Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

We’re not out of the Covid woods, with a third wave brewing and the prospect of further variants, but after both doses of vaccine we’re confident in getting back to events with suitable precautions in place – like the Chalke Valley History Festival. 2020 would’ve been the tenth festival, but obviously Covid put the kibosh on that; this year’s festival would’ve been after the lifting of restrictions, after that was delayed it was still able to proceed with reduced capacity (being mostly outdoors), with open-sided marquees for the talks. Tickets sold out quickly for a lot of the talks, so I branched out (slightly) from the Second World War – no bad thing.

First up was A Marvel to Behold: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII with Timothy Schroder, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Though few of the actual objects remain, the majority of Henry’s collection being melted and remodelled numerous times during and after his lifetime, archive records give a vivid picture of the role of precious metals; gifts for wives (when in favour) and the court, a means of impressing, then in later life as he became more vindictive a way of exercising power, exemplified by the destruction of the shrine of Thomas Becket with a large ruby from it turned into a ring.

Next was The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves with biographer Andrew Lownie. Archive material was a vital element again, in revealing the less edifying predilections of Louis Mountbatten, though Lownie is still battling for the full archives to be opened in the face of Cabinet Office opposition. Quite the astonishing cast across decades and continents, from Charlie Chaplin to Jawaharlal Nehru, and mysterious circumstances in both of their deaths – seems like there might be further revelations to come.

Finishing up the formal talks was Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War, the story of Pat and Jean Owtram. Unfortunately Jean was unable to make it, but Pat’s conversation with Simon Robinson was wonderful. Growing up their family employed Austrian Jews as housekeeper and cook, a lifeline after Kristallnacht, so Pat and Jean learned German from them (with a Viennese accent, still identifiable 75 years later in an interview with German radio). After taking a secretarial course in London at the height of the Blitz, Pat rejected the advice of a relative who suggested joining the Foreign Office whose secretaries were a “jolly bunch of girls”; Pat’s preference was for “a jolly bunch of sailors” so enlisted in the WRNS, where her knowledge of German was invaluable for the “Y” Service who collected signals intelligence from German transmissions. Post-war Pat moved into media, producing University Challenge and The Sky at Night as well as developing Ask The Family. The rest of the family had an equally eventful war; Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Middle East and Italy, while their father was captured at Singapore and became Camp Commandant at Chungkai, a prison camp on the river Kwai. It’s always a privilege to hear first hand accounts from the ever-dwindling number of veterans.

Around the site there’s living history from the Iron Age to the Cold War with constant talks and demonstrations at the forges, kitchens and camps. Particularly good were the Time Traveller’s Kitchen and the Romans of Leg II Avg (who also recently assisted Phil Wang with his invasion of Britain).

Finishing off the day were a couple of events at the open stages. James Holland and Al Murray’s Second World War podcast We Have Ways Of Making You Talk started shortly before the 2019 festival, and has grown into quite the Patreon-supported behemoth; a live recording attracted a large crowd for a whistle-stop run through Britain’s worst blunders and greatest triumphs of the war (lubricated with a few pints). Murray was then on the panel for Histrionics, a panel show chaired by Charlie Higson, teaming up with Alexandra Richie against Harry Enfield and Dan Snow in a raucously ramshackle quiz. Historical charades were particularly entertaining, especially with the host seeming to have different answers on the card. A fine way to end the day as the sun set over the rolling Wiltshire countryside.

T-34 at Chalke Valley
Cold War Armoured Brigade HQ
We Have Ways of Making You Talk – Live!
The Histrionics Panel Show
Al Murray re-enacts… I’m still not quite sure what

An idle mind is the devil’s playground

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms has been out for a few years now but hadn’t been on my radar until a month or so back. PC Gamer on Twitter had put out a link to an old story and my interest was piqued by the mention of Progress Quest (plus a fondness for the Forgotten Realms). Reading the article reminded me of dabbling in previous idle/incremental games: Fallout Shelter, a Westworld game so similar to Fallout Shelter there was a lawsuit, a silly monster-clicker thing Steam put out for the 2015 summer sale, Cookie Clicker, back to one I played years ago but couldn’t remember the name of. Searching the blog it turns out it was CivClicker; in a weirdly ironic meta-twist the reference was in a blog post about searching the blog to remind myself what I thought of previous games. It didn’t spur me to go and get Idle Champions, though, I had no great interest in the game. Until it was the free giveaway on the Epic Store. The base game is free to play, but Epic were handing out some bonus loot; who am I to look some gift loot in the mouth?

I got a bit hooked. I’m a sucker for Making Numbers Go Up, and Idle Champions is pure, concentrated essence of Making Numbers Go Up. Numbers Go Up to such an extent that I was struggling with the notation; million, billion, trillion, not a problem; octillion and nonillion, bit more unusual; Qd… Quattuordecillion? OK, that’s why there’s the option for scientific notation. If nothing else players should end up with a solid understanding of orders of magnitude and such. There’s a bit of a puzzle working out optimal party composition and positioning; one character buffs anyone adjacent to them, another the column in front, another grants different benefits depending on their position in the formation. Once you’ve worked all that out, though, you can pretty much leave them to it. I mean, the clue is in the name. You just need to alt-tab over now and again to level everyone up, perhaps adjust the formation, kick off some special powers if you’re feeling terribly interactive. Perfect for leaving in the background while, say, writing a blog post about it. Eventually you hit a wall where you’re making no impact on the mobs, so you finish that run, then start another one with some bonuses to take you further.

The adventures you embark on in Idle Champions do have a story, but heavily suborned to the mechanics, not something you’re eagerly following for the plot. An RA Salvatore tie-in novel would go something like “Drizzt and his companions set off to find the stolen sceptre but were beset by bandits and had to kill 25 of them, then another 25 of them, then 25 more. In a radical twist then they had to collect 10 McGuffins for Reasons; coincidentally one in every two and a half bandits were carrying them so they ended up killing 25 of them in the process, what are the chances? Then there was a Bandit Boss, and several more waves of 25 bandits. “Phew” said Drizzt after they’d finished off all the bandits “I’m glad this next bit of the forest is bandit-free”. Barely had the words left his mouth when a pack of snarling wolves attacked, and Drizzt and his companions were forced to defend themselves until they had slain 25 of them. Then 25 more. Then 25 bears. And another 25. Then a really big bear. In the process of all that they’d got a bit lost, and found themselves slap bang in the middle of bandit territory again…” As you’re not even watching the screen much of the time it’s a bit of a moot point anyway. It’s the gacha-type progress that’s more of a hook, heroes to unlock, gear of increasing rarity to equip them with, assorted consumables to consume.

Previous idle games have seized that compulsion to Make Numbers Go Up but not lasted terribly long, after a while of Making Numbers Go Up to unlock things to Make Numbers Go Up Some More they get a bit hollow. They can be particularly dangerous for inflicting existential dread over the entire point of games, or at least certain mechanics within games, as demonstrated by Cow Clicker back in the day, especially when combined with monetisation. The “$100 worth” of bonus stuff from the Epic Store consisted of some extra characters and familiars (creatures that automatically click things for you, in case things weren’t idle enough) and a whole bunch of chests. Considering you could buy a whole stack of indie games or a big release or two for that price it seems a bit steep; then again, I guess it would also cover a single spaceship (or part thereof) in Star Citizen. Value is in the wallet of the beholder and all that. Heaven knows we’ve been talking cash shops and loot boxes for 10+ years, it’s not like there’s anything new here, and Idle Champions isn’t particularly obnoxious about it; regular events allow you to unlock characters without paying, there are plenty of codes floating around for a free chest here and there, there don’t seem to be any deliberate irritations to try and get you to part with cash. It just seems a little odd that there are packs of chests costing £40+ in, if you really boil it down, Cookie Clicker with knobs on. Still, no harm in starting off the odd idle adventure before launching into a different game or sitting down to watch some television, is there? It’s not like it’ll kick off some nervous breakdown over the pointlessness of games and thus existence, will it? No, it’s just a silly old bit of clicking fun. Isn’t it? Or is it? Yes, it is. Isn’t it?

Do not fire at Will, he is my second in command! Fire at the Sea Duck!

Say one thing for Gaijin Entertainment, say they put the effort in for April. If you were cruising around a naval map over the weekend you may have noticed a new addition…

The Everstuck Container Ship
Note for historians: this was around the time the container ship Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal

We also got a couple of new game modes. Previous events have included tank hats, World War II mechs, and giant radioactive snails; this year we got Warfare 2077, future tanks that were fine and all but ground forces still aren’t really my thing:

Warfare 2077
In the moodily lit not-terribly-far-future, there is only war. And bridges.

Rather more fun was a new arcade air mode loosely based on Disney’s TaleSpin cartoon, with brightly coloured seaplanes cavorting around floating islands to a jaunty soundtrack:

TaleSpin in War Thunder
If you can’t fly, don’t mess with the eagles!

It wasn’t the deepest of events, generally devolving into a furious furball, but did a good job of distilling down the essence of arcade air battles when you fancied a quick blast. As with many of the previous events I won’t miss it too much when it’s gone, but wouldn’t mind at all if it popped up occasionally in the future again.

TaleSpin in War Thunder
“Hey! My flying is A+” “Yeah, but your landing is C-“

The blade itself incites to deeds of violence

Melmoth has been playing Assassin’s Creed a lot recently, and with a combination of his enthusiastic thumbs up and a Lunar New Year sale I grabbed Odyssey myself, or ACsurprised face if you have an intrusively pictorial chat system that absolutely insists on rendering :O as an animated emoji.

It’s the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played; I’m vaguely aware of the general idea of projecting yourself backwards in time but I’ve no idea what’s specifically happening with the characters and factions in the introduction, there was no “Previously on Assassin’s Creed…” recap. I guess it’s easy enough to go and read up on if you’re particularly bothered, it doesn’t seem of vital importance in the main Greek part of the game. That main part is a well-polished Standard Ubisoft Map-Mopper; not having played the rest of the series I can’t particularly pinpoint which elements originated in earlier instalments of the series and which are blended in from elsewhere, but if you like climbing towers, revealing sections of map, and causing unrest to destabilise regions then overthrowing their leaders, it’s got you covered. Some mechanics feel a little too by-the-numbers; where contemporary game use a drone to scout around and spot enemies or objectives, in AC:O your pet eagle fulfils the same function. Presumably there was a conversation along the lines of…
“No drones in ancient Greece, guess we’ll have to drop the spotting system”
“What about telescopes?”
“Nope, still too early”
“Any characters of the Odyssey noted for having particularly keen senses? Eupithes The Far-Sighted? Antinous The Hawk-Eyed? Steve The Bloke Who Can See Stuff Really Far Away?”
“Don’t think so…”
“OK, magic eagle it is. Next!”

In place of the ‘Wanted’ stars of Grand Theft Auto there are Bounty Hunter Helmets that fill up if citizens clock you being a bad sort (stealing, attacking innocents, embarking on a murderous rampage cutting a swathe through a shadowy cult and their henchmen). Too much mayhem and a bounty hunter starts hunting you, and I’m often in trouble with the law as the game has a really fluid movement system. The tap of a key sends you jumping, climbing and rolling up or over almost any obstacle, the complete antithesis of something like the original Guild Wars with its complete lack of jumping where any shin-high wall or moderate incline was an impregnable obstacle. Sheer cliff face? Up you hop with fearsome free climbing skills. Statue? Shinny up the legs and perch on the head, no trouble! Buildings? Climbing frames, more like. As a result, moving through cities there’s little incentive not to take the most direct route between points; quite the opposite in fact. Why trudge along the streets detouring around a building when you can scale its walls, run along the roof, dive onto a canopy, hop up to a balcony, over a washing line, and get to your destination quicker and more stylishly; never taken a shortcut before? This does mean I end up jumping over or running through market stalls, temples, random houses, barracks and such, doubtless to the great annoyance of the residents, but their cries of “I’ll get the bounty hunter on you!” aren’t particularly troubling – the system is rather fatally undermined by the fact that another game mechanism rewards you for killing those very bounty hunters, propelling you up the mercenary ranks, so it’s less a deterrent than another source of shiny loot. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Only in Greek rather than Latin, and hunting bounty hunters rather than guarding guards, but I don’t trust Google Translate to capture the nuance.)

The one time that bounty hunters/rival mercenaries can really throw a spanner in the works is when they turn up at a ludicrously high level; AC:O has a very RPG level system, where enemies of the same level tend to be a reasonable challenge but as soon as they’re few levels above you they might as well be invulnerable. Around level 15 I spotted a helmet symbol on the HUD, toddled over to introduce myself via the medium of sneak attack, and was promptly despatched by a careless slap from the level 47 mercenary; since then I’ve been rather more cautious about eagle-scanning potential adversaries first. For the most part the game seems to nudge you gently enough through level-appropriate areas while allowing latitude for exploration, but when it goes wrong you do get the incongruity of taking on a good portion of an army and its champions one minute to seize control of an island, then being completely unable to handle a common street thug the next because you went a bit off-piste into a higher level area.

The tricky part of open world games is to keep up the momentum once the mechanics have been introduced, my last couple of efforts (Far Cry 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2) rather fizzled out. So far AC:O is holding up well, the main story is interesting enough but with latitude for random exploration when in the mood. I’m having the most fun taking on forts and bandit encampments, carefully scoping out the area then dealing with the defenders one by one, with the good old stealth game trope of being able to pick up bodies to hide them leading to storerooms quickly becoming impromptu morgues (or dormitories, if I’m on a less-violent knocking-out rampage rather than a killing spree). I have noticed a skill that will summon one of my lieutenants to cause a diversion; I’m rather hoping I can recruit a Spaniard to stroll up to guards and say “Excuse me, meister“, it would be a bit anachronistic, but I’m already dressed up in a patchwork of historical armour anyway thanks to assorted tie-in rewards so I don’t think anyone would notice.

There’s a voice that keeps on calling me

A time of global pandemic, when remaining indoors and minimising human contact is not only tolerated but positively encouraged, should be ideal for gaming, the perfect opportunity to catch up on the back catalogue or delve into something new and exciting. For some reason, though, it hasn’t really worked out like that, for the most part I’ve been settling in to the comfy slippers of the old regulars, Destiny 2 and War Thunder. Over Christmas I thought I’d make a bit of a conscious effort to get into something else, starting by digging out login details and getting various game launchers patched up – Steam, of course, Epic Games Store, Origin, UPlay, the Microsoft Store. I appreciate that Steam’s dominance of the PC gaming scene isn’t necessarily healthy, but it’s damnably convenient; presumably in a bid to crack that the Epic Store was handing out a free game a day for a couple of weeks (then resuming the regular freebie-per-week), and it would’ve be rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Looking at recent purchases there was Anthem on Origin, Borderlands 3 on Epic, and The Division 2 on UPlay; I’d had a bit of a go at them back in the summer, and while perfectly fine they hadn’t prised me away from Destiny 2 for any length of time. I figured I should look at something other than a game-as-a-service sort of shooter featuring a colour-coded array of increasingly rare weapons. Steam had Star Wars: Squadrons, but after dipping a toe in there I’d just gone back to War Thunder, so that seems to be sufficient for any flight/space-type sim requirements. Something a bit different, something new, an RPG? Seems like it’ll be sensible to hold off for another patch or two of Cyberpunk 2077 yet, but one of the free Epic games was Torchlight 2 so I got that installed. I never managed to get into a Diablo or similar games, and sure enough bounced off Torchlight 2 after a level or two. I contemplated a couple of Epic’s management-type offerings, Cities: Skylines and Tropico 5, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to plunge in; on one level I want something completely new and interesting and deep and challenging, but on another level don’t want to learn a whole new set of rules and mechanisms and controls. The Epic freebie I ended up playing most turned out to be Solitarica, a golf solitaire game with some light RPG elements (spells and items), a nice little time-passer ideal for a half-hour here and there, but not terribly deep and fulfilling. Is it too much to ask for a game of massive scope offering every kind of experience that’s completely intuitive and has photorealistic graphics that are also quirky and an amazing story but also complete freedom with no barriers and also increasingly rare items to find and achievements and the moon (on a stick)? Yes, yes it is.

After rummaging around the other launchers I headed for the Giant Steam Backlog, got as far as ‘B’, and noticed Battletech. I’d joined the Kickstarter back in 2016 and played it for a while in 2018; as far as I recall I’d quite enjoyed it, but never completed the campaign. Hankering for a bit of mech action I fired it up, starting a new campaign from scratch after a briefly clueless attempt to resume an old save game. The slower pace of turn-based combat was a nice change; it takes a while to get used to, factoring in when different weights of mech will move and planning positioning and targeting priorities accordingly, and is nicely rewarding once you get the hang of it. In between the story missions of the campaign you take contracts to keep the money coming in, and while they don’t vary too wildly the mixture of mission types (attack, defend, escort or intercept convoys etc.) and maps with different terrain, obstacles and temperatures keep things interesting. I particularly enjoy training missions, where you take a single pilot and mech and are given three rookies to round out the lance; sometimes it’s a specific objective to keep them alive, sometimes… it isn’t.

“So, chaps, have you heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade? No? Oh, well, that’s the model for today’s mission. No, don’t Google it, it’ll be fine, just head down the Valley of, er, Death over there. Why do they call it that? Well, because… oh, I remember! It’s named after Geoff Death, very popular guy around here, did a lot of good work for charity, so they named it after him. Definitely. Now off you toddle, I’ll be back here with the LRMs. They’ve got a minimum range, you see. A surprisingly long minimum range. I’d love to be right there with you otherwise. Anyway, off you go!”

As in many Battletech games the process of obtaining and equipping mechs is a strong driver, trying to defeat interesting-looking opponents with the minimum amount of damage so you can snaffle them afterwards, then taking them down to the Mech Bay to agonise over the right balance of weapons, ammo, armour and equipment. Melee combat is surprisingly viable in some circumstances, especially when you find modifications for additional damage, though I suspect the arm mods that really boost melee damage also contain giant magnets. Every time I’d equip a mech with +++ melee damage, that arm would get blown off the following mission, most annoying. I suppose it might have had something to do with that mech charging forwards all the time to try and close for great punching.

I’ve just wrapped up the story, a suitable saga of betrayal and revenge. The pacing worked well, enough cutscenes and conversations to keep you involved without dragging on interminably. My mercenary band is now free to roam the galaxy battling injustice and corruption (for a suitable fee), very much like The Littlest Hobo. If The Littlest Hobo was a giant 100-ton battle-robot that solved problems by obliterating them with large calibre autocannons rather than barking and finding things. And demanded payment for doing so. Perhaps not so much like The Littlest Hobo after all on reflection, though they have the same theme tune. “Every stop I make, I make a new smoking crater; can’t stay for long, just turn around, I’m gone again (after checking the local store for rare weapon upgrades)”. If it was just the randomly generated contracts that were available I’m not sure I’d keep going but one of the DLC packs introduced Flashpoints, little sets of connected missions with some light story (and most importantly the prospect of rare loot), so I’ve been popping back in here and there.

Back with the old regulars I haven’t seen many drastic changes in War Thunder, at least in the low-to-mid tiers where I dabble; I was on a naval kick for a while, flipping between Italy, Japan and Germany, but for the moment I’m back on aircraft, working through the newer nations of China and Sweden. I was a bit rusty for a while, especially capturing airfields, but it’s coming back to me. Over in Destiny 2 every few months I think it’s finished, done with, over and finished, done over and finished with, but then it goes and throws porridge in my face with my own damn spoon. Regular seasonal updates bring new items and activities, and I seem to be in something of a Goldilocks zone with the timing – as I’ve wrapped up most of the main goals for a season, and it’s bogged down into running the same old things to nudge your gear score up a point or two here and there, it’s not long until another update comes along with just enough changes to perk things up (and an import licence for those oh-so-pretty fighting fish). There was the Beyond Light expansion back in November, removing a bunch of old planets, adding a couple of new ones, plus Stasis powers and such; that had got a little stale by the end of the year so I took a few weeks off while delving into Battletech. Having wrapped up the main story there, the next season of Destiny 2 kicked in, and damn it twice around the carpark if it didn’t drag me back in again. In a shocking turn of events the main new activity seems to involve shooting a bunch of minions then shooting a boss, but it mixes things up enough (and with enough new loot) to keep me going a while. If you need me I’ll be at the Welcome Break Low Wycombe under the name of Lewis Potter.

FitXR But You Know It

When lockdown started I picked up BoxVR for the Oculus Quest to try and boost my physical activity. It never really grabbed me though, the hit detection was a bit flaky and the music selection wasn’t terribly inspiring so I’d invariably return to good old Beat Saber for virtual flailing instead. As summer came around and restrictions eased a bit I got out and about more often and the need for indoor exercise lessened, but with the short days of winter and Lockdown 2: The Enlockening I thought I should try for a bit more of a workout.

Browsing my library BoxVR wasn’t there; it seems to have retreated into a chrysalis, and emerged as the beautiful butterfly of FitXR. The core of it remains a punch-tastic workout of jabs, hooks and uppercuts but everything’s had a spruce-up and looks and feels much better; there’s also a whole additional dance workout mode that I haven’t delved into deeply but looks to be a good way of mixing things up.

On firing up my first class I’d just clicked that I was ready when I noticed an empty “Play Solo” checkbox. Oh dear, I didn’t want to be cavorting with complete strangers! Still, too late to change it, I emerged into a virtual room with six other floating sets of gloves; I’m not sure if they’re live or pre-recorded, either way it’s fun (and a little odd) to have the virtual company and (thanks to the scoreboard) competition. The high score table is such a primal gaming motivator, even if there’s someone way out ahead nailing every punch for ludicrous combos there’ll be someone else closer to your score pushing you on so you don’t slack. There’s no communication (thank goodness, unless you’re really into heavy breathing), but it’s a really powerful feature. The fact that punch power translates to points gets you to really throw yourself into a workout, I think I’m burning through a good number of calories. I’m not sure if the music has been updated as well, it powers the workouts nicely, though I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to listen to it outside the game.

Major kudos to the developers for upgrading BoxVR for existing users, FitXR is a significant improvement. I’ve slacked off the workouts over Christmas, and with a significant increase in chocolate consumption I think I’m going to have to hit it pretty heavily in January now!

The KiaSA Guide to the Day of the Week

These strange and unprecedented times bring about all sorts of challenges. Staying safe by covering your hands, washing your face, and singing “Out of Space”; home working, home schooling, home haircuts, home brew; somehow surviving without caramel Magnum ice creams as the supermarket delivery substituted strawberry ones instead. Perhaps the greatest challenge (apart from the whole Magnum business) is knowing what day it is as one minutes blends into another in a meaningless procession of hours differentiated occasionally by the presence or absence of sunlight behind a curtain that’s never drawn, as sometimes it’s handy to be aware that it’s Wednesday so the bins need to go out, or it’s Thursday so you probably ought to log on before 10am for the weekly team meeting (it’s starting to get a bit suspicious that you suffer from regular ‘internet outages’ completely unrelated to oversleeping).

Fortunately computers and phones are around to keep us informed at a click or a swipe, but perhaps you left your phone somewhere incredibly remote and difficult to get to, like another room. Fear not, the solution is to hand! Or to foot, at any rate. Socks with the days of the week printed on them. As long as you’ve put socks on (granted, quite an assumption) a quick glance down towards the ankle region means you can immediately work out what day it is by consulting this handy guide:

(Wait, handy guide? Surely the point of the socks is that, on Thursday, you wear the socks with ‘Thursday’ on them, and therefore know it’s Thursday? Would that it were so simple…)

Monday: It’s Monday! You’re out of bed, great start! Even had a shower, well done! All ready to tackle the new week! Come on, Monday, let’s get up and at ’em with those clean matching Monday socks!

Monday (but a bit whiffy): It’s Tuesday. There’s no point showering two days in a row, is there? Who’s going to notice? Better for the environment as well. No point putting fresh socks on, let’s just grab yesterdays.

Tuesday: It’s Wednesday. Quick shower, I guess, let’s really make the effort and put clean socks on. Thursday… Saturday… damn, can’t find the ‘Wednesday’ socks. Probably still in the laundry basket from last week. Oh well, Tuesday’s pretty close.

Monday on the left foot, Tuesday on the right foot: It’s Thursday. Oh, god, why didn’t I set the alarm, I’ll just pull a dressing gown on, if it was good enough for Arthur Dent it’ll do for home working, it’s freezing though so I’ll need socks, got to be another day in ‘Tuesday’, where’s the left one? Oh never mind.

Friday on the right foot, non-matching green sock on the left: It’s Friday, probably. Maybe Saturday. Better log on, just in case. Might be Monday of the next week, come to think of it. Did I do anything yesterday? Or the day before? What is a ‘day’? Who am I talking to? Why are you in my bedroom?! Get out! Get out, I say! Oh, but just before you do… you don’t happen to know what day it is, do you?

The Locked Tomb

Gideon the Ninth, the first book of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy, is an incredible blend of styles, by turns funny, intriguing, swashbuckling, tense, horrifying, confusing, doubtless a few others I missed. It assembles a fantastic cast (albeit one that takes a little while to get to grips with), locks them into a mysterious challenge, and keeps the twists coming. Impressive enough on its own, the sequel Harrow the Ninth pulls away that rug, replaces it with an even more intricately textured rug, and leaves me half wishing I’d waited until the third of the trilogy was out it so I could jump straight in, and half grateful of the time for a good re-read (or three) because it crams in so damn much. It teeters on the brink of baffling, dealing with memory, madness, reality, then layering on the necromantic nature of its universe, but in a (generally) satisfying way; there’s (at least) one aspect that I need to particularly pay attention to second time around that I’m not sure I fully grasped. It slightly reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem or Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence; very highly recommended.

(Searching back, I see I briefly mentioned the first Fractured Europe book, Europe in Autumn, then entirely failed to rave about the subsequent Europe At Midnight, Europe in Winter, and Europe at Dawn, most remiss of me, it’s a great series, also very highly recommended. And looking back, quite spooky: “The roads seemed busy this evening. Fifteen years after the last deaths from the Xian Flu and people were only just starting to reconnect with normal life. The British Isles had got away comparatively lightly from the pandemic…”)

Reviewlet: Star Wars: Squadrons

Star Wars: Squadrons plays very well, it’s a worthy modernised X-Wing. It does have a couple of snags, though. The VR support is somewhat flaky; it seems that my particular combination of an Oculus Quest with the Steam version of the game using Steam VR is particularly problematic. The procedure goes something like put the headset on, take it off, put it back on, peek out from under it at the monitor to check for any messages, gaze at pitch blackness for a while unsure if something might be loading, gaze at swirling patterns for a while longer, and finally something inevitably crashes; I haven’t yet actually managed to fly in VR. One suggestion was to refund the Steam game and buy it on Origin instead, but I’m hoping that a patch or seven should sort out the issues eventually.

A second snag is the control system. I have an old Saitek joystick with a built in throttle, twist-rudder, hat switch etc, nothing enormously fancy to accurately replicate all 400 switches of an actual aircraft cockpit, but I thought it would be sufficient. For the basics it works admirably: general flight, firing lasers and missiles, the hat switch allows for rapid deployment of power to weapons, shields or engines as required. Even in the simplified world of starfighters, though, you need plenty of buttons, particularly when you get into the finer points of targeting and issuing orders; when the game instructed me to press button 12 I had issues, what with the joystick only having six buttons and all. The game copes about as gracefully as it can (short of actually working out that button 12 doesn’t exist), a quick wiggle of the mouse and the on-screen instruction tells you to press the appropriate letter of the keyboard instead. One hand on the keyboard with the other on the joystick is functional enough as a control mechanism (at least outside VR, it might be trickier without being able to see the keys), though it does mean foregoing the throttle on the joystick. I had a quick look for a separate throttle controller, or entire HOTAS set, but it seems that the combination of Microsoft Flight Simulator and Squadrons has led to something of an international throttle shortage. Probably not a bad thing to save me from an impulse buy; the low-end sets have pretty variable reviews, decent sets are a good chunk of change for a controller that would almost certainly go back into storage for long periods.

Without VR and full HOTAS Squadrons is fine, a very solid game, but lacks that extra something to really set it apart. The story and voice-work do what they need to do, but your all-action character of Mute Pilot Frequently Present During Soliloquies doesn’t really give much of a sense of involvement between missions. I haven’t even finished the single player campaign, let alone stuck a toe in the water of PvP, it’s just not really forcing itself to the top of the “to play” list at the moment.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were

The start of October has some heavy nostalgic vibes with a couple of sequels to formative PC gaming experiences on the way. First of all Star Wars: Squadrons, calling to mind the classic X-Wing series that I loved, along with other space sims like Wing Commander and Freespace from that golden era. The genre faded away for a while; I’ve tried to recapture the magic now and again, but nothing more recent has really done it for me. Star Citizen turned into a bit of a soap opera, neither No Man’s Sky nor Elite: Dangerous fired me up to try them. There’ve been a couple of specifically Star Wars offerings tied to MMOs: Jump to Lightspeed in Star Wars: Galaxies, which I dabbled in lightly during a couple of brief dalliances with the game, and slightly more recently (though still almost seven years back) the Galactic Starfighter expansion of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I dabbled in even more lightly and rapidly concluded wasn’t for me.

The problem, particularly for Galactic Starfighter, was War Thunder. With it’s delightfully smooth mouse-controlled flying (as opposed to the more clunky mouse-as-sort-of-joystick flying of many other games) it’s rather spoiled me, and is always there and conveniently free-to-play if I fancy a quick spin. Squadrons does look good, though, and might really shine in VR; I’ve played War Thunder a bit using the Quest, but while technically impressive the more advanced simulation modes aren’t my cup of tea gameplay wise, spending ages squinting around for tiny black dots in the distance and worrying about wings ripping off at excessive speeds. If I can find my old joystick (and it still works), and the Oculus Quest link holds up for extended sessions, I’m rather tempted to give Squadrons a try to see how it works out, with the safety net of a Steam refund if it really doesn’t click. Longevity is bit of a concern, whether the single player campaign is a fully fleshed out experience or a bit of a tutorial, 5 player PvP/E modes will need pretty solid balance and matchmaking or risk being offputtingly frustrating, but it looks like it might be the best effort at space-dogfights in a while.

A few days later Baldur’s Gate 3 will go into early access. The first two games were absolute classics; at least, I’m pretty sure they were. I mean it’s 20 years now, I can’t actually remember very much about the story or characters or anything, apart from “Go for the eyes, Boo, go for the eyes!” “SQUEAK!” RPGs never went into quite the decline that space-sims did, but even so it’s been a fair while since I played a story-heavy RPG with a party of characters; probably Mass Effect: Andromeda, or Dragon Age: Inquisition for something in the fantasy genre. I did back Pillars of Eternity, the “spiritual successor” to Baldur’s Gate, but never really got anywhere with it; I think by that point I’d just become used to a different style of game. I know the developer’s Divinity: Original Sin games were well received, so I might well give BG3 a shot as well, it should be substantially different enough from Squadrons to offer a choice of gaming of an evening.

Perhaps they’ll be a doomed attempt to recapture gaming youth, consigned to the “maybe try again at some point” pile with so many others, but you’ve got to keep hoping, right?