Thursday, December 31, 2020

December Songs

I hate to have to break it to you, but we've got a comparatively sparse selection this month. I was at work for the whole of December. Something of a novelty, true, although let's not exaggerate. In accordance with my Travis McGee-inspired life-plan to take my retirement in instalments I only work three days a week. Still, I posted less last month than has been my habit throughout most of 2020. 

Never fear (or maybe fear quite a lot, now I come to think of it). All the talk at work right now is of another lockdown in early 2021, at least for the half of the country not already in one, so there's a fair chance I'll have more time to post in January or February. It's an ill wind, as they say, when they're handing out crass and insensitive cliches.

Luckily, aware that it might be thin pickings, I made a few notes along the way. I have some alternate takes and general meanderings prepared to bulk things out. Same as ever, really. Don't know why I mentioned it.

First up we have the title number from last month's post, confusingly using the name of the month before. That's something I probably could have thought through a little more carefully when I came up with the idea. Never mind, I'm sure we'll all cope.

November Songs - November Song - Yerin Baek - I had never heard of Yerin Baek until I went looking for songs called after the names of months. Even now, all I really know is what I've read in her Wikipedia entry. A couple of things there didn't seem to jibe with the lounge jazz I was hearing so I riffled through her back catalogue on YouTube and yes, indeed, Avril Levigne covers and indie rock seem to be more what she's about.

She has a side-project, the Volunteers, which is actually her, backed by a Korean indie band called Bye Bye Badman, who took their name from a Stone Roses song and sound like it. They're a lot better backing Baek. With the Volunteers she plays guitar and does her own material, most of which she writes in English. I love the off-kilter way she turns the language around - "My only friend l barely hear from" or "If I have the answer I wouldn't say it", both from Radio.

Darkness Darkness - Mott the Hoople - a cover of the Youngbloods' original from one of Mott's earlier albums, Brain Capers, which I bought when I was about fifteen or sixteen. It's a moody, dark collection that takes some getting into, although as time goes on I feel I might even prefer Mott before Bowie gave them their glam makeover along with one of the best songs he ever wrote, (and when we're talking Bowie's back catalog, that's saying something). 

This Is Not The Ending (You're looking For) - This Is Not The Ending - The Bravery - I like this one a lot but, come on, it's London Calling as re-envisioned by the Bluetones, isn't it?


Weekend Pass - That Train Don't Run - Matraca Berg - I am a complete and utter sucker for this kind of thing even if I can't tell you what kind of thing it is. Country? Country-rock? Alt-country? Americana? Maybe she's just a good old-fashioned singer-songwriter. Nothing wrong with that tag if you can carry it. Which clearly she can.


Time Capsule - Matthew Sweet - Matthew Sweet got the pipes, don't he? Something about the burr. Just can't resist it. I guess this isn't too far from whatever it is Matraca Berg's doing and yet Matthew Sweet is going to come up "indie rock" every time you search him on iTunes. I'd say damn these artificial categories  if only they weren't such fun to play with.

Otha Fish or You Can't Get (All Your) Blood From A (Standing) Stone - Otha Fish - The Pharcyde - Quite possibly the worst title I have ever come up with. The Otha Fish part is fine - it's the excruciatingly overworked pun that breaks it. And it's not like I didn't think twice. I ummed and aahed for a good half-hour, fiddling, fixing, trying to make it work. I couldn't but I hit "Publish" anyway. That "kill your babies" thing is real. I should have stuck to my guns and gone with just the "Otha Fish"part, only somehow I managed to convince myself that would make it too obscure. Like that ever mattered here...

On the upside, at least it reminded me I need to listen to more Pharcyde. Daisy Age forever!

Down The Mountain - Mountain Energei - The Fall - I really stopped following the Fall too early. What happened was I saw them in the mid-90s at a club in the city where I live and they were not very good, to put it mildly. It must have been around the sixth time I'd seen them. I'd lost count. They were always famously variable, what with the ever-shifting line-ups, Mark E. Smith's erratic persona, his incipient alcoholism and tendency to sack or split up with bandmates and partners on a whim but until then I'd never known the Fall be dull.

I figured Mark had finally burned out whatever core had kept him going for more than twenty years. I'd had the best of him. I figured I could do myself a favor by dipping out before the final, fatal implosion. So I stopped paying attention and missed almost all of Smith's late-flowering, as he re-invented the Fall as a post-glam festival favorite with a sound so hard and tight you could use it for a force-field.


YouTube is peppered with performances like this one, an increasingly grizzled and simian Smith stalking and prowling, glaring out at an audience half his age, expecting and getting the respect he always acted as though he deserved, while his band, youthful and determined, thunders and throbs behind him.

It's all a long way from Mark and yer granny on bongos but it's always, unmistakeably, the Fall. This isn't - it's a cover by Curtis Gaston - but at least you can hear the words

Living In The Shadow - Cloe Beaudoin -Add this to the ever-growing pile of things I'd never have known existed if I didn't insist on this peculiar, convoluted method of naming my posts. There are a million people, all ages, all races, all genders, all strumming away on guitars, all sounding out their troubles. How's anyone supposed to sort through them all? Mine seems like as good a way as any.

Last Year's Model - There's A Break In The Road - Originally by Betty Harris but here in an exceptionally rockist version by something called the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Looks like a classic showband deal to me - always great when you see them live with a few drinks inside you, not so much when taken sober at home.  

Obviously I was really thinking of Elvis Costello and the Attractions' I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea when I came up with the idea but I've had the same kind of break with Elvis most Smiths fans have had with Morrissey. I can't even bear to listen to him any more.

Gonna Get What's Mine - I'm Gonna Get What's Mine - Graffiti Ghosts - okay, that barely counts as a name-change, does it? Never heard of them before but this is a great groove with a cruncher of a chorus. I'd like it even more if it didn't remind me so very much of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists magnificent Me and Mia, a much better song, which I first encountered in a superb fanmade video that no longer seems to exist on YouTube. I was sure I'd downloaded it, too, but if I did I can't find it. Grrr.


Fortunately, Ted's solo acoustic cover almost outdoes the full band version for ferocity and it's still there to enjoy. Here too, now. Some of those lyrics literally make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, every time.

All Around The City - Crying - Bjork - Can't say I'm a huge Bjork fan but she's kind of like Nick Cave or Tom Waits or Kate Bush, isn't she? There are always a handful of songs or maybe one album you really, really love and everything else is quality but kind of, oh, I don't know... there. Sometimes I think it doesn't really pay to be too consistent, especially not too consistently good. Keep up the standard for long enough and eventually people stop noticing and just expect it. You're better off coming out with a real clunker just once in a while, if only to remind people how good you normally are.

Skipping (Doors Lead To Other Doors) - Skipping - The Associates - But then, sometimes, even an amazing voice, great songs, an outrageous persona and complete consistency still isn't enough. Bjork, Cave and Waits are all household names (well, in the right kind of household) but who remembers Billy McKenzie?


Actually, I can name one person. Other than me. Alright, not name, exactly. He was a customer at the bookstore where I work and it was a few years ago. I was showing off to myself by whistling (accurately and in tune) the mesmerizing arpeggio that opens the Associates biggest hit when this guy says to me "Is that Party Fears Two? That's a great song!". Which it is. And I am a great whistler, especially when it comes to intros. I can do the opening to Another Girl, Another Planet, too!

Second Impression - Greed For Your Love - Missy Higgins - Add this to the list. I mean, "Missy Higgins"? "Greed For Your Love"? Who's going to click on that? Auatralians, apparently. Totally never heard of her but it seems she's huge down under. (Don't. Just don't). You can hear her accent quite clearly but would I have noticed if I didn't know?

One thing that is weird about her is the way she performs this song on keyboards one time and guitar another. Okay, it's not that weird. I can't decide which I prefer. They sound almost identical. Maybe that's what's weird. 

Crystal Blue Persuasion - Tommy James and the Shondells - About time we had a title I pulled straight out of my head. I always liked Tommy James and the Shondells. They were AM radio and a true pop act but somehow they always felt left-field to me, maybe because they were never more than a one-hit wonder over here. Around the coming of punk I somehow got hold of a greatest hits set and I had that in my punk-friendly precursor collection along with early Who and the Shangri-Las. As I've said before, punk was different when it began. 

There are a lot of covers of Crystal Blue Persuasion, something I find odd, although nowhere near as odd as learning it's actually about Jesus stopping the Vietnam war. I think I got that right. It really fits Boy George's style and Morcheeba's too but the knockout goes to the puntasmically-named Hip Spanic Allstars. They really bring out that lowrider groove (it says here).


Winter Break - Girl Problem - Her Space Holiday - "I got a girl problem, I got a drug problem". My 1980s in a nutshell. 

Binge Watch Sorrow? - Bad Orange - Reliant Tom - Okay, we're on a roll now. Those are some great titles and band names and the tunes aren't too shabby, either. And this one has a great video to go with it. Not the ending so much. I mean, the oranges rolling across the studio floor, okay, that works, but the cheesy special effects make it look like they're about to bring on Pan's People. Or maybe Ruby Flipper.

Two Weeks Later - I'm Getting Sick Of You - Le Butcherettes - As one wag observes in the comments, "I was wondering where PJ Harvey went..."

And that's your lot for this month and this year. Feel free to use this post as the soundtrack to your socially-distanced, stay-at-home, virtual New Year's Eve Party. I know I'm going to.

Stay safe and stay sane, if you can!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Two Weeks Later


Time for a very quick update on how things are going in EverQuest II's latest expansion, Reign of Shadows. Really well.

Okay, that was too quick, wasn't it? Just a little more detail, then.

I finished the signature adventure questline on my Berserker. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt well-paced and entertaining until the very end, when I came to the final instance expecting an epic battle, or at least some relatively tough bosses, only to find everything had dropped an order of magnitude in difficulty. For the first and only time I can remember in at least two years everything was actually flagged "solo", not Heroic. It felt strange at first but then I fell back into it just like the old days. It was nice not to have to do any boss dances. Didn't miss 'em at all.

After I knocked that off it was back to meet up with the Duality again for what has to go down in the annals of Norrath as the most anticlimactic debriefing session ever. I'm guessing we're either finishing this up in one of 2021's big updates or there's a third Luclin expansion on the cards. Whatever, I loved it! I'm on board with wherever the writers want to take us next. Great storyline.

Come again?

Of course, when I say "great" I mean EQII-great. The writing is often funny in the hamfisted, amateurish style that's so much a part of what makes EQII the game it is, while elsewhere it's so cod-serious as to verge on self-parody. There are speeches where it seems as though more than half the words are pure gibberish. God alone knows what anyone who hadn't been following the plot for a decade or so makes of it, but then no-one who hasn't is ever going to come within a mile of any of it in the first place so I guess it doesn't matter.

As is often the case in expansions with no level cap increase, the final reward for completing the signature line was a bit of a grab-bag. There was a title, because there's always a title, and there was a prestige point for the newly revamped AA system.

I suppose I should write something about that at some point but first I'm going to have to understand it, which I don't, yet. I tried to spend my new points and couldn't. There's been something about that in the Message of the Day for weeks but I've been ignoring it because until now I didn't have any points to spend. It suggested I should clear my AA profile and re-commit, which is a thing you can do, so I did and it let me spend my points. I still didn't really follow how the new version works or indeed why it's supposed to be different to the old one. It just looked like some new AAs to me.

I do know a bit more about how the revamped guild system works, although not much. The new perks don't seem to start until your guild hits a very high level. It might be 200. Before then it all carries on as it was so at least Daybreak appear to have avoided the traumatic deconstruction of small guilds ANet inflicted on Guild Wars 2 a few years back.

The weird part is that you now get absolutely huge injections of guild status, the fuel that levels your guild, from the occasional quest. My guild jumped about twenty levels on one hand-in when I finished the Sig line. At that rate I'll get to the new benchmark sooner rather than later. I think I'll save any detailed discussion of the new system until that happens, in the hope that by then I might have some vague idea what's going on.

With the adventure questline finished I started on the tradeskill signature storyline next. I've only done the first couple of parts and so far it's excellent. Very funny and also mechanically quite interesting. I like making things and then using them for purposes that make sense in the context of the narrative. EQII has always been good at that where crafting quests are concerned.

There are gnomes involved so naturally everything's a little haphazard and over-confident. Some of the contraptions are impressive. You get the little one-seater dirigible as a house pet, which is nice. 

Actually, you get a lot of house items as rewards from both the adventure and tradeskill quests, which suits me very well, although I'm not sure what hardcore raiders must think about it. Then again, what else are you going to give them? It's not like they're going to use the gear from solo quests. 

I made that! Not exactly sure what it does...

Since there are no new levels I was a bit puzzled about what would be in all the new recipe books, of which there are a complete set for all crafting classes. I looked it up on EQ2 Traders and it seems the major complaint of last year's Blood of Luclin, that no-one other than spellcrafters could make anything anyone wanted, has been addressed. Mastercrafted gear has a purpose again. 

Some of the books you can buy immediately, some you need to have completed parts of the crafting questline and some come from the new set of public crafting quests, which also tie into the signature line. I like that a lot. I'd do the signature questline just for the story but the rewards give it a nice structure and meaning as well.

Speaking of public quests, I've been doing some of the adventuring ones. They're all out in open world zones this year, which is much better than sticking them away in instances. They're also very well-attended right now, with certain public-spirited individuals taking it upon themselves to orchestrate pick-up raids and keep everyone informed.

Some evenings there have even been enough people interested for there to be organized attempts to force multiple iterations of the zones to open so we can move from one to another as the PQs pop, farming them. I did about half a dozen in a row like that the other night and the atmosphere was excellent. It's exactly the kind of self-generating, broadly social activity I feel mmorpgs were made to support so it's great to see it happening.

There's been so much to do I haven't really had time for Frostfell other than to pop in when I remember to pick up my daily present from Santa Glugg. Some of those have been nice enough that I'm hoping to make the effort before the holiday ends and cycle all my characters through once or twice. Plus there's double xp on Kaladim until the New Year, which is why I was over there last night putting another level on my Dirge.

Next on my EQII to-do list is to make a Vah Shir, the new race that was added with RoS. All my character slots were full so I bought another with my Daybreak Cash stash but then I couldn't decide what class to pick. I'm thinking either Conjuror or Dirge, neither of which I have on the account and Live server where I spend most of my time. Maybe I'll get on that later today. 

Two weeks in and I'm almost ready to say I like Reign of Shadows even better than Blood of Luclin. I'll have to wait and see how long its legs are but suffice it to say I'm a very happy customer right now.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Binge Watch Sorrow?

has an excellent post up at TAGN, looking back at a year of what he describes as "binge watching" but which I would probably just characterize as normalized twenty-first century viewing habits. It's such a well-structured piece I mentioned in the comments that I planned to steal the headings for a cover version. And so I have.

  • No commercials is pretty nice.

Yeah, that's one thing we already kinda know, here in the UK. I grew up watching tv without commercials (or, as we used to call them, and as older people still do, "adverts") because about ninety per cent of everything I watched was on the BBC. It was a class thing to some extent, the way everything in Britain is a class thing (everything in the world, actually, only most cultures aren't as comfortable about saying so, openly). It was also an education thing. 

My family being weirdly muddled about class the way a lot of families were in the sixties and seventies, we used to watch ITV sometimes but we felt bad about it because watching "the commercial channel" was something the lower classes did. (We only had the one back then and come to think of it, why did we call it "the commercial channel" but call the commercials "adverts"?).

Actually, that's post hoc rationalization. I was a child and I didn't think about stuff like that and my grandparents, with whom I grew up, were Quakers from a rural and working-class background, who I never heard mention "class" at all. My mother wore mini-skirts and rode around on a Lambretta like she was expecting David Bailey to pop out of a hedge at any moment so I don't imagine anyone around me was heavy into sociological placement theory. We just didn't like our shows being interrupted by commercials. Seriously, who does?

  • I still won’t buy pay-per-View.

Me neither. In fact, to date I never have. I've thought about it a few times but so far there's never been anything I felt I couldn't wait a little longer to see. Or a lot longer. Or never see at all. 

I will buy virtual, though. I don't like to. I prefer to buy on DVD (Yes, still. And I don't even have a Blu-Ray player so it really is DVD) for reasons that I'll cover in a later bullet point. It annoys me that, as Wilhelm says, you never really own anything you buy digitally and in practical terms I'll probably never get around to re-watching stuff I buy that way anyway, so the difference between buying the one-off option to watch it on pay-per-view and "owning" it is notional at best... but there you are. I never said I was rational. 


  • There are too damn many streaming services.

So infuriatingly true.  There are way too many streaming services, each with their own exclusives, but worse still they aren't all available in all territories and even when they are some of them operate local programming. I would dearly love to be able to watch all of the shows that used to be on DC Universe but before that even got rolled out to the UK it got rolled up into HBOMax, which is unlikely to launch here until at least 2024 because of HBO's existing contract with Sky and I am damned if I am going to subscribe to Sky in this or any other lifetime, not even to watch the Legion, which I think got cancelled before it got made, anyway.

Then there are the sub-streams. What even is "Starzplay"? I already subscribe to Amazon Prime. How is it they're showing me stuff from a supposedly separate service to which I have to subscribe yet again? Do they own it? If so, why isn't included? If not, why is it even there? I managed to get around it the first time by taking the free trial for a month so I could watch the only Starzplay show that interested me, Doom Patrol, before cancelling without having to pay but that trick won't work for Doom Patrol season two, which I have variously heard is better/as good/not as good as the first. I'm going to have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

I already have too many subscriptions. Let's see... for games I have Daybreak's All Access and I haven't cancelled World of Warcraft yet although I probably should. For media I have Amazon Prime and Netflix. There's also a hosting service for Mrs Bhagpuss's business website, which I pay for, for some reason, and our ISP, which she does. Do I want any more? No I do not. But I bet I'm going to end up with some, anyway.

  • Finding things is hard.

Isn't it, though? Wilhelm was talking more about the problem of knowing what to watch next but as I said in the comments, I've found other bloggers to be a more than adequate source of recommendations. No, what I find unecessarily difficult is navigating the totally useless interfaces someone seems to imagine are aesthetically pleasing and functionally valid. Which they are not.

Seriously, can anyone find anything on these these shuffleboards? It's all lines of categories that make no sense even if the same dozen shows didn't just replicate over and over across all of them. Why is it we hear so much about algorithms and AI and how they're going to replace human thought and yet at the same time everyone complains constantly about how fecking useless they are? 

All I really want is a basic, searchable a-z list. Is that so hard? I want to be able to type "sitcom" into a search field and get an alphebetized list of every sitcom on Netflix. If I could then narrow down my search by keywords, like "1990s" or "US" or "New York" that would be aces but honestly I'd just settle for plain, vanilla a to z.

Someone's going to pop up the comments explaining how I can already do that, I bet. I hope so...


  • I am torn on weekly versus all at once content.

Me too. Although "torn" is putting it a bit strongly. I'm skewed heavily towards "all at once". In theory I have some lingering nostalgic affection for the days when I'd meet up with friends and we'd get drunk arguing over the latest plot turns in some tv show or other. Or when a conversation would start up at work about some sitcom relationship development and everyone would take sides.

Was that really all that great, though? Or was it just something we did? And people still do do it where I work only they do it about shows I don't watch and movies I haven't seen. And really, it doesn't make any of them sound all that interesting. The people or the shows.

Against that, there's the truly huge benefit of actually being able to remember, in detail, what happened not just in the previous episode but the previous season. In the days when we all used to watch this stuff as it was broadcast it would have been a week since you saw the last episode and maybe a year (or several) since you saw the season where the current plot developments were set in motion.

Condensing a decade of broadcast television into a few weeks or even a few days of concentrated viewing is a genuine, intellectual paradigm shift. It brings the architectonics of the form into clear relief. I can see how the whole thing works and that's glorious. It adds a whole new level, creates a deeper texture, makes everything matter more. 

Movies always worked this way. You commit yourself to their reality for a fixed period as your own slides into the background. Emotional connections and reactions are heightened. Reality bends. It's one of the reasons cinema was taken so very much more seriously than television for so long. Now that gap has narrowed. About all that cinema has left is the communal experience and since the pandemic not even that.

  • We have been biased towards shows versus movies.

Following on from the last point, what tv shows have that movies don't is length. A very, very long commercial movie (shut up Andy - I said "commercial") might run three and half hours. Even a very short tv series runs twice that long and many hit three figures. There used to be a trade-off between length and quality but those days are long over. Now you get movie quality at tv length and there's a feedback function whereby sustained quality for longer produces even higher quality, at least in terms of emotional engagement. 

I could hammer out a list of fifty, a hundred movies that I love and which have affected and moved me deeply but in all but a handful of cases I can't pretend I have an imagined emotional relationship with their characters the way I do with the dramatis personae of Buffy or Parks and Recreation or Roswell or Bojack Horseman... or even frickin' How I Met Your Mother, which I'm seven seasons into right now and all of whose characters I would happily slap, vigorously and repeatedly, with a wet fish, and yet who feel, bizarrely and disturbingly, like people I somehow actually know.

So, yes, tv shows over movies for me, right now. It'll change if and when I want to get my emotional hit in concentrated form rather than slow release. Bound to happen, sometime.

  • I could cut the cord were it not for sports.

Well, for a start, I don't have a cord. We don't have any kind of cable contract and never have had, even though we do, quite literally, have "cable". We've had a fiber-optic connection since the mid-90s, when the city we live in was an early adopter of the technology. It's one of the reasons we haven't moved yet. But we've never used it for anything other than the internet.

As for sports, the only one I'm really interested in is cricket and I only like to listen to that on the radio.

  • It really sucks when the internet goes down.

Yeah, it does. Fortunately, that's very rare in our house. And we do have other options, namely several hundred DVDs. Because we're old people, so we still buy those. In fact, we buy DVDs of the same things we watch on streaming sevices and then we watch them on the streaming services and don't watch the DVDs, which often we don't even take out of the shrink-wrap. Because as well as being old people we're also pack-rats and we like stuff we can touch. And hoard. And paw over.

Of course, as anyone who's ever played an mmorpg knows, the moment you lose access to something you can't think of anything else other than that thing even if before then you weren't thinking about that thing at all. So having a load of offline options really only works when the internet isn't down so, yes, it really sucks when that happens. 


  • It does not replace the theater experience.

No, it does not. But then, it's been a long time since I went to the theater. Actually, it's been a very, very long time since I went to the theater, because over here "the theater" is not what we call the place they show movies. We call that "the cinema". The theater is where people walk about and project and you have to use opera glasses if you want to see their expressions (Except, naturally, it's not the opera, either. Who names this stuff?).

In the 1980s I went to the movies every week or two. In the nineties that dropped to every couple of months and by the turn of the millennium I was down to two or three times a year. Of late it's been an annual outing with my friend on one of our birthdays and some years we don't even manage that. And yet, I agree, watching movies at home doesn't quite equate to seeing them in the dark with a bunch of strangers. Will that ever happen again? For some people, surely. For me, this last year may have broken my habit for good.

On the other hand, my mother, who is eighty-eight years old, has been going to the cinema almost weekly since the 1940s. She's the one who's been missing the live cinema experience during the pandemic. So it's not just a young person's thing. Maybe I'll follow her example and get back to the cinema on the regular when I retire. If there are any cinemas left by then.

  • I still cannot watch exactly what I want on demand. 

See above. This is a real problem because we are all spoiled babies who have to have everything we want right now. Or maybe because in an age of digital technology it should be possible to have all of human creativity immediately accessible to everyone at the click of a button. One of the two.

And, honestly? I'm okay with some shortages in the supply chain. I grew up in a world where you counted yourself lucky if you even happened across an article in a magazine that mentioned some movie or tv show or record album or book that sounded like it might be something you'd get excited by if you ever managed to find it, which you had to assume you never would if it was any older than that year, or that month, or that week, depending on the medium. 

Your chances of experiencing almost anything first-hand were infinitesimal and you knew it, so imagine how utterly stoked you'd feel when, once in deep blue moon, incredibly, unbelievably, serendipitously, you'd stumble, in a flea market or a yard sale, upon a copy of something you'd only ever heard about. Or when you switched on the tv late at night and saw an elusive title roll across the screen....

Yes, I'm very much happier that nowadays I can discover anything from the last hundred and fifty years from the comfort of my chair, read about it in depth and in detail, for free, then order a copy to stream on my screen immediately or be delivered to my house the next day. That's how it should be. But it's still nice, just once in a while, to have to work for it. And maybe it's good to know that, just very occasionally, there are a few things that will remain forever out of reach.

I mean, we can't always get what we want, right? But we can try. And, sometimes, we get what we need. Kinda...

Yeah, no. Gimme it all and gimme it now.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Winter Break


Here's wishing you all a most excellent winter break and let's hope for a considerably better year coming down the pike. 

Seriously, it's not a big ask, is it? And if Titanic Sinclair can find something to smile about then I guess we all ought to be able to. See you all on the other side.

Wait! Happy Hannukah, too!

Oh, go on then. Just one more!

And I'm out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Crystal Blue Persuasion


I'm very aware that I've been posting some intimidatingly long and wordy impressions of the new EverQuest II expansion, Reign of Shadows. It's a bit much to expect people who don't - and probably never - will play the game to plow through thousands of words of nit-picking detail about systems, mechanics and lore.

Maybe a few more pictures would help, only EQII doesn't have much of a reputation for looks. It's almost exactly of an age with World of Warcraft but where Blizzard went for a presciently future-proofed cartoon style, Sony Online Entertainment bit down hard on the bleeding-edge capabilities of 2004-era graphics. It didn't go well for them then and it hasn't done their successors any favors since.

Worst of all, the vast bulk of the leveling game, including all the available starting instances, takes place in zones that were made long ago with the original tools. Quite a few years ago now the designers acquired a new toolset that allows them to produce landscapes and architecture orders of magnitude more beautiful and impressive but players don't really begin to see any of that until they have a character in the nineties.

There's another problem. One of the functions of the improved toolset seems to be scale. Every expansion since 2012's Chains of Eternity has a visual impact that derives in considerable part from a sense of heft. There's a sense of immensity the earlier zones just don't have, even though some of them are actually larger in terms of raw distance. 

There's a propensity for vastness in the upper levels. Huge, ethereal forests that enshroud you as you fly through their canopies, lithic crystals that burst from the ground to spear the skies, dwarfing the mountains that guard the great cities and burial places, whose monumental buildings dwarf the peoples who built them.

And the skies. EQII has some of the most wonderful skyscapes I've seen in any imagined world. The shattered moon of Luclin now made whole again; the hallucinogenic sunrises and sunsets; the patterned clouds like fabrics. Norrath, seen from Luclin, gravid and immense.

But scale does not photograph well. It's hard to capture the imposing weight and depth of these overwhelming vistas in a screenshot. You need to look up, look out, look through.

There's an option in the game to send feedback directly to the developers. Mostly it's used for reporting bugs or complaining about things you don't like but if you want to send praise it works for that, too. Last night I used the feedback option to let the art team know what I thought of their work on Reign of Shadows. 

I told them I thought it was the best they'd ever done. The overland zones are beautiful to see and exhilarating to explore. The use of color is magical. The lands tell a story that needs no words. History is written in the bleak, blued sand.

I mentioned how anxious I'd been about spending a year on the dark side of the moon but how they'd turned that fear into joy. The shadowed side of Luclin is wrapped in a cape of dreams and stars, lit by witchlight, always night but never dark.

The magnificent cities deserve their own praise. When I stepped into Shar Vahl for the first time two nights ago I was al but overcome by the sweep and scale of it, the terraced appartments clinging to the crescent cliffs around the bay, the avenues and plazas, the temples and the palaces. Cities I've seen, seascapes I know, they're there in Shar Vahl.

In recent years magnificent cityscapes have become almost so common in EQII as to pass notice but this is something special even by those standards. It seems almost indecent that a setting so dramatic, a city so decisive, should exist almost as an afterthought.

I could go on. My album is filled with studies but snapshots can't do justice to the theme. In a world where even an ants' nest looks like an expressionist fever-dream, where do you begin? 

That's all I have to say. If a picture is worth a thousand words I'm wasting my breath anyway. Let the images speak for themselves. 

But take my word for it. As good as these pictures are, all of this looks so much better still better inside the game.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Second Impression

As the launch date for EverQuest II's most recent expansion Reign of Shadows receeds into the distance and I progress further through the signature storyline to see more of the new instances and open world zones I think it's time for something I'm going to call my Second Impressions post. No one ever really does those, do they?

First impressions are always both important and influential. Countless mmo developers over the years have complained of players who bail from games within minutes or even seconds because they don't like what they've seen in the tutorial or the starting zone. As any autological afficionado of tired cliches knows, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But what happens after that?

Review culture dictates that would-be reviewers make a decent amount of progress before passing judgment. The current Cyberpunk 2077 firestorm over stellar reviews for what history may record as one of the least ready-for-release games of all time doesn't even focus on the impossibility of assessing such a vast and sprawling nest of possibilities in a review, just on the simple fact that so many people can't get the damn thing to run on the hardware it's advertized for in the first place.

Mmorpgs are notoriously hard to review, either on release or in service, for the simple reason that they're open-ended. In latter years the concept of "finishing" an mmorpg has gained some traction as developers move to a cadence that resembles a series of staged, finite releases chained together but at heart most games in the genre remain uncompletable.

There's also the fractional nature of the games themselves. More than any other genre, mmorpgs represent a variety of largely unrelated game-types welded together, some with more elegance and efficiency than others. It's perfectly possible for an mmorpg to contain enough content in a subsidiary element to make up a standalone game and for that content to be orders of magnitude more complete and finished than the rest. Housing in Wildstar or Rift, for example, or battleground PvP in Warhammer Online.

Purple is definitely Luclin's signature color.


The impossibility of the task doesn't stop anyone attempting it, naturally. Does it ever? And the eternal mutability of mmorpgs allows for endless revisiting and re-evaluation. You could review some mmorpgs on a quarterly schedule for the lifetime of the games and rationally deliver a different verdict every time. 

More than that, the very nature of mmorpg gameplay (progressive, recursive, divergent) strongly supports open-ended, iterative, cumulative, revisionist re-evaluation across an indeterminate and possibly indeterminable number of nodal points. Snapshot reviews of moments of gameplay are about as likely to reveal truths about the wider game as would supposedly considered overviews of the gestalt.

Of those countless possible review-points, the moment when you first sit back and think about how far you've come may be one of the more significant. The first gosh-wow rush is over. You have an idea of what the artists can do with the tools they've been given. You have your feet under you with the mechanics. The characters are no longer strangers and the plot is starting to unfold. You've played long and broadly enough to get a feel for how things are going. Above all you're beginning to be able to separate a feeling of well-sustained entertainment from the raw rush of novelty.

As of close of play last night I find myself about halfway through the signature adventure questline for Reign of Shadows. According to the wiki walkthrough (which I have been using but sparingly) it has ten parts and I am in the middle of part six. I haven't been counting but I would estimate getting to that point has taken maybe ten or twelve hours and I haven't really done a whole lot beyond other than explore the zones and complete their stories.

As the full timeline shows, in terms of questing alone everything I've done so far represents maybe, at most, a fifth of the new content, not counting the collections. I still have a new city and an overland zone to see along with a number of instanced "dungeons". And I haven't even mentioned the new race.

That's a lot of content ahead of me. At my speed of play I could conservatively estimate another fifty or sixty hours if I tried to complete it all and that only on my first character. It's highly likely I'll play through almost all of it on at least one more and portions on several. For the cost of the basic expansion pack that's a lot of value.

I've been everywhere, man. Everywhere in Fordel Midst, anyway.

It's not about quantity, though, is it?

Yeah, it is. Who do we think we're fooling? In an mmorpg it's always about quantity. Mmo players are an insatiable maw into which hagard developers desperately hurl anything and everything in a frenzied, flailing effort to keep the ship from running aground on the sandbar of content drought. Yes, players complain bitterly about "grind" and "filler" and "rote content" but the time to worry is when you can't hear them complaining any more because that's when they'll all have left your game to go look for another that gives them something, anything, to do.

If you can somehow aspire to pump out content that's actually entertaining as well... well, that's the dream, isn't it? Reign of Shadows looks to have the quantity covered but how about the quality? I think I'm far enough along to take a shot at answering that one.

Last year's Blood of Luclin was one of my favorite expansions for years, the caveat being I'm a very soft target. I'd be hard put to name an EQII expansion I don't like, although I can name a couple I didn't like much when they were new, even if I always came around in the end. As I was playing last night I found myself wondering whether Reign of Shadows was going to turn out even better than BoL.

It is too early for that kind of assessment. That's a "final mark" kind of review and I won't get to that this side of Easter. What I can say is that as far as I can remember it, I'm enjoying Reign of Shadows more at the point I've reached than I was enjoying Blood of Luclin at the same stage last year. And I was enjoying BoL then a lot.

The expansions, like all recent EQII expansions, are structurally very similar. The devs have a format and a framework and they don't vary it much from year to year. The difference this time around is in how powerful my character feels and how in control.

Always bear in mind everything here is from the perspective of a committed, experienced but ultimately casual solo player. I put in the hours but I don't make an effort beyond what's fun for me. I'll slog through a tough instance once, on one character, for progression purposes but I won't go back to something like that to grind out power. Same with levelling, although there I'll be happy to take two or three characters through enough of the content to cap out.

The new Grimling Forest. A heck of a lot prettier than the one I remember.
Last year saw a change to the established process of grinding through relatively challenging (or just tedious) content to get to the sweet spot where it all starts to feel as easy as it was in the middle of the previous era. BoL added ten levels but instead of taking days or even weeks to hit cap it took just a few hours. It was a shock but once I got accustomed to the new pace I loved it. 

This year there's no level increase but the new focus on making things snap seems to be with us still. The drag anchor on progress last year was the sheer number of mobs you had to kill to get through the instanced dungeons, coupled with the length of time it took an averagely-geared solo character to whittle them down.  

Add to that the prevalence of bosses with major power-drains and getting through a new instance could become a slog. The very first set of combat instances in BoL's solo questline, the ones set in Sanctus Seru, went very slowly indeed. I think the first run through the first instance took me a couple of hours and it wasn't until quite late in the sequence that running an instance took me much less than half that.

In itself that was fast compared to previous expansions, where I would regularly set aside a two hour period when I could rely on not being interrupted before setting foot in a new storyline dungeon. This year the three instances I've done so far have run to less than two hours in total.

For a solo player they just feel better-designed. There are far fewer "trash" mobs and the mechanics of the bosses are both less punishing and less annoying. Instead of an over-reliance on clever boss tricks imperfectly cut to size from raid mechanics, a fresh-feeling use of out of combat gimmicks like zip-lines and breakable walls keeps things interesting, along with a welcome expectation that you'll maybe be willing to explore your environment a tad more than a grouped player might.

I do have featherfall, you know.

The really big difference for me, though, reminds me of last year's decision to put leveling on fast-forward. For RoS I went in wearing all the new panda gear, having failed to notice the Tishan's Lockbox right next to the spawn-in at the Nexus. It was only when I read Telwyn's first impressions post that I realized we were even getting free upgrade gear this time around. 

By then I'd already finished the first set of instances in Echo Caverns wearing last-years gear and I'd had no problem at all. I'd been finding the"heroic" mobs about as easy to kill in the fist instance as they'd been towards the end of the storyline in BoL. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post I'd been finding the quest reward gear a little confusing. It didn't look better in all respects than the panda stuff. After looking at the Tishan's armor I finally figured out why. You need to take a holistic view. Whereas individual pieces may actively downgrade certain stats by comparison, that's because the overall power levels are balanced with the full panoply of quest rewards in play. 

I started taking the itemization on trust and equipping each quest reward as I received it, including all the ones I already had in my bags. My stats did indeed begin to grow across the board and my time-to-kill to increase accordingly. As I tore through the first of the Savage Weald instances last night trash mobs fell before my berserker's whirling blade like dandelions before the scythe. He was able to go toe-to-toe with bosses and bear down through their special tricks, supported by his increasingly-reliable Celestial mercenary.

This mushroom king has an instant death mechanic but it's very easy to avoid.
It was fun. A lot of fun. I hugely prefer this apoach to the delaying tactics we've been used to over the years. It makes the storyline (with which I find myself surprisingly engaged, even though it's mostly gibberish) feel considerably more fluid and strongly encourages me to look forward to replaying the same content with different characters.

It's a gamble on the developers' part. Making things "easier" and faster always risks boring the more prepared players. If my berzerker's racing through this stuff with what he's wearing, imagine what it must be like for a raid-geared character. But then, group and raid oriented players have long complained about being forced to complete solo signature questlines to open access to the content they're interested in. It's unlikely they'll complain about getting it done faster, whereas solo players have had plenty to say about things being too tough for them over the past few years, especially in the opening stages of an expansion.

And these days it often seems like everyone plays alts. Having a lot of characters used to be a niche playstyle but that was partly because levelling and gearing took so long. The easier and faster it gets, the more people want to do it, it seems.

Does this flying license come with a gas mask?


I've tired it the easy way and the hard way and I have to say the easy way suits me better. With things moving so fast, I'm excited to get in and play. I'm keen to open all the zones, fight all the bosses, complete all the instances and finish all the quests. And then do it again with my Necromancer. And my Inquisitor. And my Wizard.

I'm also delighted with the way the developers have handled flying this time around. The ability to fly is directly tied to the zone storyline in ways that nearly make sense. The zones are really well designed, engaging and fascinating to explore on foot, but by the time you earn the right to fly you should have covered most of the main areas. Taking to the air then opens up a whole new set of places to explore. The whole process turns what could have felt like a punishment into a positive pleasure. It's so much more effective than the mechanical reputation grind that soured so many players' experience in World of Warcraft.

And, like the instances, it's fast. I can already fly in the two overland zones I've opened. It took just long enough for me to feel the benefit and nowhere long enough for me to feel the need.

After almost a week, as I sit back and consider my achievements so far, my second impressions of Reign of Shadows are overwhelmingly positive. I'm nowhere near ready yet to say whether I prefer it to the excellent Blood of Luclin but things are very much off to a good start.

And I haven't even looked at the tradeskill timeline yet. Historically, that's often been the storyline I've preferred. Good times ahead!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Naughty Or Nice?

I'm really pushed for time to post and if I wasn't it would only be more two-thousand word theses on the minutiae of the new EQII expansion. Probably need to space those out a little.

I was working on a collection of Christmas tunes that isn't going to get done in time but I did get as far as bookmarking half a dozen versions of James Brown's classic Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto so I'm gonna slam those up. Which would you choose? (Warning: there may not be a right answer to that question but there sure as hell are a couple of wrong ones...)

James Brown  - The one, the only, the incomparable Godfather of Soul. Can't really gainsay the Godfather but...

Snoop Doggy Dogg and a bunch of other people - I was never a big Snoop fan but this is really very fine indeed. I think I prefer it to the original. Not that I'd admit it. Oh, wait a moment...

Olympyk Ramis - Ghetto Santa -No, I never heard of him before either. He's good, isn't he? Although, hang on... that's not a cover, is it? It's a different song entirely. I knew that!

Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is my favorite ever Christmas song but Darlene could sing the phone book and you'd be up there dancing. Okay, I would. I can't say what you'd be doing but you'd be a fool not to. Dance, that is.

Belle and Sebastian - Possibly one of the least appropriate covers ever. I mean, I love Belle and Sebastian but funky they are not. Makes you want to stage an intervention.

Fake Blood - Or maybe just pull the plugs. If there was a prize for sheer nerve these guys would take it. At least Belle and Sebastian sound kind of, oh, I dunno, respectful but these guys? What's with the tank top and that velvet jacket (or is it courderoy?). And a flying vee? When did you last see one of those? I'm hoping it's ironic but I'm not so sure and even if it is, is that any excuse? Bass player can play, though. 

Charlie Bliss and PUP - It's Christmas and I Fucking Miss You - After the last two I thought we needed a palate cleanser by someone who's doing what they do best rather than messing up what someone else does best. Best new Christmas song I've heard so far this year. Also, too many "bests" there...

And that's all for now. Stay frosty!

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