Yearly Archives: 2021

Do not fire at Will, he is my second in command! Fire at the Sea Duck!

Say one thing for Gaijin Entertainment, say they put the effort in for April. If you were cruising around a naval map over the weekend you may have noticed a new addition…

The Everstuck Container Ship
Note for historians: this was around the time the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal

We also got a couple of new game modes. Previous events have included tank hats, World War II mechs, and giant radioactive snails; this year we got Warfare 2077, future tanks that were fine and all but ground forces still aren’t really my thing:

Warfare 2077
In the moodily lit not-terribly-far-future, there is only war. And bridges.

Rather more fun was a new arcade air mode loosely based on Disney’s TaleSpin cartoon, with brightly coloured seaplanes cavorting around floating islands to a jaunty soundtrack:

TaleSpin in War Thunder
If you can’t fly, don’t mess with the eagles!

It wasn’t the deepest of events, generally devolving into a furious furball, but did a good job of distilling down the essence of arcade air battles when you fancied a quick blast. As with many of the previous events I won’t miss it too much when it’s gone, but wouldn’t mind at all if it popped up occasionally in the future again.

TaleSpin in War Thunder
“Hey! My flying is A+” “Yeah, but your landing is C-“

The blade itself incites to deeds of violence

Melmoth has been playing Assassin’s Creed a lot recently, and with a combination of his enthusiastic thumbs up and a Lunar New Year sale I grabbed Odyssey myself, or ACsurprised face if you have an intrusively pictorial chat system that absolutely insists on rendering :O as an animated emoji.

It’s the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played; I’m vaguely aware of the general idea of projecting yourself backwards in time but I’ve no idea what’s specifically happening with the characters and factions in the introduction, there was no “Previously on Assassin’s Creed…” recap. I guess it’s easy enough to go and read up on if you’re particularly bothered, it doesn’t seem of vital importance in the main Greek part of the game. That main part is a well-polished Standard Ubisoft Map-Mopper; not having played the rest of the series I can’t particularly pinpoint which elements originated in earlier instalments of the series and which are blended in from elsewhere, but if you like climbing towers, revealing sections of map, and causing unrest to destabilise regions then overthrowing their leaders, it’s got you covered. Some mechanics feel a little too by-the-numbers; where contemporary game use a drone to scout around and spot enemies or objectives, in AC:O your pet eagle fulfils the same function. Presumably there was a conversation along the lines of…
“No drones in ancient Greece, guess we’ll have to drop the spotting system”
“What about telescopes?”
“Nope, still too early”
“Any characters of the Odyssey noted for having particularly keen senses? Eupithes The Far-Sighted? Antinous The Hawk-Eyed? Steve The Bloke Who Can See Stuff Really Far Away?”
“Don’t think so…”
“OK, magic eagle it is. Next!”

In place of the ‘Wanted’ stars of Grand Theft Auto there are Bounty Hunter Helmets that fill up if citizens clock you being a bad sort (stealing, attacking innocents, embarking on a murderous rampage cutting a swathe through a shadowy cult and their henchmen). Too much mayhem and a bounty hunter starts hunting you, and I’m often in trouble with the law as the game has a really fluid movement system. The tap of a key sends you jumping, climbing and rolling up or over almost any obstacle, the complete antithesis of something like the original Guild Wars with its complete lack of jumping where any shin-high wall or moderate incline was an impregnable obstacle. Sheer cliff face? Up you hop with fearsome free climbing skills. Statue? Shinny up the legs and perch on the head, no trouble! Buildings? Climbing frames, more like. As a result, moving through cities there’s little incentive not to take the most direct route between points; quite the opposite in fact. Why trudge along the streets detouring around a building when you can scale its walls, run along the roof, dive onto a canopy, hop up to a balcony, over a washing line, and get to your destination quicker and more stylishly; never taken a shortcut before? This does mean I end up jumping over or running through market stalls, temples, random houses, barracks and such, doubtless to the great annoyance of the residents, but their cries of “I’ll get the bounty hunter on you!” aren’t particularly troubling – the system is rather fatally undermined by the fact that another game mechanism rewards you for killing those very bounty hunters, propelling you up the mercenary ranks, so it’s less a deterrent than another source of shiny loot. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Only in Greek rather than Latin, and hunting bounty hunters rather than guarding guards, but I don’t trust Google Translate to capture the nuance.)

The one time that bounty hunters/rival mercenaries can really throw a spanner in the works is when they turn up at a ludicrously high level; AC:O has a very RPG level system, where enemies of the same level tend to be a reasonable challenge but as soon as they’re few levels above you they might as well be invulnerable. Around level 15 I spotted a helmet symbol on the HUD, toddled over to introduce myself via the medium of sneak attack, and was promptly despatched by a careless slap from the level 47 mercenary; since then I’ve been rather more cautious about eagle-scanning potential adversaries first. For the most part the game seems to nudge you gently enough through level-appropriate areas while allowing latitude for exploration, but when it goes wrong you do get the incongruity of taking on a good portion of an army and its champions one minute to seize control of an island, then being completely unable to handle a common street thug the next because you went a bit off-piste into a higher level area.

The tricky part of open world games is to keep up the momentum once the mechanics have been introduced, my last couple of efforts (Far Cry 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2) rather fizzled out. So far AC:O is holding up well, the main story is interesting enough but with latitude for random exploration when in the mood. I’m having the most fun taking on forts and bandit encampments, carefully scoping out the area then dealing with the defenders one by one, with the good old stealth game trope of being able to pick up bodies to hide them leading to storerooms quickly becoming impromptu morgues (or dormitories, if I’m on a less-violent knocking-out rampage rather than a killing spree). I have noticed a skill that will summon one of my lieutenants to cause a diversion; I’m rather hoping I can recruit a Spaniard to stroll up to guards and say “Excuse me, meister“, it would be a bit anachronistic, but I’m already dressed up in a patchwork of historical armour anyway thanks to assorted tie-in rewards so I don’t think anyone would notice.

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me

A time of global pandemic, when remaining indoors and minimising human contact is not only tolerated but positively encouraged, should be ideal for gaming, the perfect opportunity to catch up on the back catalogue or delve into something new and exciting. For some reason, though, it hasn’t really worked out like that, for the most part I’ve been settling in to the comfy slippers of the old regulars, Destiny 2 and War Thunder. Over Christmas I thought I’d make a bit of a conscious effort to get into something else, starting by digging out login details and getting various game launchers patched up – Steam, of course, Epic Games Store, Origin, UPlay, the Microsoft Store. I appreciate that Steam’s dominance of the PC gaming scene isn’t necessarily healthy, but it’s damnably convenient; presumably in a bid to crack that the Epic Store was handing out a free game a day for a couple of weeks (then resuming the regular freebie-per-week), and it would’ve be rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Looking at recent purchases there was Anthem on Origin, Borderlands 3 on Epic, and The Division 2 on UPlay; I’d had a bit of a go at them back in the summer, and while perfectly fine they hadn’t prised me away from Destiny 2 for any length of time. I figured I should look at something other than a game-as-a-service sort of shooter featuring a colour-coded array of increasingly rare weapons. Steam had Star Wars: Squadrons, but after dipping a toe in there I’d just gone back to War Thunder, so that seems to be sufficient for any flight/space-type sim requirements. Something a bit different, something new, an RPG? Seems like it’ll be sensible to hold off for another patch or two of Cyberpunk 2077 yet, but one of the free Epic games was Torchlight 2 so I got that installed. I never managed to get into a Diablo or similar games, and sure enough bounced off Torchlight 2 after a level or two. I contemplated a couple of Epic’s management-type offerings, Cities: Skylines and Tropico 5, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to plunge in; on one level I want something completely new and interesting and deep and challenging, but on another level don’t want to learn a whole new set of rules and mechanisms and controls. The Epic freebie I ended up playing most turned out to be Solitarica, a golf solitaire game with some light RPG elements (spells and items), a nice little time-passer ideal for a half-hour here and there, but not terribly deep and fulfilling. Is it too much to ask for a game of massive scope offering every kind of experience that’s completely intuitive and has photorealistic graphics that are also quirky and an amazing story but also complete freedom with no barriers and also increasingly rare items to find and achievements and the moon (on a stick)? Yes, yes it is.

After rummaging around the other launchers I headed for the Giant Steam Backlog, got as far as ‘B’, and noticed Battletech. I’d joined the Kickstarter back in 2016 and played it for a while in 2018; as far as I recall I’d quite enjoyed it, but never completed the campaign. Hankering for a bit of mech action I fired it up, starting a new campaign from scratch after a briefly clueless attempt to resume an old save game. The slower pace of turn-based combat was a nice change; it takes a while to get used to, factoring in when different weights of mech will move and planning positioning and targeting priorities accordingly, and is nicely rewarding once you get the hang of it. In between the story missions of the campaign you take contracts to keep the money coming in, and while they don’t vary too wildly the mixture of mission types (attack, defend, escort or intercept convoys etc.) and maps with different terrain, obstacles and temperatures keep things interesting. I particularly enjoy training missions, where you take a single pilot and mech and are given three rookies to round out the lance; sometimes it’s a specific objective to keep them alive, sometimes… it isn’t.

“So, chaps, have you heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade? No? Oh, well, that’s the model for today’s mission. No, don’t Google it, it’ll be fine, just head down the Valley of, er, Death over there. Why do they call it that? Well, because… oh, I remember! It’s named after Geoff Death, very popular guy around here, did a lot of good work for charity, so they named it after him. Definitely. Now off you toddle, I’ll be back here with the LRMs. They’ve got a minimum range, you see. A surprisingly long minimum range. I’d love to be right there with you otherwise. Anyway, off you go!”

As in many Battletech games the process of obtaining and equipping mechs is a strong driver, trying to defeat interesting-looking opponents with the minimum amount of damage so you can snaffle them afterwards, then taking them down to the Mech Bay to agonise over the right balance of weapons, ammo, armour and equipment. Melee combat is surprisingly viable in some circumstances, especially when you find modifications for additional damage, though I suspect the arm mods that really boost melee damage also contain giant magnets. Every time I’d equip a mech with +++ melee damage, that arm would get blown off the following mission, most annoying. I suppose it might have had something to do with that mech charging forwards all the time to try and close for great punching.

I’ve just wrapped up the story, a suitable saga of betrayal and revenge. The pacing worked well, enough cutscenes and conversations to keep you involved without dragging on interminably. My mercenary band is now free to roam the galaxy battling injustice and corruption (for a suitable fee), very much like The Littlest Hobo. If The Littlest Hobo was a giant 100-ton battle-robot that solved problems by obliterating them with large calibre autocannons rather than barking and finding things. And demanded payment for doing so. Perhaps not so much like The Littlest Hobo after all on reflection, though they have the same theme tune. “Every stop I make, I make a new smoking crater; can’t stay for long, just turn around, I’m gone again (after checking the local store for rare weapon upgrades)”. If it was just the randomly generated contracts that were available I’m not sure I’d keep going but one of the DLC packs introduced Flashpoints, little sets of connected missions with some light story (and most importantly the prospect of rare loot), so I’ve been popping back in here and there.

Back with the old regulars I haven’t seen many drastic changes in War Thunder, at least in the low-to-mid tiers where I dabble; I was on a naval kick for a while, flipping between Italy, Japan and Germany, but for the moment I’m back on aircraft, working through the newer nations of China and Sweden. I was a bit rusty for a while, especially capturing airfields, but it’s coming back to me. Over in Destiny 2 every few months I think it’s finished, done with, over and finished, done over and finished with, but then it goes and throws porridge in my face with my own damn spoon. Regular seasonal updates bring new items and activities, and I seem to be in something of a Goldilocks zone with the timing – as I’ve wrapped up most of the main goals for a season, and it’s bogged down into running the same old things to nudge your gear score up a point or two here and there, it’s not long until another update comes along with just enough changes to perk things up (and an import licence for those oh-so-pretty fighting fish). There was the Beyond Light expansion back in November, removing a bunch of old planets, adding a couple of new ones, plus Stasis powers and such; that had got a little stale by the end of the year so I took a few weeks off while delving into Battletech. Having wrapped up the main story there, the next season of Destiny 2 kicked in, and damn it twice around the carpark if it didn’t drag me back in again. In a shocking turn of events the main new activity seems to involve shooting a bunch of minions then shooting a boss, but it mixes things up enough (and with enough new loot) to keep me going a while. If you need me I’ll be at the Welcome Break Low Wycombe under the name of Lewis Potter.

FitXR But You Know It

When lockdown started I picked up BoxVR for the Oculus Quest to try and boost my physical activity. It never really grabbed me though, the hit detection was a bit flaky and the music selection wasn’t terribly inspiring so I’d invariably return to good old Beat Saber for virtual flailing instead. As summer came around and restrictions eased a bit I got out and about more often and the need for indoor exercise lessened, but with the short days of winter and Lockdown 2: The Enlockening I thought I should try for a bit more of a workout.

Browsing my library BoxVR wasn’t there; it seems to have retreated into a chrysalis, and emerged as the beautiful butterfly of FitXR. The core of it remains a punch-tastic workout of jabs, hooks and uppercuts but everything’s had a spruce-up and looks and feels much better; there’s also a whole additional dance workout mode that I haven’t delved into deeply but looks to be a good way of mixing things up.

On firing up my first class I’d just clicked that I was ready when I noticed an empty “Play Solo” checkbox. Oh dear, I didn’t want to be cavorting with complete strangers! Still, too late to change it, I emerged into a virtual room with six other floating sets of gloves; I’m not sure if they’re live or pre-recorded, either way it’s fun (and a little odd) to have the virtual company and (thanks to the scoreboard) competition. The high score table is such a primal gaming motivator, even if there’s someone way out ahead nailing every punch for ludicrous combos there’ll be someone else closer to your score pushing you on so you don’t slack. There’s no communication (thank goodness, unless you’re really into heavy breathing), but it’s a really powerful feature. The fact that punch power translates to points gets you to really throw yourself into a workout, I think I’m burning through a good number of calories. I’m not sure if the music has been updated as well, it powers the workouts nicely, though I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to listen to it outside the game.

Major kudos to the developers for upgrading BoxVR for existing users, FitXR is a significant improvement. I’ve slacked off the workouts over Christmas, and with a significant increase in chocolate consumption I think I’m going to have to hit it pretty heavily in January now!