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I consume a lot of media. I've decided to write about it here sometimes. Reviews and such. Note the links on the right for other parts of the site, including our photo gallery.

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Mon, 23 Aug 2010

Game review: The Lost and Damned

Lost and Damned

This game was the first episodic expansion of Grand Theft Auto 4. It has you back in Liberty City as Johnny "The Jew" Klebtiz, second in command of The Lost motorcycle gang. This is a much darker game than GTA4 - Rockstar have gone adults-only on us, rather the the cartoon violence of the previous ones. Continuous swearing, even more violence, and some fairly adult stories are on offer here.

Quick story summary: Johnny has been running the Lost while the club president, Billy Grey, has been serving time in drug rehab instead of jail. Johnny K has things running well, money coming in, peace between the gangs and other syndicates. The action kicks off with Billy coming out of rehab, resuming the leadership and immediately going on a drug-fuelled bender of violence that sets every other criminal gang against The Lost. You play as Johnny, trying to salvage what can out of this chaos and keep his club together.

The dialogue and writing is as strong as always in a Rockstar game. The supporting characters are the real stars, especially the character of Billy. He has the best lines, and actor delivering them is just superb. He absolutely nails Billy as a socialpathic, charismatic, ultra-alpha personality. Sadly the main character is much weaker and kind of fails to make an impact, probably because eveyone else is so over-the-top. The friction between Johnny and Billy is done really well, however, and makes for some tense cutscenes.

One big problem I had with The Lost and Damned is that the character you play (Johnny) is just not that likeable. Niko Bellic (from the first GTA4) was trying to find a better life in a new place. He ends up being pulled against his will into the world of organised crime partly through the actions of those around him as well as his own (sometimes misplaced) loyalty and sense of honour. On the other hand, Johnny is a career thug and criminal that has carved his own place out with deliberate forethought. He's partly influenced by the actions of those around him (especially Billy), but also by the fact that he's a bit of a thung and an asshole. I want to be inspired by the role I play in a game, not to be turned off by it!

Johnny is portrayed as a (sort of) diplomat and consensus-builder between the gangs, but the peace he's built is simply so that everyone can get on with making money through crime. In the case of Niko Bellic, his spiral into the criminal life led to a top-notch final tragic climax with a huge punch. For Johnny, the ending is more of a damp firecracker without much of an emotional payoff. Despite his best effort he loses out, but in the end we don't really care all that much.

There is some attempt at character-building through the subplots involving his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend Ashley. These seem a little like an afterthought though, consisting mainly of a seque into the next mission. Their troubled relationship or past is never really explored in any detail, leaving us to fill in the blanks. It is interesting flavour, sadly underdone.

Techincal improvements have been made since GTA4. Motorbikes handle a whole lot better in this game, as you'd hope. Instead of spinning out on every corner and flipping the second you touch a kerb, they now drive beautifully. There are a bunch of new weapons to use, which is nice. There is a reasonable amount of variety in the missions and side-quests, however I wasn't as compelled to complete every single one, as in the first game. One excellent chase mission stands out, with you as the passenger on a bike fleeing at breakneck speed from a thousand police cars, vans and helicopters. Being the passenger allows you to concentrate on shooting stuff and watching the explosions. It is chock-full of spectacular set-pieces and sequences, and is worth the price of admission alone. The main game finishes with an over-the-top action movie, giving you full access to all of the weapons at no cost, plus the licence to use them all in one glorious orgy of violence. Brilliant stuff!

Despite its faults, Lost and Damned is great fun to play. It is more of the same as GTA4, pumped up with extra guns, bikes and an adult storyline. Returning to Liberty City for another outing is well and truly worthwhile. Recommended.

Sun, 01 Aug 2010

Book review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Neptune's Pride

How's this for genre-busting: a steampunk alternate-history dungeon-crawl adventure story...with zombies!

To summarise - in this universe, around the time of the American civil war an accident involving the Boneshaker (a giant drilling machine) that was built by the husband of the main character (Briar Wilkes) released a poisonous gas from beneath the earth's crust into Seattle, turning most of the inhabitants into flesh-craving zombies. During the mad rush to escape, the father of the main character (Briar Wilkes) committed a compassionate act that saved many lives but cost his own. Seventeen years on he is a hero to those still living inside the walled-up city, and a pariah to those on the outside. This, plus the fact that her husband created the Boneshaker, hasn't made life any easier for the widowed Briar or her teenage son Zeke, who still live on the outskirts of Seattle.

Zeke decides to sneak into the city to try to find the truth about his long-lost father, Leviticus Blue. Learning where he has gone, Briar enlists the help of a rogue zepplin captain to make her way inside after her son. The action proceeds in fast and furious fashion as mother and son try to find one another in the Blighted city, dodging zombies, criminals and (for real!) mad scientists. Along the way they meet a raft of great characters such as an exoskeleton-clad adventurer, an elderly half-Indian survivalist princess and a steam-powered cyborg barmaid. It's totally ridiculous, but great fun from start to finish.

This is a ripping good yarn, as they said back in the day. An absolute hoot to read, and it gets a recommendation from me. I cannot wait for more stories in this setting. Steam-powered airship battles ahoy!

Fri, 30 Jul 2010

Game review: Neptune's Pride

Neptune's Pride

4X style games (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) have always been a bit like cocaine to me. They exert a powerful "one more go" feeling that often lasts far too late into the night. Finally I've found the answer: a browser-based Flash game called Neptune's Pride.

The reason this game solves my unhealthy obsession with this genre is twofold. One, it has simple-but-effective gameplay mechanics that are very satisfying in the style of all good strategy games. Two, the game plays out in psuedo-realtime. It is not actually possible to spend a lot of time with this game each day. I'll explain below.

Neptune's Pride is a 8-12 player multiplayer game that is free to play (although you can buy 'credits' to improve your experience, create custom games, etc). As mentioned, the gameplay is simple. Victory goes to the player that conquers a certain number of planets, from a starting point of a single planet (the kicker is, no one can win without at least half the players being wiped out completely).

All planets have three characteristics: Economy, Industry and Science. A point of economy earns you $10 per day, a point of industry generates two ships per day, and each point of science increases the rate you research each of the four technologies in the game: Weapons, Speed, Scanning and Range. Each level of technology takes progressively longer to research, and some (Weapons, Speed) are harder than the others to advance. The balance of improving your planets, plus the choice of technology to research, makes for some remarkably deep gameplay. In addition, some planets contain more resources than others, making them cheaper to upgrade and thus juicier prizes.

Planets are captured by sending a fleet of ships to them. Fleets consist of single giant "carriers" that can warp between planets. However, travel between planets is not instantaneous. It might take 10 real hours (or more) for a fleet to make the jump, and once under way they cannot be diverted. Given that there is a significant advantage to being the defender in a battle, this travel mechanic mean that fleet movement needs to be considered very carefully (especially when your opponent has a larger fleet in the vicinity).

Two other things make this a game that rewards forward-planning and taking the long view on strategy. One is the aforementioned delay in travel between planets and resource generation, making it impossible to react quickly. Victory takes planning, not reflexes. The second is that victory in battle is determined largely by the number of ships you have, and these are produced no faster than your planet's industry: two ships per point of industry, per day. Doesn't matter if you have a huge reserve of cash, you cannot buy your way out of trouble.

Beyond the satisfying strategy , however, is the best part of the game: the "metagame" of alliances and betrayal between players. There is a public bulletin board and private messaging between players. Private messages will soon be flying thick and fast as players negotiate to form and break alliances. Invasion is costly, and it is far easier for two players to conquer one. The one downside of this game is that it seems to be impossible to win without being a heartless, backstabbing son-of-a-bitch. Is your new ally holding back his fleets and letting you soak up the damage, ready for a backstab later? Better hold back your own first. Oh, the paranoia!

For such a simple (and free!) game, this is astonishingly good fun. A solid two thumbs up from me. Play it. Just be prepared to be getting up at odd hours to check on the progress of that enemy fleet on your border...

Sat, 12 Jun 2010

Book review: Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames

This is the third book in the Horus Heresy series, continuing the action in False Gods, and my least favourite of the series to date. Not to say that it was bad: this one simply "bigs it up" too much by trying to cover too many points of view. In fairness, story events are now moving faster and faster, but the book suffers a bit from "this happened, then this happened, then this happened". A couple of bits are glossed over, for example some loyalist Luna Wolves drove off Angron in battle? How in the heck did they manage to see him off, when the last book had him shrugging off a mountain falling on his head?

This book continues to develop and humanise the characters we've grown to enjoy - before killing many of them in spectacular fashion. Some characters (e.g. Erebus) are shunted aside for new ones to take the limelight (e.g. Iacton Cruze). I do wonder if this might prove to be a weakness of the sheer scale of this series. The story simply covers too much ground to follow any character for too long. Still, it keeps things interesting...would have been nice to see that prat Lucius get his, but this is sadly never to be.

This book does reasonably well as a standalone, but you really need to have read the first two to get the most out of the character interactions. A lot of loose ends are wrapped up in this book, and done quite well. Naturally, there are any number of new threads to follow. The descriptions of people, cities, and technology was interesting and vivid. The military action was handled well, moving back and forth between large- and small-scale combat. We get to see the proper birth of the Imperial Cult, and the deification of the Emperor takes hold. I found the ending a little bitter, but it couldn't have happened any other way - this story is a tragedy, after all.

Overall a solid read, but missing a certain "something".

Sun, 06 Jun 2010

Game review: Shattered Horizon

Shattered Horizon

I've played computer games forever, and first-person-shooters since Quake came out. I'm a big fan of this genre, but I'll be the first to admit that innovation is not exactly business as usual for these games. Fancier graphics, yes, new features...not so much.

Occasionally a shooter comes along that pushes the boundaries - Shattered Horizon is one of those. Set in space as a battle between suited astronauts armed with machine guns, this game's point of difference is the third axis of movement. In most (all) other FPS's you move around in a flat plane - the ground might have some bumps or buildings, and there might be some verticality to the action with helicopters or whatever, but generally the game takes place over a single fixed plane.

Shattered Horizon takes place in zero-gravity, and the only plane of reference is your own. Opponents can be in front, above, below, wherever. This is a little disorienting at first, but you soon get used to it. Zoom around in free flight with a jet pack, the controls allow you to elegantly loop and skate thorugh the maps. You have realistic momentum and kinetic energy, and you can actually move the smaller bits of scenery if you hit them. Alternatively you can affix yourself to any largish piece of scenery, run around, kick off and fly to the next surface. This is a really novel, truly 3D method of movement in a shooter, and it sets this one apart.

In a regular multiplayer FPS, you can generally predict where attacks will come from - front, back or sides. In this they might be above or below too. The HUD contains a radar that tracks friends and foes, and this becomes essential for orienting yourself (especially when you violently reorient yourself by "snapping" to the scenery). Given the relative blackness of space (though there are many ambient light sources), the ability to spot enemies becomes important. I quickly found myself crouched in a shadow, watching for the telltale glow of manuevouring jets or tracer fire. The ability to hide using shadows and cover, and to spot (or blind) enemies using flares or EMP grenades is important to successful play.

Another cool touch is the sound; obviously there is none in the vacuum of space. The gimmick here is that sound is "simulated" inside your helmet; along with the radio chatter of your teammates, you hear directional queues like gunfire and explosions. I like the fact that you can also go into "silent running" where you turn off most suit functions, including sounds. While running silently you become quite vunerable, losing your HUD, radar, gunsight and the ability to latch onto surfaces. However, you won't show up on enemy radar and you can still shoot, providing an opportunity for sneaky stealth kills. Going silent has an odd dreamlike feel: the lack of sound and HUD clutter make a strange contrast to the usual manic FPS environment.

Overall this is a very playable, enjoyable game. There are a relatively small amount of maps and weapons compared to other FPS games, but the novelty of 3D movement and relatively low price more than makes up for this. Recommended.

Tue, 01 Jun 2010

Jamie Alexander Felton

Jamie Alexander Felton

Born at 1406, 30th May 2010, weighing in at 2794g. I am rather absurdly proud of this little guy, and Fiona. I've uploaded some photos to our Photo Gallery.

Fri, 28 May 2010

Game review: FUEL

FUEL

So here's an idea: you want to make an open-world racing game, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape of huge proportions. You want to have a variety of on- and off-road cars and bikes available to use, challenges and unlocks for the more obsessive players. You want to be able to free-ride anywhere at all when you're not actually racing. Then you hit a snag: what's the background? Why are you and a few other extreme-sports types racing around these thousands of square kilometers full of abandoned buildings, crashed big-rigs and (occasional) cow skeletons? What calamity led to this entire world being abandoned to a bunch of reprobate dirt-bikers? A tough question, and the writers are sent away to come up with something. Then you and the rest of the team have a brain-wave: we won't bother writing a backstory! Let's just race!

Of course, this half-hearted unexplained apocalyse annoys me a bit; I'm a story kind of guy. Therefore I'll make up my own: the zombie apocalyse came and went, 28 Days Later-style, but only in North America. All the zombies died off, leaving a few rugged survivors. One of these groups happened to be into moto-cross, and decided to make the best of a bad situation by ripping up the empty landscape to their hearts' content.

An astonishing amount of effort has gone into the world of FUEL - there are literally thousands of square kilometers to explore, all painstakingly handcrafted. They've obviously employed some people as level designers that are borderline OCD to put this thing together. The landscape is suitably anarchic, full of rusting cars and burning forests. It looks superb.

This game really boils down to some extreme-sports guys' fantasy: a whole world devoted to tear-assing around in vehicles, with no rules or limitations. The developers (Asobo Studio) have stripped out all the boring parts of vehicle racing and left only the races themselves, plus the freedom to just pick any direction and drive as far and fast as you can. If you crash, you're back behind the wheel in seconds - no worse for wear.

The races themselves are varied and quite well done, with checkpoint races, pursuits and standard lap races mixed up between vehicle types and environments. Winning races serves to earn career points, which unlocks more of the landscape to explore. Spaced out around the maps are "vista points", generally high spots overlooking some spectacular scenery. You can also pick up extra designs for your vehicles; purely cosmetic, but it does serve to encourage you to get off the beaten track. For mine, it's the freedom to drive anywhere that elevates this about generic racing.

Overall, this is a fairly good time. It looks good and it's great fun just hooning around exploring the world. It's crying out for some single-player story mods though, this world is too good to waste on the racers!

Tue, 25 May 2010

Game review: Alan Wake (Episode 1)

Alan Wake

So I got to play the first episode of Alan Wake the other day. This one's been coming for round about forever - the last major game by these developers was Max Payne 2 (great good fun, that one). It was on XBox, but we'll forgive that because it was so much fun!

This game is a supernatural thriller, and sets some of the best atmosphere I've seen in a game. It has some amazing looking light and shadow effects, which is used to great effect as a gameplay mechanic: you use your torch to "burn" the darkness away from your supernatural foes, rendering them vunerable to your bullets. The sound is also excellent (you'd hope so in a "psychological thriller"), and the voice acting is top-notch. All the little details add up to make it an immersive and entertaining experience.

I found the first episode very tense in parts, so they've done their job properly. Starting off in a twilight-zone weird dream senquence, we get a little normalcy as a scene-setter to end up creeping through a darkened forest toward the safety of a petrol station's lights, pursued by a ghostly axe-wielding maniac.

The gameplay was not all that challenging on normal; I'd play on hard in future. Multiple enemies attack with little warning at several stages in this episode, creating some tense fight scenes. It helps that Alan is no typical computer game superman; his aim with a pistol is wobbly, and he runs out of breath quickly while running. The cutscenes are very well executed and voice-acted, although the in-game characters' faces were a wee bit plastic. Remedy, go talk to Valve or Rockstar about animating faces properly!

I can't wait to play this game on the PC. The developers announced that this was cancelled a couple of months ago, though I'm betting that they'll release it for PC in a year or so (after all that lovely console money has been milked). Here's hoping!

Concluding remarks: effing good fun, especially played in a dark room with the sound up!

Mon, 24 May 2010

Book review: False Gods by Graham McNeill

False Gods

This is the second book in the Horus Heresy series, following on from Horus Rising. It picks up the action almost immediately where the first book left off, cutting the need for any laborious back-story (and leaving more room for action). All the main characters are struggling to come to terms with experiencing the effects of Chaos first-hand by throwing themselves into training, study or substance abuse.

An aside: I'm having trouble crediting that no-one in the Imperium, with the possible exception of the Emperor, knows about the Chaos powers. Every other race and culture that they crush seems to be aware of the dangers of the Warp. Then again, there's been plenty of indication so far that this information might be being suppressed. The plot thickens!

This book covers more of Horus' seduction by Chaos into betraying the Emperor and undertaking the Heresy. The action is well-paced and efficiently written, with no parts feeling like filler. There are more and more indications that the Great Crusade, at Horus' command, is less about unification than conquest and slaughter - the inmates are running the asylum now, and it ain't pretty. We're heading to Istvaan by the end, and (knowing the general story a little already) I'm starting to dread what's going to happen there.

The character development is this book is extremely well done. The increasingly-cynical Astartes marine Loken becomes more and more suspicious of his comrade's motives. The scientist orator Kyril Sinderman is shaken out of his rationalist worldview by first-hand glimpses of Chaos. The drunken poet Ignace sinks further into despair as he senses the darkening of the Great Crusade's purpose. Me, I want to read more about Angron - the World Eaters primarch seems like a stark raving nutbar! Hard to see how any rational person would put him in charge of tens of thousands of trained killers, but he sounds like great fun to write about.

On the other hand, I felt that the character of Horus wasn't particularly well-portrayed. He comes across as impulsive and (at times) a bit like a petulant child - hardly the charismatic near-god I expected. He seems to slip into betrayal with barely a second thought (although in fairness, I suppose that the Chaos Gods are supposed to be masters of deception). In addition, he seems to convince an awful lot of the supporting cast to betray the Emperor they have venerated for two centuries with hardly a twitch. Again, probably a reflection of how well-regarded Horus is; though it would have been nice to hear a bit more of the persuasive speech that he must have used.

It's a measure of this series' length and depth that it took two whole books for Horus to come out and talk about betrayal openly (in the final pages). That's not a bad thing though - this story really needs a proper telling. For my money, not quite as strong as the first but overall, another worthwhile read.

Sat, 22 May 2010

Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

Set in future Thailand where oil scarcity has brought the global economy to its knees and GM plagues have wiped put most of the world's species, this is a completely convincing story and one of the best science-fiction novels that I've read. It's also grim as hell.

Given the scarcity of energy following the oil collapse, everything is now measured in terms of calories. Biotechnology rules, energy-intensive activities are powered by GM elephants, and global transportation is carried out using dirigibles and clipper ships. The title role is Emiko, a genetically-engineered human. She is a New Person - manufactured and grown to serve. Engineered to be faster and more capable than any regular human, she is crippled by a built-in stuttering in her movement, and her mental conditioning as a dutiful slave since birth.

As with any fiction, it's the characters that make a story and (in addition to Emiko) they are all excellent. You can't help barracking for almost everyone, even when they are working at cross purposes. Everyone is trying to help themselves, but we since we know their motivations and fears we can forgive them almost anything. Oddly enough, the only "virtuous" character here is a jackbooted government thug. You'll have to read for yourself to see how this works. No one is completely innocent, with the possible exception of the horribly abused Windup Girl. New People are considered soulless in this setting, justifying the most awful treatment of Emiko by the society she exists in.

This book is a just-about perfect example of science fiction; the setting is strange but plausible. The mix of low- and high-tech produces a great sense of future shock. Parts of the book are horrifying - there are some violent moments, including two scenes of sexual assault. However, it's not gratuitous - they serve the story. Don't let this put you off a superb read.

Bottom line: definitely in the running for science fiction novel of 2009/2010. Strongly recommended, even to non-sci-fi fans.

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