Category Archives: waffle

Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind

Fantasy RPGs are like buses, you wait two and a half years then three turn up at the same time, though technically one has been around for a year already but just dropped its subscription fee, and another one came out last year but I still haven’t finished it, and none of them are replacements for train services due to ongoing engineering works enhancing passenger accessibility, we apologise for the inconvenience. With hindsight the entire Fantasy RPG/bus comparison was fundamentally flawed from the start, but there seems to be a vacancy for a presenter on Top Gear so I’m trying to work in more automotive content, just go with it.

Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian’s Kickstarted spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale & co., was released last week; I even saw an actual boxed copy in GAME, after wandering past the shop and performing the traditional Inspection of the Shrinking PC Section (down to two shelf units now, one entirely devoted to game cards for F2P titles). PoE is universally acclaimed on Metacritic, and certainly filled me with the warm glow of nostalgia (much like the electrically heated front seat option on the new Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer 1.4i) during character creation. It looks fantastic, but upon finishing the prologue (or possibly just the introduction to the prologue) I decided that before embarking on a new big old epic fantasy RPG, I really ought to finish off Dragon Age: Inquisition, the slightly older big old epic fantasy RPG I haven’t quite got around to completing yet.

DA:I has a strong start, but bogs down a little if you spend too long doing simple box-ticking quests in The Hinterlands, picking up again as the story moves on after that. Being something of a completionist I was thoroughly investigating every zone, and got rather bogged down again (if only I’d opted for the Subaru Forester 2.0D XC with symmetrical all wheel drive and Lineartronic CVT). I was popping in most weekends for the multiplayer events, but as The Inquisitor couldn’t really be arsed to go and close more rifts or tidy up other MMO-esque busywork. Pillars of Eternity has given me the kick I needed to just get on and finish the story (I seem to be closing in on the final act) while I still have a fighting chance of remembering what’s going on; if I leave it too long, I fear the dramatic tension of the climactic confrontation could be slightly undercut as I nudge my companion and whisper “Who’s that again? And why does he want to kill us? And whose pig is this? Also are we an item, or was that in a different save game? Ow! Ow! Don’t be like that, of course I love you. I think. I could’ve sworn I picked the elf… Oh, you *are* the elf! Sorry, couldn’t tell with the helmet on. Ow! Ow! Look, can we talk about this later, this gentleman/sorcerer/demon is presumably trying to take over the world. Or destroy it. We’ve got to stop him, anyway. Or help him. Oh come on, someone must have been keeping notes…”

Completing the triumvirate, with The Elder Scrolls Online newly subscriptionless I thought I’d take another look at it; I say “another” look, my first glance on release didn’t even make it through the pre-order head start before I got distracted by something else. The introduction didn’t entirely grip me; there seemed to be good dollops of what Mark Kermode would call “hobbity tosh“; “… actors saying things like ‘The Narf is coming out of the tree followed by the Scrunt, but the Iggledy-Piggledy is hiding in the Biddly-Bong'”. Obviously a certain amount of that comes with the fantasy RPG territory, but for some reason it stuck out a bit more in TESO, possibly due to one of the key Basil Exposition figures being voiced by Michael Gambon (possibly driving a reasonably priced car). Once out in the main world I adopted my standard Elder Scrolls character, The Adventurer With A Five Second Attention Span. “I should investigate that temple? Of course, I shall go there immediately, straight to the tem… hello Mr Farmer. What’s that, you’ve lost your tools? Fear not, I can go and retrieve them from this… whoah, a spectral figure! Demonic books, you say? Crikey, I’d better hunt them down, I’ll just… yes, we should destroy those wards with all speed, lead on and… oh, wait, my backpack’s full of iron ore and insect parts and flowers and four identical iron swords and some cutlery and bread and a set of portraits of the Emperors of the Septim Dynasty, I’d better get back to town and find a shop, I really need a vehicle with exceptional boot space like the Mercedes E-class Estate.” I don’t think I’ve completed the main plot in an Elder Scrolls game yet (apart from possibly Daggerfall, I can’t remember how far I got there), I’m not sure I’ll get very much further in TESO. At least until I finish Dragon Age: Inquisition. And Pillars of Eternity. And, all being well, Series 23 of Top Gear.

In Memoriam Terry Pratchett

So. Farwell then Pterry.
Or should I say

It seems rather redundant to write anything about Terry Pratchett, with so many other tributes on Twitter, the wider internet, and even (shockingly) things that aren’t the internet. I saw him give a talk at university, and in the Q&A afterwards my friend asked him about the Discworld game that was either in development or had just come out, and if he enjoyed adventure games. Seeing as he was a Proper Grown Up and everything I was rather expecting him to give qualified praise, or dismiss computer games entirely; this was the mid-90s, before everyone was a gamer. Instead he told us that the type of game he really liked was the one where you got to shoot demons with a shotgun. He’d heard of Doom! He *played* Doom! He continued to talk about one of the most interesting things he’d seen, a group of kids playing the Alien Total Conversion of Doom on networked PCs, co-operating with each other to fight the monsters, a fairly mind-blowing notion at the time.

A rather lovely movement has started to add an X-Clacks-Overhead header to web servers, and if all is working as planned should be joining in. As another article puts it: “the encoding of Pratchett’s name into the fabric of the internet seems a fitting modern homage, as though millions of computers were whispering his name, and chuckling softly to themselves.”

GNU Terry Pratchett

War Thunder Community Magazine

I’ve started doing a spot of writing for the War Thunder Community Magazine from the folks at GameOn, a few World War II facts in Issue 2, and a slightly beefier piece about the guns of the RAF in Issue 3, released today. There’s lots of good stuff in the magazine, in my humble and entirely unbiased opinion, including tutorials, reviews and interviews. And a word search.

There are other Community Magazines for WildStar and World of Warcraft, the now-official SMITE magazine, as well as the main GameOn magazine and assorted special issues, plenty to browse. Do take a look!

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not happen

By Jove, Christmas is a busy old time isn’t it? What with all the presents and visits to relatives and turkey and sprouts and Steam sales and tinsel and Steam sort-of-sale-auction-event-trading-card-gem-things and Doctor Who specials and baubles and destroying 40 ground targets with any Ju 87 variant and figgy pudding and winning five matches each day with Rank II-V vehicles and carols and wintery walks along the beach, it’s a wonder there’s any time left to sit back and consider the real meaning of it all, the birthday of a rather special person. But enough about me.

Plenty of games put on events of some sort over Christmas, and the eagle-eyed viewer may just have spotted that some of the items in the previous list have a hint of the War Thunder about them, as Gaijin seen to have gone a bit event mad. One set of tasks allow players to unlock more of the recently added US tanks, another set offer the prospect of a new plane or tank (self-propelled howitzer, if being pedantic) through 19 daily tasks, and the most recent addition rewards first place on a winning team. Coupled with assorted discounts and experience boosts, most of my gaming time between aforementioned festive activities has thus been spent flying and driving around. I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition on release, and sunk a fair amount of time into it (summary so far: pretty good) before the War Thunder event madness started, and when shooting up endless waves of planes and tanks got a bit much I took some time out to… go and do the Dragon Age weekend multiplayer events!

The multiplayer component of Dragon Age: Inquisition is very much like that of Mass Effect 3, and a similarly fun way of spending 10-20 minutes in a quick dungeon romp, gaining XP and loot along the way. Like ME3 you can buy boxes of random loot with either in-game or real currency, though a distinct improvement in DA:I is the ability to break down common tat into components with which you can craft armour to unlock new classes, so at least you’re not entirely at the mercy of the RNG. The weekend events offer the opportunity to earn a bonus box of loot by making 100 kills with a particular weapon, which I haven’t found to be too difficult, though the killing frenzy does mean that tanking and coordinated team play tend to go out the window; fortunately on the lower difficulty settings Plan A (“maximum AoE kill everything as quickly as possible”) tends to work much of the time anyway. One “interesting” design decision was that, initially, voice comms were permanently active (on the PC version, at least, I believe a push-to-talk option has been patched in). The ability to mute other players just about preserved sanity in the face of random background noise, but I couldn’t help listening in to one side of another player’s phonecall (he’d thoroughly enjoyed a Micky Flanagan DVD and was relating bits of it to whoever was on the other end of the call), and another match featured the only stereotypical angry teenager I’ve encountered so far. I’m not sure if he was aware that people could hear him, it sounded like he was muttering away to himself at first, but as the levels went on he got progressively more furious at the terrible performance of the rest of the team (who were doing perfectly well), culminating in the final wave when he buggered off and got himself killed; I was running over and in the process of resurrecting him when the dulcet calls of “GET ME UP YOU RETARDS” started, and blow me if I didn’t entirely accidentally run away and let him die while the rest of us cleared up and successfully finished the mission. Oops.

Apart from that, not much other gaming of note; in the Steam pre-sale-gem-auction-thing I did manage to snag a copy of the HD remake of Speedball 2, which I loved back in the day, but have only had time for a couple of quick matches. I got Race The Sun as a gift, from a brief dabble it plays rather well, but again no time for a proper crack at it; with those plus the usual backlog I didn’t bother picking anything else up in the Steam sale itself. Elite: Dangerous is looking thoroughly interesting, the time murderers are back with an all-new picture-type eye-watchable video-style podcast in glorious technicolour, including a guide to Elite exploration, but with War Thunder thoroughly satisfying my flying itch at the moment I haven’t picked it up yet, and I fear I might end up drifting along somewhat rudderless (metaphorically, and perhaps literally depending on combat damage) in the wide open galaxy. A while back I plunked down a bit of cash for a Star Citizen ship, as much in hope as expectation, and maybe it’ll turn out I backed the right horse after all, because the prospective features look awesome, and the projected full proper release date of 2045 coincides nicely with my planned retirement, when I might finally have some spare time to play it.

So quick bright things come to confusion

You’ve got to hand it to Valve, and by “it” I mean “lorry loads of small denomination coins”. In much the same way that kids have more fun playing with a big cardboard box than the expensive toy that came in it, they presumably concluded that spending ages on stuff like gameplay was completely wasted in Team Fortress 2 compared to the all-important hat market, and have now abandoned conventional games entirely except as a form of currency to power the Steam Event Metagame. Building on this summer’s Five-Way Increase An Arbitrary Number Decision Theory Paradox Event, Valve have finally caved in to the ceaseless demands to make their sales vastly more confusing by allowing trading cards and emoticons and profile backgrounds to be transformed into Gems, a new form of pseudo-currency to use to bid on auctions or alternatively to transform into booster packs for more trading cards. Gems can also bought and sold for real money, alongside the emoticons and hats and games and trading cards and profile backgrounds, in a strange and confusing swirl of gems and money and games and hats and socks and toasters. Only without the socks and toasters. For now. Those will probably come in the Easter sale.

Q: What do you call a website with a shovel and the base of the natural logarithm and a red-coloured soft drink? A: Dig-e-tizer (Digitiser)!

Many years ago, in the dark ages of the last years of the twentieth century, this “internet” thing was starting to catch on but was still largely the domain of tech-enthusiasts navigating a sea of “Under Construction” messages via primitive search engines, not the first port of call if you were after up-to-date news, weather, live sports scores, share prices, TV schedules or recipes to accompany cookery programmes. For those, we had Ceefax and Teletext. Imagine a World Wide Web of 999 pages, squished onto screens of 40×24 characters, accessed by typing in a three digit number and watching the page counter tick, tick, ticking along… A smidge primitive compared to almost instant access to the sum total of all human knowledge (or as close as the ‘net gets to it), but a fine and useful service, and free (as long as your television could display it), an important consideration when ISPs had a monthly fee on top of the cost of phone calls (for you crazy kids who don’t remember the olden days: you used to have to “dial” “up” by getting a lengthy bit of cable and running it from the computer to the telephone socket in the hallway, then you shouted “cssswwsswwswswwwwww WEEEEEEoooooWWEEEEEooooooWEEE ccsssssswwwwwsswwswww”, and hoped nobody would trip over the cable or want to use the phone until you’d finished downloading a Metallica song from Napster).

As well as the aforementioned news, weather etc., there were subtitles on page 888 (turning Top of the Pops into instant karaoke), quizzes like the classic Bamboozle!, even a textual soap opera. Most pertinently, though, there were pages about games. On the BBC, as I recall, rather staid reviews, infrequently updated. On Channel 4, Digitiser, a magnificently anarchic array of madness that was only about games as much as Jaws was a book about a shark. Accompanying the previews, reviews, and hints and tips were a whole cast of regular characters, spoof adverts for German metal albums, Mr T admonishing kids to stay away from his bins and, best of all, nonsensical anti-jokes (Q: What do you call a man with bread and butter pudding on his head? A: Pudding Gentleman Type B!) and incredibly laboured sort-of-puns (Q: What do you call an android adjudicating officer who decorates the sycamores in his garden with girls’ toys? A: Ro-Judge Doll-Tree (Roger Daltrey)!) I had no idea of the ructions behind the scenes, I think I’d drifted away from Teletext in general by the time it finished, but have retained a fondness for blocky cartoon snakes ever since.

Good news, though! Mr Biffo’s back with a whole Twitter of words including Man-tastic jokes, and Digitiser rides again as one of those ocelot-come-lately “pages” on the “web”. The future is uncertain as Biffo & Hairs grapple with both the issues of sustaining a site in an atemporal zone of content production and a greased tramp riding an elk (the elk isn’t really an elk it’s a metaphor for a moose), but even if it’s only a fleeting return of Insincere Dave it’s good to see him back again!!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!

Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television

Van Hemlock tweeted:

prompting happy reminiscences of playing at least three of those on an 8086 PC with 640k of RAM (upgraded from 512k) and a mono CGA screen capable of four amazing shades of grey, while being slightly jealous of the staggering nigh-photorealistic (in comparison) graphics of Shadow of the Beast on the Amiga. Ah, happy times. It wasn’t all fun and games, though; the evil menace of “space invaders” had already been recognised in The House of Commons as far back as 1981 as causing young people to resort to theft, blackmail and vice to satisfy their addiction, and this new generation of increasingly sophisticated games prompted further worries, as we can see from this editorial from the September 19th 1989 issue of The Daily Comet:

Video “Games” Spark Copycat Fears

For too long has the youth of our nation been bewitched by the malevolent glowing screen of “television”, breeding a generation of stoop-shouldered square-eyed troglodytes unsuited to healthy British pursuits such as hiking, taking cold showers and planting flags in random bits of the world claiming them for the Queen.  Society must now take action against a yet more insidious threat presented upon those screens, so-called video “games”. Of course televisual and cinematic entertainments have, in the past, prompted some to emulate the activities they see, but where’s the harm in a child dressing as a penguin and trying to carry a bucket of water over a slippery roundabout? Indeed beneficial role models can be presented to instil advantageous values, such as machine-gunning Huns by the score. The interactive nature of these new “games”, though, blur the lines between reality and the wicked depravities depicted therein such that a naive and vulnerable youth can barely tell the difference. Teacher Clem Fandango relates a cautionary tale of Form 3b, carefree children like any other until they came under the sway of a new game called Populous. “They got hold of a load of shovels and started digging up parts of the playground, using the earth to fill in and raise up other sections, completely flattening it on top”, said Fandango. “Apparently it was something to do with being ready in case someone sent a flood upon them; I think they might have been paying a bit too much attention to Michael Fish.”

Parent Ken Suggestion is also worried for his son Neville. “He used to be such a normal boy, hanging around street corners and beating up younger children to steal their lunch money, then he started playing this Sim City. Now all he does is sketch outlines for ideal town layouts with a balance of residential, commercial and industrial zones, and grapples with setting a tax rate low enough to stimulate growth while still raising enough money to fund pubic improvement works. I’m worried that we’re raising a generation of… urban planners.”

Most dangerous of all, though, is a part of the newfangled Microsoft Windows 3, which is going to be released next year but we’ll just ignore that inconvenient bit of chronology. Minesweeper may seem like an innocent puzzle game, but for quantity surveyor Duncan Clench it proved anything but. “My wife Jane just kept playing” said Clench, “hours every day, increasing the difficulty level, until it simply wasn’t enough. One night I woke up and went to get a glass of water only to discover the kitchen had been flooded, and an irregular pattern of Type H Mark II mines had been laid. Of course it was quite straightforward to negotiate those, being simple contact mines, but I was woken the next day by the drone of a Heinkel He 111 dropping a Luftmine B fitted with combination magnetic/acoustic detonator, a much more difficult prospect.”

“Honestly” he continued “it hasn’t been this difficult getting to work since she watched Knightmare, installed those giant circular saw blades in the hall and made me wear that stupid helmet…”

My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate

Gosh, time flies by, doesn’t it? And not just when you’re the driver of a train, though I’ve just been watching quite a lot of Chigley and listening to Half Man Half Biscuit, sometimes both at the same time. Why aren’t there any computer games set in Camberwick Green, eh? You could play Mickey Murphy the baker, quietly getting along and baking cakes, no nasty old monsters or anything, just the dramatic tension of running out of flour and having to rouse that old drunkard Windy Miller to make some more… Actually you could probably do that with the Advanced Bakery Simulator 2013 expansion pack for Farming Simulator

Anyway! Time. Summer is gone, the nights are drawing in, Steam Sale Season is just around the corner and it’s time to start selling perfume, books and blockbuster games, like Dragon Age: Inquisition. I recently wrapped up a second play-through of Dragon Age 2 so was all ready for Dragon Age Keep, a rather nifty site that allows you to see and tinker with various events from the first two games, then gives a quick potted history of The Story So Far narrated by Varric’s lightly buttered tones. That was particularly useful for the first game, the events of which were rather hazy, so I’m all ready to delve back into the world of Dragons and Ages, just as soon as I work out what class to make my Inquisitor; after playing through the first two games as a Rogue, then a Warrior for the second run-through of DA2, I can’t decide between a Mage to complete the set, or to reincarnate my original Rogue a third time for The Saga of the Suspiciously Similar Sisters (“Greetings, Inquisitor! Has anyone ever mentioned you bear a striking resemblance to the Champion of Kirkwall? Who, now I come to think of it, was as close in appearance to the Hero of Ferelden as the game engine allowed…”) Or maybe a Warrior… And then there’s race. And which hairstyle to pick. And eye colour. And perhaps most importantly, which companion to become most companionable with. Now one school of thought suggests playing the game, experiencing the story, selecting the dialogue options that seem most in keeping with your idea of your character, and seeing what develops. This is madness, because Dragon Age is a Game, and the idea of a Game is to Make Numbers Go Up, so the proper way to do it is to check if romance with NPCs offers some sort of benefit to your character, determine the optimal benefit for your specific build, then find a spoiler-packed guide that details the precise choices to make to get that benefit. Just like real life.

Or possibly not. I never really intended things to turn out quite as they did in the first game, and I’m trying to avoid spoilers for Inquisition to let things play out naturally there, but I had seen a preview that mentioned that some romantic options were limited to specific Inquisitor sex/race choices, so I’ve had a quick peek at the art of the possible, as it were. I imagine some people might be a little bothered by companions in DA:I who are only interested in a relationship with an Inquisitor of the same sex, but not the the GamerGrot crowd of course, as it’s unrelated to the concerns about ethics in journalism that are as central to The Cause as the unethical treatment of elephants is to the robot uprising. Although same sex relationships do sound suspiciously Socially Just, and everyone knows that sort of thing is only ever put in games because of unreasonable and probably illegal harassment of game developers by evil Social Justice Warriors, which is definitely the same thing as ethical journalism, so everyone should probably boycott the game anyway as part of Operation If We Put The Word “Operation” In Front Of Something We Can Pretend We’re Like All In The Proper Army And This And That And Not Just The Lunatic Fringe Of The Green Ink Brigade

I dunno, though. A Social Justice Warrior does sound pretty cool, maybe I’ll roll one. Or a Social Justice Rogue. Tell you what, Social Justice Bard-Sorcerer, with a splash level of Paladin, final answer…

In Memoriam Mumorpugers

So. Farewell then
You dominated the world for a bit
And then sort of went away
Like Rome and the Mongols and
Gangnam Style

E. J. Zoso, age 17½

Yes, with the news that Blizzard has cancelled Titan, it’s official. MMOs are dead. Or dying, at least. Or dying a bit more than they were previously, which was already a pretty death-y sort of dying so it’s definitely bad news. Course before we start the funeral rites we’ll have to have another quick skirmish in the Eternal Semantic War over what is, or isn’t, an MMO, MMOG and/or MMORPG, and whether Titan was or wasn’t one and thus can or can’t be used as some sort of yardstick for wider genre health; with scarcely any official information about Titan it’s an even more pointless skirmish than normal, the game being a veritable tabula rasa upon which we can engrave any number of hopes and fears (or, from the sketchy news that it was an action MMOG of some sort and direction changed during development, a veritable Tabula Rasa (video game), as Wikipedia would disambiguate).

Sensationalism aside, I don’t know if the Titan announcement changes much, perhaps just confirms a trend. The pattern already seemed established in 2008 that post-WoW MMORPGs would see maximum popularity at launch then gradually tail off, and though nobody is terribly keen on releasing subscriber numbers any more (not to mention the difficulty of assessing metrics in a generally-post-subscription-model landscape) nothing in the last five years has managed much different. Even as World of Warcraft subscriber numbers started falling, those players don’t seem to be looking for another MMORPG (it’s left as another semantic argument as to whether other MMOGs like World of Tanks or Planetside 2 are Proper Competitors or Whole Other Online Things That Can’t Be Directly Compared). Any number of perfectly good MMORPGs have come along, but none have captured the wider imagination like World of Warcraft; gamers move in mysterious ways, and the cancellation of Titan suggests even Blizzard can’t seem to replicate their formula.

Perhaps one reason is that changing times have chipped away at the unique selling points of MMORPGs. Co-operative or competitive online play is ubiquitous on both console and PC. Social media supplants some of the community aspects of friends lists, guilds and general zone chat (when WoW launched there was no Twitter or YouTube, Facebook still had the “the” and restricted membership, and smartphones were rudimentary and rare). There are echoes of the sandbox aspects of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies in Minecraft, itself a WoW-esque staggering success. Progress bars, unlocks, achievements and such have spread from CRPGS through the Virtual skinner box of EverQuest to other genres, and even beyond via “gamification”.

Genres seldom really die, though, they just slip in and out of fashion, evolving along the way; Westerns in films, space sims, the point n’ click adventure, currently doing well as “episodic interactive drama graphic adventure” like The Walking Dead by toning down the insane cat-hair-moustache logic and emphasising story. In this atemporal zone of cultural production we’re wallowing in there’s no shortage of choice, myriad MMORPGs presumably doing well enough to justify ongoing existence. Perhaps that’s another problem; after burning out rather on Defiance three of us spent a good hour or so on voice chat running through possible replacements without reaching much of a conclusion other than Picking Random Titles From Steam’s List Of Massively Multiplayer Games And Reading Some User Reviews Is By Turns Hilarious And Terrifying (again seriously questioning Will Self’s assertion of the effectiveness of the group amateur mind).

So the wheel of time turns; players burn out of games, of genres, of gaming itself, sometimes to return, sometimes not. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Oppa Gangnam Style”.

Wallowing About in an Atemporal Zone of Cultural Production

As is probably obvious from the frequency and content of posts around here I’ve been drifting along, game-wise, for a while now. I still play a fair amount, but it’s rare for something to get me particularly fired up, I feel a bit disconnected from the wider scene. I had a glance through the nominations for this year’s Golden Joystick Awards and found I’d hardly played any of the games, barely even heard of some of them. Perhaps I’m just getting on a bit, but the industry is shifting too; barriers to development and distribution have been plummeting, in general A Good Thing, but with some knock-on consequences. We’re spoiled with such an array of games, blockbuster games, indie games, new games, classic games, enhanced classics spruced up for modern systems, cheap games, free games… There was a piece on PC Gamer about the “pile of shame” and paralysis of choice; I was starting to feel the same with games five years ago, let alone other media as per Charlie Brooker’s more-relevant-than-ever stuff-a-lanche, and the increasing prevalence of bundles, free-to-play and suchlike in the meantime have hardly helped matters.

With such a backlog, and the inevitability of sales and such, I can’t really remember the last thing I picked up and played at the time of release. I did grab Far Cry 3 in the Steam summer sale and actually played it through to the end, something of a rarity in the Grand List of Stuff I Really Mean To Get Back To One Of These Days. Gameplay-wise it was generally excellent, though a few elements like the crafting system didn’t entirely gel; I spent altogether too much time wondering why, after using two Boar Hides to expand the carrying capacity of my rucksack, I couldn’t use more Boar Hide to expand it further, only Tapir Hide would do (and then Dingo Pelts, but only after the Tapir Hide, not before, that would’ve been silly), and furthermore why I couldn’t carry ammunition or grenades in that rucksack but instead had to make a Tiger Skin ammunition pouch and Deer Hide grenade pack. Also, what kind of bastard hunts down lovable tapirs just to carry a few more arrows? In the end I rationalised it as the considerable trauma suffered by the protagonist manifesting itself as a psychological obsessive-compulsive disorder requiring an incredibly specific set of luggage, and on the plus side it must’ve made things a lot easier in baggage reclamation, looking out for a cassowary-komodo-leopard-skin bag amongst a sea of black suitcases. Anyway, the general sneaking/shooting/exploring side of things was top-notch, but the story was a bit of a mess; I was aware of a fair amount of discussion at the time of release in 2012 but didn’t follow it too closely to avoid spoilers, and it seems a little redundant to return to it now. As so often, xkcd nails it in four panels. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, initiatives like crowdfunding and early access offer a deeper glimpse into the development process than carefully managed hype-stoking previews, but make the landscape more complex in terms of differentiating between impressions, previews, reviews and such, and while it’s a great opportunity for some players to get involved early and perhaps help a little in filing off rough edges to shape a game not everyone is always on quite the same page, as the producer of DayZ pointed out.

After the initial excitement and novelty of backing a couple of Kickstarter projects I have to confess it’s sort of blending in to the general background noise now; it’s nice to receive backer updates on the games in progress, but with the aforementioned pile of shame full of things I could actually be playing right now, I don’t spend too much time reading about future additions to the pile. Connected to not buying games as they launch I haven’t really been looking forward to games ahead of launch time, whether due to the general state of things, or my own jadedness, or a bit of both. A brief spark of hope, of the old excitement, is for Dragon Age: Inquisition; I’ve enjoyed every Bioware game so far, after all, and they’re always fertile ground for further debate and discussion (perhaps a little too fertile, in the case of the end of Mass Effect 3, but let’s not go there again…) I was having a bit of a look at Dragon Age: Keep, a site that will allow players to import save files from previous Dragon Age games and tweak things around before heading in to DA:I; that prompted a quick spot of digital archaeology to find previous save games, and to try and remember what sort of decisions I’d taken. The events of Dragon Age 2 were a bit hazy, so I dusted off my original Gray Warden save from the first game and used that as the basis for the start of a new playthrough. After only saying a couple of weeks ago that “I tend to play through story-driven games once”, I’d forgotten a fair amount of what happens in the game so I’ve been getting quite into it again. It has its flaws, a lot of quite obvious environment re-use, encounters that get a bit same-y (“Will there be three waves of minions in this encounter, or only two? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement I’m just going to leave the mages auto-attacking while I make a quick cup of tea…”), but I’ve missed a story-heavy game with characters I really care about. Far Cry 3 had some terrific NPC performances like Orphan Black’s Michael Mando but its protagonist was incredibly dull, and though Dragon Age 2 was criticised for its limited PC customisation options compared to the first game at least you have some choices over appearance and dialogue.

Speaking of criticism, flipping back through old posts to see what I’d said about it at the time I ran across one about the difference between critic and user scores on Metacritic: “Critic’s reviews are decent if not spectacular, currently averaging 81 on Metacritic, but we’ve all seen the stories of pressure on reviewers from publishers, reliance on advertising revenue from games companies, how can we trust them?”

Seems strangely pertinent, what with all the ‘gate’ strangeness floating around Twitter, a somewhat nebulous campaign about improving games journalism, though precisely how isn’t really pinned down as far as I can tell; depending on what you read then the main objective is to drive out some, none, one or more of: Corruption, Social Justice Warriors, Malpractice, Women, Collusion, Bribery, People Knowing Other People, Money, Fascists, Communists or Reginald Maudling. Poor old Reginald. It’s closely connected with some people saying other people aren’t their shield while simultaneously taking great umbrage on behalf of all gamers; in the words of Terry Jones as an old peasant woman, “well, I didn’t vote for you”. There seems to be something of a semantic oddity in entertainment writing; we generally talk about “film criticism” or “literary criticism”, whereas it’s “music journalism” or “gaming journalism”; some of the more lucid Twitter campaigners, focusing on the “journalism” aspect, are pressing for objectivity and impartiality, which is perhaps fair enough for news-based coverage, but a lot of games writing, at least the stuff that I like to read, is far more in the mould of criticism, with different requirements, and gaming is hardly unique in having difficulty in adjusting to the changing times. In books, sci-fi in particular, some of the ‘gate’ business echoes the kerfuffle from this year’s Hugo awards that seems set to rumble on for a long time. In film, critic Mark Kermode wrote Hatchet Job last year, a book about professional film critics and the age of social media, of Amazon reviews and film posters bearing gushing tweets from untraceable users, with many interesting parallels. Getting dangerously far down the meta-rabbit hole (rabbit meta-hole? meta-rabbit meta-hole?), author Will Self wrote a review (itself later critiqued elsewhere) in a newspaper of the book about film reviews, and one contentious paragraph connects the pile of shame, role of critics and industries in flux:

“Now we have instant access to an unparalleled library of films, books and recordings, we are wallowing about, really, in an atemporal zone of cultural production: none of us have the time – unless, like Kermode, we wish to spend the greater part of our adult life at it – to view all the films, read all the texts, and listen to all the music that we can access, wholly gratis and right away. Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic. In my working lifetime I’ve already seen the status accorded to book and film reviews undergo a tremendous decline – not, I hasten to add, because there aren’t good reviews being written (this one is especially good), but because the media they are reviewing and the medium by which they themselves are delivered are both in a state of flux. All sorts of cultural production that was concerned with ordering and sorting – criticism, editing and librarianship – can now be seen for what it always really was: the adjunct of a particular media technology.”

I can’t help but think Self might revisit his opinion of the group amateur mind after reading the user reviews of Dragon Age 2 on Metacritic…