Category Archives: Games

Mass Effect Trilogy

I don’t normally post about games, mostly because I describe myself as these days a lapsed gamer. I used to play a lot more, as I had more time, and have been playing MMORPGs since the beginning with the first Everquest. Before that I’ve been playing computer games since we had personal computers (yes, I am that old), but I’ve not played WoW in over 5 years. Now I tend to pick up the occasional game that I can dip in and out of, finish and move on to something else.

Recently in the mood for something new I saw the first Mass Effect game on sale on Steam for less than £5 so I thought, sure, why not. This was after having finished Fallout 4 and it recommended ME as something I might like to try.

Mass EffectI love immersive games that are part sandpit, part first person shooter and part role playing adventure. Fallout 4 was a brilliant example of that in a familiar yet strange new world and ME was more of the same. However, ME went far beyond that because very soon after finishing the first game I was hankering for some more. I wanted to know more about the alien races and the Reapers and Collectors and all of the mythology. A friend said it reminded him a bit of Babylon 5 and he’s right. There’s a rich history to the different alien races and you feel it. As much as I love Star Trek, there were times when a new alien race was nothing more than a slightly different bit of plastic stuck to someone’s nose. Here, the alien races are fleshed out beings that are very different from each other. I’d never mistake a Centauri for a Narn in B5 and likewise a Krogan and an Asari.

Mass Effect 2After finishing ME1 and desperate for more I realised I could import my character to ME2. I was also delighted to see that my choices in the first game had real and lasting consequences. Minor spoiler, but someone dies in the first game and in ME2 on a mission you meet up with an old friend. Their identity depends on who lived or died in the first game and this echoes through to ME3. Also people react in different ways depending on your decisions. Suddenly I felt bad at some of the things I’d done in the first and second game. I didn’t realise acting so cavalier at times would have long term effects! I love that the games don’t punish you for making certain choices but you have to live with the consequences. I blasted through ME2 and rolled straight into ME3, barely pausing for breath.

Mass Effect 3The ME world is so rich and romance is another fascinating aspect of them. Relationships with NPCs isn’t new, but I was pleased by the possibilities in the series, again which are controlled by your actions. Act like a crazed renegade and you’ll attract a certain type of person. Act within the law and by the book at all times and someone else will flirt and suggest you have some quiet time together.

After finishing ME3 I did some reading up and realised there were whole sections I missed in ME2 and ME3. So feeling no guilt at all, I’ve gone back to ME2 and am going through it again, thinking more carefully about my choices and how they will ripple forward into the next game.

Everything I consume, films, TV, comics, book and so on, gets fed into my brain and parts of it trickle through into my writing. This is probably the first time in many years that a series of games has had such an impact. I really enjoyed playing this trio of games. It was such much fun in fact that I’m replaying two of them over again, plus I’m also fighting with other players against AI enemies in the co-op stuff online in ME3. I can’t remember the last time I played such an immersive game.

And now, we’re at the dawn of a new Mass Effect game. Mass Effect; Andromeda. It’s a whole new world and a new adventure. It looks both fresh and it has some familiar elements will no doubt please old school fans who were there in the beginning as well as latecomers like me. I’m not sure if my PC is up to spec to play it, but I am certainly going to investigate.

Have you played the Mass Effect games? Which is your favourite? Which is your favourite race? If you were one of the aliens, which would you be? Who did you spend time romancing? And what should I be playing next if I enjoyed these? Let me know.

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November round up

A general update on what’s been going on for the last month or thereabouts. Starting with some book news.

Book 4

The first draft of book 4 (currently untitled), the first book in the new Age of Dread trilogy, has been sent off to my publisher. Phew. I got it in a couple of weeks early and I had enough time to do a pretty solid revision with some input from a trusted source. As it was the first book in a new trilogy, and even though it was set in the same world, I was super nervous. Digging in and giving it a good polish before it went off to my editor, and getting some positive feedback, has helped a lot. So now I am cracking on with book 5. I should say, you don’t have to have read the first trilogy (Age of Darkness) to read this book, however, it does follow on chronologically from the first and there are lots of overlaps in terms of characters and so on. But it is possible to come in as a fresh reader and it will all make sense. Book 4 comes out next year in October.

Blog posts

I’ve recently done some guest posts on a few blogs. The first was My Book: The Movie, where I was asked who would I cast if they were going to make a film of Battlemage. My answers often change but right now these are the people I see in the roles, so it gives you a bit of an idea what they look like in my head beyond what you read on the page.

The second blog post was over on The Page 69 Test. This is where if someone were to open my book to that page, what would they find? Is it representative of the whole book or not? Would it give new readers enough to make them keep reading? It was an interesting idea to explore and in this case p69 of Battlemage gives a flavour for one aspect of the book.

Interviews

There are a couple of these coming up. One I did for Mur Lafferty on her podcast, I Should Be Writing. Once this goes live I will repost it. I also did my first video interview! Very nerve racking and tense. However, I got through it and the two people who interviewed me were very friendly and helped me relax. This was during my recent trip to the MCM Expo in London and it was for Solarstorm Entertainment. The video will be on YouTube. I was interviewed along with several other Orbit authors on the day. [edit, the interview is now live]

Gaming

I don’t tend to talk much about games, but I thought I would add something for a change. I mostly say I’m a lapsed gamer, as I don’t have time to play as much as I used to. However, recently I have picked up the odd game from Steam and the best of them has been Fallout 4. This game is remarkable. It’s probably one of the best games I’ve played in the last 10 years or more. It has all of the elements that I like, exploration, a deep back story and world building, a sandpit aspect to the game, a strong storyline with some major twists that keep me guessing and also wondering about my actions and the choices I’ve made as my character. It is also massive. There is a lot to explore. It’s been a great way to unwind while wiping out a few settlements of Super Mutants.

That’s it for now. If you have read any of my books and would like to do me a favour, please post a review on Amazon or Goodreads, as it does help to me noticed by other potential readers.

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Star Trek Online

For many years I bought games consoles, stretching right back to the Master System from Sega, before the Megadrive, and happily spent countless hours racing through levels as Sonic and many other characters. I’ve not kept up and am a lapsed console gamer, having pretty much switched to PC for the last ten years or so. I’ve played a few games here and there on other people’s consoles, but once the Playstation 2 was on the wane and PS3 was on the horizon I pretty much hung up my gamepad for good. I still occasionally dip into the Wii for a bit of fun, but that’s about it. It was PC for me, mostly because I always had one of those in the house anyway.

For a long time I’ve been playing RPGs and MMOs, or MMORPGs, to give them their full acronym. It started with Everquest, killing lots of rats, and it progressed to World of Warcraft until about four years ago. I’ve played it a little bit in the last few years, but the level of addiction for the game has definitely waned. I’ve tried other MMOs since, such as Star Wars, which was quite a lot of fun, but once you’ve got to the top level it became a grind for the next level of armour or weapons and I’m not interested in that kind of thing. Playing the game up to that point was great, racing around with a lightsaber, being a Jedi and trying to walk the line between being good and not embracing the Dark Side, while secretly having a close personal relationship with my apprentice. Ahem.

A couple of years ago I heard about Star Trek Online and was very excited. I’m a huge Trek fan. The Next Gen is my Star Trek. Picard and Riker are my Captain and Number One. Unfortunately a trusted friend started playing STO  when it came out in 2010 and said it wasn’t very good at the time. It was disappointing, but I was also trying to have less distractions and spend more time writing. So, right or wrong, it was a good excuse not to get the game and find out for myself.

A few weeks ago I saw an advert online for a new expansion for STO which included extra content featuring the actors from Voyager lending their voices to their old characters. I was intrigued and so downloaded the free version of STO. Much to my delight I found the game was huge amounts of fun.

Nostalgia-wise and getting me in the head space of the game, there is so much there to enjoy. From walking around Star Fleet headquarters in San Francisco and looking up at the famous bridge, to walking the corridors of my own starship, to meeting characters from The Original Series, to the sound effects and voice overs from actors, including Leonard Nimoy for Pete’s sake. Leonard Nimoy! There is a lot of stuff packed in to create the right atmosphere and help you soak into the Trek universe.

The game itself has a lot of the usual features of an MMO, linear stories, PVP, PVE, but there is also a fairly complex crafting system. Well, technically there are two, one for gathering materials and making stuff. The second is connected to sending out your crew on missions to earn you skill points, but also specialisms in different areas such as diplomacy, or exploration, which in turn unlocks new missions and areas.

I’ve only been playing it for a couple of weeks so I’m still finding new stuff all the time, stumbling around a bit, but I’m gradually getting used to all of the controls. But I’d rather it was complex and it all made sense, than the game was too easy and the bar was set too low, which sounds like the way WoW has been going for years in my opinion. With STO you can just do all of the basics, carry out missions, get better kit and so on, but there’s a lot more going on.

The new content also looks really intriguing and bringing back some favourite actors and their characters from the Voyager universe into the game sounds great to me. There are some restrictions with playing the free version compared to those who pay a fee, but I don’t feel as if it’s had an impact on my gaming experience. I know where the boundaries lie and if I want to buy stuff with micro-transactions I can, but so far have not felt it was necessary. I can see myself getting many months of fun out of this before I even get anywhere near the higher level stuff, at which point the brand new expansion (which you have to pay for) may have come down in price and at that point I might be so invested I want to keep going and buy it.

MMOs have changed dramatically in the last ten years or so. At the start all of them had monthly fees and it’s only more recently that some have moved away from that model and still been able to keep going and develop new content.

Given that it is still a couple of years until the next Trek film, and there hasn’t been a Trek TV series since Enterprise, STO is a great way for a Star Trek fan to get their fix of phasers, blood wine and pointy eared Vulcans.

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Blue Elf Needs Food Badly

Gauntlet Arcade GameThat title is probably confusing unless like me you grew up playing the computer game Gauntlet. This is an old school dungeon crawler where you look down on your character and wade through a seemingly endless series of dungeons battling thousands of minions alongside your fellow heroes. It was a multi-player game, which sounds like something that isn’t worth mentioning, but co-op games were not the norm back in the day. In fact it was one of the first multi-player arcade games ever. It was also in the era where a lot of the best games came from the arcade machines and if they were really popular they might progress to one of the relatively basic personal computers or games consoles that were around at the time. That’s actually pretty remarkable and although the landscape has completely shifted these days, and arcades are now very limited, they used to be the frontier for games.

Gauntlet came out in 1985 and at the time it was pretty ground-breaking. Gauntlet was basically the grand-daddy of a lot of fantasy games. This spawned a whole host of other games where the game was a bit more advanced like Golden Axe, a sideways scrolling game with special moves! Altered Beast was another side scrolling adventure game that was favourite of mine where you and another player could shape change from a human into a werewolf for one level and a dragon for another.

I grew up in a seaside town where there were many arcades for the tourists, but a few of them were really orientated at locals with the better games at the back and pool tables. I spent a lot of Saturday mornings feeding 10 pence coins into arcade machines and having countless hours of fun. Gauntlet was an epic game and unlike a lot of games if you had even a little bit of skill you got your money’s worth. You could get about five to ten minutes of play out of one credit.

Well it’s finally happened. I’m delighted to say that Gauntlet is coming back. You will be able to get it from Steam for the PC this summer and I cannot wait to play it. The graphics, sounds, gameplay and everything else has obviously been updated to modern standards, but from what I’ve seen so far, the core of the game remains. An aerial view, dungeon crawler where each of the four different character classes has a strength and weakness. You can hopefully pick your colour, you pick your class and off you go, battling a seemingly endless sea of minions for treasure. Arrowhead Games have developed it and it will be coming out this summer. Count me in!

 

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World Fantasy Con and Tabletop

Later this month I will be attending my first World Fantasy Convention. I’ve been to many different conventions over the years, but never this one, and never one this big before. WFC is also a bit different. It has not been in the UK for a few years, is typically held in the US or Canada, and several authors attend from overseas who I wouldn’t normally see at a UK SFF convention. This year there are several attending who I’ve admired but never met before, including Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss.

The programme of talks and events has not been released yet, but closer to the time I’ll no doubt be sitting down with a schedule and a marker pen, highlighting all the talks I absolutely want to see, the ones I wouldn’t mind seeing, and the ones I will get to if I have time and energy. This three tier system means I’m not disappointed as long as I get to see most of those in the first group, the rest is a bonus. Sometimes it’s not always possible due to scheduling conflicts but I guess we’ll see what happens and also how tired I am.

However, even with all of the panels and talks, there will be downtime at a convention like this. There always is, usually the time after the last panel and before the evening entertainment starts. First thing in the morning or just after lunch is sometimes quiet as well. Or there could just be a long stretch where there isn’t a talk I fancy seeing, so I find myself browsing the dealer room endlessly, talking to folk in the bar, or just wandering about aimlessly wasting time until the next thing I want to see. To combat the last, I suggested to a few friends that we spend our downtime doing some tabletop gaming. Due to what will probably be a lack of space, I’ve suggested card games only, stuff that is easy to transport, that doesn’t have lots of tiny markers, is easy to learn and fun to play.

I’ve recently been on a bit of Tabletop binge, the gaming show on Geek and Sundry YouTube channel presented by Wil Wheaton. Every week or so he sits down with some friends to play a board or card game and I’ve seen a few I wouldn’t mind playing. One card game which looked like a lot of fun, and I’ve subsequently purchased, is Gloom.

gloomIt’s the opposite of Happy Families. You are supposed to drown your Family in misery and you win when all of them die and are very miserable with negative points. You reward other players and their families by bestowing good events on them, earning them positive points. Very dark, a bit morbid and exactly my kind of thing. There is also a storytelling element to the game which is great as everyone I’ll be playing with at WFC are writers. Other people are bringing other games too so I suspect the downtime, and catching up with people on an evening, is going to be more fun than the panels during the day.

I’m going to do another WFC related panel closer to the time with something a bit different, but for now, I’m off to learn the rules of Gloom and practice my wicked laugh.

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The evolution of MMOs

I’ve been playing computer games at home since they’ve been available. All the way back to the ZX Spectrum 81, which took forever to load, crashed all the time, and was a spaceship of blocks shooting aliens made of other blocks. Not quite Pong, but not far off. Zoom forward a couple of decades and now the computer games industry is a multi-billion dollar global business. A really popular game, often as part of a big franchise like Halo, can easily make more money than some fairly big movies.

MMOs, or Massively Multiplayer Online games, are relatively new, and the first one I remember playing regularly is Everquest which came out in 1999. MMOs are giant (often fantasy-based) worlds where thousands of players interact with each other while doing quests, seeking treasure and exploring. Lots of magic and swords, epic history, sweeping gorgeous landscapes and amazing monsters. That’s putting it very simply but you get the idea. Everquest was basic in a lot of ways but incredibly advanced in others. It allowed me to play the game with several friends who were dotted around the country. Co-opt playing over the internet wasn’t possible before broadband when we all had dial-up. Some of you reading this are probably wondering what dial-up is! Anyway this was also the first time we had a chat channel open, Skype usually, and we talked to each other while questing and working together as a team. It was the closest we could get to being in the world without virtual reality. I’m still waiting for my VR helmet.

Since Everquest there have been dozens of other MMOs, with more advanced graphics, bigger worlds, more powerful game engines, but that’s the nature of the industry. It never stops changing and is always moving forward. Elder Scrolls is another franchise of fantasy based games, although this was always a one player game that wasn’t online, that embraced many of the aspects of an MMO. You could just wander off and explore if you wanted to and didn’t have to spend all day doing quests. You could craft your own objects, buy your own horses, a ship and even a house. These too grew more and more advanced until the most recent in the series, Skyrim, which by all accounts was an amazing game. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said how awesome it is and I have held off buying it as I know it would turn into a time suck and I’d become addicted very easily. I know I would enjoy it, and it would be 200-300 hours of play time until I reached the end, but right now I want to put that time into other stuff.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest MMO, probably of all time, which is WarCraft. I started playing it pretty much from the start, then went away for a while, then came back and eventually got bored and left again. I’ve not played it in a few years now, but it is still very popular with millions of players around the world and they keep bringing out new content to keep it fresh.

I like to stay up to date with the news from the MMO gaming world and I know that an Elder Scrolls MMO is in development and is due out next year at some point. I was excited by it and I know several of my friends will start playing it the minute it is released. However, having now seen 30 minutes of game footage I’m less excited. In some ways Bethesda Studios have an advantage over some of their competitors because they’ve had several games in the Elder Scrolls franchise, all fantasy based, and each new game has been a dramatic improvement on the last. So their online game should be something amazing. From the footage I’ve seen so far, it looks nice, has great graphics, resembles Skyrim but of course is also online. So you can search for groups, teleport to dungeons and so on. So far everything looks the same as all of the other modern MMOs. I haven’t seen anything new that made me sit up and take notice. Don’t get me wrong, if I played it, the game would no doubt keep me engaged for 3-6 months, but once I’ve explored and done quite a few quests I would lose interest and drop it. I have no desire to grind for the next tier of equipment, or endlessly run through dungeons in larger and larger groups. Been there, done that half a dozen times already across as many games.

The other new MMO that has piqued my interest is from Sony Online Entertainment, the people behind Everquest. They are developing a new Everquest game. The original spawned a sequel in 2004, and amazingly both games are still going, although they are now on a free to play model, with extras which players pay for. This model has become increasingly popular in recent years as more traditional PC and console games companies try to retain players and hold their interest as more and more people move to playing games on their phones and tablet devices. Anyway, from what I’ve been reading this week, Sony went back to the drawing board and twice scrapped their plans before coming up with Everquest Next.

For all the shiny graphics the new games are promising with more realistic looking landscapes with grass flowing in the wind, and clouds moving across the sky, that part of the game interests me the least. The new character classes and fancy moves, combos and explosions are nice, but again, just shiny window dressing. If it’s the same game over and over again in a new skin, then why bother? Some players will get bored quickly and move on. I know I will.

With Everquest Next, Sony are promising something new and only a few days ago they released online several videos showing content, but more importantly, new ideas and a new approach to the game. They outlined several radical ideas, like AI that learns or adapts, so the orcs don’t always spawn at the same point in the road forever, but move depending on risk and reward to them. Towns and cities can be destroyed and affected by players and more importantly, new places can be built. Players can not only create and craft objects, but they can create homes and buildings. The world and ground you stand on can also be affected, so players could dig a hole at any point in the game and mine for minerals, or encounter underground monsters and secret cities and buried artefacts from thousands of years of history built into the layers of the world. So the landscape is constantly changing as events move through the world and you don’t have to wait for a new add-on expansion every two years to change a zone.

More info can be seen here and on Part1 of the video here. For me, the ability to create and build, and the ability to log into the game on Day 1 and then Day 200 and find a totally different world that is constantly changing, is far more interesting than better graphics and fancy moves. The ability to create an object or even the perfect house or boat, that will then be used by hundreds or thousands of others in the game and earn a commission every time is interesting to me. It sounds a bit like a cross between the old game Civilisation with an MMO, except this time you’re not controlling the entire world, just living in and having to cope with change.

I’m not just looking to run around with a sword in someone else’s imagination anymore. I’ve done that a lot already. I’ve been the warrior, the priest, the wizard, now I want to do more. I want to experience what the warrior does on his days off. I want to be the master brewer or alchemist or shipwright or chef. I want a fully rounded, more immersive experience. I want to experience all aspects (within reason) of the character’s life within the game, not just the fighting part. Some of this are already available but only a limited capacity. To create the perfect brewery in a border town and plan to settle down and focus on that, only for the whole town to be overrun and burned down by rampaging orcs, forcing you to pick up the sword again and go on the hunt. That is exciting. That is interesting. More importantly, that is NEW in the game.

Of course I remain a little sceptical, as quite often games companies promise a lot and then have to scale back and back until you don’t recognise what was delivered. But I’m also trying to be less cynical and remain optimistic and I’ve even signed up to the Beta for EQ Next Landmark. So we’ll see what happens but something needs to radically shake up the MMO industry as the games are becoming increasingly repetitive and just the same kind of game with a new skin and shinier graphics, over and over again.

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