On killing numerous aliens with a rubber-band gun

I'm glad there's no PC version of Grand Theft Auto V, because I don't have a console, so this removes the temptation to play the darn thing.

If previous GTA games are anything to go by, GTA V will have numerous punishingly hard missions that are almost impossible to finish the first time, aircraft that are only slightly easier to fly than the real things, and a split personality in which it tries to tell some kind of serious crime story in a world in which vehicular homicide is a normal part of driving, cops try to murder you if you nudge their car while parking, and the entire city is wallpapered with Viz-level sight gags.

I much prefer the Saints Row games. They have the same basic structure as GTA and its other clones - open-sandbox city, plot missions and side diversions. And Saints Row started out with a pretty straightforward console-only GTA clone. But they've gotten crazier and crazier since.

This is a mission of average weirdness, in the last Saints Row game. (In case you missed it, the guy who put the tiger in the car is voiced by Hulk Hogan.)

Saints Row IV is a lot weirder than this.

I had to play all the way through it before I could write this, to make sure I knew about the part three-quarters of the way through where the game turns into Command & Conquer for an hour, or something.

It doesn't do that. It does have a few fun genre shifts, though, as you'd expect based on the little Atari Combat and text-adventure bits in the previous game.

Herewith, some almost-totally-spoiler-free observations:

If, like me, you're playing Saints Row IV on PC, you will probably not like the tight third-person camera. There is no in-game field-of-view adjustment. Get this mod to back the camera off before you even start playing.

The mod is the same one that did the same thing in Saints Row III (officially known as "Saints Row: The Third"; the next one will probably be "SaintV RoVV V.V"). Engine-wise there's almost no difference between SRTheThird and SRIV. This also means you do not need a very powerful PC to run it. Like Bioshock Infinite, SRIV is a game that has to run on current-generation consoles. So the PC version isn't quite as pretty as it might be, but has quite modest hardware requirements.

I've no complaints about any other components of the PC version of SRIV. Like Saints Row III, it plays nice with alt-tab, and on my computer at least, never crashes. There are very few non-crash bugs that I've noticed, either. Start a mission that requires you to go somewhere, and dick around doing a zillion random things, collecting stuff, buying clothes, playing whole minigames, whatever, on the way there? No problem, works fine. I did fall through the ground once, and got stuck under the scenery in a Diversion once, and once was glowing blue and floating around slightly above the ground until I saved and loaded. Oh, and sometimes the game decides to play a given NPC voice log whenever you start a play session. This is not a deal-breaker.

SRIV parodies a variety of other games, and a movie or three, quite well. Though the developers must have winced when they played Far Cry III: Blood Dragon and discovered that it opens with the exact same parody that opens SRIV, but does it better.

(If you've any interest in silly action games and Ahnie moofies, by the way, you must play Blood Dragon. There's less to it than there is to SRIV, but Blood Dragon is bargain-priced to compensate. And it is fucking hilarious.)

Saints Row IV has, of course, caused permanent damage to my psyche, because I am Australian and played the full version of the game, which you may have heard contains Things Australians Cannot Handle. In the case of SRIV, those things are a DLC-only weapon which resembles a Pear of Anguish on a pole...

...which you stick up people's bottoms, making them look rather surprised, and then they fly into the sky training happy little colourful stars.

It also contains characters taking imaginary alien drugs in a computer simulation within an actual game, in order to give themselves the ability to run and leap and punch like superheroes, in that computer simulation, within an actual game. Which will cause Australian children to start smoking crack, or something.

Aaaaaanyway, Saints Row IV grew out of an expansion pack for Saints Row III that was going to be called, with the series' typical intellectual humour, Enter the Dominatrix. Matrix-style, it'd be mostly in a simulated city, partly in the dystopian real world outside it.

They decided to expand that DLC into a whole game. And there's plenty of game here - an easy 24 hours of gameplay without rushing or dawdling. I like to play a few of the "Diversions" over and over and level weapons I don't even use much just in case I'm forced to use them on a mission, so I took thirty hours to finish the first time.

(I'm playing through again, to try different weapons and avoid a couple of upgrades that turned out to not be a great idea, like the one that gives your super-sprinting a tornado effect that blasts everything near you into the air. Oh, and like previous Saints Rows, there's two-player co-op as well, now including a few Diversions that you can only play if you have two people. That'd add an hour or three.)

Making a whole game out of a hypertrophied expansion pack could have been a very bad idea, but I think it actually works really well. With two caveats.

Caveat one: You still have all the car-customisation stuff from the previous game, but your eat-your-heart-out-Neo superpowers in the simulation and the lack of roads in the un-simulated world mean there's very little reason to bother. You can still tear around the city on the wrong side of the road and do burnouts to amuse pedestrians and terrify hostages in freshly-hijacked cars, for small cash and XP rewards. The game even gives you some... unusual... vehicles to play with. But the only vehicles that're actually useful in a game-progression sense now are fast aircraft, which can move you across the city a bit faster than you can run, and get you to high places if you can't be bothered solving a few jumping puzzles.

Caveat two: The city map is basically the same as in the last game, but now you've got superpowers, and the combination of the map and the somewhat clunky superpower controls (on PC, at least) isn't great when compared with games that were designed to work like this from the ground up. Look at the Prototype games, for instance; you never get hung up on an awning or cornice or something there, and it's significantly easier to land a super-jump exactly where you want to.

(Your movement powers in SRIV are utterly shamelessly cribbed from Prototype, but that in turn may have cribbed from the Crackdowns, and then there's Infamous and Destroy All Humans too... but those are all console-only and I've never played them, so I'm not sure. Saints Row IV may not even be the most ridiculous Action President game ever, because Metal Wolf Chaos also exists.)

There are an awful lot of blue collectible things in SRIV. YOU DO NOT NEED TO COLLECT THEM ALL, thank god. There's doubtless some achievement for getting them all, but I maxed out all of my superpowers and still had 200-odd blue things left over.

On normal difficulty, SRIV is pretty easy for any experienced PC gamer, especially if you do whatever side missions are currently available so you have their rewards before you do the next main mission. I like this. I'm not really here for a gruelling gaming challenge; I want to see the sights and have fun. I have a feeling of dread when I start a mission in a Grand Theft Auto game. I have a feeling of anticipation when I start one in the last couple of Saints Rows. (I never played Buggy Saints Row I; SRII was definitely harder than III or IV.)

Because SRIV is pretty easy, you don't need to grind for money or XP. If you enjoy playing a given Diversion over and over then go for your life, but if you power-level early on then you're probably going to be stuck at the level 50 cap with most of your gear maxed out for a few hours of gameplay at the end.

On the subject of which, the maximum-level ability upgrades in SRIV don't make you as tough as you were if you bought all the level 50 upgrades in SRIII. This is good, because the top SRIII abilities made you literally immune to harm from falls, vehicle impacts, fire, explosions, and all bullets. Only melee attacks could hurt you at all. This was somewhat ridiculous even by Saints Row standards.

Once you get past the non-stop over-the-topness of everything, this is actually quite a well-considered, highly-polished game. When you end a Diversion, for instance, you always end up back at the start location, so you can easily play it again if you want to. There's also a new, fun and elegant way to reset your notoriety to zero if you're tired of shooting cops. And it's impossible to leave followers behind when you Hulk-jump off into the distance.

The only really badly-judged thing I noticed in the whole game is that you spend a fair bit of time collecting blue thingummies, and there are a lot of windows in buildings that are also lit up blue. After a while you get a thingy that indicates actual collectibles on the minimap, though, which pretty much deals with that distraction.

This is not the Most Imaginative Game In History, but quite a lot of stuff happens that you would not expect, and the jokes are good. There is a modicum of challenge, and I presume a bit more if you choose the hard difficulty setting. But mainly it's just trying to be fun, and succeeding.

Playing this game while reading Ready Player One AND Promethea has loosened my already uncertain grip on reality even more.

Highly recommended.

Small ridiculous object du jour

Crank-operated fan

This is a fan.

I am delighted to say it is every bit as demented as I had hoped it would be when I slapped down $US3.40 at DealExtreme to buy it.

(There's a green one as well, but that costs three dollars and sixty cents. What am I, made out of money?)

It is not a big fan. The diameter of the see-through rubbery blades when they're spinning is about seven centimetres (2.75 inches). The blades fold back at rest, and can thus get in the way of the crank a bit on start-up.

Crank-operated fan

The blades spin fast, though; they're heavily geared-up, and turn something in the order of 110 times per crank of the handle.

I think this fan may actually have a substantial calories-expended-to-air-moved advantage over a simple paper fan. Both cool your face while they warm up your arm muscles, but I think the crank-fan requires less effort.

It also takes up less room, both in your bag and when you're using it.

I wouldn't expect this plasticky little thing to last a whole summer of frequent use, though. But it's probably more durable than similarly tiny fans that run off batteries or USB power; no motor brushes to wear out or solder joints to let go.

I think the principal purpose of this device is to make other people smile when you use it, though, and on that count it seems entirely successful.

And yes, you can turn it to point away from you and crank the handle the other way, and run about pretending you're an aeroplane.

EDIT: I just opened it up.

Crank-fan gears

Black plastic gears on metal shafts, and a couple of actual bushings for the output shaft. The bushings are only plastic too, but should wear slower than if there were only holes in the casing plastic for the fan-shaft to go through. This trinket was not just thrown together.

(The gears were dry; I added some fancy plastic-safe oil, and now I think the fan turns more quietly. This may be a complete fantasy.)

Even if it breaks after a month, it's difficult to complain when the thing costs very little, including delivery, for this orange one, and very little plus twenty cents, including delivery, in green.

(DealExtreme have bulk-buy discounts as well; you pay an extra $US1.70 for the whole order to use the "Bulk Rate" feature, then pay less for three or more of any given item in that order. The three-unit prices for these fans are only two cents more than the ten-unit prices.)

Recommended.

Wibbly-wobbly WTF

The Name of the Doctor

Do you enjoy Doctor Who episodes that are almost entirely free of events that make sense?

You'll love The Name of the Doctor, then!

(Spoilers below.)

Never mind the standard weirdness of having a machine that can go anywhere in time and space but, if your friends are being abducted, never just goes to the moment of the abduction so you can open the door and pull them in.

No, in this episode you've got the whole universe's timeline being rewritten and people fading out of existence like in Back to the Future, while other people... don't. Whole star systems are vanishing by the dozen, friends become enemies but for unexplained timey-wimey reasons stay in the same location... but the people necessary to get the plot to where it needs to be retain their previous memories, just because.

(Oh, and Clara can visit Tom Baker and help him out, but she is powerless to de-interlace him. I suppose it's fair that she seems to have been poorly green-screened in, though. I bet some effects guy really wanted to interlace her, too, but it didn't happen.)

And there are more blokes with weird faces to add to the surprisingly long list of New Who's Nattily-Dressed Scary Dudes. And there's some more gratuitous weapon-like use of the sonic screwdriver.

Three out of ten, if you are foolish enough to watch it sober.

This week's minimalist Doctor Who recap

This one was perfectly decent, too.

Highly suspicious Doctor

Good casting including non-annoying kids, at least two dumb solutions to problems being shot down as such, and a much-needed villain upgrade for the Number Two Doctor Who Major Baddies. I think Matt Smith dropped the ball a bit in his Gollum-and-Smeagol number, but that was good enough too.

OK, perhaps they could have done a little more to blunt the distracting similarities between the New And Improved Cybermen and a certain other iconic sci-fi cybernetic-baddie-race, beyond "but our ones have blue lights on their heads!"

But I think that's entirely compensated-for by Cybermen that are, one, not avoidable by anybody capable of jogging, and, two, now able to "upgrade" any other sentient life.

Given the Cybermen's numerous previous extremely bad strategic decisions, they will of course now be making a beeline for the nearest repository of Kaled genetic material.

Or just somehow upgrade an actual Dalek. The result would surely be-

Cyberdalek v1.0
(Source.)

OK, the first attempt might not be terribly impressive. But I'm sure they'd get it right after a few iterations.

Something is amiss

Crimson! Horrifying!

Quite a good episode of Doctor Who, this time. That's unsettling.

Diana Rigg making sure no piece of scenery lacks her tooth-marks and being beastly to her real-life daughter, while someone else gets to wear one of Diana's outfits from 1966. Strax pushing the rating back down to PG by continuing to not quite manage to kill anybody at all. Throwaway moments of comedy weirdness, one of which involves a street urchin. And at no point is evil thwarted by the Power of Love.

There are some minor concerns, like "how's she paying for all this?", and "shouldn't they all have just been burned to ashes?". But nothing too terrible.

Seven out of ten.

Back from Columbia

I've played through BioShock Infinite.

I should probably put some sort of eye-catching screenshot of this very pretty game here.

How's this?

(I think almost everybody ate them.)

My review, in a word:

"Ehh."

BioShock Infinite wasn't bad, you understand. But I didn't find it particularly compelling, either. I often kept playing only because the last save checkpoint was seven minutes ago (try to quit and the game will tell you when it last saved, if you didn't notice the little autosave thing in the top right corner), and I didn't want to replay that section.

And now that it's over, I don't want to replay any of it at all. You can change the gameplay considerably by specialising in one or another kind of magic ("Vigors") or gun, and the "gear" you find through the game (things like a hat that somehow lights enemies on fire when you hit them, or pants that make your shield recharge faster) is partially randomised too.

But I'm done with it. It just didn't grab me.

Which is not to say, again, that there's anything wrong with this 800-pound gorilla of the gaming world, which cost as much to make as a Hollywood blockbuster. There are a lot of places where BioShock Infinite could have gone wrong, but it almost never did.

Checkpointed saves, for instance, shouldn't be necessary even in console games today (I played the PC version). But BioShock Infinite checkpoints frequently enough that it should only be a problem if you can only manage your gaming in ten-minute instalments.

(The game also works fine with alt-tab, by the way. Well, it did on my computer, at least. So as long as you don't have to actually turn off the computer or something, you can just pause it and get on with other stuff until the boss goes away.)

BioShock Infinite also starts with a console-standard narrow field of view which feels poky on the PC, and I don't think there's an in-game console to change stuff like that. But there is a field-of-view slider right there in the options! You can't take it quite as far as I'd like, but it was good enough.

And you know when you see some giant terrifying thing or ultimate super-overlord in a shooter game, and think, "that bugger's going to be a frustrating boss battle at the end, isn't he?"

Well, in BioShock Infinite, not to spoil too much, but no. There are boss-ish battles and one enemy that acts as a quite classic multi-battle boss, but not many of them, and you're always pretty free to move and hide and just bull through with brute firepower if necessary. At no point do you have to shoot the tentacles, then shoot the missile launchers, then shoot the eyes, then shoot the brain, IN THAT ORDER.

Oh, and you're in Columbia, a city in the sky, but there's no fear-of-heights at all. You sure can jump off any number of edges into miles and miles of vertical fresh air, but you then just instantly teleport back to where you were, with a distinctive noise that may help clue you in to the fact that almost nothing in Columbia is as it seems.

The bizarre glowing steampunk Gilded-Age-With-Extra-Racism Founding-Fathers-worshipping universe-hopping setting of Columbia is almost all brightly lit and cheerfully coloured, and realised very well indeed. I'd put this game up there with Just Cause 2 for prettiness. But because BioShock Infinite has to run on 2006-technology consoles as well as on the PC, the engine actually isn't terribly demanding. At almost-top graphics settings, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti in my rather antiquated Core i7 PC gave me perfectly playable frame rates at full 2560 by 1600 resolution. The price for that is a lot of bits of game that don't look great close up, but I'll take two-dimensional flowers and wheels with corners over having to play in Duplo Chunkyvision Mode any day.

There's also no map in the game, just a navigation key that draws a green arrow in the direction of your current quest target. Many sections of the game are quite enormous, so again this had me worrying about something that a lot of games get wrong: Not telling the player where the hell they're supposed to go next. The Overlord games, to pick one example among many, had this problem in spades; I spent ages trundling around levels in those games trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. Nothing short of YouTube cheat videos helped. (The Overlord games had some extremely frustrating bosses, too.)

But, again, BioShock Infinite dodged the bullet. I only had a navigation failure once in the whole game.

(The navigation key managed to draw an arrow up onto one side of one of the whizzy "Sky-Line" transportation thingies, and the arrow then did a U-turn and pointed the other way on the same Sky-Line. So I just Googled it. Ah, the Market District. Frustration concluded.)

There are also a few side-quests where you find a secret code, and have to find a book to decode it, these two items probably being a long way apart. There's no navigation help for these things, so you'll probably get to enjoy some good old Classic-RPG Where The Hell Was It gameplay. Or you'll go on to a new area and discover you can't go back any more. But the side quests are entirely optional, and don't offer any huge game-beating bonuses - just "elixirs" to boost one of your three stats a bit, and another piece of magical clothing, and another interesting audio log.

Boy, BioShock Infinite is grand. Not necessarily particularly comprehensible, but grand, all right. And I like incomprehensible; as I've written before, I much prefer coming out of a movie or game or whatever saying "what the fuck was that all about?", than having everything spoon-fed to me in mainstream Hollywood style. I don't think BioShock Infinite really is especially inventive, story-wise, but it's like The Fifth Element or The Avengers or that Doctor Who episode where all history happened at once; sumptuous popcorn entertainment best not thought about in any great depth.

BioShock Infinite has no Super-Famous Actors cluttering up the place with strangely lousy voice acting. And no frustrating Do It Again, Stupid gameplay (as in earlier BioShocks, death is only really a minor inconvenience; you come back with not quite all of your health and a little bit less money, and all living enemies get a small health boost, but that's it). And it has difficulty settings you can change whenever you like. And it has quite slick and responsive keyboard-and-mouse controls (many recent console ports play better with a controller). And there's plenty of pleasing filigree on the basic mechanics. And a companion who never needs to be baby-sat. And the story may be... blurry... but it's every bit as grand as the graphics.

(The confusingness is probably unavoidable given that there are multiple universes and even a certain amount of time-travel... ish... ness... involved, which I don't think is a spoiler, given some central features of the setting and stuff you're told before you even kill anyone. I found one of the central end-of-game revelations, though, to be extremely hard to digest. It felt to me like a plot twist that perhaps made sense early in the development of the story, but the final story ended up being very different. Or maybe it was thrown in toward the end of development. Either way, and again not to spoil, I think there are basic but-just-look-and-listen-to-them-for-pity's-sake problems with it. You'll probably know which bit I mean when you get to it. If you don't detect it, congratulations on being less annoyed by the game than I was!)

Is BioShock Infinite worth buying at full price? If you loved the previous BioShocks, probably yes.

For me, though, regrettably no.

Perhaps you'll just adore the setting, in the same way I adore the settings of Fallout 3 and Saints Row: The Third and don't care about their nonsensical stories. There's only about twelve hours of gameplay in BioShock Infinite, though, so no matter how awesome you think it is, you'll pretty much have to get a lot less gameplay per dollar from it than a big open-world game gives you.

(EDIT: Actually, I don't really love the setting of SR3, which is just Interchangeable Simulated City To Commit Mayhem Within #726. What I like is the game's craziness, and the integration of that craziness with the overall feel of the city. Contrast this with Grand Theft Auto's bizarre attempt to graft conversations in which killing one person is treated as important, to gameplay in which you ran down 53 people on the way to have that conversation. Also, the first time you get in a helicopter in a Saints Row game, you will actually be able to fly it.)

You probably will enjoy a second playthrough at the very least, though. There are piles and piles of things that are suddenly loaded with new meaning in a second playthrough, now that you know all the great revelations of the end of the story about how everybody in the game is actually a robot built by Nazi moon vampires. That just doesn't tempt me quite enough.

(The more I read about the game now that I've finished it, the more I also want to replay it just to make less of a hash of it. "Wait, I wouldn't have had to fight all those unreasonably tough dudes with cudgels in that place that had almost no health and ammo if I'd just sneaked around their creepy boss-dudes instead of shooting at them? I thought it was only one boss-dude and eventually he'd stop teleporting away so I could kill him! Dang it.")

I don't really find myself disappointed, since I wasn't one of the people waiting impatiently for the year BioShock Infinite slipped from its original release date. (There's a joke about that in the game, too, along with quite a lot of other adroitly-placed jokes that break up the horror and seriousness nicely.) Actually, the biggest disappointment I had was that there were only a few Olde Tyme Remakes of modern pop songs in the soundtrack.

And I shouldn't complain.

This is a game that lets you sic clouds of highly carnivorous ravens on your enemies while shooting at them with a man-portable crank-operated Gatling gun, after all. What else do you want?

MechWarrioring, Online

MechWarrior Online screenshot

I've been spending entirely too much time playing MechWarrior Online.

If you've got a Windows PC with moderate graphics power, or something that can be tricked into acting like one, try it. It's free. And if you do not want to fight people from distant nations in a giant walking tank, I am not at all sure that I want to be friends with you.

(There will be a certain amount of BattleTech-y jargon in this post. I make no apologies, since all right-thinking people pored over Technical Readout: 3025 at the bus stop in 1987 as I did, memorising even the stupidest-looking 'Mechs, and thinking long and hard on the subject of internal-combustion Demolisher tanks only costing about 20% more than 25-ton scout 'Mechs. You are allowed to not have also played hundreds of hours of the unlicensed multiplayer-only tabletop-BattleTech knockoff Mechforce on the Amiga, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. Oh, and in case you care, the modern equivalent to Mechforce is MegaMek.)

Missiles incoming

MechWarrior Online is currently in open beta. It is not bugless, and right now the only game mode is eight-a-side team deathmatch on a small handful of maps, with a capture-the-base mechanic to avoid the "Where's Wally" problem in which the single survivor of one team goes and hides until his opponents quit in disgust.

But it doesn't crash very often, and stuff you earn in the beta will carry over into the full release, so it's well worth trying.

Because, again, it's free.

Sad 'Mech in snow

"Wait a minute," I hear you say, "this is actually an Allegedly Free Game, right? They want you to send them money if you want a 'Mech that can compete, don't they?"

Well, yes, Piranha Games would very much like you to whip out your credit card or PayPal account and pay for "MechWarrior Credits" ("MC"), which can be purchased in five tiers from $US6.95 for 1250 MCs (180 MCs per dollar) to $US99.95 for 25,000 MCs (250 credits per dollar). But you really can play, and play competitively, without spending a penny.

You can certainly play competitively without buying the first only-available-for-real-money "hero 'Mech", the "Yen-Lo-Wang" variant of the Centurion. That costs 3750 MCs, meaning you'd have to buy at least the $US29.95 6500-MC package (217 MCs per dollar), and its main selling point is that it multiplies all "normal" money, "C-Bills" you make in the game by 1.3. But that's about the only nice thing you can say about it.

I will digress about the "Wang", as everyone calls both it and anyone driving one, for a moment, because that 'Mech exemplifies an important piece of MechWarrior Online's design. (This may have debuted in some other MechWarrior game, by the way; I haven't played the last couple of them. I haven't played Crysis-based MechWarrior, Living Legends either.)

The Wang is not a very good 'Mech at all, because the only weapon "hardpoints" it has are two ballistic ones on the right arm, and two energy hardpoints in the centre torso. You only have two "slots" left over in any 'Mech's the centre torso after the gyro and engine, so you can't mount any big lasers or PPCs or whatever there. The best you can do is two Medium Lasers. Even a Medium Pulse Laser will take up both slots and leave you no room to install a second energy weapon.

Old-style tabletop BattleTech did not work like this. Per the original rules, you could strip any 'Mech down to the frame and rebuild it however you liked, provided it didn't end up overweight.

(Weight limits are one of the distinctive features of BattleTech. A "75-ton" 'Mech can be kitted out with less than 75 tons of gear if you're feeling perverse, but not so much as an ounce more. Since any 'Mech with hands can, per the original rules, also yank a two-ton tree out of the ground and whack another 'Mech with it, and since 'Mechs can operate on a variety of planets with different gravity strength, this makes no sense at all. But it's always been in the rules, and MechWarrior Online follows them.)

So by the old rules, you could take the LRMs off an Archer and put on lots of heat-sinks and lasers, or you could somehow cram an AC/20 into any scout 'Mech by downsizing the engine and stripping off armour and arm actuators, or you could stick jump jets on anything. You name it. The "fluff" may say that this 'Mech is prone to knee-joint problems and that one has especially fast torso twisting, but there was no actual difference in the game itself.

In MechWarrior Online, the hardpoints are fixed. If you buy the Catapult variant that has six missile hardpoints and nothing else, you will never be able to put a laser on it. And 'Mechs really do have different cockpit visibility, arm and torso movement ranges, and so on.

Which is why the Wang sucks. It comes with an AC/20, the heaviest-hitting gun in the game, on its right arm, but opponents with a clue will try to shoot that arm off any Wang they see. And if you're like me and playing from Australia, your 250-millisecond-ish ping time makes ballistic weapons very hard to use. Lasers and lock-on missiles (both long-range and Streak short range) work well enough, but even PPCs are hard to aim when the darn thing always goes off a quarter second after you press the button, and heavy autocannon are a huge pain.

The hardpoint system means Wang pilots are stuck with these problems, though. They can put two lighter autocannon in the right arm if they like, or even a couple of machine guns (which are almost harmless unless shooting a de-armoured location, in which case they become critical-hit monsters). But, to add insult to injury, the Wang's arms don't even have very wide movement arcs. So you almost get the restricted tracking of a torso-mount weapon, with the vulnerability of an arm-mount one.

OK, back to the "pay to win" problem, and why MechWarrior Online does not suffer from it, much.

You can buy some MCs with real money right at the outset, and buy your own 'Mech.

This isn't necessarily even very expensive; the cheapest 'Mech in the game so far is a Commando variant that goes for only 680 MC, giving you plenty of change from even the $US6.95 MC package.

(The most expensive 'Mech is an Atlas variant that costs 13.7 million C-bills, or 5480 MC. You'd need to buy at least the $US29.95 6500-MC package to buy it right off the bat. Oh, and you can't, at the moment at least, buy partially with C-Bills and partially with MC.)

Don't buy right away, though; maybe you won't even like the game! Instead, start out playing the "trial" 'Mechs, which are actually pretty good at the moment (they switch the trial 'Mechs around from time to time. The last batch weren't so great).

Do not jump into the trial Atlas and lumber around in befuddlement at your numerous weapons systems and limited speed and torso aiming envelope. Grab the trial Commando or Catapult, instead. The Commando is nippy and heavily armed for its size (it's exactly tall enough to headbutt an Atlas in the crotch); the Catapult has a simple and useful weapon loadout, and jump-jets, which may or may not reduce the amount of time a newbie spends grinding his face on the scenery.

Newbies do that because MechWarrior Online, like all other "proper" MechWarrior games, has separate controls for your legs and your torso and arms. Using the default keyboard and mouse controls (which work well), W and S change throttle setting, and A and D turn your legs left and right. The mouse moves your arms and torso. Arms - and any weapons on them - get to where you've moved quickly, then the torso - and any weapons on it - catches up.

Since many 'Mechs have a quite wide torso traverse - many can aim directly behind them with their arms - it is easy to lose track of what you're doing and flail around randomly while nudging the scenery and being torn to shreds by heartless opponents. Thus far the game also lacks any sort of interactive tutorial, too, so you have to learn to drive under fire.

(On the subject of shooting behind you, by the way, MechWarrior Online does not allow rear-facing weapons, because they couldn't figure out a way to make them useful and fun at the same time. There are also no 'Mech collisions in the game at the moment; they took out the collision code after seeing how often a 'Mech would be knocked down in one place then stand up somewhere very different. Collisions, and Death from Above, are promised to be reinstated once they've sorted this out.)

Anyway, pick a trial 'Mech, and play. This will earn you the in-game "C-Bills" money, but not experience points. But you don't have to pay to repair or re-arm a trial 'Mech either, and you get money even when you lose a game.

Which you will, a lot, because the match-maker at the moment doesn't seem to see any difference between a new player in a trial heavy 'Mech and a hugely experienced player in a fully tricked-out heavy 'Mech. In about 20 to 30 games, you'll be able to afford to buy your own light 'Mech.

MWO 'Mech customisation

Which is what I recommend you do. A nice fast light 'Mech is the closest to a conventional first-person shooter you can get in this game, zooming around behind enemies spotting targets for your long-range shooters and generally making a nuisance of yourself is a lot of fun, and a light 'Mech with no fancy upgrades doesn't cost much to repair even if you're utterly blown to bits.

Ferro-fibrous armour, endo-steel interior structure, Artemis missile fire control and the extremely expensive XL engines are all available as upgrades; if you still frequently do not survive a battle, it's best not to bother with any of them. (Especially the XL engine, the cheapest of which costs more than the biggest plain engine. XL engines have extra critical-hit locations in right and left torso; any hit to any of those locations detonates the engine and your 'Mech, making it impossible to turn a profit on that match.)

When you play with an "owned", non-Trial 'Mech, you earn "Mech XP" experience points that can be spent on minor upgrades - 7.5% better heat dissipation, 10% faster turning speed, that sort of thing - specific to that 'Mech variant:

MWO Pilot Lab

You can get the first eight upgrades by just saving up enough XP; you can only get the "Elite" and higher upgrades - and also double all of the basic-upgrade bonuses, which is rather nice - if you've bought all eight upgrades for three variants of that 'Mech model.

This is made easier by "General XP", which can be spent on upgrades for any 'Mech. You can convert Mech XP into General XP one-for-one, but it costs 40 MC per thousand XP converted.

You don't have to convert any points, though. You can just play with each 'Mech variant until you've earned enough points with it to upgrade it fully.

The Elite upgrades aren't that amazing, either; the double bonus to the Basic upgrades is much more exciting, if you ask me. Elite offers you 33% faster shutting down and starting up, 15% better weapon "convergence" (accuracy of aiming at the crosshair), 5% faster weapon firing and a 10% higher top speed, but that'll cost you 21,500 experience points, versus 14,250 for all eight Basic upgrades.

And, importantly, there is no way to just buy these upgrades; you can buy Mech Credits and use them to shift Mech XP from one 'Mech to General XP you can spend on tweaking another, but you can't buy experience points.

(You can also only buy pilot upgrades with GXP, but none of those are must-haves either.)

As you may have gathered, I could keep rabbiting on about this game indefinitely. In future posts, I may.

Just go and play it. It's fun.

(And do feel free to send me some money so, despite all the above, I can buy some more MCs with which to shift my XP points around. And buy more 'Mech bays, slots for owned 'Mechs so you don't have to sell one before you can buy another. Papa needs a new BattleMech carport, people!)

TEA NOW

Teasmade

Alarm clocks are awful. Get one of these instead.

Even if your alarm clock is one of those Zen alarm clocks with melodious metal chimes, or it's your phone playing New Age music at gradually increasing volume, an alarm clock is still not offering you anything. It's just invading your rest and causing you to start your day with a little slap of sadness and irritation, arguably made even worse by the snooze button's empty gift of a few more minutes of half-sleep. Which you'll probably only spend trying to integrate your interrupted dreams with wakefulness.

(It is, at least, pleasant when I realise for the umpteenth time that I am not, in fact, still in high school.)

Or you may just lie there, living in fear of the return of the cursed alarm.

I shudder to think how much human misery those millions of little morning insults have added up to, over the centuries since humans first invented a water clock that would make a noise at a particular time.

Presuming you can't just rearrange your life so it doesn't matter when you get up, the best option in the pursuit of timed wakefulness is, clearly, a butler. A butler who brings you a cup of tea, even as he murmurs his apology for the regrettable necessity that you be conscious.

(The celebrated Stephen Fry alarm clock seems to no longer be in production, and it would also appear that more people paid for them than actually, strictly speaking, received a product in return. One can only hope that the Bible-verse version of the same product is similarly defunct. I would very much like to see a combination of the two.)

Failing that, what you want is a teasmade.

Teasmade

This one's mine. It's not a particularly elegant or collectible example, but it does the job.

The modern teasmade - the term has become a genericised trademark, in Britain at least - is essentially an electric kettle controlled by an alarm clock. When the alarm time is reached, the kettle element turns on, and a few minutes later boiling water is delivered to the tea-leaves.

Or to anything else you put in the little teapot, for that matter. If you want alarm-clock instant soup or Bovril or anything else you can prepare by putting it in a pot and pouring boiling water on it, you can have that too. (Might be a bit of a challenge eating soup out of the little teapot, though, if there are bits in it too big to exit the spout. You could also make a hot-milk-based beverage in a teasmade. But possibly only once.)

Most Automatic Food Machines, especially the ones that look like the coolest thing in the universe, have problems. They don't work in the first place, or they work only for a little while without unfeasible amounts of maintenance, or they're uncleanable, or their sole desire is to maim or murder their operator.

For every good gadget like the blade meat tenderiser or Aeropress coffee maker, there are a dozen crappy As Seen On TV wastes of time and money.

(There's also a small sub-category of wonder food gadgets that can only work by breaking laws of physics.)

A teasmade is not like that.

It is easy for a tired person to set up of an evening, it does what it's supposed to do without fuss, it has no moving parts except the control buttons, and its cleaning requirements are close to zero.

(Classically, you are never meant to do anything more than rinse a teapot; the accumulating tannin stains are supposed to make the tea taste better, though I'm pretty sure that claim doesn't stand up to double-blind testing. If you've got unusually hard water or use a teasmade for a long time then you may also need to clean lime-scale out of the boiling vessel and tube, but just running the teasmade with water and vinegar in the boiler should take care of this.)

Antique brass teasmade

The earliest alarm-clock tea-makers were created in the late nineteenth century. They were shiny and clockwork, with alcohol burners and a match-striker or other similarly implausible mechanism to light the burner when the alarm went off. These devices were less of a threat to life and limb than one might imagine, but were still less than entirely convenient to operate, and also rather expensive. And, to be fair, if there's one thing that'll wake you up even more effectively than a nice cup of tea, it's a fire on your bedside table.

The modern teasmade is electric, safe and reliable, and quite cheap. I bought mine used on eBay in 2003, and it cost me only $AU37.85 delivered. That was an unusually good deal - one just like it is on ebay.com.au as I write this, for $AU90 plus delivery - but working and pretty-safe-looking used teasmades routinely sell for well under $US100 delivered, and you can get a brand new one for less than 60 UK pounds delivered within the UK, $AU160-odd delivered to Australia, or around $US165 delivered to the States. Or less, if you buy the version with no radio, of which more shortly.

And yes, American buyers are likely to have voltage problems, because the teasmade is largely unknown outside the UK and as far as I know nobody makes a 110-volt one. More about that in the "buying one" section, below.

How it works

Teasmade

As you can see in the above picture, the modern teasmade really is essentially just a combination of an alarm clock - often, as in mine, a clock-radio - and an electric jug. It's quite easy to use.

The alarm clock in my teasmade works in the same way as every cheap plastic clock-radio. You set the time, you set the alarm, you tune the radio, and you select how you want the thing to wake you up.

Teasmade controls

In addition to the standard clock-radio options of an awful alarm noise or a tinny radio, though, my teasmade lets you select "tea" alone. You will then be awakened by the sound of boiling water, and the smell of a mildly caffeinated beverage.

My teasmade is rated at 600 watts at 240 volts, which is on the low side by electric-jug standards; here in Australia our mains electricity is a nominal 230 volts and a usual actual 240, so electric jugs with a power rating of 2000 watts or more are common.

My teasmade's water capacity is only about 650 millilitres - that's about 2.6 metric cups. Or a couple of good-sized mugs, or more than three dainty little teacups. The 600-watt heater takes about seven minutes to boil this full capacity; proportionally less if you don't fill it completely. You should of course take account of this boiling delay when setting the alarm time.

The initial heating process is quiet; it'd probably wake me up if I were sleeping without earplugs, since I'm a pretty light sleeper, but most people would sleep through it. The part where the boiling water is transferred to the teapot, though, is quite dramatically loud, and should be an effective alarm for most people all by itself.

The reason for the noise is the way in which my teasmade, like pretty much all others, transfers the boiling water from kettle to teapot. When you put the filling cap back on the boiling vessel, the boiler is sealed except for a metal tube that goes almost to the bottom of the vessel, and arches over to point at the middle of the lid of the...

Teasmade teapot

...distinctive hole-topped little teapot. (If you find a junk-shop teapot that looks like this, you now know where it came from.)

When the water boils, the pressure of the steam pushes the water through the tube and into the pot. It takes no more than ten seconds for my teasmade to transfer a full pot-worth of water through the rather narrow tube. Hence the noise. When the reservoir's empty, it heats above the boiling point of water and a thermostat shuts off the heater. (There's also a switch that disables the heating element if the teapot isn't in place, so night-time absent-mindedness will not result in an unconfined spray of boiling water the next morning.)

If you need more of an alarm to wake you up then, ideally, you'd be able to set the horrible alarm noise or irritating radio station of your choice to go off when the water transfers, or even after the tea's had a few minutes to steep. But my teasmade can't do that; the alarm/radio goes off when the
heating element turns on, at which point a single cup of tea is at least five minutes away, and a full pot is ten.

Some teasmades have more sophisticated alarm settings, so the alarm can go off when the boiling is completed, not when it starts:

OK, that alarm takes us straight back into the Land of Horrible Awakenings. But at least there is tea.

Going along with its cheap-clock-radio nature, my teasmade has no backup battery, and reverts to that good old flashing "12:00" and no memory of previous settings if there's even a momentary power cut. You can solve this problem by running the teasmade, and for convenience also your bedside lamp, from a small uninterruptible power supply. A pretty beefy UPS will even be able to run the tea-making element; a cheap one won't be able to do that, but will at least ensure continuity of timekeeping if the element doesn't try to click on from UPS power.

I'm hardly an authority on teasmades, though; there are a lot of different models, even if you disregard the pre-electric W. Heath Robinson versions.

Goblin<br />
Teasmade
(Image source: Flickr user James Mooney)

Here's a Goblin with a removable boiler, as well as teapot, presumably for ease of filling.

Goblin<br />
teasmade
(Image source: Flickr user James Mooney)

TEA NOW<br />
button
(Image source: Flickr user Martin Deutsch)

I wish mine had a TEA NOW button.

Teasmade with<br />
trophy
(Image source: Flickr user leo.j.turner)

Another picture of the same model of teasmade, or at least one with the same buttons. It appears to have won an award. Good for it.

Teasmade with<br />
slightly lopsided lamp
(Image source: Flickr user MarkyBon)

This one just screams Fawlty Towers.

Assorted<br />
teasmades
(Image source: Flickr user gruntzooki, a.k.a. Cory Doctorow)

Another just like it, and some others, on display in the London Science Museum. It's apparently circa 1945.

The integrated lamps can be rather nice:

Science<br />
Museum teasmade display
(Image source: Flickr user ebbandflo_pomomama)

Teasmade with top<br />
reservoir
(Image source: Flickr user Simon Harriyott)

This one looks as if it ought to be mystifying Jacques Tati in Play Time.

Buying one

A simple search for "teasmade" (which may or may not correctly geo-target to your country; here the same search is on eBay UK, and here it is on ebay.com) gets 20 relevant hits on eBay.com.au as I write this, plus a few isolated teapots and a Bjork remix with "Teasmade" in its title.

There are some decent deals there, but I probably got my teasmade so very cheaply - under $AU40 delivered - because it was described as "Alarm clock/radio with teapot -RARE", which barely describes it and is almost impossible to search eBay for. I've no idea how I ever found it.

Even if all you throw into the eBay search box is some generic "tea maker" sorts of terms, it's pretty much impossible to filter out umpteen ordinary electric jugs, teapots with infusers in them, teapot-shaped kitchen timers and so on. Here's my best effort at making such a search across the whole of eBay.com.au with possible geo-targeting to other eBay sites; if that doesn't work, here's one for ebay.co.uk and here's one for ebay.com.

The easiest way to get a teasmade today is to just buy one new. For a while I think this may have been impossible unless you found a dealer with "new old stock", but now it's quite easy to buy a Swan teasmade online.

Swan teasmade

You may or may not care for the Swan's magic-lantern styling and LCD analogue clock, but on the plus side, you know the appliance hasn't been sitting in someone's garage for fifty years, maturing into a truly world-class fire hazard.

The Swan teasmades list on their site for £79.99 (about $US128 or $AU124, as I write this) ex delivery. They don't ship outside the UK, though.

The Swan teasmade is also on sale at this Union-Jack-waistcoat of a site, which is very excited to announce that the "Teasmade Classic is now £48.99 and the Radio Teasmade is now £69.99!". But they, also, only ship within the UK.

There are Swan teasmades on eBay; a US buyer could get the basic no-radio model for $US132.05 plus a mildly suspicious only $US6.00 for shipping, and an Australian shopper could get the same model for $US142.05 delivered.

That's not cheap, but at least the Aussie shopper would only need a plug adapter to connect a UK-sourced teasmade to Australian mains power.

(Until quite recently, it was normal for UK appliances to come with a power cable that terminated in bare wires, because the UK contained an incompatible mixture of the old BS 546 and new - in the sense of "after World War II" - BS 1363 wiring and plug standards. You had to buy a plug separately and screw it onto the cable yourself, or get someone in the shop to do it for you if you were a wuss. Nowadays BS 1363 is dominant enough that I think pretty much all UK appliances come with a BS 1363 plug moulded onto the end of the cable. Chopping that plug off and replacing it with one to suit your own country's mains, so you don't have to use an adapter, is unwise if you don't know what you're doing, but is legal in most countries.)

If you live in the USA, Canada or some other 110-to-120-volt country, though, you have a problem. Some teasmades wired for 110V are alleged to exist, and converting one wouldn't be an insoluble problem for an electronics hobbyist or repair-person, but you ain't gonna get one off the shelf.

So there's nothing stopping someone in the Americas from buying a teasmade from the UK or Australia, but it'll be the wrong voltage and you'll have to run it from a quite beefy step-up transformer.

Your beefy step-up transformer will very probably be an autotransformer, and very probably come with a piece of paper listing a wide variety of devices they strongly recommend you never plug into it on account of autotransformers' poor isolation qualities. A teasmade is likely to fall into at least two of those forbidden categories.

That said, two-pin sockets and cheater plugs do not yet seem to have killed most of the American population, and those are more straightforwardly dangerous than a teasmade running from a step-up transformer. Modern teasmades also have no exposed metalwork, so you're not really living too dangerously if you use one from a step-up transformer. I'd do it. But I am known for making poor decisions.

You can also get fully electrically isolated step-up transformers; they're more expensive, but solve the safety problems. And if your American house has a 240-volt circuit for a clothes-dryer or other high-powered electrical appliance, you can just plug the teasmade into that. (Running an extension cord from the one 240V outlet in the bathroom all the way to your bedroom may negate the safety benefit.)

The frequency of US 240V will be 60Hz instead of the 50Hz the teasmade expects, which will cause old-style electric clocks to run six-fifths as fast as they should. If you get an old teasmade with an analogue clock then there's a good chance it depends on the mains frequency to keep time, and will thus be essentially useless from the wrong frequency. You could run it from a frequency converter, but by now we're getting well out into the crazy-weed.

As long as there's no mains-synchronous clock in your teasmade, a different mains frequency shouldn't be a problem. A newer teasmade with a digital clock will very probably have a quartz oscillator that's immune to mains frequency changes.

Alternatives

By this point, American shoppers intrigued by the teasmade idea but disinclined to subscribe to British Appliance-Fancier Monthly will probably be thinking there must be a simpler way to do this. I mean, you could just plug an electric kettle into a timer switch and get something approximating the same functionality.

It occurs to me that if you get a coffee-maker that has a timer function, put tea leaves in it in place of coffee (and, if you want to get fancy, also replace the paper filter with a mesh strainer screen), you could get very close to a teasmade's functionality without all of the international-voltage bother.

The design of the typical modern no-moving-parts bubble-pump coffee-maker (which, incidentally, uses as a pump the same sort of device that propels a pop-pop boat)...

...is not ideally suited to making tea, but it'd more or less get the job done. A coffee-maker may not quite make Tea According To Orwell, but I'd drink it.

(Oh, and cheap drip coffee makers' primary purpose appears to be to make coffee snobs almost as apoplectic as percolators do, but a teasmade actually makes pretty close to optimal tea. It doesn't pre-heat the teapot, which is a mark against it, but it does deliver really scalding water onto the tea leaves, which is generally agreed to be Correct. Coffee benefits from being made with less-than-boiling water; tea does not. The fact that water boils at only 174°F at 20,000 feet {79°C at 6100 metres} is clearly a far greater problem for British mountain-climbers than any piffling shortage of oxygen.)

Cheap coffee-makers with timers require you to reset the timer every night, because they can't tell whether there's already coffee in the carafe or not, and want to avoid disasters that a forgotten full carafe could cause the next morning. (Leaving the water reservoir empty shouldn't be a problem, though, because even the very cheapest of coffee-makers should have a reliable overheat cut-off.)

You'd think you could get a coffee-making teasmade-analogue with an actual alarm-clock brewing function for a reasonable price, but I'm not sure if you can. I think you can do it with expensive plumbed-in models like this one, but few mere counter-top models seem to have such a feature.

I think this inexpensive Black & Decker model may qualify, though. I managed to find a manual for it online and it does seem to have a repeating alarm-coffee function. If you definitely know of such a thing, please do tell us all about it in the comments.

(On the subject of different approaches to the problem, check this out. Once again, some concept designer has supported my previously-expressed opinion of the breed, in this case by reinventing the teasmade and making it much, much worse. Apart from apparently being carefully designed to set itself on fire from the middle out, this concept design expects you to, first thing in the morning, drink tea out of a hemispherical E-Z Spill(TM) cup with no handle. This design also requires you to put a tea bag in cold water the night before and let it sit there for hours before the water is heated, which I can only presume will cause the ghost of Queen Victoria to manifest, reach into your chest and crush your worthless heart.)