May 31, 2007

LotR Online update

Nights played to date: 11. Current main level: 13.7. Deaths: 2.

Too busy to focus on this too much: tried 30 mins to an hour for a couple nights, but started too late each time to get much done. Still wandering around the Shire trying to clear out my quest log. It's like my email Inbox, that. Speaking of which, I got my first spam through the ingame mail system last night... not too impressed with that.

I'm highly pleased to say that my first death last night was the result of bees, which may just be the most pathetic way I have ever died in an MMO. Maybe not eating bees, mind you, but still bees. Brain lock is my only excuse: I wasn't paying attention to the ingame story and got confused by events as a result. Immediately rezzed at the bind point, and ran back to do the quest again. Stood out of the immediate area where the two NPC hobbits were poking at a bees nest (no fool, me), and dispatched them pretty effectively this time. Then I noticed the bears incoming (for the honey, of course.) Nice two-wave lowbie defend-quest, actually. Took out the big bear, and got the other one down to about three HP before he got me. Again, pretty much me not taking things too seriously and being a little slower than usual uptake-wise: there were a couple ways I could have played that last fight differently and won, both of which occurred to me back at the bind point, conveniently enough. It's what I get for playing after a very long work day, I suppose. Oh, well, no harm no foul: got some better shoulder pads and a nicer sword on the night, so it was all good. Do better the next time.

Posted by BruceR at 02:37 PM

May 30, 2007

Torture challenge, still open

It might be worthwhile, given the current discussions about torture, etc. going on in various places, to put again the challenge I first posed 18 months ago:

"Name one time where history was changed by a truthful confession derived from torture. Doesn't have to be a ticking bomb scenario or anything, just a time where without a torture-induced confession the winning side of history would have lost. There must have been one, in all of human history, right?"

Now of course, even fewer people still read this, but even back then I never received a single suggestion. Decisive, actionable intelligence has been derived from orders found wrapped around cigars, crashed gliders, triple agents, etc. But never, as far as I've been able to determine, purely by beating it out of someone.

Posted by BruceR at 04:52 PM

May 29, 2007

Reason #34 I'm not too worried about 'Eurabia' just yet

It's a banal observation, perhaps, but it's my thesis that pretty much everything you want to know about the cultural gulf between France and the United States today can be derived by comparing and contrasting lyrical choices, style, etc. between 19-year old Britney Spears' 2000 hit "Oops, I did it again," and its French equivalent, "Moi... Lolita," by pint-sized Corsican singer Alize, three years her junior, from later that same year.

One might add that in terms of dignified post-jailbait retirement, the French have the Yanks beat. No one's even seen Alize in the last couple years, a state of affairs that no doubt many have wished had been the case with Britney. The Alize phenomenon never made it across the pond, unfortunately... another casualty of the "freedom fries" days, perhaps. Other than being the direct inspiration for the "night elf" dance in the online juggernaught game that is World of Warcraft, she was pretty much opaque to North American teen culture, as far as I could determine from 20 years the other side of it.

In other news, I had a dream last night about someone taunting me for still liking .38 Special. Some junior high school traumas never go away, it seems.

Posted by BruceR at 10:14 AM

May 25, 2007

Another Afghan fatality estimate

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has come up with its own estimate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007.

Specifically, it says approximately 700 civilians were killed in 2006, and 136 so far in 2007. It also says 60% (500) were the result of Coalition actions, and the remainder (c. 240) due to Taliban actions.

Note that the total numbers are close to previous counts by UNAMA, the AP, and Human Rights Watch, albeit with some variance in the proportions. For instance, HRW estimated that of 900 civilian deaths they counted in 2006, at least 230 were attributable to Western forces.

Two things that are obviously noteworthy is that this latest estimate tends to confirm that violence in Afghanistan this year is certainly not worse than it was in 2006, at least not yet... with a third of the campaign year gone, civilian casualties are less than a third of what they were the year before... it also confirms that Afghanistan remains significantly more stable than Iraq, where 136 fatalities would be a relatively unremarkable daily total rather that a 4-5 month tally.

Posted by BruceR at 11:24 AM

LOTR Online update

Night #9: Main char level: 13.2. Character deaths last night: 2.

Highlights were making my first crafted item, entirely from stuff I picked up. I'm really appreciating the Historian profession, which allows you to root around ruins picking up artifacts and making XP or money off them. Never much into the mining, myself.

The rest of the night was practicing two-man group play, again with strangers. Playing a healing class is always an interesting tactical challenge. There were at least two times I was just brilliant last night, timing the heal just perfectly, and four times either I or my partner died. (We never wiped, interestingly.) Generally these all involved aggroed opponents being all over me, preventing me from getting the heal off. As a lowbie minstrel, you've basically got three choices in a LOTRO fight. You can stand off to one side twisting low-level songs and doing light, steady damage to your opponents; you can hit them with a shout attack and really hurt them, or you can heal the fighters. Either of the last two choices inevitably switches some of the monsters to attacking you: this either leaves the group without a healer, so their lives are threatened, or possibly kills you. I'm still working out the tactical nuances, but that's the basic template. It's complicated when you're facing enemies some of whom have their own ranged attacks, when you need someone to close the distance to neutralize. In my best move of the night, my twosome jumped over a wall and into a fight. The fighter had his hands full, but I judged he could hang on a while; meanwhile the hostile supporting archer was closer to me. So I closed on him, finished him off, then turned around and fired off a heal when the fighter was down around 3 hit points left. A second's hesitation would have meant the difference between success and failure, and a real live human being angry at you somewhere in the world. Human gratitude, on the flip side, is so much better than scripted NPC thank yous. That's what's fun about these games.

Posted by BruceR at 09:49 AM

May 24, 2007

Afghanistan updates

From the Telegraph:

"The Taliban's much-vaunted spring offensive has stalled apparently due to lack of organisation after dozens of middle-ranking commanders were killed by British troops in the past year, according to military sources."

The Star's latest editorial seems a little at odds with reality, however:

"Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed Harper as a friend, thanked Canada for its help and denied that Taliban detainees are mistreated. His officials argue, hopefully, that the Taliban has been weakened by the death of Mullah Dadullah, a top commander and that the insurgents are now too weak to prevail, even though the fighting has grown more intense, claiming 1,500 lives so far this year, many of them insurgents."

The final number will probably be somewhat higher, one suspects, but it's important to recall that last year the number of total deaths in Afghanistan, from the same sources as that 1,500 figure (UNAMA, AP, and Human Rights Watch), was around 4,000. And we're already in May. Two other things to note is that that 1,500 not only includes all the deaths the insurgents cause, through suicide bombs and intimidatory assassinations of teachers, doctors, etc., but includes a lot more than "many" insurgents: only 300 so far have been civilians, according to AP, so that leaves over 1,200 split between insurgents and Afghan security forces. Again that 300-civilian number, up until May, is not hugely far yet from the estimated 1,000 Afghan civilians killed in all of 2006. It's still too many, of course, but assuming last year's ratio of civilian deaths as 2-1 insurgents-to-occupiers, NATO forces collectively are probably responsible for around 100 wrongful deaths so far this year. Compared to Iraq, these are not horrendous numbers.

Posted by BruceR at 11:48 AM

LOTR online update

Day 8. Current main char level: ~12.5. Deaths last night: nil.

Another entertaining night in the lowbie areas of Lord of the Rings Online. I continue to be impressed by the solidity of this product, compared to its predecessors. The internal geography is very well laid out, and the server player-density has really been consistently ideal. There's enough room to solo, and there's a high potential for helping passers-by. The adventuring areas and the safe areas are just about the right distance apart, etc. I like that the overhead map doesn't help you much when you're in the forest. Last night I got completely turned around while chatting with someone, and ended up alone in a completely unfamiliar part of the woods, which was tremendous fun to get out of.

Speaking of, LOTR Online has another aspect I've always loved about this genre of games, that after you get an indicator things are going sideways, you have just enough time to screw up. Lightning finger reflexes are never required in MMOs, but you do have to think fast sometimes. As in my lost-in-the-woods adventure last night, when I rounded the corner and ran into what appeared to be a pack of angry dogs down the road, I still had just enough time to brake and then back away slowly. Or if I'd been a little more reckless or careless, to pile right into them and take my chances. But I had a decision point, and a couple seconds to make a snap judgment: in my case, to save the fight for another day. If you're paying attention, you almost never get caught completely by surprise. Death, in these games, is the penalty for bad judgment, rather than personal ability, computer quality, or luck. I personally find this refreshing, for after-work relaxation purposes.

The whole thing hasn't really completely taken off for me yet: I could still walk away. But the game is solid: all the pieces are there to keep me entertained a long time. The thing that will keep me paying a monthly fee, however, is meeting some people worth hanging around with online night after night. That will either happen, I suspect, or it won't. Still worth the price of the box, though.

Posted by BruceR at 11:32 AM

May 23, 2007

LOTR online update

Day 7. Main char level 11.6. Deaths: none.

Another pleasant evening in Middle-Earth. Spent most of the night killing giant spiders near Archet. Teamed up with a passing burglar to take down the boss spider, who was dark blue to me (slightly lower level)... very entertaining little fight, that. Another fun solo fight before that with three light blue (moderately lower level) spiders which was a lot of fun to twist out of on my own. Then after that, a fun timed quest to catch a specific neekerbreeker from an area I'd never been before, and bring the requisite bijou in its possession back to the start point within 30 mins. The element of time always makes these things more interesting. Could probably have powered through to 12 before logging, but I'm in no rush. Finally found a half-decent looking mace, which is nice.

Posted by BruceR at 10:59 AM

May 22, 2007

Star on Dadullah

The conclusions of Star freelancer Hugh Graham about the death of Mullah Dadullah in Afghanistan seem deeply backwards.

"With Dadullah gone, Pakistan's peace strategy is in a shambles and the politically isolated, fanatical, Al Qaeda-backed leadership of Haqqani and Hekmatyar will once again be in the ascendant.

"The present situation may not change much in Kandahar and Helmand. But the future seems to have taken a turn for the worse."

Well, that's one interpretation. Another would be that the death of a movement's most popular and charismatic leader will be at least a short-term local setback: to say it will make no difference at all really seems unduly negative.

As for the long-term prognosis, Graham's thesis is that Dadullah, despite all his many, many words and utterances to the contrary, was potentially turnable by Pakistan and/or the Karzai government, and was therefore a potential point of weakness for the Taliban, who will now be only more determined about unseating Karzai.

Again, that's one interpretation. Another would be that Dadullah was not only Mullah Omar's right hand, he was the only Taliban leader proven capable of brokering peace within the Taliban's own organization, as his recent involvement in the Waziristan Accords with Pakistan would indicate. The other commanders Graham cites, Haqqani and Hekmatyar, are older, have histories of switching sides and pursuing independent courses of action, and less beholden and loyal to Omar. If anything a greater role for them in a Pashtun insurgency means less unity of purpose, not more.

Dadullah was at least fighting the elected Afghan regime. Since 2002, Haqqani and Hekmatyar have sat in their mountain fastnesses, and basically waited for Afghanistan to collapse from within (not exactly a risky bet, that). Again, Dadullah's death would seem, at least in the short term, to lead to less Pashtun insurgent activity, not more.

Here's my prediction: barring an extreme situation, like a U.S.-Iran War or a Pakistani coup that destabilizes the entire region, this year in Afghanistan is going to see marked improvement in the sense of increasing general stability, through the end of 2007. It's going to be very difficult for the Taliban, after Dadullah's death, to rescue anything much of the situation in the southern provinces, this campaign season. Past the end of this year is harder to predict, but it should be possible for NATO forces to make at least some headway in the Kandahar area, and hopefully that will reflect in public opinion both here and there.

Outside of Helmand, which is likely to remain a powderkeg for some time, the insurgency could also see a shift of focus, to the more mountainous eastern area where Haqqani and Hekmatyar are both more comfortable operating. Neither leader has the capability to mount any sustained operation in Kandahar province proper. By the time the Taliban have identified a new leader for their Quetta-based militants who does have that ability, the 9-month campaign season, now already almost a third over, will be almost done.

As for Dadullah, when your key battlefield commander is killed near the front lines, that can only mean one of two things: increasingly good intelligence, or a Taliban leadership that is beginning to run out, after a year of relentless pounding, of good mid-level commanders in the Kandahar region, that forced Dadullah to take personal control more often.

Posted by BruceR at 03:51 PM

LOTR mashups

Speaking of LOTR, and my crappy looking mace, I feel compelled to note down for posterity that I was never able to watch the very first moments of battle in Fellowship of the Ring, that remarkable elven phalanx, without thinking about Monty Python's architect sketch, and how it could be repurposed as the pre-battle briefing for the orcs involved:

Orc commander: Right: This is a standard divisional attack, 2 regiments up, one back. The first regiments will advance here, with full support from the archers on the hill behind, advancing to the sounds of pipes and drums, towards the Elvish phalanx and their rotating knives. The last twenty feet of the advance will be over rough ground to prevent anyone slipping on the blood. The mangled flesh will be recovered for burial at some point, or more likely just left for the crows and other wild...

Subordinate: Excuse me.

Commander: Yes?

Subordinate: Did you say 'knives'?

Commander: Rotating knives, yes.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM

Lord of the Rings Online, day 6

Another couple hours last night. Results: up a level, to 11 now. Deaths (or rather, defeats, as no heroes die in LOTRO): 1, when I got too much to handle fighting dourhands in the hobbit swamp. Chastened, I went sightseeing again, passing past Bag End, Brandywine Bridge, the Prancing Pony in Bree, and ending up in the human village of Archet with my "open quests" list now maxed out at 40. Along the way, tried a little monster play: definitely a nice flipside to the game, although I didn't stay long enough to be ganked by anyone; picked a crafting profession (Historian), and closed off the night by levelling through the repeated whacking of spiders. Not much happening socially, though.

An interesting phenomenon that I'm really noticing in this game more than others is a sort of "quasi-grouping," where a bunch of soloes aiming at the objective end up effectively working together. You see the guy in front of you whacking the spider, assess he needs no help from you, then run past to take down the next spider. Then a third solo player you've never seen before runs past you both and takes on the one past that, and you end up leapfrogging each other all the way. You can end up clearing out the lowbie dungeons quite rapidly, with everyone achieving their quest objectives independently, without ever really sharing a word this way. In practice, it looks a little like Nathaniel and Chingachgook's last, also wordless, fight scene in the Last of the Mohicans movie (last 2 mins); there's that damn Irish reel in the back of my head at times.

There's a couple reasons this tends to happen (good NPC and PC population density, and aversions to grouping with strangers generally) but it's also a testament to an easy and well-developed quest system. In DAOC, for instance, a quester could never really assume that kind of unity of larger purpose with the strangers around him: some people were questing, some were just XP-farming, and without communication you had no idea (often with comms you still had no idea what the hell they were doing half the time). In LOTRO if you see three other people on the same basic directional vector as you, you can safely assume you're all ultimately headed for the Bijou of Boggies +1 at the end of the tunnel and comport yourselves accordingly.

The other factor is the rapid monster respawn rate, which rewards fast play: in monster zones it's in everybody's decided interest to move as fast as possible, rather than standing around talking strategy, so you all end up unconsciously collaborating towards that objective. Once the monsters get a little stronger, obviously you'd have to start grouping up, of course: the quasi-grouping I'm seeing is really only suitable in situations of relative plenty of monsters that are at or below one's own level. Still, it's fun to participate in, even if it's not particularly conversational.

Posted by BruceR at 12:47 PM

May 21, 2007

Things that please me: LOTR Online

A looong time ago, this website or its precursors were primarily about computer games, with a little Tolkien fandom thrown in. Indeed, if you look back at the first month in the latest incarnation -- and I shudder every time I do -- you could read that the site itself was named accordingly, plus an expression of undying love for the new Tolkien movie, Fellowship of the Ring. And there it is.

So, it's almost going back to the site's roots to say I have been extremely pleased with the Lord of the Rings Online game that came out just under a month ago, and which I started playing desultorily, a couple hours at a time, a few days back. It's very well done.

Translating the source material to an Everquest-y virtual world had to be tried eventually, of course: it was certainly worth trying once. The surprise is that it has succeeded as well as it has.

Things worth praising:

1) Good levelling pace. After five nights of my play style, I have a level 10 minstrel. That's about an hour a level to 10, which isn't bad for me, given that the first night was basically just spent messing around with names and avatar eye colours, and that my general playstyle involves shunning any unnecessary killing, and looking for locations with a view to sit down at for extended periods and IM other people. Given all that, it's practically blistering.

2) Respect for the milieu. Haven't made it all the way to Bag End yet, but the scenery I've seen is pretty Tolkien-y. The elves have these Escheresque palaces, perched precariously over waterfalls, and with nary a safety rail in sight; the hobbit lands are extremely... hobbity, I suppose: what a Constable painting would have looked like if his English pastoral milieu had been entirely populated by midgets.

3) Sense of humour. An absolute prerequisite, of course. So I'm passing through the hobbit areas on some other quest, and I run into a postman who attempts to get me to deliver the mail. Yes, we've all done parcel delivery quests like this in games before, right? But it's on my way so I say yes, and take off down the road holding the bag. The point is, apparently, to avoid nosey hobbits who want to read other people's mail. Which I find out when I turn a sharp corner, run into one such hobbit, and lose the mailbag and the quest. Okay, I'm game, my elf says, hitching up his belt and heading back to the first postman.

Take Two involves heading cross-country, artfully leaping over fence rails, to avoid the nosy hobbit and deliver the mail to the postman in the next town. I'm thinking, oh, I'm so brilliant, up to the point where I jump into a pig paddock, at which I'm attacked by the angry boar. It is at this point that I realize that, because I'm holding the mailbag, I can't draw my weapon and kill the blasted pig. After a couple futile attempts trying to hit the boar with the mail, I light off across country in the opposite direction, outrun the boar, and eventually deliver the mail via a final roundabout leg that involves running over the recipients' roof and leaping from there into his front yard. I was smiling the whole time.

I will also always be proud that the quest that finally dinged me to Level 10 involved settling a hobbit-child's Hide and Seek game in Michal Delving.

4) Grown-up participants. Nothing against World of Warcraft, which I admit I have shunned, but LOTRO (unfortunate acronym, that) seems to have kept the worst of the idiots out through that underrated design decision, previously implemented by Dark Age of Camelot, of keeping everybody's avatar fully clothed. I'm sure there's cybersex in LOTRO somewhere, or there soon will be, but it's all fairly chaste to start with, which is nice. You can tell it's an older audience, if only because the chat's friendly, and the player-chosen names are not egregiously stupid.

The player-vs-player model (basically you can spar for fun, or you can choose to turn into a level 50 monster and try to take on the level 50 players) looks promising; the lack of actual hero death (you basically just run away, avoiding repeated resurrections), the relative scarcity of mages, and absence of a cleric class (that D&D-induced abomination) are all hopeful signs, too. The servers have been busy, not empty, but never so crowded you felt like you were taking the subway. The detailed music playing model looks fun. The use of quests to jumpstart player-crafting of items looks like a good design decision, as well. Also the focus on achieving multiple personal titles, like "Wolf-tamer," and "Guardian of Ered Duin," which is a very Tolkien-y touch, as well (recalling Aragorn's occasional rambling self-introductions from the books, to take one canonical example.)

There are a couple things that could stand fixing, of course. My mace to start with. I recognize it's a lowbie item, but my handy dandy handweapon looks like a cross between a can opener and a board with a nail stuck through it. I'm almost ashamed to wear the thing.

How does the new game compare to Dark Age of Camelot, which was to Everquest as this game is to World of Warcraft? (More mature, more niche-y, more-heat-less-foam.) Both games were stable at launch. DAOC had more complex fighting and character creation models, which I appreciated, but it's true that levelling, at least in the early days, was more of a drag than it needed to be at times. The questing in DAOC was a lot harder, at times, too, but I mostly preferred that... there were several quests I think I was in relatively sparse company in completing, because the game never handed the answers to you on a platter the way LOTRO seems to. The upside of that is I see no need with the current game to pay a second monthly fee to a third-party site like Allakhazam to find out how the quests are supposed to work, though.

I had nights and nights of good fun in DAOC back in the day. But I can't ever go back to those days again: MMOs have a lifespan, and an arc, and DAOC is into its late-mature phase now, with a very different feel, and appeal. And to be fair, a lot of that was the company I was keeping online, which seemed a nice bunch of people. But I've already had some friendly discussions and support in LOTRO, giving this one some promise of repeating some of that experience, so I'm thinking I'll probably stick around a while.

Posted by BruceR at 11:54 AM

May 14, 2007

Afghanistan updates

This was good news over the weekend.

This wasn't.

Posted by BruceR at 11:59 AM

May 11, 2007

Petraeus letter

This is the American warrior ethos soldiers throughout the world grew up respecting and, in our own ways, occasionally even emulating. I've really missed it.

Posted by BruceR at 03:13 PM