Tag Archives: Review

Brütal Legend: Another nice game marred by rampart sexism.

Brütal LegendWarning: Some minor spoilers included

So I just finished my play through of Brütal Legend which I got from the latest HIB and I must say, even though I went in with reduced expectations due to how much internet anger there was about the RTS parts of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Yes the RTS parts are clunky as fuck, since they are built for console controls in mind, and the general gameplay is nothing particularly groundbreaking, but I loved the theme and I especially loved the music.

It’s not that often that I get a game that includes some of my favourite songs as the themes to its greatest moments 🙂

The non-RTS gameplay was as good as can be expected, albeit lower than I would have liked on the musical part. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t (or they decided not to?) implement the guitar/music playing more into the gameplay mechanics, as it would have been far more interesting to see some kind of hybrid mix of mechanics similar to Guitar Hero implemented more thoroughly. As it is, it just ended up with mediocre driving, mediocre hack & slash and bad RTS.

But that’s OK, I can forgive a lot of these because of how much I just enjoyed driving around and enjoying the world, talking to its characters and generally seeing how they visualized the various Rock/Metal types into the setting. I really liked how your first enemy were the Glam Rock types while the second major enemy were the Emo/Goth Crowd. I.e. The classic cousins of the Metal Scene. Pity we didn’t see some rockabilies as well, the original enemies of Classic Rock.

The storyline was also quite nice, with interesting scenarios, lots of explosions and a fairly interesting twist. It wasn’t the greatest story ever told, but it made for a few enjoyable musical afternoons.

Exploring the world for the panoramas
Exploring the world for the panoramas

However what I just can’t digest was just how sexist1 the game was. While the game had some dynamic women as side characters, they were portrayed in the best way designed to give a boner to the young male metal audience. Slim figures with thin arms (even when wielding a polearm double as big as themselves, or being able to carry their own body weight in a single arm for long lengths of time) and even slimmer waists; Always sporting sexy-looking clothes and eventually reaching to the absurd via the introduction of the “Amazon-like” clan, who wear only enough strings and ribbons to make them look as desirable as possible.

Now I know the game is stylized and before you start telling me how all men have huge muscles or are dumb meatheads and so on, just remember that males actually had variations. You had handsome males (like the ridiculous Aryan “king” who fortunately has the good decency to die in the middle of the story), ruggedly handsome males (the protagonist), ugly males, tall males, short males, fat males, buffed males, lanky makes, disfigured males, monstrous males and so on. On the other hand, females had one mode only: Nymph2.

In other words, as usual, beastly males were there to serve as male power fantasies and expectations, while females, even theoretically strong females, were not allowed to escape the “…but desirable” contextual prison. They could be strong characters as long as they remained in the patriarchal paradigm of how a woman should look like.

The story suffered accordingly, although thankfully it didn’t plaster all the stupid tropes straight. It did Damsel In Distress the romantic interest in the end, but at least it wasn’t blatant about it. Still nothing particularly progressive there, only just less traditionally backwards than usual. I guess I can count my blessings that I didn’t have to suffer the atrocious Manowar song “Woman be my slave” which I hate with the heat of a thousand suns.

So if we really struggle to ignore all this3 then one can enjoy the game and indulge oneself in the heavy metal world that the minds of Take-Two have conceived. And at least on that end, they did a damn good job.

  1. Not to mention whitewashed. Zero People of Color []
  2. Oh there were two enemy females that didn’t fit this archetype: One tall daemon enemy that was monstrous but trying to be sexy nevertheless, and one fully clothed white-bride-like undead thing. The only fully clothed females in the game iirc. []
  3. And I am perfectly aware how difficult that can be for those not basking in my straight-male privilege. []

Guild Wars 2: First Impressions

So, this past weekend was the first pre-order beta and after playing until the wee hours of the day, I think it’s only appropriate that I make a post about it and bore you all with my personal impressions 🙂

So, first things first: The game is everything it advertised and that is saying a lot. Most of the time, a heavily expected game just doesn’t match its hype to any extent, but Guild Wars 2 (GW2 from now on) matches it easily. I will not declare it a complete success just yet, because I’ve only seen the first 10 levels of content or so (with three different race/class combinations) and it could very well still pull an “Age of Conan” and quickly lose steam after level 25 or so, and turn into a grindfest to cover it up.

However, there’s a few things that work in GW2’s favour in this regard, and it has to do with some of the fundamental designs of the game. I’ll go through that in the next sections. For now, I  want to talk about the hyped things I knew about and how they turned out.

(I won’t go into details on some of the things I’ll talk about, as you’ll find multiple sources explaining them in far more depth than I could. I will provide links when possible though.)

Dynamic Events

This is one of the things I was the most excited about, and after playing a considerable amount of time with them, I must say that I love them. The idea that you find things to do in the world as you explore is almost alien to all other MMORPGs out there at the moment. After playing Star Gars: The Old Republic beta a few months ago, where it would almost cynically bundle all quest givers for your particular level in a “hub” (i.e. a small safe area with merchants and so on) which you’d have to finish before moving on, this was a serious breath of fresh air. I honestly do not like the hub approach as it feels just so forced.

With dynamic events, I could just go exploring in the generic area of an appropriate level and I would find exciting things to do. And we’re talking about exciting, not silly “kill 10 rats” quests. For example, one of the last ones I played, which I found randomly when I went harvesting (i.e. I was just exploring, looking for crafting materials, and bumped into this dynamic event). It went like this:

I discovered a small outpost in the wild, which was being attacked by some things called “crawlers” I believe. I started defending the area with another player and after losing ground at the start, a few others came around and we managed to drive them off. Soon after that, everyone left to go do their own things, and I was hanging around a bit selling some junk and buying some other stuff. Once I was done, every other player that had helped me was gone. I was alone.

I noticed a quest giver (Note: There are a few “quest givers” around, but they are not as you’d expect. They are also fairly rare) so  I decided to talk to him. He was a scholar who wanted to research some relic or something (was 3am, wasn’t paying too much attention). I accepted the quest and we started an escort mission. I needed to get him to a location for him to study something and protect him from dangers. The dangers were some Ice Wyrms popping up from the frozen lake we walked upon, and some still rampaging crawlers.

Once I accepted the quest, a Dynamic Event started about it. Which means anyone approaching my area would notice it, and get a marker on their map. I started escorting alone, but soon, another player joined and (this is fairly stunning in it’s brilliant simplicity), started helping out. Think of this for a moment: In any other MMORPG this would be fairly impossible. Either you’d have to start the quest while in a party already, or you’d have to specifically invite another player to help, by sharing the quest, which would take a lot of communicating effort and…well it’s a mess which is why it’s not done that much.

So I was escorting this dude, killing out wyrms and crawlers and by the time we reached the end, there were 3 of us. The event finishes, I get some small reward. Now another event starts. We need to destroy the corrupted relic he found there. As we start doing it, we start getting swarmed by Wyrms, as well as a few solo enemies defending it. Some of us are attacking the relic, some are defending them and so on, all is well. And then a swarm of defending raiders run outside a nearby cave and start kicking out asses. We fall back and desperately try to hold them off. Then a group of like 5 new players descents from a hill to help out. Quickly the battle turns and we drive them back. Soon, the relic is destroyed and the event finishes. Soon another event starts. A hostile shaman approaches to recreate the corruption, so we have to prevent him. Now the event really bumps up the difficulty. By now there were like 10-15 of us and I think there was a a partial wipe by all the enemies swarming in. I respawn and run back to the battle, by now there’s some portals with summoned enemies opened (another event) which is what caused us to lose the previous battle. So we all concentrate on destroying those first. We finish this event and run to the relic location to stop the Shaman. There is now something like 20 players and the Shaman event has become a Boss Fight. Special AoE attacks falling from the sky, enemies spawning in and a “bullet-sponge” shaman that needed the combined might of 20 players to bring down. In the end, we manage to get him down and the event is also finished. The area is now calm.

This, for me was an amazing experience. From a single-player escort quest, it became a 5 player destruction quest, then a 10 player survival quest, then 15 player destruction raid and finally a 25 player boss fight. By this time, it was like 4am, but at no point could I extricate myself from it, because I couldn’t just abandon the other players. And take note that this wasn’t just people fighting. There were some dropping down support AoEs, some running around reviving people, some trying to tank the enemies and so on. The naturally emerging teamwork was glorious! And at the end, everyone got rewarded, depending on how much they participated. I got the most reward because I was there from the very first escort mission (so basically I got a reward for each finished event in the “chain”) while others got only the rewards for each event they participated in.

This is the definitely the best way to do quest in MMORPGs. It just works so well and naturally. It really puts the MMO back into the RPG.

Renown Hearts

These worked similarly to dynamic events with two main differences: The progress for each heart is specific to your character and there’s many ways to fill the completion bar. This means that any player there can do the quest on their own pace and at their own preference. Most of them allow you to complete them without any combat. In fact, there are many that don’t involve any combat at all. Unfortunately it means that there’s not a lot of cooperation, even though many of them have ways to complete that involve helping others but it’s a minor points because the main purpose of Renown Hears from what I understood is different.

They are there to serve as beacons to focus players in a specific area (each heart is marked for its level, and players can easily participate in areas that are up to 1-2 levels higher than them with some skill) so what happens is that player will travel towards the heart (if they don’t like aimless exploring that is) and in the way find various dynamic events to take part. Then, the renown heart will hold them interested in the area for a bit,  long enough for various dynamic events to start, which puts you into an event chain, thereby hooking you. Fairly brilliant.

I also loved that many of them are a nice break from combat. Some of them are their own mini games, like the one where I had to find and bring bunny food to a guy, while dodging leaping bunnies all the way. Other players could help by scaring the bunnies away from others players. Another one I had to play snowball fights with kids or fight off enraged guards who turned into bears! Another was turning into a snow leopard and hunting giant chickens and bunnies in the bushes. Yet another was answering riddles! I loved the fact that if you wanted a break from combat, you got it quite often and if you didn’t like the mini games, there was almost something else to do in the area, or a way to complete it via combat.

Sidekicking

What happens when you want to play with your friends but realize that their character is 5 levels ahead of you? Either both of you make an alt and promise not to play them without the other, or you suck it up and quickly grind your way to their level, losing a lot of the story in the meantime, so that you can play the same content.

I started playing GW2 with a friend at some point, where we both made the same character, so that we can start in the same area. At some point I was having a break and he was trying a different class. Then I came back and he went into a break so I started trying our a new character class myself. When he came back, neither of us wanted to really play the characters we started together, but rather our current ones. But there was a problem. He was level 9 and I was level 4.

Hah, I’m joking, there was no problem whatsoever. All he needed to do was grab a portal to my own area and then we could continue question together seamlessly, as he was automatically adjusted downwards in level, so that he was always just 1 level above the current area’s recommendation. This means that the enemies were a bit easier for them, but nowhere near a walk in the park.

This works brilliantly because the game is not based on quests, but rather dynamic events. So there’s no way you’ll have done a particular quest and not able to do it again. You can always take part in dynamic events happening around you, which means that you will always be able to play with your friends. We played the last day with those 2 characters. The level different was a complete non-issue. How cool is that?

Combat

Combat in the world of GW2 is visceral and skill-based. You have your first 5 skills that you quickly get by simply using a weapon of choice and then as you level up, you slowly grab your race and class skills which where the real customization happen.

Initially, I thought that the dodge ability would be a gimmick, something that you use once or twice for not much effect. But now that I’ve played some other characters I realize that there’s a lot of other skills that allow you to perform extra blocks and evasions, and they’re all skill/timing based. When I used my engineer with shield and pistol, I had a block & stun skill, that I had to press at just the right time. With my Sword&Dagger wielding ranger, I had 3 different evasion skills to call upon. This means that for the lightly armored ranger it became imperative to learn when and how to dodge my enemies, because even same-level enemies hit hard. Melee with more than 2 enemies was always a very risky proposition and most often than not, I couldn’t handle it.

Unfortunately, the way the combat works now, coupled with the low skill of most players, means that melee combat is avoided by most, even though it has more damage potential (it hits faster/harder and it seems that all attacks his everyone in front of you). Basically if you went into the melee pile or toe-to-toe with a boss, you almost always fell on the grown in no time flat. The boss can wipe you with one hit, and the bundled mobs just focus fire you. With 1-3 players in an event, it’s still manageable, but when there’s 20 players and all the mobs are granted double the highest player level in order to last, then it’s a nightmare. As such, AoE skills and Ranged attacks rule the day. Even warriors play with guns and bows.

I think the main reason for this is three-fold. One, as I said is the low skill of most people playing currently, which made combat seem much more difficult, since you cannot dodge well (especially with the crazy lag we had).

The second reason is that because of all the newbies, all the starting areas were swamped. Which meant that any event had something like 20-30 people going at it, which not only is a clusterfuck by definition, not only does it boost the mobs so much that they’re mini-bosses into themselves, but it grinds most computers to a snail’s pace due to performance hit and lag. At a big battle around a lake,with something like 30-40 people fighting, I was having 14 FPS with the PC I built less than a year ago.

I don’t know if there’s any plans to address this, but I think one way to somehow about this is to make new enemies spread out a bit more. Right now they’re all pretty much in the same pile, which makes AoE effect and ranged attacks the best way to fight them. If the enemies instead spread out so that each attacks only one player if possible and gives preference to players that are not close to allies (i.e. so as to avoid creating a pile, by the enemies charging a group of players standing together) while ranged attackers focused on those not engaged in melee, then it would achieve the following:

1. Nobody would be safe. You couldn’t just stand on the back and fire arrows and AoEs into the clusterfuck. You would be sniped by archers or charged by melee enemies.

2. AoE wouldn’t be that effective, as there would be less of a mob in one spot. It would make achieving results with an AoE more about positioning yourself and hitting charging enemies or clusters or archers, rather than a mindless “fire into the clusterfuck” action.

3. Melee would not be suicidal. Since you’d be fighting 1 or two at most, you’d be able to actually utilize your evades and blocks and wouldn’t die in 3 seconds.

Hmm, I should probably suggest this somewhere (But where? The forums?)

On a sidenote: This is just my impressions for PvE, especially on large scale dynamic events. I’m guessing that combat in a PvP scenario would be something entirely different, as players would definitely focus fire players and go after the squishy ones first.

Story

The story is the one thing that didn’t really grab me. Although some of the quests in the story are interesting – such as transforming into a minotaur to trick some raiders, or masquerading into a bandit and then infiltrating their camp just to steal information – the story itself was very forgettable. I could somehow follow the story of my Norn huntress because it was a simple “find out what the hell is going on with the minotaurs” thing, but I’ve completely forgotten what I was fighting for with my Human engineer or Charr guardian.

There’s also a small issue in that while being able to play the co-op is nice, not giving the co-op player anything to do except combat in a storyline mission is not optimal. In non-combat quests, the accompanying player was just bored. It would be nice if the players could coordinate their strengths a bit, so that during the infiltration attempt I mentioned before, one player charms a bandit, while the other pickpockets another, even if the main player wasn’t a thief.

Other than that, the storyline quests were OK. Perhaps they get better later but for now I can’t say they really drew me.

And finally, I’d like to quickly mention some thing that bothered me.

Racism/Sexism

I’m afraid the ArenaNet dropped the ball on this one. Not that I had particularly high hopes about it.

There’s practically no people of colour that I saw in the game. Almost all the humans and Norn are the whitest of whites. Almost no dark-skinned people, no people with asian features, almost nothing. Maybe 1 in 20 NPCs you saw would be a PoC. Even on character creation you’d be hard pressed to make a character that had facial features that were distinctively non-caucasian. Well, at least (when I was paying attention) 1 in the 8 classes in the selection was dark-skinned.

And then there’s the presentation of women. The good news is that female armour from what I saw does not egregiously increase the skin-showing percentage, so most of the time, you can be a woman who dresses seriously for battle. The bad news is that of all the starting archetypes for women were wearing ridiculous shit. The Norn Mesmer was the most absurd, showing off as much a skin as if she was going to a sexy gala, and not in the midst of battle. All the others followed similar motifs, showing boob windows, thighs and midriffs whenever possible. The only exception was the Norn-Engineer who was wearing a bad-ass leather trench coat. Pity she doesn’t start with it 🙂

There’s other issues here that bothered me. Such as the fact that all the character you can create, range from wispy to well-trained young adults. You cannot seemingly be old or frail. You also cannot be overweight. I don’t understand why MMORPGs don’t provide these options which would really improve the look of the game as you’d see a variety of characters as PCs and NPCs, and not the (for all intents and purposes) identical body type running around.

On the bright side, the Charr females are awesome. Since the Devs didn’t feel the need to cater to the Male Gaze on the Charr, their women look bad-ass from the get go. Easily on par with the males.

A small problem with the party system and overflow servers

One thing that really annoyed us when there were two of us playing, was on how the overflow got in the way of us playing together. You see, the overflow server is where you get put to play the game, when your own server’s world instance is full. This isn’t an issue at all normally, but the fact that you and a friend might join the main instance and one of you gets put in the overflow and the other doesn’t is a bit annoying. Because you can’t see each other anymore and you can’t even join the same instances like that. The only solution we found was for one to teleport out and in again, and hope we end up in the same instance of the main world.

The lag. Oh my gawds the lag!

The start of the pre-order beta weekend was a disaster. For the first 3 hours that I tried to connect on Friday, it was impossible. When I did manage it, it had so much lag that it was almost unplayable. On Saturday things were better and I was happily playing until 8pm or so, at which point the USA woke up and started trying to login, which promptly brought down the authentication servers and kicked me off. I only managed to reconnect at 1am or so. Sunday had no problems, so that’s good.

What Frames per second

The game was not using my graphics card at all. At least according to the info I’ve found, this is deliberate, and the game is CPU-bound. Fortunately I won’t get situations with 12 FPS again in the released version.

Crafting / Junk Collection

While crafting is not anything particularly annoying by itself. It is made so by the fact that to craft you need to bring your shit from the bank, drag them to the crafting bench and then go back to the bank to store them. And if you forget one, do this again. With the Charr, fortunately the bank was close, but with the humans and Norn, it involved a teleport. This was just annoying.

There’s some good ideas, like the fact that you can “teleport” crafting material to the bank when you find them in the world, thus saving you some inventory space. Unfortunately you can’t do this for all material, so you end up carrying a lot of teeth, bones and blood with you. Not a particularly big deal. What more annoyed me is all the junk you gather from the game and how they clutter your inventory. They are not a big deal by themselves and I don’t mind them taking a bit of inventory space, but I would really prefer if they had a secondary inventory called “junk” and they put all that stuff there, just so that I don’t have to shift through them every time I wanted to look at what useful stuff I’m carrying. They also need a “Sell all junk” button on merchants.

Content

This is more of a concern than a complaint. Given how common dynamic events were in the world, I am concerned on if they’ll manage to keep up this level of content for 80 whole levels, plus dungeons and renown hearts and whatnot. This is a lot of content to fill and I am afraid that there just won’t be enough time and ideas. I wouldn’t want to start the game and quickly discover that after level 25-30, there’s something like 1 dynamic event per level.

the good news is that because of the level adjustment that happens when one goes to a lowe level, there’ll always be “end-game-content” to do, in the form of all the renown hearts and dynamic events you haven’t done in the rest of the world. In this case, the “questing” system that GW2 by itself saves the day, as you are not locked out of content just because you’re exceeded its level requirements. I am not sure if the rewards for it scale as well, but I think I read somewhere that they do.

Epilogue

Whew, that was a larger post than I expected

I will say that after playing this first beta, I’m just as much, if not more excited for the game than I was. In the next pre-order beta I think I’ll concentrate more of PvP scenarios, particularly on WvWvW just to see how they play, and also to avoid spoiling all the single player experience for when the game comes out.

In the end, I truly think GW2 has some amazingly good innovations that will certainly change the way MMORPGs are made in the future. Yes, It is that good.

 

First impressions on Star Wars: The Old Republic – Not impressed.

PGWTOR 2011

So yesterday night, I’ve had the opportunity to try the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic during its open/stress test beta weekend, so I might as well write my impressions of it.

First I want to say that from everything I know about it, I was not planning to play SWTOR. The reason for this is that the game, to me, frankly seems like a reskin of WoW, circa 2005. Few classes and races, holy trinity setup, not particularly innovating gameplay, cookie-cutter quests etc. The few videos I’d seen about it, made it seem like nothing particularly exciting, unless one was a hardcore Star Wars or Bioware fanboy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Star Wars universe quite a lot (albeit, I’d love if G.Lucas stopped messing with it, and let some people with a more realistic understanding of ethics and human motivation take over) and I’m still a Bioware fan, but WoW couldn’t keep my attention for more than 3 months (and that was pushing it) and thus I didn’t expect such a similar game to do any better. Also compared to other games like Guild Wars 2, which really seem to be doing a lot of innovative steps at a far lower cost (i.e. no subscription), I just didn’t see why I should bother.

That disclaimer out of the way, let me give you my impression of the various aspects of the beta.

Getting to the game.

I got my invitation, from the Bioware social site of all places. It came in a PM from the admin directly, and frankly, up until that point I never even bothered to try the beta out. But hey, I wouldn’t turn down a free demo of one of the largest games of the year. I’m guessing I got the PM because I had bothered to actually populate the Bioware social with my Dragon Age characters and the like and I was also currently replaying Dragon Age: Origins. I doubt I would have otherwise gotten a free invite. But perhaps I’m wrong and everyone registered there got one as well.

Downloading the game client was a bit of a headache as well, because for some strange reason, the installation program would crash if I had FRAPS running. It took a lot of search online and in the forums to figure this out. After I managed to get the client, came the very long download process, which went OK, barring an unexpected BSOD just as it had finished downloading, which I’m not sure was the cause of the downloading client, but anyway. Nevertheless, I still don’t get why they didn’t use EA’s Origin, which they rammed down our throat with Battlefield 3, but rather they used this standalone client, and thus yet another useless program to have on one’s PC.

As the open beta period was starting, I was hearing horror tales about hour-long queues, lag, crashes and so on, but to my surprise, everything went without a hitch. Europe had only half a dozen English servers and far too many German and French ones. No idea why this is the case, since everyone who doesn’t speak German or French is likely to go to the English ones. Nevertheless, even with so few English-speaking servers, the queuing times were very small. I managed to create characters in three different servers within an hour or so (I swapped servers due to miscommunication with Plutonick and some other friends I was supposed to play with). Still on the subreddit for SWTOR, I still see a lot of people complaining about the long queue times which I didn’t experience. The worst I had, was 25 minutes.

Character Creation

I won’t got into a lot of detail here, since you can find lengthy videos about this all over the internets. I’ll just mention the things that stood out to me.

Why are the larger body type men somewhere between overweight and ultra-beefy, while the larger body type women are simply displayed as (in structure) large and curvy, but still fairly slim/athletic type? What is it with game developers assuming that there are people who will play overweight men but not overweight women? Just give the option and let people choose for crying out loud.

I like the varied options for characters but I was disappointed when I found yet another game where I couldn’t play a long-haired guy. The best approximation I found for cyborgs was a fairly tame bob cut. So I went for the mohawk instead.

On the matter of hair, why don’t facial hair have their own slider for cyborgs but are rather tied in with either “hair” or “cybernetics”? Perhaps it is different for normal humans, but for cyborgs, I just couldn’t make what I wanted.

I still don’t get why in this day and age, a game thinks it’s a good idea to keep all starting character uniform rather than let them choose some preferred skills, abilities and clothes? Why is it so difficult as a smuggler to choose to be proficient with a blaster rifle, rather than a blaster pistol? Why do we all have to start with the same clothes? This is supposed to be a role-playing game goddamnit. As it was, the only differentiation between starting characters of each class, were body types primarily and faces secondary. And within the same body types, you might as well have had clones.

Playing

Disclaimer: I only played through the introduction area as I didn’t have enough time (since the beta was, as is common with these things, starting on US time. Yeah, America is the only place that counts obviously). As such, perhaps I’m missing how things improve considerably later but I’m not holding my breath.

The first area might just as well have been the clone vats. Dozens of identical-looking characters, doing the same quests, using the same skills, killing the same people. It was all fairly silly. I realize much of this was because of the beta and because everyone was new at the game, but the whole thing still was looking messy. Especially with everyone vying for the same enemies to kill and whatnot, even with the instancing that happens to separate all the people in the same area.

For someone who is looking for immersion, the whole area was really a blow to my suspension of disbelief. There was nothing permanent. Any quest you did, reset a few seconds later for the next person. I blew up a communications tower and it was pristine a few seconds later, enemies just popped into existence 20 seconds after you killed them and a horde of newbies, wearing the same clothes and wielding the same weapons, was running through an area that was supposed to be controlled by the enemy.

It also still left you with very little opportunity to choose your path. As a smuggler, my enemies were always the “Separatists”. Was there ever any option to start working towards joining them? To stay neutral? No, there’s a railroad quest-line with very little opportunity to avoid. The best you can do is select a light or dark answer at the end of some discussions, but effectively you still had always the same end result. Seriously, at some point I was offered a quest from, the main storyline, and I selected the option which very explicitly said “[Refuse Mission]”. I was expecting the classic Bioware nonsense which exited the dialogue and didn’t let you continue unless you talked to them again and accepted anyway, but surprisingly, I simply got the quest regardless of my choice. The main quests are very much a railroad and the side quests, (which you need to get in order to receive the necessary experience) are all very simple. Mostly go there and kill that, or go there and destroy 3 of these things, or go there, kill that guy and get this item. All very uninspired with their only benefit being the fully spoken dialogue.

That last part was really the only saving grace of the quests which were otherwise completely forgettable and superficial. You see, nothing that you do affects the world around you, and you do not really have much of a choice when doing them. It really felt too much like the way I felt when doing Borderlands quests. Just gather as many of them as you can, go to the area where they’re all concentrated and just do them one after another by the bucketful. I never really felt at all interested in most of what I was doing as I had almost no input as a role player. I had no option how to approach the scenario, no choice to avoid combat and very little choice on how to deal with the quests. Just bland Dark VS Light options (i.e. good vs Eeeeevil) which  sometimes manifested in you finishing the quest at a different quest giver than the original. The voice acting helped to draw you back to the quest, but it was only at the beginning or at the end of the quest line (with few exceptions) and thus, it was just not enough to make me care. It just helped me avoid skipping the dialogue altogether.

In this kind of game, I always try to play a character that is fairly outside the boring norms of good vs evil behaviour or lawful evil VS chaotic good. For example, two of my favourite archetypes I like to play is an Anarchist1 or an archetype I call “Benevolent Might Makes Right”2. Both of these are imho closer to the nuanced ethics and ideology of many humans and it’s interesting to see how they interact in a very binary system of “Dark VS Light”. What happens is that there is rarely any acts or dialogue choices that are provided to me, fit within the character role I’ve selected. Very often I’m given three different options in a dialogue and end up saying to myself “Well, this character would never say any of these”, so I’m left to choose the out-of-character option that more approximates me. So that Anarchist archetype usually ends up coming off like a greedy opportunist with a good streak, while the Might makes Right Archetype sounds like a schizophrenic.

I digressed a bit above here, but this was to point why the quest lines of SWTOR and the dialogue left me unimpressed. The characters I like to roleplay cannot be done in this game of standard Bioware trinary morality (Good, Eeeevil or Greed), and the quests are generally uninspiring.

What I did like somewhat was the dialogue system when multiple player are involved, but I feel that this has so much untapped potential that they simply did not even consider. Why did they go for simply random rolls to see who speaks, which have no relation to who is a better talker or has more powerful personality? Why don’t we have skills pertaining to dialogue that can be utilized in these cases either in combination with the other players when trying to convince an NPC (and avoid combat for example) or against other players when trying to see which quest path you will take? Some mini game, based on skills and abilities between the speakers would be a great addition to a game so focused on dialogue. Unfortunately I can see why a fully voiced game would shy away from something like that, as it could theoretically increase exponentially the amount of spoken dialogue. But then again, that’s why I think that spoken dialogue can easily be a detriment in role-playing games as it severely limits available options.

On the graphical side, the game is good-looking but nothing particularly jaw dropping. Fortunately that meant my VGA could handle it, even though on the starting area, my FPS took a severe beating. Initially I thought it was because I had too high settings, but my FPS managed to creep up to the high 70s after I moved away for quests, so it seems to me that it had mostly to do with how many Player Characters were around my area.

A minor peeve was how the game prevented me from playing with my two Jedi friends which were apparently on a completely different planet. I understand that this can be amended after you reach level 10 and leave the intro portion, but it still annoyed that I couldn’t play with my friends, especially since the only guy I could play with, got bored with the game within a few hours and left me alone.

As for combat and general such gameplay – One word: Boring. Perhaps this was because I was still at the first levels, but I never felt any challenge, nor any need to actually strategize. It was simply a process of using my abilities one after the other as their cooldowns expired and my energy allowed. As a smuggler, the cover mechanic worked only half the time, as it was very often I would stand next to cover rocks or whatever, and the character would simply kneel rather than use them. I could however run behind them and kneel and then I would actually get the benefit of cover. I also don’t understand why I couldn’t take cover behind covers, or behind trees. If you actually hide behind a tree and use cover, rather than peek out and shoot, the game would tell you that you have no line of sight. As a result of this loss of opportunity, the level designers ended up spreading random barrels and chests on the rooms, simply to act as cover for people, where the corners would have sufficed much more believably.

I still don’t understand what is with their obsession with 3-man groups. Granted you still find the occasional solo beefy enemy, but usually it’s groups of 3 people standing around for you to kill, before they pop back into existence a few seconds later. It was fairly silly, and at some point Plutonick got killed by such a group of three when he went afk for 3 minutes and it ended up spawning on top of him, at an area we had just cleared. I don’t understand why we can have larger groups, as was the case with other Bioware games, thus forcing one to actually strategize with Area of Effect abilities, tactics in movement and cover (such as when being attacked from multiple sides) and so on. But no, usually just the usual boring 3 enemies waiting for passers-by, or a beefy single dude.

In closing

I’ll probably try to play it a bit more today and tomorrow and see if things improve at all outside the intro zones, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also interested to see PvP, but I don’t think it will be anything to talk about.

After playing this beta, I’m sure I’ll be sticking with my original plan to completely bypass it and try Guild Wars 2 instead. The price for this game, is imho just not worth the lack of innovation and lackluster role-playing and story. The funny thing is that I would be perfectly willing to purchase this game if there wasn’t any subscription required, so that I could play it at my leisure with a few friends a few times per month or simply as single player. But this is definitely not something worth however much a monthly subscription will be.

  1. Direct action towards helping others, or let them help themselves, combined with actions which undermine established hierarchical authorities, such as armies, police, states and other kinds of oppression – i.e. closer to Chaotic Good in D&D terms but with a lot of fine details []
  2. A character who believes the weak should defer towards the strong (in power of arms) but that the strong have a moral responsibility to protect the weak who are under them. Usually I couple this with some underlying racism (not against human skin colour, but rather against other fantasy or sci-fi races) and xenophobia as well as a strong sense of honour, loyalty and respect for accepted authority. i.e. similar to Lawful Evil in D&D tems, but again, not exactly []

Brb, Civ5.

Started with Civ5 this Sunday. The AI sucks at the moment and there’s a lot of stuff broken. Nevertheless, the new game mechanics, especially the new combat is brilliant and it has some very nice ideas built-in. There’s a lot of reviews so I won’t rehash what you’ve probably read a lot of times already, but you should really be looking at the critical reviews and not the positive ones if you want to get into the substance of things rather than partake in the huge hype surrounding the game.

In fact, I wish people gave up more weight to critical reviews rather than the one gushing about new and popular games, which is in fact all that the pop-review sites seem to be able to do. The critical reviews tend to be more thoughtful, and even when they’re not positive about the game in the end, you end up understanding more about the game from them, rather than from the hype-bandwagon. This is the second reason why Zero Punctuation is one of my favourite locations to get my reviews (the first one naturally being that Yahtzee is so creatively funny).

Anyway, back to the subject, if you’re interested in the game or the series but not burning to play it right goddamn now, then I would advise that you wait at least until Christmas sales. Then you’ll both get the game with a few patches in so that the most horrible bugs and imbalances are fixed and you’ll likely to find it on a nice steam sale and grab it for 20€ less or something. If you’re a huge fan, then you’ve already got it so there’s no point in me telling you not to 😉

I personally would have also waited for a bit, perhaps playing it pirated once or twice to see how it goes, but after I saw an Amazon.co.uk deal for 20€ less than Steam, I couldn’t help myself 🙂

FTW

I just realized that I haven’t mentioned this book already here and I think it’s high time I do.

During my recent vacation I went through Cory Doctorow’s latest novel: For The Win and it was immediately a favourite. It’s not often that a book which can extract such strong sentiments out of me but this one did it spades. I kept alternating between anger, excitement, happiness and so on, as I was rooting for the heroes, feeling their pain and being gripped to my seat by the very believable action happening inside.

I don’t know if Cory is an anarchist but he seems to have got the practice of anarcho-syndicalism down pat. The only thing that I think would have been improved is if the organizers of the International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW, or Webblies. I kid you not, these were some of the more awesome concepts he came up with) were more decentralized rather than basically being controlled by a few of the heroes and therefore suffering tragic blows when those heroes where directly assaulted. But then again, this is a story and I’m no author so I don’t know how much one can avoid having main actors in the story that one can identify with. Also, while distribution of power is always the optimal  way to organize a union, in the real life gritty practice, that can get sidetracked. So in a sense perhaps the book was more realistic this way, while also pointing out the flaws of even a small centralization.

On the other hand, it’s obvious how much research and knowledge Cory has invested in learning about gaming and especially MMORPGs and their surrounding Agorism. This is something that might make the novel a bit more difficult to follow for internet/gaming illiterates but on the other hand it will be easier to identify with for a younger audience which has grown into this culture, and perhaps introduce them to the dark underbelly of the beast they’re feeding every month, the dark world around it and the surrounding lives of those who try to make a living out of it.

All in all, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s not written for anarchists in any sense but I can only imagine that anarchists will love it. But I also believe that it will also provide a realistic example of what Anarchist struggle is in practice to all those who prefer to imagine us as either Terrorists or Hippies.

Buy it if you can or download it for free if you can’t. Since it’s published in a Copyleft license, you’re free to read and distribute and I hope that, like me, you’ll also choose to talk and write about it. It’s definitely worth it and it’s easily the best book I’ve read in the last 3 years.

The Take

Reddit recently brought to my attention this little but very uplifting video

In the comments spgreenlaw mentioned that this was part of a move called The Take. Well, I’ve just watched it and it was brilliant.

The movie is basically about the struggle of the workers of an abandoned factory to take it under worker’s control. It is a real life example of the difficulties that syndicates and cooperatives face when trying to get what most of us would consider as only fair.

If you wish to see what worker’s self-management means and how capitalists will put private property rights over human lives, perhaps you should see it as well.

Bebook Review: This e-Reader rocks my socks

Bebook with a pen for comparison
Bebook with a pen for comparison

So it’s been more than a month now since I bought my first e-reader, a Bebook. I was triggered to this purchase when a colleague brought in his Sony Reader to work and happened to bring it to the resident geek (me) to showoff. Needless to say I was blown away as to how far the technology had progressed and I knew immediately that I had to have one myself.

While my first contact with an e-reader was the Sony one which looks very spiffy, I knew I wasn’t going to get that one as I don’t  like to support a company which treats its customers as criminals. Instead I looked around to see which system would fit my budget and be as open as possible, which means that it wouldn’t try to lock me in to their own stores and it could read as many formats as possible.

I was initially considering the Iliad but I gave it up due to the hight price tag, my other choice was between the Amazon kindle and the HanLin Ebook but I quickly turned down Amazon once I figured out that I would have to basically only read what I could buy from Amazon. HanLin with its wealth of supported formats and low cost was the obvious choice for me. Bebook is simply the brand of this model I chose as it comes from many different distributors.

So I bought mine for €325 (Which was a bit more expensive than the price displayed on the MobileRead wiki) from the main site for the product and to my surprise it was at my place in less than a week.

So now, after quite a bit of using it, I feel I can provide an informed review from my perspective.

Bebook displaying a pdf page
Bebook displaying a pdf page

Reading in General

For someone who reads a lot, reading on the monitor screen is a bit of a pain. It’s not too comfortable for the eyes and it’s not very easy to read when you’re not at your desk. As I like to read on trips, outdoors and on the bed, using a laptop was out of the question. Not only is it not comfortable in all situations, but the battery barely lasts. Not only that, but with bright enough light, you can’t read at all.

The bebook (and anything based on e-ink and e-paper technology like all e-readers these days) allows you to carry a portable book which has most of the benefits of paper, like the ability to read it in the sun, lack of glare and portability and the added benefit of the gigantic amounts of space that are available for electronic storage.

For the casual or avid bookworms among us, it means that you have a book-sized device which can contain thousands of books and you can still read them as you would any other book.

Organization and Use

The books in your Bebook are organized in folders as per a normal hdd. Indeed, when you connect it to your machine, the contents are displayed as a normal USB drive which allows you to use the device without needing any special software or specific OS. The later fact, that I can use my Bebook on my GNU/Linux without any issues whatsoever is a very big plus for me.

Other than your folders and subfolders, the Bebook provides you the ability to look through the recent books you had opened so that you can easily return to what you were reading in case you were navigating elsewhere. And finally since you can put an SD card in, you have the ability to have multiple SD cards for multiple book collections (as if one 16Gb card wouldn’t be enough that is).

Displaying the Chapter Menu
Displaying the Chapter Menu

Within books, if they are created properly, you have the capability to jump to chapters and subchapters. Most file formats other support such a function and this means that if you have a book with, say, multiple stories, you can easily use the navigation to jump to the exact one you wish.

As you read books, you have the capability to set electronic bookmarks which allow you to not only save a position you were in so that you can return to it if you need to go out (which is done automatically when you enter a book anyway) but you can also use them to mark specific locations in the book so that you can find the in the future (say to mark a good quote and such). Unfortunately at the moment it does not support highlighting or anything similar which would have been a very useful feature.

You have also various other capabilities like 3 levels of zoom and the ability to jump to the front and end of any book but these are not things you use very often in my experience.

Display and filetypes

The bebook supports quite a lot of filetypes for displaying content but I can’t say that at the moment any of them is perfect. To some degree I’ve discovered issues with most of them, but fortunately they are minor enough to not create a big issue with reading. I’ll list some of the types I’ve tried out and the various problems I’ve encountered.

  • PDF: A well constructed pdf ebook in displays perfectly and this is the reason why I use this format the most. With the Capability of Open Office to not only export documents to pdf format but also construct metadata such as chapters and comments, I have the ability to create documents for perfect reading pleasure1 .
    Reading in max zoom (landscape)
    Reading in max zoom (landscape)

    Unfortunately at this point PDF documents still have an annoying bug where differently formatted text is not displayed if it was not in the page the document opened. This means that If you open a document in a page with no bolded text and later on you find such a text in the document, you will instead be looking at a blank space. There is a workaround but we’re still waiting for the devs to fix this once and for all.

    A thing that you should be aware about pdfs in Bebook however is that A4 pdfs (Which is what you will most likely download from non-ebook specific sites) will be displayed with very very small text size, which is practically unreadable. That is because Bebook tries to fit one page of text, into one page of the bebook shrinking the text as appropriate. This is why you need specially prepared pdf documents in order to read comfortably. If you are stuck with A4s however, you can still read them by making use of the the zooming function at maximum. You will need to hold the bebook in a landscape position but that’s all.

  • RTF: Many people in the fora swear by this format since it does not have the annoying disappearing bug as the pdfs do and you have many more options for zooming. However I do not prefer it since it has another bug which removes all empty lines (making paragraphs hard to distinguish), it does not display images and it does not support chapters.
    Still, it’s the easiest format to create files for so it’s certain to remain popular.
  • Selecting among document types under natural light
    Selecting among document types under lamp light

    HTML: It is a great benefit that one can easily save a page from the internet into a native html document, tranfer it to his e-reader and then read it at his pleasure. I admit that a major reason why I selected the Hanlin model was that it could read html files without hassle and thus it would allow me to read my rss content on the go.

    Of course it’s not without its share of problems. Bebook still has difficulties displaying apostrophes and some other special characters but not everywhere. Some documents I can read without any hassle at all. At the moment, html displaying still needs some ironing but they are generally readable.

  • FB2: This is a newer format pioneered by Russian science fiction fans. To this day, this is the one I’ve found to be displayed the best of all and giving the most features (many zoom levels, chapters, images and more). It would have been my choice of format but unfortunately it has a major disadvantage for me: I’ve yet to find a decent file converter and most instructions about it seem to be in Russian. As such, I only have to wait until it has matured a bit more and more options exist. Still, as a fan-initiated option, it is certain to get a lot of features that are useful for the reader.
  • EPUB: This is really what I’d like to use most, as it’s an open format which is aiming to become a standard for ebooks. As a result it has a lot of data included in its XML which can be made use of for the benefit of the reader and it’s certain to remain free from the interests of a corporations, unlike say pdf files.Unfortunately, for all those benefits, the parsing of epub files still needs work from the developers as it seems to have similar problems with html files. Special characters are screwed and text seems to acquire and lose empty spaces seemingly at random. Once this is fixed I’ll certainly start using it though as not only does it support a lot of features like fb2, but I also have an platform free open source convertor and excellent library software available.

Other Tidbits

Look ma. No hands!
Look ma. No hands!

Among other things, Bebook stands out for its amazing battery life. Due to the page display technology, no energy is required to display a page once it has been drawn. This means that as long as you don’t perform any functions with the device, it consumes no energy at all. And this is why the developer does not count the battery-life in hours but in page-turns, of which the Bebook can achieve over 9000 before it requires a recharge. Of course, with the pages holding less text than usual due to the size, this does not easily repressent normal books pages but from personal experience, I can say that that means usually about a month of constant use.

One of the things I love with having an e-reader is that I can actually read a book without using my hands. I simply lay it on my feet or blanket in a comfortable position and then I only need to use my arm to switch the page when I’ve finished. Compared to a normal book which you always have to keep in an open and upright position forcefully, this avoids getting tired after a while (as I know I do) from simply keeping your arm in a non-relaxed position.

Another loved feature is how I can now easily put down a book without having to worry about marking my page or accidentally closing it and losing my place. I can either simply put it down and know that when I pick it up, it will simply be waiting for me or, if I’m afraid of pushing a button accidentally, I simply press the key-lock button and put it in my pocket. I can’t explain how much I love that I don’t have to fold page corners or hunt for the bookmark.

Conclusion

For me the Bebook is a perfect tool, especially since I wish to read a lot of texts that already exist in free form online and see no reason to pay for something that is public domain. Add to that the number of interesting online essays that I come in contact with on a daily basis and for which I simply do not have the will to stay on the desk in order to read them, and you can see why it’s practical.

By choosing the Bebook among others, I now know that I can have access to literature without having to appease the  manufacturer of my device. I can make use of the best format that fits me and if the original developers prove to slow in improving the firmware, I can simply move to free software alternative which already looks very promising.

Even though this was a generally expensive purchase, I haven’t regretted it for an instant. Each week I discover a new thing that I love about using an e-reader and it has already made me start reading much more.

Hopefully this review has given you a good impression of the device and all the benefits it can provide. If you are considering buying the same model as I have, then you can simply use my email address mail@dbzer0.com as a promo code to get a €25 discount. It’s a bit late now for a Christmas gift, but it would make a great gift (even to yourself) nonetheless.

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  1. I will write up a guide for this so stay tuned if you wish to see my method []

Sterilized Spore

In the last two days I’ve been playing Spore which I have, lets say, borrowed from a friend and I must say I quite like it. It’s a pretty addictive game and all pseudo-evolution, make your own monster stuff is cute.

But I’m not going to buy it.

Why? Because the publisher has seriously dropped the ball in regards to what the consumer wants. I was honestly considering bying the game today but then I stumbled onto the reviews of it on Amazon and realised what kind of C.R.A.P. they have in store for me. I will not buy a product who treats me as if I’m a thief already. I will not buy a product which is liable to stop working after I reinstall my machine a few times (and as a techie, this is not that rare). I will not buy a procuct which may stop accepting my activation after a few years. I will not buy a product which uses a copy-protection both known to be disruptive to your machine and taxing on your hardware.

Unless this DRM shit is removed, I am not buying the game. And it seems that most people agree with me on this.

Other than that, there are a few other things that are wrong with the game.

1) Evolution is very misrepresented.

While I understand that the game is mostly meant to be fun, there’s certainly ways you could have made it a bit more realistic. For example, I don’t mind that your creature seems to be growing in real time (especially since in the history view, this is shown as millions of years) but what I didn’t like was that your actions do not affect your evolution at all, other than the generic disposition you have (social vs aggressive, carnivore vs herbivore etc).

However, you actual creature traits have nothing to do with what actions you take. I can start as a carnivore but at any point I can switch to herbivore. I can have 4 spikes and suddenly have 1 big poison gland. I can have 8 limbs and a long body and the next generation can be a little ball with wings.

If nothing more, this seems like the creationist view of evolution where they expect a dog to give birth to a chicken or something similar, as this is exactly how it’s represented in the game. You gather DNA by doing stuff and then you mate and get to redesign your creature. At the this stage, you can pretty much make a totally new thing if you want to.

UPDATE: I think this review adequately explains everything that is wrong with the way evolution is repressented in the game.

2) Some things seem purely cosmetic.

I designed a creature with six legs which was as fast as a creature with one leg. This is because the only thing that matters is what kind of “foot” you have. You can have 10 legs if you want to but it actually hurts you. The only thing that matters is your best type of each limb. Your best hand, your best feet, etc. Multiple eyes don’t make any difference. More than 4 legs or hands are a disadvantage etc.

This is because bonuses don’t stack. You only ever use your best bonus from a specific part. So if you have one set of feet that gives 2 speed, and another that gives 3. Your overall is not 5 but 3. What this means is that there’s no point in getting more than 2 of any item as their bonuses overlap. So some feet give extra speed but less charge, some give jump and some give dance but they all overlap eventually.
There’s also no point in getting the same types of limbs for cosmetic reasons. If I have 3 sets of arms, it is a disadvantage to get all of them as human hands as I will not be getting any extra bonuses.

As a result, your creature ends up as a patchwork of limbs that just give the best bonuses and have no relation to possibly evolve (see part 1 as well).

I don’t really understand why they did this as it would have been very easy to simply allow the stacking of these bonuses. Then there would be a reason to have similar parts. If they also threw in a penalty for switching types (say a penalty from switching from a mouth to a beak) then it would make a bit more sense.

Another thing that bugs me about cosmetic stuff is that all the parts your acquire in the first two stages become irrelevant in the rest. It makes no difference in your abilities if you have 2,3,5 or 6 arms, legs, eyes or whatever. It would be nice if the way each creature was finalized (at the end of stage 2) played some role in the rest of the game.

3) The Creature Stage is too short

By far the creature stage (the 2nd one) is the most interesting as you get to play around with your critter body and limbs and the like. Unfortunately you barely begin to enjoy it when it ends and while you can continue playing in order to gather DNA and the like, there’s no point (unless there is some hidden award in place which I do not know but I imagine there is)

All your body changes (other than speed) become purely cosmetic for subsequent stages of the game.

It would be great if on hard difficulty the DNA rewards were much slower and one had the chance to play around a bit more, get to fight some of the big monsters etc. As it is, I had barely finished migrating one time when I was done and from a previous experience, I knew there was no point in gathering more DNA.

4) Civilization stage is boring

The fourth stage of the game is the Civilization stage which for me was very boring and repetitive. I won’t go much into details in this but basically combat is not really exciting and diplomacy does not exist. It’s best if one just does as much as possible to get past it quickly.

5) It’s not very hard

As an experienced gamer, I found medium difficulty to be very easy and the hard difficulty is barely challenging. If you’re going to make it that easy on hard, at least give us hardcore gamers an “impossible” setting or soemthing so that we can have a bit of fun.

6) No multiplayer

While the game is touted as a massive single-player game, it would be great if they had though of some way to have player interraction. As much fun as it look to be able to trade creatures and buildings with others, the novelty of that will last all of one week. Still, the galactic game seems interesting even though I haven’t managed to play it a lot. However my initial impression is that it might get boring very quickly if it isn’t expanded and the only way this can work is either with user created content or regular updates from the company (like a MMORPG) in the form or new missions, new types of single player experience etc.

Still, for all these things, the game is seriously fun and addictive. I can’t see me playing for too long but I’ve enjoyed it for the last two days. It’s quite fun to make your little critter be as weird as possible and slowly evolve it (realistically) and I’m going to go back and try to make more weird types later on, just for fun.

The creature creator is the best part of the game, as never before have we had so much freedom and fun in creating a new 3D object. What before would take hours of 3D modelling, can now happen in the span of a few minutes.

I truly believe most people will enjoy Spore, even with all its problems but I also believe that it’s not worth bying. Not with horrible DRM restrictions and not with such a low replayability. And if you think I’m being too negative, just check what is going on in the Spore Feedback fora. Perhaps this screenshot will give you some perspective.

Which of the two threads do you think is more popular?
Which of the two threads do you think is more popular?

Dreamhost PS activated!

Engage Warp speed…3!

I just got in Dreamhosts’ new shiny and exciting Private Server thingy after just 2 short days. In all honesty I was expecting at least a few weeks of waiting so I was quite surprised when I got an email informing me that it has been activated 😀

It may have to do with me sending a question their way from the support page, to ask them a few questions relating to this. You see, I was not certain how much of a difference that would make for me, if it was worth it and if I should go for MySQL or Web Server hosting.

You see, I’m still quite a small fry at the moment and between the 3 blogs I’m hosting, I’m not averaging a lot of visitors. I always assumed that by being this small, a shared hosting plan is the best choice. Unfortunately I kept running into performance issues and even though I optimized and tweaked, they just went on and I was sick and tired of having a single page take on average 5 seconds to load and, too often for my liking, upwards of 10. I was even afraid that I was starting to get on Dreamhost’s support nerves with all the support tickets I opened for performance 🙁

It was at the point where I was considering moving to another hosting service (possibly on a virtual server) that my eyes fell on the new Dreamhost PS option, suddenly appearing in my Dashboard. Quite the timing. The reason why I decided to stick with Dreamhost still is that I just love the merry way with which they do business and their support has been very nice in my experience so far. I just felt I should give them another chance.

The PS option mentioned that this is by invitation only however and googling around a bit, I found a few people talking about it but none had any real experience. They were mostly saying that it sounds like a good idea but they were not going to use it because so-and-so hosting was better. Nothing tangible. Since I exchanged a few emails with Dreamhost support and I am now live with it, I thought I might write a few things about it.

Dreamhost PS Performance

I’ve only had the thing running for a few hours now so I can’t make much of a comparison. It does feel much faster for me but it could just be the placebo effect.

PHP

I did try to run my heaviest page just to see the experience: From an average of 10 seconds (due to the heavy php involved) it dropped down to 2.5 secs. This seemed a major improvement, however on a second test I did 8 hours later, the speed was 12 seconds again. Not certain if it’s affected by mysql, slow feed replies or whatnot. Nevertheless, doing a few more tests, the average seems to be 2.2 seconds. This should be in part because of Simplepie’s feed cache.

Gallery

Here the difference is much more striking. My Gallery2 installation used to be unbelievably slow more often than not. I would be lucky if I could get times below 5 seconds per page. Now the average seems to hover at around 2 seconds again and this is, frankly, a very pleasant surprise. Even The Wesnoth Journals gallery seems to have picked up unbelievable speed and that was the one that drew quite a few complaints. Awesome!

WordPress

Here the speed difference did not seem so striking initially. Average speeds hovered at around 2 seconds again which is a speed that I was reaching after my own optimization quite often. The difference now of course is that the speed seems to stay at that average instead of spiking to 5 – 10 seconds without reason. I have not seen one page actually going higher than 5 sec. Same thing persists in both the ACP (which has a heavy theme and is not theme optimized at all) and the Wesnoth Journals.

However a susprise awaited me on my more thorough testing this afternoon. For the first time Ev4r, I get sub second speeds, consistently! And this is without WP-Cache activated! If anything makes the whole page exceed one second, it is the Intense Debate comment script who’s speed is dependent on external servers, and even then the delay is never more than one more sec. This is truly amazing. With WP-Cache, the speed seems to stay consistently subsec!

The WordPress Dashboard speed, as expected, has improved considerably as well and finally I don’t have to wonder why it sometimes takes so goddamn long to load :D. Average speed of Admin Panel items seem to be:

  • Dashboard ~ 2 sec
  • Plugins ~ 3 sec
  • Automated Plugin upgrade ~ 1 sec (!!!)
  • Settings ~ 1 sec
  • Write ~ 1 sec (!!!)

The multiple exclamation marks are on items that truly impressed me since they always seemed to take a inordinate amount of time to load (around 5 secs) and the change is most striking.

Drupal

Here the speed confused me a bit. In my single Drupal installation averga speed hovered at around 3 seconds where suddenly it dropped to subsec again. Cannot really say if the server had a momentary slowdown at the start.

And with that, my little performance check ended. I think the change is quite obvious and for now I am quite happy with the results. I am still curious to see how this will fare during the more active afternoon – night hours (for me, for you Americans it will be morning – afternoon). If things turn around considerably, I will write about it.

Some Dreamhost PS Q&A

During my email conversation with the Dreamhost support, I had the opportunity to ask a few more questions about the service in order to make sure it is right for my needs. I will place the answers here in case anyone else has similar queries.

  • Q: I experience considerable slowdowns with my wordpress installation and it’s certainly not my setup. I think it might be MySQL as I don’t see anything loading for a few seconds and then everything comes up together. However every time I tried to put a support ticket for this, I see the web server under heavy load. I’m now not certain if I should request MySQL or Web Server hosting.
  • A: Go for Web Server. From my results I can see that MySQL hardly plays much of a role after all. My speed improved dramatically from just a small Web Server hosting plan.
  • Q: If I request Web Server and see that it does not make much of a difference, can I switch to MySQL and vice-verca.
  • A: When you request either a web or MySQL PS, since it must be physically setup, you are requesting one or the other and they are not interchangeable. If you decide you want either, you must visit the provisioning page to request whichever you decide you would like and if you want both, you need to request both individually at the same page of the panel-
  • Q: How do I request both a Web Server and a MySQL PS? I can only select one through the radio buttons
  • A: Request one, then go back and request the other.
  • Q: If I decide I don’t want this service anymore (say, because it does not make much of a difference) can I return to my previous shared hosting?
  • A: They won’t be able to move you back if your usage is above what is expected for a shared server account which is the base 150 level of the PS service. As long as you are below that level consistently, then there shouldn’t be a problem moving you back to shared, or at least giving you a discount on it.
  • Q: The information also mentions that I can adjust my RAM and CPU usage in real time. However, if I adjust my usage within the month one or more times, how much am I going to be charged?
  • A: You will only be charged at that rate for as long as you keep the slider AT that rate. So it’s all pro-rated. If you keep it at 150 and then move it up to 1000 for an hour, then back down to 150, you will only be charged the 1000 rate for that hour. No more, no less. 🙂
  • Q: I see the slider gives me the max burst I can get as double. Does that mean that if my rate is not enough I can increase the slider only up to that burst?
  • A: No, once activated you can increase your rate to the max of 2300 at any time, even if you started at 150.
  • Q: I ordered it. How long does it take usually?
  • A: No idea. In my case it took 1 day 😀
  • Q: The rates are vague. How much should I order for a small site with just a few thousand per month?
  • A: Low. I have four worpdress and two gallery2 installations hosted at the moment and my load is around 100Mb of RAM. My CPU is still at 10. My biggest spike was when I disabled WP-Cache and loaded my lifestream 5 times where my RAM jumped to 155.

So, that was my initial review of Dreamhosts shiny new upcoming Private Servers. I hope I have provided you some information to make the correct choices 😉