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Personal

New Flat Adventures Renews for a 4th series

I moved to London in January 2007. I’d quit my job in Bedford with nothing really to go for, save a feeling that it was time to move on, and got a job for Hotxt (later Trutap) in London the next day or so. Since then I’ve had some of the best employment experiences, and some of the worst. I’ve worked with startups primed to go global, startups on a dark and cynical path to oblivion, and startups with a hope and plan for the future that was just out of reach for them. I’ve even worked for established companies.

But last month, the new build houses where my garden used to be went on sale for £750,000. Eight months ago our rent went up by ~10%. At the end of September it’ll do so by another ~10%. I’m a software developer, earning a decent – if not excessive – wage, and I’m being rapidly priced out of the top quarter of the tube map. London house prices, and unregulated rent, are now completely too bad for me to deal with.

I love London a lot. Apart from the town I grew up in, it’s the place I’ve lived longest, and I’ll be sad to see it go.

But last Wednesday we wandered up to Oxford, and spoke to an estate agent directly out of central casting, and he took us to some expensive and tiny places. Then we went to the flat of a friend of a friend and… well, now we have a flat in Oxford.

It’s not all sunshine. Whoever told me (over the phone, annoyingly) that I could break out of the contract with the current place with 30 days notice was not entirely accurate, so we have to hope someone picks it up from viewings this month, otherwise we’re liable for another month’s rent on top while the contract expires. Our new Landlady needs to finish up doing up the new place, but that does mean I won’t be trying to move in the two weeks before Odyssey, so small mercies…

Categories
Computer Games

The Secret World Beta Weekend

The problem is, that there’s a lot that is New And Revolutionary and therefore Bad And Different, and there’s a lot that’s Exactly The Same, and therefore Copying WoW.

The same kind of thing happened with First Person Shooters. Once Doom was released, every gun-first 3D game was called a “Doom Clone” right up until Halflife proved that you could do a “Doom Clone” – on the Doom Engine, even (Well, Quake 2) and still be an entirely different game.

So, The Secret World, then.

I’ve preordered TSW. I’m buying it either way, and part of the reward for buying it either way is an automatic invite into the open Beta weekends. In noted contrast to every other Open Beta event I’ve ever been in, the number of server issues I have encountered right now has been Zero. The number of client bugs has been Almost Zero, and everything that’s not been there has been due to being Not Finished or Not Unlocked for the beta. That starts at Chargen. As a limitation of the beta you can only start with the Templars in London, and the character creation options are limited. I’m dearly hoping that extends beyond the clothes and hairstyles and into the fact that there is only two body-types available, male or female. So, I put together my first character named, as is traditional, Calique, and entered the world:

Happy, isn’t she?

Anyway, with that I run though the intro sequence, in which I know a young lady who swallows a fly. I don’t know why she swallows a fly, perhaps she’ll generate magical powers that almost destroy her but she eventually overcomes. The sequence – in game, with you avatar, is actually Good, for all it’s a non-interactive cut-scene. Your character does not go “Aha! I am a hero, I shall change the world!” she’s recruited. There are lots of you, you are part of an army. And then you’re sent to London to begin your training.

London… looks like London. It’s a bit grimy, a bit of a maze, redbrick against Victorian grandeur. To the point where it’s almost a London theme park, it looks Right. The hub has pubs, parks, markets and lots of strange people, and the quest-line that takes you up to the Templars fills in back-story and lore, more so if you wander off the beaten path for a while. Part of this involves a flashback/altworld interactive cutscene which presents you with a combat scenario to introduce to to how a mid-range character feels, and how the combat works.

Combat Wombat

Combat is open-weapon limit-selection action-based local cooldown, position and direction sensitive, with no mana and a charge/release mechanic.

It *looks* like a standard issue WoW-clone hot-key toolbox, but sentence has a lot of buzzwords in it, so one by one.

Open Weapon

The Secret World has no classes. Instead, there are Three classes of weapon (Ranged/Melee/Magic) each with three specialisations within them (Magic has Elemental, Chaos, Blood; Ranged has Assault Rifles, Pistols, Shotguns). You can put Ability Points into any of these you like and get skills that requre/use them. Putting points into one section (each specialisation has two sections, like “Offence and Defence”) and you can open up more specialised and interesting skills (Locked in the beta). So here, I’ve put most of my points into Magical/Elementalism, and quite a few into Melee/Blades, so I can wield fire and swords, and this makes me happy:

Limited Selection

… But you can only have 14 skills available at one time, 7 Active Skills (Swing sword! Spin with sword! Magic Missile!) and 7 passive (Auto-critical-hit every seven strikes, better at avoiding zombie sick, cry at sad movies). These can’t be changed in combat, but can at any other time. It does not take long before you start needing to swap things out.

action-based

Point in right direction, press number key.

local cooldown

No global cooldown, you can fire off attacks as soon as you’ve cast the previous one, but some effects can only be cast every so often. Healing items share a cooldown, but what that cooldown is depends on which one you use.

position sensitive

Don’t stand in the fire. Some enemies will telegraph a forthcoming Area of Effect attack, with a characteristic and predictable animation on the floor as to its range. This is a good time to relocate.

direction sensitive

You can’t attack people with normal attacks while they’re standing behind you.

no-mana

There’s no Mana or secondary power system…

charge/release mechanic

…but generally basic attacks charge up a resource shared across the power-pool (Elemental power, or blade power) which is then used to boost other powers. Big effects may require some of this resource. For example, the basic “Curse” elemental power charges one Resource per use, another power does an extra boost of damage for every resource it can get, and the big Thor’s Hammer effect requires the maximum – 5 – resources available to it; but Blade resources aren’t shared with Elemental resources.

Gear

Taking a cue from City of Heroes, Gear doesn’t change your character’s wardrobe at all. You have seven slots (Finger, Neck, Wrist, Luck, Waist, Occult, Head) to put talismans on which boost your stats, and separately you can buy new clothes. This does appear to be the only way to increase your stats. There’s no levelling, and after … Raptr does say 11 hours, but I suspect it is lying … the health of my unequipped character is twenty whole HP above a brand new one (1500 to 1520). Some gear does require you to have put Character Points into the ability to wear higher level talismans.

Progression

Along with Ability Points as detailed above, you also occasionally acquire Skill Points, and these can be spent to boost your ability with weapons or use higher quality talismans. The game is not stingy with either AP or SP, which is fine because after a while you will need to bank them.

Storytelling & Questing

So far, so standard. The combat mechanics are pretty much a greatest hits of modern MMO design, and while the classless design is great, it does make things a bit more confusing. The revolution here is supposed to be in the Story, and so to it.

You are, of course, given Quests. There are people in the world who need stuff done, and they would like you to do it. The major one of these people is your employer – The Templars, in this case – and so they’ve sent you to Kingsmouth, New England, to find out what the fuck is going on.

The setting of TSW is very much in the “Everything Is True” camp, with a line towards HP Lovercraft’s writings. For example, the chip shop in TSW’s London:

And then also:

Plus all the streets in Kingsmouth are references of one form or another. So it’s unsurprising when you go there to discover something strange has come up from the sea…

The stories are interesting, is the first thing. The quest-lines themselves are interesting, the people are well-written even when they aren’t well voice-acted, and the capture of a failing small town is done very well.

Questing itself is different, although the actions are similar. The traditional Quest Hub isn’t here, although the trappings may be. Quests are divided into types, with your overarching Story missions as one, Action missions, Sabotage missions, Collection missions and Investigation missions, and you can only take one of each, except Collection (where you can have three) and some missions seem to count as the slot for each other…

It’s telling that after many hours of playing, I’m still not entirely able to predict whether a mission is going to “pause” another one. You can’t drop missions, but if you try to take another Action mission, for example, you’re given the option of putting the previous one on pause. They can be resumed from the sub-section you last completed by talking to the original quest giver. In theory, this means that you pick a quest-line from your first location, and following that (which will have various subsections, which generally won’t require trekking back to the hub) will take you though some stuff, and then you’ll get to the end of the quest line and end up having defeated/learned something, and be conveniently next to a new NPC with a new line. Eventually you might get back to the hub though a few more NPCs, and get the opportunity to pick up the next line from the original NPC, or maybe a new one. Less like a hub, more like a Spirograph.

Along the way you might find see an object on the floor with a blue quest icon on it (Collection), and you can pick that up and it will take you out of your way for a bit.

The quests themselves vary too, from standard issue defeat-twelve-zombies, to position-based puzzles avoiding security cameras, to searching around for objects that look like X. Then there are the Investigation quests, which not only rely on parsing in-world information and following map locations, and sometimes just strange stuff. For example (And this is a spoiler for A Secret World Kingsmouth quest line, although I’ve redacted some of the details. If you want to avoid spoilers, don’t read the blockquote):

At one point a little old lady with a shotgun talks to you about a serial killer back in 2002, after a long hot summer. The person who was arrested for it never fit the crime, really, and in light of recent events could it be an example of Weird Shit? So, off we jolly-well, “Investigate the murders. Newspapers might have some clues”

That’s it. You don’t have any newspapers, and none of the ones scattered around the world seem clickable (and wouldn’t be from ten years ago, anyway). What next?

So, I bought up the map. My guess was that the Town Hall might have some records, and sure enough once I’d fought though the zombies to get there, the records department had a drawer for every quarter since the late 70s. Hmm. She’d said 2002, long hot summer. Q3 2002 hit gold-dust. A newspaper clipping about a man who’d been arrested for killing three girls. Their names had been redacted, but his hadn’t. Find more information. Hang on, didn’t the police station have a computer in it?

It did, which told the tale of this guy who had been arrested, had confessed and said there was more to it, but refused to put the full confession in writing (“You’ll have to ask my ghost!”) and had commited suicide in the cell that night. Investigate the cell.

The cell is locked, and I can’t see anything. I can’t find a grave with his name on it either. Plus, logically his ghost would still be in the cell. I have to hope that my character gets paid very well for what she’s about to do. I go and find a really big zombie.

Death in the Secret World is a corpse run. Your body is over there, the res point is over here. The difference is that the Secret World is different in death. You can see things you couldn’t see before. There’s a bridge that used to be used as a hangman’s span, and if you’re dead when you go over it you can see people hanging from the rafters as a spirit of darkness stalks the night. In the living world there’s none of that, but in the world of death the cell door is open, and the man is inside, gazing at a wall. He won’t speak – he’s dead, after all – but if you look at the wall he gazes on, there’s an obscure poem about white ravens leading to sorrow. Outside the police station in death there were no people, but there was a white raven. When I approach it, it flies away, and when I follow it I find a line of ravens. When I approach them, they say a line from they each say a line from “One for Sorrow” (The nursery rhyme, not the Steps song) and if remember the poem from the wall (which is helpfully in my quest log) it has a number of references to that poem. If I click on the Ravens in the order they appear in the poem, they vanish and a voice asks if I’m “Looking for Jack?”.

When I approach the source of the voice, there’s a pop and I’m alive again, and also alive again is a giant monster, ten times harder than I am, which fortunately runs away.

So yeah. Actual puzzles that involve you being dead. I liked this.

(I had tripped over the ravens before, while I was corpse running, and so I had a clue that things might work like that)

Okay, end spoilers.

The system mixing this universe with the game one works well. The game has a built-in web-browser for looking up clues, although I worry about how long that kind of thing will work until “Secret World Quest Guide” is the first hit for them.

Harder is that until you start working in that way, letting quest lines lead you around the zone, treating it like an old-style quest hub is directly detrimental to your experience. Also, it’s very easy to lose your thread, and the lack of any kind of levelling system means you can’t tell if a quest marked “Hard” is merely just above your skillset, or going to whamp your arse repeatedly.

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Categories
Personal

Not Asleep

It’s a quarter to two.

My sleep pattern can take quite a beating if it has to, providing it averages out to more than six hours a night over a couple of weeks. In fact, I can stay awake for as long as necessary and still get up the next morning, so long as there are four hours between me and regaining my sense of the world. This regain has to happen tomorrow morning at six AM, because that will mean that the domino effect of my morning will finally see me at my desk at 8am ready for another week’s work.

This means that, without a fail, I need to fall asleep by 2am. Minimum.

However, somewhere in E5 there is a car alarm going off.

It’s not anywhere nearby. It’s on the edge of hearing, the quietest it could possibly be to still be entirely obvious. A shrill two tone trill, splitting the universe into two parts, the ones who are sleeping though it, and the ones who cannot sleep because of it.Fifteen minutes ago it was annoying. Now, it’s maddening.

It’s not intrusive, really. If I follow a train of thought, get distracted, consider butterflies or rainstorms or sheep or toasters, get distracted by my newest coding problem then the noise fades out of my forebrain and it stops being a bother, until I realise “hey!, the car alarm isn’t bothering me anymore!”

And there it is.

I put a pillow over my head, and the sound is muffled but present. I stick a finger in my ear. The sound is gone, but I cannot sleep like this.

The inevitable future dawns on me, and I spend a few more moments under the warm duvet, dreaming up increasingly elaborate Rube-Goldberg contraptions involving car alarms and their absent owners, now present.

I am not usually a single issue voter, but right now I could happily vote for the BNP if they had a policy on deporting people who don’t turn off their car alarms. Given that this is Hackney, one of the most richly multicultural places in the country, it’s entirely possible that -tangentially, and in this case – they do.

As I say, maddening.

A dramatic flourish sends my duvet into a far corner, fyr still snug under hers, and I attempt to find my headphones to block out the noise.

I pad around in the darkness.
It appears to be coming from the East. That is, if I go to the south facing kitchen window, I cannot hear it. Our room faces East, though.

The headphones are not where they are supposed to be.

Occasionally, I suffer from tinnitus, imaginary bells on the edge of my hearing in my case sounding like a sine wave in the back of my head. Somehow, the car alarm is worse. I know the tinnitus is temporary, imaginary, and I am experienced though many long years of blocking it out of myconscious mind. The car alarm’s constant and abiding trill begins to cut though my skull like a blunt sawblade.

The headphones are not where they shouldn’t be – but invariably almost always are – either.

It’s 2am.

I consider waking my PC up. Whining on twitter about the noise. Using the “Vote for the BNP” line above, probably. Hacking away at Piracy Inc for a little longer, maybe I can fix the bug with the suicidal ex-captains stabbing themselves in the head. Maybe I shouldn’t.

It’s gone.

For a moment I stand their, stock still in my dressing gown. I just got distracted again, did I filter it out? It should be… there.

It’s not. There is silence all around. I step out onto the balcony, away from the faint hum of the computer fans, and into the deep and well lit background of a London night where there is no noise but the wind in the trees far below me, the distinct flap of the flag hanging from the balcony below ours, and the sounds of a city that never sleeps,

doing its best to try.