Category Archives: zoso

No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.

I wrapped up the story part of Path of Fire the other day. It was pretty standard stuff, really; get killed, return from the dead, slay a god, pick up some random items and hand them to an NPC ten or even twenty paces away, that sort of thing. As I’ve posted about a couple of times before the story of Guild Wars 2 really hasn’t engaged me. I should probably just skip it; I’m not sure there’s any gated content that depends on having completed the story, and the rest of GW2 continues to offer plentiful activities. Pottering around exploring maps (greatly helped by the new mounts), fractals, adventures, crafting, the Mad King’s Halloween event and what-not. I’d taken part in a fair bit of Structured PvP (5 vs 5 matches) last time I was playing heavily but I think I’d risen to my level of incompetence and reached the stage where I was more of a hindrance to my team, so I’ve been doing a bit of the more open World vs World mode recently, tagging along with sufficiently large blobs. It’s frustrating sometimes, spending a while running across a map only to bump into a larger enemy blob and get squished, but being part of a large scale coordinated team attack is most impressive, especially when friendly Mesmers open up a teleportation portal for surprise flanking manoeuvres. I don’t do an awful lot apart from follow everyone else and drop AoEs on the designated location, but I feel like I’m involved at least, even if only as a very minor cog.

In the story, on the other hand, though I’m theoretically the largest dragon-slaying cog around I don’t feel involved, I’m a title, a cipher with a generic personality regardless of race, class and shoulderpad size. A bunch of NPCs dump some exposition, you fight some stuff, repeat. For me the story of an MMO world is best handled with a light touch, a bit of a push to move players from zone to zone with some interesting lore in the background for those that want to delve into it, less of the lectures. I’ve just started Destiny 2 and that seems to be handling it fairly well so far, even though I never played the original so don’t have any background there. It’s not staggeringly original; Big Nasty Aliens Invade, get the band back together, we’ll see where it goes, but it supports the core running-around-shooting-things requirements well enough. “You” are strangely mute while your robot chum does all the talking, reminding me a little of The Secret World, a game that had almost the opposite problem of Guild Wars 2: an interesting story and world but the levelling grind and rest of the game weren’t strong enough to support it (I should probably have a look at the relaunched Legends version).

It’s a tricky thing, combining an engaging and personal story with a more free-form game, becoming trickier as online multiplayer becomes ubiquitous and open-world map-mopping seems to be a bit of a default template. Paul “Mr Biffo” Rose wrote a strong defence of games as a storytelling medium in light of EA “refocusing” a forthcoming Star Wars game, and while I enjoy a multiplayer shooter or MMO as much as the next man (probably a fair bit more than the next man, unless the next man is a County-standard MMO-enjoyer in which case not quite as much as the next man but more than a composite average man, or indeed woman, assembled from a sufficient sample size) I do like to break things up with more story-driven titles, and recent games like Mass Efffect: Andromeda have been a bit disappointing on that front. Perhaps monetisation strategies are having a negative effect, it’s quite the hot topic (particularly loot boxes) as the wider industry grapples with issues that had previously been largely confined to the free-to-play ghetto. We’ve been talking about these things for years, and obviously games companies have to be held accountable, but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that players have embraced the idea so enthusiastically that, from a business perspective, it looks mad not to crowbar them in. Rob Fahey on gamesindustry.biz is confident that the games will be there as long as the audience demands them, hopefully the industry can find a happy medium that keeps some variety in AAA titles.

One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening

Path of Fire, the new Guild Wars 2 expansion, is enjoyable enough so far, but it hasn’t really got its hooks into me. Mounts are fun, a new way of getting around; each class has a new elite spec, but unlocking it involves grinding a goodly number of Hero Points so it’ll take me a while longer at my current, rather slow, rate of exploration. Most immediately there’s more story, but as outlined previously that’s not really a plus point. I hardly paid attention to the story of the first expansion, or any of the Living World since; something something dragon something another dragon something something god of war something dragon (possibly the second dragon or maybe a new one) seems to be about the gist of it. I almost came a cropper during one conversation as the game asked me to make a decision about which faction a Mayor (or General) (or costermonger, I dunno, I wasn’t listening when he introduced himself) should support. At that point my character should really have said: “Look, I’m going to be completely honest here: I have no idea who you are. I have no idea why I’m here. I don’t even know where ‘here’ is, there was probably a briefing or a letter or something but I don’t really care. I expect you think I’m fully au fait with the current situation as the previous stage of the quest involved running around the map and talking to a load of people, but I’ll let you into a little secret: they’re all so dreadfully tedious I started playing Candy Crush as soon as any of them started expositing. I should probably go back to that office (or warehouse) (or ice rink, I dunno, I wasn’t listening) and apologise for not immediately leaping to the defence of whoever it was I was talking to when they were ambushed, but I was doing rather well on level 764 at the time. Now, if you’d be so good as to assume I’ve selected whatever option offers the best rewards, why don’t you pop a green asterisk on the map, I’ll run along there and attack anything with a red name or click on anything clickable, I’m not fussy, then I get stacks of XP and loot and stuff and everyone’s happy, OK?”

Inexplicably that wasn’t an option, though, so I just clicked the middle one, trusting that the fundamental nature of the game meant it would make approximately bog-all difference in the grand scheme of things, and toddled off towards the nearest green asterisk to click on a thing…

Warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed

War. War never changes. Apart from when it does, like the time Ian Pointed-Stick invented the pointed stick, that was a shock for the non-pointed stick folks. The War folks are pretty bad about patch notes and version numbers, though, and seldom put out a press release when a new update to War is released unlike Gaijin, developers of World War II(ish) combat game War Thunder. The last few updates to War Thunder have been ticking along, generally adding some new planes and tanks, always nice but not particularly noteworthy. The addition of Japanese tanks at the end of last year to join their Soviet, German, US and British counterparts rounded out air and ground forces for all the countries in the game, the latest update expands the array of nations for the first time in (mumble) years as could be surmised from its name: Regia Aeronautica. Yes, it’s all about a fearless aeronaut called Reg. Or possibly the Italian Air Force.

Italian aircraft aren’t completely new to the game, there were a handful in the German tree, but Update 1.69 sees them take to the skies under their own flag with a fully fleshed-out tree of fighters and bombers from the biplane CR.32 up to the jet-powered G.91. The tree will be gradually made available a few aircraft at a time, or the full thing can be researched by players who buy an Italian premium aircraft pack or complete a series of tasks. It’s early days yet but there’s a nice range of aircraft available, and the mid-war “Serie 5” fighters in particular seem to be performing well. It’s always fun to go back to the slightly more relaxed early tiers, and the new Italian tree gives a great reason to do so.

Crunchy Mass Corn Effect

I finished off Mass Effect: Andromeda the other day, and it’s… fine. I put around 100 hours into it, both single and multiplayer, so it’s not a bad game (or I’m a terrible masochist), but it’s not amazing. Using a new Crunchy Maize Corn Stick Based Review System, I’d liken it to a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks: you open the bag, thinking you’ll have a few Chipsticks then seal it back up again, and they’re pretty nice, so you have a few more, and you don’t really notice that you’re about two thirds of the way through the bag, and then there’s no point leaving a few so you keep going, and without really intending to you’ve finished the bag and your fingers are clad in a crunchy maize gauntlet and you need to drink a couple of pints of water to clear the salt & vinegar coating from your tongue. Compelling enough to keep you going, but you don’t sit back at the end and think “well that was a great dining experience, I’ll do that again tomorrow”.

In general it’s very Mass Effect-y. Talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, flirt with squadmates, shoot a bunch of aliens, y’know, Mass Effect-y. It’s more explicitly Open World than the previous games with planets to roam full of assorted odds and sods; the majority of missions are fairly bland busywork of the “go to X waypoints” variety, a bit of a single-player MMO, especially when coupled with resource gathering for crafting, but the driving and combat work well enough for it to be generally enjoyable rather than too much of a chore. I liked the flexible skill system that allowed you to combine combat, tech and biotic powers, though I did get into a bit of a rut of sticking with the same powers once I found a combination that worked.

The overarching story was all right but I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d seen most of it before one way or another, and the central strand was a bit weak (the usual game problem of balancing an imperative to follow a main story with almost unlimited opportunities to arse around picking up drink ingredients for a nightclub). I didn’t find any squadmates intensely irritating, but none of them especially clicked either. I inadvertently ended up locked into a romance after always picking flirtatious options when talking to anyone (and in the game, ah); I thought there was a warning if you were going to commit yourself to one person (like in real life when a message flashes across the screen), maybe I missed it. In the final mission of the game (extremely minor spoiler warning) you get help from people you helped out along the way, but a combination of my increasingly failing memory and fairly inconsequential side quests meant I couldn’t even remember who some of them were. “Ryder, you saved my life, I can never repay you but I’m here to help you out!” “Oh that’s awfully nice, thanks. Um. Who are you, again? Are you sure we’ve met?”

Overall, then, not a disaster of intergalactic proportions, but not an all-time classic. If you were peckish and poking around the kitchen cupboard then a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks would do in a pinch, but you wouldn’t order them in a restaurant. Unless it was some hipster Crunchy Maize Corn Stick restaurant.

Noel’s Andromeda Party or No Party

So we were chatting away about the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda patch with improvements to the character creator, and wondering what future updates might hold…

> MELMOTH: Patch Notes: Deleted all Ryder face and beard options and replaced them with 'a version of Noel Edmonds that our artist modelled one Friday afternoon while drunk'.

> ZOSO: New game pitch: ME:A featuring Noel Edmonds as Ryder with squadmates Mr Blobby and The Banker


The planet Eos. NOEL “PATHFINDER” EDMONDS disembarks from the Nomad accompanied by the pink and yellow horror that is MISTER BLOBBY.

EDMONDS: Looks like a Kett encampment ahead, Blobby, better be careful. Here’s the plan: we sneak up, hidden by those rocks there, then I’ll use my Biotic shield to cover…

BLOBBY: Blobby? Blobby blobby blobby! BLOBBBBEEEEEE!

BLOBBY charges forward wildly firing a submachine gun, falls over, narrowly misses EDMONDS with a burst of fire, gets back up; EDMONDS cautiously moves forward in cover trying to suppress the Kett with assault rifle fire; BLOBBY trips again, lands on EDMONDS.

EDMONDS: Blobby! For heaven’s sake…

Kett troopers look on, somewhat bemused. A telephone rings loudly and everybody pauses.

EDMONDS: Ah! About time The Banker turned up.

EDMONDS answers a telephone inexplicably sitting on a rock formation.

EDMONDS: Yes? I see. Really? Right then.

EDMONDS puts the telephone down. Tense music plays.

EDMONDS: Well, Kett Anointed, The Banker admires your bravado but says it will be your undoing in the end. He’s going to make an extremely generous offer that he knows you’ll turn down: 500 credits, an Uncommon item, and some inorganic lubricant.

KETT ANOINTED turns to his comrades.

KETT DESTINED: I’ve got a really good feeling about your container, I reckon there’s definitely an Ultra Rare in there, don’t take the deal.

KETT CHOSEN: The Banker’s just playing mind games with you, think about how those credits could change your life.

KETT ANOINTED: Well… it’s a good offer, Noel, but at the end of the day I’m an AI mob scripted to blindly attack you, so I’m going to have to say ‘no deal’ and shoot you with a plasma rifle.

While the Kett have been talking, BLOBBY has climbed up to a nearby platform. He takes aim with a Black Widow sniper rifle.

BLOBBY: Blobby!

BLOBBY fires, completely missing the Kett; the recoil knocks him backwards in a somersault off the platform, landing on EDMONDS again.


Some people just have to take things too far, though…

> MELMOTH: Mr Blobby romance options...


Pathfinders Quarters on the Tempest. EDMONDS and BLOBBY have returned to the ship.

EDMONDS: Well, Blobby, as Kett Anointed didn’t take the deal I still have that inorganic lubricant. Better hope you don’t ‘trip’ and fall on top of me again…

BLOBBY: Blobby blobby blobby blobby blobby blobby *squelch* blobby blobby blobby!

Fade to black. Fade to black! For the love of all that is holy fade to black!

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition

It’s a funny old game, The Division. Saying that, I didn’t find it particularly amusing, the quirky mission-givers being a bit jarring in an otherwise bleak, bleak time, and it’s not old as such, having been released exactly(ish) a year ago. Still, “it’s a game, The Division” would be a bit of a weak post opening despite the factual accuracy.

On the one hand I’ve sunk a fair amount of time into it and mostly enjoyed it, popping back in for the updates and noodling around New York with a bunch o’ guns. It’s got a good hook, the set-piece story missions play well and can take a fair bit of repeating in the “do it again but harder” endgame (note to ed: insert Kenneth Williams animated reaction GIF here in a desperate attempt to keep up with newfangled social media trends that are already dreadfully passée thus appearing even more out of touch, unless we luck out and they’re undergoing a retro revival). On the other hand, it feels like there are missed opportunities. The story is left dangling; obviously you want to leave space for a sequel but I would’ve liked a bit more of a resolution at the end of the main game. It hasn’t really been picked up in any updates or DLC, and from what “Year Two” details I’ve seen there are no more story missions on the cards (the old conflict between story (expensive voice actors, time-consuming development, ‘properly’ experienced once (if that) by most players) and repeatability). Combat generally works, but it can be a fine line between rampaging around without any difficulty and cowering behind boxes waiting for a healing skill to recharge as any attempt to peak out is met by a fusillade of pin-point return fire. The DLC packs have felt a little lacklustre; nice additions, but not necessarily £12-worth. Survival is fun but pales after a few runs, the most recent Last Stand looks particularly empty unless you’re into the PvP side of things. Assigning a value to games is increasingly difficult, entirely arbitrarily I’d say I got my money’s worth from the main game but not quite the season pass.

Tim & Jon were talking about it on their 9th Anniversary podcast (hearty congratulations to them for tireless devotion to entertaining gaming wittering, and indeed even older legacy textual rambling that the Wayback Machine has just about saved from The Demise of Domains) and mentioned a new in-game “Premium” vendor in the most recent update flogging emotes and cosmetics for real money (or at least for Obligatory Premium In-Game Currency bought with real money). I hadn’t seen this new vendor, so I fired up the game and toddled along to have a look and it is a trifle odd. Where, say, Mass Effect 3 compartmentalised the multiplayer (loot boxes, cash shop, ‘grind’) and the solo story, they’re blurred together in The Division for good (being able to drop in and easily play with friends, generally) and not-quite-so-good (£5 for a dance emote!) I’m not quite sure what genre The Division falls into; Sort Of Fairly Open World With Strong RPG Gameplay Elements And A Bit Of A Story If You Want To Pay Attention To It Optionally Multiplayer Third Person Cover Shooter, maybe. Not that everything has to fall into a neat box, of course, but I think it’s spread itself a bit thin and ended up the proverbial Jack-of-all-Genres, mastering none.

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Testing of naval forces in War Thunder started last year, and after a bit of a break for the introduction of Japanese tanks and official release of the game (whatever that means these days) is now happening most weekends. Tests so far have covered several scenarios, both with and without aircraft, with a variety of playable vessels from high speed torpedo armed motorboats to larger armoured gunboats.

Gameplay is interesting so far, broadly similar to land battles (only wetter). With nowhere to hide on the ocean apart from a few islands to duck behind, and boats that roll around on waves, cautious positioning and long-range sniping aren’t nearly as much of a factor as in tank battles. Boats are also generally quite resilient, able to soak up a fair amount of damage from the small calibre cannon that most are equipped with so one shot rarely leaves you incapacitated or destroyed. That said larger guns (85mm+) can quickly spoil the day of a wooden-hulled boat, and torpedoes are very potent against heavier, slower ships (nippy little boats should be able to avoid torpedo attacks, unless they’ve slightly embarrassingly run into an island and got stuck after being a bit too fixated on a target).

Aircraft can be quite deadly but most boats have a decent array of fast-firing weapons to put up a defensive barrage, mixed matches should offer good opportunities both in the air and on the water. Most tests so far have been domination-type matches requiring zones to be captured, an intriguing alternative involved two sets of NPC cargo ships that had to be defended/sunk.

I’ve not been playing ground forces much recently, I get rather bogged down in the mid-tiers, though it’s been fun to jump back into the faster-paced carefree world of Tier I with the new Japanese tree; I’m not sure if naval forces will prise me away from air battles in the long term, but I’ll certainly be taking to the water for a while when they’re fully released.

Mister Splashy Pants

Boaty McBoatface

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.