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.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

THE JOY OF SECS (That’s SECond hand games)

Being an unapologetic gaming snob I do savour being there at the front of the queue when the brandest, newest, spankingest games come out. I enjoy greatly tearing off the cellophane of the latest GTA instalment or Sam Fisher’s newest adventure and cracking open the box for the first time to have my nostrils met by that familiar and intoxicating smell of chemically treated paper from the instruction manuals. The highlight, of course, is slipping that disk into my 360 ready for my latest gaming extravaganza. Yes, there is indeed something pleasurable about the purchase of your newest game that surely cannot be matched by the rather scruffy, underhand practice of buying someone else’s cast-offs from the dreaded “pre-owned” section. Or so I used to think.

Last week, during a weak moment and with very little money to spare, I was browsing in my local gaming retailer’s when I strayed into the pre-owned section. Feeling slightly itchy I started to glance at the odd title that I had missed avoided or simply not had the time to play. With a mere £10 to spare and two days to wait until pay-day a little voice in my head urged me to bite the bullet and pick up a second hand game. At first I was surprised and the perplexed at the seemingly random pricing. Resident Evil 5 was there for a whopping £35. This for a SECOND HAND game, I mean for a few more quid you get a brand new one. But then I was drawn to some older games that were priced much more appealingly. My eye was caught by Lost: Via Domus. Now, a very good friend of mine once said that the only reason he bought this game was for the achievement points (as he is the biggest points whore I know) but, although I do value his opinion when it comes to games, this did not deter me for two reasons; I greatly enjoyed the first two seasons of the TV series (before it got too weird) and it was selling for less that £5.

Now committed to my seedy dive into this second hand world and en route to the cash desk I noticed another title that I had not yet played marked at the same low price of £5. This was The Darkness, a mafia/horror shoot-em up/chew-em up. I remembered seeing it advertised a while back and wanting to give it a shot but, being distracted by the likes of Call of Duty: World at War and Fable 2, I had missed it at its release and never come back. For those of you who might be thinking that there is time to get through all of the 360 titles that hit our shelves on a weekly basis I should point out that I work very long hours and am away from home, and my beloved X-Box, for weeks and months at a time.

So it was that on a pleasant summer’s afternoon I finally succumbed to the draw of the pre-owned world. I am not writing to review the titles, I’ll just go as far as to say they were not great but they were not bad and they helped waste away a few hours and kept me entertained for just ten English pounds…bargain (especially Lost, just for the nostalgia of that first few episodes which held so much promise). I am writing this to let anyone who may care to read it know that I am a changed man. I no longer look down upon the pre-owned section as a poor man’s option, but as an opportunity to revisit some older, and some not-so-older, titles for a lot less than one would pay for brand new. It even lets you play some not-so-good games without that nagging feeling of having wasted your money because, lets be honest, even a cinema ticket costs over £5 and only lasts a couple of hours (and films can be hit or miss too), a second hand game can last for many more and cost less. Undoubtedly I am far behind the curve with my revolutionary discovery but, to those of you who discovered this land of plenty before me, know now that I have arrived and I have set up camp.

Welcome to the Gaming Gentleman

I would like to welcome you to my new blog. I decided to set this up as a platform for some of my writing and as a place for me to record my meandering thoughts and opinions about games, books, movies or whatever floats my boat. I will endeavour to maintain a high standard of gentlemanly behaviour on this blog, or at the very least engage in the kind of high-brow and scandalous shenanigans that our Victorian forefathers would endorse…behind closed doors of course.

To give you an idea of my leanings, my platform of choice is the mighty Xbox 360 and, as you will no doubt discover a few of my favourite games are GTA4, the Splinter Cell series, Fallout 3, Oblivion, Mass Effect and the Call of Duty series. This list is not exhaustive, just a brief idea of my preferences, however I have found fun, excitement and hours of gameplay in almost all genres. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore some of the aspects that make these titles and many others, in my mind, so great.

Take a seat in the comfortable leather chairs, have Hawkins fetch you a nice brandy and please do enjoy my ramblings.

Toodle pip.