Wallowing About in an Atemporal Zone of Cultural Production

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As is probably obvious from the frequency and content of posts around here I’ve been drifting along, game-wise, for a while now. I still play a fair amount, but it’s rare for something to get me particularly fired up, I feel a bit disconnected from the wider scene. I had a glance through the nominations for this year’s Golden Joystick Awards and found I’d hardly played any of the games, barely even heard of some of them. Perhaps I’m just getting on a bit, but the industry is shifting too; barriers to development and distribution have been plummeting, in general A Good Thing, but with some knock-on consequences. We’re spoiled with such an array of games, blockbuster games, indie games, new games, classic games, enhanced classics spruced up for modern systems, cheap games, free games… There was a piece on PC Gamer about the “pile of shame” and paralysis of choice; I was starting to feel the same with games five years ago, let alone other media as per Charlie Brooker’s more-relevant-than-ever stuff-a-lanche, and the increasing prevalence of bundles, free-to-play and suchlike in the meantime have hardly helped matters.

With such a backlog, and the inevitability of sales and such, I can’t really remember the last thing I picked up and played at the time of release. I did grab Far Cry 3 in the Steam summer sale and actually played it through to the end, something of a rarity in the Grand List of Stuff I Really Mean To Get Back To One Of These Days. Gameplay-wise it was generally excellent, though a few elements like the crafting system didn’t entirely gel; I spent altogether too much time wondering why, after using two Boar Hides to expand the carrying capacity of my rucksack, I couldn’t use more Boar Hide to expand it further, only Tapir Hide would do (and then Dingo Pelts, but only after the Tapir Hide, not before, that would’ve been silly), and furthermore why I couldn’t carry ammunition or grenades in that rucksack but instead had to make a Tiger Skin ammunition pouch and Deer Hide grenade pack. Also, what kind of bastard hunts down lovable tapirs just to carry a few more arrows? In the end I rationalised it as the considerable trauma suffered by the protagonist manifesting itself as a psychological obsessive-compulsive disorder requiring an incredibly specific set of luggage, and on the plus side it must’ve made things a lot easier in baggage reclamation, looking out for a cassowary-komodo-leopard-skin bag amongst a sea of black suitcases. Anyway, the general sneaking/shooting/exploring side of things was top-notch, but the story was a bit of a mess; I was aware of a fair amount of discussion at the time of release in 2012 but didn’t follow it too closely to avoid spoilers, and it seems a little redundant to return to it now. As so often, xkcd nails it in four panels. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, initiatives like crowdfunding and early access offer a deeper glimpse into the development process than carefully managed hype-stoking previews, but make the landscape more complex in terms of differentiating between impressions, previews, reviews and such, and while it’s a great opportunity for some players to get involved early and perhaps help a little in filing off rough edges to shape a game not everyone is always on quite the same page, as the producer of DayZ pointed out.

After the initial excitement and novelty of backing a couple of Kickstarter projects I have to confess it’s sort of blending in to the general background noise now; it’s nice to receive backer updates on the games in progress, but with the aforementioned pile of shame full of things I could actually be playing right now, I don’t spend too much time reading about future additions to the pile. Connected to not buying games as they launch I haven’t really been looking forward to games ahead of launch time, whether due to the general state of things, or my own jadedness, or a bit of both. A brief spark of hope, of the old excitement, is for Dragon Age: Inquisition; I’ve enjoyed every Bioware game so far, after all, and they’re always fertile ground for further debate and discussion (perhaps a little too fertile, in the case of the end of Mass Effect 3, but let’s not go there again…) I was having a bit of a look at Dragon Age: Keep, a site that will allow players to import save files from previous Dragon Age games and tweak things around before heading in to DA:I; that prompted a quick spot of digital archaeology to find previous save games, and to try and remember what sort of decisions I’d taken. The events of Dragon Age 2 were a bit hazy, so I dusted off my original Gray Warden save from the first game and used that as the basis for the start of a new playthrough. After only saying a couple of weeks ago that “I tend to play through story-driven games once”, I’d forgotten a fair amount of what happens in the game so I’ve been getting quite into it again. It has its flaws, a lot of quite obvious environment re-use, encounters that get a bit same-y (“Will there be three waves of minions in this encounter, or only two? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’m just going to leave the mages auto-attacking while I make a quick cup of tea…”), but I’ve missed a story-heavy game with characters I really care about. Far Cry 3 had some terrific NPC performances like Orphan Black’s Michael Mando but its protagonist was incredibly dull, and though Dragon Age 2 was criticised for its limited PC customisation options compared to the first game at least you have some choices over appearance and dialogue.

Speaking of criticism, flipping back through old posts to see what I’d said about it at the time I ran across one about the difference between critic and user scores on Metacritic: “Critic’s reviews are decent if not spectacular, currently averaging 81 on Metacritic, but we’ve all seen the stories of pressure on reviewers from publishers, reliance on advertising revenue from games companies, how can we trust them?”

Seems strangely pertinent, what with all the ‘gate’ strangeness floating around Twitter, a somewhat nebulous campaign about improving games journalism, though precisely how isn’t really pinned down as far as I can tell; depending on what you read then the main objective is to drive out some, none, one or more of: Corruption, Social Justice Warriors, Malpractice, Women, Collusion, Bribery, People Knowing Other People, Money, Fascists, Communists or Reginald Maudling. Poor old Reginald. It’s closely connected with some people saying other people aren’t their shield while simultaneously taking great umbrage on behalf of all gamers; in the words of Terry Jones as an old peasant woman, “well, I didn’t vote for you”. There seems to be something of a semantic oddity in entertainment writing; we generally talk about “film criticism” or “literary criticism”, whereas it’s “music journalism” or “gaming journalism”; some of the more lucid Twitter campaigners, focusing on the “journalism” aspect, are pressing for objectivity and impartiality, which is perhaps fair enough for news-based coverage, but a lot of games writing, at least the stuff that I like to read, is far more in the mould of criticism, with different requirements, and gaming is hardly unique in having difficulty in adjusting to the changing times. In books, sci-fi in particular, some of the ‘gate’ business echoes the kerfuffle from this year’s Hugo awards that seems set to rumble on for a long time. In film, critic Mark Kermode wrote Hatchet Job last year, a book about professional film critics and the age of social media, of Amazon reviews and film posters bearing gushing tweets from untraceable users, with many interesting parallels. Getting dangerously far down the meta-rabbit hole (rabbit meta-hole? meta-rabbit meta-hole?), author Will Self wrote a review (itself later critiqued elsewhere) in a newspaper of the book about film reviews, and one contentious paragraph connects the pile of shame, role of critics and industries in flux:

“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time – unless, like Kermode, we wish to spend the greater part of our adult life at it – to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic. In my working lifetime I’ve already seen the status accorded to book and film reviews undergo a tremendous decline – not, I hasten to add, because there aren’t good reviews being written (this one is especially good), but because the media they are reviewing and the medium by which they themselves are delivered are both in a state of flux. All sorts of cultural production that was concerned with ordering and sorting – criticism, editing and librarianship – can now be seen for what it always really was: the adjunct of a particular media technology.”

I can’t help but think Self might revisit his opinion of the group amateur mind after reading the user reviews of Dragon Age 2 on Metacritic…

Posted by Zoso at 5:11 pm

Even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness

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There was a discussion about Diplomacy on Twitter (the game, not the general concept; nobody’s been diplomatic on Twitter since August 2007); it’s a political game of negotiation, bluff, alliances and the resultant inevitable betrayal and backstabbing, infamous as a cause of arguments, resentment and grudges. Jon “Jon Shute” Shute tweeted “It’s been on my list for a while but I’ve never gotten around to it. My gaming group is too friendly :)”

We are a friendly bunch (I think), and when playing as a group tend to get on best with European-style games where conflict is more indirect rather than players outright attacking one another; not exclusively, we do enjoy a bit of Small World amongst others, and you know where you are in a two player (or team) head-to-head like Netrunner, but multi-sided games can get a bit more complex in both tactical and interpersonal terms. Not taking things terribly seriously, we play more for laughs than cut-throat competition. While demonstrating Munchkin at the weekend, the first card Melmoth drew was a level 18 monster that he couldn’t possibly defeat, so of course the logical course of action was for the next player to interfere with the encounter by playing a card adding another 10 levels to the monster; by time the rest of the table had chipped in with assorted curses, potions and wandering monsters he was facing three opponents with a combined level of 49. A complete waste of cards from all concerned, with no levels or items of his own Melmoth wouldn’t suffer any ill effects from anything that was played, but everyone rather enjoyed it, especially the player who started things off with the +10 level card, who happened to be his daughter… Over the rest of the afternoon it seemed even the gaming gods sensed our reticence over direct confrontation during a couple of rounds of Betrayal at House on the Hill, a game that casts the players as investigators searching a creepy old house. At some point during the game there is a Haunting, a random event based on dice and cards, that usually results in one of the investigators becoming a Traitor and turning on the others (the titular Betrayal), but neither of our Hauntings resulted in a Traitor with one game ending in an every-player-for-themselves treasure hunt, the other with everyone banding together to fend off evil doppelgängers.

With that in mind, I wondered how we might handle a game of Diplomacy:

Causing Jon to ponder Pandemic (channelling Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks):

And other games that could surely be solved in a friendly and non-confrontational manner…

Ticket To Ride: “All this competition over a limited number of routes is very inefficient, let’s renationalise the rail system to ensure universal access to a high-quality public transportation system with consequent benefits to society and dramatic reductions in carbon emissions. Comrade.”

Hungry Hungry Hippos: “Obesity in captive or domesticated animals is no laughing matter, you’re restricted to one plastic ball each until your weight is under control.”

Magic: The Gathering: “Y’know, with these magical powers, rather than fighting to the death we should found a wizard school for orphans. I can’t believe nobody’s thought of that before.”

Mouse Trap: “I can’t help but feel that, rather than this elaborate set of stairs and balls and… is that a bloke in swimming trunks ready to dive into a tub? I don’t even… Anyway, rather than this frankly ill-thought-out mish-mash of stuff, a simple humane trap and release of the mouse into open countryside would be much better for all concerned.”

Betrayal at House on the Hill: “Guys, guys, there’s a big spooky house in the middle of the forest of death and blood (so called because everyone who goes there dies of death and blood) and nobody who’s gone to explore it has come back, shall we go there? Or Nandos? Fair enough, Nandos it is.”

Chess: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord so should our chess pieces.”

Cluedo: “My god, there’s been a murder! Quickly, call the police, and for heaven’s sake don’t touch anything, this is a crime scene and we’d cause havoc with the forensic evidence if we wandered around at random grabbing anything that looks a bit like a weapon!”

Posted by Zoso at 11:51 am

Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals

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I was rather pleased to see the news of a co-operative multiplayer mode in the forthcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition as the multiplayer aspect of Mass Effect 3 turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. There was some debate at the time over whether the character building/progression in ME3 was too simplified, but I thought the combat system worked very well, being solid enough to stand on its own in the stripped-down wave-upon-wave-of-demented-avengers gameplay of the co-op mode, which in turn meant the battles you encountered throughout the single player story were enjoyable challenges rather than a chore. Well, mostly. The snippets of DA:I multiplayer looked pretty fast-paced and fun, it’ll be interesting to see how that carries over to (or is carried over from) the single player gameplay as I seem to recall suggestions that the combat would be more tactical than Dragon Age II.

The multiplayer aspect of Mass Effect 3 also worked well for DLC, from my perspective. I tend to play through story-driven games once, and if I picked them up at launch then by the time DLC packs roll around I’ve usually forgotten what happened in the plot and how to play my character, ending up like those people who always end up behind you in the cinema: “Who’s that again? Why is he so cross? Didn’t she die? Oh, no, I’m thinking of that other film aren’t I? Oh, look, it’s thingy from Coronation Street, you know, the one that married the other one! Ooh, nasty piece of work that one, don’t you trust them dearie!” I can take a decent run-up at a fairly chunky expansion, like the old Tales of the Sword Coast, or Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening, but for a few side-missions somewhere in the middle of a story I’ve already finished (as I gather something like Omega is for ME3) it doesn’t really seem worth it. The multiplayer DLC packs, though, adding in new classes, weapons, gear and suchlike were a nice incentive to hop back in and mow through a few waves of mobs.

Of course the main reason I’m looking forward to Dragon Age: Inquisition is the hope that every conversation will start with your character having dialogue choices like…

“Nooooooooooobody expects the Inquisition! Our chief weapon is…

a. Surprise
b. Fear
c. Ruthless efficiency
d. An almost fanatical devotion to repeating this skit long after everyone else is really, really sick of it”

Posted by Zoso at 1:50 pm

Some kind of madness is starting to evolve

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Summertime Madness in War Thunder is having a good crack at living up to its name with the Hunting Frenzy phase of the event. To secure a Tier II premium plane you need to win 125 matches in a week. That’s quite a lot of matches, in case you were wondering; six hours of solid War Thunder every day for one plane, assuming an average of ten minutes per match and a 50% win rate, if my rough calculations are correct. If you want all five premium planes, well… more back-of-envelope jottings suggest that if you do nothing but play War Thunder for all seven days, without bothering about fripperies like “eating” and “sleeping”, you’ll be cognitively dysfunctional at best and possibly dead at the end of it. Remember to eat and sleep, kids. Meanwhile, our guinea pig will need to be maintaining a 62% win rate to earn all five planes, difficult enough even before factoring in sleep deprivation and hallucinations.

Predictably enough, after the initial excitement over the prizes mentioned in the Summer Madness announcement, some players expressed mild displeasure at the onerous requirements, in much the manner of a toddler throwing a tantrum after finding out that a promise of ice cream was contingent upon first tidying their room. I have to admit I’m slightly surprised at the effort required, Tier II premium planes aren’t terribly expensive to buy, and of limited use in earning research for high-tier planes (there’s a significant penalty when researching something more than one tier higher); I didn’t think they were going to be handed out like flyers for an Edinburgh fringe show, but I thought most players would have a good chance of earning one.

Having match wins as the requirement is also a bit unusual, with most previous events being kill-oriented. A requirement for kills certainly didn’t help with team play, with objectives being ignored and even more of an every-plane-for-itself attitude than usual, but at least it was something within your control. It’s enormously frustrating when, in a Domination match, you pull off an amazing 300mph airfield capture and knock out a couple of enemy aircraft before succumbing to overwhelming odds, then look around the map and see three quarters of your team chasing a single enemy bomber in the middle of nowhere while the enemy team leisurely recapture the airfield with no opposition. The event is limited to Tier II, III and IV aircraft as well, which rules out the old standby of grabbing starter biplanes and heading in to the typically much shorter matches that they enjoy. Requirements based on matches played, team wins and aircraft restrictions are understandable, but combined with the sheer numbers in question it becomes a massive time sink.

There are a few consolation prizes; reaching 25 wins at each eligible tier for each country earns a pile of silver lions and a chance at winning the premium plane in question in a raffle, so I’m plugging away at that, just playing Tier III Japan rather than flitting from country to country for the daily double experience. It’s going to be interesting to see how the rest of the event plays out, and what the requirements for the Tier IV premium aircraft might be…

Posted by Zoso at 4:24 pm

Summertime, and the grindin’ is easy

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School’s out for summer, and the weather is fine; long, hot days perfect for a picnic on the beach or chucking a ball around a park, kicking around a piece of ground in your home town, lazing on a sunny afternoon watching little fluffy clouds A time for holidays, getting away from it all, leaving technology behind.

Doesn’t that sound awful? Thankfully games companies are doing everything they can to keep us all beavering away in front of glowing screens devoting absurd amounts of time to earning digital tchotchkes. Steam kicked things off a bit early with its Summer Psychological Manipulation Sale, this year shoving everyone into a random coloured team in some sort of Five-Way Stanford Prison Buy Trading Cards And Make A Number Go Up Experiment; as Melmoth observed “Steam’s sale is now more of a game than the games it’s selling.”

Neverwinter is never (hah!) short of an event or two, recently celebrating an anniversary as well as indulging in assorted skirmishes, firework parties and suchlike. There’s usually a few cosmetics up for grabs, perhaps some themed consumables, often a green-quality companion, nothing too over-the-top but quite fun. This weekend is the Wonders of Gond, with a chance of earning a rather desirable purple-quality mount, though it does seem that an awful lot of grinding is required to refine an item to that point. I might’ve given it a bit of a go, if not for other games…

Over in the World of WarTankGaming, they’re also celebrating an anniversary, and handing out free tanks to all and sundry for the next week. TANKS very much, Wargaming! (Do you see what I did there?) A Tier II light tank might not be much, but hey, don’t look a gift tank in the barrel and all that, and there’s the garage slot if nothing else. There isn’t so much generosity in the skies in the EU, just some discounts in World of Warplanes (the US seem to be getting a free plane from the 8th), and the chance of a hanger slot if you complete a bunch o’ missions. A Tier VII Gloster Meteor seems more of a tempting reward, but just one of the tasks requires 250 wins at Tier IV or above, being in the top 10 XP earners for your team (presumably to avoid joining and immediately quitting/dying), no ta.

No, I think my grind of choice is going to be good old War Thunder, where there’s Summertime Madness!!!!! (I think they missed a trick not using five exclamation marks, a sure sign of madness.) Amongst assorted discounts and bonuses, the big draw is the chance to earn premium tanks or planes that normally have to purchased with real money. At this very moment you can earn a premium T-34-57 or Panzer IIIN by recording 90 kills using Russian or German tanks respectively, eminently achievable in a week if a bit of a slog. From August 4th – 10th there’s a Tier II premium aircraft for each country up for grabs, the mission details yet to be announced, but I’d hazard a wild guess it’ll involve shooting down a bunch o’ planes… Finally, from August 11th, the big stuff, Tier III and IV premiums including some very nice (and expensive) planes like the American Spitfire IX; I imagine these will have quite insane requirements like some of the more unusual rewards from last year’s Indian Summer event, but we’ll see.

Posted by Zoso at 2:40 am

We believe that when men reach beyond this planet, they should leave their differences behind them

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The cold, black years since the dying embers of the 20th Century have been a barren time for the space game enthusiast. Many placed themselves into the timeless slumber of stasis, preserved in pods, a sophisticated artificial intelligence left in place to monitor the sensors and awake the sleepers should a favourable home be found. Of course the AI immediately became corrupted by contradictory instructions/a sinister hacker/an alien broadcast, went rogue, shut off the life support of half the passengers and turned the other half into killer zombie-mutant-cyborgs, because that’s what AIs do, it’s almost like nobody had taken any notice of any sci-fi book, film or game. Fortunately a solitary hero overcame the nigh-insurmountable odds, shut down the AI (at least until the sequel) and reversed the zombie-mutant-cyborgification, setting the interstellar ark back on course under a much more basic autopilot whose source code definitely did not include comments like “/* Fairly sure this subroutine won’t cause genocidal insanity but double check before going live */”.

Fifteen years later, there are several promising blips on the space-game-radar: new games under development; the Oculus Rift offering the possibility of a fully immersive cockpit; an update for a patch to a fix for X Rebirth 2.0 Game Of The Year Edition… The two clearest contacts offering the most promise for sustenance are Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, projects spearheaded by grizzled space-veterans Chris Roberts and David Braben. With initial thrust provided by Kickstarter they made it out of the earth’s atmosphere, the crowdfunding boosters dropping away as both games start to release playable elements, setting course for the mythical destination of An Actual Released Game.

Having two such promising games in development is a great situation. Healthy competition spurs development and discourages complacency, differences in emphasis allows players to gravitate towards the game most suited to their preferred style of play, and, most importantly, gamers can form themselves into two tribes, blindly worshipping one of the two games and hunting down treacherous unbelievers who dare speak positively of the other on official forums, unofficial forums, comment threads, or, after consuming sufficient quantities of special brew, in the queue at the post office and on benches in the local park. Roberts and Braben are at pains to stress the friendliness of the competition between their companies, both being backers of the other game and wishing each other success, but wouldn’t it have been fun if the overlapping Kickstarter projects had taken on some of the insanity of the forum zealots…

November 7th, 9am, new Star Citizen stretch goal: “We will add a new NPC, a washed-up alcoholic Commander, named after his favourite whiskey, who used to be a hot-shot pilot but got all obsessed with physics and boring and nobody likes him any more.”

November 7th, 3pm, new Elite: Dangerous stretch goal: “We will add a new NPC, Colonel Christopher ‘Callsign Blatantly Ripped Off From Top Gun’ Brown, who used to be a hot-shot pilot but got all obsessed with movies and made everyone watch a ten minute film before they could fly anywhere and nobody likes him any more.”

November 8th, 10am, new Star Citizen stretch goal: “Your starship will include a full copy of Elite: Dangerous running its navigation console if you want to play it. Which you won’t. Because even just flying through space in Star Citizen will be, like, loads better.”

November 8th, 2pm, new Elite: Dangerous stretch goal: “An expanded galaxy featuring billions of star systems, each modelled in incredible detail, featuring countless fully populated planets. And on not a single one of those planets did the Star Citizen Kickstarter meet its goals.”

November 8th, 4pm, new Star Citizen stretch goal: “If we reach this target, we’ll just buy Frontier Developments and sack the lot of them, muahahahaha!”

November 9th, 7am, new Elite: Dangerous stretch goal: “If we reach this target, we’ll donate the additional money to Cloud Imperium Games, and they’ll get so stupidly overambitious that the game won’t be released until 2094″

November 9th, 7.30am, new Star Citizen stretch goal: “Yeah, whatevs. With that much backing we’ll give every one of our players an actual working spaceship in 2094.”

November 9th, 8am, new Elite: Dangerous stretch goal: “Yeah, right, like you could actually… hang on, where have all our backers gone?”

November 9th, 8.01am, “Huh, everyone’s withdrawing their pledges, what the…”

November 9th, 8.02am, “Oh, god, Molyneux’s set up a Kickstarter.”

November 9th, 8.05am, “… fly through both all of space and all of not space creating and destroying and ignoring entire civilisations and galaxies and universes and blocks of cheese… oh come on, everyone knows Kickstarter projects are stupidly overhyped and can never live up to the pitch, why are people backing that?”

November 9th, 8.07am, “Pff. No accounting for taste. Shall we go down the pub?”

November 9th, 8.08am, “Yeah, all right.”

November 9th, 9am, new Elite: Dangerous stretch goal: “Seven pints of bitter, two bottles of lager and a Diet Coke”

November 9th, 9.01am, new Star Citizen stretch goal: “And a bag of peanuts.”

Posted by Zoso at 2:48 pm

Geoffrey Wellum at Chalke Valley History Festival

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QJK

My personal highlight of the Chalke Valley History Festival was seeing Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC in conversation with James Holland. The two first met when Holland was writing a book about the Battle of Britain and seeking pilots to interview; Wellum had jotted some memoirs in the 1970s, not particularly intended for publication, and after the interview offered a chapter he thought might be of interest. Recognising the quality of the writing it didn’t take long for a book deal to be offered from Penguin, and First Light was published in 2002. It’s a terrific book that starts with Wellum, aged seventeen and a half, attending an RAF selection board in March 1939; fourteen months later he’s posted to 92 Squadron with 168 hours of flying under his belt (95 solo), never having seen a Spitfire, let alone flown one. The next day the squadron is in combat over Dunkirk and loses several pilots, including the commanding officer.

There’s a brief respite after Dunkirk as the squadron moves to Wales, at least allowing some time to get familiar with the Spitfire, before they move to Biggin Hill in September 1940, right at the heart of the Battle of Britain. Wellum’s description of his first combat mission is particularly gripping, with the squadron thrown into a raid of more than 150 German aircraft; a head-on pass through the bombers, picking off a straggler, a probable kill but focused too hard on the target, bounced by an enemy fighter, desperate manoeuvring to escape, finally home, damaged but alive. As the Battle of Britain winds down at the end of 1940 the squadron move on to offensive operations over France in 1941, until eventually a posting to an Operational Training Unit to pass on hard-won skills to new pilots brings some respite, but also a sense of despair, being past it, a “worn-out bloody fighter pilot at twenty years of age”.

Wellum returns to operations in early 1942, first with 65 Squadron flying over France again, then finds himself on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. Malta has been under siege since 1940 and is critically short of supplies; fuel, ammunition, aircraft, food, beer! Operation Pedestal is a an effort to resupply the island, a convoy of fourteen merchant ships with a formidable escort including two battleships and three aircraft carriers; Furious will fly off land-based Spitfires to reinforce the Malta squadrons. Nerves aren’t helped as another carrier, HMS Eagle, is torpedoed as the Spitfires are taking off, but the flight make it to Malta safely. Over the next few days the convoy is hammered by German and Italian aircraft, torpedo boats and submarines; four battered merchant ships make it through, and, barely, the tanker Ohio, just enough to sustain the island.

Wellum himself is also in a poor state, suffering severe headaches while flying; an X-ray reveals fluid around the eyes, chronic sinusitis. A rather unpleasant business with what looks like a long sharp knitting needle resolves the immediate issue, but a subsequent check-up reveals he is “absolutely played out mentally and physically, no reserves left”. The book ends with an epilogue, Wellum passed fit to fly again, on secondment to the Gloster Aircraft Company and about to climb in to a Typhoon as a production test pilot.

Reading an overview of the Battle of Britain it’s easy to be swept along in statistics, sorties flown, victories, losses, tons of bombs dropped; First Light is deeply personal, taking you right into the cockpit of the Spitfire, giving a brief glimpse of how life was. The BBC made a film of it in 2010 for the 70th anniversary of the battle, I missed it at the time but must get around to picking up the DVD. The book is certainly well worth a read, and I was keen to get a chance to see the author in person.

At Chalke Valley, the tent is packed for the talk. At 92, Wellum is still sharp and clear, a very engaging speaker, self-effacing and funny; there is a lot of laughter throughout the event, often prompted by wonderfully British understatement. Holland starts with a quick overview of how First Light came about, with the effort to find Wellum to offer him the publication deal ending with him being tracked down by a phone call to the local pub! A quick run-through of initial training, and a question on how pilots were selected for fighters, bombers or other aircraft: “They probably thought I was too irresponsible to have a crew, if I was going to kill anyone I could kill myself, not take a crew with me!”

Moving on to 1940, and being posted to 92 Squadron, Holland asks about the Commanding Officer at the time, Roger Bushell; Wellum relates how Bushell was shot down over France the day after he arrived and taken prisoner, later to organise the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III only to be murdered by the Gestapo after being recaptured. 70 years on, there is still clear and understandable anger.

Happier memories, first flight in a Spitfire; characteristic humour after a run-through of the controls, the instructor about to jump down off the wing: “Don’t go anywhere for a minute… how do you start it?” A sense of immense power after the Harvard trainer, “hanging on for grim death!” Wellum’s account of his first encounter with the Luftwaffe is even more compelling first-hand, emerging from cloud to confront 150 enemy aircraft, feeling it was “a bloody stupid place to be”! There’s a brief discussion of tactics, the RAF still using the tight Vic formation, not adopting the more effective “finger four” (nothing rude, a formation where, if you lay your hand flat, each plane is positioned on the tip of a finger) until after the Battle of Britain; Wellum points out that the Luftwaffe had rather a head start from the Spanish Civil War, giving them the opportunity to develop the Messerschmitt 109 both technically and tactically in actual combat even before the first production flight of the Hawker Hurricane. Apologising for stepping on his soapbox for a moment he was emphatic that we won the Battle of Britain, it wasn’t a draw, it was the first time the Germans had been stopped, prompting a hearty round of applause; I’m not sure if that was in response to anyone in particular, there was a fine BBC programme recently about Eric “Winkle” Brown (who was at last year’s Chalke Valley festival), in which he talked about interviewing Göring who declared the battle a draw, oddly enough.

92 Squadron had something of a wild reputation around Biggin Hill, not something dwelt on in the book; Holland briefly hints toward it:
JH: “And after a day’s flying, perhaps you’d go to the White Hart?”
GW: “Yes”
JH: “After every day’s flying?”
GW: “Yes”
JH: “Perhaps drink a little too much?”
GW: “Yes. This is easy, isn’t it?”
*laughter*

It’s impossible to imagine the strain, flying multiple sorties a day, losing friends and colleagues on an almost daily basis, no great need to dig too deeply into what it took to get through a time like that; with a brief allusion to some interesting sounding “parties”, they decide they ought to move on…

Reaching 1942 and the operation to Malta, Wellum recalls going to check over his plane in the hanger to find an armourer unloading the ammunition from his guns.
“What’s all this about, then?”
“Cigarettes, sir”
“Cigarettes?”
“Yes sir, they’re awfully short on the island, so we’re going to fill the ammunition boxes with cigarettes.”
Thankfully there aren’t any enemy aircraft as they come in to land, as they couldn’t have done anything about them anyway!

There’s a nice long opportunity for questions and answers at the end of the session. Some questions can be a little disjointed or rambling; “What’s the précis of that, James?” Fortunately Holland is a dab hand at paraphrasing, every query yields further interesting answers. Someone asks how he used his experience when he became an instructor at an Operational Training Unit, he explains that the training programme at the time was fine for teaching students to fly, but not to fight; he’d had no combat training before being posted to his squadron, never fired his guns, hadn’t been taught how to properly use the reflector sight, so he tried to teach his pupils to use their aeroplane as a weapon. Asked if he’d had a chance to fly a Spitfire since the war he replies that indeed he had, a few years ago in a two-seater; once up in the air the pilot in the front seat asked if he’d like to take control, he answered in the affirmative. “Are you sure?” said the pilot. “Oh yes” replied Wellum; “are you sure?” After all the years, he said it was like he’d never been away; testament, I think, to both the man and the machine. Had he met any German pilots after the war? Yes, a few; he didn’t seem too keen on Adolf Galland, but talked more warmly about Gunther Rall. A lady in the crowd says that her father desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot but his work on aero engines at Rolls-Royce was deemed essential and he wasn’t allowed to join the RAF; Wellum is thankful, as the Merlin engine never let him down, no matter how much he thrashed it in combat, a tribute to the Rolls-Royce team.

On the differences between flying in Malta and England, Malta was tougher; the heavy bombing, the heat, and the lack of supplies (more difficult to get hold of beer!) Someone asks if it’s not true that the Luftwaffe found that best way to attack bombers wasn’t from above and behind, but from underneath; “I wouldn’t know about that, I wasn’t a German and I wasn’t shooting at Lancasters!” His technique was more just to “get in and at ‘em”. There’s a question about ammunition; after unsuccessful trials with 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, 92 Squadron received cannon-armed Spitfires just after the battle, and resolved most of the issues by rotating the cannon mounting, the additional power of the cannon was appreciated, though the early versions only carried 60 rounds per gun. Asked about differences between Spitfires, Wellum said he hadn’t flown any of the Griffon-engined variants, his favourite was probably the Mark XVI, with cut-down fuselage and clipped wings; he was fond of the Mark VB, but it was a little outclassed at times.

I would’ve liked to ask about his time testing Typhoons, or the rest of his RAF career (he stayed in the service until 1961), I’ve been able to find very little about that; perhaps it just doesn’t compare to 1940. Time flies by and I don’t get the chance, many hands are still raised but things have to be wrapped up to give a quick chance for signing books before getting out to see the flying display from a P-51 Mustang. A thunderous standing ovation, and we file out into the warm Wiltshire sun. Wonderful.

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC

Posted by Zoso at 2:22 pm

Chalke Valley History Festival 2014

cvhf, zoso 2 Comments »

Chalke Valley History Festival is, as could be surmised from the name, a week-long history festival held on a farm in Wiltshire’s Chalke Valley, combining historical talks and presentations with living history encampments spanning the centuries from Anglo-Saxons to World War II. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the event last year, after finding out about it the day before, and with sufficient forewarning booked tickets in advance for a couple of talks this year.

Wandering around the site we happened across a column of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons waiting for troops of the American Revolutionary War to clear the arena (a noteworthy occurrence anywhere else, just another day at Chalke Valley), and needing to make a bit more room for a gun carriage they started shuffling backwards. One wag at the front called out “Beep! Beep! Beep!”, and soon the whole lot were beeping along to the cry of “Attention! These Vikings are reversing!” Once in the arena, they set about each other with sword and axe:

Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol...

Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol…

The day was punctuated with fly-pasts from classic warbirds. Unfortunately the scheduled Spitfire PR XIX was unable to fly, but an extra display from a P-51 Mustang from the Hanger 11 collection wasn’t a bad replacement:

P-51 Jumpin' Jacques

P-51 Jumpin’ Jacques

Hurricane R4118 has had a rather tough life, being shot down during the Battle of Britain, suffering a few prangs when used in Operational Training Units, then used for engineering instruction in India. Painstaking restoration work has brought her back to flying condition with impressive results:

Hawker Hurricane Mk I

Hawker Hurricane Mk I

Last but by no means least, Sally B, the only flying B-17 in the UK (don’t worry, the smoke is part of the display):

B-17 Sally B

B-17 Sally B

Giving impressive displays throughout the day were Destrier, demonstrating the skills and armour of medieval knights. In the morning, skill at arms: male and female riders dishing out violence to unfortunate fruit and veg, setting about cabbages and apples with sword, axe and warhammer, quite a sight as they thundered past at speed. They also picked up rings with light lances, flung javelins at targets and a straw-stuffed Yorkist (bonus points for an amusing kill), and hunted boar from horseback (just a dummy, no animals were harmed during the making of this festival).

How To Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit

How To Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit

A second presentation showcasing armour of the period in fascinating detail built up to the grand finale, jousting. No script or hokey story, just the spectacle of fully armoured riders thundering towards each other, quite amazing.

It's Only A Flesh Wound

It’s Only A Flesh Wound

Thing didn’t quite finish according to plan with dented armour, trouble with a caparison and a skittish replacement horse conspiring to prevent the final rounds to determine the grand champion, but the eloquent and witty master of ceremonies managed to hold everything together despite the unprecedented setbacks. Dispersing, we followed a German mortar platoon, who set themselves up for a Normandy ambush in the main area, which looked set to be quite a spectacle, though we had to head off before it got underway.

Mort 'ar?  I hardly know 'ar!

Mort ‘ar? I hardly know ‘ar!

Unquestionably, though, the highlight of the day was a talk from Geoffrey Wellum, a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, which deserves a post of its own that should be coming soon!

Posted by Zoso at 7:13 pm

The football it has taken away the little bit of sense he had

world of tanks, zoso Comments Off

I haven’t played World of Tanks for a while, but with the start of the four-yearly Cue To Start A Comment Thread War Over The Preferred Shortened Form Of ‘Association Football’ (known as the ‘World Cup’ in some circles), Wargaming have added a fun little event…

come on football - i hope that our football team gets the points that they require

come on football – i hope that our football team gets the points that they require

Translating foot-to-ball into the rather more exciting armoured warfare variant “tank-to-ball”, all WoT players have been given a special T-62 Sport. Entering battle with this vehicle, two teams of three face off against each other, attempting to push or shoot the giant tank-ball into a goal. Tanks can’t be destroyed, but hitting an opponent’s tracks will briefly disable them:

it is a good job that he has got plastic shin sheets on the bottom of his legs or he would have to be carried home in a wheelchair

it is a good job that he has got plastic shin sheets on the bottom of his legs or he would have to be carried home in a wheelchair

Delicate touches are tricky to pull off with 39 long tons of steel plated fury, so matches can bog down into a bit of an Eton wall game-esque stalemate:

what is wrong referee is your throat flute poisoned or something just have a blow on it for once in your life

what is wrong referee is your throat flute poisoned or something just have a blow on it for once in your life

Ball control via cannon fire appears to be the key skill for tank-ball, being responsible for most of the goals I’ve seen so far. Just be prepared if your team does score, the ball respawns on halfway almost immediately so some frantic defensive realignment may be required.

he striked that one like he was kicking a ball at a prison

he striked that one like he was kicking a ball at a prison

I’ll wager that you’re mightily impressed by the in-depth football knowledge I’ve displayed in the captions of the screenshots, but I’ll let you into a little secret… I didn’t really know very much until I read this excellent guide. If you’re going to try a few rounds of tank-to-ball, you should try and remember a few phrases and use them in chat – lets get this event started, i am enjoying myself!

Posted by Zoso at 9:09 am

Gaming Diary – Defiance

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I picked up Defiance when it launched last year, but didn’t get much further than the starting missions. It wasn’t terrible by any means, a solid enough MMOTPS, but other shooters proved a bit more compelling at the time, particularly Planetside 2 which I was playing quite heavily then. I caught the first few episodes of the TV show and it, too, was solid enough, but with time being irritatingly finite it wasn’t at the top of the list of Stuff To Definitely Watch Right Now, the episodes started stacking up on the PVR and eventually got cleared off to make room.

Planetside 2 had a good old run; even after peak playing-most-days-enthusiasm it was still fun to log in on a Friday with the Five Rounds Rapid outfit and rumble around Auraxis in an armoured convoy singing Jungle Book songs, but with newer, shinier temptations like The Elder Scrolls Online the outfit drifted a bit, and I was fading myself. Despite ordering TESO, and at least making a start on the tutorial during head start, I was away for the official launch, and just haven’t got around to activating the full game since; I can’t really put a finger on why. Instead, when a few of the other FRRers headed for Defiance I thought I’d dust it off and give it another go, and it’s grabbed me a lot more this time around.

A particularly good first impression was the ease of playing with other people. Though the interface in general is rather awkward, presumably due to being a multi-platform game, once you’ve cudgelled it into letting you add someone as a friend then the “Go To Friend” option immediately takes you to their location, no hanging around trying to get everyone in the same place. Once you’re there you can pitch in with whatever they’re doing (typically the usual MMO staples of Killing Some Monster Things, or Clicking Some Glowing Things, or Clicking Some Glowing Things Then Killing Some Monster Things While A Progress Bar Goes Up Or Down) with no issues of quest sharing, kill stealing or the like. Levels (or “EGO Rating”) don’t seem to be a problem, players or mobs are scaled such that a disparate group can all contribute; other than in fairly exceptional circumstances we haven’t bumped into overwhelmingly powerful or trivially easy encounters. The fixed group size of four is a minor irritation, particularly for co-op maps (instanced encounters, broadly similar to a “dungeon”), other than that it’s admirably suited to casual drop-in-and-out group play.

There are obvious similarities between Defiance and Borderlands; weapons of various classes (pistols, SMGs, shotguns, assault rifles etc.) drop in white/green/blue/purple/orange flavours with varying stats, weapons can have “nano-effects” such as electricity for greater shield damage, you get a single activateable power (cloak, overcharge, decoy, blur), etc. You can also draw comparisons with Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row; there’s a central cut-scene driven storyline to follow, but when you pull up the map there’s a plethora of side missions, events and challenges to take part in. Driving is the main method of moving around, though with the lack of convenient sports cars to jack in the devastated future you have to spawn your own vehicle. Some of the missions are for a single person, courses to race around as fast as possible or timed rampage-type fights against waves of mobs, other events can draw crowds of players, most notably the Arkfalls, scaling public-quest-type-things along the lines of the titular rifts in Trion’s previous MMO.

The game-specific main story involves chasing some sort of MacGuffin because of Some Plot, I haven’t been paying too much attention if I’m entirely honest. There are also “Episode” missions that more directly link to events in the TV series, initially time-limited so you progressed at the same pace as the show but later opened up for people who’d missed out; it was neat to bump into digital versions of some of the characters I just about remembered, but it doesn’t make for a particularly cohesive narrative. The tie-in reminds me a little of the physical comic books that accompanied City of Heroes for a while, interesting for a bit of shared backstory, but not really a transcendent pan-media experience greater than the sum of its parts; in general I found it hard to reconcile nuanced character-driven plots with my own deeply moving story of Shooting A Metric Fuckton Of Mobs Looking For Big Guns. I posted about the problem with story in MMOs before, particularly in relation to Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Defiance has that same disconnect between repeatable MMO content and more linear story elements.

I can’t speak for potential longevity or how things are at the end game, but I’d say it’s worth a look if you fancy a bit of online multiplayer shooting. It’s just gone free to play, if box cost was an issue before, with a fairly standard looking model (limited character, inventory slots for free players, a premium option to boost gains during play etc.), seems to be pretty reasonable, I’ll have to see if it makes much of a difference in the long term.

Posted by Zoso at 4:16 pm
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