On killing numerous aliens with a rubber-band gun

I'm glad there's no PC version of Grand Theft Auto V, because I don't have a console, so this removes the temptation to play the darn thing.

If previous GTA games are anything to go by, GTA V will have numerous punishingly hard missions that are almost impossible to finish the first time, aircraft that are only slightly easier to fly than the real things, and a split personality in which it tries to tell some kind of serious crime story in a world in which vehicular homicide is a normal part of driving, cops try to murder you if you nudge their car while parking, and the entire city is wallpapered with Viz-level sight gags.

I much prefer the Saints Row games. They have the same basic structure as GTA and its other clones - open-sandbox city, plot missions and side diversions. And Saints Row started out with a pretty straightforward console-only GTA clone. But they've gotten crazier and crazier since.

This is a mission of average weirdness, in the last Saints Row game. (In case you missed it, the guy who put the tiger in the car is voiced by Hulk Hogan.)

Saints Row IV is a lot weirder than this.

I had to play all the way through it before I could write this, to make sure I knew about the part three-quarters of the way through where the game turns into Command & Conquer for an hour, or something.

It doesn't do that. It does have a few fun genre shifts, though, as you'd expect based on the little Atari Combat and text-adventure bits in the previous game.

Herewith, some almost-totally-spoiler-free observations:

If, like me, you're playing Saints Row IV on PC, you will probably not like the tight third-person camera. There is no in-game field-of-view adjustment. Get this mod to back the camera off before you even start playing.

The mod is the same one that did the same thing in Saints Row III (officially known as "Saints Row: The Third"; the next one will probably be "SaintV RoVV V.V"). Engine-wise there's almost no difference between SRTheThird and SRIV. This also means you do not need a very powerful PC to run it. Like Bioshock Infinite, SRIV is a game that has to run on current-generation consoles. So the PC version isn't quite as pretty as it might be, but has quite modest hardware requirements.

I've no complaints about any other components of the PC version of SRIV. Like Saints Row III, it plays nice with alt-tab, and on my computer at least, never crashes. There are very few non-crash bugs that I've noticed, either. Start a mission that requires you to go somewhere, and dick around doing a zillion random things, collecting stuff, buying clothes, playing whole minigames, whatever, on the way there? No problem, works fine. I did fall through the ground once, and got stuck under the scenery in a Diversion once, and once was glowing blue and floating around slightly above the ground until I saved and loaded. Oh, and sometimes the game decides to play a given NPC voice log whenever you start a play session. This is not a deal-breaker.

SRIV parodies a variety of other games, and a movie or three, quite well. Though the developers must have winced when they played Far Cry III: Blood Dragon and discovered that it opens with the exact same parody that opens SRIV, but does it better.

(If you've any interest in silly action games and Ahnie moofies, by the way, you must play Blood Dragon. There's less to it than there is to SRIV, but Blood Dragon is bargain-priced to compensate. And it is fucking hilarious.)

Saints Row IV has, of course, caused permanent damage to my psyche, because I am Australian and played the full version of the game, which you may have heard contains Things Australians Cannot Handle. In the case of SRIV, those things are a DLC-only weapon which resembles a Pear of Anguish on a pole...

...which you stick up people's bottoms, making them look rather surprised, and then they fly into the sky training happy little colourful stars.

It also contains characters taking imaginary alien drugs in a computer simulation within an actual game, in order to give themselves the ability to run and leap and punch like superheroes, in that computer simulation, within an actual game. Which will cause Australian children to start smoking crack, or something.

Aaaaaanyway, Saints Row IV grew out of an expansion pack for Saints Row III that was going to be called, with the series' typical intellectual humour, Enter the Dominatrix. Matrix-style, it'd be mostly in a simulated city, partly in the dystopian real world outside it.

They decided to expand that DLC into a whole game. And there's plenty of game here - an easy 24 hours of gameplay without rushing or dawdling. I like to play a few of the "Diversions" over and over and level weapons I don't even use much just in case I'm forced to use them on a mission, so I took thirty hours to finish the first time.

(I'm playing through again, to try different weapons and avoid a couple of upgrades that turned out to not be a great idea, like the one that gives your super-sprinting a tornado effect that blasts everything near you into the air. Oh, and like previous Saints Rows, there's two-player co-op as well, now including a few Diversions that you can only play if you have two people. That'd add an hour or three.)

Making a whole game out of a hypertrophied expansion pack could have been a very bad idea, but I think it actually works really well. With two caveats.

Caveat one: You still have all the car-customisation stuff from the previous game, but your eat-your-heart-out-Neo superpowers in the simulation and the lack of roads in the un-simulated world mean there's very little reason to bother. You can still tear around the city on the wrong side of the road and do burnouts to amuse pedestrians and terrify hostages in freshly-hijacked cars, for small cash and XP rewards. The game even gives you some... unusual... vehicles to play with. But the only vehicles that're actually useful in a game-progression sense now are fast aircraft, which can move you across the city a bit faster than you can run, and get you to high places if you can't be bothered solving a few jumping puzzles.

Caveat two: The city map is basically the same as in the last game, but now you've got superpowers, and the combination of the map and the somewhat clunky superpower controls (on PC, at least) isn't great when compared with games that were designed to work like this from the ground up. Look at the Prototype games, for instance; you never get hung up on an awning or cornice or something there, and it's significantly easier to land a super-jump exactly where you want to.

(Your movement powers in SRIV are utterly shamelessly cribbed from Prototype, but that in turn may have cribbed from the Crackdowns, and then there's Infamous and Destroy All Humans too... but those are all console-only and I've never played them, so I'm not sure. Saints Row IV may not even be the most ridiculous Action President game ever, because Metal Wolf Chaos also exists.)

There are an awful lot of blue collectible things in SRIV. YOU DO NOT NEED TO COLLECT THEM ALL, thank god. There's doubtless some achievement for getting them all, but I maxed out all of my superpowers and still had 200-odd blue things left over.

On normal difficulty, SRIV is pretty easy for any experienced PC gamer, especially if you do whatever side missions are currently available so you have their rewards before you do the next main mission. I like this. I'm not really here for a gruelling gaming challenge; I want to see the sights and have fun. I have a feeling of dread when I start a mission in a Grand Theft Auto game. I have a feeling of anticipation when I start one in the last couple of Saints Rows. (I never played Buggy Saints Row I; SRII was definitely harder than III or IV.)

Because SRIV is pretty easy, you don't need to grind for money or XP. If you enjoy playing a given Diversion over and over then go for your life, but if you power-level early on then you're probably going to be stuck at the level 50 cap with most of your gear maxed out for a few hours of gameplay at the end.

On the subject of which, the maximum-level ability upgrades in SRIV don't make you as tough as you were if you bought all the level 50 upgrades in SRIII. This is good, because the top SRIII abilities made you literally immune to harm from falls, vehicle impacts, fire, explosions, and all bullets. Only melee attacks could hurt you at all. This was somewhat ridiculous even by Saints Row standards.

Once you get past the non-stop over-the-topness of everything, this is actually quite a well-considered, highly-polished game. When you end a Diversion, for instance, you always end up back at the start location, so you can easily play it again if you want to. There's also a new, fun and elegant way to reset your notoriety to zero if you're tired of shooting cops. And it's impossible to leave followers behind when you Hulk-jump off into the distance.

The only really badly-judged thing I noticed in the whole game is that you spend a fair bit of time collecting blue thingummies, and there are a lot of windows in buildings that are also lit up blue. After a while you get a thingy that indicates actual collectibles on the minimap, though, which pretty much deals with that distraction.

This is not the Most Imaginative Game In History, but quite a lot of stuff happens that you would not expect, and the jokes are good. There is a modicum of challenge, and I presume a bit more if you choose the hard difficulty setting. But mainly it's just trying to be fun, and succeeding.

Playing this game while reading Ready Player One AND Promethea has loosened my already uncertain grip on reality even more.

Highly recommended.

Reports of MWO's death have been somewhat exaggerated

A reader writes:

I enjoyed reading your MWO posts, even though I never tried it myself. I came across this article regarding its current state and the ongoing community ragefest: Mechwarrior Online Forum Ragesplosion/

I'd love to hear your take on the situation.


I haven't written about MWO for ages, but I've still been playing it a lot. Well, at least until I got Saints Row IV the other day and started spending my time killing aliens with dubstep while listening to Paula Abdul. (Or possibly the other way around.)

There has indeed been a sudden spike in stories about MechWarrior Online Community Rage, and those stories do indeed reflect a rageful portion of the game's community. But this is of very little importance to casual players. If you like big stompy robot violence, give it a try; you can have a lot of fun with it without paying a penny.

Here some things that can actually ruin an Allegedly Free Game like MWO.

1: Developer goes broke/crazy/off to the Bahamas with all of the money.

2: Technical problems - frequent crashes, things not dying when you shoot them, awful performance on sub-$10,000 computers, et cetera.

3: Zillions of cheaters ruining the game for everyone else.

4: Zillions of griefers ruining the game for everyone else.

5: Zillions of foul-mouthed children attempting to ruin the game for everyone else.

6: Forests of bizarre incomprehensible rules and mechanics that turn off new players, and which even experienced players often can't figure out.

7: Not fun to play for more than ten minutes unless you pay real money.

8: Outrageous "grind" - having to play for an awfully long time to buy new toys with the in-game money you've earned. (Unless, of course, you pay real money!)

9: Boringness. Every match is much like the previous. Caused by insufficient difference in stuff you can do, too few levels, too few game modes.

In MechWarrior Online's case:

1: Not a problem. So far as anybody can determine, the developers are getting a reasonable money-flow, and aren't blowing it all on ale and whores. The people complaining about the game are, of course, really complaining about the developers, non-delivery of promised features, delivery of unwanted features, and so on.

Given that development of the game started in late 2011, I think it's in pretty good shape. Which is good, because its non-beta Actual Launch is happening on September the 17th.

(All of the stuff current open-beta players have will carry over into the "Launched" game. There may or may not be any major new features launching along with the game.)

2: There are only minor technical problems. A few players suffer frequent crashes, which may of course just be their computer. Once in a while it crashes for me, too; there is, for instance, a bug that currently crashes the game if too many people have been shooting too many machine guns for too long. But it's basically fine. The game also does not have huge system requirements.

It is currently strangely difficult to hit small, fast 'Mechs - the Spider is currently disproportionately difficult to destroy. There are no major hassles beyond that, though.

3: The only "cheat" that currently exists is Third-Person View (3PV), which is the pole holding up the middle of the Big Top at the Circus of Forum Complaints.

By default the game now starts in 3PV, with your camera above and behind your 'Mech; you can turn of 3PV-on-startup in the options.

The idea of the new view mode, besides letting you see at least the back of your cool paint job, is to help newbies by letting them see their 'Mech from the outside. You're meant to be able to see what direction your walking tank's legs (which are like the tracks of a tank) and your torso (the tank turret) are pointing. This reduces the amount of time newbies spend rubbing on buildings and wondering why they're not going anywhere.

3PV is moderately useful for this, but the view is close enough to your 'Mech that you actually can't see the legs of many larger models. Which is a bit silly. 3PV also makes aiming a bit more confusing, because your targeting reticle is still "projected" from the 'Mech's cockpit; this makes it seem to jump around the landscape from the higher point of view of the 3PV drone.

F4 toggles 3PV mode, and you can see who's using it because the 3PV "camera" is actually visible in the game - it's a little floating drone with a red flashing light on it that you, and your enemies, can see clear across the map. (The drone is indestructible, but highly visible.)

In certain situations...

...you can use 3PV to see the enemy without them being able to see anything but your drone. This can be very bad news in "pro" games, and it's fairly bad news in normal games, because there are a lot of snipers in the game at the moment. This gives rise to a lot of matches that involve people hiding behind hills or buildings, trying to spot the enemy, then popping out for one shot and hiding again.

I, however, do not often find myself in a snipe-fest game, mainly because I play the "Conquest" game-mode (stand on various spots to "capture" them and add their points accumulation to the team total), rather than the simpler team-deathmatch "Assault" mode (which still has capturable bases at each team's start point, but you're only meant to capture those as a last resort, or to conclude a game where you can't find the last surviving baddie).

Organised snipers can still pretty much lock up a Conquest win, but it really doesn't seem to happen much, and I don't see much 3PV peeking either. If I played nothing but Assault, and if my Elo score were good enough that the game kept throwing me into games with "pro" players, I'd probably be much more annoyed about this.

The sniping problem has been exacerbated by the fact that the last big patch for MWO introduced the "12v12" game mode, putting 24 players on the field (provided the matchmaker can find that many before its timer runs out...) rather than the previous 16. Even in 8v8 there were often situations where one schmuck wandering out into view of the enemy team was killed before he could get a single shot off; that's now 1.5 times as likely.

Again, though, I haven't found this to be a major problem - it just encourages more tactical play and situational awareness. And being aware of where your guys are and where the enemy probably are is actually harder in 3PV mode, because in 3PV you don't have a minimap. It also takes two seconds to deploy or recover the 3PV drone, so you can't just keep quickly flicking between modes to keep an eye on everything at once.

6: Confusing rules? Ghost heat. Oh, lawdy, ghost heat.

Just go to the Smurfy stats page and scroll down to "Heat Penalties per weapon"; the orange numbers (with details when you hover the mouse pointer over them) tell you how much extra heat you get if you fire more than X of weapon-type Y within one second of each other. Penalties for SRMs and Streak SRMs are small, for other stuff are larger, for AC/2s are kind of buggy last I looked, it's all a complete schemozzle.

Just don't install more than the green-number quantity of a given weapon class and you don't have to worry about this crap at all. It's a silly mechanic, and I hope they scrap it.

Besides that, the only really confusing thing in the game at the moment is ECM, which when it was introduced was pretty close to all-powerful. Now, ECM can not only be countered by an enemy ECM in the correct mode or inactivated by a TAG laser fired from outside its range but inside the TAG's range but now the Beagle Active Probe also neutralises a single ECM within 150 metres and your ECM will also be neutralised for four seconds if you're hit with a PPC or ERPPC.

Got that?

Fortunately, this is not actually very annoying in play. If you're a newbie and don't have ECM of your own, then you still can sometimes target enemies and sometimes not, depending on the state of the ECM chessboard. If you're a newbie in one of the 'Mechs that does have ECM, just resign yourself to the ECM sometimes not working.

Oh, and there's some weird stuff involving missile tubes at the moment, too. Not only can it be difficult to get your LRM 15 shooting out of the missile mount on your 'Mech that has 15 tubes, and your LRM 5 shooting out of the mount with six tubes, but in certain situations some 'Mechs shoot more missiles than the launchers should have, apparently with completely corresponding damage done and ammunition consumed.

Again, though: Not a game-breaker.

7: No, you don't have to pay real money to have a good time. You don't even have to pay real money to get "General XP" to unlock fancy modules and such; you make GXP (very slowly) in normal play. The "Hero" 'Mechs that can only be bought with real money vary from "lousy" to "OK".

8: MWO is fairly grindy at the moment. They reduced money rewards in the big 12v12 patch, and it does indeed now take rather a while for a non-real-money player to earn enough to buy and kit out a big 'Mech. You still get a fountain of money in your first 25 games, though, so newbies can get into anything they like quite quickly.

By the standards of really grindy free-to-play games, MechWarrior Online is quite mild. This is not much of a compliment, though; Koreans be crazy.

9: On the boringness front, MWO currently has only two game modes, not very many maps, and no overarching galaxy-conquest metagame. But there's a lot of 'Mech customisation possibilities, so anybody who likes stompy-robot games is likely to find MWO diverting for quite a long time just as it is.

If you play high-level Assault games then the infestation of snipers may indeed make your game more boring; it's not very exciting to be a sniper, either. Conquest in the middle of the Pick-Up-Game pack, though, is quite varied, especially if you've got a few very different 'Mechs to pilot.

The only really serious missing feature in MWO, if you ask me, is a good way for PUG gamers to communicate with each other. At the moment there's text chat... and that's it. No quick text-chat macros, no voice chat. (There's some voice-chat thing that's partially integrated with the game, but you have to install it separately and nobody uses it.)

There's a half-decent command mode, though, with a full suite of move-to-here, attack-this, defend-this sorts of waypoint commands. Few PUGs feature anybody using this mode, but there's nothing stopping you grabbing command for yourself and trying to herd the cats.

Overall, MechWarrior Online is not fatally flawed, or a pain to play. And you really can play without spending a penny, though realistically you're likely to end up dropping at least ten to twenty bucks if you really enjoy the game.

I'm still going to be jumping over buildings and blowing up tanks with missiles from my power-armour in Saints Row IV for another day or three. But I have played a lot of MWO, and needed the holiday. Do feel free to check it out in my absence.

UPDATE: There's been another patch, on September the third.

Changes relevant to this post:

* There's a little tutorial now, which takes you through elementary movement, but not weapons. Better than nothing.

(To get to the tutorial, click the "Game Modes" button, which is next to the big "Launch" button. Game Modes also lets you go to the Training Grounds, where you can plod around an empty map and shoot stationary enemies.)

* PPCs, ERPPCs and Gauss Rifles have been nerfed in various ways as a further anti-sniper effort. Gauss projectiles are now much faster, but all other news for these weapons is bad.

* The third-person camera now gives a better view of your 'Mech's legs.

* Changes to hit-detection and ping-compensation code which may make it possible to shoot a bleeding Spider once in a while.

Also relevant to new players: The new patch has changed the "trial" 'Mechs (which anybody can play without buying them) again, too. Now they're a stock Raven, Quickdraw and Stalker, and a "Champion" Centurion-A.

The stock tabletop builds used to be all you ever got as a trial 'Mech, which was bad, because it meant newbies' first experience of the game was always in something that doesn't work right in MWO. Almost all stock builds run way too hot, have far too little armour, or both.

The addition of "Champion" builds to the trials has helped a lot, because Champ 'Mechs are community builds with quite good loadouts. But this time the stock 'Mechs aren't too dreadful either. The Quickdraw-4G runs too hot and is missing some armour, but the trial Raven-3L is not too dreadful and has ECM, allowing newbies to play with that a bit. The trial Stalker-5M is only missing a little armour and actually has a decent number of double heat sinks; it still runs hot because of all those lasers, but having more guns than it can safely fire at once is the whole idea of the Stalker.

Back from Columbia

I've played through BioShock Infinite.

I should probably put some sort of eye-catching screenshot of this very pretty game here.

How's this?

(I think almost everybody ate them.)

My review, in a word:


BioShock Infinite wasn't bad, you understand. But I didn't find it particularly compelling, either. I often kept playing only because the last save checkpoint was seven minutes ago (try to quit and the game will tell you when it last saved, if you didn't notice the little autosave thing in the top right corner), and I didn't want to replay that section.

And now that it's over, I don't want to replay any of it at all. You can change the gameplay considerably by specialising in one or another kind of magic ("Vigors") or gun, and the "gear" you find through the game (things like a hat that somehow lights enemies on fire when you hit them, or pants that make your shield recharge faster) is partially randomised too.

But I'm done with it. It just didn't grab me.

Which is not to say, again, that there's anything wrong with this 800-pound gorilla of the gaming world, which cost as much to make as a Hollywood blockbuster. There are a lot of places where BioShock Infinite could have gone wrong, but it almost never did.

Checkpointed saves, for instance, shouldn't be necessary even in console games today (I played the PC version). But BioShock Infinite checkpoints frequently enough that it should only be a problem if you can only manage your gaming in ten-minute instalments.

(The game also works fine with alt-tab, by the way. Well, it did on my computer, at least. So as long as you don't have to actually turn off the computer or something, you can just pause it and get on with other stuff until the boss goes away.)

BioShock Infinite also starts with a console-standard narrow field of view which feels poky on the PC, and I don't think there's an in-game console to change stuff like that. But there is a field-of-view slider right there in the options! You can't take it quite as far as I'd like, but it was good enough.

And you know when you see some giant terrifying thing or ultimate super-overlord in a shooter game, and think, "that bugger's going to be a frustrating boss battle at the end, isn't he?"

Well, in BioShock Infinite, not to spoil too much, but no. There are boss-ish battles and one enemy that acts as a quite classic multi-battle boss, but not many of them, and you're always pretty free to move and hide and just bull through with brute firepower if necessary. At no point do you have to shoot the tentacles, then shoot the missile launchers, then shoot the eyes, then shoot the brain, IN THAT ORDER.

Oh, and you're in Columbia, a city in the sky, but there's no fear-of-heights at all. You sure can jump off any number of edges into miles and miles of vertical fresh air, but you then just instantly teleport back to where you were, with a distinctive noise that may help clue you in to the fact that almost nothing in Columbia is as it seems.

The bizarre glowing steampunk Gilded-Age-With-Extra-Racism Founding-Fathers-worshipping universe-hopping setting of Columbia is almost all brightly lit and cheerfully coloured, and realised very well indeed. I'd put this game up there with Just Cause 2 for prettiness. But because BioShock Infinite has to run on 2006-technology consoles as well as on the PC, the engine actually isn't terribly demanding. At almost-top graphics settings, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti in my rather antiquated Core i7 PC gave me perfectly playable frame rates at full 2560 by 1600 resolution. The price for that is a lot of bits of game that don't look great close up, but I'll take two-dimensional flowers and wheels with corners over having to play in Duplo Chunkyvision Mode any day.

There's also no map in the game, just a navigation key that draws a green arrow in the direction of your current quest target. Many sections of the game are quite enormous, so again this had me worrying about something that a lot of games get wrong: Not telling the player where the hell they're supposed to go next. The Overlord games, to pick one example among many, had this problem in spades; I spent ages trundling around levels in those games trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. Nothing short of YouTube cheat videos helped. (The Overlord games had some extremely frustrating bosses, too.)

But, again, BioShock Infinite dodged the bullet. I only had a navigation failure once in the whole game.

(The navigation key managed to draw an arrow up onto one side of one of the whizzy "Sky-Line" transportation thingies, and the arrow then did a U-turn and pointed the other way on the same Sky-Line. So I just Googled it. Ah, the Market District. Frustration concluded.)

There are also a few side-quests where you find a secret code, and have to find a book to decode it, these two items probably being a long way apart. There's no navigation help for these things, so you'll probably get to enjoy some good old Classic-RPG Where The Hell Was It gameplay. Or you'll go on to a new area and discover you can't go back any more. But the side quests are entirely optional, and don't offer any huge game-beating bonuses - just "elixirs" to boost one of your three stats a bit, and another piece of magical clothing, and another interesting audio log.

Boy, BioShock Infinite is grand. Not necessarily particularly comprehensible, but grand, all right. And I like incomprehensible; as I've written before, I much prefer coming out of a movie or game or whatever saying "what the fuck was that all about?", than having everything spoon-fed to me in mainstream Hollywood style. I don't think BioShock Infinite really is especially inventive, story-wise, but it's like The Fifth Element or The Avengers or that Doctor Who episode where all history happened at once; sumptuous popcorn entertainment best not thought about in any great depth.

BioShock Infinite has no Super-Famous Actors cluttering up the place with strangely lousy voice acting. And no frustrating Do It Again, Stupid gameplay (as in earlier BioShocks, death is only really a minor inconvenience; you come back with not quite all of your health and a little bit less money, and all living enemies get a small health boost, but that's it). And it has difficulty settings you can change whenever you like. And it has quite slick and responsive keyboard-and-mouse controls (many recent console ports play better with a controller). And there's plenty of pleasing filigree on the basic mechanics. And a companion who never needs to be baby-sat. And the story may be... blurry... but it's every bit as grand as the graphics.

(The confusingness is probably unavoidable given that there are multiple universes and even a certain amount of time-travel... ish... ness... involved, which I don't think is a spoiler, given some central features of the setting and stuff you're told before you even kill anyone. I found one of the central end-of-game revelations, though, to be extremely hard to digest. It felt to me like a plot twist that perhaps made sense early in the development of the story, but the final story ended up being very different. Or maybe it was thrown in toward the end of development. Either way, and again not to spoil, I think there are basic but-just-look-and-listen-to-them-for-pity's-sake problems with it. You'll probably know which bit I mean when you get to it. If you don't detect it, congratulations on being less annoyed by the game than I was!)

Is BioShock Infinite worth buying at full price? If you loved the previous BioShocks, probably yes.

For me, though, regrettably no.

Perhaps you'll just adore the setting, in the same way I adore the settings of Fallout 3 and Saints Row: The Third and don't care about their nonsensical stories. There's only about twelve hours of gameplay in BioShock Infinite, though, so no matter how awesome you think it is, you'll pretty much have to get a lot less gameplay per dollar from it than a big open-world game gives you.

(EDIT: Actually, I don't really love the setting of SR3, which is just Interchangeable Simulated City To Commit Mayhem Within #726. What I like is the game's craziness, and the integration of that craziness with the overall feel of the city. Contrast this with Grand Theft Auto's bizarre attempt to graft conversations in which killing one person is treated as important, to gameplay in which you ran down 53 people on the way to have that conversation. Also, the first time you get in a helicopter in a Saints Row game, you will actually be able to fly it.)

You probably will enjoy a second playthrough at the very least, though. There are piles and piles of things that are suddenly loaded with new meaning in a second playthrough, now that you know all the great revelations of the end of the story about how everybody in the game is actually a robot built by Nazi moon vampires. That just doesn't tempt me quite enough.

(The more I read about the game now that I've finished it, the more I also want to replay it just to make less of a hash of it. "Wait, I wouldn't have had to fight all those unreasonably tough dudes with cudgels in that place that had almost no health and ammo if I'd just sneaked around their creepy boss-dudes instead of shooting at them? I thought it was only one boss-dude and eventually he'd stop teleporting away so I could kill him! Dang it.")

I don't really find myself disappointed, since I wasn't one of the people waiting impatiently for the year BioShock Infinite slipped from its original release date. (There's a joke about that in the game, too, along with quite a lot of other adroitly-placed jokes that break up the horror and seriousness nicely.) Actually, the biggest disappointment I had was that there were only a few Olde Tyme Remakes of modern pop songs in the soundtrack.

And I shouldn't complain.

This is a game that lets you sic clouds of highly carnivorous ravens on your enemies while shooting at them with a man-portable crank-operated Gatling gun, after all. What else do you want?

Death By Pinkness

The MechWarrior Online people have done something new with the latest "Hero" 'Mech, the "Heavy Metal".

Heavy Metal hero 'Mech

It's a ninety-ton Highlander, the heaviest jump-capable 'Mech in the game, and it's also the only model of Highlander in the game thus far. Every previous Hero 'Mech has been a variant of some other chassis already in the game, but regular Highlanders won't arrive until the 16th of this month. So if you want a Highlander early, you have to buy the Heavy Metal. Numerous people have; last night I saw at least one in almost every game that, you know, started, after the patch gave the servers some personality defects.

(I recommend you minimise your exposure to the comments in that thread, because the MechWarrior Online forums are trying very hard to win the MOBA Trophy for people complaining about problems with a game which they plainly hate but for some reason continue to play. If you absolutely must stare at a MWO forum car-crash, I recommend this one, where a guy complains about the game forcing him to play against people of similar skill so he can't just keep easily murdering newbies. According to him, this is is SOCIALIST, capitals his.)

And yes, the Heavy Metal is PIIIIIIINK, because it's a copy of the signature 'Mech of one Rhonda Snord from the fluff. You won't have to suffer through the pink forever if you buy it, though, because repainting hero 'Mechs is promised to be possible Real Soon Now. (I think they'll keep their paint patterns, but you'll be able to change the colours.)

True to Rhonda's version, the Heavy Metal has speakers on the outside, but all they do is play a snippet of guitar music...

...whenever you kill someone.

(There are only two snippets, one rockabilly-ish and one more on the Wyld-Stallyns-ish side.)

The chief problem with the Heavy Metal is its price. Hero 'Mechs can only be bought for "Mech Credits", and you can only get Mech Credits by paying real money. The Heavy Metal costs 6750 MC, more than any other 'Mech in the game. That adds up to about $US25, depending on how good a deal you got whn you bought your MC.

The only Hero 'Mech I've ever bought was a Yen-Lo-WAAAAAAANG when they were half-price. The Wang's not really very useful; Hero 'Mechs usually aren't the best version of a given chassis, to at least slightly reduce the clamour of forum complaints about pay-to-win. But the Heavy Metal gives you quite a powerful platform for the money.

Here, for instance, is a Heavy Metal with lots of close-to-medium-range punch, retaining four of its maximum five jump jets and with lots of heat sinks for its three Large Lasers. It becomes almost harmless if the laser arm is shot off, but apart from that it has no major weaknesses.

Here's a gauss build, with a bigger engine but no jump jets. Here's a sniper that isn't too horrifyingly slow. And here's an Artemis LRM monster, with three medium lasers as backup. All of these should let you listen to that guitar music more often than you probably really want to.

I won't be buying a Heavy Metal unless a bunch of donaters order me to. But its alarming price does give you an interesting imaginary Internet robot to play with.


There is nothing that players of online games will not complain about.

In MechWarrior Online, I've started a game and heard people complaining about how the new matchmaking system has given the other team a huge tonnage advantage, so their little 'Mechs are getting murdered by mobs of heavies and assaults.

And then, the very next game, someone's complaining that the matchmaker has given their side no light 'Mechs at all while the enemy has five of them, so this time their poor giant stompy monsters are getting pecked to death by a flock of lights.

Green Atlas
This picture isn't really relevant to anything in the post. I just thought you might like to see a high-visibility Atlas.

(Somebody's probably also going to find a way to complain about the MWO change that makes it more likely that seeing yourself shooting someone actually means you're shooting them.)

Many complaints about games, especially games that're still in beta like MechWarrior Online, are valid. But someone will also venture forth upon a discussion board and proclaim a game ruined if there's a slight change to the kerning of the menu font.

(In the MechWarrior Online font, capital I looks exactly the same as lower-case L! WORST. GAME. EVER.)

Which brings me to the latest source of rustled jimmies in my favourite imaginary giant Internet robot game:


MechWarrior Online is going to have special things you can stick on your 'Mech that you can use in a fight, a limited number of times. Then you'll then have to buy the special consumable thing again, if you want to use them again.

The first consumable they've announced in any detail is "Coolant Flush", a thing from the tabletop game which they're implementing as a widget you can put in a module slot on a 'Mech.

If you pay in-game "C-Bill" currency for Coolant Flush, you'll be able to buy a Small and a Medium version of it, each of which will take up one module slot.

If you pay real money for "Mech Credits", though, you'll be able to buy a one-module-slot Large Coolant Flush that has the effect of both of the C-Bill ones, but only takes up one slot.

Cue the outrage and misery. This is a free-to-play game, so like all the rest of them it's constantly trying to dodge the shadow of the "Pay To Win" monster. Special improved versions of things that you can only buy with real money invariably piss off the player base.

Whether this is actually a big deal or not in this particular case comes down to the numbers.

The first important number is what Coolant Flush, and other consumables like artillery strikes, will cost.

If these things are really expensive, so pay-to-win players with deep pockets can have them every match but nobody else can, and if they give you a real large advantage, then the complaint is valid.

If they cost very little, so the only real choice is between the advantage of the consumable or the advantage of a conventional module, then even if the consumable is very powerful, it shouldn't be a big deal.

So, is Coolant Flush likely to be very powerful?

Heat management is a central mechanic of all of the "proper" BattleTech games, from tabletop to computer. Most guns make heat when you shoot them. Energy weapons that don't need ammo make more heat than guns that shoot bullets (which are another kind of consumable, but which get reloaded for free every match). If your 'Mech gets too hot, it has to shut down or run the risk of stuff exploding. So, for almost all 'Mechs, anything that can dump heat quickly is highly desirable.

Piranha haven't completely explained what Coolant Flush will do, and it is of course subject to change. They say that the effectiveness of Coolant Flush depends on the number of heat sinks in your 'Mech, and that a 'Mech with ten heat sinks (which is what you get built into every engine) will get a total cooling of 35% - 15% plus 20% for using Small and Medium Coolant Flush in succession, or hitting the key twice for the real-money Large version.

If Coolant Flush operates like normal heat-sink function, then a 'Mech with 20 heat sinks (the ten in the engine plus ten more separate ones) will thus get a maximum of 70% cooling, and you'd need a somewhat crazy 18 extra sinks to get almost-100% cooling.

The pretty-much-essential Double Heat Sinks upgrade makes your ten engine heat sinks the equivalent of 20 single heat sinks, and somewhat confusingly gives you number-of-other-heat-sinks-times-1.4 on top of that. So with no extra heat sinks a 'Mech with the double upgrade will get 70% cooling from using both tiers of Coolant Flush, and it'd need only six extra heat sinks to get to about 100%, to take heat from 99% to close-to-zero.

It's actually more complex than that, because, I think, adding more heat sinks also adds to the total heat capacity of your 'Mech as well as how fast heat drains away, and I don't know how that'll interact with Coolant Flush. It does seem that normal 'Mechs with realistic numbers of heat sinks will be able to get about a total heat dump from the two C-Bill Flush thingies or the single real-money one.

That definitely would give many 'Mechs a big advantage. Even if you're just one player in a random pick-up game, dumping all of your heat so you can shoot all of your guns again right away is a duel-winning advantage. A whole team of laser monsters who can drop to zero heat whenever they want, even if they can only do that once, would have a big advantage in a brawl.

But you already have to pay money to put anything into a module slot on a 'Mech. Modules are bought with C-Bills, but to unlock a module type so you can buy it you have to spend "General XP", which is created from normal "Mech XP" by spending a small number of Mech Credits. Unlocking a fancy module like the Capture Accelerator or second-tier Sensor Range will cost you $US2.50 to $US3.00, depending on which of the Mech Credit packs you bought and whether there was a sale on.

People don't complain about that, though, because once you've unlocked a module it's unlocked for good, and three bucks is not a lot of money. Modules are also not Automatic Win Machines - they just give 10%-to-25% advantages in specialised areas like how fast you can capture something by standing on it, or how long it takes before an enemy you've lost sight of drops out of your targeting system.

If there are consumable three-dollar module-things that give a big advantage, and that cost as much in C-Bills as you can possibly make in ten consecutive games, then great and valid will be the outcry.

If these things cost 20 cents each or as much many C-Bills as you can make in one game, though, the inevitable whinging won't be as persuasive.

And if they cost little in C-Bills but a lot in real money - which would, I think, be a pretty clever way to do it - complaining would be the act of a crazy person.

That still wouldn't stop 'em, of course.

UPDATE: A rethink, and clearer explanation, of how consumables may work.

Competitively-priced small disabilities

Herewith, a combination of two of my favourite things: Imaginary giant Internet robots, and perceptual and cognitive dysfunction.

Today's patch for MechWarrior Online, you see, didn't just add a mildly interesting new 'Mech...

Trebuchet BattleMech

...and a large new map.

Alpine Peaks screenshot

Besides that, it also fixed a few bugs which most players, me included, should have noticed. But didn't.

The second-most-coveted "Elite" efficiency upgrade for your 'Mechs is "Fast Fire", which makes your weapons recycle to fire again 5% faster. Everybody with a 'Mech that, you know, has guns, buys Fast Fire as soon as they can.

Except, until now, it didn't work.

Worse, it worked backwards. It made your weapons recycle 5% slower.

They've fixed that, now.

But I never noticed. I've bought Fast Fire for, what, two dozen 'Mechs so far? If you'd asked me, I would have said it worked.

(The most desirable elite upgrade is "Speed Tweak", which raises your top speed by ten per cent. That always worked, though it used to only boost you 7.5% before they bugfixed that too, a few patches ago. Well, I think it always did something. Maybe it just changes the speedometer to tell you 100 kilometres per hour is now 110...)

And it was actually even worse than that, because there were several other screw-ups in the upgrade system.

People noticed some of them, like how you still have to buy the Basic upgrade "Arm Reflex" if you want to get to the Elite upgrades, even if your 'Mech is a Catapult or something that does not actually have articulated arms.

But Arm Reflex and "Twist Speed" were backwards, until now. Each actually gave the other's upgrade.

And the reason the Fast Fire problem was even worse is that when you bought Fast Fire it didn't do anything to your fire rate at all. Because, like Arm Reflex and Twist Speed, Fast Fire and "Pin Point" were reversed too!

If you bought Fast Fire you got Pin Point, and if you bought Pin Point you got Fast Fire. Which was, once again, actually Slow Fire. But when you bought it you didn't get it. Which was actually helpful, since it didn't work. Stay with me, here.

And the doubled Basic efficiencies you got from getting to Elite weren't doubled properly! And there's more!

MechWarrior Online is still in beta, so you should expect stuff like this. If there weren't bugs, even quite egregious bugs, then it wouldn't be a beta.

But you'd think errors like this would be the talk of the town. I mean, it'd be the work of a moment to do a little science to detect such things. Time some gun-shooting, or screenshot how far your 'Mech's torso can twist, or whatever. Then buy a new upgrade that's meant to change whatever you did, and test again.

But, clearly, almost nobody did that. I certainly didn't. So almost nobody noticed the bugs. This may have something to do with how long it's taken these bugs to be fixed - we're almost four months into the open beta now.

The moral of the story is, once again, that if you want to see if something is true or not, you have to do science. And science is not restricted to incomprehensible white-coated boffins who look at brightly-coloured liquids in the background of wrinkle-cream advertisements and who also dogmatically pursue the formula for the perfect biscuit dunk. Science is just careful experimentation, observation and thinking, which anybody can do, any time they like.

Some differences are blatantly obvious enough that you don't need to set up a formal experiment. You don't have to do science to determine whether it is safe to cross the road when something that looks very much like a car, but could be a hologram or hallucination, is coming. And if there were some upgrade in MechWarrior Online that was meant to make your 'Mech twice as tall or twice as fast, you'd be able to tell if it was working pretty easily with informal observation. (Though you wouldn't be able to easily determine if it were only making you 1.95 times as tall or fast...)

When something is subtle or elusive, though, as many concepts in the real world are, there is no substitute for science. And it's surprising how often it's needed.

Brief imaginary Internet robot update

As I write this, MechWarrior Online has a slightly belated Valentine's Day sale on, with cheaper experience-point conversion, a discount on the rather ordinary Yen-Lo-Wang "hero 'Mech", and, more importantly, another free day of "premium time", giving you a 50% money and experience-point boost for 24 hours.

(The observation that Wang is cheap on Valentine's day is... widespread.)

For new players: The current trial 'Mechs are pretty decent by the very low standards of those 'Mechs. (Trial 'Mechs are the ones you can jump straight into whether you've bought any 'Mechs of your own or not. Play trials for a little while and you'll very soon have money to buy your own.) But the current trials include the iconic, gigantic, terrifying, Atlas AS7-D.

A new player should NOT jump straight into that hundred-ton monster. It's too slow, and it has too many weapon systems for a newbie to manage.

As is usual for big slow trial 'Mechs, trial Atlases are generally assumed to be piloted by a small gurgling baby. They are treated, with good reason, as slightly dangerous experience-point farms.

If you're new, drive something faster, and you'll learn more and have more fun.

Points! Imaginary points! Twice as many of them!

This blog post exists primarily to alert appreciators of giant imaginary Internet robots to the fact that MechWarrior Online is, as I write this, about to start a double-XP weekend, thus making it easier to earn shiny customisations for your 'Mechs.

There's also a recently-introduced new 'Mech, the Spider. It's been given an Alien-ish tubes-on-the-back look that's way, way better than the godawful design of the tabletop-game version.

The twelve-jump-jet Spider-5V is also a barrel of laughs, and marginally useful in the base-capturing "Conquest" game mode. But it's almost completely unarmed (would you like two little lasers or one big one?), and the game currently has a 150 km/h speed limit that makes the Jumping Spider easy meat for more sensible light 'Mechs. The king of which is still the extremely practical ECM Raven 3L.

The Spider 5D can fit ECM and so is the most useful variant, but it'll be hideously mauled by a cheaper three-Streak ECM Commando 2D. The Spider is rather tall, too, making it an easier target.

But Spiders are still all over the place at the moment, on account of being new. And they're cheap. So if you can't afford anything better to level on this double-XP weekend, go ahead and tear around in a Spider, and see if you can beat this:

The rest of the team was dead. Five or six enemies remained. We were royally boned.

I was in my ECM Spider with three Medium Lasers.

I decided to go out by running around an Atlas and shooting him in the knees.

The various deceased spectators were highly uncertain that this novel strategy would achieve anything of note.

But I was not being completely quixotic.

Big 'Mechs, you see, often economise on leg armour, precisely because enemies usually try to blow off arms full of scary guns, or just drill through the torso into the engine, rather than plinking at legs.

Round and round I went. Pew pew. Pew pew pew. Pew.

And it was working. His leg armour in my target display went yellow, then orange, then red.

Someone blew my arm off. One torso-mounted laser left.

Round and round. Pew. Pew. Pew.

His leg armour went away.

As, in time, did one of his legs.

Spectators very impressed.

I had time to type "ha!" into chat before someone blew me to bits.