Well, here we are. Week 2,057 of working from home. How’s it going? Is your posture resembling a crumbling question mark yet? Have you become depressed because the biggest dilemma of your day will be which flavour crisp you’ll go for? Are you a millisecond from Googling “quickie divorces”?
One person who is loving this strange era must be Mr Zoom. Despite many of us wanting to silently scream at every new invitation link, video conferences and meetings remain inescapable. And the platforms proliferate. There’s your Google Meet, your BlueJeans and there is Zoom – the one where the etiquette still confuses me. Am I allowed to change my background to a wall-sized photo of the young Drew Barrymore at Studio 54, or is that considered rude?
I’m also confused about clothes. It’s hard to know where to go, now that the jig is up for the “Zoom shirt” (you know, the clean white shirt that you slip on for business meetings; once you’ve worn it three times, people begin to wonder if you actually have any other clothes).
Relaxed, comfortable outfits are where it’s at, but they can look slouchy under the harsh analysis of an HD screen (especially when yesterday’s pasta sauce stain is noticed 10 minutes into an impromptu brainstorm). So what to do? Top-half dressing has thus far been too broad and vague a concept to guide us. We need specifics. The look we want is one that says, “I’m very serious”, while being so visually enticing that your boss won’t notice you’ve been saying the same thing, in different ways, for the last seven minutes.
The best way to achieve the former? Glasses. Anybody brought up on Gossip Girl knows that glasses equal cleverness. Today, I’ve popped on a pair that signify nerdy cool without being creepy. Or perhaps that’s for you to decide…
And now for the visually enticing part. Rather than accessories (which are generally complicated on a man, and tricky to get right for a boxy computer screen), I’ve opted for a multicoloured ombre turtleneck that doubles as a tricksy, Magic Eye-style picture. It looks as pretty and hypnotising as a 1980s test card, I could be saying anything, I could be saying nothing – either way, specs plus a distractingly good jumper mean it’ll all sound on the money.
International organisations involved in distributing Covid-19 vaccines have been targeted by cyberspies, according to IBM.
The US tech company said it had uncovered a global phishing campaign it believes started in September, targeting those associated with the “cold chain” for storing and transporting vaccines at the right temperature.
It is not clear who carried out the attack but security researchers said it had the hallmarks of being a state.
The attempt spanned six countries linked to the cold chain equipment optimisation platform (CCEOP) of Gavi, the international vaccine alliance that helps distribute jabs to some of the world’s poorest countries.
“Given the specialisation and global distribution of organisations targeted in this campaign, it’s highly likely that the adversary is intimately aware of critical components and participants of the cold chain,” IBM said.
Brick-by-brick and bullet-by-bullet, Empire of Sin tasks you with building your own criminal syndicate in prohibition-era Chicago. Assuming control of one of 14 different mob bosses (including Alphonse “Scarface” Capone), you must establish speakeasies and casinos, supply them with illicitly brewed alcohol, and protect them from the police and rival gangs.
This is a detailed, structurally unusual game of economy management and violence. Each of Chicago’s districts has a thirst for booze, varying from low-grade swill to top-quality whiskey, depending on the area’s prosperity. Slaking this thirst through your speakeasies will earn you cash, which can be spent on upgrading your establishments to provide better quality drink and attract a more affluent clientele.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in 1920s Chicago. Buying property outright is expensive, so the cheapest way to acquire new businesses is to swipe them from someone else. There are dozens of gangs, ranging from loose collections of thugs to rival outfits like your own. Any of their buildings can be taken through violent, turn-based battles. While not as slick or nuanced as the X-COM-style alien scuffles they’re inspired by, these encounters compensate with their grisliness and era-appropriate weapons.
Taking an establishment by force lets you expand your business for free. But there may still be a cost. The rival gang may demand retribution, or declare war on you. Gang violence in turn affects a district’s prosperity, forcing you to sell cheaper drinks as the wealthier barflies and floozies flee the fighting.
This representation of the consequences of mob violence is Empire of Sin’s most interesting trait. Your henchmen, selected from a pool of wannabe gangsters, will fight alongside you in combat, run parts of your organisation, and even have their own sub-stories. But they can also be killed and, even if they survive an attack, they might not come out unscathed. After a particularly brutal conflict, one of my closest henchmen turned to drink to drown his troubles. He’d lurch and stagger his way through fights until I recruited a doctor to sober him up.
Empire of Sin is ambitious but it isn’t always reliable. The game suffers from myriad technical issues, ranging from quirks such as thugs’ jackets changing colour when they die, to game-breakers such as henchmen disappearing completely from your squad. Covid-19’s impact on quality assurance may well have a been a factor here, but there are broader problems, too. The rival factions are more a nuisance than a threat, pestering you incessantly for alliances and favours. And the early game is too slow: building sufficient cashflow so you can put a half-decent squad of henchmen together is more work than fun.
It’s unfortunate that Empire of Sin has arrived in town with holes in its waistcoat, but I don’t believe its problems are beyond fixing, and it’s got moxie that ultimately shines through the flaws.
Recently, I’ve spent quite a lot of time pondering what an orc would look like with an afro. This, naturally, led to contemplation of an axe-afro-comb combo, and whether such a contraption would fall under blacksmithing or engineering.
That’s because I’ve been playing Shadowlands, the eighth expansion to World of Warcraft. For Warcraft fans, there’s a lot to be excited about: the new game allows players to explore the afterlife – reviving classic characters such as Kael’thas Sunstrider – and introduces a new style of play in Torghast, a deliciously punishing dungeon that changes each time you visit.
There’s also a clear recruiting drive for new players with a simplified introduction, more straightforward questing and reconfigured character growth, all aimed at making this venerable and complex game less daunting. “It’s a welcoming beginning,” says the game’s director Ion Hazzikostas.
One of the biggest updates, however, is for everyone, old players and new: an overhaul of the game’s representation, with a range of new, more diverse options for characters’ appearances. While WoW players have always been able to choose from a limited range of skin tones, Shadowlands expands these, and adds racially appropriate facial features and hairstyles. In addition, players can now visually represent blindness, and change their gender.
With Shadowlands arriving on the 16th anniversary of World of Warcraft’s release, Hazzikostas is well aware the changes were long overdue. “Some of it was technical constraints, going back to the way things were built, and the number of different textures that could be mapped onto a single model from the engine 15 years ago. But those are lines of code that can be changed. And yes, the real question is why didn’t we do it sooner? It’s a good question. We should’ve done this sooner, honestly.”
With millions of players around the world, representation is essential, Hazzikostas says. “Since the start of the game, there’s a portion of our player base that’s been able to make a character that felt like their avatar in Azeroth, but there were many, many of our players – far too many, the majority, in fact – who couldn’t do that. And that’s at the core of why we’ve made this change.”
Rebuilding the game’s ageing infrastructure was just one element. The Warcraft team also needed to reconsider how they interpret the game’s high fantasy setting, balancing the imagination of the genre with the overwhelming diversity of World of Warcraft’s subscribers. “The reality is that Tolkien-derived fantasy, what we call traditional fantasy, so often reflects a western European ethos,” Hazzikostas expands. “It reflects works made for that smaller audience, that has since become globalised. Plenty of people could previously make a stout dwarf or a quirky gnome … but the skin tones to match the range of our players weren’t there. We’ve changed that.”
But if you want to be an orc with an afro you’re out of luck, since the new skin tones, features and hairstyles are mainly for the most humanoid characters. Humans, of course, have the full range of options, but a fantasy-alien draenei, for example, has none. It’s a compromise that might leave some players disappointed, but equally, it’s fair to say that Azeroth wouldn’t feel quite as magical if every character looked like a human.
Shadowlands also adds the first non-white non-player character to the game. At first, you’ll only find them in Stormwind – Hazzikostas admits this was a first pass to address the main thoroughfares – but he’s adamant that this is more than a token offering.
“I think what we’re effectively saying is, [let’s] pretend it was this way all along. It should have been this way all along. We’re going back and fixing something that should have been done 15 years ago. The one thing we didn’t do is change any specific named, known characters, because people have their direct associations with that name, but going forward as we introduce new leaders, new prominent characters, we’re going to make full use of the options that we have available.”
Needless to say, representation goes beyond just seeing your skin colour on screen, particularly when it comes to fantasy, given the genre’s problematic history of basing villainous characters on racist stereotypes. It’s an issue that’s left a number of publishers grappling with problematic legacies, so how does World of Warcraft avoid reductive tropes?
Hazzikostas credits a vocal team with a diverse range of voices as the first line of defence, but ultimately, he says, the Warcraft universe has always featured more nuanced character design in the fantasy realm.
“One of the things that I loved about [Warcraft] as a player is that the monstrous characters aren’t the villains, right? It’s inverting some of those well-worn stereotypes of art; you have the humans in shining armour, and you have the savage orcs over here. Well, no, the orcs are honourable, and driven. You know that they can be ferocious, but they’re fighting for family, for their homeland, and you learn their character and fall in love with that.”
It’s a legacy that players are fiercely protective of: the community is particularly vocal about any changes to a world which many of them, myself included, have grown up in. Knowing this, Hazzikostas publicly shared the team’s progress on Shadowlands to solicit suggestions, which helped the team decide where to focus their efforts. In fact, the specificity of players’ requests is what helps him do his job: breaking down the vast World of Warcraft player base by playstyle, or preference, means the team can make sure as many needs are met as possible.
“Let’s make sure we know who all these groups are, who play our game. And let’s make sure that we are doing something awesome for each of them,” he says. “As long as we’re being mindful of all of the different playstyles, all the different motivations, that contributes to, and helps knit together, this larger tapestry that is stronger as a result of having that diversity.”
And while some of the opinions on greater representation have been disappointingly predictable – Hazzikostas dismisses it as grumbling from the “usual internet crowd” – he says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Out of all the features that I have had any hand in working on in my dozen years at Blizzard, I can’t think of anything that’s been as universally well-received as the character customisation changes. And that’s just a reaffirmation of how important it was, and why we made it a priority as a team.”