Saturday, November 02, 2019

Xbox Game Pass

I am playing The Outer Planets thanks to the Xbox game pass (pc) €1 trial month. This is a great deal from Microsoft and a lot of gamers are signing up to it but I wouldn't be surprised if I and many others stay subbed after the trial period ends. Even though others like EA Origin Access have tried to push gaming as a service with a monthly sub for some years now I feel like this could just be beginning of a seismic shift in the way most people get games. I wouldn't be surprised if in five years time the majority of my games come this way.

Twenty years ago I bought games in physical boxes that I proudly kept on display. I still have a bunch of them on the shelf in my office. Having a physical copy gives a real sense of ownership  and occasionally  I go back and play some old time favourites. But ... even when I do go back to play an older game I am more likely to play a Steam, GoG or Origin version than to physically insert a disk. It is just much more convenient so I have picked up digital copies of most of my favourites over the years.

I have never really felt the same sense of ownership for any of the hundreds of games in my Steam and other digital libraries as for the physical disks. Its a license to play certain games whenever I want. I don't own anything. The "whenever I want" bit is important though. The first Steam game I bought was Half Life 2 about 15 years ago. I could play it today if I wanted to using the same Steam account. I really like that.

Will a monthly gaming subscription offer similar permanency? Will I still be able to play The Outer Planets in fifteen years time if I stay subscribed. It remains to be seen but I wouldn't put money on it. Netflix shattered that illusion in the video streaming world when series started dropping off the list even when people were still watching them.

At present there are only about four games on Xbox Pass PC that interest me. That is probably enough to keep me subbed for a few months and after that we will see. There is a convenience though to monthly subscriptions and the world has already moved that way in video and music. Why should games not go likewise?

Monday, October 14, 2019

Big Stompy Robots: Battletech

The October Humble Monthly bundle included the 2018 mech combat game Battletech. I have always loved big stompy robot games and I have very fond memories of playing  Battletech: Mechwarrior games from a quarter of a century ago when they vied with Metaltech: Earthseiege for the mech gaming crown.

This latest Battletech game ticks a lot of boxes for me. It has a story based campaign set in the very rich lore of the Battletech  universe. Combat is turn based so no twitch shooting is required. The player controls a squad of mechs which are simulated down to the sub module level giving lots of of variables to play around with and control. All of this is right up my alley. Unfortunately my first couple of hours in the game tarnished this shiny picture some what. The game feels buggy and unoptimised. At times the action is jerky and have I experienced sound dropouts and a crash to desktop during combat. The crash happened as I was attempting the surprisingly challenging first mission that the game throws you into after a hopelessly inadequate tutorial. I thought I was doing well as I overcame the easy enemies of the first few encounters but the mission went on much longer than expected and ground me down by attrition. Even though the enemies were weaker than my forces the oncoming waves were smart enough to continually focus on the single most damaged member of my party. Given that the loss of a single member ends the game this meant I had to reload several times before I managed to successfully drag that most damaged mech to the end. 

Normally this level of hassle early in a game would cause me to move on. Life is too short and there really are too many games to play. I did mention however that I have always loved big stompy robot games and Battletech has done just enough to rekindle my enthusiasm. I can feel myself getting sucked in once again to logistical calculations of loadouts and tactics.

Aside: The fact that Battletech runs quite poorly on a modern PC highlights what an incredible job the programmers of earlier games did on much more limited hardware. Earthsiege  from way back in 1994 for example had a very similar level of complexity with real time simulation of mech combat down to sub component level. That game ran flawlessly on my 50MHz 80486. Battletech runs somewhat haphazardly on on a modern PC with a six core 3.6GHz CPU and decent GPU.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Currently playing Mooncrash and Total Warhammer II

I am about three quarters of the way through a Dark Elf vortex campaign in Total Warhammer 2. Unlike previous campaigns I am deliberately limiting territorial expansion. I hold only three provinces and I am using diplomacy instead to secure borders. This slows down the game but it makes it much easier to defend against the random chaos armies that spawn during vortex rituals. With so few settlements it did take a while to get my economy off the ground but at this point some 150 turns in I am the strongest and richest faction and I have managed to disrupt the plans of my vortex rivals with expeditionary forces, allies and intervention armies.  

Dark Elves are a very enjoyable faction to play with no obvious weaknesses and some very strong creatures and magic. The armour piercing crossbows of tier one Dark Shards mean that even early game Dark Elf armies can inflict serious damage. Dark Elves unique faction ability allows them to build black ark ships and use them as mobile recruiting platforms. This has proved essential to my non expansionary playstyle because my expeditionary forces use slash and burn tactics which would leave them with no home territory in which to replenish if not for black arks. 

Despite my two year obsession with Total Warhammer (games, books and video streams) I still manage to fit insome other games. My most recent alternate game was Mooncrash, the addon to Prey, Arkane's 2017 homage to System Shock 2. Mooncrash has all the mechanics of Prey but turns it into a rogue like using the conceit that you are running a simulation in order to conduct industrial espionage. In the simulation you take on the roles of a cast of characters in a destroyed base belonging to Transtar the company behind the original Prey shenanigans. The game is roguelike because you must run the simulation over and over to achieve the objectives with each run having randomised hazards to overcome along the way. It is very well done and I do recommend it but be warned I found the game transitioning from confusing to frustrating to trivial as I progressed through the campaign. The initial confusion stemmed from the fact that the premise behind the game is quite odd and it took me a while to figure out what I was supposed to do.  Even after I figured out what was required I found myself getting frustrated by the randomised obstacles that thwarted in true roguelike fashion my attempts at completing the objectives.  I kept playing however. My characters got stronger and more importantly I figured out tricks to overcome the various obstacles the game might throw at me and the game eventually became relatively easy. One annoyance is that once you finish the game by completing all objectives you cannot revisit the simulation without starting a new game over from scratch. This doesn't bother me too much but I imagine completionists will be very upset by this because even after completing the objectives there are still plenty of nooks and cranny's left to explore. 

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thoughts on the decline of online virtual worlds (inspired by Tobold)

Tobold is annoyed that mmorpgs "evolved into a bunch of derivative and repetitive chores instead of living and breathing worlds" and his post inspired me to record my own thoughts in a comment which I am recording here for posterity: 

I am the same age as you Tobold and like you I once thought mmorpgs would be stepping stones towards fully immersive alternative worlds such as those envisaged by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Tad Williams.  I think a few virtual worlds did try to go that way including obviously "Second Life" but also a number of titles aimed at younger audiences such as "Club Penguin" and "Free Realms" but none of them ever really took off and in the end mmorpgs became just another type of game to play.

I think that Blizzard realised this early with  World of Warcraft and while WoW did offer a large immersive online world the game aspect always came first. This proved a smart business decision because pretty soon afterwards social media became a thing. Social media provides ways for people to hang out with their friends online without having to pretend to be elves or dwarves and it turns out that the vast majority of people are happier with that. I think that Facebook did more to kill of the social aspect of mmorpgs than anything that the gaming industry ever did.

I guess I am a bit dissapointed that the early promise of mmorpgs as virtual worlds was never realised. The world of computer games seems a lot less magical to me now than it did fifteen years ago. Games today have become incredibly polished forms of mass entertainment but they no longer seem offer the potential of becoming something more.

Recently I had the opportunity to try out virtual reality with an Occulus rift. While this quickly convinced me that the technology is nowhere near ready for the mass market it did briefly rekindle some future wonder in me and perhaps give me a glimpse of what might happen. I think the best hope now of the (re) emergence of virtual worlds is not from gaming but from business applications or from some form of social media. The business applications are already close. Companies are already creating 3D virtual models of buildings and towns that the engineers and designers can virtually walk through. It seems a relatively simple step to allow multiple users in to interact and work together in these virtual spaces.  On the social media side of things I could imagine something like facebook messenger transitioning into a 3D communications tool and from that developing persistent virtual meeting places for people to hang out in.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Buying a console to play one game (Halo 3)

Having enjoyed Halo 1 and 2 on my PC it has long been my desire to find a way to play the Xbox exclusive remainder of the series. The only question was whether emulation would provide a route before the price of an Xbox 360 console itself fell below my threshold of pain. Well it turns out that emulation loses this time because this weekend I realised I could pick up an Xbox 360 console and a few games for around €50. Even if I do no more than play the few Halo Titles (3, 4, ODST and Reach) I will consider this a reasonable investment. I was actually offered a console for €35 but on investigation it was a version without hard disk so I opted to pay an extra €15 for a Xbox 360 "Slim" with  250Gb hard disk. We already own a Wii and a PS3 so that now makes a full house of seventh generation consoles for us. I bought the PS 3 a couple of years ago hoping to play a few exclusives but in the end I only finished "The Last of Us"(excellent game). The PS3 itself is still used daily  as a netflix / Blue Ray player.  One of the reasons I play so few games on the PS3 is because it is hooked up to the family TV and I never get exclusive use of it. Learning this lesson I have placed the Xbox 360 on top of my computer and hooked it up to my monitor. I need to manually switch between Display Port (computer) and HDMI (Xbox) but otherwise the arrangement works well. The field of view and screen resolution of the Xbox 360 are not really designed for close up viewing so I find I have to push my chair back a bit for best experience but overall it is a pretty good solution and I am already about two thirds of the way through Halo 3.

Minor observation  I prefer the user interface of the 360 the the PS3 but I can't really say why. It is brighter and more colourful but it is also more intuitive I think.