Season’s greetings, one and all, may 2016 bring you joy, wealth and lashings of hats.
Put the kettle on, chaps, time for tea! War Thunder has, thankfully, added British tanks before the French, and a splendid job they’ve made of them. Along with the tanks (being gradually unlocked for testing, unless you buy one of the British premium packs) are new maps for recreating the triumphs (and not-quite-such-triumphs) of the 8th and 1st Army in North Africa, El Alamein and Tunisia, and very nice they look too:
There are also a few new aircraft and assorted other tweaks, but the British tanks are the main attraction. Tally ho, death or glory!
Talking to Melmoth about the In Our Time podcast, in which Melvyn Bragg hosts three academics to discuss ideas from science, history, philosophy, culture and religion, I mentioned that while Bragg is more than at home discussing arts and literature, in science-heavy episodes like “P vs NP” he takes on something of a “Doctor Who Assistant” role, keeping things grounded for the audience as the academics roam through theoretical fields of incomprehensible dimensions
Melmoth pointed out that, with Jenna Coleman leaving Doctor Who, there could be an *actual* Doctor Who Assistant vacancy coming up, and perhaps Melvyn Bragg could take on the role. I think that would be a stroke of genius, Capaldi & Bragg could roam through space and time, investigating mysteries, defeating invasions, and completely transforming In Our Time…
“So, Professor Harlow, how accurate is Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War?”
“Well, Melvyn, we have some fragmentary corroborative evidence of certain events, but we can’t possibly know if Thucydides actually witnessed…”
“Hang on, I’ll ask him. Back in a jiffy.”
*VWOORP* *VWOORP* *VWOOORP*
“Right, well, it turns out that most of it is artistic license, had a fascinating chat with Nicias, lovely chap, look, I got a selfie with him. Oh, and the beings the Greeks worshipped as gods were actually Thorgruns from Planet Frinksnarf who manipulated the Spartans into invading Attica, but the Doctor and I sorted them out. Incidentally, if anyone’s doing any archaeological work around Sicily, could you keep an eye out for my car keys? I think I dropped them in the siege of Syracuse…”
Time flies by, and not just when you’re the driver of a train (whether or not speeding out of Trumpton with a cargo of illicit narcotics). War Thunder celebrated its third anniversary over the weekend with a mini-bonanza of sales and small-scale challenges every three hours (win two matches, destroy five tanks etc), which worked rather well for dipping in and out of, rather than settling down to one big task and burning out. I’m still dropping in to War Thunder for a match or two most days, having been in since more or less the start, pretty good longevity really. I’ve also been playing a lot of World of Warships, but getting to tiers V, VI and VII the grind is really beginning to kick in, it’s feeling a lot like World of Tanks back in the day. Course War Thunder gets terribly grindy as well in the high tiers, I’m chipping away slowly at unlocking new jets, but I just enjoy the air battles there. WoWS is rather more variable, for every decent fight I seem to end up in a one-sided loss where most other ships are two tiers higher, or our team manage to lose about five ships before inflicting any sort of damage, or we win handsomely but I get taken out by a fluke magazine explosion in the first salvo. I’ll probably scale things back a bit there, and wait for the Royal Navy to turn up.
Going right back to the early days of PC gaming with Wolfenstein, I also just picked up the reboot, The New Order, in a Humble sale. It’s pretty interesting so far, strong atmosphere and plays well, even if the central character hasn’t developed much of a personality past the blocky portrait from the original. I’d been toying with picking up Fallout 4 on release, but with plenty else to play I might give it a little while for the bugs to be worked out and/or DLC to arrive then jump in later, seemed to be the best idea for New Vegas.
Perhaps most interesting is a new expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic. It seems like a lifetime ago that I originally hit the level cap in SWTOR and even did a spot of introductory raiding; not a human lifetime, obviously, something a tad smaller, maybe a rabbit, or a long-lived hamster. It got a second lease of life with the inevitable free to play conversion a couple of years back, a few more fun jaunts with the FRR posse, but I’d more or less forgotten about it since then, the Galactic Starfighter space fighting never grabbed me at all. Rather than being pensioned off, though, it seems SWTOR is getting a bit of an overhaul, by all accounts making it a more of a single player experience, more of a “proper” KotOR sequel. It’s a brave move, changing the focus of a Star Wars MMO, but then SWTOR didn’t really offer an experience like pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies so I can’t imagine there’ll be such a backlash (though I’m equally sure there’ll be some sort of backlash, because The Internet). I have quite a soft spot for it, I’m rather tempted to wander back and give it another go, just to see what new hats there might be if nothing else…
Metacritic has been a useful tool for researching games. Not perfect, of course, but for a quick general impression, with collected links for deeper research, a good starting point. Some genres have always been tricky to assess, perhaps most notably MMOs, intended to be played for months or years with large groups of players, difficult conditions to replicate in a review with deadlines; oh, the happy days of grappling with such issues in blog posts, considerably enlivened by Ed Zitron’s classic Darkfall review.
As the gaming landscape changes and paid alpha tests, open beta tests, crowdfunding, early access and the like become more common, it’s more difficult than ever to wait for reviews of a finished game before deciding whether or not to part with your hard-earned cash. In chatting to Melmoth we hit upon the solution, and are proud to launch KiaSA Industries latest venture: PrecogCritic. (Other titles under consideration: MetaPreCritic, PreMetaCritic, PreMetaPreCritic, The Department of PreCriticism and A Bit Like Minority Report But For Games Reviews Rather Than Murder.) The elite team of KiaSA Precognitive Mutants will assess prospective games against a number of criteria, with the results being etched by laser into a wooden ball for no good practical reason, but it’ll look really cool. Current criteria include: Chance that something actually playable will ever be available; Chance that the game will be, technically, released at some stage; Predicted review scores for the final game; Predicted reassessment of the game several years later after patches finally iron out the worst bugs and a bunch of DLC pads it out.
Of course Metacritic has both Critic and User reviews, and so PrecogCritic will also allow users to contribute scores and reviews based on nothing but wild assumptions and guessing, truly an innovative feature never seen before on the internet.
Unfortunately launch of the service will be somewhat delayed, as the first game we asked the precogs to assess was Star Citizen; Dash started thrashing around muttering something about Derek “I Thought He’d Calmed Down Since Usenet Days But Hoo Boy I Guess Not” Smart, Arthur had a flashback to the Wing Commander movie, and Agatha asked if we wouldn’t mind awfully letting her go back to predicting murders, as they were generally much less distressing.
 Ask your grandparents
I don’t read as much as I used to, at least not books; smartphones and tablets tend to take over of an evening or a lazy Sunday morning in bed, for catching up on social media, forums, or just swiping away at a game. Thank heavens for periods of WiFi absence, on holiday or in villages with limited mobile signal. A friend recommended Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London a few years back, but I only just got around to it, and it’s absolutely terrific; I ploughed through three more of the series within a week, and have the fifth queued up ready to go, but paused for a bit to prolong the enjoyment.
The cover quote sums it up neatly: “What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the fuzz?” Trainee Police Constable Peter Grant stumbles across a ghost, learns about magic, and his life, in the words of Oscar Wilde, gets flipped-turned upside down. Melding police procedural (the depiction of the workings of the Metropolitan Police rings completely true) with the fantastical, Harry Potter meets The Bill would be one convenient shorthand, but firmly rooted in London and with a strong thread of humour throughout I’d perhaps opt for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Hot Fuzz. There’s crime, magic, jazz, geek culture nods (including a mention of System Shock 2), hints of a Weird War II a la the Bitter Seeds trilogy; I’m not really doing them justice, but I’d heartily recommend checking them out.
Perhaps part of the reason I got so involved in a great story with likeable characters is that I’d just finished playing through Grand Theft Auto V (only two years after the original console release…) Game-wise, it’s absolutely top notch; graphically superb, with a well-realised city sandbox to play with including stacks of activities. Back in the 90s, a golf simulator was a worthy full price game in itself; in GTA V a fully wander-around-and-playable golf course is just one of myriad diversions around the place, and if you get bored of hitting balls with a stick halfway around you can always leap into a golf kart for low-speed plaid-trousered drive-bys, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t an option in Links 386.
Story-wise, though, it’s an absolute mess. It starts well enough, with Franklin, a kid trying to get out of the ghetto, meeting Michael, a retired bank robber having trouble adjusting to family life. Once the third character, Trevor, appears, it starts to fall apart. The story bogs down in a morass of spoof versions of government agencies making random demands while one or more of the central characters says “we do this then we’re out”, only to get dragged back in on the very next mission like some sort of criminal hokey-cokey. Trevor’s going to kill Michael, but he doesn’t, but he might, but he doesn’t, but he could… Individuals and groups turn up and are promptly forgotten, until the very final mission, which gives the impression of being sellotaped on to the end of the game after a QA report said “You remember this, and this, and this happened?”, and the writers went “Oh yeah… all right, well, if we add a mission where you kill this guy, this guy and this guy then that solves everything, the end, there we go.” Everyone is horrible; your characters are horrible, their families are horrible, the people on the radio are horrible… GTA’s skewed take on reality, things like the double entendre company names and spoof adverts, still raises a smile here and there, but overall it’s hard to like or even care about anybody. It helps if you’re at least rooting slightly more for “you” than the other side; Franklin probably got the closest, but his deeply emotional central character arc appears to consist of moving to a nice house.
The highlights of the game are the heists that you periodically pull off, multi-part missions involving reconnaissance, planning, preparation and execution; at their best they’re like playing through a classic crime caper, ruing the lack of Get A Bloomin’ Move On on one of the radio stations. Having three point-of-view characters didn’t help the already messy story, but in mechanical terms it works well, allowing you to switch between different roles during the preparation and execution of the heists. I’m sure they’d be great fun in GTA Online with a group of like-minded friends, maybe that’s the real strength of GTA V, but in single player it’s a shame that the strengths of the engine and gameplay aren’t complemented by a decent, involving story.
Fallout 3 and New Vegas were great games. I think. It’s been a while, and my memory isn’t what it was. At least I don’t think it is, I don’t really remember. Fortunately I can stick ‘fallout’ into the search box here to double check what past-me really thought, and he’s confirmed that I was a big fan. It’s a good system, I should start recording more stuff on this blog, like where I put my keys, and what shopping I need to get. Note to future self: pick up a couple of pints of milk and a loaf of bread. Although… what if I didn’t really write those posts? Maybe I never played Fallout 3 at all, someone could have hacked this blog and posted favourable things about it, and I’ve just assumed it was me… maybe I’m not writing this at all, I don’t even need milk or bread, it’s all an evil plot by the Milk Marketing Board and whoever their bread-based equivalent are (I’d guess the Bread Marketing Board, but maybe it’s a broader Bakery Marketing Board that covers pastry-based foodstuffs too). The fact that the Milk Marketing Board ceased to exist in 2002 suggests that’s unlikely, but I just looked that up on Wikipedia, and if they’re smart enough to hack this blog then changing a Wikipedia entry is hardly out of the question.
Anyway, Fallout. I haven’t finished the main story of an Elder Scrolls game since Daggerfall (as far as I remember, but let’s not go there again); I always end up meandering around, joining a bunch of different guilds n’ stuff, trying to progress in all of them at the same time, and drifting away from the game. I did finish both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, though (with a goodly amount of meandering in the process), as well as most of their DLC packs. I’m not sure if it’s a preference for gun-based combat over swords and spells, or perhaps a slightly tighter story focus in the Fallout series. Either way, I was happy to see Fallout 4 announced a while back, and the Fallout Shelter mobile spin-off sounded fun, but I didn’t have an iOS device at the time.
Having recently acquired an iPad, I’d forgotten about Fallout Shelter until there was a bit of buzz for the release of the Android version last week, so I thought I’d give it a try, and it’s rather diverting. Not terribly deep, a bit reminiscent of something like CivClicker, gathering resources to build stuff to gather more resources, but it looks good, and making numbers go up is always a valuable and rewarding endeavour. Or an exploit of an underlying psychological weakness, I forget which. It’s worth a look, though. As is: milk! Mmm, lovely milk. Don’t forget to drink a cool, refreshing glass of milk today! And why not have a slice of bread as well?
This has been a post by the Milk Marketing Board with support from the Primarily Bread But Also Other Baked Goods Too Board. Wait, I mean Zoso! Yes, Zoso wrote this. Definitely him. I mean me.
“Summer’s here”, as Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Martha Reeves and quite possibly one or more Vandellas sang, “and the time is right for computer games offered for purchase on the Steam store to be discounted in the street”. For the last few years, the actual sale bit of the Steam summer sale has been the least interesting aspect, the novelty having faded with constant offers, discounts, bundles and the like. I did pick up Space Engineers this year, thanks to Tim and Jon’s intergalactic adventures, to add to the list of stuff that I really must get around to sometime, but that’s been about it.
More interesting, for fans of making meaningless numbers go up, are the bits and pieces that Steam puts in around the sale, events, trading cards, contests and what-not. This year, it’s an incremental game, essentially “click on monsters lots!” It’s quite fun, for what it is; I did get into CivClicker a while back (the textual interface doesn’t obviously look like a game, if, hypothetically, you’re after something to do on your lunch break at work), incremental games can be quite diverting. Naturally a meta-game soon evolved around Steam as people first started using various means to automatically click, then poked a bit more deeply into the mechanisms of the game to produce browser scripts to automatically execute the optimal strategy, finally reaching level ONE! HUNDRED! MEEEEEELEEEEON! today, which appears to be the upper limit.
More interesting still, for sufficiently small values of “interesting”, is the monetisation around the game this year: there isn’t any. You get trading cards just for joining in, a Steam badge based on the level you reach, and that’s about it. It’s quite a contrast to last year, when everyone was arbitrarily assigned to one of five teams, and granted points for crafting badges n’ stuff. Items were available to increase points, switch teams and suchlike, and these could be bought and sold in the Community Market for actual money. It must have been a fascinating psychological and economic experiment; there were prizes, the (rather small) chance of winning games from your wishlist, but as this year’s event shows people hardly need an incentive to make numbers go up, and as last year’s event showed at least a few don’t mind spending actual money to do so. I’m not sure if I should glad that Valve just made a fun little diversion this year with no marketplace silliness, or worried that I’m glad that merely not creating an ethically dubious event seems like a positive move.
Mind you, conspiracy theorists have come up with a plausible explanation: as the game involves clicking your mouse button as much as possible, it’s a cunning ploy to cause users to break their mice, and thus order a new Steam Controller to use when playing games. Hmm, tempting…
With no single game demanding all-consuming focus at the moment, I find myself drifting around playing in 10-20 minute chunks, discrete matches/battles/quests in various offerings. Sometimes the chunks link together into more substantial gaming sessions, often not; maybe it’s something to do with the summer. I recall writing a similar post before, digging around, it turned out to be from June 2012 when chunks included Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and World of Tanks.
I wrapped up the main story of Dragon Age: Inquisition a little while back; it was all perfectly solid, without leaving a particularly lasting impression. As with ME3, the co-op multiplayer is proving to have slightly surprising longevity, I’m often dropping back in for the weekend events; it’s not something for long sessions, after two or three rounds of rampaging through hordes of evil I’m generally ready for a break, but the mechanics hold up well, it’s interesting to try the different styles of combat. A fairly big update added three new playable characters including the Duelist, Isabela from Dragon Age 2, making a very welcome return. Each multiplayer character has a few lines of dialogue to liven up quiet moments, which was rather tedious at the beginning when most people had only the default classes and you’d hear the same lines several times every round (“Would anyone like to go for a drink at the tavern? That’s what friends do, right?”) With a good mix of characters it’s a lot more fun now, and Victoria Kruger’s marvellous voice work for Isabela is a particular highlight: “Every time we find gold, I think to myself ‘imagine the hats you could buy with this Isabela'”.
On the “World of…” front, World of Warships is picking up steam as the testing stokers frantically shovel coal into the beta boilers. I got in towards the end of closed beta, and have been rather enjoying it. At first I focused on working towards battleships, lured in by the prospect of massive guns (I like big boats and I cannot lie), but in trying out the other types of ship I became more fond of first aircraft carriers (who have a very different style of play, despatching squadrons to attack targets more like an RTS), and more recently nimble destroyers, nipping in to launch volleys of torpedoes before beating a hasty retreat under the cover of smoke. World of Warplanes seems to have crashed and burned, at least compared to the stunning success of World of Tanks, but it looks like Wargaming are back on form with World of Warships.
One of the major obstacles that World of Warplanes faced was the competition from War Thunder, and though I believe War Thunder ultimately aims to include player-controlled ships, the combined arms approach that it takes (as opposed to the completely separate World of… titles) is going to be pretty challenging for naval combat, especially if they include more realistic gameplay alongside quick arcade action. It looks like Gaijin have put ships on the back burner for a while, probably a wise decision, giving World of Warships clear water for a while at least.
I’m still flying out at least once a day with War Thunder’s planes; the most recent big update added a new set of British planes of the Fleet Air Arm, including the Fairey Firefly with beautifully modelled Youngman flaps (matron). I wrote a couple of short pieces, about the new aircraft and a brief history of the Fleet Air Airm, in Issue 5 of the War Thunder Community Magazine, if that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat. Or indeed flies your aeroplane.
Checking back, it looks like I’ve been playing War Thunder for two and a half years now, pretty impressive longevity. It also turns out that the first screenshot I posted was a Hurricane bedecked with “the fighting cock” decal, quite a good Time To Cock score. In other Cock News, via Zen Of Design a developer tweeted about the impossibility of creating a dong detection tool for LEGO Universe and resultant need for a human penis sweep for every player creation. I imagine the offices were awash with cheery cockney penis sweeps doing elaborate song and dance routines (with animated penguins) about how there’s no happier job than looking for LEGO dongs, probably why the game was unsustainable in the end. It reinforces what we heard when the game originally shut down; fingers crossed LEGO Worlds, just going into Early Access on Steam now, can avoid similar issues.
Any RPG fan from the 1980s could tell you the most important thing to do after a catastrophic world-wide disaster: get hold of a car, and stick a bunch of guns and spikes on it. I think I first learnt this from Freeway Fighter, the 13th Fighting Fantasy gamebook; seeing the gleaming red car on the front prompted several weeks of pocket money saving until I could afford it. Other gamebooks followed like Fuel’s Gold from the Car Wars universe, and Joe Dever’s Freeway Warrior series, not so much vehicular combat, more character-oriented; they felt very grown up at the time.
The usual teen gaming path in Britain went from Fighting Fantasy books to White Dwarf magazine, and, not long after I’d started to pick up the odd issue, Games Workshop launched their own vehicle combat game, Dark Future. It looked great, sleek Sanctioned Op cars, spiky gang buggies, Gatling guns for everybody, but it was a bit pricey, especially with Warhammer 40,000, Adeptus Titanicus, Space Hulk and the like around as well; I never did play it at the time.
Things went a bit quiet on the spiky-cars-with-guns front for a while; I vaguely recall seeing the box of the PC game Interstate ’76, but never picked it up. MMO-wise there was Auto Assault, which I had rather a soft spot for; I think it might have been the first MMO I beta tested, and the vehicle combat was rather fun, though not fun enough to keep up a subscription after a couple of months. It closed down with little ceremony in 2007.
Perhaps not unconnected with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, post-apocalyptic cars look to be back in fashion with two announcements this week. Gaijin Entertainment, developers of War Thunder, are going to be publishing Crossout, a post-apocalyptic vehicle action game promising extensive customisation. Details are sketchy at the moment, but it could be rather fun, one to keep an eye on.
Dark Future is also getting a reboot in the form of Dark Future: Blood Red States, a turn-based strategy game. From a bit of Googling around, it seems that Kim Newman wrote a series of Dark Future books as Jack Yeovil back in the 80s, blending various genre elements into an alternate history where Prime Minister Ian Paisley is replaced by Jeffrey Archer; a lot of the references would probably have gone over my head at the time, but as a fan of Newman’s Anno Dracula series I’m rather keen to pick them up now, they sound magnificently bonkers.