Monthly Archives: March 2008

Reviewlet: Achtung Schweinehund!, By Harry Pearson

You can’t judge by looking at its cover, Bo Diddly assures us in a bid to convince that, despite looking like a farmer, he is, in fact, a lover. The cover of Achtung Schweinehund! features a British and German armoured car straight from the pages of a Commando comic, the back has that distinctive dagger, and blurb about a childhood spent re-enacting the Second World War. For the first part, that’s just what it is, reminiscences close enough to my own to provoke frequent laughter and a warm wave of nostalgia, but his childhood was around ten years earlier so also interesting in a sort of “compare and contrast” way. Arsenals of toy weaponry ranging from cowboy six-shooters to sparking laser blasters, Battle Picture Weekly and Commando comics, Action Men, legions of plastic 1:32 scale Airfix soldiers…

The second part, though, suggests that Diddly chap might’ve been on to something. As the author leaves childhood, the focus moves to more serious wargaming. Where he stuck with historical warfare, my divisions of plastic soldiers were joined by Star Wars figures and Orcs, I started on fighting fantasy books and roleplaying, then computers got involved. This presents something of irreconcilable difference, I sense. Pearson says:

The whole fantasy thing turns my stomach. To my mind, three men are responsible more than any others for the creation of this abhorrent perversion of the hobby: J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, Robert E. Howard, creator of Hyboria (which was a kind of Middle Earth with breasts), and E. Gary Gygax, the mild-mannered Canadian inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. ‘All three of them should be put up against a wall and shot,’ I said to TK one day when I was feeling particularly aggrieved at World of Warcraft’s continued encroachment into our territory. He raised an eyebrow. ‘I think you’re getting a bit carried away there, mate’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘Oh yes.’ TK said. ‘I mean, two of them are already dead. It would be a waste of bullets.’

Ironically, Gygax died while I was reading Achtung! Schweinehund, though I don’t think Pearson was in the area with a rifle. I’ve long said that some of the most heated flamewars on message boards are between people who fundamentally agree with each other, but get into vicious point-by-point rebuttals over exactly how they agree, so after bristling with incandescent rage over such heresy and writing a stiff letter to The Times Points of View White Dwarf magazine involving the line “why oh why oh why oh why oh why etc. (ps: I totally expected the pig, don’t you go trying to put one over on me, no piggy-wiggy)”, I figured hey, that’s the rich and diverse world of specialist interests (or, if you prefer, geekdom) for you. Fantasy vs Historical is another blood-feud over barely-perceptible-to-outsider differences to file alongside Metal vs Plastic, Collectors vs Wargamers, Marvel vs DC, PvE vs PvP, Hard Science vs Space Opera, Normal People vs LARPers (I kid, I kid, don’t hit me with foam-covered axes).

I don’t think it was just being put off by that quote, but I wasn’t so keen on the second part of the book. It meanders around somewhat, and where Pearson doesn’t care for fantasy, I don’t have a great interest in pre-mechanised 20mm miniatures. The bits and pieces about the history of wargaming, Napoleonic dioramas and such are fairly dry, and I’d mostly picked up elsewhere. The descriptions of fellow enthusiasts and characters, the embarrassment of such a terminally uncool hobby and hiding it from “normal” people, ring true enough, but though there’s a few funny moments on the whole I found it tended more towards the depressing than the heart-warmingly eccentric, particularly the gamer, alone in a squalid house stuffed to the point of structural failure with metal figures. It drifts off rather after the promising start; overall, not bad, but not brilliant.

Wildlife strikes back.

It’s a curious thing: there I am playing a throwaway rogue alt that I had quickly rolled for that five seconds of fun, that quick hit of quintessential MMOness that one sometimes desires: mad levelling without honour or humanity, where you slaughter everything in the local area with wild abandon, with not a chance of it putting up enough of a fight to cause you anything more than a sprained fingernail or perhaps a fractured eyebrow, and where you gain levels so quickly that you’re in danger of meeting a lower level version of yourself and ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe. And all with the added benefit of not having to spend five hours flying across seven continents to get to your next quest, or having to wait for a group of fellow adventurers to gather and then spend the next fifty minutes coming up with the forward-thinking, radical plan that the tank archetype will tank, the healer archetypes should probably heal, and that the rest of the group should probably take up haberdashery, or DPS, whichever is easiest.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes it’s fun to roll a level 1 character, get them to level 10 in as fast a time as possible while enjoying all the basics of MMO game-play without any of the hassle, and then delete them and go back to one’s main character. Until the next time that the shakes occur, that is, and your MMO dealer is standing there furtively opening up the lining of one side of his coat to you, displaying the delicious alts within, that you could be playing right now for the low low price of your soul.

At any rate, trying desperately to drag this back towards some sort of point: there’s me, there’s a low level rogue, and there’s slaughtering, mainly of the wildlife variety. The curious thing, so briefly alluded to at the beginning of this post before it all went a bit Alliance PvP Tactics (waywardly running all over the place with little focus), occurred whilst fighting a deer; I say fighting rather than slaughtering because this fellow put up a remarkable struggle, including at one point parrying my attack.

A deer. Parried. My attack.

It wasn’t a simple miss, or dodge even, nope it was parried, as in “Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!” parry. A deer. How… with the… and legs that don’t… daggers… but that’s… isn’t… hmmmm.

So one has to wonder at just what sort of wildlife finishing schools they have around Ironforge, I guess they have to be pretty harsh, more like training camps, what with all the mad dwarves running around the area trying to kill everything with a pulse.

Badger :”I am Gunnery Sergeant Badger, your Senior Drill Instructor. From now on, you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be “Sir!” Do you maggots understand that?”

Wildlife recruits: “Sir, yes, sir!”

Badger: “Bullshit! I can’t hear you. Sound off like you got a pair.”

Wildlife recruits: “Sir, yes, sir!”

Badger: “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training … you will be a weapon, you
will be a minister of death, praying for war. But until that day you are pukes! You’re the lowest form of life on Earth. You are nothing but unorganised grabasstic pieces of amphibian shit!”

Frog: “Hey, I resent that remark.”

One envisions huge camps hidden high in the hills overlooking Kharanos, where legions of boars march in unison across parade squares, while panthers crawl along under barbed wire as they make their way across various assault courses. Waves of owls drop from the sky into the rocky fortress, dropping off supplies and a vanguard of badgers and rats in a cloud of stirred-up dust and leaf litter. In the nearby forests, wolves and bears wearing shinobi shozoku slink from tree to tree, perfecting the art of the stealth aggro, and in the mountain-top retreats deer, raptors and clefthoofs master the sword fighting techniques that will allow them to defeat some of the greatest and best armed fighters that the Alliance and Horde have ever produced.

And this arms proliferation can only get worse; why just today I heard rumour that Age of Conan has shield-wielding hedgehogs that can block attacks, and that Warhammer Online will feature sheep armed with a main-gauche, such that they not only have a chance to parry but that they will also have a chance to break the weapon you’re attacking them with! Of course you’ll never actually see them wielding these weapons, and they’ll certainly never drop them as loot, but believe me when I say that you should keep a close eye on your combat logs.

The wildlife is striking back.

Gaming Round-up

Other than a Hellgate: London post, I seem to have entirely neglected games for a month or so. I haven’t been playing an awful lot, but a quick round-up from the last few weeks:

A few screenshots and previews of STALKER: Clear Skies (or possibly S.T.A.L.K.E.R.:. C.l.e.a.r. S.k.i.e.s.) reminded me I’d never completed the first game, so I dusted off the most recent save game and headed back into the Zone. Turned out I wasn’t too far from the end of the game, and I managed to finish it off. Twice, in fact, with different endings. Thoroughly enjoyed it, though I probably vastly over-used the quick save/quick load keys in the last couple of levels. The story, like the game as a whole, is a sprawling mess that doesn’t really seem like it ought to work, but it sort of does, just about.

In Guitar Hero 3, the insane solo of Cult of Personality on Expert still has me stymied, I’m not sure I’m going to make it to that final tier. Still, plenty of fun to be had noodling around the other songs, plus both Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and the Wii version of Rock Band are scheduled for June (in the US, at least. So we might see Rock Band on the Wii in the UK sometime around the year 3124.) I’m not a huge Aerosmith fan, but I’ll probably pick up their Guitar Hero game, so long as they skip the naff-awful latter day ballads. The Wii version of Rock Band, disappointingly if not surprisingly, looks like it’s going to be quite similar to the PS2 version, lacking several features, principally downloadable content. Have to think about that one a bit more…

In spare moments, I manage to fit in a few Audiosurf tracks, though I haven’t found anything particular spectacular there. MMO-wise, I’m marking time in City of Heroes waiting for Issue 12 (and trying to decide whether to roll up a new character when it goes live, or play an existing one some more…) I just stuck an order in for the Collector’s Edition of Warhammer Online, as the pile of goodies both in-game and out look most nifty, a mere six-ish months to go there to decide on a class. In Hellgate: London, there was a big patch last week that changed the Marksman class quite significantly, I think, probably, though I couldn’t be bothered to study the patch notes in great detail to find out exactly how. Melmoth and I finally managed to get a couple of hours in last night, so we headed over to Stonehenge to take on Moloch again. Fortunately he’s caught up to my level since last time (with a mere single character re-roll en route), and the run went pretty smoothly. In the Moloch fight itself, we were knocking his health bar down at the usual glacial rate, but every time one of us died it jumped back to 100%. A quick alt-tab and proper read of the patch notes confirmed this new ability of his, to regenerate 20% health when he kills a character, which looked like it might put a bit of a crimp on things, but a stack of health injectors and some fancy footwork saw us right, and we took him down without any major problems. According to the notes, the new patch also introduced some ultra-shiny loot drops for Moloch, but we didn’t see any of those, t’ch. Still, we did assemble quite a collection of headgear from his corpse (though the use of yellow rather than purple for epic-quality items in Hellgate tragically precludes the oh-so-hilarious “shiny purple helmet” reference).

Reviewlet: Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

No spoilers here as, amongst other people, Zoso hasn’t had a chance to read it yet.

I’ve just finished reading the third book of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. The entire series has been an astonishingly enjoyable read from start to finish. There’s plenty to talk about and I hope to craft a more substantial discussion later on, once more people have had a chance to read it. However, if you’re looking for a new fantasy author to try, I couldn’t recommend Joe Abercrombie highly enough.

This is, however, a reviewlet, so how to describe the book without giving things away? Well, Abercrombie helps with that too (the man thinks of everything), by having one of his characters provide a small description of what the book is not:

‘I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.’ Ardee slapped at the heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.
The Fall of the Master Maker,’ muttered Glokta. ‘That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.’
‘I can sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up one with another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map, I swear I’ll kill myself.’

In the First Law trilogy there are wizards, but not too many; there is but one traditional heroic journey, and although it is bloody, it is not endless; there is little magic, but also little valour; and there are no maps.

Joe Abercrombie has taken many of the best parts of Tokien’s work and turned it on its head, creating an audacious adult fantasy work that would be better suited to the direction of Quentin Tarantino than Peter Jackson if it was ever adapted for film (one can only hope).

As I mentioned earlier, I hope for further discussion in future posts, but for now take this as one highly recommended trilogy.

Reviewlet: Halting State by Charles Stross

I first heard about Charlie Stross a few years back when, within the space of a couple of days: I’d been browsing around e-books and found he’d made Accelerando available under a Creative Commons license, I was Googling around Githyanki for some reason (I think they’d turned up in Neverwinter Nights 2) and found he’d created the AD&D version of them, and then an old schoolfriend blogged about enjoying the paper version of Accelerando. That all led me to his rather splendid blog, and with further meanderings to evidence of extraordinary geek cred.

Ironically, though Accelerando has been sitting on my PDA for a couple of years now, I still haven’t got round to actually reading it; I started with A Colder War online, then The Atrocity Archives, wonderful spy thrillers with added Cthulhu Mythos. Towards the end of last year, he released extracts from Halting State, a near-future novel that starts with a robbery in an MMOG. Say no more, obviously I picked it up straight away. Well, OK, not quite straight away, I got distracted by something (probably the next thing that turned up in the RSS reader) and forgot for a bit, then got as far as sticking it on my Amazon wishlist (or “vast pile of stuff I’ve found references to somewhere or other that look brilliant, but I can’t just go ahead and get the whole lot what with, y’know, money and time and storage space all being finite and that, and so it all piles up and then you go to actually buy some of it but get paralysed by choice and it’s a toss up as to whether you abandon the whole idea and play Peggle or frenziedly click for a while then pass out coming round only when a postman knocks on the door with a parcel of several books, a 2Gb memory card that you don’t strictly need but heck for less than a fiver it’d be rude not to, a coffee maker, a sonic screwdriver LED torch, that Medieval Total War expansion pack you never quite got round to at the time, and an electric toothbrush”-list, as I like to call it. Though I’ll concede “wishlist” is slightly snappier.) Fortunately I then saw it in a bookshop in town, where paralysis of choice was reduced to a slight limp of minor indecision, and I made it out with just Halting State. And a small selection from the 3-for-the-price-of-2 offer. And a large cappuccino and a muffin from the coffee shop. And a novelty bookmark.

Anyway! On to the actual book. Halting State chucks you straight in to 12-years-from-now very skillfully; I can’t remember anything sticking out and shouting “it’s the FUTURE with LASERS and JETPACKS and stuff”, the changes are mostly subtle, and utterly believable. Stross’ Tech Lab article for the BBC is a good primer for some of the ideas. The initial set up, in the extracts available from his site, is slightly hard going as you’re introduced to a lot of people in second person narrative switching between three characters. After that, things settle down a bit and you start to get a handle on what’s going on, but then stuff really kicks off and we’re off down the rabbit hole, keep your hands and feet inside the carriage. I’m going to need to give it a second read, as the twists and revelations come pretty thick and fast.

It’s quite jargon heavy, and if you’re not up with MMOs and techspeak you might struggle, but I loved it. If you’re a MMOGer, and you like near future thrillers, what’re you waiting for? Add it to your wishlist now! (And don’t forget that four gig USB stick while you’re there…)

Warhammer Online blogger beta invites.

Nah, I’m just kidding you.

I just thought it’d make a change from all the other blogs reporting the same piece of WAR news, with five lines of editorial about how this is, or is not, an outrage. Or the effect this will have on the future of gaming on the iPhone and Japanese portable toilets. Or the various theories about how this latest delay will cause a critical desalinisation point and destroy the WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.

Is all this fuss purely because this appears to be the only MMO on the horizon that will achieve anything of note, and thus stands a remote chance of keeping a decent number of subscribers for more than the first month?

Is it because the Marketing Flayer has attached its warped, sucking tentacles of hype so securely onto the juicy consciousness of the Big Blog Brain that the only output now is a soft theta waveform stuck in a feedback loop of marketing based babble? Do people now march in shambling zombie unison (I’m talking proper zombie marching: slow and limping, one arm held out in front, jaw slightly open and drooling; we’ll have none of these high speed, contact lens wearing ravers who’ve had 150mA of AC attached to their buttocks, thank you very much) towards our succulent-looking WAR hero, who’s just trying to survive the constant attentions of the slavering masses, and has to gently persuade them to back away using the Chainsaw of Cancelled Closed Beta, and the Winchester Rifle of Suspiciously Absent Dev. Forums, while psychotic Mr Marketing turns on all the lights in the hideout and plays loud music, to attract more attention because he has a death wish?

Hmm, clearly I’m ready for a Shaun of the Dead MMO…

Look. It got delayed. Again. We know this because every gaming news site worth a tuppence ha’penny selection of pick’n’mix candy is going to have reported on it. Discuss something else for Robert G. Ingersoll’s sake.

If anyone in the Google Reader development team wants to work on a search-based tagging system that lets me ignore certain posts, so that my feed doesn’t fill entirely with one hundred or more posts on a vastly repeated subject with no more than two lines of tagged-on ‘commentary’, please feel free to contact me via the following address:

Help! I Seem To Be Drowning In A Sea Of Twisty Blog Posts, All Alike.
Hucking Fell,

Like a true Nature’s child.

I can’t help prodding these things when I see them going around the various blogs. I try to answer them honestly. And I always come out as an apathetic tree-hugging hippy loafer. Next time I do one of these, I’m telling it that I’m four feet tall, have bulging muscles everywhere – including on my eyebrows – and that my hobbies include chopping up things with big axes, and drinking the blood of my enemies.

I Am A: True Neutral Human Druid (4th Level)

Ability Scores:

True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he’s not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Druids gain power not by ruling nature but by being at one with it. They hate the unnatural, including aberrations or undead, and destroy them where possible. Druids receive divine spells from nature, not the gods, and can gain an array of powers as they gain experience, including the ability to take the shapes of animals. The weapons and armor of a druid are restricted by their traditional oaths, not simply training. A druid’s Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that they can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character You Would Be.

Or just make one up, and then you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewlet: The Colour of Magic

I quite enjoyed Sky’s adaptation of The Colour of Magic. It’s not my favourite of the Discworld books, I didn’t come to it steeped in the works of Leiber, McCaffrey, Howard and the like that it frequently parodies so missed out on much of that side of it. I think the adaptation benefited from combining it with The Light Fantastic, which has a bit more of a plot to string the vignettes together. I’m not the greatest fan of Rincewind either, so don’t hold any great religious convictions about how he should be portrayed, and I thought David Jason worked very well in that role. Sean Astin wasn’t bad as Twoflower, if not spectacular, Tim Curry made a splendidly villainous Trymon, Christopher Lee was a suitably portentous replacement for Ian Richardson as the Voice of Death, James Cosmo was a fine Archchancellor, Karen David was a rather striking Liessa… in fact the cast as a whole worked well. It’s been a long time since I read either of the two source books, so I couldn’t say how closely it stuck to them, and wasn’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny for the most part, inevitably losing some of Pratchett’s word-play and references in the transition, but it passed the time nicely enough as a way to unwind.

Stars at elbow and foot

Plans for a quiet Easter weekend changed slightly with news of a death in the family (old age, not entirely unexpected), so I wound up flying out for the funeral. Not the best of circumstances, but it was good to see nine of my ten cousins, some of whom I hadn’t seen for twenty-odd years. Bit knackered after not much sleep and the flight back, might just watch Sky’s The Colour Of Magic and crash out.