 33-year old dude who is just now finally starting to get his life moving in a vaguely normal direction after numerous years of upheaval, disappointment, upset, anger and chaos; a 33-year old dude who, after 4+ years of working “on the Internet” is now keen to have a bit of a quiet life. I’m not saying don’t share; I’m not saying don’t comment; I’m not sure what I am saying, really, if I’m perfectly honest: just please take what I’ve said above into account. That’s all I ask.

1735: Thal’s Balls

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Been watching some of the live online coverage of FanFest today — that’s the Final Fantasy XIV Fan Festival, if you’re unfamiliar.

The concept of a whole, large-scale event dedicated to a single video game may seem like an alien concept to some of you, particularly if you’re more accustomed to events like E3 and EGX where hundreds upon hundreds of games are all vying for the press and public’s respective attention. But with something like Final Fantasy XIV – which boasts somewhere in the region of 2.5 million players — it’s understandable, particularly as the game is entering an exciting period.

This coming week or the next will see the release of the game’s 2.4 patch Dreams of Ice, which is likely going to be the penultimate episode of the Final Fantasy XIV base game. We’ve already started seeing teasers for what the grand finale of the 2.X storyline will be, and doubtless Dreams of Ice will continue in that direction, taking in a spectacular-looking confrontation with Shiva along the way. Patch 2.5, which should follow along in about three months or so, looks set to provide a suitably epic conclusion to this story, and set things up nicely for the expansion Heavensward, which is coming in Spring 2015.

Aside from continuing the main storyline, Dreams of Ice will also wrap up the narrative surrounding the super-challenging endgame dungeons The Binding Coil of Bahamut, The Second Coil of Bahamut and, soon, The Final Coil of Bahamut. Those with the raiding chops to take on the challenges within will be rewarded with the truth behind the Calamity that befell Eorzea five years ago — and what’s really going on with Bahamut. Is he going to wake up again and lay waste to the land, or…?

One of the interesting things about FanFest has been the panels, which have been broadcast live via Twitch, giving me my first reason ever to actually go to Twitch and watch something. And there have been some fascinating discussions, too; there was a great panel on the game’s music earlier, and shortly before the time of writing there was a superb lore panel based around how the game’s world is “written” and “built” — something that is a real strength of the game. Unusually for a largely Japanese game, much of the lore is contributed and composed by a Westerner (albeit one who grew up in Japan), and as such Final Fantasy XIV finds itself in a strong position to appeal to both Western and Eastern players. Its English localisation was so strong, in fact, runs the narrative, that Japanese players started to demand the same attention to detail, sense of humour and wit that runs through the English script, ultimately making all versions of the game into a superior experience. It was a heartwarming tale.

Mostly what FanFest has driven home is that Final Fantasy XIV is a truly global game, and that while it will likely never reach the same dizzy heights of World of Warcraft in its prime, it’s in a very healthy position indeed — and that exciting times are ahead for those who make their second home in Eorzea. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds in the long term — but in the short term, there’s this, at least:

1734: Working Week

Page_1I am glad to reach the end of this week — it’s been a long one, largely because of that overnighter I had to pull in the middle; an inconvenience which even having the whole day off yesterday hasn’t quite allowed me to recover completely from. I’m not as young as I once was, I guess.

While I shan’t talk about the job itself — it is generally inadvisable to talk too much about one’s current employer if one wishes to stay employed — I did want to just contemplate how this new chapter in my life is going so far. After all, there’s a significant number of changes here, and while many of my friends and peers have been living this sort of existence for years now — in many cases since the end of university — being in the position of having a “normal” job is still something that is relatively new to me.

I’m enjoying the experience, though. Sure, there are quiet and boring moments, but there’s also a feeling that I’m doing something vaguely useful, and more than that, it’s nice to be around actual real people, even if they’re all busy doing their own things for most of the day.

That, I think, is the thing I missed the most. As something of a self-professed recluse at the best of times, a year or two back I never would have thought that I’d be craving human contact, but towards the end of my time working from home, I was really starting to go just that little bit crazy without having other people around. Sure, I could walk to the shop, but interactions there are fleeting at best, and those who try to strike up conversations with strangers in convenience stores are generally regarded as being somewhat on the fringes of polite society. (Not that my own social anxiety would ever permit me to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a convenience store, anyway; the thought of it is mortifying.)

At work, though, it’s been a pleasure to slot in as part of an existing team. It feels like some people are still coming to realise that I exist, while others have accepted me immediately. I’m particularly grateful for the fact that my immediate team of peers are all extremely nice people that I enjoy spending time with; while our job certainly isn’t miserable or horrendously difficult or anything like that, we form the sort of group that can share both positive and negative experiences together and feel like we have a “bond” of sorts; a sense of camaraderie.

This is, as previously noted, somewhat different to anything I’ve experienced before. In teaching, things varied from being cliquey to “us vs. them”; in retail, there was a sharp divide between the floor staff and management; in the online press, I rarely saw the people I worked with face to face. Here, I see the people I work with — at least those on my immediate team, anyway — every day, and as part of a large company we’re just one part of a whole. It’s an interesting experience, and one that I’m gradually getting used to as the weeks tick by.

I’m pretty sure that I made the right choice to get here. In some respects I’m wishing I’d made it a little sooner.

1733: Bumper Crop

Page_1It’s one of those times of year that there’s seemingly hundreds (well, all right, that’s an exaggeration) of great new games coming out, and relatively little time in which to play them all. That’s not stopping me picking up the ones I’m interested in, mind, as I feel it’s important to show your support to companies that are doing the right thing and releasing (or, in the case of most of the games I’m particularly interested in, localising) titles that other publishers might see as risky or too niche-interest to take a gamble on. (In actual fact, it’s clearly not all that much of a gamble at all; if it were, I’m sure companies like NIS America, Xseed and Aksys, who bring these games from Japan to the West at an impressive rate, would have folded long ago.)

Just off the top of my head, games that have been recently released (or that are imminent) and that I am either in the process of playing or am interested in playing soon-ish include Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1, Ar no Surge, Akiba’s Trip, Freedom Wars, Danganronpa 2, Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus, Tears to Tiara 2 and doubtless several others I’ve forgotten. And this isn’t even getting into the stuff that I’ve previously acquired and haven’t touched yet, which includes stuff like Drakengard 3, Monster Monpiece and the numerous non-Rorona games in the Atelier series. Nor does it cover the Pile of Shame I have that extends back to the PS2 era — largely acquired through spotting bargains and through taking full advantage of UK video game retailer Game’s misfortunes when it was struggling a while back.

I don’t mind though; I’m building up a library of things to enjoy that will last for literally years at this rate, since a significant number of these titles are fairly lengthy affairs, many of which also reward multiple playthroughs. It’s because of this huge stack of games that I don’t feel at all bad about not having jumped on board the “next-gen” (PS4 and Xbox One) bandwagon as yet, since 1) there’s nothing yet been released on either that I’m personally interested in playing (though a new Neptunia game is on the way to PS4, which will more than likely tip me over the edge) and 2) I like to finish my games — even if it takes a while.

I was talking about this latter point with a few people recently; the figures for people who actually beat games — now a lot easier to track in the age of achievements, which are essentially nothing more than metrics, after all — are depressingly low, and indeed, outside of very short games regarded as “must-play” experiences by popular opinion (things like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and their ilk) it is, anecdotally speaking, quite rare for me to hear someone else talking about beating a game and what they thought of the ending. That doesn’t mean people don’t do it, of course, but with the pace of new releases these days I kind of feel like it’s probably getting rarer as people feel pressured to play the latest and greatest thing simply to keep up with their peers.

I prefer a more leisurely pace, myself; it may take me weeks or months to plough through a lengthy RPG, but I enjoy myself a lot more in the process. Since the only multiplayer title I play is Final Fantasy XIV, which is a “constant” rather than something more seasonal like the latest first-person shooter release, I don’t feel the pressure to be playing The Next Big Thing the moment it’s released — and no longer being a member of the games press means that I don’t have the responsibility to do so professionally either.

Consequently, I intend to spend the next few months playing the Ace Combat series — which I am now absolutely smitten with, incidentally — along with Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 and, as ever, Final Fantasy XIV. After that, who knows? I might move onto something new; I might decide it’s time to tackle some of the older games in my collection. I have that freedom to do so, and it’s nice.

1732: The Overnighter

Just got back from an incredibly long day at work — effectively two days at work for the price of one, thanks to some overnight working as well as my normal shift. Consequently, I’m utterly knackered, so you’ll forgive any incoherence and/or typos, I hope. (I do get tomorrow off, at least; I intend to do a lot of sleeping after I have finished typing this.)

I don’t mind pulling late/all-nighters generally, because it allows me to indulge in one of my stranger pleasures: being in places that are normally full of people when they are deserted.

It’s something that’s always fascinated me, ever since I was a youngling and often got the opportunity to stay late at school to do various music activities. School concert night was always a particular highlight; not only did I tend to enjoy the concert itself, but there was something… I don’t know, almost romantic about the atmosphere around the school campus when it was all but deserted aside from a few people.

In fact, I’ve always enjoyed the night generally. When out walking in the darkness, there’s always the slight lingering fear that behind the next bush might be a knife-wielding maniac, of course, but for the most part I love the atmosphere of night-time: the peace and quiet; the way the air feels somehow different — probably because it’s not being churned up and polluted by hundreds of cars; the way everything feels like it’s going slightly faster than normal; the way bad weather, particularly snow, makes you feel like the place you’re in is a private little world.

It’s the peace and quiet part that gets me the most, I think, because it allows you to really drink in what is going on around you. You can listen to your footsteps as you walk; listen to your breathing; hear the birds start to sing to signal the beginning of the “morning” process (at least if you stay up as late as I have tonight); try to work out what the noises in the distance might be. Any sound near you feels almost infinitely louder, and hearing someone talking always feels like you’re intruding on a private moment. (Perhaps you are.)

It’s the contrast, too; I love comparing how a deserted place in the dead of night compares to how I know it is in the daytime. By day, it might be bustling hub of activity, with the constant noise of human interaction all around at all times. By night, it might be totally silent; you might be the only person there. There’s a sense of being in the unknown; of being somewhere “forbidden”, even if you have every right to be wherever you are.

In fact, were it possible to live one’s life in a more nocturnal manner, I think I’d happily do so. Judging by my drive back from work tonight, it would certainly save on traffic frustrations, if nothing else!