First encounters of the videogame kind

I was eight years old and I recall needing to find my dad. I wasn’t lost or being stalked, or anything modern and paranoid like that, for when you lived on a 1970s military base in UN-patrolled Cyprus, being out unsupervised from noon til night (fighting wars with sticks and stones) was what kids did. On this particular occasion though I needed to find my father, probably so he could eat whatever dinner my mother had made. As missions went, compared to assaulting storm drains with your mates, it wasn’t the most exciting.

I’d looked everywhere I could think of except the local bar. Even though it was out of bounds and therefore threatening, I knew my dad helped run things there, so with shadows lengthening and few options for a successful search left, I sheepishly wandered in. There I was confronted, not by a bartender eager to haul me out by my ear (still a thing back then), but by a growling machine monolith. I’ll never forget it’s green alien glow curling through the cigarette smoke, less still its analogue heartbeat. It was like coming face-to-thigh with Maximilian from The Black Hole (which like my first videogame console, a Binatone TV Master Mk IV, was still a year away from making a lasting impression).

I didn’t play the machine. I didn’t know it could be played. I had no money on me and wouldn’t have known where to put it if I had, or that was what powered the thing – since it couldn’t have just been electricity. (The Force maybe?) I just watched from a safe distance, the screen flicking from lists of secret alien codes to footage of a prior invasion from space.

Then I ran outside and into the failing light, as much in fear of being discovered by an adult as from the machine-beast in the corner. Naturally I was to find my dad at home, probably annoyed at me for being out late and delaying his meal. I  said nothing of the encounter lest I gave away where I’d been, but I like to think that night is when I had my first electric dream and the seeds of a lifelong interest in videogames was sown. Then again, perhaps it was more a recurring nightmare now I think back on it.

BlackHoleMaximilian

Please crash as soon as you get green position lights

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about X: Beyond The Frontier – far more than in any of the sequels – is just how laid back it is. From the non-existent flight model (your X-perimental shuttle responds better to a knackered old keyboard than it does an expensive joystick) to the sleep-inducing automated voice that greets you as you dock at a station, Egosoft’s debut space trader seems intent on lulling the player into a semi-conscious state – perhaps to prepare pilots for what can be a fairly ponderous journey.

Unfortunately it’s when you are at your most relaxed that you are most in danger. I refer of course to perils of the siren-like docking music, which acts as a kind of aural pillow upon which you can rest your trade-addled mind. In concert with the hypnotic green “position lights” the game’s Blade Runner-inspired OST has caused me to collide with many a station entrance on account of being too catatonic to slow down. On the plus side, pulling out or managing to get your speed down in the nick of time can be a genuine thrill. Given how secondary combat is to the game, perhaps it’s just as well.

Here’s how it should be done:

A dangerous journey to Elite starts here

Despite the many costly late nights invested in Elite: Dangerous over the last few weeks, it was only in the early hours, after delivering another golden cargo to the tea-starved settlements of Aiabiko, that I could at last afford a Cobra Mk. III. Not my first, I should add, but given how quickly that fated vessel left my possession – disintegrating barely a minute into its maiden voyage  – you’ll forgive me for not counting it.

As well as being the most iconic ship in the game, the Cobra is for me the most desirable, on account of the more numerous (and less punishing) late nights spent flying its wireframe predecessor as a starry-eyed teenager. Needless to say, having one of these beauties in the hangar for the first-ish time in three decades makes me happier than any game inventory has managed in many a year.

In the original Elite, of course, the Cobra was the only ship you could hope to fly, which was perfectly fine as it was just as capable a combat vessel as it was at shifting narcotics. In Elite: Dangerous it’s every bit as versatile as it’s 1984-model – more so given the fitting options – but with a range of available hulls better suited to specific roles, the old workhorse has effectively been relegated to stopgap status. It’s now the old banger you pootle around in once you’ve nailed the fundamentals; useful only until you decide on where you’re going in life and can afford something better suited to getting you there faster.

The thing is, being something of an old wreck myself, I’m loathed to scrap a ship I’ve waited almost 30 years to reacquire. Which is why I’m going to try to ascend through the various Elite rankings old school, sticking to the Cobra Mk. III for as long as I can. Since time isn’t an issue (well, aside from the onset of old age), the hope is I can earn my golden wings without having to invest in the jump range of the Asp, the firepower of a Vulture or the cargo bay of a Type-9. It will be a long and dangerous journey, I’m sure, but it’s one I’m determined to stick with for as long as my dwindling free time allows, or until curiosity gets the better of me.

I give myself a week.

dockingnewcobra

Must try harder

It’s time to do more with this little blog than indulge my velleity, so I’ve decided to give my infrequent adventures in games writing a bit of focus by concentrating on the games that seem to take up all my spare time – spacey ones.

As previously mentioned I’ve been playing a fair bit of Elite Dangerous over the last year, but over the last couple of weeks things have started falling into place in terms of my ambitions and interest in the game.

At the same time, in an effort to put an old Vista laptop to some use, I’ve been enjoying starting from scratch in the very first X game. I’m not sure if it’ll hold my interest in quite the same way as it did when I first reviewed it for PC Zone (back in the wilderness years of space gaming), but I’ve already gotten further on this second attempt than I ever managed first time in any of the sequels.

xbtf1

Mass Effect is boring

I’m finding it hard to muster any interest in playing through Mass Effect. I’ve started it many times over the years; originally intending to complete the game before Mass Effect 2 came along, before realising some while later that people were up in arms over Mass Effect 3 and I still hadn’t guided Shepard through his/her first assignment. The thing is, every time I task myself with ticking Mass Effect off my backlog of games, I manage to play through the first episode on the Citadel, visit a couple of planets and then lose complete interest in the whole thing.

In the past I’ve put my stalling down to flightiness, but after my latest attempt to get through the trilogy I’ve come to the conclusion that Mass Effect just isn’t that exciting. In fact I’d put it up there with Star Wars: The Old Republic as Bioware’s Most Tedious Game.

Maybe I’ve become jaded with Bioware’s dialogue system, which all too often seems to offer inflection dressed up as choice. Then there’s all the running around and backtracking through overly-large and tediously prefabricated locations, being trapped in elevators and combat that isn’t nearly as tactical as it thinks it is.

And don’t get me started on Origin: I spent so long with various EA support reps, trying to get the game to run at all, that I gave up and downloaded a cracked version instead. It’s a curious irony that I have three legitimately acquired copies of Mass Effect, two of them digital, yet in order to play the game on my current PC I have to resort to piracy.

Nevertheless, in spite of the hassles and mounting disinterest, I will soldier on, if only to see what all the fuss was about with the sequel. The adventure continues…

Hug a gaming magazine today

Gaming magazines are like koala bears: They don’t seem to go very fast, they eat trees like you wouldn’t believe and they absolutely love to be hugged. Perhaps more seriously the adorable creatures are increasingly threatened with extinction, which is why it’s always heartening to find out that a new one has been conceived.

Currently seeking funding via Kickstarter, Retro is being pitched as a US equivalent to Retro Gamer, only with a bit more in the way of current-gen stuff (“and a whole bunch more”), likely to keep as many younglings interested in turning pages as possible. You can read a preview of the first issue here, although I’d advise against dwelling too long on some of the pages. The Alcohol Breath-Testing Key-Ring review isn’t the only piece of writing that seems out-of-sorts.

Curiously the magazine will be bi-monthly (which I assume means every two months – you can never quite tell), with a minimum of 52 pages, four of which will be ads – quite a flimsy thing compared to the last US gaming magazine I read, which had all the heft and nourishment of an Argos catalogue. I’m assuming Retro won’t be making it to a newsstand anytime soon, even if it does manage to reach its $50K goal.

Despite my snarky Englishness I hope the makers of Retro come good, if only because the US could do with a decent home-grown gaming rag. Of the few gaming magazines still rolling off US presses, many I’m told are reconstituted from UK scrap. I found out a few weeks ago, for instance, that 80% of the US edition of PC Gamer originates from the UK mag, which in some ways is a little sad. Not as sad as there being no magazine at all, but still.

Here we go again: Death by gamer

The narrative that follows your typical mass killing tends to go one of two ways, either the perpetrator is discovered to have Muslim tendencies and people suddenly rally around flaccid symbols of freedom and democracy, or a copy of Call of Duty / Battlefield / Doom is found at the guy’s flat and a sinister love for pixelated violence becomes the favoured cause of his murderous frenzy. The speculation over the Navy Yard killings a couple of days ago, during which 12 people were tragically killed, is currently following the latter.

I only tuned into the news yesterday and the one and only report I saw focused on the killer’s like for first-person shooters. By happy coincidence crime spree simulator Grand Theft Auto V was released that very same day, which made the connection between guns and gaming even easier to make. ‘Here we go again’, I sighed. ‘Tomorrow the newspapers will be gunning for games and John Walker will be forced into making an entirely reasonable call for sanity’. And lo it has come to pass.

Ban this sick filth now, etc

Ban this sick filth now, etc

Unlike Mr. Walker I long ago gave up on challenging the lazy assumption that journalists make in trying to blame the ills of the world on violence in games. I remember in the wake of 9/11 when a news reporter called up the PC Zone office so that we might help substantiate a rumour about how Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 had apparently been used to tutor the hijackers on the fundamentals of flying aircraft into buildings.  What he wanted from us was a screenshot of the World Trade Center looming large in the digital cockpit. He was politely told to go away, not because his story lacked merit, but because the assumption was being explicitly made that had MS Flight Sim not been widely available, the hijackers would have been less able to carry out their terrible deed. To borrow Mr. Walker’s phrase, correlation was being reported as causation, as a subsequent headline linking in the 7/7 London bombers made abundantly clear.

That was 12 years ago and little has changed in the way games are often wheeled out as the bogeyman for all manner of societal distress. I don’t doubt that games can be a very literal guilty pleasure – riddled with misogyny as many are – but by accepting the blanket vilification of games as part of the process of the reporting of mass murder, those of us that do little more than mock laziness and incompetence are perhaps as much a part of the problem as those commissioning it. Then again, when the choice is between playing one of the most highly anticipated games in recent years and trying to fight stupidity, I know what I would rather be doing.