Author Archives: Pete Davison

About Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

1956: Diving into Hell

I grabbed a copy of a game I’ve been curious about for a little while today: Helldivers, from Arrowhead.

Helldivers is a PS3, PS4 and Vita game (cross-buy, cross-save and cross-play, thank you very much!) in which you take on the role of one of the titular dropship troopers, blow shit up and then get extracted. Except it’s rather more likely that you will die in the process.

Arrowhead, you may recall, also developed Magicka, which is a gloriously chaotic “cooperative” multiplayer shooter in which friendly fire is well and truly turned on. In Magicka, a significant part of the fun comes from seeing what happens when your spells interact with other players’ spells — there are often unexpected consequences. Helldivers is less explicitly ridiculous than Magicka is, but there’s a lot of the same magic — no pun intended — in there.

Yes, friendly fire is turned on in Helldivers. Yes, things that you do supposedly to benefit the group can end up killing them. Yes, it’s a rather good time despite the somewhat generic premise of “space marines go places and kill stuff” — the mission objectives and maps are varied and interesting enough to keep things enjoyable. Or so it looks, anyway; I’ve only played for about half an hour so far, but I enjoyed it a lot.

The interesting stuff in Helldivers, it seems, will come in the form of “Strategems”. These are a rough equivalent to the spells in Magicka in that using them requires you to input a particular string of button commands, but the difference is that they don’t take effect immediately. Powerful attacks like air strikes take time to reach your location, for example, meaning you’ll need to hold off enemies while you wait for support. And then when support arrives, you’d better make sure you’re not standing where you dropped the beacon, otherwise the thing you requested will indeed drop on your head and kill you.

There’s something understatedly ridiculous about the multiplayer that makes it a joy. Earlier, I played a game with two random people in which one of our objectives was to disarm some unexploded armaments. No further information was given than that, aside from a location on the map that didn’t seem to have anything there. Then several of us realised that we had a “metal detector” strategem available, allowing us to call in a supply drop containing a metal detector. When we’d acquired this, we could then sweep the area for the (apparently buried) bombs. Unfortunately, while we were doing so, our beacons attracted the attentions of the Bug hordes, so my two comrades had to fend them off while I was methodically searching the area for unexploded bombs. The juxtaposition was hilarious.

There’s also a really interesting metagame going on, too. The concept puts the Helldivers at work in wars on three fronts, with control of sectors and systems being determined by players succeeding in missions they challenge. When the player community as a whole has pushed the front to the alien homeworld, the ability to assault it becomes available, and consequently an opportunity to win that particular war. Then every so often things reset and start again, from what I understand; I’m interested to see how the current war (the 4th, apparently) unfolds over time — it’s a really cool idea and a great use of online.

So yeah. Helldivers. It’s a good time. And if you’re a PlayStation Plus subscriber, it’s cheap right now, too.

1955: Always Out of Time

I’ve become somewhat convinced that I’m doomed to be forever “out of step” with where someone of my age — whatever it is at the time — is “supposed” to be.

I’ve been aware of this since I was a kid. While I had some friends in my peer group — many of whom are still friends today, and some of whom are even attending my wedding next month — when I was younger, I always found myself gravitating towards people who were older than me.

There were a few reasons for this, depending on who the person in question was, but mostly it was due to the fact that I never quite felt like I “fit in” with my peer group. I wasn’t into football, I didn’t know much about popular music — I was mercilessly mocked for my first ever album purchase being Oasis’ Definitely Maybe literally a day before (What’s the Story?) Morning Glory came out — and I was into things that were seen as a bit… I don’t know, specialist? Nerdy? Music (i.e. playing and composing, rather than popular) and computer games, mainly — and while I did have some friends who shared at least some of these interests, I always found myself wondering if I was a bit more into these things than they were.

And so it was I found myself being able to relate somewhat better to people who were a little older and less susceptible to that bugbear of adolescence, peer pressure. My brother’s girlfriend at the time — some ten years my senior — helped me discover a love for tabletop and role-playing games through Hero Quest and Space Crusade. Certain friends of my parents proved to be more appreciative of my musical skills than my peer group. And I always wanted to hang out with my brother and his friends whenever they were around — even though I was also aware that I was the annoying little brother.

I find myself comparing how I was then to how I am now, and realise that I am now in almost the inverse situation: just recently, I am finding myself relating to and getting along with people somewhat younger than myself rather than, again, my peer group.

At thirty-four years of age, there’s less in the way of “peer pressure” in the same way there was at school, but in a way it’s still there in a more insidious form. People I know are getting married, buying houses and even having kids — I’ve done two out of those three things, and don’t have any intention of doing the other in the immediate future — and there’s always this slight undercurrent feeling like I should be more “grown up” than I am.

Part of this anxiety comes from my woes in the job market over the years. Of my past employment, I was made redundant from one, signed off sick with stress from the next, bullied out of the one after, quit before I killed myself with the following one, made redundant again with the one after that, screwed over at short notice with the one after that and ultimately, again, bullied out of another job, partly as a result of my depression and anxiety issues. So it’s fair to say that all that has mounted up somewhat and made me feel more than a bit inadequate and “behind” where I “should” be at the age of thirty-four.

In a way, though, I also don’t want to “grow up”. I love the things I love, and I feel like the things I’ve discovered I love most recently are things that speak to me pretty much more than anything I’ve been into in the past. And exploring those things a step at a time has brought me into contact with a variety of new, exciting and interesting people whom I’m keen to get to know a bit better, as they seem to kind of “get” me. Or, at least, “get” the stuff I’m into.

Thing is — and I don’t know for certain, but have strong suspicions — these people are quite a bit younger than me. Oh, they’re not schoolkids or anything like that, I hasten to add — most are in their early to mid twenties, I believe — but I am conscious of it. And I’m grateful to them for — so far, at least — accepting me for who I am and not giving a shit about my age as much as I apparently do.

So is all this a problem? I couldn’t say. It’s just been on my mind a bit recently — I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now. Ultimately I can’t help but feel that doing things that make you happy and sane are more important than the things society says you “should” be doing at any given age. And so, until I find myself in a situation where it’s simply impossible to — and I hope that day never comes — I plan on staying just the way I am for now, and see where life takes me from here.

1954: I Want to Like GTA Online

I want to like Grand Theft Auto Online. But man, does it ever make it difficult.

The frustrating thing, in a way, is that when it works well, it’s a lot of fun. 30-player races across an airport in supercars in the pouring rain is incredibly enjoyable. Deathmatches are, for my money, more fun than those in more conventional shooters. Survival events are great. And I haven’t even tried a Heist yet.

Unfortunately the whole thing is wrapped up in some of the most poorly implemented online functions that I’ve ever had the misfortune to endure in a game. And I played Final Fantasy XI with its dumbass PlayOnline Viewer and indecipherable friend request system.

Part of the problem, I think, is to do with how Grand Theft Auto Online is structured. There’s the “free mode” stuff, in which you can tool around in the open world with a bunch of other players, all doing your own thing, and there’s the “Jobs”, which are structured events. And the two clash quite a bit.

In free mode, You can steal cars, buy property, deliver things, clear out gang hideouts, rob stores and a bunch of other things. You can also kill other players, or set Bounties on people, or pursue Bounties yourself. It’s enjoyable, if a little directionless and lacking some of the incentive to explore that the single-player mode of Grand Theft Auto V has — there’s no collectibles, for example, and while there are occasional weapons scattered around the map, there’s considerably less than there are in single-player as, for the most part, in Grand Theft Auto Online you’re expected to earn your weapons and pay for them yourself with your in-game money.

So far so good. The problem, then, comes when you launch into one of the Jobs. These effectively become private game sessions in their own right, and much like other multiplayer games out there, feature a system whereby people who want to stay on after an individual race/match/whatever can vote on what the next activity should be, and everyone who does so will be in the next race/match/whatever with one another.

When playing with random people, this isn’t a huge issue, though Grand Theft Auto Online is plagued with the same problem a lot of other popular online games have: people joining sessions and leaving either when it’s not going their way or, in some cases, if the lobby doesn’t fill up in less than five seconds. Multiply this by the number of people who are doing it and it can be a good few minutes before the game manages to successfully assemble a group of people to play a single event — and you can’t do anything while you’re “queued” like this, though there is an “On Call” system that supposedly alleviates this, though I’ve never managed to make it actually work as it’s supposed to.

The bigger issue comes when playing with friends. There’s no “party” system so it’s extremely difficult to keep together with the group of people you actually want to play with, particularly if each person has their online matchmaking settings set a little differently. It’s also extremely difficult to simply pick up your friends and plonk you all into a single, private session where you won’t be bothered by random other public players — in order to do this, you actually have to quit out of Grand Theft Auto Online altogether and go back to Grand Theft Auto V, then rejoin Grand Theft Auto Online using the appropriate setting (Invite Only, Friends Only and so forth). This forces you to sit through one of the game’s many, many long and tedious loading breaks. And even then, this setting only seems to apply when you first join; on more than one occasion my friends and I have finished an event only to be dropped into a session with 25 other randos.

The whole system feels exceedingly undercooked, and given how long Grand Theft Auto Online has been, well, online now — not to mention how many other big-budget triple-A games have done multiplayer really well to date — there really isn’t much of an excuse for it. And I wouldn’t blame some people for giving up on it rather quickly — which is a shame, because as I mentioned above, it’s really rather fun when it works “properly”.

1953: Still Picking Up Girls in a Dungeon

The anime Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, better known as DanMachi (because Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is a stupid title that doesn’t really reflect what the show is all about) has been continuing to entertain me with each new installment, and I’m glad that so far it seems to be widely well-received for the most part.

What I’ve been pleased to see as the show has developed is that it’s a lot more than the straightforward harem show its official English title would appear to suggest it is. Sure, there are a lot of female characters, and sure, most of them appear to want to throw themselves at wet-lettuce protagonist Bell for their own mysterious reasons, but with each new episode, we see interesting new developments in the characters — and, this week, particularly in Bell himself.

Bell ran the risk of being a relatively generic anime protagonist character, albeit one with white hair rather than the usual floppy dark brown. He was clearly designed to be somewhat relatable to the audience — socially awkward, not quite sure what to do with himself, lacking in confidence and generally a bit clumsy. But over time, his Badass Quotient has been increasing rapidly, though not in the somewhat overpowered way that Kirito became incredibly tough in Sword Art Online. Rather, as Bell grows in strength — both physical and mental — we start to see him change from a naive boy into a determined young man as he starts to come to terms with his own personal adventure.

The highlight of this week’s episode was an unusually violent fight scene between Bell and a minotaur. A minotaur overpowered Bell in the first episode, brought him into contact with the mysterious blonde-haired beauty Aiz Wallenstein and filled him with shame and regret for what he perceived as his own incompetence (rather than simply not being ready for a challenge considerably too tough for him). His battle against the minotaur in this episode showed how far he had come, and indeed during the fight scene, as he strikes back at his foe, determined to knock him down using everything he’s learned from his experiences and his time training with Aiz, he’s barely recognisable. Covered in blood and obviously using every last ounce of both his physical and mental strength to battle his opponent, Bell clearly reaches a turning point in this episode — and, judging by some of the other things that happened, it was an important moment for the overall narrative, too. Most intriguing!

I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens next. The show has wisely not focused too heavily on the relationship between Bell and Hestia, despite Hestia clearly being the “poster girl” for the series. Instead, it’s very much Bell’s story of personal growth and his quest to redeem himself against his own lofty — some might argue too lofty — expectations. And along the way, he comes into contact with a lot of interesting and memorable characters, several of whom, I feel, will have important roles to play in how everything eventually turns out.

So I’m well and truly “in” on DanMachi until the end, then. Hopefully it keeps up the quality of this week’s episode, and hopefully we’ll see more in the future when this series is over, too.

1952: Orderly Play

With Final Fantasy XIV’s first expansion Heavensward coming in about a month’s time, I’ve been doing some thinking, particularly as I’ve dialled back the amount I’ve been playing vanilla Final Fantasy XIV during this “lull” between the story finale a while back and the launch of Heavensward next month.

You see, this “lull” period has allowed me the opportunity to get caught up on some other games — or, well, if we’re honest, to dive head-first into the rather wonderful Omega Quintet, which I adore — and I’ve been enjoying that a great deal. This may sound like a “first world problem” of the highest magnitude, but anyone who has ever indulged in an MMO will likely be familiar with how easy it is for such games to “take over” to the exclusion of anything else. It’s not necessarily a problem when it happens, but when you have lots of other games that you really want to play, and never really seem to have any time to play them, that’s when it needs to be addressed — or you need to make some tough decisions as to what you might “sacrifice”.

Anyway. The short version is that I have no intention of stopping playing Final Fantasy XIV completely as I’m too invested in the game experience as a whole, including the friendships I’ve developed as a result of playing it. But I also have no intention of sacrificing the (probably literally) hundreds of other games I have on my shelves and haven’t played yet. As such, then, some sort of compromise would appear to be in order.

Then it struck me — actually not for the first time, since I’ve had these thoughts before. A relatively straightforward solution to the issue — and one that I’m aware won’t be ideal for everyone, but which I think I might be able to stick to — is to treat gaming like any other hobby that requires a significant time investment: schedule and organise it.

This may sound like a bit much for something that many people regard as lightweight, somewhat “disposable” entertainment (though, I hasten to add, I’ve never been one of those people) — but think about it. Someone who’s really into tennis probably doesn’t play tennis every time they have some free time. Someone who’s a member of a book club isn’t constantly attending meetings. Someone who likes live music isn’t constantly at concerts. There’s balance; you do different things at different times, particularly when there’s a social element.

As such, I feel that going into Heavensward, it would probably be a good idea for the sake of my own sanity and satisfaction to specifically set aside times for playing Final Fantasy XIV — as a sort of “weekly event” or meeting — and times for playing other things. And then stick to them. That way, I won’t feel the strange “guilt” I feel about not playing Final Fantasy XIV when I’m playing something else, or the corresponding and equally strange “guilt” I feel about playing Final Fantasy XIV as my backlog of PS2, PS3, Vita, 3DS and PC games continually grows faster than I can complete them. The inherent benefit of something like this, too, is that it allows me to set some sort of schedule for experimenting with things that I’d like to explore more, like streaming and recording gameplay videos.

I’m not entirely sure what the right “balance” is as yet, but that’s something I can probably work out over the course of the next few weeks as we count down towards Heavensward’s launch. It’s something I’m keen to get right, though, because as I’ve already said, I have no intention of giving up Final Fantasy XIV, but I also really don’t want to feel like it’s eating into opportunities to play other things, too.

So I’m thinking I might experiment a bit starting this week. I’m going to try having maybe two Final Fantasy XIV evenings that are reserved exclusively for FFXIV purposes; one of them will probably be Monday, as that is one of the two nights we customarily raid, and I’m thinking that the other will probably be Friday, since that’s the end of the week and consequently a good opportunity to stay up and socialise with others. Weekends I’ll take as they come; I’ll play FFXIV if I feel like it — and we raid on Sunday nights anyway, even if I don’t play any more than that — and I’ll play other stuff without “guilt” if not.

If two days midweek doesn’t feel like enough time to Get Things Done in the game, I’ll consider it again. But we’ll see.

This has probably not been a terribly interesting post for you to read, dear reader, and for that I apologise. However, it has been helpful for me to “think out loud” in this way and come to some sort of conclusion. So if you stuck around and watched me do that, uh, thanks for your commitment and understanding, I guess? And perhaps I’ll see you in Eorzea on Friday!

1951: Terra Mystica

We gave another new board game a go today — Terra Mystica. This was a game I had heard of but didn’t know much about, so I was interested to try it, particularly as I understood it to be a fairly well-regarded game.

First impressions were daunting. It comes with an absolute ton of very nice quality wooden components, stuff to punch out and a rulebook that makes the game look a lot more complicated than it actually is. Once we were underway, though, all became fairly clear, and the game started to take shape. By the end of our “practice” game, we were all agreed that it seemed to be a very good game indeed, and we liked it enough to play it for a second time this evening — a rare occurrence for us, since we usually hop from game to game for a bit of variety.

Terra Mystica is a strategy game focused on empire-building, with pretty much nothing in the way of luck and only a slight degree of randomness in the initial setup. Taking on the role of one of a number of different factions, it’s your job to lead them to victory by amassing the greatest number of victory points by the end of six rounds of play, each of which allows all players to keep taking turns in sequence until no-one has anything left to do (or everyone has chosen to end their input this round, at least). Interestingly, and unlike a number of other vaguely similar games, victory points are not necessarily attained for everything you do throughout the game; each round has a specific bonus condition that allows you to earn points for building specific things, and there are a number of randomly selected “bonus cards” that are in play throughout, with one player taking a different one each round.

Instead, the main bulk of your points comes from two sources at the end of the game: the area your empire covers in geographical terms, and your influence with the four main religions of the game world. In both cases, there’s a hierarchical scoring system: first place gets a ton of points, second place gets a few less, third place gets a few less still, while anything below that gets nothing. Ties aren’t broken; instead, two or more “tiers” of points (according to how many players are tied) are added together then the resulting total divided between those people who are tied; this generally means that everyone involved still gets a reasonably significant amount of points, but it works out slightly less than what they would have had in the case of an uncontested victory. It’s an interesting system.

What’s interesting about the scoring is that it forces you to prioritise on every turn. Although the first-place bonuses are significant and will probably make the difference between winning and losing, a couple of playthroughs makes it clear that taking aim for the bonus points available on at least some of the rounds is very important to get ahead, too. And it’s here where you need to start building your more advanced structures and setting up various “engines” to produce the various resources you need to continue progressing.

Pleasingly, the game isn’t overly complicated, though; there’s a sort of “tech tree” of buildings that denote the order you’re allowed to build and subsequently upgrade them, and a system for “terraforming” the world into your faction’s “home” terrain type, but aside from that it’s mostly about wisely picking the areas you control and choosing the right buildings to ensure you’re generating the resources you’ll need each turn. Mechanically, it’s quite simple; the challenge factor, however, comes from the application of these mechanics to come out ahead while simultaneously making life a little difficult for your opponents.

There’s not much in the way of direct conflict — you can’t attack each other, for example — but as with any sort of area-control game, there’s an element of getting in one another’s way. Interestingly, though, there’s an incentive to build close to one another, since someone building or upgrading adjacent to your structures allows you to take one of the resources you need in exchange for victory points. As the game progresses, the map gradually starts to take shape in very interesting ways, with factions carefully building around one another, attempting to put themselves in an advantageous position while trying to limit their opponents’ room to manoeuvre.

It’s a good game, and because it’s mechanically fairly simple I find it somewhat less daunting than something like Agricola and, consequently, feel like with a few more attempts I might even be able to win it, maybe, possibly. (I didn’t win it this time around, but I didn’t come last in our last game, either.) I’m actually quite looking forward to trying it again; it seems like a good time, and likely one that will hit our table fairly regularly.

1950: Away Again

I’m away for the weekend again, this time a little further afield, but the purpose of the weekend — eating, drinking, and playing board games (thank you, Oxford comma, for preventing unfortunate misunderstandings as to what I was doing with board games) — is the same as the last.

Today we played a couple of different games, including Small World — an entertainingly lightweight but fun empire-building game that is considerably easier to understand than many others of its ilk — and, once again, Betrayal at House on the Hill. The latter is always particularly interesting to play because it’s so different each time; the scenario we played this time around had no extra “monsters” running around the house, for example, and instead consisted of a traitor player (this time it was me) running around with considerably increased powers from their original human self and trying to kill the “hero” characters while trying not to be caught in a fire that started in the basement.

Tomorrow we’re going to be giving XCOM: The Board Game another shot, as one of our number is yet to play it. It should be an enjoyable time; XCOM is a great game, though I’m skeptical as to our chances of victory, since it’s pretty tough even by the usual co-op games standards, and even more so when there’s a newcomer in the mix. Still, it should be enjoyable regardless; part of the fun of games that have a “real-time” element — other examples include Escape: Curse of the Temple and Space Alert — is watching everything go disastrously, horribly wrong in the usual, somewhat more sedate “resolution” phase.

Anyway. I’m pretty tired right now so I will be leaving that there. Probably time for a touch of Love Live! School Idol Festival before sleep, and then there’s plenty of games to be played tomorrow — including the somewhat daunting-looking (but apparently very good) Terra Mystica. Looking forward to it — it’s been a busy week for once, so it’s nice to have some time to just enjoy things.