Thursday, September 22, 2011

Customer service 101

For those unfamiliar with the game's pricing system, the points I was refunded would usually take a few nights worth of playing to earn . They can be used to buy new champions or runes (which allow you to customize your loadout). Since I can spend these points in lieu of paying money to buy things, Riot are trading a little bit of cash in the immediate future for my long term goodwill. They also really made an effort to do this by searching their sales logs, because I purchased this champion at least a couple of months ago.

This kind of thing is ALWAYS a good investment in my book (see: Valve).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Diablo III skill calculator out

This is not usually a headline that would grab my attention. However this is not one of those pansy-arsed skill systems where you toss up between a +0.5% critical strike chance or a +2.3 damage increase. The skills, and especially the runes that you can customize them with, all sound massive and nutballs enough for me to be enjoying playing with this at least as much as I will the actual game itself:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Diablo 3 to be quite similar to Diablo 2

Probably about 50% of my unread posts today were about the latest Diablo 3 announcnements.

First, you must always be online to play, even in single player. This is of course absolute fail-train, because inevitably there will be server issues and at-home internet issues. I had several relatively high level single player characters in Diablo II that I used to play when the servers were down. Also, sometimes you just want to use cheats and run around wtf-pwning everything. But no longer.

Second, the in-game auction house will allow you to earn/spend real life cash. I actually APPLAUD this decision, because it will keep the dirty gold seller spam out of the game (if you own a copy of Diablo 2, make a public game for the lols. At least one bot will enter within about 10 seconds).

Third, mods will be super frowned upon. They were super frowned upon in Diablo II as well, and for multiplayer, that's fine (of course, people will still come up with a MapHack mod, and people will use it. I will personally risk the account ban when I get sufficiently tired enough of losing hardcore characters to ridiculous random extra fast boss spawns). It's annoying that people won't be able to use the engine to create neat-o new single player stuff, but I never bothered much with that stuff in the other Diablo games.

Verdict? Yes, heartless, we will still buy it. The fact that it's looking like an awesomely fun game dampens my outrage when they make announcements like this. Compared with the announcements for oh, say, SW:TOR, which just give me the lols because it looks awful (and no, I will NOT still buy that).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sweatshop work

PBS via RPS: "The fact is that you can't really convey the extent of the hardships faced during a long, underpaying shift on a factory line in any medium. (You could craft a time-accurate simulation, but it would be difficult to rope many into playing it.)"

I lol'd.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Security 101

With the recent spate of hacking sweeping everything from government agencies to online gaming services, security is very topical right now. Many are shaking their heads at the compromised companies and saying ‘Lol, noobs. Need moar firewallz’. Even companies whose defenses remain intact are vulnerable to Distributed Denial of Service attacks carried out by millions of ‘zombie’ computers scattered across the globe.

The root of both problems is the same: innocent users clicking things they shouldn’t. Whether you’re a CEO with admin access to your company’s network or some random Joe surfing the web, trying to view those naked pictures of Justin Bieber is going to compromise your computer and everything connected to it, unless you have the right protection in place.

I’ve done a bit (a lot) of research into this in recent times due to a ridiculous virus that took over my system, offering to clean the multitude of infections it ‘found’ if I would wire money to some smug bastard in Russia. This research has involved trawling forums and collating disparate information from individuals of a wide range of technical knowledge and experience, and distilling it into a refined depiction of the truth. In other words, exactly what you or I would go through every time we get stuck into a new RPG. However if you are not inclined to go through all this research yourself, allow me to share some things with you:

Here’s a reasonably up to date list of all manner of free security software.

Most forums are shit: Wilder’s security is a big exception, and where I obtain most of my info.

Anti-virus is shit: Anti-virus uses signature-based technology to compare processes that want to run on your computer to a database. The problem with this is that querying massive databases introduces lag to everything that you do, and that new threats require time to become incorporated to the database. Having said that, having one on hand to scan particularly suspect files can be a useful back-up. PrevX and Avast! are two examples that I’ve tried and found to be neat (the former uses cloud technology, minimizing system resources and ensuring the most up-to-date database).

Anti-virus vs anti-malware vs anti-spyware: Sometimes the distinctions between these are meaningful, but often they are pure marketing hype. Having said that, an example of non-hype is the free Malware Bytes Anti-Malware (the paid version offers real-time protection – not necessary as discussed above). MBAM also relies on signature-based detection, but the focus is apparently on finding infections missed by other anti-viruses. In other words, the infections that are actually going to make it through to most people’s computers.

Admin mode is shit, but you will probably use it anyway: In admin mode, malware can do whatever it wants to your computer. If you run as a limited user on the other hand, you will greatly limit the impact that malware can have. The problem is that if something tries to run that needs admin privileges, you will receive a vague prompt that authorizes it do all the high-privilege things that it wants to. It can be difficult to know whether you have a legitimate program or not here.

Windows 7 is more secure, but less secure: Compared to Windows XP (let’s not discuss Vista), Windows 7 has some improved security measures, such as Adress Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) which prevents buffer overflow attacks. In Windows 7 Microsoft have also beefed up protection of any attempted patching of the core Windows goodies (the kernel), with their technology known as Patch Guard. This makes it harder for malware to do nasty things, but also makes it harder for security vendors to ensure that their software has sufficient privileges to completely stop malware. So if you are running the latest and greatest operating system together with some of the security software discussed below, you may be more at risk than if you were operating under XP.

Chrome is the most secure browser: Firefox can come close if you install the ‘NoScript’ extension (and is woefully inadequate if you don’t). But it says something that at the yearly Pwn2Own hacker contest, the hackers have been unable to break Chrome (in fact, they don’t even bother trying).

Answering an endless series of questions is shit: HIPS programs (no, not that HIPS) establish a set of actions that each process is allowed to take. Can it alter the registry? Can it add itself to Windows start-up? Can it inject itself into Windows processes? Etc. This does not require an up-to-date database, nor does it need to be particularly taxing to the system. And they are extremely powerful. The problem is that the many questions can be difficult to answer for novice users, and a pain in the ass for all users.

Firewalls are good: If you are not behind a router, i.e. connected directly to the net, most experts estimate that without an inbound firewall you’ll become infected in ~10-15 minutes (!). Hackers have automated routines constantly scanning random IP addresses for vulnerabilities. Preferably get behind a router (which will reject unsolicited incoming connections for you), or get some software-based inbound protection.

The default Windows firewall offers completely fine inbound protection for this purpose. However what if our system becomes infected by a process actually initiated by us with an unwitting click? For this we need outbound protection. Most free and paid software firewall packages these days come with both this technology and with HIPS functionality as described above.

Decent free examples, bearing in mind the drawbacks of HIPS software, include Online Armor, Comodo, and Private Firewall.

Alternatives to classical HIPS - if you’re like me and don’t want to answer an endless stream of chat from your security software, there are actually not that many options available:

Policy-based HIPS: The idea here is to maintain a set of ‘Trusted’ and ‘Untrusted’ applications. Anything coming from a ‘threat gate’ – i.e. your browser, peer to peer programs, a USB stick, etc – are automatically untrusted. These processes run with reduced rights, i.e. are denied the ability to make any nasty changes to the registry, add themselves to start-up, capture the keyboard, etc. In this way we avoid answering a bunch of irritating questions. The drawback is that when we have something legitimate that does need to do these special activities to work properly, we have to remember to run it as ‘Trusted’ or it will not work properly. This is a small drawback for me given how powerful, light and unobtrusive these programs are.

The only options that I’m currently aware of with this type of functionality are DefenseWall, GesWall, and AppGuard. The latter is still in development but seems the most far along in terms of overcoming the Patch Guard protection of Windows 7 discussed above.

I’m still on Windows XP 32-bit and am happily using DefenseWall, which comes highly recommended from many independent, expert sources. It also passes every security test I’ve thrown at it with flying colours, operates very smoothly with no hitch to system resources as far as I can tell, and requires no set-up to do all this (this is good, because the UI is not user-friendly at all – it’s a good thing I never have to use it). DefenseWall is also not free, but does come with a lifetime license for ~$30 and you can evaluate it for 30 days before buying.

Sandboxing: Let programs do whatever they want to do – just run all threat sources in a virtual environment that does not get to make changes to the real system. When your session is finished, flush the sandbox and ‘poof’, any changes made by malware are gone. Of course, sometimes you’ll want to promote things from the virtual sandbox to become ‘real’ – it’s up to the user to decide when this is appropriate.

The best application to recommend here is SandboxIE. It’s free for a single sandbox (adequate for most users), but for more convenient functionality you can get the paid version and maintain multiple sandboxes.

Behaviour-blockers: These programs analyze collectively what each process is trying to do, assigning it some internal threat score. Do too many suspect actions, and you will automatically be flagged as malware. The good thing about this is that the user rarely hears from the application unless there’s a problem. The disadvantage is the slightly greater lag introduced (not as bad as for anti-viruses) and that the protection offered is theoretically not quite as high as for the above options.

If you go this route, Mamutu and ThreatFire come highly recommended.

Nothing’s 100%. What happens when I get an infection? There is only one known cure for this. You can’t rely on booting into Windows – once you’ve got malware, you have to assume that it’s the very worst kind, a rootkit. This is something that, in essence, becomes part of your Windows. The only way you can remove it is booting into a different operating system using trusted removable media. A good way to achieve this is using a BartPE disc such as UBCD4WIN, which draws from your own Windows files to create a ‘Windows lite’ that you can boot into and cleanse the little bastard out. Obviously, you need to have this disc prepared on a trusted computer.

From here you can run as many anti-virus scanners as you like until you find the culprit. (Most commonly recommended: MBAM, SAS). Alternately, you can use imaging software to restore a last known safe backup. The free version of Macrium comes highly recommended for this (as does the paid version – other recommended paid software includes Image for Windows and Drive Snapshot). These imaging suites typically allow you to create a rescue disc, which follows the same philosophy above of booting using a clean operating system. I like the sound of Macrium because it uses a BartPE environment, meaning that I can include all other manner of useful Windows security applications to run there as well, and because it comes highly recommended.

But I might not know if I have an infection. How can I tell that I don’t have some key-logger sending my banking info to Russia, without booting from a rescue CD and scanning periodically: Ok, we’re starting to get into paranoia DefCon level 5 here. But for this purpose you should look into anti-keylogger software such as Zemana or SpyShelter. Both have some decent HIPS functionality as well. DefenseWall provides good key-logger protection, but if I’ve unwittingly ‘Trusted’ some malware that logs key-strokes, I wouldn’t know about it. Zemana and SpyShelter have nice logging features that make sure you can discover things that have gotten past the net.

So, um, TLDR. Wtf are you running again? I’m running DefenseWall on Windows XP 32-bit. It comes with a firewall as well, neat. I use Chrome. That’s all.

With DefenseWall, malware can’t do anything to my system. But it could sit dormant on my system and infect somebody else if I were to email it to them. For this purpose and for any suspect files that I am considering running as ‘Trusted’, I keep MBAM on hand.

If I needed a firewall alternative I’d probably go for something like Privatefirewall. If I was to switch to Windows 7 64-bit, I would switch to SandboxIE because the developer has managed to ‘crack’ the Microsoft Patch Guard feature and so retain maximum protection. AppGuard looks to be developing in a promising manner here too.

So, that’s about it. If you take on even 10% of the above advice, you too can avoid becoming a member of the zombie bot-net horde (or, if you’ve been running with no protection, extricate yourself from the horde).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Who spends wins

Tobold wants to be able to purchase 'performance enhancing' items from in-game stores. The easy argument against this is that it turns an otherwise competitive game into 'who spends wins'. Tobold counters this argument by saying that these people don't actually want to buy ANYthing. Therefore their vote shouldn't count with the developers

Tobold is right in a sense. I certainly would't buy any items in such a game. Of course, I would just leave and go and play some better designed game.

I understand Tobold's mindset. He works hard and has money to spare. He wants to come home, sit down, and have a game tell him that he is super powerful and important. This is understandable. It's also what single player is for.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lol no ty kthxbai

Apparently The Old Republic is going to only be available through EA's equivalent of Steam:

"We still don’t know exactly when SWTOR will launch or what the payment model will be, but we do now know that it will be exclusive to EA’s newly-revealed Steam/GoG rival Origin."

Steam is practically a part of my operating system. It is always on. It's earnt its place by being

a) Timely
b) Offering (mostly) much cheaper prices than retail
c) Coming from a popular, do-no evil company

GoG is not the same, but there is zero DRM on the games I buy. So I don't have to run an extra program. That's fine.

EA's new Steam clone is the opposite of these things to me. It is several years late, offers prices equivalent to what you'd pay in the store even though they didn't have to pay for any boxing/shipping etc, and EA are evil. On top of that, if I start pandering to this, I'm going to end up needing a clone client from every single publisher that wants to get in on the action.

Fair enough if they want to try and promote their new client, but to not make it available through the competition? Lol. There is no way I'm going to install that shite on my hard drive. I was on the fence about The Old Republic. I mean on the one hand it's a new Star Wars game, and therefore I consider it my nerd duty to play it. But on the other hand, everything I've seen and read about the game (CG trailers aside) looks awful. I was going to suck it up and try it out anyway, but now I won't need to put myself through the pain - thanks EA!

Oh and as a bonus, Keen has the opposite opinion, which means that I must be right.

Friday, May 27, 2011

WoW has PvP only chars now?

I nearly fell off my chair backwards when I saw this:

World of Warcraft 2011 Arena Pass

Blizzard have created a PvP environment where items are 'negated' and you win matches through skill? Is it possible they are finally getting it?

I'd like to know which one of their game designers decided to play Guild Wars :P

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Name of the Wind

Fantasy books are typically designed to be a kind of literary nerd porn, throwing around goblins, dragons and dual-wielding dark elves with nary a care for the reader's intellect. Either that or they are interminably, unnecessarily long. With fantasy we're resigned to getting either the dragon or the drag on.

A couple of years ago, some unknown, struggling teacher wrote one of the greatest books that I have ever read. Not one of the greatest fantasy stories - one of the greatest of any story. Honestly a literary masterpiece. Beautiful turns of phrase, deep characters, fantastic twists and bends in the narrative all told from a refreshing perspective. As soon as I finished it I rushed out (ok, to Google) to see what else the author had written.

It was the fellow's first book. I wailed, gnashed my teeth, and went back to reading the usual pointless drivel.

Until now. I just discovered that the second book, The Wise Man's Fear, came out in March. I literally dropped what I was doing at work and marched straight down to the local book shop. They charge ridiculous prices to the point where I usually just torrent books that I want to read and put them on my e-reader.

But not this one. Some things just deserve the hard copy. And I wasn't alone - the cashier had sold two copies in the last half an hour. I'll be gobbling this up over the next few days - if you haven't read the first book, I highly recommend that you go and pick yourself up a copy, and treat your mind to something special. You can go back to the nerd porn afterwards, but you might not look at it the same way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

League of Legends 101 - part 1

League of Legends is a free to play PvP arena game in the style of DotA, otherwise known as a 'MOBA' if you're keeping up with the acronyms the kids are using nowadays. Being free to play, the major barrier to entry is the crippling fear of entering a game and having no idea what to do, resulting in some 12 year old kid hurling various expletives in your direction and causing your e-peen to shrivel up into a ball and cry.

Luckily though, I am here to tell you how to not make a complete embarrassment of yourself.

Character selection: When you play solo queue (unranked matches - you will not earn the privilege to play ranked matches until you've got a couple of hundred games under your belt) you will find that most people instantly lock in whichever character they feel like playing with no regard for what may help the team towards victory. So, you can dramatically increase your odds of winning by plugging up holes in the lineup.

The most important thing is to make sure your team has a "tank". I use quotes because this is just a label - the other team is not going to actually be beating on the "tank" unless they are stupid. Rather, the tank has enough survivability to deter being beaten on, allowing him to get up close and use skills that soften up or disable key characters on the other team.

An easy tank to play that is considered very effective even in top ranked PvP is Rammus, the armordillo (has naturally high armor as you can imagine). For a dirt-cheap option you can try Nunu the Yeti. My personal favourite is Cho'Gath, who can eat things to grow ginormous (including other players).

The next most important thing that I see commonly left out of team lineups is a ranged physical character. This character's main job is to let the team push down turrets, the automated defense towers that regularly dot the path towards the enemy's base. Without a ranged physical character, your team will end up milling around just outside tower range, scratching their heads and wondering why they can't push anything down, until the enemy gets their act together and wipes them. Your secondary job playing this character is to farm up an enormous amount of minions, getting you enough gold so that if the game goes long you will become an unstoppable DPS machine.

The best ranged physical character to recommend is Ashe. She's considered 'top tier', is cheap, you get to try her in the tutorial, she has one of the best initiating skills in the game, and she's pretty easy to play.

Next, the team will need to have a magical caster. These have high burst damage and are important for drilling down squishy types on the other team. These seem not to be in short supply in the general population. A popular past-time for the common or garden variety noobs is to lock in as many of these squishy characters as possible within the first two seconds of loading into the lobby screen. But if by chance nobody locks one in, you should go right ahead.

Laning vs jungling: The characters mentioned above will often be 'laning'. The most commonly played map is a 5v5 setting, with 3 lanes. An endless army of minions spawn from each base and stroll down one of these 3 lanes, striving to reach the enemy base, but inevitably being converted into gold/XP by hungrily waiting players on the other team. But the maths doesn't quite add up - with only 3 lanes, we will have one person soloing and two people in each of the other lanes.

The solo player levels up a lot faster because they don't have to share XP. So it's desirable to maximize the number of people soloing. To gain an additional solo spot, one player often levels up instead in the 'jungle'. This is imaginatively referred to as 'jungling'. This player moves around farming a gradually respawning series of neutral mobs that stand around in between the 3 lanes. You will note the positions of these mobs by little skull and crossbones symbols on the minimap. This player will periodically emerge from the jungle to gank unsuspecting players.

I don't recommend jungling in your first few games because it's quite easy to die and thus defeat the purpose of this post, which is to prevent you from embarrassing yourself. So wait until you've seen somebody else do it. When starting out I'd recommend that the easiest/fastest character to jungle with is Warwick, the werewolf, because of his combination of damage, healing, and gank-oriented skills. Whoever you jungle with, bring Smite from the collection of summoner skills to ensure that you remain high enough in level to succeed in ganks. Typical starting items are Cloth armor and 5 health potions.

If your team composition has one of each of the above when in solo queue, it will be a small miracle and you will be well on your way to a cruisy win.

Carrys: The players who are given solo lanes will level up faster and get more gold from minions. These players then become your most valuable assets - help them, protect them, and they will "carry" the team to victory.

Summoner skills: Every player chooses 2 from a pool of common skills regardless of your character. For mana-hungry characters I often take Ghost (run buff) and Clarity (mana recharge). Ignite or Exhaust are good on offensive characters. Flash is a nice escape skill on any character. Teleport is useful if you have a solo lane and can't afford to return to base to heal and then run all the way back (since you'll probably lose your tower if you do).

Communication: When you are fighting against the enemy and they disappear from your view, they might be running off to go and surprise your unsuspecting team mates in another lane. If you type 'mia' (Missing In Action) into the chat when they disappear, you will absolve yourself of your minimal obligations, preventing people from raging at you when they die (actually they will still rage at you, but at least you'll know it's not your fault). You can give additional warning by clicking on the minimap ('pinging'). When the player you thought was missing in action returns, type 're'.

Items: There are recommended items for each champion which will get you by in your first couple of games. If you want to stray from these, take note of items that particularly effective players on either team seem to dominate with. You can view items on members of both teams by pressing TAB (this only updates for enemies when someone on your team has seen their character since their last purchase). You'll pretty soon build up a good idea of which sorts of items are good for which sorts of characters.

Brush: Maps are dotted with brush that you can hide in. When in the brush, players outside the brush can not see you. This can lead to comical ambushes where the entire enemy team comes charging out of the brush like clowns from a tiny car. Some skills are able to be aimed at brush and will make an audible sound if they connect with another player. If you don't have a brush-checking skill such as this and you are not sure where the players in your lane have gotten to, they are probably hiding in the brush.

Important neutral monsters: Several monsters around the map give very useful benefits when you kill them. These monsters always spawn in the same location. 'Blue' or 'Golem' refers to a buff that gives huge mana regeneration and cooldown duration. 'Red' or 'Lizard' adds damage and slowdown to attacks. The Dragon gives a nice bonus in gold to the entire team. The Baron is the most difficult and is generally not attempted until your team is level 15+ - it gives a massive bonus to damage and stats, and is usually taken by the winning team to allow them to steamroll and win the game.

Wards: Wards are cheap and ridiculously effective. New players never buy them because they don't know where to place them. Useful places include the Dragon and Baron mentioned above. Generally if you want to push a tower, placing a ward in the most likely place that a gank will come from is a good idea too. Pink wards can see other wards, and they can see invisible players.

Alright, that oughta do for now. Off with ye, go forth and perhaps now avoid complete and utter failure :D

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sad panda

Courtesy of Ravious I see that there are no ally targeted skills in GW2.


Remember how we've talked about the revolutionary things that Guild Wars brought to the MMO combat table? I shall quote myself:

"Guild Wars introduced the concept of "Protection" skills, which are cast on allies before damage is inflicted on them, with the goal of avoiding said damage. These types of skills are much more efficient than healing skills, and are really good for the game because they add an extra layer of depth and skill in terms of reading the play of the other team."

On the plus side my rapidly plummeting hopes will minimize my disappointment on release.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stopped playing, now playing

It's been about 2 months since my last post. Have I been too busy with work, family and friends? Did real life get in the way? Pfff, hell no! Crimson and I have been gaming it up as per usual.

StarCraft II has been put on the backburner for the moment. As much as my inner Achiever wanted to reach diamond ranking across all categories (1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4), it was starting to get a little stressful. I prefer team settings, where the multitude of failures I make have less of an impact on the game :) I will come back to it in a couple of months as it's still great fun, but a break was in order. With the equivalent of "rest XP" in the ranking system, I know that I'll be able to fly up the ranks fairly quickly when I do (after sucking horribly for my first 10 games or so, I'm sure).

Next was Minecraft. I haven't written anything about Minecraft yet because I didn't want to jump on the "me too" bandwagon. But Minecraft, in all its blocky, low-res glory, is probably the best game that I saw in 2010. Even a cold-hearted PvP addict such as I was able to revel in the sheer beauty of exploration, the desperation of survival (and claustrophobia), and the opportunity to realize anything that my feeble imagination could concoct (somebody made a COMPUTER in the game, for crying out loud. A freaking computer!). Some of you may have tried the multiplayer and seen that it was a buggy mess (for example, you couldn't die). The major bugs there seem to have been fixed as of around the end of November, and together with Crimson and the Melfette the three of us have whiled away some merry hours in our own private sandbox.

At the moment though, the game du jour is League of Legends, one of the ever growing number of Defense of the Ancients clones out there. I had tried to play the oh-so-wittily acronymed "LoL" a few months ago, but an atrocious account registration process that kept forgetting my details drove me away. Crimson, ever the glutton for punishment, picked it up again a month ago and insisted that it was good fun, and so I gave it one more shot.

League of Legends is absolutely nutty fun thanks to the ridiculous freedom that the artists seem to have been given with the character design. There are ~70 different characters currently in the game. Despite a lot of overlap in function they each have a really unique personality or "feel" to them... from the little boy riding a giant yeti, to little orphan Annie and her ferocious teddy bear come to life named Tibbers, to the giant demon that eats other players and grows ridiculously huge, to the psychotic homicidal maniacally giggling clown, to the freaky fricking scarecrow, there is really something to tickle everybody's fancy.

I'll write some more about LoL in coming posts, but for now suffice it to say that if you enjoy DotA style games or are curious about them, this is a good starting point. There are a lot of gameplay design features that I preferred about Demigod, but at the end of the day League of Legends has two important advantages over Demigod:
1) There are actually people playing it because they did not botch their launch
2) There is a match-making system, meaning that you are actually allowed to learn how to play the game without people raging at you (any more than they do in any other PvP game, anyway :D)

The game itself is free so really is worth checking out. The characters are unlockable through either money or a form of in-game experience points that you receive for playing games (bonuses for winning). You will be given enough points to unlock one of the cheaper (and easier to use) characters right from the get-go, but most importantly there are 10 free champions that get rotated each week so that you can try always be trying somebody new. You'll develop your favourites though, and I'm not ashamed to say that I've now plonked down about $70 on the thing, and consider them pennies well spent.