It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel a bit peaky)

Our board game group has been playing Pandemic: Legacy for the last 18 months or so. We were keeping up in “real” time for a while, playing one game-month per actual-month, but busy schedules make it difficult to get everyone together so we slowed down a bit. The current coronavirus outbreak and resulting lockdown somewhat ironically means we all have the time now, but not the opportunity to get together to finish it off; the prospect of spreading a virus while playing Pandemic would be a bit much even for Alanis Morisette.

Things are going to be quiet for a bit as work sorts out remote infrastructure, currently a bit overwhelmed by the demand. A few quiet months won’t be the worst thing in the world, apart from the health concerns (particularly for friends and family), shortages of essentials, nagging fears of complete societal breakdown and the rest of it. As many people have already observed “Ha! Us (gamers/introverts/geeks) have been practising social isolation for years!”, I’m pretty confident I can survive being cooped up a fair while. There’s no shortage of books, films, TV and games I’ve been meaning to catch up with. Charlie Brooker’s stuff-a-lanche of too much media was ten years ago, back when Netflix were mostly sending DVDs out in the post so you only had a backlog of a few films at a time, rather than a backlog of every film and television show ever produced in the history of time.

Then there are games, of course, with more choice than ever, and more persistence to keep you playing (or at least spending). Good old War Thunder rolls along, its most recent update adding Swedish vehicles to the mix, I still hop in for a few battles here and there; eight years is a pretty good innings. Black Desert Online has continued to be entertaining in a Sunday morning group for chaotic button-mashing combat, but has left me with no desire to try and dive in more deeply. The plot is utterly baffling, and the great slabs of time consuming game mechanisms hold little appeal even with little else to do. Beat Sabre on the Oculus Quest continues to be a lot of fun with custom songs, and a welcome source of exercise if leaving the house gets trickier. For the moment, though, Destiny 2 is sticking around as main game of choice.

I was fading a bit, and wasn’t sure if the new Season of the Worthy would perk my interest up; it introduces Warmind bunkers, which seem fairly similar to the obelisks of the Season of Dawn, something to chip away at without being terribly game-changing. The Trials of Osiris caused more excitement in the player base, returning from the original Destiny. As I understand it, you get to play seven PvP matches and get rewards of varying fabulousness based on the results. I don’t spend a huge amount of time in the Crucible, dipping in for the odd Iron Banner event here and there, but thought I might at least poke a nose into the Trials, see what was what. You need to form a team, though, so I’ll almost certainly be skipping them.

Destiny 2 activities generally come in three flavours. Solo, where you gad about on your own in story missions or on planets or what-not. Team activities with matchmaking, like strikes, forge ignitions, and gambit matches, where you can queue up solo and get chucked in with random strangers. Then there are team activities where you need to form a team first before you can take part, generally the hardest/most time consuming/end-game-iest stuff. I’m perfectly happy with the first two, bumbling around on my own or with random silently competent strangers – I believe there is in-game voice chat if you want, but I’m fine for heavy breathing and random background music thanks (and in the game, aahhhh). Matchmade activities are usually around 10-30 minutes long, a sensible chunk of time and not the end of the world if things do go a bit pear-shaped. I don’t mind missing out on raids and dungeons, and doubt I’ll miss much in the Trials of Osiris being a pretty average PvPer.

I briefly considered joining a clan to sign up for a team, and had a little look at the recruiting forum; seems like everyone demands you sign up for Discord, “hey, come and chat, we want to get to know you!” I’m a grumpy old git now, though, I’m not after any interaction past activating the Holy Grail galloping emote if anyone wants to come and clop a couple of coconut shells together (or I’ll do the clopping, I’m not fussy). There’s a few great little networks of folks from newsgroups, blogging and such over the years, but much of my gaming is a a getaway, social distancing both online and off. Why play solo in a multiplayer game? That old chestnut was kicked around often enough in the blag-u-spore back in the day, other players liven the world up as team-mates, opponents, buyers, sellers, and the rest of it, plenty of different ways to play.

Course there are always single player games too; I finally got around to installing Slay the Spire and that’s rather enjoyable. As a deck-building dungeon-crawler it doesn’t seem terribly radical but it plays very well. Aside from graphics it seems like Slay the Spire should have been possible a long time ago; of course a deck-building card game idea doesn’t need a computer at all and seems like it should have been possible even longer ago, but (from a cursory Wikipedia search) doesn’t seem to pre-date Dominion. Was Monopoly the best we could for a hundred-odd years? Are we receptive to more complex board games thanks to computer games? Do the two feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship? Let’s just hope we can look back in 18 months and still be pondering such questions, rather than having rather more pressing concerns in a virus-ravaged wasteland than trying to come up with an innovative board game using different stockpiled pasta shapes as the pieces…

Black! Like the procession of night that leads us into the valley of despair!

My gaming world has been pretty MMOGless for a while now, depending how exactly you define a MMOG; I had a good run with the Sunday morning gang in Guild Wars 2 and Neverwinter, and a bit of a canter in The Elder Scrolls Online though it didn’t quite grab me in the same way. Star Trek Online provided a brief diversion with some entertaining character design and ship naming possibilities, and the others had a fair go at Rift but I don’t think I even got to level 10. After a bit of a break, though, and with Black Desert Online on sale for a few pounds it seemed like a good time to give it a crack.

I thought the development or initial release of BDO might just have made it into a blogpost here, back in the days of vague topicality and frequent posting; I recall previews of the character creator causing a bit of a stir with the sheer number of sliders to control cheekbone angularity and earlobe density. Either my brain or the search facility are faulty, though, and I know which my money is on. Character creation is certainly impressive, but as with so many games rendered somewhat pointless when you’re mostly staring at the back of your head from a distance when actually playing. Once into the world it’s a mixture of familiar old MMO tropes (accept quest, kill mobs, get loot) and the bewildering array of lore and skills and currencies and points of a several year old game. I’m not sure if it’s localisation or translation, several quests involve “learning about” types of creature so I was preparing a short questionnaire to work in conjunction with observation and assessment, except it turned out the questgiver was using “learn” in the sense of “kill to death” in the grand MMO tradition, it’s going to get very confusing if they start mixing their euphemisms (“look, when you said ‘learn about’ I thought you meant ‘get to know’, you know, ‘know’… in the biblical sense?”).

Combat is joyously messy, a fast paced action system of clicking or keys plus directions, like a fighting game in some ways with combos and the like. I would imagine some sort of cautious technique is advisable later on, but at least in the early game jumping into a pile of mobs and mashing random buttons produces satisfying flurries of sword slashes, kicks, punches and such, even more fun when there’s a few of you piling into a fight. There’s something deeply satisfying about mowing through large numbers of easy to kill mobs; course there still needs to be a bit of threat, but I prefer it to slogging through smaller numbers of tougher opponents. The Division 2 is a case in point; it too was on sale, and at 80% off I thought it’d be rude not to. It’s been fun enough, the world continues to be well realised and interesting to explore, but at the end of the day the hide-behind-low-walls combat where even standard minions soak up plenty of gunfire doesn’t grab me like the faster paced first person shooting of Destiny 2, so the latter is still where I’ll usually drop in if I’ve got half an hour, and The Division 2 will probably sit alongside Far Cry 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, and heaven knows what else in the ever growing “should probably get around to having another go at” pile that waits only for someone to add another two or three days of free time to every week.

The Quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning

Happy New Year, one and all, as we tumble at ever-increasing speed into the crazy world of the future with flying cars, hoverboards, robot butlers, and better-than-life virtual reality. More or less. I got an Oculus Quest for Christmas which is pretty darned impressive, if not quite the total immersion of Red Dwarf and other sci-fi. Home VR seems to be really taking off with the Quest, Rift, Vive, Playstation VR and such hitting that “pricey but not completely ludicrous” price-point, but then VR seemed to be taking off in the early 90s and didn’t get very much further than Lawnmower Man and Craig Charles shouting “Awooogah!” in Cyber-Swindon.

I’d tinkered a bit with Google Cardboard, which was fun and all, but with only rotational movement tracking and limited interactivity it was a bit ‘updated View-Master‘. The six degrees of freedom of the Quest plus its Touch controllers are quite literal game-changers; with my fondness for rhythm games I dove straight into Beat Saber and have been having a whale of a time flailing away at flying coloured blocks. I poked a nose into a demo of Dance Central – funny how dance pad games like Dance Dance Revolution just used feet, giving everything a slightly Riverdance feel, while Dance Central is all about the hands. I’m sure cyber-shoes can’t be too far off, though. Slightly more my speed is the rail-shooter with extra beats Pistol Whip, most enjoyable and not a bad workout with plenty of ducking and diving to avoid incoming fire. Superhot VR is amazing, a real demonstration of the power of VR; its “time moves when you move” mechanism gives it something of a yoga flavour, holding a pose while considering your actions. I haven’t bought the full version, though, as it’s also the most dangerous of the games I’ve tried so far, requiring reaching, grabbing, throwing and punching around you. Even in a recommended 2m by 2m space (which was only clear due to kitchen refurbishment, there’ll be a fridge taking up a chunk of that space shortly) I’ve had slight knuckle bruising, in more confined spaces there’ve been close calls with a lamp and ornaments.

I think the last “classic” adventure game I really enjoyed was Discworld: Noir, before the combination of increasingly stretched Use Random Thing From Inventory With Other Random Thing From Inventory (And/Or Random Bit Of Environment) logic and ease of looking up solutions on the internet put a bit of a crimp on things. VR offers an opportunity to bring some physicality to puzzles: levers to throw, wheels to turn and such, almost Escape Room-type elements; I’ve picked up Shadow Point for the Quest as it sounds intriguing (and features voice work from Patrick Stewart) but haven’t had a chance to give it a proper try. The Quest streams to phones or suitably equipped televisions, I’m hoping it might work for some collaborative puzzle solving.

The Android-based Quest is wireless, which is a big plus, but is locked in to software available in the Quest store (unless you sideload applications in developer mode, which proved pretty straightforward and useful for a wider library of Beat Saber tracks), though that’s a pretty good selection. Another big plus is that Oculus introduced Link, whereby the Quest can be hooked up to a PC with a USB-C cable to work with Steam VR and Rift software, expanding the catalogue and taking advantage of heftier PC graphics (with suitable specs). I haven’t delved too deeply into that side of things, but a quick jaunt in War Thunder was most impressive.

Overall I’m not sure it’s going to become my main gaming device by any means, but it’s great for something different and a way of being a bit more active, particularly handy as the aforementioned kitchen refurbishment has resulted in a significant increase in takeaways and eating out, not terribly conducive to resolutions to eat more healthily.

They call him The Accidental Horsepunch Kid

A new season of Destiny 2 is on the way. I’ve ticked off most of my goals for the Season of the Undying – gear cap hit, the season pass track finished, assorted weapons and bits of armour obtained – so it’s good timing, I haven’t had much motivation there for the last couple of weeks. I don’t know whether I’ve been conditioned by games, particularly MMOGs, or it’s deep psychology that’s always been there (see also: Everquest as Skinner Box and the old Operant Conditioning stuff), but when there’s a Number To Make Bigger (gear level, season level, whatever) then a Strike or Gambit or Crucible match is rip-roaring fun with lovely shiny loot and progress at the end of it, but once The Number is as big as it gets I can barely muster the enthusiasm to start any of those exact same activities in the first place. On a rational level I’m sure I’d enjoy them as much (I mean I think I enjoy them, get too far into deep introspection and you can hardly be sure of anything any more), but if a tree falls in a forest and it doesn’t Make A Number Bigger, does it really exist? Aaaaahhh! (No, not aaaahhh.)

While not suffering from existential crises I’ve been taking to the skies again in War Thunder after a fairly lengthy naval interlude. A new country has been added, China, with a new set of aircraft to unlock (and thus Numbers To Make Bigger). With the vehicles of War Thunder spanning the mid-1930s up to (at least) the 1980s (I haven’t been paying much attention to the higher tiers where the most recent vehicles are found) the era includes such straightforward and completely uncontroversial events as the Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, formation of the People’s Republic of China, and so forth. Good job gamers are knowledgeable, reasonable and well-balanced types, so nobody went completely mental over particular flags or insignia (aside: some people went completely mental over particular flags or insignia). Funny how some of them were the same folk who previously insisted that politics must never interfere with games in any way, shape or form… Fortunately gamers also (genuinely) have the collective attention span of a gnat, so there was something else to be Absolutely Furious over within a week or two.

Going back to lower War Thunder tiers is always fun, when you open up new aircraft after a few battles rather than a few months, and the addition of new nations alleviates some of the guilt about picking on brand new players as there’s usually a fair sprinkling of more experienced folk around. I strongly suspect that, as with the French and Italian trees before, I’ll run out of steam around Tier III as things bog down and you need more and more Research Points to unlock new aircraft. It’s vitally important to Make A Number Bigger, but if the target number is Really, Really Big and you’re only Making A Number Very Slightly Bigger each match it’s also poor motivation. Tricky things, Numbers.

I also picked up Red Dead Redemption 2 when it released for PC; I was a big fan of the open-world type games that Grand Theft Auto III really kicked off, and though Grand Theft Auto V left me a bit cold in the end RDR2 was very well received so I thought I’d give it a crack. I’ve found it quite tough to get into, it’s a pretty slow introduction with occasional gun battles interspersed with lengthier spells of riding along and talking. It’s not bad as an extended tutorial covering riding, hunting and suchlike, but doesn’t lend itself terribly well to playing an odd chunk here or there with a few days between. Never mind the old 747 cockpit problem when returning to games after an extended absence, whether it’s my poor ageing brain or the scope of the game and number of systems within it, it’s like starting from scratch each time.

There’s always been a learning curve with game controls – way back in the early 14th Century some games (particularly simulators) came with keyboard overlays to help out. Things have generally converged in the worlds of first- and third-person shooters, WASD on PC for movement, space for jumping, R tends to be reload, E or F usually some sort of interaction. Context sensitivity is a great thing allowing one or two keys to do a variety of things, though can result in the absurdity of the infamous “Press ‘F’ to pay respects”. Other keys vary more – crouch, for example, as in perhaps the greatest bit of video game comedy, Dara Ó Briain’s “Jump-Crouch-Touch” routine.

The basics of running, jumping and shooting are fine in RDR2, but other elements of interaction with the world are a bit variable with a very fine line between a friendly hello and a fist fight. I got into a friendly bout of target practise with a stranger, and after shooting a few bottles and jars I was trying to have a quick chat to see if he fancied another round but ended up shooting him in the leg instead, which understandably made him a bit cross. Another time my horse was grubby so I was trying to brush him down (and, ideally, give him sugar lumps, and ride him over fences; polish his hooves every single day, and take him to the horse dentist). I thought I’d equipped a horse brush after rummaging around assorted inventory settings and clicked to start brushing, but apparently there was no brush so I punched him instead, which understandably made him a bit cross. Melmoth has a theory that this could be a deliberate design choice to put you in the shoes of a grizzled mean stranger-shootin’ horse-punchin’ outlaw, which is plausible, or I might be a ham-fisted buffoon, which is perhaps a bit more plausible. It looks incredible, I was riding out of camp at night watching a thunderstorm rolling in, lightning strikes illuminating the valley, but it’s hard to really settle into the world when trying to figure out whether to rapidly tap ‘E’, or hold down ‘R’, or right click then ‘F’. I’m sure it’ll get there in the end, but fear my horse might have had enough by that point.

Size Isn’t Everything

On the mobile gaming front I’ve had a couple of old favourites ticking along for a fair while now: Marvel Puzzle Quest for match-3-ing with added gacha-type collecting, and Wordscapes for Scrabble-ish vocabulary workouts. I had a hankering for something a bit different and remembered playing 2048 a while back, so grabbed 2048 Ultimate for a bit of number combining.

2048 is a simple concept, based on(/ripping off) Threes!; tiles valued 2 or 4 randomly appear on a 4×4 grid, you swipe in a direction to move them all around, and tiles of the same value combine to form a new tile of twice the value. You keep swiping until you get a tile of the titular 2048 or the board is completely full, though if you hit 2048 you can keep going for a total score of the value of all tiles on the board. Nice little self contained game, well suited to touch screens, doesn’t take too long or need particularly deep thought.

The main difference in 2048 Ultimate appears to be the ability to play on grid sizes from 3×3 to 8×8. Obviously the first thing to do is take everything TO THE MAX and play on the largest grid possible, so I kicked off an 8×8 game. A month later, it’s still going with no obvious signs that it’ll finish. Ever. The difference between a 4×4 and 8×8 grid doesn’t seem that much, a mere four extra squares per side; of course being a grid it’s a total of 64 rather than 16 squares, but that’s still not that much more, is it? Or is it? It is. Isn’t it? Or is it? Yes, it is.

Instead of carefully considering each move on a grid that size it’s more just furiously swiping everything towards one corner of the board. Speed of swipe is of the essence if for no other reason than the possibility of finishing a game before the heat death of the universe – I have a suspicion that the average number of moves to fill an 8×8 board works out as a ludicrous number, more seconds than have elapsed since the big bang or something, like the old grains of rice on a chess board doubled in each square. You can get into something of a trance-like state, mindlessly swiping away, though there are occasional bumps in the road when the swiping is a bit too furious and you shift everything in the wrong direction. There’s an Undo button, but it only reverts a single move which isn’t always enough if you don’t snap out of the swipe-trance quickly enough. That makes life a bit more interesting, sorting out non-optimal tile placements, but in general it’s quite a calming way of zoning out and passing a bit of time, gradually layering numbers like geological strata.

Heat Induces Royalty

Big changes in the world of Destiny 2 – a move to Steam, new Shadowkeep expansion, and a free-to-play New Light option all arriving at the same time. Other than a bit of a wobble on launch day it all seems to have gone very smoothly, and a terrible cynic might even wonder about the connection issues. As news stories go, “oh no we’re having a few issues due to SO MANY BILLIONS OF PEOPLE trying to play our game” is a bit like saying “being too much of a perfectionist” is your biggest weakness in an interview.

After a pleasant diversion in Prey I’m fully back on the gear treadmill of Destiny. I haven’t actually finished Prey, I must get back to it, but it had slightly reached the tipping point where exciting new twists and revelations were less “ooh, how very intriguing!” and more “oh, another McGuffin to collect…” It’s a strong story and I’d like to see how it finishes, but the underlying gameplay isn’t quite as compelling as Making Numbers Go Up in Destiny. Shadowkeep isn’t terribly radical in what it adds – a new zone (the moon), a few new activities (not straying too far from the tried and tested “shoot a load of minions then shoot a big boss” formula) – but it’s enough to hook me back in. There’s a bit of story, sort of, that seemed to boil down to (spoiler warning!) “there’s a pyramid on the moon and it’s a bit spooky”. I ran around, collected some duff looking armour, and… maybe went into the pyramid? Not entirely sure. That seemed about it, though there’s probably more in raids, dungeons, events or something, either already there or to come. Apparently the moon featured in Destiny and events call back to that, but Destiny 2 has never been very good at filling in background for us PC types who never played the original so the main thing I think of when travelling to the moon is Weebl’s On the Moon series. The spooky atmosphere of ghostly apparitions is slightly undercut by cries of “I am Insanity Prawn Boy! I am on the moon!” while searching for the Toast King.

It’s not terribly important as it’s not exactly a story-heavy game, suffering the standard massively-online-tension of marrying a world-changing narrative with hundreds of players running the same content week after week. The game even lampshades things now and again, when public events are introduced by commentary along the lines of “The Fallen are trying to bring in weapons again, you would’ve thought they’d learn by now”. Bits of stories crop up in various places, overtly in cut-scenes, less obviously in bits of lore, conversations, side-missions, obscure corners of maps and such. Some of it seems quite interesting, but lacking that context from the original game I’m not hugely invested. Fortunately there’s very little like the Guild Wars 2 quests that force you to stand around while NPCs monologue, it’s all quite skippable if you just want to get on with the DAKKA! Now I just need to find that Nazi moon base…

Maybe I’ll Prey

Exciting news! I bought a new game! I say “new”, it’s Prey, turns out it was actually released more than two years ago but I’m just so plugged-in and up-to-speed with games these days it had totally passed me by until Melmoth tipped me off. I think I’d seen bits and pieces about it around release time but assumed it was something to do with the 2006 Prey, whereas it’s an entirely new game that just shares the name and a broad theme. It owes far more to the System Shock series; possibly the closest spiritual successor yet, involving (spoiler warning for the first five minutes!) a space station, a lot of whacking stuff with a wrench, and (spoiler warning for a bit later though it’s massively telegraphed) psionic abilities. System Shock was a real formative gaming experience, it and its various successors comprising some of my all time favourites (System Shock 2, Deus Ex, much of Bioshock), greatest disappointments (Deus Ex: Invisible War) and Pretty Decent Games If Not All Time Classics (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bioshock Infinite).

As well versed as I was in the genre it’s been a while, and it needs adjustment coming from other games. Destiny 2 is very much a “shoot first, ask questions later” game, and the questions are generally along the lines of “I appear to have used up all my ammunition doing a lot of shooting, have you got some more?” and “I wonder if I can find some bigger guns to do some more shooting with?” I think my first stint in the original Deus Ex was just after something more action-oriented, maybe Unreal Tournament, and needed similar adaptation to a much more cautious style. Most of my fights in Prey are Izzard-style Prince-Charles-bodyguard-type flailing along the lines of “AAAAAHHHH GET IT hit it with a bucket RUN, CHARLIE, RUN ruffle its hair up they hate that I’M COVERED IN ALIEN BEEEEEES, AAAAHHHHH” that finally end with me collapsed in a corner at 10% health having expended half of my total ammunition supplies, furiously assembling a fruit salad to recover health.

It doesn’t help that, as is customary in such games, there are a variety of skills you can invest in to boost your ability to hack, repair, sneak, fight and such, and my primary focus has been on the hacking and repairing side of things to ensure that, one way or other, I can open as many doors as possible. I’m tormented by every locked supply cupboard I pass, in case it contains untold riches or devastating super-weapons; of course most of the time they just have some cleaning supplies, maybe a few rounds of pistol ammunition (that I wouldn’t have needed if I’d focused more on combat skills). Nonetheless I’m enjoying the change of pace, carefully scouring every inch of every office rather than sprinting along with a couple of team-mates unleashing devastation upon wave after wave of mobs, piecing together what’s been happening both in the immediate past and further back in the alt-history setting. Far Cry 5 rather bogged down, parcelling out little chunks of story over a whole lotta map-mopping, something that Prey (so far) managed to avoid; it’s also (so far) avoided the power-creep that many games suffer from, where the early portion of the game is tense, combat is nasty, brutish and short, and every round of ammunition or rusty weapon is to be cherished, but by the end you’re toting a Gatling thermo-laser in one hand and an rapid-fire atomic howitzer in the other. If anything, despite finding a couple of promising looking weapons, combat is getting tougher, I think I’ll probably need to spend a few neuromods on those neglected combat skills before too long. I’ve popped an order in for Shadowkeep, the new Destiny 2 expansion as it moves over from to Steam at the end of the month, I imagine I’ll be ready for a bit more furious shooting by then, but Prey has really rekindled my appreciation for single player story driven games in the meantime.

The old schemes of shattered dreams lying on the floor

Gaming life continues to tick along with little variation. There was a Steam summer sale, I might’ve bought something but can’t actually remember off hand… It was accompanied by another meta-event-thing, some odd race with convoluted mechanisms involving achievements in various games including World of Warships. I’d played a bit at launch and figured I might as well pop back for another look; it turns out that you can’t (as far as I can tell) use a Wargaming account for the Steam version so I had to start from scratch, but that wasn’t a great issue as I’d stopped playing before British ships had been added so would’ve been back to the early tiers either way. I got as far as the first aircraft carrier and found that carriers have been completely overhauled so you control the aircraft directly rather than issuing orders on a map, it was a bit of fun but I doubt I’ll keep it up.

Both War Thunder and Destiny 2 currently have events on; a while back I said that MMOGs “can expand to fill any available free time like cavity insulation foam with levels and classes”, something particularly true with additional event tasks. I still drop in for the odd War Thunder battle now and again but can’t summon the energy for the sustained grind, especially as I’m trying to tick the boxes in Destiny 2 for some shiny Solstice of Heroes armour. The first steps are very straightforward but a bit long-winded, I haven’t looked too closely at subsequent requirements and hope they don’t ramp up too much. With all the additions of bounties, quests, the Menagerie, Tribute Hall and what-not the game is getting a bit admin-heavy; rather than just heading straight for the nearest collection of Evil Alien Robot Things to administer swift rifle-based justice, sessions now start with traipsing around an ever-lengthening list of bureaucrats handing out To Do lists, then working out the optimal sequence of activities to fulfil them. Course you don’t have to, but it’s a bit galling to run through a Strike against the Scorn scoring precision kills by the dozen only to find after you emerge that a bunch of NPCs would’ve given you some minor tat for doing just that if you’d talked to them beforehand (and filled out Form 47(b), unless the Strike was on Mars in which case of course Form 47(c) and Form Gamma Quebec (section XIV) are required due to the jurisdictional transfer), and they’re all sulking now because you didn’t. Bears, bears, bears, eh? Plus ca change

It’s true of many games these days – daily rewards, missions, quests, a never-ending series of unlocks, like being in a sweet shop with jar after jar of inexpensive, even free, sweets, but most of them are Everlasting Gobstoppers. In some ways that’s a great thing, treats for all (though strictly speaking you’d need Everlasting Gobstoppers that were free and kinda tasted all right, but were much nicer if you kept forking over cash, but then the analogy starts getting a bit otter-in-a-carpet), but I miss a bit of candy floss, something light, fluffy and inconsequential that floats away on the summer breeze (and is bad for your teeth and after a while clumps together in a sticky mess that isn’t very nice and is rolled up in a carpet with an otter). Occasional rays of light pierce the fog. A Small World Cup popped up somewhere – simple, quick, very silly and strangely compelling. Mobile games can be a nice change of pace too (when they’re not the absolute worst culprits for games-as-a-service never-ending cash-wringing cynicism); I just discovered I Love Hue, a lovely little colour puzzle game ideal for a few spare minutes here and there. Maybe there’s hope; until then, only another four playlist strikes to complete to upgrade a pair of rubbish gloves into slightly-less-rubbish gloves!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2019

After last year’s automotive issues the car thankfully behaved itself to reach Broad Chalke without any problems for the 2019 Chalke Valley History Festival. The festival goes from strength to strength with another terrific schedule of talks and speakers; we went on the Sunday and started the day off with Major-General Stuart Watson, who commanded an amphibious Duplex Drive tank on D-Day, and finished with James Holland talking about Big Week, the culmination of the RAF and USAAF’s strategic efforts against the Luftwaffe in February 1944. An hour is scarcely enough to do some subjects justice; it’s always humbling listening to veterans and was fascinating hearing about training and the D-Day landings but there was no time for more on the subsequent operations of the 13th/18th Hussars, which would’ve been interesting. James Holland only just got to Big Week itself with all the (vital) background; he’s a tremendously engaging speaker, vividly bringing to life the experiences of the crew of a B-17 to open the talk. If you’re after a wide-ranging ramblechat about World War II then We Have Ways of Making You Talk, his podcast with Al Murray, is well worth a listen, there was a live episode recorded at Chalke Valley but sadly on the Saturday so I couldn’t be there.

In addition to the formal talks there’s always a packed programme of “pop-up” presentations and living history covering everything from Viking navigation to Tudor cookery to steam threshing to a re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar (with volunteers as ships of the line). Everything seemed very well organised this year with printed programmes, amplification for speakers, and events happening where and when they should (apart from some minor confusion over one location). Some of the demonstrations featured current soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment in World War II kit as their predecessors of the Suffolk Regiment, including an infantry platoon attack with the support of a Sherman tank and firing period weapons. Though many re-enactors do a fine job with uniforms and such, inevitably they tend to be a bit older than conscript infantry and not always in peak physical condition. Active soldiers lent a touch more authenticity to proceedings and allowed for some interesting comparisons between kit and tactics.

A minor disappointment was no flying display, but splendid as it always is to see a Spitfire or two there are only so many warbirds to go around the various shows. To make up for it an oversize model of a Hawker Typhoon was erected on a hill overseeing the site, and there was a stall and volunteers from the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group who are striving to return one to flying condition, which would be something to see at a future festival, fingers crossed.

All in all a superb day, roll on 2020!

Panzer? I hardly know ‘er!
Sam Willis and Vikings
Suffolks on the attack
Thresher? I hardly know ‘er!
Chalke Valley

The future’s so blurred I gotta wear reading glasses

As a result of a trade-in offer that promised to accept any working Android phone, I went rummaging around my Museum of Technology (a box in a cupboard). Underneath a Handspring Visor, a Diamond Rio 500, a Sony Clie, a Tapwave Zodiac, a Sony Ericsson T610, a Motorola Razr, and a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet I found my second “proper” smartphone. Uncharacteristically I’d passed on my first (a T-Mobile Pulse) rather than consigning it to the Museum; the second was an Orange San Francisco (a badged version of the ZTE Blade).

The San Francisco is from 2010ish and has a 3.5″ screen, 512 MB of RAM, a 3 megapixel camera and runs Android 2.1, attributes that are (more or less) quadrupled in a current entry level handset, it’s pretty obvious to see the progress over the last ten years putting the two alongside each other. From another perspective, though, the basic functions have hardly changed. The San Francisco can still pick up e-mail, access the web, take (smaller) photos, watch (smaller) videos, play (less) music, run (simple) games, even mad stuff like send text messages and make voice calls. Comparing the San Francisco to tech from 2000 the differences are far greater – you’d need a separate digital camera, MP3 player, PDA and mobile phone (or something like a Nokia Communicator that combined the last two), each a pricey bit of kit. User experience was pretty variable as well; remember WAP? If not, consider yourself fortunate, it was like Ceefax (ask grandad) on a tiny phone screen with updates delivered by a sloth. Getting devices to talk to each other via Bluetooth or an assortment of non-standard cables often needed delving into the depths of arcane drivers and dead chicken waving with inevitable danger of shark attack. 2000 – 2010 saw the various functions being combined to greater or lesser success in a variety of ways before the iOS/Android stranglehold really kicked in. The Pulse and San Francisco were amongst the first handsets available in the UK for around £100 on a pay-as-you-go basis with packages that included data without paying an arm and a leg; iPhones had been out for a couple of years but were very much in the arm, leg and possibly kidney price range.

There’s a Douglas Adams quote that really rings true: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” The exhibits in my tech museum were exciting and revolutionary indeed; for youngsters the smartphone in its current form is normal and ordinary. Now I’m firmly in the last of Adams’ categories I wonder what developments are going to seem against the natural order of things. Perhaps there’s a bit of a cushion, as it takes a while for inventions to become practical and then ubiquitous, or perhaps he slightly underestimated the upper age band; fellow early-Mac-adopter Stephen Fry seems to have maintained his tech-enthusiasm after all. There are signs, though; contactless payment falls into my “new and exciting” zone, and I’m happy to take advantage of the convenience, but I still tend to default to cash which seems like it might become rather anachronistic before too long, kids might look at those weird bits of metal and slips of paper like video cassettes or punched cards. Still, as long as I maintain a bit of dignity and don’t become too amusing and eccentric, eh?