Monday 25 December 2023

Happy Holidays!

A Spitfire in front of a Christmas tree
Now I have a Spitfire, ho ho ho!

GEEEEEEEEETTTTT dressed you merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay
For it is Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas Christmas day!

Christmas 2023 hasn’t worked out quite as planned thanks to a couple of bouts of COVID; not serious, thankfully, but it put the kibosh on travelling to family. Oh well, nothing for it but hunkering down with Lyra the dog and perhaps the odd game or two. Could be worse!

Hope everyone out there is enjoying the holidays and has a great 2024!

Thursday 23 November 2023

Treachery and treason, there's always an excuse for it

Phantom Liberty, the new expansion for Cyberpunk: 2077, seemed simple enough to begin with, our little band of misfit underdogs against the nasty warlord-type running Dogtown. Sneaking around, infiltrating swanky parties, swapping faces with amoral hackers, all very Mission Impossible. Towards the end things fell apart; betrayal, lies, treason, death… and that was just the teachers, ah!!1! And then I got off the bus!

Having reached an unsatisfactory conclusion the first time I played through the base game I tried to do a little reading around the possible endings of the expansion without completely spoiling them. Melmoth helpfully provided some spoiler-free nudges so I had a bit of an idea of some of the choices I’d have to made, though that didn’t make it any easier to decide who to side with. Everyone had their reasons for behaving as they did and there was no compromise to keep everyone happy. Or indeed alive.

The result was a bittersweet finish, heavy on the bitter with a faint dash of sweet. I wasn’t expecting everyone to tap-dance off into the sunset singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” while fountains of rainbows sprayed hither and yon, but even by Cyberpunk standards it was a bleak, bleak time of my life. Afterwards I did some more detailed reading and it looks like I got the worst ending – except for all the others. A couple of paths even lead to a completely different finish to the main game, an interesting take on things, but not really what I envisage for my V.

I was feeling a little melancholy as the credits rolled, but the game serves up a treat at that point – the titular theme tune, performed by Dawid Podsiadło. It’s an absolute banger, as I believe the kids say, that would fit a Bond film extremely well. I think it might be the first end credit song I’ve sat and listened through since Still Alive and I’ve added it to a couple of playlists since. It was a nice way to carry me back to the main game with a renewed purpose, to wrap things up for V more suitably than my first time around.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Cyberpunky Reggae Party

After the somewhat disappointing conclusion to my first run at Cyberpunk 2077 I never did go back to an earlier save to try something different. With the announcement of Phantom Liberty I decided to start up a fresh game earlier this year and had made a bit of a dent in Act 1 before finding more details about the expansion, including a major overhaul of key systems in the whole game. As a result I parked up that second play-through until the full release, and by the time that came around a few weeks back I’d got so rusty I decided to start from scratch, again.

It probably wasn’t the best decision in hindsight; though things have been tweaked and combat feels better this time around the first part of the game plays out in much the same way, and it was a bit of a drag running through that first heist again. After that you have a few different leads to follow so I switched things around by tackling them in a different order, and that refreshed my interest nicely enough to propel me to the point that the expansion started.

It has a neat introduction, a little on-rails but nothing too egregious as you crawl, jump and fight through ruined buildings to reach Dogtown, the new zone. It felt like a fair challenge, particularly a boss that was the toughest battle of the game so far, emphasising the isolated status of the new area. Things then opened up again, with side missions and more freedom, though I hadn’t realised quite how much freedom until I hopped into a car marked by an icon on the map (Have Icon, Will Interact). Phantom Liberty adds the old GTA staple of nicking particular cars and driving them across the map to a random garage, so I merrily followed the indicated route and found myself leaving the heavily fortified gates of Dogtown with naught but a loading screen cunningly tucked behind a security scan. I can’t quite remember the timeline, if a local Fixer had been in touch before or after that to say he’d fixed things so I could travel in and out without issue, but it was a little anticlimactic – you couldn’t have done that a couple of hours ago when I was scrapping with a giant robot?

It’s a well-worn issue in open world RPGs, the tension between having a central, driving plot with sufficiently high stakes and urgency while also offering a variety of side-missions or other activities that tend to be rather less important in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I’ve written about it before, quite probably more than once, but can’t think of a precise enough keyword to find specific previous posts so bear with me if I repeat myself. CP2077 gives you a problem you definitely need to solve, but without such immediacy that any diversion would be unwarranted. It also builds in natural pauses, as many games do; “I need some time to set up the next part of the mission, wait for my call”, giving additional licence to chase after errant taxis, biff opposing pugilists for cash, or stumble across reported crimes with perpetrators conveniently unwilling or unable to leave the scene regardless of when you turn up. Phantom Liberty makes the juggling act that bit tougher by slotting into the middle of the game, allowing you to tackle its missions in parallel with the original story, and at the risk of damning with faint praise it’s sufficiently interesting to work. I’m intrigued by the machinations of moles and sleeper agents and Idris Elba, but not so hooked to be frantically following that thread to its conclusion. I’m happily drifting around from icon to icon doing whatever gigs and side activities pop up, and when that gets a little dull then I’ll push on with the main story (of either the original game or the expansion).

It makes for a somewhat fragmented narrative, but it works in a single player game. I could never really get into the story of Guild Wars 2 or Destiny 2 being spread all over cutscenes, dungeons, open world activities and the like, often out of sequence, some bits never directly experienced and others repeated nightly (with a weekend matinee). CP2077 only moves on when you move it on, and I can more than forgive any minor dissonance from a character getting on the phone saying they have an urgent job, but not seeming too put out when I turn up an indeterminate amount of time later having taken a tour of all the clothes shops in the city looking for a pair of shoes to really set off the snazzy new coat I found in a random suitcase under a bridge when I should really have been street racing but couldn’t help breaking off to investigate the possibility of purple loot. I’m looking forward to finishing off Phantom Liberty then seeking a more satisfactory conclusion to the main plot, but just as importantly seeing what sort of random grenade-nosed faulty-groin-implanted oddballs I bump into along the way.

Friday 29 September 2023

Paradise will be a kind of library

I always loved books, and therefore libraries, growing up, but got out of the habit of visiting after starting work. Most of my reading is digital these days, and while perusing a potential replacement for a trusty Kindle saw that one of the selling points of Kobo readers is integration with Libby, an app that allows you to borrow ebooks from your local library. I thought I’d have a look at what might be available, and was really impressed at the whole process. Signing up for a digital library card was very straightforward (fortunately our library uses Libby, not all do) and immediately unlocks a massive range of books, comics, magazines and audiobooks. The app is available on PC, tablet and phone and synchronises across devices; a phone isn’t ideal for reading but does the job in a pinch, comics and magazines work particularly well on an iPad.

Not every book in the world is available (not unreasonably) but the selection is extremely impressive, and you can even sign up for libraries in other areas to broaden your choices. I found a few books I’d been contemplating anyway (Bob Mortimer’s The Satsuma Complex is as funny as you’d expect while also working surprisingly well as a thriller), and the “… you might also like” suggestions have paid great dividends. A couple have been fine without really grabbing me, one was pretty disappointing, then it suggested John Lawton’s Black Out, a London policeman investigating murders in 1944. That sounded right up my street, and I rapidly devoured it and two sequels that advanced into the 1950s and 60s, using historical events and scandals as the background with some real figures and some fictional substitutes. I’m currently on the fourth, that returns to the 1940s, and very much looking forward to the rest.

I understand that the app allows some books to be borrowed and sent to a Kindle in the US, but that option isn’t available in the UK; a bit of a shame, but if there’s a good offer on a Kobo device with integrated Libby functionality I’ll certainly be very tempted.

Saturday 26 August 2023

I can take him to your house but I can’t unlock it

I do like unlocking stuff in games. New characters, weapons, titles, cosmetics, commemorative tea towels, set me any old task and I’ll jump to it if there’s some geegaw to be had. The village is being threatened by an evil necromancer? Eh, I might try and save you all if I have the time. Someone’s offering a t-shirt with the slogan “I defeated 1,000 skeletons and boy am I BONE tired! BONE! Because skeletons are BONES, do you see?”, I’m off to the graveyard before you can say “we understood perfectly well, there was no need for a contrived example to demonstrate”.

When used well tasks/achievements/unlocks are a nice hook to keep playing a game, often a nudge to try something a bit different. Vampire Survivors has a raft of unlocks for playing various characters, using particular weapons, killing specific mobs, and they’ve kept me coming back, taking different approaches to the various levels. I’ve only got a few left to tick off, the final fireworks and a couple of secret characters, once those are done I’m not sure I’ll keep going; the core gameplay is enjoyable, but perhaps I’ve become too conditioned by gamification that I need something to work towards as well. Still, at less than a fiver I’ve more than got my money’s worth several times over. I’ve just started on Halls of Torment, a similar style of game with a little more control over aiming/attacking, which should keep me going just as long.

Of course unlocks alone aren’t enough, there has to be a strong enough game to support them. War Thunder has just launched a mobile version on Android and iOS, and is offering rewards that also unlock in the desktop version for playing the mobile game. A good example of a nudge to get me to try something different, I wouldn’t have bothered downloading the mobile version otherwise. There’s an impressive amount of detail squeezed onto a small screen, but I won’t be sticking around. Trying to drag the screen to aim (without hitting the other controls) and using a small directional pad to move is incredibly finicky on a phone. If it’s your primary, or only, gaming platform and you’re particularly keen for a Second World War vehicle combat game it might be worth a look but it’s not for me. Still, I’ve contributed to their mobile stats, presumably the goal to bump things up in the listings around launch.

My mobile gaming tends to be killing a bit of time when out and about, puzzle and card games work well for that, like Marvel Snap. It’s taken over as my primary card game of choice; KARDS had a big update a while back that retired a bunch of cards from standard play and introduced others, and I just haven’t found a deck that really clicks since then. In Marvel Snap, on the other hand, I’ve got a few options that seem to work fairly well. I may not be playing enough to really see it but there don’t seem to be any particularly dominant decks; you’ll get a popular flavour of the month, but that usually means you can gear up with specific counters, and the developers do a good job of shifting the meta around with new cards and balance tweaks if something is really overperforming. The game does nudge you to try different things with regular missions, some of which are based on particular card actions like destroying or discarding; though I’m usually all in favour there can be a conflict in a competitive game where your rank suffers when you lose matches, not an ideal environment to experiment. Fortunately a new game mode, Conquest, has an introductory level with minimal consequences, ideal to try out new decks or play particular card types.

Marvel Snap is moving in the opposite direction to War Thunder – from mobile to PC. There’s been a beta Steam version for a while but it wasn’t terribly well optimised, a nice shiny widescreen-supporting full version has just launched complete with a few giveaways for logging in daily and is well worth a look if you fancy some quick card action.

Sunday 23 July 2023

Of all the games I've known, and I've known some

I was streaming music while walking the dog, an assortment of reggae and dub Amazon had come up with based on my previous listening, and a really catchy tune came on. For some reason I couldn’t immediately check the phone to see what it was – probably trying to stop Lyra hurtling after some cat/squirrel/moped – and after I remembered later there didn’t seem to be a track history to consult. I’d forgotten all about it until the Chalke Valley History Festival.

Chalke Valley was excellent as ever with its combination of talks and living history – Al Murray, jousting, Ian Hislop, a Sherman tank, Michael Morpurgo, artillery firing – and we settled down to a spot of food with some suitably Second World War serenading, The Bluebirds swinging away with the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. As they launched into another song something clicked – it was the exact riff I’d been trying to track down. The lyrics sounded like they wanted to explain something to a Mister Shane, which fortunately was enough for Google to return the actual song – Bei Mir Bist Du Schön – and a bit more digging turned up the reggae version, For Me You Are by Prince Fatty and Hollie Cook.

Funny how things turn up in unexpected places. Charlie Higson was also at Chalke Valley (not unexpectedly, he’s a bit of a fixture) talking Good and Bad Kings, he has a podcast covering the History of the Monarchy, starting at the beginning, based on the old rhyme – Willy Willy Harry Stee. It’s a great listen, and while searching for it I found another podcast of his, Charlie Higson And Friends, talking classical music from Scala Radio. There’s an episode with the magnificent Bob Mortimer (including the joke “I used to play the triangle in a reggae band, but I got bored of it; it was the same ting every night…”), one of the things they covered was how, back in the day, you’d have to save up to buy an album, and when you did you’d really listen to it. Streaming is great in a lot of ways, especially for finding more music similar to previously played artists, but it’s all too easy to hit skip if something doesn’t immediately click.

That sent me off to my assortment of game launchers – Steam; Epic; Origin; Uplay; Glyph; Arc; GOG; Amazon Games; Derry & Toms; Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel… Between giveaways, bundles, sales, free to play offerings and the like there’s more than enough to last several lifetimes already in my libraries so I decided I should settle down and give something a fair crack of the whip. Especially with storage to spare – a Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece had noted that Starfield specified an SSD as a minimum requirement, combined with falling prices that nudged me into grabbing a 1TB M2 drive, which I’m pretty sure is the first upgrade I’ve made to my current PC since getting it in February 2018, pretty staggering considering in the early 1990s I would’ve had to go through two complete systems in that time just to keep up with gaming demands.

There’d been a Humble Feel The Rhythm bundle a little while back that I picked up largely on the strength of Trombone Champ; it proved exactly as silly and joyful as it appeared from watching clips, though a bit of a one-note gag, ironically. The Wii and plastic instruments had been gathering dust for years so we finally donated them to charity, and though Beat Saber on the Oculus scratches the flailing-around-to-music itch it’s not the easiest to play around other people and/or dogs, so I had a go at a couple of others from the bundle; Beat Hazard 3 is a fun enough bullet hell shooter, but from a few runs doesn’t seem to have evolved terribly radically from the original I played back in 2010; Melody’s Escape 2 is a neat Audiosurf-esque run-to-the-rhythm game, but the couple of tracks I tried didn’t quite seem to click with the beat (or at least my interpretation of it, which may have been the bit at fault). Things weren’t entirely going to plan in the “giving something a fair crack of the whip” department, but another Humble offering came to the rescue – Chernobylite from the Survival Instinct bundle. A first person shooter along the lines of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series with crafting elements and base building could hardly be more in my wheelhouse, and I got very into it. There’s an intriguing story you piece together as you explore, some interesting mechanics that play with time and memory, the early missions have that balance where every round of ammunition is precious but a bit of caution and stealth allows you to tackle your objectives without too much frustration. I have stalled, though; in so many games there comes a point where the systems that were new and exciting at the start of things become a bit of a chore. Building up a large empire in a Civilisation or Total War game and having to go around all the cities managing building work and population happiness; the later missions and quests in RPGs when you can’t even be bothered to loot opponents unless they’re carrying a +7 Vorpal Sword of Lordly Might or a Nuclear Gatling Laser. I’ve built up a base combining comfy beds, mood lighting, and entertainment facilities with extensive workshops and a small nuclear reactor, crafted all the available weapons, and recruited a posse; there’s a Mass Effectish final heist where your team can help, and there are a number of further clues and items that I could track down for further assistance, but the missions to gather them are getting a little same-y with increasingly well armoured enemies resistant to stealth attacks narrowing down the combat style. I might get back to it, I’d like to see how the story develops, but I got a little distracted.

The Steam Summer Sale popped up, pretty low key this time around without some sort of meta-event or mini-game wrapped around it, but it’d be rude not to have a bit of a browse. Melmoth mentioned he’d been enjoying Vampire Survivors, so for less than a fiver I thought I’d give it a go. I mean it’s only £4 full price, but there was the DLC as well! It’s proved to be rather addictive. An “Inverse Bullet Hell” shooter where you acquire and upgrade a range of weapons until filling the screen with improbable explosions it has persistent upgrades and a mountain of unlocks to keep you coming back and trying out different combinations of characters and weapons. It doesn’t feel like I’ve spent longer with it than Chernobylite, but apparently my play time is almost double. I’ve unlocked a good chunk of the options now, and some of the remaining ones do feel a little like hard work, but I might well pop back in for a run or two now again; I’ve also picked up Halls of Torment as recommended for a similar sort of experience, I think I’ll keep that one in the library to come back to. Plenty to keep things ticking along until one or all of Starfield, the full Baldur’s Gate 3 release or Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

But at the laste, as every thing hath ende

I try and maintain a range of interests apart from gaming, but that’s become a little harder recently. I’ve been a season ticket holder with London Irish RFC for just over twenty years, not always the happiest of times with the team being in the doldrums for a while, but things had started really clicking – the best season for years, a great crop of promising youngsters sticking with the club rather than moving on, exciting times. With things going so well on the pitch fate decided to stick its oar in; the club collapsed financially, the current owner unable to sustain ongoing losses and a promised takeover bid failing to materialise, so the professional club has effectively ceased to exist. It’s heartbreaking, primarily of course for the players and staff, and leaves quite the gap in the calendar from September to May.

There’s also history, particularly military history, something sparked at the age of six when I was given a book about the Battle of Britain. My interest waxed and waned over time, but has built over the last ten years (an inevitability, according to the ever-reliable Daily Mash – “Getting into Second World War one of men’s four signs of aging”).

Early historical debate centred around key questions such as “which plane is the bestest”, thankfully an argument that could be solved by the definitive work on the subject: Amazing Aircraft Top Trumps (the Fairey Battle may have been shot down in droves, but with a crew of 3 it was undeniably better than a Spitfire. As long as that was the selected category.) Of course one leaves such childish nonsense behind and progresses to mature and sophisticated enquiry, questions like “which plane in War Thunder should be bestest but is not because teh lazy devs have not modelled it rite”. I started to dig into historical sources a little more deeply to find out exactly when a particular variant entered squadron service, or how widely 100 octane fuel was used in June 1940; though rather scattergun there’s some impressive research in game communities (and other areas, such as scale modelling), if you can pick through the more extreme flamewars over the precise shade of primer used on Bulgarian tanks in 1936. Fortunately my level of interest rapidly tails off after 1945, where the worst charge you can level at participants tends to be “unhealthy obsession” rather than “actual treason”; with ever more modern vehicles being added to the game some folk resort to the use of still-classified documents to try and bolster their argument.

The baby steps into “proper” history took me to AskHistorians on Reddit, a rather more collegial atmosphere with the emphasis on learning instead of winning futile arguments, and strict moderation to ensure thorough answers aren’t drowned out by rapidly regurgitated half-remembered anecdotes. I’ve been participating for six or seven years as a flaired user, answering a question or two a week on average, and learning about everything from vegetarianism in the 19th century to the myth of the Bermuda Triangle to the local effects of the English reformation. Concerns over the future of Reddit have led to the site temporarily blacking out, though, and currently being restricted; hopefully things can be worked out on the current platform or a new one found.

Oh well. Perhaps it’s the universe’s way of telling me to spend my time in a more productive manner. Or, far more likely I think we can all agree, to play more games. Pretty sure that’s it.

Sunday 21 May 2023

Fail worse again

I’ve somehow managed to go through a life of PC gaming without playing two of its biggest franchises – Diablo or The Sims – until recently. Both popped up on the radar, Diablo IV holding a “Server Slam” test event and the Epic Games Store giving away some packs of stuff for The Sims 4 (the main game having gone free to play a while back), so I figured I’d give them a look.

In the ongoing War of Adages (where Too Many Cooks are locked in an eternal struggle with Many Hands over how much effort is required for a quality broth) the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is beset on all sides by proverbs extolling the virtues of perseverance. Though I’d never played a Diablo game, missing out on the first couple as I preferred my RPGs a bit more Baldur’s Gate-y at the time, I’ve dabbled with a few similar releases like Titan Quest and Torchlight over the years. None of them seriously hooked me, being fun enough to start with but clicky-clicky combat never entirely… clicked. Rather ironic. At a loose end when Blizzard were asking for their Diablo IV servers to be slammed (matron) I thought I’d try again and see if there might be a different result.

The infrastructure stood up well, I don’t know how much of a slamming was anticipated or transpired but I never experienced queues, disconnections or other technical issues. Character design is top notch, I spent a good while picking facial features and tattoos. The world is impressively realised, it looks spectacular if not exactly inviting; cutscenes introduce the antagonist with an (un)healthy dollop of body horror and the starting area confirms Sanctuary as unlikely to appear in glossy travel supplements as a ‘must visit’ destination, unless you’re particularly keen on freezing to death while being swarmed by hordes of the undead.

Gameplay-wise it doesn’t deviate too far from the tried and tested formula, plenty of clicking with some extra skills on keys. Sometime back in the early middle ages (2012) I wrote about The Secret World with its seven active and seven passive abilities, a welcome change from having 40+ skills and consumables obscuring half the screen in layer upon layer of hotbars, but perhaps just a touch restrictive if you had a few abilities on long cooldowns. Diablo IV is similar with two skills on mouse buttons and another four on keys; plenty to tinker with in a few hours of beta testing but there’s a risk of things calcifying as you find a build that works, either through experimentation or standing on the forum posts of giants with a mass of theory behind them. Combat was generally fine, especially mowing through hordes of minions with a collection of traps and AoE attacks. Boss fights got a little frenetic in a Benny Hill/”hit ‘im with a bucket!” kind of way, especially with a lot on screen increasing the likelihood of clicking resulting in an attack rather than movement or vice versa (perhaps I should have tinkered with the option to separate attacking and movement).

Overall I find myself with something of a dilemma. I could’ve happily kept going after the test finished – mechanics were still new and interesting, there were the other classes to try, plentiful piles of loot, a story to unwrap – but if previous ARPGs are any guide that honeymoon period didn’t last long, and Diablo IV has a pretty hefty price tag if it does end up gathering virtual dust.

The Sims hasn’t posed quite such a dilemma, I lasted about eleven minutes. Not a terribly fair crack of the whip but then it had never really seemed my thing, and there wasn’t anything in the brief time I spent to convince me otherwise. I never did well in open sandboxes, after all.

Faced with such a monumental decision, let’s see if there’s a deep and meaningful quote that might help. Here we go: “If at first you don’t succeed at getting into ARPGs, try, try, again, but not right at launch, give it a bit until it’s on sale. It might even go free to play, though that wouldn’t be a good sign for the long term monetisation model.”

Well that settles it. Thanks, Oscar Wilde.

Sunday 23 April 2023

Oh, and then the spell was cast

I’ve just finished watching The Last of Us on television. Being a PC gamer I hadn’t played the game but the series got rave reviews, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo were particularly effusive on their Take podcast, so I was expecting great things. It was very strong, carried incredibly well by Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal, with some real standout episodes. I don’t know that it completely lived up to the hype, but that’s almost certainly an expectation management issue as much as anything.

With the game finally making it to PC in its recent remake, I wondered if it was worth a go – assuming a patch or seven can sort out the technical issues flagged by initial reviews. I was intrigued by how closely the series stuck to the game. Some parts of the show seemed very game-like such as driving to escape unfolding events in the first episode, and Joel picking off targets with a sniper rifle later; much of it was more dialogue or mood based, which I assumed to come from cut scenes or to have been added for the series.

I found a play-through video and zapped through to some of the key parts, and sure enough there are elements of the two that overlap shot-for-shot both visually and in the dialogue. The game features more sneaking around, fighting, and crafting weapons as you’d expect; it also uses more common game techniques like overheard conversations, audio recordings, and notes and journals to avoid over-reliance on cutscenes. Not having played I wasn’t sure if there were choices to be made in conversations but the story is linear (though you may miss some background in notes and recordings).

Coincidentally PC Gamer posted a link to an old article about the explosion of Full Motion Video and “interactive movies” back in the 1990s, which got me thinking – have games like The Last of Us actually cracked it? (Welcome to “Revelations From About 15 Years Ago”). Stories and characters can move between film, television, books, games, comics, each taking their own approach, sticking very closely to each other or diverging wildly as is most appropriate. Musicals and opera have songs, ballet has dance, games have plenty of chest-high cover and mobs to mow down (there are interesting articles with the creators of The Last of Us talking about the amount of combat in the two versions and the different requirements of the mediums). Obviously there’s no guarantee of quality, any version of anything can be great or terrible in its own right, but with the Super Mario Bros film riding high in the charts game adaptations are hitting both commercial and critical highs.

With the game and series of The Last of Us sticking so closely to each other I’m not sure I’ll worry too much about playing it (though never say never, if it’s patched up to a good standard and turns up on sale in the future). It’s a ridiculous comparison in a lot of ways but with a linear story you could look at it like Dragon’s Lair, only with compelling gameplay in a beautifully realised world instead of pushing a button to see the next clip from a laserdisc. One way that games can really stand out is through choice; not all of them, for all of their openness the story elements of e.g. the Grand Theft Auto series are pretty much pass or fail and The Last of Us was never touted as an RPG, but it would be really interesting to see that version, the different relationships between the central figures that could evolve with different choices.

The amount of effort would be mind-boggling, considering the impact of branching choices, and it would be quite the challenge for actors to convey the gamut of resulting emotion. It’s not hard to see a Dragon Age type approach most of the way through – some flexibility in where to visit and who to ally with or betray, but perhaps that would have made it decent rather than exceptional RPG, as opposed to the precision of the story that gave it its impact.

For the moment, on the games front I’ll keep going with State of Decay 2. It still has its irritations (particularly the inventory) but there’s enough to outweigh them, particularly mowing through hordes of zombies. In its own way it also manages to tell neat little stories here and there, though the majority of missions don’t have the strongest of dramatic arcs. It would need a hell of a dance sequence to elevate “Give us a rucksack full of stuff!” “OK!” into awards contention…

Monday 27 March 2023

Inventory Systems I Have Known And Loved

For as long as mankind has battled orcs, zombies, and dragons, so there has been a greater foe: ones own limitations. Specifically carrying capacity. Why battle the monsters in the first place if not to nick all their loot, after all? Encumbrance has been around in RPGs from the start with rules on how much a character can carry, though in pencil and paper games it can always be augmented with a Bag of Holding, glossed over entirely (especially if spending more time creating characters than actually adventuring with them), or a bit of common sense can be applied if everyone is on the same page (“yes, as per the rulebook your high strength would let you carry a glaive, a guisarme, a bill-guisarme, a glaive-bardiche and a glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-glaive without being encumbered, but they’re all twice your height, how would that even work? Over your shoulder in some sort of bundle? Well, OK, but they’re not going to be immediately ready for combat. Also, if anyone attracts your attention it’s going to be a 2d4 Plank Gag Slapstick Attack on the person behind you unless they make a reflex save.”)

CRPGs also tend to include encumbrance, though obviously without the wiggle room of a DM; back in the good old AD&D-based party games I’d furiously re-roll virtual dice to get a Fighter with a nice high 18(90+) Strength (ideally boosted by rings, bracers, and whatever other magical jewellery was kicking around (Labret of Stone Giant Strength? Yes please!)), partly for the bonus damage in melee attacks, partly to load up with every scrap of loot it was possible to hoover up (including the Wizard’s share, as they used Strength as a dump stat and were struggling under the weight of a couple of scrolls and a pointy hat). First Person Shooters didn’t bother about such things, you had the fixed array of possible guns, and nobody was worrying where Doom Guy was storing the chain gun, rocket launcher and BFG9000 when he whipped his pistol out (matron). As CRPGs became more visual than text-based so the inventory evolved into the good old grid of graphical objects, sometimes with the concept of weight as well, often not, so you could quite happily be carrying 20 polearms but if you wanted to swap one for two daggers, or a ring and a gemstone, no dice. A slightly evolved version of the grid has larger items taking up more slots, the original Deus Ex being a fine example, giving the added joy of playing Inventory Tetris, especially if some items had irregular shapes. Someone even turned that into a standalone game, it looks quite fun in itself, but in the wider sense it’s quite the irritation if you only have space for one of a magical gold-plated dragonfly that grants wishes or the holy grail. A variant has containers that can only hold certain items; that makes sense with, say, a scroll case that can hold a bunch of scrolls, but is less explicable in Far Cry 3 with its baffling range of very specific luggage made from very specific animal parts (a grenade can be placed in a pack made out of deer hide but not a pouch made out of tiger skin, obviously).

With loot being such a vital part of many current games, especially MMOGs, inventory space is inevitably in high demand. In World of Warcraft there was a clear path for making money; “I am the most skilled tailor in the realm! I can sew the most elaborate robes you have ever seen, or a cape with the deepest magicks embroidered into its very essence, or… a bag. sigh Yes, all right, the biggest bag I can stitch together, coming right up.” Expanded inventories are often rewards or available as a real money purchase, highly desirable for players, and comic asides apart realism isn’t really a concern. You can always handwave things away with magic or sufficiently advanced technology, or come up with alternative explanations for present(ish) day games. In The Division, for example, just out of shot there’s the Gun Caddy wheeling around a modified golf trolley crammed full of weapons for different scenarios. “Ah, Jeeves, a wide open space with excellent sightlines, I’ll take the niblick for this one.”
ahem “Sir…”
“Now, Jeeves, I know that tone, you’re going to say a mashie-niblick would be more suitable, aren’t you? Well I’ve jolly well made my decision, hand over the niblick.”
“Actually, sir, I was going to suggest the SOCOM Mk 20 SSR with 8x scope, but have it your way.”
“That’s better. RAAAAAAAAGH!”
Bertie Wooster charges off towards the Black Tusk mercenaries waving a golf club

All this has been on my mind as I’ve started playing State of Decay 2. Inventory systems tend to be more restrictive in survival games, yet scavenging for weapons, components and other items is crucial, deliberately forcing difficult choices. Fair enough. I don’t think anything has implemented a ludicrously realistic system (I mean Completely Accurate Rucksack Simulator could be another interesting spin-off standalone game, where you desperately need to heal yourself using bandages you’re carrying but can’t remember quite where you packed them so have to go through all the side pockets, then empty everything out and rummage through it, finally find the bandages right at the bottom of the pack, then have to carefully re-fold and re-pack everything again afterwards), but you’re unlikely to be able to casually tote around 50 spare guns.

The State of Decay 2 system is a bit messy, though. First of all it’s slot-based with one item per slot and characters able to equip backpacks of six to eight slots, with all the inherent quirks (“my inventory is completely full, but I really want that assault rifle. I shall remove this single 9mm bullet from my pocket and now have room for it!”) exacerbated by stacking (“I have eight cartridges, each of a different calibre, so my backpack is completely full and can store nothing else. Unless I drop them and pick up 20 cartridges of the same calibre, now I can carry seven stacks of other things too…”) Items also have weight, so you can be overloaded carrying particularly heavy items and run out of stamina more quickly (again, fair enough, but emphasises the fact that the eight individual cartridges weigh almost nothing unlike the eight stacks of multiple containers of liquid for crafting). Fortunately you can drive vehicles, and offload that weight by putting it in the boot (trunk, if you’re an elephant). Unfortunately a car can, apparently, hold slightly less than a backpack. Apart from supply rucksacks, they can’t fit in a backpack but can be carried one at a time by a character; several of those fit in a car boot.

It’s not as if it’s a terribly different system to any number of other games, but the limited space makes the quirks chafe that little bit more. Setting out on a trip to gather supplies, if you kit yourself out with a bunch of weapons, ammunition, health packs and other consumables then you have enough space to clear out a single sock drawer in an abandoned house before you have to return to base. Take nothing but a rusty screwdriver to maximise your carrying capacity, you’re screwed if you misjudge things and end up swarmed by a mass of zombies. Difficult decisions are one thing, repeated trips back and forth to empty a single toolshed are another.

All of that wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that you barely get five minutes of peace. It seems like I can’t head out to explore without some random band of survivors getting on the radio and asking if I wouldn’t mind getting them a rucksack of supplies. Sure, fine, building relationships with other groups is important. Then two minutes later they’re back on the radio checking up, and if you haven’t dropped absolutely everything to pander to their demands shortly after that they get in a huff. Then some trader is visiting for a limited time somewhere else on the map, another survivor has a mission they’d like assistance with (with no indication if it’s a persistent thing that you can get around to later), and then there’s a warning that zombies are gathering to attack your base and you have ten minutes to get back there and defend it. OK, a zombie apocalypse shouldn’t be the ideal environment for chilling out, but I was hoping to slowly build up my base, explore the immediate surroundings and secure them, expand from there, rather than constantly dashing hither and yon at the whim of other survivors. It hasn’t completely put me off, I’m enjoying it enough to keep plugging away, but it has got to the point that I was glad when one group demanded stuff rather than asking nicely, it made it much easier to ignore. They subsequently turned hostile, so when I happened to be in the area later and they attacked I didn’t feel at all guilty taking them out. In fact it was a bonus, as I got to take all their stuff rather than having to trade and pay for it. Or at least it would have been a bonus, if I could have carried any of it, but sadly my backpack already contained a small bottle of painkillers, a grenade, a matchbox, two nails, a butter knife, and a toothbrush, so was completely full.

Saturday 25 February 2023

Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"?

After wrapping up Deathloop I was having a poke around for something a bit loot-y and indeed shoot-y to accompany my regular card games. Darktide is tempting, but ludicrously expensive (i.e. more than a fiver in this world of crazy pricing). There’ve been a few seasons in Destiny 2 since I hung up my warlock’s boots but I couldn’t really get back into it when I got it updated recently, I think that porridge may have cooled. I seem to have got stuck in the ‘D’ section of the library, as the next thing that popped up was The Division 2. I can’t actually remember when I bought it, pretty sure it was a sale rather than at launch; I’d given it a go on a couple of occasions but hadn’t made it past level 10.

It seems to have stuck this time. I don’t know if they’ve made combat a little easier, or if my playing style is better suited coming to it from the cautious and stealthy Deathloop rather than the running-around-shouting-DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA Destiny 2. I’ve hit level 30 and am slowly working through the World Tiers, playing solo; I’ve tried occasional matchmaking but without the patience to leave it for more than 30 seconds looking for group members, I presume most of the action is further in to the endgame. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of activities, the map is absolutely littered with caches to uncover, side activities, control points and what-not. It’s ideal for dropping in, plinking a few ne’er-do-wells and wandering off, or settling in for a longer session tackling main missions.

As with similar games, finding a weapon and skill combination that clicks is pretty crucial to its longevity. While levelling I’d equip whatever new guns happened to drop so got a bit of a feel for most types and my favoured primary weapon is the L86 light machine gun, a solid all-rounder. This shouldn’t have been a massive shock, as one of my go-to weapons in The Division was… the L86. There are plenty of little tweaks and enhancements, but The Division 2 hasn’t changed things terribly radically since the first game (fair enough, turning the sequel into a platforming puzzle game with 8-bit sprites would have been a brave/insane choice). The four year old Division 2, not so different from the seven year old Division, hardly feels ancient; I haven’t got a particularly good eye for these things but the graphics seem perfectly comparable to current releases. Things seem have reached something of a plateau; a good game always lasts (I was playing Nethack after Baldur’s Gate came out, though in no small part due to it being less obvious to spot on a monitor in the office at quiet times), and the game-as-a-service model means games now can evolve over numerous updates, but looking at 1993 (e.g. Doom and Myst) there’s not much that would still seem (more or less) current in 2003 (compared to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Star Wars Galaxies), whereas there’s plenty of 2013 still soldiering on today (Grand Theft Auto Online just got an update a week back, I missed out last month on the tenth anniversary of my first War Thunder post).

I was listening to Kermode & Mayo’s Take and they were discussing haptic suits that would allow you to ‘feel’ what characters on screen can feel, gunshots being an example. I think the idea is understandable in games (as long as said gunshots are toned right down) but really quite odd for a film, unless it was in the first person. There was a brief discussion of the frequent agent for technological change (mostly to introduce the word ‘teledildonics’ to a wider audience), and Mark Kermode said that in his opinion cinema technology reached the ideal with widescreen, technicolour and surround sound (I may have the specifics slightly wrong). 3D, 4DX and similar fripperies were, at best, a passing fad to try and get people into cinemas. Perhaps we’re approaching a similar point with games; the underlying technology is, if not perfected then heading that way. Perhaps the next big advancements will come in how games are produced; with all the buzz around AI art and chat games could be next, produce a blockbuster game at the click of a mouse without needing all those pesky (and expensive) humans, if you don’t mind it being a bunch of other games squished together but looking a bit weird around the edges. Perhaps this very post has been produced by AI as a precursor, seeding the idea. Except if that was the case it would never draw attention to itself by making that suggestion, would it? Unless it was some sort of fiendish double bluff. But it couldn’t be, could it? No, it couldn’t. No AI would ever end a post with a poor version of The Red Hat of Patferrick that oh-so-few readers would recognise and still less give a fig about, would it? Or would it? Perhaps it would. Except it hasn’t. Has it?

(no, it hasn’t)

(or has it?)


Thursday 26 January 2023

Oops There Goes Gravity

Not too many changes on the gaming front over the past few months; Desperadoes 3 fell by the wayside, but I looped around Deathloop to the end of the story. It’s a great premise, has a really strong design, and the story, mechanics, and puzzles kept me hooked in. It held my hand enough that my poor aged brain could cope with gaps between sessions when I might not remember exactly what I was supposed to be doing where (and when); I could see it being a satisfying challenge to have to keep extensive notes and work out everything without a handy mission journal and big orange map markers, but also tricky and/or frustrating to the point that I doubt I’d have bothered to see it through (at least not without downloading a walk through).

It feels rather Old School, playing a single player game from start to finish then moving on to something else. Less than optimal from the publisher’s perspective, I guess; there is a multiplayer mode, where you can take control of the game’s antagonist and hop into other players sessions, but it’s not for me. I don’t know if it has a strong player base but it feels like a slightly tacked on element to try and increase the longevity with unlocks and PvP, albeit entirely understandably considering the effort required to produce the game and popularity (and resulting sales) of e.g. the multiplayer mode of Mass Effect 3 or the longevity of other looter-shooters.

Elsewhere cards continue to be something of a theme. Monster Train, the roguelike deckbuilder from the same Humble Monthly bundle as Deathloop, is great for a quick run here and there, the combinations of the various factions offering different approaches to the game: sending out wave after wave of cheap minions whose deaths power up other units; spiky tanks damaging and debuffing the enemy when they get hit; powerful spells further boosted by trinkets and units. Combined with the usual card game variance of how you build a deck and what you draw it really mixes things up. I still play a bit of KARDS as well, but it’s been overtaken as my favoured PvP deckbuilder by Marvel Snap.

After its deceptively simple start there’s a lot going on in Marvel Snap. In a previous post I linked to a Twitter thread of the lead designer explaining why they don’t have mulligans and how they addressed player feedback about it, and there’s an interesting interview on Kotaku about the first three months. It’s a good point made there about the Marvel theme being a nice hook, even if not strictly relevant to most of the mechanics; the Second World War theme is the reason I started playing KARDS, then it’s the deeper gameplay that keeps you going. I might’ve tried a generic hero card game with Stabby Hands Guy but I doubt it would have acquired such a buzz and player base, even if the gameplay was excellent.

The complexity of Marvel Snap is introduced neatly as you unlock new cards. To start with it’s mostly Play Card With Biggest Numbers; then there are fairly straightforward abilities, like gaining extra power if you don’t play another card on the same location the next turn, that introduce a little more forward thinking. Then you get into mechanics with more synergy like moving, discarding and destroying; discarding your own cards usually isn’t great, leaving you less choices, but a few cards have beneficial effects when discarded. Some cards move cards, other cards benefit from being moved. Of course there’s the usual card game shenanigans where you have to cope with the cards you draw; in KARDS I have a deck that’s about one third tank units, most of the other cards focused on buffing those tanks, and I swear I’ve had matches where I haven’t drawn a single tank in the first ten cards more often than is statistically likely. With decks of just 12 cards in Marvel Snap I’ve never been quite that frustrated, you might not draw the exact card you were hoping for but with a little thought in deck construction it’s hard to end up with a totally useless hand. Unless…

The next layer of variance is the three locations you play over, with various random effects. Some tie in with card effects such as destroying or moving cards, assisting decks built around those, others stop certain abilities or trigger them twice, others really throw a spanner in the works by having players draw from each others decks or adding random cards to hands or the board. Between the locations and card abilities it can be quite involved working out exactly what will apply to which cards and when; “the last card I played moves the next card one location to the left, so I’ll play this here, that allows other cards to move to its location (the original one, not the final one), then it’ll end up there, so I play this other card there to buff it…” There are subtleties as well, such as the difference between not being able to play a card in a location (but still being able to move a card there) compared to not being able to add a card to a location (including movement). Setting everything up for a grand shift thinking it’s the former when actually it’s the latter is a mistake you only make once. As long as you’re the sort of person to learn from their mistakes; I still miss location or card effects that entirely ruin my grand plans every now and again.

I can’t be too cross about that, being entirely my fault and all; what can be more frustrating is when your plans are undone by a card played by your opponent. KARDS could be particularly bad for that, having a whole bunch of orders and countermeasures designed for locking down the other player, playing against certain decks (when they get the right draw) is just turn after turn of watching your units being pushed back to your hand, discarded, or otherwise nullified, no fun at all. Marvel Snap does have cards that adversely affect your opponent but not a huge number, and with all the other potential effects going on I’ve seldom found them to be rage-quittingly annoying. Speaking of quitting, the snap mechanic also takes some of the sting out of it. If you retreat from a game before the final round you lose a ranking point and the other player gains one; see it through to the end and it’s a two point gain/loss. Like the double cube of backgammon each player can also snap once, doubling the reward/penalty, so a double-snapped game played to the end is worth eight points. That means if you end up in a terrible situation either through dumb luck or your own dumb play you can retreat without a major hit to your rank. Bluffing is another option, snapping even if you have hopeless cards, but as the stakes are hardly life-and-death it’s not the trickiest decision to call what looks like a bluff.

If there is one issue I’m finding after a few months it’s lack of new cards, as PC Gamer observed. Without spending anything I’ve built up a decent collection, new cards are plentiful as you start building your Collection Level, but later it slows to a trickle; I haven’t picked up a new card that I’ve actually included in a deck for a while now. I can field a decent variety of decks with different specialities, but there are a few cards out there that would work very nicely that I can’t just go and acquire. It’s a tricky balance; one of the appeals of Marvel Snap is the relative simplicity of building decks so releasing too many cards spoils that, but of course you need to keep things fresh and interesting as well. It’s admirable that they don’t sell specific cards for silly money, but £90 for a stack of in-game currency to (visually) upgrade your cards with slim chances of acquiring new ones in the process doesn’t feel great. The £8.99 Season Pass is more tempting, one of the few ways of definitely getting a particular card, and I feel like I ought to contribute something for the time I’ve played. Overall the positives considerably outweigh the negatives for a nice, quick, snack-sized card battler that works very well on a mobile as well as desktop, even without new cards there’s plenty of variety in the battles.