Sunday, March 28, 2004

Counterstrike : Condition Zero - First impressions

My CD of Counterstrike : Condition Zero arrived in the post from yesterday. I'd had it on preorder since October, so I was quite glad to finally get my hands on it. I must admit that after reading the Steam forums, I wasn't quite as eager to load up the game as I should have been. However, I duly cleared 1 Gb of space for the game and installed it.

At first I had numerous problems, not with the game but with my computer. Zonealarm Pro will insist on bringing up a dialog for each application that wants to connect to the internet, which makes the window focus switch away from the game itself. I couldn't ALT-TAB back into the game or kill the task properly, so I had to reboot. I have this problem with all Half-life-based games.

After that problem was solved, I spent a few seconds tuning the standard Half-life style options to my liking and started a campaign. I've never been very good at CS or any other FPS - on my public server I used to score more than my deaths on a good day, about the same as my deaths on an average day, and about zero on a bad day. I decided to start on "normal" difficulty level.

The game consists of a series of challenges. Each challenge, if successfully completed, earns you points to spend on your team. For the first round you're lucky if you can buy three level 1 bots to help you. As you complete each map, you get an extra point and, periodically, the next "level" of bots is opened up to you.

Aside from their "level", each bot is assigned a value for Skill, Coop and Bravery. Skill is obviously how well they shoot, etc. Coop is how well they will take your orders and work together. Bravery is how much they will charge in or whether they will run and hide somewhere. When you pick your level 1 bots you have to weigh up if you want a lot of maverick bots running around who can kill or less skilled bots who aren't afraid to charge in with you.

The game is split into groups of three maps. Each map has it's own challenges and you can't move onto the next without completing them. The challenges usually set you two or three criteria, e.g. You must rescue a hostage, you must kill three of the enemy, you must win a round in under 90 seconds. You play Counterstrike as you would online but with your bot buddies. Generally you keep playing until you have fulfilled all the criteria and you have won a certain number of rounds.

The maps also set a limit as to the round score, that is you must not go less than 2 rounds below the enemy score and to win you must win at least three rounds and win 2 more rounds than the enemy. You keep playing rounds until you either fail by losing too many rounds or you complete all the rest of the challenges set to you.

When you win a round you get another "reputation point" to spend on your team, which could mean an extra level one bot or upgrading one of your bots by one level, for example.

For once, the game can't "give away" it's ending from easy mode. Most games become dull if you start playing them at Easy level because you know where most of the enemy are going to be or how to solve the puzzles. In CS:CZ, the easy level is exactly the same as the Normal, Hard and Extreme levels but sets easier challenges. You may have to win a round within 90 seconds rather than 60 for example. This lets you ease into the game nicely without spoiling it for you.

The difficulty range is set quite well. A total CS newbie will struggle through the Easy level but just enough to show them that it's possible to complete everything if they get enough practice. Normal suited me just fine and was a challenge to complete. Hard should satisfy the hardcore gamers lust for brutal play and for Extreme you might as well go download an aimbot now.

The longevity of the title is increased by it's smooth difficulty curve and by it's freeform "Custom game" mode where you can try and play any sort of game with the bots from 1 vs 1 pistols only to 16 v 16, they can only have sniper rifles. Also the multiplayer aspects, although identical to Steam CS, will make sure this title is played at least as long as Steam is alive.

The graphics are, to most people, disappointing. I was reading the material for CS:CZ before it came out and could see that it was only going to be a Halflife mod, which means that it can't do any more than the original CS. However, considering that, it looks better than I expected. The maps are all retextured versions of the originals, but with slight changes. For example bomb site A on de_dust2_cz actually incorporates more crates on the upper level to camp behind. The retexturing improves the look immensely and the dust maps take on a much more "Persian" feel, with tiled wall, marble floors, cracked and crumbling masonry.

Sounds are pretty much identical to the original but the bots always keep you informed of their progress through short sound samples. You can also you your standard communication commands to get them to do things, like "Fall back", "Get out of there, it's gonna blow!" and even "Report in". The lower-level bots tend to be a bit dumb. They feel like their reactions have been deliberately slowed by half-a-second. It's common to find them to walk round corners and face each other off for a second or two before either of them fire.

As the bots progress, they get better and better and the higher level bots are quite a challenge. The bots also follow your orders quite well, but only if their Coop rating is quite good. Sometimes they'll still run off on their own but saying "Follow Me" or "Stick Together, Team" will give you a following big enough for your purposes. The bots also tend to react to "Need Backup" quite well, rushing to your aid, and they also announce everything they do.

It can be quite useful to have a bot go to the opposite bombsite to warn you if they see anyone and if they see the bomb carrier or the planted bomb. Sometimes the AI slips up slightly, though. Apart from the fairly-major problem with hostages, they quite good and worth the money for CS:CZ alone. If you have a mission involving rescuing hostages, the bots can sometimes run off and kill everyone on the enemy, meaning the round ends and you don't get credit for any hostages in tow.

This is an annoying bug, not necessarily the AI's fault, but especially when you need to rescue lots of hostages. I found that a good workaround was to get a hostage and then keep issuing the "Cover Me" command to stop the bots running off and finishing off the enemy before you can get the hostages home. It doesn't always work, but it's a good tactic.

The AI also has silly niggles. If the bomb is planted the bots are aware of this and will try to look at both bomb sites to ascertain where the enemy has hidden it. Unfortunately, this can mean that even though a bot has just walked through bombsite A unscathed, they will retrace their steps just to check, leaving you one or two men down in the critical firefight by the planted bomb. They also have a nasty habit of standing in your line of fire if you're a sniper, but that's not really any different to playing with real people.

Performance wise, the programmers seem to have done quite a good job. If you can run CS, you'll run CS:CZ at an almost identical speed. I did have a slight problem during installation in that, after taking 1Gb and installing itself in a standalone directory, it then insists on having to be copied to the Steam directory if you want to play online. This means that you need around 2-2.5 Gb for this game alone. My Half-Life based games on my computer occupy about 15 Gb between them!

Also, it doesn't install into Steam automatically. You have to select the CS:CZ icon on your Steam list, click "Buy Now" (which I imagine is a little scary for a computer novice to attempt) and then select "I already own this title". Steam will then copy the CS:CZ files into it's own directory and upload your CD key to Steam so that you can play online. Don't forget that you can only allocate your CS:CZ key to one Steam account!

The deleted scenes component of the game is basically just a cleanup of what one developer of the game inherited from the previous one. It's quite nice of the publishers to include this as a bonus. Unforunately, the original CS:CZ idea was for a normal Half-life mod along the lines of Blue-shift, but with Counterstrike weapons and a few "bonuses" thrown in, like a blowtorch and a fibre-optic camera. These extras are gimmicky and can only be used in scripted areas, taking away the free-form nature of the Counterstrike game. I'm quite glad that the idea was scrapped and that CS:CZ was sold in it's current form.

Online play is the same as CS but with the new maps. People are already loading these maps and some conversions of them into their normal CS servers which misses the point. You buy this game for the bots and offline play, not for the maps. The standard Dedicated Server packages for CS:CZ allow server admins to add the bots to their servers without any downloading or (much) configuration.

Overall, the game is fun and challenging. £16.99 from means that it's in the "mod/expansion" price range, at least in the UK, and that's exactly what you get... a worthwhile mod with good bots and fun online play with a snippet of the programmers mindset from a few years back. Complaints might include longevity, with only a few maps more than CS, but the bots should provide the average gamer which a few weeks of spread-out gaming, not to mention the Deleted Scenes plus masses of online and offline practice potential.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Nightmare of a day

Today was terrible.

I had a bright idea that I would install an old redundant hard disk from a computer I never use (that's going to become a Linux router before much longer) into my newest machine so that I can read all my old data off of it to back it up / delete it. Good idea, I thought, get some more hard disk space, clean up some old crap and get back some silly programs and some data that I knew was on there.

I opened both machines (after several minutes of untangling cables and unscrewing bits), moved the harddisk over, something I've done countless times, gave the inside of the computers a little spring clean and put everything back where it was.

Now, my current machine has more than a few disks in it... first there's a 120Gb whopper drive that's my main drive, a floppy (obviously), a CD-RW, a DVD-ROM, a tape drive and then there's a double-3Gb RAID array run off of a PCI RAID card (having used up all of my motherboard IDE connectors).

This RAID/ATA 133 card (an Silicone Image 0680-based model) was the only space left to install the extra harddrive on so I hooked it all up to that, knowing that it can serve the drive as a normal drive in addition to it's existing RAID setup.

I turned my computer on and the new drive didn't appear in the RAID card's BIOS initialisation. I pressed F3 to get a look at it in more detail and the RAID BIOS said that it could only see the 3Gb drives, as they normally were. Very strange. I checked my jumper settings and power and everything seemed fine. Shuffled the drives around a bit with respect to primary, secondary, master, slave and got it to appear in the RAID BIOS. My RAID-mirror array nicely intact on the original 3Gb drives and a seperate BIOS entry for the "new" drive.


While I was waiting for Windows to boot, I began worrying what letter Windows would choose to assign to this new drive (don't want it to mess up my G: drive being Games!). Never mind, I can always reinstall stuff or do a bit of registry hacking to fix that. Anyway, the new drive didn't appear in My Computer.


Went into Control Panel / System and the drive is listed there and working fine, but no drive letter was assigned to it. So I ran Paragon Partition Manager 2000 (a little partitioning utility that I found on a magazine coverdisk). It showed the new drive but with a full-sized "unknown" partition. When it was in the previous computer it had been given 7 partitions, all of them FAT!

It seems that the RAID BIOS had taken it upon itself to try and incorporate this new drive into it's RAID set without so much as asking! In doing so, it had wiped the partition table, some of the FAT and some data.

ARGH! I was not a happy bunny.

What idiot designer thought that it should try to include every drive it sees into a RAID array without confirmation?! This thing was supposed to keep my data safe, not copy my data over anything I fed the card, especially seeing as this card is also marketed as a plain ATA-133 interface as well!

After I'd calmed down enough to go back and investigate, I needed to find a Filesystem Recovery tool. Well, I initially found a few on Data Recovery Specialists websites, some were well-thought-out, i.e. download a read-only version of the software to see if it can recover anything then buy it if you want to actually get your data back.

I didn't fancy having to go into Linux and perform a serious autopsy of this drive... hell... it's been in a computer that I haven't turned on for two years. A little hunting found me a freeware tool to do the job (as almost always happens).

PC Inspector File Recovery came to the rescue. I ran it from my (thankfully) working Windows, set it to look at this mystery blank disk that Windows refused to assign a drive letter to and, after several hours, it came back with 15 partitions it said it had found. Erm... that drive only had 7. Apparantly, sometimes it can pick up "fake" partition tables from things like disk images and suchlike.

Anyway, it seems that the partition tables and FAT's must have been a little corrupted but it managed to see most of my files, with the correct name and size, and allowed me to save any of them onto another harddrive as normal files. It also picked up a few bad sectors on the disk but I was able to safely click ignore and it carried on, skipping over them.

Thank you!

So, now all I have to do is sift through the crap that's on there, decide what's worth recovering and save it, then blank the drive and use it to shift the data burden on my main drives. Next time I want to copy an old hard drive onto my computer, I'll just replace my CDROM and copy the data over, then put it back how it was.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Articles to come

I plan to put as many articles as I have time for up on this site. Hopefully, some of them will be useful to somebody. I have so many ideas for articles to write that I can never actually get round to doing any of them without another idea coming up. Hopefully this blog will save me the technical hassle of running a website, so that my ideas can translate to the web as soon as I think of them. Some ideas:

Software reviews - I don't plan to review the latest greatest software, more likely software that has matured a little and that I consider useful and worth the money.

Software/Freeware listing - A listing of all of the software or freeware that I use day-to-day in my job and at home. I won't just include programs unless I actually still use them.

Articles on computing issues - I'm not going to tackle things like "Which processor should I use?" or similar tripe, but rather the unanswered questions, the unsolved problems and the day-to-day dilemmas that occur to me. For example, I may write an article on viruses - not how to get rid of them or even write them but why hasn't anyone wrote the ultimate "killer"-virus to end all viruses?

Computer-related anecdotes and ludicrous questions that I've been asked in the past.

Programming ideas

And (as they say) much, much more...


Got a problem? Defrag. Computer running slow? Defrag. Computer crashing? Defrag. Cursor the wrong colour? Defrag.

What is people’s obsession with defragging their hard disks? It seems to be the fallback solution of most “experts” that you should defrag your hard disk whenever something is wrong.

I was around in the early days of DOS and, yes, we defragged. I can remember sitting for two hours waiting for an 80Mb drive (one of the largest at the time) to defrag (actually, I probably used either DiskOpt or ORG back in those DOS days, but it's the same principle). I still don’t know why. That’s a lie… I know why defragmenting (to give it it’s proper name) is supposed to work. Technically, when your hard disk is near full, a new file created will not fit at the end so instead the computer cuts it up and shoves it into any gaps it can find anywhere on the hard disk. The space it uses to put the file in is the space where old, deleted files once resided.

Over time, if you’re running your disk at near-capacity and you delete lots of file to clean up space for newer ones, the files on your hard disk will fragment (i.e. they will get broken up and jumbled about). Your computer always knows where all the bits of them are, so it’s not a danger, but it can lead to slight delays in retrieving those files later.

Defragmenting is the process of going through the hard disk, sellotaping all those files back together and putting them in a nice order so that they are all in one piece again. Great. Sounds useful. Unfortunately, it takes several HOURS to defrag a hard disk and sometimes it can take literally all night. Let’s say that again: a modern, top-of-the-range computer will take several HOURS to defrag a single drive.

People used to worry about wasted computer time back when it cost lots of money per MHz but apparently now that we’re in GHz, it’s only fair to leave the computer running all day to perform a single, fairly unnecessary task. Fair enough, defragmenting is seen as a maintenance exercise, much like performing anti-viral scans or using Scandisk (which, I would like to add, are actually much more useful and worthwhile).

The trouble stems from the fact that even when my anti-virus scan is chugging away in the background, I can still use my computer. I can play my games or browse the internet. Try running defrag and organising your files at the same time. Sometimes even a click of the mouse can make defrag restart itself. The recommended route is to boot to a clean version of Windows, kill all tasks and run Defrag and leave the computer. I’m sorry… what a waste of electricity, time and effort.

I don’t doubt that defragging my disk will make my file accesses go a little faster. I don’t have a problem with that at all, I know the theory, I just can’t see the practice. However, the increase is file access speed is so small we must be talking in the range of fractions of a second. Yes, they probably do all add up but not to the hours that I waste waiting for it to defrag.

I only run “old” computers. I’ve never had the latest twenty-billion GHz machine and I don’t want one, either. My computers are always JUST behind the top-of-the-line, in the comfortable zone. Currently, I’m using a 1.2GHz machine. It does EVERYTHING that I need it to. Theoretically, I should notice a larger difference after I’ve defragged a disk that someone with a top-of-the-line SATA super-fast harddrive. My computer runs fine, it’s comfortable, it hasn’t slowed down over the years I’ve had it (mainly due to good maintenance of the software I put on it) and my hard drive doesn’t fly all over the disk to pick up it’s data.

I work as an ICT Technician for some schools in my local area. The teachers often come to me for advice on their computers and I’m amazed how often many of them have been told to, or assume that they should, defrag their hard drives. They do it for everything from a virus infection to a BSOD. Guess what, it never works. It barely works for the purpose for which it’s intended. They seem shocked to learn that the last time I defragged was three years before I took my GCSE's (i.e. age 12 for you Americans).

My hard drive is behind the times but my computer runs fine, no matter how many times my disk has been filled and deleted (believe me, it’s several… about twice a year I have to seriously consider my storage on the computer, compressing, archiving, moving, deleting or, in extreme cases, upgrading). God knows what it looks like from a technical standpoint, but my Windows runs just fine, thank you very much. No chugging. No problems.

Defragging may well have a purpose for, e.g. file-storage servers. But then, excuse me, why the hell are they running a rubbish windows FAT filesystem that’s prone to all sorts of problems? All filesystems suffer from fragmentation to a certain extent but FAT’s gotta be one of the worse for it. The average home user cannot possibly benefit enough from a defrag to make it worth their while. Most people I know don’t even get close to filling a fraction of their harddrive in all the time they have a computer.

What do I tell these saddened people who come to me with their tales of computer woe, of games that won't load or of computers that take 10 minutes to boot? They invariably tell me that they were told to defrag and did so. My reply...

What a waste of time.