A hundred and ten cornets close at hand

Things have calmed down a bit with puppy ownership, so I’ve finally got a bit of time in Fallout 76. Giving it a few years seems to have been a good decision as there’s been plenty added since launch, not least NPCs; I’m not surprised that the game world felt a bit dead at launch, even the light smattering of other characters make things feel more alive, unlike (ironically) human players who (at best) add nothing to the experience. My only interactions have been getting rapidly killed by high level players after claiming workbenches, an action that flags you for PvP. The game makes it clear, and it’s worth doing at least once to get a bunch of plans, but it gives me absolutely no desire to participate in more general PvP. There are messages here and there about teams forming up, though usually at much higher levels again, but I’ve no interest in that faff either.

In fact, other than content updates, the online elements are pretty universally negative. Combat follows the pattern of the previous games – sneak around, carefully line up a high-damage sniper rifle, and hopefully one shot opponents with a critical hit, otherwise revert to Plan B (for Benny (Hill)), chasing around and blazing away randomly. Here it seems a bit jankier, with mobs sometimes stuttering around, and as VATS no longer pauses time Plan B is even more chaotically “Ruffle his hair up, hit him with a bucket, run, Charlie, run!” Not being able to pause is less than ideal when the pup needs a bio break (or indeed when I do), and with some instances not preserving progress until they’re completed it’s pretty annoying if you get called away and have to repeat everything next time around. The Atomic Shop is far from the worst item shop, but still a minor annoyance to have it pop up every time you start the game.

I guess the key question is why I’m even bothering with Fallout 76 rather than going back to one of the previous games, with added DLC or mods to freshen it up. I’m not entirely certain myself, to be honest. Cost is one issue – all the DLC for Fallout 4 would be about three times as much as I paid for Fallout 76 on sale. I’d also have to either start from scratch or pick up a long-forgotten save game, not the end of the world but still. If the DLC pops up on sale I might consider it; for the moment, though, Fallout 76 scratches that Robinsonade itch with plenty of world to explore, mutants to battle, and crockery to break down into useful components.

It’s too dark to read

After previously posting about fancying a go at Fallout 76 but thinking it a bit pricey, it conveniently turned up on sale for less than a tenner. Instant buy! I haven’t quite got around to actually playing it, though, on account of a new arrival – Lyra the Miniature Schnauzer puppy, an adorable fluffbundle. Not entirely conducive to PC gaming sessions, though, she’s a fan of rather more old school entertainments like Tug On A Rope, Run Around A Lot, and the ever-popular Shoe Eating.

Normal service might resume in a while…

Lyra the Schnauzer

All I gotta do is survive

I was poking around the bonus loot available in Prime Game, and one of the offers was for Last Day on Earth. Never one to turn down free stuff I gave it a click, it turned out to be a mobile survival-type thing with crafting and zombies (incidentally, if you haven’t seen GamePitchBot on Twitter it’s well worth a look for hilarious, terrifyingly accurate, and occasionally that-would-really-work game pitches; random example: “I’ve got a world that’s something like He-Man but set in Shakespearean England only furry. This game is a rail shooter with a strong survival horror layer, and has authentically mocapped strippers, a penguin army and occasionally crafting something that blows up in your face”).

My mobile gaming tends to be more puzzle-type stuff to kill a bit of time when away from the PC, this was a real time ARPG with virtual joystick, but surprisingly easy to get on with. Movement was smooth, it was easy enough to point the right way and engage with crafting resources and/or enemies (often the same thing), and while not the deepest of combat systems (TAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAPTAP) it did the job. Gameplay was a familiar enough routine of gathering materials to craft tools to gather more materials to build a base with crafting stations to craft materials to gather tools to base buildings, or something along those lines. As you’d expect the process of building is made more difficult by lengthy planning disputes with the neighbours, though as they’re mostly ravening wildlife and shambling zombies the arbitration process involves fewer petitions to the local council and more shotguns. It was all fun enough, but didn’t take too long for the standard free mobile game foundations to be laid bare – an energy system restricting actions unless you pay or watch adverts, and no shortage of stuff to buy in a cash shop to overcome irritations like a very small starting inventory. Fair enough, that’s how a lot of mobile games sustain themselves; the freebies from Amazon included a larger backpack, so that made things a bit more bearable.

I bimbled around the starting area, explored some of the nearby sites, died once or twice but managed to get back to my body to retrieve my gear (shades of older, more hardcore MMOs). Then I bit off a bit more than I could chew and ended up in the middle of rather more zombies than I could handle, especially when my weapon broke mid-fight. A couple of gear-rescue attempts went equally badly, until I finally managed to kite the horde around in full Benny Hill Chase mode and pick them off individually. By that point, though, my lovely well-equipped corpse seemed to be no more, taking that oh-so-useful large backpack with it. So I furiously quit, and uninstalled the game.

I very much doubt it would have become a long term thing anyway, it seems a little pointless playing an action game on a phone screen while sitting right next to a decent PC. From a bit of reading around it seems once you get out of the early areas you can also attack other players and nick their stuff, which has never really been my thing. It was an interesting diversion, though, a good showcase of how a game like that can work on a phone, and there’s something about gathering stuff to build and fortify a base that scratches a real Robinsonade itch, so I started looking around for a PC game to do the same.

Obviously there’s good old Minecraft, but maybe something a little less blocky with a bit more of a combat system. Valheim gets pretty universal thumbs up, and with a recent update and a sale I grabbed that, certainly seems to have potential though (from a very brief start) the crafting seems a bit fiddly. I’m sure I’d get used to it, but it’s not quite what I’m after for now. Something with guns, ideally; maybe zombies, they’re always a handy guilt-free foe. Definitely not a PvP focused corpse-loot-o-thon, we all know who the *real* monsters are, ahhhh. A bit of digging suggested a few possibilities, 7 Days to Die and State of Decay 2 being towards the top of the list, but nothing so inspiring as to warrant an immediate purpose. I think Fallout 76 might be just the ticket; not exactly a survival game, but with plenty of the elements. It didn’t have the best of starts but subsequent updates seem to have raised it to the heady heights of “not too bad”, so I was all ready to give it a lash until seeing it’s still £35. Seems a bit steep for a three year old game, even with a bunch of updates in that time. It probably shouldn’t, with the price of everything else going up it’s unreasonable to expect games to get ever cheaper. If it was labelled a Super Deluxe Edition, usually £70 but down to £35, I’d be a lot more tempted even if the content was exactly the same, which doubtless says a lot more about me and susceptibility to psychological manipulation than anything else, but hey. I’m sure there’ll be a sale soon when I’ll grab it, and sod’s law will doubtless dictate that I don’t really fancy playing it by then but have a real hankering for a game that’s currently on a once-in-a-lifetime sale. Such is life!

The song remains the same

It’s been pretty consistent on the gaming front since the last post. I wrapped up Shadowrun Returns, a nice straightforward slice of magic cyberpunk; by all accounts Shadowrun: Dragonfall builds on the promising start, with a less linear story, so I’d like to get around to that, but maybe after a little break. Destiny 2 is coming to the end of the current season, I’ve been in my traditional soft cap ennui zone where the ever so incremental increases in gear score hardly seem worth it, new seasons are usually enough to perk me up again, but I might be heading for a longer break there; we’ll see what the Season of the Lost brings.

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realm continues to be diverting, though, I can’t really put my finger on why; I guess it’s just not-idle enough to present interesting challenges of formation building with the various limitations and challenges imposed, then after settings things going you can wander off and still be scratching that loot-earning itch in the background.

Kards, the Second World War themed digital collectible car game, has also kept me hooked. A Battle of Britain event certainly helped, how could I possibly resist? It gave a few objectives: playing British and German aircraft, issuing Orders and such, which meant for a while I might not always have been playing optimally as I tried to spam out as many aircraft as possible regardless of whether they were the most suitable card, but it’s the sort of thing that encourages a bit of experimentation and stands you in good stead for learning what works and what doesn’t. The standard battles are against other players, but having built up 100 gold (the in-game currency) I bought the British PvE campaign, a short series of missions with slightly different set-ups in terms of objectives, starting positions and such. I thought I’d prefer playing the AI to other people, but after wrapping up the campaign I’m not so sure; either way you bump into those old imposters of Triumph and Disaster, but it’s somehow more galling when the computer pulls out cards that perfectly counter your planned attacks. I had a match against another human where I was on the verge of winning, they had no units on the board, and they drew and played a card that had the exact combination of abilities to finish me off first. Irritating, but at least they got a war story out of it. The PC? Unless the AI evolves to the point where it can head down to the pub with its AI mates and regale them with that time it pulled an Attack 5 Blitz card right when it was about to lose a match, it’s not really the same. Communication with other players is limited to a small set of defined phrases, and you can even turn those off if someone’s getting spammy, but the vast majority of time I’ve only seen “Good luck, have fun!” and “Thanks for the game!”, or their equivalents, so there isn’t much difference between PvP and PvE at the end of things. I think it might slot into my regular rotation, a match or two here and there alongside War Thunder.

City of Heroes has also slotted seamlessly back, like the good old days. Jumpers for goalposts, Positron task forces, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? The nostalgia rush briefly made me consider going back to World of Warcraft, following that original MMO-trajectory, but I snapped out of it pretty sharpish, there’s more than enough to keep me going in CoH with my occasional dabbling.

There is no armour against fate

Being a bit disconnected from the gaming zeitgeist I almost missed this year’s Steam summer sale, which would’ve been a shame. Not for any sort of shopping bargains but the associated Forge Your Fate adventures, 14 little vignettes associated with various genres. Selecting options gave an animated sticker reward, with a badge on offer at the end of it. They’re worth catching up with, the writing had a good dollop of Old Man Murray about it; I felt particularly singled out by the RPG story of spending a full day in the character creator, then another to finalise the hairstyle and waistcoat colour selections.

It particularly struck home as Melmoth had pointed me to an article about private servers resurrecting defunct MMOs including City of Heroes. I’d read about the Homecoming project a couple of years back when there was a bit of a kerfuffle as it was revealed, didn’t have the bandwidth for it at the time, but I’ve got such fond memories of it as my first MMO I had to give it another go. The Homecoming launcher is very slick and easy, it was a quick process to get everything up and running, and sure enough the character creator (particularly the costume design) can still keep me occupied for hours. Launching into the game itself was quite the Proustian trip, talking to those same contacts in the tutorial from 20-odd years ago. The game itself does feel a bit dated in some areas, those initial few levels with a limited number of powers are quite slow (Shoot… miss! Wait for recharge… in part a legacy of working with all sorts of connections including dial-up, I guess). There are things to help, a vendor to supply many of the temporary powers made available to veterans later, and you can get a proper travel power at level 4 which is a blessed relief. Perez Park isn’t such an inescapable trap of doom once you can fly. It doesn’t take long to round out your power tray and get back into frantic mob-pummelling fury, as well as planning any number of character concepts; just seeing Magical as one of the character origins popped Magical Trevor into my head (and once there it’s awfully hard to shift), so I had to roll a quick Beast Summoning Mastermind (the opposite of disappearing a cow, I guess, but close enough for government work), though someone else beat me to the name.

It’s still eminently playable and looks pretty good, though the odd interface quirk and low resolution texture remind you of its age; I did try and delve a bit further back into my formative gaming with 1989’s Curse of the Azure Bonds in Good Old Games, but the pre-mouse interface was just too much to grapple with. The main reason I’d fired up the GOG launcher was that they were giving away the Shadowrun trilogy, which got a good write up. I’ve made a start on the first game and it seems a pretty solid turn based RPG, not a vast amount of tactical depth in combat so far but then I’m low level so don’t have many abilities to employ. The story is pulling me along nicely, there have been some fun investigations/puzzles, and it’s told in sensibly-sized chunks of dialogue that convey what they need to without dragging on excessively. There’s no voicing; while a good voice actor can make a tremendous difference to a character I’m more text-oriented and certainly read faster than I can listen, sometimes I prefer to get on with things rather than settle in for lengthy conversations, so it’s not something I’m missing.

Over in idle world I’m still kicking off adventures in Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms in the background. Having progressed from initial bafflement to getting a handle on the mechanisms it’s now settling down into the everlasting grind of progression, earning various forms of currency, unlocking characters and gear. On a previous post Jeromai pointed me to Crusaders of the Lost Idols, a sister game from the same studio; I gave it a try, but having unlocked a fair number of bits and pieces I didn’t fancy starting over. I could’ve switched between them, but running both in the background seemed like another rung on the ladder of impending madness (why not not play two games at the same time!!!) I wasn’t actively looking for another free to play game with endless grinding potential, but PC Gamer had a piece on 9 card games better than Hearthstone and one of them was the intriguing looking (but terribly named) Kards, a Second World War themed CCG. Being a sucker for that sort of thing I’ve grabbed it and played a few matches, and quite enjoyed it for the most part. It can have that inevitable frustration where you just draw situational cards in entirely the wrong situation and/or your opponent pulls out perfect combos that really complement each other, but either through luck or exceptional skill (I think we all know which) I’ve been winning more than losing. It’ll probably be a different story if I get matched up against more experienced players rather than other rookies. Steam reviews are a bit mixed, with a fair number of complaints about expensive/rare overpowered cards (people on the internet in “Annoyed About Game Balance” shocker), so I’m not sure I’ll throw too much money at it just yet, but I might dabble a while longer.

Destiny 2 ticks along; I sank a bit of time into the Solstice of Heroes event for the shiny armour, it needed a good mix of different activities for the various tasks, some of which I hadn’t run for an age. I think it might be time for another break, though, as there’s plenty of competition on the gaming front; Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is still there on the back burner, along with The Division 2 and any number of other titles accrued in Steam, the Epic Games store, Origin, UPlay etc. Time, my old nemesis, we meet again!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

We’re not out of the Covid woods, with a third wave brewing and the prospect of further variants, but after both doses of vaccine we’re confident in getting back to events with suitable precautions in place – like the Chalke Valley History Festival. 2020 would’ve been the tenth festival, but obviously Covid put the kibosh on that; this year’s festival would’ve been after the lifting of restrictions, after that was delayed it was still able to proceed with reduced capacity (being mostly outdoors), with open-sided marquees for the talks. Tickets sold out quickly for a lot of the talks, so I branched out (slightly) from the Second World War – no bad thing.

First up was A Marvel to Behold: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII with Timothy Schroder, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Though few of the actual objects remain, the majority of Henry’s collection being melted and remodelled numerous times during and after his lifetime, archive records give a vivid picture of the role of precious metals; gifts for wives (when in favour) and the court, a means of impressing, then in later life as he became more vindictive a way of exercising power, exemplified by the destruction of the shrine of Thomas Becket with a large ruby from it turned into a ring.

Next was The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves with biographer Andrew Lownie. Archive material was a vital element again, in revealing the less edifying predilections of Louis Mountbatten, though Lownie is still battling for the full archives to be opened in the face of Cabinet Office opposition. Quite the astonishing cast across decades and continents, from Charlie Chaplin to Jawaharlal Nehru, and mysterious circumstances in both of their deaths – seems like there might be further revelations to come.

Finishing up the formal talks was Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War, the story of Pat and Jean Owtram. Unfortunately Jean was unable to make it, but Pat’s conversation with Simon Robinson was wonderful. Growing up their family employed Austrian Jews as housekeeper and cook, a lifeline after Kristallnacht, so Pat and Jean learned German from them (with a Viennese accent, still identifiable 75 years later in an interview with German radio). After taking a secretarial course in London at the height of the Blitz, Pat rejected the advice of a relative who suggested joining the Foreign Office whose secretaries were a “jolly bunch of girls”; Pat’s preference was for “a jolly bunch of sailors” so enlisted in the WRNS, where her knowledge of German was invaluable for the “Y” Service who collected signals intelligence from German transmissions. Post-war Pat moved into media, producing University Challenge and The Sky at Night as well as developing Ask The Family. The rest of the family had an equally eventful war; Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Middle East and Italy, while their father was captured at Singapore and became Camp Commandant at Chungkai, a prison camp on the river Kwai. It’s always a privilege to hear first hand accounts from the ever-dwindling number of veterans.

Around the site there’s living history from the Iron Age to the Cold War with constant talks and demonstrations at the forges, kitchens and camps. Particularly good were the Time Traveller’s Kitchen and the Romans of Leg II Avg (who also recently assisted Phil Wang with his invasion of Britain).

Finishing off the day were a couple of events at the open stages. James Holland and Al Murray’s Second World War podcast We Have Ways Of Making You Talk started shortly before the 2019 festival, and has grown into quite the Patreon-supported behemoth; a live recording attracted a large crowd for a whistle-stop run through Britain’s worst blunders and greatest triumphs of the war (lubricated with a few pints). Murray was then on the panel for Histrionics, a panel show chaired by Charlie Higson, teaming up with Alexandra Richie against Harry Enfield and Dan Snow in a raucously ramshackle quiz. Historical charades were particularly entertaining, especially with the host seeming to have different answers on the card. A fine way to end the day as the sun set over the rolling Wiltshire countryside.

T-34 at Chalke Valley
Cold War Armoured Brigade HQ
We Have Ways of Making You Talk – Live!
The Histrionics Panel Show
Al Murray re-enacts… I’m still not quite sure what

An idle mind is the devil’s playground

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms has been out for a few years now but hadn’t been on my radar until a month or so back. PC Gamer on Twitter had put out a link to an old story and my interest was piqued by the mention of Progress Quest (plus a fondness for the Forgotten Realms). Reading the article reminded me of dabbling in previous idle/incremental games: Fallout Shelter, a Westworld game so similar to Fallout Shelter there was a lawsuit, a silly monster-clicker thing Steam put out for the 2015 summer sale, Cookie Clicker, back to one I played years ago but couldn’t remember the name of. Searching the blog it turns out it was CivClicker; in a weirdly ironic meta-twist the reference was in a blog post about searching the blog to remind myself what I thought of previous games. It didn’t spur me to go and get Idle Champions, though, I had no great interest in the game. Until it was the free giveaway on the Epic Store. The base game is free to play, but Epic were handing out some bonus loot; who am I to look some gift loot in the mouth?

I got a bit hooked. I’m a sucker for Making Numbers Go Up, and Idle Champions is pure, concentrated essence of Making Numbers Go Up. Numbers Go Up to such an extent that I was struggling with the notation; million, billion, trillion, not a problem; octillion and nonillion, bit more unusual; Qd… Quattuordecillion? OK, that’s why there’s the option for scientific notation. If nothing else players should end up with a solid understanding of orders of magnitude and such. There’s a bit of a puzzle working out optimal party composition and positioning; one character buffs anyone adjacent to them, another the column in front, another grants different benefits depending on their position in the formation. Once you’ve worked all that out, though, you can pretty much leave them to it. I mean, the clue is in the name. You just need to alt-tab over now and again to level everyone up, perhaps adjust the formation, kick off some special powers if you’re feeling terribly interactive. Perfect for leaving in the background while, say, writing a blog post about it. Eventually you hit a wall where you’re making no impact on the mobs, so you finish that run, then start another one with some bonuses to take you further.

The adventures you embark on in Idle Champions do have a story, but heavily suborned to the mechanics, not something you’re eagerly following for the plot. An RA Salvatore tie-in novel would go something like “Drizzt and his companions set off to find the stolen sceptre but were beset by bandits and had to kill 25 of them, then another 25 of them, then 25 more. In a radical twist then they had to collect 10 McGuffins for Reasons; coincidentally one in every two and a half bandits were carrying them so they ended up killing 25 of them in the process, what are the chances? Then there was a Bandit Boss, and several more waves of 25 bandits. “Phew” said Drizzt after they’d finished off all the bandits “I’m glad this next bit of the forest is bandit-free”. Barely had the words left his mouth when a pack of snarling wolves attacked, and Drizzt and his companions were forced to defend themselves until they had slain 25 of them. Then 25 more. Then 25 bears. And another 25. Then a really big bear. In the process of all that they’d got a bit lost, and found themselves slap bang in the middle of bandit territory again…” As you’re not even watching the screen much of the time it’s a bit of a moot point anyway. It’s the gacha-type progress that’s more of a hook, heroes to unlock, gear of increasing rarity to equip them with, assorted consumables to consume.

Previous idle games have seized that compulsion to Make Numbers Go Up but not lasted terribly long, after a while of Making Numbers Go Up to unlock things to Make Numbers Go Up Some More they get a bit hollow. They can be particularly dangerous for inflicting existential dread over the entire point of games, or at least certain mechanics within games, as demonstrated by Cow Clicker back in the day, especially when combined with monetisation. The “$100 worth” of bonus stuff from the Epic Store consisted of some extra characters and familiars (creatures that automatically click things for you, in case things weren’t idle enough) and a whole bunch of chests. Considering you could buy a whole stack of indie games or a big release or two for that price it seems a bit steep; then again, I guess it would also cover a single spaceship (or part thereof) in Star Citizen. Value is in the wallet of the beholder and all that. Heaven knows we’ve been talking cash shops and loot boxes for 10+ years, it’s not like there’s anything new here, and Idle Champions isn’t particularly obnoxious about it; regular events allow you to unlock characters without paying, there are plenty of codes floating around for a free chest here and there, there don’t seem to be any deliberate irritations to try and get you to part with cash. It just seems a little odd that there are packs of chests costing £40+ in, if you really boil it down, Cookie Clicker with knobs on. Still, no harm in starting off the odd idle adventure before launching into a different game or sitting down to watch some television, is there? It’s not like it’ll kick off some nervous breakdown over the pointlessness of games and thus existence, will it? No, it’s just a silly old bit of clicking fun. Isn’t it? Or is it? Yes, it is. Isn’t it?

Do not fire at Will, he is my second in command! Fire at the Sea Duck!

Say one thing for Gaijin Entertainment, say they put the effort in for April. If you were cruising around a naval map over the weekend you may have noticed a new addition…

The Everstuck Container Ship
Note for historians: this was around the time the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal

We also got a couple of new game modes. Previous events have included tank hats, World War II mechs, and giant radioactive snails; this year we got Warfare 2077, future tanks that were fine and all but ground forces still aren’t really my thing:

Warfare 2077
In the moodily lit not-terribly-far-future, there is only war. And bridges.

Rather more fun was a new arcade air mode loosely based on Disney’s TaleSpin cartoon, with brightly coloured seaplanes cavorting around floating islands to a jaunty soundtrack:

TaleSpin in War Thunder
If you can’t fly, don’t mess with the eagles!

It wasn’t the deepest of events, generally devolving into a furious furball, but did a good job of distilling down the essence of arcade air battles when you fancied a quick blast. As with many of the previous events I won’t miss it too much when it’s gone, but wouldn’t mind at all if it popped up occasionally in the future again.

TaleSpin in War Thunder
“Hey! My flying is A+” “Yeah, but your landing is C-“

The blade itself incites to deeds of violence

Melmoth has been playing Assassin’s Creed a lot recently, and with a combination of his enthusiastic thumbs up and a Lunar New Year sale I grabbed Odyssey myself, or ACsurprised face if you have an intrusively pictorial chat system that absolutely insists on rendering :O as an animated emoji.

It’s the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played; I’m vaguely aware of the general idea of projecting yourself backwards in time but I’ve no idea what’s specifically happening with the characters and factions in the introduction, there was no “Previously on Assassin’s Creed…” recap. I guess it’s easy enough to go and read up on if you’re particularly bothered, it doesn’t seem of vital importance in the main Greek part of the game. That main part is a well-polished Standard Ubisoft Map-Mopper; not having played the rest of the series I can’t particularly pinpoint which elements originated in earlier instalments of the series and which are blended in from elsewhere, but if you like climbing towers, revealing sections of map, and causing unrest to destabilise regions then overthrowing their leaders, it’s got you covered. Some mechanics feel a little too by-the-numbers; where contemporary game use a drone to scout around and spot enemies or objectives, in AC:O your pet eagle fulfils the same function. Presumably there was a conversation along the lines of…
“No drones in ancient Greece, guess we’ll have to drop the spotting system”
“What about telescopes?”
“Nope, still too early”
“Any characters of the Odyssey noted for having particularly keen senses? Eupithes The Far-Sighted? Antinous The Hawk-Eyed? Steve The Bloke Who Can See Stuff Really Far Away?”
“Don’t think so…”
“OK, magic eagle it is. Next!”

In place of the ‘Wanted’ stars of Grand Theft Auto there are Bounty Hunter Helmets that fill up if citizens clock you being a bad sort (stealing, attacking innocents, embarking on a murderous rampage cutting a swathe through a shadowy cult and their henchmen). Too much mayhem and a bounty hunter starts hunting you, and I’m often in trouble with the law as the game has a really fluid movement system. The tap of a key sends you jumping, climbing and rolling up or over almost any obstacle, the complete antithesis of something like the original Guild Wars with its complete lack of jumping where any shin-high wall or moderate incline was an impregnable obstacle. Sheer cliff face? Up you hop with fearsome free climbing skills. Statue? Shinny up the legs and perch on the head, no trouble! Buildings? Climbing frames, more like. As a result, moving through cities there’s little incentive not to take the most direct route between points; quite the opposite in fact. Why trudge along the streets detouring around a building when you can scale its walls, run along the roof, dive onto a canopy, hop up to a balcony, over a washing line, and get to your destination quicker and more stylishly; never taken a shortcut before? This does mean I end up jumping over or running through market stalls, temples, random houses, barracks and such, doubtless to the great annoyance of the residents, but their cries of “I’ll get the bounty hunter on you!” aren’t particularly troubling – the system is rather fatally undermined by the fact that another game mechanism rewards you for killing those very bounty hunters, propelling you up the mercenary ranks, so it’s less a deterrent than another source of shiny loot. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Only in Greek rather than Latin, and hunting bounty hunters rather than guarding guards, but I don’t trust Google Translate to capture the nuance.)

The one time that bounty hunters/rival mercenaries can really throw a spanner in the works is when they turn up at a ludicrously high level; AC:O has a very RPG level system, where enemies of the same level tend to be a reasonable challenge but as soon as they’re few levels above you they might as well be invulnerable. Around level 15 I spotted a helmet symbol on the HUD, toddled over to introduce myself via the medium of sneak attack, and was promptly despatched by a careless slap from the level 47 mercenary; since then I’ve been rather more cautious about eagle-scanning potential adversaries first. For the most part the game seems to nudge you gently enough through level-appropriate areas while allowing latitude for exploration, but when it goes wrong you do get the incongruity of taking on a good portion of an army and its champions one minute to seize control of an island, then being completely unable to handle a common street thug the next because you went a bit off-piste into a higher level area.

The tricky part of open world games is to keep up the momentum once the mechanics have been introduced, my last couple of efforts (Far Cry 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2) rather fizzled out. So far AC:O is holding up well, the main story is interesting enough but with latitude for random exploration when in the mood. I’m having the most fun taking on forts and bandit encampments, carefully scoping out the area then dealing with the defenders one by one, with the good old stealth game trope of being able to pick up bodies to hide them leading to storerooms quickly becoming impromptu morgues (or dormitories, if I’m on a less-violent knocking-out rampage rather than a killing spree). I have noticed a skill that will summon one of my lieutenants to cause a diversion; I’m rather hoping I can recruit a Spaniard to stroll up to guards and say “Excuse me, meister“, it would be a bit anachronistic, but I’m already dressed up in a patchwork of historical armour anyway thanks to assorted tie-in rewards so I don’t think anyone would notice.

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me

A time of global pandemic, when remaining indoors and minimising human contact is not only tolerated but positively encouraged, should be ideal for gaming, the perfect opportunity to catch up on the back catalogue or delve into something new and exciting. For some reason, though, it hasn’t really worked out like that, for the most part I’ve been settling in to the comfy slippers of the old regulars, Destiny 2 and War Thunder. Over Christmas I thought I’d make a bit of a conscious effort to get into something else, starting by digging out login details and getting various game launchers patched up – Steam, of course, Epic Games Store, Origin, UPlay, the Microsoft Store. I appreciate that Steam’s dominance of the PC gaming scene isn’t necessarily healthy, but it’s damnably convenient; presumably in a bid to crack that the Epic Store was handing out a free game a day for a couple of weeks (then resuming the regular freebie-per-week), and it would’ve be rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Looking at recent purchases there was Anthem on Origin, Borderlands 3 on Epic, and The Division 2 on UPlay; I’d had a bit of a go at them back in the summer, and while perfectly fine they hadn’t prised me away from Destiny 2 for any length of time. I figured I should look at something other than a game-as-a-service sort of shooter featuring a colour-coded array of increasingly rare weapons. Steam had Star Wars: Squadrons, but after dipping a toe in there I’d just gone back to War Thunder, so that seems to be sufficient for any flight/space-type sim requirements. Something a bit different, something new, an RPG? Seems like it’ll be sensible to hold off for another patch or two of Cyberpunk 2077 yet, but one of the free Epic games was Torchlight 2 so I got that installed. I never managed to get into a Diablo or similar games, and sure enough bounced off Torchlight 2 after a level or two. I contemplated a couple of Epic’s management-type offerings, Cities: Skylines and Tropico 5, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to plunge in; on one level I want something completely new and interesting and deep and challenging, but on another level don’t want to learn a whole new set of rules and mechanisms and controls. The Epic freebie I ended up playing most turned out to be Solitarica, a golf solitaire game with some light RPG elements (spells and items), a nice little time-passer ideal for a half-hour here and there, but not terribly deep and fulfilling. Is it too much to ask for a game of massive scope offering every kind of experience that’s completely intuitive and has photorealistic graphics that are also quirky and an amazing story but also complete freedom with no barriers and also increasingly rare items to find and achievements and the moon (on a stick)? Yes, yes it is.

After rummaging around the other launchers I headed for the Giant Steam Backlog, got as far as ‘B’, and noticed Battletech. I’d joined the Kickstarter back in 2016 and played it for a while in 2018; as far as I recall I’d quite enjoyed it, but never completed the campaign. Hankering for a bit of mech action I fired it up, starting a new campaign from scratch after a briefly clueless attempt to resume an old save game. The slower pace of turn-based combat was a nice change; it takes a while to get used to, factoring in when different weights of mech will move and planning positioning and targeting priorities accordingly, and is nicely rewarding once you get the hang of it. In between the story missions of the campaign you take contracts to keep the money coming in, and while they don’t vary too wildly the mixture of mission types (attack, defend, escort or intercept convoys etc.) and maps with different terrain, obstacles and temperatures keep things interesting. I particularly enjoy training missions, where you take a single pilot and mech and are given three rookies to round out the lance; sometimes it’s a specific objective to keep them alive, sometimes… it isn’t.

“So, chaps, have you heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade? No? Oh, well, that’s the model for today’s mission. No, don’t Google it, it’ll be fine, just head down the Valley of, er, Death over there. Why do they call it that? Well, because… oh, I remember! It’s named after Geoff Death, very popular guy around here, did a lot of good work for charity, so they named it after him. Definitely. Now off you toddle, I’ll be back here with the LRMs. They’ve got a minimum range, you see. A surprisingly long minimum range. I’d love to be right there with you otherwise. Anyway, off you go!”

As in many Battletech games the process of obtaining and equipping mechs is a strong driver, trying to defeat interesting-looking opponents with the minimum amount of damage so you can snaffle them afterwards, then taking them down to the Mech Bay to agonise over the right balance of weapons, ammo, armour and equipment. Melee combat is surprisingly viable in some circumstances, especially when you find modifications for additional damage, though I suspect the arm mods that really boost melee damage also contain giant magnets. Every time I’d equip a mech with +++ melee damage, that arm would get blown off the following mission, most annoying. I suppose it might have had something to do with that mech charging forwards all the time to try and close for great punching.

I’ve just wrapped up the story, a suitable saga of betrayal and revenge. The pacing worked well, enough cutscenes and conversations to keep you involved without dragging on interminably. My mercenary band is now free to roam the galaxy battling injustice and corruption (for a suitable fee), very much like The Littlest Hobo. If The Littlest Hobo was a giant 100-ton battle-robot that solved problems by obliterating them with large calibre autocannons rather than barking and finding things. And demanded payment for doing so. Perhaps not so much like The Littlest Hobo after all on reflection, though they have the same theme tune. “Every stop I make, I make a new smoking crater; can’t stay for long, just turn around, I’m gone again (after checking the local store for rare weapon upgrades)”. If it was just the randomly generated contracts that were available I’m not sure I’d keep going but one of the DLC packs introduced Flashpoints, little sets of connected missions with some light story (and most importantly the prospect of rare loot), so I’ve been popping back in here and there.

Back with the old regulars I haven’t seen many drastic changes in War Thunder, at least in the low-to-mid tiers where I dabble; I was on a naval kick for a while, flipping between Italy, Japan and Germany, but for the moment I’m back on aircraft, working through the newer nations of China and Sweden. I was a bit rusty for a while, especially capturing airfields, but it’s coming back to me. Over in Destiny 2 every few months I think it’s finished, done with, over and finished, done over and finished with, but then it goes and throws porridge in my face with my own damn spoon. Regular seasonal updates bring new items and activities, and I seem to be in something of a Goldilocks zone with the timing – as I’ve wrapped up most of the main goals for a season, and it’s bogged down into running the same old things to nudge your gear score up a point or two here and there, it’s not long until another update comes along with just enough changes to perk things up (and an import licence for those oh-so-pretty fighting fish). There was the Beyond Light expansion back in November, removing a bunch of old planets, adding a couple of new ones, plus Stasis powers and such; that had got a little stale by the end of the year so I took a few weeks off while delving into Battletech. Having wrapped up the main story there, the next season of Destiny 2 kicked in, and damn it twice around the carpark if it didn’t drag me back in again. In a shocking turn of events the main new activity seems to involve shooting a bunch of minions then shooting a boss, but it mixes things up enough (and with enough new loot) to keep me going a while. If you need me I’ll be at the Welcome Break Low Wycombe under the name of Lewis Potter.