Encumbered forever by desire and ambition

It’s a funny old game, The Division. Saying that, I didn’t find it particularly amusing, the quirky mission-givers being a bit jarring in an otherwise bleak, bleak time, and it’s not old as such, having been released exactly(ish) a year ago. Still, “it’s a game, The Division” would be a bit of a weak post opening despite the factual accuracy.

On the one hand I’ve sunk a fair amount of time into it and mostly enjoyed it, popping back in for the updates and noodling around New York with a bunch o’ guns. It’s got a good hook, the set-piece story missions play well and can take a fair bit of repeating in the “do it again but harder” endgame (note to ed: insert Kenneth Williams animated reaction GIF here in a desperate attempt to keep up with newfangled social media trends that are already dreadfully passée thus appearing even more out of touch, unless we luck out and they’re undergoing a retro revival). On the other hand, it feels like there are missed opportunities. The story is left dangling; obviously you want to leave space for a sequel but I would’ve liked a bit more of a resolution at the end of the main game. It hasn’t really been picked up in any updates or DLC, and from what “Year Two” details I’ve seen there are no more story missions on the cards (the old conflict between story (expensive voice actors, time-consuming development, ‘properly’ experienced once (if that) by most players) and repeatability). Combat generally works, but it can be a fine line between rampaging around without any difficulty and cowering behind boxes waiting for a healing skill to recharge as any attempt to peak out is met by a fusillade of pin-point return fire. The DLC packs have felt a little lacklustre; nice additions, but not necessarily £12-worth. Survival is fun but pales after a few runs, the most recent Last Stand looks particularly empty unless you’re into the PvP side of things. Assigning a value to games is increasingly difficult, entirely arbitrarily I’d say I got my money’s worth from the main game but not quite the season pass.

Tim & Jon were talking about it on their 9th Anniversary podcast (hearty congratulations to them for tireless devotion to entertaining gaming wittering, and indeed even older legacy textual rambling that the Wayback Machine has just about saved from The Demise of Domains) and mentioned a new in-game “Premium” vendor in the most recent update flogging emotes and cosmetics for real money (or at least for Obligatory Premium In-Game Currency bought with real money). I hadn’t seen this new vendor, so I fired up the game and toddled along to have a look and it is a trifle odd. Where, say, Mass Effect 3 compartmentalised the multiplayer (loot boxes, cash shop, ‘grind’) and the solo story, they’re blurred together in The Division for good (being able to drop in and easily play with friends, generally) and not-quite-so-good (£5 for a dance emote!) I’m not quite sure what genre The Division falls into; Sort Of Fairly Open World With Strong RPG Gameplay Elements And A Bit Of A Story If You Want To Pay Attention To It Optionally Multiplayer Third Person Cover Shooter, maybe. Not that everything has to fall into a neat box, of course, but I think it’s spread itself a bit thin and ended up the proverbial Jack-of-all-Genres, mastering none.

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Testing of naval forces in War Thunder started last year, and after a bit of a break for the introduction of Japanese tanks and official release of the game (whatever that means these days) is now happening most weekends. Tests so far have covered several scenarios, both with and without aircraft, with a variety of playable vessels from high speed torpedo armed motorboats to larger armoured gunboats.

Gameplay is interesting so far, broadly similar to land battles (only wetter). With nowhere to hide on the ocean apart from a few islands to duck behind, and boats that roll around on waves, cautious positioning and long-range sniping aren’t nearly as much of a factor as in tank battles. Boats are also generally quite resilient, able to soak up a fair amount of damage from the small calibre cannon that most are equipped with so one shot rarely leaves you incapacitated or destroyed. That said larger guns (85mm+) can quickly spoil the day of a wooden-hulled boat, and torpedoes are very potent against heavier, slower ships (nippy little boats should be able to avoid torpedo attacks, unless they’ve slightly embarrassingly run into an island and got stuck after being a bit too fixated on a target).

Aircraft can be quite deadly but most boats have a decent array of fast-firing weapons to put up a defensive barrage, mixed matches should offer good opportunities both in the air and on the water. Most tests so far have been domination-type matches requiring zones to be captured, an intriguing alternative involved two sets of NPC cargo ships that had to be defended/sunk.

I’ve not been playing ground forces much recently, I get rather bogged down in the mid-tiers, though it’s been fun to jump back into the faster-paced carefree world of Tier I with the new Japanese tree; I’m not sure if naval forces will prise me away from air battles in the long term, but I’ll certainly be taking to the water for a while when they’re fully released.

Mister Splashy Pants

Boaty McBoatface

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order

With a disappointing lack of imagination it turns out 2016 is followed by 2017, increasingly looking like a prescient choice for the setting of The Running Man, and with a similarly disappointing lack of imagination my New Year gaming has been much the same since first picking up War Thunder at the start of 2013. There’s been another series of tasks with shiny plane rewards up for grabs, based on the World War II Chronicles again, a series of daily scenarios chronologically progressing through the war that offer a nice opportunity to switch between countries and aircraft types. The tasks aren’t particularly onerous but do require a bit of grinding, so with the Me 262 secured I’m ready for a bit of a rest.

I’m winding down in Guild Wars 2 as well. It’s consumed good chunks of the past few months, but the rolling boil of new game excitement has given way to the gentle simmer of daily routine. I’ve finished off the various story elements (the original game, expansion, and the ongoing Living Story) and have to say I haven’t been terribly engrossed. It starts well enough, each race having several options during character creation that lead to different vignettes, but as the levels increase the various paths intertwine to put everybody on the same road to defeating the Big Evil Thing, and my sense of involvement steadily diminished to the point that I felt like I was watching a bunch of NPCs, one of whom happened to be dressed like my character. I took to alt-tabbing off to other applications if some Basil Exposition NPC was monologuing away, popping back now and again just to check if I was supposed to be killing anything; running a pet-heavy Necromancer build was useful for that as the minions made a pretty decent fist of things while I was AFK

I might have been a bit more swept up in things if I’d started at launch and played through sequentially, but coming in after four years everything is in a strange MMO-superposition; the world is (apparently) dealing with the aftermath of some major event that happened in the Living Story Season 1 (which you can’t play retrospectively), after the events of the original game but before the expansion, the expansion that I poked a nose into before finishing the original story, with chunks of narrative coming from dungeons that I was running out-of-order at random levels depending on who else was around and what they were doing. The most compelling story in the world would struggle when tackled with such non-linearity, the bickering dullards of Destiny’s Edge never stood a chance, the only thing sticking in the memory being the opportunity to confuse them with Destiny’s Child with Hilarious Consequences. Some people are fully engaged with the lore, I saw some extensive debates about the behaviour of a particular NPC when a new chapter of the Living Story arrived, but for me at least it was more proof, if needed, that Bioware were rather mistaken in putting story as the “fourth pillar” of an MMO alongside exploration, combat and progression, at least until technology allows player choices to have some sort of impact on the world. It’s been the exploration, combat and progression that have kept me hooked on GW2, zone events, PvP, dungeons, crafting, fractals, bell-ringing, snowball fights and such.

Speaking of Bioware, Mass Effect: Andromeda now has a release date of March and I’m rather in the mood for a chunky RPG so started to have a look at the options in case there’s some shiny trinkets on offer for pre-ordering (sure enough there’s a suit of armour, a vehicle skin and a multiplayer booster up for grabs). There’s a Deluxe edition, with more in-game tchotchkes, and even a Super Deluxe edition that adds an extra multiplayer booster pack every week for 20 weeks. That seems like quite a heavy push for the multiplayer side of things, or maybe it’s just an easy way of bulking up the Super Deluxe package so that the Deluxe option doesn’t seem such an extravagance (Goldilocks pricing, and all that). Either way I rather enjoyed the mutliplayer aspect of both ME3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (though the latter didn’t seem to catch on quite as much), but I never spent cash on boosters so I don’t think I’ll be going Super Deluxe for Andromeda. In the meantime I’ll need to find something else to distract me for a couple of months; maybe I’ll finish off that Christmas jigsaw…

Merry Christmas!

The Wintersday event is active in Guild Wars 2, a series of challenges have kicked off in War Thunder, the Steam sale is bringing joy, happiness and cheap games to all; it must be Christmas! Have a splendid break one and all, let’s hope 2017 is a bit less “exciting” than 2016.

Now I have eight machine guns, ho ho ho

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)