Monday, December 31, 2018

Another Raft: Atlas First Impressions, Take Two.

It all started so well. As soon as I hit Publish on yesterday's post I logged back into Atlas. This time I'd get out of Freeport and sail the wild ocean wide. I'd see such wonders, make my fortune, forge my legend. At the dam' least I'd make a frickin' raft and get it over the zone line.

And I did, too. First I went to the guy at the end of the dock who sells the rafts. It's a peculiar fudge of a deal. Instead of money he wants what are clearly the necessary materials to craft the thing. When you give him those a window pops up, asking you to name your raft. A raft of that name then appears at the end of the row already bobbing up and down in front of you. Why you can't just craft it yourself , who knows?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. When we left her, Buzzcut Bette, the scourge of the Southwest Shoreline, had lost everything, not least her own corpse. Before she was ready to set sail for the horizon she'd need to start all over again.

It's always easier second time around. In what felt like a matter of minutes I had her fully dressed, with a waterskin and a campfire in her bags. Atlas is an odd mixture of the realistic and the ridiculous. Resources come from predictable sources - meat and hides from animals, wood from trees, flint from rocks (Yes, I finally worked that one out) but somehow you can carry a fully-functional campfire in your backpack and, as I later discovered, set light to it on the wooden boards of a flat raft without the obvious consequences.

Soon, I had all the hides, wood and sundries on my list. I didn't have the recommended stores of meat and I was short the wherewithal to make a bed but other than that I felt pretty well set. I was also becoming increasingly paranoid about a second death leading to another do-over. Night was beginning to fall. Best get on with it.

Campfire nights. Or freeze to death. Your choice.

Atlas seems to be one of those games that, having fronted-ended an encyclopedia of instructions into an opening-scene info-dump, feels perfectly justified in never explaining anything ever again. Fortunately I've sailed imaginary boats before. I figured if I hopped across the bobbing raftway to the one at the end, sporting the name I'd given it, some kind of control panel would pop up.

And it nearly did. I had to work the camera angle a little and hit the ubiqutous "E" key but standing facing the one feature a raft has other than planking, namely the mast, I managed to open a radial menu.

Atlas likes radial menus. I don't. Fortunately, for once these are huge and not at all fiddly. What they are not, however, is intuitive. I looked at the thing for a while. I even pressed a couple of segments, cautiously, to see what they did. Whatever it was wasn't obvious.

I was getting paranoid again. It was dark and I was worried I might wreck my raft, or scuttle it, or otherwise do something I'd regret. I decided to ask a friend and since I don't have any friends playing Atlas I asked Google instead.

If anyone reading this is thinking of trying Atlas I can do no better than suggest they watch Zueljin Gaming's fifteen-minute Beginner's Guide on YouTube. It is, as one of the comments has it, "a beginners guide that's actually helpful". I flipped through to the part where he explains how to sail a raft and it was so clearly and cheerfully explained I went back to the begining and watched the whole thing. And learned stuff I hadn't worked out for myself.

I'd be just as happy with WASD.

Confident in my newfound knowledge I let down my sail, turned my raft to catch the prevailing wind and off I went. At some considerable speed. So fast, in fact, that I began to worry about runing into rocks and smashing the whole thing to matchwood.

That didn't happen. I managed to skirt the only rocky promontory between me and the horizon by a sliver and then it was ho! for the open sea!

There turned out to be a lot of open sea. After a while I started rifling through my packs to pass the time. I'd read someone, somewhere, talking about having a campfire on his raft so I thought I'd give it a go. I set my campfire up, lit it and waited for the sail to burst into flames.

Nothing happened. I was pretty sure it wouldn't or I would never have taken the risk but if I'd been wrong I'd at least have gotten a funny story out of it.

With a roaring fire and the journey still ongoing I taught myself how to roast a chicken. There's a whole controversial and complicated nutritional system in Atlas that I'd been ignoring until I watched the video but now I understood roughly how it worked I figured I probably ought to do something about keeping myself healthy.

Fire on board ship. The thing a sailor fears most. Or not.

I'd just had time to cook and eat my chicken when the zone line finally arrived. Free of Freeport and never going back! (That's ironic foreshadowing, in case you missed it).

The sun was coming up and the scenery was verging on the spectacular. I've always been a sucker for lens flare. Far in the distance I could just about make out some faint shimmer that might be land so I pulled the sail round and headed in thst direction.

I'll say one thing for Wildcard: they absolutely weren't kidding when they said this thing was going to be big. The timescales for crossing the distances in question are going to be immense. Presumably bigger boats go faster, but even so exploring the whole of this watery world is going to be a major timesink.

Opening the map is a daunting prospect. It works just fine and it looks splendid. The problem is scale. It makes you realize just how insignificant you are and how little the ocean cares about your existence.

I'm not much of a sailor either in real life or games. I just wanted to get to dry land and start exploring on foot. I knew there was a high likelihood I'd be eaten by a grue at first landfall but I was bouyed by the knowledge that I'd no longer have to start again from nothing. My raft would be my revival point and my corpse would be no harder to recover than in the good old days of EverQuest.

Great. At least I'll know the name of the place where I died.

That's what I thought. I wasn't reckoning with two things: ignorance and early access.

Let's take ignorance first. Yes, you can respawn on your raft. If, that is, you've thought to make a bed and place it there. It's your bed that acts as a respawn point, not the raft. I'd somehow missed that crucial factor in the thread I'd read on the subject of getting your body back.

I had not made my bed and yet, precisely because I had not made it, I did indeed have to lie in it. Isn't language fun? 

Having carefully manouevered my raft to the extreme shallows of the first island I came to, I waded ashore. Another raft was moored further out to sea. There were some rudimentary foundations laid for some kind of structure. The place was obviously claimed so I wandered inland to look for a better spot to set up home, whereupon I was promptly killed by a wolf.

It was a fair fight. He was level 5 and so was I. I got him to half health but I am absolutely not getting to grips with Atlas's hyper-kinetic combat so anything more aggressive than a chicken has a better than fifty-fifty chance of doing for me.

Which would have been fine had I respawned, as I expected, on my raft. Nope. Big nope. What's more, I didn't even have the option of respawning in the same zone. Having died bedless it was back to Freeport or start another character. And naturally my corpse stayed just where the wolf left it and my raft just where I'd moored it.

Maybe I could just steal one...

To say I was miffed would be putting it mildly. I stomped off to do some research into respawning and corpse revovery, which was when I learned that even had I made a bed and put it on my raft I might well have ended up back in Freeport anyway. There's a bug, the paramaters of which don't seem well-understood, that makes respawning on beds something of a lottery. This is Early Access, after all.

And so, as I write my Pathfinder, the peculiar title given to characters in Atlas, is back in Freeport in her skivvies, the whole "make a raft and sail away" thing ahead of her yet again. Rather than get on with it, I used the unexpected return to Freeport as an opportunity to experiment with the respawn system.

I died many times. I took all the available revival options, opening a cluster of tiny vistas on my vast fogged map. I read the aforementioned thread and contemplated my unfortunate situation.

I'm aware this is going to be a relatively hard game to learn, let alone master, especially since I'm alone and the general advice seems to be that you can't get much of anything done with fewer than four. I'm not convinced I'll ever get to grips with the combat. It's hugely more offputting than the ostensibly similar version in the alpha we don't talk about, where I have little or no real trouble managing the controls.

Once more unto the beach, dear friends.

It's not the dying I mind. I can hack dying, even dying a lot, just so long as my character keeps moving forward. There seems to be no penalty for dying other than inconvenience, anyway, although given the current degree of inconvenience, I'd take level-loss any day.

I 'm not much bothered by corpse runs, either. Been there, done that, got the body. Mostly.

What I'm not up for, though, is endless restarts. I need to know that I can at least pick myself up and dust myself off somewhere roughly adjacent to where I fell down, then head off to get my stuff back. I'm okay with having to prep. I belong to the bind generation, after all. I'm just not okay with Groundhog Day gaming.

I'm going to give it one more go. Get another raft. Make a bed this time. Sail to somewhere no-one else has claimed. See what happens. It does look pretty darned amazing out there...

If I die and end up back in Freeport, though, that's it. I'll be shelving Atlas until I see a patch note that says respawning is fixed. We should at least wake up safely, back in our beds, thinking it was all a dream, before the real nightmare - corpse recovery - begins.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Buzzcut Season: First Impressions Of Atlas.

It was barely three weeks ago, when we first heard of Atlas, the new game from ARK developers Wildcard. Hard to believe, I know. In that short time the supposedly mould-breaking, game-changing pirate-themed "ultimate survival MMO of unprecedented scale" has been announced, delayed, released, reviewed, reviled, refunded and written off.

Atlas held the headlines for the blink of an eye, with stories of the worst MMO launch ever (not even close) and a galaxy of negative reviews. With that excitement out of the way, just as you might have expected of a game literally no-one had been waiting for, the world shrugged and moved on.

In this corner of the blogosphere almost no-one had been talking about Atlas anyway. I mentioned it in the second half of a rambling post that began by talking about Daybreak Games. Keen used the trailer as a springboard for a finger-wagging warning against giving in to impulse. No-one else paid it much attention at all.

Meanwhile, as I said in my reply to Keen, I'd been monitoring the whole farrago with curiosity and interest. I'm not big on either pirates or survival sandboxes but Atlas looked like it might have a bit more about it so I was keeping an eye out.

I took the trouble to read a few dozen of the many thousands of negative reviews on Steam. Almost without exception they complained of not being able to play the game at all. Most couldn't get past the log-in screen. For the few who did, there was nothing to review except lag, rubberbanding and disconnection from the server. Typical MMO launch, then.

Every character I made looked psychotic. Then, it is a Pirate-themed MMO.

The average time played for all these reviews was less than two hours. It needed to be for the writers to get the refunds they all claimed to have taken. This was certainly strong evidence that trying to play Atlas right now wasn't the cleverest of ideas but it told me precious little about the game itself.

I kept on looking at reviews, hoping for some insight beyond sour opinions on Wildcard's ethics and infrastructure. After a few days I noticed the rating had risen from "Extremely Negative" to "Mostly Negative". Yes, that's an improvement.

All the reviews at the top of the Steam page were still from people who hadn't actually played the game so I added a filter to show only the Positive reviews, paying particular attention to people who'd racked up a significant number of hours in game. A very different story began to emerge.

Apart from a few jokes, some of them amusing, the positive reviews, and there are currently nearly five thousand of them, come from people who have not only managed to log in but have stuck around long enough to play. Many of them have now been pirating thirty, forty, fifty hours or more. They say things like

"...its kind of rough to start out but once you get going with gear, base, ships, and a lot of company members, it gets really fun"

" I have had an immense amount of fun - as have the group I play with..."

"I have had a great deal of fun, and putting together that first ship felt so good I dont care if it blows up tbh, its the journey there that counts."

"for $20, I'd easily buy this again".

Value for money, fun, people playing the game day and night as soon as they managed to get in. The asking price was already low and there's 17% off until until January, so why not? I bought it.

Then I left it for a few days. Wildcard were reportedly still patching like crazy to fix bugs as well as  upgrading their infrastructure to cope with the unexpected demand. (Unexpected, that is, except by anyone who's ever experienced any MMO launch, ever). Also, the minimum specs state "100GB available space", which I took to mean a hundred gig download. For that I needed both extra storage and time.

Maybe I should start with something a tad smaller.

Both of those arrived this Sunday morning. After breakfast I successfully installed the new 2TB Hard Drive I got for my birthday back in November. Storage sorted, I hit Update on Steam, whereupon I discovered that Atlas has "only" a 40GB footprint after all.

It was all done in about an hour. I took a deep breath and hit "Play".

Everything went amazingly smoothly. I was able to log in, first time, with no difficulties or delays. Eschewing my usual preference for playing on North American servers, I picked the offical PvE server with the best ping; the EU one, unsurprisingly.

I fiddled with the options for a while. I couldn't get the 1920x1080 resolution to fit my screen properly, something that continued to mildly annoy me for a hundred of my one hundred and one minutes played. Ironically it was my first death that fixed it.

Before any of that, I had to make a character. Character creation is detailed and easy to understand. There are plenty of sliders for everything from the size of your hands and feet to the tilt of your eyebrows. The sliders only move between fixed options, so it's not the full-on Black Desert Online or Blade and Soul experience, but it's more than enough for me. Trying to get a good look at my choices I found the view of my character yawed and pitched emetically but maybe that's just because I don't have my sea legs yet.

I never thought of "Level-Up" as an abstract noun before. Interesting syntax!

After fifteen miutes I had a female pirate, as unpiratical as I could make her. I was ready to go. At some point, I forget now if it was before or after character creation, I also had to pick a starting area from a very large number of squares on a map. Some of them were "Lawless". I didn't like the sound of that so I chose a Freeport in the temperate South-West.

After a pause just long enough to make me think nothing was going to happen there was a burst of static, like an old shortwave receiver losing the station, and I found myself on a dock next to the sea. It was night-time because of course it was. And my character had somehow found time to get a buzzcut along the way. I guess it's practical, at least. Perhaps her hair will grow back, eventually.

I'd read someone complaining about the series of tutorial tips that open in a large window as soon as you log in so I was ready for that. They weren't kidding. Ten lengthy pages in a fancy font. Quite well-written and probably helpful if you read them back later but not what you want when you're already disoriented and trying to figure out where you just landed.

Still, I'm not one to miss a chance to read the manual. I kept half an eye on the pop-ups while I fiddled with the options some more, trying to get my window to fit. When the lecture finally ended I jogged off to begin tearing up bushes and picking berries. I kenw to do that from my recent experience in the alpha-that-shall-not-be-named. It's standing in me in very good stead all round when it comes to surviving in new worlds.

Y'know what? It's pitch dark, I can't see my hands in front of my face, maybe I will just pause and read these ten pages of instructions while I wait for daylight.

People who've played ARK, of course, which may well be almost everyone interested in Atlas except me, won't need any instruction on what to do. They all report that the opening stages are almost identical. Those who have gotten as far as building their raft and sailing out of the tutorial say the real Atlas, a different game altogether, lies on the far side of that zone line.

Not having played ARK, I wouldn't know. What I do know is that for the ninety minutes or so it took me to get to level four and make myself a full set of clothes and a weapon I was having plenty of fun. Also, everything worked. More or less.

There was no lag to speak of. Absolutely no hint of rubberbanding. I didn't disconnect once. All the buttons did what the tool-tips said they should. I was able to play in third-person simply by twiddling the mousewheel. The world seemed reasonably attractive, albeit not in the same ballpark  visually, as either the mysterious alpha or the recent Ashes of Creation Arena.

Wandering along the shoreline, my bags already filling with fibres and stones from repeated presses of the "E" key, I spotted my first animal. A rabbit. Come on, how tough could it be?

Is that a pig? I think it's a pig. What if it's a bear? Maybe wait 'til the sun comes up?

Still, I was wary. Forewarned by something I'd read in a review about high level mobs in the starting area I was canny enough to check the bunny's credentials before launching a frenzied two-fisted assault. Level 29. I gave him a pass.

In a while I came across a chicken. Aha! Level 2. A fair fight. The chicken didn't think so. She ran away.  But not fast enough.

Emboldened, I attacked a pig. I say "pig". It looked like a vicious wild boar. Fought like one, too. So did its piggy pal, who came barrelling across the beach like a guided missile. Social aggro, how we've missed you. Also forgot you existed.

The battle was short and manic. Everything jumps and leaps like a bull in a rodeo. Me included. I had no idea what I was doing but pummelling the left mouse button left me with two dead pigs, a screen edged in red and sound effects likely to bring concerned relatives running, concerned mostly about what the heck kind of video you might be watching.

This happy scene was repeated a number of times but only after I learned that cows, sheep and horses run away when attacked. They're safe to kill but next to impossible to catch. Pigs fight back but at least they stay in melee range.

If this scene came with sound I would have to flag it "NSFW"

I found a number of campfires left by other people but never managed to make one of my own because I couldn't figure out how to get flint. Experimenting with the crafting window I made myself a hat. It wouldn't equip at first but after opening and closing my inventory it appeared on my head, a simple square of cloth, tied at the back. Forget fashion, I just want to keep warm now I don't have hair.

Next, I somehow acquired a pick. I think I crafted it by mistake when clicking on something. I couldn't equip it, the option being grayed-out. Eventually I worked out I needed to drag and drop it on my hotbar.

With the pick I was somehow able to skin my dead pigs and with the hides I made myself a full set of clothes. Now I was getting somewhere! I'd read somewhere that before taking the raft you ought to be at least level five and have a waterskin and enough resources to keep you going for a while. Plus you have to make the raft, or at least give the relevant materials to the NPC who can.

Flush with my success and confident in my newly-clothed Survivor status I thought I'd get right on that. I attacked two more pigs. Things went badly. Oh, it was close, but there was so much jumping about and I couldn't keep that one pig targetted so I ended up half-killing both of them while they whole-killed me.
Here I am, in the glorious few moments when I actually wore pants.

At which point I learned that when you die in the starter zone you lose all your gear. The lot. Everything. Seems a tad harsh for a tutorial.

It isn't some crazed, hardcore penalty. It's because in the first few days the sheer number of corpses in the starter areas brought the servers to their knees. So Wildcard simply hid them all. It's a simple solution, I'll grant them that much. A bit like using a guillotine to cure a headache.

Luckily, my demise co-incided with the appearance of lunch, so I was happy enough to stop. After lunch Mrs Bhagpuss and I went for a walk and then I sat down and wrote this post. That's the sum total of my Atlas experience so far.

And now I'm going to log back in, take a careful note of exactly what I need to make the raft and to provide for my immediate future outside the starting zone. I'm going to get all of that done without dying and then I'm going get on the raft and set paddle for the open seas.

It's been fun so far, I'll say that much. We'll see if the fun carries on when I find the "real" game.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

I've Got A Little List

Following the great tradition, established all of a year ago (shame I didn't think of it earlier) here's a list of all the songs and lyrics I used as the titles of posts in 2018. Last year I put them all on a YouTube playlist. This time there are a few I'd rather not admit to in public.

Instead, I thought I'd do it as an old-school list, the kind we used to do all the time back in the APAzine scene of the 1980s, with explanatory notes and comments. They were ubiquitous then. People sometimes felt they had to aplogize for relying on them. It was seen as lazy in certain quarters.

Compiling this lot, I have to say, felt like the opposite of laziness. It was a lot of work but very enjoyable. With the technology we take for granted now, which would have seemed like science fiction then, every song title goes to a video, just because it can. A few are NSFW but it's the holidays and no-one's at work, so let's live dangerously.

Take it away!

Touch My Stuff (You Can Die)   -   Beachbuggy. A longtime favorite of Mrs Bhagpuss.
Inbetween Days   -   The Cure. Ditto.
I Wish   -   Skeelo. One of the few - the very few - titles to receive a comment.
I'm Gonna Buy Me A Dog   -   The Monkees. This Davy Jones version predates it, too.
Waiting For The End Of The World   -   Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Fantastic keyboard  work from Steve Nieve. I used to like Elvis a lot but he's blotted his copybook so many times over the years it's hard to remember why.
Gold!   -   Spandau Ballet. I wish I could say I was thinking of this by Prince when I came up with that one but I really wasn't.
Please Let Me Come Mooch Round Your House   -    The Lovely Eggs. I pretty much wrote the post just so I could use that title.
Get Lucky   -   San Cisco. Daft Punk cover. There are several fantastic versions, not least this by Daughter. The original is, of course, sublime, but San Cisco's is my favorite of them all.
Love Plus One   -    Haircut 100. The post title was "Where do we go from here?" although the lyric is actually "Where does it go from here?" As we will see, I have pronoun issues. The answer, by the way, is "Down to the lake, I fear" !
Can I Kick It?   -   A Tribe Called Quest. Post title was "Can I Click It?" I freakin' love daisy age hip-hop. A friend of mine, dead now, made me a mixtape once with this on it. He called it "Can I Kick Lou Reed?", which is a thought most of us must have entertained at one time or another.

Perfect Blue   -   Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. All-time favorites of mine. Lloyd can do no wrong on record although he's not much live.
Pirate Love   -   The Heartbreakers. Amazing footage from CBGBs with Richard Hell on bass. How did we even live before YouTube?
Trash   -   Suede. I can't remember now, whether I was thinking of this or the New York Dolls number. They're both superb so I guess it doesn't matter.
Up The Hill Backwards   -    David Bowie. Definitely not one of my favorites of his.
Odds And Ends   -   Susan Cowsill and Brian Henneman. Originally by The Band. Post title was taken from the chorus, Lost Time Is Not Found Again, which Bob himself presumably took from Proust. To my surprise there's no sign of The Band's version on YouTube but the pick of the covers is this one, featuring Susan Cowsill from The Cowsills, who's just a year younger than me!
Drive, She Said   -   Stan Ridgway. I do like me some Stan although the idea most likely came to me from the movie (Drive He Said). There actually is a movie called Drive She Said but I only discovered that when I was researching this list. It looks pretty good, too. One thing I do know, I certainly wasn't thinking of the band of the same name. They're awful!
Opportunities   -   The Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant looks about twelve here.
Honey Trap   -   Best Youth. I have an unwritten list of titles I want to use just so I can link to the songs because they're so good. This was on it.

Already Home   -    Alex The Astronaut. And so was this.
Who Does Lisa Like?   -   Rachel Sweet. Storming version, backed by Fingerprinz, with Rachel's voice sounding like it could cut sheet steel. The post title was "What Does Lisa Like?" but let's not argue over a pronoun.
A Crow Will Remember Your Face   -   Silver Servants. This wins the prize for most obviously shoehorned-in post title of the year. Could have sworn there was a video...
Off To The Races   -   Lana Del Rey. I worship Lana. She's probably my favorite singer/songwriter of all time now. New Years Resolution:  get Lana into more post titles.
Putting Out Fire With Gasoline   -   David Bowie. And Georgio Moroder, as if you could miss him. I wasn't so keen on this when it first came out but it's aged very well.
Picture This   -   Blondie. This hasn't. It's a lot more plodding than I remembered it. Great lyric though.
Long Distance Runaround   -   Yes. I thought long and hard before I used this title for a post. Did I really want to out myself as a Yes fan? Does anyone? The second gig I ever went to, aged about thirteen, was Yes. They opened with the whole of Tales from Topographic Oceans, all 80 minutes of it, and it hadn't even been released yet so no-one had ever heard it before. It's a wonder I ever went to another gig after that...
Read It In Books   -   Echo And The Bunnymen. Makes you want to wear a greatcoat, doesn't it?
This Used To Be The Future   -    The Pet Shop Boys. With Phil Oakey from The Human League. I'd never heard this until this year. Great slideshow video but the comment section's a bit off-message, to put it mildly.

Shellshock  -    New Order. The post was called "Never Enough", which was what I remembered the song being called, too. Typical New Order trick.
Don't Sit Down Cos I've Moved Your Chair   -   Arctic Monkeys. I kind of missed out on Arctic Monkeys when they were the Next Big Thing so I'm coming at them from behind, so to speak. The new album is just wonderful.  
Ain't No Mountain High Enough   -    Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. I really don't have much to say about this, other than they both died too soon. Especially Tammi.
World In My Pocket   -   Nyck Caution Feat. Joey Bada$$.  You couild fit what I know about contemporary hip-hop into one of those five-slot bags that drop in GW2 starting areas. I know a good tune when I hear one though.
Purple Haze   -   The Cure. Well, now... this is embarrassing. Turns out I used Purple Haze twice this year, once in its own right and once as a tweaked lyric (Excuse Me While I Scorch The Sky). I didn't realize until I was compiling this list and what's more I never liked the song in the first place.
That Joke Isn't Funny Any More   -   The Smiths. Or as I had it, This Joko Isn't Funny Any More. Neither is Morrissey, for that matter.
Summertime Sadness   -   Lana Del Rey. Here in the shape of a great cover by Miley Cyrus. I love Lana covers. They emphasize just what a magnificent songwriter she is. Miley gives it a hard edge that's almost scary.

Roll Your Own   -   The Fabulous Poodles. I saw The Fab Poos play in a deconsecrated church, not two miles from where I'm sitting,  around the same time this video was recorded. They were very funny. Pub rock really hasn't aged well, though, has it?
I Am Always Touched By Your Presence, Dear   -   Blondie. Or as I so wittily had it, "Presents". Why is it Debbie Harry always looks as though she'd rather be anywhere else? I saw Blondie on their first UK tour, supporting Television. I'd be hard put to say who was the more wooden, although I did literally fall asleep during one of Tom Verlaine's interminable guitar solos...
Something Changed   -   Pulp. God, I miss the 90s.
I, Me, Mine   -   Elliot Smith. I'm not much of a Beatles fan. I was very wary of using this as a post title but I checked beforehand to make sure there was a cover I could live with. I'm not much of an Elliot Smith fan either, come to that but at least his version's short.
Give Him A Great Big Kiss   -   The Shangri-Las. The post title - He's Good-Bad But He's Not Evil - comes from one of those fantastic spoken exchanges the Shangri-Las made their own.
What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Understanding?   -    Brinsley Schwarz. Better known in versions by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Sherryl Crow... Even Puddles Pity Party has more views. The original, featuring Nick Lowe, who wrote it, is still the best.
Psychokiller   -   Talking Heads. I toyed with The Ukelele Orchestra Of Great Britain and the recent version by DJ Sneak & Charlie Sputnik but of course, when I wrote the post, which was called "You're Talking A Lot But You're Not Saying Anything", I was only thinking of Talking Heads, so let's go with that.
New Age   -   Shilpa Ray. Like Shilpa, I discovered The Velvet Underground when I was very young. Changed everything, really. The song starts around 4.18 but the pre-amble is illuminating. The post was called "It's The Beginning Of A New World". Rachel Sweet did a great cover of this one, too.

Long Summer Days   -   EMF. Did I mention I miss the 90s? Shame about the sound quality but worth it to see the boys in their full "glory".
Walking My Cat Named Dog   -   Norma Tanega. I reversed the order of the species for the post, for reasons that kind of made sense at the time. I only discovered Norma Tanega a couple of years ago. How did we even live before YouTube? Wait, did I say that already?
Head Full Of Steam   -   The Go-Betweens. I was criminally negligent when it came to Antipodean bands in the 80s. I'm making up for it now. I actually came to the Go-Betweens via Robert Forster's son's band, The Goon Sax, who I just love. I'm sure that would please both of them.
My Emptiness   -   Ciudad. Everyone knows about Japan and Korea but there are vibrant  indie scenes in China, Indonesia, and The Phillipines, where this lot come from, too. How did we even... okay, okay, I won't say it!
Resurrection Shuffle   -   Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. They don't make 'em like this any more. Thank god.
East Goes West   -   The Panthers. Nine minutes of 1960s Bollywood psychedelia. Sounds like at least three different records welded together. See that Radio 6? I could do that.
Days Like This   -   Van Morrison. Everyone's at their best on Letterman. Even Van.
Ice Cream For Crow   -    Captain Beefheart. While we're on the subject of difficult f*ckers...
Soft Kitty   -   Mayim Bialik.  Or Blossom, as I always think of her. Schnurrt, schnurrt, schnurrt.

Brass In Pocket   -   The Pretenders. 1980 going on 1970 going on 1958. Sounds better now than it did then.
World Shut Your Mouth   -   Julian Cope.  I was standing about three feet away from him once, while he was swinging abround on that bizarre mike stand. It was very distracting.
Missing   -   Everything But The Girl. The Todd Terry remix, natch. I loved The Marine Girls but EBTG were hit and miss, I thought. I read Tracy's memoir earlier this year. She doesn't seem to enjoy herself much. This is a great lyric, though. Her words look surprisingly strong on the page, unlike most songs.
The New World   -   X.  I used the full album title, More Fun In The New World, which couldn't have been more on point for the piece in question. Surprisingly mainstream rock for a band of X's pedigree, I thought. Good, just the same.
Disconnected   -   Camp Claude. What a shouty crowd. Sounds like they were having a great time but I'd rather hear the band. I guess I could upload the studio version since I have the album...
Shutterbuggin'   -    Buck 65. There are two remixes of this on YouTube (Aetoms and Emancipator) and they're both superior to the original but only the official version has a video and it's a good one. Buck's more of a performance poet than a rapper, I'd say, although I wouldn't say it to his face.
Memories Can't Wait   -   Talking Heads. The lyric I used for a title was "There's A Party In My Mind" although looking back at the post it's hard to figure out why. The title of the song itself would probably have made more sense but until I looked it up just now I had no idea what it was. My head is full of fragments of songs but I don't have an index.
Clothes, Friends, Photos   -   Peter and Kerry. "I know that I have got to let you go. Because I feel like I’m Ted Hughes and you’re Sylvia, and I’m dragging you down". I mean, come on! Heartbreaking. There's a good live version where they look like they were just voted "Cutest Couple in Cuteland" for the third year running. They were The Guardian's New Band of the Week in December 2012 when their first album came out and as far as I can tell they haven't recorded anything since.

Pictures On My Wall   -   The Mad Scene. Another Echo and the Bunnymen tune, which is where I know it from and where I borrowed the title. I prefer this 90s cover. I had no idea who The Mad Scene were until I googled them thirty seconds ago to find they featured someone from The Clean and someone else from The Go-Betweens. No surprise it's better than The Bunnymen, then!
Maybe Someday   -   Teen Hearts. There's a Cure song of the same name but I was actually thinking about this pop-punk banger. There's some weird part of me that's eternally lost in a fug of suburban adolescence. You're just lucky there's no emo on this list. Maybe someday.
Santa's Got A Brand New Bag   -   SheDaisy. I absolutely was not thinking of this when I used the post title "Brand New Bag". I literally just discovered it this minute, as I was searching for the song I thought I meant, "Brand New Bag" by Lloyd Cole and The Commotions - which turns out not to exist. I realise now that I'd conflated two of my favorite Commotions singles, "Brand New Friend" and "My Bag" to make an entirely bogus song. Oh well, it's Christmas, so what the heck.
Rocket Roll   -   Zolar X. Glam punk from outer space! Post title was "Go-Go-Go-Go Go Rocket Roll-Roll-Roll-Roll", which just about says it all.
Going Back   -   Dusty Springfield. A Goffin/King composition, covered by everyone from The Byrds to Freddie Mercury but by no-one better than Dusty.  Post title was "I Think I'm Going Back".
Ashes To Ashes   -   David Bowie. It's that man again. There's an astounding range of covers of this online, everyone from Celine Dion to Lamb of God. Hard to see why. You're really on a hiding to nothing, covering something like this. Best leave well alone.

And that's all the song titles and lyrics I used in 2018. But... 

I also used a few band names and album titles! May as well have those, too. I'll just pick a track entirely not at all at random...

That Dog   -   Never Say Never. From a TV Show that looks like it came from another planet, let alone another decade.
Swell Maps   -   Read About Seymour. There doesn't seem to be any live footage of this incredibly influential post-punk ensemble (Pavement, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., REM, Nirvana and Stereolab all cite them as an influence). The two brothers, Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks (not their real names - oh, you guessed...) both went on to make a host of great records before they died, separately, far too young. I guess Phones Sportsman and Jowe Head might still be around.
Slow Club   -   Disco 2000. I don't like Slow Club. They always seem like the kind of band I ought to like but I just don't. I thought several times about the wisdom of using the name for a post title but it just fitted too well not to. This is a really horrible cover of a great Pulp song but it's still better than any of their own dirges.
Pony Pony Run Run
   -   Walking On A Line. I have a theory that any band with "Pony" in the name is always going to be worth a listen. Having Pony twice doesn't make you twice as good, though. Or good at all, necessarily.

Ourselves The Elves
   -   Cincinatti Clocks. I love this. Love love love it!. You wouldn't believe how many times I've tried to come up with a way to work "Cincinatti Clocks" into the title of a post about MMOs. Finally had to admit it was never going to happen. The band name, though, that's a gimme.

Pictures At An Exhibition
  -   Emerson, Lake and Palmer. If I thought hard about Yes, imagine what went through my mind when I pulled the trigger on this. I suppose I could claim I meant the Mussorgsky but I was in fact channelling my fourteen-year old self. He had a lot to learn. I still like Yes. ELP, not so much. Or, indeed, at all. And if anyone's made it all the way to the end I strongly advise not clicking on that final link. It goes to a full live version of the entire album and I refuse to be responsible.

Thank you and good night!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Oh, What Fun It Is!

Come on, everyone! 

You all know the words.

Sing along with Poppy!

In the interests of full disclosure: I am not in a cult led by Poppy.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Voting With Your Feet

I had it in mind this afternoon to post something about what looks disturbingly like ever-deteriorating professional standards in online gaming. The immediate prompt for this was the truly spectacular mishandling of the "Early Access" launch of Wildcard's Atlas but heaven knows there's no shortage of recent examples.

I've never played a Fallout game in my life but even I feel let down by the bug-ridden, barely half-finished mess that is - by most, if not all, accounts -  Fallout 76. I get a contact low just reading about it.

In a game I do play, Guild Wars 2, this weekend saw an astonishing error of the kind that gets people fired - or at least moved to a non-customer-facing department, where they can't do as much damage to the company's reputation. I'll try to keep this simple for the benefit of those who don't follow World vs World.

The North American WvW league comprises four tiers, made up of twelve "worlds". Before consolidation due to falling population there were originally twenty-four worlds and eight tiers. Those twenty-four were resolved into a dozen "hosts" and a dozen "guests".

Host/guest status is determined by activity and can change. A "World", meaning one of the three named teams in a match, can be a single Host or a Host plus one, two or even three Guests. The idea - seldom achieved - is to come up with teams of equal size.

This is known as "World Linking". A "link" lasts two months, changing on the final Friday of every even-numbered month. The new linkings are based on how activity is deemed to have changed over that period.

Because the last Friday in December falls bang in the middle of the holiday period, ANet decided, as they did last year, to bring the re-linkings forward by a week. Whether due to taking it at a rush or because of staffing issues related to the holidays, this attempt to clear the decks went disastrously wrong.

On Saturday morning I got up to find Mrs Bhagpuss already in WvW, doing her dailies. I asked her who we were linked with and she showed me on screen. Yaks Bend was linked with Maguuma. And Dragonbrand. And Ferguson's Crossing.

I could scarcely credit what I was seeing. Granted, Yaks Bend has been wallowing in Tier 4 of late, kept from the very bottom of the table only by the raddled shell of the ineptly revived and callously abandoned Sanctum of Rall, but even with most of our "fight" guilds having left the server over a leadership dispute and our current leadership in hibernation in a concerted effort to drive our activity metrics down (a process too arcane to explain), we have been unable to shift our rating below Very High or Full.

There was no way on Earth or Tyria we should have received three links, let alone two of the strongest available, Mag and DB. I booted up my PC and checked the full re-linking. It was bizarre. Where we had too many links other servers, nominally less active than us, had none at all. Either someone was having a Wintersday ho ho ho at our expense or there'd been a major screw-up.

On the forums I found a lively discussion, to put it euphemistically. Many players had expressed confusion or outrage before someone with a cooler head thought to re-post the official links that had been announced at reset.

Suffice it to say Yaks Bend was not supposed to get an early Wintersday present. Somehow we'd been joined not only with our with intended partners, Ferguson's Crossing, but we'd also acquired the links meant for Crystal Desert and Gates of Madness as well, while those two unlucky servers were left to fight on alone.

The whole sorry shambles was rendered even more embarrassing by the long-suffering community rep Gaile Gray, a long way out of her depth trying to understand the intricacies of an unfamiliar game mode, letting her patience slip and coming perilously close to blaming the messengers. It wasn't pretty and still isn't.

The upshot is that nothing can be (or at least will be) done until the next reset on Friday, December 28. Few people care about match results in WvW any more but people do like to be able to play, especially over a holiday period when they have free time. Queues of 200/50/50/50 on all four borderlands at one extreme and not enough to fill a squad on all four maps put together at the other really isn't conducive to festive fun.

This is just one minor tale from an ever-lengthening catalogue of disasters afflicting online gaming. While it's certainly true that there were always bugs in every update and that the always-on nature of MMORPGs meant players got to see the rips in the tapestry more often than players of offline games ever had, I really don't think things used to be as bad as this.

Atlas, the precipitately-announced, astoundingly over-ambitious survival MMO from ARK developers Wildcard, managed to stagger into Early Access last night. It currently has an Overwhelmingly Negative rating on Steam, based on more than five thousand reviews.

It's cheap and I was going to buy it although the 100GB download was putting me off a tad. I read a few dozen of the reviews and, obviously, now I'm going to wait. Anyone would.

It's all very well, a game being rough and ready in Early Access - we expect that. I wouldn't expect it to be feature complete, either. I would, however, expect to be able to log in. Given that I would just have paid $30, I would also expect to have bought something other than a re-skin of an existing game.

When Wildcard said that Atlas was "made from the same DNA, so there’s a lot of stuff in there from ‘Ark’ like the building mechanics and unlocking new things you can do" I don't think many prospective purchasers thought they meant it quite as literally as turns out to be the case. A Steam reviewer called Jeff explains:

It's a reskin of Ark that is somehow WORSE than Ark. If you look in the games install folder, there are folders literally called ScorchedEarth and Abberation just reusing assets from Ark. And on top of that, if you have a controller plugged in, scroll down to the bottom of the options on the main menu. If you scroll down 1 more past that, there's another invisible menu option. Hit A or X or whatever on your controller, and it opens up THE ARK MENU. It even shows options to choose which Ark DLC you want to play, edit map options, etc. The best part is that under that option, you can see the choices for all of the types of Ark worlds, and theres one addition to that list! Ocean. That's right, this game was built as a DLC of Ark. It functions through Ark's menus, and in that menu it is classified just like Ark's released DLCs.

I could go on. There are, as I said at the top, no shortage of examples. As online gamers we seem to have drifted to a point where developers feel they can throw anything into the water in the expectation of a feeding frenzy and time after time we prove them right.

If we're lucky, over time, the rattletrap wreck we bought might get fixed up until it runs. When that happens, as it did with No Man's Sky, somehow we feel we've done alright. Everything is forgiven and, what's even more disturbing, forgotten.

Azuriel at In An Age has provided two first-rate posts on the subject, particularly focusing on the way anyone with the temerity to complain finds themselves on the end of egregious accusations of "entitlement". Both posts lead into excellent discussions in the comments. Wilhelm has a great rant on the same topic, with particular attention to the concept of gaming as a service.

At this point we might begin to wonder how we got ourselves into this parlous state but I suspect we all know the answer to that. We created a demand for unfinished, barely-working games by consistently paying for them and trying to play them even when they didn't work.

I'm as guilty as anyone. I not only paid for Landmark long before it was anything much more than a barely-functional tech demo, I paid more for it than I have ever paid for any other video game, before or since. What's more I enjoyed it and even now I would say I got my money's-worth and then some.

As I type this, I'm logged into GW2, where I've been playing World vs World happily despite the entire structure having been catastrophically broken by what would seem to be sheer incompetence and lack of care by the people in charge. And I'm going to play it some more, too, and enjoy doing it.

I don't have anything clever to add to the discussion at this point. I'm not even convinced that I would prefer to go back to the days when games were sold as a finished product and by and large worked. Even now I might well prefer to have Early Access to a shaky build immediately rather than wait anything up to a couple of years for a fairly stable version.

That said, there has to be some kind of floor to this process. We can argue about whether something is "good enough" yet to take money for and whether we're fools or saints for putting up with shoddy products and terrible service but the games do have to work well enough to provide some minimal level of entertainment, don't they? Or at least allow you to log in.

If we fall below that minimum standard we might as well just send the developers our bank details and invite them to help themselves.

Hmm, strike that. Probably best not to give them ideas...

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Baubbleshire Village Green Preservation Society: EQ2

Daybreak Games have been grabbing their share of headlines recently, what with the announcement of a new game (Planetside Arena) and a limited-availabilty Lifetime Subscription (selling like hotcakes, reportedly). Then there's the mildly controversial cash-shop related holiday offer that made me stop and think about whether to break into my own extensive savings.

On that last one, well, I'm very glad I didn't. And not because I changed my mind on how good the offer is - I still think it's pricey but fair - but because when I logged into EverQuest II a couple of nights back I found there was something much better available - and no-one's even talking about it!

To backtrack a little, when I was replying to Wilhelm's post, linked above, I mistakenly commented that DBG were offering a package of eight premium houses for 3000DBC. That would have been a fantastic deal, if it existed. I was all set to cash in until I got into the game and found I'd misread the offer on the website and the houses were in fact 3000DBC each.

At that price I probably wasn't going to be buying any of them but I was still interested in taking a look. EQII has a great feature whereby you can "tour" any house before you buy it so I travelled to the Prestige Housing Portal in Qeynos to see what I could have bought if I wasn't such a cheapskate.

Some of the new houses are spectacular. Some I'm not convinced are as prestige as all that. None of them appealed to me to the tune of 3000DBC. As I was scrolling through the list, however, I happened to notice an unexpected entry: The Baubbleshire.

Whoa, Betty! The whole reason I'd considered buying five thousand Daybreak Bucks' worth of items and services to get ten chocolate coins to buy Santa Glug's Cheerful Holiday Home in the first place was so I could then break out of it and maybe - just maybe - gain access to my own personal instance of the old gnome and halfling starting village.

Now here it was, openly available as a Prestige Housing Instance all of its own. What the...?

Naturally, I took the tour. And there it was, the whole of the original Baubbleshire zone, just as I remembered it. All the buildings that had been accessible back then were ready to move into and several of the halfling burrows that I don't remember ever being able to go inside were standing open, available for immediate occupation. You could even go down to the docks and swim in the sea!

At this point I was a tad confused. I hadn't heard or seen anything about Baubbleshire coming on the market. I popped up the Store window and looked in Housing. Nothing. Hmm.

Figuring it was new to me, at least, I looked in the (somewhat crassly-named) Limited-Time Lewtz tab and there it was, The Baubbleshire Deed of Ownership Holiday Bundle, along with all the other new 3000DBC Prestige Homes. Only Baubbleshire doesn't cost three thousand, nothing like.

It comes with three chocolate coins and it costs just 1350 DBC !! What's going on?? Who cares! Grab it now!

So I bought it and spent the next half hour wandering around, imagining it as it was. And once the shock of having bought, for 1350DBC, the exact thing I'd almost paid 5000DBC for the mere chance of getting, I started to wonder what else I'd missed. Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Somehow, when I'd scanned down the (only slightly less crassly titled) Come Get Yer Loot promo on the official web page, I'd skated over the entries on "Marketplace Bundles" without registering what they were. There are two of them: The Pack of the Collector and The Premium Pack of the Collector. These each collate several extremely desirable items from the Collector's and Premium Editions of recent expansions.

The regular version, priced at 3000DBC, contains your choice of mercenary from either the Tears of Veeshan expansion or Terrors of Thalumbra. More excitingly, to me at least, it also contains both the 88-slot Bag of Dirty Tricks from ToT and the 100-slot, 100% broker fee reduction Cae'Dal Merchant Crate, which is actually from the Premium edition of Rise of Kunark, so you'd think it would be in the Premium pack.

Said Premium pack, double the price at 6000DBC, has a choice of mercenaries from Age of Malice or RoK, a different 100 slot/100% fee reduction broker box (the Atomizing Merchant Crate), a different 88-slot bag (the Bag of 88 Wonders, previously only available on the TLE servers) plus the Altar of the Ancients and Arcanna'se: Effigy of Rebirth pre-order house items from ToT and RoK respectively, and finally the Clockwork Calamity pre-order illusion from Planes of Prophecy.

Both packs are only available for the duration of the Winter Extravaganza promotion, which ends on December 31st. I will be buying the 3000DBC version for my All Access account (which already has all the pre-order items) and I'm considering getting the 6000DBC one for my lapsed AA account, which has none.

The immense practical value of all these items seems to me to make these packs both highly desirable and excellent value. No doubt there will be some grumbling and head-shaking from the people who shelled out anything up to $140 for some of the Premium Editions but I have always been of the opinion that anything from a prior expansion is fair game once that expansion is no longer current.

I do wonder, though, whether this isn't another straw in the wind that's blowing us towards the end of expansions for EQII (and EverQuest as well). As a developer, you might well think long and hard before putting items from premiums past up for sale at attractive prices, especially in cash shop coin.

You might well be thinking that opening that door risks closing another on any future sales of overpriced expansions as you train canny consumers to wait for a better offer down the line. But if you know you've already sold the last expansion you're ever going to make, that does rather cease to be an issue, doesn't it?

Well, let's not think too hard about that. For now, let's celebrate our good fortune and grab the goodies while we can. I'd recommend anyone reading this, who's also sitting on a pile of DBC, to splurge while the offer's there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a village to decorate.

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