Crusader Kings 2: Finally, a step forward

Founding fathers

4x strategy (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) has a problem. None of the games seem to be able to tackle a basic design flaw that was already present in the original Civilization, the “snowball effect”.

In a normal 4x game you start in a weak position. Your first objective is to conquer any of your neighbours in order to become bigger and more badass. If the game is good, these are always scary times, you are small and a mistake will cost you dearly. Good strategies, bold moves and some luck is required. Fun!

However, as games are made to be won, you will inevitably expand and after roughly 3-5 hours you’ll have won some territories. You’ll have more money, more armies and basically be more robust. You’ll be for example 5 territories or cities strong and your 4 neighbours are size 3.

And here comes the problem: after 3-5 hours, you have already won the game. You have become too big to be stopped. You’ll be able to cope with those size 3 neighbours, double your size again and then be 10 territories strong with maybe one or two mighty empires of 15 ahead of you. You turn your back to them and easily wipe the other (by now) small size 3-7 guys. By the time you attack a big empire, you are twice as big as them and technology or geography do not matter, you are too big for them.  Since  the moment you overcame those one or two first neighbours and grew to size 3, the rest of the 30-100 hours ahead of you is just wiping out enemies weaker than you.  Your victory is inevitable,  congratulations, you have snowballed the game.

Should you feel proud of your strategy skill? Hardly, these games are all about growth and they include no mechanism to slow it or even reverse it, so you very rarely lose territories, face an alliance of AI neighbours or have to stop an invasion of green slimy hordes of flying worms. The last phases of any Civ-like game have always been brain dead boring, as you still have to push through yet another 100 turns in order to end the game.  You may have fun watching a battle between the AI’s last 2000 soldiers and your 16000, but the depressing thing is that you do not even have to properly move them. They’ll win the battle by default as they are 8 to 1. In fact you are more sympathetic to the enemy’s armies, as they heroically let themselves be decimated in one last stand.

I have played this arc over and over, complained about it and wondered if there was a way to elegantly reinvent 4x gaming. The key word here is “elegantly”. There have been many proposals to solve this, but they all failed. Many use special victory conditions, like Shogun 2 or Colonization, some use scripted events, like Rome:TW and others simply make the game impossibly complex so that you cannot play it well, like Victoria 2.

Enter the King

Here comes CK2, yet another 4x strategy game from Paradox. They are famously regarded as the designers of the most obscure and overly complex games in the current mainstream. Games like Victoria or even worse, Victoria 2, are simply layers and layers of monstrously detailed economic information that simply cannot be coped with and today, any Paradox game is to be approached with caution.

CK2′s marketing caught my attention more than a year ago because they seemed to be fed up with the snowball effect and they promised to have found the much coveted elegant solution. Instead of playing as a country, civilization or leader, you’d play as a dynasty.

It seems trivial but it is not because it allows for the designers to introduce multiple mechanisms that will slow down and even reverse your growth curve. It is fascinating to look at CK2′s design in this way, because it all fits.

In CK2 you start a as nobleman holding one or many titles to his name. You get to choose from any of the many counts, barons, dukes or kings in 1066 Europe. Each of these characters has a set of skills and controls a bigger or smaller piece of land. You will control him/her until he dies, when you will pass to control his/her heir. And so on and so forth until the game ends. There are three ending conditions, you lose when you lose all your titles and thus do not control any more territories, you lose if your last dynasty member dies without a heir and otherwise, the game ends in 1450 when you count your score. Your score is formed by the prestige points accumulated by all the members of your dynasty. So again, simple enough.

Each starting position is completely different. You might start in the middle of Christian Europe and be a small count who is vassal to a duke who in turn is vassal to a king or emperor or you might be surrounded by territories full of infidels or you could be neighbour to the most annoying piece of AI ever created, the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In any of these situations, your first order of business is to understand what is around you, but most importantly WHO is around you. Who is allied with who, who is father to who, who is going to inherit what, who likes you and who does not.

That is because the whole game is about people. As an example, I will describe the starting position of a single character, the extremely humble Count of Hainaut. This is when things get interesting.

The name is Flanders, Ned Flanders

This guy is 22 years old and unmarried so of course, no children. He controls a single territory in what is now the belgian/french frontier but he belongs to the Holy Roman Empire, the sum of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, half of Italy and much more. He is vassal to a Duke in today’s Dusseldorf that hates your guts because you are dutch and he, as the rest of the empire, are german. To the north of you lives your small brother who controls what is today’s Holland. All this is very nice and dandy, but as it turns out, you have a border to your west with none other than the huge kingdom of France. And in the kingdom of France, controlling what is today’s Dunkirk and Oostende, is the Duchy of Flanders with 5 territories. And the Duke of Flanders happens to be your father.

Hmmm, that means that when your father dies, his titles will pass on to the dynasty, meaning you (yay!). But as he has a Gravelkind succession system, the titles will split between the direct heirs (booo!).

When your father dies, you’ll become a french duke, the french king will hate your guts because you are dutch and not french and Hainaut will pass to be french (but only until you die, your heir will not retain Hainaut and it will go back to the Emperor). As a side note, of the 4 titles your father has, three will go to you and one will go to your ugly, stupid little maggot of a brother, who is sitting on his Holland county grinning because he’s going to take what is rightfully yours without doing anything.

Embrace the dark side, young padawan!

With this starting position, you have many different strategies. The most obvious one is to kill your father, thus speeding up the process of your inheritance. The second obvious one is to kill your brother. This would allow you to inherit the full Duchy of Flanders. However, the same is true for him. If he kills you somehow, he gets it all.

So you need to decide if you are going to actively try to kill your brother or not. If no, then you can protect yourself from any plots by ordering your spymaster to uncover plots in your county, that will make it hard for him to kill you. If you do decide that you want to rid the world of such vermin, you’ll  need  a lot of money and to do it fast before he is able to have a son/daughter. Maybe it’ll be easier to kill his wife instead of him?

You get the idea of how far this kind of reasoning can go, but the elegance of CK2′s design is that it affects your approach to the whole strategy and not only the diplomacy. For example, any kind of long term investment in Hainaut will be lost in around 40 years time when you die, so maybe it is not the thing to get into right now. Also, any advances in the relationships with your german neighbours are completely useless as you are to become french soon. You need to marry if possible with a girl from a good french family that will give you a solid alliance when you become Duke. You also need to start thinking about getting clever courtiers to help you in the council and be good teachers for your future sons. Those sons will be the ones you control when your guy dies, so you need a woman that can give you those kids. So not too young or too old then. Say, a 18 year old daughter of a count, or ideally a Duke, from France.

Magic glue.

This is more or less an example of what you are looking at when you start the game as the Count of Hainaut. And this guy is a random choice, every count/duke/king has his/her own story to develop that can be as interesting or more that the story of the Duchy of Flanders. The starting positions are complex and interesting because everything is interwoven in cool and deep ways.

So once you have taken a look around you and taken the first basic decisions, you can unpause the game, and immediately, your story starts to become unique. All your plans will be altered by marriages, unexpected deaths, the Pope, the Emperor, the King,  Holy war, lots of betrayals and many events that alter your course through this mess that is feudal Europe. You have chances of having gay sons, becoming converted to the Orthodox faith, being called on a Crusade, your mother killing your father only so that you inherit and one month later your wife kills you so that it is your son who inherits immediately…

It sounds chaotic and hilarious, but in fact it is simply brilliant: what you are seeing at work is the answer to the snowball problem. The brilliance of this game is using nobility titles to tie the grand strategy of a classic 4x game to the scale of a single person.

CK2 is a classic design that merges two types of gameplay, much in the tradition of XCOM or Rome:TW. In this case, instead of merging a grand strategy game with a tactical combat game, Paradox has merged the Sims with Civilization. And Nobility titles are the magic glue that tie both together.

Once you have the idea of the titles in your design, it is easy to introduce many different brakes to the growth curve that are fun and coherent. They can be events that happen to your characters (the Sims game), like for example if your guy decides that he can afford to take liberties with the wife of your financial advisor, she gets pregnant, the husband gets angry because even though he’s gay, he’s also proud. So he kills your character, forcing you all of a sudden to go on playing as the brother that you were planning to kill five minutes before. And of course, what seems as a nice relaxing evening with this nice lady ends up delaying your dynasty’s expansion plans for more than 20 years. The system prevented you from growing and instead of getting frustrated, you’ll be telling the story to your friends.

Or these events could be things that happen to your country instead (the Civ game), like your king getting into a war that he cannot win and you seeing that not only your king is getting resources from your territories to fight this lost hopeless war, but that you are going to lose everything. Unless you declare independence, of course. If you time it right, it might actually work in your favour, so what you could do is raise your army so that the king does not have the chance to get your men for his army, thus increasing his chances of losing…

The magic glue works, it all fits nicely.

Complexity version 2.0

Paradox games are complex and so is CK2, but the good news is that it is complex in the right places. For starters, technology, military and finance have been extremely simplified if you compare it to Europa Universalis or Victoria.

The interface is a scary beast at first, but it has a very simple rule that will make it very easy to use effectively: letting the mouse cursor hover over any piece of information will give you much more information. Also, although there are many menus and screens in reality the whole game is played by dealing with people, so you only need to really understand one screen in the game: the screen that describes each character. From there, you’ll do everything important in the game.

CK2 is a complex game with a complex interface and a lot of information to deal with but it is a kind simplified complexity, where you can move through lots and lots of menus in an intuitive way. The only game that I can possibly compare to CK2 is Football Manager and CK2′s interface is way easier and more intuitive than FM.

The other stuff.

Paradox has spent money in CK2 and it shows, but they are still Paradox. They have never been amazing at graphics and CK2 is no different. In comparison, Shogun’s 3D map is much more attractive and beautiful and is also faster than CK2′s. I’d say that for a strategy game, CK2′s maps and graphics are adequate.

The music is nothing to write home about, it is also adequate and there is enough of it that you will not get tired of it too fast. however, this is a game where you’ll spend many, many hours playing, so rest assured you’ll end turning it off.

The biggest complain I have with the game is the multiplayer. Labchimp and me have been unable to setup a game and I can assure you that the process is as obscure as it can be. We have not given up yet, but it has been frustrating and bad.

A minor gripe that I have is the launch process: the game seems to perform a first time install every time I launch it, then goes into a completely useless splash screen with only a single button that you have to press and then finally starts the incredibly long loading time typical of Paradox games.

And the last complaint I have is about the difficulty level, the game plays fairly ok in normal but when you want to increase it the two higher levels are simply AI cheats with military and economic bonuses. It is really a pity, because the standard AI is pretty good in all that involves diplomacy but it is very bad in military matters.

Get to the point!

It has been a long review, I know. And the point is this: CK2 is very, very good. And it is an important game because it moves the genre forward. It is able to brake the growth curve of 4x games in an elegant and enriching way that makes the game better. Previous attempts to do the same were frustrating and painful, specially in Victoria’s case where it was just so complex that you HAD to play badly. In CK2, not growing and thus losing is actually a lot of fun.

If you like 4x strategy, you simply cannot not play this game, it is up there with the best of the best.

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (March) cont.

As promised in the previous hardware update, Ive now updated the recommendations for the higher end overclockers system. Despite the changes from both Intel and Nvidia, there isnt quite as much change as you might expect. As always, rationale provided against each component.

The Enthusiast’s Overclocking System:

Case:
Fractal Design R3

Cost – £70
The Corsair Carbide I previously recommended has now gone up in price probably due to the favourable reviews it has been getting of late however this Fractal Design case is equally good, superbly designed with good features for best airflow, easy build and noise reduction and in my opinion is seriously sleek looking.

Power Supply:
OCZ Fatal1ty 750W Modular PSU

Cost – £70
Plenty of power headroom for upgrades and overclocking, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform, and a modular cabling system to manage airflow. Its pricey but when you are playing with voltages, a PSU you can trust is critical.  I have switched from the Corsair 750W purely on the basis of price.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2550K 3.4Ghz

Cost – £178
As before, I haven’t choosen the i7K due to the similarities in performance, if you are planning on doing lots of video encoding then get the i7 otherwise save your money, the i5 is rock solid. More interestingly, despite Ivybridge coming out in the next few months, the current highend Sandybridge chips arent losing out on much in comparison to whats in the pipline. You could invest now and not regret it later. I spent an additional £6 this month putting in one of the new Sandybridge K CPUs just for the bleeding edge overclock.

Motherboard:
Asus P8Z68-V PRO Gen3

Cost – £147
This Asus board sports all the features you would expect from a highend board as well as plenty of future proofing options. Support for both Crossfire and SLI as well as both PCI 2 and 3 which the latest nVidia and AMD graphics cards use, the Z68 chipset should see you for a while. The addition of bluetooth is a nice touch too. This board doesnt come with some of the overclocking functions that some of the ‘for gamers’ boards do at the higher end however it does come with the ASUS CPR suite to help protect on some of your more adventurous overclocks and the BIOS has more than enough features to get you going.

RAM:
16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3 1600MHz

Cost – £80
RAM is very cheap at the moment but prices are creeping up. Lifetime warranty and good service from Corsair when you need it. Additionally on this set you have the benefit of decent heatspreaders to support overclocking and also quad channel support should you look to take this RAM with you into a future board that supports it (currently only the socket 2011 boards support quad channel).

Graphics Card:
2 x Gigabyte 560Ti GTX 448 Core 1280MB

Cost – £340
Due to the recent release of the latest nVidia 680 GTX some hunting around can find you some excellent deals on nVidia cards at the moment. The cost of the 680 GTX really was a little inhibitive to recommend in a system like this and the offers being made available on the cards selected are difficult to ignore. That said it wont be long before nVidia start expanding the 600 range which could change that. Here and now of course the 560Ti 448 Core is probably just about the best card for overclocking that you can buy and at this price they really are a steal.

Hard Disk:
BOOT: Corsair 120GB Force 3 SSD

Cost – £110
SSD prices have been unaffected by the price hike on platter based harddisks and are currently going through quite a coup. This Corsair disk is about as fast as you can buy and 120GB should be enough to get your system running nicely.

STORAGE: Seagate 2TB Barracuda Green

Cost – £90
Given the high prices of platter based harddisks at the moment this isnt actually a terrible price. Decent cache and SATA III connectively should see it meet you storage needs happily, and the slightly lower spin speed and power consumption should keep the noise down.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Sound Card:
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro

Cost – £85
Firstly this is a top notch card which will deliver awesome sound, however it also has its own processing capability thus easing burden on your CPU which may help up your framerate. Was a tough choice between this and the previously recommended Asus Xonar however I went with Creative for the price.

Monitor:
Asus PA238Q LED 23″ IPS

Cost – £220
Consistently reviewed as the best IPS monitor in its class for both image replication and gaming response time. The picture quality is excellent, the panel and the stand are well designed the only real complaint is the 16:9 ratio rather than the preferable 16:10 but that really is nit-picking.

Mouse:
Logitech G400

Cost – £25
The remake of the MX518 which is commonly regarded as one of the best gaming mice produced. The quality and the value of this mouse are second to none.

Keyboard:
Cyborg V5

Cost – £34
I have switched from the Microsoft X4 on the basis that as MS are closing the brand, its arguably better to buy something thats going to recieve ongoing support. Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price which is more or less like for like with the X4.

Headset:
Roccat Kave Solid 5.1 Surround Sound Headset

Cost – £64
After forking out the cash for such a decent soundcard you want a set of cans that are going to make the most of it which rules out anything using USB. This headset has a true surround sound system connected by each channel direct into the soundcard and the experience is hard to beat. The mic attached is decent and convenient if there is only one complaint it is that these can be a little heavy and may be comparatively less comfortable than other headsets.

Total cost of the above:

£1526

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (March)

Just a little more than a month has passed since I last made my recommendations however there has been quite a reasonable amount of change, firstly Intel’s confirmation that the current Sandybridge motherboards will be compatible with their soon to be released Ivybridge CPUs as well as Nivida launching their new 680 GTX which has reclaimed the the ‘top graphics card’ crown.

What does this mean for our entry level system? Directly, not a great deal however it has had some impact on prices as well as give a view on future upgrade paths.

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
NZXT Source 210

Cost – £36
Slightly more expensive than the Coolermaster case I have been recommending of late however for the extra £2 you are getting rear and ceiling fans included, internal cable management, screwless design, a bottom mounted PSU as well as a USB3 compatible front socket. From a personal perspective, I think its a nice looking case to boot. Also available in white if you are a tart!

Power Supply:
Corsair CX V2 600W

Cost – £53
A trusted brand, plenty of power headroom for most upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2400 3.1Ghz

Cost – £146
Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games. Given the specs released on the Ivybridge CPUs there isnt a great deal to get too excited about. Sandybridge will do you for a good while.

Motherboard:
Asus P8Z68-V LX

Cost – £76
Excellent highend Sandybridge board with lots of upgrade potential (including support for Ivy Bridge this year) as well as support for mSata connectors to enable Mini SSDs to use Intels caching capabilities. Switched to the Asus over the Gigabyte purely due to it being a few pounds cheaper however both are excellent value boards. A slight creep in prices which may be due to confirmation of compatibility with future Ivybridge CPUs

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £30
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding although I woundnt count on that forever. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort.

Graphics Card:
PowerColor HD 6870 1GB

Cost – £135
This is a decent low cost card that will fill all your gaming needs on a single monitor. Also cheap enough to consider chucking in a pair to run in crossfire in the future should the inclination take you. The XFX I previously recommended can be found cheaper than this however I upgraded to the PowerColour as in my experience they offer a better service generally than XFX and their aftermarket cooler is also better than the reference design. The icing on the cake is that this card is also boxed with a coupon for Dirt 3. All of this seems worth the few extra pounds.

Hard Disk:
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM 16MB Cache

Cost – £60
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I have switched to the Seagate as this is a SATA III drive which will perform better than the budget drives I have been previously recommending although this has raised the price a little. The prices still need to drop considerably to start looking at the drives you would typically want to use.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Sound Card:
Asus Xonar 5.1 PCI with Headphone AMP

Cost – £24
This card has no onboard processing so it wont boost framerate, however having a plug in card gives a much cleaner experience to sound by separating it from the electrical noise of the other onboard components and the headphone AMP will improve the sound output for unpowered headsets.

Monitor:
LG 23″ IPS235V

Cost – £140
LG are leading the charge for low cost E-IPS screens and at this price and with the favourable reviews they are generally receiving its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more. No change here however more options in this price bracket are becoming available, its worth shopping around.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £17
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attactive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Cyborg V5

Cost – £34
I have switched from the Microsoft X4 on the basis that as MS are closing the brand, its arguably better to buy something thats going to recieve ongoing support. Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price which is more or less like for like with the X4.

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 380

Cost – £19
Plantronics have recently updated their Gamecom range and this 380 replaces the outgoing 367. As before the 380 has high quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached as well as a much improved build quality around both its cabling and headband. Not something you typically see in headsets of this price.

Total cost of the above:

£783

Ill be shortly following this article up with an update to the Overclocker’s system previously recommended.

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide

I was inspired by the articles Ive been reading in UK PC Gamer and PC Format on this subject and thought I would do one of my own as I seem to spend most of my time recommending to friends and family what to buy.

To that end I have put together two systems to meet both ends of the market. Both systems are designed specifically with gaming in mind are are complete systems including all necessary peripherals such as screen, mouse, keyboard etc.

The first system is targeted at entry to mid level gamers who are looking for ‘out of the box’ performance. A system that will play all the latest games, possibly offer them some easy upgrades in the future but will largely just do what they want at an affordable price.

The second system is targeted at gamers who like to spend more time inside the case of their PC tweaking and upgrading to get the best possible performance.

So here they are:

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
Coolermaster Elite 335

Cost – £34
A decent build quality case that isnt too showy (if you arent into that sort of thing) but has the capability to be (if you are). Lots of features inside which make it both easy to build and nice to maintain.

Power Supply:
Coolermaster GX 650W

Cost – £58
Plenty of power headroom for most upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2400 3.1Ghz

Cost – £148
Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games.

Motherboard:
Gigabyte GA-Z68P-DS3

Cost – £72
Excellent highend Sandybridge board with lots of upgrade potential (including support for Ivy Bridge this year) as well as support for mSata connectors to enable Mini SSDs to use Intels caching capabilities.

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £35
RAM is very cheap at the moment but prices are creeping up. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort.

Graphics Card:
XFX HD 6870 1GB

Cost – £133
A decent low cost card that will fill all your gaming needs on a single monitor. Also cheap enough to consider chucking in a pair to run in crossfire in the future should the inclination take you.

Hard Disk:
Hitachi 500GB 7200RPM 16MB Cache

Cost – £52
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I wouldnt be rushing out to buy them just yet though.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Sound Card:
Asus Xonar 5.1 PCI with Headphone AMP

Cost – £26
This card has no onboard processing so it wont boost framerate, however having a plug in card gives a much cleaner experience to sound by separating it from the electrical noise of the other onboard components and the headphone AMP will improve the sound output for unpowered headsets.

Monitor:
LG 23″ IPS235V

Cost – £142
LG are leading the charge for low cost E-IPS screens and at this price and with the favourable reviews they are generally receiving its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £16
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attactive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Microsoft Sidewinder X4

Cost – £33
Microsoft are closing down their gaming peripherals brand so these are going for bargain prices. Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price.

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 367

Cost – £19
High quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached. All the convenience without the cost.

Total cost of the above:

£781

The Enthusiast’s Overclocking System:

Case:
Corsair Carbide 500R

Cost – £88
It may not have the ‘moar lights’ mentality however there are few cases on the market that run cooler or quieter than the 500R and they are significantly more expensive. Couple this with the fact that the Carbide is a joy to build with and its perfect for the person who plans to spend a lot of time dipping in and out of their case.

Power Supply:
Corsair TX750M 750W Modular PSU

Cost – £87
Plenty of power headroom for upgrades and overclocking, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform, and a modular cabling system to manage airflow. Its pricey but when you are playing with voltages, a PSU you can trust is critical.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2500K 3.3Ghz

Cost – £172
No I didnt choose the i7K. Why not? Performance-wise, particularly with overclocking the i5 and the i7 are similar, the only real benefit of the i7 is hyperthreading which actually can impact games for the worse rather than the better. If you are planning on doing lots of video encoding then get the i7 otherwise save your money, the i5 is rock solid.

Motherboard:
Asus P8Z68-V PRO Gen3

Cost – £147
This Asus board sports all the features you would expect from a highend board as well as plenty of future proofing options. Support for both Crossfire and SLI as well as both PCI 2 and 3 makes it adaptable for graphics and the features offered by the Z68 chipset should see you for a while. The addition of bluetooth is a nice touch too. This board doesnt come with some of the overclocking functions that some of the ‘for gamers’ boards do at the higher end however it does come with the ASUS CPR suite to help protect on some of your more adventurous overclocks and the BIOS has more than enough features to get you going.

RAM:
16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3 1600MHz

Cost – £75
RAM is very cheap at the moment but prices are creeping up. Lifetime warranty and good service from Corsair when you need it. Additionally on this set you have the benefit of decent heatspreaders to support overclocking and also quad channel support should you look to take this RAM with you into a future board that supports it (currently only the socket 2011 boards support quad channel but its a good guess for Ivybridge).

Graphics Card:
2 x Gigabyte 560Ti OC 1GB

Cost – £350
The 560Ti coupled with SLI technology arguably beats everything on the market currently and that argument can only really be held against the GTX590 or AMDs latest 7000 series offerings which two of these cards is significantly cheaper than. Gigabyte overclock this out of the box for you, but the decent cooling will let you take this further. The only real hindrance is the 1GB memory which will be mirrored in SLI not expanded. Truth be told, now is not the time to buy graphics cards, wait until Nvidia show their hand with their new Kepler cards which should be a matter of weeks.

Hard Disk:
BOOT: Corsair 120GB Force 3 SSD

Cost – £120
SSD prices have been unaffected by the price hike on platter based harddisks and are currently going through quite a coup. This Corsair disk is about as fast as you can buy and 120GB should be enough to get your system running nicely.

STORAGE: WD 2TB Caviar Green

Cost – £105
Given the high prices of platter based harddisks at the moment this isnt actually a terrible price. Decent cache and SATA III connectively should see it meet you storage needs happily, and the slightly lower spin speed and power consumption should keep the noise down.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Sound Card:
Asus Xonar D2X 7.1 Surround Sound

Cost – £85
Firstly this is a top notch card which will deliver awesome sound, however it also has its own processing capability thus easing burden on your CPU which may help up your framerate. Was a tough choice between this and the Creative Titanium however I went with Asus as Creatives drivers are still truly awful.

Monitor:
Asus PA238Q LED 23″ IPS

Cost – £220
Consistently reviewed as the best IPS monitor in its class for both image replication and gaming response time. The picture quality is excellent, the panel and the stand are well designed the only real complaint is the 16:9 ratio rather than the preferable 16:10 but that really is nit-picking.

Mouse:
Logitech G400

Cost – £25
The remake of the MX518 which is commonly regarded as one of the best gaming mice produced. The quality and the value of this mouse are second to none.

Keyboard:
Microsoft Sidewinder X4

Cost – £33
Microsoft are closing down their gaming peripherals brand so these are going for bargain prices. Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price.

Headset:
Roccat Kave Solid 5.1 Surround Sound Headset

Cost – £64
After forking out the cash for such a decent soundcard you want a set of cans that are going to make the most of it which rules out anything using USB. This headset has a true surround sound system connected by each channel direct into the soundcard and the experience is hard to beat. The mic attached is decent and convenient if there is only one complaint it is that these can be a little heavy and may be comparatively less comfortable than other headsets.

Total cost of the above:

£1584

The end of Megaupload?

 

Today one of the biggest file sharing site was shut down by the feds today. The founder and several company executives were also charged for violating piracy laws. The accusation that started the criminal case was unsealed a day before globally used sites like Wikipedia, Reddit and Craigslist blacked out to show their support for their opposition against SOPA and Megaupload are accused of costing copyright holders over $500million (£322 million) in lost revenue from pierated films and other content.

The interesting fact about this site was  that it was only a few weeks ago when Megaupload posted their infamous music video featuring celebrities such as Kanye West, Alicia Keys, P.Diddy and even Snoop Dogg, who all endorsed their site! And these are people who are ‘allegedly’ affected by file sharing sites such as Megaupload.

Kardashian in the Music video. Been busy with tape finding lately?

Hours before the site was taken down megaupload posted a statement out saying how “grotesquely overblown.” the accusations were against the company.

The main people who will be affected are those legitimate customers, (hey, not every file sharing site is used for pierating!) those people who have important family photos/videos, work related documents and other important files will be heavily affected as they find out that the site refuses to load for them anymore. As well as court fees if any, this will cost Megaupload a lot of money in lost revenue.

No doubt that supporters of SOPA and the likes will use this to their advantage in future nonsense videos. We’ll be  keeping an eye out for any more development on this matter.

So what do you guys think? Will other file sharing sites start getting shutdown? Will Megaupload make it through the court of justice?

The Black Out


Many sites today have taken up arms against the acts today by use of a blackout. What is a blackout I hear you asking? It’s a really simple and highly effective tactic, all they’ve done is closed down their front pages and linked them to petitions against the acts or they’ve left information about the acts. Here are a few examples just a to make a short list of sites that have participated.

1- WordPress
2- Wikipedia
3- Reddit
4- Mozilla
5- Minecraft

Many more websites have taken part in this movement, this list is just a few of the more notable sites. I have personally seen the effect it’s having, as people who I know who are not techies are posting links on social networking sites. It’s become so notable it’s being mentioned on British radio shows. The fact that high traffic websites are now taking part is really helping to increase awareness about what is actually going on with these acts is great news.

Digital Distribution: Some thoughts on EA’s Origin

Competition is needed fullstop. It has to be said that the good value currently experienced in the digital distribution market is only due to Valves experimentation with pricing models that has led them to offer the value that they do rather than competition in the marketplace. Given the recent sales, this is something I am sure we are all most appreciative of.

I am fully aware that services such as Direct2Drive, Good Old Games and others offer digital distribution and do a good job too in terms of service and pricing in comparison with Steam however EA is looking to go toe-to-toe with Valve in terms of providing an offering that holds exclusivity for anticipated AAA titles, provide an online community and communication platform as well as digitally distributing games from multiple publishers. EA, being one of the largest publishers of video games across all formats have the connections, the games portfolio and the funding to be a credible threat to Steam.

Unlike Microsofts poorly conceived Games For Windows Live, first impressions would suggest that EA have looked at what has made Steam popular as well as some of its biggest critisisms and have attempted to build a platform to rival that of Valves and it has to be said that from a user experience perspective this has largely been achieved.

There are a few teething issues which should be expected from a new platform however the experience of buying, installing, playing a game and communicating with friends feels very familiar and largely intuitive.

It could be argued that EA have missed an opportunity to innovate here and are simply building on the success of the already established valve platform unlike services such as Onlive who offer a genuinely unique service however given the amount of investment that has been required from EA to build this why rock a stable boat.

For the last six months EA have slowly and relatively quietly been withdrawing titles from the Steam platform. All other digital distribution platforms seem unaffected so far however Steam is now seeing fewer and fewer EA titles with the highest profile absentee being Battle Field 3.

EA have cited a number of reasons surrounding this gradual withdrawl, blaming valve, blaming legal requirements, miscommunication and various other factors however the shift is clear. If you want EAs future AAA titles, you will need to have an origin account.

This in itself is not neccessarily terrible as Valve themselves adopt the exact same approach with their own titles which has relatively recently got the backs up of store retailers however this was initiated in a world where there was no established alternative digital distribution platform and as such the long term effect of this on us as consumers needs some consideration.

To play valves games you have to have valves platform, the play EA’s games you have to have EA’s platform. Whats to stop Activision, SEGA, Ubisoft and others all adopting the same route? The future of your PC could well be that you will be running a plethora of distribution platforms with different groups of friends, communities and games. Worse still, should this occur rather than creating competition it actively avoids it. There is no competition if you can only buy a product from one place and therefore you can charge what you like.

PC Gaming for a long time has enjoyed comparitively cheap prices in comparison to buying a game on a console which given the investment required in the PC has always historically felt justified. As time passes however, PC hardware has become cheaper and consoles more expensive (at least at release) to the point where there now isnt a great difference in the price. Games too are seeing price hikes where before £20-25 was common and £30 was high, more and more AAA releases are seeing price points of £39.99 and even £45 at release taking them on a par with their console versions.

Back to my initial point then, competition. Should steam be the only route to digital distribution? No it shouldnt. But similarly a marketplace where everything is segregated and pricing has no competition will do far more to damage the PC games community that we currently know than the apparent monopoly we exist in.

Does Origin indicate the downfall of PC gaming? No it doesnt and it certainly shouldnt be claimed that it does, however by avoiding the aspects of competition and capturing an audience as well as the somewhat dubious terms and conditions that need to be agreed to for registration it has to be said that Origin represents a good example of what a global publisher wants you to accept rather than neccessarily what is good for you as a consumer which I think will become more and more relevant as digital distribution furthers its expansion. Its down to us to shape the service we want to receive.

YBL4DA Game of the Year Ceremony

Ok, the voting period is over and it is time to award the awards. It has been very interesting because some categories have has as many entries as voters, meaning two things, first that luckily there are many, many good games to be played and second that you are all wrong.

So on the results!

YWBL4DA Best Single Player Game Award

No game got voted more than once, so no game gets the award.

YWBL4DA Best MMO/F2P Game Award

And the winner is… World of Tanks!

It is truly a very fun game, the upgrade structure is very grindy but the fact that you can swap from battle to battle makes it very fast. The levels are nice and despite some graphics problems it looks very good. For me, the game has two flaws, the first is that the game becomes much slower in the high levels when you get to use tier 3 , 4 and 5 tanks, and the second is that in order to make a team and play together for a 24 hour period, you have to pay. Even that would be acceptable if group size was not limited to 3 players.

Still, for a game that is free, you get a lot. And it deserves our award!

YWBL4DA Best Indie Game Award

And the winner is… Sanctum!

Sanctum is weird. It’s graphics are weird, the guns are weird and the monsters are VERY weird. But it is the first game to make a successful combination with three very different elements: Tower defence, first person shooter and coop. All of these elements could work better, but the game is very enjoyable and when the onslaught comes and the system fails, it is epically fun. Also, the text to speech function is awesome.

YWBL4DA Best Coop Player Game Award

This is an important category, given that our group is mainly coop oriented. It was a close race between Dungeon Defenders and the winner, but at the end, a single vote gave the victory to… Portal 2!

What can I say about Portal 2? It is coop, but completely different coop from other games. It is puzzle solving coop. The two players not only collaborate in the actual actions that it takes to solve the puzzle, they also push their brains together in order to find the solution. Those moments when you think you have found a solution and want to explain it to the other guy, but it seems so crazy that you can not even put it in words are beyond what any other game has done before. I played Portal 2 coop with Labchimp and Johnny and both times we laughed so much that at the end I was crying and with a sore throat. The voice of GladOS, the very last puzzle once you are in front of the vault, the personality traits of both robots… a delight.

YWBL4DA Best Surprise Award

This one goes narrowly to… Bastion!

I cannot say much about this game, as I have not played it. It has had very good press and it seems that the voiceover is pretty unique. I need to get into it.

YWBL4DA Biggest Disappointment Award

Of course, YWBL4DA’s biggest disappointment this year was Battlefield 3.

This one was pretty much evident. We were all waiting for this game and unfortunately, politics got in its way. It is a disappointment because expectations were so high that factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the game itself have made it very divisive. A pity, because I am firmly convinced that the game is awesome.

YWBL4DA 2011 Game of the Year Award

Well, this one was hard to choose. There was a tie in votes between two very strong contenders, Portal 2 and Skyrim. They are both very different, excellent games. One of them is big, full of content and detail. The other is a miniature, a smaller detailed experience. One of them is an open world where you can do anything, the other is crafted to make you live very strong scripted moments. Both are awesome and very successful. It was a very difficult choice and it took me a while, but I did choose.

YWBL4DA 2012 Game of the Year, with a grand total of 0 votes is Saints Row the Third!

I know, nobody voted for it, not even me. And I don’t care, Saints Row the Third is the best game of the year.

You jump off a flying VTOL, parachute to the ground, land on a car, take out your giant pink dildo and use it to hit on a tank until it explodes, then you request a cluster bomb airstrike on a bunch of wrestlers.  What other game can beat that? The story is bonkers, makes no sense and yet when the end comes, it does make kinda sense. Every cutscene and mission will make you laugh out loud. I will not spoil anything but believe me, it is awesome fun. It is funny, yes. Really funny.

The graphics are very good, the weapons are awesome, the voice acting is incredibly good… It laughs at other games, it laughs at you, it laughs at itself.

It is the best game of the year and fuck democracy.

Games of 2012

Well, now that the the Steam sale is finally over, we can declare 2011 completely gone. I think it is a perfect moment to list the games I am most looking up to in 2012.

First of all, I have to say that I do not expect a lot of big titles in 2012. Many developers have put their best stuff on hold waiting for the new console cycle, so I expect this year to be an indie year. And yet, in spite of that, I am going to start the list with a non Indie title.

Stars Wars Kinect

This is probably the most important game of the year, at least concerning it’s impact on our community. The reason is obvious, our very own Dimmy is part of the hard working team and we all really, really want his game to do awesome so that his studio can thrive and make another game, although maybe this time Dimmy could convince then to do  something we can play on a PC…

Monaco

This game has it all, it is indie, it is coop, it is class based and it is original. The idea is to plan a heist using the skills of 4 different types of thieves, each one controlled by a player. It uses top down perspective. It could be a real hit for us if the levels are well designed.

Project Zomboid

This one is really ambitious. It is a “realistic” zombie apocalypse simultaion. It is real time, multiplayer and very, very indie. I have played the demo and alpha versions and I have to say it is very good, but very hard. Think of it as the Dwarf fortress of zombie games, but multiplayer.

Dead State

Another zombie game, this one looks to be more focused on base management, interaction with characters in RPG style and specially, turn based combat. I do not think it will be multiplayer and I do not think it will be for everyone, but it certainly is in my top list.

World of Warplanes

This is going to be like World of Tanks but with me kicking everybody’s butt. I love flight sims and I will enjoy this one for sure. It is another one of the excellent batch of F2P games that is coming out lately.

Torchlight 2

This one is also known as “the game that killed Johnny”. It is Torchlight and it is coop. I am sold.

Planetside 2

Yeah Tokey, I know…

And that is my list! I am sure you all have loads of ideas, please post them here!

EDIT 1: Tokey’s ideas

World of Warships

Just grabs me more than warplanes, im basically hoping for a version of Battlestations Midway that isnt broken!

Guild Wars 2

Hopefully finally breaking that MMO mould and showing how things can be better

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Im hoping for this to be the next big 4 player co-op and Aliens is the perfect setting if these guys can pull it off

Borderlands 2

Not sure if this is due 2012?

DOTA2

Having never really delved into this style of gameplay which is now possibly the most popular genre right now this seems to be the time to get involved

Mech Warrior Online

Ive missed the mechwarrior series, hopefully this will be great!

Fallout Online

Interesting because its by Interplay and not Bethesda. Ive nothing against the new Fallout but it was the old ones I fell in love with. Im hoping for that same spark plus as you all know, I only play multiplayer games these days.

 

EDIT 2: MP’s ideas

Starcraft 2

This game needs no introduction. Ultra competitive multiplayer RTS made for superhuman korean teenagers, version 2.2

The new Left 4 Dead: Payday

Ok, let me see how can I put this:
Remember how in the forum I said that Payday looked bad and that I had no interest in this game and that is was derivative and boring and I hated it and I never, ever would ever play it in a million years?
Well…
Payday is excellent.
Yesteday Tokey, Johnny and me played two or three levels and we had a load of fun. I thought I would make a small review here so that you can see how wrong I was.

The first thing you need to know is that  this game is very, very similar to L4D. That is very high praise coming from me and my 200 hours of zombie shooting.

What these people have done is taken the basic mechanic of L4D (4 player FPS coop teamwork) and many of the core tools that L4D used to enhance it and THOUGHTFULLY changed the setting and tweaked the rules. And it works!

Just like in L4D, you carry resources like ammo bags that you need to share, you see the silhouettes of other team players when they are in other rooms, you can help up fallen comrades… it feels L4D.
However, it is not a complete L4D clone. The setting is very different, you are a criminal going through various assaults, sometimes on a bank, sometimes on a drug dealers den. It really tries to make you feel like a robber in the heist of the film HEAT, one of my most hated films of all time. I hate Michael Mann, even if I agree that HEAT is his best work. And the game succeeds in doing it. The weapons feel powerful, the levels are well designed, they are simple to understand and yet very dynamic, they are well illuminated, the sound is clear yet strong… this game has flavour.
The designers were very clever, because when they started designing all these missions, they realised that they were going to be extremely linear and guided. The game tells you all the time what to do: Go here and plant explosives, then go there and capture that guy, now go two floors down, kill one guy and steal his key. L4D does not really tell you what to do, it is usually very self explanatory and yes, it is also linear because the level design is linear, but it does not feel as linear as Payday does. In L4D, less is more, you do not backtrack, you simply push buttons to open a door or raise a bridge or something. Payday is more twisty but still exactly as linear. So what is the problem with linearity? That it can become a corridor shooter like COD or BF single player modes and that when you replay it it will get boring really fast. But Payday has got to be linear and guided, the bank heist theme imposes it. Are there ways to still make it fun in the L4D style of fun? Well, the designers have some very good answers for that question.

The first answer is that Payday is about following a path, yes. With emphasis on teamwork, yes. But it ALSO is about ammo management. It is designed so that even in the easy levels you will run out of bullets and need to share with your buddies. The most ammo that a group can carry will run out very fast if badly managed. The team needs to coordinate if they want to place the ammo bags in the right moments and spots so that everyone refills and the team can go on fighting. It means that you are constantly aware of how much ammo you have left and it introduces an extra task that feels very exciting.
The second answer is that although the game does not have the AI director of L4D, it has other tricks, specially the level design. One level is all about moving fast through a city. We did not manage the first two times because although we shot well, took cover and managed the ammo, we were too slow and ran out of ammo against the infinite respawns of the police. So the game is designed to keep you on your toes or you will be punished. The third element I noticed is that the levels are much more interactive than a typical L4D level, you can do things to affect the amount of police that tries to stop you, for example destroying security cameras in a bank. Or capturing and then freeing civilians in exchange of a captured member of your team (Although there is respawn, it is extremely slow, in the order of the 5 minutes).
Compared to L4D, each level is more complicated and much longer than a single scene of a campaign but it is still shorter than a full campaign and it cannot be divided in morsels, you have to play the whole thing through. That means that there is going to be a certain fatigue at the end, a certain feeling that you cannot keep this fight up for much longer because you are almost out of ammo, almost out of time and down on health. But it comes at the right moment and feels very good when you finish a level.

So as you see, the game has a lot going for it. I am really surprised at this game and I think they did many things right. On the bad side, the lobby is worst than L4D and I did not succeed joining a game in progress. Also, I do not know if the game is very long. We played 3 levels yesterday and they felt great, but I do not know how many there are. Still, as with L4D, game length is not easy to measure. L4D looks short but I clocked 200 hours on the first one. It is till too early to know if it is fun enough to be as replayable as L4D is.

A small note on the bots: they are like L4D bots, very good teammates but dumb enough that a team of 3 is much worse than a team of 4.

So to finish, I am going to say that this is an excellent surprise. It feels closer to L4D even than L4D2 and I for one intend to dive into it.