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May 21st, 2015

Hardware regeneration

If you've been following us on Twitter-verse, you may have noticed that TAGAP 3 development took an unsuspecting hit recently; My trusty old HP Pavilion laptop finally called it quits. Well, not entirely, but all its USB ports did, which meant I no longer could scan anything in, export stuff for Petja to test test nor could I produce any back-ups. The last one in particular was worrisome, I'm very back-up crazy and manually trigger at least one back-up per day.

So, this meant to the shops I went. Finding a computer was hell in itself, as I tried to look for a Windows 7 laptop instead of Windows 8, to no avail. This was a real sticking point to me, as from my exposure to the vanilla Windows 8 was so horrendous I wouldn't wish it for my worst enemies. And that is not exaggeration; I hated my Windows 8 experience so much, that if it weren't for my passion for TAGAP 3 and you guys following the project, I might have given up on all things PC.

And when I finally found myself a PC, I had to wait for it for over a week. During this period I made some minor TAGAP 3 headway – kind of stuff I could easily 'backup' via sending them to myself in eMail – but mostly I studied Windows 8.1 (or rather, how to fix its baffling design absurdities) and re-educate myself on the latest programming standards and MS guidelines.

In this respect, the long delivery of the computer was a blessing in disguise; If it weren't for this re-education phase, I might have missed something rather crucial. You see, one of the earliest phases with TAGAP Engine development was getting the mouse and keyboard to work – well obviously, how else can you interact with the game? This was in late 2003, early 2004 and DirectInput was still very much a thing. However, soon after Microsoft turned around and labelled DirectInput deprecated – supported, yet no longer in development. And guess who hasn't touched his input code since he got it to work flawlessly in 2004? Yep, me.

So, when the new computer finally arrived, the first two days fiddling with it sunk completely into setting it up. First I had to update it and install security software, then I had to pummel Windows 8 into submission via various tools and registry edits. Lastly but most importantly, I had to install all the pre-requisite development software, from Photoshop to Visual Studio and its software development kits. And just to make things extra difficult, those have to be configured for our workflows, too.

But now I've been back in action for a couple of weeks, with TAGAP 3 development back in full swing.

Penguin DT mainframe

So what is the new 'Penguin DT mainframe' like? It's MSi-developed gaming-oriented laptop from the Apache Pro line. It's not capable of running the latest games in Ultra or anything, but compared to my old clunker it's a monster. Here's the comparison;

New specs

Old specs

17,3" full-HD display

17" HD display

2.5 GHz Intel i7 processor

1.6 GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 processor

16 GB RAM

2 GB RAM

128 GB SSD + 1TB HDD

160 GB HDD

NVidia GTX860M (2GB) GPU
Separate Intel Graphics for desktop

NVidia GeForce Go 7200 (256 MB) GPU

3 x USB 3.0 + 1 x USB 2.0

3 x USB 2.0

Windows 8.1 (/w DIY mods and ClassicShell)

Windows Vista Home Pro (32 bit)

So, yeah. That's a change. For the longest time, when I've been working on art etc., I haven't been able to do what I used to during TAGAP 2 days; Use YouTube as a net radio. There just wasn't enough memory for both the video stream AND the gigabytes worth of HD details passing through RAM. Now? Unless I start to design TAGAP roadside signs or skyscraper posters, the 16 GB will suffice for a looooong time.

So far, after I modded Windows 8 to basically operate like Windows 7, I've been pretty happy. The biggest hurdle I have is simply a matter of re-learning instincts; As with all the laptops manufacturers, MSi has their own specific way of stuffing all them keys in a limited space, meaning I have to, again, re-learn typing. It's okay, I'm used to it by know, jumping between three-to-four different systems per day. It'll take another month and I'll be golden, I'm sure.

What am I doing right now?

We're again back in development and it shows; That big-as-heck level I teased before is nearing completion. Right now I'm going through it in passes, adding in enemies, scripting action sequences and in general putting the actual gameplay in place. It takes a lot of time, but I'm almost done.

Once the level is finished, I really need to check if the end result is too bloated for lower end systems. Luckily I still have that old potato-PC next to me. If that system has problems running the level, I'll likely split the level in two. This new system has no issues what-so-ever with it, but considering the specs above, that's no surprise, now is it?

Also, one serious issue in TAGAP Engine raised it's head with the new computer. Apparently these days its customary to have multiple GPUs in laptops, one dinky one dedicated to desktop duties and a high-demand one for all the gaming goodness. Well, apparently the software needs to specifically ask for the high-demand rights, otherwise it's relegated to the Intel Graphics or what-have-you.

Obviously, not a single version of TAGAP has this feature. With TAGAP and TAGAP 2 it isn't much of a problem, those games are so light-weight even my old HP Pavilion could run them flawlessly, but TAGAP 3 is HD and a lot more demanding. It NEEDS those calls and I need to find a way to implement them – and while I'm at it, I might as well update TAGAP and TAGAP 2 to have them as well. Stay tuned for updates on those. In the meantime, should you run into problems, at least NVidia drivers allow you to manually choose which games are run by which GPU.

Backlog adventures

As you've likely guessed, I've had plenty of time to dwell in my backlog during those non-TAGAP days. Heck, even when I received the new system, I had plenty of time to complete Lego Star Wars while the new computer churned out restoration point DVDs (six of them). For those of you who have just desktop PCs, laptops these days do not have OS DVDs shipped with them, but instead ask you to create your own once the OS has been set up. I actually don't mind, since this way you can strip your installation from all the bundleware before burning the system on discs.

Anyway, I've already played through four games since the last update not-so-long ago; Driver: San Francisco, I Am Alive, Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. And best of the bunch were these two;

Driver: San Francisco

Yes, I indeed said Driver: San Francisco. Everyone who knows me or my habits likely just raised an eyebrow, asking what the heck is this guy playing a driver game that ISN'T Carmageddon? Well, it's the structure of the game that makes it irresistible even if you couldn't give a toss about cars. I'll just assume for a moment that you're up to speed with pop-culture, because the game is easiest to sum up thus; Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes + Matrix + Quantum Leap

The setting is so well put together that you can't help but to immerse yourself in it. As someone whose idea of a great racing time is something like Carmageddon, I pretty much suck at driving in this game, leading into plenty more retries than with someone seasoned in racing games. But even that didn't diminish my desire to see the thing through and the rewarding – and often-times funny – non-story missions are fun to follow.

Where I'm getting at is that even if you are not a racing game fan, you should consider giving this bargain bin gem a try; If I can enjoy it, so can you. And you racing game fanatics out there, it's still a solid racer with a lot more than arcade-y driving model – which just happens to be spliced with doses of surreal creativity, providing a breath of fresh air. Plus, it was perhaps the last big budget Ubisoft game that didn't involve unlocking towers of some kind – and it's always good to reminiscent those golden days of the past.

Plus, there are plenty of cool gags and easter eggs. Seriously, go ahead, take that Delorean for a ride!

Lego Star Wars

I'm not going to ramble about Lego Star Wars for too long, since I'm pretty sure most of you already know what the Lego games are about – and they started with Lego Star Wars.

You know, this may sound almost heretical for a former Star Wars junkie, but I think the prequel trilogy in particular is better presented as a Lego pantomime than it is in the film. No, seriously; All the fluff is cut away and the focus is only on principal characters. Who, by the way, have more life in them in their whimsical Lego form than they ever did as Lucas-penned character cut-outs. Plus, there's an achievement for breaking the minifig of Jar Jar Binks 20 times.

The game does have some issues, but most of them are symptoms of being the series forerunner. If you keep this in mind and can look past them, you'll have a blast-of-a-time. Heck, I'd go as far as to say that the thing I'm anticipating the most about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy is their Lego adaptations!

 

Now, if you excuse me, I have to make even more enemies. In TAGAP3 I mean!

Until next time,

Jouni Lahtinen, the head penguin