Posted in Uncategorized

The Queen is Not Dead: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Before she rose, the tomb raider very nearly fell. For reasons best known to themselves, publishers Square Enix launched Lara Croft’s latest on a date when most gamers had a diary clash. November 10th 2015 was – as everyone knows – the global release date of Fallout 4, a game which didn’t so much threaten to eclipse Rise of the Tomb Raider in sales as toast it for breakfast in an apocalyptic fission fireball. Sadly, it gets worse: owing to a timed exclusivity deal struck by Microsoft in a rearguard action against all-conquering Sony, ROTTR was available, initially, for Xbox gamers only. Who evidently weren’t tripping over themselves to buy it. The game shipped only 63,000 copies on launch in the UK, against its 2013 predecessor’s 183,000.

Those who did snap up ROTTR on launch – few though they were – would have no cause for remorse, however. The game is a triumph: bigger, better and more beautiful than its predecessor, and quite possibly the finest entry in Tomb Raider’s two-decade history. I should qualify this, firstly, with a word on the plot. A hidden-treasure MacGuffin reputed to grant eternal life? A father whose life work was devoted to tracking down said treasure? An evil collective determined to find and keep said treasure in a tilt at world domination? I mean, for shame, is it or isn’t it an unblushing rip-off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Yes, the story does prod the action along competently enough, but if ROTTR didn’t breach the Copyright Act, it must have been a close-run thing.

Whether you deem Lara Croft or Indiana Jones better looking is a matter of taste, but I put it to you that no game, before or since, has better visuals than ROTTR. From knuckly cave openings in Syria to mountain passes in frostbitten Siberia, Rise is a game of commanding, ravishing beauty. Lara leaves deep trails as she tramps through thick snowdrifts, campfires look real enough to warm your hands on and the sight of godrays filtering through the shivering branches would make Wordsworth weep – especially if, like me, he played on PC. Truly, it’s a game unlikely to offend anyone’s aesthetics.

And ROTTR manages to be more than just an eye-popping tech demo. Recapturing the formula of its successful predecessor, it’s easy to pick up yet hard to put down. ‘Open world’ may be the catchword of the day, but ROTTR is defiantly, almost proudly linear, with an attention-to-detail that dazzles in the cinematic set pieces that see Lara being sprang at by bears, leaping across fast-disintegrating platforms and ducking from arrows shot by a sinister undead race. While the game plainly doesn’t have the depth of its exact-contemporary Fallout 4, there is a cod-RPG progression system akin to Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, letting you upgrade Lara’s skills and weaponry – though even at the start of the game, she feels plenty powerful enough.

Combat is satisfying, if a little easy at the default difficulty setting. The game gets stealth right, however: killing enemies with a bow before stealing away unobserved affords a keen pleasure (all the more so because enemy AI is quite sophisticated). If Lara was a survivor in the prequel, this time around she’s a one-woman commando unit, taking down battalions of enemies with explosive arrows and Molotov cocktails and an arsenal of no-nonsense guns. While those aforesaid enemies are evil, Lara has a lot of bloodshed on her conscience: at a low estimate, I butchered over a hundred human souls. It can be hard at times to square the steely, yet sensitive, young woman we see in cut scenes with the unfeeling killing machine who emerges in free play.

All the more so because Lara’s signature accessories these days aren’t so much her twin pistols as the twin ice picks that serve as climbing aids. In the intervals of slaying enemies, you’ll likely as not be climbing: scaling sheer precipices in the howling wind with impossibly deep ravines gaping below. Usually it’s worth the climb: the game is generously strewn with crafting materials and collectibles – from historical artefacts to extracts from journal entries that provide background on the plot. But what I was especially looking for were the optional challenge tombs, those holdovers from Tomb Raiders’ halcyon days that were such a hit in the 2013 reboot. And they’re even better here. I solved the early ones with little ado, but sussing the larger later ones require significant smarts. None took more than half an hour’s head scratching, I should add, and the endorphin rush on solving the harder ones is like nothing else in the game.

If nothing else, the tombs are a welcome gear shift, an opportunity for the player to mop their brow between firefights and get their puzzle hit. Of course, there those who think that the firefights, not the tombs, should be the optional side activity. It’s a high wire that developer Crystal Dynamics must walk: what should Tomb Raider be? Clearly they needed to contemporise Lara to meet modern gaming expectations, but without throwing aside the series’ hallmarks: the exploration, the mystery and above all the puzzles. To hard-bitten Tomb Raider traditionalists, quick time events and on-rails set pieces – staples of 2013’s reboot – are not in Lara’s line at all. Personally, I think ROTTR is much more faithful  to its legacy than its predecessor.

And let’s guard against viewing the classic Tomb Raiders with nostalgia-tinted goggles. Yes, they blazed a trail for 3D gaming and helped sell PlayStations by the truckload, but face it: the combat was crude even by contemporary standards (hold down the shoot button; who needs aiming?), and Ms Croft, for all the craft and love that went into her appearance, controlled more like an eighteen-wheeler than a woman. Then was the uncompromising difficulty setting: ‘90s Lara was a stern mistress. The puzzles – free from hints – were bafflingly hard, and many was the time I died to a falling boulder or marauding T Rex or sudden bastard spike pit. Is it any surprise that most players (raises hand) had the level-skip cheat memorised?

As a history buff, Lara will be aware that no golden era lasts forever. In 1997, Tomb Raider would never have been upstaged by Fallout, or the Fallout equivalent. Tomb Raider was the upstager. While its star has since fallen, and new entries in the series don’t inspire anything like the same event glamour, Lara still has a reputation to uphold as a cultural icon, the first lady of videogaming. But, as ROTTR shows, she’s more than a legacy act. The tomb raider has risen again, and this time she means to stay. Call off the National Trust: Croft Manor hasn’t crumbled to dust just yet.

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Posted in Housing, Uncategorized

Hot property – Keeping cool in London’s overheated housing market

Perhaps in retrospect I should have taken it as a sign. My first brush with the London property market ended with a brush-off. It was March 2011 and I had just shaken hands with an estate agent on a one-bedroom flat in Bow, east London. True it was only rented, and my partner and I would be forking over more than £1,000 a month – no small expense – but that didn’t matter right then. The deal closed, I walked out with a pep in my step, a glide in my stride. I had grown half a head taller. Then, an hour later, the phone rang.

It was the estate agent calling back.

‘Sorry about this,’ came her consoling voice. ‘But the landlord’s pulled out. He’s found himself another tenant. A banker. Canary Wharf. £50k a year basic. Sorry if we’ve messed you around. Check your account in an hour or so – your holding fee should have been refunded.’

With a curt goodbye, she rang off. Suddenly I felt as lifeless as the dialling tone to which I listened. Just like that, we had been denied. London, which worships at the altar of money, had looked us up and down and not liked the size of our sacrifice. It didn’t matter that we were good for the rent, nor that the flat itself was nothing special. This was the city telling us to know our place. We’d tried to rent a home that, apparently, was only for financiers with telephone-number salaries to try to rent.

But when one door closes, a different one opens. I use that expression with the darkest irony, because the problem with our next one-bedroom flat in Bow was this: we couldn’t get in the door. Even now, I’m not sure what went wrong – was it door, key, or a door-key conspiracy? Push as we might, and curse as we did, nothing budged. Mutely, I began to wonder: were the gods of the housing market trying to warn us off? First they had refused us for not being moneyed enough. Now they were literally slamming the door in our faces.

Oh we got in, eventually. But in a larger sense we’re still stuck outside. Still shouting in exasperation, still pounding on the door, still peering in an uncaring keyhole. Because as everyone knows, being a tenant is only the runner’s up prize. In many respects, it’s no prize at all. For the last few decades, the true – the only – ambition of any good citizen of the UK is to become a homeowner. Indeed, why aspire to anything else? Behind its brick skin, an owned home is more than just a place to hang your hat; it’s the guarantor of your financial future. There’s just one roadblock on this property-owning superhighway: how in the name of Felicity J Lord are you to save for a deposit when palming the lion’s share of your earnings off to a landlord?

In our five years as London tenants, we coughed up, at a low estimate, £60,000 on rent. Money that would have made a decent deposit: in the landlord’s trousers. The result was five years of financial stasis, where we’d pay the rent every month, but could put by only pennies – at best – for the future. Keep it up until the day of judgement, and we’d have been no closer to tasting the heady mead of home ownership than before. We’d spent so much for so little. Insofar as those five years taught us anything, it was of the unpleasantness of spending the springtime of your life as an economic unit in service to an exploitative property market. But that’s the private renting for you. Predatory and wolfish, it devours tenants until they can pay no more, then spits them out.

In September 2013, we were spat from our flat in Bow, the landlady having announced she was selling up. Presumably word of the UK’s chucklesome house prices had reached the southern hemisphere – she worked at a Sydney bank – and the time was ripe, in her professional view, to liquidate her London asset. Either way, we weren’t sorry to leave. Geographically distant as she was, her tight-fistedness with money was all too evident. It took fully four weeks for her to bestir herself into ordering a new washing machine, and longer still to replace a desperately clapped-out boiler. (As if the wealth discrepancy wasn’t Victorian enough, we became scullery maids running kettle baths and hand-washing laundry.)

No, not all landlords are rip-off merchants who laugh their tits off while counting a fat wodge of your banknotes. But such is the lack of oversight in private renting, you never know the nature of the devil with whom you choose to sup. Yes, they could be a saint. But they could also be a rogue. Having been elbowed out from Bow, we had no choice but to play another round of landlord roulette when we moved to Leytonstone. Airy, bay-windowed and slam in the middle of town, the new flat itself was beautiful. We loved it on sight. Early indications on the landlord front, though, were less encouraging. There was no disguising the condensation in the double glazing, while the meanness of the sofas and bedsteads seemed to hint at another skinflint owner. For all its period spaciousness, the property was unloved in the way only a rental property could be.

Thankfully our luck was in: the landlord, when we finally met him, was a reasonable fellow. He was swift in attending to our knackered boiler and borked washing machine, and we transacted our business over two-and-a-half years without incident. But that’s the nub of the problem: property in the UK is a business. We hear daily of ever-spiralling house prices and unprecedented returns for BTL landlords as if it’s a cause for national cheer. The housing market has well and truly gone off its onion, but we’re equally mad for paying whatever figure that Foxton’s pull out their arse for townhouses in Wandsworth or bedsits in Bromley. We’re fools for houses. Or perhaps we’re just fools.

There is a postscript to this tale of property – and poverty. In the summer of 2016, loath to pay another penny to landlords Australian or otherwise, we moved back in with my parents. If anything this move was overdue. Unable to save for a deposit, we had been in a fool’s paradise – which was in fact no paradise at all. The rent had risen remorselessly, and the downstairs neighbours were so noisy that by the end we could hardly stick the sight of them. Our patience frayed; we left. Living at home isn’t without its consolations, of course. Rent comes in at a much more reasonable £200 a month, and the only noisy neighbours are the ones my parents watch every night on EastEnders. But it’s hard not to be jealous of my parents’ generation: the baby boomers who could buy a Hampstead townhouse and still have change from a 20p piece.

How do we start putting the property market the right away up? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a housing minister, to come up with a list of fixes. Build more houses. Reintroduce rent controls. Rebalance the economy so all the chips aren’t piled on London. We can all agree: house prices are farcically high, and the trend-line is only pointing upwards. It’s hard to resist the conclusion, then, that house prices stay high because those that have capital assets in our society want them that way. In the UK in 2016, fairness and logic are rather like houses themselves: in short supply.

Posted in Culture, Uncategorized

Experiencing Lovebox 2016: Saturday 16th July

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Britain, you may have noticed, has had a difficult summer. Brexit. The plummeting pound. The humiliation of the England football team. The self-combustion of the Labour Party. A housing crisis getting worse not better. Boris Johnson. Still, if we’re all heading for the fiery pit, we may as well enjoy ourselves on the way down. This isn’t exactly how Lovebox – the dance music festival set at East London’s lung, Victoria Park – sells itself, but maybe it should. This is post-Brexit Britain. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

But before all of that, we queue. When my friend and I arrived, you couldn’t see the gates for the bandanas, hot pants and sunglasses: a human hive waiting to be frisked and sniffed. Thankfully, mine is a life of denial and self-negation. Bearing only factor-30 sun cream and a bottle of tap water, I negotiated Ace, the resident sniffer dog, in a trice. Permission to rave: granted. The only question was where to rave first. Lovebox’s forty acres of turf are packed tight with stages, dance-punk vying with synth-pop, electronica with contemporary soul. If anything the stages are too close: stand between two and a jackhammer of arrhythmic beats smites your ears. But on the flipside, no one has to walk very far.

Being thirsty and lazy – and we’d only just arrived – my compañero and I made for Corona SUNSETS, a venue that conveniently partakes of the nature of both a bar and a stage. Such convenience, however, came at ruinous cost: namely £6 a bottle. The staff, obligingly, served mine with a lime, but needless to say, I felt plenty bitter enough. Not for long, though. The sun was out, and Norman Jay MBE – late but worth the wait – had brought tunes to match. His setlist seemed to throw off warmth and energy, and taking care not to spill their Coronas, the crowd undulated accordingly.

Duly cheered, we headed for the main stage to catch the curiously monikered Miike Snow. I arrived unfamiliar with their music, and unfamiliar with their music is how I left: nothing, not a beat, not a hook, not a chorus, stayed with me. Possibly the extra ‘i’ in their name nagged at me to the degree that I couldn’t hear them over the blethering of my inner pedant. The bletherer, thankfully, stopped in time for the next act, modern soul collective Jungle. While I was ignorant of them too, my ears couldn’t help but recognise the ubiquitous ‘Busy Earnin’’. It’s aptly named too; royalties from sports montages alone must be eye-watering. We were also treated to a state-of-the-nation monologue by vocalist Tom McFarland, who counselled us to be kinder to each other (open doors etc.) to counter the growing economic certainties arising from Brexit. While John Maynard Keynes might have quibbled at the lack of detail, you couldn’t argue with the sentiment.

A portion of pasta later and we were ready for the feature act, the band at the top of the ticket. The mighty LCD Soundsystem. When, in 2010, I saw LCD before, it was during their final tour, and I nourished myself on every song, all too aware it would be the last time I would hear them live. Fast forward six years, and they’re back, unable to resist the roar of the crowd. Or maybe Lovebox just pay really well. I say they’re back, but in the common mind LCD Soundsystem are formed of one man: James Murphy, the rest being disposable hired hands. Certainly the hipster-musos standing near us seemed to agree, crying ‘we love you James!’ at every opportunity and taking his gnomic between-song utterances as holy writ. But as anyone equipped with a working knowledge of LCD Soundsystem will tell you, the bulk of their second and third albums were collaborations between Murphy and his bandmates. Unfortunately, the music was too loud, and the crowd too febrile, for me to get this point across satisfactorily.

Of that febrile crowd, none was quite so annoying as the Ross Noble lookalike stood in front of me whose energetic elbows and want of spatial awareness had me crying, but not with laughter. Then, too, there was the character in the Day-Glo bandanna whose goatish attempts to put the moves on some girls next to him were met with a deserved brush-off. Had I brought an idiot detector, it would have been glowing amber. Just as well, then, that LCD Soundsystem were so colossally good. They played in breathless succession thirteen classics, before closing with their consensus best song ‘All My Friends,’ a sad-euphoric paean to growing up, nostalgia and of course, friends.

Generally, my enjoyment of gigs is of the kind that doesn’t need to be externally signalled. One of my proudest boasts is never knowingly to have jiggled or nodded in the presence of live music. At a DJ Shadow show, I was even called out by a fellow gig-goer for looking underwhelmed and drawing a pall over the evening (I was having the time of my life). But at this moment, with ‘All My Friends’ reaching its glorious conclusion, and James Murphy singing up a storm, and several thousand upraised hands splintering the East London darkness, and the Ross Noble lookalike suddenly nowhere to be seen, I felt my lips do something they hadn’t done for what seemed like the longest time. They smiled. And perhaps, in Great Britain in the summer of 2016, that’s the best we can hope for.

Posted in Tennis, Uncategorized

Roland Garros 2016: Men’s Preview

The 2016 French Open has barely started, but already the list of challengers is one lighter. World number three Roger Federer is out, having thrown his back out of whack in the run-up to the Madrid Masters in April. Once, Federer was a player the gods singled out for their favour. Not just for his style of tennis – so graceful it would make a ballerina weep – but for his charmed imperviousness to injury. From 2000 through 2016, the Swiss didn’t miss a Grand Slam, snagging 17 of them as he put together the greatest CV tennis has seen.

But the cruel winds of circumstance are finally beginning to blow Roger’s way. In February he tore a knee cartilage while running a bath for his twins, necessitating the first surgery of his career. Then came a stomach virus and now a flare-up of the back problem that ailed him throughout his annus horribilis, 2013. With Wimbledon round the corner, and Federer’s 35th birthday in August, are the great man’s chances of major number 18 going-going-gone?

No such problems weigh on world number one Novak Djokovic. Since the start of 2015, the Serb has swept through all opposition like a devouring flame. Such is his dominance that it’s become an act of idiocy not to back Djokovic for every single tournament sight unseen. You don’t even need to watch the matches, so wearyingly predictable has been the result. But just for once Novak isn’t the presumptive no-brainer shoo-in favourite. Firstly, his form has slipped (a little) of late. He lost early in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, while Andy Murray clipped him in the final at Rome. And secondly, Roland Garros is the only major he hasn’t won. If we can be sure of anything in this world, it’s that Novak Djokovic, with every burning fibre of his being, desires to win the French Open. Can he master his inevitable nerves, can he calm his quaking fingers if, say, Nadal (a potential semi-final opponent) starts connecting on his forehand again?

Indeed, Djokovic can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwrought about the Spaniard’s recent resurgence. Lately written off as a busted flush, Nadal has been on a springtime tear, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, then pushing Djokovic uncomfortably close in a 7-5, 7-6(4) quarter-final loss in Rome. A step quicker and seemingly half a head taller, Rafa has rediscovered his mental mojo right on time. With – count them – nine French Open titles to his name, you don’t need advanced analytics to realise that Rafa will be a threat in Paris. But the true, the only, test of whether Nadal is ‘back’ comes over the following two weeks.

And what of Andy Murray? The Scot has a case to be considered the second favourite ahead of Nadal – which just two years ago was a logical absurdity too ridiculous to contemplate, let alone take seriously. For most of his career, Murray had little confidence on the red stuff, believing himself outgunned and – crucially for his counterpunching style – outmanoeuvred. But after back surgery in 2013, Murray improved his movement, and with it his results, beating both Nadal and Djokovic in recent weeks. With those two duking it out on the other side of the draw, you have to fancy him to reach the final.

A not insignificant roadblack in his path might be Stan Wawrinka. I say ‘might,’ because you never know with Stan: is he going to win the tournament or lose limply in the first round? Given his poor recent form, I incline towards the latter. But it could just as easily be the former. Such is the unknowable enigma that is Wawrinka.

Posted in Football, Uncategorized

Why football got relegated: confessions of a lapsed fan

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It used to be different. In my younger years, football meant everything to me and a little bit more. Everything I did, I did for football. Devouring Four Four Two magazine? Football. Chain-watching parent-taped Match of the Day videos? Football. Performing an eternity of keepie-uppies in the back garden? Football. Pressing refresh on Ceefax (page 302) so often that I may have put myself at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome? Football, football, and again football. And that’s before I so much as mention video games such as Championship Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer, which between them must have occupied my thumbs for hundreds, nay thousands, of teenage hours. To quote Bill Shankly: ‘Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.’ Or maybe Sir Alex Ferguson had it better: ‘Football. Bloody hell.’

But even Fergie, who retired as Man Utd manger in 2013, chose to say goodbye to the sport he loved. And while it didn’t generate the same media hoopla, so did I. Once so all-consuming, my football habit began to wane, and it soon became the easiest thing in the world to stop watching football, stop playing football and, yes, stop reading Ceefax (which went the way of all flesh in 2012, anyway). As turnarounds go, it ranks up there with Milan vs Liverpool, 2005. But what was it that changed me, the football obsessive of a decade ago, into someone who – to quote Bill Shankly (again) – would close the curtains if he saw Everton playing in his back garden?

I should clarify, it wasn’t just Everton that I came to dislike. It was every club, every player, every manager, and eventually, every match. The problem was that I had stupefied myself with football, and you can’t do that without consequence. Football fatigue – I had a bad case, and it’s little surprise when you consider how ubiquitous the sport is. Starting in August, the season splutters on until May (July if it’s a World Cup or Euro year), and during that period, you can’t escape football, try as you might. In casual conversation, football is a leveller, a lingua franca: everyone saw last night’s game, and who doesn’t have an opinion on that red card or disallowed goal? Even if it’s not quite our national religion, it’s easily our national hobbyhorse. That and house prices.

Which brings me neatly to a familiar gripe: money. The game has altogether too much of it. Like London’s overheated property market, the Premier League is a plutocrat’s playground, where football teams function like Regency townhouses in Belgravia: they’re status symbols reserved for the billionaire class. As well as being objectionable in itself, this has had the effect of making the sport less unpredictable: only a handful of petrodollar-rich clubs can win the league, or even hope to occupy the Champions League places. And while footballers have enjoyed a meteoric pay rise, their public image has dwindled in inverse proportion. No longer relatable heroes from modest backgrounds, they’re rampant, me-first mercenaries who’ll sign for any and every club with a bigger chequebook. And what about their lamentable performances for England? Have they no passion, no ambition, no pride? I’m generalising to a degree, but there’s a reason the public stock of football players has fallen so low (figuratively, not financially, speaking).

Worse, their wages add up. Despite being bankrolled by squillionaires, ticket prices have risen every year, because basically, screw you fans. But even the fans, the poor downtrodden fans, weren’t spared my ire. And ire is the word. I mean, do football fans like watching football? Because you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Tempers fray, seemingly, at every match. For proof, you only have to look at the sea of hate-contorted faces should a referee decision go against the home team. They say sport is war by other means, but in football it’s closer to a clash of civilisations, an unholy war fought against the enemy in the differently coloured shirt. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to understand. Obsessive as my football fandom was, I never really supported a team. I never had a dog in the fight. And in such a tribal sport, there’s no room for neutrals.

It was never a complete footballing abstention: I would keep tabs on the England national team at major tournaments (only to be disappointed), and wasn’t above watching a Champions League final every other year or so. But the day-to-day of the game passed me by completely. Sacked managers, big-name transfers, relegation six-pointers – it all met with icy indifference. Why give my attention to a sport that was played, watched and run by belligerent, blinkered idiots? Screw that for a game of soldiers.

Or better yet, a game of tennis. That’s right, in case you should wish to know what replaced football in my affections, it was a sport that – in this country at least – is watched for only two weeks a year, and has a twee, garden-partyish association. But better an unpopular sport that’s competitive and fairly fought than a popular sport that’s predictable and ill-tempered. Compared to football, tennis players are generally statesmanlike in defeat. They’re less likely, for instance, to stamp, headbutt or otherwise rain blows on their opponent when feeling frustrated. But possibly the two aren’t so different. I’m prey to the same sporting lusts as before; I’ve just let my eye stray to a different sport.

And lo, changes are afoot in the game of football. This season, the Premier League Establishment have all floundered, and against imponderable odds, Leicester City (yes, Leicester City) have won the league championship. Tottenham Hotspur (yes, Tottenham Hotspur) are poised to finish second. And I’m bound to admit that such an unforeseen turn-up has piqued my interest. In a moment of weakness I found myself watching the second half of the recent Everton vs Man Utd FA Cup semi-final and frankly, I enjoyed it. When Martial scored a last-minute winner, I sat up and felt an oddly familiar thrill in my viscera. Even after this lapse of time, it would seem I’m helpless against football’s advances.

Of course there’s the danger that 2015/16 is an outlier, a once-in-a-generation fluke, and next season the usual suspects will reassert their hold on the Premier League’s throat. Will Leicester, will Spurs be able to stop richer clubs from poaching their best talent? It’s doubtful. And lest we get too misty-eyed about Leicester, we should remember that they’re not exactly unprovided for. Chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is a billionaire, but that admittedly seems to be a prerequisite in football nowadays. No, I’m prepared to give football another go, another chance to re-capture my heart. The first test will be Euro 2016. Roy Hodgson, don’t let me down (at least, not before the quarter finals).

Posted in Uncategorized, Video Games

New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down – Thoughts on Tom Clancy’s The Division

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You can’t argue with cold statistics. Per my Steam library, I’ve played Tom Clancy’s The Division for a total of 130 hours. It cost me £40; that’s 31p per hour played. In the value-for-money stakes, The Division scores a clear critical-damage headshot. And I would be false to you if I said those hours weren’t enjoyable. They were. But much as I’d love to keep on playing, I can’t. Or rather, won’t. Because over the past week, The Division has gone from a fun, if frustrating, game to a game that might just be irremediably broken.

Look on Reddit, Twitter or the Ubisoft forums, and you can’t but notice: the community is mutinying. What started as the odd dark muttering has snowballed into a unanimous orgy of anger. Post-apocalyptic New York is nothing: the game’s players and developers are on a war footing too. And it’s Massive, the developers, who are guilty of firing the first shots. For all its merits – the superb graphics, the satisfying cover-shooting mechanic, the lovingly realised Manhattan setting – The Division suffers from an Achilles heel. Bugs: it has them in abundance (ironic, really, in a game about a smallpox pandemic).

These wouldn’t matter so much if the game as it’s meant to be played wasn’t so frustrating. Once you hit the level cap of 30, The Division becomes less about shooting and more about doing something a little less exciting: farming. In common with other loot shooters like Borderlands or DestinyThe Division requires you to grind (i.e. do the same things over and over again) to get improved gear. Replaying missions at harder difficulties, killing named bosses in the Dark Zone, extracting the loot they drop – it’s all for that gear. In this sense, the game functions not unlike a job. In order to afford the game’s choicest items – which cost Phoenix Credits and crafting materials – you need to work. This sounds tedious, but done well, it can create a satisfying and addictive feedback loop: the more time you put in, the more you improve. Done badly, it feels like an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, The Division is more latter than it is former.

Because it uses a RNG (random number generator) to determine the quality of items, playing The Division is a game of chance. You could grind for six hours to gather the Phoenix Credits and crafting materials to get a Navy MP5, and have every ‘roll’ be terrible. Or you could grind for twenty minutes and craft a godlike one. It’s all in the lap of the gods (or RNGesus, to give him his other name). This was worsened by the recent 1.1 patch that hugely increased crafting costs, suddenly making the process that much more time-consuming. That’s bad for hardcore players, but disastrous for casual ones, who can’t possibly hope to find the hours necessary for the game’s interminable grind. And falling behind matters: many of the game’s best items are to found in the Dark Zone, populated not only with powerful AI enemies but other players. If their gear is better than yours, you’re going to end up extremely dead extremely quickly.

Which brings us back to the bugs. Why work yourself like a button-mashing packhorse in the vain hope of improved gear when you can glitch through a wall and fastrack the soul-crushing process? It’s a rare day when some new bug or exploit in The Division doesn’t come to light, allowing players to accumulate a bounty of Phoenix Credits or crafting materials or Dark Zone ranks in a fraction of the usual time. Recently, a particularly egregious glitch let players ‘cheese’ their way through the new Incursion mission and harvest multiple pieces of sought-after level-240 gear – gear which the developers only wanted to drop once per week. Those on the side of truth, good and justice, those who don’t use glitches for ethical reasons, now have little incentive to play the game legitimately. There’s a rupture in The Division’s social contract: the rich (i.e. the exploiters and hardcore players) are getting richer, while everyone else faces months of toil just to catch up. To compound matters, the game now boasts a ‘gear score,’ letting other players see the quality of your build, leading to newer or more casual players getting kicked from matchmaking groups for the crime having too low a score. If nothing else, it creates a feeling of status anxiety I thought I’d left behind in the real world.

The Division is teetering. Whether it falls depends on how soon Ubisoft and Massive can fix the exploits and repair their broken carrot and stick. The game in its current state is a losing proposition for everyone. Not just for the beleaguered players, but for the developers, who face the prospect of a deserting playerbase before the arrival of the first DLC. I slogged to level 50 in the Dark Zone, I crafted a full set of 182-grade gear, and I’d love to upgrade once again to the new gear sets. Nothing in this world is got for nothing: that’s true. But the prospect of further probably fruitless grinding has ground me down. I think I’m going to stay out of virtual Manhattan until the All Clear has been blown, or at least until they get the viruses under control.

Posted in Uncategorized, Video Games

Playing favourites: PC Gaming

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A few months ago, I ascended to the ‘Glorious PC Gaming Master Race.’ What this means in English is that instead of buying a games console, I bought a gaming PC (the very gaming PC, in fact, on which I write these words). But there are more and better benefits to PC gaming besides impeccable word processing. Pricier than consoles, gaming PCs are less for the hobbyist, more for the enthusiast. While budget rigs can be bought, owning a gaming PC says, in no uncertain terms, I Am a Serious Gamer. Which begs the following question: why did I – a gaming casual with the dusty copy of Wii Sports to prove it – purchase a high-spec gaming PC with a £270 graphics card and a buttery-smooth 144 Hz monitor?

Certainly it was a departure from type. Mega Drive, Sega Saturn, PS1, PS2, Xbox 360 – if ever I troubled to write a gaming CV, employers would place it unhesitatingly on the ‘console gamer’ pile. Yes I’d played the odd game on PC (Championship Manager, Civilization), but PCs were too complicated to get into full-time. Consoles, by comparison, were the easiest thing in the world – turn them on and the games basically played themselves. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe I wanted something different, challenging, better. Maybe it was time for this gamer to finally come of age.

PC gamers are clued-up gamers. They possess cultivated tastes. When not gaming, they’ll be watching art-house cinema, sipping single-malt whisky or listening to experimental jazz from the ‘70s (perhaps I’m overreaching here). If that sounds elitist, it’s because PC gamers, simply, are. In the course of my researches (i.e. watching some YouTube videos impressing on me the superiorities of PC gaming), I realised I had stumbled into a clash of civilisations, a collision between two directly competing gaming ideologies.

You’ve probably heard of the console wars, mostly involving PS4 and Xbox One ‘fanboys’ calling each other imps of Satan for preferring one multinational conglomerate-branded box over another. So immature, so pointless, so rich in the narcissism of small differences. Well, PC gamers hate both tribes equally. To the ‘master race,’ no matter what device hums beneath your TV, you’re a ‘console peasant.’ Because console gaming, per them, is for the hordes: downtrodden pixel-poor plebeians who hold controller-shaped begging bowls and are too ignorant to realise that Sony and Microsoft are rinsing them for every doubloon they own. How can they put up with such contemptibly low frame rates? How much for online multiplayer?! Why the loading times?

Unsurprisingly, console fans don’t much like being savaged by a self-appointed gaming elite. The alleged Master Racers, as far as they’re concerned, are nothing but thundering bores, bloodless geeks, anally retentive irritants too busy comparing the length of their video cards and obsessing over frame rates to actually enjoy playing a video game. Yes, they might be able to be able to run Rise of the Tomb Raider at 1440p while keeping a locked 60, but they also dropped an amount of money on their rig that smaller nations would fancy as their GDP. Which beings me back to my chief stumbling block as a would-be PC gamer. The experience might be better, but is it worth the premium price? Because by no stretch of the imagination can PC gaming be called cheap.

In October 2015, the height of my PC-or-console dilemma, a PS4 or Xbox One was priced at around £300. By comparison, a mid-to-high range gaming PC was over £500, not including the monitor. That’s quite a surcharge to pay for smoother frame rates and prettied-up graphics. But perhaps I could view it as an investment. I wanted my rig, above all, to be futureproof. Having endured some ropy experiences playing recent games on my superannuated Xbox 360 (hello Far Cry 4), I didn’t want my eyes go through that again. PCs are upgradeable, after all. Hardware performance may fizzle with time, but it’s nothing a new video card won’t fix. Then, too, there’s the sheer profusion of games available on PC. Varied and vast, they tickle every gamer’s tastes, be they an FPS fiend or a turn-based-strategy philosopher. But I think what ultimately swayed me was the fact that this new machine would be of my own making. Not Sony’s. Not Microsoft’s. Mine.

But building a PC, let’s be frank, is no easy task. Especially when, like me, you know as much about graphics cards as your maiden aunt and think Nvidia is a town somewhere in Lithuania. Thankfully for this particular digital doofus, he has a computer-whizz Dad only too happy (I think) to swoop in for unpaid tech support. Just as well, because unaided, I doubt I could have got much beyond unpacking the mousemat. With my Dad drafted in, we soon managed to transform the bewilderment of SATA cables and RAM modules and power supplies piled on my living room floor into something that resembled a computer. And when the hour came to press the power button, there was no explosion. There was no electrocution. It worked.

Thus it was that I elbowed aside my old computer (an enfeebled ‘all-in-one’), and began getting to grips with my new rig. Windows installed, the blink-of-an-eye boot time was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn’t until I played my first game (The Witcher 3) that my jaw truly swung. At its highest settings, the graphics look thrillingly sharp, and it was all I could do not to sit there agape, luxuriating in the plenitude of pixels. Yes, I reflected, this is worth it for the sight of Geralt’s silvered tresses alone. I’m still not a serious gamer – I own gaming headset nor gaming keyboard – but PC gaming has my seal of approval. Now excuse me while I return once more to post-apocalyptic Boston. Fallout 4 isn’t going to complete itself.