The most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred

I picked up Mass Effect: Legendary Edition when it turned up in the Humble Monthly bundle, and I’ve been happily pottering through the trilogy for the last couple of months. The overhaul of the first game made it eminently playable for something 15 years old, though it still has a few rough edges; the combat is a little clunky, a lot of side missions occur in strangely similar rooms, and driving around planets in the Mako hasn’t magically transformed into a wildly exciting experience.

There are mods aplenty for the Legendary Edition and in hindsight I wish I’d installed some for the first game, particularly the ability to continuously run rather than getting puffed out after jogging for 30 seconds (come on, Shepard, you need to hit the gym a bit more) and skipping the decryption minigame (interesting a few times, pretty tedious towards the end). I thought I’d just stick with the main story and whip through things to remind myself of how it all started, but some inner compulsion (noble work ethic or masochistic streak of self-loathing?) drove me to every last planet in the galaxy; I might’ve missed out on a few grams of beryllium here and there but cleared up almost everything that showed up in the mission journal. I remembered a few of the main story beats (unlike Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I more or less forgot even existed, let alone anything of the plot or characters) but fair swathes had faded from my memory. I had a vague recollection of a slow start, and was slightly surprised by how quickly the main party assembled; a few key planets and one existential threat to the galaxy later, it was off to the second game.

The improvement in combat in Mass Effect 2 was particularly noticeable following immediately on, everything flows a little more smoothly. I remembered a little more of the story as well, what with the story essentially being “recruit a whole bunch of people and sort out their problems before finally tackling the galaxy-threatening menace”. There were chunks of content completely new to me, though, with the Legendary Edition including all DLC. The first game only had one pack that was included in the original PC version anyway, the second had a fair few more and I’d only played the free stuff included at launch (back in those heady days when I actually bought games as they were released rather than finally getting round to them a few years later). It was nice to catch up again with Liara properly in the Lair of the Shadow Broker, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on too much back in the day without the DLC. The hover-tank felt particularly extraneous; granted it was better than the Mako but that’s such a low bar to clear that hovering was hardly necessary. I also installed mods to skip the decryption mini-game and planet-scanning (having done it all manually the first time around I had no desire to stare at spectrograph readings again), and most importantly to allow female Shepard to get to know Jack much better.

On to the third game, and combat is polished that little bit more to the point that it could carry the multiplayer mode. That’s not in the Legendary Edition, a bit of a shame in some ways but there’s hardly a shortage of alternative multiplayer looter-shooters, and the maps pop up as missions in the single player game. They probably gave me the strongest flashbacks – I’d played through the story once but roamed each multiplayer map for tens, if not hundreds, of rounds of horde-type skirmishing and I’d recall a certain favourite console that offered good lines of sight on one map, a route to an extraction point via convenient ladder on another.

Again there’s plenty of DLC that I didn’t have first time around, so far I’ve played through Omega, which was a nicely self-contained story. I have slightly bogged down in the middle of the game, though, I’m not feeling terribly driven to push on through. Something I rather miss is the ability to take a completely different class out for a spin; in multiplayer you could flip between a melee-heavy biotic and sneaky sniper as the mood took you, in single player (barring a fair amount of faff with respeccing and/or mods) I settle into much more of a groove, which does get a bit samey after a while. I also wonder if the ending has something to do with it. First time around I was aware of the General Miffedness of a bunch of folk but managed to avoid specifics, so with expectations suitably lowered I didn’t find the ending that bad. Not particularly good, but not garment-rendingly awful. This time, knowing what’s coming, a lot of the schlepping around the galaxy to gather resources feels a bit pointless, but having ticked off all the side missions in the first two games I’m not going to stop now.

I’m mixing it up with my previously outlined regulars, and was almost tempted to add another to the mix when the Epic Store gave away a bunch of loot for Shop Titans. I installed it to see what was what, and it was fun enough to craft things to sell to level up to craft better things to sell for more to level up further to craft even better things to sell for even more to level up to… well, you get the idea. When you get to level 15 it may suddenly unlock a new mode that deconstructs the very nature of reality but I rather suspect not. It was fun enough but I haven’t really got time for any more virtual admin, and the “over $100!” value of the giveaway was hardly encouraging – a few chests and random virtual currencies would cost that much? Getting on for twice the full price of Mass Effect? Madness.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2022

The Chalke Valley History Festival is a week long celebration of history, as the name rather suggests, with talks, presentations, and living history. This year we kicked things off with Caroline Shenton’s National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II, a superb talk on the dispersal of the collections of libraries and museums at the start of the war. Pre-war fears of a colossal aerial knock-out blow meant not just children but paintings, books and other artefacts left major cities for the relative safety of rural locations.

With cinematic influences from Went The Day Well to Their Finest, casting suggestions were provided through the talk linking the key players to characters from Ealing comedies, a nice way of bringing them to life, and the escapades often had a touch of Ealing about them – a van containing Domesday Book and other priceless documents arriving early in Somerset and being left unlocked while the armed guards went off for a cup of tea; the most important stones of the Crown Jewels being removed and stashed in a biscuit tin. Thankfully the efforts were largely successful, the majority of art surviving the war, though buildings including the British Library were hit during the Blitz; even more thankfully Britain avoided German occupation and the consequent looting widespread across Europe. I can’t wait to delve deeper in the accompanying book, Chalke Valley inevitably results in a greatly expanded ‘to read’ backlog.

Between the formal talks there are all sorts of vignettes of living history – an Iron Age smith extolling the great skill of pre-Roman metalwork in contrast to popular perception (aided by some less than flattering Roman accounts that seem to be contradicted by archaeological evidence), 18th century smugglers demonstrating how to conceal considerable quantities of contraband about their person, unsung heroes of D-Day, SOE saboteurs; it’s hard not to get caught up when walking past, and unfortunately impossible to fit everything in.

From the Iron Age firmly into living memory, our next event was Chris Patten: The Hong Kong Diaries. Current politics was mostly avoided, though the fact that Oliver Dowden had resigned as Conservative Party Chairman that very morning could hardly be overlooked considering Patten’s journey to Hong Kong began in 1992 when, as Chairman himself, he played a key role in John Major’s electoral victory but lost his own seat in Bath. Missing out as Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the possible roles available Governor of Hong Kong in the lead-up to its return to China in 1997 sounded the most interesting, albeit challenging (never mind the Mandate of Heaven, as he says in the book, he didn’t even have the mandate of Bath). He kept a diary, longhand and on tape, and the covid lockdown of 2019 afforded him the opportunity to revisit the transcripts to produce the resulting book.

A fascinating glimpse into the challenges of preserving the systems and character of Hong Kong for the future (“one country, two systems”) under pressure from both the Chinese leadership and those in Britain more concerned about the relationship with China than the people of Hong Kong; I well remember watching the handover on the news, particularly Patten and Prince Charles on the royal yacht leaving the harbour, but hadn’t really been keeping up with the complexities of the situation. As history merged with current affairs Patten’s anger at the regressive policies of the 2010s was clear, especially the hypocrisy of those implementing measures while holding foreign passports themselves.

The good old British summer then put a quite literal dampener on things with a heavy shower, but we were back under cover fairly rapidly for our final event, lightening the tone slightly with the endearingly chaotic Histrionics panel show. Chaired once again by Charlie Higson this year saw Tracy Borman and Ian Hislop take on Dan Snow and Simon Day over rounds including Name That Tomb! and the historical charades of My Kingdom for a Horse, a great way to finish the day.

Iron Age Smith
Just the axe, ma’am
Vickers MG
More tea, Vickers?
2 pounder AT gun
2 pound’er? I hardly know ‘er!
Histrionics Panel Show
Snow joke

Free like a butterfly, free like a bee

I’m currently juggling an assortment of regular games, quite different at first glance: a combat vehicle simulator, a match-3 puzzle game, an idle dungeon crawler, a collectible card game, and a music trivia game. They’re all free-to-play, though, so share many of the persistent elements that tends to bring – rewards/unlocks, achievements/badges, daily/weekly missions, experience points and resulting ranks/levels. Some combination of those seems to be the key to holding my attention long-term, so I thought I’d do a little compare and contrast.

The oldest faithful is War Thunder, I’ve been regularly playing over nine years now which is pretty staggering. New vehicles are frequently added, now pushing well into the 1980s, but thankfully my Second World War focus means I can happily bimble about the lower tiers where it doesn’t take hundreds of hours to nudge up a progress bar. Each month a set of historical decals are made available with various challenges, typically getting a number of kills or a certain score with appropriate vehicles, and I’m finding those are a perfect hook – achievable in a sensible amount of time, and a nudge to play various different countries and vehicle types to mix things up.

I’ve been ticking along in Marvel Puzzle Quest for four years now, also a pretty decent run for a match-3 game. There’s a regular drumbeat of new character from across the Marvel pantheon to unlock and level up; after a couple of years I worked my way through the whole backlog, and now keep pace with the newcomers. It’s my mobile game of choice for killing five minutes when waiting around, or when half-watching something on television or half-listening to a call. There’s something about matching 3 things that remains strangely compelling, with the powers of the characters to mix things up a little and the ongoing levelling and unlocking for a sense of progress. Characters range from one to five stars in power, and while I’ve unlocked all of them I haven’t got any 4* character up to maximum level let alone a 5*, it’s calibrated to really slow things down in those higher levels so there’s no danger of ‘completing’ it.

Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms has just passed the one year mark since I started with it. It also has a regular release of a new character per month, with options to acquire older characters, and I’d just finished unlocking everyone before the event that introduced their 100th champion – the Dungeon Master from the old cartoon series. As an idle game it’s well suited to starting up and leaving it to tick along in the background, occasionally popping back to slightly tweak a formation or start a new adventure, and there’s no shortage of additional elements to progress – character levels, achievements and so on that, like MPQ, slow right down at higher levels to ensure there’s always something to progress.

KARDS hasn’t hit the one year mark yet, and slips in and out of rotation a little; it can still be enormously enjoyable, but also enormously frustrating when you hit certain decks and/or have bad luck with your draws. I tend towards flavour-of-the-month decks in ranked battles but it gets a little stale doing the same thing each time; drafts, unranked battles, the PvE campaigns, or training mode allow for much more experimentation, and are better venues to tackle the daily missions that give a small amount of currency for playing with certain nations or using certain unit types.

SongPop is the newest kid on the block in my rotation, though the oldest game as it approaches its tenth birthday; I played the original incarnation on Facebook, then took about nine and a half years off before getting hooked again. It’s very cross-platform, with Android and iOS clients as well as Windows, but it’s not so much of a “kill five minutes” mobile game – tenths of a second can make all the difference to your score, and of course you need to be listening intently.

As well as head-to-head matches there’s a Party Mode that pits you against up to 300 other players in themed parties (60s, 70s, 80s, pop, rock, etc etc) lasting 24 hours. The top player (occasionally top 3) on the leaderboard at the end of the it gets a badge, with tokens, power-ups and XP distributed to everyone else. You compete against other players in brackets based on your level, and as I was starting off only the most popular categories had more than 50 people playing them; the hinterlands of jazz, blues and reggae were very sparsely populated. Joining right at the start of a party I might have been the only player for a while, so even if I couldn’t tell Miley Cyrus from Cyrus Vance I was still racking up bonus points for being in first place every time. I was absolutely smashing it, then levelled up to the final player bracket.

When you pitch up to a well-established MMO there’s often some sort of PvP skirmishing, and it’s often a bit of jolly old knockabout fun as you level up alongside a smattering of other new players and veterans trying out alts. Then you hit the level cap and are confronted with the other 99% of players, including highly co-ordinated teams of lightning-reflexed killers who’ve spent the years since launch honing their skills, characters and optimal positioning to maximise the insult value of particular emotes. SongPop turns out to be the same, except with a nice old lady called Doris who has an encyclopedic knowledge of 60s music and several hours to kill each day. Suddenly every party is full, many times over, and the top scores are in the hundreds of thousands. If you’re strong across every playlist in a party I reckon you can average about 2,000 points per minute, so we’re talking a good hour or three (considerably longer for those who can’t reliably win every round) of hammering the same category time after time. Not ludicrous, in the grand scheme of gaming time expenditure, but hardly a casual dabble any more. I’ve given up my dreams of a full set of badges, not that it was ever the grandest ambition, and have settled back into the basic pleasures of song recognition and the occasional nostalgia rush that evokes.

So there are persistent elements that, alongside the core gameplay, keep me coming back to those games. The publishers are probably more concerned about the other ubiquitous elements of free-to-play: in-game currencies, earned by playing and/or bought with real money; purchasable unlocks; gacha/loot boxes; advertising; premium/VIP status. Do they keep me paying as well as playing?

Premium vehicles in War Thunder are (I presume) one of its main sources of income; instantly available without needing to grind, and slightly more rewarding to use in battles. They’re separate to the standard vehicles obtained by playing and shouldn’t offer a clear advantage in battles, though there’s a bit of a furore now and again when battle ratings seem to be particularly favourable. I bought a few back in the day, particularly bundles of vehicles/currency/etc on sale, though haven’t felt the need for a while now. MPQ and Idle Champions both offer specific heroes for purchase, but in both cases exactly the same heroes can be unlocked by other means so they’re not so tempting in the cash shop; I have bought a couple of bundles, but only when steeply discounted in a sale. KARDS offers PvE campaigns and expansion sets that can be bought with either in-game currency or cash, and come with themed cards that can be very useful; I’ve bought an assortment, but with in-game currency rather than cash. For MPQ, Idle Champions and KARDS, though, specific unlocks take a back seat to random rewards from their various implementations of loot boxes (tokens, chests and card packs).

Personally I’m not a fan of spending real money on random rewards; all three games allow you to earn loot boxes by playing as well, and the results make me even less likely to spend real money. Once you’ve unlocked all the characters and basic equipment in the first two games opening packs is essentially an admin exercise of duplicate items giving incremental improvements with very occasional slightly more useful rewards. It’s most disappointing in KARDS, where booster packs should really be central to the CCG element, but while at first it’s great to be able to slot any sort of upgrade into your starter decks it doesn’t take long at all before you’re constructing specific decks that need specific, often rare, cards. With an ever-expanding pool of cards, the chances of getting something you really want from a random booster get ever-lower; I can’t remember the last time I got a new card from a pack that went straight into action. Fortunately there’s a wildcard system that lets you craft chosen cards, so at least you’re not entirely at the mercy of the randomness. I bought a few Steam bundles including card packs for KARDS at a good discount, and the Epic store giveaway that first tempted me to Idle Champions included a few stacks of chests, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to spend serious money on more. War Thunder also introduced crates requiring premium currency to open, but they seem tacked on, like it’s expected of a free-to-play game so they might as well shove them in, I’ve never bothered with them at all.

The only game that doesn’t sell random loot is SongPop, and it’s also the only one that does include advertising. More of a staple in mobile games, a free player of SongPop gets to enjoy an advert after every round they play. In the Windows Store version this consists of a static screen that can be immediately dismissed, there appears to be a pool of four or five other games that might pop up, none particularly recent; it smacks slightly of a forgotten bus stop still advertising Gods Of Egypt In Cinemas Now!! The Android/iOS versions have more intrusively irritating animated ads, occasionally immediately dismissible, more frequently unskippable. It’s pretty much unplayable on those platforms for any length of time without going slightly mad, whereas the Windows adverts are so easy to skip they might as well not be there; Goldilocks wouldn’t be impressed. The adverts can be avoided by upgrading to a VIP subscription.

Premium/VIP status is on offer in War Thunder, MPQ, and SongPop. In War Thunder it gives a significant boost to mission rewards and research speed, and is all but essential to unlock vehicles in the higher tiers; I kept it up for a few years when playing more, grabbing it at a good discount on a yearly basis, but it’s not really needed when bimbling around the lower tiers. I also took out a VIP sub in MPQ for a couple of months towards the beginning of my run; it gives out a daily bonus of tokens or in-game currency, particularly useful when frequently unlocking new heroes but not so necessary any more. In SongPop it removes adverts, allows you to select any playlist for matches, and has a few other perks; for about £4 a month it wasn’t a bad deal at all. SongPop also offered a Diamond VIP tier for four times the price that didn’t include a whole lot more; whether there to make the regular VIP status look better value, or for those who really loved the game and wanted to chuck more cash at it, it seemed a little odd.

On the whole, then, I much prefer to buy a specific known item or some sort of subscription with defined benefits, and am a dreadful cheapskate who mostly buys things in sales. I presume I’m in a minority, with loot boxes being so prevalent, but I only have a sample size of ‘me’ to work with. I’d hesitate to call any model too generous, but I’ve reached a point in all five games where it doesn’t feel necessary to buy anything; I would have said SongPop had ideal monetisation, no random loot boxes and a cheap VIP subscription as a way of showing support while also gaining a few benefits. Ironically, though, they just announced a new structure, doing away with regular and Diamond VIP in favour of a single SongPop Plus option for twice the price of the old VIP, so £8(ish) per month is steep for a light dabbling game. A two-tier system would seem to make sense, with a cheap option to remove adverts and get a few bonus rewards coupled with a pricier tier to access all playlists as well; I might’ve kept subscribing for a while under a fiver, but I guess it’s back to adverts for Sniper Fury.

The record shows I took the blows

I wrapped up my first play-through of Cyberpunk 2077, but I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending. There’s a point where you have to decide how to proceed, and I’d avoided reading too much to keep it fresh (and will be vague in this post to avoid major spoilers). One choice was to let Keanu Reeves take over and do things his way, often a perfectly sound course of action in life, but the game had done a fine job in putting me in the shoes of the protagonist; previous missions with Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand to the fore somehow felt a little off, obviously it was still me (the player) in control, but it didn’t quite feel like me (the character), presumably the intent, and a testament to the power of storytelling in the medium. Very quantum, baby.

I was going to bring in some allies I’d made along the way, but it was pointed out that things would get messy and there would be probably be casualties. I was sufficiently worried over my NPC chums that it swayed me to go solo and agree to a corporate plan. After all, who was the real sick man in this so-called society, the rebel who’d nuked a building, or the businessman in his suit and tie? (It’s both of them, Rich.)

In my mind I was just playing along, and at a critical moment would reveal my true intentions and stick it to the corpo-man. The game gave me no reason to be certain it would be possible, there wasn’t a dialogue option of “Very well, I agree to your plan. ASIDE: I do not really agree to it and have my fingers crossed, aaahhhh”, but that was my hope. Turned out I never got the chance, I played it straight and stuck to my in-game word, hence the rather disappointing ending, things fizzling out somewhat, with most of the friends I’d made along the way expressing their dismay at my choice over the phone before the credits rolled. Nobody’s fault but mine, but after 100+ hours of thoroughly enjoying Night City it was a bit of a shame. Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again that’s what save games are for. At some point I’ll load things up from just before that final decision and give it another shot.

Not just yet, though, I think I need to let things settle for a bit. With Mass Effect Legendary Edition in the Humble monthly bundle it’s Commander Shepard’s time to save the galaxy, again. Can it really be fifteen years since the first game came out? Even with the graphics and gameplay updates it shows its age a little, but it’s still very playable, the trilogy should keep me going a fair while.

There’s also SongPop, proving to be highly diverting with its themed events especially. I did pretty well with film music for the Oscars, less well with the nominees for the Grammys. Best of all was the April Fool event with my perfect playlists – stand up comedians, comedy songs, Weird Al, Monty Python. There were also some fun musical variants like That’s Not My Name, where the answers were what songs could/should have been called (e.g. “Woo Hoo” for Blur’s Song 2), and Anagrammed Artists providing the dual challenge of firstly identifying a song is by the Imagine Dragons, and then discounting Pig Slicers, The AWOL Monk, and Sweaty Ken as possible answers before selecting Raiding Mangoes (the others being Spice Girls, Walk The Moon, and Kanye West; I’m not sure if there’s a Kanye tribute act called Sweaty Ken yet, if not that’s a definite missed opportunity).

The SongPop Remains the Same

A few months back I started playing Wordle, lured in like millions of others by mysterious coloured squares appearing in my Twitter feed. That ability to share the results of a game without spoiling it is really smart, combined with the simple core mechanics and once-per-day limit to stop you binging until sick it’s become the first game that my entire family have all been on board with, pinging results through on the family WhatsApp group of a coffee or lunch break. Variants, knock-offs, and deliberate rip-offs inevitably proliferated like green and yellow algae, and I dabbled with a few; Quordle, guessing four words simultaneously, was an interesting version, mutating into Octordle and Sedecordle for 8 and 16 simultaneous words, and presumably by now someone’s constructed a version where you get 160,000 guesses to try and complete every single five letter word from the dictionary at once, though the replayability might be a bit limited there.

I saw a post about Heardle, an audio version where you guess a song from progressively longer clips (more Name That Tune than Wordle, but still) and thought I’d have a go. I heard a snippet of guitar vaguely reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Wild Night, so I searched for that in the possible answers and hit upon the slight snag. Apparently the songs are taken from popularly streamed artists, and my post-2000 musical knowledge is appallingly shoddy (how amusing and eccentric!); I didn’t even recognise half the artists that popped up, let alone any of their songs. It did tickle a faint memory, though, of a Facebook game called SongPop, which apparently I was playing back in January 2013 when I first fired up War Thunder. Turns out that closed down, but SongPop 2 lives as a standalone application including a Windows version, so I installed that; it even carried progress over from the Facebook version, including matches that had been awaiting my turn for 452 weeks (sorry about that, PopDude 68).

Each match consists of rounds where you have to identify five songs, with players taking it in turns to select the playlist used. Playlists are bought with in-game currency, and where I seem to recall they were pretty limited, there’s now a vast selection of genres, eras and artists – rock, pop, country, blues, reggae, TV and film themes, nursery rhymes, even (to my great delight) Monty Python. When looking for opponents the game pops up two or three suggestions where you seem to have some commonality, but there’s also the option of picking a random opponent, which I’ve used a fair bit. That’s resulted in some good matches with both players having a good shot at the other’s playlists, and some definite mismatches. I generally try and start fairly broad (something like Rock Classics), but if the other player gets specific, so do I. I’m currently in a drawn-out battle of attrition with somebody who picks K-Pop or BTS every time (not a hope), so I retaliate with Monty Python and UK TV Themes. You can finish a match at any point, so I presume they’re just as amused/stubborn as I am about the absurdity of it.

On the face of it there’s not much similarity between guessing songs and a Second World War deck building game, but there are some parallels with the way I’m playing KARDS. As with many card games you can build a fairly generic deck where most cards have some value in most circumstances, or very specific decks built around certain mechanics – discarding cards is usually a bad thing, but some cards kick off a positive effect when discarded, for example. Climbing up ranked play the decks that really employ synergy (or cheap gimmicky decks, if you’re on the receiving end) are more common and can be rather frustrating to encounter; I thought I was in a pretty strong position against one opponent until suddenly he slapped down two cards and played a whole bunch of cheap infantry – one card damaged each of his new units as they were deployed, normally a Bad Thing, until the second card damaged my HQ every time one of his units was destroyed, and that was game over.

The devs seem to do a reasonable job of subtle adjustments when a particular deck is really dominating, and ensuring there are ways to counter particular tactics. Of course sod’s law says that if you gear up with a bunch of cards that are good against hordes of cheap units then you encounter a deck that massively buffs one or two powerful units (on top of the general sod’s law of card games when you have the perfect card in your deck but don’t draw it when you really need it). On the flip side I know that if I adopt a particular deck that’s always easily beaten me, every match I play will be against opponents perfectly tailored to deal with it. Still, I thought I’d give it a bash so had a browse of the user-submitted decks on the main website. A lot of them need a bunch of rare units, so require either incredible luck with random rewards or some real-money investment. One jumped out, though, that mostly used cheap common cards. It’s an ‘aggro’ deck that tries to get a bunch of low-cost units onto the field and buffed before an opponent can deal with them. It’s very much all-or-nothing, if you haven’t won in the first few turns there’s no Plan B, so at least it’s quick either way. It’s been pretty effective, I’ve climbed the furthest I’ve got to in ranked play, but it gets a bit stale doing the same thing every game so I mix things up with unranked matches using various decks that are more interesting to play, if less optimal, and draft games. Maybe if I had to identify military marches from brief snippets while attacking and also guessing five letter military words it would be a one-stop shop for all my gaming needs…

Do you feel lucky, Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk: 2077 is going strong; nudging up to the 100 hour mark and it feels like there’s a fair bit more to do, with at least a couple of strong side missions chains in progress alongside the main story. I haven’t been rushing; some evenings I don’t feel like delving too deeply so I’ll noodle around clearing up a bit of crime or doing some clothes shopping, others I’ll settle down and push on with the plot. Noodling feels a little wrong considering there are somewhat pressing matters to deal with, but it’s a very RPG matter of life and death that allows for plenty of chasing after rogue taxis in between preserving your own existence.

It took me a while to find a decent sniper rifle, but a crafting template and sufficient perk points got that sorted, so that’s my weapon of choice for starting most encounters. An array of hacking skills to confuse, blind and generally irritate foes can generally keep me stealthy, and if all else fails a shotgun makes for a pretty sound Plan B. With gear pretty well sorted the old RPG Rainbow of Excitement has reached its inevitable conclusion; a splash of green used to be cause for celebration, then only blue was enough to quicken the pulse, eventually purple barely raised an eyebrow and orange is worth a quick glance, though usually no more than that. Another old RPG standby, Getting Captured and Losing Your Stuff, made an interesting change for a bit; I was a little surprised that my captors had fitted an entire arsenal of weaponry and fourteen spare outfits into a single locker when I recovered my gear, but probably not as surprised as they were that I’d somehow carried it all in the first place.

It feels like a long time since I’ve been pulled into the story of a game, and I’ve been having a browse to see if there might be something else once I’ve wrapped up Cyberpunk. The remastered Mass Effect trilogy, perhaps, with Baldur’s Gate 3 still in Early Access. Then again I might have had enough of story for a while, so waiting for its full release might work out after all.

Buddy Holly Never Wrote a Song Called We’re Too Cyberpunk

It’s been a while since I really sunk myself into a new game, but Cyberpunk 2077 has properly hooked me. Melmoth gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up so I picked it up in the Steam sale; about 30 hours in I’ve just hit the title card having spent plenty of time pottering about Night City tackling random criminals and side quests before cracking on with the main story.

It feels very Deus Ex, more so than the actual sequels in many ways (which were fine in themselves, but didn’t really capture the sprawling openness of the original). It’s comfortingly familiar in its systems; stealth, tech/hacking and a variety of firearms presenting different ways of tackling problems from tiptoeing around piling up unconscious bodies in wheelie bins to silenced sniping to the more straightforward shotgun to the face. It’s comfortingly familiar in setting as well. I never played the pencil and paper RPG but have enjoyed plenty of similar media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Altered Carbon; having been around for the first two editions of the RPG, set in the wildly futuristic years of 2013 and 2020, the cyberpunk genre seems oddly retro in many ways now, even with the subsequent updates.

It seems to have absolutely hit my Goldilocks spot. The city has the open world elements so there’s always something to do, but with distinctive enough side missions so it doesn’t always feel like you’re just doing yet another instance of the same activity. Combat is challenging enough that I can’t just wander around blazing away with impunity, but not head-smashingly frustrating (mostly; the level based nature of it meant I inadvertently got into a couple of scrapes with nigh-invulnerable opposition, but the good old RPG standby of coming back a few levels later sorted things out). The main story is strong enough to pull me along, but loose enough to allow for meandering diversion. It feels like there are choices to be made in that best RPG way, where you know you’re going to end up in the same places but with subtle enough differences that it feels like your own version of the story. There’s plenty of loot to be had, and crafting and upgrading if the things you find aren’t quite right, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s not like you’re repeating activities solely for the chance of an almost-identical-but-very-slightly-better gun. As many have pointed out the armour system does force a bit of a choice between selecting the item with the best stats in each slot versus not looking like you’ve clothed yourself from a charity shop reject dumpster, but I haven’t found that too much of a hindrance (there’s usually something decent looking that’s not too far off, stat-wise, or you can just avoid mirrors if it really comes to it). The stats and perks system seems intuitive enough with a plethora of interesting-looking options, I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to ultimately acquire but I’m looking forward to trying out a few different options.

I’m also greatly appreciating the single player offline nature of it, particularly after Fallout 76. I’m not missing a cash shop or season pass goals or daily login rewards at all, they have their place, but not everywhere. Being able to pause at any point is quite the blessing; I was playing a PvP match of KARDS, which only allows communication via a limited series of emotes. That’s a thoroughly sensible system, cutting through language barriers and removing the possibility for the usual online unpleasantness (you can even shut them off if someone starts spamming them in a desperate attempt to be mildly irritating). The downside is the absence of a “My dog’s been sick on the carpet!” emote (understandably, it’s a bit specific), so I could only use the more generic “Sorry!” after I’d inadvertently let the timer run down on a couple my turns.

Of course this all comes with the caveat that I’m still early on in the story and entirely reserve the right to fundamentally change my mind as things go, but so far it’s looking good. I’m sure things will get a bit stale after a while, but I’m hoping the combination of narrative and gameplay will at least see me through to the end of the main story; plenty of previous games with similar open world/RPG elements (Red Dead Redemption 2, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins etc.) have fallen at that hurdle, maybe there’s something about an SF setting I need (the (offline) Fallout and Mass Effect series being cases where I did actually finish the story).

The end of the world has been postponed

Looks like Fallout 76 has run its course for a while, as I’m not really getting a hook to pull me into a session. There are quests all over the place, often interesting little self-contained stories as in the previous games, but in the face of the not so great combat and all the MMO-ness outlined in the previous post it’s not really enough. It might be something to head back into, or it might stay parked in The Great Library of Eternal Promise, we’ll see.

In the meantime Destiny 2 perked up slightly after a couple months off, with a wave of Bungie’s 30th Anniversary stuff and the Dawning event. Neither are wildly innovative; there’s a 6 player activity from the former that, shockingly, consists of a bunch of waves of minions then bosses, the latter is a lot of schlepping across the galaxy handing out gifts, but they manage to stay the right side of “giving a gentle incentive to do other stuff, which is pretty fun anyway” without straying too far into tedious admin. It’s not long term, even with some randomised elements the new event got same-y pretty quickly, but it was a nice little diversion with some shiny outfits on offer. It hasn’t been enough to get me to pre-order the next expansion, I think I’ll still be taking a longer break before heading into that.

KARDS, the Second World War themed online CCG, has proven quite compelling, I’ve been playing a round or three of that most days, veering between the usual CCG emotions of smug satisfaction at my incredible tactics and incandescent fury at the appalling cheese decks my opponent uses, the latter augmented by the AI quite deliberately dealing the perfect card to the enemy at just the right time while putting all my potential match winners at the bottom of the deck. A quick browse of forums suggest the current meta swings heavily towards issuing a lot of irritating orders, something I’ve seen a bit of myself, hopefully the tide might shift as it’s enormously frustrating to get into those matches. I’m quite happy bibbling around at a low rank with other players who haven’t invested a vast amount of time or money into building up masses of fancy cards. Much like War Thunder, where I also hop into low-to-mid ranked planes and boats for a match or two most days, even tanks a bit recently, though that’s mostly reminded me that I’m really not so keen on ground forces. Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms continues to be inexplicably compelling as well, but I’m missing something to really get my teeth into. Cyberpunk 2077 might be the very thing from the current Steam sale, I’m strongly tempted to pick it up after Christmas.

A hundred and ten cornets close at hand

Things have calmed down a bit with puppy ownership, so I’ve finally got a bit of time in Fallout 76. Giving it a few years seems to have been a good decision as there’s been plenty added since launch, not least NPCs; I’m not surprised that the game world felt a bit dead at launch, even the light smattering of other characters make things feel more alive, unlike (ironically) human players who (at best) add nothing to the experience. My only interactions have been getting rapidly killed by high level players after claiming workbenches, an action that flags you for PvP. The game makes it clear, and it’s worth doing at least once to get a bunch of plans, but it gives me absolutely no desire to participate in more general PvP. There are messages here and there about teams forming up, though usually at much higher levels again, but I’ve no interest in that faff either.

In fact, other than content updates, the online elements are pretty universally negative. Combat follows the pattern of the previous games – sneak around, carefully line up a high-damage sniper rifle, and hopefully one shot opponents with a critical hit, otherwise revert to Plan B (for Benny (Hill)), chasing around and blazing away randomly. Here it seems a bit jankier, with mobs sometimes stuttering around, and as VATS no longer pauses time Plan B is even more chaotically “Ruffle his hair up, hit him with a bucket, run, Charlie, run!” Not being able to pause is less than ideal when the pup needs a bio break (or indeed when I do), and with some instances not preserving progress until they’re completed it’s pretty annoying if you get called away and have to repeat everything next time around. The Atomic Shop is far from the worst item shop, but still a minor annoyance to have it pop up every time you start the game.

I guess the key question is why I’m even bothering with Fallout 76 rather than going back to one of the previous games, with added DLC or mods to freshen it up. I’m not entirely certain myself, to be honest. Cost is one issue – all the DLC for Fallout 4 would be about three times as much as I paid for Fallout 76 on sale. I’d also have to either start from scratch or pick up a long-forgotten save game, not the end of the world but still. If the DLC pops up on sale I might consider it; for the moment, though, Fallout 76 scratches that Robinsonade itch with plenty of world to explore, mutants to battle, and crockery to break down into useful components.

It’s too dark to read

After previously posting about fancying a go at Fallout 76 but thinking it a bit pricey, it conveniently turned up on sale for less than a tenner. Instant buy! I haven’t quite got around to actually playing it, though, on account of a new arrival – Lyra the Miniature Schnauzer puppy, an adorable fluffbundle. Not entirely conducive to PC gaming sessions, though, she’s a fan of rather more old school entertainments like Tug On A Rope, Run Around A Lot, and the ever-popular Shoe Eating.

Normal service might resume in a while…

Lyra the Schnauzer