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RPS Advent Game-o-Calendar: December 6th

Like you, we can't wait until December 25th. On that day we can all happily celebrate the birth of Father Christmas and put our troubles aside. But there's still weeks to go, so we'll have to think of something to pass the time. One thing we can do is open a window on our RPS-approved Fairtrade advent calendar. What's behind the door...

Cor blimey, it's fricken' chocolate! Thanks, Fairtrade. Om nom nom nom.

But for you?

It's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars!

In a year of games that have divided gamers, ETQW has had its fair share of fans and naysayers. It hasn't exactly helped matters that this has been the year of the FPS, with stacks of superb games arriving to distract us. In the multiplayer world Team Fortress 2 and Unreal Tournament 3 have proven to be potent rivals for our affections, and when push comes to shove ETQW often seems to have been in the receiving end. One of the key reasons for this seems, at least by PC gaming standards, to be a pretty unusual one: ETQW might be (whisper it) too complex.

This is a game that is best played by organised teams. Hell, it's a game in which being a specialist really pays off: each its its classes have dozens of options available to them, and when you combine that with a dozen totally different maps, vehicles, and predilections of your fellow players the tactical permutations rapidly become legion. It never stopped us enjoying, say, Battlefield, but ETQW seems to be a special case: it's a complex hybrid of the Fortress, Battlefield, Assault, and arena deathmatch way of doing things, and as a result it can be pretty intimidating.

For my part, well, ETQW has been more frustrating than anything else. It's a tough game to play casually, and it demands your full attention. I love that about it, but it's also a stumbling block. Just as with its predecessor, Return To Castle Wolfenstein's Enemy Territory expandalone, it's a game that grasps your by the brainstem and pushes you mercilessly into some unexpectedly complex conflicts.

And so ETQW's great strengths are also its weaknesses: the huge array of options in its various classes are daunting and thrilling at the same time. Its huge, detailed maps provide both sniper-baiting open spaces, vehicular combat, and corridor-spamming close combat. It's almost too much to process. Almost too many flavours to be palatable. Nevertheless the true source of my frustration is in not having time to sit down and properly digest the game. As a connoisseur of digital violence I like to take my time, to try out tactics, to explore strategies, to master twitchy aiming skills and, as if I were a regular patron of a restaurant serving simulated violences, soak up the carnage over many long evenings. ETQW is game that demands, and indeed /deserves/ long hours.

And I simply haven't had those hours to spare.

When Chuck Klosterman asked "Where is the Lester Bangs of videogames?" our entire community replied: "where is the man who has the time to play all games?" back in the 1960s it wasn't exactly a Herculean task for Bangs to sit around listening to popular music all day, but for a single man to be equivalently versed in gaming media, well, he'd need to be superhuman, or equipped with a time machine. (Dr Who would make a marvelous games critic.)

But the Klosterman episode also highlighted for me how my own experience of games has changed over the last decade. I'm no long able to focus for months on a single game (although I have kept up a long-running Eve Online habit) and I need to sample everything, to come as close to seeing it all as I possibly can.

Back at the start of my professional career I had become a gaming monomaniac. Quake III was my first, crucial long-term obsession, and it was the reason I got a job. While I had habitually chewed through an alphabet of games as a youth, it was only when Quake III arrived that I got bogged down in the process of completely mastering a game and thinking about little else. But things have changed. At the end of 2007 I'd love to be able to do that with ETQW: it's exactly the kind of game that I want to be able to give that to. The tremendous pace and the reward for both personal low-level skills and high-end tactics is exactly the kind of thing that I play games for but... well, there aren't enough hours in the day. If I play ETQW 'casually' I end up feeling frustrated and wanting to get into a clan and practice until my eyes burst. I want to breathe it...

What I meant to say at the end of my recent Crysis review, is that I increasingly perceive games as great feats of engineering. Like the railroads, canals, and bridges of past centuries, they're designed to perform a specific function. Just as each bridge is designed to span a specific gap, so each game is engineered to deliver a specific experience. Some of them manage it. They span the gap, and stay standing - solid across the years. But feats of engineering have another aspect to them: our appreciation of them. For me ETQW is like a fine suspension bridge in a foreign country. I marvel at its design, and have crossed it once or twice on my travels, but it not part of my life. I won't cross it every day and, in some way, that means the greater part of its significance, its importance, will be lost to me. I know that if I were ready and able to take up the gauntlet and play with a clan, week in week out, just as did years ago, then this would be my game of 2007. But I can't, and so it isn't.

Oh, but damn, it's beautiful.

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