Friday, 12 November 2021

Halo Master Chief Collection

Halo is 20 years!

I played through the Halo: Master Chief Collection campaigns on Linux through Steam/Proton. Here are some of my experiences.

I'll say at first that at one point the MCC received a major update, and as a consequence I lost my saves. 

This means I was mid-way Halo 3: ODST and had to start it again. I'm not sure if this can be attributed to Proton, but I could not see anyone else complaining. Perhaps the lesson is, if you are mid-game, it might be wiser not to allow the MCC to update.

(21.11.2021 Edit: This actually happened again, fortunately I'd played them all through.)

I played the original Halo without knowing you can use TAB key to instantly switch between old and new graphics. Perhaps this was for the better, because doing it all the time is bound to highlight problems in a very detailed scale. As someone who is not a rabid original Halo fan, I could therefore enjoy the remaster in its totality. I've thought MCC has been a pretty good deal and do not mind that much whether the "remastering" has gone a little out of hand or not.

Most of the games worked very well, and I'll mention some basic Proton (5.0-10) experiences. The setup is GeForce GTX 1060 3GB, driver version 460.91.03. Processor is i5-4670 CPU @ 3.40GHz, 16 GiB memory and I'm running Linux Mint 19.3 Tricia 64-bit. Display resolution is 1920 x 1200.

I played these games with keyboard and mouse, but as Halo is originally a console series they should be playable with a gamepad.


Halo: Reach

I'd recommend not playing this first because you'll be spoiled. No, it doesn't reveal plot points, but it's just that good. Afterwards, playing Halo 1 and 2 may even feel like a painful experience. 

The Reach campaign is a thoroughly modern fps, with a lot of variety, clear signposting and constant narrative.

Harassing some locals

The story starts in a small way at a distant human colony of Reach, where (I think) a Hungarian agrarian settlement is suspected of disturbances. A group of elite soldiers called the Noble Six is sent to investigate. Then things start to escalate.

It does make me wonder why this Noble Six is tasked with curbing a supposed pig-sty rebellion instead of sending some mall cops, but it makes for a cool and atmospheric start. One even wishes things could have continued in this vein for somewhat longer, but there's shooting to be done.

Driving and piloting different vehicles adds spice to the game

Strangely enough, Star Wars:Rogue One (which came later) shares some plot elements with this game, and the prequel's relation to the original is also somewhat similar.

Proton verdict: Seemed to work smoothly throughout.


Halo: Combat Evolved (Anniversary Edition)

A super-soldier called the Master Chief is awoken from a deep sleep like any old frozen asset. The ship is soon breached by the alien race of the Covenant. All goes hairy, Master Chief secures the all-important ship AI Cortana, crash lands with a bunch of marines on a huge ring-world like structure and very soon the Covenant follows.

One of the few times in the series you get to be on a halo and actually see it

The forces begin to move along the Halo ring, discovering ancient structures and weird formations of nature.

To me the landing on Halo and the subsequent activity has an almost legendary status. An early example of a genuinely working outdoor environment coupled with AI that makes the game experience fun and rich rather than pedantic.

The new graphics (right) aren't always a huge improvement. The blue water looks sillier.

I'm not especially invested in the story of the Flood and the Flood enemies. It's like the game suddenly forgets the Ringworld influences and goes full-on into Aliens and Predators fare, which then mostly takes place indoors in very repetitive corridors.

As I said previously, hitting TAB will instantly switch between the new and old graphics. And I do mean instantly. Because the game physics in any case work with the original Halo meshes, in the new graphics you can sometimes see bullets hitting a tree even if they quite shouldn't!

This plays well with Proton.


Halo 2 (Anniversary Edition)

I'm not sure what happened. Of course in massive hindsight it's quite easy to say what are the good and less good parts of Halo 1. But at least during making the sequel it looks nobody thought to tone down the less interesting elements. 

Earth looks great, sadly there's not much of it.

So Halo 2 re-hashes the same ingredients from the first game, there's shooting-a-plenty of those boring aliens endlessly with their nerf guns. 

Ok, so the repetitiveness is not quite as heavy here, but it is still part of the recipe. Add to that I wouldn't compare the combat set pieces to the ones at the beginning of Halo 1. Yes, they look similar but it doesn't quite play that way.

There are some visual bugs in that the "brutes" in the videos and in actual game play look so different I was at times wondering what the hell is happening. There's also an occasional mismatch between where the cut-scenes leave off and the ensuing game situation.

Here we are again on a halo, driving another Warthog

You also get to play both the Master Chief and the Arbiter. It's a novel idea, but it doesn't add that much and I'd have preferred the game was from the Master Chief POV entirely after all. Years ago, playing the first time around I quit soon after this switcheroo.

On Proton front, this game also had the most hiccups. This could be more to do with loading and memory handling than direct GPU load, as the graphics shouldn't be too complex.

Interestingly, this choppiness occurred whenever a large and complex vista opened up, even if just turning left or right. After "eating in" the landscape, the choppiness would disappear. Reducing detail did not help that much.

Halo 3

The story continues directly from where the previous part ended. Having more fights set on Earth is a good thing because it makes the environments already more relatable. Predictably, we soon get to the other side of the universe but fortunately that part isn't overly long.

Nice foliage

I'm sorry to repeat how my benchmark for "great Halo experience" are the beginning parts of first Halo. But in this measurement Halo 3 does not offer as many comparable thrills. I still think it does the generic fps action nicely and the surroundings have variety. The change of pace is orchestrated well. 

Fighting the large Scarab spider-mechs is both somewhat frustrating but also very exciting, a set-piece in itself. The Flood continues to be as boring as ever.

It takes more than blasting at weak spots to kill a Scarab

Instead of video clips the cut-scenes are made with the engine graphics. To my current eyes this seems the better choice, but some of the characters look silly considering they are supposed to be the same as in Halo 2.

At this point game storytelling had advanced strides, but had still some ways to go. For some reason the characters end up caring about each other a lot, despite not spending much time together. There's a grand sci-fi setting and a nice, if obligatory, "reveal".

I enjoyed this more than Halo 2, and it also runs smoother through Proton. Perhaps it had tiny hiccups here and there. 


Halo 3: ODST

Not very promisingly the game starts with the most immature super-soldiers I've seen for a long time. There's also "Coming in hot! We are going to crash! Aarrgh...!" type of plotting so familiar from the other games.

This time the hero isn't the Master Chief, but a bunch of military types called the ODST. The story takes place during the alien invasion of New Mombasa in Halo 3.

...

The play begins from a seemingly open-ended city that is soon revealed to be quite closed after all. Yet it's quite maze-like and you need to learn to use the visor to navigate around. The waypoint creation system is something I would have thought as cool around 1994, but luckily it is only really needed in these "framing story" portions.

But now I'm making ODST sound like it's a crap game, which it is not. On the contrary, along Halo:Reach it might be the most fun Halo game I've played.

The image intensifier is almost necessary so this view gets a lot of use.

The framing story has the player moving about the nightly streets of New Mombasa. The story becomes interspersed with flashback vignettes about what happened to the other teammates, as "evidence" of their actions are found from the street.

This story device then allows the game to switch between different times and combat situations without having to bridge them directly. The threads eventually converge to the climax that happens in the present. The player as a silent "Rookie" merely observes the story that happens to the other soldiers.

A Warthog sequence with a twist.

What with the Noble Six and the ODST crew it appears there's quite a lot of these super-hero characters around, and all seem just as bad-ass as the Master Chief. I guess the player couldn't be made to suffer to play a Halo game with less effective heroes.

This game worked fine through Proton and despite having to play the first half twice I enjoyed it a lot.


Halo 4

Halo 4 looks like a stylistic leap compared to all the other games. It was released in 2012. To give perspective, this is not far from the new Tomb Raider of 2013. The fourth part was made by 343 Industries and not Bungie, the original developers of Halo.

Master Chief wakes up again.

I felt at first this might have the potential to be the best Halo yet. But then... what can I say. Well, I've been thinking Halo games are maybe a little too similar, but when they come up with something new I'm not quite happy either.

I'd think it's fair to assume that in an fps it's usually more satisfying to fight something that's at least remotely humanoid. And not some totally unrelatable, annoying flying mechanic-metaphysical fucks that take million shots from these wonky new guns.

A weird new world and weird new guns...

Things get better though. It's just that the superiority of these new hostiles has to be first underlined by having them really resilient, which isn't that fun.

The story attempts to put more focus on the few characters, including a distinct enemy leader persona. Although the storytelling might be now more competent, this emphasis is somewhat hit-and-miss.

...and some mandatory Warthog driving.

The quality of visuals is uneven. As I said the beginning looks surprisingly next-gen. There are more environment effects, and the Covenant aliens look far more detailed. But then there are sections that are not so far developed and would not have looked out of place in Halo 3.

Again, Proton did not have any major problem with this campaign and it was very playable.


On the whole

So, that's it, more Halo than a person can bear, and I'd say the campaigns are a good deal if it can be found in the 20-30€ range or less. In this I don't include the multiplayer, which due to Easy Anti-Cheat probably won't work in Linux/Proton without tinkering.

The achievements didn't work, not sure if that has something to do with my settings or not.

The games look good, obviously much better in motion than in these static and somewhat random screenshots.

There's loads of stuff that probably only relates to multiplayer

I'd perhaps nominate Halo:Reach as the best here, partly because it's so clear, concise and sweet, partly because it doesn't have the Flood and the Master Chief/Cortana interactions that tend to get somewhat boring in the long run.

Without thinking too much, from best to worst:

Halo: Reach
Halo: ODST
Halo 1
Halo 4
Halo 3
Halo 2

Saturday, 6 November 2021

Handlebar adjustments

Dott me a favour and don't Tier me up

A few notes after a some more kilometers behind with Zeeclo Fenix. The season has not yet closed in Helsinki, there's no snow on the ground and it's not significantly colder than it was a month ago. If anything, rain and work has prevented me from trying it out more.

I had a 6km and then 13km trip with the fully charged battery, so I'm starting to think it's safe to say 20km is possible. I weigh about 80kg, temperature has been around 5-10 degrees celsius.

I thought I'd not be self-conscious while driving a scooter, being past that after driving the rentals. But I have regressed a little, thinking this might look silly(!) It might help to remove that logo and the "wooden" decorations. The deck part doesn't really even exist in comparable models.

But, first adjustments first.

Handlebar adjustments

Tinkering was one motive to get this particular model. I had done some basic alterations but was not satisfied with the position of the 2nd motor button.

The old arrangement

I moved the button cluster to the left side and the display to the right. Now pressing the dual motor button is done with the left hand and does not conflict with the throttle.

Of course now the 3 different speed modes cannot be as easily accessed but I generally only use the mode 3 anyway. It's also better not to fiddle with the display options while driving.

It's not obvious that three attachments fit on the same side, because to fold the handlebar, the "locks" have to be pulled outwards and the bar needs to have some room for that, about ~1.4cm each side.

The new arrangement

About that moving. It would have been easier if both the display and the button block could have been exchanged, but only the display can be removed "upwards". Everything else has to be pulled out via the handlebar ends. 

So I had to pull out the rubber handles, levers and the thumb throttle just to exchange the handedness of these two items. 

The rubber grips were diabolical. Loosening the screws did not help much, so they are just inched out by rotating them with full-body force. I got a blister but at least no hernia. They went back far more easily. 

By the way the included wrenches did not have a size for these grip tightening screws, so I used my own.

Almost needless to say, I liked the new arrangement better. As a further adjustment I rotated the button block so the 2nd motor button is closer to the thumb. (Not done in the above image).

The button is still quite tiny. A future idea might be to have an additional well-placed, "boost" button that simply keeps the 2nd motor on while pressed. There's no complex electronics inside that button block, just switches.

What else?

Another thing I did was to measure the display speedometer against a mobile phone GPS-based speedometer app. This could be done more systematically, but at least it looked that while driving the 25km/h cruise, the app showed the same.

I've occasionally had a feeling the steering is more hungry to turn to left than towards right. It's worth investigating, possibly something to do with the cable lump.

There are many parameters inside the display menu, and I'll get back to those later. 

I also need to understand the disc brakes better, and if there are some adjustments to be done there.

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Enzeeclopedia


So I went and bought a Zeeclo Fenix Dual e-scooter, also known as U322.

My previous experiences are based on driving the Voi Voiager 3X rental scooter for a couple of months. Ultimately the itch to have my own got the best of me.


Comparison and choice

I did an uncharacteristic amount of searching and comparison of features, compiling them into a spreadsheet, and even watched Youtube video reviews. 

First I didn't know what factors to choose, starting from price, range, top speed, weight and wheel size. I realized only later that deck size, clearance and wheel type might matter. Or that power could be discussed in terms of V/mAh and not just wattage. 

The Voi rental scooters set the bar quite high. I felt I wouldn't want less than ~10" wheels, and all the smaller scooters looked too feeble anyway. So scratch Ninebot E45E, E22 and the like. Scratch everything that can't make 25km/h. In fact, if it can go bit more on paper, the better, because then the scooter can likely do the actual 25km/h.

The final choice was between a Segway Ninebot Max G30LE (G30LP) and the Zeeclo Fenix with dual motors. The Ninebot would have been cheaper and a rational choice for a first scooter: a well known make, a clear design iteration, probably more sophisticated battery, better water resistance and some anti-theft measures.

Comparing numbers was a valuable process, but ultimately I made the choice based more on feeling than justifying features through price. The Fenix looks more interesting and is probably more powerful.

What confused me is that Zeeclo Fenix looks outwardly quite similar to many models, such as Smartgyro Speedway/Rockway. At Aliexpress I could find a very similar MaxWheel T4 MAX 600W that's also much, much cheaper with many similar parts.

The Manfirth site on UK, sellers of MaxWheel T4, says "We also now have the T4 Max DUAL electric scooter available c[o]urtesy of Zeeclo." So again I'm not sure what all this means, likely that the normal T4 is not as powerful.

The similar appearance doesn't mean they are the same scooter. For example, the Smartgyros are more expensive and have more powerful engines and batteries. (Likely too powerful for the local law here). I'm simply hoping the price was reasonable for the dual motors.


The Fenix

So, what about this "patinete?" 

Firstly, I'm not sure if the two 500W motors make it comparable with a 1000W single-motor scooter, but there they are.

The whole scooter is somewhat larger than I expected, a tiny bit longer than the Voi, 122cm from the tip of the rear fender to the front wheel. Weighing at about 28kg, which is a horrible amount to carry in stairs. Also forget about popping inside a store and casually carrying the scooter in one hand.

Despite having large ground clearance and very visible shock absorbers, it is not marketed as an off-road scooter. The Ninebots might have better water resistance.

Friends with Voi.

The deck size is 54 by 19.5 centimeters. The entire block is 23 centimeters wide. The deck is slightly more elevated than in many scooters at ~22cm. The wheels looked like ~25cm size.

The deck is covered with what appears to be sandpaper(!) but it gives a good grip. The edges look like they are wooden. The huge logo on the deck is not that pleasant and I could think of covering or replacing it in the future, sorry. The logo on the stem is more stylish.

There's a normal-looking LED headlight, small taillight and large-ish indicator lights at the front and back of the deck sides. I've understood the indicator lights are not very visible during daylight, and there are no lights at the top of the handlebar. There's also a co(s)mic LED ribbon light around the deck, which can illuminate the ground at night. To my surprise these ribbons were quite loosely fit.

Some key measures, centimeter accuracy. Picture not to scale.

At places the build quality is very robust but in details there are some rough choices. The brake wires and electric wires are very visible all around, and are kept in place with zip ties. I also found myself adjusting and tightening many rubber and plastic parts after taking the Zeeclo out of the box. 

The upside of this might be the parts are then more visible for repairs and adjustments. Many of the parts look like you can buy them from Aliexpress or something, such as the Focan S866 generic E-bike display. So the Fenix may be less black-boxed than for example a Ninebot/Xiaomi.


Driving

I gave a little kick and went on. Not much power, so let's put on the third "gear". My very first emotion was of horror mixed with disappointment—the acceleration felt feeble and the smallest climb looked like a problem.

Then I turned on the second motor and all was fine, it's really brisk and powerful. Every small hill I've climbed with the Voi was easily conquered with the Fenix dual motors. It's silent, too.

The slowish acceleration with single motor is not a big problem, but I had to learn to anticipate stops and starts differently in actual traffic.

Switching the 2nd motor on and off during driving adds some complexity to the task, especially when the display has no indicator about the dual motor status. I tried to keep from using the 2nd motor constantly, as I believe it is a battery-eater.

Friends with Tier.

I drove from Vallila to the Helsinki City centre, using the bikeway next to the railroad track, probably the best place for test driving (and photos). There are peaceful long straights and also some short but steep hills. It's also a typical trip I've done a few times with the Voi. The weather was near-raining, so I didn't dare go further.

The Fenix has an automatic "cruise control" that maintains the speed. At times this got stuck to 20 or under, and the system had to be shaken out of it to get to 25 km/h. This takes some time to get accustomed to. The cruise control reacts naturally to braking so no problem there. 

The dual motor drive is powerful and responds almost too aggressively to the thumb throttle. Starting from stand-still it can give quite a kick and throw dirt, I'd perhaps prefer only use it to boost the hill climbs.

The hugely visible suspension didn't do much in the urban context, the pneumatic wheels are more important for the overall experience. The pneumatic wheels are so smooth they actually felt a little "flabby" when compared to the Voi hardness. I tried the scooter on a cobblestone-like surface and it's certainly more bearable than with the hard tires.

The pneumatic tires means that they could go flat. I was worried about driving on piles of wet fallen leaves, because I can't really see if there are dangerous items under.

The first push towards scooter ownership came from the speed reduction of the Voi rentals (from 25 to 20). Now, the extra speed meant surprisingly little, and I nearly forgot to write about it. The difference wasn't that huge after all. Or: it's easier to notice a cut in speed than a small increase.

Much like with a bicycle, everything at the handlebar can be adjusted. Wrenches are included.

I rotated the light/dual/horn switch block to make the 2nd motor switch more accessible. This also helps the handlebar to fold into smaller space as the block is not in the way. 

The gear is more like Eco-mode select.

The DUAL button is quite small given how often it is needed. Only afterwards I saw it is an on/off switch with a click, but driving with gloves on I didn't really get that.

Final notes

At least out of the box (after recharge) my feel was positive. Time will tell how durable the battery and the wheels are. 

The stem and handlebar do feel somewhat light in comparison, but the ride is still smooth. The scooter is collapsible, and the main hinge is a great piece of work. The joint doesn't move or shake at all during driving, and the folding is very easy to do. Sand can get in there, though.

I suspect the battery does not give much range despite the weight. Already after 10 km (odometer insists 8), the battery had gone down a few notches. After driving 5 km more the indicator was on the last notch.  However the voltage was still at 37, which according to one chart I downloaded should mean there's still lot to go. 

I'll try to verify the range issue later, which may be tricky as one is not supposed to drain the battery fully! I have no idea how the battery indicator is scaled, the manual might have more information about it.

Optimistically, the range might be about 20 km for a person of 80kg weight. What I've read about scooter ranges, it's not uncommon to have 50% of the advertised range, so the 35 kilometers here probably translates to less than 20.

I won't give up driving rentals because they are more functional for going to many places, but I hope to continue with the Fenix before the weather becomes unbearable. I guess I'll need a helmet, too.


More final notes

Google translate does an ok job with the warnings at page 16, so I'll just replicate it here:

Before connecting the charger to the charging port, make sure it is in the "off" position. Connect the charger plug to the charging port, which is located on the lower right side of the battery case.

Plug charger into outlet. A light signal will turn on indicating the state of the battery. The red light signal indicates that the battery is charging and the green light signal that it is already charged.

Under no circumstances allow the battery to discharge completely as you run the risk of permanent damage.

Warning: Before using the electric scooter for the first time, the battery must be fully charged - eight hours. Failure to do so will risk permanently damaging the battery and voiding the warranty.

NOTE: the charger has a green or red light signal to indicate the charging status of the battery. During the charging process, it is normal for the charger to become warm.

NOTE: In case of not using the scooter periodically, it is recommended to charge it monthly. Failure to do so will risk permanently damaging the battery.

Charging first time, I've got to say the charger light was green already after few hours. What can I do but to follow the instructions. The instructions also say that the following charges should be 6 hours.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Halo and Half-Life 2

Since I played both Half-Life 2:Update and Halo: Anniversary Edition back-to-back, I felt it might be fun to reflect on both of these two early-2000s games.

Whereas Half-Life 2 works natively on Linux, I used Steam/Proton to run Halo: Anniversary Edition, which is an updated version of the original Halo:Combat Evolved. I'm pleased to say at least the single player campaign worked rather well and there's nothing a 1060 GPU couldn't handle.

Start me up (Halo)

I did once play Halo on Xbox for a while, but I probably gave up around the map with snow, tanks and floating gimmicky craft. Or when the new alien faction appeared.

The original Halo 20th anniversary is close by, and the Anniversary Edition will be 10 years old, so it's a fitting moment tor play it through.

Half-Life 2 (and the update) has become a replaying favourite, I think I've now played it and the two episodes through more than 5 times over the years.

The beginning (Half-Life 2)

It's worth noting the Xbox original Halo was played with a console game controller, but I feel it's now much better to play using the accepted mouse and WASD combination, just like HL2. I nudged the mouse sensitivity to make the turning speed closer to what it is in Half-Life.

Combat and game play

I'll say this straight away: Halo at its best has more dynamic combat situations than in HL2, which is largely scripted. I also like how Halo fights can have a tactical angle, as positioning the Warthog and flanking the enemy yourself can have a nice crossfire effect from your team.

The battlefield does on occasions feel like a living thing, with the player as Master Chief doing his scalpel movements. The co-working marines actually do something, unlike the NPCs and the "squad" in Half-Life 2.

Send in the space marines! (Halo)

I remember when playing Halo on Xbox I was struck by the appropriateness of the marines' banter and the aliens' reactions: the little monsters running away from you screaming in terror was a novelty.

Now, to my more experienced eyes it all doesn't seem quite as seamless, and the AI reactions appear far more mechanistic. Those critters do little else except run aimlessly and scream!

It can look surprisingly nice... (Halo)

However, the above praise mostly applies to the beginning half of the game. After that Halo tends to be more repetitive in its surroundings and reverts to solo fighting towards the end. The interiors tend to be more monotonous, relying surprisingly lot on 90-degree angled corridors. Some levels like the "library" are just sadistic repeat. 

At points, the game can generate infinite amounts of monsters, unless the player has the wits to move past them. So, situations I was stuck in for a while could be played quite quickly with this in mind. After completing I had 15 hours of gametime on my Steam.

...but you'll be spending more time looking at this. (Halo)

Looking this from more positive angle, Halo has a more "arcade" feel, the player blasts away against hordes of alien creatures, picking up bonuses and extra ammunition on the go.

Half-Life 2 environments are mostly unique, and the player rarely gets disoriented. The spaces are also more subtly three-dimensional than in Halo, which often has enormous diagonal platforms for transporting the player and enemies between floors. This seems a little "1990s".

One of the micro-puzzles peppered around the game. (HL2)

The physics engine in HL2 also helps make combat richer. After the objects can be manipulated with the gravity gun it's possible to fight with explosive barrels, gas containers, blades and plain bricks. Bashing crates with the crowbar to get supplies can sound primitive, but it adds a little "something" to the game.

There are situations where the scripted Half-Life approach fails. The "squad" element later in the game is largely an illusion. It supports the narrative turn where Freeman, previously on the run, now storms the Combine stronghold alongside the rebels. The sections with the NPC Alyx, again mostly scripted, works better.

Meet the cannon fodder. (HL2)

But although the squad can be commanded, this has little use as the battlefield doesn't really work that way. The jumping mines are another rather useless addition in this context. Sure, you can position your squad and position the mines, but unless enemies are triggered to appear, there's little use trying to fortify a situation that's not meant to be fortified.

Instead of the direct hit points of Half-Life and the like, Halo has the famous "halo shield", wait for a moment and your shield will replenish. I guess this helped level design as the distribution of health packs doesn't need to be so balanced. After surviving a desperate skirmish you are as good to go after the shields revive.

The beginnings of a "cover" system. (Halo)

In Halo's favour, limiting weapons to two at a time modulates the combat experience in a fun way. Marine and alien guns are suitably different and you need to think of the combinations, or have to make do with a bad weapon for a while. The Half-Life 2 "carry all" policy is in turn a little old fashioned here. Master Chief can also hit the enemies with the weapons, whereas Gordon has to switch to the crowbar in order to melee.

Grenades are more important in Halo and can be thrown using a single key. (They are carried alongside the two weapons) Again, HL2 insists you select the weapon first and then throw them. The gravity gun does mean that grenades, including enemy grenades, can be manipulated in more ways.

The inevitable "exploding barrels" (HL2)

As for saving, Half-life 2 has the Doom/Quake style exact game state, so a difficult situation can be negotiated by saving often. Which is sort of silly, but less frustrating and nice for someone who just wants to revisit the game. Halo saves "checkpoints", so be prepared not only for similar situations but to play a difficult spot multiple times.

As a rough summary Halo does outdoor combat better, whereas HL2 has more clever and varied interior situations. Add to that every occasion in HL2 tends to be unique in some way, and the physics-based objects add greatly to the feel of being there.


Milieu and Story

Much has been said how Half-Life 2 manages to tell a story through simply showing details about the world. The protagonist, Gordon Freeman, "wakes up" in a train car headed for a derelict city, apparently somewhere in Russia. It's not initially clear how everything relates to the Black Mesa incident in HL1, but soon it dawns on the player years must have passed. This city has become a kind of concentration camp in some kind of police state, oppressed by a Civil Protection with futuristic equipment.

In many places you can see touches of brutalist alien technology, culminating at the enormous Citadel. As the player character says nothing, the explicit parts of the story are advanced through NPC exposition at key moments in the game. Yet there's no-one to fill in with the full history of the Combine invasion and how Earth was oppressed.

Dr. Breen supplies some of the backstory (HL2)

Halo utilizes third person and cinematic cut-scenes to show the interaction between the Master Chief, Cortana AI and other characters. The Master Chief himself is apparently a cryogenically stored super-soldier which is woken up in the time of dire need.

Now, the humans are losing a space-operatic space-battle against something called Covenant, and the only course left is to salvage the precious ship AI and crash land on the inner surface of a massive ring-shaped structure floating in space, the titular Halo. The Covenant lands there too though, and a race towards securing the assets of Halo begins.

The story is a mix-and-match of science fiction ideas, ranging from Ringworld to Starship Troopers/Aliens, with a touch of Ender's Game and perhaps even Dune.

Now where I've heard that one before... (Halo)

I'd say the Half-Life 2 story and world-building aspects always felt more original than Halo, which relies more on the typical science-fiction grandeur and the gung-ho space marine antics. Then again Halo was hugely influential on game visuals, and the creators of HL2 had ample time to create a clear response to what had became a cliché.

Instead of grand space operatic sci-fi fare, Half-Life 2 world uses ordinary, mundane looking cityscapes to a great effect. There are dilapitated rusty structures peppered with garbage, graffiti and everyday objects.

There's a lot of what I'd call a micro-narrative in HL2. Not only are the NPCs orchestrated to comment and move around as the player enters their sphere, but many spaces seem to "say" something by itself. Also, various mini-puzzles and different opportunities arise here and there, both optional and mandatory.

One of the atmospheric interiors (HL2)

Still, the Halo approach is done rather well too and the musical score helps tie it all together.

But I'll again point out how artificially stretched out Halo felt. This is also reflected in the narrative. The player is dragged in by sophistication and complexity and yet the second half of the game is mostly blasting away. The AI-driven situations are soon replaced with mindless, repetitive zombi-alien bashing. Well, there's some cleverness in identifying which faction needs to be supported as the creatures and other actors battle it out. 

There's also less of that micro-narrative. On occasions the AI comments on something but that's about it. Additionally, the idea of advancing the ring structure is soon forgotten and even made trivial. Certainly it has little geographical meaning. The setting could just as well be some strange planet or moon.

Give me my Warthog! (Halo)

Half-Life 2 throws constantly new elements to the mix and just about as an environment starts to get boring there's a change of scenery. The meticulous geographical advancement parallels the narrative, and although it may be a strained as a story device ("The teleporter didn't work! You'll have to come by land!") it is satisfying. Although the Citadel at the end is not a high point of the game it is fortunately not very long and at least offers one more gameplay twist.

Both games have vehicles. Half-Life 2 has an airboat and a car. These are features of a particular part of the story, and once those acts are finished the vehicles are not seen again. It is also possible to play the areas without using the vehicles, but this isn't exactly normal play.

Driving the airboat (HL2)

Already near the beginning, Halo has the Warthog, an extension of the soldiers' military capacity. Later, some more alien crafts are used but in my opinion they are mostly boring and move in uninspired ways. There is also one forced Warthog sequence near the end which is rather painful to perform considering the clumsy car controls and the checkpoint save system.

Verdicts

My experience with the repetitiviness of Halo makes it unlikely I would play it again in the near future.  But I have the sequels and a prequel if I want to go on exploring the Halo-versum. For those just wanting to see the game through I'd recommend playing it on easy difficulty.

I believe Half-Life 2 is ultimately the better game, but then again it was published a few years later.

I did start playing the Halo: Reach prequel and it looks like a much more modern, story-driven game with twists and variety all around. Linux had perhaps slightly more hiccups with this one, I had to explicitly set pulse audio, and also encountered some fullscreen glitches, but once it runs it plays good. 

Although the Master Chief collection order suggests playing this prequel first, I think it was still a good choice to start with the original Halo.

What with Quake, Black Mesa, Half-Life 2 and Halo, this has become a season of fps for me. To end on this note, here's a semi-random timeline of fps games from the golden age:

  • Quake: Jun 1996
  • Goldeneye 007: Aug 1997
  • Unreal: May 1998
  • Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Aug 1998
  • Half-Life: Nov 1998
  • Medal of Honor: Dec 1999
  • Perfect Dark: May 2000
  • Counter-Strike: Nov 2000
  • Halo: Nov 2001
  • Call of Duty: 2003
  • XIII: Nov 2003
  • Half-Life 2: Nov 2004

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Samsonite Vectura Evo 15.6"


Why talk of a bag? Have I gone fashion blogging? Well, it has a USB extension.

Ok, it's a Samsonite bag for computer gear. There's small rubbery door that has an appearance of watertightness. Underneath I can find a USB connector.

There's also a passage between one compartment and another, for the very same USB cable or some other. It's also good to stick the cable there when not in use.

I used to prefer shoulder bags, but increased e-scooter use and the need to carry remote working gear nearly all the time drove me into this ecosystemic change.


But is there any other use for the USB than the suggested power pack? (Something I don't have.)

Possibly I could hold a hard disk or a memory stick semi-permanently in the bag, but for that I'd also need a female-female USB converter cable. And yet another cable for actually accessing the drive, and presumably I would take that extra cable from the bag so it starts to look a little pointless.

Anything about the bag itself? Well, it stays in shape, and upright on its own. It has zillion compartments for different sizes and depth, and I'm still learning what is the best place for what.

There's the handy flat compartment for the laptop itself, then the rest of the junk (PSU and huge headset) can be put into the main space. On top of that a book or two and snacks fit in easily. 

There are inside and outside "top" and "side" slots so that phones and wallets need not become lost into the depths.


Monday, 4 October 2021

Another science fiction roundup

Time for some more science fiction visitations and re-visitations.

Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (1870)

(A World Tour Underwater)

A huge monster of a whale terrorises the seas. As our adventurers are tasked to hunt it, they are instead taken captive by what is revealed to be a highly advanced submarine.

The story is placed roughly at the time period of the American Civil War, and ironclads such as the Monitor are even name-dropped.

The book is notable for introducing the character of Captain Nemo, a sort of prototypical romantic super-hero (or villain) who travels under the sea in this Nautilus, having vowed never to set foot on land again. 

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

Verne describes various then-science-fictional ideas about electricity and how it might power the submarine, weapons and the equipment needed by the crew. There's also a lot of thought put into how the Nautilus could be self-sufficient at sea.

As a kind of zenith to the story arc the ruins of Atlantis are visited, and Verne even presents numerous references that support the idea of there having been such a thing. (No there wasn't)

Verne also discusses how the geological evidence and slow accumulation of limestone points to a world much, much older than the few thousand years suggested by a superficial intepretation of the bible. Verne opines that the "days" of creation in the bible might have been somewhat longer, an idea often repeated in these discussions even now. (A compromise not accepted by hardline bible fundamentalists.)

From L'Île mystérieuse TV-miniseries

It's also neat to read about Nautilus visiting South Pole, which didn't happen in reality until decades later. The very contemporary Suez canal project gets mentioned, this was not yet completed at the time the story takes place.

The story is encumbered by numerous long descriptive lists of various fishes and organisms the adventurers come across, and this just goes on and on throughout the story, regardless of what other more exciting things might be happening. I get that Verne is showing how rich and varied the underwater world is, but give me space stories anytime, man.

But it's not a stretch to think this as a transition between a sea-adventure story and a science fiction space discovery story. It could work as a blueprint for various space stories to come; a vessel launched in otherwise unaccessible and hostile environment, where new alien lifeforms (deep sea fish) are discovered, and bug-eyed monsters (squids) are fought with special weapons and environmental suits.



Jules Verne: The Mysterious Island (1875)

Five prisoners espace a confederate Civil War prison on an observation balloon, and a storm takes them over a huge distance and they barely manage to reach an island on the Pacific.

To me this book read far better than "20000 leagues" but arguably it is less of a science fiction novel and more of a throwback to the adventure/Robinson Crusoe story. Still, space colonization stories might follow this formula too.

This is not to say that science is not present. With the ingeniuity of the engineer, the colonists manage to settle the island and make best of the elements, soon creating earthenware pots, metals, glass and even explosives and a telegraph line.

The TV adaptation of this novel was one of my earliest TV experiences, apart from strictly children shows, and boy was it exciting back then. The screenshots in this blog post are from the series.

I found the episodes on Youtube. I couldn't concentrate on it properly with the poor AI-subtitling, so it felt somewhat random and perhaps less "mysterious" than I had remembered.

With some interesting additions!

The characters and scenery still look fine and Omar Sharif is a good choice for the captain. 

Strangely, over the decades I have specifically remembered a few scenes, such as the building of a magnifying glass from glued-together clock crystals. The memory was not only that there is such a scene, but the visual impression of gluing together the two glasses with gunk was strong.

The process is presented in great detail and the shape is simple so perhaps this helped the memory stick in and renew itself. (Just to specify this further, no I did not remember those sticks.)

Science goes on sciencing

At least in the early 1980s local elementary school kids still read Verne books, possibly on the power of  re-runs of this show and the Willy Fog cartoon. Even I tried to read a few, but I likely skipped some chapters to make the task more manageable.

These two books reminded me how strictly boyish adventures these are, women are barely mentioned nor do they feature as characters.



Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966 novelization)

A backwards man is taken to an experimental treatment that increases his intelligence much beyond ordinary. Initially he can't even beat an experimental mouse in the maze game, but as his cleverness increases he's able to take in multiple languages and complex mathematics. Eventually he becomes the leading expert in the research field where he first was an object of study.

At the same time the qualities that made him likeable, tend to vanish and he has trouble having friends and human contact. However as his recall improves in hindsight he realises he has been used and been a butt of jokes for the people around him. The resentment grows.

The professors say "We are only interested in improving your intelligence, not your personality" or something similar. It's become a cliché, the more clever you are the less sociable you will be. This kind of story arc has pop-cultural longevity, for example Homer Simpson once got super-smart with the same predictable results.

This is also reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's much earlier Sirius, where the protagonist was a super-intelligent dog.


Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Another re-read. A future where firemen don't put out fires but set them in order to burn books and houses of book-hoarders.

451 is famous, perhaps not as famous as Nineteen-Eighty Four or Brave New World, but possibly more closer to our time and more prescient in showing how a fascist state might rise to power via media control and soft propaganda.

I've also seen it misrepresented on occasions. It is not so much a defense of how important and cool books as physical objects are but an attack against a culture of ever-present superficial "now/new" without history and memory, fluffy entertainment that will supposedly drive people away from thoughtful existence.

This places the story more closely alongside Orwell and Huxley. In 1984, the ever rewritten history, media and language had made critical thinking impossible or trivial, and in Huxley's vision people were kept at bay by light entertainment and drugs. A sort of mental decapitation enables the controlled and stunted society in all three.

What now seems current is the snapchat-esque telepresence room that extends to other homes. There people can partake in shallow plays or comment on other (trivial) media. The participants have nothing of consequence to say and nothing permanent is ever created.

A character offers a rationale for the book purge through a kind of extreme "cancel-culture" approach that deems books useless because in a world of billions of people, every book will have contradictory and offensive ideas for someone, so better get rid of them all.

The gender roles are clunky here but one could argue that when people have been stripped from their higher mental faculties this also encourages a conservative world view in these matters.

Suzanne Collins: Hunger Games (2008)

When people compare this to Twilight, it seems Hunger Games comes out as the winner. Possibly this is because of the ideology of having a "strong female character" compared to the clumsy Bella in Twilight. Ok, Hunger Games is a more interesting story, but neither is especially well written.

In the future, food is scarce (or kept scarce) and kids from different zones from US are sent as "tributes" to fight in the Hunger Games for the entertainment of people and to demonstrate order. The fight is to the death and there can be only one winner. Cleverly the world is built out of a sort of popular-cultural interpretation of ancient Rome, with gladiatorial games and the panem et circenses politics.

As a gameshow story, it has been pointed out that there are many precedents, for example Running Man.

The idea of the game show permits anything to happen. Items appear from nowhere, weather conditions are manipulated and even the principal rules may change. The tributes will try, together with their mentor, to create a plan that would secure them the attention of the sponsors and help them subvert the games and in the case of the protagonists to achieve something more than just an ordinary win.

I also read the sequels (Mockingjay and Catching Fire) but won't recap them here. If you thought the concept of the Games was cool, then the sequels will pull the rug from under you and instead deal with the realities of war and things like post-traumatic syndrome and being pawns in a larger "game". This is a bold and necessary move but also diverts from the charm of the original.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Raspberry Pi 400

Raspberry Pi 400

I felt the urge to get a Raspberry Pi 400 now that it has the scandinavian keys. Here are some of my first impressions.

Box contents

Holding the computer in my hand made me smile. It does have something in common with those small ZX Spectrum and Oric computers. Also, when was the last time there was a computer with a row of pins sticking out from the back?

Apart from the 400, the box contained a PSU and a Micro-HDMI to HDMI cable and a mouse. As a tiny bonus there's a MicroSD/SD adapter with the Raspberry logo.

The pins are wisely covered with a soft rubbery cover.

The box also has a hefty manual, another nod to the days of yore. But I was surprised to find it was in Swedish. As a Finn I wanted the Swedish-keyboard model, but not necessarily the Swedish manual! However I don't see myself as needing the manual that much (and of course I can read Swedish a bit).

The 400 is small enough to stick into a carry bag, but I'd cover it somehow before doing that. The cardboard box was rather huge and can't be used as a protective container in a small bag.

Not that anyone promised, but the box had no stickers :(


Booting up and using Raspbian

The tiny 16GB MicroSD card is already in, and after booting the first time the 400 will take few rounds to compose itself.

After setting the screen size and network, I'm in the Raspbian environment. I needed to adjust the keyboard layout to swedish before it accepted those ä's and ö's.

The keyboard is nice, maybe not as good as the comparable Apple Mini keyboard, which has nearly identical size and layout. But it's much better than some cheap alternatives I've tried in the past. This has a separate Delete key, but no separate Page Up/Down/Home/End/Ins keys.

The mouse, although with nice colours, is quite a lightweight. I'd prefer the wheel material had some more friction, it feels squicky and "wet". Even if the mouse connector has a logo, the mouse itself does not have a Raspberry logo on top. Ok, it might have looked a little silly.

There's a handy "soft-power" key combination, holding down the raspi-key and F10 switches the computer on and off, so I don't have to pull the plug. 

Not 100% certain but apparently displays cannot be hot-plugged, which I guess is the usual Raspberry boot thing.

Ahhh... the good old uncluttered desktop.

On the Raspbian desktop, the Raspi key opens the start menu, and with combinations of tab, shift-tab and cursor keys most things can be done without a mouse.

To have ssh access from another computer, it has to be first enabled from the Preferences.

Chromium browser is surprisingly bearable with the more plain sites. Youtube felt quite clunky and modern ads can also be a pain in the ass.

I edited some portions of this blogger blog post using the 400, and it felt possible, although not entirely fast. Google Docs felt a tad too slow to use really productively, but small text documents could be worked on. So, the browser-based cloud possibilities are somewhat limited, but obviously there might be some more lightweight sites too.

The 400 is quite capable of running the offline Libre Office suite, with word processing and spreadsheet. This could already be valuable for some.

I downloaded the Processing projects Multipaint and Petscii editor, and found these to be quite useable, although a better mouse is recommended! I didn't have to install a separate Java runtime environment either.

The Whining part

The integrated form-factor comes with some trade-offs. After connecting the PSU, Ethernet, HDMI and Mouse, there's an array of cables sticking out from the back and given how stiff these cables are these don't all fold as smoothly as 8-bit computer cables did.

To minimize this problem one can use wi-fi and even a Bluetooth mouse, although I'm personally through with battery-powered mice.

I'd probably want to put this computer away once in a while alongside with the peripherals. But unless the cables are separated and put away carefully, the computer is an uncomfortable mess of wires that doesn't really fit anywhere. It's worth saving that cardboard box.

What a compact computer!

I have to repeat that these issues are almost inevitable with a computer-in-a-keyboard, and it's still a more ordered package than a loose Raspberry.

The microHDMI connector is problematic to me, as I still don't have a HDMI-connector equipped display. I had to test it first with a TV but all the displays I've dedicated for computer use are slightly old and DVI-equipped. 

Also, looking around it appears a microHDMI->DVI cable isn't really a thing, I couldn't simply go to a store and buy one. What I did was get a 10€ adapter that makes the HDMI end into a DVI, and this is a good enough solution for now. This doesn't have sound, and since there is no separate audio out so all in all that microHDMI connector is a small minus for me, especially as the composite output is no longer available either.


What next?

I'm not sure what to use the Raspberry 400 for. It's smaller than a laptop, so it might be carried around easily, but this assumes there's a useable display at that other location. Also, now that the Pi is in a definitive case, I'm deprived of the never-finished process of creating my own cases for the Pi.

For now I've not tested any of my other Raspberry environments. How well does it work as Amibian or something else? After I get the 400 better positioned with a dedicated display, I can look at these other environments.

What I didn't think through beforehand is that of course every card I've created for Raspi 3 won't work directly here and I have to find the 400-compatible versions.