Online gaming, as far as I’ve been concerned, is just something that happens to other people. There’s been a few reasons as to why I’ve never delved into this particular gaming nook; lack of decent hardware, firewalls, only able to go online with my mobile phone, dislike of Counter-Strike, owning Nintendo hardware, and so on. Preferring the likes of Final Fantasy VII over Quake II meant that for the most part, gaming has been a solitary pursuit, and that was fine by me.
Let’s get mildly tangential for a moment, for I have a confession to make. My fascination with consoles old and new has been well-documented, but fascination is not much of a substitute for actual ability; the truth, though it pains me to say, is that I’m just not much cop at games. I mean, I’m not terrible but I am, at best, average. Well, perhaps a bit less than that at times.
Now, in the old Spectrum days when all the games were nowt but fields and our TVs were made of wood, being bad at games meant, by and large, that you couldn’t complete them, which seems fair to me. However, in these days of quick saves, unlimited lives and continues, and instant access to walkthroughs and guides online, being bad at games is no longer the burden that it once was; it might take you longer, but you’ll still get there in the end. This is also fine by me — I’d be somewhat pissed if I spent £40 on a game that had Spectrum-levels of difficulty. I don’t mind not completing a game I only spent £2 on.
I don’t mind being crap at games, really. I get my moneys worth — I managed to get nearly 40 hours play out of Pikmin 2, and that’s not including the unlockable extras either. I’m told you can do it in less – about ¼ of the time, in fact, but I bet that doesn’t include all the pointless wandering around and making sure you get every last item. I stretched Zelda: The Wind-Waker out to about 40 hours as well, and I didn’t even finish all the side-quests. Ikaruga waits unfinished at level 3. Viewtiful Joe waits unfinished on the final level. Metroid Fusion waits unfinished at the very final boss. Half-Life actually took me four years to complete. I’m a patient man.
I am not actually a patient man.
This lack of ability in my hobby of choice has, to an extent, kept me away from a lot of gaming branches. I stopped visiting arcades when the classic Streetfighter 2 cabinets that charged 30p for one credit, 50p for two, and five for a pound were replaced by branded behemoths with miniature Ferraris and workable snowboards that wanted a pound or two for just one credit. I couldn’t afford to get good at these games, and I wasn’t going to spend a pound just to lose after 30 seconds.
It’s kept me away from online gaming as well. Those reasons I mentioned up there are more excuses than reasons; my hardware was never that bad (I’ve always coasted just a few places above the minimal requirements for current games), the firewalls weren’t an issue seeing as there were thriving intranet gaming communities, and I’m sure I could have learnt to like those silly terrorist games, but trust me when I say there is no humiliation quite as potent as playing a game for a while against the computer, then going online and having some teenage geek called cYB3r-K11l3r876 unceremoniously ripping you a new arsehole.
I tried again, tonight. This time with Age of Mythology. I’d played it a lot, bought the expansion pack, and considered myself to have at least reached a medium level of skill with it. Finding myself with an evening to spare and an ADSL connection going to waste, I thought I’d have another stab at online gaming.
After joining a game at the ‘intermediate’ level with three other people (one on my side, two against), I found myself beaten within 5 minutes of starting. Not only was I comprehensively outnumbered and outgunned by my opponents, but my ally was so far ahead of me in that time that not only did he have the forces to take on the other two, but he had surplus forces that were able to protect me as I struggled to scrape together enough resources to fund one soldier. I don’t know how they did it. I’ve looked at this game time and time again and I just can’t work out how people — or even the computer on higher difficulty levels — can start off at the same point as me and yet manage to grow at three times the speed.
Humbled, and finding myself placed at the 6000th position in a score chart where there were only 1594 players (which I took to mean that even people who didn’t exist were better than I was), I aimed for the beginner level. This time, it was just me versus one other.
I performed miserably again. Working as quickly as I could, I gathered together a small army, sauntered off to the enemy camp, and walked straight into his forces coming the other way. So outgunned was I, he didn’t even bother to stop to attack, and just passed on by to head for my town centre, leaving me in the embarrassing position of having to turn my troops around and try to catch up with the invading army. Which I couldn’t — they were faster than I was, of course, so by the time I reached them they’d pretty much wiped me out. All in under 10 minutes. I weep.
As an experience, it was as wholly unsatisfying as every previous excursion into online gaming, and enough to remind me why I tend to avoid this area for a good year or so. Yes, I’m bad at games, but at least when I play offline, it’s only me that knows.