Thursday 18 February 2021

There's a voice that keeps on calling me

A time of global pandemic, when remaining indoors and minimising human contact is not only tolerated but positively encouraged, should be ideal for gaming, the perfect opportunity to catch up on the back catalogue or delve into something new and exciting. For some reason, though, it hasn’t really worked out like that, for the most part I’ve been settling in to the comfy slippers of the old regulars, Destiny 2 and War Thunder. Over Christmas I thought I’d make a bit of a conscious effort to get into something else, starting by digging out login details and getting various game launchers patched up – Steam, of course, Epic Games Store, Origin, UPlay, the Microsoft Store. I appreciate that Steam’s dominance of the PC gaming scene isn’t necessarily healthy, but it’s damnably convenient; presumably in a bid to crack that the Epic Store was handing out a free game a day for a couple of weeks (then resuming the regular freebie-per-week), and it would’ve be rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Looking at recent purchases there was Anthem on Origin, Borderlands 3 on Epic, and The Division 2 on UPlay; I’d had a bit of a go at them back in the summer, and while perfectly fine they hadn’t prised me away from Destiny 2 for any length of time. I figured I should look at something other than a game-as-a-service sort of shooter featuring a colour-coded array of increasingly rare weapons. Steam had Star Wars: Squadrons, but after dipping a toe in there I’d just gone back to War Thunder, so that seems to be sufficient for any flight/space-type sim requirements. Something a bit different, something new, an RPG? Seems like it’ll be sensible to hold off for another patch or two of Cyberpunk 2077 yet, but one of the free Epic games was Torchlight 2 so I got that installed. I never managed to get into a Diablo or similar games, and sure enough bounced off Torchlight 2 after a level or two. I contemplated a couple of Epic’s management-type offerings, Cities: Skylines and Tropico 5, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to plunge in; on one level I want something completely new and interesting and deep and challenging, but on another level don’t want to learn a whole new set of rules and mechanisms and controls. The Epic freebie I ended up playing most turned out to be Solitarica, a golf solitaire game with some light RPG elements (spells and items), a nice little time-passer ideal for a half-hour here and there, but not terribly deep and fulfilling. Is it too much to ask for a game of massive scope offering every kind of experience that’s completely intuitive and has photorealistic graphics that are also quirky and an amazing story but also complete freedom with no barriers and also increasingly rare items to find and achievements and the moon (on a stick)? Yes, yes it is.

After rummaging around the other launchers I headed for the Giant Steam Backlog, got as far as ‘B’, and noticed Battletech. I’d joined the Kickstarter back in 2016 and played it for a while in 2018; as far as I recall I’d quite enjoyed it, but never completed the campaign. Hankering for a bit of mech action I fired it up, starting a new campaign from scratch after a briefly clueless attempt to resume an old save game. The slower pace of turn-based combat was a nice change; it takes a while to get used to, factoring in when different weights of mech will move and planning positioning and targeting priorities accordingly, and is nicely rewarding once you get the hang of it. In between the story missions of the campaign you take contracts to keep the money coming in, and while they don’t vary too wildly the mixture of mission types (attack, defend, escort or intercept convoys etc.) and maps with different terrain, obstacles and temperatures keep things interesting. I particularly enjoy training missions, where you take a single pilot and mech and are given three rookies to round out the lance; sometimes it’s a specific objective to keep them alive, sometimes… it isn’t.

“So, chaps, have you heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade? No? Oh, well, that’s the model for today’s mission. No, don’t Google it, it’ll be fine, just head down the Valley of, er, Death over there. Why do they call it that? Well, because… oh, I remember! It’s named after Geoff Death, very popular guy around here, did a lot of good work for charity, so they named it after him. Definitely. Now off you toddle, I’ll be back here with the LRMs. They’ve got a minimum range, you see. A surprisingly long minimum range. I’d love to be right there with you otherwise. Anyway, off you go!”

As in many Battletech games the process of obtaining and equipping mechs is a strong driver, trying to defeat interesting-looking opponents with the minimum amount of damage so you can snaffle them afterwards, then taking them down to the Mech Bay to agonise over the right balance of weapons, ammo, armour and equipment. Melee combat is surprisingly viable in some circumstances, especially when you find modifications for additional damage, though I suspect the arm mods that really boost melee damage also contain giant magnets. Every time I’d equip a mech with +++ melee damage, that arm would get blown off the following mission, most annoying. I suppose it might have had something to do with that mech charging forwards all the time to try and close for great punching.

I’ve just wrapped up the story, a suitable saga of betrayal and revenge. The pacing worked well, enough cutscenes and conversations to keep you involved without dragging on interminably. My mercenary band is now free to roam the galaxy battling injustice and corruption (for a suitable fee), very much like The Littlest Hobo. If The Littlest Hobo was a giant 100-ton battle-robot that solved problems by obliterating them with large calibre autocannons rather than barking and finding things. And demanded payment for doing so. Perhaps not so much like The Littlest Hobo after all on reflection, though they have the same theme tune. “Every stop I make, I make a new smoking crater; can’t stay for long, just turn around, I’m gone again (after checking the local store for rare weapon upgrades)”. If it was just the randomly generated contracts that were available I’m not sure I’d keep going but one of the DLC packs introduced Flashpoints, little sets of connected missions with some light story (and most importantly the prospect of rare loot), so I’ve been popping back in here and there.

Back with the old regulars I haven’t seen many drastic changes in War Thunder, at least in the low-to-mid tiers where I dabble; I was on a naval kick for a while, flipping between Italy, Japan and Germany, but for the moment I’m back on aircraft, working through the newer nations of China and Sweden. I was a bit rusty for a while, especially capturing airfields, but it’s coming back to me. Over in Destiny 2 every few months I think it’s finished, done with, over and finished, done over and finished with, but then it goes and throws porridge in my face with my own damn spoon. Regular seasonal updates bring new items and activities, and I seem to be in something of a Goldilocks zone with the timing – as I’ve wrapped up most of the main goals for a season, and it’s bogged down into running the same old things to nudge your gear score up a point or two here and there, it’s not long until another update comes along with just enough changes to perk things up (and an import licence for those oh-so-pretty fighting fish). There was the Beyond Light expansion back in November, removing a bunch of old planets, adding a couple of new ones, plus Stasis powers and such; that had got a little stale by the end of the year so I took a few weeks off while delving into Battletech. Having wrapped up the main story there, the next season of Destiny 2 kicked in, and damn it twice around the carpark if it didn’t drag me back in again. In a shocking turn of events the main new activity seems to involve shooting a bunch of minions then shooting a boss, but it mixes things up enough (and with enough new loot) to keep me going a while. If you need me I’ll be at the Welcome Break Low Wycombe under the name of Lewis Potter.