Category Archives: zoso

And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night

I mentioned in the 10th anniversary post that The Division was a fine game that got rather repetitive in its endgame, and that I ought to have a look at the most recent update. Like healthy eating and regular flossing it was more of a vague intention than a firm commitment; I’d briefly popped back to check out the previous Underground DLC that added some randomised subterranean roaming, but it hadn’t proved terribly compelling.

The most recent update is titled Survival, and doing exactly what it says on the tin it adds a new game mode called “Attempting To Endure Extremely Hostile Conditions With Minimal Starting Equipment”, or ATEEHCWMSE as all the cool kids call it. Actually, it might be called “Survival” come to think of it. A fierce storm is forecast to hit New York but Because Of Some Plot (TM Van Hemlock) there’s an urgent need to retrieve a MacGuffin, and in a wildly unexpected turn of events the simple helicopter jaunt to grab said MacGuffin goes a bit wrong, leaving you stuck in the middle of a blizzard with only a pistol and a nasty cough. You have to scrabble around for warm clothes, food, water, medicine, weapons, and ultimately a compensation form to claim for the luggage lost in the helicopter crash (or possibly the antivirals that were the original point of the mission), then make it to an extraction point to evacuate.

Survival games have been in vogue since the blocky ubiquity of Minecraft and ah-but-who-are-the-real-monsters horror of DayZ, but I tend to flounder in very open worlds. In this respect the clear goal of Survival harks back more to Rogue: down to the heart of the dungeon/Dark Zone tooling up along the way, grab the Amulet of Yendor/Antivirals, home in time for ascension to demigodhood/tea and medals. You have an hour until you succumb to infection, a timer that can be extended with painkillers and medicine but not indefinitely, so you can’t faff around too much.

The new mode does put a nice new spin on The Division. I posted about STALKER: Call of Pripyat a while back, how my favourite part of the game was early on when every round of ammunition was precious and that it lost some its charm later on once geared up with advanced weapons and armour. The Division is handing out loot more freely now, which is much appreciated, but when knee-deep in maximum level gear and trying to work out the relative merits of slightly different gloves it’s quite fun to go back to a situation where you’re glad of anything, even canned food. It’s available in PvP or PvE modes, though I’ve only tried the latter so far; finding enough resources and dealing with AI mobs is quite tense enough without adding PvP to the mix. PvE still isn’t exactly co-operative; loot drops on a first-come first-served basis, meaning you can expend precious ammunition and health packs defeating tough mobs only for another player to swoop in and nick the gear they drop (as opposed to being shot in the back by the other player prior to them nabbing the loot, as presumably happens in PvP). A team with voice comms might be able to share much-needed food and medicine amongst themselves as required, but “I propose a mutually beneficial arrangement by which we collectively engage tough opponents and equitably divide any resulting bounty” is quite difficult to convey to a random stranger via a limited set of emotes, so generally it’s best to steer well clear of other players. The situation pivots a bit should you reach the Dark Zone; by that time you’ve probably got a reasonable amount of kit so aren’t so desperate for every drop, and when you call in a helicopter for extraction you’re confronted by Hunters, new super-mobs with lots of nasty tricks like ducking into cover and healing after taking a bit of damage who are rather tough to take on solo.

Survival has some of the same highs and lows of Rogue/Nethack: on one expedition you might get tooled up with enough weapons and armour to be able to take on anything but not find any medicine; on the next you’re wrapped up lovely and toastie in coat, boots, scarf and bobble hat and can wander around at leisure but lack any weapon more threatening than a pointed stick so get jumped by rioters. It’s not quite so variable, the map remains constant (New York is New York, after all) and loot containers spawn in the same places (though can contain different items). Random starting locations and unpredictable players have made every round fairly different enough far, but a little more variety might be needed in the long run. After a few attempts you get the hang of the basics, staying warm and accumulating loot, then it’s a fairly methodical process to get to the Dark Zone, and a rather abrupt difficulty spike with the Hunters at the extraction zone that can be quite frustrating.

I’m not sure Survival as it stands it worth the cost of the DLC, but if you have the Season Pass anyway or there’s a sale sometime it adds another interesting string to The Division‘s bow, I can see myself popping back in from time to time, especially if it gets a couple of additional options.

Synners

A couple of months ago HTMT Hugo-reviewist Days was enthusing about Pad Cadigan’s Synners on Twitter as Gollancz put it, and 39 other ebooks, on sale for 99p. I was tempted to grab the whole lot but, with a fairly hefty “To Read” pile already, settled for a mere six or seven including Synners, and just got around to reading it.

First published in 1991 the SF Gateway edition has a 2012 introduction preceding a 2001 10th anniversary introduction, interesting layers of digital archaeology pointing out the uncanny prescience of the book and it really has aged well, it still feels completely fresh and contemporary. Even since 2012 further aspects are coming out of the pages, the current wave of VR headsets looking like they might actually stick, at least one startup is offering a full-body haptic feedback suit.

It’s not the easiest of starts, plunging you straight into a wide cast of characters, but as the strands intertwine the familiar-but-strange world emerges beautifully. I’ve read a few SF books in the last year or so that sounded interesting, had positive quotes (probably clipped from more nuanced reviews that I should’ve read in full), and have been… OK. Not terrible but workmanlike, read smoothly enough without sticking in the memory, bland characters telling-not-showing infodumps. Synners fizzes, throwaway lines pivoting into a mantra, sweeping along on musical textual riffs, leaving you to do a bit of assembly and so much more satisfying for it. Best thing I’ve read for a while.

Gaming roundup

It’s been a while since an MMO has really grabbed me. I’d poked a nose into a couple of launches (or free-to-play relaunches), tried to revisit a couple of old favourites, but nothing had particularly stuck. After wrapping up Mafia II I was at a bit of a loose gaming end, though, and when Van “Tim” Hemlock mentioned the Tuesday N00b Club were contemplating another outing in Guild Wars 2 I thought I’d get it patched up and give it another try.

Guild Wars 2, huh; what is it good for? Allowing a disparate collection of players to gather together and co-operate with relatively few restrictions and barriers (good god y’all). Rampaging around the Sylvari starter area was rather fun, and the game offers an increasingly shiny bit of loot merely for logging in each day so I started doing that. Then there are rotating daily achievements for gathering crafting materials, participating in events, viewing vistas and such, with gold on offer for completing any three of them, and what does gold make? A number two hit for Spandau Ballet, of course, but it can also be used to buy dye and outfits from the trading post in order to look fabulous, my main motivation. A month on and I’m fairly hooked, playing daily, and really enjoying it.

Though GW2 has been regularly updated since launch I don’t believe it’s a fundamentally different game to the one I bounced off a couple of times before, or indeed fundamentally different to many other MMOs out there at the moment; I wasn’t even particularly aware of having an MMO-itch, but I guess there was one and GW2 is providing a thoroughly pleasant scratching post with its wide array of activities: exploration, world events, character story, dungeons, crafting, structured PvP and the like. Melmoth and I were exploring a fun little mini-dungeon and encountered a simple place-rocks-on-pads puzzle; I started out in full Crystal Maze mode (“I’m in a room with some pads and some rocks! I’m going to pick up all the rocks! I can’t hold all the rocks! I’m going to jump up and down on all of the pads!”) until Melmoth pointed out a giant stone head with a glowing green clue on it, and after a couple of false starts we got the door open. Flush with success we promptly busted out our finest self-congratulatory dance emotes, a celebration marred only briefly by the newly-opened door swinging shut after 30 seconds or so, forcing us to redo the puzzle…

I still pop into War Thunder for a quick battle most days; the recent 1.63 update added a few more planes and tanks, always welcome. I also grabbed Tabletop Simulator, and on a rare free Friday managed to pop along to the regular virtual boardgaming session for a round of Lords of Waterdeep, a most pleasing alternative when physical gaming isn’t possible. When fully grabbed by an MMO it doesn’t leave much too much room for other games, though, so Guild Wars 2 should keep me going for the next few months.

If you take my advice there’s nothing so nice as messing about on the river

The professed goal of Gaijin’s War Thunder has always been to include air, land and sea combat; it started with aircraft and added ground forces a while back, but there had been little word about naval units (apart from an aquatic April Fool’s aside). Nobody was sure how naval battles might work in War Thunder; the most obvious comparison would be to Wargaming’s Worlds of Tanks, Warplanes and Warships, the latter having launched last year. It’s rather fun, with destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers merrily lofting shells, torpedoes and aircraft at each other.

War Thunder is a slightly different beast, though, hewing a touch closer to realism. For Wargaming gameplay and balance come first (though with a firm historical basis; they invest in museums and employ a full-time consultant in Nicholas Moran); Gaijin try more to replicate the historical performance of vehicles (though still within the context of an action game, to a varying extent across the different modes, as opposed to a perfect recreation of historical events). Neither approach is inherently better, incidentally, regardless of the spittle-flecked ravings of mighty forum warriors on both sides. Large scale naval battles tended to be rather drawn-out affairs, so World of Warships speeds things up to keep the action going. Destroyers in particular zip around very nippily, though if you’re in one of the slower battleships before engine upgrades it can feel like you’re limping after the rest of your team wheezing “wait for me!”

War Thunder also features combined arms, players currently flying aircraft and driving tanks in the same battle, where Wargaming has kept the three Worlds Of… completely separate. That allows them to take a fairly abstract approach to aircraft carriers in WoWS, with squadrons/flights of aircraft acting as a single entity guided by the carrier captain.

Gaijin’s announcement last month revealed that, after internal testing showed the difficulties of player controlled capital ships in combined battles, they are taking a slightly different tack for their first naval units and focusing on smaller vessels: patrol boats, motor torpedo boats and such. Coastal units are often overlooked, both by navies themselves and naval historians, but they’re a really interesting part of the war. Rock Paper Shotgun’s Tim Stone mentioned Peter Markham Scott’s “The Battle of the Narrow Seas” in a column last year, a first hand account of British Coastal Forces originally published in 1945 and a fascinating read. The scale certainly makes sense for working alongside existing units in combined arms battles, so though some players are disappointed that they won’t get to set sail in massive battleships it’ll be most interesting to see how it all works out. Some wallpapers have just been released showing Gaijin’s customary attention to detail in modelling; this Fairmile D MGB looks rather splendid:

Woof!

Woof!

(Bonus soundtrack for anyone who has the post title stuck in their head)

Prime Day Comes But Once A Year

Woo! Yay! Houpla! Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!!1! I know you’ve all been looking forward to this moment for months, I can tell because of all the e-mails we received begging for the traditional KiaSA Primevent Calendar counting down the milliseconds until those hot, hot deals are available, but we’ve taken an executive decision to take a step back. You see, some of you youngsters might not believe this, but we remember a time before Prime Day. Yes, as terrible as that is to contemplate, back in the 1970s it just didn’t exist. Children didn’t know the excitement of waking up on Prime Day Morning and rushing to check their e-mail to find a message from Saint Primus claiming he’d tried to deliver some presents but nobody was in, even though you’d been staring out of the front window the whole day looking for a delivery van. I remember that very first Prime Day like it was only a year ago; father returning from the costermonger with a basket of internets (they were still on ration then), loading the cards into the Sinclair ZX Analytical Engine (with the odd rubber punch-keys), the whole family clustering around the flickering images of the electromechanical Baird device… what treats might there be? Great Scott, a pair of spats for but one and nine instead of half a crown! A perfectly air-tight manhole cover (with flange) for fourteen shillings? Why, usually they were a guinea apiece! On and on came the parade of delights; household linens, ironmongery, seed drills, radiostereograms, ne’er had we been so excited.

It’s all so different these days, of course. Streaming doo-dads on your virtual thingumypad while hoverboarding to the lunar shuttle, who has time to really appreciate a chrome interociter with deluxe bead condenser for a mere 276 galactic credits? That’s why it’s time to reassess your priorities. Forget about getting together with friends and family, forget about deep personal contemplation, forget about the Doctor Who Prime Day Special (oh all right, maybe don’t completely forget about it, The Daleks Buy Some Very Reasonable Colouring Pencils sounds like it’s going to be a corker), let’s get back to the *true* meaning of the day: buying consumer goods you don’t really need because they seem like a bargain.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2016

Our fourth year of Historical Festivities at Chalke Valley got off to a slightly rocky start, or more accurately a slippery start; heavy rain in the preceding weeks had led to much of the site becoming something of a quagmire. Admirable attention to detail shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme but a bit of a nightmare in the car park, taking a good three quarters of an hour to get onto the site and slide into a space. Plans for a leisurely breakfast were replaced by a hasty squelch to the first talk, unfortunately missing the first ten minutes of Afrika Korps veteran and Knight’s Cross holder Günter Halm in conversation with James Holland. The logistics of translation, ably handled by German historian Robin Schäfer, inevitably meant a slightly whistle-stop tour of Halm’s career, but it was fascinating to hear his tales of the desert war.

Gunter Halm

Günter Halm

Exploring the site was rather hard work in the mud, but the usual array of reenactors spanning a couple of thousand years were there in splendid encampments. Chatting to some of the Romans, a heavy rain shower the previous day had resulted in a mini-flood but they seemed in good spirits. The valley echoed to artillery and musket fire from an American Revolutionary War battle in the main arena, and over the course of the day there were excellent flying displays from a P-40 Kittyhawk, Yak-3 and B-17 – as wonderful as Spitfires are, it was nice to see some different types.

Yak yak yak

Yak yak yak

Achilles? I hardly know... dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Achilles? I hardly know… dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

A demonstration of weapons through the ages sounded fun, but I had to yomp over for my second talk: Who Sank the Tirpitz? A most impressive line-up took to the stage: historian Paul Beaver, Air Vice-Marshal Edward Stringer and Fleet Air Arm veteran Fane Vernon who took part in a raid on the Tirpitz as observer in a Fairey Barracuda dive bomber. An excellent presentation building up to the attacks by IX and 617 Squadrons that finally sank the Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs, and the controversy ever since: which squadron actually delivered the fatal blow? (Probably IX Squadron was the conclusion, though 617 had scored the first hits.) Vernon’s enthusiastic rendition of an 820 Squadron song extolling the virtues of the Barracuda was particularly enjoyable.

Fane Vernon

Fane Vernon

ChalkeValley2016 039

Ballista? I hardly know 'er!

Ballista? I hardly know ‘er!

Fortunately the sun stayed out for the day, there was no further rain to make conditions worse; we feared it might have needed a push or a tow to get out of the car park, but the tracks had just about dried out enough to escape. It was a shame it was so muddy, the talks and demonstrations were as excellent as ever, but it just wasn’t quite so pleasant as usual wandering around the site. Fingers crossed for slightly better weather in the run up to next year’s festival!

ChalkeValley2016 150

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.