29 June 2017

'Your uniforms don't fit we'

In honour of today being the 50th anniversary of Keith Richards being found guilty of allowing his house to be used for the illegal smoking of marijuana and being sentenced to one year in jail and a £500 fine, here's 'We Love You', the Rolling Stones' satirical up-yours response to the authorities, recorded the following month in July 1967. Features Lennon & McCartney on uncredited backing vocals, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Brian Jones looking tip-top as usual. (Richards' harsh sentence, and the lesser one also imposed on Mick Jagger, were dismissed on appeal).

25 June 2017

1000 hours of Elite Dangerous

Outbound Faulcon DeLacy Cobra Mk3 'Dragonfall 5'
It used to be the release of a new version of Sid Meier's Civilisation was the catalyst for me to upgrade my PC. But my most recent rig, which saw me swapping from a 17-inch laptop to a desktop with my first SSD, was designed with Elite Dangerous in mind. Before I could even play the game I spent hours watching videos of other people playing it - in particular the seemingly effortless pilot wizardry of Isinona's Flight-Assist Off series. Jousting with pirate Vipers, locking horns with Commanders in gunned-up Vultures, ducking in and out of asteroid fields to throw pursuers off their targets - it all looked so exciting. Then in April 2015 my new rig arrived and finally I could play the game myself. With Logitech 3D Extreme Pro joystick and a new monitor, I headed out into the void, navigating my tiny starter Sidewinder into the black.

Like many people I had played the original 1984 Elite, but only on friends' computers and never to any degree of proficiency. If I have any memories of it, it was of a game that was fiendishly difficult, and which generally resulted in a brutal death at the hands of the remorselessly rotating space stations that proved so difficult to dock with. On my Commodore 64 I preferred games with an easier learning curve, like the mounting stress of PSI-5 Trading Company, coaxing a stricken freighter to its destination amidst a storm of pirate attacks. (The spirit of that game is best captured in the recent indie game FTL).

The modern Elite Dangerous quickly proved addictive and became my main gaming hobby, and this weekend I finally clocked up 1000 hours of ED gameplay on Steam, the first time I've reached that total for any game. (My next highest total, by way of comparison, is currently 300-odd hours for Civ 5). The prospect of flying the kinds of spacecraft I had always daydreamed about as a child proved every bit as engrossing as I suspected it would. I'd describe my style of ED gameplay as schizophrenic - I seldom stick at one career path (bounty hunting, mining, trading, exploring) for more than a few days. This makes exploration in particular more of a psychological challenge, because venturing far from the human-inhabited bubble becomes a grind of endless repetition, with the thrill of discovering new worlds balanced by an admittedly thin and repetitive exploration gameplay.

Saud Kruger Dolphin passenger liner 'Cicero' on a tourist excursion
This complaint of thin gameplay, which is often levelled at ED on the game's busy subReddit, is generally fair but many players are prepared to overlook the game's limitations and take enjoyment from what it's capable of doing well. Sure, the endless development of Star Citizen does show considerable potential, merging starship action, FPS combat and gameplay, plus a richly tailored and scripted environments. But the big difference about the lavish $100m Star Citizen extravaganza is that you can play ED now, and while it's not perfect yet, it's got plenty to do and it's continually improving.

There's been a bit of disquiet on the forums recently because of a lack of information about where the game was going, with some suspecting that development was winding down. This was dispelled by the announcement that the final expansion of ED's second 'season' - a suite of DLC that was originally intended to last a year but has taken quite a bit longer - will finally see the return of the Thargoids, the implacable alien foes from the original game. This news has been a long time coming, and will hopefully address the community's fears about the game stagnating. From my perspective, by under-promising and over-delivering, Elite Dangerous remains a stalwart of sci-fi gaming, and I plan to spend plenty more hours flying the Milky Way in my assortment of starships, fighting, trading, mining and exploring as the whimsy takes me.

CMDR Totinges piloting a Surface Reconnaissance Vehicle (SRV)

22 June 2017

Strike out boys, for the hills

Trying to find a video vault kitsch classic to match the one a pal sent me earlier in the week, and while this one can't quite match the 1975 version of Una Paloma Blanca by French performer Georgie Dann, it's worth a stab if only for the surrealism of dance troupe Legs & Co (who were traditionally deployed on Top of the Pops when an overseas artist couldn't appear) performing a punishingly literal interpretation of The Clash's Bank Robber (because The Clash refused to appear on TOTP due to its miming requirement) for an August 1980 broadcast. Not 100% sure if Legs & Co really grasped the intrinsic zeitgeist of punk.

05 June 2017

On the 1636 from Leeds to Manchester Piccadilly

In the station it's all grey, 1960s functionality, with the only colour provided by the cheery orange of the departure boards, flickering with trains for King's Cross, York and Hull. The London train is running late as usual, but a dozen or two are more hopeful of a more timely Trans-Pennine journey. A three-car train shows up on time, and we emerge from the station into a brick valley of Victorian industry and portakabin lots, which soon give way to terraces and suburban council tower blocks, and within five minutes the train is speeding through the Lancashire countryside. The woman sitting next to me holds a long mobile conversation in Italian, or more a one-sided monologue, insistent but musical. After Dewsbury we cross a broad canal and graffitied railway underpasses decorated with regional bragging. The air temperature rises with no air-conditioning and no windows to open; teenage girls loiter in the aisle, waiting to leap into the fresh air at Huddersfield with their fresh shopping spoils. One final stop at Stalybridge is soundtracked by the gossip and singing of excitable girls, speculating about the setlist of the Manchester benefit concert for the Ariana Grande victims. In the outskirts of Manchester the train passes industrial sites and two-up, two-down terraces, converted warehouses and grey suburban churches, as we roll towards Manchester Piccadilly. The station and the city trams outside are jammed with happy concert-goers, and Manchester is humming with activity.