Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3, then. Shepard and EDI, at it[/caption] So yeah: by now you may have already read my review of Mass Effect 2. If you didn’t, go read that first.

Mass Effect 3 was released this year (wikipedia), with plenty of fanfare and controversy. First of all, there was the spat about DLCs that featured extra footage (scenes so you will) that were crucial for the storyline. Secondly, EA, owner of Bioware, decided to bring out Mass Effect 3 for their digital content delivery system, Origin, only, therefore ignoring requests from many fans to deliver the game thru Valve’s Steam. Thirdly, many game reviewers jumped the gun by calling this the best game of the year, which it isn’t. So what’s new and what’s not new?

The game is once again heavily scripted, dumbed down and generally, feels shorter than ME2 (I finished the game in 26 or so hours). Maps and levels, generally don’t take long to finish and worst yet, when leveled up, feel easy to take on. You hear that right: it feels shorter and it feels easier. I think, there were only two maps/missions that were fairly tough only because both of them pitted you against banshees. My general feeling about ME3 is that you can’t really call it an RPG: the choices that you have to make during many cutscenes generally have two answers: you can either pick evil or not so evil. Even that is sort of a step back from ME2, let alone ME1.

However: the story line is epic and while hard-core fans didn’t agree with the ending, I feel this game is an appropriate end to the Mass Effect lore. Sure you knew Shepard would die eventually (well, if you play it in a specific way you can actually have Shepard survive, but this implies that you gathered every ‘war assets’ that you can find). And that’s, I guess all I wanted to mention in this posting: Mass Effect 3 is a worthy game if you already played the earlier ones. If you haven’t played the first two games, you might miss references. Dumbed down and what not: my general feeling after finishing this game was a sigh of relief. I’m not sure what Bioware is planning and cooking up, but I surely hope they leave the Mass Effect world alone now. If not, I’m certain I will not buy into their crap any more. And that’s all I’m going to say about this.

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Horrors and other news stories

Back when I was a youngling studying civil engineering in the Netherlands, the question of a direct railway connection between the cities Zwolle and Lelystad (“Hanzelijn”) was a popular discussion subject. If you’re not familiar with the topography of the Netherlands: for years, to get to the ‘Flevopolder’ by train, one needed to travel to Amsterdam first. Just recently, I noticed that the queen had finally (officially) opened the long needed shortcut to the ‘Flevopolder’.

Just yesterday, a lone gunman killed 20 or so kids in Newtown, Connecticut, which led to a many emotional scenes of parents, relatives, authorities and the US president: During the official White House statement/briefing, Obama had a hard time holding back tears. CBC had a long discussion with their reporters if this would finally break open the US gun registry laws: alas, most of the reporters were pessimistic about future US gun laws and restrictions. However, I’m not sure how the NRA is going to defend this gun massacre: what’s next? Have kids carry guns?

You are Kim Wilde, a legendary 80s popstar. You’re slightly drunk and joined by your brother on the train back to, well, wherever you headed to. How not to make an embarrassment out of yourself? Do not sing and serenade your fellow passengers. Wilde herself about her one-time performance:

Truly, I am overwhelmed and confused at such a huge reaction to my night out on the tiles. Making me giggle a LOT

Now we only need quotes from people who were actually on the train during this ordeal.

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Civilization V

I‘ve been playing Civilization 5 (wikipedia link) now for a while and I’m still mixed about it. If you played and loved Civ4 (Earlier here): it’s nothing like it. The game designers drastically changed several game features: First of all, everything plays now on a “hex” map. Secondly, stacking up units is not allowed any more. Most importantly, politics has changed. This is actually the part that bothers me the most. Since Civ 1, choosing your nation’s political affiliation resembled known types of political structures we’ve seen in recent history. You wanted to focus on trade, surely you could choose to lead your nation as a Republic or Dictatorship. Civ 5’s political system feels extremely dumbed down.

So, that being said: the game’s graphics, music and general presentation are top-notch as always. To get the most out of the game, you would probably need to get a PC that has more than 2 cores and an extremely capable graphics processor. Anything lower than a third generation i5 or i7, will most likely feel a ‘grind out game’. Turns generally seem to take longer (compared to Civ4). At the launch of this game, Firaxis claimed that their Civ 5 engine was their most scalable game engine, able to use multiple cores: If you have the time for it, witness Meier’s presentation. Upon release, however, the game was buggy as hell. Only 4 or 5 months after release, Civ 5 sort of became playable. Add to the fact that the DLC “Gods and Kings” finally added Religion and Spying mechanisms, you can say that Civ 5 is sort of turning into a classic: Mind you, a reluctant classic if you compare it with Civ 4.

Civ 5, however, does battle pretty well. Battles now feel sort of ‘real’: You’ll need to plan the location of your cities so you can take advantage of the terrain and force possible bottlenecks upon your enemies. To conquer cities, you’ll find you have to push your cities to max to generate a steady stream of cannon fodder. Additionaly, cities now have basic defence mechanisms.

Would I recommend it? Reluctantly, but only if you get the “Gods and Kings” DLC: Besides adding religion and spying, it changes several core game play mechanisms. It seems to be a lot more playable in higher levels as well. My frustration score is obviously higher: I’d rate a solid 6. God, the game so obviously needs more peddles. But besides the frustration, winning the game is absolutely rewarding. With the release of Steam Workshop, people can now even create their own mods for Civ 5. “A+ would plai agian”, as they’d say on the Internet.

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Ostensibly, a president

So, it looks like Obama indeed won the presidency, much to the world’s delight or fright, depending on your political views.

As posted earlier, I only slightly followed the elections. At ‘Election Night’, I turned off the TV the moment I saw that Obama was ahead in battleground state Ohio. It generally looks like that at the end, Nate Silver’s prediction (“Obama wins without any doubt”) was right on the money. If you believe the press, the election result came as a surprise for a many Republicans and even the Romneys. I think the problem was that Republicans were not looking at the numbers and the facts, which is highlighted in that now famous Rove/Fox News video where Fox News called the presidency for Obama and Rove (apparently) was in self-denial.

Did the best candidate win? It all depends on your definition of ‘best’. I’m certain that in the coming years, Obama will become a target for everything between right and left. In the mean time, it’s going to be an interesting 4 years: To win the next presidency, the Republicans have to move to the center. If they can’t appeal beyond their current election base, they’ll be toast for years to come. On the other side of the spectrum: At the end of the Obama’s presidency, the Democrats will have to figure out if Obama has become ‘persona non-grata’ or if they’d need his help.

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Earlier, I was under the impression that this year’s hurricane season would end up fairly, unremarkable. Luckily, I’m far from being a meteorologist: Just last week, Oct 29th, hurricane Sandy made landfall in NJ, USA, causing major outages and damage in New Jersey, New York and other areas on the Eastern US coast. Portions of Canada (mostly Ontario and Quebec) were on heavy rain and wind alerts: Over in SJ, the only thing we saw was high winds and plenty of rain.

As it stands right now, there are still millions of Americans without power, which is what 3 days or so before the US presidential elections? That’s right: the ultimate elections in the world is about to come to its climax. Will it be Romney or will Obama cling to his job?

If you believe the media, this seems to be a tight race: if you believe Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame), Obama has nothing to fear. As it stands Silver predicts that Obama will have 305 electoral votes and Romney 232.

I have no high opinion of “the politician” Romney: New York mayor Bloomberg (an independent) said it perfectly last week when he endorsed Obama:

In the past he (ed. Mitt Romney) has also taken sensible positions on immigration, illegal guns, abortion rights and health care. But he has reversed course on all of them, and is even running against the health-care model he signed into law in Massachusetts.

This is also what Mitt Romney’s opponents pointed out in the Republican primaries and generally the impression is that Romney will say anything for votes. Worst yet, I think I’ve pointed out at one stage that when Romney does speeches, it always appears he rants about anything unsubstantial.

If Romney will be elected, it’s going to be fun times for the writers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

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Treeview and storage

I‘ve not written a while about programming, let alone anything about that mailing program, RoundAbout. Today’s subject is the Windows TreeView control and its data section, the TreeNodes. As you probably know, a TreeView shows data in an hierarchical way, allowing users to ‘expand’ or ‘close’ so-called TreeNodes, so to expose or hide data they do and don’t want to see. TreeNodes in the Windows world can have user-data attached to it and often, developers will use this to store program specific information. I believe in .Net, this data propery is called ‘Tag’: in the Delphi world, it was called plainly ‘Data’. So code-wise this could look like this:

var Node: TTreeNode;
/* FolderData is a pointer to a record */
Node := TreeView.Items.AddChild(Node, FolderData^.Name);
/* Attach the FolderData to the current node */
Node.Data := FolderData;

Early in the process of development, it was noticed that any font or even layout changes caused severe crashes in the TreeView: The TreeView in RoundAbout holds account and message/mail folder information via each TreeNode’s Data member. After a long investigation, I noticed that this was caused by the Delphi TreeView control itself: whenever a window anywhere was refreshed, Windows would send a message to the TreeView control to refresh and recreate itself. Let me say that again: whenever a font was changed in RoundAbout, this would trigger any TreeView to recreate itself. I think this issue was resolved in later versions of Delphi, but I decided to create my own control (PMTreeView, code here) to preserve the data with the following premises:

  1. Override CreateWnd and DestroyWnd
  2. Upon destruction of the treeview window, save the data for the nodes to a memorystream.
  3. Upon creation of the treeview window, (if available) load the node data from the memorystream.
  4. Trigger an event to notify the developer that the Data structure has changed for further activities.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe in subsequent Delphi versions, Borland fixed this in their own TreeView controls. However, for a piece of code that I debugged and coded in a night or so, my own PMTreeView control wasn’t too bad of an implementation.

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Seagate open thyself

A year ago or so, I bought a 500 gig Seagate GoFlex portable harddrive. Unfortunately, I dropped it and started to have troubles with it. Initially, I thought the drive was just failing on me but upon thorough investigation I found out that actually the USB connector on the drive was broken. I recall that when I ‘unboxed’ the drive, I already had second thoughts about the cable and connector: I thought it looked suspiciously fragile.

I could go into a rant about everything fragile nowadays, but, here’s the thing: this drive contains a lot of data. I don’t want to lose my data. Why not just break it open and put it into one of those hd/custom enclosures: you know you can buy these at your local Staples for 20 dollars or so. Actually, opening the Seagate enclosure wasn’t too hard: first of all, there’s a plastic enclosing around the connector portion which you can slide out (use a bit of force..). Next, just push two or three flat screws into the rim and wiggle them until the top part lets go. Inside the shell, you can now take out the 2.5″ drive (you would need to screw off the aluminium cover) and put it into your custom enclosure.

I guess the moral is to stay clear from fragile connectors and plugs and all that stuff. On the other hand, a drive is just a drive. However, I fear the day, harddrive makers start to use propriety hd interfaces.

More images below the fold.

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Dragons and Laptops

What is funnier than ‘America’s Funniest Home Video Show’? Why, items that are wrongly priced on on-line shopping sites! I mean, a 10,000 dollar laptop that features a second generation i3 processor, a tame Radeon processor and yes, 6 GB of RAM. Surely, that RAM is solid gold. No?

A month or so ago, I finished watching all seasons of the show ‘A Game of Thrones’ (HBO Canada), an award-winning TV series based on George R. R. Martin’s Fantasy books ‘Songs of fire and ice’. I was advised it was pretty good, and sure, it was pretty good. The show is known as the most downloaded show on the Internet as HBO had refused to sell the show on DVD (or something to that matter: I can’t remember the details).

I had already started on George R. R. Martin’s books on July the 6th and as you may have noticed from the books-library, I finished the current known last entry of the series, “A dance of dragons”, just a week or so ago. All the titles in the series are long and, while at times slow to develop, fairly good reads. The major question is that Martin still has two titles to write and looking at the pace of the HBO series, I fear that the show is catching up with the books before Martin can officially finish them.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I have never played the original XCOM game (nee UFO: Enemy Unknown), back in the mid 90s. The famous turn-based-squad Microprose game obviously took the gaming world by surprise and people have been talking now for ages to recreate the experience of XCOM. Open-source? Check. Check. Check. What can you say?

So Firaxis (Of Civ fame), just released their interpretation of the famous XCOM game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and too much critical acclaim, with a current average rating of 89. Many reviewers praise the difficulty of the game, paired with high levels or re-playability. And to be honest, 20 hours in, it is good, with some side remarks.

First of all, the game is using the Unreal engine and thru the first gameplay, I think the game scales fairly well. I’m running it on a high-end computer, but I think I would have been able to play it on my older P7350 machine. Secondly, the game is unmistakenly hard and unpredictable at times, even on the Normal level. The premise is this: you lead and train a team of combat personnel in a varying (but fixed amount) of missions. Successful missions in regions will lower ‘panic rates’. If panic rates are going through the roof, countries can and will withdraw support for your XCOM organization. What makes things worse is that some missions (Abduction missions, typically) will require you to make decisions WHICH region is going to be the focus of attention. I’ve not even talked yet about the tech-tree. Sadly, the tech-tree is not really dynamic and neither are the maps.

Here is where the problems start with XCOM: The tech-tree and the non-dynamic maps. The tech-tree sort of give you options to focus on: it’s far from indepth and generally speaking, if you keep your focus on researching armor, you should be able to keep up with the scaling of the game’s AI (yes, it will get harder gradually). Secondly, the maps don’t seem to be random enough for me. There may be like 50 or so unique maps, and sure, aliens look like they’re placed randomly on the map, but after 10 or so missions, the maps look the same.

That doesn’t mean it’s no fun: listen, this is a turn-based strategy game with the focus on (tadaa) strategy. Every mission is a careful exercise of slowly moving your forces tile by tile, turn by turn and attack by attack. Early in-game, you learn fast to adopt to the strategy of the AI: move your troops out of harm’s way because, that’s what the AI does as well. I don’t really care about how Firaxis has set up the financial part (yep, you need money to keep your organization running) nor do I care about the ‘scanning’ and ‘flight combat’ portions of the game. Both remind me strongly of the Mass Effect approach: they add no real value to the game.

So, to summarize, XCOM can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. During the 20+ missions I played, it’s extremely exciting to finish a mission without any casualties. However, more often you lose extremely valuable team members. That’s just another reason to do better do the next time. Highly recommended. See images underneath.

10/21/2012: I finished the game in Normal difficulty mode. It’s pretty much an unforgiven game, that requires you to use every weapon and defensive tool in your arsenal (reddit on difficulty of the game). The very last battle, the Temple ship assault, I managed to finish by using three psi-enabled soldiers. Tip: smoke grenades and rush your assault team as close as you can to the Uber Ethereal. If you can, mind control one of the Mutants as that will distract one Ethereal (there are two of them). Let your sniper keep the other Mutant at bay. Do not (NOT) kludge together.

10/12/2012: Only 14.5% of Steam players beat the game on any difficulty. That is not a lot.

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Unity dialogs wars

Something that reminded me of the issues regarding Unity new ‘touch-based devices desktop paradigm’ that I noticed earlier, which I was going to mention in the previous posting: When you copy (cut/move) a large set of files, Nautilus will show you the ‘Copy File Dialog’ box. If you minimize this box, you will not be able to re-open ever therefore sort of leaving the user in the dark when the copy operation has finished. In Unity, all minimized windows go to the ‘Unity bar’ (no, NOT that kind of bar). Minimized modal dialogs that are part of applications however, do not. You cannot even re-open this box thru the ALT+TAB switch windows method. Sadly, this is a bug reported in earlier versions of Unity and it seems like it is still hanging around on (bug #887821).

In Gnome 3, they solved this slightly more elegant: Modal windows are treated the same as general system notifications and you should see it fly by in your message event ‘log’ (so to say). Switching to this dialog, however, can be achieved by using ALT-TAB and selecting the Nautilus icon. Not ideal, but definitely some Gnome developer was paying attention to properly implementing modal dialogs.

It would be interesting to see how Microsoft is solving modal dialogs in Windows 8/Metro.

Update 10/21/2012: Looks like the modal dialog issues have been fixed in Ubuntu 12.10 in an overhauled Windows switching system that actually looks pretty(see image screenshot).

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Madness du Systeme Linuxi

The previous posting was actually supposed to be detailing the conversion of my DV-5 to Linux, a process that I have done so many times that I can do this with my eyes closed. Sort of. It took a bit longer as I decided to check out OpenSuse and Linux Mint first. Either Linux flavours I disliked from the get-go: OpenSuse is driven by KDE 4, which I really like, except for that it reminds me these days of Lego in both a good and bad way. Mint is where I expect desktop-Gnome 3 to go: only, it behaves very unpredictable. For example, UI elements like menus in NetBeans didn’t work at all. Also, random crashes occurred too many times.

So, back to Unity, which, as you probably already knew, I hate. For now, I can tolerate it: however, in my mind, while I appreciate that the Ubuntu-crew is concentrating on a UI that can work with touchbased devices, it would have been so nice if they had provided users with a good UI choice.

I am pining for both KDE4 and Mint tho. Or, maybe, just maybe, I really should go back to Debian, which to my surpise is now up to version 6. Same apt, same tools and same architecture.

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Activities in Linux

Now that I’ve finally moved on to bigger hardware, I can officially retire my 2008 DV-5 1157-CA (this link doesn’t exist anymore). It has served me well, while costing me two harddrives, because, well, it obviously lost one fan at one time resulting in overheating. As you know, the number one killer of harddrives is heat.

While we’re at it: I’ve decided to steer away from major brand laptops like HP and Toshiba: I have had both brands and have seen the quality dwindle down. Current models look ugly and are extremely fragile. I don’t mean that you should be able to drop a laptop from 20 feet or so.

My favourite part of the DV-5 was the fact that it could play recent games fairly well (see category) because of the size of the video ram: For a general all-purpose laptop in 2008, 512 MB was a lot. Additionally, the laptop is not extremely hard to take apart: heck, at one time, HP’s site had elaborate instructions how to do it yourself and where to order spare parts from. Maybe that’s all we need from laptop manufacturers: sell laptops that one can repair and upgrade yourself.

For now, the DV-5 is running the latest Ubuntu flavour.

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A beach runs here

Summer’s been over now 10 or so days and looking outside, it feels like Fall (or Autumn) snapped in here before we could even think of typical Fall things, like seeing the leafs colour and/or raking them up. I believe our trees started shedding their leafs early, only because of the extremely hot temperatures back in July.

That said, this Summer we actually managed to ‘hit the road’ for a change and visit the amazing places that NB has to offer: Saint Martins, Saint Andrews and which ever places are in between these towns. The most remarkable place we ended up visiting was New River beach park: We happened to swing by it (accidentally) at low and high tide.

At one time, a while ago on this blog I complained about the fact that, when living in NS, that there were so many NB tourism commercials. Now that I’ve been living here for over 4 years, there are indeed many reasons why you’d want to check out NB during the Summer season.

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