Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Top 5 on Xbox 360

As we stumble towards a new decade I offer up these 5 suggestions for gaming genius over the New Year period. All are in stores now and are currently draining hours of my life every week.

5. GTA4: The Ballad of Gay Tony

Spend some more time in Liberty City causing mayhem and making a profit.

4. Left 4 Dead 2

More infected annihilating fun, this time in the Deep South.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2

Continuing where Assassin’s Creed left off, this time Desmond’s adventure takes him to Renaissance Italy.

2. Dragon Age: Origins

Bioware’s outstanding RPG. Choose your background; build your character; save the world.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

The benchmark for First Person Shooters and gaming realism. Fight the good fight in story mode and have hours of fun online in multiplayer.

Have a very happy New Year.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Awestruck by Avatar?

Last week I heard lots said about James Cameron’s new film, Avatar. In several publicity spots, on TV and in the printed press, members of the cast and crew as well as Mr. Cameron himself have been talking at length about the film’s use of 3D technology and how important this event is for the media of film. I wasn’t convinced. I had seen some advertisements for the film and I couldn’t escape the billboards everywhere with 20-foot high blue faces, but something about the publicity drive made me suspect that I would be disappointed if and when I went to see it.

On Friday night I took my fiancée out for a meal and, afterwards, to the cinema. As it happened, Avatar 3D was the next film showing; we paid for our tickets as well as an extra £3 for the 3D glasses then took our seats. I had an underlying sense of cynicism about the whole thing because of the hype that I had been subjected to in the week before and was not expecting very much. I was, in fact, prepared to be thoroughly disappointed. I could not have been more wrong and I have eaten a healthy portion of humble pie.

The 3D experience is awesome. Getting used to watching something that makes you feel like you are in the room with the action was one of the most absorbing experiences I have had in quite some time. Quite apart from the storyline, which is compelling if somewhat predictable after a time, the visual effects are quite simply breathtaking. Cameron has produced a visually spectacular masterpiece and it will, I’m sure, influence how movies are made in the future. With the 3D technology used so sublimely in Avatar, the film industry has a new benchmark with which to compare all future big releases. Cameron’s stroke of genius in the movie was not to let the 3D aspect drive the movie, but rather to fill it out and add, for want of a better phrase, a new dimension to the film. Avatar can be seen in standard 2D format, but viewers would miss out on the whole experience that comes with 3D.

The storyline keeps the viewer interested and you do genuinely care about what happens to the characters. Its futuristic plot thinly veils the underlying themes of the movie, climate change, destruction of habitat and the arrogance of the human race, all of which are hot topics at present. The CGI is almost seamless and despite the alien landscape, creatures and environment it is rare, throughout the film, to spot anything that looks fake or out of place.

Avatar has made me acutely aware of the move to 3D technology in entertainment. Sky TV in the UK has announced it is launching 3D TV in 2010 and I am sure it won’t be long before more movies, TV programmes and the games industry follow in the footsteps of Mr. Cameron and his 3D pioneering predecessors. The cherry on the top was that my fiancée enjoyed it too, which is surprising as Sci-fi isn’t ordinarily her first choice. My thanks go out to Mr Cameron.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Dungeons and Dragon Age

Bioware, the new masters of the RPG, have released their latest enthralling, engaging, story driven, action packed delve into the genre: Dragon Age: Origins. Like many RPGs, Dragon Age follows the route of the fantasy epic but with a focus on the background, or Origin, of the character that you play. Players are offered to start the game from one of six very different backgrounds, covering a variety of races, social backdrops, and genders. The player’s start position in the game very much effects how the game will unfold as you are ferried along the storyline, and your choices and moral decisions effect the game world and how characters interact with you. The initial part of the game is unique to each character type and, unless you choose to play the game through six times, players will experience only one Origin story before the game proper begins.

It doesn’t take long before the depth of the storyline is hinted at, with a rich back-story unfolding that includes suggestions of deep class and racial divides throughout the land of Ferelden. This complex background is the canvas upon which the main plot is painted. A dark threat to all living creatures, in the form of the demonic Darkspawn, is unleashing a Blight upon the land. Not long into the game we see humanity’s big stand against the monsters, and it goes horribly wrong. Unsurprisingly, despite the player character’s age and inexperience, we soon discover that you are the only person who can unite the divided lands and people to make a final heroic stand against the Arch-demon (a Dragon). Made a member of the Grey Wardens, an elite group of warriors sworn to destroy the Darkspawn, you and your band of warriors, mages, war dogs, elfs, dwarfs and Golems are sent off to finish what the armies of men could not.

The game is very long and engaging. Expect to lose tens of hours to the intricacies of the storyline, combat and character customisation. The combat itself seems to breach the gap between the needs of the hardcore RPG fan and those of the part-time gamer, with real time fighting that can be paused to choose and customise attacks and other actions from any of your player characters in order to achieve a victory. Moving away from the usual turn based combat that RPGs traditionally use, this form of combat interface allows gamers who are new to the genre to enjoy the game without loosing interest due to the intricacies of the character profile and the effects of attack, defence and chance upon the successful outcome of any action. It is all there for gamers who want it and can be ignored by those who don’t.

The game suffers slightly from long loading periods and on the Xbox 360 version some of the graphics and background textures can detract from an otherwise excellent gaming experience. On occasion some of the cut scenes suffer from glitches or missing segments of dialogue but these are very few and far between. Re-playing the section concerned often fixes the problem. Dragon Age: Origins is, overall, an RPG fan’s dream and Bioware’s efforts to make the genre more accessible to gamers not usually drawn to such titles is remarkable. With downloadable content available and more planned for the Christmas market the games longevity could well increase like other titles such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Eddie Izzard, Live at the Brighton Centre

Last night I had the privilege of seeing Eddie Izzard perform his latest tour, Stripped, live in Brighton. The Brighton Centre was an excellent venue for such a popular and well liked comedian and it was filled. As the crowd waited for show to start random images of people in the audience were shown on the big screen whilst Twitter messages to @eddieizzard scrolled up the screen (I even tweeted myself and saw my message appear).

Izzard appeared on-stage to the tune of “let me entertain you” and he certainly did from the outset. Dressed in jeans and a tailcoat, rather than his usual trademark cross-dressing, he immediately delved into his own particular brand of surrealist comedy. Painting a vivid picture for the crowd he ushered them along his story assisted, as always, by a band of anthropomorphic characters of his own making, to highlight the ridiculousness of some of the basic things we take for granted, for instance the pointlessness of human appendix.

The show’s aim, he stated at the start, was to talk about everything, and I mean everything, from the beginning of time to our modern condition. He did it sublimely with a wonderfully formulated story, which appeared off-the-cuff, but I’m sure it was not. Despite the tangential approach to his subject he consistently kept his array of themes and characters on-track and continually returned to jokes and points from earlier in the show to add depth to his ramblings and providing countless moments of side-aching laughter to his crowd.

Even when the odd joke stumbled he recovered cleverly by mocking the silliness of the comment in his “imaginary notebook” and always achieved a laugh. On the rare occasion when he was heckled he managed to get a laugh out of his quick-witted riposte. Eddie Izzard is one of the cleverest comedians touring today and his particular brand of educational madness will, no doubt, continue to draw crowds for years to come. It was an excellent night of entertainment with one of the world’s funniest men. A recent performance of this show was recorded in London and is available to buy on DVD.

The Gaming Gentleman gets his Tweet displayed on the Big Screen at Eddie's gig

Friday, 27 November 2009

Championship Manager 2010 for Apple iPhone

The variety of applications (Apps) available for the Apple iPhone never ceases to amaze. Recently big-name game developers have realised the market potential of mobile versions of their games and acted accordingly. Eidos have released their latest instalment of their football managing series, Championship Manager 2010, costing £2.99 to download from the App store and taking up a mere 9.4mb of space on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Fans of the series and everyone who thinks they can manage their favourite football team better than real incumbent are in for a treat.

With three language options (English, French and Italian) and several major leagues from which to choose a team to manage, setting up the game feels very much the same as doing so in the computer version of the game. After entering a name and an age as well as selecting some personal characteristics, which will influence how the players, fans, media and Club’s Board will respond to you, the player is able to choose what league from which country they wish to be involved in and, of course, select a team to manage.

The interface is geared toward the touch screen technology that is at the heart of the iPhone and the scale of the customisable options and tactics menus is astounding. The player has control of the club’s finances, the players’ training, interaction with the media and, primarily, team selection, tactics and transfers. Build your team, train them and compete in the world’s greatest football leagues. The in-match action screen, however, struggles slightly and it is difficult to follow the progress of the ball and if watching at speed it is difficult to see when players are injured or if they are yellow carded as the game does not slow down or stop automatically.

The game does suffer sometimes from the clumsiness of the thumb operated touch screen interface but, overall, Championship Manager 2010 promises many hours of intense, interactive game-play and the save game option ensures that even if your gaming is interrupted (like by your train arriving at your destination etc) you can carry on when time allows (like when you decide to stay on the train anyway). Despite being designed for a mobile platform the game is as close to the full, computer version as can be expected on a telephone and it’s small glitches are forgivable when considered against the scope and longevity of the game.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Ministry of space: An alternative history

Warren Ellis’s graphic novel, Ministry of Space, explores the possible result of an alternative timeline in which, at the end of the Second World War, the British secured the German rocket scientists and research that were, in reality, scooped up by America and the USSR. The story focuses around Air Commodore John Dashwood RAF who, being a veteran of the Battle of Britain, approaches Churchill with a plan to ensure that the British Empire is in the best possible defensive position for any future war by securing the rocket technology being worked on by the Germans and detaching the UK from the Cold War which was inevitably in the making. This would see Britain concentrating on her own development, and specifically on the new frontier of space, and allowing Europe to repair itself after the war.

Dashwood is passionate about his project and convinces Churchill that his is the only way to secure the future of the Empire. The story is set in 2001 and returns in flashback to the events leading up to the focus of the plot, a meeting onboard a British space station between the now aged Sir John Dashwood and the current hierarchy of the Ministry of Space.

Through the flashbacks we see the development of technology at a greatly increased rate than was the case in reality. The amazing artwork by Chris Weston produces a believable evolution of WW2 British design into the modern jet era and then beyond into the space age. The story is brilliantly juxtaposed against our timeline, with Dashwood achieving the first manned space flight in the 1950s and Britain landing a man on the moon in the 1960’s claiming “this territory in the name of Her Majesty” in a very clever commentary on the colonial British mindset.

The story has a very dark undertone that reveals itself superbly as the plot unfolds and throughout, despite the great achievements of the Ministry, the reader is made to think of the social consequence to the continuation of the colonial British Empire beyond the second half of the 20th century.

The plot is compelling and leaves the reader wanting more. As a “what if” story, Ministry of Space has the reader truly considering the ramifications of subtle changes to history and the morality of decisions that are made with the best of intent but without due consideration to consequences. Ellis is a superb writer and Ministry of Space ranks amongst his best work.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A mile in their shoes (The appeal of role playing games)

Entertainment technology is advancing at an expediential rate, with faster processing speeds and higher capacity gaming machines allowing developers to constantly improve on gaming experiences. One area in which such technological leaps are readily evident is within the world of first person role-playing games (RPGs). RPGs have been widely popular, especially in the Japanese gaming market, for as long as gaming consoles have been around. Setting the standard for many years, Japanese RPGs are formulaic but extraordinarily deep in both story and gameplay. Most RPGs take the form of either a space opera, for example the Final Fatasy series, or are middle-ages anchored Lord-of-the-Rings-esque fantasy epics. Most of these games were squad based, relying on a range of traits unique to each squad character to achieve the overall aim.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion set a new standard in Western RPGs

In recent years Western games developers have taken up the mantle from the Japanese market and begun to produce some of the most spectacular gaming experiences available. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one of the first truly epic games to arrive on the Xbox 360 platform. It is a spectacular game in which the player can customize everything about the character they play. Their species, race, features, background and abilities are all editable allowing every player’s experience of the game to be almost entirely different from the next. Furthermore the game had a wonderful orchestral score and excellent voice acting (including Patrick Stewart as the Emperor) that immerses a player in a deep and intricate story.

Bioware’s Mass Effect is one of the finest games released on the Xbox 360. With many of the traits of Oblivion, character customization and a selection of backgrounds from which to start the game, the player is placed in the role of Commander Sheppard, a human upon whose shoulders the fate of humanity and, eventually, all life in the known universe rests. Again, the game is of epic proportions with a classic three-act story arc, which demands the player’s complete attention and dedication. Whereas Oblivion had taken RPGs into the domain of single player, Mass Effect included a squad based command system that allowed players to tactically command their compatriots in the real-time combat scenarios, although sadly the computer controlled friendly forces could often act rather densely and could detract somewhat from the combat experience. The cinematic cut scenes and interactive dialogue choices create an adventure opus in which a gamer can loose themselves.

One of many alien species which make up the galactic community in Mass Effect

RPGs in the modern format are a new generation’s answer to, although not a substitute for, a traditional movie/TV/book style of entertainment. With similar budgets, and in some cases casts, to Hollywood blockbusters, RPGs are more immersive and, more specifically, the player has control of the outcome. Unlike a movie where viewers are simply spectators to events, RPG games make players the pilot. They take the lead and decide where their story takes them. They make the decisions that influence the outcome and they guide the character’s actions in accordance with their own morality or, conversely, completely out of character and experiencing the results of actions they would never consider in the real world. The length of RPGs can vary from around 20 hours of gameplay to in excess of 80 hours and they can, of course, be played through again, differently with different characters to create an entirely new gaming experience a second time through.

The greatest appeal of RPGs is that they place the gamer in a role and a situation in which they would never find themselves in real life. Anyone can be a hero or a villain, regardless of their backgrounds, character or abilities, by taking on the guise of these fictional characters and acting out their responses to the on screen stimulus. Whilst gaming will never replace movies and books they are quickly becoming a longer and more immersive entertainment experience and should, over the next few years, begin to be recognised by the non-gaming public in general as a viable platform for story telling and a true rival, in terms of economic impact, to other forms entertainment media.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Modern Warfare Boo

I am suffering terribly. I am an avid fan of the Call of Duty series and the latest release: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, was released this week to great acclaim worldwide. Breaking all records in its first week, the game has now generated more money in its opening week than any other form of entertainment media in history. No film, DVD, CD or game has made so much money, $310 million in its first 24 hrs.

The reason that I am suffering is that my dear fiancée discovered that I desperately wanted this game when it came out and ordered it for me…for Christmas. As lovely as this gesture is, the hardcore gamer in me is shaking like a crack addict going cold turkey. However, my overarching gentlemanly values stop me from running out and buying it, only to ruin the gift from my dearest. So I will have to wait until Christmas, but, on the bright side, I’ll have something to look forward to.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Achievement Unlocked: Points Whore

Microsoft’s ever-impressive gaming platform, the Xbox 360, has brought countless hours of joy and entertainment to gamers the world over. Xbox LIVE has connected those gamers over the Internet so that they can play together and interact online in a way never before possible. The games produced for the console are constantly improving and pushing back the barriers of gaming with more and more realistic physics engines, smoother, sharper and more impressive graphics, and game-play which is more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster than mindless, simple, button-smashing fun. Microsoft has created all of this but there is a downside. With good there is evil, with matter anti-matter, with Clapton the Spice Girls. The Xbox has released a plague upon the gaming world: Point Whoring.

Point whoring is the practice of needlessly accruing vast amounts of Achievement Points simply for the sake of having a higher gamer score. Every Xbox user has a Gamer Tag, which displays their chosen name, a picture and details on the gamer’s reputation, as well as a gamer score. Unlocking achievements within Xbox games increases these scores. The achievements vary in their worth and difficulty to obtain and points range from simple things, such as successfully completing a level, to the plain ridiculous, such as hitting a flag 4 times with a golf ball or kicking a chicken.

Many (if not most) gamers now use these whore points to compare themselves to others and see a high gamer score as a symbol of gaming virility. Some are forced to continue playing games, even once complete, to squeeze out every last achievement and bolster their gamer score in the process. Gamers can become obsessed with that familiar “Blop-ping” noise that indicates your most recent triumph. Certain games are purchased purely because it is easy to get points by playing them for a short period of time. These points have no value. They cannot be exchanged for anything

The "Achievement" symbol has come to be used in all manner of places

Despite what I have said here I have to admit, like an addict confronted with his problem, that I have been points whoring. I noticed recently I was doing ridiculous things in the gaming world to get another achievement point. From spending time at Liberty City’s golf range trying to hit a flag with a golf ball four times instead of completing one of the story missions, to replaying games through to choose different paths and receive different awards. I once mocked my friends for chasing the Xbox achievement dragon, but I now find myself counted amongst their number. That said, and shame aside, hunting for achievement points in games can often lead to some of the most fun and amusing game-play, for example the occasion when I received an achievement point for placing a grenade in someone’s pocket in Fallout 3, just to watch their trousers explode. I resolve to continue my gaming, but to limit my point whoring to occasions when I am bored so as that the practice does not become the main driving force of my gaming, but a tiny sideline treat every now-and-then.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Ballad of Gay Tony: Making golfing fun (First impressions of GTA4’s new DLC)

On Friday night I paid the princely sum of 1600 Microsoft points on my Xbox LIVE account to download the latest episode from Rockstar’s GTA brand: The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBoGT). My broadband connection is not the fastest in the world, but is sufficient for my usual online gaming and downloading requirements. TBoGT, however, measures a whopping 1.8 gigabytes and my Feudal age connection simply couldn’t download it as quickly as I would have liked. I sulked a little and then resigned to leave the system switched on and downloading overnight.

On Saturday morning I woke up earlier than usual, without the aid of an alarm clock and bounded into the front room, hoping that TBoGT had completed its journey across the Internet to my Xbox’s hard drive. Success; with the download complete my latest gaming adventure could begin.

TBoGT is just as visually stunning as it’s parent game and from the opening sequence, weaved cleverly into a cut scene from GTA4, the old familiar GTA style is evident. It appears that the player character is, once again, smart and resourceful (let’s be honest, Rockstar aren’t going to insult their customers by making them take on the guise of a moron) and, once again, has a shady past which he seems keen on putting behind him. The game-play is familiar but with the promise of new tweaks such as the much-touted base jumping and parachuting as well as the ability to get behind the controls of an agile attack helicopter.

The story line, so far, has been filled with clever and witty dialog, a fair spattering of toilet humour and the obligatorily offensive content for which we all really buy these games. The addition of an underground cage-fighting aspect to this DLC gives the player another distraction to elongate the gaming experience and after every mission you get a percentage complete screen with targets which will allow you to compare your progress and skills against others around the world over Xbox LIVE (but only if you complete the mission without any replays).

So far TBoGT is living up to the hype. I am only a couple of hours in but I have already hit golf balls at a hapless goon tied to the front of a golf cart, engaged in a drive-by shooting and a car chase in the afore mentioned sporting vehicle, blown up a super-yacht with a prototype attack helicopter and killed a loan shark who had been harassing my dear-old mum. There are a few passing references and crossovers to GTA4 and The Lost and The Damned and this looks set to continue. More to follow…

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A rock and a hard pace

The rock of Gibraltar stands tall and proud, keeping a watchful gaze over the Straits of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean. Situated at the far south point of the Spanish mainland, Gibraltar’s distinct formation is instantly recognisable to mariners the world over. With Spain to the North and Morocco to the South, the independent British overseas territory is at a strategic choke point as well as an attractive sightseeing spot for tourists. It has been in British hands since it was captured in 1704 by a combined British and Dutch Naval force of marines and sailors who bombarded the town and later invaded during the War of Spanish Succession. Despite many attempts to regain the territory, the Spanish have been unsuccessful. The rock itself is awe-inspiring. The peaks and sheer faces are rugged, coated with vegetation and home to the celebrities of the territory, Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques Apes (or Rock Apes), who serve to delight visitors shortly before stealing and trying to eat their cameras.

After arriving here recently (hence the lack of posts lately) I decided to join a couple of friends in a ritual known as “The Rock Run”. For the uninitiated the Rock run can be described simply as running from sea level up to the two peaks of the Rock (1,390 feet high). Whilst it may sound insane I can assure you it is well worth the substantial effort. On Sunday morning, at 8am, 30 minutes before sunrise, my friends and I started jogging from an area close to the port. Following the winding roads up the ever-increasing inclines of the mountain we passed the waking town and left its white-washed buildings behind as we continued our ascent. The sun rose in the east but we were in the shadow of the rock and, although it was light, we could not yet see the new day beginning.

The light spilled over the Western Mediterranean and highlighted Spain the West and the dusty mountains of Morocco to the South. A steady stream of commercial shipping was silently slipping out of the Atlantic and into the Med, and vice-versa. Every now and again we would hear the high-pitched yelp of one of the rock’s furry inhabitants and occasionally we would see an ape lazing in the morning heat. As we puffed and panted our way to the top we were overtaken by a stream of mini-vans and taxis ferrying tourists less inclined to run up to the rock’s peaks.

After 42 minutes of hard work we reached our goal of the second peak and rested, admiring the panorama of the bright, warm October morning. A group of tourists came up to us looking puzzled. We had obviously been running; we were out of breath, dressed in sports kit and sweating profusely. One man asked what we had been doing and I answered, plainly “we ran up here.” He looked shocked and asked where from so I pointed out the harbour in the distance below and he looked back again and asked me why. I didn’t have an answer for him. Perhaps we did it to challenge ourselves, perhaps because we had enjoyed the exercise, but looking back now I believe my answer would be “Because we could.” What I mean by that is that despite the effort, the hard breathing and the now painful calf muscles, I wouldn’t have changed that Sunday morning for anything. The idyllic scenery at the top of the rock coupled with the great feeling of achievement having made it up there, as well as the camaraderie of doing it with your friends, combined to make a wonderful, if exhausting, morning, and one I won’t soon forget.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In the beginning there was the word… and the word was AMIGA

On the cold morning of 25th of December 1991, my twelve year-old self bounded down-stairs at what I now consider the ungodly hour of 6 am, shoving my little brother out of the way in keeping with the seasonal spirit. We had been awake for some time before, but our parents had a strict “not until 6” policy that we were to adhere to on Christmas morning. My sister was approaching her second birthday and was not as exited about Christmas as my brother (who was 10) and I.

When we finally burst through the door of our front room and ran directly to the small pile of wrapped gifts strewn on the floor around the Christmas tree our focus was entirely on what our “Big present” would be. My brother and I always had a “Big present”, the one that was the centrepiece of our holiday. Most of the other gifts would be what my parents referred to as wrap-ups, books, videotapes, games etc. We would always have an orange and some hazel nuts in our stockings, as it was traditional in our house. We tore at the wrapping, which my mother had spent hours perfecting without regard for her labour, and revelled in joy at the gifts it hid. But something was up. My brother and I kept looking at one another after opening the larger presents and finding board games and books, socks and other things that Aunties think 12 year-olds would like, unable to recognise what was different.

Once all the gifts were unwrapped and there was, in-fact, no bike, pool table or such-like, my brother and I noticed our parents watching us with large smiles pasted across their faces. Behind them, on the dining table, which we had rushed past in our eagerness to get to the loot, was an Amiga 500, set up and switched on in all it’s 16-bit glory. Our parents were rightly amused and I look back on our behaviour that morning with a mild shame, but I was a child and knew no better at the time.

Despite our ordinary state of constant competitiveness my brother and I played for hours, and later days, weeks, months and a couple of years, together, fairly and with good humour. We played Lemmings, Rick Dangerous and Captain Planet to name but a few and there, on that cold Christmas morning, my real love affair with gaming began. I had computers before the Amiga. I’d had a Spectrum ZX, a Commodore 64 (with such ground breaking titles as Harrier Carrier and IK plus) and other, simple game machines, but they were slow to load and used cassette tapes. The Amiga 500 had a floppy disc drive and many, many games. I could never get bored with it and it only got better as time went on. Basic games made way for more and more complex games like Sensible Soccer and, eventually, mammoths of gaming experience such as Frontier: Elite 2. There was always something new and exciting coming out and that sense of limitless game-play and infinite possibilities is why I can trace my gaming career back to that Christmas day 18 years ago.

Those games seem very basic now and it’s almost a mystery why such games should have seemed so advanced at the time. I wonder if in 18 years from now I’ll look back at the Xbox 360, fondly, and wonder how I was so engrossed by simple 3-D graphics, surround sound and real-world physics engines that powered such “basic” games as Assassin’s Creed, GTA 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A very modern friendship (How networked gaming helps me keep in touch)

In my formative years I had a core group of 5 very good friends. Some of us had been friends since we were children and others were assimilated into our collective during our university years. We did everything together from procrastinating at one another’s homes when we should have been studying to nights out on the town and even holidays abroad. My time at university was special and the friendships cultivated there have lasted the decade since I left. My working career began in earnest shortly after graduation and my chosen profession has taken me away from my hometown and those wonderful people I call my closest friends. I am not the only one of our group to have moved on to new pastures and we are now spread out across the UK making the best of our lives.

We have, however, stayed close. We all reconvene, on occasion, back in our hometown and go to the pub to play catch-up. We often just go to someone’s house, sit on the sofa and have a drink and a chat or watch a movie, which we all talk over, and, more often than not, play some multiplayer video games which seem to get better the more inebriated we become. Sometimes we travel the length of the country to visit our respective new homes and adopted towns and cities. On these occasions the host will take great care to ensure that the others are entertained, fed and watered and above all that we can enjoy the rare and precious time we have together.

We are all big gaming fans and back in the days before wireless networks we used to go to incredible lengths to achieve some basic networked multiplayer gaming. I would often disassemble my PC, pack it into the back of my car, and drive down to my friend’s house where we would set up the computer next to his so that we could network the two via an Ethernet cable. This was all so that we could play a couple of precious hours of Soldier of Fortune or Star Wars in multiplayer. The idea of playing against another human, and your best friend to boot, in place of a mindless and, at the time, quite basic AI was worth the hassle.

Today I have Xbox LIVE. My friends also have Xbox LIVE. What this means for we merry band of brothers is that we can recreate those nights we used to spend together despite being geographically separated. With the use of an Xbox and a microphone headset we can spend a night chatting whilst playing against (or with) each other on the latest game that we all like. We can even play separate games but keep a chat room open so that we can still talk away the night while engaged in different activities. I find this to be amazing. What online gaming has done for me is to have brought me closer to the people I want to be around, but sadly can’t be. We have drifted apart because our lives have taken different paths but technology has matured to serve, for us, a purpose that I’m sure was not intended.

Xbox LIVE is a great link in our ongoing friendship and now, even though the majority of the group are married, getting married and/or have children, my close friends and I can still make time to join together in the fight against alien invasion, to rid the world of a zombie infestation, to battle Nazis in the streets of Berlin or to take on the guise of secret agents in a race against time to save the world. I get to do this with my best friends. Who says video games are antisocial?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

I fought the law and the…law lost! (A return to Liberty City and the ridiculousness of scaremongering)

In eager anticipation of the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 4 add-on game, the controversially named: The Ballad of Gay Tony, I decided to pay another visit to my old stomping ground in Liberty City. It has been a couple of months since I last played on GTA4, even on multiplayer, and I thought it was time to get myself re-acquainted with Nico Bellic, the game’s primary protagonist, and his friends, in order to aid a more seamless switch to the new episode on its release (due 29th October).

In 2008 GTA 4 quickly became the must-have game on Xbox 360, receiving high scores by most reviewers and selling out in shops the world over. Extra content in the form of a whole new episode, The Lost and The Damned, was released in February 2009 and was very well received, expanding the gaming experience by utilising the expertly mapped and coded Liberty City and weaving a whole new storyline into the main plot by following a sideline character from the main game, Johnny Kebitz. The sheer size of the game would have stood alone against other titles on the Xbox, but was shorter than the main game. Now, with the upcoming release of The Ballad of Gay Tony, the two episodic game add-ons are to be released in the shops as well as on Xbox Live Marketplace, grouped together in a stand-alone pack name Episodes from Liberty City.

The Ballad of Gay Tony will see the player taking up the role of Luis Lopez, an assistant to nightclub owner Tony Prince, or "Gay Tony" to his friends. As always Rockstar have set out to shock and offend as well entrance and entertain. There will, undoubtedly, be complaints and protests over the game’s content and the usual calls from ridiculous groups of busybodies to have it banned “for the sake of the children” and this got me thinking. There are always those who claim violent people are influence by movies, TV and games to commit violent acts. Pious politicians and people quick to grab headlines are forever banging the drum of fear, claiming games such as GTA4 are rotting the moral fiber of our society and are a bad influence on children. Such talk almost always angers me. To begin with the game is rated 18 in the UK. This means (and I’m talking to you, parents) that children shouldn’t have access to it in the first place.

On the second count, that such violent games cause violence in the real world, I believe there to be little that can be said for or against that except to describe my own experiences as an example of the ridiculousness of the argument. I have played violent and non-violent games most of my life. In the gaming world I have murdered, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot people, aliens, monsters and mutations. I have stolen cars and run-drugs. I have also piloted a space ship, fought in World War Two and survived in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the distant future. I have never done, nor have I been tempted or in some cases able to do, any of the above. I have what most would consider a normal life: A job, a car, a home, a wife-to-be. I have been exposed to violent material all of my life and I am not a violent person.

I am also not a psychiatrist and am unable to argue about the mental state of someone who would cause violence to others in the real world and how images on TV and in games may influence their behavior. However, I would say this in closing; as I believe in freedom of speech and expression, I find any attempt to censor the public-in-general in order to prevent the violent or anti-social actions of individuals (that would probably occur by some other trigger anyway) predisposed to such activity in the first place to be misguided. So I am going back to Liberty City, to steal cars, deal drugs and shoot gangsters, and then later I will take my fiancé out for a pleasant afternoon at the waterfront, perhaps to a movie or for a sociable drink. For, you see, I can define the borders between, and keep separate the worlds of, reality and gaming/fiction. Have a safe day everyone.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The marvellous coward Harry Flashman

Having recently revisited one of my favourite books, Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, I felt the overwhelming need to write a short review and to heartily encourage any who will listen to cease all other activity immediately and rush to the nearest bookshop and purchase a copy.

Flashman chronicles the misadventures of Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE, war hero, national treasure, gentleman, coward, bully and rascal. It is the first of a series of Flashman books which are written in the style of the memoirs of Harry Flashman who, writing in his twilight days, looks back over his life and openly admits and describes his cowardly, self-centred and down-right awful behaviour which has seen him rise from school bully to one of Queen Victoria’s most celebrated soldiers and highest ranking Officers as well as one of the British Empire’s most well known heroes.

Set in the Victorian era, Harry’s adventure begins as he is expelled from his school and is forced to join the Army. As a monied gentleman he, of course, buys his commission and embarks on the first of his adventures. The problem is that Flashman is a coward. He is massively concerned with saving his own skin and will literally do anything to keep as far away from danger as possible. He is adept at pulling the wool over the eyes of others and only very few people ever really see the true Flashman. To most he is a strapping, brave and honourable man destined to great things. And this is the pull of the book. He achieves so much, mostly by accident or happenstance, and yet none of his accolades are deserved. He is cruel and bullish, vile and cowardly and the reader loves him for it. We follow him into the Army, to his marriage and on his first overseas tour serving in Afghanistan at the height of the British Empire’s power. He is the quintessential Victorian gentleman, pious and proper in society, a scoundrel in private. His character flaws are the book’s great strength and the pace of the novel keeps the reader turning pages long into the early hours of the morning.

The first book is a triumph and sets the stage for the many sequels most of which are also outstanding works of comic fiction. Although written in the 1960’s and dealing with the 1800’s, the language and writing style is easily accessible and the book is truly timeless. Fraser’s Flashman is a witty, clever alternative view of Victorian Britain and the “heroes” who helped to make the greatest and most expansive Empire the world has ever seen. Skirting around and delving into some of the most influential historic events of the time, Flashman is weaved wonderfully into the history books.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Lost in the crowd (Left 4 Dead on Xbox 360)

The idea of the undead masses mindlessly swarming the globe and forcing ordinary people to take extraordinary measures just to survive is one which has been at the heart of popular culture, film, TV, books, comics and games since at least the 1960s-1970s. There are many theories as to why zombies are our “favourite” monsters and why so many writers, directors and game producers continue to return to the macabre theme. People like to be scared, so of course horror movies and books are always popular. We like to be frightened in the relative security of the cinema, knowing full-well that all is well outside. Zombies play on our fear of what we could become. They are a comment on the mindlessness of the crowd and the surrender of identity. They are slow, lumbering and relentless, driven by instinct and not rational thought or reason. Becoming them is one of our greatest fears.

George A Romano’s zombie films rank above their peers as the blueprint for the genre. His work is not, however, simply a splatter fest of gore and violence, although gore and violence have their place within the films. His Dawn Of The Dead (1978) set in a shopping mall in the US saw a band of survivors struggling to make a life while ever-more walking dead congregate outside of the mall patiently waiting for a route in. It was a clear comment on the mindlessness of consumerism. The theme of the survivor is ever-present. Groups of unlikely friends from different walks of life and backgrounds are almost always forced to work together to overcome the unbelievably poor odds of survival. They need to rely on each other. Against these adversaries the individual would never survive.

I have never seen the execution of the survival, reliance and group synergy themes in zombie genre games so closely aligned with the fears and considerations described above than in Valve’s Xbox masterpiece, Left 4 Dead. Unlike it’s predecessors such as Dead Rising, where the aim of the game was to have as much fun killing zombies as you could, Left 4 Dead is a breathtaking experience which pits you against swarms of the undead in varying locations with one overall aim: for you and your friends to survive and escape.

The game is a triumph. It is primarily aimed at being played online over Xbox LIVE. This is so that you can play alongside other humans in your attempt to escape from the terror of the rotting corpses stumbling around and trying to eat you. This is a particularly clever device that makes you rely other gamers, despite their strengths and flaws, who you probably don’t know, to help you as you help them to survive your ordeal. Just like in the movies, you are dependant on a rag tag group of strangers for your very survival. There is a single player option for those without internet access and the other player characters are taken over by the computer AI to assist you, but it’s not quite the same.

The game starts after the four main characters, Francis (biker type), Louis (office worker), Bill (crazy old veteran) and zoey (until-recently-college-girl type), are attacked by a group of zombies and a “Tank”, a mutated zombie that looks like, well, a tank. The cut scene follows the survivors in their escape to a rooftop, where your adventure begins. Taking on the role of one of the survivors you must now try and make your way through the over-run city to an area of safety held by the army. The onus is on teamwork. Spit up and you’ll die. Work for yourself only and you’ll die. You really do have to watch each other’s backs.

The graphics are outstanding and immerse you in a dark and sinister world. The control systems are intuitive and the gimmick of teamwork really does add a whole new dimension to the game play. You are going to get into an un-winnable situation and you are going to have to hope one of your fellow survivors sees you and comes to help out. The action is fast-paced and frantic and there is a jump around every corner. It is intelligent too; set off a car alarm, you’ll attract the dead; use loud weapons, you’ll attract the dead; try moving more carefully and quietly, you might get away with it. But it won’t always work. You will have to hold off the hoard, you will have to deal with tanks, smokers, hunters and witches, the slightly more scary and difficult foes. The whole time you are on edge and you always have that unreachable goal of safety to chase. This game is awesome and is easily one of the best games on the Xbox. There is more good news; as Left 4 Dead has been around for a while now the good people at Valve have had time to develop a sequel. Left 4 Dead 2 will be hitting the shelves in the near future.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Half way to 60

Today is my 30th birthday. I was very amused by a card that I got from my good friend, which said “Watching TV, playing video games, reading comics…being 30 is like being 13 but with beer”. I laughed. It is quite true that despite being half way to 60 I still enjoy my childish pass times. I am not wholly irresponsible; I have a good, responsible and respected professional career. I am getting married next year too, so as far as I’m concerned I am quite grown up. I have travelled the world and seen great sights, met wonderful people and experienced a variety of cultures. I have seen deserts and jungles, mountains and ice shelves. I have set foot on islands almost untouched by humans and witnessed an array of wildlife so vast and varied as to defy belief. I have sailed though a hurricane and close by icebergs. I have hang-glided in Brazil, safaried in Africa and white water rafted in the USA.

I have done all this and lots more besides and today, between enjoying my day off work with my Fiancée and playing on my Xbox, I had time to think about getting older and my future. I had time to consider my chosen pass-times (gaming, reading, running, squash, football, playing guitar, scuba diving) and, thanks largely to my friends birthday card, ask myself if I am wasting my time with such things as games, comics and TV. I have come to the conclusion that I am not. I have never fretted about getting older, and I’m not doing so now. I enjoy gaming very much and I enjoy writing about it. I enjoy movies and TV and comics and books and a host of other things and I have resolved that if I can spend my time with such pursuits and still have had the amazing experiences I have in my 30 years thus far then I can’t be going far wrong. Here’s to the next 30…

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nazis…I hate those guys

What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than running around the fictional German town of Eisenstadt (real one is in Austria) gunning down Nazis as they try to go about their insidious business of enslaving Europe? Well, what if you had mystical powers derived from crystals that harness the energy of an unseen fourth dimension? Doesn’t that sound better? Wolfenstein, for the Xbox 360, throws the player into the role of BJ Blazkowicz, serial spoiler of the naughty Nazis’ plots throughout the Wolfenstein universe. His gun-totting romp through war-torn 1943 Germany is visually impressive and immerses you in an atmosphere of oppression and fear. It gives the player a feel of the WW2 call of duty type games with a supernatural twist.

The weapons are fun and customisable; although you will not be able to afford all upgrades so your choices need to be tactical and considered. The single player game will take about 7 hours to shoot through on normal difficulty setting and multiplayer will make the game last a lot longer. The addition of Veil powers adds another layer and is, in fact, quite necessary to overcome some of the more difficult puzzles and opponents. The cinematic cut scenes are a triumph and greatly increase the gaming experience.

Unfortunately the WW2 theme is in danger of being overdone in first person shooters, with titles like Call of Duty: World at War leading the charge in the genre, and other worthy attempts such as Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway already marking out the territory as their own. Wolfenstein survives looking too same-old, same-old with the supernatural element coupled with not just a little nostalgia from the older games in the series for those of us who played them. But without that element I think Wolfenstein would slip into the average category and I fear the replay value won’t be that great. That said however, Raven’s latest instalment to one of gaming’s oldest institutes is largely appealing and will fill more than a few hours of your life with glorious Nazi shootin’ fun.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

I have created a monster!

We all have dark little secrets that we would rather no one knew about, and mine is this: I own a Wii. Yes I, a serious gaming fan, own a gimmicky toy which, despite its childish mechanism for game-play, is a lot of fun. This is not a problem as it doesn’t often tempt me away from my Xbox, but today this devilish device interrupted my more serious gaming. More worryingly is the reason behind it. You see after a brief walk along the local beach in the brisk wind I returned home fully intent on delving into my latest gaming melee on the Xbox, Left 4 Dead.

However, I have been thwarted in my attempts as, while my back was turned, my wonderful fiancée decided that this afternoon was the perfect time to get interested in gaming. Worse still she decided that the Wii was the better option and I have been forced to endure Wii sports and Wii fit in place of my preferred splatter fest amongst the rotting corpses of the walking dead. So, for now, I will have to wait a little longer to play through the so-far-amazing Left 4 Dead and post the subsequent review here. The only alternative is to try and wrestle the controller from my dearest, but the phrase “cold dead hands” springs to mind. Better leave her to it for now. Oh well, there’s always the internet…

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The slow death of my language

A little while ago I started noticing the slow erosion of good English in written and spoken formats. The most startling example of recent is the apparent laziness or “dumbing down” of the BBC. I noticed it the other day when watching BBC News 24 I heard the broadcaster say “Police have named a man killed in London.” I am sure that it is more likely his parents named him some years before. What she probably meant was “Police have released the name of a man killed in London.” A moot point you may think but it is just one in a series of instances of which I have taken note.

Why is it that people are “named and shamed” and not simply exposed or revealed? Why is it that every report is “damning” and that a government “U-turn” is embarrassing? Surely the ability to review your progress and correct a process gone awry is a good thing, not an embarrassing admission of inadequacy. I have been told of a “very unique” technique for something-or-other and I wonder how anything can be “very” unique. Surely something is either unique or not. No one is perfect. I am not a linguistic god and often use inappropriate words and phrases in conversation and writing. I make up words for effect in certain pieces and I split infinitives mercilessly. I do, however, know that I am doing this. I am simply aghast that a bastion of correctness and impartiality such as the BBC is falling into lazy habits. If you are at all interested in the preservation of our subtle, bold, complex and beautiful language then I urge you to read a wonderful book by one of the BBC’s finest broadcasters. The book is Lost For Words by John Humphrys.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The World In My Pocket (Conquest for the Apple iPhone)

I have the world in my pocket and it has saved me from the dark depths of boredom. You see I am at work. My “real” work. Due to the nature of my career I work away from home and away from my Xbox, a sorry state of affairs. Whilst I am currently at my place of work I am outside of working hours, so don’t fret: I am not wasting my employer’s money by blogging in work time. I do, however, find myself at something of a loose end. I have finished reading the book “Monstrous Regiment”, by the outstanding Mr Terry Pratchett, and do not have a new book with me. I will re-supply at the weekend. So it came to be that I was at a loose end until a couple of hours ago.

Whilst searching around mindlessly on my Apple iPhone I discovered a game app that is, in all but name, a digitised version of the timeless board-game Risk. The app is called Conquest and assuming that it’s not impinging on the copyright of the afore mentioned board-game it is an excellent way to while away a few hours with some tactical manoeuvring, strategic thought and the ever present dream of world domination. As I said before, I have the world in my pocket, now if I can just hold on to Asia…

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Going mad for Arkham Asylum

Batman is back and, this time, he’s not made of yellow plastic bricks. The world’s no.1 detective returns to the Xbox in a dark and serious mood more akin to the recent Christian Bale incarnation than the camp Adam West version of the 1960s. Arkham Asylum sees you assuming the role of the Caped Crusader in what is, so far, the game of the year. It’s visually stunning with an immersive plot and a format which switches game-play modes just often enough to prevent a feeling of staleness from creeping into the gaming experience. Most of the characters are true to the Batman universe, deep and believable and, as most are psychotic, more than just a little bit scary.

Rocksteady Games have managed to develop a great superhero game that anyone who has ever pulled a towel around their neck and wished they could fly will love. You can use an array of tools to help you negotiate the Asylum and find your way through the puzzles laid before you. The combat takes many forms from stealth to all out 15-on-one melee and when jumping from great heights you can utilise the glide function of your cape. In the stealth take-down sections the gameplay takes on a new level forcing you to think carefully about your moves before launching into your attacks. One of the game’s little gems is suspending a hapless goon upside down below a gargoyle before slicing the rope with a baterang and startling his equally goonish allies below. They obviously know their audience too as Rocksteady’s team have ensured that Poison Ivy bulges in all the right places with just enough leafage to spare her blushes while she seductively chats up the Bat, just before trying to batter him. Those in the know will enjoy the hidden references to other characters unseen in the game and the back-stories, which can be collected to fill out the plot as you progress.

The game does have some flaws however, not least of which are the combat controls. It is possible to win almost any fight by battering the X and Y buttons mercilessly until your fingers bleed, and this detracts a little from the sense of immersion in the game. Players really have to try and make it interesting for themselves by throwing in the odd baterang and batclaw just to spice it up. Without giving too much away the boss fights can be somewhat repetitive and formulaic, although this can be said about a lot of games. With all that aside though, Arkham Asylum is, overall, a shining achievement for Rocksteady and glorious fun to play. Put your pants on outside your trousers, start talking in a gruff voice and settle in for some gratuitous cartoon violence.