Category Archives: zoso

Varied in content but generic in title

So the Steam Summer Sale is here again, and like the last Winter Sale they’ve come up with a zany idea: discount a bunch of games for a couple of weeks. No daily deals, votes, flash sales, minigames or what-not, just some trading cards available for browsing your Discovery Queue. From a consumer-buying-games point of view I think this is sensible; no agonising over whether to buy something now or wait in case there’s more of a discount at some point in the future, and no need to worry that you missed the 17 minute window when Awesome Game Simulator was available for 72p instead of £59.99. As someone who got quite caught up with some of the previous events, though, it’s mildly disappointing from the Steam-as-a-game-in-itself perspective.

Still, there are new trading cards, and what do cards make? Badges! I’ve done my usual sale routine of digging through any games that still have trading card drops and leaving them running in the background, selling off duplicate cards, and using the resulting funds to buy a few more cards to finish off other sets. Firing off buy and sell orders like some striped-jacketed trader I built up a highly impressive portfolio worth almost 64p, until I blew half of it on XCOM 2 cards. Considering the market volatility caused by all this EU referendum palaver I was briefly tempted to switch my ISA investments over to Steam trading cards, but apparently banks won’t take a Total War: Warhammer badge as security for a loan, even if it is Level 7.

I’ve also been diligently browsing my Discovery Queue, and good lord but there’s a lot of crud on Steam. This isn’t a massive surprise, Sturgeon’s Revelation and all that, but since the introduction of the feature Steam has showed me around 500 games so far and is well into the 90%:

“Hi! I’ll be your Discovery Queue for the day, let’s take a look at some Exciting and Amazing games that I really think you’re going to be Amazingly Excited about! OK, let’s see, first off the pile it’s… War Shoot Man Gun, an utterly bland FPS with no stand-out features whatsoever, how about it, huh?”

*clicks Next*

“No? Oh. OK, I see you’ve played RPGs, I bet you’ll love Dungeon Of The 8-Bit Quest For Sword, lovingly crafted with retro-graphics totally as a stylistic decision and not because it’s a ten minute copy and paste job to churn out any old dreck!”

*clicks Next*

“Boy, tough crowd. All right, you’re bound to want this: Screenshots Of Scantily Clad Anime Girls! No idea what genre it is, if it even has a genre, but the screenshots prominently feature scantily clad anime girls. Phwoar, eh? Eh? The whole thing looks creepy but it’s all right, it’s probably ironic or something so that’s fine. Absolutely perfect for anyone not aware that there are photographs of actual breasts on the internet if you like that sort of thing. Apparently. So I’ve been told.”

*clicks Next*

“Huh. Got it! Block Craft Dig Build, a blocky game where you dig stuff up and then, hold on ‘cos this is gonna blow your mind: build things.”

*clicks Next*

Block Build Shoot Dig Gun, subtitle (Because Apparently The Lawyers Got All Upset When We Called It ‘Minecraft With Guns’)?”

*clicks Next*

Blood Grim Stab Dark Spooky Times, nail-biting survival horror?”

*clicks Next*

Spooky Dark Creepy Blood Spurt, nail-biting horror survival?”

*clicks Next*

The IKEA VR Experience?”

*clicks Ne…* “Hang on… IKEA?”

“Yes! Consumers can use the app to explore one of three differently-styled kitchen room settings. The user can change the colour of cabinets and drawers with a click.”

“That’s the most interesting thing you’ve shown me so far. Oh god, I’m so old. Remind me to have a another look at that after I’ve finished the queue.” *clicks Next*

“OK, next on the list is Some F2P Online Thing You Heard About A Couple Of Years Ago But Never Got Around To Checking Out

“Is it any good?”

“Reviews say: no, not really.”

*clicks Next*

Old Game Remastered, an HD remake of something you liked when it first came out but don’t have the time or inclination to replay now even if the graphics are nicer?”

*clicks Next*

Noun Online, a unique MMO featuring adjective verbing?”

*clicks Next*

“Well there you go, that’s the end of this Amazing list of Exciting games. Join us tomorrow when we’ll repeat this tiresome charade, I know you’re only here for the trading card. Still, you could probably get a blog post out of it if nothing else. Soupy twist!”

“Soupy twist.”

Monthly Miscellany – May

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

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

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

Gaming roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ringing of the division bell had begun

So The Division has been out for roughly one of your earth weeks, breaking all sorts of sales records. I’m about halfway through, and in general I’ve been enjoying it so far.

The opening cinematic is impressive, a potted version of films like Outbreak or Contagion (or indeed the splendid boardgame Pandemic, though without the coloured cubes). Within the game the story is primarily advanced through set-piece missions that reminded me of Flashpoints from Star Wars: The Old Republic. The best of these (so far) were set in iconic locations such as Madison Square Garden or the Lincoln Tunnel and really set the scene of the devastated city. Even the more humdrum settings, like a block of flats, have been scripted nicely enough to keep things interesting. Like Flashpoints they can also be replayed, with a Hard Mode later to crank up the difficulty; the combat side is interesting enough for a few runs before they get too stale.

In between the main blocks of story are assorted side missions and encounters, plus various collectible items as you’d expect in an MMO/Ubisoft open world. They fit into the setting well enough (rescuing hostages, recovering supplies, analysing virus samples), but by the third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) time of performing essentially the same actions they get a touch repetitive, not really helped by some of the officers who assign the missions.

Unsurprisingly, the overall tone is on the grim side: disease, death, breakdown of society, bit more death, man’s inhumanity to man, extra death. From story missions and collectibles you gather fragments of intelligence that give some insight into the collapse: diary entries, voice recordings, CCTV footage and some interactive ECHO reconstructions (Evidence Correlation Holographic Overlay, apparently). Most have decidedly unhappy endings (spoiler: they’re all dead, Dave. Everybody’s dead. Everybody is dead Dave. Apart from a few groups of psychopaths and some innocents for them to terrorise.) The graphics are excellent; Mr Biffo has a fine piece about how we often take visuals for granted, and I was thinking along similar lines myself while playing. The environments reminded me of the extraordinary attention to detail you often see in behind-the-scenes features for film or television programmes, where sets are meticulously dressed with in-world props that you might only see if you pause a scene and look really closely at the background. Swirling snow and fog and smoke emphasise the bleakness of the setting.

Then you get sent off to retrieve some supplies by a hypochondriac, or an actor who played a special forces agent on TV or someone equally “quirky”, and it just doesn’t mesh; coupled with the repetitive nature of the side missions it disrupts the coherence of the world. (In the middle of writing this, I read a PC Gamer article making much the same point.) I don’t mind a bit of deliberate fourth-wall breaking, or indeed a smidge of Brechtian Alienation, but the NPCs aren’t obviously over-the-top enough for that. Overall, though, the setting is excellent.

Combat is another area where the game mechanics conflict with the world-building. Movement feels fluid and natural, and the cover system works very nicely when moving forward, allowing you to dash and vault from one conveniently bulletproof waist-high obstacle to another. If you need to tactically reposition during combat things can fall apart slightly, as your character invariably decides to leave one piece of cover and cling to the side of a car in full view of several angry rifle-wielding maniacs while you scream “NO! THE *OTHER* SIDE!”, and back up a bit, and then cling to exactly the same spot again, then slowly inch around to the front of the car (still completely exposed to enemy fire), eventually managing to position yourself with the car *between* you and the maniacs at the exact point a grenade lands at your feet, forcing you to repeat the whole performance. It means you can’t just sit in one place and plink away for every encounter, which is fair enough, but confined areas with limited cover and certain enemy combinations can be rather vexing.

The guns seem to be a fairly accurately (visually) modelled collection of modern military hardware as you’d expect in a Tom Clancy branded game, but then the combat mechanics are firmly from the RPG levels-and-healthbars school. Depending on relative levels and such, you can empty an entire belt of machine gun ammunition into the face of a human at point-blank range to little effect. For whatever reason, though, this doesn’t really bother me, possibly from being so thoroughly inculcated in this style of combat; I didn’t come into the game expecting a realistic military shooter. A range of gun types and abilities (including assorted healing powers, buffs, explosives, turrets and such) offer a variety of ways of tackling encounters; whether most will stay viable or “One True Build” will emerge remains to be seen as Massive tweak things around. There’ll probably always be a flavour of the month, but hopefully not so ludicrous as to render any other choices redundant.

The centre of the city is a dark place; not Garth Marenghi’s, but a Dark Zone with more powerful mobs, better loot, and PvP combat. If you kill other players you can nick their stuff (just the Dark Zone loot, not everything), but this turns you Rogue, making you something a beacon for the avenging forces of justice (or other people who want to nick your stuff). Melmoth and I have popped in a few times and it’s an agreeably tense atmosphere, eyeing up other players and wondering if they’re minding their own business or just waiting for an opportunity to strike. Discussion boards are awash with debates about risk and reward in the Dark Zone, it’s a tough balance to strike between having some incentive for PvP (otherwise you might as well just have another PvE zone), but not so much that everyone immediately attacks other players on sight (free-for-all deathmatches have their place but aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially if gear quality is the dominant element of combat).

It’s going to be interesting to see how things develop, whether it’s a passingly fun cover-shooter with loot or has more longevity. My suspicions are leaning towards the former at the moment, but you never know.

Gaming Roundup

So I wrapped up Fallout 4 a little while back; it had a good run, I explored a fair bit of the world, travelled with several companions and dug into their back stories, looted plentiful quantities of kitchen utensils… My interest was starting to wane a little, so I made a conscious effort to crack on with the main plot before burning out. As per my last post, by the time I started the last run of missions I was fully togged up with heavily upgraded power armour, a Gatling laser and all the buffs I could click on, so most of the fighting was a bit of a formality.

The various factions vying for control of The Commonwealth are interesting. There’s no clear “villain”, each is motivated by what they perceive to be the greater good, though that often has rather unpleasant consequences for others along the way. Ideally I would’ve liked to broker some sort of diplomatic solution between everyone in a sort of Rimmer-without-anger way, hitting them with a major leaflet campaign if they didn’t co-operate or perhaps a brief Lister-without-fear Bazookoid rampage if anyone objected to living together in peace. In the end, though, you have to pick a side, putting you in conflict with at least one other. As with New Vegas I wasn’t completely satisfied with how everything turned out, but all in all a thoroughly enjoyable addition to the series.

Next off the pile was XCOM 2. I adored the original UFO: Enemy Unknown back in the day (more than 20 years ago now, good grief) and made a bit of headway in the 2012 XCOM reboot, but it didn’t grab me in the same way, I never got around to finishing it. XCOM 2 got very positive reviews, though, so I thought I’d give it a go. Like Fallout 4 it generally keeps the fundamentals of the previous game and adds a few new shiny features, one of the most immediately obvious being much improved customisation options for your soldiers. At least half the fun in XCOM games is naming your squad for friends, colleagues, celebrities, politicians or the like; at one point Earth’s most valiant freedom fighters included Richard Ayoade, Ada Lovelace, Reginald Maudling and Sara Martins, though poor Reg went for a Burton when aliens attacked HQ.

As a turn-based game with outcomes decided by virtual dice there are shades of Blood Bowl to XCOM 2. It’s not quite so dependent on chance (for the full Blood Bowl experience you’d need to roll a d6 when reloading a weapon and on a 1 you’d drop it, or shoot yourself in the foot or something), but luck plays a slightly larger role than I really like in games. That can be offset to an extent by saving and reloading; not something I do habitually, but every now and again when the dice really take the piss I’m not averse to rewinding time. You can even give yourself an in-universe excuse, if you like, by claiming your squad leader is Tom Cruise from Edge of Tomorrow (aka Saving Private Groundhog).

I probably didn’t follow an optimum research path for upgrades, so found the difficulty curve a bit inconsistent; early missions seemed about spot on, but after a while I was coming up against heavily armoured aliens who my troops had trouble dealing with, setting up a vicious cycle of scraping through a mission with dead or injured troops, so needing to send rookies out on a subsequent mission who in turn had even more trouble with the aliens. Struggling through that phase and researching improved weapons and armour, things got much easier in the later phase of the game, and missions didn’t hinge so much on the success or failure of one or two actions. The final mission dragged on a bit but I did see it through to completion, more than I managed with its predecessor.

Between battles with aliens, there was also the open beta of The Division. Melmoth suggested giving it a look so we had a bit of a wander around the desolated streets of New York, and rather fun it was too (at least as fun as plague-ravaged cities get). There were flashes of the late not-particularly-lamented Hellgate: London, hints of the crouching-behind-low-walls multiplayer mode of Mass Effect 3 and touches of APB (fun cosmetic customisation options, if not quite up to APB’s full editing suite, but thankfully rather more to do). Perhaps the closest parallel was Defiance, and in our very limited experience of The Division it was just as easy to quickly group up and fast travel to the same location for team-up type action, a rather positive sign. I’m not sure about its longevity, but with nothing else really grabbing me game-wise at the moment I’ll probably grab it at release for a bit of shootin’ n’ lootin’.

All the world’s an RPG

I’ve been having a splendid old time in Fallout 4 for the past month, the first game that’s grabbed me for multi-hour sessions for a while. I haven’t finished it yet (no spoilers!), but I do find my attitude and play style evolve somewhat over the course of an RPG; with apologies to a certain obscure playwright:

All the world’s an RPG and all the men and women merely NPCs, and the player in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

At first, the infant, mewling and puking, grateful even for a rusty pistol or a single shotgun shell, picking clean the ruins of every tin can and plastic fork.

Then, the innocent, faced with new people, talking even to generic townsperson, exploring every branch of the dialogue tree, listening to every reply.

And then the lover, taking care to select only the actions that your companion Likes, whether hacking terminals, helping the Minutemen, or necking every bottle of vodka you find.

Then a soldier, furnished now with weapons and armour, though not so fine to ignore fallen opponents who yield useful ammunition and occasional upgrades, willing to use an occasional Stimpack or jolt of Psycho in a fierce fight.

And then the justice, quick now to judge, with subtitles turned on to skip through conversation faster; place the square upon the map, quick now, the reasons matter not as long as there’s XP at the end of it.

The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered Powered Armour pantaloon, and the side quests fall by the wayside, careful tending of each settlement no longer a concern, loot an encumbrance; “A silver watch with mere emeralds? Pshaw, I stoop only for gold and diamonds.”

Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, a final rush through the final story missions popping Stimpacks like Tic Tacs, sans caution, sans pause, sans everything to oblivion… until the DLC hits.

Reviewlet: Detectorists

Some readers may remember, from the dim, distant days of 2008, the BBC series Bonekickers, a rather silly bit of Da Vinci Code-esque nonsense, in which a team of archaeologists tackled mysteries of the past with devastating implications in the present, with hilarious consequences (albeit not intentionally hilarious). Luckier readers may have forgotten about it until just now, in which case I’m terribly sorry for bringing it up again; if you missed out then you could hasten to your nearest videographic media vending emporium, who are sure to stock such a popular title, or maybe just check out a recap here.

The reason I dig up the past like some maverick archaeologist is that the BBC 4 series Detectorists is also, in the broadest terms, about looking for old stuff, but in almost every other way is the very opposite of Bonekickers, as if they were series created in mirror dimensions (Bonekickers would definitely be the one with the beard and eye patch). Written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, Detectorists is centred around the members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, in particular Andy (Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones). It’s a beautiful, slow-paced comedy about people, hobbies and relationships, the tone set by Johnny Flynn’s fantastic theme. Though, in the grand scheme of things, not an awful lot happens (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that at no point do they find an artefact revealing a centuries-old conspiracy concealed by shadowy individuals who secretly run the world), the half-hour episodes just fly by. The second series, just finished, has been an absolute highlight of this year’s television. Five ring pulls out of five (Quatro… or maybe Lilt…)

In Our Time Lord

Talking to Melmoth about the In Our Time podcast, in which Melvyn Bragg hosts three academics to discuss ideas from science, history, philosophy, culture and religion, I mentioned that while Bragg is more than at home discussing arts and literature, in science-heavy episodes like “P vs NP” he takes on something of a “Doctor Who Assistant” role, keeping things grounded for the audience as the academics roam through theoretical fields of incomprehensible dimensions

Melmoth pointed out that, with Jenna Coleman leaving Doctor Who, there could be an *actual* Doctor Who Assistant vacancy coming up, and perhaps Melvyn Bragg could take on the role. I think that would be a stroke of genius, Capaldi & Bragg could roam through space and time, investigating mysteries, defeating invasions, and completely transforming In Our Time…

“So, Professor Harlow, how accurate is Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War?”
“Well, Melvyn, we have some fragmentary corroborative evidence of certain events, but we can’t possibly know if Thucydides actually witnessed…”
“Hang on, I’ll ask him. Back in a jiffy.”

*VWOORP* *VWOORP* *VWOOORP*

“Right, well, it turns out that most of it is artistic license, had a fascinating chat with Nicias, lovely chap, look, I got a selfie with him. Oh, and the beings the Greeks worshipped as gods were actually Thorgruns from Planet Frinksnarf who manipulated the Spartans into invading Attica, but the Doctor and I sorted them out. Incidentally, if anyone’s doing any archaeological work around Sicily, could you keep an eye out for my car keys? I think I dropped them in the siege of Syracuse…”

PrecogCritic

Metacritic has been a useful tool for researching games. Not perfect, of course, but for a quick general impression, with collected links for deeper research, a good starting point. Some genres have always been tricky to assess, perhaps most notably MMOs, intended to be played for months or years with large groups of players, difficult conditions to replicate in a review with deadlines; oh, the happy days of grappling with such issues in blog posts, considerably enlivened by Ed Zitron’s classic Darkfall review.

As the gaming landscape changes and paid alpha tests, open beta tests, crowdfunding, early access and the like become more common, it’s more difficult than ever to wait for reviews of a finished game before deciding whether or not to part with your hard-earned cash. In chatting to Melmoth we hit upon the solution, and are proud to launch KiaSA Industries latest venture: PrecogCritic. (Other titles under consideration: MetaPreCritic, PreMetaCritic, PreMetaPreCritic, The Department of PreCriticism and A Bit Like Minority Report But For Games Reviews Rather Than Murder.) The elite team of KiaSA Precognitive Mutants will assess prospective games against a number of criteria, with the results being etched by laser into a wooden ball for no good practical reason, but it’ll look really cool. Current criteria include: Chance that something actually playable will ever be available; Chance that the game will be, technically, released at some stage; Predicted review scores for the final game; Predicted reassessment of the game several years later after patches finally iron out the worst bugs and a bunch of DLC pads it out.

Of course Metacritic has both Critic and User reviews, and so PrecogCritic will also allow users to contribute scores and reviews based on nothing but wild assumptions and guessing, truly an innovative feature never seen before on the internet.

Unfortunately launch of the service will be somewhat delayed, as the first game we asked the precogs to assess was Star Citizen; Dash started thrashing around muttering something about Derek “I Thought He’d Calmed Down Since Usenet[1] Days But Hoo Boy I Guess Not” Smart, Arthur had a flashback to the Wing Commander movie, and Agatha asked if we wouldn’t mind awfully letting her go back to predicting murders, as they were generally much less distressing.

[1] Ask your grandparents

Please believe me, the river told me

I don’t read as much as I used to, at least not books; smartphones and tablets tend to take over of an evening or a lazy Sunday morning in bed, for catching up on social media, forums, or just swiping away at a game. Thank heavens for periods of WiFi absence, on holiday or in villages with limited mobile signal. A friend recommended Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London a few years back, but I only just got around to it, and it’s absolutely terrific; I ploughed through three more of the series within a week, and have the fifth queued up ready to go, but paused for a bit to prolong the enjoyment.

The cover quote sums it up neatly: “What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the fuzz?” Trainee Police Constable Peter Grant stumbles across a ghost, learns about magic, and his life, in the words of Oscar Wilde, gets flipped-turned upside down. Melding police procedural (the depiction of the workings of the Metropolitan Police rings completely true) with the fantastical, Harry Potter meets The Bill would be one convenient shorthand, but firmly rooted in London and with a strong thread of humour throughout I’d perhaps opt for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Hot Fuzz. There’s crime, magic, jazz, geek culture nods (including a mention of System Shock 2), hints of a Weird War II a la the Bitter Seeds trilogy; I’m not really doing them justice, but I’d heartily recommend checking them out.

Perhaps part of the reason I got so involved in a great story with likeable characters is that I’d just finished playing through Grand Theft Auto V (only two years after the original console release…) Game-wise, it’s absolutely top notch; graphically superb, with a well-realised city sandbox to play with including stacks of activities. Back in the 90s, a golf simulator was a worthy full price game in itself; in GTA V a fully wander-around-and-playable golf course is just one of myriad diversions around the place, and if you get bored of hitting balls with a stick halfway around you can always leap into a golf kart for low-speed plaid-trousered drive-bys, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t an option in Links 386.

Story-wise, though, it’s an absolute mess. It starts well enough, with Franklin, a kid trying to get out of the ghetto, meeting Michael, a retired bank robber having trouble adjusting to family life. Once the third character, Trevor, appears, it starts to fall apart. The story bogs down in a morass of spoof versions of government agencies making random demands while one or more of the central characters says “we do this then we’re out”, only to get dragged back in on the very next mission like some sort of criminal hokey-cokey. Trevor’s going to kill Michael, but he doesn’t, but he might, but he doesn’t, but he could… Individuals and groups turn up and are promptly forgotten, until the very final mission, which gives the impression of being sellotaped on to the end of the game after a QA report said “You remember this, and this, and this happened?”, and the writers went “Oh yeah… all right, well, if we add a mission where you kill this guy, this guy and this guy then that solves everything, the end, there we go.” Everyone is horrible; your characters are horrible, their families are horrible, the people on the radio are horrible… GTA’s skewed take on reality, things like the double entendre company names and spoof adverts, still raises a smile here and there, but overall it’s hard to like or even care about anybody. It helps if you’re at least rooting slightly more for “you” than the other side; Franklin probably got the closest, but his deeply emotional central character arc appears to consist of moving to a nice house.

The highlights of the game are the heists that you periodically pull off, multi-part missions involving reconnaissance, planning, preparation and execution; at their best they’re like playing through a classic crime caper, ruing the lack of Get A Bloomin’ Move On on one of the radio stations. Having three point-of-view characters didn’t help the already messy story, but in mechanical terms it works well, allowing you to switch between different roles during the preparation and execution of the heists. I’m sure they’d be great fun in GTA Online with a group of like-minded friends, maybe that’s the real strength of GTA V, but in single player it’s a shame that the strengths of the engine and gameplay aren’t complemented by a decent, involving story.