Gaming Diary – Defiance

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I picked up Defiance when it launched last year, but didn’t get much further than the starting missions. It wasn’t terrible by any means, a solid enough MMOTPS, but other shooters proved a bit more compelling at the time, particularly Planetside 2 which I was playing quite heavily then. I caught the first few episodes of the TV show and it, too, was solid enough, but with time being irritatingly finite it wasn’t at the top of the list of Stuff To Definitely Watch Right Now, the episodes started stacking up on the PVR and eventually got cleared off to make room.

Planetside 2 had a good old run; even after peak playing-most-days-enthusiasm it was still fun to log in on a Friday with the Five Rounds Rapid outfit and rumble around Auraxis in an armoured convoy singing Jungle Book songs, but with newer, shinier temptations like The Elder Scrolls Online the outfit drifted a bit, and I was fading myself. Despite ordering TESO, and at least making a start on the tutorial during head start, I was away for the official launch, and just haven’t got around to activating the full game since; I can’t really put a finger on why. Instead, when a few of the other FRRers headed for Defiance I thought I’d dust it off and give it another go, and it’s grabbed me a lot more this time around.

A particularly good first impression was the ease of playing with other people. Though the interface in general is rather awkward, presumably due to being a multi-platform game, once you’ve cudgelled it into letting you add someone as a friend then the “Go To Friend” option immediately takes you to their location, no hanging around trying to get everyone in the same place. Once you’re there you can pitch in with whatever they’re doing (typically the usual MMO staples of Killing Some Monster Things, or Clicking Some Glowing Things, or Clicking Some Glowing Things Then Killing Some Monster Things While A Progress Bar Goes Up Or Down) with no issues of quest sharing, kill stealing or the like. Levels (or “EGO Rating”) don’t seem to be a problem, players or mobs are scaled such that a disparate group can all contribute; other than in fairly exceptional circumstances we haven’t bumped into overwhelmingly powerful or trivially easy encounters. The fixed group size of four is a minor irritation, particularly for co-op maps (instanced encounters, broadly similar to a “dungeon”), other than that it’s admirably suited to casual drop-in-and-out group play.

There are obvious similarities between Defiance and Borderlands; weapons of various classes (pistols, SMGs, shotguns, assault rifles etc.) drop in white/green/blue/purple/orange flavours with varying stats, weapons can have “nano-effects” such as electricity for greater shield damage, you get a single activateable power (cloak, overcharge, decoy, blur), etc. You can also draw comparisons with Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row; there’s a central cut-scene driven storyline to follow, but when you pull up the map there’s a plethora of side missions, events and challenges to take part in. Driving is the main method of moving around, though with the lack of convenient sports cars to jack in the devastated future you have to spawn your own vehicle. Some of the missions are for a single person, courses to race around as fast as possible or timed rampage-type fights against waves of mobs, other events can draw crowds of players, most notably the Arkfalls, scaling public-quest-type-things along the lines of the titular rifts in Trion’s previous MMO.

The game-specific main story involves chasing some sort of MacGuffin because of Some Plot, I haven’t been paying too much attention if I’m entirely honest. There are also “Episode” missions that more directly link to events in the TV series, initially time-limited so you progressed at the same pace as the show but later opened up for people who’d missed out; it was neat to bump into digital versions of some of the characters I just about remembered, but it doesn’t make for a particularly cohesive narrative. The tie-in reminds me a little of the physical comic books that accompanied City of Heroes for a while, interesting for a bit of shared backstory, but not really a transcendent pan-media experience greater than the sum of its parts; in general I found it hard to reconcile nuanced character-driven plots with my own deeply moving story of Shooting A Metric Fuckton Of Mobs Looking For Big Guns. I posted about the problem with story in MMOs before, particularly in relation to Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Defiance has that same disconnect between repeatable MMO content and more linear story elements.

I can’t speak for potential longevity or how things are at the end game, but I’d say it’s worth a look if you fancy a bit of online multiplayer shooting. It’s just gone free to play, if box cost was an issue before, with a fairly standard looking model (limited character, inventory slots for free players, a premium option to boost gains during play etc.), seems to be pretty reasonable, I’ll have to see if it makes much of a difference in the long term.

Posted by Zoso at 4:16 pm

Gaming Diary: Neverwinter

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Also holding an event last weekend was Neverwinter, with the Coins of Waukeen. All mobs had a chance of dropping a coin purse that could be opened for a variety of shiny baubles or exchanged for larger treasure chests containing even shinier baubles, and if there’s one thing I like more than shiny baubles it’s even shinier baubles, so I thought I’d potter around and try and collect up a few.

I had got quite into Neverwinter, working through the various zones and running all manner of skirmishes and dungeons, but had run out of steam around level 53. As per an old post (Heavens to Murgatroyd, seven years?) I prefer games that are structured but free-form, and Neverwinter is perhaps a touch heavy on the structure. Every zone seemed to be Go To Quest Hub A, Do X Quests (Kill Y Mobs or Collect Z Things), Go To Quest Hub B, Repeat, interspersed with an occasional visit to a solo dungeon to kill a boss-type-thing. Some of the story threads running through zones are quite interesting but they’re very linear and I didn’t really feel terribly personally involved, more like observing a series of vignettes than really participating, Dragon’s Lair with Killing X Mobs instead of pressing a button as the “quick” time events between each scene. The release of the big Curse of Icewind Dale expansion/module wasn’t of immediate interest either, being aimed at characters already well into the end game, so I hadn’t been seriously playing for a while.

In other news, I hit level 60 (the cap) in Neverwinter the other day. Despite not going out questing I still logged in most days to Invoke (an in-game action that earns experience and various currencies) and send off various minions to perform crafting actions, a system with some similarities to duty officers in Star Trek Online. I’m not entirely sure why, apart from that most primal compulsion to Click Things To Make Numbers Go Up, but it became a bit of a habit, and between the Invoking XP and the Leadership profession I gained the final 7-odd levels without leaving town. The Coins of Waukeen event prompted me to actually go off and do some proper Using Abilities To Cause Damage, so first stop was the auction house to replace my obsolete gear. The levelling part of Neverwinter is comparatively brief (as demonstrated by my idle XP gains) and level 60 loot drops plentifully, so a full set of blue weapons and armour were incredibly cheap. Next stop, the level 60 campaigns: Sharandar and The Dread Ring. I gather these were the first two expansions for the game and, again, broadly comprise zones with various quest hubs, but geared towards repeatable content. A “Campaigns” window of the interface gives a flow-chart-esque overview of the progression; do a certain thing three times, unlock another thing, do that seven times, etc. Daily quests at the hubs award the myriad tokens and tchotchkes that contribute to these unlocks: seeds, sparks, scrolls, socks, sandwiches, the currency systems of the Forgotten Realms really are a mess, the sooner everyone starts accepting credit cards the better. Over the weekend I dipped a toe into both the campaigns, earning a couple of boons to boost my character’s stats and a pile of coin purses along the way in which I found a nice pile of Astral Diamonds (yet another currency) and, most importantly, a pair of Gold Pantaloons.

There’s plenty to like in the game; combat is dynamic and fast-paced, and though you can get into a bit of a rut using particular rotations of abilities, positioning and movement is still important so it’s seldom just case of standing around and hitting the number keys. There’s plentiful solo content if you don’t fancy teaming up, and group opportunities if you do. Low level skirmishes and dungeons were quick affairs that didn’t need too much co-ordination, and were quick to get into via the group finder; approaching level 60 they get more challenging, the queues get longer, and the few that I tried with PUGs ranged from painfully lengthy battles of attrition to desperately hanging on to the coat-tails of a massively over-geared player soloing everything in their path. I imagine they offer a reasonable challenge for an organised group, the issue being the more fundamental one of group finding systems and PUGs than the game itself, and if I were really keen to get more involved then finding a like-minded guild would doubtless pay considerable dividends; there’s even an area, Gauntlgrym, only accessible to suitable affiliated guild members. There are PvP options if you’re interested; I fear they suffer from the usual difficulties of balancing stat/gear/build-heavy mechanics, but have only tried a few low-level matches so couldn’t say for sure. If you’re after a wide open world with freedom to roam then it’s certainly not going to be your cup of tea, if the idea of a more distilled Essence of MMO Progression appeals then it’s worth a look. I’m not sure I’ll seriously throw myself into the end-game, but might well chip away at the campaigns now and again and pop in for events.

Posted by Zoso at 10:54 am

Gaming Diary: War Thunder

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I do like a bit of an event in games and War Thunder held a “100K Festival” last weekend to celebrate 100,000 concurrent players, handing out 100 Gold Eagles for every 100 kills (to a maximum of 1,000) and 100,000 Silver Lions for 10 victories. 1,000 Gold Eagles aren’t to be sniffed at, but even when recklessly going for death or glory (or cake) it’s difficult to average more than one kill per minute of game time, and, splendid as War Thunder is, it gets quite tiring after a couple of hours let alone 17. Fairly normal play with a couple of matches per country per day at least netted 100 Eagles, better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick, and I rounded things out with a few Reserve biplane matches just to get up to 10 victories – the matches are nice and short to start with, going all-out for ground targets stands a good chance of boosting your team to victory, and you don’t need to feel too guilty about strafing AI armoured cars and emplacements.

If a couple of hours of War Thunder gets tiring, a 72 hour non-stop round the world (simulated) flight would be the act of a madman. A madman like Zeke from Iron Man Mode, who did just that. I popped along to his stream a few times over the weekend, a fine distraction while grinding away at game events with its mix of sleep-deprived piloting, live music, quizzes and cat food. Many congratulations to everyone involved, raising over $2,000 for Child’s Play, it’s not too late to pop over and donate to boost that total even more (unless you’ve just unearthed this post as part of a curious digital archaeological expedition in the year 3073 when poverty has been eliminated, in which case it probably is too late. But well done on the whole utopian future thing.)

Away from the big festival, some of the How To Murder Time posse have also been Thundering in a War-like fashion. It can be something of a challenge to get ten or eleven people playing together as in-game groups are limited to four players, to prevent organised teams completely dominating random matches, but Custom Missions work rather well. You can choose the game mode, mission type, map, number of players/bots etc., allowing everyone to shoot the bally heck out of each other without interference from random strangers (don’t forget to set a password on the Custom Mission if you don’t want anyone else dropping by!), or to team up and shoot the bally heck out of some hapless AI opposition. They’re also an excellent training venue, you can pick an appropriate map to practise various aspects of the game like landing on airfields, torpedo attacks or (most importantly) activating coloured aerobatic smoke and making pretty patterns in the sky.

You really have to play the standard PvP matches to earn resources and unlock new aircraft, though, so we also try and form up two or three teams with similar Battle Ratings and have the squad leaders simultaneously click the “To Battle” button, something of a challenge in itself…
“OK, after three, click ‘To Battle’. One, two…”
“On three, or after three?”
“After three. Three, then click. Right. One, two, three, To Battle!”
“One two three two?”
“No, one two three *to*, tee oh, to battle…”
“OK, I’ve clicked To Battle!”
“No! After three!”
“Five, sir!”
(etc)

Results are somewhat mixed, but we generally have a reasonable chance of ending up in the same match, albeit usually on opposing teams, rendering Cunning Plans on the shared voice server somewhat less cunning…
“Don’t tell the other team, but I’m going to attack the left hand bombing target!”
“Hey, chief; I might be wrong, but I think some of the enemy might be coming to bomb our right hand target…”

With Ground Forces moving into open beta I’ve clanked around in a few tank battles, nothing terribly serious; they’re fun enough but I think flying will remain as my primary focus in the game. I’ve updated the Beginner’s Guide with a very rudimentary guide on getting into a tank battle, starting with some Fascinating Tank Facts:

“Aeroplanes, invented by Ian Aeroplane in 1903, really caught on with the military in World War I, initially for reconnaissance, then for bombing and ground attack. One area in which they didn’t fare well was trench warfare, where manhandling bulky aircraft “over the top” then pushing them through no man’s land towards enemy trenches proved rather ineffective, so in 1916 Ian Tank had the idea of taking an aeroplane, removing the wings and propeller, and adding armour plating and caterpillar tracks to create the vehicle that bore his name: the Armoured Fighting Ian. The British government wished to hide the true nature of these new vehicles, though, so created a cover story that hundreds of sweater vests were being sent to the troops, with shipping crates stencilled appropriately, and the nickname stuck.”

Disclaimer: Fascinating Tank Facts may be neither Fascinating nor Facts. Your results may be at risk if you use these facts in a school assignment. Terms and conditions do not apply.
Posted by Zoso at 12:34 pm

Wot I’m Playing – Roundup

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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying the Winter Olympics both on television and in War Thunder, where the Russian developers celebrated the Sochi games by adding a couple of special events. First there was a Biathlon, each team having to race through a series of checkpoints, periodically engaging a number of targets (either tanks or barrage balloons), before finally having to land on an airfield to finish the match. If you’ve ever wondered what the biathlon might be like if the competitors decided not to shoot at the targets but take pot-shots at each other on their way around the course, the War Thunder event gave you some idea. In some matches teams would focus on the objectives, in others they just ignored the whole checkpoint business and instantly headed straight for the opposition forming a mass dogfight around the start line, finishing only when one team was wiped. The second event, Curling, was a little more tenuous, with each side having a number of AI tanks representing stones moving towards a central control point, teams having to “sweep” the way clear by eliminating artillery and pillboxes in their path. All good fun, and keeps things a bit fresher than playing the same old maps all the time; they also had a contest for players to submit Olympic-themed content, I was most impressed by the organisation of the team who created the Olympic rings using five Hurricanes and acrobatic smoke. The ground forces beta is also rumbling on, looking pretty good at the moment, so another heavy year of War Thunder seems quite feasible.

Planetside 2 is ticking along as well; server issues with our usual European home caused us to decamp to a new US server for an odd sort of holiday in identical surroundings (same three continents, same bases and everything) that nevertheless felt slightly different, starting out again with new characters. Also like a holiday it’s nice to get back to home comforts, such as heavily upgraded weapons and vehicles, but a change is a good as a rest and all that.

Star Wars: The Old Republic holds down another weekly spot for regular grouping, though it can be a little awkward with a fixed party size of four for Flashpoints and a requirement for a balance of classes (slightly alleviated by some reasonable hybrid options) at similar levels. The most recent patch sorted out some of those issues by introducing a “Tactical Flashpoint”, a randomised set of encounters where the group are automatically bolstered to the same level and clickable healing devices go some way to removing the need for a dedicated healer (though boss fights still go better with a balanced group). Even with the randomised elements it’s not something I’d fancy doing every night (and twice at weekends), but it’s a welcome way to allow a more diverse group to play together. Having been a full subscriber to get early access to the starfighter content I was playing quite a bit, alternating between two characters to stay in the same level range as everyone else, but the initial excitement has worn off slightly; this is where the free-to-play aspect is really helpful, no more agonising over whether to keep a full subscription going just for a night a week, I can cancel the sub and drop down to “Preferred” status. There’s a few days of subscription left, then it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any subscriber-only features I really miss, or whether it won’t make too much of a difference.

One of the reasons I haven’t been in SWTOR so much is that I’ve started dabbling elsewhere… An e-mail from Perfect World announced a new Arc client for accessing their games, including Star Trek Online and Champions Online. I’m not really bothered about Yet Another Steam Knock-off, but the e-mail also contained the magic words: Free Hats! I haven’t played Champions for ages, but could hardly spurn an offer of a “Hats and Heads” costume set, so grabbed the Arc client and associated bonus code. While there, a Khan costume set for STO? Well, it’d be rude not to… I fired up the game and it looks like it’s had a bit of an interface overhaul, all seemed quite swish, had a little jog around the starbase, checked out the new costume at the tailor, haven’t logged back in again since. It’s another Perfect World/Cryptic title that’s grabbed me, Neverwinter. Melmoth had mentioned a few times that he was rather enjoying both the main game and the web-based elements, as did Van Hemlock on the HTMT podcast, so I thought I’d take a proper look – I’d actually downloaded it back around open beta/launch (I seem to recall it was rather a fluid release) but was in such an MMO-funk at the time I didn’t make it out of the tutorial.

Neverwinter seems nicely done, if not exactly deep; it has “action combat”, a bit like Dungeons and Dragons Online, more focused on movement and positioning and a small number of abilities rather than three full hotbars of stuff to click. Plenty to do, between adventuring, skirmishes, PvP and the like. It’s really the Gateway that sets it apart so far, a web portal that allows you to review your character and their inventory, manage crafting, and take your companions off on Sword Coast Adventures that work a lot like many Facebook/web games, quite simple dice rolling encounters, but an engaging little mechanic. The Gateway works well via Android browser, so after working through both seasons of Doctor Who Legacy (with a fair bit of repeated level running to pick up additional companions), Sword Coast Adventures have taken over as my “five spare minutes” mobile game of the moment.

Away from the online stuff, I did manage a few levels of Tomb Raider after picking it up in Steam’s Christmas sale, all quite enjoyable but I haven’t felt compelled to finish it off (or Dishonored, or any number of other games kicking around my “must get back to sometime” list). I can’t really remember the last single player games I got properly engrossed in, probably Bioshock Infinite and Saints Row IV (half the reason I keep blogging is so I can go back and check on stuff like that…) I also grabbed the Sid Meier Humble Bundle, partially for the Civ V DLC on the (very) off chance I manage to get back for another playthough, but mostly for the two Ace Patrol games. They’d been on my radar (as much as canvas biplanes can show up on radar) since featuring in Tim Stone’s always-splendid Flare Path, and are indeed a quite delightful bit of drop-in tactical dogfighting fun, the turn-based nature and AI opposition allowing for a slightly more relaxed approach when the frantic furballs of War Thunder get a bit much.

Posted by Zoso at 4:44 pm

Wot I’m Playing: Roundup

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Happy New Year, one and all! So, 2013 in review: stuff happened. Predictions for 2014 (and slightly beyond): more stuff will happen, but will eventually stop. That’s entropy, man. I ought to be a futurologist… Nothing terribly new and exciting to report on the gaming front, really. War Thunder is still going strong – another week or two and I’ll have been playing for a year, not a bad stretch at all. The most recent update has stirred up a bit of community outrage (Game Update Causes Community Outrage Shocker!), with planes being researched individually instead of unlocked in batches, slowing things down especially in higher tiers; it does seem to be a touch on the harsh side, but not worth getting too worked up over.

Most of my recent flying has been quite task-oriented, with a series of challenges starting in November offering a chance of a closed beta slot for ground forces testing followed by the current “Winter Magic” event, with two new planes up for grabs for completing various tasks. It’s a fun way of mixing things up, changing the type of aircraft you fly and the targets you go for; I haven’t got into the ground forces beta yet, fingers crossed as they add more testers, some nifty videos are starting to come out such as this fine biplane/flakpanzer teamwork.

Various holiday incentives such as bonus experience and plane discounts have been luring me into World of Warplanes as well, enough to get up to the Tier V Spitfire I; I even got World of Tanks patched up for the sake of a free tank, but couldn’t really adjust to driving again after all the flying.

Also coming up to a year played is PlanetSide 2, though I haven’t been playing an awful lot recently; I’d let my membership lapse before the recent announcement about changes, I was happy enough with the weapons and certifications I’d acquired, and though there’s always scope for player-created hat-type fun, as a first-person game you only really get to appreciate the millinery when changing classes. It’s still (usually) a blast, slipping slightly down the pecking order of Stuff To Play, but at least without a subscription the option’s still there every week or two.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Steam Sale, or at least Christmas wouldn’t be Steam Sale Season without a Steam Sale, and holiday trading cards added a bit of excitement this time around. Combining them into a badge also resulted in a cosmetic item for one of a variety of free-to-play games that could be traded or sold on the community market, so for a few pence you can pick up the more common snowflake decals for War Thunder aircraft, though that price may sharply rocket now that the holiday cards have melted away. I even bought a couple of those actual game-things during flash sales. Lots of people rave about Kerbal Space Program; I’ve only really run through the tutorial and it hasn’t completely grabbed me yet, but it certainly seems interesting, and Melmoth spoke highly of the new Tomb Raider game, so I picked that up and have got as far as downloading it, but not actually starting it up. I just about made it to the second level of Dishonoured, bought during a previous sale, before getting completely distracted by other stuff so I’m not sure when I’ll manage to actually buckle down and play it, but still…

On the mobile front, Doctor Who: Legacy is a neat little puzzle-type-RPG-sort-of-thing available for both Android and iOS, chock-full of companions and characters from the recent series plus a few classics with nice artwork, kills the odd ten minutes here and there quite effectively.

Finally, over in The Old Republic the newly added starfighter combat still hasn’t really clicked for me, but I’ve really been getting back in to the rest of the game, flashpoints, regular PvP battlegrounds and the class stories. I hadn’t been particularly hankering for good old hotbar style combat, it just sort of crept up; I’ve no idea if it’ll last long enough to properly pique my interest in WildStar, The Elder Scrolls Online or EverQuest Next, or whether I’ll have burnt back out again by the time they launch.

Posted by Zoso at 4:47 pm

Wot I’m Playing: Roundup

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Glancing back at the last roundup, remarkably little has changed over the last few months. Planetside 2 and War Thunder are still time-murderers-in-chief, waxing and waning according to whim and assorted updates. Perhaps the main issue with Planetside 2, as with so many open world PvP games, is finding “Goldilocks fights”: a decent balance of forces, not so small that you might as well be in a 1-vs-1 deathmatch, but not so big that you spend more time getting run over by your own team’s vehicles than shooting at the enemy. When it’s good, it’s very very good, but when it’s bad it’s a deeply tedious procession of inevitable deaths in the face of overwhelming force. Population imbalance doesn’t help, a three-way (Mr Dalliard) conflict is probably a slight improvement on two factions, but it’s no magic wand; rather than ganging up on the most populous empire, it’s easier for the second largest to ignore a massive zerg and pick away at the smallest empire instead for short-term gains. Still, hopping between continents it’s usually possible to find some reasonable action, but I’m mostly popping in for brisk half-hour firefights rather than settling in for a whole evening of conquest.

War Thunder mostly avoids those balance problems; its matchmaker can be subject to the vagaries of fluctuating populations, but the recent Steam release seems to have helped in that respect. It has some Goldilocks issues of its own around the economy, with patches tweaking rewards, upgrades, repair costs and aircraft prices to try and provide a strong incentive to invest real money without being punitive to those who don’t; I think the most recent patch, 1.33, has struck a better balance than its predecessors, but I’m currently luxuriating in a Premium account after snapping up a couple of discounted add-on packs from Steam. A while back I’d become frustrated with Arcade battles that had changed from fun furballs in the lower ranks into demolition derbies as heavier cannon armaments became prevalent and one-burst kills were the norm, so mostly moved to the more tactically cautiously Historical Battles. Recently, though, fancying some more instant gratification, I dropped into a few more Arcade battles, and with the benefit of a slightly more circumspect approach (looking for a lone enemy or two to pick off, rather than diving right into the middle of eight bogeys) am doing a lot better there too. With War Thunder being a launch title for the PlayStation 4 and offering cross-platform play it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out, whether it’s a herald of greater co-operation possibilities on the next generation of consoles, or as much of a damn squib as the Vista/360 version of Shadowrun.

I did try out the closed beta of Wargaming’s dogfighting offering, World of Warplanes, and though it’s serviceable enough for a bit of a drop-in arcade action, I wasn’t particularly impressed in comparison to War Thunder. I’ve kept it patched up as it moved into open beta, and taken the odd flight now and again, but it doesn’t seem to have fundamentally changed in that time. I’ll probably pop in when it officially launches later in the month, whizzing through the low tiers is a bit of a giggle, but I can’t see myself sinking too much time in.

Outside the online-PvP arena, I finished off Bioshock Infinite, perfectly enjoyable but didn’t leave a particularly lasting impression, and went back rather earlier in the spiritual series with System Shock 2 from a Steam sale. In general it holds up remarkably well, except when the graphics stray outside fairly regular polygons (I thought I was being attacked by a hideous mutant in basic training at one point, but it was just a technician with a head made out of about five triangles), but I fear I don’t have the patience for a full replay, so it’ll doubtless sit alongside UFO Enemy Unknown, Terror From The Deep etc. in the few-hours-progress-save-game stasis pods.

I also grabbed the Humble Origin Bundle, mostly for Burnout Paradise, though the rest of the bundle might also come in handy if the games industry implodes so spectacularly that no new game is released for the next 27 years. I can’t remember the last time I played a dedicated driving game, the original Driver possibly, and Burnout is rather fun, apart from the half-arsed interface; where other multiplatform games at least manage “bit clunky, but usable” (Borderlands 2), or “doesn’t really need text that size, fixed by a mod” (Skyrim), it’s almost painful trying to navigate the menus in Burnout.

Most recently I picked up Saints Row IV; I sank a fair amount of time into III, almost to the point of 100% completion, and IV is more of the same, really, as might’ve been expected from its origin as an “expanshalone”. The third game had some fantastically mad set pieces, but the story as a whole didn’t particularly gel, the Saints somehow being both global media brand and street gang; not a major problem, as story in a Saints Row game is about as important as it in a Gentleman’s Specialist Interest Videograph (can provide an interesting context for the action, but not the main reason you’re there). The fourth game ratchets up the implausibility still further in the first five minutes, but with the cunning twist of genre from Action Blockbuster to Sci-Fi suddenly even the most ludicrous events make sense (of a sort), thoroughly enjoyable so far.

Kickstarter has borne both metaphorical and literal fruit (and I’m not even joking), the literal in leather form, the metaphorical being the first playable game from the assortment I’ve backed: Sir, You Are Being Hunted. I’m not sure the game is quite my cup of tea, despite the fact that it features flasks of tea, but that doesn’t really matter; I thoroughly approve of games featuring top-hatted robots in balloons and am happy to support them just on principle. Similarly, I grabbed Gun Monkeys: Kevin Eldon and monkeys with guns? Awesome, even if an online deathmatch platformer isn’t precisely what I’m after at the moment. I view myself as a sort of 19th century philanthropist, benevolently doling out sums of five or even ten English pounds to projects that generally seem like a Good Thing. Course a fiver wouldn’t have gone very far even in 1879, but hey, I like wandering around the house in a top hat. In a similar vein I’ve just backed Sunless Sea (who wouldn’t, with an influence list including the Crimson Permanent Assurance; it’s fun to charter and accountant, and sail the wide accountant-sea…), and off the back of that started to have a bit of a look at Fallen London, the browser game formerly known as Echo Bazaar. I’d noticed it popping up in friends Twitter feeds a few years back, and the snippets did look intriguing but also just a smidge spammy so I hadn’t delved in myself. It doesn’t require a Twitter sign-up now, and gameplay-wise seems a fairly conventional browser game, but the lore and atmosphere are excellent; probably not something I’ll get too caught up in, but a fun diversion with ten spare minutes and a smartphone.

Posted by Zoso at 4:22 pm

Wot I’m Playing: Roundup

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Everything’s rather busy at the moment, resulting in a bit of a backlog of Stuff To Play. The polymath Mercenary Leader and Arch-Mage of Skyrim is languishing as a jobbing bard and rookie thief, waiting for the next round of MasterChef: Whiterun (the vegetable soup in the first round could’ve used a bit more seasoning, but the judges liked its 12 minute health and stamina regeneration boost), and is a bit behind on some building work picked up on the side. People keep talking about rebellions, dragons and stuff, but rather more importantly there might be an opening in the Guild of Insurance Brokers and Chartered Accountants to investigate. The alien invasion of XCOM is just about under control; Ramsay MacDonald sadly didn’t survive a terror attack, but Neville “Maverick” Chamberlain picked up the squad leadership and took the battle to the enemy, attacking their key base. I got a bit distracted, though, so haven’t quite got around to entirely saving the world. My Elizabethan empire in Civilisation V finished off the Romans and penned the Persians back, naval expeditions uncovered a nearby continent where powerful Egyptian forces are besieging the last couple of Ethiopian cities, I ought to finally decide whether to sign a non-aggression pact with Ramesses and carve out a bit of a foothold or launch a major invasion while he’s distracted.

The co-op multiplayer of Mass Effect 3 had surprising longevity, but I haven’t got around to updating it with the most recent Reckoning DLC pack as other games have been fulfilling the first/third-person shooter roles, like Borderlands 2 and its DLC; finished the first couple of packs, but haven’t got around to Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt yet, being distracted by still other games including Defiance, which shares several characteristics with Borderlands allied to fairly traditional MMOG elements. It hasn’t really grabbed me, though, much like Rift before it; seems perfectly fine and all, but I haven’t got much of an appetite for dodging mobstacles and clicking on glowing things. Speaking of appetites it’s the first MMO I’ve seen mentioned on Saturday Kitchen, but frankly I’m more interested in the beef bourguignon recipe… I might try and catch the accompanying TV series that Jaime Murray was plugging, but the gaming backlog is also causing things to stack up on the PVR and I can’t say I hold out high hopes for it as a televisual masterpiece. Shooter-wise there’s also Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve only just managed an hour or two of it so far, though; the world design is beautiful, but the gunplay doesn’t *quite* seem to entirely fit with it, especially when you’re mowing down waves of normal humans rather than twisted Splicers or hideous bio-zombies. Looking forward to exploring more of the story, though.

One of the games I actually have been seriously playing is War Thunder, as could probably be gathered from the series of guides which have resulted, possibly for the first time ever, in the majority of KiaSA search engine hits having a fighting chance of vaguely relating to what the searcher was looking for (though whoever was after “vintage cadburys roses pixelated graphics” is still out of luck. Sorry.) It’s completely taken over from World of Tanks as my “play a battle or two per evening” game; I did patch up WoT and grab the first couple of British tank destroyers when they were added in, but I’m just enjoying War Thunder more. I’ve hit a point, Ranks 7 & 8 with the German, Soviet and British air forces, where new ranks and planes are a long time coming, if that was the sole purpose for playing then it would be a grind, but I’m not so fussed about the progression aspect, I’ve got a couple of Spitfires, I’m happy. With the NDA on the rival World of Warplanes dropping, posts over at To Game For Life have prompted me to sign up for the beta of that, I think it’ll be quite an interesting comparison, but if Wargaming.net take as long to add a British tree to WoWP as they did to WoT there’ll be trouble…

My main game of the last three months has been Planetside 2. Inspired by the How To Murder Time podcast I downloaded it for a bit of a look around, and have been playing it pretty solidly ever since. On the surface its a fairly straightforward MMOFPS; point gun at enemy, press trigger, but as you play you become aware of the web of interactions that make up continent-wide rounds of rock-paper-scissors. Though with many elements, so more like rock-paper-scissors-spock-lizard. Or rock-paper-scissors-spock-lizard-missile-tank-mine-shotgun. Or… well, you’d probably end up with something like RPS101. Or the weapon systems matrices illustrating combined-arms synthesis from Jones’ Art of War in the Western World, if you’re more of a grognard about these things. Despite the Inevitable Perpetual Fury (note: possible band name if Trans-Neptunian Panic Zone is taken) of the forums, SOE’s gentle nudges seem to be keeping things pretty reasonably balanced over multiple air and ground vehicles, with multiple weapon and system options, and multiple infantry classes, again each with multiple weapon and accessory options. Apart from NC MAX units, natch. (Actually even they’re almost sane, after shotgun rebalancing. Almost.)

One of the problems of the rock-paper-scissors nature is that sod’s law (Murphy’s British cousin) dictates that you always run into your counter; if you’re in a tank column with no anti-air cover you can guarantee a bunch of rocket-spamming flying gits will turn up, strafing with impunity, whereas the second you climb into an aircraft it’s instantly a magnet for every lock-on missile and flak cannon within four miles. Kit yourself out with a long range rifle for a bit of sniping and inevitably you’ll find your forces pushing forwards into a close-quarters battle against shotgun-toting opponents, and the moment you get the chance to swap loads for a more suitable SMG there’s nobody left in the buildings, but a bunch of the enemy over on a ridgeline presenting ideal sniper targets…

Still, apart from occasional frustrations it’s generally rather fun, thanks in part to Brigadier Van Hemlock and Five Rounds Rapid, less of an elite combat unit, more a travelling troupe of improvisational slapstick and high farce. Sometimes we shoot stuff! On rare occasions, the ‘stuff’ in question isn’t a member of our own squad! With DJ Melmoth providing the soundtrack, even something mundane like taking a convoy of tanks and armoured personnel carrier across the map is enlivened by the strains of Get A Bloomin’ Move On.

The payment model for the game is quite reasonable too; completely free to download and play, abilities can be bought with game-earned certificates, cosmetic items are available for cash in the shop, weapons can be bought for either certificates or cash. Well worth a look if you fancy some online FPS fun; it’s not big on hand-holding, though, chucking you straight into action on first login, so it might be worth having a bit of a read of the wiki if you haven’t got a friendly outfit to show you the ropes.

Posted by Zoso at 2:59 pm

Wot I’m Playing: Roundup

games, wot i'm playing, zoso 6 Comments »

It’s a busy old gaming time at the moment. MMO-wise, I’m still on holiday; I’ve popped in to City of Heroes a couple of times since they announced it was to close, though I feel I ought to give it a proper good-bye, maybe one last run of the Positron Task Force or something. Guild Wars 2 is patched up, just in case the mood strikes, but it’s been Skyrim fulfilling my recommended daily allowance of fantasy questing.

There’s something of a tension, though, between my general meandering around the world, resulting in an overflowing quest log full of all sorts of interesting sounding things to investigate, and my slightly completist/OCD side trying to get everything ticked off. Even when absolutely determined to finish existing tasks before acquiring any more, it’s hard to avoid picking up a couple of new quests for every three you finish. Like both Morrowind and Oblivion before I’ve reached a sort of mid-point where there’s an awful lot I’d like to do still, but there isn’t a single thread that’s really got me hooked to yank me through, so it’s easy to get distracted by other things. Like Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2 is a worthy sequel to the loot-spewing RPG/shooter of MOAR DAKKA original. As an operant conditioning chamber it’s incredibly effective, I almost subconsciously now run up to anything with a green light on it and hit the ‘open’ button, useful in the game for racking up stacks of cash, ammunition, eridium and gear, but quite hazardous when crossing the road at traffic lights. Crammed with pop culture references, I particularly enjoyed a three-way stand-off in a graveyard as part of “The Good, The Bad and The Mordecai” (no prizes for guessing which classic Leone film it references) (“Duck, You Sucker!”, obviously); it worked especially well to the sound of Short Change Hero by The Heavy, the song used in the introduction of the game, a gloriously Morricone-influenced piece that I went and bought and have had stuck in my head for the past couple of weeks.

Away from frantic gunslinging action, I’ve also been popping back in to a bit of Minecraft. I’ve seen bits and pieces about updates and improvements over the past year or so and keep meaning to check them out, but had never quite got around to it until Shuttler started talking about multiplayer servers, so I hopped on for a quick look around. Then, y’know, you have to have a quick dig, so grabbed a bit of wood, made a pickaxe… and then it started getting dark, so obviously you need to build a quick house, and pop a chest in it for storing things, and then a second level, digging down for coal, perhaps a quick mezzanine, oh and a wheat field of course, and then once you’ve got the wheat you might as well grab a few animals to start a farm, and… well, it’s like Yellow Car. Just as you never stop playing Yellow Car, you never stop playing Minecraft, it just happens that sometimes you’re not logged in to it.

With similar longevity World of Tanks has been kicking around for the best part of a couple of years, and I still hop in for a spot of armoured combat now and again. There was a big update, version 8.0, a few weeks back, overhauling the graphics and physics within the game; previously steep slopes had a sort of invisible wall that stopped you crashing over them, now you have to be a bit careful around cliffs. Not just at the top either, from force of habit on one map I was hunkered down at the bottom of a cliff, where previously I would’ve been out of the firing arc of anyone above, and got a rude surprise when an opponent plummeted down in a death-dive… I’ve got a few favourite tanks in tiers II, V and VIII that I mostly play, no real goals progression-wise for the moment, I might pick it up a bit more seriously when British tanks arrive in version 8.1.

In the meantime there’s another multiplayer update to Mass Effect 3, Retaliation, that’s just come out. It’s a pretty major overhaul, adding a whole new enemy faction in The Collectors, a Challenge system of some sort and Hazard maps with additional dangers, alongside the usual new classes and weapons. I’ve been firing up ME3 for the fortnightly “Operations” that set challenges with commendation pack rewards that offer you the chance to unlock Yet Another Rank Of The Sodding N7 Eagle Pistol. Some of the challenges (“Achieve full extraction in a mission in under 15 minutes”) are absolutely fine; others (“Achieve full extraction in a mission with all four players as the same non-human race”) are much trickier. Not so much in execution, but the matchmaker has no way to specify that you’re trying to complete these challenges, so forming a compliant team in the first place can be terribly frustrating.

I’ll probably be playing Retaliation for a couple of days as thanks to slightly irritating staggered launch dates we don’t get XCOM and Dishonoured until Friday in the UK. Though Dishonoured looks deeply splendid in a Steampunk-Thief-Deus Ex-ish sort of way, with all the other games around at the moment I decided I’d only pick up one of the two big new games at launch, and the pre-order offers swung it. Dishonoured has (roughly) 904 different pre-order variants at different retailers offering slightly different perks, items and what-not; XCOM has, as far as I can make out, the same Elite Soldier Pack pre-order bonus everywhere, apart from Steam, which thanks to a curious tiered pre-order reward system also chucks in some TF2 bits, and a copy of Civilisation 5. As, shockingly, I don’t have Civ5 (absolutely loved the first game, back in the day, but just haven’t got around to any of the sequels), I figured I might as well go for that offer, making something of a mockery of the whole “too many games” business, but never mind. I’ve managed about four turns of Civ5 so far and really want to take a proper crack at it, should enough time somehow become available.

In readiness for XCOM I’ve been finishing off a run through Silent Storm: Sentinels, an excellent turn based tactical RPG in the mould of the original UFO: Enemy Unknown that recently became available on GOG.com It’s good stuff even if, like in the original, things go slightly downhill with the appearance of Panzerkleins. I don’t think I’m ready for the Ironman mode of XCOM with no reloading, though, I’ve been saving quite a lot during missions. Mostly when using grenades. Confronted with a basement full of enemy troops, a grenade seemed like the perfect solution, but a slight error in trajectory resulted in the grenadier lobbing the Mills bomb into the head of his own comrade, from which it bounced off, then detonated, taking out the three members of my squad storming down the staircase, the staircase itself, and most of the hallway and kitchen floor above, resulting in two more of my squad ending up in the cellar rather sooner than planned, slap bang in the firing line of four rather cross Hammer soldiers. That’ll be a reload, then…

Posted by Zoso at 4:00 pm

Wot I’m Playing: Silent Storm

wot i'm playing, zoso 9 Comments »

While contemplating stompy robots and silly names, Pardoz mentioned Silent Storm in the comments which rang a vague bell, possibly from a previous wave of UFO: Enemy Unknown nostalgia when the XCom games came out on Steam, so I thought I’d try and track it down.

It proved a bit tricky; Silent Storm doesn’t seem to be available from Good Old Games, Steam or other download services, and the best Amazon & co. could offer were pricey used copies (the expansion, Sentinels, seems more readily available, but I’m guessing it’s not much use without the original game). Fortunately a friend had it kicking around in his collection, so I nabbed it from him and it’s proved to be quite a gem.

Silent Storm is pretty much UFO: Enemy Unknown in World War II, the ten years of development between the two resulting in higher resolution graphics on a fully pan-and-tilt-and-zoom-able map, but the core gameplay will be instantly familiar to XCom veterans: send your little squad of 6 out on turn-based missions to shoot the bad guys, nick their cool guns, and back home for tea and crumpets (or kaffee und kuchen, as you can play either Allies or Axis). The strategic aspects are a bit more straightforward than UFO, eschewing the base building, recruitment, alien interception and research aspects for a pool of 20 soldiers from whom you can pick 6 for each mission, and a more structured story where clues found on missions lead to further tasks. It’s really most splendid, and once I’ve finished it I might well grab Jagged Alliance 2, another turn based game I missed out on at the time, and rather more easily available from GOG and the like.

[2012 update: it's now available at GOG, huzzah!]

 

Posted by Zoso at 6:09 am

Wot I’m Playing: Champions Online

games, wot i'm playing, zoso 1 Comment »

Champions Online seems to tick so many boxes. There’s the character creator for a start, vast arrays of crazy options you can lose yourself for days in. Then there’s power selection, where you’re not locked into a fixed class but are free to select from a wide array of offensive, defensive and various utility powers, and combine those with stances to fulfil different roles; you’ve also got fantastic travel powers for getting around. The world seems to be a good size with areas like a metropolis teeming with villainy, an irradiated desert, a frozen wasteland, suitably superheroic settings. There’s loot and crafting, fast paced action, public quests, drop-in PvP, so much good stuff, and yet… somehow it seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. Having a lifetime subscription is great for popping in now and again, and if nothing else is really gripping me I’ll bounce in and dispense a bit of justice, but it never really grabs me and keeps me in, a bit like Guild Wars in that respect, games I never really managed to stick at.

It’s hard to put a finger on why it doesn’t quite work for me; I think one aspect might be the genre. Since City of Heroes got me back into comics a while ago I enjoyed the first two volumes of the self-contained Ultimates series, but I couldn’t get into any of the more continuity-heavy mainstream superhero series I tried. I still pick up a few trade paperbacks here and there, but mostly standalone books like DMZ and The Walking Dead that don’t feature superheroes, so the hero genre doesn’t have an especially strong draw and the Champions lore and setting hasn’t particularly grabbed me. There are some nice little vignettes, like the town of Snake Gulch populated by robotic cowboys gone haywire (very Westworld), but overall it seems a bit generic. The forthcoming DC Universe Online at least features iconic characters like Superman and Batman in the rather spectacular recent trailer, and I understand there’s going to be an accompanying comic, though I’m not sure if, or how, they’re going to fit in hordes of player character heroes. Perhaps it might have that indefinable x-factor that Champions doesn’t quite seem to.

Posted by Zoso at 6:46 am
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