Monday, April 25, 2016

The Málaga Connection

Red Line Corporate Solutions is a company formed by a group of former intelligence operatives who now conduct covert missions for the highest bidder. Spies for hire, if you will. Current employees include:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

All of them have secrets, and all of them have seen or heard something that makes them think there's something strange going on in the criminal-slash-intelligence underworld of Europe.

These suspicions are confirmed on the 11th of May 2014 when Carmel receives an encrypted email from hopkins@xvccececcuu.xin. No one has heard of "Hopkins"; it's not a name any of their current or former contacts has used, but he or she seems to know both about the Red Line team and those strange events that the team have either witnessed or heard about. The email does just enough to grab their interest, then ends with:

If you want answers, find out what happened to Ibáñez Security Solutions.
- H

The Red Line team know of Ibáñez. They are in the same line of work and they have met at least three members of the ISS team at, er, "security consultant conferences" over the years. None of the Red Line team members can think of anything that strikes them as unusual about ISS, and a quick bit of online research turns up the names of the company's five registered employees, a business address in Málaga in Spain, and telephone numbers and social media contacts.

Carmel goes a bit further and hacks into the company's email server, and discovers that there is no activity at all for about the last two weeks. There is some discussion of a new job -- but no details on the job -- and then nothing. Carmel tries calling the ISS office and gets through to an answering machine.

The Red Line team decides to head to Málaga as soon as possible. While some of the team pack for the trip, the others sort out vehicles and lodging and make arrangements to land at a private airport just outside the Spanish city,. They leave their headquarters in Zurich and Sten has a bit of a wobble as he flies their plane south, but they arrive safe and sound in the late afternoon.

Malagueta panorámicaThe team settles in for the rest of the evening and plans their next move. As night falls, they head over to the ISS office, in an older residential area of the city, set back from the busy, tourist-filled coastal region. They stop a good distance away and Natasha sends in a small drone to sweep the building; through the video feed the Russian notes that there seems to be no activity, but all the windows are obscured by blinds or shutters, so there is no way to see within. The team decides to take a closer look, in person, and Natasha is sent in to scout around.

As she approaches, Natasha spots not one but two people watching the ISS building. One sits in a car with a good view of the building, while the other lurks in an alleyway towards the opposite end of the street. Natasha guesses that the person in the alleyway is a woman from their smallish build but the Russian cannot make out the figure in the car; she does note that it's not a new model and looks well-used.

Natasha reports back to the rest of the Red Line team, and a brief discussion follows as they work out the best approach. A number of options are discussed but in the end they go with Max's suggestion of ignoring the watchers for now, and finding a way into the ISS building from the back. Carmel and Natasha sneak through alleyways and scramble over garden walls and find their way to the back door; the Israeli notices that the building is fitted with a good quality alarm system, but that it has been deactivated. She muses over this as she picks the lock and Natasha signals to Max and Sten that they have gained entry.

Inside, all is dark and quiet. The team search the building and discover a couple of concealed safes; Carmel takes about an hour to crack the first, and the long, quiet wait makes the team more and more nervous. Soon after, Carmel stumbles into and smashes a couple of wine bottles and Max hears a car pulling away outside, so they abandon stealth in favour of speed, and the second safe is opened with a drill. Meanwhile, the rest of the team look for clues. A laptop is discovered that seems to be fresh from the shop and contains no useful data -- Carmel has a sinking feeling that it has been planted and that even turning it on has alerted someone to their presence -- and the office answering machine seems to have had all messages deleted, aside from one earlier that day -- from Carmel -- and one on the 9th, in which no message was left, but English and and Spanish voices can be heard in the background.

Grabbing the contents of both safes, the team hurry out the way they came and stop to check the street, confirming that the car they spotted earlier has gone, as has the figure in the alley. A quick look at the alley reveals that whoever stood there was wearing trainers, but nothing more. The Red Line team rush back to their rented accommodation and look over what they have found. They have a selection of car number plates, registered to different European nations, bundles of cash in a number of popular currencies, and a few passports of various different nationalities; they recognise three of the faces as belonging to members of Ibáñez Security Solutions, but two are unknown to the Red Line team. None of the names are familiar, and the team conclude that the passports are for cover identities

Carmel hacks into the local police database and turns up an accident report from the 7th mentioning one of the ISS employees, Theodore Britton, being involved in a serious car crash near the border with Gibraltar. According to the report, Britton was taken to the nearest hospital, St Bernard's, just across the border. Sten poses as Theodore's brother and calls the hospital, and although the receptionist is surprised -- and a little disgusted -- that it has taken him five days to check on his brother, he tells Sten that Theodore is out of danger and is in a recovery ward. The Red Line team decide not to wait and to head straight to Gibraltar.

As they get ready to leave, they notice that they are again being surveilled and this time catch the watcher, hitting them with a taser and bundling them into the car before heading south. Their captive is a woman, familiar from some of the fake passports, and they conclude that she is the fifth member of ISS. They bind her hands and feet with gaffer tape and wake her up; after a bit of panic and distrust, she is convinced to talk and confirms that she is Katarina Bloch, a member of the Ibáñez team.

Katarina tells them that her team was also contacted by "Hopkins" and that three of them -- the three the Red Line team know; Bernard Lonsdale, Jan de Witt, and Rachel Perkins -- went to London to meet with the new contact. They brought a package back with them and Bernard and Theodore locked themselves away to study it. After a couple of days, Bernard left the package with Theodore and took Jan and Rachel back to London; Theodore and Katarina were to provide support from the office. Nothing was heard from the London team until the 7th, when a pre-arranged panic signal -- "There's a 'things have gone wrong' signal and a 'things have gone really wrong' signal, and this was the latter." -- was sent. Katarina and Theodore cleared out; Katarina went into hiding with some local contacts, while Theodore decided Gibraltar would be safer as he is a British citizen, so went south.

Katarina knows Theodore is in hospital in Gibraltar but thinks that if someone is after their team, he is safer if she doesn't go there. She records a video message for her colleague and gives it to the Red Line team; they drop her off at the next town before rushing off into the night.

Gibraltar aerial view looking northwestThere is some trouble at the border as the Red Line car is stopped by the Spanish police. They are held up for about half an hour by the search but have left their weapons back in Málaga so there is nothing of interest to find; the police do discover a set of combat knives but Max is able to convince the officer that they are used for hunting. Soon enough they are at St Bernard's Hospital and Carmel steals a couple of white coats and some medical paraphernalia while Sten whips up some quick fake identification cards; the disguise isn't perfect, but it gets the team into the building outside visiting hours, and they go looking for Theodore.

They find him up on the seventh floor and convince him that they are friendly, but as he points to the two bulky plaster casts on his legs, they realise it won't be as easy as they thought to get him out. Carmel goes to fetch a wheelchair and then the lights go out.

Oh dear.

The Red Line team switch into high gear, bundle Theodore into the chair and head for the lifts. So flustered are they that they don't pay attention and are surprised when they stumble into a tactical combat unit.

A tense standoff turns into a brawl as the Red Line team attempt to disarm their opponents and force them to surrender. Things don't go so well, and Sten is downed in a spray of bullets. Max looks around for some way to escape and sees the hallway behind them filling with mist. Out of the mist steps a man with fierce red eyes.

Oh dear.

One of the combat squad members panics and fires a burst from his sub-machine gun. The bullets hit but don't faze the newcomer. With the unidentified special operations squad distracted by the new arrival the Red Line team make a break for the lifts, even though it brings them closer to the horror advancing down the corridor. They are lucky and the lift is there, so they clamber in and as the doors close with agonising slowness Max catches a glimpse of the man glancing their way, those burning red eyes tinged with curiosity.

The lift descends and the Red Line team hear the terrible sound of the combat unit upstairs being torn into pieces. As they flee the building and head to their car, there is a crash of glass from above and Natasha is lucky not to be hit by the shredded remains of one of the operatives. Max looks up and is certain he sees a large black bat flutter out of the broken seventh floor window.

They head to the nearby marina and Carmel helps them break in unnoticed. They steal the fastest boat they can find and speed back to Málaga as the sun rises. Theodore takes them to where he hid the package from London, and they dig up a box containing a large bundle of annotated pages. They can't quite believe their eyes as they look at the first page:

Dracula
by Bram Stoker

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Broken

Everything is broken. Everything is wrong. Except it isn't, and I know it isn't, but cold logic doesn't mean much when whatever this is, is happening. I feel a bit silly, because I know it's just chemicals, or worry, or something like that, and it shouldn't knock me down the way it has, but it has knocked me down, so I sort of have to accept it.

Is that defeatist? I don't know. It feels like it is, but at the same time, I know I'm at the mercy of forces beyond my immediate control.

I am rambling. I don't know what to say, but I needed to get some of this out of my head, and it's what blogs are for, after all. I don't like to write these personal posts, because it feels like self-promotion -- and how absurd is that feeling? -- and I'm so terrified of appearing arrogant or conceited that I always try to avoid talking about myself, but I do think that talking -- or at least writing, or typing, or whatever -- will help.

I'm not fishing for sympathy, and I am sincere when I say that I am sorry if what I'm writing here makes you uncomfortable, or isn't what you expect or want to see from me; as soon as this thing passes, then you'll see more of the content you're used to, I promise.

This will pass. It always does. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes I have to give it a kick and a shove, but it will pass.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Questing Again

It's official: I have no idea what Games Workshop is playing at.

It's produced a version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle that looks like it's fun to play. It's bringing Blood Bowl back. It's brought genestealer cults back, so now I'm about 75% less sad about my dad throwing out my old cult.

Today brings the news that Warhammer Quest is coming back.

There's been a recent change of management over at GW and the new bosses seem to have a fondness for, well, games. At this stage, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a new edition of Oi! Dat's My Leg! before the end of 2016.

Monday, March 28, 2016

On Your Nelly

First things first, I should mention that one of my friends was involved in the production of this game -- and voices a pompous sea bird -- and I've spent an afternoon playing Bomberman with both the creator of the game and Nelly Cootalot herself, or at least her inspiration and voice actor.

Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a comedic point and click adventure game about pirates. If you are now thinking "Gosh, that's a bit like deciding to be a sprinter and challenging Usain Bolt to a race your first time out" then that's a bit weird that we both thought of that, but you'd be correct. The shadow of Monkey Island looms large over this game -- now I'm imagining a Lovecraft pastiche; The Shadow Over Monkey Island -- but not only does the script acknowledge the influence, Nelly Cootalot is strong enough to stand up to and apart from its illustrious predecessor.

The writing for the most part is strong, and the characters' personalties come across well, helped in no small part by good voice acting throughout. Nelly herself is a charming protagonist; everyone seems to like her, and her cheerful approach to adventure is infectious. The main villains are a bit sketchy, and not in the appropriate sense of the word; I think they return from the original game in the series, but as I've not played that, their motivations and personalities seem a bit vague in this instalment. A new villain introduced in the middle section of the game comes across far better, although again his motivations and connection to the main plot are somewhat unclear. Still, it's Nelly and her friends who are most important and they are well-written and acted; aside from Nelly herself, I was most impressed by her sidekick Sebastian, voiced by Tom "Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior" Baker. To be honest, I was expecting someone of Sir Tom's prestige to sleepwalk through his role but he brings a lot of personality to Sebastian, even though he has one of those voices that means you can never quite forget the actor behind the character.

The game is funny, and there's a varied approach to the jokes, with plenty of references to films and games, a bit of witty wordplay, a dash of satire here and there, and at least one bit of smutty innuendo, although that last one doesn't land as well as it could have due to some clumsy back-pedalling. Some comments and reviews have claimed that the game is for children -- perhaps because of the art style -- but the latter joke suggests not, and some of the references are going to go right over the heads of most kids, unless they are showing Jack Nicholson films in primary schools these days.

The game looks good too. The trailers did look a bit ropey, with a flat animation style reminiscent of Flash or a cheap CBeebies programme, but the game looks much better in action. The character models look to be cel-shaded and that gives them a bit more weight, and they are for the most part well-animated; it is a bit of a shame that they don't tend to do anything when Nelly isn't interacting with them, but one has to remember that this isn't a multi-million pound game with a hundred-strong creative team behind it. That said, it's a pleasant surprise when you spot a character making a small movement or gesture that must have added time to the production schedule and is irrelevant to wider game, but helps to bring the character to life. It shows a dedication and craftsmanship that you don't often see in the aforementioned larger productions.

I did encounter a couple of graphical glitches; during one part of the Guttering Howls section Nelly walks in front of and through something she should be behind, and in the penultimate chapter the inventory panel goes a bit wonky, but is still usable. I also had a bit of trouble with the game's interface being slow to register what was under the pointer, although the mechanics worked as expected, so it wasn't a major issue. I played the game on Linux Mint 17.3 and I don't know if these glitches are in every port.

Heh, "port". Like sailors. Heh.

Nelly Cootalot's puzzles are varied and often require different approaches and techniques to solve; even when they are of the give-item-A-to-person-B sort, they are at least presented in novel ways so the game never gets dull. In terms of difficulty, the puzzles are if not simple, then logical, so you are never hunting for rogue pixels or throwing every item at every character, hoping for the best.

That said if there is a flaw in Nelly Cootalot -- and to be fair, it is the only thing I would consider a proper flaw -- it's the wider logic surrounding the puzzles. On a few occasions I worked out the solution to a problem, and had all the correct items in my inventory ready to go, but I couldn't apply said solution because I hadn't gone to talk to someone -- often in another location -- who was supposed to give me the idea I'd already had. This led to frustration and -- in one case near the end of the game -- a suspicion that there was a game-breaking bug. On the plus side, Sebastian is able to give hints about what to do next, and in at least one case this helped resolve the impasse, although in the latter instance I did end up roaming around clicking on everything and everyone until I spoke to the right person.

Creator Alasdair Beckett-King is a jolly nice fellow -- and is not bad at Bomberman -- but it turns out he's quite good at making computer games too. I had great fun playing Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet and although it is short -- it can be completed in about five hours or so, although getting the Steam achievements will take longer -- I think it is worth the £12 I paid for it. There are rough edges, and places where I feel Alasdair and his team could have done a tiny bit more, but what's here is good, and I hope the game is enough of a success that we see more from him.

If you like point and click adventure games, give this a try, because you'll probably like it. If you don't, give it a try anyway, as it's charming and funny and may change your mind.

Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is available from loads of places, right now!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

SKULL CHILD


D&D is Hard

We're playing D&D5 again. This time, Manoj is running the game. He doesn't run games often so it would already be something special even if it weren't so different to what we've done before.

In a lot of ways it needn't be a D&D5 game at all; we've been in a couple of fights and have used skills and spells here and there but for the most part the mechanics have been of little importance. Instead the game feels like a series of puzzles, and I have found it difficult to play.

I don't mean that as a criticism; rather I find I'm exercising parts of my brain that I wouldn't expect to when playing D&D. If anything it feels like a tricky Call of Cthulhu investigation, and I love Call of Cthulhu.

The first session saw our party involved in a Deathtrap Dungeon style event, from which we emerged triumphant. This made us favourites of the new queen, who then sent us on a mission up north to deal with some troublesome goblins.

BORING!

Well, no, because while it could have been a case of crawling through caves killing off goblins here and there, as we've all seen a million times before, instead we found ourselves in a more complicated situation.

The villagers and the goblins lived side by side in peace up until the recent unpleasantness, but an elven merchant -- we don't trust him, because he's an elf -- claims that the goblins killed a group of villagers, and only he escaped.

Some villagers have fought back and captured -- and tortured -- the goblin chieftain's son. Other villagers can't believe that the goblins are now hostile. The local baron wants the goblins wiped out and has hired mercenaries. The goblins have enlisted the help of a hobgoblin warband. We half suspect both the mercenaries and the hobgoblins are working for the baron. The elf is up to something shifty. There may be a silver mine involved somewhere. Our ranger is certain that there's a demon working behind the scenes. We all suspect the elf.

Things are about to boil over into conflict and there we are, trying to work out what is happening, and then to work out how to stop it getting any worse, and it is challenging.

Part of me wonders if I've been overthinking it and in fact it is a simple go-and-kill-the-greenskins adventure, one that we've made more difficult for ourselves by assuming there is more going on than there is. If that is the case, it has still been fun to engage with a more complex situation than we expected, even if the complexity is of our own making.

The most recent session ended with our party inviting the hobgoblin leader to negotiate, only to find ourselves surrounded in the woods by the entire warband. We'll see what happens next.

Update: Stuart has written about the game from his perspective here.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Marvellous

This was drawn in the summer for a charity auction. I have no idea if it sold, let alone for how much.


If anyone wants to have a go at colouring it -- I am rubbish at colouring -- then feel free!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Talkin' 'bout a Resolution

I don't do New Year resolutions because they're a bit naff and seem dishonest; if you're going to make a significant lifestyle change, why wait until the first of January? If it's worth doing, it's worth doing now, yes?

That said, here are some things I'd like to get done in 2016, but none are of the life-changing sort:

Run The Dracula Dossier. I love Dracula and the idea of mashing it up with a Bourne Identity style spy Eurothriller and making that the basis of a role-playing game is exciting. Alas, I am unconvinced by the Night's Black Agents ruleset and I am unimpressed by the minimal support given in The Dracula Dossier itself for running the thing, but I will persevere.

Run Eyes of the Stone Thief. I've been itching to get back to 13th Age for a long time, and this campaign looks like great fun.

Paint my eldar army so I can play some second edition Warhammer 40,000 with Stuart, although he will probably play necrons and necrons were a bit overpowered experimental in 40K2, so I'll be painting them only to send them to their deaths. Oh well.

Read more. This is my unread book pile as of right this second:



That doesn't include about a dozen larger-format books that won't go on the pile without collapsing it. I was starting to catch up, then Christmas happened.

Write more. Forgive Us came out a long time ago and people have asked for a follow-up. I've had some ideas but nothing has yet made it past both my own self-doubt and James Raggi's keen eye; I think we have something now, so I hope that will appear before June. Well, I hope it will appear before March, but let's be realistic.

Catch up on computer games. I have a rule that I don't get a new computer game until I've finished one, but that doesn't stop other people getting them for me and throwing the system out of whack. I've got my eyes on some upcoming releases so I need to clear the queue before they arrive. This would be easier if PlayStation trophies didn't sit there, glinting and taunting and implying that no, I haven't really finished the game, even if I did beat the final boss.

Play more and different games. I didn't quite manage fifty-one different games in 2015 but I got closeish. I'd like to try lots of different things in 2016; I have a number of unplayed games on my shelf and I know that the rest of my group is the same even worse, so this shouldn't be too difficult.

"Shouldn't be too difficult" I say, but some of those books have been in that teetering pile for over three years, and the eldar have been sitting in an undercoated state for about two. Oh dear.

But I shall be confident! I'll revisit this post this time next year and see how well I did. I bet you cannot wait.

Have a good New Year everyone. I don't do the party thing but for those who do, enjoy, and for those who don't, enjoy whatever it is you'll be doing.

I shall be reading.