Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"She has the heart of a dwarf, I will tell you that!"

At the hill’s foot Frodo found Aragorn, standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes. He was wrapped in some fair memory: and as Frodo looked at him he knew that he beheld things as they had been in this same place. For the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair; and he spoke words in the Elvish tongue to one whom Frodo could not see. Arwen vanimelda, namarie! He said, and then he drew a breath, and returning out of his thought he looked at Frodo and smiled.

`Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, `and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as a living man.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It took a little over three months, but I finally finished the Mines of Moria (+ Lothlorien + Southern Mirkwood) expansion for LOTRO.

While the original LOTRO storyline, Shadows of Angmar, took a long time to really get going*, Mines of Moria starts off with a bang and then slows down into a long slog through darkness and the claustrophobic Khazad-dum.

Do not disturb the water.

Once again, hitting the L60 level cap meant that the story picks up in a way that plays to the strengths of Tolkien's creation. Interactions between Dwarves and Elves, the monumental task of actually cleansing the Mines (and what lies in the deep places of the world, as Gandalf called it), the complex nature of the Dwarves, and the omnipresent threat of Sauron all contribute to a well designed story.

Down there, you can see the camp fires of orcs.

While my few paragraphs are mostly spoiler-free, I will mention the obvious: the Fellowship's passage through Moria isn't referenced at all --after all, the Iron Garrison would have had no knowledge that the Fellowship went through the Mines-- until a PC reference is presented in Nud-Melek.

A view of the First Hall.

Lumping in Lothlorien into the Mines of Moria expansion as an additional zone to explore --similar to how The Firelands was added to WoW's Cataclysm expansion-- made perfect sense. I'd argue that while Lothlorien is larger in scope than The Firelands, it does serve a purpose as a spot for daily quests. Lothlorien also represents a spacing mechanism before the Epic Questline pushes on into Southern Mirkwood.

Across the Nanduhirion lies Lothlorien.

Again, Southern Mirkwood is an entirely new zone, much larger in scope than Lothlorien, but has fewer daily quests. It is primarily an end zone, allowing people to prep for end game fellowship quests and raids. Storywise, it is not only an End Zone for the Epic Questline, it provides an explanation for those who are familiar with the journey of The Fellowship: how is the Fellowship able to slip south along the Anduin River undetected by the obvious nearby presence of Dol Guldur and Orcs from Moria?

Even a sunny day can't drive away the gloom of Mirkwood,
in the shadow of Dol Guldur.

I remember reading in World Chat several days ago about how people liked Moria and Mirkwood at first, but after toiling in this zone for a long time without new content (sound familiar, WoW fans?) the expac began to really wear on people. I can see that happening, because it can be difficult to deal with the gloom of Southern Mirkwood --not to mention the Mines itself-- without needing to go periodically visit Bree or The Shire to enjoy the clear skies and happy faces of the NPCs.** Part of what made Shadows of Angmar better than the Mines of Moria is that the last half of the Epic Questline wasn't stuck solely in Angmar and Forochel***, but you traveled all over: Evendim, Bree, Ered Luin, North Downs, Lone Lands, Trollshaws, and Eregion. The nature of an expac is to focus on the new areas, but an expac such as the Mines of Moria is very limited in scope: you can't have the Epic Questline travel all over, because the action is all in Moria and its immediate surrounding areas. The Iron Garrison hails from Erebor and the Iron Hills, both areas far outside the scope of LOTRO.

Lothlorien is a pleasant diversion, but I miss the
sounds of Lake Nenuial in Evendim.

The timing of the Frodo's journey works against the Mines of Moria. Shadows of Angmar's latter half fits in rather neatly into the gap between when the Council of Elrond happened and the Fellowship exited Moria. As I'd previously mentioned, the travel involved in Shadows of Angmar isn't realistic (and neither is Turbine's condensing of Middle-earth into MMO sized chunks), but it does allow at least some time for the story to play itself out. The Mines of Moria doesn't have that luxury, as it has to fit into a much tighter time frame, so the game can't really afford to send you gallivanting across the length and breadth of Eriador.

At the end of the Epic Questline, I could really feel the atmosphere of Southern Mirkwood really wearing me down. And while I knew it was happening, I still wanted to push on to reach the end. The Epic Questline's end was a bit abrupt, but there were about 8+ Epilogues to fill in the gaps as to what happened after the final fight. I consider a few of them --and if you've played them you know which ones they are-- to be the true endings of this part of the story, leaving you feeling bittersweet about the whole thing.

Celeborn put it very well.

In a way, the ending of the Epic Questline in Southern Mirkwood surprised me a bit. There was a heavy reliance upon skirmishes to fill in the gaps, which is a departure from Shadows of Angmar. I don't think I minded too much, but it felt like there was an attempt to cut a few corners when it wasn't strictly necessary. SoA's endings weren't skirmishes, but they were instances you could relive via the Reflecting Pools around Eriador. In that respect, they felt more... well... personal than "just" a skirmish.

Having reached the end of the Mines of Moria expac, I know I've got another long slog ahead, this time to grind deeds so that I can start exploring into the lead-in to the Riders of Rohan expac, which I've been led to believe is the Cataclysm of LOTRO: the expac that broke the game.

We'll see about that, but I've got some time before I can find out.

Maybe I should wander Caras Galadon like the Fellowship did.
However, I do get a slightly uncomfortable feeling among
the Galadrim, like they're snickering at me behind my back.
Or that I'm like a puppy dog that they're playing with for a while.

*I'd argue that things for SoA really took off once you got to Gath Forthnir and reached the original L50 "endgame". At that point, the story had several twists and turns, involving back and forth across all of Eriador, until a satisfying (if saddening) ending is reached. I'd say that about half of the SoA story was told at the old "max level". I put that in quotes because you can keep leveling past L50, but the storyline was designed for L50. And I'm kind of grateful for that because of some of the areas you wander into in Angmar.

**The oldest mini-Red told me this story a couple of weeks ago about how someone came riding into Bree and started exclaiming in World Chat how wonderful and alive Bree was. "Been in Moria?" someone asked. "Yep," was the reply.

***Forochel gets depressing when the fog rolls in and you can't see more than a few feet in front of you. That happens in Evendim as well, but much less frequently.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Happy Birthday, WoW

Jeez, at 12 years old WoW is almost a teenager.

By Theamat on DeviantArt:

And, courtesy of Marvel's Free Comic Book Day offering of Age of Ultron (several years ago):

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Now That's More Like It

Don't know what you got till it's gone
Don't know what it is I did so wrong
Now I know what I got
It's just this song
And it ain't easy to get back
Takes so long
--Don't Know What You've Got (Till It's Gone), Cinderella

The adventure I've been on the past month began when the graphics card in the main PC went belly up. I'd been thinking that we might want to upgrade some of the components over the holidays --if the bonus gods were willing to smile on us, that is-- but I'd been thinking that a new graphics card would be #2 on the list behind an SSD.

But that idea got thrown in the trash heap on November 4th.

Yeah, like this. Only with fewer cows.
From quickmeme.com.

I've already covered my adventures dealing with the Intel integrated graphics for my 3rd Gen i7 system (spoilers: they weren't happy ones), so I knew I had to shell out for a new card. And yes, I warned The Boss just how much one that would be a bit better but not top of the line would cost (~$200 US). So, with a budget in hand and potential specs a plenty, I sallied forth to do battle with the mighty graphics card market.

I used to be an NVidia fanboy from way back in the day, but I had some bad experiences with the GS series of NVidia cards in the late 2000s, so I'd switched to AMD's Radeon offerings when the current PC was built. I saw no need to change that, particularly since the AMD integrated graphics on the mini-Red's laptops ran rings around Intel's integrated graphics. If they can do that, I figured, then their dedicated cards will be good enough for me.

What I saw in research only confirmed my suspicions, as I zoomed in on the RX470 as the potential card to have. The 4 GB option in particular hit that ~$200 price point, and I had a traditional HD monitor, so I had no need for either the 8 GB or the RX480 cards. I also had a quirk of the system in that I only had a 6 pin power connector available for the graphics card, not an 8 pin, so that ended up limiting my selection to only a couple of cards.*

Namely, this one:

The Sapphire Radeon RX470 4GB. From pcworld.com.

Courtesy of my living close to Newegg's warehouse (it's only a state away), it arrived several days ahead of its original delivery date, which meant that I had an opportunity to install the sucker a lot sooner than I expected.

Nah, man. If I can figure out how to get a refrigerator
to fit in a small kitchen, I can buy the right sized
graphics card. From catplanet.org.
The only surprise I had during installation was that the power connection was on top of the damn card, not on the side, which meant that I had to get creative in terms of making sure the card fit around the case frame. Still, the installation and driver updates went fairly smooth, and the card itself is quieter than the old HD7700 I had in the PC.


Over the past week I've had a chance to sit down and try a stable of games with the new card to see what sort of difference it made to the graphics settings.

Now, I don't have a game that's less than two years old (Wildstar and Mass Effect 3 are the newest, from 2014), so the games I have don't really stress a game card like a current gen game (such as, say, Witcher III or Black Desert Online). Still, this card ought to handle both current gen games without much issue.

As for the games I own? let's just say that one game in particular surprised me. A lot.

LOTRO experienced some lag when entering certain areas (such as around Emyn Lun in Mirkwood), as if the game were busy loading data from the LOTRO servers. Given that LOTRO is closing in on its 10 year anniversary next year, I wasn't expecting the graphical lag like I got. But once that initial lag was over, the game ran smoothly.

I've checked online a bit, and discovered that I'm not the only person who has had these issues with LOTRO, and that it might actually be due to the game architecture. I can't really say, but it is definitely the only game that I've experienced this issue with.

But the graphics... Oh, yes. All of the little LOTRO graphics options are selected, and it makes a big difference in the background on the game. Items such as fog are much more realistic now, and background scenery is far more detailed. I can stand on the northern Dwarven outpost in Angmar and look down at Imlad Balcorath in the distance and see all of the details, something I couldn't see without sacrificing framerates.

Not too surprisingly, the game that benefits the most from the new graphics card has been SWTOR. The graphics engine for SWTOR is a bit clunky --even Bioware admits that-- but with a 4 GB card the game finally shines. I can actually set the shadow detail on high and get good framerates; no blobby shadows for me anymore. I really need to get over to my own personal hell, Alderaan, and see how the game holds up now. That used to be the place where my old graphics card went to go cry in a corner, so if it can handle that place, it can handle anything SWTOR throws at it.

Before the new card, those shadows would be blobs.
From mmorpg.com.

As for other games, the weirdest result I got was when loading Star Trek Online. It bitched that I didn't have the current graphics firmware, but then proceeded to load up the highest settings anyway. Something tells me that Cryptic Studios needs to update their graphics card firmware data. Neverwinter and Wildstar looked better, but not overwhelmingly so, as did Age of Conan.

Now, if there was a way for your Guild Wars 2 toons to look more, well, lived in with higher graphics settings and not as pristine as they do...


Was it worth it to upgrade?

Well, since I had no real choice, yeah. But if you mean compared to the old card, then yes to that too. I believe that the bigger boost to my system, however, would come from replacing the HDD with an SSD. But that is now an adventure for another time.

Besides, I've got other items to worry about for the next few months, such as university applications.

Oh yay.

*Why change out the power supply when I can find a card that works? Sure, it'd be nice to get a Sapphire Nitro RX470, but not because I had to spend an extra $50-100 on a power supply.

Monday, November 21, 2016

No Graphic Novel for You

The new graphics card is functional, and I'm going to have a post on that shortly. However, I wanted to pass along this little tidbit to Overwatch fans. Apparently the graphic novel set in the Overwatch universe has been scrapped.

From kotaku.com.au. For some reason I couldn't find this article
on the main kotaku.com site. Go figure. And no, I don't know who
this is; it's just the main pic on the article, and the "mobile exoskeleton"
armor looks suspiciously like a Star Trek Next Gen suit
in terms of its... swimsuit look.

This is actually quite an interesting development for Blizzard, as they've been moving heavily into other tie-in sources for a long time now. I'm sure that Blizz hasn't given up on creating a graphic novel for Overwatch, so we'll see how things work out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

...and much fun was had

New graphics card is here, and installation is ongoing at this time.

Thus sayeth Tim the Enchanter.

Here's hoping that there's no disasters. I could use a day without any issues.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Um.... Ouch

I was minding my own business, killing a few mobs on LOTRO in Mirkwood* when my screen went beige.

As in "the entire screen turned into one single beige block and the computer began emitting a BRAAAAAAP sound" sort of beige.

Having seen this sort of thing before I knew what it meant: my PC's video card decided to give up the ghost.

"But I clean the damn thing regularly!" I exclaimed, shaking a fist at the screen.

My wife heard me from the other room, even though she was in the middle of a tight game of Mario Kart online. "What's going on?" she asked.

I recycled the computer in a futile attempt to recover the thing, sighed, and walked over to the tv room. "I think the video card just died."

"Weren't you just talking about..."

"...thinking of upgrading parts of the thing? Yes, but--" I turned and shook my fist in the general direction of my office "--NOT NOW!!"

"So... what are you going to do? What does a replacement cost?"

"About $150 or so. I'm going to see if the motherboard has Intel integrated graphics capability so that we can limp along for a month or two."


A few hours --and one abortive attempt to try to use the old NVidia graphics card out of our previous PC**-- later, I managed to expose the previously hidden DVI connection for the Intel HD Graphics 4000 and get the machine back up and running.

I figured it couldn't hurt to try LOTRO, since it's a pretty old MMO, and fired it up.

That was a mistake.

I had to lower the graphics quality to "low" in order to get a fairly smooth (if you want to call it that) experience in Mirkwood. I quickly realized this wasn't going to work, and switched to Civ IV instead.

Civ IV worked better, until the graphics froze, locking the system.

This happened multiple times until I threw up my hands in disgust.

"Well," I told my wife, "you can watch videos, but don't try to tax the system too much, or it'll just die on you. It's something we'll have to deal with for the time being."


Alas, gaming is about to be shelved for a while.

Not that I don't have things to write about --I do-- but it would be nice to actually, you know, play something after a long day at work.

Somewhere, Murphy is laughing. I'm sure of it.

*Yes, I finally made it to Mirkwood. I'm kind of aware that the Moria questline will go back and forth for a while, but I don't know how it'll ultimately end up. We'll see, I suppose.

**The machine bitched like you wouldn't believe, so I gave up.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

How often can you connect a video game with They Live?

The voice of Captain Anderson in Mass Effect is provided by prolific actor Keith David. For some people, he is also the voice of Goliath in the cartoon Gargoyles. For others, he's found in John Carpenter's films The Thing (Childs) and They Live (Armitage). And still others, he's known for his voice work in Halo, Saints Row, and Call of Duty.

But probably his best known current work in the US is something that's rarely heard beyond our borders.

That's because Keith David is the narrator for commercials for the US Navy.

It may not be well known outside the US, but the US military is an all volunteer force. Since they don't rely upon a draft to staff the military, each branch invests heavily in commercials and outreach.

And that includes television commercials.

So when I hear Captain Anderson in Mass Effect, I have this weird juxtaposition of Mass Effect and the US Navy.

This makes me wonder if people who are used to Jennifer Hale's voice in Mass Effect and other video games have flashbacks when they hear her voice as the SWTOR female trooper.