lauantai 22. tammikuuta 2011

Ordering stuff from Amazon and Book Depository

A while back I decided I needed a new flash light for geocaching. I compared some products and decided to go for the Led Lenser P7, partly because I had seen one in use and was very impressed by its Cree LED. So, the lowest price for the torch in Finland was 55 €. This led me to search it in foreign online stores and sure enough, offered it for £37.00 which is about 43.50 € so I decided to order it. However, at the final page, just before clicking that button that places the order, the price was displayed as "£37.92". In other words, the price had just gone up by almost a pound, with no explanation whatsoever. Huh?

Naturally I aborted the ordering process and mailed to the Amazon customer support instead. It took them a couple of days to reply, during which time the price of the torch had gone up by a couple of pounds. This is because the prices keep changing constantly according to their availability. Apparently there's nothing new in this. "Thanks." (I then waited for a couple of days for the price to drop back to £37 before ordering the torch.)

The customer support was pretty clueless about my original problem with the price being different at the shelf and at the counter, and I had to find the answer via other means: it turns out the price they show in the store has been calculated assuming the 20% VAT (value added tax) rate in use in the UK. However, in Finland the standard VAT rate is 23% so the difference in the taxes is added into the total at the checkout stage.

I also needed a couple of books, but as the VAT rate for books in the UK is 0% and 9% in Finland, the difference between the displayed and the actual price is a lot larger than with other items. Complaining about this to some friends I was told about another online book store called Book Depository. Both books I needed had a lower price there than in Amazon and Book Depository also has free delivery, so I ordered the books from there.

Morals of the story:

  1. Check the final prices carefully when ordering from one country to another: there may be additional costs in the item prices.
  2. When ordering something from Amazon, wait for a few days and observe the price of the item. You'll get an idea on how the price changes (because it does keep changing) and may save a few dollars, pounds or euros.
  3. Even if Amazon is the best-known book store out there, it's not the only one nor always the cheapest one.

lauantai 15. tammikuuta 2011

Death Rally

Great news! I have finally found the perfect action game for netbooks: the 1996 hit game Death Rally! It is actually made by Remedy Entertainment, the same company that created Alan Wake — the game that the Time magazine selected as the best game of 2010.

In case you haven't heard of Death Rally it's a racing game where machine guns are an integral part of your car. You drive through races and try to climb up the ladder of competitors. You can also buy new cars and certain new parts and power ups. Every now and then a shady sponsor will offer you an extra task, such as destroying another player's car in the next race...

Death Rally has been ported to work on modern computer hardware and software. When playing on an Asus EeePC 1101HA (or any other netbook with a lousy graphics chip) you only need to give the game the -nogl parameter to make it play smoothly:

Usually the problem with playing old games on a modern computer is that the game refuses to run because it does not recognize the software that is being used. Probably the support for some old features has even been intentionally dropped from the DirectX drivers, for example. The problem with playing new games on a netbook is that netbooks often just don't have the oomph to play games. Even Droplitz, for example, a nice and simple puzzle game in the spirit of Pipe Dream et al. with a Bejeweled-kind of a twist is just unplayable on an EeePC 1101HA.

The great thing about Death Rally is that it's still exactly the same game as 15 years ago, the only difference with the previous release seems to be the fact that it runs on current computers. :) I must warn you though: by today's standards the game is not that pretty. However, the playability and enjoyability make that up more than well. There will even be an iPad/iPhone version soon so start practicing on the Windows version already!

tiistai 4. tammikuuta 2011

Open letter to Team17 / Worms: Reloaded review

Dear Team17,

Worms 2 was one of the best games of the late 1990s. I remember playing it countless of hours, designing my own maps and even playing some online games over a dial-up connection. Those were the days!

Now, I recently bought Worms Reloaded from Steam. I figured Worms would be a perfect, simple yet entertaining game to play on my Asus EeePC 1101HA netbook. Well, I was wrong. I couldn't even get past the initial profile creation screen, the game wouldn't work well enough. It probably has to do with the lousy GMA500 graphics chip, but still I would've thought that a game whose looks haven't really changed in 10 years would have worked. Lazy programming? I even tried searching through the game's configuration files to see if the resolution could be changed by editing them, but no luck.

Anyway, I then tried the game on my desktop computer and sure enough, this time it started without a problem. However, the first WTF-moment came right in the beginning: I was asked to create a team but I could only set names for four worms?! Four? As in half-of-the-previous-maximum-of-eight? Seriously? More worms equals more fun, so why on Earth would you reduce the amount of worms per team?

Then I tried playing a game with my newly created team. The main menu already has ten different options but I chose the one where it says "Single Player". Now, a menu of seven items appeared:

Huh? I suppose it's good to have some variety, but what are all these Warzones and Body Counts? There's not even a tooltip explanation for them when you hover your cursor over the menu items. Custom Game sounds like some good, old-fashioned fun so let's choose it and ignore the rest. Now the player is greeted with this screen:

Now, pay attention to this. I think this screen is an exemplary example of what's wrong with Worms: Reloaded. Over the time certain standard user interface widgets, such as drop-down boxes and scroll bars, have been developed and established as good and usable features. This screen, however, tries to reinvent everything. It took me a while to figure out how to add teams into the game. Turns out you need to click the team name between the arrow symbols to move it into the Current Teams box. The next question is "How do I get computer opponents into the game?". There's no view of all the available teams, so you need to scroll for more teams. Turns out computer players have a microchip symbol next to their names, but their difficulty level cannot be determined before adding them into the game. So, two major issues in choosing the team alone: you cannot see all the available teams at once and you cannot see the computer team difficulty levels beforehand. This was certainly done better in the previous Worms games. In an attempt to confirm this I even installed and tried Worms 2 and Worms World Party but unluckily neither one of them would even start on my Windows 7.

The next whatchamacallit on the screen is Game Style. What are these? No information whatsoever is given about them here. To find out more information about them one has to abandon the current setup, go back to the main menu, choose Customise, then Manage Game Styles, and then Edit the game style one wants to know more about. It's a bit of a hidden feature and I was surprised you could actually customize the game this much. There are four different categories of options and the menus look like this:

I find it inconceivable that even on 1920x1200 resolution only seven options are shown at once. Team17, you've got more than 2.3 million pixels at your disposal and you waste it by displaying information that could be easily fit into a thousand pixels?! The only reason I can think of is that this game has originally been designed for consoles and that the players are supposed to be sitting on the other end of the room, but you could do so much more for the PC version! The least you could do would be to scale the menus to show more items at once. Possibly the worst example of menu design is the weapon customization menu:

Really? With 2.3 million pixels you could only fit in information for one single weapon at a time? Have fun customizing all the 47 weapons, let alone comparing the settings of different game styles. I certainly don't want to create new styles or edit the old ones with this user interface, so I'm stuck with the pre-created ones. And by the way, what's with that 47 weapons? Worms World Party had more than 60 weapons! Since when have sequels been made by reducing the available options or by making menus more difficult to use? Talking about weapons, here's the in-game weapon menu:

There are less weapons than probably ever before yet the menu takes up the entire screen, as opposed to just one corner like before! Previously, the weapons were also nicely grouped by purpose: bazooka-type of weapons first, then grenades, then handguns, martial arts, explosives, animals, air strikes, and so on. Now, they are all there in one big mess. The numbers are also horribly off: for example, you cannot easily tell if you have got two or three ninja ropes left in the image shown above.

Now, back to starting the game. We have already seen that the Custom Game menu is counterintuitive and is trying to conceal as much useful information as possible. It does very little to actually allow the player to customize a game. So after setting the teams and clicking Start Game, the game, well, does not start. Instead, you get to choose a landscape. The random landscape generator looks like this:

Looks nice enough but you quickly get frustrated: creating a new landscape takes about two seconds. Forget about Worms 2's instant new random landscape button, the ability to enter a textual random seed for new landscapes and the nice and clear landscape profile view. Now, you'll have to watch an animation of horizontal and vertical scan lines going through the screen and then the random objects are placed around the landscape! The buttons that choose the theme and terrain shape also exhibit the "click to cycle" behaviour known from other menus already, so if you know that you want to play a pirate-themed cavern level you may end up having to click many times and watching the new landscape creation animation equally many times. And all I wanted to do was to play a fun game of Worms! Because of the random landscape generator's repulsive controls you might as well keep playing quick games instead because selecting the landscape is not fun.

Anyway, after selecting a landscape you finally get into the game (to be plagued by the weapons menu). Here's an in-game screenshot:

Yep, the entire playing area fits into one screen (if you zoom out). It just doesn't feel right: it has never fit into a single screen at once so why cannot it be bigger now as well? It may be just an optical illusion caused by the large resolution in use but still. And look how sparsely the worms are placed! You could certainly have bigger teams as well. Luckily the actual gameplay is still pretty fun.

As a conclusion, I've got mixed feelings about Worms: Reloaded. I really would like to like it and it seems to be the only Worms that works on the current computer systems. However, the counterproductive user interface is taking much of the fun out of the game. Team17, if you've got a UI designer then why don't you listen to that person? Or if you don't have one then hire one quickly! Finally, and I hope this is not the case, if you do have got a user interface designer and that person did design all those crappy menus, please fire them or at least give them a serious warning. Wrapping up, the most serious drawbacks of the game are:

  • user interface tries to conceal as much useful information as possible
  • weapons menu: lacking many weapons, fills up the entire screen and is not organized
  • the maximum size of a team is only 4 worms

In case you decide to publish yet another sequel then I suggest you call it something like Worms: Resurrection and get back to basics instead of coming up with six new single player modes.


I just got myself a Twitter account: @ZeroOne3010. I don't know if I'll be using it for anything but at least I can say I have tried. Does anyone know any good Twitter clients for Windows 7, or anyone interesting worth following? So far I'm following some news feeds, @MythBusters and @ConanOBrien.