Friday, December 29, 2006

Need for Speed™ Carbon

Today, I bought a new gamepad with analog triggers, to cure my lead foot. You could say it's a belated Xmas gift for myself. I've been playing Need for Speed™ Carbon for a while now, and using a digital button for throttle just wasn't cutting it anymore. It was nearly impossible to hit the sweet spot and get a perfect start, or even to accelerate out of a curve. The wheels would just spin like crazy, and my car would end up in a frontal collision with the nearest obstacle.

Still, I think I did pretty well. Above is my first car, an Alfa Brera. The cars in Carbon are divided into three tiers, where tier 1 consists of cars that are merely cool, while tier 3 has the insanely awesome cars. As you play the game, you gain cash rewards and unlock better cars. I decided to scrimp and save on my first car, only spending money on upgrading its performance. The idea was to have lots of money to buy a good tier 2 car. Besides, I really like the look of Alfa Romeos; they're so simple, distinguished and yet slightly terrifying.

The game started out by piquing my interest with some full-motion video. Yes, apparently I missed the return of FMV. It still bears a slightly awkward stigma from the 90s, but it's pretty well executed and I daresay rather engrossing this time around. The intro makes references to the previous game in the series, Most Wanted, which I should admit to not having played. Apparently it too featured FMV with the same stylistic flair, but took place in the daytime, while Carbon only has nighttime levels, much like the Underground parts of the series. Since I didn't understand the references, the plot felt unusually non-patronizing in assuming that I would be smart enough to catch the names of the characters and follow the rapid turn of events. Learning that this is merely a sequel and not an "after the fact" mystery inspired by Agatha Christie was actually somewhat of a disappointment.

As it turned out, I didn't have to save up for a new car; I won the tier 2 car of a defeated boss. The world of Carbon is divided into territories owned by rivaling street racing gangs. The car above is an Aston Martin DB9 that belonged to Wolf, the boss of the TFK gang, until I rolled into town, took over their territory by beating them race by race in their own backyard, and proceeded to defeat their boss in two one-on-one races. To cement your domination over a territory, you first need to win a regular street race against the boss, and then defeat them in a canyon duel. The duels are both frustrating and exhilarating, and involve tailgating the boss as best you can without falling off the canyon, and then trying to shake him off as he tailgates you in the second round.

My third car, a Mazda RX-7, is the result of overtaking Kenji of the Shinobu gang in a canyon duel, a move that leads to a near instant win. The Aston Martin just flew past like a cannon ball; the only problem was actually slowing down and not flying straight down the canyon wall. At this point, I was still using my old Logitech Wingman, and the game felt rather easy; the way I like it. I actually didn't race the Mazda at all. The Aston Martin became my mainstay, and I used it to beat the third gang, 21st Street, and their boss Angie. As you can see above (skip the Mazda), I decided to pimp it by painting it gold chrome. It ended up looking like an autobot about to transform, or maybe the steed of a modern day paladin. Either way, I think it's awesome.

The fourth territory is where I ran into trouble. Suddenly everyone's racing around in tier 3 cars, and you have to beat them to unlock tier 3 and get something raceworthy. Suffice to say that this is where morale takes a big hit. Sure, my golden autosteed looks cool, but it handles like a refrigerator. Was that a curve? Bam. OK, now that's a wall. Lost again.

Luckily, I had already ordered a Thrustmaster with analog triggers and force feedback, and with it I finally managed to unlock a Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda. This is a muscle car, by which they mean something that acts like it has a rocket up its behind and flails wildly all over the road. By racing the muscle car, I miraculously unlocked a tuner, a small Nissan 350Z that has great potential and handles like a god. This car in turn immediately left a few racers in the dust and unlocked the current love of my life.

Behold, the Lamborghini Gallardo. It's an exotic, which means its speakers blare hip-hop (as opposed to the tuner's trance and the muscle's stoner rock), and it's a real racer. It handles really well, although not as well as the Nissan, and it accelerates with a roar. I found a great body for it, and I settled on a dark purple chrome. The only problem now is to keep out of trouble, as the heat is high in the fourth territory. This means there's a lot of police activity, and they keep butting into every race, chasing me around after I've won. I usually shake them off, but even I got busted once, which means my poor Gallardo has incurred an impound strike. Three strikes and the car is lost. The heat is rising and those cops really seem to be after my ride.

Oh well, if they take this one I can always sell my crappy and ridiculously overpriced Plymouth and buy something even better. I must say, this game really got me hooked, and that's not an easy feat.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nobel day

Today my brother, Y and I were walking across central Stockholm, seeking out an Asian grocery store, when we found that the entire square in front of the opera house was cordoned off. Police were patrolling the area, and people were standing around taking pictures. Apparently something big was happening, but I had no idea what. Conveniently enough, I was on the phone with my mother at the time, and she promptly told me that we were outside the very building where the Nobel prize ceremony is held.

I jumped on the bandwagon and snapped a photo. Admittedly, there wasn't much to see; I bet it was much more exciting on TV.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


I've been pondering why I tend to turn down party invitations, and I think I've come to a conclusion: Rollerblades are no fun because they hurt my feet.

My older brother enjoys rollerblading. I don't. He asked me why once, and I told him I think it's pretty fun to go fast and stuff, but the rollerblades really hurt my feet. After a while, the amount of pain surpasses the amount of fun, and what started out enjoyable ends up being unbearable. It's no fun since it hurts so much. I asked my brother if his feet didn't hurt, and he said they did but that he didn't notice. It doesn't hurt since it's so much fun.

Putting aside the possibility that we may be wearing the wrong size rollerblades, something strange seems to be happening.

Every decision boils down to comparing the cost to the reward. If I invest money in a stock, I want the payoff to be higher than the investment. Otherwise, why bother? However, you can't always base your decisions on monetary value alone, especially when you're deciding whether or not to go rollerblading. In my example, rollerblading only costs time and pain, and the reward is fun. This is when you try to gauge the so-called utility of your decision, by assigning a utility value to each factor involved. This assignment is usually called the utility function. When you sit down and plan your investments, you have to build your utility function consciously, but when your brain tells you if something is fun or not, you're dealing with a subconscious utility function.

So you could say that the difference between my brother and I lies in our subconscious utility functions. Our brains could be wired so that whizzing along on rollerblades is assigned a utility of, say, 10. However, his brain only assigns a -5 to hurting feet, while mine gives it -20. Thus, my utility sum for rollerblading is -10, while his is a cool 5.

At this point, it may sound like I'm simply a wuss. In truth, hurting feet don't bother me; I once walked 3.5 kilometers to take the bus to work, with a sprained pinky toe on one foot and a blister on the other. I don't think I did it because I loved my job so much that I assigned some magical utility to it. Remember, I'm not necessarily talking about monetary value; I'm talking about utility values wired directly into my brain. If my job were really that fun, or if I really associated my pay with a high subconscious utility, I would have been happy at the end of the day. I wasn't. No, I think people have a varying threshold for discomfort in different contexts. That means the subconscious utility function doesn't just differ from person to person, it also differs from situation to situation.

This context-sensitive utility function is readily apparent in every undertaking of mine that is supposed to be fun, like a game or a party. When I'm supposed to be having fun, I have zero tolerance for boredom, failure or discomfort, and I don't want to invest too much time or money. That means if a video game has a steep learning curve and doesn't give me instant gratification while I'm learning, it's out the window before it can say "Game over". I have no interest at all in exploring tech trees, collecting experience points or memorizing jump puzzles. If the game involves tedious repetitive tasks, it's not a game anymore, it's work.

Unfortunately, parties tend to involve investing quite a lot of time and money, and in my experience they end up being quite boring, if not downright discomforting. On a good day, the sum utility is a big fat zero. It doesn't help that some people respond to hesitation with coercion: "Come on, don't be a bore and ruin it for the rest of us! Everyone else is going!" Do people really believe they can force someone to have fun? Frankly, that sort of behaviour appalls me; it's borderline mobbing.

In closing, let me put all this decision theory mumbo-jumbo in a way you might more easily grasp: I'm lazy.