Category Archives: waffle

Monthly Miscellany – May

Things have gone fairly quiet on the gaming front. I didn’t pick up Battleborn in the end, reviews have tended towards the decent-but-not-spectacular, perhaps one for a future Steam sale or Humble Bundle. I poked a nose into the Overwatch beta, but concentrated FPS deathmatches have never really been my bag, baby, I don’t think it’s one for me. The World War II Chronicles in War Thunder finished so I’m back to the usual game or two per day there, and I fired up The Division a couple of times to do a daily mission. Prompted by the addition of constructable bases Five Rounds Rapid got the band back together, so I’ve also dusted off Planetside 2. It still has the problem of finding Goldilocks Battles (not too one-sided but not a stalemate, not so many people that you can’t move without exploding and/or being run over but not so few that you can’t find a target) but when things do work out it’s been most nifty.

Away from the PC board game get-togethers are always splendid. Recent group acquisitions include Camel Up, a fun quick-to-grasp camel racing game and worthy Spiel des Jahres winner, and Pandemic Legacy, a variation on Pandemic that evolves over time with new rules and options. We’re about four months in (running at roughly real time) and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (Ars Technica called it “… something that can at times feel like the Schindler’s List of gaming”), rounds have swung between glorious triumph and traumatic defeat largely thanks to fortunate or unfortunate card shuffling, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying battling Bumblechunks and The Spon (you get to name the diseases, the latter being my suggestion from The Goon Show:
THYNNE: He has all the symptoms – namely, bare knees.
NED: Is it catching?
THYNNE: Yes – stand back! Oh – I’m too late – you’ve got it.
NED: What what what what what?
THYNNE: You’ve got the bare knees.
NED: No I haven’t.
THYNNE: Roll your trousers up.
F.X.: WOODEN VENETIAN BLIND PULLED UP
THYNNE: There – bare knees.)

The torrent of gaming crowdfunding campaigns seems to have dried up a bit recently, or maybe I just haven’t been paying so much attention; apart from the perpetual development of Star Citizen I think the only ongoing campaign I’ve backed is Battletech from late last year. My track record of actually playing Kickstarted games for more than half an hour is terrible so far, but I have high hopes for a turn-based Battletech mercenary campaign, fingers crossed. Crowdfunding in general seems to be well established, though; I backed Richard Herring’s always-interesting Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (ruhhuhluhstuhpuh!) last year, looking forward to another series of that (once I can work through the podcast backlog). This week Unbound, the crowd-funding publisher, unveiled the prospect of Soupy Twists!, a history of Fry & Laurie to coincide with the 30th anniversary of A Bit of Fry & Laurie. If the prospect of finding out what other shops Mr Dalliard’s friend ran or most importantly what happened next for Tony & Control (I like to think there’s some kind of tie-in with The Night Manager) fails to fill you with the very deepest variety of joy then truly you’re dead inside. Or you’re not a F&L obsessive. As if such a thing is possible.

Gaming roundup

Until about a week ago I’d been playing The Division pretty heavily. It’s quite straightforward to reach the level cap by running through the major missions and a good smattering of side missions around New York, once at the cap you can replay the missions in Hard mode for bonus loot, then some of them on even-harder-still Challenge mode for even-bonusier-still loot as you travel down the well-worn Loot Rainbow (grey then green then blue then purple, yellow then a sort of funny greenish-blue maybe turquoise thing; I can sing the loot rainbow, sing the loot rainbow, you can sing the loot rainbow tooooo). Grouping up with friends is splendidly easy (as long as they’re within a reasonable level range), Melmoth and I managed to do a fair bit of excellent duo-ing, and random matchmaking has also been quick and efficient for Challenge missions.

As I mentioned in first impressions, the missions are quite reminiscent of SWTOR flashpoints. Nicely scripted and interesting to run once, fine for a few jaunts in the quest for better gear, but with no variation they pale somewhat after the fourth, fifth or seventeenth time, and only four of the missions are available in Challenge mode. There’s a lot to collect around the world, but after clearing a few zones that also got a little repetitive. That leaves the Dark Zone, the tense PvP-possible centre of the map, but again gameplay there settles into a bit of a rut, running around specific points of the map hoping there might be a boss there while keeping a wary eye on other players. Actual PvP has been less than enthralling so far, with gear playing a major part in the outcome of encounters.

Forums and such are ablaze with discussion of glitches and exploits and the like, there appear to be a number of ways that players have acquired loot at a faster rate than anticipated by the developers (irregular MMO verbs, part 17 of an occasional series: I intelligently optimise my time to maximise rewards; you exploit glitches and should have your character rolled back; he/she/it is a hacker and must be banned immediately). It hasn’t really affected me directly, and with a limited in-game economy (no auction house, very limited trading) it doesn’t seem too catastrophic apart from possibly high-end PvP, but it’s not the best of starts. I’ll probably drop back in now and again, and look forward to further expansions/DLC, it’s had a decent first innings.

In the meantime War Thunder has started up a World War II Chronicles series of daily events, roughly following the chronology of the war, and with a rather marvellous looking flying boat on offer for scoring 30 victories 15 times I’ve been dogfighting in the skies over Russia, Africa and the Pacific. The verisimilitude of the setting takes a minor knock as about 90% of players are trying to get their daily kills, so the standard tactic is for two clumps of planes to fly directly towards each other frantically shooting, repeating the process until all respawns are used up, but the variety of settings and available aircraft keep things nteresting.

Once the Chronicles have finished, there are a couple of likely candidates for May gaming: Battleborn at the start of the month and Total War: Warhammer towards the end. Melmoth pointed me towards the open beta of Battleborn, a “hero shooter”, or persistent online FPS, or FPS with MOBA elements… I’ll come in again: amongst its genres are such diverse elements as: FPS, MOBA, heroes, and a giant robot sentry-bot called Geoff. It’s from Gearbox, and certainly shares a sense of humour with Borderlands; the aforementioned Geoff is adamant he’s actually a spider called Arachnis, and there’s plenty of snappy dialogue. With a series of co-op missions as well as several PvP modes, and 25 different heroes/classes, it has plenty of potential; MOBAs have passed me by so far, Battleborn could be a good entry point.

Total War: Warhammer is more of a known quantity, doing exactly what it says on the limited edition deluxe tin case: a Total War game in the Warhammer world. Warhammer: Dark Omen was a favourite of mine back in the day and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of the Total War series, though Napoleon was probably the last I devoted a serious amount of time to, so I’m really looking forward to it.

True friends stab you in the front

During the introduction to The Division it’s revealed that the titular Division is a group of elite undercover highly trained super secret agents, though the ENORMOUS ORANGE WATCHES they all wear seem like a bit of a giveaway. A voice-over explains that:

“We are your co-workers, we are your neighbours, we might even be…”
dramatic pause
“… your friends.”

I’m probably reading altogether too much into that pause, but it sounded to me like the voice thought that the most unlikely part of the whole doomsday scenario portrayed at the beginning of the game was that you might actually have any friends…

A Question of History

Do you like surveys? Do you like history? If you answered “yes” to these questions, I have just the link for you! If you answered “no” to either question, I tricked you into doing a two-question survey anyway, so why not answer a few more…

Via Twitter:

There’s a bit more information in this blog post, all sounds most interesting.

War Thunder Update 1.55

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:

Tank tracks in the sand

Tank tracks in the sand

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

There are also a few new aircraft and assorted other tweaks, but the British tanks are the main attraction. Tally ho, death or glory!

In Our Time Lord

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…”

Everything Old is New Again

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…

PrecogCritic

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[1] 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.

[1] Ask your grandparents

Please believe me, the river told me

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.