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Archives for : December2011

Star Wars the Old Republic

I’ve been playing this a fair bit in the last few days and I thought I’d share my impressions of it.

World of Warcraft much?

The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t that much about Star Wars the Old Republic to distinguish it from World of Warcraft. Clearly the aim has been to actually make the games as similar, from a view of mechanics and controls, as they could.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. WoW has been around for more than half a decade and is still going strong, so copying something that successful can’t be all bad. It also means that SWOTR clearly has in mind WoW players as it’s target demographic.

It’s therefore fantastically easy to get into the game if you’re a seasoned WoW player. While there’s some tweaking in the class categories, SWOTR clearly lists each class by its role: Tank, Healer, DPS.
The mix can seem a bit odd though. I started out with a Jedi Consular and specialised into Shadow. Depending on talents (and the talent tree mechanics are intimiatly familiar with how WoW works) this means I’m either a rogue (DPS) or a tank. If I’d taken the alternate specialisation, I’d have been a healer.

Party size is 4, not 5 though.

The WoW similarities don’t end with the talent tree. The layout of the UI is very similar, the keyboard mappings are almost identical. Want to clear the UI and take a screenshot? ‘Alt-z’, ‘Prt Scrn’; same as WoW. Even flourishing and/or sheathing your weapon is the same key, ‘z’. There was no problem at all slipping from WoW into SWOTR. Chances are if I want to do something, I just do it the way I did it in WoW and it works.

So what is different? You get companions in the world. So even if you play it as single player you’ll still have a second party member. I have four companions at the moment; only one of whom is allowed to be in party at any time. The others I can send on missions of their own. This is how the crafting system works, and it’s one I much prefer over the WoW mechanic. If I want to make stuff, or find resources, I send my idle crew members off to do it, while I continue adventuring. I even have the option of sending my current companion off to sell al the grey items in my inventory so.

Your companions have their own quests, although they’ve been pretty uninspiring so far, and you can gain their affection by making choices in conversations they approve of, and as their affection grows as do their skills.

You get your own spaceship to fly around in and go from zone to zone (or rather planet to planet) and you even get to do space missions. These are very arcade like and very easy for anyone with the slighest experience at those types of games, but make a great diversion and are good fun in their own right.
The next big difference is the story and the universe. It’s Star Wars, and more specifically Knights of the Old Republic. If you know those games you’ll know this world. It’s set 300 years later, but there are many nods to the existing lore. One of the early planets you go to is Taris, the world that was destroyed in KOTOR and you run around the wreck of the Endar Spire, the ship that was blown apart around you as the first action in KOTOR. You get to find out what happened to the under city dwellers and their quest for their paradise.
Most of the worlds known from Star Wars are there, and many from the KOTOR universe as well. You’ll encounter the names of old characters, worlds and events. Lots of familiar worlds, sometimes surprisingly, yet still realistically, different in ways that are plausible given the 2000 year difference between SWTOR and the films. Alderaan is locked in a downright nasty civil war that could easily explain why it became pacifist.

And that brings me to what SWOTR does best; Story. Fully voiced quest givers, not reams of text. Paying attention to what’s said is actually important. While the quests do tend to the usual kill or go-fetch style, they do require you to make choices and those choices have consequences. Perhaps not on the world as a whole, but certainly on your relationship to the world. Do you take the easy route and kill the engine room crew to save the ship, or take the harder route and try to save everyone. Do you take the expedient route and kill the traitor, or take him prisoner, or even offer him the chance at redemption. What you do affects how stories move on (albeit not as significantly as a single player game might) and they affect your alignment with the force. Dark or Light. Some decisions really are quite evil and reflect the universe accuratly. The self-deprecating humour and irreverence of WoW are missing; but that’d hardly have fit in the SWTOR universe.

Now I arrive at what I see as the flaw with SWOTR. It’s a single player game running on MMORPG servers. The world is huge, the graphics great (albeit with some annoying glitches), mechanics are good and easy to get to grips with and the story is invovled and, if not always compelling, it’s certainly entertaining.
There’s no real need for this game to be an online RPG. For the money they could have made a couple of single-player games and done them extremely well; could have done so much more, since they’d not needed to preserve the world for the next player. Instead it’s an online game that for the most part I’m playing as a single player game. So what happens when the story runs out?

It’s not likely to happen soon. I’m approaching the middle of level 30 and there’s no sign of my class story running dry at the moment, and there are 3 other classes and stories for me to try out and then another 4 on the Empire’s side. I suspect though replay value will possibly be more frustrating than the first play, since there’s so much that will simply have to be repeated.

The game will be fun for quite some time yet, but I suspect endgame will be the big hurdle. Unless bioware/ea come out with frequent and regular story updates I can see myself giving up on this game fairly quickly.

I’m driven by story, but what’s new, by finding out what happens next. It’s why I love each new WoW patch, but then grow a bit jaded with it and withdraw from it once I’ve seen the new stuff. If I wanted to keep doing the same things over and over, I’d get a job on an assembly line.

Moving to the Netherlands – First Steps

This post also know as: Dancing with Bureaucracy.

Given how long this has been in the planning (over half a year) it’s rather strange to be thinking of what’s happened today as first steps. In truth though, it’s the first really concrete stuff that’s happened since I signed the employment contract.

I’ve now moved out from the sphere of potentia, where I could look longingly (albeit with some dread) at the path still to travel, but was unable to actually put a foot on that path and start moving forward. A journey filled with inane, and seemingly insane, bureaucracy, helpful people and some cultural differences.

The first thing to explain is that without a BSN (burgerservicenummer, lit. citizen service number), nothing happens. The BSN is what the Americans would call a social security number. It’s like a national insurance number but more so. You cannot get anything done without one.

To get a BSN, you need to register with the local council. To register with the local council you need an address. To get an address you need to buy/rent a flat. To buy/rent a flat you need to pay for it and hence you need a Dutch bank account. To get a bank account you need… wait for it… a BSN. Oops.

As usual most bureaucracies can be circumvented if you know how to play the game.

My story starts at 9am in gloomy, damp dawn light outside what will be my new flat. Enter the man from the makelaar (lit. Broker, in my case more accurately an estate/letting agent). When I signed the contract for my flat this morning he had (without any prompting from me) kindly brought a third copy of the contract along which both he and I signed in addition to the others. This contract has no legal force whatsoever, since he’s not entitled to sign it, but it means I have a counter signed contract ready to show the authorities to get my BSN; while waiting for the proper contract to make the round trip to the owner company and back. In the event, I didn’t need it; at least not yet. It was a nice extra thing of him to do and much appreciated. He’s also arranging for a contractor to give me an estimate for flooring/painting my flat. His fee well earned, I have to say, despite some irritation at them not getting the key in time. The fee wasn’t much different from that in the UK, yet the guy was friendlier and more helpful than any of the agents I’ve had to deal with in the UK in the past.

Signed contract in hand, I head into town to get my BSN. I really need it now. I have to pay my rent. They don’t take cards, Barclays Bank rather unhelpfully won’t transfer money internationally to a third-party account and so I need a Dutch account… fast. There’s maybe 4 working days to get this done.

I head into the International Centre in the Stadhuis (Town Hall) where they promptly offer me coffee and tea and then tell me that it turns out I cannot get an appointment to register until sometime late in January. Everyone that said I could just walk in and do it was wrong. Problem. Oh and that birth certificate, my original, almost as old as me, isn’t worth a damn. They won’t accept a document older than 6 months.

After describing my dilemma he nods in understanding; he’s heard it all before. Out of earshot of his colleauge he tells me “I’m a civil servant, so I’m not allowed to give commercial advice. So I cannot tell you that the Amro bank just down the road has an international desk and as long a you go in there, keep saying you’re an expat and refuse to speak any Dutch they’ll open an account without a BSN.”

I get an appointment to register (different office) for a couple of weeks’ time, turns out they had just two spare slots right after new year, which worked out great for me.  I get a copy of the appointment details in case the bank wants some proof.

Turns out it was just as simple as my helpful civil servant said. I walk into the bank, which looks more like the front offices of what I picture a rich law firm to be than any UK bank I’ve ever been in; quite similar to my experiences in Germany and Switzerland though. As usual everyone speaks English and I’m once again offered a drink. The address on my new flat contract is enough to open an account. All the documents are provided in both English and Dutch, although it’s carefully pointed out that only the Dutch ones have legal force, and I’m shown a quick introduction to the internet banking site, also totally in English. Knowing I’ll need to move money internationally I make sure I get the IBAN and BIC codes for my account. The bank charges me €2.70 per month for the service and I don’t get interest on the current account (as if the 0.05% I get in the UK qualifies as interest).

I discover that there’s actually online IBAN/BIC calculators to work these things out for free. I know from the Barclays website they charge an extra £7 fee if you don’t have them. Suddenly sounds a lot like extortion.

I swing by the British Embassy on the way to the office to sort out my birth certificate where I’m told they don’t do helpful stuff and I need to talk to the Consulate-General in Amsterdam.

At the office the first thing I do is phone up Barclays to move some money. Once I’m past the Indian call-centre operator with her mediocre grasp of English (worse than most of the Dutch people I spoke to today, who don’t even work in a call centre for an English company), I get a pleasantly helpful northern chap who fairly quickly sorts out the transfer. £15 charge. Starkly in contrast to what the man at the Amro told me earlier that they move money anywhere in Europe for free. I’m starting to think the holy grail of “free” banking in the UK is looking more like the Monty Python version, and not worth the pursuit. This one transfer, that would have been free if going from NL to UK, cost me as much as half a years banking in the Netherlands. I’m hardly a “usual” customer, admittedly, but still.

Next call is to the Consulate General in Amsterdam. They say, yes, I do need a new birth ceritficate issued and I need it legalised, it needs an apostille stamp. After much haggling about the best way to get this quickly, which at one point had me travelling in person to the Consulate-General in Stuttgart where my birth was registered, the best bet was to call General Registrar Office in the UK.

After a futile conversation with an automated phone system I finally get to talk to a real human and he’s immediately helpful. Clearly deals with this type of stuff a lot. Also turns out that I’m quite lucky at needing only 6 months. He says in France it’s 3 months and they want a birth certificate for everything!

£67 later my birth certificate has been requested. £20 for the apostille stamp and the rest on a rush service and special delivery so that I get the thing in time for my registration appointment. Luckily my employer will cover this cost. The cheapest you can do this is around £32; I pity the UK expats living in France.

It’s now basically lunch time. I have a flat. I have a bank account. I have an appointment to be registered. I should hopefully have a birth certificate in time for that, and when the money has finished flowing through the ether I can pay my rent.

It’s taken a couple of months/weeks of preparation, mostly the first step of finding a place to live and getting that sorted, but in half a day I’m a big chunk of the way closer to actually living and working the the Netherlands.

Britain and the EU

It’s all come to a head in the last couple of days. I’m personally calling it “Cameron’s EU Fiasco” in my own head.

Cameron looks like a diplomatic incompetent. Nick Clegg looks like marginalised, out-of-the-loop hanger on (although he has finally started to get a backbone), and Britain looks like a self-serving jerk that puts the economic interests of the fat-cat bankers that caused the entire mess ahead of the welfare of an entire continent. Only the UK’s finance industry and businesses  aren’t too happy either. Even the FT and the Economist, hardly bastions of pro-Europeans and left of centre liberals aren’t impressed with Cameron.

I’m disappointed all round and angry at almost everyone. I have to say, I’m most disappointed though with the LibDems and Nick Clegg. It’s been building for a while, but this is almost the final straw. The coalition was there for us to save the country from the self-destructive excesses of the loony Tory right. We’re not doing too well.

As to the situation with Britain and the EU, well here’s my take on the situation (reprinted from a comment I left elsewhere)

The founding members of the EU created their vision on the premise that they wanted to stop the self-destructive cycle that most recently devastated the continent barely a decade earlier. Britain, still dreaming forlornly of rebuilding its empire at the time, thought it was doomed to fail. Eventually economics and pressure from business forced the politicians to join, despite never really approving of the whole concept.

Der Spiegel called Britain’s membership of the EU a misunderstanding. Europe was in it for security, safety and peace. The economic benefits were a much appreciated bonus. The UK, it seems to me is the implication, was just in it for the money.

It’s no surprise then that eventually Britain would be cut out, as it was never really in, and never really subscribed to the vision. It’s no wonder then that the tone of almost all German newspapers this weekend has been one, almost, of relief that the “Störenfried” (troublemaker) and “Bremser” (brakesman) of Europe has finally been sidelined and the EU can get on with shaping its vision.

Coupled with what’s seen by many on the continent as the UK’s favouring of American low-tax, cut-throat style capitalism instead of European high-tax social welfare; and breaking ranks with Europe to have it’s love-in conspiracy with Bush to illegally invade Iraq, it isn’t that surprising that the head of the German conservative (CSU) delegation to the European parliament, Markus Ferber, was quoted in the Stern as saying:

«Großbritannien muss sich entscheiden, ob es weiterhin als 27. Mitgliedstaat der Europäischen Union seine Zukunft selbst gestalten, oder lieber als 51. Bundesstaat der USA Befehle aus Washington empfangen will.» 

“Great Britain must decide if it wants, as 27th member state of the EU, to continue to shape its own future, or would prefer to be the 51st state of the US and take it’s orders from Washington.”

Britain wants the economic benefits that are a side-effect of the political dream. It’s no wonder then that Britain is seen as nothing but a troublemaker by those chasing their vision. In turn those with the vision are seen as dangerous, misguided and foolish by a country that cares only for its economic self-interest. It’s the clash of the idealists and dreamers with the pragmatists and profiteerers.

Much as the EU is good for Britain, the question that’s been bothering me more of late is whether Britain is good for the EU.

Die Zeit, seems to be thinking along these lines as well and is running a two part opinion piece.

The first part makes the point that the UK is nothing but a troublemaker and Europe can happily do without them. Noting that Britain’s deficit is worse than that of the Greeks and that instead of closer ties to its equally afflicted compatriots in Europe it’s actually distancing itself. The EU doesn’t need the permanent nay-sayers.

The second part suggests that actually, the UK is what Europe needs. It needs the quarrelsome and troublemaking Brits to keep Europe from becoming complacent and full of itself. The Euro-crisis has removed all the political issues that have been bothering Europe for ages and brought it all down to one thing: Money. Despite the recent trend to demonise the City, the British know a lot about money. It argues that Britain is very burdensome /troublesome, but it wants a Europe that’s free and open to the world and that’s the ideal Europe and worth every effort.

I’m not sure that’s right; it’s not worth every effort. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on. I’d love the UK to be a big part of Europe, an active and supportive member. Until though the British establishment, and its voters, decide to be more constructive and conciliatory instead of simply negative and troublesome, Europe might well be better of without the UK to hold it back.