All the world’s an RPG

I’ve been having a splendid old time in Fallout 4 for the past month, the first game that’s grabbed me for multi-hour sessions for a while. I haven’t finished it yet (no spoilers!), but I do find my attitude and play style evolve somewhat over the course of an RPG; with apologies to a certain obscure playwright:

All the world’s an RPG and all the men and women merely NPCs, and the player in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

At first, the infant, mewling and puking, grateful even for a rusty pistol or a single shotgun shell, picking clean the ruins of every tin can and plastic fork.

Then, the innocent, faced with new people, talking even to generic townsperson, exploring every branch of the dialogue tree, listening to every reply.

And then the lover, taking care to select only the actions that your companion Likes, whether hacking terminals, helping the Minutemen, or necking every bottle of vodka you find.

Then a soldier, furnished now with weapons and armour, though not so fine to ignore fallen opponents who yield useful ammunition and occasional upgrades, willing to use an occasional Stimpack or jolt of Psycho in a fierce fight.

And then the justice, quick now to judge, with subtitles turned on to skip through conversation faster; place the square upon the map, quick now, the reasons matter not as long as there’s XP at the end of it.

The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered Powered Armour pantaloon, and the side quests fall by the wayside, careful tending of each settlement no longer a concern, loot an encumbrance; “A silver watch with mere emeralds? Pshaw, I stoop only for gold and diamonds.”

Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, a final rush through the final story missions popping Stimpacks like Tic Tacs, sans caution, sans pause, sans everything to oblivion… until the DLC hits.

Our hearts are little, but our hoard is great

Happy slightly belated New Year, one and all. I hope that 2016 is as splendid and marvellous for you as 2015 only 1/365th longer, unless 2015 was neither splendid nor marvellous in which case I hope that 2016 is both splendid and indeed marvellous, or at least as splendid and marvellous as can realistically be hoped for. In fact even if 2015 was splendid and marvellous I still hope 2016 is more so, if such is even… Mr Dalliard! I appear to have vastly overcomplicated my attempts to wish visitors a Happy New Year and require a metafictional device to escape the opening paragraph!

So! Shoes. Or rather games. Not really much to report, as nothing much fired my enthusiasm over Christmas. I finished Wolfenstein: The New Order, not bad, slightly annoying final boss fight. War Thunder continues to thunder along, in a warlike fashion. The seasonal Steam sale was a rather calm affair, with a bunch of games discounted for the whole sale rather than Daily Instant Flash Look Now Now Now Next Fourteen Seconds Only offers. The trading card gimmick was to browse your “Discovery Queue”, which had the desired effect once as I saw Audiosurf 2 pop up on sale. I enjoy firing up Audiosurf now and again to surf new music acquisitions, so thought I might as well pick up the sequel (review so far: quite like the first one but a bit shinier).

I have just picked up Fallout 4 (review so far: quite like the third one but a bit shinier). My basic game-buying stance tended to be either to pre-order a game if it had a strong pedigree/reviews and offered some sort of shiny trinket as an incentive, or to wait ’til the price dropped to less than a fiver on Steam/GOG/The Humble Store. Fewer and fewer things have met the first criteria, I think the last thing I pre-ordered was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which my aged brain has filed under “recent” but was more than a year ago. On the flip side, games seem to be holding their price a bit better, with sales during the first year or two knocking off 10-40% rather than immediately plummeting to super-bargain levels. As such, with Amazon having the game at a decent-if-not-spectacular price (for a physical copy, £15 less than the Steam code) I figured I might as well tack it onto an order. I can’t remember the last physical game box I bought; probably an Elder Scrolls Online pre-order. Didn’t bother with the DVD, just typed the code into Steam and set the download off.

Fallout 4 might take me a while to complete, as exploring new places, meeting the locals, then offering to help and/or shoot them (depending on how nice they seem) only takes up about a third of my time. Far more important is then stripping the bodies, containers and general surroundings of anything that can be humanly lifted, and conveying it back to my home settlement in a series of shuttle runs. I was something of a packrat in previous Elder Scrolls/Fallout games, and the fact that junk items can be broken down into crafting resources means I can’t possibly leave behind a single coffee cup or clipboard in my wasteland adventures.

Being a bit of a hoarder in real life as well, it did make me think that I should be grateful for e-books, MP3s and Steam. If I had to store physical versions of all my digital books, music and games, we’d need to move to a bigger house…

A Question of History

Do you like surveys? Do you like history? If you answered “yes” to these questions, I have just the link for you! If you answered “no” to either question, I tricked you into doing a two-question survey anyway, so why not answer a few more…

Via Twitter:

There’s a bit more information in this blog post, all sounds most interesting.

War Thunder Update 1.55

Put the kettle on, chaps, time for tea! War Thunder has, thankfully, added British tanks before the French, and a splendid job they’ve made of them. Along with the tanks (being gradually unlocked for testing, unless you buy one of the British premium packs) are new maps for recreating the triumphs (and not-quite-such-triumphs) of the 8th and 1st Army in North Africa, El Alamein and Tunisia, and very nice they look too:

Tank tracks in the sand

Tank tracks in the sand

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

There are also a few new aircraft and assorted other tweaks, but the British tanks are the main attraction. Tally ho, death or glory!

Reviewlet: Detectorists

Some readers may remember, from the dim, distant days of 2008, the BBC series Bonekickers, a rather silly bit of Da Vinci Code-esque nonsense, in which a team of archaeologists tackled mysteries of the past with devastating implications in the present, with hilarious consequences (albeit not intentionally hilarious). Luckier readers may have forgotten about it until just now, in which case I’m terribly sorry for bringing it up again; if you missed out then you could hasten to your nearest videographic media vending emporium, who are sure to stock such a popular title, or maybe just check out a recap here.

The reason I dig up the past like some maverick archaeologist is that the BBC 4 series Detectorists is also, in the broadest terms, about looking for old stuff, but in almost every other way is the very opposite of Bonekickers, as if they were series created in mirror dimensions (Bonekickers would definitely be the one with the beard and eye patch). Written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, Detectorists is centred around the members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, in particular Andy (Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones). It’s a beautiful, slow-paced comedy about people, hobbies and relationships, the tone set by Johnny Flynn’s fantastic theme. Though, in the grand scheme of things, not an awful lot happens (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that at no point do they find an artefact revealing a centuries-old conspiracy concealed by shadowy individuals who secretly run the world), the half-hour episodes just fly by. The second series, just finished, has been an absolute highlight of this year’s television. Five ring pulls out of five (Quatro… or maybe Lilt…)

In Our Time Lord

Talking to Melmoth about the In Our Time podcast, in which Melvyn Bragg hosts three academics to discuss ideas from science, history, philosophy, culture and religion, I mentioned that while Bragg is more than at home discussing arts and literature, in science-heavy episodes like “P vs NP” he takes on something of a “Doctor Who Assistant” role, keeping things grounded for the audience as the academics roam through theoretical fields of incomprehensible dimensions

Melmoth pointed out that, with Jenna Coleman leaving Doctor Who, there could be an *actual* Doctor Who Assistant vacancy coming up, and perhaps Melvyn Bragg could take on the role. I think that would be a stroke of genius, Capaldi & Bragg could roam through space and time, investigating mysteries, defeating invasions, and completely transforming In Our Time…

“So, Professor Harlow, how accurate is Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War?”
“Well, Melvyn, we have some fragmentary corroborative evidence of certain events, but we can’t possibly know if Thucydides actually witnessed…”
“Hang on, I’ll ask him. Back in a jiffy.”

*VWOORP* *VWOORP* *VWOOORP*

“Right, well, it turns out that most of it is artistic license, had a fascinating chat with Nicias, lovely chap, look, I got a selfie with him. Oh, and the beings the Greeks worshipped as gods were actually Thorgruns from Planet Frinksnarf who manipulated the Spartans into invading Attica, but the Doctor and I sorted them out. Incidentally, if anyone’s doing any archaeological work around Sicily, could you keep an eye out for my car keys? I think I dropped them in the siege of Syracuse…”

Everything Old is New Again

Time flies by, and not just when you’re the driver of a train (whether or not speeding out of Trumpton with a cargo of illicit narcotics). War Thunder celebrated its third anniversary over the weekend with a mini-bonanza of sales and small-scale challenges every three hours (win two matches, destroy five tanks etc), which worked rather well for dipping in and out of, rather than settling down to one big task and burning out. I’m still dropping in to War Thunder for a match or two most days, having been in since more or less the start, pretty good longevity really. I’ve also been playing a lot of World of Warships, but getting to tiers V, VI and VII the grind is really beginning to kick in, it’s feeling a lot like World of Tanks back in the day. Course War Thunder gets terribly grindy as well in the high tiers, I’m chipping away slowly at unlocking new jets, but I just enjoy the air battles there. WoWS is rather more variable, for every decent fight I seem to end up in a one-sided loss where most other ships are two tiers higher, or our team manage to lose about five ships before inflicting any sort of damage, or we win handsomely but I get taken out by a fluke magazine explosion in the first salvo. I’ll probably scale things back a bit there, and wait for the Royal Navy to turn up.

Going right back to the early days of PC gaming with Wolfenstein, I also just picked up the reboot, The New Order, in a Humble sale. It’s pretty interesting so far, strong atmosphere and plays well, even if the central character hasn’t developed much of a personality past the blocky portrait from the original. I’d been toying with picking up Fallout 4 on release, but with plenty else to play I might give it a little while for the bugs to be worked out and/or DLC to arrive then jump in later, seemed to be the best idea for New Vegas.

Perhaps most interesting is a new expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic. It seems like a lifetime ago that I originally hit the level cap in SWTOR and even did a spot of introductory raiding; not a human lifetime, obviously, something a tad smaller, maybe a rabbit, or a long-lived hamster. It got a second lease of life with the inevitable free to play conversion a couple of years back, a few more fun jaunts with the FRR posse, but I’d more or less forgotten about it since then, the Galactic Starfighter space fighting never grabbed me at all. Rather than being pensioned off, though, it seems SWTOR is getting a bit of an overhaul, by all accounts making it a more of a single player experience, more of a “proper” KotOR sequel. It’s a brave move, changing the focus of a Star Wars MMO, but then SWTOR didn’t really offer an experience like pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies so I can’t imagine there’ll be such a backlash (though I’m equally sure there’ll be some sort of backlash, because The Internet). I have quite a soft spot for it, I’m rather tempted to wander back and give it another go, just to see what new hats there might be if nothing else…

PrecogCritic

Metacritic has been a useful tool for researching games. Not perfect, of course, but for a quick general impression, with collected links for deeper research, a good starting point. Some genres have always been tricky to assess, perhaps most notably MMOs, intended to be played for months or years with large groups of players, difficult conditions to replicate in a review with deadlines; oh, the happy days of grappling with such issues in blog posts, considerably enlivened by Ed Zitron’s classic Darkfall review.

As the gaming landscape changes and paid alpha tests, open beta tests, crowdfunding, early access and the like become more common, it’s more difficult than ever to wait for reviews of a finished game before deciding whether or not to part with your hard-earned cash. In chatting to Melmoth we hit upon the solution, and are proud to launch KiaSA Industries latest venture: PrecogCritic. (Other titles under consideration: MetaPreCritic, PreMetaCritic, PreMetaPreCritic, The Department of PreCriticism and A Bit Like Minority Report But For Games Reviews Rather Than Murder.) The elite team of KiaSA Precognitive Mutants will assess prospective games against a number of criteria, with the results being etched by laser into a wooden ball for no good practical reason, but it’ll look really cool. Current criteria include: Chance that something actually playable will ever be available; Chance that the game will be, technically, released at some stage; Predicted review scores for the final game; Predicted reassessment of the game several years later after patches finally iron out the worst bugs and a bunch of DLC pads it out.

Of course Metacritic has both Critic and User reviews, and so PrecogCritic will also allow users to contribute scores and reviews based on nothing but wild assumptions and guessing, truly an innovative feature never seen before on the internet.

Unfortunately launch of the service will be somewhat delayed, as the first game we asked the precogs to assess was Star Citizen; Dash started thrashing around muttering something about Derek “I Thought He’d Calmed Down Since Usenet[1] Days But Hoo Boy I Guess Not” Smart, Arthur had a flashback to the Wing Commander movie, and Agatha asked if we wouldn’t mind awfully letting her go back to predicting murders, as they were generally much less distressing.

[1] Ask your grandparents

Please believe me, the river told me

I don’t read as much as I used to, at least not books; smartphones and tablets tend to take over of an evening or a lazy Sunday morning in bed, for catching up on social media, forums, or just swiping away at a game. Thank heavens for periods of WiFi absence, on holiday or in villages with limited mobile signal. A friend recommended Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London a few years back, but I only just got around to it, and it’s absolutely terrific; I ploughed through three more of the series within a week, and have the fifth queued up ready to go, but paused for a bit to prolong the enjoyment.

The cover quote sums it up neatly: “What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the fuzz?” Trainee Police Constable Peter Grant stumbles across a ghost, learns about magic, and his life, in the words of Oscar Wilde, gets flipped-turned upside down. Melding police procedural (the depiction of the workings of the Metropolitan Police rings completely true) with the fantastical, Harry Potter meets The Bill would be one convenient shorthand, but firmly rooted in London and with a strong thread of humour throughout I’d perhaps opt for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Hot Fuzz. There’s crime, magic, jazz, geek culture nods (including a mention of System Shock 2), hints of a Weird War II a la the Bitter Seeds trilogy; I’m not really doing them justice, but I’d heartily recommend checking them out.

Perhaps part of the reason I got so involved in a great story with likeable characters is that I’d just finished playing through Grand Theft Auto V (only two years after the original console release…) Game-wise, it’s absolutely top notch; graphically superb, with a well-realised city sandbox to play with including stacks of activities. Back in the 90s, a golf simulator was a worthy full price game in itself; in GTA V a fully wander-around-and-playable golf course is just one of myriad diversions around the place, and if you get bored of hitting balls with a stick halfway around you can always leap into a golf kart for low-speed plaid-trousered drive-bys, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t an option in Links 386.

Story-wise, though, it’s an absolute mess. It starts well enough, with Franklin, a kid trying to get out of the ghetto, meeting Michael, a retired bank robber having trouble adjusting to family life. Once the third character, Trevor, appears, it starts to fall apart. The story bogs down in a morass of spoof versions of government agencies making random demands while one or more of the central characters says “we do this then we’re out”, only to get dragged back in on the very next mission like some sort of criminal hokey-cokey. Trevor’s going to kill Michael, but he doesn’t, but he might, but he doesn’t, but he could… Individuals and groups turn up and are promptly forgotten, until the very final mission, which gives the impression of being sellotaped on to the end of the game after a QA report said “You remember this, and this, and this happened?”, and the writers went “Oh yeah… all right, well, if we add a mission where you kill this guy, this guy and this guy then that solves everything, the end, there we go.” Everyone is horrible; your characters are horrible, their families are horrible, the people on the radio are horrible… GTA’s skewed take on reality, things like the double entendre company names and spoof adverts, still raises a smile here and there, but overall it’s hard to like or even care about anybody. It helps if you’re at least rooting slightly more for “you” than the other side; Franklin probably got the closest, but his deeply emotional central character arc appears to consist of moving to a nice house.

The highlights of the game are the heists that you periodically pull off, multi-part missions involving reconnaissance, planning, preparation and execution; at their best they’re like playing through a classic crime caper, ruing the lack of Get A Bloomin’ Move On on one of the radio stations. Having three point-of-view characters didn’t help the already messy story, but in mechanical terms it works well, allowing you to switch between different roles during the preparation and execution of the heists. I’m sure they’d be great fun in GTA Online with a group of like-minded friends, maybe that’s the real strength of GTA V, but in single player it’s a shame that the strengths of the engine and gameplay aren’t complemented by a decent, involving story.