Skyrim [review]

Skyrim screenshot

This article was written by William Judd. William writes for Mobile Fun, the UK’s leading online retailer of the Griffin SurvivorHTC accessories and the Panasonic Lumix case.

Skyrim is the latest entry in the venerable Elder Scrolls series and the follow-up to 2008’s Oblivion. As with its predecessor, Skyrim presents a sandbox-style fantasy world of laudable size and scope.You have an immense amount of choice in how you conduct yourself in Skyrim, with options for playing as a muscle-bound warrior, surreptitious assassin, sagely magician or anything in between.

Often the problem with these games is that the strength of any individual experience is diluted by the vast amount of ground that needs to be covered by the game designers; quests, locations, NPCs and items all need to be fun in and of themselves as well as meshing with the world as a whole.

Thankfully, the development team at Bethesda performed excellently in this regard; each microcosm is detailed and unique. Dungeons, which felt rather stale in Oblivion, seem rather more varied here. This is helped in part through more unique dungeon designs, but also through the upgraded graphics. Like Oblivion before it, the game features a range of styles corresponding to the race of the dungeon’s builders, with Dwemer dungons having a vastly different look and feel to creepy barrows or rocky caves inhabited by other races.

Outside, there is even more variation, with the Scandinavian-inspired countryside containing beautiful mountain meadows, treacherous snow-covered peaks and roaring rivers. The joy that you gain from these encounters is doubled when you realise that you could climb that mountain you see in the distance, if you wanted to. Where first person shooters revel in the immediacy of their action, Skyrim appeals because of the consistent believability of its world and the smorgasbord of opportunities that lie in a great tableau before you.

Of course, Skyrim suffers the same kind of inevitable flaws that its predecessors in the series do, but these only add to the game’s charm. From Yahtzee’s famous encounter with an old lady who floated twenty feet in the air before sinking sadly through the floor to my own exploration of outer space courtesy of a troll’s club, the game’s glitches are amusing conversation pieces rather than game-breaking nightmares.

Perhaps the only genuine flaw I found with Skyrim was with its dungeon-based enemies. In each dungeon or area you encounter, there are a host of easy-to-kill monsters that can be dispatched with no effort or strategy, and a single boss monster which is vastly harder to kill. These boss battles can be enjoyable, but the vast chasm in difficulty interrupts the game’s flow; instead of a gradual ramp up in difficulty as you progress into a dungeon, you instead race to the very end, then start thinking about the boss.

Often, the winning strategy is to take advantage of a peculiarity in the enemy’s AI, such as attacking with ranged weapons from a point they cannot reach. This cheapens the whole encounter, but can be necessary to advance as otherwise the bosses are needlessly difficult to defeat. A redressing of the game’s balance, by making bosses slightly easier and normal enemies increasingly harder, would do a lot to make dungeon crawling more enjoyable.

Otherwise, there is little to complain about in Skyrim. It’s easy to see why it has been given universally excellent reviews; it is certainly one of the greatest sandbox worlds ever presented. Like the best open world games before it, there is a such a multitude of choice that there’ll be something to suit any palette — if you are a fan of finely made video games, Skyrim is worth your time.

Skyrim is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 from and

10 Common PC Risks

Robot repair manThis is a guest post by Fergal Glynn. Fergal is the Director of Product Marketing at Veracode, an application security company that improves Internet security.

PC users commonly, and unwittingly, place their computers and personal security at risk. Here are ten common PC risks and how to avoid them.

  1. Using easy-to-guess passwords and easy-to-guess answers to security questions. In all fairness, it’s impossible for any average person without a photographic memory to remember the dozens of unique usernames and passwords we retain to access credit card accounts, bank accounts, social networks, membership sites and more. One obvious risk that most PC users tend to overlook is that any savvy hacker can easily bypass your password by answering security questions, such as the name of the street you grew up on, your mother’s maiden name and similar questions. Not so easy to guess, you say? A visit to a public profile on a social network could provide easy access to these answers, or at least clues.
  2. Turning off automatic Windows updates. Automatic updates can be annoying. Some users elect to turn off Windows’ automatic update programming and manually review and select uploads periodically. Updates are often important for patching known security risks in software,  so not installing updates when they’re available can mean you’re leaving your PC at risk of attack.
  3. Expired virus protection software. I’m sure we’ve all had this happen: We start getting notifications from our anti-virus software letting us know it’s time to renew our subscription. We all lead busy lives, and it’s not uncommon for users to put off updating these subscriptions until later, leaving the PC at risk for common malware and Trojans it may have otherwise been protected from.
  4. Working on unsecured networks. Users utilizing a wireless home network should secure it with a strong password. An unsecured network allows unauthorized users to access your wireless network, potentially opening the door for other attacks.
  5. Posting personal information on social networks. Social network users should avoid posting personal information, especially information that could be used as an answer to a common security question, such as a mother’s maiden name or pet’s name. Many social networks offer privacy options; users should select the highest-level privacy settings possible (reducing the total number of people with easy access to information).
  6. Opening unfamiliar emails or links. PC users should avoid opening any email coming from an unidentified source. Even if an email comes from a personal contact, any suspicious links should be avoided and the attached emails deleted unless confirmation can be obtained verifying the legitimacy of a message or link.
  7. Installing multiple “freeware” programs. We all love free stuff, especially free computer programs that would ordinarily cost us hundreds or thousands of dollars. If we can get a free program that does the same thing, that’s got to be better, right? Not necessarily. Too many freeware programs can slow down a PC. Further, users must check the validity of any freeware program before installation: Is it coming from a reputable source? What do other users have to say? In some cases, these programs also install spyware on your PC, which is how the programmers make money.
  8. Allowing the autorun feature to boot several programs every time you start your machine. Really. Take a moment and make a list of the programs you use immediately, without fail, every time you boot your PC. There aren’t many, are there? It’s not necessary to allow programs to automatically run every time you start your machine; in fact, it can slow down your boot time considerably. If you’re using autorun with those freeware programs addressed in #7, you could be opening a see-through window for hackers every time you turn on your computer.
  9. Failing to back up important files. While this point won’t put you at increased risk for attacks, it will put you at risk for losing your data—and your mind—should you happen upon a virus with the capability to wipe out your hard drive. An external hard drive has tons of storage, they’re not that expensive, and you’ll never regret the investment if you ever have this happen to you.
  10. Plugging your PC directly into a wall outlet, and failing to unplug during an electrical storm. Your PC should be plugged into an adequate surge protector, along with any relevant components, such as a printer/scanner/fax combo. This won’t leave you more vulnerable to hackers, but it does allow plenty of opportunity for a single bolt of lightning to wipe out your machine—and your hard drive, with all that data you hopefully have backed up in a secure location.

So, there’s plenty of “risky” behaviour that could have an adverse effect on your computer. What do you think of the items listed here? Are there any that you do yourself? Or is there something else you think should be on the list? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

MacDrive – access Mac-formatted drives on PC

Imagine the situation with me… you’re a PC user, or more specifically a Windows user. Your friend, however, is a fully paid up member of the cult of Mac and, understandably, has formatted their external hard drive for Mac OS X. One day, though, your friend brings his drive over to your house… there are a few large files you want to share and the easiest way was just to plug straight in to your computer.

The problem is… Windows can’t understand Mac OS formatted discs. They just won’t show up in Windows Explorer.

I had a similar problem to this: I have a Mac with an external drive plugged in. I usually share the external drive over our home network so I can access the files from my Windows 7 laptop, but recently the network’s been a bit flaky. I wanted to plug the external drive straight into my laptop but hit that Windows/Mac drive problem. Fortunately there is a solution.

MacDrive, by Mediafour, enables your Windows computer to understand Mac drives. In fact, it integrates them right into the explorer so, to all intents and purposes, they behave just the same as a Windows drive. The application suggested by Mediafour themselves is that of a Mac user running Windows as a Bootcamp partition, but wanting to access the Mac portion of their hard drive. I have no doubt that’ll work but, as I said, I wanted it to access a Mac-formatted external drive on my PC.

It’s a testament to how well this is working that I actually don’t have too much else to say! I installed the software, rebooted the computer, plugged in the external drive, and away we go. The nice thing is that there’s a free trial so you can see whether MacDrive fulfils your expectations. It’s certainly done so for me – why not download it and give it a try?

Check the MacDrive microsite for more information, and that free trial.

Backup your files with Backblaze

Dead technology on beach

Image by blmurch
Used under Creative Commons

For all that hard disc drives are very reliable these days, they can still fail when you expect it least. I well remember the sickening feeling of discovering that the hard disc was fried on my PC and I’d lost my e-mails, pictures, and work. You could justifiably call me a fool for not having a backup… a lesson I learned the hard way.

Since then I’ve kept regular backups of my files, manually at first, and using Time Machine when I switched to using a Mac. The problem is, though, those backups were still stored in the same room as my computer. If there was a fire I would still have lost all my data.

Backblaze is an online backup tool that automatically backs your files up to Backblaze’s servers whenever you have an Internet connection. This is now the way I do my backups and it gives great peace of mind to know that my files are stored in an altogether different location from my computer. Even better, I can get to them from any Internet-enabled computer. I’m always wary of security when storing my files online, but Backblaze encrypts your files on your computer before sending them to the server. Quite nice to know nothing’s being transmitted in an unsecured format.

$5 per month or $50 per year isn’t a bad price either when you consider that there’s unlimited storage space to accommodate everything you have on that hard disc. Restore options are to download the files you lost via the Web, have Backblaze burn a DVD ($99) or have them send you a USB hard disc with all our files on it ($189). If I’m honest, the only restore option I plan to use is the web download… because it’s included in the original subscription price :)

What I like is that Backblaze just kind of sits there constantly backing files up (assuming you use continuous mode). I have literally hundreds of gigabytes of files to backup, and I’m impressed that I’m given as much storage space as I need. That much data does take a very long time to upload, but that’s more an issue with my connection speed than anything else. If I had more bandwidth I could unleash Backblaze to do the backups much more quickly. But instead I throttle it back a little and just leave it in the background while it uploads my files without interfering with whatever else I’m doing in any way.

Backblaze is available for Windows and Mac (Mac version is in beta – but that’s what I’m using and it works just fine). Try out the free trial and see what you think.

Backblaze links are affiliate links and will generate income for Geek-Speak if you choose to take out a subscription.

Black Mesa Source Trailer Released

Ten years ago Valve released Half-Life – the story of scientist Gordon Freeman’s struggle to escape the research facility he works in after a disaster allows alien beings to cross into our world. Some people loved Half-Life, whilst others hated it, but it marked a new era of gaming for me with its physics-based puzzles and intense storyline.

Well, Half-Life has moved on (as you’d expect) but the original still holds a dear place in some people’s heart… so it’s being recreated with the current Half-Life (Source) engine! Take a look at the trailer and, if you remember the original, marvel at how much more detailed it looks now:

The project team have had to make some allowances for the fact that the security guards and scientists in the original were generic characters, whilst in HL2 they had become the specific Barney Calhoun and Dr Kleiner, so there is some reimagining to be done. There are also, apparently, a few new scenes and dramatic devices to spice things up a little.

If you enjoy the Half-Life series, and if you play on PC, get hold of this when it’s released and see how the story began.

There is currently no release date, but by looking at the trailer and website it seems they are very far along… hopefully soon!

Mac vs PC

Xbox vs Playstation…
Linux vs Windows…
Mac vs PC…

There are so many battles going on in geekland that it’s hard to keep up! Fanboys abound on all sides, and if you spend long in any forum devoted to a particular make of equipment, you’ll soon find someone pointing out that it “sux” and that “xyz” is the only way to go. I once read a quote, though, that made me laugh. It was just before the xbox360 came out (and I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t remember it exactly):

Let’s forget all the rubbish about which will be better: xbox360 or Playstation3, because we all know that if you had the money, you’d buy both of them!

So, with that attitude in mind, I want to tell about when I switched from PC to Mac, what I like about the Mac, and what I miss from my PC days.

I switched about 18 months ago because I’m attracted to shiny things. Oh, and because my PC was dying… I bought a Mac-Mini for £500 and I love it. It’s so small and quiet (my PC sounded like an aircraft was trying to take off under my desk). So what do I really like about being a Mac user?

  • Visuals: The computer itself is a delightful white box, about the size of a box of hankies. It just looks nice. But when I switched it on the visual treat continued. Shiny menus… the dock… even the desktop wallpaper all had a lovely clean look to them that sucked me right in. I’ve done a bit of study on NLP, and found that I’m a very visual person, so it’s no surprise that the visual niceties of MAC OS X and of the computer itself had such an effect on me. I know that I could have re-skinned Windows XP (and I did that a few times), but I liked MAC OS X’s look better!
  • Security – some say this is because nobody would bother writing a virus for a computer with such a small user-base. I don’t care, there aren’t many viruses for Macs and I don’t mind why that is! There have been some recent cases of Mac viruses being discovered, but they aren’t widespread. Still, it pays to be careful, so I have Clam AV on my Mac and I use the built-in firewall.
  • Simplicity – I used to call Macs, “PCs for people who don’t want to think”. Admittedly, not a very catchy put-down, but I honestly thought that’s all Macs were. I actually value the simplicity, though, because it means that many of the programs living on my computer work the same way… that’s not brain-dead, it’s good interface design! I’m also impressed that the OS does a good job of hiding many of the tasks and processes pretty well, so you only need to dive into the complex stuff if you really want to.
  • Simplicity again – I couldn’t think of a better title for this one… when you buy a Mac, you know you’re getting standardised hardware. Everything comes ready to go, and you know you won’t have any driver issues due to non-compliant hardware being installed in the base-unit. There’s a trade-off there, though.
  • Cheap software – iWork and MAC OS X itself are pretty cheap compared to MS Office and Windows. For a Scot like me, that’s important! No, seriously, I was surprised to discover that iWork was so cheap, especially given that it’s a great piece of software. I realise that high-end pieces of software like Aperture and Final Cut Pro are still exceptionally expensive, but for a home-user like me (who will never use those applications) the apps I want represent pretty good value.

Now… what do I miss from my PC days?

  • Cheap hardware! – There’s no denying that Macs are expensive. I know Apple say that they’re no more expensive than a high-end PC but, come on, for £500 I could have got a desktop PC with a 3d graphics card and a bit more memory than my Mac-Mini. Actually, yesterday, I saw a Vista laptop for under £500 with 3d graphics…
  • Easy upgrades – in the olden days, I would regularly open up my PC and swap out a component with a new item. That’s not so easy now, because the Mac-Mini is essentially a sealed unit. I realise you can upgrade the high-end Macs (like the pro), but I couldn’t afford one!
  • Software – Actually, this one is becoming less and less of an issue as time goes on. When I first switched, I struggled to find software for many of the tasks I’d been able to do on my PC. It’s still the case that I have to search a bit more for Mac programs, but they are there… it’s just that many more programs are written for PC than for Mac (supply and demand, though, isn’t it? There are more PC users so there will be more stuff written for them). My main bug-bear is that my dad has a more advanced version of Skype than me, simply because the PC version is on v3.0, while Mac is on v2.7.
  • Understanding – I used to understand the inner workings of the PC and Windows pretty well, while I find that I’ve never even seen the insides of my Mac and I’m having to re-learn about Unix while learning about Mac OS X. I could just let MAC OS take care of everything for me and I wouldn’t have to touch Unix, but I really want to know how things work under the hood so I couldn’t go down that route :)

The thing is, there are pros and cons to both platforms (and I could have thought of more for each). I’m happy with my decision to switch, but there are things I’m having to get used to, and things I miss about my PC. I guess it’s like anything else, really, there are always gains and losses in each decision (man, that’s getting a bit deep!).

Have you switched from one OS to another lately? What did you think? I’ve completely missed out Linux because I don’t have much experience of it… any Linux users out there want to chip in?