Saturday, June 27, 2009

Worst PCI installation ever...

As my computer is a little low on USB ports, 4 on the back filled with mouse, keyboard, graphic tablet and monitor, leaving no place for an USB HD and printer, I decided to install a USB PCI card. Shouldn't be so hard, after all I have done that a few times before. What I didn't expect was how totally broken the design of my PC case is.

Normally you would expect the screws to be on the inside of the case, but not here, the screws for the PCI card are on the outside. This means you have to wrestle the top of the blind through a quite small opening, but that of course isn't enough, as you try to wrestle the thing through the opening, the bottom of the PCI card collides with the actual PCI port. There is also a corner on top of the whole mess which you have to navigate around and even when you are close to being done, you still have to perfectly hit a thing at the bottom of the PCI blind. And of course all that happens with one of those tiny half-height cards that don't give you any surface to properly grap them, right next to a huge PCI card which doesn't give much free room for your hands on top of that. Capacitors right next to the PCI slot add some additional challange on top, as you constantly end up hitting them with your PCI blind.

Even after I finally managed to wreste the card into the slot somehow, I can't say I understand how that piece of crap case is meant to function. It seems to require a ton of luck to hit that one tiny position and rotation angle that allows you to fit in the PCI blind without hitting the PCI port, which is next to impossible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Final Unity (PC)

A Final Unity was released back then almost 15 years ago in 1995, so I am yet again a little late with the review. The gameplay consists of two core parts, away missions, that feature classic point&click adventure gameplay and tasks on the Enterprise itself, that involve navigation and ship on ship battles. The adventure part is the dominant one as most of the fighting and ship repairs can be delegated to either Worf and Geordi and thus run completly on their own. I made plenty use of that, so I can't really comment on how they play if you don't run them on autopilot.

On the away mission the player is in control of four characters and can switch between them at any point. The characters act however as a group, so you can't have different characters on different screens, they also all share a single inventory. They however have different abilities and they also act as a build in help system, you can talk to them at any time and they give you hints on what to do next. Sometimes it can annoy a bit to have four characters standing around, as they can get in the way, covering hotspots you have to click, you then have to manually move them out of the way.

The actions you have at your disposal include Look, Walk, Use and Talk and can be rotated via the right mouse key, which makes the game easy to use. The walk speed of the characters is quite slow. The game does allow to fast-forward the walking by holding the shift key, which causes however is a little fast and pretty much an instant warp function on a faster PC.

The puzzles in the game are for most part logical and easy to solve, especially with the helpful comments of your teammates, they however can sometimes end up a little bit on the tedious side, as especially in the beginning they are more about doing things then figuring out what to do. Dialogs also happen to be mostly of the "click every answer" type. One of the more annoying parts of the game is that the dialog varity is a little limited, using items that can't be combined always gives a single default answer and contacting starfleet always presentents you with the same few questions and answer choices, some more varity and context related answers would have been welcome.

The story of the game is overall ok, its not great, as it starts rather slow and ends in the classical, but rather uninteresting, "ancient superace created mighty weapon" plot. The story also lacks interesting characters, so its mostly diplomaty talk, which isn't all that organic or interesting.

What the game does really well is the mix of away missions and tasks on the bridge. The tasks on the bridge remove the feel of a static point&click structure and gives the game a more organic exploration feel, which fits very well with the TV show. When on the bridge the game also tends to have delayed events, i.e. you wait for a call of somebody and it will take a few minutes to come in and in those minutes you can talk to other people on the bridge or check engineering or such. Its a small thing, but helps to make the game feel alive and less predictable. The game also offers some freedom of choice, so its not a completly linear experience and on a replay one an discover a few new things, that might have gone unsolved the first time around.

The game also offers a difficulty selection, not quite sure how that affects the game in detail, but the harder difficulties allow you to manually select the teammembers and items you want to take with you on a mission. I played on the lowest difficulty setting, so no idea how much additional frustration and trial&error results from that. The game does have character death, on the lowest difficulty setting at least the game however was solvable without any bigger issues, only very close to the end dieing become a little bit of an issue, so saving often can't hurt.

The graphics in the game are a pretty mixed bag. The technical limits aren't that bad, with 640x480 and 256 colors the game looks decent enough, but the graphic style is a problem, as its very inconsistent. Some characters are digitalized real people while others are hand drawn and in some cutscenes you get 3d models, which again don't fit in with the rest. The backgrounds also have their problems, as they have a colored pencil look, which doesn't fit well with the character sprites. The character sprites themself of course have issues too, while they have plenty of frames for animation, the animation looks often rather awkward, with incorrect anatomy and heads that look a little like a bad copy&paste job. The art design of the backgrounds also looks a little over the top, more like classic sci-fi magazine covers, then things like you would see in a TNG episode.

On the technical side of things the game is a little troublesome, its one of those late DOS games that cause some trouble with Dosbox, so making it run there isn't trivial as it involves things like replacing the DOS4GW extender and patching the install routine. As I didn't manage to make it work in Dosbox I used an old 800Mhz Athlon computer with Windows98 to play it, which for most part went well. My TFT did have a little trouble keeping up with graphic mode changes, so sometimes I had to power-toggle it to show me a picture again. Disabling Windows detection in the properties is needed as well and my computer is a little to fast for the game, causing the ship battle sequences to run rather speedy. The core adventure parts however ran fine, except for a few crashes here and there.

Overall, A Final Unity isn't perfect, the story isn't all that interesting and the graphic style is rather inconsistent, but it manages to caputure the feel of a TNG episode extremely well and makes a pretty decent Star Trek game.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Motion Sensing 2.0

Now with all three console platforms getting motion sensing, time to sum up some thoughts:

Nintendo's Motion Plus: Looks like a decent addition to the Wiimote, judging from the videos I have seen and the technical specs it won't do 1:1 mapping, but will give a much better detection of movements then the Wiimote alone due to the new gyro sensor. The best part about it is probally that sooner or later we might see Linux drivers for it.

Microsoft's Natal: It looks really impressive for the first five minutes, since its basically motion capture for use in your living room, but on closer inspection its much less impressive. Natal seems to only be able to track arm and leg movement, but not foot or finger movement, so it will be pretty useless for any serious gaming, as you don't have any detail in the motion data. Navigating a character or firing a weapon could get quite troubesome when the thing can't detect your hands properly. An additional controller would fix that, but so far Microsoft hasn't announced one. Considering that Microsoft hasn't shown a single demo that could be considered a normal full fledged game and it is hard to image how you would even do normal gameplay with it, Natal will probally stay a casual gaming device. It looks to much like a solution looking for a problem.

Sony's Motion Wand: Sony's solution looks to be by far the best of all. It doesn't do full body motion caputure like Natal, but it does full 1:1 mapping of position and rotation. Seeing the video where the controller was replaced by 3d objects looked really good and demonstrated how exact the tech is. Sony also managed to demostrage a wide varity of possible gameplay with the device (sword fighting, fps, rts, graffiti, etc.), so it should be quite useful for non-casual titles. As the device is finished its not yet clear how many buttons it will have and if it will feature an analogsticks, so they have still potential to screw it up. Another point that will be interesting to see is how good their pointing capabilites are, the Wiimote has a special IR camera and sensor bar for that, Sonys solution on the other side doesn't seem to have either of that, so it might end up less preciese in that area.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Installing Windows98, again

As the SoundBlaster Live! didn't want to work in DirectSound (dxdiag displayed no sound card found) I am now trying a complete reinstall of Windows98 on the Athlon 800 in the hope it helps. On my last try I did install a lot of crap before I found the right driver, so I might have screwed up a thing or two in the process. With all the notes and downloads from the last try this one should hopefully run a little faster. Some general gaming notes:
  • Syndicate Wars: Works with SbLive!, doesn't work with on-board sound, the game runs a little to fast
  • Fallout, Planscape: Tourment: don't work with on-board sound, sound plays at twice the speed
  • F22:TAW: works with on-board sound
  • Outcast: doesn't work with the TFT, it shows up ok, but the TFT displays a fat "i don't like this resolution" warning that can't be canceled (maybe its time to setup a CRT...)
Now to some Windows reinstalling again:
  • The first status bar of the Windows98 install stays for over a minute at 100%, looks like a crash, but actually works fine if you wait long enough
  • Windows98 installation takes around 10min till the first reboot
  • then around 4min till the second reboot
  • then another 4min till the third reboot
  • after around 20min Windows98 is freshly installed
  • Samba network works out of the box, makes driver copying easy
  • installing Matrox driver then rebooting
  • now trying to install SoundblasterLive! (that stuff comes with a ton of crap extra software)
  • rebooting fifth time at the 25min mark
  • sound works - for the first time I could hear the EAX logo sound, which was silent on the old install, maybe a good sign for DirectSound
  • upgrading to InternetExplorer6, the webinstaller takes a while to download
  • reboot number 6, now at around 32min into the reinstall
  • Windows Update goes to a non existing page when no internet connection is available
  • so back to the confusing Internet connection setup: easy enough this time around, I cancel the MSN advertisment dialog and use the IE menu Tools/InternetOptions/Connection to set it up manually instead
  • with Internet connection up and running Windows Update stops missbehaving
  • downloading some 18MB of security updates
  • reboot 7 at the 43min mark
  • installing Opera, 7zip and Flash
  • dxdiag, using DirectX6, detects the SBLive! and plays sound
  • now trying to upgrade to DirectX9c via Windows Update
  • reboot 8 at the 54min mark
  • sound is still working, even with DirectX9c
  • now trying to install Via4in1 and doing reboot 9
  • onboard audio is disabled, so I ignoring the Via Vinyl audio driver
  • installing Sidewinder Precision 2 driver and rebooting for the tenth time
  • Sidewinder driver is causing a bit of trouble, it comes with two setup.exe, one top level and one in a subdirectory, you have to start the top-level one, as the subdirectory one will give you an incomplete and broken installation
  • now at the 1 hour mark and all the core parts seem to be installed and working fine, time to install some games and restore Grub
  • some days later...
  • since F22:TAW has a tiny few graphical glitches and slowdowns (very minor stuff really), I decided to replace the Matrox G450 DH with a Geforce5fx that I had floating around
  • installing the Nvidia Geforce5fx was straight forward as far as drivers go (Nvidia's webpage is pretty well organized), but there is a little problem: all I get is a black screen after the login screen
  • ripped the Nvidia out and put the Matrox back in, Nvidia worked fine in Linux, but the black-screen problem didn't provide a clue on how to fix it
  • installed a USB2.0 PCI card, seems to work fine in Linux, in Win98 it gets an exclamation mark in the device manager, however it seems to work there too
  • USB storage doesn't work with Win98, might need special driver
  • installed an USB mass storage driver for Win98, worked smoothly
  • replaced old 10Mbit network card with a "new" RTL-8139 100Mbit network card, Windows98 didn't have a driver for that and with no network to download it from, I had to use an USB stick to transfer the driver, after installing a wrong driver first, a crash on reboot, and cleanup of the incorrect driver, it seems to work fine now
  • the RTL-8139 is giving problems in Linux, it doesn't detect a link even so the cable is plugged in, after a complete cold reboot it works now (suspicion: the Win98 driver kills the card for Linux, two reboots later, the theory still holds)
  • installed a 200GB drive, the BIOS detects it has 30-something GB drive and Grub can only access its first few gigabytes, but under Linux it seems to fully work
  • Linux has some annoying frameskips every 2 seconds on DVD playback, Windows98 with Mplayer Classic doesn't have them and feels much more response with DVD playback
Now to the games:
  • F22:TAW installs fine and has sound, but music is again causing trouble, still doesn't sound pretty and more importantly it causes the game to crashe, which it hasn't done before. Luckily the music can be disabled in when installing, after which is seems to run fine. There is a patch for the game available here, which improves the game, but doesn't fix the music issue. The game seems a lot crashier with the SBLive! then it did with the onboard sound, pretty annoying.
  • Fallout: seems to work fine with the SBLive!
  • Syndicate Wars: Still works with SBLive!
  • STTNG: A Final Unity: Works after disabling Windows detection in the properties, but runs a little to fast in the battle scenes. The graphic mode causes some trouble, the TFT displays a black screen, but after some Alt-Enter'ing it ended up showing the picture, not sure whats up with that.
PS: The old Athlon is running a 40GB and a 45GB IBM Deskstar, hope I don't murder those drives with all that reinstalling, after all they don't have the best health record...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Installing Windows98

Today I reinstalled Windows98 Second Edition on an old box, in the hope that it would work for some older games that are to new for Dosbox to old to work in Wine or WindowsXP. So here a quick summary of my experience:
  • W98 isn't much good at hardware autodetection, so I had to manually download the w9x_682.exe driver for the Matrox G450 Dual Head to get rid of 640x480 and 16 colors
  • my Logitech MX500 USB mouse works out of the box
  • boot time is very fast at around 10sec and beats my DualCore box
  • getting Internet to work is a little confusing, as W98 wants to install a modem, not the LAN, a little clicking through random boxes and entering gateway server manually makes it work
  • Internet Explorer 5 isn't to happy with the default start up page and crashes often
  • Firefox3 doesn't work on W98, so I go with Opera 9.64 which works fine
  • WindowsUpdate gives an error with IE5, so I'll upgrade to IE6 first, after which it seems to work
  • installing DirectX9
  • sound is not working, so I am downloading Via 4in1 for the Gigabyte 7VX mainboard along with driver for audio
  • audio driver for 7VX doesn't work, the 7VX-1 seems to be a different mainboard, but thats not listed on Gigabyte, so I am downloading the VIA driver Vinyl driver for the T82C686 AC97 Audio Controller manually from Via, sound is now working
  • W98 can't read .zip, so I am downloading 7zip
  • you have to reboot W98 a lot, oh how I missed that...
  • Via produced sound hickups in multiple games and sound plays at twice the speed, tried to transplant a Soundblaster Live!, but that caused Windows to just freeze on startup and didn't work in Linux either, ripped it out again for now
  • F22:TAW works great, except music, which is way to loud and crap and resists the volume control, disabling it completly is however possible
  • Installing Logitech Mouseware driver makes the mouse stop working, it gets detected properly when plugging it in, but after a reboot it no longer reacts, after uninstalling the driver it works again
  • the onboard gameport doesn't detect the Sidewinder 3D Pro (I remember that there was an issue with 3D Pro and fast computers or so, forgot the details)
  • Sidewinder Precision 2 USB works, but only as HID device, it is not registered by the Sidewinder driver, maybe I need a different driver
  • Sidewinder Precision 2 software does not exist on the web, its not offered by Microsoft and by no other site, I searched for a long long while before giving up and instead went hunting for the original driver CD, luckily with success, my Sidewinder Precision 2 stick now works
  • being forced to insert the W98 CD whenever a driver gets installed is annoying
  • the Gigabyte 7VX-1 is a OEM motherboard not supported by Gigabyte, seems like no BIOS upgrade is available (not yet sure if I need one, but I might end up putting a 200GB drive in) for that one
  • removed an old modem PCI card, inserted the Soundblaster Live! into the slot and this time it seems to work
  • Windows sound effects and sound in Linux work with Soundblaster Live!, but F22:TAW complains about sound card being busy at startup, no sound in Fallout either, DirectSound seems broken
  • W98 fails Windows Genuine check, can't download stuff from Microsoft webpage...
  • can't figure out why DirectSound isn't registering my sound card, even so normal Windows apps have sound, reinstalling Soundblaster Live! driver didn't help, now trying a complete reinstall of Windows98 again

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More faces

Created some more faces, don't really have any clear use for them, just relaxing do to them while listening to a podcast. Overview picture of all faces can be found here. If anybody needs some for his or her game, this offer still stands.

git clone