Sunday, 28 February 2010

Adventures in post-apocalyptic America (Bethesda announces Fallout New Vegas)

Visit Bethesda’s website and you’ll see a teaser trailer for the forthcoming Fallout New Vegas. Cue fans of the 2008 hit Fallout 3 around the globe rejoicing at the chance to delve deeper into the world of the Wasteland. When Fallout 3 first hit the shelves it took the gaming world by storm. Winning many awards, including Game of the Year in 2008, Fallout 3 quickly established itself as the one to watch in the first person RPG genre.

When Fallout 3 was released for the Xbox 360 I had never heard of the franchise nor played the series of games that came before it, but I found that this didn’t matter. Fallout 3 started in a way that allowed new players to fall into the Fallout world without feeling like they were missing anything. The layout of the game is very much like Bethesda’s other great success story Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In first or 3rd person, the player can wander the vastness of the game’s map and explore to their heart’s contentment. The story is not linear and side missions and distractions are a-plenty.

The freedom of choice within Fallout 3 is one of its greatest devices. Your actions can lead you to become good, bad or indifferent, the choice is yours. You may choose to save the people of the wasteland or become their scourge. Regardless of your choices the vastness of possibilities open to players is highlighted by the great feeling of accomplishment you get from saving a group of slaves from their captors or the sadistic joy that comes from pick-pocketing a random stranger and leaving a grenade there only to watch their trousers explode.

What I enjoyed most about Fallout 3 was the intricately detailed world that it created. Although set in 2277, 200 years after a global nuclear exchange that effectively ended civilisation as we know it, the entire experience was that of a bad (read good) 1950’s sci-fi movie. The world is one where the ideals and the styles of 1950s America continued into the 21st century. When, at the start of the game, the player emerges from a Vault (a nuclear fallout shelter, one of many populated prior to the holocaust of 2077) the world that confronts them is a wasteland where those living there struggle to survive in the irradiate ruins of Washington DC and the surrounding area. Strewn throughout the area are remnants of the 1950s style of which I speak, from diners to jingoistic posters, from clunky, retro-futuristic technology to the grainy pre-pop music that blares out from the countless radio sets.

Being the quintessential Englishman, and not having experienced the American Dream first hand (save for a few visits on holiday), the America portrayed in the 1950s ideal is very appealing to me and the overarching 50s theme present in Fallout 3 fills me with a yearning to return to the USA and experience another dose of Uncle Sam. The promise of further adventure in the same style set in that most glamorous and tacky of cities, Las Vegas, brings hope for a glimpse of the world of the Rat Pack and the smoke-filled lounge rooms of Vegas, with a post-apocalyptic twist.

Early indications are that Fallout New Vegas will employ a very similar playing style to Fallout 3, with the obvious improvements to some of the mechanics and graphics that advances in technology allow. It will be set 3 years after the events of Fallout 3 and will not be directly linked to the characters or events of the previous game. Las Vegas will have remained largely in tact having not been directly hit during the nuclear war. The game remains very much in development and is, at present, due for release in late 2010.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The kindness of strangers

London’s Euston station is a bustling hub of activity, even on a Sunday morning. On my way from Hampshire to Liverpool my route took me through the capital and ultimately through one of London’s busier railway stations, where I had a half-an-hour wait between trains. Hungry and tired I decided that the best way to spend my short reprieve would be to visit a coffee shop and get a snack and a much-needed Americano (with room for milk). As I stood in the queue waiting to be served I saw that, ahead of me, a man was standing, hunched and nervous, next to an ordinary looking couple. He had tattered clothes and his hair and skin were caked in dirt. He was clearly unfortunate, probably homeless and, judging from the few words I heard him utter, possibly suffering from some form of psychological disorder. My heart fell into my gut. Don’t misunderstand my meaning, I am aware that there are countless poor, homeless and unfortunate people in the United Kingdom and around the world, but leading the relatively sheltered life I do I rarely see their situation first hand. It looks so much more divorced when you see it on television.

The ordinary looking couple were buying this man a breakfast sandwich and a large, hot cup of coffee. The lady who paid did so with no self-serving ceremony, just a kind smile and the man gratefully took his meal and wandered off. In the middle of teeming London, where people often don’t spare the time to apologise for bumping into you as they hurry past, the kindness of two people shamed me. I have a good life. I have a great job and a nice home and a car and all of the things that mainstream western people enjoy without ever really realising how well off we are.

One of the most fulfilling things I have ever done was in 2005. Whilst in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a group of colleagues and I spent several days working in an orphanage on the outskirts of the capital, Freetown. We were there to help renovate the buildings and to deliver classroom furniture and supplies that had been donated by various schools in the UK. The vast majority of the children there were orphaned in the civil war and violence of the late 1990s, many had been mutilated and were missing limbs, some simply so traumatised by what they had experienced that they didn’t speak and rarely interacted with the other children. Some of the younger children had not lived through the violence and seemed a lot more content with their lot in life, such as it was. There was a great deal of happiness there too. This, more than anything else about the orphanage, surprised me. I don’t know why it should have, but my naive expectation was that it would be a dour place filled with sadness. And there was sadness there, but it was anything but dour.

The laughter of the children surrounded the buildings and the playing fields. They played football happily and ran around screaming in delight, chasing each other and finding all sorts of ways to enjoy life. In class they were the most attentive students I have ever met. Each of them was desperate to learn, to work hard and become a doctor or a teacher and help others and escape from the poverty in which they found themselves. The Japanese nuns who ran the orphanage were wonderful people, whose lives have been dedicated to helping those less fortunate than themselves and they worked tirelessly trying very hard to help heal the deep scars that a civil war had left in the minds of some of the older kids.

While we worked, knocking down old walls and building new ones, painting classrooms and setting up the new furniture, the children played around us, some helped us and all were curious about us. Where were we from? What was England like? Did I know David Beckham? Those who were helping worked tirelessly, never complaining and not taking breaks, even though we instructed them to. We had enough food and water with us to last the 3 days we were due to be there, but seeing the mediocre quantities of food allocated to the kids we simply couldn’t eat and our food was shared out between them, some of whom had never tasted chocolate before.

Those three days, at that modest orphanage in that poorest of countries provided me with one of, if not the most fulfilling and humbling experiences of my life. On the last day as we packed up our gear and prepared to return to Freetown, the reaction of the kids and the nuns was stunning. They treated us like family, despite only knowing us for a few days. I have never seen so many grown men and women crying so openly as among my colleagues on that humid African afternoon. We were all affected in different ways by our time there. I realised that the suffering we see on television has a human face, that these people had overcome suffering many of us could not imagine, and that despite their situation they were filled with hope and excitement about the future. Although it is considered charity work, my time there was incredibly selfish. How could it not be when doing it had made me feel so good about myself?

Now I’m sat on a train bound for Liverpool, with my laptop on my knees and the dregs of my now cold coffee on the seatback, and I am determined to try and do more for those less fortunate than myself. I will think long and hard about what I can do, whether it comes in the form of charitable donations or spending some of my time volunteering or, if the opportunity arises, travelling to somewhere like Sierra Leone again, I intend to try again to help somewhere, somehow, even if my reasons are selfish. I would encourage anyone reading this, who doesn’t already, to think about doing the same.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Graphic Novel Review: DMZ – On the ground

Brian Wood’s vision of a modern civil war in the United States takes shape in the form of DMZ, a DC comics Vertigo title that has received much acclaim. The story is set against a backdrop of division and ideological conflict that sees the USA as we know it split into two factions: The United States, consisting of the original federal government and the Free States, a movement intent on re-instigating the basic ideals of America. When the story starts the two forces have been in conflict for years and the USA is in tatters. The Free States were able to get a foothold in the heartland of America because the majority of US Forces were engaged in conflicts overseas and the lack of National Guard presence at home meant that, when the uprising began, huge weapons caches were poorly guarded in Barracks throughout the mainland and were scooped up by the Free States.

The stage for the piece is New York City, where neither side can gain an advantage, and so it has become a demilitarised zone (DMZ). The main protagonist of the piece is a photojournalist intern, Mathew “Matty” Roth, who is stranded in the DMZ after his news crew are killed in an attack shortly after arriving in Manhattan by helicopter. Having lived on the United States side of the sundered country, Roth finds himself completely unprepared for life in the DMZ and the struggles that ordinary people face just to survive on a day-today basis. The concept is a very interesting one. It throws up themes of community, survival and geo-political upheaval set against the development of an initially naive character whose experiences force a massive change in his personal maturation and, ultimately, the fortunes of those held hostage to a war within the DMZ.

The comic is intelligently constructed. The quick paced plot grabs the reader’s attention while a more slowly burning back-story begins to unfold. The politics and history of the conflict are revealed in snippets of information here and there and in the form of flashback to add depth to some of the characters. Wood does not give a full explanation of the circumstances surrounding the start of the war, and it isn’t needed. The main focus of the story is very much the characters, their relationships, struggles, hopes and aspirations for an end to a war that they can neither control nor influence.

The concept and writing are not the only gems to be found in DMZ. Riccardo Burchielli’s beautifully rendered artwork paints a sublime juxtaposition of the iconic images of the world’s most recognisable city and the devastation and despair of civil war normally associated with places such as Afghanistan, Chechnya and Sierra Leone. The fate of the city in the comic is simply shocking. DMZ: On The Ground is a well-written and wonderfully inked graphic novel and leaves the reader wanting more. The good news is that with over fifty issues in the series that have been reproduced into eight volumes (On The Ground consists of the first five issues of DMZ) there is plenty more to look forward to.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Notes from a doomed galaxy (Mass Effect 2… far)

A couple of weeks ago I bought Mass Effect 2 for Xbox 360. I had been eagerly awaiting its release since I first discovered that a sequel to Bioware’s first instalment of the series was in production. After having spent a lot of time playing the first Mass Effect game in 2008 I was hooked. The sheer scope of the game was awesome and it incorporated some of my favourite themes and mechanics. I like exploring and a game that allows me to wander the galaxy and see what I can find is immediately attractive to the curious wanderer in me. The original game had an excellent storyline that developed into an epic heroic journey as the game progressed. It seemed to me to be the first game that truly bridged the gap between a book, a movie and something else, something that you controlled, the outcome of which very much depended on your actions. Players were brought into the game, made to feel like their every decision had consequences on the conclusion of the story. And they did.

Best described as a Space Opera, Mass Effect is set in a future where humans have discovered an ancient technology that propels spacecraft to other areas of the galaxy instantaneously. Using this Mass Effect technology, humanity had begun exploring the galaxy and settling colonies on distant worlds. Having encountered other races, humans discovered that they were not the only sentient life forms in the galaxy and that an entire galactic community had been forged by species that had discovered the same technology and used it to the same effect. As new members of the galactic community, humans are, at the start of the game, struggling to prove themselves worthy of a seat on the galactic council to have greater say in the workings of galactic affairs.

This is where the player character comes in and where the story really begins. You are tasked with achieving the aim of becoming the first human SPECTRE, an elite special operations agent working directly for the Galactic Council. Through your investigations into attacks on various colonies you discover that a horrifying enemy is at work, intent to destroy not just humanity, but all organic life in the universe. And this is not the first time. Many millennia previously the same enemy wiped out the race of beings that built the Mass Effect technology that the galactic community rely on so much, and seem to explain the sudden disappearance of the civilisation responsible for brining so many different races together.

As you follow the story and react to the challenges that face you, the player must use strength as well as cunning, intimidation as well as diplomacy and sheer force of will in the face of insurmountable odds to battle against an unimaginable force. The combination of third-party team shooter and real-time RPG gameplay made for tens of hours of entertainment and was, at the time, simply the best game I had played so far. Imagine my delight to hear there would be a sequel.

And now I find myself rediscovering the Mass Effect universe. The game, so far, has improved on certain aspects of the gameplay, notably the team controls and the combat in general. I have played 6 hours but feel like I have only scratched the surface and, without giving away the plot, it isn’t too much to say that you pick up where you left off. If you have a save file from the first game you can import it to the new one and continue your adventure, with your character and your actions from the first game seamlessly transferred into the new one. If you don’t have a save file you can still play the game from scratch. I am stunned by the graphics and by the acting (Martin Sheen voices the shadowy “Illusive Man”), which combine to recreate the feel of the first game, as well as improve upon it in many ways. I know there are countless hours of space hopping fun ahead of me and I can’t wait for a break in my schedule that will allow some more gaming time. Review to follow (although it may be a while).

Sunday, 7 February 2010

I’d like to thank…

I have been publishing my writing at this blog for over 5 months now. I had hoped, when I started, that this would be something I persevered with and, so far, so good. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing here and do it simply for myself. It never occurred to me that so many people would be interested in my writing and I am consistently pleasantly surprised by my growing band of followers as well as the hundreds of visitors that my counter tells me drop in every month. I was even more surprised to be given a “kick ass” award by Bendigo at last week. I would like to thank him for his kindness and you for reading my posts.

I have never been given a blogging award before and am unsure of the etiquette, but judging from what I saw at Bendigo’s blog I believe the correct form would be for me to pass this on to a few blogs that I find to be, for want of a more Anglican turn of phrase, kick ass. So I submit to you, my dear readers, the following kick ass blogs for your consideration:

The mighty mind of Bruce Coltin, a superior wordsmith whose infrequent posts keep me eagerly checking my dashboard for updates:

Blogspot’s answer to Mary Shelly, Anne Rice and the chick who wrote Twilight: Tina at The Clean White Page, whose stories keep me from sleeping. Okay, the gaming keeps me from sleeping, but if it didn’t, they would:

For his amazing headers (he creates them himself) and his impressive posts (he is Greek, writing in English), a fellow gamer and blogger, Zomgas of Gaming Eden:

I could carry on all day, but I think that might be overdoing it. Thanks again Bendigo.

Humbly yours,


Saturday, 6 February 2010

Book review: World War Z, by Max Brooks

An oral history of the Zombie War

What would happen to our society if the horrors of so many movies were to become reality and the rotting corpses of the dead began to roam the Earth, hungry for living flesh? Who knows? Max Brooks does, apparently. But wait, don’t stop reading, this book really isn’t all about zombies, it’s much, much more intelligent than that.

Set decades after the first outbreak of the walking dead, the book is presented in the form of a series of interviews conducted by a UN investigator after the end of “The War”, as humanity rebuilds the world. The narrator is largely silent, allowing the story to develop through the tales told by the characters being interviewed, only interjecting as required to draw out confirmatory points to their testimony. This mechanism for story telling is very cleverly used and the way Brooks personalises the crisis with the experiences and emotions of the interviewees makes it hard to believe that they were written by just one man.

The interviews cover all aspects of the two-decade crisis, starting with the first cases of a undead attacks, and the denial, fear and confusion that such an unfathomable incident would breed, through to ”The Great Panic”, when the world realised the magnitude of the threat facing it and, ultimately, to the post-apocalyptic fight back, or World War Z. The book is essentially a horror book, but not in the sense that you may initially assume of a zombie novel. The author doesn’t try and scare with gore or stomach wrenching descriptions of rotting corpses, although they are there; What Brooks does so well in the book is to horrify the reader by presenting the rapid deterioration of world society in the face of an unpredictable and massive change in the accepted order of things. Suddenly modern warfare is rendered useless in the face of an enemy that cannot be beaten with bombs or incendiary devices. Wild shooting and sheer force of firepower are impotent in the face of an enemy who can only be stopped by the destruction of the brain and whose numbers swell as yours fall.

The interviews span the globe and the social spectrum to give a wide back-story. Although not directly referencing one another, often-small snippets of information produced by one interviewee will add depth to another’s comments in a very subtle and intelligent way. Brooks doesn’t make the mistake of leading his reader by the nose and employs a modicum of restraint allowing his reader to work out some of the plot twists themselves and then not actually explaining them. A new world order is revealed as the story rolls on, with countries like Russia reverting to a Holy Empire and well placed Island nations like Cuba becoming the global economic and industrial powerhouse in the post-war world. What is most astonishing about the unrecognisable world Brooks describes is that, through his narrative, it is completely feasible.

Humanity is forced to use greener methods of transport and power generation, as so much of the population is wiped out the survivors cannot consume oil and other resources at pre-war rates. The fall-out from nuclear weapons used at the start of the war causes long, cold winters and the environment in general has suffered badly by the actions of mankind. What is hinted at throughout the book is that all of this serves as a warning of what may happen to our social order if we continue to consume at the levels we do now, and this is the genius and the true horror of the book: the idea that the world he describes is something our children may inherit, even without the zombies’ help. It is for that reason above all that I say that this book is more than just a zombie novel; it is a very intelligent social commentary that, sadly, may well be overlooked by many due to its genre.