New Year, New PC

From hazy memory and patchy records I believe our family first got a PC in 1988, an Amstrad PC1512, so I thought I’d celebrate the 30th anniversary by buying a new computer as is time-honoured tradition and in no way a post factum and incredibly flimsy excuse to upgrade. Adapting the xkcd 2011 Guide to Making People Feel Old[1], the IBM System/360 came out closer to the Amstrad than this new PC; if you have no idea what a System/360 might be ask a grandparent and/or Wikipedia, whichever is less likely to shake a stick at you and reminisce at length about punched cards and paper tape.

I’m pretty sure this is my tenth system in total; for a while new PC purchases were a more-or-less biennial affair, from that first Amstrad sporting an 8086 processor screaming along at 8Mhz in 1988 through a 386SX (16Mhz) in 1991, 486DLC (33Mhz) in 1993, Pentium P133 in 1996, Pentium II 350 in 1999, Athlon 1400 in 2001, Athlon 2800 in 2003 and an Athlon 64 in 2005. The first few stick in the mind, also covering the shift from Mono CGA in 4 shades of grey, an occasional “beep” from a PC speaker, and 5.25″ disks to the glorious technicolour of VGA, symphonic Soundblasting, and vast hard drives holding upwards of 100Mb of data. After that it’s a bit hazy, a bland batch of beige boxes from whoever looked cheapest in the back of Computer Shopper, up to the Athlon 64. I built that one myself, with a bit of help from Melmoth (i.e. he built it and I fetched the occasional screwdriver, a couple of daiquiris and a mojito) and it was going strong when this blog started in 2006, taking things through to 2009 and my previous system, a Core i7 that’s done sterling service for the last eight years.

You could always upgrade bits and pieces – I remember inserting 128Kb memory chips into the PC1512 to bring it up to a staggering 640KB of RAM, and a 32MB hard card (combined hard disk and controller) was bliss after frequent swapping of 360KB floppies. The 486 entered the amazing world of “multimedia” when fitted with a CD-ROM drive and Soundblaster card, and somewhere in the early 2000s LCD screens became affordable so you could contemplate a monitor larger than 15″ without needing a six foot deep desk with structural reinforcement. The CPU was always a major bottleneck, though, needing an update every few years if you wanted to keep up with the latest games, and new generations of processors typically needed a new motherboard and assorted gubbins (to use the technical term). With the dedicated 3D graphics card becoming commonplace from the late 90s and eventually taking over as the key component for games performance it’s been easy to just pop in a new card when things started slowing down, so though there have only been a couple of whole new rigs since 2005 I’ve still been updating graphics cards every couple of years, making the extended lifespan of the Core i7 slightly less impressive. Still, eight years is a great run, and it could still cope quite happily with games like Destiny 2, albeit at lower graphics settings. It wasn’t that an upgrade was absolutely vital, but it felt like the time was about right (as much as the time is ever right to buy new technology) and I didn’t have any other ideas for a slightly belated birthday present.

It was most instructive building the Athlon 64 with Melmoth, and I’ve upgraded or replaced enough power supplies, graphics cards and hard drives over the years, but time and convenience are more of a priority these days (along with a nice comfy pair of slippers and a short nap in the afternoon) so it’s easier to buy a pre-assembled system. The previous one was a 3XS from Scan, and I certainly can’t fault it, but browsing around I opted for a Chillblast system this time. They offer a range of silent PCs, quiet performance being one of my priorities, and were very helpful via e-mail and on the phone to precisely tailor everything. It’s a Core i5, but several generations on from the i7 (this one is a “Coffee Lake”, apparently, presumably a code name rather than an innovative caffeinated liquid cooling system) with a GTX 1070 and a tiny M.2 SSD (physically tiny; a rough calculation suggests it can store more than ONE! MEEEEEELEON! 5.25″ floppy disks), and is really rather lovely. Early days yet, I’ve only got as far as installing a few things, but it doesn’t bat an eyelid running them with all the graphics options turned up to 11. Fingers crossed it’ll still be going strong in eight years!

[1] Did you realise the 2011 Guide to Making People Feel Old came out closer to the start of xkcd than the present day?

One score and five years ago

A few years back I wrote about Digitiser, the Teletext games pages, as Paul “Mr Biffo” Rose made a triumphant return with Digitiser 2000. Three years on and the site survives and indeed thrives with stacks of great writing and the impressively weird Mr Biffo’s Found Footage series.

Monday saw the 25th anniversary of the launch of Digitiser and Biffo is celebrating with a week of classic teletext-me-do, a fantastic nostalgia trip for those wizened husks old enough to remember it from the first time around, and a glimpse into the distant past for any youngsters who can tear themselves away from sniffing a smlogger fidget spinning a Kinder egg, or whatever it is they do these days.

Oh sir, I’ve confused you. It’s not my Destiny, it’s everybody’s Destiny! As much my Destiny as your Destiny, or, dare I say it, and I think I dare, Graham Gooch’s Destiny.

Just in case it’s inexplicably less clear than a Waterford bed-pan I should commence by explaining that I was going to title this post “It is your Destiny!”, but then thought that using an obscure line from a scarcely-known franchise might be terribly confusing, and instead left it to the reader to reverse-engineer that opening based on a shoe shop. It is, of course, well established that the funniest jokes are those lifted from other sources with random words changed then explained at length, so: you’re welcome.

I missed out on the original Destiny, not having a console, mostly seeing references to it in comparison to The Division, which I enjoyed for a fair while before it bogged down in endgame grind. I had a quick go at the open beta of Destiny 2, to check my now slightly aged system could cope with it, and it all seemed rather fun so I jumped in at launch and have been playing pretty steadily for the last couple of months.

At its core, the first-person shooting works very well. FPSs were at the heart of my formative PC gaming, from Wolfenstein 3D through Doom, Half-Life, System Shock, Unreal Tournament and the like, but not so much recently; I think the last one picked up was the DOOM reboot in a sale, but haven’t got around to finishing it yet. It’s satisfying in Destiny 2, and the first, rather than third, person perspective means I feel much less glued to waist-high cover than in The Division. Destiny 2 also seems to have struck a better balance of bullet-sponginess with its enemies; tougher opponents still take a fair amount of fire but the whole setting makes it a bit less jarring that a space-alien-robot-thing with shields is absorbing a lot of damage, as opposed to some chap (even if he is wearing a flak jacket) shrugging off hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

The variety of activities is good as well. The story rattles along well enough; not wildly original but not overly intrusive, cutscenes aren’t too long though not fascinating enough for a second viewing and can thankfully be skipped. Solo play is easily mixed with group PvE, either randomly while roving planets and dropping in to public events or more structured Strikes. Planets aren’t particularly big (in terms of playable area, that is, not astronomically speaking), but have a few activities and loot chests dotted around to reward wandering about. I wasn’t sure about PvP, my FPS twitch skills having withered somewhat, but it’s generally pretty enjoyable (when you don’t run into coordinated teams) and again serves well to mix things up.

It seems Bungie have made a few missteps along the way, though it’s increasingly hard to tell the difference between a few rough edges, fundamental design flaws, well-intentioned but poorly executed ideas and utterly trivial issues, at least based on the more excitable elements of a community. I can’t say I’ve run into game-breaking issues, but then I haven’t been sinking a massive amount of time in; one thing I did notice was innocently wandering around a PvP match with an automatic rifle wondering why the other seven players were rapidly melting everything with Prometheus Lens lasers, a quick Google confirmed that it was an inadvertently overpowered drop, the quick fix for which was to make it available to buy for everyone. It’s held my interest so far; the endgame does slow down a bit into gradually increasing your Power Level a point or three at a time, more dedicated players may run out of things to do more quickly, but I’ve happily got three characters to the level cap, with the story missions of the recent Curse of Osiris update to still finish. A wintery event for the next couple of weeks looks quite diverting; should that pale there’s Wintersday in Guild Wars 2 (though that seems fairly similar to last year), and French tanks have just been added to War Thunder, plenty to be getting on with between various family visits over Christmas.

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…

Mr Mojo Risin’

At a loose gaming end of an evening I had a bit of a poke through a virtual pile of unplayed games. A Humble Bundle from a while back yielded Dead Rising 2 and 3, and I thought I’d start with the earlier game first but didn’t get terribly far. The graphics aren’t unplayably awful but show their age a bit, the controls are rather clunky, and save game checkpoints seemed few and far between making it a frustrating exercise. Moving on, Dead Rising 3 turned out to be a considerable improvement in all three areas. Describing it to Melmoth he said it sounded like Grand Theft Auto meets Evil Dead, which is indeed an excellent summary; hordes of zombies can be battered, sliced, shot, pummelled, toasted and shredded with a huge variety of weapons, and like Evil Dead 2 the gore and ultra-violence is so over-the-top it generally falls on the comedic side of grotesque. You can kit yourself out with Ash’s preferred chainsaw and shotgun, but one of the selling points of the series is the ability to combine items to produce weapons ranging from the sublimely ridiculous (Cement saw attached to a sledgehammer? Sure!) to the ridiculously sublime (A battleaxe with a speak n’ spell to provide sarcastic robotic commentary? You bet!)

Mowing down zombies in new and interesting ways gives experience points, and what do experience points make? Cuddly toys, of course (probably with a bunch of knives strapped to them). Also points to assign to various skills to improve your health, melee abilities, etc etc. There are various things to do around the city including assorted challenges to complete, cosmetic outfits to pick up, everything you’d want in an open world game. Co-op mode sounds fun, settings allow you to run an open game that anybody can drop into but I’m sticking with single player for now ’til checking there’s no potential for griefing (it’s quite tricky avoiding friendly NPCs when flailing around with a flaming katana/scythe hybrid, friendly fire could get rather messy).

There’s a story that so far is hitting a bunch of Standard Issue Zombie Beats (quarantined city, small group of survivors, sinister government/military threat, nasty human gangs posing the old ah-but-who-are-the-real-monsters question (it’s the first one, Rich)), but rather conveniently the game lets you replay previous chapters while retaining your character progression, so after advancing a couple of chapters quite rapidly I’ve rewound to spend a bit more time finding new and improbable weapon combinations before doing anything silly like trying to escape from a zombie-infested city.

Not sure it’s an all time classic, but an hour or two of zombie-bashing mayhem here and there isn’t a bad way of passing the time. Worth a look if you like the excesses of latter Saints Row games and always wanted to turn a parasol and dragon mask into a weapon of some sort.

You fought hard and you saved and earned

It’s coming up for a year since (finally) properly getting into Guild Wars 2. The good old Tuesday N00b Club moved on a little while back but Melmoth’s Sunday morning group fortuitously had a vacancy and Fractals (instanced mini-Dungeon type things) have been providing nice bite-sized chunks of content ideal for a once-a-week diversion. Thing were starting to get a little stale and we explored a couple of alternatives (WildStar and a return to SWTOR), but neither really stuck, so everyone wandered off over the summer. I’ve been ticking along with the usual gaming suspects; War Thunder, Mass Effect: Andromeda multiplayer, a bit of the new DOOM (satisfyingly squishy but not hugely engrossing), a quick glance at a new update for The Division (still fun for a quick blast). Nothing terribly inspiring on either the gaming or blogging front. The announcement of a new GW2 expansion, Path of Fire, has sparked a bit of interest, though, so I think I’ll pick that up and have a look around.

The title is a little odd, though; who makes a path out of fire? That’s a pretty clear violation of Appendix 9.2-A of the Drives, paths and landscaping section of NHBC Standards, and frankly a health and safety nightmare. All I can imagine is a mix-up in ArenaNet’s contacts list, and instead of engaging Capability Brown to provide the landscaping for the new expansion they got The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. Easy mistake to make.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2017

Our fifth visit to the Chalke Valley History Festival, on a new site this year, no less picturesque but slightly easier to get to. As ever there were all sorts of fascinating speakers, I started the day with World War II pilots Colin Bell and Keith Quilter in conversation with Will Iredale. Iredale’s splendid The Kamikaze Hunters covers the airmen of the oft-neglected British Pacific Fleet such as Corsair pilot Quilter, who was shot down in July 1945 and rescued by an American submarine where he spent the final weeks of the war. Bell was a Mosquito pilot of the Light Night Striking Force and completed 50 missions over Germany. They were fascinating, reflecting on the role of luck in their survival, both having returned from missions with flak damage that could easily have been fatal.

Around the site were living history encampments covering various eras from Romans through to World War II, the re-enactors also giving demonstrations such as missile weapons through the ages with slings, javelins, bows, a trebuchet and early artillery. Napoleonic cavalry showed their skill at arms with sword and lance:

My wife then went to see Monty Don talking about the history of British gardens, with a minor interruption halfway through as a column of Vikings marched past to (mock) battle:

This year’s air display was a little disappointing; the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster was unable to attend, and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 had engine trouble so was replaced with the Yak-3 that was there last year. On the plus side the only flying Bristol Blenheim gave a fantastic display, I hadn’t managed to catch it since its recent restoration before now.

All in all another fantastic day out, helped by the glorious sunshine unlike last year’s mud bath!

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.