Posted in Video Games

Master of War: Dispatches from Battlefield 1

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I’m a bit late to the party on this, I know, but Battlefield 1. Very good, isn’t it? So far, I’ve played only briefly – my fatigues remain fresh, my eyes show no symptoms yet of the thousand-yard stare – but I wanted, all the same, to scribble down some first impressions. Before I become too war-weary (or more likely, too addicted) to wield the pen again. Bugler, sound the charge.

It’s realistic

I’d never fought in a war. Until, that is, I played Battlefield 1. Pick conquest mode and suddenly you’re there on the front line, rifle in hand, boots on the muddy ground, ducking under a hail of bullets, explosions, screams. So visceral is a Battlefield battle that even as a virtual recruit, you almost wish you’d not taken the king’s shilling and had stayed in Blighty instead. Mortar fire is shatteringly loud, tanks are terrible lumbering beasts and woe to any soldier who, in a fit of bravery, pokes their head above the parapet. Death is frequent, almost arbitrary. It’s an unflinching take on trench warfare — and one of the most intense gaming experiences there is.

It’s nice-looking

The Battlefield series has won a reputation for gasp-making graphics, and this latest entry is no exception. Pin-sharp textures, eye-popping lighting effects, trees that look realistic enough to hug — Battlefield 1 is why I bought that gaming PC in the first place. Better yet, everything’s tightly optimised, letting more modest rigs crank up the settings and still enjoy Zeppelin-high frame rates. I would add, pedantically, that multiplayer doesn’t look quite as good as single player, although it’s possible I’m imagining that.

It’s frenetic

From the vast maps to the plentiful player count (32 per side), Battlefield 1 is as anarchical as multiplayer comes. All is chaos. While coordination is encouraged, no field marshal bellows orders at you, letting everyone wage war however they want. In a plane. In a tank. Even on a horse. If you’re feeling nice, you can play medic and revive friendlies. If you’re feeling nasty, you can play assault and explode enemies. But, a warning. Just as there many ways to kill, so there are many ways to be killed. Snipers pick you off from the front, foot soldiers bayonet you from behind, and death drops from the sky in many guises, including grenades, mortars and mustard gas.

It’s unforgiving on beginners

Forget boot camp. In Battlefield 1, you’re lobbed straight into the front line. Which can be challenging for a new recruit to the series (raises hand), one who happens to be an FPS noob too. Expect to be killed, often and early, without warning and with extreme prejudice. A lesson you soon learn: Battlefield 1 is a sniper’s paradise. The enemy will pick you off from miles away, unless you pick them off first. Which means, unfortunately, you need to be able to aim. My aim, unrelentingly bad, is a decisive source of competitive disadvantage.

Posted in Nostalgia

Stuck Inside of Moberly With the Exeter Blues Again

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It squats at the foot of a hill, edged by the A377’s puffing cars and snorting buses. Giant pine trees screen it from view at first, as if nature in her kindness has thrown a veil over something profane. But crunch along the cone-strewn path and lo, there it stands. Bricky and blocky. Unlovely and unloved. Part-1960s correctional facility, part-destitute East German business park. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, for this is Moberly House, Exeter University, where student dreams go to die.

Why then, it might pardonably be asked, would anyone choose to live there? Let me tell you my survivor’s story. It begins a miniature eternity ago, in 2004, when Moberly was one of four houses that made up Duryard: the largest halls of residence on campus. Later demolished for being a superannuated shit-tip, Duryard had a very effective value proposition. It was cheap and cheerful. I mean literally cheerful. Duryard was the happy halls of residence, home to accomplished social animals, not depressed solitaries who spent their days behind drawn blinds listening to Morrissey. It was the affability rather than the affordability that sold me. I signed up.

And it was hard not to feel the excitement that September day, the sun shining and Duryard a-hum with hundreds of arriving freshers, me among them. Three years of intellectual nourishment and sexual adventurism awaited. But first, the unpacking. So, key in hand and parents in tow, I made my way up to Moberly’s first floor and my home for the next year. And this, I’m afraid, is where my story takes a darker turn.

On the outside, Moberly wasn’t and isn’t alluring. Inside, it is forever 1964. My first glimpse, twisting key in lock, made my heart go cold within me. The furniture was mean, the pillows lumpy, the lighting unmistakeably grudging. With a pang I noticed that the desk was pocked with woodworm. If ever a room could be said to resemble a prison cell, mine was that room. Tears suddenly threatened. I felt the need of something to cuddle. When my parents drove off, I did what I presume every newly deposited Moberly inmate does: sat on the bed knuckling my eyes, wandering what tides of fate had brought me to This Place.

Escape was difficult, too. To the many shortcomings of Duryard can be added the fact that it wasn’t notably close to campus. A bastard topography made things worse. Getting to lectures involved a stiff climb up ‘Cardiac Hill,’ a headlong incline that left even the fittest students flushed from exertion. You could always tell who lived in Duryard: we were the ones with sweat moustaches and brows shining like candlewax. Worse still was the fact we had to walk past our bête noire, a building the very mention of which made every Duryarder’s fists ball and eyes spit venom. I refer, of course, to Holland Hall.

Just as to understand Marxism one must first understand capitalism, so it is impossible to understand Moberly without also understanding Holland Hall. Freshly opened in 2004, Holland Hall was the anti-Duryard. Everything Duryard wasn’t, Holland Hall was. It was sleek and glassy and inviting. It had double rooms, it had heated towel rails, it had long dreamy views across the breathtaking Exe Valley. If Exeter had bright young things, Holland Hall – on its shining hilltop perch – was where to find them. Duryarders, by sharpest comparison, were the Outer Dwellers, microbes to be regarded with mingled pity and scorn. Confess to a Holland Hall resident that you lived in Moberly and you might as well have confessed you were a trilobite wallowing in the primeval slime. Since staying at Holland Hall cost a king’s ransom, we assumed each resident was a minor noble. We plebs were bidden inside, occasionally – a royal summons to scale the social steps and join the elite – but only for a day, or perhaps if we were lucky, a night.

And yet there existed a defiance among we incarcerees. True, Duryard wasn’t likely to grace the Sunday Times ‘Style’ section, and no one could deny Holland Hall boasted shinier fittings and fewer mould spores, but Moberly life wasn’t entirely without its consolations. The claims, for instance, made about its superior social life were quite true. We had the run of place: there were no locked doors to prevent inter-floor wandering, letting us schmooze and banter as the humour took us. Moberly was ‘open.’ Not so in maximum-security Holland Hall, whose security doors and institutional paranoia were a continual bitter insult to the human spirit. The much-vaunted luxury of the place? Nothing but a gilded cage. (So, tearfully, we told ourselves.)

For all that, it is hardly a surprise that thirteen years on, Holland Hall still stands. The real shock is that Moberly – raddled, rattling old Moberly – stands too. It dodged the wrecking ball during the 2007 Bonfire of Duryard thanks only to a quirk of geography: as the southernmost house, it was best able to be ‘assimilated’ by the newly built Birks Grange Village. Ever since, as the rest of campus was renovated out of recognition, it has stood firm, entirely unchanged, preserved as if in a 1960s peat bog. And it sees active service, too. Although the house fell out of use in 2012/13, Exeter dusted it down again the following year owing to a ‘high number of academic applications.’ And those students have to live somewhere, right?

In 2017, students still live in Moberly, but they won’t for much longer. Plans are afoot to replace the immortal house with, sadly, a ‘modern development.’ The only surprise here is that it took so long. You can’t knock somewhere like Moberly into shape; you can only knock it down and replace it. But it’s a shame nevertheless. I will always remember you Moberly, if not always fondly, and here’s hoping Moberly Mk II retains something of your cheerfulness and humbleness and indomitable social spirit. You can keep the mould, though.

Posted in Tennis

Rumble in the concrete jungle

If, at the start of the year, someone had told me that Roger Federer would get to the final of the 2017 Australian Open, I would have scoffed. If someone had also told me that Rafael Nadal would get to the final, I would have laughed. If someone had also told me that Roger would beat Rafa in five epic sets, sweeping the last five games with a purple patch of groundstroke winners and clutch get-out-of-jail aces, I would have thought they were a fruitcake in the grip of a psychotic episode and inched away. No doubt the man himself would have arched a disbelieving eyebrow and told you he would just be happy making enough prize money to cover the airfare.

But it happened. Somehow, impossibly, it happened. The fairytale final gave us the fairytale result. I have long had a flickering hope that Federer might win one more major, but never for a nanosecond did I think he could do so by beating his biggest rival. As a Federer fan, my brain is encrusted with scar tissue from the many big matches I’ve watched him lose to Nadal. Roger’s rivalry with Rafa is a rivalry of pain. The Spaniard beating the Swiss in grand slam finals is a time-hardened tradition, one of the fundamental laws on which men’s tennis rests. The notion that Federer, aged 35 and coming off a six-month injury layoff, could overcome his nemesis in a major final for the first time in ten years – for the first time ever away from Wimbledon – wasn’t just unlikely, it was a gross insult to plausibility.

How, for one thing, would he master his nerves? Even in Federer’s imperial phase (2005-2009) he struggled mentally with the challenge posed by Nadal, and each of the three grand slam finals he played in 2014 and 2015 (against Novak Djokovic) were lost in part due to the Swiss’s big-match jitters. Like many, I thought Federer’s last chance had come – and gone – at the 2015 US Open final, when he took only four of 23 break points despite having the support of possibly the most pro-Roger crowd in tennis history. It was as if an imp of doubt whispered in his ear during the big points and he forgot he was the most successful player in tennis history.

And if doubts plagued him against Novak Djokovic, a player he has beaten plentifully in the past, what chance did he stand against Rafa – his curse, his kryptonite, a player with a game precision-engineered, seemingly, to beat him? And let’s not forget. This was no ordinary grand slam final. Fedal XXXV was the most legacy-critical match Roger would ever play. History pivoted on the outcome. If Federer won, he would pull four majors clear of Nadal and confirm himself as the greatest player to tote a racquet. But if Nadal won, he would sit just two majors behind, with the French Open (where he has nine titles and counting) looming large. And it would tilt a lopsided head-to-head (23-11) further in Nadal’s favour, raising again the question: how can Federer be the greatest player of all time when he isn’t even the greatest player of his generation?

So it was an important match. But to me – and I suspect, to Federer himself – Fedal XXXV seemed less an explosive final-act culmination than the bonus epilogue. Face it: Nadal won this rivalry in 2008-2009, when he beat Federer in three grand slam finals on three different surfaces. Since then, other rivalries – Nadal-Djokovic, Djokovic-Federer, Djokovic-Murray, Djokovic-Wawrinka – have come along and eclipsed it. This isn’t the noughties any more. Neither Nadal nor Federer are fresh-faced wunderkinds in the full rude vigour of their twenties. Rafa’s mane of untamed hair is unmistakeably thinning; Roger’s face is lined with the disappointments of coming up short in the quest for one more major. In tennis terms, they are past it. At the dawn of 2017, Federer and Nadal had won one grand slam between them in the last three years.

The Australian Open final, then, was an gloriously unexpected gift from two weatherbeaten warriors in the evening of their careers. Strain, and you could almost hear the world of sport holding its breath, the tennis journalists reaching for their juiciest superlatives. Me, I thought the match would be entertaining in parts, but eventually play out the way it almost always does. That is, with Nadal wearing Federer down. The Spaniard’s playbook for beating Roger is nothing if not well-thumbed. Basically, hit crosscourt forehand after crosscourt forehand to Federer’s backhand, until Federer’s backhand (bullied to buggery by all that topspin) coughs up a short ball or an error. Point Nadal. And so – familiarly – on. But just this once, it didn’t happen that way.

Evidently, Federer had not spent his six-month injury layoff sitting with folded hands. He had spent it upgrading his backhand. And in the final against Nadal we witnessed the full majesty of Backhand 2.0 – a shot newly undaunted by Nadal’s topspin, capable of firing winners both crosscourt and down-the-line. When it comes to piecing together the how of Federer’s win, the new, faster Australian Open court was a factor, as was with the heaviness in Nadal’s legs after his five-hour semi-final with Grigor Dimitrov. But the biggest difference-maker? Roger’s backhand. He hit 14 backhand winners in the final – the majority coming when he needed them the most. In the fifth set.

The fifth set. For Federer fans, it will go down in legend and song. Of course, it all began so unpromisingly – with Roger being broken by an ascendant, victory-sensing Rafa in the opening game. In my head, at that point, I concluded all was lost. But in my heart, there still fluttered a butterfly of hope. Pessimistic as my pre-match predictions had been, Federer had been the better player. The match was on his racquet. He could still win: he just needed to conquer his doubts, empty his mind of negative vibrations. Not so easy, admittedly, when your nemesis is standing on the other side of the net. And is just five holds of serve away from victory.

It is an unwritten tennis law that Federer loses close matches against his biggest rivals. You might not be able to out-forehand him, but you can outfight him. Just ask Djokovic. Or, of course, Nadal. But in assuming that Federer would fold once again, I had been mistaken. This was a new, self-knowing Roger Federer, who didn’t fade and didn’t fear defeat. Coolly self-possessed, his mind as clear as ice water, he fought back against Nadal, showing a pitch of brilliance I had long thought beyond him in a big match. With history at his shoulder, Federer played some of the finest tennis of his career. In two straight Nadal service games, he earned break points and didn’t take them – missed opportunities that would have deflated him in the past. No more. Undaunted, he broke Nadal in his next two service games and, serving for the match, fended off two break-back points: the first with an ace, the second with a fearless forehand howitzer.

That Federer won the match, somewhat awkwardly, on a Hawkeye challenge, didn’t spoil the moment. How could it? This was History. Federer’s magical 18th grand slam, won at 35 years old, after a six-month injury hiatus, over five sets, against nemesis of nemeses Rafael Nadal. His most memorable major, won when everyone expected it the least. Seeing Federer celebrate, his face flooded with a childlike joy, is not something I’m not likely to forget any time soon – and at the risk of being accused of Fedolatry, was exactly the sort of tonic a troubled world needed.

It’s time for everyone to stop wagging loose tongues. The debate is settled, forever, amen. Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. Of course, he was before. But now his career has the only meaningful thing it was missing: an unforgettable, final-act flourish.

Posted in Tennis

Fedal XXXV: Encore, encore!

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It could be the revitalising Melbourne air. Or perhaps someone spiked the tournament Lucozade with some elixir of youth. Either way, this year’s Australian Open has been one for the aged – that’s right, aged. During the past fortnight, we’ve seen a quartet of thirtysomethings roll back their considerable years and show younger rivals that elder might really mean better. An all-Williams grand slam final – the first since 2009 – is astonishing enough. But the proper rub-your-eyes surprise happened on the men’s side. Eleven years after their first, and five years after their last, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will compete on the final Sunday of a major one more, and probably one last, time. For what we are about to receive, may the Tennis Gods make us truly thankful.

Ever since their opening skirmishes in the mid-noughties, Federer and Nadal have been the equal and opposite forces defining tennis in the popular imagination. Their five-set grand slam finals at Wimbledon (in 2007 and 2008) and the Australian Open (in 2009) are etched deeply in the annals of sporting history. Even today, after a half-decade of domination, Novak Djokovic is dismissed sniffily as the ‘third wheel’ – an arriviste who disrupted the most beloved rivalry in sport. If Federer-Nadal are the Beatles, Djokovic-Murray are Wings: the follow-up that never scaled the same heights. That’s why everyone’s so excited to see the original band reform and play the Rod Laver Arena for an unexpected encore.

There’s a good reason why Federer and Nadal are so surpassingly popular. All great sporting rivalries depend on contrasts in styles, and ‘Fedal’ has contrasts wherever you look. Roger is a right-hander with a single-handed backhand, Rafa a left-hander with a double-hander. But it’s more than that: each man stands for different, opposing ideals. Federer is less athlete, more artist. Like a ballerina he glides around the court, moving with a minimum of effort, firing winners at perfectly judged moments. When God was ladling out elegance, the Swiss got a triple helping. Which dovetails delightfully with Nadal, a warrior who opts for practicality before aesthetics. His game is based on brute force and scalding footspeed, and his will to win goes down to the very depths of his vitals.

And Rafa usually does win, at least in the matches that matter. Not for ten years has Federer beaten Nadal at a grand slam, and the Spaniard leads the overall head-to-head 23 wins to 11. Practically from their first meeting (which Nadal won, aged 17), the Spanish bull has been the indefatigable scourge of Federer’s dreams, treating the Swiss as his personal plaything. Nadal’s industrially topspun forehand makes Federer’s one-handed backhand look inadequate at best, obsolete at worst. Their matches often follow the same pattern. Typically Federer starts brightly, and might even snag the first set. But Nadal’s consistency and topspin and passing shots grind him down eventually, the last remnants of Swiss resistance dropping away one shanked backhand at a time.

Will we see the same thing play out on Sunday? It seems likely. Roger-Rafa is a movie we’ve watched before – we’ve worn out the tape – and while entertaining, it’s hardly likely to produce a plot-flip this late in the piece. To beat Nadal, Federer would need to buck history and beat a rival who, after two years of toil, is rejuvenated and seemingly back to his best. In Grigor Dimitrov, Rafa had the perfect warm-up for the final, too: the Bulgarian famously modelled his game after Federer’s.

If Federer – somehow – wins, it won’t be the proclamation of a new tennis order: he’s 35 years old. But it will be a resounding statement, a glorious final chapter in the best of careers, a confirmation that Federer is indeed the greatest of all the greatest. And maybe Fed fans have reason for hope. Nadal is 30 years old, his semi-final lasted five hours, and he has one fewer day to recover. There is madness in the Melbourne air, and perhaps one more surprise awaits us. Either way, it is certain to be an amazing occasion. Yesterday’s men are today’s finalists, and we should enjoy it while it lasts (which will hopefully be five sets).

Posted in Transport

On the buses, or why they’re much better than trains

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One of the givens of British life – along with iron skies, Conservative governments, overpaid footballers and Katie Hopkins – is the awfulness of the train service. To many, it’s a national embarrassment, a Thatcherite economic experiment gone awry, a privatised-not-privatised vampire planting ever sharper fangs in the soft, fleshy necks of tourists and commuters. And what do we get for the defence-budget-of-a-small-country prices we stump up in train fares every year? We get: overcrowded carriages, crumbling rolling stock, cancellations, delays, Nazi ticket inspectors, regular industrial disputes, apocalyptically unclean toilets, toilets with doors that slide open automatically and unexpectedly, wailing infants, over-loud phone conversations and if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to stand by a window, views of mournful South London.

How we bargain-loving Brits have put up with the above for quite so long is a mystery beyond answering. It’s what happens, I suppose, in a captive market. Trains are a scandalising rip-off but short of catching road rage, chartering a chopper or risking our necks twice-daily on a bike, we have no choice but to take them. And this is their genius: to profiteer, unashamedly, from a nation’s transport desperation on the safe assumption that we’ll be too distracted by our headphones or smartphone screens or the armpits of the people standing beside us to have the energy, much less the elbow room, to muster a transport revolution.

But what they don’t know is that the revolution is here – in fact, it pulled into the station some time ago. It’s a four-wheeled revolution that calls itself, simply, Megabus. Now, I know what you’re going to say. That I can’t be serious. That I haven’t thought this through. That Megabus, granted, is cheaper, but ugh: slow. So slow. I mean, can you imagine it, sitting in stalled traffic on the drizzly North Circular for unendurable lengths of time, surrounded by people who, just like you, are too poor to afford the train! It would be like taking the mail coach during the steam age, if, that is, the mail coach was daubed with a lurid yellow-and-blue livery with a picture of a fat, leering, bus conductor on one side.

Aesthetic shortcomings aside, however, there is really nothing unbecoming in taking the bus. When train tickets are this trouncingly expensive, it’s an economic inevitability. Me, I first fell under the sway of Megabus when I was a student at Exeter University. The train being, obviously, far beyond my student purse, Megabus’s low fares were irresistible. But all the same, I was wary. London to Exeter is a bugger of a distance to travel by bus, and as a martyr to motion sickness, I would be unable to beguile the passing hours with a book. What did they expect me to do? Sit with folded hands for the entire four-hour journey? (I should add, importantly: this was the pre-smartphone era.)

But even without the consolations of Snapchat or Pokémon GO, my maiden Megabus journey proved to be none so terrible. It helped, of course, that I’d dosed myself to the gills with travel sickness pills, and brought batteries to spare to service my ageing Sony Discman. But here was the best thing: once I’d flourished my printed-off ticket to the driver and stowed my luggage in the undercarriage, there was nothing further to worry about. No bothersome tea trolleys, no tedious canned announcements, no officious ticket inspectors demanding to see reservations and railcards. I could just sit back and enjoy the journey. And boy was there plenty of journey to enjoy (more than four hours, give or take the odd stop at the services).

By slow degrees, I got there. And despite myself, I enjoyed it. Much of the journey I spent in a state somewhere between waking and dreaming, the West Country flashing past my heavy-lidded eyes, Interpol, Bloc Party and British Sea Power piping into my half-listening ears. And when I arrived, I found something had taken root in me. Suddenly, I was a Megabus man, ready to preach the benefits of four-wheeled travel to anyone who listened. It wasn’t until I graduated and found a job that I again set foot on a train, and then only begrudgingly.

In writing this encomium, I am aware that Megabus is not the miracle solution to the nation’s transport ills. For a poor student, they may well be perfect; for a commuter the case is somewhat different – there is no bus, mega or otherwise, that can replace the 8:04 from West Wickham to Charing Cross. But if you are travelling across the country and are unfussed by the trade-off between ticket price and transit time, then the coach may be up your street. And you would be joining the revolution. There is a reason that Megabuses are seen more and more on Britain’s roads, an ever-expanding armada bowling smoothly along our motorways and dual carriageways. That is because, in the era of the plutocratization of train travel, coaches are the only option. So let’s embrace them. Megabus, I salute your affordability, your unfussiness, yes, your garish colour scheme. And to the train snobs that scoff at your slowness, I say only this: if the choice is between taking your time on the Megabus, or spending aeons waiting for an affordable train ticket to show up anywhere definite in the calculable future, I know what I’m going to choose. Buckle up!

Posted in Video Games

Overwatch: or how I learned to stop worrying and love PVP

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Not so very long ago, videogames were no one’s idea of a social activity. They were made by the shy and played by the shy – a bedroom-bound pursuit for those who kept the world at controller’s length. But thanks to the glorious emancipating advance that was the internet, a change came. What began as solitary became communal. These days, gamers in their millions play with or against each other, in the same virtual worlds, on the same physical servers. This isn’t to say, of course, that single player releases are no longer successes; obviously they are. But the proper megagames, the ones with the hugest daily playerbases (League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, CS:GO, FIFA Ultimate Team) generally have one thing in common. And that’s player-versus-player, or ‘PVP’.

Now call me a deviant, but I dislike PVP gaming. And let it not be said I haven’t given it a fair chance. I’ve won at FIFA, I’ve lost at Call of Duty, I’ve been wantonly butchered by rogues on Tom Clancy’s The Division. But PVP just isn’t for me, and the reason is this. I play videogames for their calming properties, to seek refuge from life’s many trials. In single player, I can disengage the mind and relax. With PVP, I can’t because it’s too stressful. Competing against other real human players, even virtually, wears my nerves thin. I get performance anxiety. I get hypertension. I get passive-aggressively criticised by my ‘teammates.’ And before very long, my adrenals are gasping for a break. So in a bid to prevent complete nervous collapse, I resolved, some years back, to make my gaming PVP-free. I took a vow of virtual reserve and spun myself into an electronic cocoon. I played Skyrim, Civilization, The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. I didn’t play Battlefield, Call of Duty, Titanfall or Star Wars Battlefront. The result: I started to enjoy gaming again, and my blood pressure returned to recognisable human levels.

But a few weeks ago, I lapsed. I made, fatally, the mistake of trying out (during a free-to-play weekend) a game called Overwatch. For the uninitiated, Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter that’s been buzzed about and breathlessly praised since its release in May. Despite being PVP, it’s long been near the top of my curious-about-and-want-to-try list. So I thought, why ever not? I’d nothing to lose but my patience, and possibly my sanity. But actually, none of the familiar PVP frustrations happened. Indeed, the fun factor of Overwatch took me completely unprepared. I didn’t just enjoy it, I enjoyed it outrageously. And this from someone who’d assumed he’d built up PVP-hating antibodies to last a lifetime.

But then Overwatch takes pains to avoid the usual PVP tropes. There are no kill-death ratios or end-of-round leaderboards that invite everyone to sit in judgement on your pathetic showings. You can be terrible safe in the knowledge that you won’t be publicly shamed. Better still, no one need draw on deep wells of adolescent FPS experience to do well. You don’t even need to be able to aim – assuming you pick Mercy, Reinhardt, Winston or Symmetra. And while it’s certainly possible to take the game too seriously, Overwatch seems to say: please don’t. Not only is the art direction conspicuously cartoony, but the belligerents in each battle are jolly superheroes straight from the Pixar playbook. Matches in Overwatch are fought under the banner of good, clean, friendly fun. That, at least, appears to be what the developers were angling for.

A measure of Overwatch’s appeal is that, despite being shit awful at the game, I still want to keep on playing. And let’s be frank, I am shit awful. Omni-incompetent across every class – attack, defence, tank and support – I routinely notch up ten deaths a match (including several unwitting suicides), and my aim is inept to a rare degree, despite being in possession of a gaming-branded keyboard and mouse. If an enemy is near-death and I’m at perfect health, I’ll still panic and louse up one-on-one. Just as well, really, that Overwatch is a team shooter and there are five others to cover my failing arse.

But if I may defend myself, Overwatch is a difficult game to ‘get good’ at. While each hero is easy enough to pick up, knowing when to use their abilities and where best to position yourself is a knack that takes long hours of practice. Not only must you master your own brief; you also have to know the particular threats posed by enemy heroes and scenario-plan accordingly. Overwatch is less a shooting game than it is as a troubleshooting game, where speed of mind is as important as speed of trigger finger. And at higher levels, cooperation is essential – if you have designs on winning a match, it’s necessary to work as a team, communicating threats and synergising ultimate abilities to lay glorious, devastating waste to the enemy. Overwatch has depths that most other FPSs can only wonder at.

There is plenty more to be said about this crackerjack of a game. About the colourful maps and well-calibrated game modes. About the loot boxes: containing cosmetic items, earned via gaining a level or opening your wallet. About the globetrotting ensemble of heroes that include Tracer (British blur with twin pistols and a mockney accent), Mercy (German medic with angel wings and a brusque bedside manner), Junkrat (Australian anarchist with a prosthetic leg and a lust for destruction) Zanyatta (robot monk with dangerous orbs and a oneness with the universe), and Sombra (Mexican hacker with a cloak of invisibility and everyone else’s bank details). I could go on to discuss the current level of content, and how it might strike some as a bit thin for a full-price release. But Overwatch is a game whose core mechanics are so great that only through first-hand experience can you appreciate their greatness. And brother, are they great. A revolution against dullness, a game of obvious amusement value and endless replayability, Overwatch is the game that even lifelong anti-PVP absolutists like me cannot bring themselves to begin to dislike. Or to stop playing.

Posted in Travel

Baby it’s warm outside: Christmas in Corralejo

Christmas doesn’t have to be white (or even grey). In 2015, I swapped the turkey for another, sunnier breed of bird: a Canary Island called Fuerteventura. If it is winter warmth you seek, on the Canary Islands you shall find it. Tucked off the coast of Morocco, Fuerteventura doesn’t really do winter. Even in deepest December, temperatures flirt with the low-to-mid twenties, and the sky stays stays a blissed-out shade of blue. This attracts, unsurprisingly, no few holiday makers: escapees from the numbing gloom and desperate damp of the UK. What, after all, makes Brits feel merrier: Christmas and chilblains, or flip-flops and factor 40?

Flying in the week before Christmas, I visited Corralejo – a resort perched on Fuerteventura’s north-eastern shoulder. In its past life, Corralejo was an unassuming fishing village, before the tourists – lured by wandering sand dunes and golden, foam-lapped beaches – came calling in the 1970s. In their wake sprouted bars and bodegas, hotels and apartment blocks, restaurants and cafés, souvenir shops and bike hire outlets. All of which can be spotted along the rather tired-looking main strip, but go wandering and there’s plenty a characterful corner to be discovered – a drowsy town square here, a romantic marina there. The old tourist information centre is lonely and boarded up, and there’s the odd ghost hotel along the front – abandoned developments doomed for the wrecking ball – but for the most part Corralejo has a quiet air of purpose and activity. It hums.

It howls too. Fuerteventura translates roughly as ‘strong winds,’ and in Corralejo they blow uncommonly hard. Hard enough, anyway, to tousle your hair and imperil your beach towel, and in the midday sun it can even feel a little chilly. You won’t need to hole yourself up in the nearest storm cellar, but come dusk it’s a good idea to bundle up against the wind’s bitter bite. As for the daytime, that’s where the sand dunes come in. Nature in her wisdom has placed scores of them to Corralejo’s south, and in a pinch they’ll do you very well as shelters from the gale. Assuming, of course, you haven’t donned your board shorts and met the wind head on: Corralejo’s crashing, foam-crested waves make it a surfer’s mecca, even if, admittedly, the December sea gets chillier than a whale’s backside. Only enthusiast-grade swimmers should consider wading in without a wetsuit.

Not being surfing sorts, it wasn’t long before my girlfriend and I looked for amusements elsewhere. An excursion maybe, a boat trip perhaps? The worm of wanderlust stirring in our breasts, we visited the (non-boarded-up) tourist information centre to sift the options. As it turned out, there were no lack of available excursions, and those seeking boat trips weren’t unprovided for either. But in truth, we were after something a little more off-piste. To escape the throngs, to step off the map, to venture where the air was pure and the sky stretched huge overheard. ‘I’ve just the thing for you,’ enthused the attendant. ‘Volcano walking.’ We became enthused too. Seeking and receiving assurances that the volcano in question was long dormant, we duly signed up.

Volcano walking, curiously, isn’t the most popular tourist pastime in Fuerteventura. On the wind-worried Monday morning of our trip, other than my girlfriend and me, there was no one in attendance. But no matter: weren’t we here to get away from the crowds? And anyway, we weren’t completely alone. Accompanying us on our upward climb was Fred, a Sherpa-style guide, who, when he wasn’t bounding like a mountain goat over the rocky outcrops and treacherous scree, was delivering botanical and geological asides with effortless erudition of a university don. In a couple of senses, we couldn’t keep up with him.

Armed with an aluminium walking pole (the volcano walker’s best friend), and being eyed warily by the resident goats, we pursued Fred to the top. Several times we stopped for selfies. More than once I fell over. But the payoff when we finally crested the summit made the bruises – and all the unflattering snaps – worth it. Spread like a carpet at our feet, Fuerteventura looked magnificent, all looming volcanoes, ancient dry-stone walls and undulating sand dunes lit golden by the December sun. Wiping our toiling brows, we couldn’t help but exclaim at the strange, jagged beauty of it all. (At least I think we did; obviously, nothing that was said could be heard above the wind.)

Thankfully, the wind didn’t blow all the time. It took some very welcome time off during our second excursion, a meal-and-stargazing evening some few days later. And for once, we weren’t the only attendees. A convoy of people carriers was needed to ferry everyone around: first to a restaurant for the meal (very nice, thank you), and then, for the stargazing, to an undisclosed location down a bumpy, dusty track in the Fuerteventura outback. Light pollution is low in the Canaries at the best of times, and in a setting this secluded, the darkness was rich and velvety. All the better to gaze into the inky vacuum of the cosmos, which we did through a telescope while listening to our astronomer-cum-guide drop nuggets of wisdom on quasars, dying suns and black holes. Very educational, but I must say it’s difficult to stay interested in heavenly bodies when your very own is so perishingly cold. The organisers had given us blankets in which to snug ourselves, but they weren’t nearly thermal enough to ward off the considerable late-night chill.

But of course it was chilly: Christmas was coming. And on the final full day of our week away, it arrived. Not that you’d have noticed in Corralejo, where nothing resembling lights, tinsel or Noddy Holder could be seen or heard, and everything was open for business. So, rather than spending Christmas afternoon gastronomically paralysed before the TV watching the Queen’s speech, I spent it in an Italian café sipping a chillaxed hot chocolate, lackadaisically watching locals criss-cross a sunny town square. It was, it seemed to me, Christmas as it should be spent: all relaxation, no hoopla. Which serves as a pretty accurate description of Fuerteventura itself. If you want to put the holiday in season, a Christmas in Corralejo has much to recommend it.