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.

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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 Video Games

Journal of the Plague Year: Surviving Tom Clancy’s The Division

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It started well, if nothing else. At launch in March, Tom Clancy’s The Division was a sales prodigy, generating more than $330 million worldwide in its first five days – a record for a new gaming IP. But while the game sold like hotcakes, it wasn’t long before things went the way of the soufflé. By June, thanks in part to failings both unintended (glitches, bugs) and intended (an ungenerous endgame, a Dark Zone friendly to griefers), The Division’s playerbase on Steam had declined by more than ninety per cent. A game set in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic was itself being tested for vital signs.

For my part, the downward spiral was especially depressing because, for the first month or two after release, I loved The Division. A little too much, if anything. The game hooked me like a talon, refusing to relax its grip. The graphics, the loot, yes, even the infamous Dark Zone – I was bonkers for all of it. I counted the day lost that was not spent in the streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan, an alternative reality where numbers came out of people’s heads and time’s passing went unnoticed. Remarkably for such a social phobic, my favourite activity in the game was matchmaking with random players to complete the story missions. Playing solo was enjoyable too, but there was nothing quite like the esprit de corps of teamwork, of flanking enemies tactically or rushing in like a white knight to pull off clutch revives. Even impossible-seeming missions where the whole squad wiped multiple times (hello Hudson Refugee Camp) weren’t frustrating, but fun.

Most lapsed Division players can pinpoint the date when, for them, the fun stopped. For me it was with the release of patch 1.1 in April. Never mind the much-hated nerf to the crafting system, my main gripe was the arrival of ‘gear score,’ a crude power rating that could be viewed by all other players. Suddenly matchmaking wasn’t so simple: now you could get kicked from groups for the crime of having too low a score (below 190 or some other arbitrary sum). The result for me: a status anxiety I assumed I left behind when I logged on. The result for the game: a generalised prejudice against newer, lower-geared players.

Two more patches followed, but neither helped. Among The Division’s long-suffering community, one opinion is aired so often it’s become a truism: the game is best from levels 1-30. Ask someone mired in the unforgiving endgame about their 1-30 experience and watch them go into ecstasies of nostalgia as if recalling a golden age: when loot was plentiful, progress was meaningful and enemies could be killed without first spraying them with every bullet in your backpack. All this changes – how it changes! – once you hit level 30. Up goes the difficulty of the missions, down goes the quantity of build-improving loot: it’s almost as if developers Massive forgot what made the base game so great and determined to wipe the experience clean of every trace of fun. Like A Christmas Carol told in reverse, the game starts out generous and ends up as a miser, universally resented. The Division: the loot shooter that isn’t.

By the endgame, the stinginess really is bottomless. While it was at least possible, if laborious, to gear up as a solo player in patch 1.0 – using Phoenix Credits, high-end blueprints and crafting materials – it wasn’t from 1.1 onwards. To get the best gear, you needed to beat the hardest content. And to beat the hardest content, you needed the best gear. To square this impossible circle, we were encouraged – nay compelled – to group up with other, stronger players. But here’s the kicker: if your gear score wasn’t high enough, there was a good chance those stronger players wouldn’t let you in their group in the first place.

It was never clear, at least to this gamer, what The Division’s endgame has against the casuals (‘filthy casuals,’ if you will). The developers’ unsparing sternness seems to fly in the face of established videogame psychology, to reject that well-worn feedback loop where players are rewarded for successes – small and large – and thereby compelled to play on. I say this to Massive: we are happy to grind for our rewards. All we ask is a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Ploughing through a metric ton of bullet-sponge enemies on the vanishingly slim chance that RNGesus might favour us with a useable drop – if The Division was a job, it would violate every employment law on the statute book. Is it any wonder that most of the playerbase, their patience spent, have gone on long-term strike?

But a change is coming. The tide is on the turn. Massive, the architects of so much torment for so many, have decided to listen. Or perhaps their Ubisoft overlords, in despair at the game’s haemorrhaging playerbase, went and bashed a few heads together. Either way, in September Massive hosted an ‘Elite Task Force’ in Malmö, Sweden, composed of prominent YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other names to reckon with in the community. The brief of the invitees: to diagnose the game’s failings and workshop the solutions (no pressure, then). Shortly after, Massive let it be known that a Public Test Server – or ‘PTS’ – would be released on PC, allowing us to playtest the new 1.4 patch before release. For beleaguered players like me, this was the first cold proof that they might actually be serious about putting The Division the right way up.

The PTS went live on September 26th, stained with the tears of Massive’s contrition, but I didn’t play it straight away. Five months had passed since I weaned myself from The Division’s teat, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start suckling again just yet. After all, could a game this fucked ever be fixed? But curiosity eventually getting the better of my cynicism, I started playing. And I have to admit, I loved it. My sneer didn’t make it past the loading screen. Immediately it was clear that loot drops and difficulty levels had been rewired out of recognition. A new ‘world tier’ system let the player select a universal enemy level appropriate to their gear score, and conferred a palpable sense of endgame progress. But here was the best thing. To the general stupefaction of the playerbase, loot actually dropped. My eyebrows shot up and stayed there when I saw a teal gearset item – once so vanishingly rare – drop from a random mob. Lord god! This was unprecedentedly amazing.

More good news: the game was accessible to the casual player again. Challenge mode, once best tackled with a full squad and a stiff drink, was solo-able if you had decent gear. Some dissenting voices said that Massive had made the game too easy, had turned the loot taps on too full. Opinion divides sharply on this issue. Obviously the game has to get easier: this is a patch aimed at the lapsed, not the faithful. But if enemies are too squishy and loot too liberal, the playerbase will soon be all geared up with nowhere to go. There was a squeal from the community when the difficulty pendulum swung back the other way, but I think we’ve finally landed in the sweet spot.

Apparently, 1.4 will go live in October (most likely the 25th). For hardcore agents who’ve hung onto the game like grim death, as well as lapsed casuals (raises hand) who gave up a month after release, these are exciting times: a Year Zero for the game we love, or at any rate want to love. Of course, there’s a chance it’s all too little, too late – especially with Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 and Civilization 6 and even Watch Dogs 2 all competing for our thumbs. But I’m inclined to be optimistic. The Division may be in a downed state right now, but I think Massive have got the skill power to perform a revive.

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.

Posted in Video Games

A Tomb-Raiding Reminiscence

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If you’re a gamer like me, chances are the late ‘90s had little to do with Tony Blair, David Beckham or Joey from Friends, and everything to do with an English antique collector with improbably large breasts. From 1996 through the turn of the millennium, Tomb Raider – starring Lara Croft – was everywhere, unstoppable, inescapable. It had puzzles, it had guns, it had ravishing graphics, and what gamer who ever breathed didn’t hyperventilate at the chance to play as Ms Croft? In my first year at secondary school, it genuinely felt like everyone was Tomb Raiding. Everyone, that is, except me.

It was proving to be a tricky decade. I was late to yo-yos, I was last in my class to own a Tamagotchi, and suddenly I was faced with being the last teenaged age male in a built-up area not playing Tomb Raider. The shame went beyond words. Peer pressure weighed on me with the heft of a mid-‘90s VHS player. But one day I was rescued – by an unlikely saviour. Returning home from work, my father suddenly flourished a disk at me. It’s a copy of Tomb Raider 2, he said, improbably, and did I want to play it? Did I? Ye gods! It was all I could do not to grab the disk from his hand and sprint for the nearest PC with a song on my lips.

Raised on a diet of Mega Drives and PlayStations, I foresaw no problems playing Tomb Raider on PC – on any PC. They were like consoles, I concluded: you fed them the disk, they played the game. Easy, peasy. Did it matter that the only halfway powerful computer in my house was my Dad’s and I wasn’t allowed within ten paces of it? Not a bit. Thus it was that I fired up the computer that my sister and I were allowed to use: a dusty Intel 486 with all the processing power of wilted spinach.

Fifteen minutes later – this computer took a small lifetime to boot up – I duly inserted the disk (it had a CD-ROM drive, of sorts) and hit install. This accounted for another forty-five minutes, which was disquieting, but then Tomb Raider 2 was a big game: Lara’s itinerary included trips to China, Venice, Tibet and all points between. And I was about to visit them with her. My cup of excitement boiling over, I clicked play.

The main menu appeared – I was in! But I wasn’t ready to begin the game proper just yet. Classmates had spoken in hushed tones of a level set in Lara’s mansion, where you could marvel at the wall hangings and torment her age-ravaged butler. This level I duly clicked. ‘Loading,’ it said. ‘Loading,’ it still said. I gave a heavy yawn and was about to nap when suddenly a voice spoke. ‘Welcome back,’ the voice husked. ‘After that gruelling business last year, I decided to build this assault course to hone my skills.’ It was the voice of Lara Croft! And here was Lara Croft, standing in front of the assault course in question!

Almost at the same time I realised something wasn’t right. The graphics looked pretty good – Lara’s ass was an amazement – but I couldn’t help but notice they were a smidge slow. These days, PC gamers rightly spit at anything below 60 frames per second, but I was lucky if I saw one frame every other second. This wasn’t, in the strict sense of the term, a ‘computer game’ at all, more in the nature of a slideshow of computer-generated images. It had the side effect both of making the game difficult to play, and Ms Croft impossible to control. Concernedly, I peered at the screen. Lara was – apparently – in her twenties, but here she might have been taken for a geriatric. Nimble as an eel in normal conditions, she moved now with all the liquid elegance of a weatherbeaten cliff face. But maybe the problem wasn’t with Lara at all. Maybe it was with her home. Maybe it was too graphically demanding to portray the Croft family seat in all its splendour. So, returning to the main menu, I chose instead the game’s first level, which had a less ornate setting: The Great Wall of China. At the very least, I thought, things couldn’t run slower.

Couldn’t run slower, eh? That was a laugh. And let me say at once, the graphics were already maximally low – the game had done that automatically, to tease out every last scrap of performance. With some effort, I got Lara to peer closer at her famous surroundings. I saw grey stone, shadowy caves and perilous cliffs as far as the eye could reach (which wasn’t very far, the draw distance being at a minimum). All of a sudden there came a sound to make me quake in my swivel chair. A tiger – advancing on me at two frames per second. It was terrifying but at least I had time to act. And act I did, by pulling out Lara’s signature assets (her twin pistols) and loosing off a few rounds. Ten slideshow minutes later, the tiger was down.

So far, Tomb Raider 2 had been punishment to play, but I could see how it might be fun if the heap of scrap metal that went by the name of my computer wasn’t more ancient than the tombs Lara was raiding. But out of my despair: an idea. What if I reduced the size of the window? It was full screen at the moment – would the game would run quicker if smaller? I resized the window accordingly, and watched with gaping jaw as Lara started to move with something approaching smoothness. And it scaled: the smaller the screen, the smoother she moved. I then made the screen as small as it would go and realised breathlessly that the game might just be playable.

Although, problem: Lara was now so small that I could barely see her. I made towards what looked like an open passageway, only to violently thwhack Lara’s head against a rocky outcrop. Her yelp of pain mirrored my inner monologue, and it wasn’t long after this that I called time on Tomb Raider 2.