Wednesday 21 November 2012

Any Friday you want, so long as it's black

Amazon’s Black Friday Deals Week is pottering along, and there’ve been a few gaming bargains; I picked up Rocksmith as part of a plan to finally get around to learning the guitar, though some would suggest that actually buying a guitar is perhaps the more crucial element of that plan. Half the fun, though, is seeing what other weird and wonderful items come up for sale, some of which are prime targets for the cult of spoof reviews; the BIC For Her Medium Ballpoint Pen “designed specifically for women” (on offer at 1.29pm this afternoon!) is a case in point, though 511 reviews is overdoing it slightly. I suppose it’s just conforming to the general internet rule of humour: if a joke is worth making, it’s worth making again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again until every last vestige of humour that might possibly have been present has been wrung so thoroughly from the dessicated corpse of the joke that it’s nothing but hollow, echoing words, at which point it’s gone so far past being funny that it’s become funny again as a form of peculiar meta-anti-humour, and then more people jump on and keep making the same joke pushing it past so-not-funny-it’s-funny into so-not-funny-it-was-funny-but-now-isn’t-again. Or something.

One danger of looking at random odd items is that it can make the personalised recommendations go a little strange, but, a bit like jokes, you just need to push things far enough, until the site says: “Inspired by your browsing history! Customers who viewed cricket spring return stumps, a slow cooker, a colour coded index chopping board set, solar garden spotlights, six water filters, a kayak, a food processor, a digital radio and radiator reflector panels also viewed… erm… god, I don’t know, a set of deck quoits? An ornamental hatstand in the shape of Reginald Maudling? I give up, I’m going to go and help this other customer over here who’s just bought a book by recommending every other book the author has written, I bet they won’t have thought of that…”

Friday 16 November 2012

Silent Storm Sale

If anyone, perhaps inspired by XCom, fancies a bit more turn-based action, have a weekend sale on strategy & wargames. My pick of the bunch would be S2: Silent Storm Gold Edition, a World War II(ish) game without the strategic layer of XCom but with lashings of turn-based fun. There’s also the even more XCom-y UFO games, IL-2 Sturmovik for flight simmery and a few others.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Innovation is the whim of an elite

You wait all day for a Kickstarter revival of a classic space combat franchise, and then two come along at the same time… Though Egosoft’s X series has been manfully plugging away at galaxy-spanning trade and combat with regular releases since 1999 it never seems to have caught the imagination quite like Elite, so it’ll be interesting to see what Braben & co. come up with. I haven’t chipped in myself yet, as I have to admit to being a touch skeptical after the problems with the two Frontier games and lengthy gestation period of Elite IV (and I’m not sure about Dangerous as a subtitle; I would’ve gone for Elite: Competent, or Elite: Mostly Harmless for preference). Still, fingers crossed they pull it off.

Perhaps inspired by all the space-combat-ness, when I noticed had bunch of EA games on sale I bought Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Despite the first two being formative PC gaming experiences I’d never played the latter games in the series, so I thought I’d rememdy that, especially as the price of freedom turned out to be $2.39 in the sale. The FMV sequences haven’t aged too badly; sure they’re a bit blocky and low resolution, but in this age of YouTube, mobile phone camera footage and streaming video over not-terribly-fast broadband that’s not terribly jarring. The opening goes on a bit when you’re itching to get into the cockpit and fly (yada yada, retired, farming, bar-room thug, get on with it) but eventually you get into space, and at that point the graphics do rather show their age. Not just the graphics; spoiled by the ubiquity of tutorials in modern games, I’d forgotten than back in Ye Olde Days of 1995 you had these strange artefacts, “manuals” I think they were called, that somehow offered guidance in the forms of “words” printed on “paper”. Course I hadn’t bothered downloading the PDF versions of the manuals, but not to worry, I remembered an ancient technique practised by those who may, entirely hypothetically, have swapped games on tapes or discs without accompanying documentation: the art of pressing every key on the keyboard to see if something happened. And that, as I told the board of enquiry, is why, at the time of the attack by enemy fighters, I was looking out of the left window of the ship with the engines set to 25% power, the windscreen wipers going furiously, and the on-board drinks dispenser midway through producing a cup of synth-Bovril.

Eventually quitting the game (in prehistoric times the convention of pressing ‘Escape’ to bring up a menu hadn’t been standardised) I went off and downloaded the supporting bits and pieces from, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back. Despite the moment of madness in buying WCIV (at least I managed to resist getting the complete Ultima series at the same time) I’ve got a pile of games of more modern vintage to work through; British tanks in World of Tanks (a weekend of x5 XP and some bonus Premium time catapulted me through to Tier IV and a Matilda and Covenanter), Unity of Command (a well-reviewed operational level wargame that was recently added to Steam), Mass Effect 3 multiplayer challenges, Civilisation 5… Having finished one complete play-through of Borderlands 2 (and started a “True Vault Hunter” second run, plus a couple of other characters) I’ve decided to park it up and perhaps return to it once a few DLC packs are out, so I finally got around to the new XCOM game. In contrast to WCIV there is an extensive tutorial, taking you through just about every aspect of both the strategic and tactical game. It’s hardly “dumbing down”, though, the original UFO: Enemy Unknown had a step-by-step introduction in the manual that I can still (very dimly) remember, XCOM just integrates it into the game itself, and adds characters like your Chief Scientist and Engineer to present the information in-universe. Incidentally, with graphics technology coming on in leaps and bounds from the weird triangular people of the early 90s such that the visuals of cut-scenes no longer need the talents of Mark “Voice of “Luke “Christopher “Maverick” Blair” Skywalker” the Joker” Hamill and Thomas F. “Biff from Back “Todd “Maniac” Marshall” to the Future” Wilson, it seems a touch odd that computer-generated voices haven’t made a similar level of progress from the text-to-speech software that was so much fun with the original SoundBlaster; is it a much more difficult field, or just less costly to get someone in a booth recording dialogue so less impetus to the research?

XCOM seems thoroughly splendid, as most reviews have suggested a worthy update of a classic, and leaving it a while may have been a good idea as I haven’t hit any major bugs yet, possibly thanks to a couple of patches since release. Half the fun is always naming your squad after friends, family, bloggers, film stars etc.; so far I’ve gone with Ramsay “Chopper” MacDonald leading his cabinet from the Second National Ministry, 1st “Viscount” Hailsham proving a dab hand with a sniper rifle, and Philip “RightHon” Cunliffe-Lister extending his brief to specialise in live alien capture. I’m just hoping their rearmament policy isn’t too late…

Tuesday 6 November 2012

There is an inevitable divergence between the world as it is and the world as men perceive it

Finally, the British have arrived in World of Tanks. In a conventional World War II game it would obviously be the work of a deranged madman to include non-existent French tanks before the sturdy tea-boilers of the good old UK, so World of Tanks is clearly an alternate history game. I reckon the point of divergence in the Tankiverse was that Britain and France didn’t declare war on Germany when it invaded Poland, so the Phoney War was the shaky preservation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact until May 1940, at which point Hitler strikes east instead of west, launching World of Tanks with its German and Soviet vehicles. Shortly after, the United States enters the war; this is where things get a bit tricky. Japan aren’t involved yet, presumably waiting until World of Warplanes and World of Warships to stage Pearl Harbor having ruled out the possibility of building a really, really long bridge to kick things off with tanks, so that’s not the catalyst. With elections being a bit topical and all, then: George S. Patton gets bored, secures the Republican nomination for the 1940 election, sweeps to victory, and decides to invade Russia. Via Alaska. Entirely plausible (for very small values of “entirely”). That gets us to the EU/US launch of World of Tanks, with added American tanks.

In this world the UK, rather than the US, adopts an isolationist stance. The French are biding their time, still miffed because they didn’t get Alsace-Lorraine back after World War I for terribly good reasons that I can’t be bothered to make up, eventually launching an invasion to reclaim their territory with a bunch of stupid prototype tanks in Operation: Patch 7.1 during January 2012 (or July 1941 by the Tankiverse calendar). Fighting a two-front war, the Germans formulate a cunning plan: elite Brandenburgers capture a French submarine and torpedo a convoy of Darjeeling bound for Liverpool in June 1942, a date that will live in leaf-infusion infamy. This is too much for the Brits, who kick out Chamberlain or Attlee or some bloke like that, elect Churchill, and storm onto the Normandy beaches. Voila! Germany vs the USSR vs America vs France vs the UK. Watch out for a Kickstarter campaign soon for the tie-in novel, “A Bunch Of Countries Fight Each Other For Some Reason But Only With Tanks And This And That”.