Thursday 5 December 2019

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.

Friday 22 November 2019

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.

Thursday 31 October 2019

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…

Tuesday 17 September 2019

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.

Friday 16 August 2019

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!

Friday 5 July 2019

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

Thursday 6 June 2019

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?

Friday 10 May 2019

The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence

The BBC had a news item the other day about use of self-storage units being at an all-time high, with an obligatory decluttering expert giving advice on (surprisingly enough) decluttering. I’m not too bad in real life, the odd box of serial and parallel cables to fit ports that no PC has had in the last seven years here, a small collection of power adapters that connect to nobody-knows-what there, but digital storage is another matter. Course there are e-mails, photographs and what-not; according to that “the term digital hoarding was first used in 2015” but one of my earliest posts here was about being a pack rat in games and it was hardly a new concept then.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Destiny 2 continues to tick along as game of choice at the moment, and some of the trickiest battles in there are deciding what to keep and what to break down into materials. They expanded the capacity of the Vault to 500 items, but needless to say I rapidly filled that with shaders, spaceships, speeders, submachine guns, sniper rifles, and even stuff that doesn’t begin with ‘s’. I really ought to have a proper clear-out, but there’s the old hoarders mantra… it might come in useful. Who amongst us hasn’t woken up one morning with a fierce urge to suddenly colour all their armour hot pink and lime green? The random perk system rather exacerbates matters, as Sod’s Law dictates that I end up with four of the same item, each with one useful perk and one useless, and rather than just decide on one of them I’ll stick ’em all in the Vault. A sniper rifle with extra damage on the opening shot but also a hip fire bonus? Fab! I’ll just pop it over here with the rampaging pistol made out of ham and cluster rocket launcher that dispenses suncream. The changing nature of online games is another contributor. I can’t recall ever running out of primary ammunition, so the Primary Ammo Finder perk on armour seems more pointless than a particularly blunt pencil used to write the song “You’re Beautiful” before being recruited by the NKVD while working as an art historian. But what if Bungie intended primary ammunition to be incredibly scarce and someone had misplaced a decimal point in its drop chance, they fix it, and Primary Ammo Finder becomes the most useful perk there is? Other than the forums melting and an online backlash of such ferocity that people are Really Very Cross on Twitter, of course.

Destiny 2 has nothing on Neverwinter, though, which had a pretty major update recently with Module 16 – higher level cap, some new class mechanics, that sort of thing. I barely played Module 15 but got the game patched up again for a Sunday morning jaunt, and again found myself wrestling with inventory space. Some of the issues are quite deliberate – bags and bank space are staples in the cash shops of free-to-play games, clearly a good way to bring in revenue, especially when nudged along by showering the player with crafting materials, potions, food, quest items, multitudinous currencies and tokens and keys and gems and widgets and grommets and geese and socks and paperclips and electrical goods and crockery and a small ornamental donkey named Gerald wearing a sombrero. Others are less intentional – over six years and 16 modules plenty of game mechanics have been tweaked and overhauled, and rather than starting afresh I’ve been dusting off old characters with already stuffed bags and haven’t been able to summon the enthusiasm to read in depth about what’s still relevant and what is obsolete. I ought to just break down a load of stuff into refinement points, but again there’s the nagging fear… what if there’s some super-rare item from Module 3 that’s no longer obtainable and has become an enormously valuable status symbol? There’s always the KonMari method – only keep those things that spark joy. I’m not sure that’s a thread to tug on, though, or the entire gaming jumper might start unravelling…

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Ack Ack Ack Ack

It’s been a quiet time on the gaming front, sticking with the old favourites. War Thunder thunders along, as it’s wont to do; a recent update introduced radar, missiles and increasingly modern tanks, areas I’m not particularly interested in, but that’s not a problem as I can still happily potter about in World War II era boats and aircraft. I wandered in to the open beta of The Division 2 and, in a shocking turn of events, found it a lot like The Division. I had a good run in the original but didn’t get very heavily drawn into its endgame, in general I prefer the more fluid first-person combat of Destiny 2 to cover-based third-person shooting, so decided not to pick up TD2 just yet. I might grab it if there’s a good offer at some stage and/or a gaming void opens up, but there’s no danger of that at the moment. I bought Far Cry 5 in a Steam sale of some sort; it seems fine, a good old Ubi map-mopper, but an FPS with a map full of things to tick off isn’t exactly a dramatic break if I’m looking for a change so I haven’t been in there much, it’s Destiny 2 that’s ticking along. They seem to have struck a sweet spot in combat: plenty of easy-to-mow-down minions that are still threatening en masse, a smattering of more powerful mobs, plus the big old boss fights. The Division 2 still seemed to favour fewer, tougher mobs which (for me) feels less psychologically satisfying even if the end result of time taken and XP/loot/etc received is the same (similarly there’s more of a disconnect when standard humans require massive volumes of fire to bring down, even if a game isn’t striving for any great realism, whereas any fule kno that space aliens with laser shields can absorb a whole load of shooting). The various weapon types of Destiny 2 all seem to have their place; I mostly settle into a comfortable groove of pulse rifle, shotgun, and machine gun, but in the course of levelling up or for specific tasks I’ll switch in bows, hand cannons or whatever for slightly different fighting styles. The variety of activities, PvE and PvP, solo and group, also keeps things fresh enough that I don’t feel too caught in a groove of “run exactly the same mission twice a week plus matinee”. It’s my battered old armchair of choice at the moment.

Though playing enough I’m pretty disengaged from gaming more widely, as is doubtless obvious from the infrequency of posts here; Zubon’s farewell struck more chords than Status Quo (all four of them). Past April Fool’s Days veered between irritation at swathes of not-particularly-funny stuff and appreciation for some decent jokes, especially when developers went so far as to tweak game content. I hardly keep up with gaming news these days, though, so barely saw anything this year; I’m not sure if there was as much as usual, or if the world decided there’s no point making fake headlines when “Mussolini’s granddaughter kicks off at Jim Carrey over joke about hanging fascists” is real. Destiny 2 didn’t seem to have anything notably foolhardy, leaving it down to War Thunder to make sure I didn’t miss out entirely. Gaijin deployed Earth Thunder, players doing battle in flying saucers capable of flying, hovering just above ground, and diving under the sea.

Laser Attack PEWPEW!

Laser Attack PEWPEW!

Quite fun, though the weapons seemed a bit hit-and-miss (mehhh). I still think the high watermark was the World War II Walkers of 2015, shame that nothing more seems to have happened with them.

Friday 1 March 2019

It's A Right Royale Knockout

Battle Royales are quite the In Thing these days. I imagine publishers are frantically trying to find the next mega-hit even as we speak…

Grand Theft Auto is history, Minecraft is old news, the kids are all playing Fortnite now and we need something to compete. What have you got?”
“So we had a racing game that you wanted turning into a massive open world, and then you wanted players to be able to dig and build stuff, and then you wanted zombies, so we’ve just finished adding them to… Zombie Death Build Race World 2000!”
“Fantastic! Love it! Perfect! Just a couple of really minor tweaks: ditch the zombies, set it on a small island instead of a massive world, and instead of racing have the players shoot each other. Great! What else have you got?”
“Well… I mean… the AI department spent the last seven years working on a chess program so fiendishly advanced that it can beat Deep Blue two matches out of three, we’re almost ready to unveil that.”
“Amazing! Chess! Perfect! Totally fits the vibe we’re shooting for. Just a couple of really minor tweaks: the board needs to shrink by one square every three minutes, and add crates of gear the pawns can pick up to upgrade themselves. Oh, and dance emotes for the bishops. Just copy some crazy popular dance fad, that’ll be fine won’t it legal team? Legal team? Anyone seen the legal team? No? Not to worry, I’m sure there won’t be any problems. What else have you got?”
“That was it, really. Apart from a retro reboot one of the team was working on: there are these invaders, they’re from space, the player has to move left and right and shoot them.”
“Nah, retro stuff is so passée, kids aren’t interested in it unless… wait a minute! What about… if there are one hundred of these invaders? And they arrive on the screen from above. And gradually the distance between the player and the invaders gets smaller, so the action gets quicker! This could be gold dust, get on it right away!”

I haven’t tried PlUnkBat or Fortnite, but when Apex Legends burst onto the scene with minimal hype and racked up record player numbers in short order (including Melmoth) I thought I’d pop a nose in and see what the fuss was about. It’s a very solid game, the context sensitive ‘ping’ function that allows you to rapidly communicate the location of supplies, suggest directions, and warn of enemy activity is a great systems that hopefully will make it into a lot of other games. I’m not a fan of universal voice chat, and specific “equipment crate here!” messages are much easier that trying to work out some sort of mime system with basic movement controls:

“Hmm, Skippy’s jumping up and down and shooting at the floor over there… either he’s found a crate and is trying to convey the location, or he’s hyperactive and bored.”
“Or he’s slumped over his keyboard with his face on the spacebar and finger on the left mouse button, should we send help?”
“Better check if there’s a crate there first”
“Good point, it would be bad to waste everyone’s time if he doesn’t need help”
“Uh, yeah, that’s definitely what I was worried about rather than the danger of a crate despawning and not getting some loot..”

Roaming around gathering weapons and equipment is nicely done, reminiscent of Survival mode in The Division (or even Rogue/Nethack, going a wee bit further back) but at some stage comes the shooting, and once again my poor aged reflexes are a bit of an issue here. I manage the odd kill here and there, support the team a bit, but on the whole I’m more shootee than shooter. It might be something I dip a toe into now and again, but I’m not sure I’ll be a regular.

Wouldn’t it make a nice change if, instead of hunting for guns and other tools of violence, players were instead scouring the map for clotted cream, cucumber slices, a selection of preserves, bread, assorted varieties of tea, scones, ornamental cakestands and teapots, and then all got together in the centre of the map for a lovely afternoon tea? Much more wholesome. Apart from the horrific violence that would result from disagreements over whether the jam or cream goes on the scone first…

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Everyone has got the fear

Anthem seemed like the least-braniest of no-brainers. Do you like ARPGs[1]? *nods* Do you like Bioware games? *nods* A Bioware ARPG? To the pre-order-tron for the super deluxe diamond-with-strontium-edging edition featuring a sticker, some gear you’ll use for about seven minutes before replacing it, and digital download concept art just in case you run out of things to look at on the internet!

I’d tried out beta tests of The Division and Destiny 2, in part to check their performance, and ended up buying and playing both of them heavily. The recent Anthem demo/beta/stress test weekend was surely mere formality before deciding whether to just buy it or opt for some sort of EA/Origin subscription-thingumy, but after a couple of hours with the demo I think I’ll be holding off on the strontium edging.

I’m a PC gamer, have been for 30 years, man and boy, hardest game in the world son. Getting used to different control schemes can take a while; digital joysticks on arcade games were intuitive, but with a ZX Spectrum at home there was just the keyboard. Moving a bat left and right in Thro’ The Wall wasn’t too tricky, for ludicrously advanced games involving moving in more than two directions I seem to recall a fairly standard scheme used the left hand on “Q” and “A” for up and down and the right hand on “O” and “P” for left and right with a thumb or two on space for jump/fire/invade Belgium. When moving to the PC I remapped game controls to the same layout where possible, but many games insisted on the dedicated number/cursor pad. For a while I used both hands on that in an awkward interlocked-fingers pose; *one* hand for all *four* directions??/? Madness! I adapted after a while, though, for Wolfenstein 3D and Doom cursor keys were the way to go. The mouse was fine for something like Civilisation, clicking on maps and what-not, but you’d never use it for a fast-paced action game. Then games had this mad idea that you could look up and down, and that necessitated a whole bunch more keys; either that, or you could use the mouse to look around. I think it was Quake II where I first encountered mouselook, I’m not sure if that still used the cursor keys for moving or if that was also when I started using the now traditional WASD, it took a bit of time to become proficient but I’ve never looked back since (except with a mouse). There were strong reasons for most of the changes, the ability to hit more buttons as games needed more input, or more precise control.

I’ve never owned a console[2], which I only point out to justify my lack of gamepad skills rather than some misplaced sense of quasi-religious fervour. I’ve occasionally fiddled with a friend’s (fnarr, missus, etc.) and been fairly hopeless when it comes to pointing shotguns at evil hell creatures; I’m sure it would come to me with time, but mouse and keyboard have seen me through until now.

All that digression is partly just ‘cos I’m terribly old and forget what I’m talking about and start randomly reminiscing (who remembers Spangles, eh?), but mostly because many of the Anthem previews I’d seen had emphasised that movement in the game was what really made it stand out, the ability to fire up a jetpack and swoop through the skies at any moment. So I fired up my jetpack and… PANGK! (That’s a Javelin hitting a cliff, not to be confused with Mr Stevens, Head of Catering, breaking up a fight between Darth Vader and God.)

Opinion on flying in the Anthem demo is divided between those able to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (predominantly using gamepads) and those who PANGK! (mostly with keyboard and mouse). The mouse acts as a virtual joystick, moving it outside a circle in the centre of the screen causes deflection, you have to manually return the mouse to the circle to stop moving. It’s a system used in a number of other PC games (though Anthem layers on some further difficulties like negative acceleration) and I’ve never fully got to grips with it, I tend to go full Krypton Factor Contestant Attempting To Land A 747 Simulator After Ten Minutes Of Training; flying in a straight line not too bad, minor course corrections OK, but any sharp manoeuvres rapidly result in violent overcompensation – notice he does not fly so much as plummet. At least hitting the ground in Anthem results in a Superhero Landing rather then an explosion of certain death. I seem to recall a similar flying mechanism for the fighters in Planetside 2 where I could just about fly from A to B while others were able (whether with mouse or alternative controller) to dogfight with irritating agility. I’ve tried dusting off my old analogue joystick in the past but it’s not easy to switch back and forth between it and other controls, and my stick-skills have rather atrophied since X-Wing versus Tie Fighter, especially since I found War Thunder.

War Thunder (except in Simulation mode) cheats – you don’t really fly an aircraft, you point your mouse where you want to go, and an ‘instructor’ takes care of the minor business of actually making the aircraft point the same way. It’s one thing to have a particular control system for a sense of realism, or to try and balance a PvP playing field between users of different devices, but call me lazy, if there’s a choice between a system that needs several frustrating hours to get the hang of and a system that’s immediately easy to grasp allowing you to focus on positioning, tactics and such rather than just Not Crashing, I’ll stick with option 2.

At least you can see where you’re going while flying, there was a short swimming segment in the Anthem demo that seemed to use the flying controls but with zero visibility half the time; I guess, on the plus side, after going through that I’d think “at least it’s not annoying as swimming” while PANGK!ing into a mountain. The developers have acknowledged issues with flying and swimming using mouse and keyboard (plus some more minor irritations of the gamepad-centric interface), and apparently the full game will have improved controls but that’s not much help unless there’s another trial. It’s a bit of a worry that the game got as far as its big demo with them in that state, I’ve no idea on the relative number of PC players versus consoles these days so it probably makes more sense to focus on the latter first; it’s hardly the first game that might need frantic patching in the first week or seven up to and after release.

Flying isn’t the whole game, you can run, jump and shoot with a mouse perfectly happily without PANGK!ing, but the rest of the game didn’t particularly grab me. Combat was reminiscent of the duller fights of The Division, mobs soaking up large volumes of fire, whether that was down to lacklustre default weapons or everything being intended for a group of players I’m not sure. I’m not averse to chunks of group content, especially with an effective matchmaker to bring random players together, but sometimes I just want to take things in my own time, at my own pace, in my own clothes, and Anthem seemed to be very focused on groups of four; four there shall be, and not three (lest it be on the way to four); five is Right Out. I tried a four-player stronghold/strike/trial/dungeon/thingumy that ticked along well enough, shot some bugs, got some loot, but it didn’t fire me up to try it again on a daily basis plus weekend matinee. There wasn’t much to latch onto story-wise, Bioware’s traditional strength albeit not so much the focus of Anthem, the demo dropping you in at level 10 to get straight into the action. It seemed like a fairly generic sci-fi world, some elements between missions held promise, but again not enough to make me desperate to pick up the full game.

All in all I think I’ll hold off for a while on Anthem. It’s not terrible, but it looks like it could do with a bit more work and I’ve got plenty of other stuff to be getting on with in other games, like picking up shiny loot in Destiny 2 and getting my flying (and boating) fix in War Thunder. In this games-as-a-service world releases are more akin to a TV series than a one-off movie and not everything hits the ground running from the start, it can take a few episodes (or even series) for things to bed in, but not everything gets a chance; I really hope it works out for Bioware and Anthem finds its place.

[1] Trying to nail things, whether music, games, food or ornamental hatstands, down to specific genres can be rather unhelpful, leading to bickering over genre definitions rather than other, far more important, bickering (custard creams or bourbons?) Shorthands are handy though, and I’m not sure there’s a universally agreed genre for the current crop of Games Where You Run Around And Shoot Things And Get Cool Guns And Level Up And Stuff like The Division, Destiny and Anthem (or predecessors like Defiance and the late lamented (at least in some quarters) Hellgate: London). MMO/MMOG was always a bit vague, more so now that Multiplayer and Online are common if not ubiquitous for big releases; Wikipedia seems to go for Action Role Playing Game so I guess I’ll use that over Rootin’ Tootin’ Lootin’ Shootin’ ‘Em Up.

[2] Not strictly true, I have a Wii (not a PROPER console, though, right???/?), but that hardly helped with gamepad skills as I only ever used it for the Guitar Hero series and Wii Sports. My imaginary-tennis-racquet-flailing skills have come on leaps and bounds, though.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Happy New Year!

I seem to have been rather remiss in seasonal greetings illustrated by machinery of destruction for the past couple of years, so may your forthcoming 12 months be full of joy, happiness, and a distinct lack of incoming high explosive shells.

Happy New Boat!