This bank holiday weekend in Newbury the latest in the I-series of LAN parties run by Multiplay UK took place, at Newbury Racecourse, a venue not known extensively for its gaming background (although I suppose that depends on your opinion of equestrian pursuits). Gamers from all over the country converged upon the setting looking to meet up with net buddies, play some games and get some skillz.
It was quite a sight.
When I arrived with my Eat Electric Death associates on Saturday morning the place was already abuzz with the sounds of carnage, suppressed to an extent by headphones, but not enough to dampen the yelps and hurled abuse.
Row upon row of wooden tables with nice comfy padded chairs covered the first two floors of the building, with several large rooms (with full access to the bar and eateries) each holding their own segregated "gaming area". The games of choice included Quake 3 Arena, Unreal Tournament, and an obscenely large Counter-Strike contingent. Strategy titles like Starcraft, Total Annihilation and even Homeworld were also getting a work-out, and I even spotted a few flight sim players tucked away at the end of our row.
Pre-planning on the part of the Multiplay staff meant that everyone was issued with a sticker to place on their PC base unit, and a security badge to help staff make sure your presence was valid. On the way out we were all asked to prove we owned the kit we were carrying by two beefy lads blocking the exits, and as such nothing was stolen during the whole event to our knowledge.
Not only that, but the pre-planning stretched so far as to completely laying out the seating area in advance of the event, which meant that we arrived knowing precisely where we were to be seated, and those who weren't sure only needed to grab the nearest staff member and quote their seating assignment to get shown the way.
When I discovered where I was sitting it was a quick thirty-minute exercise in building my PC out of the parts I had brought with me (and some kindly donated by clanmates).
The Athlon 750 / GeForce DDR system was up and running quite swiftly with a nice spangly 17" flatscreen monitor courtesy of IBM, which were on hire for people who booked prior to the event. In fact, some gamers were allowed to rent entire IBM systems for the weekend, perfectly specced out to deal with even the most demanding gamer.
Once I had set myself up I hopped on some servers to check the connection, and glancing at my ping decided that 5-10 milliseconds suited me perfectly. In some games things got a little hairy, but usually slight alterations to the config were enough to sort things out.
Throughout the entire event we experienced no loss of power, no network outages, and the only technical problems which I noticed were self-induced. On the whole it was a very efficient LAN party, and you could see how these people were professionals.
After a few hours of carnage I decided it was time to get some food. The internal website for i5 was duly loaded up and the Refreshments page hit.
With plenty of shops and eateries nearby (including a two for one Domino's pizza offer) I was spoilt for choice, but I decided to sample the delights of the bar food on offer at the end of the room. The staple meal seemed to be Burger and Chips, and although adequate it wasn't exactly the Ritz. Nonetheless, it hit the spot, and the bar refreshments (provided by some lovely young ladies) were very thirst-quenching, if a little on the expensive side.
It was only around 8pm, so I settled back into my chair and played on, with lots of Rocket Arena 3 and Counter-Strike gaming taking place. The taunts and shouts of gamers from one side of the room to the other were very audible and somewhat unprintable, but the mood was good and spirits high, despite the mind-bending PA system announcing pizza deliveries every five seconds. Throughout the event the PA system was the only thing that really annoyed me - leading to an unexplained bleat of "will you please die!" at about midnight on Sunday evening as I lay down to rest. Cabin fever.
On the whole sleeping arrangements were spontaneous and uncomfortable, but my little space under the desk was snug and perfectly suited, and the carpeted nature of the floor made it comfortable enough. For others there was the seclusion and silence of the upper balconies, the back seats of cars (oo-er), and local B&Bs that no doubt saw startling business.
We awoke to discover that Beta 7 of Counter-Strike had been released and downloaded while we slumbered, and we all quickly upgraded to check out the new additions.
However in our haste we failed to remember that the i5 staff intended to use the previous release for all tournaments throughout the weekend, which meant the hair-tearing practice of finding a previous version and sorting it all out again. Nonetheless, we had a fair few goes on the new version, with more servers running Beta 7 than not by the end of the event.
Beta 7 includes slightly tweaked maps, a few new weapons (dual Berettas and an Under Siege style knife grip to name a couple) and tweaked out others to make the game more balanced. The general consensus was positive about the release, although the i5 staff themselves weren't too hot on it. Of most interest though were the new maps, which included a Las Vegas outing (complete with model Sphinx and "Hax0r" wall advertisements), and an Arab Streets level with "Die UN pigs" or some such scrawled on the walls. It was very atmospheric, as was the whiny Arabian music emanating from a jukebox somewhere on the level, usually the first thing to take a bullet.
After a few rounds of action our stomachs started grumbling and a trip back to the cafeteria area was required. The menu hadn't varied too much, but the bacon and sausage sarnies more than did the trick. Back to the action, and it was time for our Quake 3 Arena Teamplay Deathmatch slot. The team of four with one sub set about the mass slaughter of some poor team called Doobie. They were trying, but thanks to voicecoms software Battlecom our team were able to keep the Red Armour, Quad Damage and most of the available arsenal under control. There were a few tense "Enemy Quad!" yelps, but each was overcome, and the final score was 140-15 or thereabouts.
The tournaments continued long into the night, but EED were knocked out of the Counter-Strike contest at the hands of some blatant gamesmanship from our opponents. Humility not being our strong point, we jumped on to our server and spent the remainder of the evening desecrating a mass onslaught of "weenies". With the PA system buzzing about pizza deliveries and staff announcements every five seconds, not to mention the popular "boat race" drinking competition, it wasn't easy to kip down for the night.
Night Draws In
Once again the night drew in and the fragging continued. The Team Fortress Classic and Unreal Tournament competitions were still being addressed, with many players wanting to get their games out of the way quickly.
The UT contingent was very loud indeed, with the highlight being RuinatioN, a particularly loud northern player who seemed to spend the entire weekend screaming "for fook's sake!" at the top of his voice. Our advice? Get some skillz, dammit!
A few gamers around our area decided to install and check out "Aliens versus Predator : Gold Edition", and the yelps and screams of Eurogamer's own Mat Bettinson as the scary aliens ran all over him were truly something to behold. This is the same man who had appeared on ITV earlier that day wearing a balaclava and sat next to a full replica Steyr TMP BB gun during Meridian's small segment on the event. You can view the clip here.
With so much still to come in the Counter-Strike, TFC and other tournaments the next day, I settled down for a rest, and managed to sleep all the way through until 10am, when I was rudely awoken by the sensation of the aforementioned pant-soiling AvP player emptying a clip into my back. The bastard.
With the sound of the morning lark silenced by the boom of the rocket launcher once again, the ruckus continued, with waking gamers loading up Counter-Strike once more while supping on the usual array of sarnies and stale pizza from the night before - lovely.
The unofficial Unreal Tournament 2v2 was about to kick off at this point. The idea was that each player put £1 into the pool and the victors took half of the winnings, while the rest was shared out amongst the runners-up. A novel idea, but with very few contestants it wasn't really a financially viable one. Nonetheless, EED's team of Billox and Afty found their way on to the server, defeating some of the loudest Unreal Tournament players in the UK on a whole host of maps, eventually winning the competition and sharing the spoils - about £5 each.
The finals of each of the rest of the tournies now took place, with prizes going in the right directions and good sportsmanship all round .. except in the Team Fortress Classic competition. For some reason the prize for both the winners and runners-up was free entry to the next I-series LAN, and because the prize was the same for the last two teams regardless of who won, the contestants adopted the esoteric stance of not wanting to play the game to save face.
Needless to say they argued this with the Multiplay staff for some time, and eventually were told where to get off, their prizes cancelled. What a waste.
The trophies given out and the prizes disposed of, it was just left for us all to pack away and head on out. It was a fantastic weekend, despite some niggles we had with the arrangement, and the way we had to lug 19" monitors around the venue - ugh ugh. But hopefully i6 will be more of the same, and the organisers are claiming that they can fit 1000 people into Newbury this November for the event. Check their website for details, and let's get on with the killing!