Friday, 27 June 2014

Insert pun about fans here!

Undoubtedly the least expensive computer gaming accessory I have bought in a while is a little USB powered fan I found in a local discount store.

It's getting warmer in my attic man-cave. But my large oscillating fan is a little too noisy and a little to strong so I end up turning it on, then off, then on again and so on. This little fan provides a gentle flow of air which I can aim directly at me without it being too much. It's also very quiet and runs on power from the computer's USB port.

It's Chinese made and unbranded and only cost a few pounds. Bargain!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

STEAM's 'In-house streaming' system - first thoughts

Sometimes I just want to sit in front of the TV for some casual gaming. Now, my laptop is a MacBook Pro (because I am a designer and because they are one of the best laptops out there) and while things have improved markedly by way of Mac gaming there is no questioning the fact that the PC games market is huge by comparison. 

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to run my favorite PC games on my Mac?

For this reason my PC is my main gaming rig and I already own a fairly large library of games which are exclusive to that platform. So...Wouldn't it be nice to play some of these games on my laptop without buying a PC laptop instead of my Mac?

Well, actually there are already ways to do that, Apple's Bootcamp or third-party software like Winebottler or Parallel Desktop take advantage of Apple's Intel processors to run a separate Windows partition on your Mac hard drive. The disadvantage of this is that how well this works for games relies on the power of your Mac, and high-end games - which rely of very powerful GPUs - simply won't run on a Mac system which is primarily intended for design and productivity work.

World of Tanks on a Mac! In the past I have used software like Parallel Desktops
to run PC games on my Mac. But performance is an issue and high-end games
rarely run smoothly this way, if at all.

In the past he work around has been simple - though hardly ideal, Mac professionals like myself simply buy a separate gaming PC.

Well, recently online game retailers and 'digital distributor and game library' STEAM has introduced a very interesting 'In-Home streaming system' that allows you to access your main gaming machine remotely and then play your games on a client machine elsewhere in your house. Very clever.

This circumvents - in theory - the necessity of you client machine having to be a powerful one or even it having to run the same OS!

[I should point out that this idea is not new - you can (again in theory) perform this workaround using software like Microsoft's Remote Desktop. But STEAM's system is far more elegantly designed and is specifically intended and optimised for gaming.]

I've been trying out STEAM's 'In-Home Streaming', starting with some
older classic PC titles and working my way up to see the 'breaking point'
where power-hungry PC games just won't work. You can't get more
classic than the original Unreal Tournament!

I've just been trying this system out by working through some of my PC games from my STEAM library to see what does and does not work. At length I will report on the relative success of this trial - but in the meantime I am pleased that I've had some successes (and a few notable failures).

By the way, I think it's safe to say that a good solid home network is pretty necessary here. My initial attempts were done using a Wif_fi connection to connect and stream between my PC (host) and MacBook (client) machines and I did get a lot of network drops. Interestingly these were on some of the older games from my collection (which I had thought would be less 'needy' as far as networking goes).

Ghost Recon Classic: Ironically - like Unreal Tournament - GR Classic was
available as a native Mac game. However, that was before the advent of
Apple adopting the Intel processor. Now Mac OS X users like myself find
it very hard to get these games working. Is STEAM's system a solution?

I'll post up my results after I have acquired a long Ethernet cable to directly connect my MacBook to my router (see if that makes things better). Oh, and of course games that are not in your STEAM library will not work!

One of the success stories so far has been Rebellion's 'Sniper Elite2: Zombie
. This ran surprisingly well using the streaming system.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Bit of a rant - computer game player sheep

[I've had to go and get a drink before I started writing this post...It's one of those!]

Remember those good old days of computer gaming? You know, when you would sit around with a  group of mates and discuss how 'wouldn't be a cool game if...' and then come up with seemingly the most stupid idea for a game in the world ever. AND YET, many was the time, a couple of months later you would read a preview of a game in ST Format or Amiga Magazine just like the one you you thought up!

This was even truer in the days of the Commodore 64, BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum. The craziest ideas would make it to 'tape' (and later 'floppy') because the whole gaming community was really a community and chances are one of those mates (or even you) could actually code the 'stupid idea' to some sort of completion.

OK, I admit, the downside of this were that there were literally hundreds of really (really) crap games out there but the marketplace for game ideas was directly driven by the wants of the actual game players! And chances are someone somewhere would even like - what you thought were - the crap games! (How else can anyone explain 'Llamatron'!)

Anyway, to my main point.

This morning I sat and watched a review of EA's latest instalment in the Battlefield franchise by the well respected YouTube gamer FRANKIEonPCin1080p called 'WORTH BUYING?! - Battlefield Hardline Beta'...

Now Frankie was quite pragmatic in his laboured neutrality over the game and his opinion about this BETA (and I reiterate that it is just a BETA) which really boiled down to a simple restatement of the old Roman adage Caveat Emptor ('let the buyer beware'). Perhaps the controversy over his role in the promotion of Battlefield 4 where he was alleged to have taken payment from EA not to make overly negative comments about the game and it's blatantly obvious faults prior to general release has somewhat tempered his willingness to seem unaware of any failings in this one - so best to say as little as possible, other than note some personal preferences and put the onus for buying another lemon on the poor consumer! ...Phew, long sentence...Sorry!

However, the one thing he said that was majorly critical about the development side of things was that he noted how game play features that were present in an earlier episode of the franchise - BF3 - were not now in this latest edition. Why would EA take away good features in a game that is supposed to be the most evolved version of the series?

And here's my point (at last you say)...

The whole sorry tale of the Battlefield series (and I guess Call of Duty and Ghost Recon, et al) is - obviously - that game design is no longer directly driven by the needs of the gamer but rather some vague marketing 'concept' the goal of which is trying to juggle various statistics and demographics in order to come up with the most sales.

...And in stating this I know you - dear reader - will be saying to yourself 'and you've only just figured that out'?

The but the final nail - and what is the main cause of this rant - was when Frankie announced the intended price for Battlefield Hardline. This game is likely to cost you and I £50. FIFTY POUNDS!

Particularly maddening as despite having had our fingers burnt many, many times you and I just know that thousands and thousands of gamers will pay out this money knowing that they will soon after start moaning about it's faults and glitches while EA laugh all the way to the bank!

FIFTY POUNDS! Think about it...If all those people took their £50 or Dollars or whatever and gave it - just this once - to a Kickstarter project like 'Ground Branch'* (a game inspired directly by the long term wishes of a body of gamers) we would have games that WE actually WANT for a change AND at the same time inject some much needed creativity and variety into a very, very stale gaming market.

Don't give EA your £50 on the month of release - PLEASE! Give it to a creative work that really needs it, and then if you really must then buy Hardline the next month (when the price will have dropped due to poor sales).

...Of course this won't happen because we are all sheep. :(

* Pick you own Kickerstarter gaming project.

Above: 'Ground Branch' development prototype. This Kickstarter FAILED to
meet it's funding goal while BF4 racked in millions for EA. It was designed
specifically to fulfil the long-held wishes of the Classic Ghost Recon player
fan-base. There are lots of these niche projects out there but we still insist on
investing our hard earned cash on games which we know will be, at best,
half-complete on release.


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book review - Sven Hassel revisited

The Danish author Sven Hassel is something of a divisive figure. Some love him and his books, some hate them. There are many reasons for this - I won't document all the controversies and conspiracy theories about him here, Google them if you're interested - but at the core there is the unsettling concept - for a non-German - of reading a series of books that tell the story of World War 2 German soldiers.

Why would anyone want to read about the experiences of Nazi soldiers? Well, from a strictly historical viewpoint hearing the 'other side of the story' is a very important and valid academic pursuit and it may even gives some interesting context to the casual readers understanding of the events and why the allies went to war. But a semi-fiction action adventure series? That's not very moral is it?

One can get very snooty about Sven Hassel's books, I remember reading them as a teenager and deriving a sort of immature frisson of pleasure at reading something I felt was a little 'forbidden', as the idea of Nazi soldiers being the 'heroes' of a story was quite contrary to the British mindset and it's conventional cultural programming of how 'we' should see 'the war'.

The books - at this level - were gritty and brutal and somewhat 'comic' (as in comic book) and were - for me - an evolution of my early teenage love of war comics like the Victor and the Commando series. Strangely Hassel's books came to my attention because they were sitting on my father's bookshelf, though I didn't stop to consider the ramifications of this at the time. They attracted my interest by means of the comic-book cover art and - to my detriment - the fact that the author's title was typeset with the double-S of 'HaSSel' in the infamous Nazi lightning runes of the 'SS' (thus further making the reading of this book seem something that was rebellious, which is a like a flame to a moth when one is an awkward teenager).

[Note: In Hassel's defence this typographic liberty was not his idea - 'his unit' was not an 'SS' unit and this sensationalist piece of graphics has - thankfully - been removed in subsequent reprints of his works in the UK. The picture above shows the newer cover design.]

It is only now - nearly forty years later - that I was tempted to revisit the Hassel books - as I am currently modelling some WW2 German items and wanted some 'scene setting' information - and ask the obvious nagging question - why were these books on my father's bookshelf?

Reading 'Legion of the Damned' as a rational and informed adult - as I hardly think male teenagers can be considered 'rational' - is an altogether different experience from that which I thought I remembered. The books are still, I think, a bit silly and 'pulp' but I was surprised to read large and well written tirads by the author against the Nazi war machine and war itself! I can only imagine that as a youth I skimmed over these bit to get to the 'action' thus these passages made no lasting impression on me.

The real Sven Hassel as a willing and enthusiastic recruit in the regular
German army. Or is it? There is some debate, not only about who he really
was but what his role was in the war and how much of his books are fiction.

Surprisingly some of the sections in this - the first book in the series - are at times intelligently put together, touching, heart-rendering, anti-war and do - despite oneself - illicit a feeling of sympathy for the characters in 'Sven's troop'. Indeed, even if one tries hard to be dispassionate and subjective, as I was during this reread, one can a hardly help but to become fond of the larger than life comrades of the main character and begin to invest emotionally in their plight.

My father was an avid and intelligent reader and - I know - was greatly affected in his views about war by Erich Maria Remarque's masterpiece 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Many of his generation, it seems, held Hassel's works as being of this anti-war genre and Hassel was extremely popular in the UK in the late 1950s and 1960s.

But they were Nazis!?
And here's the rub, the inescapable catch to the whole experience of reading Sven Hassel is that you are reading about Nazi soldiers. They may not have been 'SS' - the military wing of the Nazi Party - but they were soldiers of the Nazi State, trying to separate the two as if two Germanys existed between 1933 to 1945 is in my opinion ridiculous and more than a little ingenuous.

Well, that said, Hassel does attempt to deflects the moral outrage one might harbour by setting his story in the Penal Battalion of the German Army and also goes to great pains to convince his reader that these men were just as much victims of the Nazi system as 'political prisoners' or those others who were unjustly punished by the Nazi Party for perceived infractions to their stilted justice system.

Above: Two scenes from the 1987 movie based on Hassel's books. Ironically the
movie - which is terrible by the way - is full of just as many technical inaccuracies
as his books! Here a Soviet SU-100 stands in for a German tank destroyer!

In fact this proposition along with the elements of antiwar sentiment in the books is the reason that Sven Hassel's books (or at least this first book) have raised the reputation of his writing - by some - to the point where he is considered to be one of the great anti-war authors of his time. I have even read reviews which seek to elevate his book to the same level as that other great German anti-war classic 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.

...Now to that catch I mentioned. It all just doesn't wash with me.

We, in the West - at least of my generation and of my father's generation - are quite familiar with the post-war notion that 'all Germans were not Nazis' and that, in fact, many of the victims of Nazi tyranny were actually German citizens themselves. Large numbers of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were German, as were political dissidents, gypsies, homosexuals, (certain) intellectuals, (certain) artists, the mentally and physically infirm, the 'promiscuous' and so on and so on. And yet...

I am afraid that I cannot find it in my heart to accept the proposal that the majority of Germans were somehow duped into following the Nazis, after all - and again people forget this - the Nazi party and all of it's well documented and stated policies were democratically elected into power - and Sven (or his alter-ego in the book) admits that he was initially a volunteer in the regular German army and not conscripted or press-ganged, he actually went to great lengths to become a German soldier, even changing his Danish sounding name (Pedersen) to the more German sounding 'Hassel'.

I also do not believe the widely accepted myth that all the atrocities committed by the German military in World War 2 was the work of the 'SS' and nothing to do with the regular 'Heer' (German Army). There is now a large body of evidence that dispels this notion and I have myself evidence - by way of photos my father 'liberated' from a German POW - that clearly burst this bubble of delusion.

Above: I have in my possession some photos of the German Army that my
 dad 'liberated' in North Africa. We had always presumed that they we a
series of photos of the German's Blitzkreig across Poland but on the rear of
one of them was this penciled title 'Stryj' (or Stryi).

Sadly - I discovered that this series of pictures seems to show the operations
conducted by the Nazis against the Jewish population:

"The Germans occupied Stryy on July 2, 1941, and hundreds of Jews were
immediately killed. In November 1941, 1,200 Jews were shot in the Holobotow
forest. Several deportations to extermination camps took place beginning in
September, 1942. Between June and August of 1943 the Stryy ghetto and labor
camps near the town were liquidated. When the Soviet army occupied Stryy in
August, 1944 there were only a few Jewish survivors. No Jewish
community was re-established."

[Reference source:]

As can be clearly seen in several of the photographs the German soldiers
carrying out this operation wear the helmet insignia of the
regular army - 'Heer' - and not the 'SS'.
So when Sven Hassel tries so hard to delineate the activities of the 27th Panzer Division Penal Battalion as not being aligned with the Nazi war machine I simply cannot accept this I'm afraid.

I do not usually believe in 'collective guilt' but the phenomenon of Nazism was so abhorrent and so ideologically and morally corrupting that I feel one must metaphorically 'cut off the leg to save the life' of democracy and human rights and consign that generation of German people en masse to a shared sentence of 'guilty' as a statement of what sort of behaviour democratic people do not find acceptable. And in this I, regretfully, accept that there are those who will have been 'punished' unjustly. There were good Germans but the concept of a Nazi state must never again be a conceivable proposition.

So, to conclude, I cannot allow myself to enjoy Sven Hassel's books nor to recommend them. Not even for 'academic' purposes, for in truth - and this is a whole other issue - these fictionalised tales as so full of technical and chronological inaccuracies that there is little historical worth in them (there are large numbers of historical accounts and biographies which give the German view far more accurately and subjectively).

(Allegedly.) The real Porta (right) and Tiny, two of Hassel's comrades as
depicted in his series of books. Lovable rogues of a type found in almost
any army, but their 'roguishness' is tainted by the uniforms they wear.
'Legion of the Damned' is about a lovable and roguish group of human beings - the larger than life character of Porta is particularly hilarious at times - but I would far rather read about similar characters who were experiencing similarly unpalatable and heart-wrenching wartime careers but on the right side! In this I can wholeheartedly recommend Spike Milligan's war memoirs which show the complete gamut of emotional and moral implications of war.

In this, World War Two has the eminent luxury of it being on equitably clear which side was the right side.

Postscript: If you really must read a semi-fictional account of German soldiers during WW2 - and in particular their experiences on the Soviet Front - then you might look for Willi Heinrich's 'The Willing Flesh' (1950). This was the book on which Sam Peckinpah's excellent film 'Cross of Iron' (1977) was based.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Wasssup! PC gaming roundup

Good god! It's almost like I don't game anymore! In actuality I do, I just haven't been doing anything blog-worthy enough for me to actually do any damn typing...

Battlefield 4 on the PC is starting to get a bit wearisome (predictably) and I have been searching around for something different. The most likely candidates are some of the host of zombie-slash-survival games that are the vogue at the moment - such as; DayZ, Rust, Seven Days to Live, etc.

I have been watching FRANKIEonPCin1080p on YouTube as he has regularly posted his in-game experiences with RUST and DayZ and they make very entertaining viewing. However, having done some asking around various gaming clans I still think a lot needs to be done to these games to make them more playable.

So, at the moment my hopes rest on Sony's H1Z1 which promises to be everything DayZ is but better (and by better they mean actually be a proper game rather than a BETA sandbox).

I am also, of course, very excited about the recent release of Wolfenstein, but as this is really (mainly) a single player experience I am happy to wait until next month to buy this as the price should have fallen a bit. World of Tanks has received a few nice updates since I last played it, but I have really gotten that bug out my system (literally, I uninstalled it)! :)

The biggest news - well, most exciting anyway - is that off the back of Battlefield 4 EA will be releasing one of the new 'related' titles for the franchise that it hinted at. Called Battlefield Hardline this heist based game promised to be a sort of cross between GTA and BF! Watch the trailer to get a better idea of what this would mean...

This would most certainly get my BIG Clan friends and I excited about FPS again and it's supposed to be coming out in October of this year. Best news though is that it is being developed by someone other than DICE and will include all the lessons that EA has learned from BF4's deplorable Netcode issues (fingers crossed eh)!

And finally, dabbled with Rebellion's Sniper Elite 2: Zombie Army and thought it rather fun (in a short-term faddy sort of way). But was sufficiently impressed as to want to give the new Sniper Elite 3 a look when it's released soon...

Again, I can't see the BIG Clan guys playing this but I would like it loaded on my rig in time for September's MAGLAN14 II - The Revenge! However, as the above video shows there is actually a fairly interesting looking multiplayer mode so you never know, if the guys can be bothered to fork out the cash we may all have a go.

Well, that's it - other than to announce that I have finally managed to run to a bit of an extension to my mid-life upgrade to my gaming rig. This time I am adding two much needed power-up that will impact my Battlefield 4 play - a new graphics card and a SSD.

The card is a MSI Radeon 3GB R9 280X and really should give me the much needed ooomph that has been missing with my current ATI Radeon HD 5850.

Additionally I am - at long last - adding a SDD to my system, I have been putting this off until I have been completely convinced that they are stable and reliable (I am a bit of a ludite at times). My gaming friends have been using them quite happily for a few years now and it's has started to irk me that they are always in game before me as a consequence so I splashed out on a Crucial MX100 2.5 256GB SATA III SSD.

I'll report back after Friday night's game night as to how I feel these have improved things.