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 fiancĂ©e 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…