Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Skyrim DLC: Hearthfire

There's a new piece of Skyrim DLC shortly forthcoming. Unfortunately, like Dawnguard, it will be out at least 30 days later for the PC and PS3 than for the Xbox 360.
Hearthfire's a dinky but cool-sounding nugget of DLC, which allows a player to buy a plot of land and then design his own house. It appears that there'll be a wide range of options for customising your pad (adding wings, hiring a bard, personal cart-driver, cultivating land etc etc).

It reminds me a little of Tenchu 2, which I played quite some years ago. In it, you could design your own levels. It was actually pretty fantastic, and as user-friendly as Lego, so hopefully this DLC will be just as enjoyable and easy.

However, I'm still not sold on DLC. This is a cool little feature, but I fail to see why it couldn't be included in the main game. Secondly, Dawnguard is still not out for the PS3. The delay is prolonged, and one wonders whether Hearthfire will be out for the console at the same time as the PC version.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Review: The Early History of Rome by Titus Livy

This book covers the first five volumes that Livy wrote (unfortunately the majority of what he put together has been lost to time), and the version I bought was translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It describes the events that occurred from just prior to the foundation of Rome through to the kingship of Romulus and his successors and finishes after about three or four centuries after Rome's founding.

The book's very easy to read and engaging throughout. It is worth pointing out that Livy takes a somewhat credulous view of ancient superstitions (things like a boy's head being on fire while he's asleep, but he's fine), making it more like Herodotus than Thucydides when it comes to a commitment to absolute accuracy/realism.

It's fascinating to read about the development and growth of Rome as the patricians and plebeians tussled for power and new offices and powers were created to try and soothe the almost unending tensions between the two sides. Livy seems to favour the patricians most of the time, although given he was writing about events centuries before his time it makes it hard to see whether that's necessarily bias or simply an accurate reflection of the tribunes acting like a bunch of rabble-rousing idiots.

There is a sense that he's instilling into his ancestors quite a lot of virtue, in contrast with the lack of such in his own time (a theme that seems constant throughout human history). On the other hand, the imperial system did lead to a degeneration of Roman virtues and serial regicide, so maybe he had a point.

It's mostly historical but there are elements of myth, as mentioned above. Lots of the little stories (Gaius Mucius Scaevola, Horatio and the bridge and so on) are well-known in their own right.

So, provided you don't mind your history peppered with myth it's a highly enjoyable read and I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in classical history.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dragon Age 3 rumours

The Escapist, amongst others, has reported upon some rumours about Dragon Age 3 which have emerged:

Whilst certain aspects have the ring of truth, I'm not sure they're entirely right. There may (or may not be) spoilers for DA3 below and are spoilers for previous games.

DA3 is to be set in Orlais

This has been hinted at elsewhere and many expected this to be the case. It's also possible that the game takes place in Orlais and other countries, and I'd be more surprised if we did not visit the faux French kingdom than if we did.

Civil wars + conspiracies + demons invading from another dimension

The civil war aspect (well, Templars versus Mages and with a waning Chantry) more or less happens during DA2 so it'd be a bit weird if that got dropped. The conspiracy angle is also somewhat hinted at (with Flemeth and Morrigan).

The dimensional portal and lots of angry demons is new. I hope it isn't true, as it sounds rather bland and unoriginal. It also seems entirely unnecessary given that a once dominant church is falling into wrack and ruin and civil wars are tearing the world apart.

Variable playstyle and 'important' decisions

Apparently the player's job is to lead the Inquisition (nobody expected that), and reassert some form of order. This can occur by assembling armies and smashing your enemies in the face until they realise that doing whatever you say is a good idea, using spies, or partaking in political shenanigans. That would be quite a significant change in gameplay from both previous instalments. It also seems a bit weird to have the protagonist leading something called an Inquisition. They don't have a good reputation, really.

Up to 10 companions, with up to 4 in the party at once, and online co-op gameplay

I'd be surprised if this happens. I think that's more than either previous game and a four man (including the player-character) group works perfectly well.

I also hope the online gameplay doesn't come about. Yes, a solitary player can just do without, but it would mean the developers spending more time frittering their time away on co-op rather than world-building, scriptwriting and so on and so forth.

Titles including The Breach, Exarch, Inquisition, Inquisitor, Apocrypha

Whilst I like Exarch, I think the term is not one that most will get (given Byzantine history isn't exactly pop culture). The Breach sounds like a troubled pregnancy, Apocrypha too mystical, and the two Inquisi-terms could work but they sound like a tortuous experience. After the double facepalming statues of Kirkwall Bioware might seek to avoid giving DA3 a title suggesting prolonged pain.

Stuff not mentioned

Nothing about a lady Qunari companion, alas. Also not mentioned was the DLC approach, but given what happened with ME3 and DA2 it's reasonable to suspect there'll be an unpleasantly large array of DLC, including day 1 DLC.

In fact, Dragon Age 3 has not, I think, even been officially confirmed. However, it's close to being a dead cert. I just hope it's more like Origins than DA2.


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Forthcoming Games

It's been a while since I bought a new videogame, so I was browsing to see what's out there. Here's what caught my eye.

F1 2012

It's the third game by Codemasters around the sport (I've got 2010 but not 2011). As before, the graphics look outstanding, and I'm sure the very long (full-distance, if the player wishes) race weekends will be just as immersive as 2010. The weather system was also fantastic, and if that's unchanged from two years ago it'll still be amazing.

There are a couple of potential problems, though. Penalties could be too harsh, which was very annoying, and getting the AI right is tricky. A personal issue for me is that I tend to get an aching neck or back if I play for prolonged periods, but at the same time I don't want to have a race shorter than 50% (around an hour).

The addition last year of the new Pirellis, and the extra time to get to grips with them in gaming terms, should bode well and add a new element of strategy. It'll be fun to see whether they've managed to realistically capture the awful reliability of Schumacher's car or Maldonado's dodgems approach to driving.

The game is out on 21st September. I don't plan on pre-ordering, but might keep an eye out for reviews.


This is a single player first person action game from Bethesda, which is a pretty good start. The player-character is an innocent man (aren't they all?) accused of murdering the empress he was meant to be guarding. A friendly fellow gives him magic powers and he escapes, and spends the game running around killing his enemies.

Dishonored is set in a single city, Dunwall, which seems quite interesting. Videos suggest it's industrial, with cars that run on rails and a combination of technology and magic. Mission outcomes vary based on your actions and play styles can be stealthy and ninja-like or a head-on aggression.

Dishonored is out on 12 October. There's an outside chance I'll pre-order.

London 2012

Could this game help ease the transition from Olympic glory to the mundane tedium of life without 8 hours of sport a day?

Possibly. The game seems quite well received, and there's a fairly wide array of events. However, even given it's not my type of game (I think I played the Olympic game for Barcelona, or maybe Seoul) there are a few issues. The biggest one is that the 100m isn't in. If there's a single main event in the Olympics, that's it.

The competitors aren't based on real people, so you won't see Hoy in the velodrome or Bolt on the track, which is a bit of a let-down.

It sounds like it might be a decent game for multiplayer, but as I consider multiplayer the work of Satan that doesn't appeal to me.

London 2012 is already out, (perhaps obviously).

The above three games are out either now or will be in the next 1-2 months. There are two more games down the track that have caught my eye. I've mentioned them in other posts, so I'll just run over them quickly.

Tomb Raider

Yes, it's a reboot, and not without some controversy. I like the apparent shift to survival (I liked Snake Eater), although it remains to be seen whether the unhelpfully entitled Tomb Raider can stand comparison with Uncharted.

I won't be buying this immediately, partly because I can take or leave Miss Croft generally, and partly because it comes out at roughly the same time as the game below. I will be keeping an eye on it, though, and might buy it later. It's due out early in 2013.

The Last of Us

Yes, it's a zombie apocalypse/collapsed civilisation game, but there is some genuine innovation. In fact, I've not been this likely to pre-order a game since Skyrim.

The zombies are freaky fungal fellows, but the real draw of the game is the pair of protagonists. The player-character is a grizzled man, who ends up being the rather rough-edged guardian of Ellen Page's CGI doppelganger (non-playable). I've seen a few videos and the interaction between the two (including in free-play) is very well done. It's highly unusual to go for a surrogate father-daughter relationship (Ellie is circa 14, so she's not a toddler but still needs Joel), but it actually looks pretty promising.

The world is more realistic than heroic, and scavenging and scrimping is important. Items can be combined, but in multiple ways (the same items can make a medical kit or a Molotov Cocktail) and there's a premium on ammunition.

The Last of Us is due out in early 2013, and I believe it's PS3 exclusive. I'm near certain to pre-order it.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Kratos: Mr. Nice Guy?

Kratos is to start being nice to women.

Ok, nice is a relative term. For Kratos being 'nice' to someone involves not immediately murdering them (possibly for the second or third time).

In his games to date, Kratos has been very much an equal opportunities murderous lunatic. Civilians, soldiers, men, women, minotaurs, if it had a pulse he'd kill it (possibly excepting topless women/Aphrodite).

However, women and their role in games (both as players and characters) have recently been in the spotlight. A female gamer seeking to raise money for research into the role of gender in games hit her fundraising targets, but also received a mountain of generally sexist abuse.

Around the same time, there was the Tomb Raider controversy revolving around Lara Croft being stroked on the leg and the implication of what would've happened next, had she not been Lara Croft and therefore kicked the shit out of the guy who did it.

The next God of War game, God of War: Ascension, is a prequel and features Kratos again as the protagonist, but before he became an entirely bloodthirsty mad bastard. This is considered the rationale behind him pulling a few punches, particularly those aimed at the fairer sex.

Hmm. I'm sure that women getting murdered by a videogame character isn't the number one aim of feminist gamers, but isn't deliberately treating someone differently because of their gender, er, sexist?

I don't have a particularly strong view either way, as Kratos is so over the top I find it hard to take his gory antics seriously. However, I do think it's perverse to argue for equality and then give special treatment (in an admittedly insignificant way) to one gender. You can't fight sexism with sexism.

On a similar note, the revamped Lara Croft is to be less well-endowed than her previous incarnations. But, doesn't that imply that the stereotypical view of women with big breasts being pretty morons is correct? Big breasts and big brains aren't an either/or option. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Review: Hellenistic and Roman Naval Warfare 336BC - 31 BC, by John D. Grainger

Naval warfare in the ancient world is very often described in brief terms, and this book seeks to put the spotlight on a generally neglected aspect of classical history.

Mr. Grainger looks at naval warfare in the Mediterranean from Alexander to the Diadochi, Carthage and Rome. A number of helpful maps (especially for the Aegean) are in the front and a number of photographs, which are perhaps of slightly low quality, are also included.

I found this book interesting and unusual, particularly regarding Alexander the Great. I'm a great admirer of his, but he did seem to seriously miss a trick when it came to the potential of the fleet (not that that stopped him conquering all before him).

The history of Ptolemaic Egypt also changed my mind regarding the nature of that kingdom. I'd previously viewed it as an entirely defensive realm, with Ptolemy having a land perfectly suited, with the Nile, to defence and simply holding his own. However, the Ptolemaic sea power (until they became afflicted with complacency and a political crisis) was very much proactive and helped maintain the kingdom's security.

Following the matters in the Aegean was somewhat tricky at times simply because there are so many coastal cities and islands large and small, but the gist was quite plain.

It was also interesting to learn more of the naval aspect of the Civil War, where Pompey (and then his successors, especially in Africa) didn't seem to realise or utilise their naval supremacy. Given Caesar had to cross the Adriatic and then sail to Africa that could have changed the course of the war, had they but known it.

The book ends, fittingly, with the victory of Octavian over Mark Anthony.

I do think a bit more could have been written of the relative merits and differences between ship types. Penteconters are mentioned but not really explained and biremes are not, I think, mentioned at all.

It presented a very different prism through which to view ancient warfare than most other books, as well as tying together certain parts of history often treated separately (Alexander, the Diadochi, the Punic and Civil Wars).

Minor point: as the picture shows the word 'Wars' is in the title. However, the title and cover I saw online both have 'Warfare' instead. Not sure why this discrepancy is there.



Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sport and History

Ancient Olympics

The Olympics have been pretty fantastic so far, from a British perspective, and I've been watching far more of it than I imagined I would.

However, sporting delight, or even fanaticism, is nothing new. The Olympics were originally held in Greece, of course, in honour of the gods (hence the name). They were held in the region of Elis, and were a bit more naked than the modern games, as the contests were done entirely nude. The exception to this rule was a foot race that was run by men in armour, which I quite like the sound of as it combines endurance and strength.

There were other games held in Greece, such as the Pythian Games, but the Olympics surpassed them all in prestige. They continued until being suppressed by the Byzantines, who were intent upon the dominance of Christianity.

As well as athletic exploits, there were artistic contests with poets, sculptors and so on vying for supremacy. This actually continued into the modern Olympics, initially, but events such as poetry have now been discarded. Many of the ancient events, sporting and artistic, have been dropped but a few remain, notably the discus and javelin. Foot races remain tremendously popular, although they're measured in metres (save the marathon) rather than stades.

The Games also saw a period of peace (or truce, at least), which allowed athletes from all over Greece to reach and participate in the Olympics in safety.


However, even the Olympics must pale in comparison to the spectacles that occurred in Rome once the city had a taste for gladiatorial games and before its star began to wane. The Romans were mad for spilt blood, and enjoyed a very wide array of contests.

Originally, it's believed, the games were just a pair of men fighting as part of funeral rites. Romans being Romans, this became a matter of prestige, and more and more men were enlisted to fight. This then took a further step and games held in honour of the dead, in arenas, began. The immense popularity of gladiators meant that their exploits were then used as campaigning tools by politicians and then as a means of placating the masses (panem et circenses - bread and circuses, a measure used greatly by Commodus).

Gladiators were in a strange position. They were often, but not always, slaves or convicted criminals and treated with contempt by polite society. They were also superstars, tremendously popular with the masses and frequently hired by ladies for a personal demonstration of their 'prowess'.

The Romans enjoyed a wide variety of bloodshed, and, whilst rare, lady gladiators (gladiatrices, or a gladiatrix) were known to have competed. Beast hunts were popular, and the Empire's reach meant it had no difficulty procuring elephants, lions, leopards and so on. However, though the Romans were bloodthirsty they were not entirely heartless. Pompey tried to secure popularity by having a number of domesticated elephants slaughtered, but the animals were so tame and terrified that the crowd booed him for the shamefulness of their killing.

Commodus, as popularised (well, sort of) by the excellent film Gladiator, really did love the games, both as a spectator and occasional competitor. He was reportedly very good, and most enjoyed using crescent-headed arrows to decapitate running ostriches.

Arguably the most extravagant games were held by Trajan, about whom we know less than we would like, to celebrate his victories in the East and over the newly conquered province of Dacia. They lasted for four months and involved more than 10,000 gladiators.

Chariot racing and the Nika Rebellion

Gladiatorial combat naturally commands our attention when looking at Rome because it was so vicious and would never happen today (well, not in the West, anyway). Chariot-racing seems a little tamer by comparison but was just as popular with the Romans, and remained so when gladiatorial games had faded.

The Circus Maximus in Rome could seat a staggering 150,000 spectators. Between races acrobats and other entertainers kept the crowd amused, which is why the word 'circus' means something different to us than the Romans.

Chariot-racers belonged to one of four factions: the Whites, Reds, Blues and Greens. From Ancient Rome to Byzantium the first two were absorbed by the latter two and people cheered for either the Blues or the Greens.

Sport and politics rather collided during the reign of the unreasonably named Justinian the Great in the 6th century AD. A pair of murderers, one Blue, one Green, was sentenced to life imprisonment. When the emperor refused to release them the fans erupted into rioting.

Narses, an intelligent if self-interested eunuch, wandered into the stadium where a rival was to be crowned. He reminded the Blues, with gold as well as words, that Justinian supported their side. The Blues then left the stadium and Byzantine soldiers entered it and ended the rebellion with bloody finality.

About half the city was destroyed by the rioters, and it's reckoned tens of thousands died.

Hopefully the London Olympics will end on a cheerier note.