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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Average Apocalypse, Part 1: Axe and the City

11 Mar

The most interesting thing about DayZ is also its biggest flaw. With no directives for player behaviour beyond satisfying basic bodily functions, survivors of this particular zombie apocalypse are free to be as violent, altruistic, danger-seeking or isolated as they please, and that freedom can lead to thrillingly tense encounters where someone’s motivations might be vastly – even dangerously – different from your own.

However, the lack of objectives can also make it feel  a bit…aimless. Progression is limited to what kind of gun you might find, or how many pieces of brown combat gear you have draped over your body. Meanwhile, the zombies themselves are laughably easy to take down, even in groups, so those who avoid armed conflict with almost Swiss determination never get to experience any kind of meaningful challenge.

I think that’s why a lot of players have taken to roleplaying. Chernarus is or has been populated with organised police forces, doctors, assassins for hire, and at least one roving reporter; besides the attractively complex interactions that may occur when one of these groups meets the lawless bandits of DayZ, I suspect the rules and codes these players enforce on themselves adds a special sense of difficulty and accomplishment to what can be a fairly meandering existence.

Now I want in as well. I’m going to reject DayZ’s assumption that every character is a qualified survival expert and play as someone who would be utterly out of their depth after the fall of civilisation: myself.

Besides potentially answering the age-old question of “How long would you last in a zombie apocalypse?”, playing as a journalism graduate from Swindon gives me some tricky new parameters. I’ve never even touched a firearm, so in-game guns are off the table completely. I’m pretty risk-averse, so I’ll need to avoid players and the undead as much as possible. I could probably hold my own against a single zombie, but if they show up in a group, I’m mostly likely going to bottle it. Although, I do have one thing going for me where self-defence is concerned: I’m okay with a bow and arrow. Admittedly I’ve only ever shot static targets, not sprinting ghouls, but my weapon of choice will be  ideal for hunting animals – allowing me to stay fed without needing to scavenge in heavily-populated cities. Plus, DayZ’s bow is whisper-quiet, so I can stay hidden from prying bandit ears.

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First, I need to make myself with the less-than-robust character creator. Due to the lack of options, the closest I can get to my true form (lanky, slouching, prescription glasses) is a muscular middle-aged man with a permanent squint. No matter, because soon I’m joining a near-full server, with a solid plan to craft an improvised bow and avoid the large cities.

I spawn in Chernogorsk, the largest city.

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On the bright side, I’m already on the side of town which contains an abandoned shop (where I can grab provisions) and a fire station (where I can find an axe, which I’ll need to craft my bow and arrows). Incredibly, for an area with so much survivor foot traffic, I manage to bag several cans of spaghetti and a walkie talkie. In a small factory two doors down, I ditch the walkie to make room for more spaghetti, and pick up a hunting knife. This is a great start – I’ll need to cut the meat from any animals I hunt, and the knife also doubles as a handy can opener in the meantime. I immediately consume two whole tins of cold pasta, and move on to the fire station.

Just outside the station’s outer wall, I’m halted by the gurgled cry of a walking corpse. Terrifyingly, it appears to be making a beeline for the single open door of the station, suggesting that there’s someone inside. I’m relieved, then panicked, when it passes the door and starts running at me instead. I’m nowhere near confident enough to battle a zed with a tiny knife, so I scramble through a hole in the wall, dash inside the station, and slam the door shut. I’m safe – for now.

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My luck continues in the form of a good-condition fire axe laying on one of the station’s many, if mostly empty, shelves. Incredibly, there are three different handguns mere feet from my new axe, including a rare inscribed Colt. Most survivors would be ecstatic, but I’m British and thus have no idea how to load or maintain ballistic weaponry. I leave all three where they sit and try to sneak out the back exit.

No dice – the zombie had continued to sniff around outside, and immediately gives pursuit. I’m now wielding the most effective melee weapon in Chernarus, even in the feeble hands of someone who got stopped going to the gym in 2014, but am anxious about stopping to fight; after all, this will be first time that I kill something larger than a fly. However, sprinting through Chernogorsk with a growling monster on one’s heels is a good way of attracting unwanted attention. I stop in a walled-off yard, ready the fire axe, and prepare to take the swing.

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Thunk. The bastard gets me first, and my vision flashes white as two rotting fists slam into my face. Yet I still manage to bring the axe down, slashing deep into my assailant’s shoulder. It recoils a bit, then resumes its flailing attack. Suitably afraid of something that can survive such a bow, I retreat a few steps – accidentally dodging another lunge. I swing again, land a second hit, and watch as the actually-dead dead man flops to the ground. I’m bruised, but alive.

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I decide to move on to some nearby factories, partly to search for rope for a drawstring and partly to get off the streets before anyone spots the aftermath of my pathetic zombie duel. After passing through a hospital – the floor of which was, for whatever reason, covered in fresh fruit – I enter a large, vaguely industrial-looking building which turns out to be a bunch of offices. I upgrade my boring T-shirt for a brown hoodie (which I’d totally wear in real life, so is fair game) but find no rope, so I head up a ladder to the roof.

There’s nothing up top, but there is something down below: another agitated member of the formerly living. Once again frightened that it might be targeting a nearby survivor, I go prone to conceal myself from anyone on the ground.

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I needn’t have bothered; I’d apparently made so much noise walking on the rooftop gravel that the zombie had heard me and raced all the way up to the top floor. I narrowly avoid having my ankles clawed off in a failed attempt to descend the ladder before it could reach me, and clamber back up to assess the situation: I’m trapped, on a roof, with a violent cannibal blocking the exit.

Welcome to Chernarus, myself.

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Coming soon in Part 2: Feathers, an ambush, and the world’s most perilous stairs.

Watch my voice

14 Feb

Players of the popular action-strategy video game and peculiar wealth creation exercise Dota 2 would do well to watch Tales From the Trench, a frequently hilarious play-by-play series commentated with infectious enthusiasm by a chap named Rusts. I suspect that is not his real name.

I’m obviously a big fan, partly because of the brilliant Twilight Zone-inspired sequence (which is actually more akin to Futurama’s The Scary Door) at the opening of each episode. Since I’m also a big fan of parody, Dota, writing, and apparently the sound of my own damn voice, I got in touch with Rusts to ask if I could contribute to a future episode with a voiceover of my own.

I could, I did, and the episode in question is now live!

As far as 27 seconds of talking goes, this was a hell of a lot of fun. I love writing pastiches, even if they aren’t my forte, and a game as complicated and characterful as Dota 2 lends itself perfectly to parody. There are a few places where I might have delivered a phrase differently, given another chance, but considering my normal speech consists mainly of shapeless mumbling, I think I gave it a decent crack.

Monster Hospital: The Story of Nightmare House 2

2 Feb

This piece was originally posted on Gaming Daily back in 2011; you can view an archived version of the original page here. I’m putting it here for portfolio-related reasons and, well, because I kinda like it!

Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. It’s a testament to the startlingly professional presentation of Nightmare House 2, a ten-month-old, free, first-person-pantsoiler mod for Half-Life 2: Episode 2, that when a text box silently pops up – a method of delivery that, in any other game, would be so biblically lame I’d roll my eyes clean out of their sockets – and instructs me in no uncertain terms to do something, blindly obeying it seems like the least terrifying option. Instead, I ran -whether it was from a jawless demon, a working light switch, or nothing at all, I’ll probably never know.

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My possible near-death experience with a few lines of captions was case of NH2′s Auto Scare System (which I’m not giving anyone the pleasure of acronymising). Every few minutes you’ll be given a brief, randomised shock – a distorted whisper in your ear, a sudden slap from an unseen hand. It’s one of many little touches that the Nightmare House series of mods and map packs have been using to gleefully confuse and harass players since 2005, when the original – a ten-minute skulk around a dilapidated mansion, occasionally beating off Half-Life 2′s zombie breeds with a crowbar – went live. Unlike NH2′s lengthy but technically impressive campaign, Nightmare House was quick and a bit rough, with scares that were well-implemented but lacking in any kind of narrative.

“It was the first map I ever released, and actually ever made” explains Hen Mazolski, creator and lead developer on Nightmare House 2. The missing horror story in a horror mod? “It was important for me to concentrate on the main thing I wanted it to be: scary”. Zombies and shotguns aside, NH”s frights embraced the paranormal. Shelves topple over an inch from your face, mirrors suddenly shatter, and metal beds violently slam into the ceiling in sequence, sending mattresses flying and cowardly writers recoiling. Poltergeist staples, to be sure, but sometimes the old ones are the best. More importantly, the mod itself wasn’t left to gather dust, and enjoyed a couple of reduxes – first up was a remake using elements from the sequel, still in early development at the time but poised to feature much richer writing. “I had the basic plot laid down so I started thinking about how to connect it with the first game,  and the idea of the NH1 remake came up. I actually placed a bet with a friend that I can remake the original game in a week and a half”, says Hen. “I won”. Five years after its initial release, the original’s second revamping would be included as the prologue to Nightmare House 2: a much more ambitious undertaking from Hen and the team he would lead, We Create Stuff.

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The poor chap from Nightmare House – that’s you – wakes up in a padded cell that’s helpfully been left unlocked. It quickly becomes apparent that the hospital you’ve been incarcerated in, comatose, has been abandoned for some time – save for a lone doctor desperate to contact you and the growling, shambolic walking corpses that were previously the building’s inhabitants. Them and a shadowy, stick-thin woman that haunts your vision and appears to be capable of manipulating your very perception of reality. Less claustrophobic than the original House it may be, but it’s probably a good idea to try not being there any more.

As it happens a hospital is perfect for NH2′s combination of physical threats and mind games – a horrible corruption of a place that should be tending to the damaged and vulnerable (you), yet is littered with so many dark red stains that it looks like Greg from Hematology’s been dicking around. Yet it was not always thus, and Hen recalls how numerous iterations of the mod were conceived. “During its development time, Nightmare House 2′s plot and settings were changed a lot, from another haunted house to a haunted town, a deserted island or a place made of only dreams and nightmares, and eventually the hospital/asylum idea was chosen. Even then the plot was nothing to what it is today…I still wasn’t sure if I want to take a more paranormal approach, with ghosts and demons or a more mutants/monsters/zombies approach”. We Create Stuff eventually settled on a mix of the two, and while the concept of a game set entirely within the minds of its characters is an interesting (if no longer unique) idea, the finished product is wonderfully atmospheric; a paranoid mini-adventure where you can be harmed with thoughts as well as claws.

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You are, of course, not alone. Besides the good doctor, who occasionally pops up on television screens and radios to give you directions, a glimmer of normality comes in the form of an “automated” female intercom announcer who, through an increasingly passive-aggressive (if constantly cheerful) series of messages, becomes a whole personality of her own. Neither spend much time barking into your ear, but wouldn’t the knowledge that you’ve got someone watching your back be detrimental to maintaining a near-constant state of fear?  I asked Hen whether he knew the risks of showing a gregarious side. “Yeah” he replies, “it’s all risky, but I think it came out for the best….most of it made Nightmare House 2 what it is today”. Playing through, it’s clear he has a point. Some of the best moments in the game involve the infuriatingly chipper announcer – “If this were a real fire, you’d be dead by now!” she beams as you walk, emasculated, from a door you failed to open yourself. Brief interludes like this one were a conscious effort ot break up the overwhelmingly sombre mood – Hen notes “action, plot advancement and humour” as the three flavours of interval that We Create Stuff sprinkled throughout the story.

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Having been spawned from Episode 2′s version of the Source SDK, Nightmare House 2 piggybacks on some of the engine’s strengths: convincing gunplay and physics, Faceposer support, integration with Steam and so on. The developers are also quick to praise Source’s “great scripting and trigger system” (a feature that enabled the unpredictable insta-headfucks of the Auto Scare System), even though this is likely to be We Create Stuff’s last game to use it. Still, NH2 was also forced to grapple with some of the limitations of Valve’s tech. “One of the things disturbing us the most was the lack of real time lighting, both in-game and both in the level editor. I remember how I used to render a map for hours to find out the lighting was totally out of place, or not quite right, there was really no way to know at first…one of the things we all wanted the most was to make a real time lighting system, like the one Portal 2 has now. We did manage to get something basic working, but it never went beyond that”. I’d add that borrowing the AI of Half-Life 2′s civilians – with their famous aversion to personal space and questionable self-preservation skills – to insert into the heads of a gun-happy SWAT team that break into the hospital and become your best pals did lead to some awkward doorway jams.

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That reminds me,  about halfway through, a squad of gun-happy SWAT troopers break into the hospital and become your best pals. Wait, what? You’ve had access to firearms from a very early point, but time spent with these guys is definately more about shooting than hallucinating. Their introduction is, subsequently, one of NH2′s biggest surprises. Including them was, according to Hen, “the thing that scared me the most” during development, and for good reason; should someone view the SWAT sections out of context, they’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing a very dark Counter-Strike map. Smartly, time spent with them is at most fleeting – bursts of shooty action to ward off ghost fatigue. In fact, despite objections from a loose estimate of “10%” of players, these guys are actually serving a handful of purposes at once. “From the very beginning  I wanted to have a twist in the middle of the game of some sort, having an ‘oh, snap!’ moment” says Hen. “In most horror games when you hear soldiers are coming they usually end up dead seconds before you reach them, or turn out to be the bad guys. Here I wanted to have a twist, and a friendly group of SWAT soldiers were great for that. I also wanted to show the player he’s not alone, and there is something bigger then he thought going on”.

I recall my own reaction to the first glimpse of a black helicopter; absolutely more of a “Thank God, help’s coming” than “Get the hell out of my psychological horror experience”, such is the strength of NH2′s terror-inducement. Frankly, if the SWAT team (who were reportedly loved by the other 90%) didn’t show up I might have gone a little insane, and even their reference-laden wisecracks weren’t enough to offset their reassuring presence. If nothing else, they’re expendable – not long after meeting them, and immediately following a successful zombie battle, you advance into a relatively brightly-lit room. The rear guard then pipes up: “Where’s Johnson?” Everyone stops. The HUD indicator for the number of team members drops one. Where is Johnson? Dread wastes no time setting in: something is here, it’s just taken a heavily armed man without you noticing, and it’s after you. Good luck with that. This, right here, is scripting done right – no bullshit glass walls, no control theft and no locking our heads straight.

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Nearly a year later, Nightmare House 2 is doing just fine. Hen remains confident he put out the best game he could, barring a few missed bugs and one case of weak signposting during the climax (“Every time I watch that I bash my head into the desk again”). That said, don’t expect a third installment. The entirety of We Create Stuff has moved on to new projects, including Flash games and lending the occasional helping hand on Underhell – another horror/FPS hybrid mod, revived in part by Hen after its original creator messaged him noting similarities between their respective efforts. It’s in good hands – NH2 is a creepy triumph, designed with meticulous attention to detail, packed with neat touches and easter eggs, and almost as compelling as the crème de la crème of singleplayer Source mods, MINERVA: Metastasis. You’d be a fool to miss it; just remember to break the wood at the end. You’ll be saving a forehead.

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