I’m sailing away

Say one thing for Gaijin and Wargaming, say they put some effort into April 1st. Fire up the Captain Pugwash theme, put on an eye patch and adopt a strong West Country accent, because War Thunder is sending you out to do a bit of privateering in the Golden Hind:

Port to sherry, and a medium-dry sherry to port!

Port to sherry, and a medium-dry sherry to port!

The ship looks fantastic (as does everything in War Thunder). Combat is a bit tricky, requiring you to account for the roll of the ship when delivering broadsides (trickier than Pirates of the Burning Sea, as far as I can remember, it’s been a while…) You don’t want to stray outside the playing area either:

The kraken wakes!

The kraken wakes!

The ultimate goal is for War Thunder to feature naval combat alongside its planes and tanks, but there’s been very little information about how it might work. I have to say I preferred last year’s magnificent WWII Walkers, but this event could be a cunning way of doing a bit of testing of some elements of aquatic combat, and of course presents the ideal opportunity to break out some more Excellent Pirate Jokes:

Q: What aeroplane do pirates fly?
A: A HawkARRRRRR! Hurricane

Q: What part of the Hurricane do pirates like the best?
A: The wing spARRRRRRRRR!

Q: Where do pirates conveniently shop?

Q: What do pirates call minerals with readily discernible faces?

Q: What term do pirates use for poles that carry or support sails?

Q: Does ‘spar’ have any other meanings?
A: Yes, but I’m bored now. Aren’t you bored?

Q: I was bored after the first one.
A: Right. Well I’m going to get a cup of coffee.

Q: Can I have one?
A: No.

Q: Oh go on.
A: All right then.

Wargaming completed their triumvirate of Worlds Of… with World of Warships last year, good fun, but I rather burnt out on it a while back. I did have to get it patched up, though, for the excellent Cap and Goldfish:

He can breathe under water because he has amphibious nostrils

He can breathe under water because he has amphibious nostrils

And their bathtub battles:

Splish splash, I was taking a bath

Splish splash, I was taking a bath

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.

True friends stab you in the front

During the introduction to The Division it’s revealed that the titular Division is a group of elite undercover highly trained super secret agents, though the ENORMOUS ORANGE WATCHES they all wear seem like a bit of a giveaway. A voice-over explains that:

“We are your co-workers, we are your neighbours, we might even be…”
dramatic pause
“… your friends.”

I’m probably reading altogether too much into that pause, but it sounded to me like the voice thought that the most unlikely part of the whole doomsday scenario portrayed at the beginning of the game was that you might actually have any friends…

Gaming Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the world’s an RPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our hearts are little, but our hoard is great

Happy slightly belated New Year, one and all. I hope that 2016 is as splendid and marvellous for you as 2015 only 1/365th longer, unless 2015 was neither splendid nor marvellous in which case I hope that 2016 is both splendid and indeed marvellous, or at least as splendid and marvellous as can realistically be hoped for. In fact even if 2015 was splendid and marvellous I still hope 2016 is more so, if such is even… Mr Dalliard! I appear to have vastly overcomplicated my attempts to wish visitors a Happy New Year and require a metafictional device to escape the opening paragraph!

So! Shoes. Or rather games. Not really much to report, as nothing much fired my enthusiasm over Christmas. I finished Wolfenstein: The New Order, not bad, slightly annoying final boss fight. War Thunder continues to thunder along, in a warlike fashion. The seasonal Steam sale was a rather calm affair, with a bunch of games discounted for the whole sale rather than Daily Instant Flash Look Now Now Now Next Fourteen Seconds Only offers. The trading card gimmick was to browse your “Discovery Queue”, which had the desired effect once as I saw Audiosurf 2 pop up on sale. I enjoy firing up Audiosurf now and again to surf new music acquisitions, so thought I might as well pick up the sequel (review so far: quite like the first one but a bit shinier).

I have just picked up Fallout 4 (review so far: quite like the third one but a bit shinier). My basic game-buying stance tended to be either to pre-order a game if it had a strong pedigree/reviews and offered some sort of shiny trinket as an incentive, or to wait ’til the price dropped to less than a fiver on Steam/GOG/The Humble Store. Fewer and fewer things have met the first criteria, I think the last thing I pre-ordered was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which my aged brain has filed under “recent” but was more than a year ago. On the flip side, games seem to be holding their price a bit better, with sales during the first year or two knocking off 10-40% rather than immediately plummeting to super-bargain levels. As such, with Amazon having the game at a decent-if-not-spectacular price (for a physical copy, £15 less than the Steam code) I figured I might as well tack it onto an order. I can’t remember the last physical game box I bought; probably an Elder Scrolls Online pre-order. Didn’t bother with the DVD, just typed the code into Steam and set the download off.

Fallout 4 might take me a while to complete, as exploring new places, meeting the locals, then offering to help and/or shoot them (depending on how nice they seem) only takes up about a third of my time. Far more important is then stripping the bodies, containers and general surroundings of anything that can be humanly lifted, and conveying it back to my home settlement in a series of shuttle runs. I was something of a packrat in previous Elder Scrolls/Fallout games, and the fact that junk items can be broken down into crafting resources means I can’t possibly leave behind a single coffee cup or clipboard in my wasteland adventures.

Being a bit of a hoarder in real life as well, it did make me think that I should be grateful for e-books, MP3s and Steam. If I had to store physical versions of all my digital books, music and games, we’d need to move to a bigger house…

A Question of History

Do you like surveys? Do you like history? If you answered “yes” to these questions, I have just the link for you! If you answered “no” to either question, I tricked you into doing a two-question survey anyway, so why not answer a few more…

Via Twitter:

There’s a bit more information in this blog post, all sounds most interesting.

War Thunder Update 1.55

Put the kettle on, chaps, time for tea! War Thunder has, thankfully, added British tanks before the French, and a splendid job they’ve made of them. Along with the tanks (being gradually unlocked for testing, unless you buy one of the British premium packs) are new maps for recreating the triumphs (and not-quite-such-triumphs) of the 8th and 1st Army in North Africa, El Alamein and Tunisia, and very nice they look too:

Tank tracks in the sand

Tank tracks in the sand

Are you my mummy?

Are you my mummy?

There are also a few new aircraft and assorted other tweaks, but the British tanks are the main attraction. Tally ho, death or glory!

Reviewlet: Detectorists

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

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