Aug 30 2010

Not a complete waste of time after all…

It’s good to know that, even though I still think it wasn’t worth all the money, my Bachelor’s in Computer Forensics can still come in handy.

Like this weekend, when two drives died in my main computer. At the same time.

Yet, here I am, at work, backing up the data off what Windows 7 thought was a completely unreadable drive. One of these drives wouldn’t even show up in POST. But thanks very much to my decision to blow a boatload of money and go into debt for fifteen years, I now won’t have to restart my Morrowind save game and make up the thirty-five hours of game play I’ve put into it. Whew!

Aug 18 2010

Those old PHP skills still have their use

I freely admit I haven’t been paid to develop in PHP for many, many years.

Sure, I’ve done plenty of work privately, for my own amusement, but I’ve never really been compensated for any of it.

However, faced with a huge amount of accumulated data generated by the Big Fix clients running on MovieStop’s POS machines, I decided it was time to start examining hard drive error records to see if I could determine if there were any trends.

I dusted off the old installation of XAMPP and gave it a shot.  Of course, while the Big Fix systems management suite could tell me anything I wanted to know about our computers, the Web Reports section of the Big Fix management suite is dumber than a bag of hammers.  As it turned out, while that system could technically create comma-separated-value files of my reports, the CSVs produced were actually delimited using alternately semicolons and quotes, if the rows were delimited at all.

So out came PHP for a little data massage.  And after about four hours of head-scratching spread over two weeks, what was I able to determine from that data?  Well, beyond any additional information I’ve yet to gather, there’s no pattern to any of our hard drive failures at all.  They’ll develop bad clusters during heavy use or in the middle of the night, when they’re sitting idle.  In fact, the only trend I was able to identify is that all the hard drives we’ve lost are Western Digital SATA drives we installed in the machines over a year ago.

Well anyway, it’s nice to remind myself that I can still program something when the chips are down.

Aug 18 2010

Technically, Scrolls that are Elder are still involved.

I had fun playing Oblivion, while it lasted.

I got to… let’s see… A good ways into the Thief’s guild quests, and quite a distance into the Mage’s guild, and of course I “rescued” Kvatch, because who doesn’t love that new greeting everyone gives you?  But in the end I realized that I could still clearly remember nearly every quest in the game, which meant that nothing would end up surprising me much, no matter how many aspects of game play I changed.  No amount of graphical prettiness can make a game as long as Oblivion seem truly shiny and new.

I didn’t uninstall it, though.  Who wants to spend a whole week configuring plugins again?

Instead I installed Morrowind, the game Bethesda published before Oblivion.  It’s got a number of advantages over Oblivion:

  • It’s made for the PC, which means the interface isn’t nauseatingly stupid and infantile.
  • It was made in an era when RPGs were still intended to challenge your skill, not just your ability to play the game until you’re so powerful that you’ve broken it.
  • Based in the land of the Dark Elves (aka the Dunmer), the landscape is dry, harsh, and completely alien.  It’s a wonderful break from the usual forest-based fantasy you can find everywhere else.
  • The plot is wicked awesome.  I can’t find a better way to put that.

The only problem is, Morrowind is old.  Damn old.  It was published five years before Oblivion in 2002, which means while Oblivion might look like this:

The best Morrowind could manage is this:

However, of course, the mod community had my back.  Developments involving certain techniques normally reserved for more illicit activities, the mod community created the Morrowind Graphics Enhancer, which makes Morrowind look… well… rather a lot better:

Now, the MGE isn’t exactly plug and play; there’s a lot of tweaking involved before you get that quality of graphics.  And because everything is happening at the .dll level rather than directly in the game engine, there are a number of graphical anomalies and the usual loss of stability. But it’s been nearly nine years since I last played this game, and while some of it seems vaguely familiar, on the whole it’s an entirely new experience.

I suppose, in a way, that I’ve finally found the one and only advantage to a biologically impaired memory.

Aug 1 2010

I got pulled back into OBLIVIQN

I re-installed Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a few months ago, for some reason I can’t identify.  I suppose I thought it’d been so long since I last played it that I might have forgotten the plot or the quests somehow.  And I wasn’t completely wrong, but some of it still gives me a sense of deja-vu.

Anyway, the point is this:  The mod community for Oblivion has not slowed down.  Not at all.  People are still producing content by the boatload for this game, even though it’s almost four years old now.

And because the game is four years old, the hardware that was once considered “high-end” is now laughably slow.  After installing a wide range of high-resolution mods that improve texture resolution, model resolution, sound effects, and even rendering modes, Oblivion looks pretty damn nice.  Certainly nicer than I ever remember.

Here’s some screenshots, just because.

So God Rays are a cheap and easy “wow-factor” graphic improvement.  But what I find astonishing about this mod is that it is essentially a feature reserved for core engine features, and the community has somehow managed to staple it onto an engine they can’t even get the source-code for.  That’s impressive stuff.

Here’s a nice scene in Oblivion.  Looks a little flat.  Especially when you compare it to the way it looks with a fan-created SSAO rendering mod:

Amazing.  All available from one simple mod.  And some new high-resolution textures don’t hurt either:

And because my new (sensibly-priced) gaming rig is so much more awesome than what they had in mind four years ago, I can crank things like self-shadowing effects up to crazy levels:

Mind you, with all of these mods comes an incredible amount of the usual stuff you get when you allow people total creative control over an environment, so there’s plenty of BDSM mods and furry content to wade through before you start getting to the good stuff.

I would’ve liked to have provided “before and after” comparison shots, but while these mods are easy to install, they’re not at all easy to remove.  Loading a save game that relies on several very complex modifications can often turn the game into unusable mush, so I haven’t risked it.