Monday 14 December 2020

The KiaSA Guide to the Day of the Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 30 November 2020

The Locked Tomb

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

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

Thursday 29 October 2020

Reviewlet: Star Wars: Squadrons

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

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

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

Monday 28 September 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 27 August 2020

Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort

Way back in the early 7th Century (or maybe it was 2004) when I first got into MMOs with City of Heroes the idea of playing a game for years at a time was unusual. Up to that point most of the games I played had a story, or at least structure, of some sort, and therefore an ending. It might have been a lengthy RPG with character development, revelations, and a climactic battle of good against evil; it might have been an FPS with a couple of lines in a text file about scientists accidentally opening a portal to hell and a climactic battle of good against mecha-spider-brain-thing with chainguns. Flight sims often had campaigns that took you through real or imagined conflicts, sports games could have seasons or leagues. Of course there was replayability – different decisions, characters, difficulty levels, trying for higher scores or faster runs – but there was a pretty clear idea of finishing a game. Back in the early days of this blog I pondered the never-ending nature of MMOs, when a monthly subscription was nigh-ubiquitous as the business model, and like a lone prophet demonstrating incredible foresight (or Captain Obvious taking “The Bleedin’ Obvious” as his specialist subject in Mastermind) postulated that subscriptions weren’t for everyone and different payment models would be good.

Fast forward to today and the game-as-a-service model is far more common, persistent elements, unlocks and the like the rule rather than the exception. I’ve had plenty of extended runs in games, from those heady days of City of Heroes (must’ve been five-plus years in the end, at varying intensity), but I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a stable gaming landscape as at present.

Firstly there’s War Thunder, now approaching the seven and a half year mark. The core gameplay has hardly changed in that time (capture things, shoot enemy) but the game has expanded from aircraft alone to now include tanks and ships, with an ever-increasing range of nations and vehicles represented, so there’s always something to work towards unlocking. I haven’t been heavily playing it for some time now; there’s one of the usual summer events running at the moment involving considerable grind to get new vehicles, I haven’t bothered with those for at least a couple of years now. A single battle, though, is (on average) a satisfying thing. A sensible length (10-20 minutes), minimal hanging around, and with some progression towards unlocking a new vehicle (albeit rather glacial in later tiers) to scratch the working-towards-something itch. After focusing on flying fighters for a while I can change things up with small, fast boats, or ground attack aircraft, or larger, slower ships, or tanks (though I find myself frustrated more often in ground forces, so haven’t been played them nearly as much).

My most consistent game-of-choice has been Destiny 2, now coming up on three years. I’ve had a few breaks, played other big games like Far Cry 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Division 2, Anthem, and Borderlands 3, but drifted away from all of them, not with a bang but a whimper. I don’t recall any specific moment in any of them that made me think “that’s it, I’m quitting and never coming back!”, they just got a bit same-y, I stopped loading them up, and for reasons I can’t entirely pin down I keep drifting back to Destiny 2. The combat just clicks; there’s movement and pace rather than crouching behind cover, but not so much that my poor aged reflexes can’t keep up. There are plenty of minions that can be despatched with a single well-placed shot rather than endless bullet-sponges, but enough tougher opponents and bosses to keep things varied. Like War Thunder it offers discrete chunks of 10-20 minute activities so you can dip in, or chain a bunch together for longer sessions. There’s PvE, PvP or a hybrid of the two, and incentives to mix up activities and weapon loads, albeit the bounty system is still a little admin-heavy. Grouping is casual, matchmaking throwing together random teams for the activities that need them, I don’t go for the raids and dungeons that need more involved co-ordination. The seasons and expansions are arriving at about the right rate, by the time I’m butting up against the limits of progression in one there’s usually another on the way. It just seems to hit that Goldilocks zone for me in so many ways.

Things are pretty static on the mobile front as well, Marvel Puzzle Quest ticks along with an ever-expanding range of characters to ensure there’s always a progress bar to be ticking up, and it turns out that an 8×8 grid in 2048 Ultimate might, indeed, last forever, as the game I started in November 2019 shows no sign of even getting to a half-full board. It’s the perfect Listening On A Conference Call game, (almost) mindless swiping so you can keep track of the call (avoiding the awkward pause when you miss being asked for your input and have to deploy the “oh, whoops, I was on mute then when I just gave a full and comprehensive answer to what was the question again?” technique), but keeps you busy enough that you don’t doze off and disrupt the call with loud snoring.

It’s an exceedingly comfortable comfort zone I seem to have found myself in; sufficiently different games like Slay The Spire have at least given a little variety to spice up the gaming life but I don’t want to get stuck in too much of a rut. I’m sure something big will come along in the future; Cyberpunk 2077, perhaps, though I’m trying not to build up unreasonable anticipation. In the meantime Melmoth has been enjoying Remnant: From The Ashes, so as it’s on sale I think might pop in and see if a bit of tentacle-type unpleasantness offers a bit of a diversion.

Friday 31 July 2020

Money can't build your spire for you

Sort-of-lockdown, week… six hundred? Ish? Time is still behaving erratically, though some things are getting back to a vague approximation of normality; I had a haircut last week, so look slightly less silly. In general, though, we’re still REMAINing INDOORS, working from home and not going out. Much.

The terribly exciting exception to the above is that we’ve met up with friends a couple of times, at suitable social distances, with individual packets of crisps rather than shared bowls of nibbles. Thinking about board games that minimise physical interaction (avoiding handling the same dice, cards etc. as far as possible), Narrativia’s influence naturally pointed to Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. One person wrangles the infection deck, another moves the players around the board, a third places the pretty little cubes down indicating yet another catastrophic outbreak – it’s pretty well suited to the situation. In an ideal world we would have observed from a balcony while the pieces were moved around with roulette rakes, but I haven’t managed to recreate an entire Operations Room (yet), so we had to settle for sitting as far apart as possible, and managed to finish the game.

Pandemic Legacy is a bit different for a boardgame. Each time you play you make changes to the game (the “Legacy” part of the title) – put stickers on the board or cards, add new rules and components, rip up old cards and such. You can therefore only play the full campaign through the once, which might seem a bit of an extravagance for a £40+ game, but then it’s taken our group a couple of years to play the 18 (IIRC) rounds to finish it, where some games of a similar cost we might only have played a couple of times over a similar period beforehand. The standard version of Pandemic is a really solid game, and the Legacy elements definitely enhance it – no spoilers, but there are a couple of twists in both story and mechanics that force you to adapt your tactics. If you have a regular group, and have tried and enjoyed the standard game I’d definitely recommend it. That said, after finishing Season 1 we’re probably not going to rush straight into Season 2, we’re a little Pandemic-ed out. And in the game, aaah! That said, they’ve just released a trailer for Season 0, a prequel set during the Cold War, and just from the fact that it includes passports with the ability to stick disguises on your character I have to say I’m tempted…

Away from boardgames it’s mostly been The Usual. War Thunder continues to expand its range of countries and vehicles, Italian ships most recently; I tend to play along until Tier II or III when the grind starts to really kick in. Destiny 2 is a comfortable old blanket of DAKKA!, though as I start to get near the caps on the current season it might take a bit of a back seat until the new expansion. I’ve also been playing a fair bit of Slay the Spire, I was quite chuffed at having beaten the game with each of the four characters, thought I was getting a bit of a handle on things, and then read a couple of articles about the insane challenges that you can start to unlock and realised how much more there is to the game. The random nature of the game can be hugely frustrating when you find certain cards or relics that would work fantastically with a particular build and then don’t find the other components to flesh it out, but on the flipside when things come together it’s absolutely joyous. Also highly recommended!

Friday 26 June 2020

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

Lockdown is starting to ease now, though I can’t see there’ll be too many changes on the personal front for a while; it’s not like I’m desperate to rush out shopping or anything, though I guess a haircut wouldn’t go amiss once barbers can open again. I can see homeworking continuing for the foreseeable future, the technology is holding up surprisingly well, and when I’ve got a clear task to focus on I think I’m rather more productive at home. The difficulty is when things are more of a slog – trying to co-ordinate with other systems or people – when suddenly the myriad distracting possibilities become all the more tempting. Hopefully things will be a bit flexible in the future allowing for one or two days at home alongside office work.

Game-wise, not much to report. Borderlands 3 ticks along; the writing doesn’t seem quite as sharp as for previous games, the series was always a close-run thing between funny and grating, and this one errs towards the latter a bit more often. Still, plenty of silly guns and explode-y type fun to be had. War Thunder thunders along; I generally stick to Second World War era prop aircraft in there, but with a bunch of Cold War jet additions I’ve started to poke more of a nose into jet gameplay. There’s a new season of Destiny 2 bearing a striking similarity to previous seasons of Destiny 2, but it’s a comforting formula of nudging up gear levels, and I still come back to its gunplay over pretty much anything else. On the Oculus Quest it’s Beat Sabre all the way, I should probably have a look at some of the other music/rhythm games on it, and with the good weather maybe get out in the garden for a bit of Superhot VR with less danger to the furniture (counterbalanced by more danger of alarming the neighbours with peculiar flailing).

Away from games there’s been a bit more time for other media. I haven’t been reading much fiction, even less fantasy fiction recently; Joe Abercrombie has the first of new trilogy out, but I’m waiting for all three before diving in and bingeing (my poor ageing brain has trouble picking things up a year apart) so instead I picked up Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark trilogy and enjoyed them a lot. Televisually the third series of Westworld was disappointing, it felt like they threw too much in and it failed to gel. I finally got around to Altered Carbon and felt that did a pretty good job, the second season took a while to get going but overall a nice adaptation of the books. There’s been something of an explosion of lockdown-produced media; on the BBC Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe and Staged with David Tennant and Michael Sheen were both excellent, on YouTube Alex Horne’s Home Tasking and John Finnemore’s Cabin Fever have been a lot of fun. I’m sure there must be more, but nothing else immediately springs to mind.

Stay safe out there!

Tuesday 26 May 2020

This still ain't no place for no hero

Lockdown, year 28. Or week 8. The New Normal is becoming… pretty normal, really, though I know I’m very fortunate in being able to work remotely without major difficulties. It looks as though things will be easing over the next few weeks with more schools, shops and the like opening, and of course vehicle-based landmark-visiting eyesight tests are now compulsory.

Far more excitingly I found a bit of gaming mojo (down the back of the sofa cushions, what with having more time for hoovering and stuff). The Guardian Games of Destiny 2 were terribly grindy, I got the machine gun from that event, but subsequent community events (complete NINE! MEEEEELEON! pylon-charging thingies, then an interminable number of shotgun kills) have been less than inspiring, so that’s on the back-burner for a while. I did fire up Red Dead Redemption 2 for the first time in six months or so, but didn’t really get anywhere. It seems like something where you really need to commit and immerse yourself in the world to get to grips with it, something that needs a lot of investment. It might well pay off later, but it I need a more instant hook at the moment to pull me in.

Instead I turned to new (to me) games, as a couple of sales brought them down from £50+ to more sensible prices. Firstly, Anthem (or Ha! Mass Effect: Andromeda Doesn’t Look So Bad Now, Does It? to use the full subtitle). I tried the demo a year ago and found it pretty underwhelming with annoying flight controls; 12 months on, it’s still pretty underwhelming but with decent (if not outstanding) flight controls. It passed the time; combat was fine, the story was fine, overall… fine. I’ve seen that Bioware are trying to go back and give it a major re-work, fingers crossed they can overhaul it into something better than fine. If nothing else it was something new and (slightly) different to Destiny 2, I would’ve probably kept ticking along in there, but then Epic Games announced a sale and my head was turned by Borderlands 3.

Borderlands 3 turns out to be a lot like Borderlands 2, but a bit shinier, and for the moment at least is just what I’m after. It’s got that instant hook (Shoot things! Get loot!) that works for a quick blast, but can also draw you in for longer sessions. The story seems like fairly generic MacGuffin-chasing fare, a bit patchy and with characters right on funny/annoying line, pretty standard for the series and does the job. Apart from anything else it’s nice to be playing a game you can pause, something of a rarity in these more multiplayer times. I’ll probably keep nudging my gear score up in Destiny 2 with the three pinnacle gear activities each week, and War Thunder has just received another update, but for a while at least it looks like Borderlands 3 will be the main reason to REMAIN INDOORS.

Wednesday 29 April 2020


Lockdown, day… something? What even is a day in this purgatorial limbo of nothingness? A collection of hours (apparently) each as vague and insubstantial as another, melding and merging into a puddle of amorphous so-called ‘time’.

OK, things aren’t really that bad. To be honest, it’s not radically different to The Before Times now I’m fully set up for home working, for which there are pros and cons. The commute time of Walking Down The Stairs is a big plus, especially as it can be done in a dressing gown. It’s fairly peaceful most of the time, though on a warm day with the windows open the kids next door can be a bit noisy. Then again they seldom host VERY LOUD CONFERENCE CALLS without closing their office door, so, y’know, swings and roundabouts… The temptation to wander into the kitchen for a biscuit is strong, tempered slightly by the knowledge that the finite supplies of biscuits must be carefully preserved to avoid the Quest to the Shops. At least years of MMOing have prepared us for that arduous multi-step chain; first of all the queueing outside, like a server on launch day, then once you get in the hunt for ultra-rare crafting ingredients (a bag of flour), camping the respawn location while being particularly careful to remain outside the aggro radius of mobs (other shoppers). Online shopping has taken over from trying to get tickets to ComiCon/Glastonbury/other sought after concerts, staying up until midnight when delivery slots are released, more queueing again, having multiple browsers open and frantically alt-tabbing between them. We’ve managed to snag a few slots to get deliveries for elderly parents, which has been a relief; it’s not like there’s a danger of imminent starvation but it’s nice to have a fresh food alongside store cupboard staples and a few treats here and there.

To counteract those treats we’re going for walks much more frequently than The Before Times, we’re very fortunate to have some woods close by that allow for a good hour or so of socially distanced walking, and the weather has been rather pleasant for the most part. Beat Sabre on the Oculus Quest has also continued to be an excellent way of getting the heart pumping when confined to the house; I bought BoxVR, a boxing/fitness type of thing, back at the start of this whole business thinking I’d use that for a bit more of a structured workout, but the Quest version doesn’t support user-supplied music and the gameplay isn’t particularly engaging, especially with slightly flaky hit detection. Having tweaked Beat Sabre to allow for custom songs it’s far more fun furiously flailing to Radiohead, Salt n’ Pepper and System of a Down.

Extended confinement might seem like an ideal gaming opportunity, but days are just as full as they were before for the most part. Even when work wasn’t fully geared up for remote access it didn’t seem right to be plunging deeply into a game, so I tried to be at least vaguely productive during work hours. I had half a mind to try and get back into Red Dead Redemption 2 properly, but in the end things have been ticking along as they were before: bit of War Thunder here and there, and a fair bit of Destiny 2. The most recent event in the latter, the Guardian Games, is well encapsulated by Rock Paper Shotgun. To Do Lists on top of To Do Lists, it’s pretty much just a bunch of admin, but… I’m not entirely averse to a To Do List. It’s a wind-down at the end of a day, something I don’t have to think too deeply about. Games just aren’t really firing a passion any more for some reason. Still, even just for time-filling they’re a helpful way to REMAIN INDOORS and NOT THINK ABOUT THE EVENT. Stay safe out there, folks.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 18 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 21 January 2020

The Quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning

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

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

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

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

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