August 9, 2020

Alcohol-Free Beers (Part Fourteen)

(View previous instalments here)

Mikkeller Racing Beer

This poured a very pale, clear straw colour. The initial aroma set my expectations for something smooth, refreshing and lagery, with a little tinge of sourness slotted in with care. I took a first sip, and bam, it was like drinking Lilt. This beer is insanely tropical, in fact, I’m not sure I’m even comfortable calling this a beer. It is basically Lilt for grown-ups. It’s not a bad drink, but I probably wouldn’t order it again – it just a bit too weird.

Mikkeller Series Limbo

Another weird beer from Mikkeller, this is a spectacularly pink, spectacularly raspberryish beer. I took a cautious sniff and began to worry that I had ordered an alcopop by mistake. The flavour is, like the Racing Beer, supremely sour, and the flavour of this drink actually invokes more of an unsweetened rhubarb experience than raspberry. Again, it’s quite nice if you’re looking for a tangy fruity drink, but if you thought you were buying beer, you might be a bit disappointed.

To Øl Implosion

Pale and cloudy, with a pleasant smell that sets you up for a wheaty beer expectation. With these expectations set, I took a sip, and was caught completely unawares, as seems to be happening a lot with this batch. It’s not a bad flavour, but definitely a surprising one. It’s hard to describe – it’s tangy, but in a creamy sort of way, like a yoghurt in beer form. I would definitely not decline this if it were offered again, and in fact I can see myself ordering half a dozen of these when I’m doing another beer order at a future date.

Unfortunately, given the coarseness of my rating system, this merits only one “full pint glass”, which is a bit of a shame as I liked it quite a lot more than the two above.

Big Drop Uptown Lager

I made a bit of a mistake the other day. I saw a voucher online for 50% off a Big Drop selection box when purchased directly through their website, and placed an order for a couple of boxes (24 bottles in total). It didn’t occur to me until a bit later that I’ve had quite mixed experiences with Big Drop, and had made a bit of a mistake, as while my box contained 6 bottles of their Pale Ale (which I loved), it also contained 6 of their stout (which I did not like first time and did not like when I tried it again) and 6 of their citra (which I also did not). Ah well, maybe the Uptown Craft Lager would redress the balance.

This poured quite dark with a hint of worty smell, so on the basis of that, I was expecting something a bit like San Miguel. However, upon putting the glass to my lips, I realised that it was actually more like Budweiser Prohibition – just fizzy water with no body or discernible flavour whatsoever. A bit disappointing, but it serves me right for getting all excited by that 50% off voucher.

It’s probably going to be a while before the next batch of reviews. I’ve still got a decent stockpile of beers in the garage, so I won’t be placing another order in the near future, and I’ve only got one beer in the stockpile that I haven’t reviewed before. That said, if any brewers out there want to send me a sample for consideration, then I would be amenable to that arrangement.

Pete
August 7, 2020

Cocktails as usual

So apparently this has been a working week; I’m not really sure what to make of it. But one thing I know is I am more than ready for cocktails at 5. Usual place…

Karen
July 31, 2020

Hot cocktails

It’s already 70 billion degrees in here. Cocktails may be brought to you from the garden later today. Please ensure that your drink matches your bikini.

Karen
  • Comments: 1
  • I promise to not traumatise any of you by wearing a bikini. - Lyle
July 29, 2020

A Way Out (2018)

A Way Out is a 2018 videogame developed by Hazelight Studios and published by Electronic Arts. It is a co-op action-adventure game that must be played by two players, either in local split-screen or online.

Ah, Electronic Arts. How The Mighty Have Fallen

EA were founded in 1982 and I have fond memories from my Amiga 500 days of Deluxe Paint, Desert Strike, Theme Park and others. However, things went a bit downhill, and they soon gained a reputation for taking over small, beloved dev studios and crushing the life out of them. In 2011, they stopped making their games available on popular digital marketplaces, as they didn’t like the idea of another company taking a cut, so the only way to purchase their games was through their own online store/launcher, Origin. There were various security and privacy controversies surrounding Origin, and I was not a huge fan of EA by this time, so I decided to avoid it. This is probably one of the reasons why I’ve never finished the Mass Effect trilogy – the first two games were available on Steam, but the third was only on Origin. Couple this with the fact that a common complaint about the ending of Mass Effect 3 is that it is so spectacularly dreadful that it retrospectively ruins the entire series, I decided I was fine with giving it a miss. Make a note of this last sentence – we’ll be using it again later.

So I’m Guessing You Ended Up Installing Origin After All, Pete?

Yes, sadly. Bernard recommended A Way Out and it looked like the sort of thing we’d enjoy so I purchased and installed it without reading the small print. I hadn’t realised that in October last year, EA decided to start listing their games on Steam again, but with the caveat that to actually run the game, you would need to install Origin, and starting the game within Steam would then launch it indirectly via the Origin launcher. At this point I contemplated seeking a refund, but Bernard was looking forward to playing the game, so I decided to press on and just plan to uninstall Origin once we’d finished. Installing Origin required me to create an account, giving them a valid email address and password etc. which is a rant all of its own.

But Everything Worked Fine After That, Right?

Hahahaha no. Leaving aside the obvious minor annoyance that it takes longer to launch a game if you’re piggy-backing via a secondary launcher, this game did not play well with our Steam Link and Steam Controller. The Steam Link is a fantastic little device which allows us to play games downstairs on the big TV even though my gaming PC is upstairs. The Steam Controller is the primary controller for using it, and we have a couple of XBox 360 controllers that we use as secondary/tertiary controllers when playing multiplayer games. When we started A Way Out up on the Steam Link, we were unable to get the game to respond to the Steam Controller. After trying a few things, we eventually got it running, though we weren’t sure exactly how, and we were able to play.

The First Two Hours

We suffered severe framerate issues during the entirety of our playthrough, but most noticeably in the earlier scenes. Sometimes the game froze for a few seconds, often when loading into a new area. But, this aside, the game itself was quite actually quite good fun. In the early chapters, your two playable characters (Vincent and Leo) meet in a prison. Vincent is new, Leo’s been there for a few months. They discover that they have something in common, which is that both of them are innocent but were framed by a crime lord called Harvey. Neither Vincent nor Leo are particularly friendly guys, Vincent being a bit more of a gruff grizzled sort, and Leo more of a slick-haired hoodlum with trust issues, but they agree to pool their energies in order to enact an escape and hunt Harvey down.

The game offers lots of fairly simple puzzles that have to be solved by co-operation. In many ways the game is reminiscent of the “walking simulator” Life Is Strange, though it doesn’t have as much of the narrative complexity. In Life Is Strange, the decisions you make will keep having a small but noticeable impact throughout the entire game, whereas in A Way Out your decisions only impact the scope of the current puzzle. The puzzles are enjoyable, though fairly obvious both in terms of the creative imagination that conceived them, and how they are solved.

The Second Session

The next day we returned to the game. We were still struggling with the Steam controller, but Bernard noticed that the XBox 360 controller seemed to have no problems connecting, so suggested we try using the two XBox 360 controllers to play with, and leave the Steam controller on the bench. An inspired suggestion, and it worked like a charm.

Having escaped from the prison, we were being closely pursued by the cops, so needed to put some distance between us and them. Again, we were presented with various puzzling scenarios and generally offered two ways to deal with them – Vincent’s way, which was generally subtle and non-violent, or Leo’s way, which would tend a bit more all-guns-blazing. At this point the game also occasionally threw little minigames at us, which were fun, but it felt a bit preposterous to be pausing to play a banjo or throw horseshoes when the owners of the house that you’ve just invaded could be coming back at any second.

Another set piece during this chapter, which gave me some brief delight, was a driving sequence. Whenever I am playing a game and it shows a cutscene that includes a character driving a car, I always experience a little disappointment at the realisation that the game isn’t going to let me drive the car myself. But in this case, my expectations were subverted, as the game did actually let me drive for a bit! Sadly the experience did not live up to these expectations – the truck that I was given to drive had very rubbery handling, which I suppose is not unreasonable given that it was a rusty old flatbed, but the vehicle also went alarmingly quickly for such an old junk heap, including being able to rocket up a 1 in 3 gradient with no loss of speed whatsoever. Immersion – destroyed.

On the subject of “set pieces”, the game did not generally flow very well. It often felt like a series of individual scenes strung together, rather than one continuous experience. That said, the level designers did a good job of “telegraphing” which direction you should be going in, without having to resort to an on-screen minimap or other blunt UX instrument. I remember watching a video about how this sort of thing was done in Mirror’s Edge (also an EA game, albeit a pre-Origin one) and it was very satisfying to watch.

The Final Session

In our third and final play session we were able to get up and running straight off using our new trick with the controllers. We learned a bit more about the characters and visited their families. Both protagonists are married, Leo with a young son, and Vincent’s wife was heavily pregnant and about to drop any day now. In the scene where they drop by Leo’s trailer, there’s some pleasant bonding over a game of basketball, and Vincent helps Leo’s wife to get her motorbike working. The meeting with Vincent’s wife takes place in the maternity ward of the hospital. Neither of the wives are particularly happy that their husbands are off seeking revenge against Harvey, and are understandably worried that they might not make it back alive. As before, there was a slightly silly section in the hospital where you can take time out of your urgent business to play a quick game of Connect 4, which is hideously immersion-breaking, but great fun nonetheless. The characters had gone from being two grumpy sods who tolerated each others presence for the sake of fulfilling their mission, to two firm friends who played games together in their downtime. We also learn a bit more about Joe’s connection to Harvey – Joe and Harvey had been involved in a deal for a precious gem when Harvey suddenly and unexpectedly killed the dealer, took the gem for himself, and left Leo to face the heat.

During this chapter there’s a sequence where we get to choose a weapon, and this is actually one of the few decisions that has any impact further down the line. We got to try out a hunting rifle, shotgun, submachine gun, and assault rifle. In a nice touch, there is actually only one of each, so you have to take turns with them when trying them out, and the gun you’re holding when you get back in the car is the only one you can keep, so both players must choose a different weapon. Once you’ve made your final decision, the weapons then get put in a bag until later, and they will be what you have access to later on when storming Harvey’s mansion in Mexico.

Let’s skip forwards now, because the main purpose of this blog post is to talk about the ending, and I seem to be taking a long time getting there. I should probably drop in a little spoiler alert here, because I am going to be pulling the ending apart in minute detail.

Spoiler alert.

There will be spoilers.

Mexico

Once you arrive in Mexico, the game genre-shifts from a co-op walking simulator to a co-op cover-based shooter, though to be honest it’s pretty obvious that this is going to happen, thanks to the gun-choosing sequence. I found the controls here a bit clunky, though that might be because I’m used to keyboard & mouse for these sorts of games, not a controller. As a result, I think that Vincent probably got a fraction of the kills compared to Leo. But I didn’t really have a problem with this, because it seemed to fit the character of Vincent as it was portrayed in the game. Leo is the violent and spontaneous one, Vincent a bit more of a thinker. The baddies come thick and fast, until eventually it’s just you and Harvey. The first red flag pops up here, when you are given no choices in how to deal with Harvey. There’s no option to talk him down, no option to incapacitate him – you have to shoot him repeatedly until he is utterly ded. You are then chased out of his compound by his goons and you jump into your plane. Job done.

The plane lands and you’re surrounded by cops. The pilot, who is supposedly a friend of Vincent’s, shrugs sheepishly. She’s sold you out! But then a gun is put in Vincent’s hand, and the plot twist lands – Vincent was an undercover cop all along. The gem deal that had landed Leo in prison was actually a police sting, and the unnamed dealer was another undercover cop, Gary, who was also Vincent’s brother. So Vincent was obviously mad at Harvey for killing his brother, but also wanted to bring Leo in just to finish the job. Leo is furious at this revelation, and I was also starting to get mildly pissed off too, because I’d been playing Vincent in good faith, getting to know the character, and I was now being told that all of that was an act. The person that I was now controlling felt like a complete stranger to me. I think that the person playing Leo doesn’t get that same degree of “character whiplash”, as they are learning the new information at the same time as their character, so it’s easier to reconcile.

So the game has now genre-shifted again, from a co-op cover-based shooter to a competitive cover-based shooter. There are a couple more chase set pieces, and then we end up in the warehouse, which is where we finally get to the stuff that I really want to talk about.

Structure Of The Final Confrontation

The final confrontation is in the following stages:

  1. Cover-based shootout on the ground floor of the warehouse. Both players now have identical automatic weapons. Symmetrical semi-open arena, neither player can approach the other as there is a chasm in the middle of the room. Once one of the players’ health bars drops to about 75%, the game automatically moves to the next stage.
  2. Cover-based shootout in the rafters of the warehouse. Similar to before, continues until one player drops to 50% health. A cutscene triggers: the player with less health is at gunpoint, but resists, and the fight moves to the next stage.
  3. Cover-based shootout on the roof of the warehouse. Same as before, continues until one player drops to about 20% health.
  4. Players trade punches – two each. You have to press a button to throw each punch, but there is no option not to. With each punch, a flashback or memory is shown.
  5. The players both button-mash to reach the one remaining gun. Whoever has the most health left can move faster, so will invariably reach the gun first. They then must shoot the other player – again, they are forced to press a button to pull the trigger, but there is no option to decline.

You will then see one of the following endings:

  1. Leo survives, Vincent dies – with his dying breath, Vincent hands Leo a note for his wife, that he wrote while on the plane back from Mexico. In it, he says that he’s realised he was wrong, and is willing to give up the police force to be a good husband and father. Vincent asks Leo to give it to his wife, but Leo just leaves it on the doorstep. We then see clips of Leo on the run reunited with his wife and son, and Vincent’s wife at the funeral crying.
  2. Leo dies, Vincent survives – the two briefly hold hands. Vincent is able to tell his wife himself that he’s going to give up the police force, and then goes to Leo’s trailer to tell his wife in person that he himself killed Leo. This seems like a severe breach of police protocol.

What’s My Problem With All This Then?

My problem with this, as a Vincent, is that it makes not a jot of fucking sense why Vincent would be motivated to kill Leo. If Leo had been the one who had got Gary killed, then maybe, but that was Harvey. By all accounts, Vincent is a decent cop, and would use every tool at his disposal to bring Leo in alive.

It really pisses me off when games force you to do a bad thing and then try to guilt trip you about it. Spec Ops The Line did it. Fallout New Vegas: Lonesome Road did it. Whenever a game pulls this stunt on me, I always feel like I’m playing something that was written by a college drama student, who’s so engrossed with making some sort of point that they forget that for drama to have impact then it has to have a tether to reality. After all the trivial decisions that this game allowed me to make, it annoys me that the one that I actually care about is the one where I had no agency. Imagine playing a game where after 5 hours you reach the end and it displays a prompt “Press F to commit genocide” on screen, and no other button triggers any response. When you then inevitably press F because you spent £25 on this game and want to get your money’s worth, it then pops up a message saying “you’re a terrible person.” It’s a dumb dumb thing.

So I was left with the feeling that everything I’d done in the game – the decisions I’d made, the characters I’d bonded with, the friendship that I’d watched blossom between the characters – it was all meaningless, void. Please refer back to my remarks about the Mass Effect 3 ending now.

How Could This Have Been Done Better?

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot and here’s how I think the final confrontation should have played out instead. I propose two new endings, in addition to the two existing ones, and multiple ways to achieve them. One thing that I want to make clear here is that I’m not doing this because I’m salty that there was no “good” ending and want to rectify that. The two endings that I propose are on a similar goodness/badness to the existing endings. Keep reading to find out more.

From the first shootout on the warehouse floor, Vincent should see a “Time until reinforcements arrive” bar counting down slowly. This timer keeps counting down until the final rooftop decision in stage 5, though perhaps refills slightly each time they move on to a subsequent stage. If Vincent can prolong the fight until this timer empties, then the game ends with the Leo Arrested ending (see below). Now this would need to be balanced slightly, to avoid Vincent just finding a spot where Leo can’t see him, and hiding there to run down the clock, so I’d suggest some sort of mechanic whereby Vincent needs to keep pressure on Leo, or visibility of him at least. A “visibility” bar which gradually empties as Leo stays unseen and unpressured, and gradually fills when he’s in plain sight and being shot at. If the “visibility” bar gets completely empty, then the game ends with the Leo Escapes ending. In the second stage there is much less cover available so the “visibility” bar is probably unnecessary.

The next change is at the end of the second stage. The weakened player would be given the option to Resist, Surrender or Shoot. If they choose Resist, then the game continues as per the current story. The other outcomes are as follows:

  • Vincent weak, chooses Surrender – Leo Escapes
  • Vincent weak, chooses Shoot – Leo is able to shoot first, game ends with standard Vincent Dies
  • Leo weak, chooses Surrender – Leo Arrested
  • Leo weak, chooses Shoot – Vincent is able to shoot first, game ends with standard Leo Dies

In the third stage, I’d propose another change, which is to add an additional sneaking element. If one of the players is able to sneak up on the other then it triggers a scene with one player with the gun to the other’s head – you know, the standard movie classic trope where you’re viewing a closeup of a character’s face, and a gun barrel slides in from the side as the character realises that they’re fucked.

At this point, both players would be presented with a choice to make. The player who was caught off-guard has options for “Resist” or “Surrender”, and the other player just has a single “Shoot” option. The outcome matrix for this is fairly complex, but it’s more or less symmetrical and I hope it’s not too hard to follow:

  • Leo caught off-guard
    • Vincent presses “Shoot” – Leo Dies
    • Leo presses “Surrender” – Leo Arrested
    • Leo presses “Resist” – A short countdown timer appears on Vincent’s side, about 1 second maybe
      • Vincent presses “Shoot” in time – Leo Dies
      • Vincent does not press “Shoot” in time – Leo raises his gun and Vincent Dies
    • A few seconds pass with neither player pressing anything – police reinforcements arrive, Leo Arrested
  • Vincent caught off-guard
    • Leo presses “Shoot” – Vincent Dies
    • Vincent presses “Surrender” – Leo Escapes
    • Vincent presses “Resist” – A short countdown timer appears on Leo’s side, about 1 second maybe
      • Leo presses “Shoot” in time – Vincent Dies
      • Leo does not press “Shoot” in time – Vincent raises his gun and Leo Dies
    • A few seconds pass with neither player pressing anything – Leo knocks Vincent unconscious, Leo Escapes

My concern with this whole sneaking proposition is that it is easily exploited by screen-peeking (where a player looks at the other player’s part of the screen to see where they are) so it may be that it’s actually so difficult to sneak up on another player that it’s not worth including this change.

If this whole sneak-based altercation is not triggered at all then the game proceeds to stage 4 as normal when one player’s health drops very low. I’m happy with having the characters trade punches here and viewing the flashbacks, but I think this should just be a regular cutscene, not a forced button press event, as that just reminds players how little control they have.

Finally, stage 5. At the point at which one player has picked up the one remaining gun, they should again be given the choice of what to do with it.

  • Vincent has the gun
    • Aims for the heart – Leo Dies
    • Aims for a limb – Leo Arrested
    • Drops the gun – Leo Escapes
  • Leo has the gun
    • Aims for the heart – Vincent Dies
    • Aims for a limb – Leo Escapes
    • Drops the gun – Leo Arrested

The New Endings

Firstly, since the fight can now end in multiple ways at multiple points before the final rooftop confrontation, a lot of new short transition cutscenes would need to be created – probably about 20 of them, based on the lists above. Each one probably only needs to be about ten seconds long to get the point across, before the cut to the main ending video.

As I said before, I’m not just trying to rectify the perceived lack of a “good” ending here. I think that when a game has an unarguably “good” ending then gamers tend to make a concerted effort to reach it, and it attains a sort of status of being the canonical “right” ending. As an aside, the fact that, in general, the gaming community gravitate towards “good” endings gives me hope. It suggests that, when it comes down to it, we’d rather see an ending that celebrates justice and friendship, than one that has the highest body count.

But my main point is that, in my opinion, if a game is going to have a “good” ending then it should better well be bloody difficult to achieve, and if that’s not the case, then all endings should have their own pros and cons. For examples of games that do this really well, see Fallout New Vegas and the Life Is Strange series. If you can think of more examples, please post them in the comments.

So in order to ensure that none of the endings are “good”, we need to examine the existing endings to find the “silver linings” and ensure that there is a compromise introduced. I came to the conclusion that in the existing endings, the main ray of light is that the surviving character is brought closer to their family. So let’s make it our business to ruin that. Without further ado, here’s my proposed new endings.

  • Leo Escapes – Leo is preparing to go on the run with his family, but as he goes to meet them at the motel, he notices that the cops are watching the place, and he turns and walks away. Vincent is in a van around the corner, and says something like “goddamn it, how did he see us?” Leo’s wife receives a postcard a few weeks later – he has fled the country on his own. I’m aware, writing this, that a similar plot played out in Breaking Bad, and possibly countless other places besides, but what can I say, it’s a fact that all the good plotlines have already been used somewhere, all we can do now is put them together in new combinations. Meanwhile, Vincent knows that Leo is still somewhere out there, so is driven to stay in the police force and as a result he continues to be a distant father/husband.
  • Leo Arrested – As Leo is led away in cuffs, he spits in Vincent’s face and shouts “I’ll be out sooner than you realise, you fat traitorous fuck, and then I’m coming for you! And your family!” As the police car pulls out, Vincent wipes the saliva from his face, and then reaches into his jacket pocket for the note that he wrote to his wife. He realises that, to protect her, he has to rip up the note and remain a cop, and sacrifice his plans to be a better father and husband. In addition to the 3 months that Leo had remaining on his sentence, he gets additional time for escaping from prison and all the crimes he committed since. His son wants nothing to do with him, and his relationship with his wife is also understandably strained.

So there you have it – two new endings, multiple ways to achieve them, they’re all bad, and the player never feels like the decision was taken out of their hands. Perfick.

Pete
  • Comments: 1
  • I have read it all now, but it took me two sittings. You and Bernard should write a game. - Karen
July 25, 2020

Photos From The Uborka Hitching Ceremony

Step one: DO NOT ENTER THE SITE IF YOU HAVE SYMPTOMS OF CORONAVIRUS. We did not, so were safe to proceed.

Step two: don masks. Take a cheeky selfie, unsure of whether it’s actually allowed inside this hallowed building. Our fear that we were about to be caught and given a jolly good telling off made us look a little frowny.

Step three: go home and eat cake and drink bubbly with Bernard and my sister. We started off with the best of intentions on the alcohol-free stuff, but I have to sheepishly admit that as the day wore on, we did also crack open a bottle of the intoxicating stuff.

Step four: continue to gorge ourselves on cheese while engaging in periodic Zoom calls with friends and family.

Step five: annoy Henry frequently. This is Henry, by the way. He joined the household a few weeks back. He’s a little bit shy, and a little bit anxious, but he’s gradually coming out of his shell.

Pete
July 24, 2020

Friday cocktails

There is nothing special planned for today, but it is Vaughan’s birthday so some of us might raise a glass and the traditional “Wherever you are” toast. There will be all the usual Friday nonsense, though, and we are looking forward to seeing your lovely faces at 5.

Karen
July 23, 2020

Spaghetti Boshognese

It’s a while since we’ve had a recipe around here, so let me treat you to this delightful vegan(ish) feast. Like all vegan dishes, it has been improved by the addition of bacon, but obviously that’s optional if you’re more sunshine-in-a-bowl inclined. This is based on the Bosh Ultimate Chilli, which is a big success around here, and doesn’t even need to have meat added (though sour cream and grated cheese are excellent additions).

Ingredients
200g mushrooms
salt and pepper
1 red onion
3 cloves garlic
2 carrots, chopped
various herbs such as oregano, fennel seeds, a dollop of pesto
Tomato puree
Red wine (I used port because we have no wine)
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp maple syrup
10g dark chocolate
1 tin cannelini beans, drained obvs
1 tin chopped tomatoes or passata
Optional: smoked lardons, one pack.

Do this:
Pulse the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a food processor until minced.
Heat a little olive oil in your usual bolognese pan or fancy-pants le creuset saucepan.
Thow in the mince (and optional lardons), season and fry for about five minutes.
Add everything else, with a bit of extra water to wash out the tomato tin.
Bring to a nice simmer, reduce the heat, and let it bubble quietly for 10-15 minutees.
Serve with spaghetti.

Karen
  • Comments: 2
  • Congratulations again! What a fab turn out too, can't believe it's been 10 yrs since Pi... - Gordon
  • Join Zoom Meeting - Karen