Author Archives: Zoso

About Zoso

If it weren't for my lawyer, I'd still be in prison. It went a lot faster with two people digging.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2017

Our fifth visit to the Chalke Valley History Festival, on a new site this year, no less picturesque but slightly easier to get to. As ever there were all sorts of fascinating speakers, I started the day with World War II pilots Colin Bell and Keith Quilter in conversation with Will Iredale. Iredale’s splendid The Kamikaze Hunters covers the airmen of the oft-neglected British Pacific Fleet such as Corsair pilot Quilter, who was shot down in July 1945 and rescued by an American submarine where he spent the final weeks of the war. Bell was a Mosquito pilot of the Light Night Striking Force and completed 50 missions over Germany. They were fascinating, reflecting on the role of luck in their survival, both having returned from missions with flak damage that could easily have been fatal.

Around the site were living history encampments covering various eras from Romans through to World War II, the re-enactors also giving demonstrations such as missile weapons through the ages with slings, javelins, bows, a trebuchet and early artillery. Napoleonic cavalry showed their skill at arms with sword and lance:

My wife then went to see Monty Don talking about the history of British gardens, with a minor interruption halfway through as a column of Vikings marched past to (mock) battle:

This year’s air display was a little disappointing; the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster was unable to attend, and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 had engine trouble so was replaced with the Yak-3 that was there last year. On the plus side the only flying Bristol Blenheim gave a fantastic display, I hadn’t managed to catch it since its recent restoration before now.

All in all another fantastic day out, helped by the glorious sunshine unlike last year’s mud bath!

Warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed

War. War never changes. Apart from when it does, like the time Ian Pointed-Stick invented the pointed stick, that was a shock for the non-pointed stick folks. The War folks are pretty bad about patch notes and version numbers, though, and seldom put out a press release when a new update to War is released unlike Gaijin, developers of World War II(ish) combat game War Thunder. The last few updates to War Thunder have been ticking along, generally adding some new planes and tanks, always nice but not particularly noteworthy. The addition of Japanese tanks at the end of last year to join their Soviet, German, US and British counterparts rounded out air and ground forces for all the countries in the game, the latest update expands the array of nations for the first time in (mumble) years as could be surmised from its name: Regia Aeronautica. Yes, it’s all about a fearless aeronaut called Reg. Or possibly the Italian Air Force.

Italian aircraft aren’t completely new to the game, there were a handful in the German tree, but Update 1.69 sees them take to the skies under their own flag with a fully fleshed-out tree of fighters and bombers from the biplane CR.32 up to the jet-powered G.91. The tree will be gradually made available a few aircraft at a time, or the full thing can be researched by players who buy an Italian premium aircraft pack or complete a series of tasks. It’s early days yet but there’s a nice range of aircraft available, and the mid-war “Serie 5” fighters in particular seem to be performing well. It’s always fun to go back to the slightly more relaxed early tiers, and the new Italian tree gives a great reason to do so.

Crunchy Mass Corn Effect

I finished off Mass Effect: Andromeda the other day, and it’s… fine. I put around 100 hours into it, both single and multiplayer, so it’s not a bad game (or I’m a terrible masochist), but it’s not amazing. Using a new Crunchy Maize Corn Stick Based Review System, I’d liken it to a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks: you open the bag, thinking you’ll have a few Chipsticks then seal it back up again, and they’re pretty nice, so you have a few more, and you don’t really notice that you’re about two thirds of the way through the bag, and then there’s no point leaving a few so you keep going, and without really intending to you’ve finished the bag and your fingers are clad in a crunchy maize gauntlet and you need to drink a couple of pints of water to clear the salt & vinegar coating from your tongue. Compelling enough to keep you going, but you don’t sit back at the end and think “well that was a great dining experience, I’ll do that again tomorrow”.

In general it’s very Mass Effect-y. Talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, flirt with squadmates, shoot a bunch of aliens, y’know, Mass Effect-y. It’s more explicitly Open World than the previous games with planets to roam full of assorted odds and sods; the majority of missions are fairly bland busywork of the “go to X waypoints” variety, a bit of a single-player MMO, especially when coupled with resource gathering for crafting, but the driving and combat work well enough for it to be generally enjoyable rather than too much of a chore. I liked the flexible skill system that allowed you to combine combat, tech and biotic powers, though I did get into a bit of a rut of sticking with the same powers once I found a combination that worked.

The overarching story was all right but I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d seen most of it before one way or another, and the central strand was a bit weak (the usual game problem of balancing an imperative to follow a main story with almost unlimited opportunities to arse around picking up drink ingredients for a nightclub). I didn’t find any squadmates intensely irritating, but none of them especially clicked either. I inadvertently ended up locked into a romance after always picking flirtatious options when talking to anyone (and in the game, ah); I thought there was a warning if you were going to commit yourself to one person (like in real life when a message flashes across the screen), maybe I missed it. In the final mission of the game (extremely minor spoiler warning) you get help from people you helped out along the way, but a combination of my increasingly failing memory and fairly inconsequential side quests meant I couldn’t even remember who some of them were. “Ryder, you saved my life, I can never repay you but I’m here to help you out!” “Oh that’s awfully nice, thanks. Um. Who are you, again? Are you sure we’ve met?”

Overall, then, not a disaster of intergalactic proportions, but not an all-time classic. If you were peckish and poking around the kitchen cupboard then a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks would do in a pinch, but you wouldn’t order them in a restaurant. Unless it was some hipster Crunchy Maize Corn Stick restaurant.

Noel’s Andromeda Party or No Party

So we were chatting away about the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda patch with improvements to the character creator, and wondering what future updates might hold…

> MELMOTH: Patch Notes: Deleted all Ryder face and beard options and replaced them with 'a version of Noel Edmonds that our artist modelled one Friday afternoon while drunk'.

> ZOSO: New game pitch: ME:A featuring Noel Edmonds as Ryder with squadmates Mr Blobby and The Banker


The planet Eos. NOEL “PATHFINDER” EDMONDS disembarks from the Nomad accompanied by the pink and yellow horror that is MISTER BLOBBY.

EDMONDS: Looks like a Kett encampment ahead, Blobby, better be careful. Here’s the plan: we sneak up, hidden by those rocks there, then I’ll use my Biotic shield to cover…

BLOBBY: Blobby? Blobby blobby blobby! BLOBBBBEEEEEE!

BLOBBY charges forward wildly firing a submachine gun, falls over, narrowly misses EDMONDS with a burst of fire, gets back up; EDMONDS cautiously moves forward in cover trying to suppress the Kett with assault rifle fire; BLOBBY trips again, lands on EDMONDS.

EDMONDS: Blobby! For heaven’s sake…

Kett troopers look on, somewhat bemused. A telephone rings loudly and everybody pauses.

EDMONDS: Ah! About time The Banker turned up.

EDMONDS answers a telephone inexplicably sitting on a rock formation.

EDMONDS: Yes? I see. Really? Right then.

EDMONDS puts the telephone down. Tense music plays.

EDMONDS: Well, Kett Anointed, The Banker admires your bravado but says it will be your undoing in the end. He’s going to make an extremely generous offer that he knows you’ll turn down: 500 credits, an Uncommon item, and some inorganic lubricant.

KETT ANOINTED turns to his comrades.

KETT DESTINED: I’ve got a really good feeling about your container, I reckon there’s definitely an Ultra Rare in there, don’t take the deal.

KETT CHOSEN: The Banker’s just playing mind games with you, think about how those credits could change your life.

KETT ANOINTED: Well… it’s a good offer, Noel, but at the end of the day I’m an AI mob scripted to blindly attack you, so I’m going to have to say ‘no deal’ and shoot you with a plasma rifle.

While the Kett have been talking, BLOBBY has climbed up to a nearby platform. He takes aim with a Black Widow sniper rifle.

BLOBBY: Blobby!

BLOBBY fires, completely missing the Kett; the recoil knocks him backwards in a somersault off the platform, landing on EDMONDS again.


Some people just have to take things too far, though…

> MELMOTH: Mr Blobby romance options...


Pathfinders Quarters on the Tempest. EDMONDS and BLOBBY have returned to the ship.

EDMONDS: Well, Blobby, as Kett Anointed didn’t take the deal I still have that inorganic lubricant. Better hope you don’t ‘trip’ and fall on top of me again…

BLOBBY: Blobby blobby blobby blobby blobby blobby *squelch* blobby blobby blobby!

Fade to black. Fade to black! For the love of all that is holy fade to black!

AFAOIEIOGDOFDOMAF

As many commentators pointed out the whole idea of April Fool’s Day on the internet seems rather superfluous in the current climate, but at least there’s April Fun And/Or Interesting Event In Online Game Day (Or Few Days Or Maybe A Fortnight) to look forward to (AFAOIEIOGDOFDOMAF, as all the cool kids call it). I’ve been a bit distracted by Mass Effect: Andromeda so haven’t looked too far around the net to see what’s been going on this year; Guild Wars 2 has the Super Adventure Box, an 8-bit inspired Mario-y quest to rescue a kidnapped princess, but it’s not a genre I have particular nostalgia for so I haven’t done much more than poke a nose in.

Over in War Thunder developers Gaijin introduced modern main battle tanks and attack helicopters. Though the game is largely based in World War 2 its vehicles have been inexorably moving forwards in time, so it’s less of a rib-tickling gag than a logical extension. Last year’s sailing ship event was an opportunity to test out aquatic combat in advance of the naval forces beta test and there’s widespread expectation that this event presages something major, either War Thunder itself moving into the modern era or perhaps a new and separate game. It does seem like a fair bit of work just for a few days:

Mind you we haven’t seen World War II Mechs after the 2015 event, which is rather a shame as they were quite splendid, so it might just be a one-off.

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition

It’s a funny old game, The Division. Saying that, I didn’t find it particularly amusing, the quirky mission-givers being a bit jarring in an otherwise bleak, bleak time, and it’s not old as such, having been released exactly(ish) a year ago. Still, “it’s a game, The Division” would be a bit of a weak post opening despite the factual accuracy.

On the one hand I’ve sunk a fair amount of time into it and mostly enjoyed it, popping back in for the updates and noodling around New York with a bunch o’ guns. It’s got a good hook, the set-piece story missions play well and can take a fair bit of repeating in the “do it again but harder” endgame (note to ed: insert Kenneth Williams animated reaction GIF here in a desperate attempt to keep up with newfangled social media trends that are already dreadfully passée thus appearing even more out of touch, unless we luck out and they’re undergoing a retro revival). On the other hand, it feels like there are missed opportunities. The story is left dangling; obviously you want to leave space for a sequel but I would’ve liked a bit more of a resolution at the end of the main game. It hasn’t really been picked up in any updates or DLC, and from what “Year Two” details I’ve seen there are no more story missions on the cards (the old conflict between story (expensive voice actors, time-consuming development, ‘properly’ experienced once (if that) by most players) and repeatability). Combat generally works, but it can be a fine line between rampaging around without any difficulty and cowering behind boxes waiting for a healing skill to recharge as any attempt to peak out is met by a fusillade of pin-point return fire. The DLC packs have felt a little lacklustre; nice additions, but not necessarily £12-worth. Survival is fun but pales after a few runs, the most recent Last Stand looks particularly empty unless you’re into the PvP side of things. Assigning a value to games is increasingly difficult, entirely arbitrarily I’d say I got my money’s worth from the main game but not quite the season pass.

Tim & Jon were talking about it on their 9th Anniversary podcast (hearty congratulations to them for tireless devotion to entertaining gaming wittering, and indeed even older legacy textual rambling that the Wayback Machine has just about saved from The Demise of Domains) and mentioned a new in-game “Premium” vendor in the most recent update flogging emotes and cosmetics for real money (or at least for Obligatory Premium In-Game Currency bought with real money). I hadn’t seen this new vendor, so I fired up the game and toddled along to have a look and it is a trifle odd. Where, say, Mass Effect 3 compartmentalised the multiplayer (loot boxes, cash shop, ‘grind’) and the solo story, they’re blurred together in The Division for good (being able to drop in and easily play with friends, generally) and not-quite-so-good (£5 for a dance emote!) I’m not quite sure what genre The Division falls into; Sort Of Fairly Open World With Strong RPG Gameplay Elements And A Bit Of A Story If You Want To Pay Attention To It Optionally Multiplayer Third Person Cover Shooter, maybe. Not that everything has to fall into a neat box, of course, but I think it’s spread itself a bit thin and ended up the proverbial Jack-of-all-Genres, mastering none.

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Testing of naval forces in War Thunder started last year, and after a bit of a break for the introduction of Japanese tanks and official release of the game (whatever that means these days) is now happening most weekends. Tests so far have covered several scenarios, both with and without aircraft, with a variety of playable vessels from high speed torpedo armed motorboats to larger armoured gunboats.

Gameplay is interesting so far, broadly similar to land battles (only wetter). With nowhere to hide on the ocean apart from a few islands to duck behind, and boats that roll around on waves, cautious positioning and long-range sniping aren’t nearly as much of a factor as in tank battles. Boats are also generally quite resilient, able to soak up a fair amount of damage from the small calibre cannon that most are equipped with so one shot rarely leaves you incapacitated or destroyed. That said larger guns (85mm+) can quickly spoil the day of a wooden-hulled boat, and torpedoes are very potent against heavier, slower ships (nippy little boats should be able to avoid torpedo attacks, unless they’ve slightly embarrassingly run into an island and got stuck after being a bit too fixated on a target).

Aircraft can be quite deadly but most boats have a decent array of fast-firing weapons to put up a defensive barrage, mixed matches should offer good opportunities both in the air and on the water. Most tests so far have been domination-type matches requiring zones to be captured, an intriguing alternative involved two sets of NPC cargo ships that had to be defended/sunk.

I’ve not been playing ground forces much recently, I get rather bogged down in the mid-tiers, though it’s been fun to jump back into the faster-paced carefree world of Tier I with the new Japanese tree; I’m not sure if naval forces will prise me away from air battles in the long term, but I’ll certainly be taking to the water for a while when they’re fully released.

Mister Splashy Pants

Boaty McBoatface

A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order

With a disappointing lack of imagination it turns out 2016 is followed by 2017, increasingly looking like a prescient choice for the setting of The Running Man, and with a similarly disappointing lack of imagination my New Year gaming has been much the same since first picking up War Thunder at the start of 2013. There’s been another series of tasks with shiny plane rewards up for grabs, based on the World War II Chronicles again, a series of daily scenarios chronologically progressing through the war that offer a nice opportunity to switch between countries and aircraft types. The tasks aren’t particularly onerous but do require a bit of grinding, so with the Me 262 secured I’m ready for a bit of a rest.

I’m winding down in Guild Wars 2 as well. It’s consumed good chunks of the past few months, but the rolling boil of new game excitement has given way to the gentle simmer of daily routine. I’ve finished off the various story elements (the original game, expansion, and the ongoing Living Story) and have to say I haven’t been terribly engrossed. It starts well enough, each race having several options during character creation that lead to different vignettes, but as the levels increase the various paths intertwine to put everybody on the same road to defeating the Big Evil Thing, and my sense of involvement steadily diminished to the point that I felt like I was watching a bunch of NPCs, one of whom happened to be dressed like my character. I took to alt-tabbing off to other applications if some Basil Exposition NPC was monologuing away, popping back now and again just to check if I was supposed to be killing anything; running a pet-heavy Necromancer build was useful for that as the minions made a pretty decent fist of things while I was AFK

I might have been a bit more swept up in things if I’d started at launch and played through sequentially, but coming in after four years everything is in a strange MMO-superposition; the world is (apparently) dealing with the aftermath of some major event that happened in the Living Story Season 1 (which you can’t play retrospectively), after the events of the original game but before the expansion, the expansion that I poked a nose into before finishing the original story, with chunks of narrative coming from dungeons that I was running out-of-order at random levels depending on who else was around and what they were doing. The most compelling story in the world would struggle when tackled with such non-linearity, the bickering dullards of Destiny’s Edge never stood a chance, the only thing sticking in the memory being the opportunity to confuse them with Destiny’s Child with Hilarious Consequences. Some people are fully engaged with the lore, I saw some extensive debates about the behaviour of a particular NPC when a new chapter of the Living Story arrived, but for me at least it was more proof, if needed, that Bioware were rather mistaken in putting story as the “fourth pillar” of an MMO alongside exploration, combat and progression, at least until technology allows player choices to have some sort of impact on the world. It’s been the exploration, combat and progression that have kept me hooked on GW2, zone events, PvP, dungeons, crafting, fractals, bell-ringing, snowball fights and such.

Speaking of Bioware, Mass Effect: Andromeda now has a release date of March and I’m rather in the mood for a chunky RPG so started to have a look at the options in case there’s some shiny trinkets on offer for pre-ordering (sure enough there’s a suit of armour, a vehicle skin and a multiplayer booster up for grabs). There’s a Deluxe edition, with more in-game tchotchkes, and even a Super Deluxe edition that adds an extra multiplayer booster pack every week for 20 weeks. That seems like quite a heavy push for the multiplayer side of things, or maybe it’s just an easy way of bulking up the Super Deluxe package so that the Deluxe option doesn’t seem such an extravagance (Goldilocks pricing, and all that). Either way I rather enjoyed the mutliplayer aspect of both ME3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (though the latter didn’t seem to catch on quite as much), but I never spent cash on boosters so I don’t think I’ll be going Super Deluxe for Andromeda. In the meantime I’ll need to find something else to distract me for a couple of months; maybe I’ll finish off that Christmas jigsaw…

Merry Christmas!

The Wintersday event is active in Guild Wars 2, a series of challenges have kicked off in War Thunder, the Steam sale is bringing joy, happiness and cheap games to all; it must be Christmas! Have a splendid break one and all, let’s hope 2017 is a bit less “exciting” than 2016.

Now I have eight machine guns, ho ho ho

And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night

I mentioned in the 10th anniversary post that The Division was a fine game that got rather repetitive in its endgame, and that I ought to have a look at the most recent update. Like healthy eating and regular flossing it was more of a vague intention than a firm commitment; I’d briefly popped back to check out the previous Underground DLC that added some randomised subterranean roaming, but it hadn’t proved terribly compelling.

The most recent update is titled Survival, and doing exactly what it says on the tin it adds a new game mode called “Attempting To Endure Extremely Hostile Conditions With Minimal Starting Equipment”, or ATEEHCWMSE as all the cool kids call it. Actually, it might be called “Survival” come to think of it. A fierce storm is forecast to hit New York but Because Of Some Plot (TM Van Hemlock) there’s an urgent need to retrieve a MacGuffin, and in a wildly unexpected turn of events the simple helicopter jaunt to grab said MacGuffin goes a bit wrong, leaving you stuck in the middle of a blizzard with only a pistol and a nasty cough. You have to scrabble around for warm clothes, food, water, medicine, weapons, and ultimately a compensation form to claim for the luggage lost in the helicopter crash (or possibly the antivirals that were the original point of the mission), then make it to an extraction point to evacuate.

Survival games have been in vogue since the blocky ubiquity of Minecraft and ah-but-who-are-the-real-monsters horror of DayZ, but I tend to flounder in very open worlds. In this respect the clear goal of Survival harks back more to Rogue: down to the heart of the dungeon/Dark Zone tooling up along the way, grab the Amulet of Yendor/Antivirals, home in time for ascension to demigodhood/tea and medals. You have an hour until you succumb to infection, a timer that can be extended with painkillers and medicine but not indefinitely, so you can’t faff around too much.

The new mode does put a nice new spin on The Division. I posted about STALKER: Call of Pripyat a while back, how my favourite part of the game was early on when every round of ammunition was precious and that it lost some its charm later on once geared up with advanced weapons and armour. The Division is handing out loot more freely now, which is much appreciated, but when knee-deep in maximum level gear and trying to work out the relative merits of slightly different gloves it’s quite fun to go back to a situation where you’re glad of anything, even canned food. It’s available in PvP or PvE modes, though I’ve only tried the latter so far; finding enough resources and dealing with AI mobs is quite tense enough without adding PvP to the mix. PvE still isn’t exactly co-operative; loot drops on a first-come first-served basis, meaning you can expend precious ammunition and health packs defeating tough mobs only for another player to swoop in and nick the gear they drop (as opposed to being shot in the back by the other player prior to them nabbing the loot, as presumably happens in PvP). A team with voice comms might be able to share much-needed food and medicine amongst themselves as required, but “I propose a mutually beneficial arrangement by which we collectively engage tough opponents and equitably divide any resulting bounty” is quite difficult to convey to a random stranger via a limited set of emotes, so generally it’s best to steer well clear of other players. The situation pivots a bit should you reach the Dark Zone; by that time you’ve probably got a reasonable amount of kit so aren’t so desperate for every drop, and when you call in a helicopter for extraction you’re confronted by Hunters, new super-mobs with lots of nasty tricks like ducking into cover and healing after taking a bit of damage who are rather tough to take on solo.

Survival has some of the same highs and lows of Rogue/Nethack: on one expedition you might get tooled up with enough weapons and armour to be able to take on anything but not find any medicine; on the next you’re wrapped up lovely and toastie in coat, boots, scarf and bobble hat and can wander around at leisure but lack any weapon more threatening than a pointed stick so get jumped by rioters. It’s not quite so variable, the map remains constant (New York is New York, after all) and loot containers spawn in the same places (though can contain different items). Random starting locations and unpredictable players have made every round fairly different enough far, but a little more variety might be needed in the long run. After a few attempts you get the hang of the basics, staying warm and accumulating loot, then it’s a fairly methodical process to get to the Dark Zone, and a rather abrupt difficulty spike with the Hunters at the extraction zone that can be quite frustrating.

I’m not sure Survival as it stands it worth the cost of the DLC, but if you have the Season Pass anyway or there’s a sale sometime it adds another interesting string to The Division‘s bow, I can see myself popping back in from time to time, especially if it gets a couple of additional options.