Posts Tagged ‘ shooters

Bioshock 2 Closing Thoughts

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I just posted a piece breaking down the story that unfolds in the last half of Bioshock 2. It’s called “We Are Utopia” and you should look it over. It does contain plentiful spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing, but personally I enjoy reading analysis more than I care about preserving the secrecy of the plot.

The only thing I had to leave out is how great the gameplay is during the finale of Bioshock 2. From the midway point onward, Subject Delta has an incredible array of tools to use against his enemies, and the level design and enemy design creates a lot of different ways for encounters to go. In Fontaine Futuristics, with my health and ammo levels rapidly running down, I had to face off a Big Sister and save two Little Sisters with a scant amount of resources to use.

So I turned a couple of the rogue Alpha-series protectors against a Big Daddy, killing the Daddy, and then rescued the Little Sister. This brought the deadly Big Sister out of hiding, and I spent a minute frantically laying traps. Once I was ready, I hovered close to the remaining Big Daddy and waited for the Big Sister. Sure enough, in the course of our brawl she angered the Big Daddy, and they started going after each other. As the Daddy was ground down, another Alpha happened on the scene, and I fed him into the fray. The Big Daddy went down, and the Big Sister charged at the Alpha. While they were slugging it out, I scooped up the Little Sister and saved her. Only now did I turn and face the Big Sister, who was badly weakened by her battles.

It was a great sequence, because it was all about using a combination of my powers and enemy behavior to arrange a really intricate series of encounters. It was so different from the running battles and slugging matches that marked much of the rest of the game. The end of the game was full of similar creative destruction.

The strength of the gameplay let me power through to the finale, but it was still the characters of Bioshock 2 who won me over. When the credits finally rolled, all I could do was marvel at how gracefully Bioshock 2 told its story, and made it matter. That’s its major achievement, and that’s what I’m writing about over at GWJ.

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

Some Words Uncharted 2 Made Me Eat

Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Uncharted 2. After my first couple hours with the game, I even had a little piece written up about why corridor shooters leave me so cold. My first night of Uncharted 2 didn’t leave me impressed. It was as charming as ever, and the writing was sharper, but I just wasn’t interested in the gameplay. Before I could finish my post, however, Uncharted 2 confounded the conclusions I drew from its first first act. Still, I like what I wrote. It’s true in more cases than it’s not, and it’s worth recording how our views evolve. So I post my first impressions below, unredacted:

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

I spent my weekend playing Uncharted 2, as part of my ongoing effort to work through my console backlog. I was in the mood for charming violence and, really, there’s nothing like Uncharted for providing an onslaught of both. One minute Drake is playing with hand-puppets in a Turkish prison, the next he’s snapping one guard’s neck an instant before shooting twice in the back of the head.

Still, this is not and never will be my kind of game. The possibility to space is too claustrophobic, the guidance too heavy-handed, for me to feel involved in the way that I want. It’s not that I expect every game to be as open as STALKER, but I can’t abide corridors that are so narrow that I might as well not be playing, and that’s often where Uncharted places me.

Security gates are less effective when the release button is right next to it. In fairness, you really have to stretch to reach it.

Trekking through a jungle path wide enough for two Drakes to stand side-by-side, I scale a wall using some obvious handholds. Then I cross a river balancing on a log, except Drake never really seems in danger of losing his balance. Now I come to a guard who has his back turned to me. Another guard stands a few yards away, looking in another direction, also with his back turned. I take the game’s obvious invitation to stealth-kill the two men. Then I come to clearing with two lines of obvious cover. One for me, one for the bad guys who will pop up as soon as I hit the invisible tripwire. Now I cycle between the cover points, waiting for the mercenaries to stick their heads out of cover so I can kill them. Eventually, they’re all dead. Then it’s onto another narrow passage, which will end with another set of carefully set-up, idiot-proofed stealth kills.

I could turn up the difficulty, but higher difficulty won’t redesign the levels and encounters so that I face meaningful choices, or tests of skill. I might be a little more vulnerable in firefights, my enemies a little less, but it won’t be any more interesting than it is on “Hard”. The exciting story and action set-pieces that unfold on the screen get a little less exciting as the game’s limitations become clearer. Drake isn’t really in danger of falling. The next handhold is right there, or his off-balance animation will trigger and he’ll stand, twisting and turning, on the edge of a precipice from which he will never take a plummet. The guard won’t turn around. Other guards won’t hear his muffled scream, or come investigate his disappearance. The enemies won’t keep up a sustained cover-fire, pinning you in place while they flank.

I’m reminded of an old MST3K, where a woman was being chased by some kind of crocodile. Except they weren’t even in the same shot. It was just pictures of her running, screaming across a field, with insert shots of a crocodile scuttling through a swamp. Then the woman reached the safety of her friends. One of the robots said, “Wow! That was… not close at all, actually.”

If you’re going to sustain tension, you’ve got to mean it. If Nathan Drake is living by his wits, nearly dying a half-dozen times a minute, then I should at least feel a faint echo of the same. Nolan North can grunt and gasp all he wants: I’m sitting with my feet up on the couch, drinking an Old-Fashioned while shots fly over Drake’s head. What Uncharted 2 needs to do is throw an elbow. Let me know that it’s time to stop screwing around and start playing.

"I don't know, I just feel like nothing I do matters. Like I'm just waiting for the next cutscene to start."

When I was Garrett the Thief, I had to take time to get a feel for the landscape before I could start wiping out a regiment of guards. Execution and timing mattered, and if I didn’t do my job right, it turned into a huge bloody mess. When the bullets started to fly in F.E.A.R., I had to think fast and approach each gunbattle with some tactical acumen, or the weight of numbers and grenades would take me down in short order. That’s gaming as I knew it. The tightly scripted corridor shooter is tee-ball by comparison: “Way to hit that ball! Yaaaay, Slugger! Here’s your participation ribbon.”

On Second Thought…

After I wrote that, I played more of the game. Now the interesting thing about this is that I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Hell, even as someone who completely converted to the cause of Uncharted 2, I still think a lot of my criticisms are completely valid. But what I didn’t know is that from the next chapter, “Urban Warfare”, until the end of the game, Uncharted 2 was about to annihilate my expectations. I’ll get into the reasons why in my next post.

But for now? I’m still pondering what I wrote above. If I still chafe at how tightly Uncharted 2 occasionally holds your hand and constrains your actions, can that be squared with how completely I ended up buying into the experience? With how involved I became with the story and the action? Is a compromise possible between Uncharted 2′s exhilarating cinematic qualities and more open gameplay?

Point and Click

Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.

I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.

What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.

Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.

And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.

That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.

Boxes. Identical weapons. People standing in the open and shooting. Back in the day, this could have given Doom a real run for its money.

What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.

Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it.  The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.

In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.

Homecoming in Clear Sky

I had a few restless days earlier this month. I had just put Pirates! back on the shelf for awhile, and was having a great time with EU3, but really wanted to play something else. I just didn’t know what, and none the games near the top of my Pile of Shame really did it for me. Aside from a vague desire for some violence, I really had no ideas.

Then my eyes fell on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, still wrapped in its plastic and mixed reputation, and I realized that I wanted was not really a game, but a place. I wanted to go back to the Zone, and I didn’t care whether or not Clear Sky lived up to STALKER. I needed to be in that world again.

Perhaps it is because I’m suffering a bit from claustrophobia and urban fatigue, but I needed STALKER’s open fields, mist-shrouded marshland, and roiling sky. I actually felt relieved, like I had just come home, when I got control of my character in the opening scene and went over to the bedroom window. Just looking outside at the sunrise through the cold morning air, splintered into shafts of light by a bare tree, was enough to remind me of all the reasons that this is the best shooter series since Half-Life.

The opening sequence of Clear Sky may well be clunky and bordering on tedium, but I was at home the moment I was turned loose in the swamps outside the Clear Sky base.  I couldn’t have been happier picking my away through prairie grass and shallow pools, trying to avoid pissing off the local fauna.

At one point I was trying to cut across the map and went off the trails, and as I came a narrow clearing hemmed in by a marsh to the right and a field of tall grass to the left, I thought I heard something in the brush. I froze stock-still and listened. Just listened. To the breeze rustling through the weeds and the cackle of some crows. To very distant gunfire from the ongoing battle. But nothing immediate. So I started moving again, and as I reached the narrowest point of the clearing, I heard rustling and snuffling in the bushes to my left.

Instantly I was down in a crouch on the edge of the pool, long-barreled shotgun leveled and ready. I strained my ears and definitely heard an animal coming closer through the brush. I started tracking the sound from left to right and just as it passed in front of me, I heard a hound’s bark and it came charging out of the weeds. I’d misjudged his location by a few degrees, and swept the gun back to the left and triggered both barrels. Both blasts of buckshot peppered him, but not enough to bring him down. He came hurtling toward me while I broke open the stock, pulled out the empty shells, and slapped in fresh ones. I got the new rounds chambered and closed the gun just as he started to leap. Boo-boom! The second round dropped him at point blank range. He died at my feet.

My heart was pounding.

And that was a random, relatively weak monster encounter. A normal day at the stalker’s office. But I couldn’t afford to get cute and just slug it out with the damned thing, or try and run, because he absolutely could have killed me. Maybe not right away, but if he’d mauled me out there the marshes, I’d have bled out before I could make it back to safety.

Another unbelievable, quintessentially STALKER sequence came when I ran into a squad of Clear Sky attackers heading to take a pumping station away from the bandits. We managed to get close without being spotted, but the moment our point man placed a foot on the duckboards, the bandits opened fire from the platform. We started shooting it out from across the pond. One of my shots missed wide of the mark and a gas tank exploded, blasting the guy I’d been shooting at into oblivion. That was the opening: I charged across the boards, shotgunned the first bandit to get in my way, then picked off another over by the pumps. We were clear.

But not finished. My squad kept pushing north through the swamps, clearing a herd of boars and then coming to a desolate, ruined village. As we approached, we ran into a squad of bandits that had been heading toward the pump station. Again, gunfire erupted everywhere.

At this stage of the game, my weapons were a hodgepodge. I had an AK-74 with no ammo.  I had an MP-5 with half a clip, a sawed-off shotgun, the hunting shotgun, and a Fora 9mm pistol. All of which meant that in a huge firefight, with numbers definitely going against us, I was not really in good shape. I tried to pick off bandits with my pistol, but the engagement range was too long and every time I leaned out of cover, a torrent of pistol and shotgun fire came my way.  I spotted a pair of hostiles trying to flank us on the right side, using a house foundation for cover, so I pulled my MP-5 and cut them both down with two bursts, emptying the weapon. Then I started taking potshots with the shotgun, hoping that the buckshot would at least start whittling their strength down.

After about five minutes of combat, I suddenly realized I could heard the wind and the birds again. The riot of gunfire, shotgun blasts, ricochets, and yelling had slowed to a sullen dialogue.

With a sinking feeling, already certain of what I would find, I turned to my left and saw that two of my squadmates dead in their cover. I sprinted farther towards our flank, drawing a fusillade of shots from the bandits holding the main road, and reached the other end of our firing line. Everyone was dead. I was alone with the bandits.

Reason and adrenaline collided head-on. The smart play would be to fall back into the swamp toward the pumping station we’d liberated a half hour earlier. The odds were terrible and there was really no upshot to continuing the fight. But as the shots continued to sail past, and the bandits continued trying to work their way around the flanks, I was too keyed-up to call it a day. I grabbed some ammo from my dead squaddies, and moved back to the right.  Luckily, the bandits didn’t spot me until I was on their flank and I was able to take them one at a time.

Even with that minor advantage, it was still slow, bloody work. It took me several more minutes to clear the town. It also used up all my bandages, all but one of my first-aid kits, and 95% of my ammunition. By the time I drove the last gunman down in a hail of bullets over by an empty pig pen, I was down to three clips of pistol ammo and a salvo from each of my shotguns. I started stripping the dead to replenish my supplies, and realized how futile this battle had been. Nobody had much ammo, and I didn’t manage to find any medical supplies.

Not that I got a chance to collect more than a few handfuls of 9mm and buckshot rounds, because I spotted another squad of bandits coming in from the north. I took off on the road east before they spotted me, since they were already across my line of retreat to the pumping station.

I had completely screwed myself. The village was back in enemy hands. I was also trapped in the middle of nowhere between two bandit bases, with nothing but a long expanse of hostile countryside between me and a Clear Sky position. Overhead, the perfect autumn day had given way to a heavy sky that seemed to press down until it touched the tops of the prairie grass.

I checked my map, sketched a route, and reloaded my weapons. Then, turning away from the broken trail, I headed back into the marshes.

The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.