Like the Wind

13 Dec

It’s fitting that Lyralei the Windranger is such an ultra-mobile hero, because for the past two and a half months, Dota 2’s cheerfully sociopathic archer has been absolutely everywhere.

With the most games on any hero this patch – 1,500,000 more than the second-placed Shadow Fiend – as well as a well-above-average 41.9% pick/ban rate in pro games, Windranger has surpassed even infamous mid-hogger Pudge in terms of sheer ubiquity.

To this, I say: >Well Played! All too often, the most popular heroes of Dota 2’s metagame deploy a skill set that favours disappearing into the jungle until they’ve murdered enough wildlife to be able to run into an enemy team and right-click them to death. Windranger, by contrast, has moves. To pick her is to sign up for a game of thrilling chases, cerebral positioning, risky ambushes and tide-turning crowd control.


This is because she possesses what I’m convinced is the most well-designed, satisfying and well-balanced (versatility-wise, at least) combination of spells in the game. You’ve got Shackleshot, a stunning tether that rewards smart attack angles; Powershot, a long-range nuke and skillshot that slices through all units in a lengthy line; Windrun, a generous speed boost that grants effective immunity to physical attacks and Focus Fire, a semi-spammable ult that utterly melts towers and adversaries by upping WR’s attack speed to its hilariously exaggerated maximum.

Damage, utility, invulnerability and escapes – in other words, you can do almost anything. And you will, a lot, thanks to short cooldowns and affordable mana costs.

That said, most of these skills carry a pretty steep penalty for using them incorrectly, like how Shackleshot’s four-second stun becomes a momentary stutter if it fails to latch to a secondary target, or how Focus Fire cuts the damage of each shot, easily crippling Lyralei if her target escapes behind their approaching friends. What looks like an easy kill can quickly turn to disaster if the target manages to get out of arrow-thwipping range, leaving you to face down the backup with only half your usual attack damage.

And yet, this is still one of the easiest heroes to learn. Besides the modest charge-up time for Powershot, there are no casting animations that take three days to complete, nor any complex mathematics – I’ve played over 1,200 hours of Dota 2 and I still couldn’t explain how Doom’s LVL? Death works. Windrun also offers a good get-the-fudge-out-of-there tool to minimise the impact of rookie mistakes.


It helps that Windranger is just plain fun. Powershot is more of a sniping spell than anything Sniper’s got, perfect for cutting down a fleeing foe as they limp away from an engagement. Such a finishing move is both immensely pleasurable to pull off and sure to win the loudly vocalised respect of your teammates, especially if said foe is stood right next to them, and thus presents a mortal threat.

She’s also a natural Force Staff and Blink Dagger carrier, the two best items in the game for jumping around fights. These items, when paired with Wind’s positioning-based abilities, movement speed amp and do-or-die ultimate, make teamfights a beautifully improvised series of offensive and defensive manuevers, whether blasting forward to set up the perfect two-hero shackle or popping Windrun to chase down the last survivor, praying it doesn’t wear off before you can get back out. Nailing a teamfight as a farmed AGL carry is violent – as Windranger, it’s balletic.

(As an aside, this habit of pinballing around the map makes Windranger as much of a joy to watch as she is to play – Team Secret’s w33ha is currently the most terrifying WR player in the pro scene, but LightofHeaven’s Shackleshots from his time as Na’Vi’s indigo child offlaner are stuff of legend.)

As with all flavour of the month heroes, Windranger’s popularity is often perceived to be putting a target on her back for the next volley of nerf arrows. These would most likely narrow Shackleshot’s latch angle allowance, which is admittedly prone to sticking two units together at near-right angles, and possibly tone down her Aghanim’s Sceptre upgrade, which can potentially undo the Focus Fire damage penalty completely.

Frankly, though, it would take some bonkers, Oracle-level reworking for Valve to actually take away what makes the hero so damned grin-inducing; it’s not the damage she puts out, nor how easy it is to land her stun, but the madcap dance routine she performs while doing both. Apologies to Shadow Fiend, but I’m going to go make it 1,500,001.


Nice Job

9 Jul

In an almost comical stroke of good fortune, one I’m still considering in mild disbelief, the nice folk at have seen fit to make me their new full-time reviews writer! At last, I can devote my career to my shared loves of journalism, technology, and not working somewhere I need to wear a tie.

It's a hilarious reference!

It’s a hilarious reference!

I’ve actually done a few freelance pieces for V3 already, like little auditions for my ability to analyse key travel and screen viewing angles. Since this blog has a long and proud history of plugging, here are a few of my favourites:

I am, of course, genuinely thrilled to have landed such an fun role with such a great site, and I hope you’ll join me as I endeavor to avoid screwing it all up.

The Average Apocalypse, Part 4: Do Starve

23 May

This is part 3 of an ongoing series in which I roleplay in DayZ as myself – which is to say, as a scared man with negligible survival skills. You can also read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

I am, as they say in first person shooters, taking fire.

A bullet has just sailed inches past my body into the dirt behind me, failing to faze the female zombie on my heels but scaring the everloving bejeezus out of me. What’s more, my attacker is likely using a silenced gun – I heard the bullet but not the shot – which means I have no earthly idea where he is, and thus which opposite direction I should run in.

Instead, I break out the serpentine, sprinting in an unpredictable zigzag pattern towards the nearest treeline. Amazingly, it seems to confound both the shooter and the pursuing zed; the former doesn’t take another shot, and the latter gives up after I use a tiny hut to break line of sight. I maintain my evasive maneuvers (which admittedly look bloody stupid, like I’m trying to perform a downhill slalom on foot) for a solid half-kilometre, where the trees and hills of a lengthy valley provide shelter from any Elektro-based snipers. I think I’m in the clear.

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Still, all that flat-out running has taken its toll: I’m both dehydrated and very, very hungry. A pond of refreshing, somehow totally clean water solves problem A, but food is an issue. I didn’t find much to munch on in the city, and out here? This is the sticks. I don’t yet have the tools for hunting animals, so my only hope is to find a town which hasn’t been picked clean. Resolving to put the bow crafting on hold while I try to avoid starving to death, I head inland on a road that I can only hope leads to the remnants of civilisation.

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It’s a long road. Really long. I pass thick forests and vast reservoirs, but eons seem to pass before I find an actual building to search. It’s a small house, not far from the road but isolated enough that I have hope of finding something. And lord, do I need to – by the time I walk in the door, I’m literally starving. If I can’t ward off the hunger here, death may find me before I find the next village.

Once again, my life is narrowly saved, this time by a lone tin of spaghetti. I down the entire can, which improves my medical condition from critically malnourished to plain old painfully hungry. Best of all, this little tin of cold pasta keeps me going long enough to reach my next stop on the road, which turns out to be a smattering of sheds and a seemingly untouched tavern building. Score? Score.

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After filling up on additional cans and abandoned courgettes – enough to sate my hunger entirely – I find a small hatchet in one of the sheds. This could be just what I need to start building a bow, provided the mini-axe is capable of chopping down trees. Not paying much mind to the fact that I’m now carrying three different bladed weapons, I start whacking the nearest flora to test my new toy’s cleaving capabilities.

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The good news is that this hatchet can cut down trees. The bad news is that one, doing so has very badly damaged it, and two, that was the wrong type of tree. I need a long stick of bendy ashwood, not the brittle twigs of…whatever the tree I just murdered was. They might make for some useable arrows, but I still stuff them into my pack with a feeling of slight resentment.

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Back on the lonesome road, the contents of a few odd houses keep my stomach topped up as I continue heading probably-north. If this is starting to sound dull, it kind of is – the only distinguishing feature of this part of Chernarus seems to be how few points of interest there are.

Or so I think. As I emerge from the edge of heavy woodland, the lengthy taupe walls of a barn come into view. The barn turns into a farm, and the farm turns into a village. It’s only a little one, but compared to the vast stretches of not-much-at-all I’ve just passed through, I’m happy to dive right in.

Soon, I’ve replaced the half-broken hatchet with a pristine splitting axe, and use it to attack a suspiciously ash-coloured tree. Sure enough, it produces an ashwood stick, which – finally – I combine with the rope I found to create a cute little improvised bow. It’s a bit smaller than the sporting recurve I use at the range, but I’m not complaining; with a convenient chicken hut providing feathers for arrows, I finally have a tool for both hunting and self-defence that I don’t need to enter zombie bite range to use. Not even the allure of a mint-condition SKS rifle, lying unassumedly in some family’s former home, can overcome the immense attachment I have to my new hand-built weapon. I take the gun and hide it in a nearby bush, safe from the hands of would-be bandits.

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I now have a bow, arrows, a decent axe, a warm coat and a bag full of the village’s food. For the first time since starting this adventure, all is well.

Then, of course, zombies show up.

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I’d been looting the village without anything even approaching stealth, so why its inhabitants waited this long to pop out of nowhere and attack is beyond me. No matter, as I have five arrows at the ready, and only two zeds are giving chase. Wait, make that three. Christ, how are they doing that? I lead them to open ground, spin around, and let loose the first shot.

It misses.

I’m forced to retreat further, back onto the road I came in on, and shoot again once I’d cleared a few dozen yards. Another miss.

Three arrows, three zombies. If I miss again, it’s goodbye to at least a large percentage of my blood.

I stand my ground and spend an extra second taking aim – a second that, with the first screaming monstrosity closing the gap, feels like a month. Thwip.

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The crudely sharpened twig rushes square into his chest, and he stumbles into a heap at the side of the road. The next one has already stepped over his deceased comrade’s corpses as I nock my second-to-last arrow, and is less than fifteen feet away when I send it flying into his head. Two for two – I’ve somehow become a better archer than I was pre-apocalypse.

The final zed is a bit further back, but I missed his friends twice when they were much closer. I draw my last arrow and wait for him to run, mouth foaming and arms outstretched, into a less risky range. He passes the bodies and I release; the arrow flies straight and true, landing at the base of his throat. He slows, collapses to his knees, then slumps over dead.

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Gunfire dodged, starvation defeated, zombies killed with a bent stick. I have been alive for 99 minutes.

Things I learned from interning at the Press Association

15 May

Besides the boring journalism skills stuff

1) Communication is not UKIP’s forte

Technically I was an ‘Elections picture researcher’, which meant I spent my days phoning or emailing parliamentary candidates to ask if they wouldn’t mind sending us a headshot. To be fair, every party had its fair share of non-respondents, but sourcing the photos of ‘kipsters proved a particularly tricky task.

At first, it seemed that the standardised addresses listed on the party’s websites and leaflets were uniformly not in use. Then, following attempts via phone and alternative emails, it just looked like pre-election preparations weren’t leaving much time for fulfilling our request. Then, a call to a regional manager revealed the truth: candidates had been instructed to ignore us, over fears that we’d be inviting lawsuits over images provided without permission from the copyright holder. We’d made the requirement for legal permission both clear and prominent in our numerous emails, but it mattered not; the wall of silence had been well and truly erected.

It took many more days of outreach to press offices and individual candidates before we made much progress, and what pictures we did receive were seldom sent from a publicly available email address. I can understand being cautious about copyright law, and it’s worth repeating that every party had folks that were difficult to get hold of, but guys – don’t hand out contact details on your leaflets if you’re never going to use them.

2) The charm offensive works on politicians, too

During the first week, I decided I’d go full-on fourth estate, maintaining a dry and distant manner when speaking to any candidates or their staff. I was acutely aware that, since we weren’t paying for the photos, we were essentially asking potential MPs for a favour. At least if I was deathly serious on the phone, nobody could accuse me (and by extension the PA) of getting too chummy with candidates.

Well, apologies to Glenn bloody Greenwald, but this didn’t work. My colleagues, who were chatty and cheerful from the start, were quickly swimming in JPEGs, while I’d only had a handful of responses to a standard form email I’d been sending. Once I’d given up and adopted a more gracious tone, contacts became a lot more amiable, and my daily photo intake shot up.

The lesson? I think the press and the state should maintain a healthy distance, but it’s neither feasible nor practical for both sides to communicate only in adversarial growls. Or maybe, just maybe, this is about asking people for pictures and I’m just reading too much into it.

The fruits of our labour. Credit, of course, to PA Images

The fruits of our labour. Credit, of course, to PA Images

3) The old ways are the best

When tasked with contacting a list of names that numbers in the thousands, it’s tempting to just copy and paste an email several hundred times and wait. You can certainly try, but here’s something I was never taught in journo school: telephone is king.

Yes, it’s more time-consuming. Yes, you might be given a wrong number and end up talking to a housewife in Essex instead of an incumbent MSP. Yes, you might be like me, i.e. you have a voice that is barely understandable from three feet away, let alone through a crackling mobile connection. But calls are so much harder to miss or ignore than an email, which for all you know could be left languishing forever in the long-abandoned inbox of a UKIP PPC. Calls are immediate. Calls are urgent. Calls are just better.

They are for media work, anyway. I’ll still order Domino’s online.

4) You probably underestimate the effort that goes into preparing news coverage of a General Election

I know I did. Though I was working for the Pictures Desk, I shared office space with the dedicated Elections Desk, and even with a fortnight to go they were up to the necks in prep; hiring freelancers to cover every single results count, ringing up councils to make sure their list of 3,900 candidates was still correct, training placement students to help with admin on the night… In fact, on more than one occasion, the other researchers and I would be evicted from our desks half an hour early, so the Election team could do dry runs of their results coverage game plan.

Dry runs!

Of course, elections have always been the time for the press to bring their A-game – how else would we get such incredible innovations as the BBC’s debate reaction-o-meter? – but I’m now convinced that the amount of planning and foresight required is as high as anything outside an SAS operation. Props to those guys.

5) The District Line really is rubbish

Why are the newer, high-capacity trains never used for the breathtakingly congested Upminster route, and are instead wasted on ferrying two or three people to Wimbledon? Sort it out, Boris.

Guys, chill

9 May

I should admit, up front, that I’m not one to get emotional about election results. After waking on Friday the 8th to news that my chosen party had received a kicking of Germany vs. Brazil proportions, the survivors just about able to fit into the same lift at HQ, I couldn’t muster much more than a “That’s a shame”. My response to the victory of the Conservatives, somehow both the most popular and the least liked major party on offer, was almost identical.

Maybe this is because I never really felt an adverse effect from any specific Coalition policy. But I’m convinced, as I have been since my teens, of two things: it’s never going to be as good as the winners say, and it’s never going to be as bad as the losers say. And some of my fellow losers are two furious tweets from declaring the apocalypse; a Randian hellscape where the impoverished are ground up and served as nutritional paste to slightly better-off (but still poor) zero-hour contract workers, where the ghost of Nigel Farage returns to terrify us into constructing a fifteen-meter wall around the coast out of barbed wire and unsustainable plastics.

The most election-relevant picture I had in My Pictures.

The most election-relevant picture I had in My Pictures.

Predictions of political doom are, of course, nothing new, and they definitely aren’t specific to any political persuasion. If anything, though, this just makes me wonder why anyone keeps bothering with them. Tony Blair didn’t ruin the country. Gordon Brown didn’t ruin the country. David Cameron didn’t ruin the country, and he most likely won’t over the next five years either. While we’re at it, Ed Miliband probably wouldn’t have ruined the country, and Nick Clegg wouldn’t have stood off to the side saying “Maybe you should ruin the country”. It’s just not in a political party’s interests to fuck everything up.

In short, while there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the worst, it wouldn’t hurt to recalibrate just what constitutes “the worst”. At least then, when the next election rolls around, we can argue politics on the basis of realistic costs and opportunities, not on who’s the most likely avoid bringing about socioeconomic Ragnarok.

Or, even better, we – the twentysomethings, the Facebookers, the Twitterers – can actually go out and vote more. Estimates put the 18-24 turnout at a pitiful 59%, notably lower than the already-slightly-rubbish national rate of 66%. Maybe the energy spent screaming into the void and jabbing fingers at politicians who haven’t even enacted their policies yet would be better spent convincing our non-voting to friends to take part in the democratic process. That, more than any furious status update, might actually help make a positive difference.

The Average Apocalypse, Part 3: The Human Element

28 Mar

This is part 3 of an ongoing series in which I roleplay in DayZ as myself – which is to say, as a scared man with negligible survival skills. You can also read part 1 and part 2.

Okay, let’s try this again.

Besides a newfound determination to avoid running on stairs, my objectives remain the same as in my previous life: build a bow, get away from the cities, live off the land. It looks like I could be done with the first part relatively quickly, as I’ve spawned in on the outskirts of Elektrozavodsk – only the second largest city in Chernarus.

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Starting as I mean to go on, I peg it. A lone zombie is immediately on my trail, and with nothing for self-defence except my bare fists, trying to fight would be a death sentence. Instead I dash up a ladder onto a factory roof, leaving the undead idiot growling impotently at a wall as I descend another ladder on the opposite side of the building. If you can’t fight them, outsmart them, as my Dad always said before he was killed by a collision detection bug.

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I search the nearby industrial buildings for provisions – there’s no food, but I do grab a machete and ice axe. I figure some sharp edges would be useful for crafting arrows, even if neither tools are particularly efficient for zed-killing.

And that’s a shame, because two of them surprise me on my way into the city proper, and the second chase in five minutes begins. A large office block provides temporary respite, even buying me the time to upgrade my trousers to a pair with extra pockets, but soon they find a way in and pursue me back onto the streets. I pass a tavern – doors shut and ripe for looting – but my assailants are scarily good at keeping pace, and I’m forced to abandon the spoils for now.

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That said, I can’t very well sprint into Elektro with a loud, angry conga line in tow. Not with potential human murderers likely to be lurking about. I duck into an alleyway, which can at least act as a bottleneck, and pull out the biggest of my two blades: the machete.

Hack, hack, hack hack hack. I scramble around the first zed, who slows to an awkward shuffle, and swing away for what feels like an eternity until he flops into the dirt. I quickly learn my lesson and go for the second one’s head; he’s not as sluggish as his friend, and scores a glancing blow on my arm before I take him down, steel meeting brain with a heavy thunk.

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Luckily, I’m not bleeding, and extra-luckily, my first successful fight happened to occur in front of a shed that contained, among other things, precious rope. Bow drawstring acquired (along with a sharp plaid shirt and hard hat), I decide to return to the tavern and pick it clean of any food and drink.

There’s just one problem. Both the front and side doors are now open, and while I can’t make out movement through the windows, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone is in there right now. Obviously, I adopt the coward’s strategy of communicating with fellow survivors, and run the other way. This takes me right into the city, where at least I can hope that there’s nobody around.

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Nope. As I approach the fire station in search of a full-size axe, the unmistakable silhouette of a still-living man appears on the roof. I make a run for the nearest cover – a bush – and go prone, praying that he hasn’t spotted anything beyond the chain link perimeter.

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He nears the roof’s edge and looks straight in my direction, but this is a thick bush, and he hasn’t yet readied a weapon (I can make out something long and thin on his back, but can’t tell if it’s a rifle or a broom). After standing watch for a few more seconds, he climbs a couple of ladder to ground level and takes off in the direction I came.

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Am I clear? I think I’m clear.

Unfortunately, since the Roof Man didn’t seem to be carrying a fire axe, I surmise that this particular fire station has already been cleared. There’s another on the other side of town, but I’m not keen on bumping into Roof Man again, so I take the quickest route possible: sprinting across an open field.

Big mistake. The long sight lines allow a female zed, even with her decrepit eyes, to spot me, and within seconds she’s hot on my heels. Then, a puff of dirt flies up behind me, accompanied by a loud crack. I’m being shot at.

Time to leave Elektro, I think.

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The Average Apocalypse, Part 2: Military Intervention

22 Mar

This is part 2 of an ongoing series in which I roleplay in DayZ as myself – which is to say, as a scared man with negligible survival skills. Read part 1 here.

I’m in a bind. What appears to be my only way off the roof of a three-storey building, a ladder to the top floor, is blocked by an infected lady who would beat me half to death before I step off the rungs. My only weapon, a fire axe, doesn’t have the reach to take her out through the hole in the ceiling. Things look grim from here, so I take a peek elsewhere, skirting the edge of the rooftop for a fire escape or anything else that could help me avoid the undead ladder guardian.

There’s another ladder. This is the best day of my life. I descend all the way back to terra firma, hot-footing it away from the building and into the outskirts of Chernogorsk. But I can’t leave the city just yet – I still need rope to fashion an improvised bow, and feathers for some homemade arrows. I can see a barn not far down the road, and farm buildings have a good chance of containing everything I need. All I need to do is avoid attracting any more zombies.

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There’s three more zombies. This is the worst day of my life. Against such overwhelming numbers I can do little else but sprint in the opposite direction, ducking into a large house in an attempt to throw them off. It fails, as do several more dodge-and-weave maneuvers through smaller buildings. My scent, apparently, just too strong.

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With their growls and gurgles filling my ears, the zed trio chase me all the way to the barn. I realise that running further would be pointless; they obviously possess the tracking skills of a Australian huntsman, and unlike me, they’ll never need to stop for food or water. If I’m to loot this farm in relative safety, I’ll need to stand and fight.

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I have but one advantage: all that ducking through houses  has at least split the group into a staggered line, so if I’m quick, I can take them one-by-one. I run to the furthest end of the barn, pull out the axe, and prepare to make what I deeply hope is not a final stand.

Number One goes down from a single swing, and a couple of seconds pass before Number Two makes her move. She lunges just as I just do, and we both miss. With Number Three now inside the barn and advancing fast, I plant the axe in Two’s spine, sidestep her falling corpse and face the final attacker. She raises both arms, but my axe comes down faster.

I’m panting, exhausted, and alive.

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More good news comes in the form of a nearby chicken house, where I spend a minute wiggling my arm around inside for loose feathers. This act of somewhat domesticated hunter-gathering is made slightly more tense by the fact that I’m pretty much out in the open; easy prey for any bandits who witnessed my flight from inner Cherno and are now looking to catch me with my pants down. Or with my arm inside a tiny wooden hut.

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I get away clean, however, and turn my attention to a nearby shed. There’s no rope – the final piece of my plan to construct a useable ranged weapon – but I do take the time to check the description on a packet of seeds, to see if I could have them as a light snack. It is here, reading about tomatoes, that I am ambushed.

Not by the living, but by yet another infected, who lays two heavy hits into my back before I even hear him approach. I immediately start to lose blood, and dart out into the road, closely followed by the sneaky, army-uniformed bastard. I don’t think, I don’t fight – as the colour begins to fade from my vision, my only instinct is to run to somewhere I can hide and use my shirt as a makeshift bandage. No such luck this time, as a second military zombie emerges from a bush ahead of me, catching me in a dangerous pincer movement.

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I run, blood still dripping from my back, into the nearest building: another barn, this one with two flights of stairs on each side. Panicking, I head for the high ground, only to become trapped when both zeds prove adept at using steps.

As the first moves within biting range, I make the only move I can, and barge past him as I descend the same staircase I just climbed. His friend, unfortunately, is completely blocking the final flight. I charge him without considering my angle of approach, and don’t simply miss the stairs – I go flying off this level of the barn completely. I fall, strangely slowly, before meeting the concrete floor. Bleeding and broken, the blackness takes me.

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Hey James, how long would you last in a zombie apocalypse? About twenty minutes.


And yet, I’m not sure that’s fair. Arguably the biggest factors in my early death were to do with DayZ’s janky movement controls and questionable physics, rather than my decision-making (which was, admittedly, poor). I don’t have a screenshot, but the raised level from which I took a lethal feet-first fall was only about nine or ten feet off the ground – hardly a perilous drop. Plus, while I’m not the fittest chap around, I’m also not so physically challenged that I can only run in straight lines, like my DayZ character.

All things considered, I think I deserve a do-over. I’ll be continuing this diary with a new character and a new life, one which will hopefully last longer than it takes you to read about it.