Season’s greetings, one and all, may 2016 bring you joy, wealth and lashings of hats.
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:
There are also a few new aircraft and assorted other tweaks, but the British tanks are the main attraction. Tally ho, death or glory!
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…)
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…”
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…
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 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.
 Ask your grandparents
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.
It’s been a while since I properly grouped up with people for online games, MMOs have become a bit of an online Diogenes Club for me. Thankfully semi-regular boardgame gatherings keep me from turning into a complete gaming recluse; some of the games played since the last not-even-semi-regular update here include:
Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) winner in 2012, it’s nice and quick to get to grips with Kingdom Builder. Each turn you draw a terrain card, and build three settlements on that type of terrain. The beauty of it is that victory conditions are determined by drawing cards at the start of the game, and the game board is built from four randomly selected sections, so each game (usually) requires a different strategy. Thematically it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, the mechanics are rather abstract, but they’re good and solid, work well with two players, and the random setup makes it very replayable.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
I’ve only played this once so far, and would definitely like to give it another go. Each player constructs a castle one room at a time, and like Kingdom Builder there’s a random element to the way points are scored to vary things from game to game. Unlike Kingdom Builder the theme is integral to the game, loosely based on the titular Ludwig II of Bavaria, much of the fun is in trying to explain why the primary feature of your castle is a large theatre connected to the stables. It’ll need another few playthroughs to determine if the mechanics are as strong, but it looks most promising.
Discworld: Ankh Morpork
As the name suggests, a Discworld game set in Ankh Morpork. Each player assumes a hidden identity, each with their own victory condition, and sets about trying to take control of areas of Ankh Morpork, cause trouble, or (in the case of Commander Vimes) ensure nobody else wins before the cards run out. Much bluff and counter-bluff as players try to assess what the others might need to do to win. The mechanics don’t always meld completely seamlessly with the theme, but the cards feature masses of Discworld characters great and small with terrific art, and the chaotic nature of magic certainly fits well.
Unfortunately it seems that since Terry Pratchett’s death, the Discworld licence is not being renewed with publisher Treefrog Games, so Discworld: Ankh Morpork (and The Witches, their other Discworld game) won’t be reprinted. A bit of digging around turned up plans for a third game based on the gods of Discworld that sounded most interesting, but won’t now come to fruition, rather a shame. On the positive side, there’s a news item on their website about a second edition of A Study in Emerald, a game based on the Neil Gaiman short story of the same name blending Sherlock Holmes with the Cthulhu mythos that I’ll be keeping an eye out for, could be a good companion to…
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
An interesting one; a text-heavy collaborative roleplaying crime-’em-up in which the players take the role of Irregulars, trying to solve a case before Sherlock Holmes smugly reveals how obvious it all was. There are ten cases, each with a Fighting Fantasy-esque book of numbered paragraphs of exposition, but rather than the book instructing you to turn to section X, players use props like a map of London and editions of The Times to determine where to go and thus what paragraph to read.
Extensive note-taking is helpful as you try and pick out relevant clues and avoid red herrings, and investigations can be rather stymied if you miss what, in hindsight, turns out to be the crux of the case, either through your own foolishness (in our first case, we bumbled around London quite unhelpfully for some time before thinking of visiting the murder scene), or the obtuse nature of a clue (I mean really, if trying to leave a clue in your dying moments, smashing a display case and turning a figurine around would be some way down my list after, oh, I don’t know, writing a short note with the name of the killer…)
It won’t suit all groups, but if you’ve ever fancied yourselves as a whatever-the-collective-noun-for-Sherlock-Holmeses-is of Sherlock Holmeses, it’s rather a fun change of pace.
King of Tokyo
My most recent acquisition, based on searching boardgamegeek.com for a game that supported up to six players with a maximum playing time of an hour, for a quick warm-up or interlude on gaming days. Each player controls a giant robot/alien/monster aiming to rule Tokyo by defeating the other monsters, or getting to 20 victory points. Turns consist of rolling and re-rolling six dice, a bit like Poker Dice or Yahtzee, to accumulate victory points or energy (currency), heal yourself or damage the other monsters. Energy can be used to purchase cards with either one-time or lasting effects. It took about ten minutes from ripping the cellophane off the box to starting the first round, and turned out to be so much fun, we just kept playing it! An ideal family or party game.
Fallout 3 and New Vegas were great games. I think. It’s been a while, and my memory isn’t what it was. At least I don’t think it is, I don’t really remember. Fortunately I can stick ‘fallout’ into the search box here to double check what past-me really thought, and he’s confirmed that I was a big fan. It’s a good system, I should start recording more stuff on this blog, like where I put my keys, and what shopping I need to get. Note to future self: pick up a couple of pints of milk and a loaf of bread. Although… what if I didn’t really write those posts? Maybe I never played Fallout 3 at all, someone could have hacked this blog and posted favourable things about it, and I’ve just assumed it was me… maybe I’m not writing this at all, I don’t even need milk or bread, it’s all an evil plot by the Milk Marketing Board and whoever their bread-based equivalent are (I’d guess the Bread Marketing Board, but maybe it’s a broader Bakery Marketing Board that covers pastry-based foodstuffs too). The fact that the Milk Marketing Board ceased to exist in 2002 suggests that’s unlikely, but I just looked that up on Wikipedia, and if they’re smart enough to hack this blog then changing a Wikipedia entry is hardly out of the question.
Anyway, Fallout. I haven’t finished the main story of an Elder Scrolls game since Daggerfall (as far as I remember, but let’s not go there again); I always end up meandering around, joining a bunch of different guilds n’ stuff, trying to progress in all of them at the same time, and drifting away from the game. I did finish both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, though (with a goodly amount of meandering in the process), as well as most of their DLC packs. I’m not sure if it’s a preference for gun-based combat over swords and spells, or perhaps a slightly tighter story focus in the Fallout series. Either way, I was happy to see Fallout 4 announced a while back, and the Fallout Shelter mobile spin-off sounded fun, but I didn’t have an iOS device at the time.
Having recently acquired an iPad, I’d forgotten about Fallout Shelter until there was a bit of buzz for the release of the Android version last week, so I thought I’d give it a try, and it’s rather diverting. Not terribly deep, a bit reminiscent of something like CivClicker, gathering resources to build stuff to gather more resources, but it looks good, and making numbers go up is always a valuable and rewarding endeavour. Or an exploit of an underlying psychological weakness, I forget which. It’s worth a look, though. As is: milk! Mmm, lovely milk. Don’t forget to drink a cool, refreshing glass of milk today! And why not have a slice of bread as well?
This has been a post by the Milk Marketing Board with support from the Primarily Bread But Also Other Baked Goods Too Board. Wait, I mean Zoso! Yes, Zoso wrote this. Definitely him. I mean me.
Lacking any particular gaming inspiration, I was meandering around the Steam store the other day and noticed Trove, a voxel-y Minecraft-esque MMO-ish sort of thing from Trion Worlds that launched last week. I picked up Space Engineers in the recent sale, but that has a rather forbidding interface. I’m sure it allows for deep and complex space construction, but I haven’t managed to summon up the enthusiasm to watch a ten minute tutorial video yet. Something nice and simple with bright colours seemed more suited to my usually addled state of an evening, so I thought I’d take a look at Trove.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one with that idea, with a queue of 1000+ people waiting to join the server and an estimated time of an hour or so, but fortunately the marvellous Only Connect was back on BBC Four, and by the time that had finished I was at the head of the Trove queue, ready to pick a class.
From subsequent thorough in-depth research (briefly glancing at the Wikipedia article), it seems Trove has been in testing/early access for a while, but it’s slipped under my MMO-radar until now. That’s not terribly surprising, as my MMO-radar is rather obsolescent and would scarcely register news of World of Warcraft shutting down these days, but it can be fun to go into a new game completely cold. Having no idea what any of the classes particularly do, I picked Pirate for the following logical and well thought-out reason:
Q: Why are Pirates the best class?
A: Because they ARRRRRRRRRRRe!
Q: What do pirates drive?
A: A cARRRRRRRRRRRR!
Q: Why did the pirate film have a disjointed narrative?
A: Because it was nonlineARRRRRRRRRRR!
Q: Are you just googling “words that end in ‘ar'” and constructing so-called pirate jokes around them?
A: I mean ARRRRRRRRRfirmative!
Q: That doesn’t even work…
A: Yeah, well, there aren’t any synonyms for ‘yes’ that include ‘ar’, ARRRRRRe there?
Q: That question was a statement and that answer was a question, the whole structure of this section is failing, quick, let’s do another pirate joke so nobody will notice: which of the Merry Men was a pirate?
A: FriARRRRRRRRR! Tuck
Q: What about Pirate Will Scarletbeard, Pirate Terror of the High Seas and Pirate?
A: Him too
(If you’ve enjoyed these hilarious jokes, you might also like: a pack of 24 ballpoint pens, some flip-flops, or Mr Biffo’s excellent Digitiser 2000)
Anyway. Trove itself seems to be exactly what you’d expect from a voxel-y Minecraft-esque MMO-ish sort of thing: adventuring and defeating mobs for loot in a MMO-ish manner, then upon pressing Tab switching to a harvesting/building mode where you can (temporarily) demolish the landscape and use the resulting blocks to build and craft things in a Minecraft-esque fashion (on a small plot of land of your own). Five or six years ago, it would have been staggering; today, it’s perfectly good, but with such an array of building, crafting and adventuring games out there I’m not sure it’s something I’ll particularly stick with. Still, you never know, it has a lot of nice touches. The Pirate class has a rather cute pet parrot, and seems to have some similarities with Engineer-type classes in other games such as a deployable turret ability. Rather than some automated system, though, the turret is a cannon manned (parroted?) by your companion:
Overall, then, positive first impressions; dusting off the old Second Wilson Cabinet Rating Mechanism, I would award Trove a highly creditable Reginald Prentice.