And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night

I mentioned in the 10th anniversary post that The Division was a fine game that got rather repetitive in its endgame, and that I ought to have a look at the most recent update. Like healthy eating and regular flossing it was more of a vague intention than a firm commitment; I’d briefly popped back to check out the previous Underground DLC that added some randomised subterranean roaming, but it hadn’t proved terribly compelling.

The most recent update is titled Survival, and doing exactly what it says on the tin it adds a new game mode called “Attempting To Endure Extremely Hostile Conditions With Minimal Starting Equipment”, or ATEEHCWMSE as all the cool kids call it. Actually, it might be called “Survival” come to think of it. A fierce storm is forecast to hit New York but Because Of Some Plot (TM Van Hemlock) there’s an urgent need to retrieve a MacGuffin, and in a wildly unexpected turn of events the simple helicopter jaunt to grab said MacGuffin goes a bit wrong, leaving you stuck in the middle of a blizzard with only a pistol and a nasty cough. You have to scrabble around for warm clothes, food, water, medicine, weapons, and ultimately a compensation form to claim for the luggage lost in the helicopter crash (or possibly the antivirals that were the original point of the mission), then make it to an extraction point to evacuate.

Survival games have been in vogue since the blocky ubiquity of Minecraft and ah-but-who-are-the-real-monsters horror of DayZ, but I tend to flounder in very open worlds. In this respect the clear goal of Survival harks back more to Rogue: down to the heart of the dungeon/Dark Zone tooling up along the way, grab the Amulet of Yendor/Antivirals, home in time for ascension to demigodhood/tea and medals. You have an hour until you succumb to infection, a timer that can be extended with painkillers and medicine but not indefinitely, so you can’t faff around too much.

The new mode does put a nice new spin on The Division. I posted about STALKER: Call of Pripyat a while back, how my favourite part of the game was early on when every round of ammunition was precious and that it lost some its charm later on once geared up with advanced weapons and armour. The Division is handing out loot more freely now, which is much appreciated, but when knee-deep in maximum level gear and trying to work out the relative merits of slightly different gloves it’s quite fun to go back to a situation where you’re glad of anything, even canned food. It’s available in PvP or PvE modes, though I’ve only tried the latter so far; finding enough resources and dealing with AI mobs is quite tense enough without adding PvP to the mix. PvE still isn’t exactly co-operative; loot drops on a first-come first-served basis, meaning you can expend precious ammunition and health packs defeating tough mobs only for another player to swoop in and nick the gear they drop (as opposed to being shot in the back by the other player prior to them nabbing the loot, as presumably happens in PvP). A team with voice comms might be able to share much-needed food and medicine amongst themselves as required, but “I propose a mutually beneficial arrangement by which we collectively engage tough opponents and equitably divide any resulting bounty” is quite difficult to convey to a random stranger via a limited set of emotes, so generally it’s best to steer well clear of other players. The situation pivots a bit should you reach the Dark Zone; by that time you’ve probably got a reasonable amount of kit so aren’t so desperate for every drop, and when you call in a helicopter for extraction you’re confronted by Hunters, new super-mobs with lots of nasty tricks like ducking into cover and healing after taking a bit of damage who are rather tough to take on solo.

Survival has some of the same highs and lows of Rogue/Nethack: on one expedition you might get tooled up with enough weapons and armour to be able to take on anything but not find any medicine; on the next you’re wrapped up lovely and toastie in coat, boots, scarf and bobble hat and can wander around at leisure but lack any weapon more threatening than a pointed stick so get jumped by rioters. It’s not quite so variable, the map remains constant (New York is New York, after all) and loot containers spawn in the same places (though can contain different items). Random starting locations and unpredictable players have made every round fairly different enough far, but a little more variety might be needed in the long run. After a few attempts you get the hang of the basics, staying warm and accumulating loot, then it’s a fairly methodical process to get to the Dark Zone, and a rather abrupt difficulty spike with the Hunters at the extraction zone that can be quite frustrating.

I’m not sure Survival as it stands it worth the cost of the DLC, but if you have the Season Pass anyway or there’s a sale sometime it adds another interesting string to The Division‘s bow, I can see myself popping back in from time to time, especially if it gets a couple of additional options.

10th Anniversary

Don a small conical cardboard hat, bake a cake and place ten candles thereupon, hide behind a sofa and prepare to leap forth and shout “surprise” for the Earth has spun around a giant burning ball of gas ten times since words first appeared on this here thing known to some as a “blog” (or at least its predecessors, which have since been subsumed herein so it still counts and stuff).

10 years, eh? Gosh and crikey; back then Tony Blair was Prime Minister, the iPhone was yet to be unleashed on the world, and making cakes in a tent wasn’t a matter of national importance. Different times. Melmoth and I had been MMOing for a few years, Melmoth on the console with Phantasy Star Online and the PC with Dark Age of Camelot before jumping in to City of Heroes, which was my introduction to the genre. We played CoH on a US server before the official European release, in those crazy days of MMOs before World of Warcraft; when WoW itself came along we naturally ventured in to Azeroth along with the rest of the known universe.

By late 2006, then, we had a bit of campaigning under our belts. Not proper Old Guard stalwarts from Ultima Online, Meridian 59, or indeed MUD1, but we’d been hyped up and burned out over a few games, got to the level cap in a couple of them (at least if you added up Melmoth’s City of Heroes alts), done a bit of beta testing (the late not-particularly-lamented-though-I-quite-liked-it Auto Assault, possibly one or two others though the old memory is a bit hazy); enough to have made it out of the Young Guard, at least.

The whole “web two point oh” business was starting to gather steam back then (as, indeed, was Steam), and after stumbling across and commenting on a few MMO blogs it seemed like a natural step to take the plunge ourselves, signing up individually with Blogger. I like to think we took to the new format like a duck to blogging: swimming around quacking loudly and demanding bread from passers by.

There was plenty going on for MMOists. The huge success of World of Warcraft had made the games industry sit up and take note, any number of new and potentially interesting games were releasing or in development. WoW wasn’t resting on its laurels with its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, imminent. Blogworthy subjects pinged back and forth across the blag-u-spore (as they had for years before) sparking further posts like neutrons in uranium-235 (complete with occasional fallout when things got a bit too excited).

By 2008 the shiny new blog smell had worn off a bit, and it was starting to look like shades might not be required to deal with the brightness of the post-WoW MMO future after all. Duo-ing in an MMO often strikes a sweet spot, amplifying the power of each character without the administrative overheads of larger groups, so it seemed worth a try on the blog front. Seeing the glorious success of Choco Krispies and Consignia we hired some enormously expensive consultants for a rebranding exercise, and came up with the very site that you now sit reading (unless the content has been scraped by some disreputable scoundrel, in which case we disavow all knowledge and urge you to contact your local Intellectual Property Tactical Armoured Response Division). Melmoth’s blood, sweat and web-hosting plan brought Killed in a Smiling Accident into being, and rather more thoroughly life-changingly Mr & Mrs Melmoth welcomed the arrival of Mini-Melmoth around the same time.

Despite occasional dalliances with books, television, Mesopotamian woodcrafting techniques and the fauna of Lord Howe Island, games have remained the core of KiaSA (as all the cool kids call it) with MMOs a strong part of that to start. Hopes were still high for forthcoming titles like Warhammer Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic, regular development news, new releases and the changing landscape and business models of gaming provided ample blog-fodder. Our blogroll continued to expand as new voices regularly appeared on the scene. Slowly, though, the popularity of the genre and our enthusiasm for it petered out over the next few years, variations on well-worn MMO themes proving diverting but hardly world-changing.

Around August 2012 things really slowed down. Melmoth had no time for writing as work and family life got busier; I’d had a good old run at Star Wars: The Old Republic and a bit of a stint in The Secret World so was rather MMO’d out and didn’t get into Guild Wars 2 at all, the big release at the time. GW2 stoked up some flames from the embers of the MMO blag-u-spore, but in general things were cooling down there too. Following blogs via RSS feed had been our standard method of keeping up to date but other forms of social media were taking over, perhaps best exemplified by Google closing down Google Reader in 2013. The blogroll in the sidebar over there has always been pretty sprawling and inconsistently maintained and is now more of a museum of curiosity, a mixture of defunct domains and moribund musings with a few stalwarts keeping the blogfires burning. Brian posted a nice reflection on blogging a little while back, and like him I still enjoy writing; I just don’t get fired up by games very often.

Case in point, playing structured PvP in Guild Wars 2 jogged a memory of similar hold-the-objective PvP in Neverwinter. Until then I’d forgotten I even played Neverwinter, despite spending 6+ months with it, hitting the level cap and dipping a toe into endgame grinding; rummaging back through posts here I found a few references (including the fact that I gained the best part of the final 10 levels just by logging in each day), but little to stick in the memory. It’s not just MMOs; I played through Wolfenstein: The New Order, Fallout 4, XCOM 2, The Division, to pluck four random titles, over the last year, all fine games (though The Division fell apart a bit in its endgame, possibly remedied by a major update that I ought to have a look at sometime), but they prompted little in the way of posts here, more aide memoirs than attempts at anything deeper, as much for my own benefit as anything else as memory fades.

MMOs certainly aren’t dead. I’ll go through spells, sometimes lengthy, where I can’t face another ten rats but I’m rather hooked on Guild Wars 2 at the moment, only four years late to the party. Blizzard announced 3 million sales of Legion, the latest WoW expansion; the juggernaut might have stopped accelerating but still has momentum. Blogging isn’t dead either, there’s life yet in Newbie Blogger Initiatives and Blaugust and such, but as I’ve become a bit disconnected from MMOs and games in general, so too their wider community, with a finite amount of time and ever-increasing competition for it.

I don’t mean to sound too maudlin, we’ve met some splendid people in blog comments/Twitter/Steam groups/newfangled browser-based chat-type-things/semaphore messages/telegrams and in a few cases even that strange ‘real life’ place. Interests naturally fade in and out (see also: GAFIA); starting to play War Thunder and a visit to the Chalke Valley History Festival in 2013 rekindled my interest in history, particularly aviation history, so I get a bit of writing exercise penning occasional articles, and odd answers on Reddit’s AskHistorians (Reddit, like the internet in general, has its hives of scum and villainy, but the tyrannical AskHistorians moderators rule with an iron fist, sweeping through comment threads and crushing unworthy responses with weapons including fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to verifiable sources; the end result, when people have the expertise and time to contribute, is in-depth and interesting answers to wide-ranging histroical questions, rather than floods of half-remembered tangential anecdotes).

So things will likely tick along here as they have for the past few years, an occasional post here and there as inspiration strikes. Perhaps time and circumstances will change, never say never and all that. In the meantime, thanks for reading.

Synners

A couple of months ago HTMT Hugo-reviewist Days was enthusing about Pad Cadigan’s Synners on Twitter as Gollancz put it, and 39 other ebooks, on sale for 99p. I was tempted to grab the whole lot but, with a fairly hefty “To Read” pile already, settled for a mere six or seven including Synners, and just got around to reading it.

First published in 1991 the SF Gateway edition has a 2012 introduction preceding a 2001 10th anniversary introduction, interesting layers of digital archaeology pointing out the uncanny prescience of the book and it really has aged well, it still feels completely fresh and contemporary. Even since 2012 further aspects are coming out of the pages, the current wave of VR headsets looking like they might actually stick, at least one startup is offering a full-body haptic feedback suit.

It’s not the easiest of starts, plunging you straight into a wide cast of characters, but as the strands intertwine the familiar-but-strange world emerges beautifully. I’ve read a few SF books in the last year or so that sounded interesting, had positive quotes (probably clipped from more nuanced reviews that I should’ve read in full), and have been… OK. Not terrible but workmanlike, read smoothly enough without sticking in the memory, bland characters telling-not-showing infodumps. Synners fizzes, throwaway lines pivoting into a mantra, sweeping along on musical textual riffs, leaving you to do a bit of assembly and so much more satisfying for it. Best thing I’ve read for a while.

Gaming roundup

It’s been a while since an MMO has really grabbed me. I’d poked a nose into a couple of launches (or free-to-play relaunches), tried to revisit a couple of old favourites, but nothing had particularly stuck. After wrapping up Mafia II I was at a bit of a loose gaming end, though, and when Van “Tim” Hemlock mentioned the Tuesday N00b Club were contemplating another outing in Guild Wars 2 I thought I’d get it patched up and give it another try.

Guild Wars 2, huh; what is it good for? Allowing a disparate collection of players to gather together and co-operate with relatively few restrictions and barriers (good god y’all). Rampaging around the Sylvari starter area was rather fun, and the game offers an increasingly shiny bit of loot merely for logging in each day so I started doing that. Then there are rotating daily achievements for gathering crafting materials, participating in events, viewing vistas and such, with gold on offer for completing any three of them, and what does gold make? A number two hit for Spandau Ballet, of course, but it can also be used to buy dye and outfits from the trading post in order to look fabulous, my main motivation. A month on and I’m fairly hooked, playing daily, and really enjoying it.

Though GW2 has been regularly updated since launch I don’t believe it’s a fundamentally different game to the one I bounced off a couple of times before, or indeed fundamentally different to many other MMOs out there at the moment; I wasn’t even particularly aware of having an MMO-itch, but I guess there was one and GW2 is providing a thoroughly pleasant scratching post with its wide array of activities: exploration, world events, character story, dungeons, crafting, structured PvP and the like. Melmoth and I were exploring a fun little mini-dungeon and encountered a simple place-rocks-on-pads puzzle; I started out in full Crystal Maze mode (“I’m in a room with some pads and some rocks! I’m going to pick up all the rocks! I can’t hold all the rocks! I’m going to jump up and down on all of the pads!”) until Melmoth pointed out a giant stone head with a glowing green clue on it, and after a couple of false starts we got the door open. Flush with success we promptly busted out our finest self-congratulatory dance emotes, a celebration marred only briefly by the newly-opened door swinging shut after 30 seconds or so, forcing us to redo the puzzle…

I still pop into War Thunder for a quick battle most days; the recent 1.63 update added a few more planes and tanks, always welcome. I also grabbed Tabletop Simulator, and on a rare free Friday managed to pop along to the regular virtual boardgaming session for a round of Lords of Waterdeep, a most pleasing alternative when physical gaming isn’t possible. When fully grabbed by an MMO it doesn’t leave much too much room for other games, though, so Guild Wars 2 should keep me going for the next few months.

Racketeering to Known Crimes

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a perfectly decent game but rather insubstantial, a bit like popcorn or candy floss: fine for a bit of a DAKKA! here and there, but not something to really get your teeth into. I poked around the rest of the recent 2K Humble Bundle for something else, and found Mafia II. First impressions are pretty straightforward: Grand Theft Auto in the 50s, with the Mafia. Dammit! Sorry for the spoiler; GTA in the 50s, with a mysterious criminal organisation that you’ll never guess from the title.

I’m probably not the ideal target for the game as I’ve never found the Mafia especially interesting; haven’t even seen any of the Godfather films. Still, the game builds an impressive world as a set, hooking you into the story from the start and using some nice techniques like jumping from a rather drab 1945 to a more vibrant and colourful 1951. The cars, fashions and music available on radios evoke the general period nicely, if not particularly accurately (mystical time-travelling devices have widely distributed rock n’ roll and blues hits from the mid-to-late 50s in 1951; maybe Gary Sparrow took a transatlantic holiday…)

GTA is an obvious comparison/inspiration, and a quick glance at the map of the city reveals various staples: apartments, garages, gun shops, clothes shops, a scrapyard where you can sell cars etc. Like most GTA-esque games early missions are tightly scripted, introducing the player to the various elements of driving, combat etc. As the game went on, though, the missions continued to follow a tight script; Mafia II isn’t an open world, it’s a linear story. You progress directly from objective to objective with little choice (even illusory) about what to do and when. You can take cars or weapons when needed, so shops and money are rather incidental apart from a brief interlude where you need to raise some cash. That’s another GTA-a-like staple, usually a prompt to explore the wide range of side activities available in an open world; in Mafia it seemed to boil down to ‘steal a few cars’ or ‘rob a few shops’. The linear nature isn’t a problem, I found it compelling enough to play it right through, though as the game went on it was increasingly to see just how many bad decisions one person could make.

Vito, the protagonist of Mafia II, is a tearaway youngster, and given a choice of jail or the army he picks the latter. The start of the game sees him fighting in Sicily, 1943, then jumps to him on convalescent leave in the US in 1945. He could have been set up sympathetically; an honourable discharge, difficulty adjusting back to civilian life, something like that, but instead his old friend sets him up with a fraudulent medical discharge and Vito hardly needs any persuasion to return to a life of crime. Obviously criminality is going to be a fundamental aspect of a game called Mafia (or indeed Grand Theft Auto), and unless (or even if) going down the undercover cop route of e.g. Sleeping Dogs you’re going to be a pretty shady character, fair enough. As Mark Kermode talks about in film reviews protagonists don’t have to be conventionally “good” or admirable, but if you don’t want to spend any time in their company it’s problematic, and I think that’s even more applicable when you’re directly controlling them in a game. I have more empathy with characters who get pulled in by their circumstances and at least show a bit of reluctance before beating up dockworkers for cash, who might be “Bad Guys” but at least have some relative moral high ground over Even Worse Guys; Vito does show a few flickers of conscience, but not many.

As time passes it’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone. Violence begets violence as gangs and families clash, and startlingly enough it seems that killing a whole bunch of dudes annoys other dudes who kill a bunch more dudes which annoys other dudes, though fortunately they can be mollified by killing yet more dudes, though wouldn’t you know it that seems to annoy different dudes, until finally Vito says “hang on a minute, killing everyone doesn’t really seem to be working out, why don’t we all have a nice sit-down and talk it out over a cup of tea?” (Spoiler: that might be a lie.) Attitudes to gender and race seem authentic for 1951 (not that I have first hand experience), with the roughest edges filed off so as not to be completely unacceptable these days. Other than a brief appearance by Vito’s sister and mother the female characters spanned the whole gamut from prostitute to Playboy centrefold (the latter being collectibles found around the city, again anachronistically as Playboy was first published in 1953; presumably Gary Sparrow has a sideline in jazz mags). Black, Irish and Chinese gangs provide cannon fodder in stereotype (not that Italian Americans were particularly chuffed with their portrayal either). The game wasn’t condoning those attitudes, or crime in general, but it made it all the more difficult to warm to Vito (or anyone, really).

Maybe that’s the point, the natural state of man from Thomas Hobbes; “every man is Enemy to every man… and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” The grim nature of crime, war, humanity in general can make for an involving, if perhaps not entirely enjoyable, story. There’s a tension to the game, though. On one hand there’s a separation from what’s happening – you have no choice in Vito’s decisions, you watch the cutscenes, he says what he says, you’re observing someone else’s story as “they” get dragged further and further in. On the other hand you obviously control Vito as he goes about those objectives, sometimes game mechanics (“Press ‘E’ to scrub floor!”) more closely involving “you” in what’s happening on screen, and as I got more disconnected from the former the latter could be a tad jarring.

This is probably coming across as a touch harsh; I finished Mafia II after all (though it’s fairly short, which helped), it kept me playing through to the end. Gun combat works well, though the selection of firearms is a touch odd (including four separate submachine guns with little functional difference). Driving is OK, though crowded streets and police who take exception to reckless automotive behaviour can be irritating. All in all it’s an interesting effort, I can see how it got some rave reviews and if I’d been more engaged in the story I might have agreed with them, but for me it didn’t entirely work. Good for a balanced gaming diet, a story-heavy thought-provoking if flawed game to go with the enjoyable, if a bit mindless, blasting of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

It’s a bit late really (by about six years) to weigh in on Mafia II, but also quite timely with Mafia III about a week away; I don’t think I’ll be rushing to pick it up, but I’ll keep an eye on reviews and perhaps grab it once it’s discounted a bit to see how the series develops into the 60s.

If you take my advice there’s nothing so nice as messing about on the river

The professed goal of Gaijin’s War Thunder has always been to include air, land and sea combat; it started with aircraft and added ground forces a while back, but there had been little word about naval units (apart from an aquatic April Fool’s aside). Nobody was sure how naval battles might work in War Thunder; the most obvious comparison would be to Wargaming’s Worlds of Tanks, Warplanes and Warships, the latter having launched last year. It’s rather fun, with destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers merrily lofting shells, torpedoes and aircraft at each other.

War Thunder is a slightly different beast, though, hewing a touch closer to realism. For Wargaming gameplay and balance come first (though with a firm historical basis; they invest in museums and employ a full-time consultant in Nicholas Moran); Gaijin try more to replicate the historical performance of vehicles (though still within the context of an action game, to a varying extent across the different modes, as opposed to a perfect recreation of historical events). Neither approach is inherently better, incidentally, regardless of the spittle-flecked ravings of mighty forum warriors on both sides. Large scale naval battles tended to be rather drawn-out affairs, so World of Warships speeds things up to keep the action going. Destroyers in particular zip around very nippily, though if you’re in one of the slower battleships before engine upgrades it can feel like you’re limping after the rest of your team wheezing “wait for me!”

War Thunder also features combined arms, players currently flying aircraft and driving tanks in the same battle, where Wargaming has kept the three Worlds Of… completely separate. That allows them to take a fairly abstract approach to aircraft carriers in WoWS, with squadrons/flights of aircraft acting as a single entity guided by the carrier captain.

Gaijin’s announcement last month revealed that, after internal testing showed the difficulties of player controlled capital ships in combined battles, they are taking a slightly different tack for their first naval units and focusing on smaller vessels: patrol boats, motor torpedo boats and such. Coastal units are often overlooked, both by navies themselves and naval historians, but they’re a really interesting part of the war. Rock Paper Shotgun’s Tim Stone mentioned Peter Markham Scott’s “The Battle of the Narrow Seas” in a column last year, a first hand account of British Coastal Forces originally published in 1945 and a fascinating read. The scale certainly makes sense for working alongside existing units in combined arms battles, so though some players are disappointed that they won’t get to set sail in massive battleships it’ll be most interesting to see how it all works out. Some wallpapers have just been released showing Gaijin’s customary attention to detail in modelling; this Fairmile D MGB looks rather splendid:

Woof!

Woof!

(Bonus soundtrack for anyone who has the post title stuck in their head)

Umble we are, umble we have been, umble we shall ever be

Battleborn was only released a few months ago, but appears to have come off second best to Blizzard’s Overwatch in the hero-shooter shoot-out to the point that it showed up in the recent 2K Humble Bundle 2. Having had some fun in the beta, but not enough to warrant a full-price purchase, the Bundle was already a no-brainer; the inclusion of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel made it even less of a brainer, if negative-braining is even possible. At release time the awkwardly named B:TPS (as all the cool kids call it) had also sounded like fun, if not full-price fun; I’d more or less forgotten about it until the Humble Bundle.

Having got both installed, it didn’t take long to get back into the Borderlands-swing of shooting anything that moved with a variety of entertaining guns, and clicking on anything that didn’t move but had a green light on it. The pre-sequel framing device is quite interesting (reminiscent of Dragon Age 2 in some ways), though the overall writing isn’t really as strong as the previous games (dialogue was always pretty scattergun, but it misses as much as it hits in B:TPS; still, it raises a smile often enough). The good bits are still good (DAKKA!), the less good bits are still mildly annoying (traipsing back and forwards over the same areas, the difficulty gap between finding a character/ability/gun combination that *really* clicks and one that doesn’t).

Battleborn rather suffers by comparison, at least for solo PvE. It’s probably not a terribly fair comparison, being that PvP is (I gather) the main focus, but at the moment I’m getting my fill of PvP in the War Thunder summer event, so when not grinding away at the tasks there I’m looking for something a bit different. Having chosen a character in Battleborn you’re more or less stuck with one weapon and a few skills, and combat gets rather repetitive without the teamwork and human aspect of PvP battles. I imagine grouping up with friends would somewhat enliven the PvE story missions, maybe that’s something to try in the future, but in the meantime I think I’ll stick with B:TPS, and maybe explore a couple of the other Humble Bunle games like Mafia II.

Prime Day Comes But Once A Year

Woo! Yay! Houpla! Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!!1! I know you’ve all been looking forward to this moment for months, I can tell because of all the e-mails we received begging for the traditional KiaSA Primevent Calendar counting down the milliseconds until those hot, hot deals are available, but we’ve taken an executive decision to take a step back. You see, some of you youngsters might not believe this, but we remember a time before Prime Day. Yes, as terrible as that is to contemplate, back in the 1970s it just didn’t exist. Children didn’t know the excitement of waking up on Prime Day Morning and rushing to check their e-mail to find a message from Saint Primus claiming he’d tried to deliver some presents but nobody was in, even though you’d been staring out of the front window the whole day looking for a delivery van. I remember that very first Prime Day like it was only a year ago; father returning from the costermonger with a basket of internets (they were still on ration then), loading the cards into the Sinclair ZX Analytical Engine (with the odd rubber punch-keys), the whole family clustering around the flickering images of the electromechanical Baird device… what treats might there be? Great Scott, a pair of spats for but one and nine instead of half a crown! A perfectly air-tight manhole cover (with flange) for fourteen shillings? Why, usually they were a guinea apiece! On and on came the parade of delights; household linens, ironmongery, seed drills, radiostereograms, ne’er had we been so excited.

It’s all so different these days, of course. Streaming doo-dads on your virtual thingumypad while hoverboarding to the lunar shuttle, who has time to really appreciate a chrome interociter with deluxe bead condenser for a mere 276 galactic credits? That’s why it’s time to reassess your priorities. Forget about getting together with friends and family, forget about deep personal contemplation, forget about the Doctor Who Prime Day Special (oh all right, maybe don’t completely forget about it, The Daleks Buy Some Very Reasonable Colouring Pencils sounds like it’s going to be a corker), let’s get back to the *true* meaning of the day: buying consumer goods you don’t really need because they seem like a bargain.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2016

Our fourth year of Historical Festivities at Chalke Valley got off to a slightly rocky start, or more accurately a slippery start; heavy rain in the preceding weeks had led to much of the site becoming something of a quagmire. Admirable attention to detail shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme but a bit of a nightmare in the car park, taking a good three quarters of an hour to get onto the site and slide into a space. Plans for a leisurely breakfast were replaced by a hasty squelch to the first talk, unfortunately missing the first ten minutes of Afrika Korps veteran and Knight’s Cross holder Günter Halm in conversation with James Holland. The logistics of translation, ably handled by German historian Robin Schäfer, inevitably meant a slightly whistle-stop tour of Halm’s career, but it was fascinating to hear his tales of the desert war.

Gunter Halm

Günter Halm

Exploring the site was rather hard work in the mud, but the usual array of reenactors spanning a couple of thousand years were there in splendid encampments. Chatting to some of the Romans, a heavy rain shower the previous day had resulted in a mini-flood but they seemed in good spirits. The valley echoed to artillery and musket fire from an American Revolutionary War battle in the main arena, and over the course of the day there were excellent flying displays from a P-40 Kittyhawk, Yak-3 and B-17 – as wonderful as Spitfires are, it was nice to see some different types.

Yak yak yak

Yak yak yak

Achilles? I hardly know... dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Achilles? I hardly know… dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

A demonstration of weapons through the ages sounded fun, but I had to yomp over for my second talk: Who Sank the Tirpitz? A most impressive line-up took to the stage: historian Paul Beaver, Air Vice-Marshal Edward Stringer and Fleet Air Arm veteran Fane Vernon who took part in a raid on the Tirpitz as observer in a Fairey Barracuda dive bomber. An excellent presentation building up to the attacks by IX and 617 Squadrons that finally sank the Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs, and the controversy ever since: which squadron actually delivered the fatal blow? (Probably IX Squadron was the conclusion, though 617 had scored the first hits.) Vernon’s enthusiastic rendition of an 820 Squadron song extolling the virtues of the Barracuda was particularly enjoyable.

Fane Vernon

Fane Vernon

ChalkeValley2016 039

Ballista? I hardly know 'er!

Ballista? I hardly know ‘er!

Fortunately the sun stayed out for the day, there was no further rain to make conditions worse; we feared it might have needed a push or a tow to get out of the car park, but the tracks had just about dried out enough to escape. It was a shame it was so muddy, the talks and demonstrations were as excellent as ever, but it just wasn’t quite so pleasant as usual wandering around the site. Fingers crossed for slightly better weather in the run up to next year’s festival!

ChalkeValley2016 150

Varied in content but generic in title

So the Steam Summer Sale is here again, and like the last Winter Sale they’ve come up with a zany idea: discount a bunch of games for a couple of weeks. No daily deals, votes, flash sales, minigames or what-not, just some trading cards available for browsing your Discovery Queue. From a consumer-buying-games point of view I think this is sensible; no agonising over whether to buy something now or wait in case there’s more of a discount at some point in the future, and no need to worry that you missed the 17 minute window when Awesome Game Simulator was available for 72p instead of £59.99. As someone who got quite caught up with some of the previous events, though, it’s mildly disappointing from the Steam-as-a-game-in-itself perspective.

Still, there are new trading cards, and what do cards make? Badges! I’ve done my usual sale routine of digging through any games that still have trading card drops and leaving them running in the background, selling off duplicate cards, and using the resulting funds to buy a few more cards to finish off other sets. Firing off buy and sell orders like some striped-jacketed trader I built up a highly impressive portfolio worth almost 64p, until I blew half of it on XCOM 2 cards. Considering the market volatility caused by all this EU referendum palaver I was briefly tempted to switch my ISA investments over to Steam trading cards, but apparently banks won’t take a Total War: Warhammer badge as security for a loan, even if it is Level 7.

I’ve also been diligently browsing my Discovery Queue, and good lord but there’s a lot of crud on Steam. This isn’t a massive surprise, Sturgeon’s Revelation and all that, but since the introduction of the feature Steam has showed me around 500 games so far and is well into the 90%:

“Hi! I’ll be your Discovery Queue for the day, let’s take a look at some Exciting and Amazing games that I really think you’re going to be Amazingly Excited about! OK, let’s see, first off the pile it’s… War Shoot Man Gun, an utterly bland FPS with no stand-out features whatsoever, how about it, huh?”

*clicks Next*

“No? Oh. OK, I see you’ve played RPGs, I bet you’ll love Dungeon Of The 8-Bit Quest For Sword, lovingly crafted with retro-graphics totally as a stylistic decision and not because it’s a ten minute copy and paste job to churn out any old dreck!”

*clicks Next*

“Boy, tough crowd. All right, you’re bound to want this: Screenshots Of Scantily Clad Anime Girls! No idea what genre it is, if it even has a genre, but the screenshots prominently feature scantily clad anime girls. Phwoar, eh? Eh? The whole thing looks creepy but it’s all right, it’s probably ironic or something so that’s fine. Absolutely perfect for anyone not aware that there are photographs of actual breasts on the internet if you like that sort of thing. Apparently. So I’ve been told.”

*clicks Next*

“Huh. Got it! Block Craft Dig Build, a blocky game where you dig stuff up and then, hold on ‘cos this is gonna blow your mind: build things.”

*clicks Next*

Block Build Shoot Dig Gun, subtitle (Because Apparently The Lawyers Got All Upset When We Called It ‘Minecraft With Guns’)?”

*clicks Next*

Blood Grim Stab Dark Spooky Times, nail-biting survival horror?”

*clicks Next*

Spooky Dark Creepy Blood Spurt, nail-biting horror survival?”

*clicks Next*

The IKEA VR Experience?”

*clicks Ne…* “Hang on… IKEA?”

“Yes! Consumers can use the app to explore one of three differently-styled kitchen room settings. The user can change the colour of cabinets and drawers with a click.”

“That’s the most interesting thing you’ve shown me so far. Oh god, I’m so old. Remind me to have a another look at that after I’ve finished the queue.” *clicks Next*

“OK, next on the list is Some F2P Online Thing You Heard About A Couple Of Years Ago But Never Got Around To Checking Out

“Is it any good?”

“Reviews say: no, not really.”

*clicks Next*

Old Game Remastered, an HD remake of something you liked when it first came out but don’t have the time or inclination to replay now even if the graphics are nicer?”

*clicks Next*

Noun Online, a unique MMO featuring adjective verbing?”

*clicks Next*

“Well there you go, that’s the end of this Amazing list of Exciting games. Join us tomorrow when we’ll repeat this tiresome charade, I know you’re only here for the trading card. Still, you could probably get a blog post out of it if nothing else. Soupy twist!”

“Soupy twist.”