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‘The Division 2’ is the brain-dead, antipolitical, gun-mongering vigilante simulator we deserve – TechCrunch

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In The Division 2, the answer to every question is a bullet. That’s not unique in the pervasively violent world of gaming, but in an environment drawn from the life and richly decorated with plausible human cost and cruelty, it seems a shame; and in a real world where plentiful assault rifles and government hit squads are the problems, not the solutions, this particular power fantasy feels backwards and cowardly.

Ubisoft’s meticulous avoidance of the real world except for physical likeness was meant to maximize its market and avoid the type of “controversy” that brings furious tweets and ineffectual boycotts down on media that dare to make statements. But the result is a game that panders to “good guy with a gun” advocates, NRA members, everyday carry die-hards, and those who dream of spilling the blood of unsavory interlopers and false patriots upon this great country’s soil.

There are two caveats: That we shouldn’t have expected anything else, from Ubisoft or anyone; and that it’s a pretty good game if you ignore all that stuff. But it’s getting harder to accept every day, and the excuses for game studios are getting fewer. (Some spoilers ahead, but trust me, it doesn’t matter.)

To put us all on the same page: The Division 2 (properly Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which just about sums it up right there) is the latest “game as a service” to hit the block, aspiring less towards the bubblegum ubiquity of Fortnite and than the endless grind of a Destiny 2 or Diablo 3. The less said about Anthem, the better (except Jason Schrier’s great report, of course).

From the bestselling author of literally a hundred other books…

It’s published by Ubisoft, a global gaming power known for creating expansive gaming worlds (like the astonishingly beautiful Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) with bafflingly uneven gameplay and writing (like the astonishingly lopsided Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey).

So it was perhaps to be expected that The Division 2 would be heavy on atmosphere and light on subtlety. But I didn’t expect to be told to see the President snatch a machine gun from his captors and mow them down — then tell your character that sometimes you can’t do what’s popular, you have to do what’s necessary.

It would be too much even if the game was a parody and not, as it in fact is, deeply and strangely earnest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

EDC Simulator 2

The game is set in Washington, D.C.; its predecessor was in New York. Both were, like most U.S. cities in this fictitious near future, devastated by a biological attack on Black Friday that used money as a vector for a lethal virus. That’s a great idea, perhaps not practical (who pays in cash?), but a clever mashup of terrorist plots with consumerism. (The writing in the first Division was considerably better than this one.)

Your character is part of a group of sleeper agents seeded throughout the country, intended to activate in the event of a national emergency, surviving and operating on your own or with a handful of others, procuring equipment and supplies on the go, taking out the bad guys and saving the remaining civilians while authority reasserts itself.

You can see how this sets up a great game: exploring the ruins of a major city, shooing out villains, and upgrading your gear as you work your way up the ladder.

And in a way it does make a great game. If you consider the bad guys just types of human-shaped monsters, your various guns and equipment the equivalent of new swords and wands, breastplates and greaves, with your drones and tactical launchers modern spells and auras, it’s really quite a lot like Diablo, the progenitor of the “looter” genre.

Moment to moment gameplay has you hiding behind cover, popping out to snap off a few shots at the bad guys, who are usually doing the same thing 10 or 20 yards away, but generally not as well as you. Move on to the next room or intersection, do it again with some more guys, rinse and repeat. It sounds monotonous, and it is, but so is baseball. People like it anyway. (I’d like to give a shout-out to the simple, effective multiplayer that let me join a friend in seconds.)

But the problem with The Division 2 isn’t its gameplay, although I could waste your time (instead) with some nitpicking of the damage systems, the mobs, the inventory screen, and so on. The problem with The Division 2 isn’t even that it venerates guns. Practically every game venerates guns, because as Tim Rogers memorably paraphrased CliffyB once: “games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.” It’s difficult to avoid.

No, the problem with The Division 2 is the breathtaking incongruity between the powerfully visualized human tragedy your character inhabits and the refusal to engage even in an elementary way with the themes to which it is inherently tied: terrorism, guns, government and anti-government forces, and everything else. It’s exploitative, cynical, and absurd.

The Washington, D.C. of the game is a truly amazing setting. Painstakingly detailed block by block and containing many of the most notable landmarks of the area, it’s a very interesting game world to explore, even more so I imagine if you are from there or are otherwise familiar with the city.

The marks of a civilization-ending disaster are everywhere. Abandoned cars and security posts with vines and grass creeping up between them, broken and boarded up windows and doors, left luggage and improvised camping spots. Real places form the basis for thrilling setpiece shootouts: museums, famous offices, the White House itself (which you find under limp siege in the first mission). This is a fantasy very much based in reality — but only on the surface. In fact all this incredibly detailed scenery is nothing more than cover for shootouts.

I can’t tell you how many times my friend and I traversed intricately detailed monuments, halls, and other environments, marveling at the realism with which they were decorated (though perhaps there were a few too many gas cans), remarking to one another: “Damn, this place is insane. I can’t believe they made it this detailed just to have us do the same exact combat encounter as the entire rest of the game. How come nobody is talking about the history of this place, or the bodies, or the culture here?”

When fantasy isn’t

Now, to be clear, I don’t expect Ubisoft to make a game where you learn facts about helicopters while you shoot your way through the Air and Space Museum, or where you engage in philosophical conversation with the head of a band of marauders rather than lob grenades and corrosive goo in their general direction. (I kind of like both those ideas, though.)

But the dedication with which the company has avoided any kind of reality whatsoever is troubling.

We live in a time when people are taking what they call justice into their own hands by shooting others with weapons intended for warfare; when paramilitary groups are defending their strongholds with deadly force; when biological agents are being deployed against citizenry; when governments are surveilling and tracking people via controversial AI systems; when the leaders of that government are making unpopular and ethically fraught decisions without the knowledge of their constituency.

Ultimate EDC simulator

This game enthusiastically endorses all of the previous ideas with the naive justification that you’re the good guys. Of course you’re the good guys — everyone claims they’re the good guys! But objectively speaking, you’re a secret government hit squad killing whoever you’re told to, primarily other citizens. Ironically, despite being called an agent, you have no agency — you are a walking gun doing the bidding of a government that has almost entirely dissolved. What could possibly go wrong? The Division 2 certainly makes no effort to explore this.

The superficiality of the story I could excuse if it didn’t rely so strongly on using the real world as set dressing for its paramilitary dress-up-doll fantasy.

Basing your game in a real world location is, I think, a fabulous idea. But in doing so, especially if as part of the process you imply the death of millions, a developer incurs a responsibility to do more than use that location as level geometry.

The Division 2 instead uses these deaths and the most important places in D.C. literally as props. Nothing you do ever has anything to do with what the place is except in the loosest way. While you visit morgues and improvised mass graves piled with body bags, you never see anyone dead or dying… unless you kill them.

It’s hard to explain what I find so distasteful about this. It’s a combination of the obvious emphasis on the death of innocents, in a brute-force attempt to create emotional and political relevance, with the utterly vacuous violence you fill that world with. It feels disrespectful to itself, to the setting, to set a piece of media so incredibly dumb and mute in a disaster so credible and relevant.

This was a deliberate decision, to rob the game of any relevance — a marketing decision. To destroy D.C. — that sells. To write a story or design gameplay that in any way reflects why that destruction resonates — that doesn’t sell. “We cannot be openly political in our games,” said Alf Condelius, the COO of the studio that created the game, in a talk before the game’s release. Doing so, he said, would be “bad for business, unfortunately, if you want the honest truth.” I can’t be the only one who feels this to be a cop-out of pretty grand proportions, with the truth riding on its coattails.

Perhaps you think I’m holding game developers to an unreasonable standard. But I believe they are refusing to raise the bar themselves when they easily could and should. The level of detail in the world is amazing, and it was clearly designed by people who understand what could happen should disaster strike. The bodies piled in labs, the desolation of a city overtaken by nature, the perfect reproductions of landmarks — an enormous amount of effort and money was put into this part of the game.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly obvious from the get-go that very, very little attention was paid to the story and characters, the dialogue, the actual choices you can make as a player (there are none to speak of). There is no way to interact with people except to shoot them, or for them to tell you who to shoot. There is no mention of politics, of parties, of race or religion. I feel sure more time was spent modeling the guns — which, by the way, are real licensed models — than the main “characters,” though it must have been time-consuming to so completely to purge those characters of any ideas or opinions that could possibly reflect the real world.

One tragedy please, hold the relevance

This is deliberate. There’s no way this could have happened unless Ubisoft, from the start, made it clear that the game was to be divorced from the real world in every way except those that were deemed marketable.

That this is what they considerable marketable is a sad sort of indictment of the people they are selling this game to. The prospect of inserting oneself into a sort of justified vigilante role where you rain hot righteous lead on these generic villains trampling our great flag seems to be a special catnip concoction Ubisoft thought would appeal to millions — millions who (or more importantly, whose wallets) might be chilled by the idea of a story that actually takes on the societal issues that would be at play in a disaster like this one. We got the game we deserved, I suppose.

Say what you will about the narrative quality of campaigns of Call of Duty and Battlefield, but they at least attempt to engage with the content they are exploiting to sell the game. World War II is marketable because it’s the worst thing that ever happened and destroyed the lives of millions in a violent and dramatic way. Imagine building a photorealistic reproduction of wartime Stalingrad, or Paris, or Berlin, and then filling it not with Axis and Allied forces but simplified and palatable goodies and baddies with no particular ethos or history.

I certainly don’t mean to equate the theoretical destruction of D.C. with the Holocaust and WWII, but as perhaps the most popular period and venue for shooters like this, it’s the obvious comparison to make thematically, and what one finds is that however poor the story of a given WWII game, it inevitably attempts to emphasize and grapple with the enormity of the events you are experiencing. That’s the kind of responsibility I think you take on when you illustrate your game with the real world — even a fantasy version of the real world.

Furthermore Ubisoft has accepted that it must take some political stances, such as the inclusion of same-sex player-NPC relationships in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey — not controversial to me and many others, certainly, but hardly an apolitical inclusion in the present global political landscape. (I applaud them for this, by the way, and many others have as well.) It’s arguable this is not “overt” in that Kassandra and Alexios don’t break the first wall to advocate for marriage equality, but I think it is deliberately and unapologetically espousing a stance on a politically and societally charged issue.

It seems it is not that the company cannot be overtly political, but that it decided in this case that to be political on issues of guns, the military, terrorism, and so on was too much of a risk. To me that is in itself a political choice.

I do think Ubisoft is a fantastic company and makes wonderful games — but I also think the decision to completely divorce a game with fundamentally political underpinnings from the real politics and humanitarian conditions that empower it is a sad and spineless decision that makes them look both avaricious and inhumane. I know they can do better because others already have and do.

The Division 2 is a good game as far as games go. But games, like movies, TV, and other media, are very much art now, deserving of criticism as to their ideas as well as their controls and graphics; and as art, The Division 2 is as much a barren wasteland scoured of humanity as the D.C. it depicts.

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How Final Fantasy VII radicalized a generation of climate warriors

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I mean, all the packaging required for a game spanning three CDs might help inspire some environmental mindfulness on its own.

In September of 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released for the original Playstation in North America. The watershed game swapped the series’ swords-and-sorcery-and-sun-dappled-forests motif for bombs and machine guns in a dark, rainy futuristic urban metropolis. It was a time before the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, a time when sci-fi and cyberpunk were ascendant and the stodgy old wizards and sword-wielding heroes of fantasy worlds reeked of the distant past (say, 1992).

While FFVII wasn’t the sequel I had been expecting, eventually even SNES JRPG diehards like me came to appreciate the change in style, as well as the sheer scale and ambition of what it was trying to accomplish. Nobody had ever told a story that big on consoles, and moving away from the 2D sprites into a (sort of) 3D world was a huge technical step forward for RPGs and gaming in general.

Thanks to a corrupted third-party memory card, I was never able to beat the game on that original hardware. It wasn’t until this year that the Switch re-release (and coronavirus-imposed lockdown) gave me the chance to breed the chocobos, find the KOTR materia, destroy JENOVA, and kill Sephiroth.

That’s when I found that, over 20 years after the initial release, FFVII’s ending still had the power to shock. Whatever I was expecting from the game’s conclusion, it wasn’t what I took to be the end of both human life and civilization.

The final cut scene in <em>Final Fantasy VII</em> still has the power to shock

Gaming for the environment

The final cut scene is set hundreds of years after the events of the endgame, when Cloud and the gang are, presumably, very dead. We see party member/space coyote Red XIII (whose species lives for thousands of years) and his children roaming the weedy ruins of the world’s forgotten, unpopulated metropolis of Midgar.

As nature reclaims the land and the coyotes frolic, not a single sign of human life is seen.  It appears that mankind and all traces of its civilization had perished from the earth due to the summoning of METEOR.

It’s a shocking narrative moment, especially compared to the endings of most ‘90s video games. Hooray, you beat the game, kids! Also, humanity had a nice run, yeah?

But the ‘90s did see environmental themes popping up all over gaming. Niche games like Ecco the Dolphin made this explicit, but even iconic hits like Sonic the Hedgehog asked the player to free imprisoned and adorable forest animals whom Dr. Robotnik was attempting to transform into cyborgs. As they return to their habitat, the birds and squirrels bound and flutter offscreen, chirping cheerfully.

Final Fantasy VII, however, made an extraordinary leap in asking the player to assume the role of violent ecoterrorists bent on blowing up a reactor inside a densely-populated metropolis. One of the game’s early, epic cutscenes ends with the bomb going off and the reactor being destroyed. Sure, some people died as “collateral damage,” but it’s OK… you’re the good guys!

In the game’s finale, the planet itself is saved, but at what appears to be the cost of all human life. No matter how you choose to interpret the ending, it’s thought-provoking.

With almost 13 million units sold worldwide, FFVII had a huge influence on an entire generation of gamers. It also helped move Final Fantasy, and RPGs, into the Western mainstream. It’s easily among the best-loved and most influential games ever.

But its impact wasn’t limited to the industry—the game’s radical environmental themes and Shinto-tinged philosophies wound up influencing a generation of environmentalists.

Pay attention, children

Bobby Pembleton, now an Enterprise Executive at a top European University (and a member of my international Mario Kart online group) is among those who found FFVII’s environmental message stuck with him. And he’s got the tattoo to prove it.

“Me and both of my siblings were totally radicalized by the game,” Bobby told me. “When we first finished it back in the day, our takeaway was, ‘Oh, civilization ended, and this is a good thing.’”

“We hadn’t seen an uncertain ending (in any media), that level of complexity was new to us,” he added. “It took a few days to sink in, but we concluded all humans were dead, and this was a good ending.”

Bobby’s youngest sibling, Jaclyn Dean, now works in healthcare. Jaclyn was 8 years old at the time so more of an observer at first, but recalled “I would actually assign characters to my brothers, enlist them to do character voices with me, and really act out the dialogue to immerse us in the story.”

After a year or two Jaclyn would pick up the game herself. “As I developed my agency, I thought, ‘hey I can do this too, girls can play video games!’ ” Eventually she went as far as printing out a strategy guide, becoming the first Pembleton to 100% the game.

Well when you put it that way…

Dylan, the middle Pembleton child who now works in the film industry, recalled that the ending made them all feel “we need to be stewards of the land, like these ancient talking coyotes. Our takeaways were that major industrialization is bad, and understanding how the lifestream and the planet works is much more important—because look how cute those coyote puppies are!”

Dylan says it’s hard to overstate the game’s impact on his choices as an adult. “FFVII affects the way I vote…everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve started a community garden. I’ve worked as a horticulturist. I know what I’m trying to do, and yeah, it’s essentially based on the philosophies of FFVII.”

“At the time we didn’t realize [Final Fantasy VII] could be an allegory for what was going on with extraction of capital from working masses, extraction of oil and resources from the planet, the distribution of that to the top .01%, up in Midgar,” Bobby remembers. “It was very influential for us all. We spent two years playing the game, again and again. We left the Playstation on as we went to bed so we could drift off to that opening theme music.”

“It primed us for this concept of a battle between workers and a hyper-capitalist machine hellbent on extracting every ounce of value from the planet,” he continued. “Soon after [the game came out] 9/11 happened, the Iraq war… there was an increasing comprehension [for us] that evil things were being done for the sake of making people rich.”

“Twenty-five years ago playing this game we didn’t realize how important that fight was—increasingly, [now] we do realize how important it is. Now people are going vegan, trying to help the world move to a well-being based economic system—we’re all considering increasingly extreme actions ourselves in order to fight the fight.”

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Historian recreates Thomas Cromwell’s London mansion in exquisite detail

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Enlarge / Artist’s reconstruction of Thomas Cromwell’s mansion on Throgmorton Street in 1539, London, England.

Peter Urmston

Tudor England was a treacherous place for ambitious courtiers, as the steady rise and sudden tragic fall of Thomas Cromwell—one of the chief architects of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII—makes clear. Cromwell had just completed work on a magnificent private mansion in London when he fell out of the king’s favor and was summarily beheaded. Now, a British historian has produced the most detailed analysis yet of both that mansion and the townhouse in which Cromwell lived prior to its completion, presented in a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

“These two houses were the homes of this great man, they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up,” said Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, who authored the new paper. “It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country. No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”

There was a time when historians considered Thomas Cromwell to be a rather insignificant court figure during Henry VIII’s reign. That view began to shift in the 1950s, as historians realized just how much Cromwell may have influenced the king and Parliament during a particularly chaotic period in British history. Much of that chaos, it must be said, stemmed from the monarch’s impetuous nature, particularly when it came to wives.

Cromwell’s star had already been rising at court when Henry VIII first stated his desire to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was Cromwell who first tried, and failed, to get the pope’s approval for the annulment. So naturally he became a staunch champion of the so-called doctrine of royal supremacy, which claimed that the reigning king was also the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby granting Henry the power to annul the marriage himself.

Mark Rylance plays a brooding Thomas Cromwell in the BBC Two adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel <em>Wolf Hall</em>, first of a trilogy.
Enlarge / Mark Rylance plays a brooding Thomas Cromwell in the BBC Two adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, first of a trilogy.

Cromwell was instrumental in getting the House of Commons to recognize royal supremacy in March 1532. Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor soon after, marking a huge victory for Cromwell and the reformation movement. Parliament enacted legislation to formally break with Rome in 1534, and Cromwell became the king’s principal secretary and chief minister. More was subsequently executed for refusing to swear an oath of succession to accept the king’s new powers.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533, and Cromwell’s position at court seemed secure; the king named him Royal Vicegerent in 1535. Then the marriage to Anne began to sour, driven in part by her inability to give Henry a male heir. But she also instructed her chaplains to speak out against Cromwell because of a legislative disagreement over what to do with the proceeds from the dissolution of monasteries. Plus, the king’s notorious wandering eye had by now fallen on Jane Seymour.

Most historians agree that Cromwell played a key role in smearing Anne’s reputation with accusations of infidelity. She was executed on May 19, 1536, and by the end of the month, Henry had married Jane Seymour, forcing Parliament to issue a new Act of Succession to recognize the new queen. Cromwell’s faithful service was again richly rewarded: he became Lord Privy Seal and was named a baron in 1536. By then, construction of his grand London manor on Throgmorton Street was already underway.

Holder has been researching the medieval friaries of London for more than a decade, and his earliest reconstructions of the floor plans for both the manor and Cromwell’s tenement house near Austin Friars were included in his 2011 doctoral dissertation. This latest paper is the first time Holder has fully presented the historical evidence he gathered to make those reconstructions, drawing on letters, leases, surveys, and inventories. And it includes an artist’s illustration, based on all that research, of what the mansion probably looked like.

Cromwell likely paid 4 pounds a year in rent for his London townhouse—one of ten tenements owned and rented out by an Augustinian friary. There were 14 rooms across three stories, with at least one cellar and a handful of attic garrets in the roof for servant housing. It was Cromwell’s primary family residence; his book-lined private office was located in the ground-floor parlor.

For his reconstruction, Holder relied upon two inventories of the house and its contents, providing a room-by-room description, including the coats of arms of two former patrons: Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Grey. According to Holder, this suggests that, despite his ruthless reputation at court, Cromwell still retained some private loyalties.

“In the 1520s [Cromwell] seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

Those inventories also provide some insight into Cromwell’s religious leanings. “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530 Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants,” said Holder. “But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic. He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

Cromwell had been quietly buying up properties around his London townhouse for several years, including acquiring (by apparently illegal means) a 22-foot strip of land that technically belonged to a neighbor, in order to have a larger garden. Construction was delayed in late 1536 when most of the workmen were conscripted to put down a rebellion in Yorkshire (the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising). Holder estimates that Cromwell spent roughly 1,600 pounds on the residence, which seems to have served multiple functions: family residence, administrative base, and an excellent venue for entertaining prestigious visitors.

The new mansion boasted 58 rooms, plus at least a dozen servants’ garrets and several storage cellars for wine and beer. It spanned two main blocks built around three courtyards, linked by a long frontage on Throgmorton Street and by connecting galleries at the rear of the house with windows overlooking the courtyard. There were several kitchens (including a separate pastry kitchen) on the ground floor, a good-sized larder, a buttery and pantry, a chapel, a stable, and a porter’s lodge.

A large stair tower led to the first floor, which featured a waiting room and parlor, as well as several bedrooms—including what was likely Cromwell’s private and family chambers, located in the west block with a view of the garden. “The family apartment even included a separate bathroom with a plaster ceiling,” Holder wrote. The heated halls were likely hung with rich tapestries, and one of the halls featured bay windows—an unusual architectural feature in Tudor homes. The second floor consisted of a series of bedchambers along the street frontage, likely reserved for Cromwell’s staff and senior household servants. The other servants were probably housed in the various attic garrets.

There was also a storage space for Cromwell’s considerable personal armory, including several sets of German plate armor, almost 100 head pieces and helmets, and 759 bows with hundreds of sheaves of arrows. The large, detached garden may have included a bowling alley and tennis court, although it’s possible these were never finished.

"This then is my reward for faithful service!" Site of the ancient scaffold at Tower Hill in London where Thomas Cromwell was beheaded in 1540.
Enlarge / “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Site of the ancient scaffold at Tower Hill in London where Thomas Cromwell was beheaded in 1540.

The mansion was completed in the summer of 1539, but Cromwell did not enjoy the luxury for long. Jane Seymour had died in 1537, and Cromwell convinced the king to marry Anne of Cleves, passing on reports of her beauty and a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. But Henry was not at all happy when he finally met Anne in person, declaring, “I like her not!” He still went ahead with the wedding but apparently had trouble performing on their wedding night because he found her so unattractive. The marriage was never officially consummated.

Cromwell was one of only two courtiers who knew that secret, and when it inevitably leaked at court, Cromwell was blamed. Blabbing about the king’s humiliating inability to perform sexually wasn’t exactly solid legal grounds for execution, but Cromwell had made plenty of enemies during his rise to power, and they were all too happy to manufacture a variety of trumped-up charges: corruption, protecting people suspected of Catholic sympathies, and so forth. “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Cromwell reportedly said, right before he was tossed in the Tower of London and condemned to death without trial.

Meanwhile, Anne of Cleves was just fine with having the marriage annulled and was rewarded handsomely for her cooperation. Henry next married Catherine Howard on the very day Cromwell was beheaded: July 28, 1540. (Howard suffered the same fate the following year, and Henry subsequently married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr.) I’m sure it was little consolation to Cromwell that the king later expressed regret for executing “the most faithful servant he ever had.” Naturally, Henry blamed his ministers for presenting him with “pretexts” and false accusations.

As for Thomas Cromwell’s grand London mansion, it was among the assets seized by the state; some of the furniture went to Anne of Cleves as part of her annulment settlement. The house remained unused for three years and was then purchased by a trade group called the Drapers’ Company in 1543 for an estimated 1,200 pounds, per Holder. And it’s a good thing that the drapers did, since the group’s archives held a “treasure trove” of relevant documents—including the surveys and inventories Holder used to create such a complete picture of Cromwell’s London homes.

DOI: Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 2021. 10.1080/00681288.2021.1923812  (About DOIs).

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Microsoft Flight Simulator’s new PC boosts: Yes, the VR mode is finally good

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Anyone who has played a flight simulator knows that screen real estate is imperative. Your average 16:9 TV or monitor is fine for most video games, but flight simulators are all about the spatial awareness of sitting in a cockpit, peeking at a massive console of virtualized buttons and screens, and having your midair view framed by a plane’s windshields and windows.

A wider monitor is better for that simulation, while a freakin’ virtual reality headset opens up the virtual skies—but at the cost of VR’s high processing demands.

Since July 2020, the teams responsible for Microsoft Flight Simulator have been pledging to deliver a truly playable VR version. That pledge kicked off months later with serious turbulence, and after my earliest tests, I strongly urged interested fans to prepare their stomachs for a bumpy ride.

The only stutters should come from the air up there

This week, my tune has changed. I now recommend that everyone with a strong gaming PC and a VR headset do whatever they can to test MSFS‘s VR mode. This comes in the wake of a giant patch, timed alongside the new Xbox Series X/S version of the game. The patch targets the game’s CPU-based performance and delivers far more stable frame rates, whether on your favorite standard monitor or spread across a pair of VR headset lenses.

The biggest difference comes from a direct comparison to my earliest VR testing scenario, as run on a rig with an i7-8700K CPU, Nvidia RTX 3080 GPU, and 32GB of DDR4-3000 RAM. In December 2020, I noted that I was unable to get the game up to a 90 fps refresh at the lowest VR settings while the resolution was scaled down to 60 percent of the native count. Using the same rig this week, I can bump up various graphics settings slightly higher, run the native resolution at 70 percent of native count, and hit a frame rate that hovers much closer to 90 fps.

One huge contributor to the VR mode’s performance can’t be broken out into a “frame rate average” count: frame time spikes. The number of in-game stutters and spikes has dramatically dropped thanks to the PC version’s latest updates, so even when you fly over a more populated city and MSFS can’t keep up with the demands of a 90 fps refresh, it still hovers somewhere close to 80 fps.

That improvement is the secret sauce to enduring lower frame rates in VR. You may very well be fine with a slower refresh within the confines of a slow-moving virtual airplane, especially since MSFS revolves around the intentional, careful piloting of realistic planes, as opposed to whiplash-inducing dogfights. If that means you’d rather run this game on slower hardware or crank up various settings to reach a maximum frame rate of 72 fps or even 60 fps, then more power to you. Now, with CPU-based stutter dramatically reduced, I can safely recommend that PC-VR enthusiasts no longer need the most expensive rig imaginable to see what MSFS‘s VR mode might feel like.

Like in my tests of the console version, I spun up cherry-picked locales that I’m familiar with to conduct my VR tests. Some are filled with massive cityscapes. Others are boring, desolate stretches of flat land. And a few require that I fly through valleys with intense terrain and strong weather systems to match. I found that dense cities were more likely to trigger mild drops in frame rate than massive stretches of nature, while all scenarios were still subject to occasional, bizarre pauses lasting as long as 10 seconds. I’m not sure how much those pauses had to do with the game’s servers being pounded by new console owners, but they were certainly annoying—though I’ll take those kinds of pauses over the constant stutters in the VR and PC versions of old.

Also, be warned: geometric detail still weirdly morphs as you approach it in VR. That’s because an aggressive Level of Detail (LoD) slider keeps the demanding game running at a smooth rate. Between that issue and lower-resolution elements like textures and water reflections, your brain won’t necessarily be tricked into believing that you’re in real-life flight, even if you surround your VR rig with realistic and satisfying PC control systems. Unless you own a supercomputer from the future, you’re in VR for increased visibility and general comfort, not photo-realistic visuals. (Though in certain settings, particularly the Seattle gallery above, MSFS can still look mighty fine in VR, thanks to how well many of its weather systems run.)

I also spun up a few VR flights with AMD’s RX 6800XT in the same rig and was surprised to see that version struggled more to reach comparable frame rates. I’m hopeful fixing this is a matter of small patches for either Xbox Game Studios or AMD, especially since I had expected AMD to win this particular battle (since Xbox Series X/S consoles leverage AMD’s RDNA 2 GPU architecture already).

One caveat: blurry instrument panels

The same optimizations can be found throughout the game’s non-VR version on PC. This is fantastic news for anyone who might have previously tested MSFS via a temporary Game Pass subscription and then bailed. If that was your specific woe, I recommend flying MSFS on PC once again.

As far as optimizing MSFS in VR, your best path to higher average frame rates will come from lowering the resolution within MSFS‘s VR graphics menus. After that, just make your peace with as few shadow-related toggles as possible. Ambient occlusion is a fantastic graphics option to enable far more realistic touches of shadow on objects in your cockpit. At the same time, it drops VR frames way more than it’s worth. For your own rig, start by going into SteamVR’s “Developer” settings tab, then turning on “Display Frame Timing” or “GPU Performance Graph.” That will put a wacky little box in your view at all times. Once that’s on, boot a quick VR flight instance in New York City or London, wait a minute for any possible cloud-streamed data to trickle in, pause, fiddle with various graphics settings, and hit “apply.” You’ll see an immediate effect on the frame time graph while paused midgame, and you’ll want a count of roughly 11.1 for 90 fps, 12.5 for 80 fps, or 13.9 for 72 fps. Once you see a count approaching any of those refresh rates, unpause, fly normally, and keep an eye on the graph for performance variance before going back into the menus and adjusting once more.

Your favorite performative result will most likely require downscaling the resolution severely. That will mean some blurry text on your favorite instrument panels—but also some solid default resolving of distant details via the game’s built-in antialiasing methods. (In other words: if you’re on a newer VR set like Valve Index, HP Reverb G2, or Oculus Quest 2 and look in the distance, it won’t look like a blurry HTC Vive 1.0 scene of old.)

Just be sure to disable all “reprojection” options in SteamVR for MSFS. This system does a particularly bad job of resolving a blurry, constantly moving propeller in your line of sight.

Should you take the VR dive as a result of this article, or if you’ve already rushed to do so since the update’s launch roughly 24 hours ago, I’d love to hear your own test results and recommendations in the comments section below.

Listing image by Xbox Game Studios / Asobo Studios

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