Reflection on University, Work Ethic and Success

In the final months of my time at university I began to look to the future and what it would hold. I had found university incredibly difficult in almost every regard, and that was only mildly compensated by the knowledge that what I was doing was, actually, quite hard. Cambridge is, people say, a hard university to get into and the work there is difficult. Consequently I concluded that if I could pull out even a moderate grade at the end of it all, I would have demonstrated my ability to do a very hard thing. Furthermore, given that I’d just done the very-hard-thing and that society is built to accommodate everyone of all abilities (not just Cambridge graduates), I should be able to shoulder all my future responsibilities in the outside world without much trouble. The arrogance.

Specifically, front and centre of my mind was the job for which I had held an offer for half a year at that point. It was a good, well-respected place on a graduate scheme, but not Oxbridge exclusive. Using the flawed logic above, I anticipated it would be a doddle.

It may not come as a surprise to the reader, although it did to me, that this was not the case. Life is in fact quite difficult, for everybody, most of the time. Even the most intelligent and talented among us (a category to which I do not belong) have to approach their challenges with vigour and enthusiasm in order to succeed. To approach anything with the cynical, complacent outlook I had is an exercise in futility.

A compounding factor that should not be neglected here is how utterly, brutally burned out I was as I left university. I had spent four years in various stages of turmoil, dragging myself from one setback (real or imagined) to the next. Thankfully I’d obtained a respectable grade but there was truly nothing left in the tank. As a result, I probably couldn’t have put in the effort I should have, even if I’d wanted to.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all of this to me personally is my complete ignorance to any of it at the time. I naively ambled into the world of work thinking I was a coiled spring, ready to make some big moves. In reality I was a naïve mole who, tired from digging, had found himself in the middle of a minefield.

At university I was naïve about a lot of things, and downright wrong about a lot of others. A topic I think I was on the right lines about, however, is that of the nature and consequences of work ethic. A few years into university I had a good sense of how my level of ability compared to that of others around me. I saw success as a combination of hard work and natural talent, in which a deficit of one could be compensated by an excess of the other. I looked at other students as all lying somewhere on a two-dimensional graph of work ethic and talent (the most brilliant of my peers being those with an excess of both).

As such, I could explain away the extra success of students around my ability level because they had a better work ethic. Being as neurotic as I am, I like my ideas to be quantified and in this case I thought in terms of “hours worked per day”. To me, at the time, that was a good measure of work ethic. Maybe it still is. I could work, say, six hours per day. That was the amount of work that was manageable and sustainable to me. Sally could work eight hours per day, Billy could work ten hours per day. If we were all of similar “natural ability”, our performance would then correlate to our hours worked.

This was actually a comfort to me, because it meant I had an excuse for my comparatively low performance. “Well I’m just as smart as Billy” said 20-year-old Jake “but he can work more hours than me”. This sounded like an excuse to me then*, and it certainly does now, but I do think there is some truth to it. We are not all the same, and some people can naturally work more than others. That doesn’t mean those people have it “easier”, but it certainly means they have desirable characteristics.

*These thought processes definitely led to some “well if I worked as much as him I’d be as good as him” conclusions

This outlook subsequently provides a useful framing for your own improvement: if my allotted amount of hours is six, then seven sounds achievable and is a way to squeeze some more performance out of myself. Forget Billy and his ten hours (some people’s work ethic is simply unmatchable), I just need to push my own work ethic a little outside its bounds and I can see some improvement I can be proud of. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and here is what I can do to make it a little better.

I hadn’t thought about these ideas for a long time as adult life consumed me, but I’ve come back to them recently. Unlike a lot of my thoughts in my early-twenties, the truth of these prototype ideas still rings true with me today, and in context of the wider world.

It’s instructive to consider an example like an Olympic athlete. In order to achieve that level of success, one has to be very high on both the “talent” and “work ethic” axes (this is a given). However, the most successful are the ones who take their raw “work ethic” parameter and push the envelope as much as they can. How much outside their default they can push themselves may vary, but I believe it is the act of pushing (rather than just simply a strong work ethic to begin with) that generates the highest highs.

(The Olympic example is also useful for consideration because most of us don’t really feel inadequate in comparison. Most people were never going to be, never stood a chance of, standing on the podium. So, it doesn’t worry us. But why can’t this be extrapolated to everyone else? Why compare your incomparable outcomes to someone else’s?)

As an adult, work ethic isn’t as directly measured by hours worked. The quantification is more complex, and the outcomes more abstract. Nevertheless, I suspect each individual has a good idea of when they have worked hard and gone to (or beyond) their natural work limit and when they have just gone through the motions.

For me personally, my “default” work ethic is roughly to complete my professional responsibilities, and to exercise five or six times a week. I can also do the menial tasks of personal care and making my living space livable. I can do all (?) that comfortably, and feel a little exhausted by the end of the week. My instinct is to spend the rest of the time melting into TV and video games.

To be clear, doing what I’ve described above is sustainable, probably for the rest of my life. More than that, it’s respectable – if someone else told me that they can do all that comfortably and sustainably I would tell them that they’ve nailed it. But I know, for myself, that doing those things is just going through the motions. I know that this is where I naturally land, but the real magic happens just outside of these bounds. If I can just do a little more (be it writing or business or exercise or whatever) there could be amazing material results, but more importantly I will know that I’ve taken the hand I was dealt and tried – at least tried! – to make the best play with it.

In a sense this approach gets easier as I get older, as dramatic changes become less frequent and routine sets in. I’ve developed a clearer picture of what working hard looks like and what cruising looks like. Once you’ve worked for 1000 days you start to see the patterns. This makes it clearer (though not necessarily easier) to know how to break them.

For example, for me, pushing my “natural limit” would be to spend an hour writing instead of watching TV, on top of my normal duties. This would be great even if it was one evening a week.

At this point I would like to emphasise that I am not advocating for everyone to work themselves into the ground. Pushing it all the time is unhealthy and I extremely discourage it. There are times to push and times to relax and the contrast improves both. It is fine to get to a stable spot in life and just maintain it for weeks, months or years. Really what I am describing is an approach that can help people who really want to progress out of their current spot.

Once my original premise is accepted, herein lies the real challenge: the striking of the balance. The answer to this is for me still hidden in the fog; I don’t even begin to have a solution. In my personal case, I find it very challenging to relax. I am very lazy and curse myself for it. I find myself in a constant state of wishing I was doing more, while lying on the sofa. I have yet to find the right delineation. (I hopefully I can write about some progress in this regard in the future)

I would also like to acknowledge the natural variations in each individual’s “raw work ethic”. Out in the scary adult world we are at the mercy of many currents pushing us in different directions, out of our control. These factors might include (but not be limited to) professional stress, availability of free time and health. I’m currently of the opinion that one should largely just move with these tides, and not get too upset if you find your motivation decreasing. These things happen, and I feel strongly that if each person is honest with themselves, they know when they are pushing themselves and when they are not. 

(Side note: the assumption of “honesty with oneself” is not trivial and is worthy of a separate essay)

A way to mitigate the natural tides of motivation, and in general to squeeze that extra bit of effort out of ourselves, is through routine. It is well documented that routine decreases the amount of motivation needed to complete tasks, so make the most valuable tasks part of your routine. Make the things you get the most out of as easy to do as possible.

To wrap up, I’d like to acknowledge that the above might not apply to everyone. It is likely that it is a way of framing the world that allows me to manage my neuroticism and give me some hope for redemption. I do believe there are people who don’t constantly feel they should be doing more, and I must congratulate those people and express my envy. I wish I could just chill for a second. For those of us who can’t, remember you have a natural limit, but it is not a hard limit. It can be pushed. And it is through the (careful) pushing of this limit that not only do we see results, but we feel that we have really done something.

Circadian Rhythms

Or: I wanted to skip my afternoon nap, but I didn’t have time

I’ve been aware of circadian rhythms for many years but they have recently come back into my focus after listening to several episodes of the Feel Better, Live More podcast and the work of Nick Littlehales. The ideas (and how they could improve my life) resonated so strongly with me that I quickly became fascinated.

To start, let’s get our definitions straight. Circadian Rhythms are natural cycles within the human body that determine, among other things, sleepiness and alertness. The rhythms themselves are affected by light and dark and the sleep patterns of the person in question. One cycle lasts about 90 minutes, with the first half being a period of more alertness, and the second half being a period of less alertness and more sleepiness. You are most likely to wake up naturally during the “alert” section, and you can consider this the start of your first cycle for the day.

(I’ll also add that this is not new-age airy-fairy medicine. There’s lots of studies on circadian rhythms and in 2017 someone won the Nobel Prize for research in this area!)

The most obvious issue is if you try to go to sleep at a period of high alertness: you are very unlikely to fall asleep. This can lead to frustration which leads to even less ability to sleep. Fortunately, the solution is simple: time your bedtime with a dip in alertness. This might be bleeding obvious because I’m basically saying “go to sleep when you’re tired” – but a lot of people don’t do that! They go to bed at some arbitrarily defined bedtime (or when the TV show you’re watching finishes) that might not be the right time. If you’re not sleepy wait around 45 minutes and a dip might just come along.

Beyond this, we can use our new knowledge to help plan ahead. Let’s say you are yawning at 9pm: probably a little early for most people to want to go to bed. However, this is an indicator that you are in a dip, and that the next one will arrive in around 90 minutes, so 10:30pm would be a good time to plan to go to bed.

This method can be enhanced and refined through routine – by getting up and going to bed at similar times you can know in advance at what points you will be most alert and most sleepy through the day and plan accordingly.

The beauty of knowing about circadian rhythms, however, is you can take advantage of it even if your routine is disrupted, or you don’t have a regular routine because of (for example) shift work. You don’t have to throw yourself into bed at the soonest moment and deal with the ensuing frustration of insomnia – you can be more efficient by timing it with the cycle.

I often struggle with waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep. I get annoyed and anxious that I’m wasting time that I’m neither working in, resting in nor enjoying. Circadian rhythms brought the revelation that it was actually natural and totally ok to wake up during the night; it’s simply a point of alertness in the cycle. Historically it has been typical for people to get up and do something for a period during the night, and then go back to bed and return to sleep. By doing this we are not disrupting our natural cycles but working with them to be more content and relaxed. I know now that when this happens I don’t have to freak out, I can just roll with it.

One of the nice things about knowledge of C.R. is that it takes the stress out of a lot of things. It is nice to know it’s natural and normal, when waking through the night or during the day when there are periods of tiredness.

Speaking of daytime tiredness, C.R. help us with this too. Everyone is aware of the “post-lunch slump” at work, when it feels like you are moving through treacle. This is a natural consequence of C.R. and it’s comforting to know if you weather the storm for 45 minutes a wave of alertness will arrive. We can take this further, however, and make the most of our dip in alertness. Rather than pushing through with very low productivity, why not have a nap? It will come naturally due to the point in the cycle, and it will enhance productivity during the upcoming alert phase. It is even possible that just taking a rest and a break during this downtime (without actually sleeping) can help.

Now obviously there are many more factors to good sleep and good health than managing circadian rhythms, but this area is not well-known and offers simple, significant benefits. Honestly there is much more to be said on this and here I have just distilled my biggest personal takeaways. If any of this resonates with you I would strongly recommend listening to this episode of the Feel Better, Live More podcast ( or reading Nick Littlehales book (

The Crown Series One Review

[I realise I’m 5 years late to the party with this one but I occasionally like to write about the various films, games, tv and miscellaneous content that I consume for two reasons: to practice my writing skills and to make all those hours sat on the sofa feel like they counted for something. It’s not my fault if you read it.]

I recently discovered the term “procedural” to describe a genre of media that shows the technical inner working of a particular job or process, the classic being a “crime procedural” that demonstrates the steps taken in solving a crime. I was glad I had found the term “procedural” because it turns out I like them very much. I think in particular I enjoy law and political procedural dramas because I like to see the complex workings of those worlds that would otherwise be hidden to me. I am also fascinated by the interplay between tradition and practicality. Why do barristers wear wigs? Are the practicalities of today the tired traditions of the future? In a sense The Crown is this kind of procedural drama.

The Crown (L to R) Prince Philip, Elizabeth Elizabeth and Philip discuss Charles’ education

The first series follows the young Elizabeth (Claire Foy) from her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith) through the first few years of her reign. It reveals the details of the complex relationship between the Royal family, Parliament and the political, religious and courtly minefields The Queen must traverse while burdened by a thousand years of custom and precedent. Basically it’s right up my street.

Beyond that however, it is simply far better than it has any right to be.

To begin with the narrative, the themes are fairly predictable: power and unwanted responsibility; the distinction between a person and their role; life in the public eye. The Crown, however, manages to take on just the right amount so that the chosen themes (and characters) get their time and space to develop. International relations (trouble in the Suez) are combined with personal relations (Princess Margaret wants to marry a commoner?!) seamlessly. With so much documented history to choose from, the creators must be praised for the care and precision used in portraying just the right elements in just the right amounts.

The same could be said for the characters, who each have time to breathe and for their own stories to grow. The show does an excellent job of humanising characters (Prince Phillip, Princess Margaret, The Queen Mother and of course The Queen herself) who, to the rest of us, are so far removed and alien. The finest example of this is John Lithgow’s Churchill, seen at the waning of his power through the 1950’s. I watched a lot of the show with my girlfriend who has repeatedly told me of her distaste for Churchill due to his foreign policy, traditionalism and general old-white-man-ness. It is testament then to the acting and characterisation that she literally “awww”-ed out loud at some of the tribulations that befell the aging parliamentarian in The Crown.

The Crown Season 1

Perhaps a well-cast, talented ensemble of actors is to be expected for a production such as this, but The Crown also shines in its cinematography. From the sweeping valleys of Scotland to the smoky bowels of Whitehall, the shots in The Crown are consistently visually striking and offer a complement that intensifies the majesty and drama of the acting and story.

This effect is built further by Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score. Zimmer’s Hollywood bombast, only slightly tempered here, suits the piece remarkably well and seldom strays into melodrama. In one particular scene portraying Churchill’s stroke, the combination of music, acting and sharp editing left the scene ringing in my mind for days after viewing.

With all the above components working in harmony, as they very often do, The Crown strikes a resonant chord. For the nerds like me there’s enough “You must have parliamentary approval!” and “Protocol dictates that…” to go around, but there’s even more humanity to make the piece accessible.

Great stuff, very looking forward to season two.

Score: 4 Constitutional Crises out of 5

Thoughts on the Nvidia Shield TV Pro

Or, An Idiot’s Guide to Local Gamestreaming

Having recently built a new PC, I was frustrated with the lack of an easy way to play games from that machine (in my office) on my living room TV. I tried using SteamLink on the TV itself, which was a working solution but found the performance to be pretty poor; poor enough to stop me from using it altogether. NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Pro 4K HDR Streaming Media Player;  High Performance, Dolby Vision, 3GB RAM, 2x USB, Works with Alexa:  Electronics

As a result, I tentatively splashed out on an Nvidia Shield TV Pro. It’s a box that can play all your streaming favourites (Netflix, iPlayer et al) and also stream games from a PC on the local internet using Nvidia’s proprietary Gamestream software. The USP of the shield is Nvidia’s homemade AI Upscaling technology which will take a lower resolution image and increase it to 4K using magic AI algorithms (or something). I bought the box from Amazon on the condition I could return it if things didn’t work out. Long story short, I did keep the Shield but using it has been such an experience I felt the need to write about it. There’s a lot of articles out there espousing the Shield as a top-of-the-range steaming box, but surprisingly little on the range of issues that accompany it.

Fair warning, this is an article aimed at people seriously considering getting a Shield, people currently wrestling with one, or nerds. It’s going to get technical so abandon faith all ye who enter here.

My first impressions of the box were very positive. The UI was snappy, a delight in comparison to my TV’s built in software. The remote control was ergonomic and the whole thing had a quality feel. So far so good.

I immediately ran into problems when I started to use Gamestream. I tried to play Immortals Fenyx Rising from my PC on the TV and the game could not be detected. Thus began my first foray into the sprawling and esoteric online Nvidia community. After a little research, it turns out you can add games manually to the Geforce Experience windows app which will then become available to play on the Shield. Once I had done this, it worked pretty well.

Immortals Fenyx Rising is Ubisoft's over-the-top take on Breath of the Wild  – and it works | TechRadar

However, it raised the question: why wasn’t the game automatically detected (unlike some others that were)? There were vague allusions on forums to some games being “Gamestream Optimised” but I couldn’t find any official word on that. Did these secret “optimised” games run better on Gamestream?

At this point it seems a good time to mention that there is pretty much no online documentation for the Shield – AT ALL. There is a “user guide” on the Nvidia website which amounts to “plug it in and hope for the best”. The GFE Windows app helpfully links you to a now defunct page: originally supposed to be a list of Gamestream optimised games, it now shows games available on Geforce Now (related conspiracy theory detailed below). The scant information that is available is spread in an internet breadcrumb trail between Nvidia’s clunky forums and reddit.

Further problems arose when I tried to improve my Gamestreaming experience using the settings in the app. There isn’t much to play with, essentially just resolution and max bitrate. Once again, I was left puzzling over what “resolution” actually meant to the app, for it didn’t always output the requested resolution. Sometimes it explicitly told me my requested resolution wasn’t available. I could even change the resolution of the settings directly in the game I was playing – what effect did that have?

(If anyone is stumbling upon this article trying to solve that particular riddle: it turns out that Gamestream has the ability to change both the resolution of the monitor being streamed, and the in-game settings (as long as the game is on the sacred, secret “officially optimised” list). So the Gamestream will do its best to output the resolution you have asked for. This is actually quite a cool feature, if only it had any signposting)

Speaking of monitors, one of the most bizarre quirks I have run into is the inability of the Shield to intelligently stream the screen that the game is playing on. In fact, for my unmodified (very standard) dual-screen setup, Gamestream exclusively streamed the wrong screen. I have delved deep into this one too and can provide the peculiar explanation here, which is one of the most mind-blowing pieces of programming oversight I’ve ever witnessed (and I used to be a very bad software developer myself).

How to Setup a Dual Monitor Display - Chillblast Learn

Here goes: A GPU has a specific order it checks for connected screens in order to display the startup info for a PC, and the BIOS menu if you activate it. For Nvidia cards this is VGA > DVI-A > DVI-D > HDMI > DisplayPort. As far as I can tell, this is hardcoded and not customisable. Now, Gamestream will ONLY stream the first one of these that your PC has connected. This also cannot be changed.

In my case, my main screen (used for games) is connected by DisplayPort and a secondary screen connected by DVI. The GPU hits the DVI screen first and therefore, when it is connected, that is the ONLY screen that Gamestream will show. This can be solved by unplugging the second screen and restarting the PC, but I don’t want to do that every time I want to Gamestream!

A further arcane mystery of the Shield ( I’m getting to the end now, I promise) is how AI upscaling works. I’ll skip to the explanation on this one, but needless to say the UI itself doesn’t signpost this at all and I only found THE TRUTH after more forum crawling. Essentially, when AI upscaling is active any input below 4K will be scaled up to 4K using Nvidia’s algorithms. This means that you can improve your streaming by asking for a lower resolution and letting the box upscale it. This applies to all possible inputs (Youtube, Netflix) but the results I’ve seen have been mixed. There are a variety of unexplained settings to accompany this that I have yet to master.

In a strange twist, from forum posts I discovered a separate, third-party app called Moonlight which seems to be objectively better than the native Gamestream app in every way. I was surprised other apps were even allowed to connect to a PC with Gamestream enabled but here we are. The Moonlight app has more settings to customise, and they are more clearly explained. I have solved many of my problems by using the Moonlight app and I’d encourage anyone experimenting with Gamestream to try it out.

Moonlight Game Streaming - Apps on Google Play

To sum up, using Gamestream on the Nvidia shield is not a plug-and-play experience. It’s more of a plug-and-spend-two-weeks-poring-over-three-year-old-reddit-posts experience. And sitting here as I am, at what I hope is the end of my saga, I am left wondering why is Gamestream – one of the flagship features of the device, heralded prominently on its Amazon page – so shit? 

Don’t worry, internet wisdom has got the answer. Basically, Nvidia has ended up competing with itself with its Gamestream (local game streaming) and Geforce Now (internet game streaming) services. And you have to pay for Geforce Now. So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the former list of Gamestream games has been replaced with a Geforce Now page. Perhaps the apparent neglect of Gamestream is an intentional ruse to drive gamers toward the paid Geforce Now service. Of course, this is all conjecture and there has been no official abandonment of Gamestream support, but in light of the removal of the official list of Gamestream games Nvidia’s silence is conspicuous. If this tinfoil hat theory is true, it’s a very shady move from Nvidia; they use Gamestream as a selling point for the Shield. Indeed, that’s specifically why I bought it and inadvertently wandered into the mess described above.

And yet, despite all of this, I would actually recommend the Nvidia Shield to users looking for a premium experience. Content streaming platforms like Prime Video are well optimised and can be upscaled if you like and, when it’s working, the game streaming capabilities are exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Review

I came to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order as a refugee from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla having been disappointed with its floaty, contactless combat. SWJ:FO did not leave me disappointed.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is an action-adventure game in the vein of Dark Souls. It is characterised by crisp, precise combat and sometimes gruelling enemies. Fallen Order has been on my radar for the year since its release and building a new PC has given me a chance to get around to it. Additionally, it can be obtained through the EA Play program for a quarter of its RRP.

Fallen Order reveals its world in a thrilling and visually stunning opening sequence. We’re introduced to our jedi-in-hiding hero who is swept into a narrative larger than himself. The first thing that jumped out at me in FO was the combat. It’s responsive and specific in a way that I had really been looking for. It takes some time to get a handle on (I played on the second-highest difficulty) but your successes truly feel well-earned. This, of course, is a double-edged lightsaber (?) and means you run into some tough enemies (a la Dark Souls) that can end you in one hit. Or more frustratingly, lock you into an inescapable cycle of blows until you are finally, frustratingly, ended.

As he proceeds our Hero Cal Kestis is adorned with extra force abilities that add to the jedi power fantasy. They serve to enhance platforming, unlock new areas and add depth to combat; certainly on the harder difficulties your new skills are an absolute necessity for crowd control and big bosses.

Proceeding a few hours into the game it became clear that the story in Fallen Order isn’t your usual, cut-and-paste good versus evil tale. The characters have shades of grey and compelling motives. I found myself interested in the turns of the story in a way that I have found in few video games. SWJ:FO features some fan-service which, while expected, generated nostalgia that I didn’t see coming. There’s a lot to look out for for fans of the Clone Wars/Purge era of Star Wars history.

Much like its Metroid forebears, Fallen Order has a scanning mechanic which adds flavour to the world. I really enjoyed the details of the flora and fauna of the planets, specifically the ones that aren’t out to kill you. I didn’t read them all, but they fleshed out the world and made it feel alive and lived in. I was a little disappointed with some of the more narrative scans, which tell stories of events that have taken place in that location. You can usually track a parallel narrative as you move through a level, but in general these were fairly lightweight.

The game is set across a handful of planets and has you return to them repeatedly, your newfound skills now granting access to previously barred zones. On the surface this didn’t appeal but there is something satisfying in returning to a previously explored area with fresh eyes. The map is brimming with things to collect, providing improvements both cosmetic and mechanical. I cared more than usual for the cosmetics in the game, which provide a layer of customisability and variation to Cal and his little robot buddy BD-1. Nevertheless, my main interest in the collectibles were the ones that made Cal a stronger Jedi. Here I found myself a little frustrated: the map does show how many collectibles are left to be found in a zone, but the map itself is messy, hard to read and does not show you precisely where the collectibles are. As much as I like the upgrades I’m hardly going to return to a location for the fourth time just to look in every nook and cranny.

Fallen Order looks awesome. Having just come from the clay figurine faces of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the characters look and move in an impressively realistic way. The landscapes are some of the most epic I’ve ever seen in a game but equally each nameless corridor has been lovingly created with production value you would expect from a Star Wars product. The music is perfect, swelling at the right moments and giving you the little flute trills characteristic of the series. Overall a smashing presentation.

In summary, SWJ:FO is the full package. It controls beautifully, it looks amazing and has a story with appeal both to newcomers and fans of the series.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review

I wouldn’t describe any of the Assassin’s Creed games as my favourite of all time (or even in the top ten), but the franchise does own some of my most memorable gaming moments. Recently: the exhilaration of crossing the nighttime Mediterranean illuminated by the glow of ancient Greek towns clinging to the shore in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and back to the true open-world enjoyment of the first island-hopping adventure Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The pure mechanical fun of the simple air assassination speaks for itself. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla seeks to bring these elements together into a single, definitive entry.

Valhalla sees you take the reins as Eivor, an upstart viking seeking glory, honour and, well, Valhalla on the distant shores of England. AC: Valhalla feels at once familiar and different, being a game entirely recognisable to series veterans (you will be climbing towers, sailing and assassinating) while introducing new mechanics which add more than superficial value.

The game’s exciting opening sequence flows into a lacklustre prologue act which fails to take advantage of the open-world features that, in the end, make Valhalla shine. You pootle around Norway while mechanics are introduced and you can take your baby steps in a mini open-world, but it is only when Eivor reaches England that the game really hits its harmony.

The gameplay itself contains much mechanical fan service. The hidden blade is back after clamour from the community, allowing any enemy to be killed instantly from stealth – although meatier enemies require the completion of an additional quicktime event, which is not entirely unwelcome. I was delighted to see the return of the “chase disembodied object through the world to unlock cosmetic item” minigame, fondly remembered from AC: Black Flag (I played through the excellent Switch remaster earlier this year). This time you’ll be pursuing “paper” in order to unlock tattoo designs. Of course sailing is represented, albeit now primarily as a mode of travel and exploration rather than combat. In many ways Valhalla feels like a greatest hits of Assassin’s Creed mechanics, while also bringing freshness of its own.

Eivor feels slower and meatier than Odyssey’s Kassandra, and lands with a heaviness emphasised by the fall damage she takes. That is, except in combat, which feels light and weirdly contactless. Playing on the default difficulty is easy and disappointingly doesn’t encourage you to use the exciting range of varied abilities at your disposal. You can one-button, light-attack your way through a horde of English savages who will attack one at a time in a manner familiar to the franchise.

The stealth in Valhalla is so clunky it is almost discouraged (frustrating to me as a fan of stealth in games). It is more difficult than ever to track enemy positions, so stealth takedowns are regularly spotted by other NPCs. Eivor’s heftier movement doesn’t lend itself to dodging quickly out of sight and the general jankiness of open-world games works against the stealth mechanics. I was left laughing when I stealthily took down a guard, which caused a nearby flammable jar to inexplicably explode, which caused the platform I was on to collapse and drop me into the middle of the enemy encampment. So much for going unnoticed. 

The whole affair feels less gamified than Odyssey and at the same time more organic. The plethora of items on the map, which were already reduced in AC:O have now diminished further to ethereal glowing points-of-interest. Side quests are interestingly not logged in any menus which encourages you to do them there and then, lest you forget about them later. These “World Quests” are reminiscent of the spontaneous encounters in Red Dead Redemption 2. They are fun, short and zany (quite the tonal shift from the rest of the self-serious narrative) so I have found them to be overall worthwhile. I can totally see what they are going for with this more organic approach and the result is definitely less intimidating, although I can’t help but feel it takes the edge off the addictive “one-more-thing-before-bed” gameplay the other recent instalments cultivated.

Visually, the game is stunning and certainly a series highpoint. England is represented in vibrant realism, making it a joy to explore. Descending a Scandanavian mountain in the dark to arrive at a warmly lit Viking settlement reaches the same heights that Odyssey found. The wilderness teems with life, both human and animal. While the landscapes are lovingly composed, I have to say they don’t feel quite as English as I felt the masterful Witcher 3 achieved (but those were the best landscapes I’ve ever seen in a game). The addition of Roman ruins to England’s countryside is a wonderful touch. It makes the world feel lived in but more than that reminds us of the series’ millenia-spanning arc. The game runs smoothly on PC which is impressive for the number of characters that can be rendered on screen at one time. Some criticism should be levelled at the facial animation which, while still an improvement on Odyssey, can be clunky and awkward. I also have to call out the weirdly low frame rate on some of the small birds which, while by no means a deal-breaker, is oddly incongruous with the rest of the lavish graphics.

Sadly, in the end I found myself failing to connect with Valhalla. The game lacks a single stand-out feature to keep me hooked. The narrative is one of the best in the series, but I found ploughing through line after line of just-passable dialogue a drag. I wanted to get back into the open-world. But when I did, I was reminded that the mechanics were not quite crisp enough to keep me interested. With stealth ruled out, the default approach to each encounter is to summon your viking hoard and button mash your way through it. Valhalla should be commended because all side-activities feed into character progression however when every combat encounter can be solved with the couple of moves available at the beginning of the game, there’s not much incentive to do it. In summary, none of this is enough to set the world (or monastery) on fire.

Watch Dogs: Legion Review

To begin with the good, Watch Dogs: Legion’s rendering of London is quite phenomenal. The iconic areas are suitably recognisable and some of the less well-known parts are still true to life. I have found myself recognising streets that I used to run down and feeling nostalgic about pubs once frequented. The streets teem with a diverse population that makes London feel alive and realistic. There have been reports of poor performance on PC but it runs well on my admittedly beefy machine *humblebrag*.

WD:L is an open-world action game set in a near-future London, which casts an underground resistance movement against authoritarian forces wrestling for control of the city. The player will use cameras, traps, drones and an incredibly useful spiderbot to take down those who seek power.

The flagship feature of WD:L is the “play-as-anyone” technology. It is possible to recruit any NPC to your ragtag team of resistance fighters, and it works fairly well. After completing a couple of procedurally generated missions, the character is now yours to control and comes with their own unique skills and abilities. This is good fun and the visual variety in “agents” is tremendous, but the downside of this effort is there simply isn’t enough voice-acting to go round. This leads to repeats and awkward dialogue. For these reasons, the story (wisely) doesn’t hang on the player character at any point and is carried by supporting characters. However, the occasional inclusion of the player character rarely works.

The moment-to-moment gameplay in WD:L is fun, but can be repetitive and, on the default difficulty, too easy. Each scenario almost always involves infiltrating a building. With upgrades easily obtained in the first hour of play, you can do this using drones and your trusty spiderbot without ever entering the building. On the occasions when the player is needed in-person, it’s trivial to “neutralise” all the enemies patrolling the area before you breeze through a corridor of corpses. Despite DedSec’s vague ethos of non-lethality, there is no punishment for hacking a drone with a machine gun and mowing the guards down.

When the player is required to do some shooting themselves (how last-century!), the mechanics are competent but sometimes buggy. Due to some interaction between the crouch, cover and gun systems I was, more than once, left pulling the trigger but no bullets were coming out. Frustrating in clutch situations.

While moving through the world of Legion I can’t help but miss the sense of fluidity that comes with other open-world games, most notably Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed. WD:L feels a little stunted in comparison. This seems intentional, as the game encourages more calculated, careful strategies for problem-solving but when this turns out to lack much flair and creativity it ends up feeling awkward. Fingers crossed for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla next week.

The most interesting combat occurs in the pseudo-boss battles which involve holding a point against waves of incoming enemies using all the skills at your disposal. It is very satisfying to defend a point while a download is happening with a swarm of drones helping you, some of whom have been hacked moments before to turn on their masters. Not to give too much away, but the final boss is a fun spin on this which, while not entirely awe-inspiring, felt appropriately climactic.

The city of near-future London is thoroughly enjoyable to explore, but there’s very little incentive to do so. Available to be collected we have ETO (in-game currency) and Tech points (used for upgrading skills). ETO can only be spent on buying new clothes. Perhaps this belies a sad lack of imagination on my part, but I have no interest in customising the look of a character (they already look wacky enough!) so the ETO is literally worthless. The Tech Points unlock and improve skills, which are shared between all agents. This is more-or-less the extent of progression in WD:L. I unlocked most of the skills I used after a few hours, so there was little need to seek out more (plus you are rewarded with them for completion of story missions!). When I identified Tech Points late game I simply ignored them if they were even slightly out of my way.

The small remainder of the game’s progression is built into the Agent Recruitment system. Some agents have unique skills and skills that improve the whole team, such as faster recovery from injury. This is very light and the combination with Tech Points means you don’t get much out of exploring the world except for its own sake.

The story is where the game is at its weakest, rolling out cliche after cliche about the dangers of technology, governmental oversight and authoritarian ideologies. To be fair, the conclusion of the parallel narratives was gratifying, if heavy-handed. It’s always nice to see an ideologue die by the sword that they lived by. However, the overall tone is so up-and-down as to be almost offensive. It is possible to have your street-magician character, adorned with pink LED-illuminated jacket and top hat, helping to free victims of human trafficking or modern-day slavery. The game can accidentally, though inevitably, make light of some very dark and important themes.

Additionally, so predictable is the story that when the third-act twist was revealed, it was something I had thought was assumed from literally the opening sequence of the game. And I had been skipping through the boring, stunted dialogue.

As a native to the north of England myself, it struck me as odd how much this game treats London as an island, its own sovereign state. There is literally no mention of how the game’s events are affecting other parts of the country. Are they also under the control of technocratic authoritarians? I realise this would only really bother Brits, but as London-centric as things in the UK tend to be, even this was extreme. It broke the immersion because this was so clearly a marketing decision – London holds much more capital on the world stage than Liverpool or Birmingham, so they were just ignored completely. Also, to be picky, there were a few annoying non-britishisms that snuck into the script. I’ve been a british nerd my whole life and have never attended a “science fair”.

Overall, Watch Dogs: Legion is an enjoyable but bland romp. I have to give it credit for having something to say, I was just luke-warm on the execution. Generally, this is one that can only confidently be recommended to fans of the series. To everyone else, you might be better off finding your open-world kicks elsewhere.

Top 5 Games of the Year 2018

It’s that time of year again.

Honourable mention: Red Dead Redemption II.

Holy Moly. Say what you want about RDRII, that game is a hell of a thing. In terms of scale, attention to detail and sheer quality it is unparalleled. It is really a sight to behold. The problem with RDRII, in the end, is that it just wasn’t that fun. Unlike this year’s fantastic Spiderman, the moment-to-moment action in Red Dead II was simply tiresome and dull. Yes, the story was great, the voice-acting was spot-on, the shooting was fun. The bits in between – as in, the majority of the game – were not fun. When it came down to it I think I resented Red Dead II for not respecting my time. I felt like I was constantly having a hypothetical argument with the Houser brothers, where I wept for the 50th time “Why can’t I just fast-travel there?!” and Dan Houser spits back through gritted teeth “Because you’re going to fucking ride a horse for ten minutes instead”

5. PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds

It’s back. Flying against the rules of my top 5 list that I made up, I am including the same game two years running. PUBG was my game of the year last year and it has remained such a constant feature in my life that it has to make the list again.

The ongoing criticisms of PUBG are well-documented and as I approach 1000 hours of playtime I am not going to argue with them. The netcode can be bad. The microtransactions are shitty. The performance is spotty. But the core mechanics of the gameplay are so damn good.

There is something about the long periods of peace, frantic moments of violence and satisfying shooting mechanics that keeps me (and my friends) coming back to PUBG. It has to be said that I would not be so keen on the game if I didn’t have a close group of friends still playing it – but that fact it has kept us all so hooked is testament to the game in itself.

Further in the defense of PUBG Corp, they have made a concerted effort to appease fans this year with the Fix PUBG campaign and the release of a huge update in December. The new snow map has proved a big hit with the community (and me) and PUBG‘s concurrent player count once again surpassed one million. Despite fierce market competition from the likes of Fortnite and Black Ops among many others, PUBG is not out of the battle royale just yet.

4. Into The Breach

Released early in the year on PC and more recently on Switch, Into The Breach has proven to be a huge success. From the makers of FTLInto The Breach is a turn based strategy puzzle game that pits teams of mechs against alien insects.

The most remarkable thing about ITB to me is just how solvable many of the predicaments you find yourself in are. If you stare at the field of battle long enough, you can frequently find a way out of the seemingly hopeless state you have gotten yourself into. You might have to accept some damage here or sacrifice a city to the Vek there, but you can get out of it (most of the time).

ITB really makes decisions feel meaningful and impactful and encourages – or rather, insists upon – sacrifice and compromise in order to move forward. It is satisfying and frustrating in just the right ratio and gives you the feeling of being a strategic battle commander in both ways – when you lose, you know it’s your fault but when you win, it’s you (and not the roll of a dice) that made it happen.

3. Spiderman

The swinging in Spiderman is excellent. This is a really important point because it makes up most of the game. If you like the swinging, you will probably like this game and it feels truly majestic to move around Manhattan this way. Unlike the ponderous RDRII, every moment of Spiderman is good fun.

The combat has come in for criticism for being Arkham-lite, and that may be fair. Nevertheless, I found it to be enjoyable, strategic and generally what one would expect from an arachnid superhero.

I found the story relatively luke-warm but for me the sheer joy in every moment of Spiderman got it easily onto this list.

2. God of War

The hype for God of War was one of the reasons I bought a PS4 earlier this year. The console did not disappoint, and neither did GoW.

The axe mechanic – which can be thrown and recalled by magic at any time – is enough for GoW to score highly, but in addition to that there are breathtaking visuals, an intricately designed world and a relatively in-depth loot system.

Despite the criticism God of War received for lack of female representation, I think the game should be praised for its portrayal of the difficult aspects of masculinity and the nature of the father-son relationship. Sure, it may be a little clumsy at times but the game makes good use of voice-acting, cut-scenes and game mechanics to develop the relationship between Kratos and Atreus to make a truly compelling story.

After completing the game I took great pleasure (and a little frustration) in beating all the Valkyries, which added many hours to the game and is an indisputable marker of the good time I was having.

1. Horizon: Zero Dawn

So H:ZD didn’t actually come out this year, but I played it for the first time in 2018 and was so blown away that it not only made the list – it made the top of the list. Horizon swept in and became one of my favourite games of all time. H:ZD is Dutch studio Guerilla games’ first attempt at the open-world genre and their fresh and unique approach has produced a very fine contribution to the field.

The first thing that stands out is the combat mechanics. The game revolves around fighting various kinds of robot animals – from ostriches to dinosaurs. The player gradually acquires a variety of weapons to take on these cybernetic beasts and the range available keeps the fights fresh, fun and strategic. It is possible to just brute force your way through the encounters, but much more satisfying to scan the creature for weaknesses and use the most appropriate weapon to achieve the most devastating results (which could be a catastrophic explosion, the removal of a limb or freezing). It is by far the most engaging combat mechanic I have ever seen in an open world game.

I must also highlight the story in Horizon, which could easily stand alone as a book or film. Guerilla opted for the conventional open-world technique of drip-feeding narrative through written and audio logs interspersed with cut-scenes. The characters are compelling, mysterious and supplemented by on-the-mark voice-acting, with the fantastic protagonist Aloy chief among them. I was keen to seek out every available audio log to find out more about the world.

The open-world of H:ZD is densely-populated and beautiful. Sun-scorched deserts give way to verdant forests, all in a vibrant and varied colour pallet. Tribal hunting parties roam the dangerous wilderness and well-developed side quests are ever-present. In harmony with the story-telling Guerilla have built something that feels very like a living world.

Of course, nothing is perfect and H:ZD is no different. The inventory management is clumsy at best and off-puttingly overwhelming at worst. However, the flaws in Horizon only serve to underline the potential for a sequel that builds on the strong foundation that the first game started. Here’s hoping for some news on a follow-up in 2019.