Sunday, 20 November 2011

"The Primary Gifting Period is coming..."

OK so it's not as bleak a thought as "Winter is coming" perhaps, but it does herald a new round of struggle and frustration and a battle against pale and dead eyed hordes- I speak of course of my fellow Christmas shoppers.

Most years I can barely summon up the kindness to pity them as they bob and weave, getting in the way and generally clogging up the place, acting as if collecting vital sacrifices of paper and faff for an unreasonable festive god.

This year is a bit different, however. I'm feeling a certain sort of sympathy for them as they worry their way from one toyshop to the next, hoping that the item they set their hearts on will be in stock, that they won't have to compromise and get something slightly sad and rubbish... A last-moment gift that screams "lack of forward planning" and whispers "You care about this person slightly less than you make out, don't you, you bastard". All of that is now my own little festive nightmare.

I've reached this point though the simple fact that I'm an uncle. I have a wonderful niece and nephew who I don't see nearly enough of and that puts me squarely in the middle of the "must not fail" present buying camp. Every uncle worth his eccentricities feels the same way around Christmas and birthdays I reckon (Aunties seem to have the festive gifts sewn up in August- how I envy them) ; He feels he must buy gifts that strike a balance between being fun and being formative and this creates a bit of a mountain to climb; how do we get that balance spot on to avoid that split second of Christmas day disappointment in the eyes of a small child?

I've decided to jettison a little of my pride and go for the figurative jugular. I have deployed a secret weapon- my mum. My mum, being the one who knows is a reliable source of inside information for those of us who are stuck where we are for most of the year. Hopefully by combining her insider knowledge and my maverick gift sourcing skills we'll make this a PGP to remember, at least until the kids lose the tags from their gifts and forget who bought them.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Phnglui mglw nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah nagl fhtagn, my dear Watson...

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is an odd hybrid of point-and click and first person engines which powers this adventure, as Holmes is called upon to investigate the seeming decampment of an aborigine manservant. His initial findings draw him and his long suffering whipping gentleman Dr Watson into a web of intrigue that appears to involve... well, the Elder Gods themselves.

From the notionally foggy but angular streets of London to a Swiss Asylum with a surprise inmate to the waterfronts of New Orleans the darkness is closing in. Can Holmes and Watson put a stop to the dark machinations of the old ones, or are they destined to join the ranks of Lovecraft's failed and broken heroes? Only your trusty lens, pocketknife and razor-sharp wits can keep you one step ahead of tentacled doom!

The game is a simple -perhaps too much so in places-but engaging PaC with puzzles that should challenge without frustrating (they reward lateral thinking rather than absurd logic) while the A.C. Doyle meets H.P. Lovecraft setting is certainly intriguing, if only as an exercise in trying to spot inconsistencies between this and the written subject matter.

It's clear a lot of love has gone into this title. The clue finding asides are always brief and satisfying, leaving you with a sense that you really are upon the trail of some Victorian do-badder and each footprint, scrap of cloth and bloodstain is bringing you closer to the denouement and Holmes' customary dose of boredom slaying marching powder.

As I mentioned briefly before, if this game has one weakness aside from the painfully dated visuals (which, lets be honest, count for very little if the game itself is good) it is that the puzzles are too easy. Holmes (or indeed Watson as you play as both at various stages) will always give you verbal queues as to what needs doing where, although they aren't actually giving you the solution on a plate and a little light head scratching is still on the cards.

All in all a decent game and one I strongly recommend to anyone who was able to enjoy Dark Corners of the Earth despite it's age.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Sadly not quite free of taint.

A little while ago I took a slap at the demo for WH40K: Space Marine on PC. It's fair to say I predicted another weak product licence akin to Fire Warrior with little to recommend it over any other game of it's type.

Oddly enough, it turned out that I was right and wrong all at once. Right in the sense that the demo was poorly put together and that it showed off perhaps the weakest of Space Marine's features, wrong in that I fully expected all of these weaknesses to be present in the finished game.

The plot of the game is your standard Relic fare- the Ultramarines (bio-engineered troops of the Emperor of mankind) have turned up to evict some dirty, green, mockney aliens from an important forge world that just happens to also make Titans. The Space Marines don't like the idea of these greasy xeno yobs getting hold of any of these walking death contraptions, so they drop by to kick the invaders' collective teeth in.

Of course it's never that simple for the boys in blue as they push back the Orks and seemingly achieve their objective some gentlemen from the Eye of Terror show up fashionably late and throw a daemonic spanner in the works. Cue a massive battle for the soul of a world with your small squad of marines caught in the middle; will you emerge victorious or will you be just another victim of the ruinous powers?

In terms of gameplay Space Marine has borrowed much from Gears of War, the third person perspective, the aiming, the regenerating shield, the combat system; in fact the only thing it hasn't taken as inspiration is the cover system. It doesn't exist.

I mentioned this in my overview of the demo and thought it might become a real issue in large battles, but I'm happy to say I was a bit premature there. You'll still miss the ability to take cover like a frostbite victim does their toes, but you'll also come to realise that the game compensates for this lack in other ways.

For instance leaping out of danger then capitalising on the enemy's missed swing is a lot more exciting and in keeping with the Space Marine do-or-die idiom (I'm aware of the tabletop game and the PC RTS game's reliance on cover yes, but roll with it a bit). I do still wish the option to block had been included though as here melee combat without blocking feels a little like two children sloshing at each other with nerf bats until one falls over crying.

Other problems have made it over into the finished article as well. The QTE finisher system, while fun for the first twenty or so kills soon becomes a boring hindrance, being the only way you can restore your core health bar which does not share the regenerative abilities of your power armour. The fact that you can't move while executing remains a consideration and will get you killed unless you unleash it at just the right moment. Sadly the right moment is usually when you don't need the health boost.

Although some have argued that it adds a thin layer of tactical thought to the otherwise hack and slash nature of the game I have to stand by my initial thoughts here. The system needed to be thought through a bit better, perhaps having killing blows generate 360 degree knock-back?

Cover isn't the only apparent inspiration Space Marine has taken from Gears. When your squad voxes in to report or give updates you'll slow to a gentle strolling pace a la Marcus Phoenix; even the "hands free" pose is the same. It was almost enough to make me think I'd mistakenly paid money for a fan-made total conversion.

The action is brutal, albeit a bit disjointed; there are some points in the game where you'll be wondering where the millions strong green skin horde have managed to hide themselves; other times you'll be fighting through seas of the damn things. It blends melee and ranged combat well, making chopping up a small horde of enemies (using the limited but effective set of combos) while occasionally taking time out to pot-shot snipers who hang back a joy to experience.

Regarding the hardware you get to play with, it's pretty much a full house. You'll get your hands on all the signature kit like Melta Guns, Plasma Cannon, chain swords and even a skull-mashing daemon hammer. These toys are what made the game for me, as each different melee/ranged weapon combo alters the flow of battle by expanding or restricting your tactical options. It still boils down to simple two-button combos, but the effects are drastically different. For example, choosing to take along the two-handed daemon hammer will rob you of almost all your ranged power, restricting to the puny bolt pistol.

Visually the game is rugged and pleasing, faithfully reproducing the grim industrial mega-structures, post-dystopian habitations and scorched battlefields of the far future. Fans of the Dawn of War RTS series will recognise the art style used also, as familiar structures and units get a nice 3-D makeover. The player characters feel authentically chunky and macho as you stomp along dealing out the Emperor's justice from the muzzle of your chosen murder tool as befits controlling a seven foot tall ubermensch bred for war.

Enough with the gripes I think. Behind all of the niggly problems Space Marine is still a lot of fun to play. It successfully captures the atmosphere of the WH:40K universe as well as we have come to expect from Relic who really do have a lot of love for the licence. Space Marine loses ground for seeming to ape so very much of the Gears of War franchise, for having spotty combat and for being too damn empty in places, but manages to rally a bit with it's solid if predictable gameplay and decent (in form if not in implementation) multi player modes to keep you in the fight.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

East Misses West.

This has been a weekend for unexpected film treats- next up Bunraku. Before I go on, take a look at the reviews on IMDB- yeah, its split between people who love it and have a set of well explained reasons and people who've decided to hate it and can't tell anyone why. What does that tell you?

Anyhow, the film's plot, such as it is,  is largely dispensed with in a stylised (its done almost like a child's pop-up book) animated introduction where it is explained that humanity has had a sort of epiphany; if they carry on inventing new ways to kill eventually there wont be anyone left to press the big red buttons. All weapons above and including firearms are banned outright and sealed away, leaving mankind to revert to a weird, neo-feudal, mildly steam punk vision of the world where martial arts meet pre-gunpowder arms like bows, sword and, well, bits of wood. Official government collapses as territory is carved out by the most vicious and powerful. Perversely, changes in leadership are not decided by gang warfare, but rather by prearranged gang combat- the winner gets to take control of the territory, the loser gets to have a long dirt nap.

The area the film focuses on is under the rule of a hulking enigma known as Nicola The Woodcutter (Ron Perlman); so named for his official costume with which he hides his identity and for his predilection for murder by axe. He has never lost a battle and such is his arrogance that he occasionally delegates the chore to one of his nine ranked henchmen or "Killers". 

Into this paper and pugilism nightmare step our first two protagonists; a cowboy in a world where guns are non-existent and a youthful, swordless Bushido master (Yoshi, played by Gackt Camui) whose obsession with honour despite the degeneration of the world leaves him at almost as much of a disadvantage as his western counterpart. The Drifter (A living Man With No Name cliche played by Josh Hartnett) has learned to brawl with punches as fast as gunshots and Yoshi doesn't necessarily need a sword to hold his own.

Each of them are looking for information that will lead them to the city's arch bastard ruler Nicola, whereupon they find their way to a seedy rundown bar full of generic punks, who they proceed to batter individually. Once they meet up and realise their paths are similar, they goad each other into combat, ostensibly unwilling to let a weaker person slow them down, but in reality because they each want Nicola's head themselves.

At this point we meet another protagonist- The Bartender (Woody Harrelson). This gentleman serves as a tempering force for the two youngsters, having tangled with Nicola in the past and paid heavily for it. He now secretly foments rebellion and aids the pair, all the while nursing a secret hatred of Nicola and thirsting for his downfall and the return of what was taken from him...

Stylistically this is a very difficult film to pin down- a blizzard of influences, homages and formatting tricks are thrown at you, its almost a mercy (possibly by design as the title refers to a Japanese form of puppetry that deals often with tragic story cycles- the tale isn't as important as the delivery, I feel) that the actual plot is such a cliche. I'm convinced I've spotted homages to 8-bit era video games such as Kung Fu Master and Spy Hunter among others, with the soundtrack providing familiar blips and blops. Film references include shades of Clockwork Orange (the outlandish gang costumes, society reverting to atavistic tribal values), Dark City (The setting, characterisation of Killer #2) and maybe even a few slight touches of noir for good measure.

You may be tempted to cry "pretension!" at all of this, but in today's film landscape it's nice to come across something so fresh. Take it for what it is and let yourself have fun, why don't you?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite... and anything long united will surely divide

Four and a half hours of pure, unfiltered awesome. That's pretty much my conclusion after watching Redcliff, a John Woo film unlike any I've seen before.

The film is set during the ever popular and ever licensed Romance of the Three Kingdoms saga (for those who haven't come across this yet, its the hugely involved story of how the warring provinces of China were eventually brought together after much intriguing, deception, legendary battles and heartache).

As you might expect, the film (OK, films plural, the extended balls-out edition is actually separated into two films) only deals with a single set of events within the saga, namely the pivotal battle at Redcliff, where a vastly outnumbered force relies on a blend of tactical acumen, deception, the courage of the assembled heroic generals (for "heroic" read "lethal at twenty paces and regard dying as something that only happens to sissies") and one very adept spy...

Beautifully, impossibly, you see it all- everything. Nothing is cut out (unlike the theatrical release, which I suppose is understandable, especially in the US market), leaving the audience with a fuller understanding of the plot developments; this gives a greater sense of scope and in turn a better all over experience, especially if you are new to the RTK saga.

It's impossible to distil a single cohesive reason why this is so very good. It might be the huge set piece battles, it might be the characterisation, the fact that non-verbal acting is so strong here or perhaps just because it oozes so much style. I just don't know. Just grab a fistful of snacks and some like minded friends and invest the time to find out for yourselves!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Not for the Emperor.

I've had a play through of the demo for Space Marine today and I can't say I'm inspired to part with actual money for it. At least at full price.

It could be that the demo was poorly structured, showing some fairly pedestrian levels that failed to impress; it could be that the game play appears to be a competent but commonplace Gears of War clone without the tactical aspects (there's no way to take cover) or it could be that the game is heavy on melee combat and yet gives you no way to block enemy strikes other than rolling out of the way. Any of those things are a potential turn off to me.

I understand that Relic are not really the go-to guys for action adventure games -Fire Warrior taught me that- but I had hoped that lessons had been learned since their last riff on the genre. It's a pity because their fondness and respect for the WH40K licenced material is as obvious as in their RTS titles, but the player experience fails to match it.

That said, there is fun to be had here, mostly in the form of the CQC execution moves (your main method of healing damage; a nice nod to the Space Marine idiom of ignoring wounds in order to kill some more xenos while the Larriman's organ deals with the injury, but it reveals another of the game's weaknesses- you cannot move while executing and enemies can still harm you!) and the ability to use an assault squad jump pack. These moments are hilarious as you take to the air and come stomping down on the poor hapless orcs with both boots, pasting them across the floor.

Of course, I can't really critique the product as a whole without having played it to the bitter end (a maxim too many net dwelling fans-with-keyboards choose to ignore), so I'll most likely be scouring the bargain bins for it soon.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

This Cat Must Learn To Fight...

Was the tagline attached to Varjak Paw, a book I picked up at random this week.

Ostensibly a children's book (It brought author S F Said a Smartie Award in 2003) it charts the first adventures of Varjak, a kitten belonging to a family of Mesopotamian Blue cats who live in the once grand  house on the hill, under the care of a woman known to them as The Contessa. The feline family members have never left the house or entered the garden beyond, have never wanted to, believing that monsters and danger lurk there. All the family members that is, except Varjak.

Varjak is a dreamer and outsider, absorbing the tales of noble ancestry his grandfather The Elder Paw spins for the kittens in front of the fireplace. Varjak believes them all, sometimes venturing even into the dreaded garden in search of adventures, like his ancestor Jalal Paw, inviting mockery from his siblings and anger from his parents.

This is where the book becomes part coming of age independence tale, part martial arts adventure. No, really. Disaster strikes as a man known only as The Gentleman enters the tale along with two identical black cats of indeterminate breed, who don't act quite as cats should...

Sensing danger, the Elder Paw attempts to teach Varjak "The Way", a secret martial art passed through the family bloodline that he feels only someone with Varjak's open mind can master. Before the training is properly begun however, tragedy overtakes them and Varjak is cast into a hostile world beyond the garden wall, a world about which he has no knowledge other than the stories of monsters and terror. Will his scant knowledge of The Way protect and guide him, or is he and his helpless, pampered family doomed?

This book charmed me immediately, it has all the hallmarks of a classic kung-fu spiritual journey; the loss of home and family, the re-evaluation of self, the great journey to discover oneself and improve one's abilities, the gathering of friends and the making of powerful enemies, acquaintance with victory and defeat and finally an epic showdown between man and cat.

Best of all this is written mostly from a kitten's imagined point of view- the martial arts Varjak comes to know are all modelled on actual cat behaviour. Ever wondered why your cat occasionally runs in rapid circles for no reason? Or perhaps how they manage to catch birds and mice so easily? Perhaps the answer lies with The Way.

This one goes on the list along with Owly as "something I'd be happy to find my kids reading". It deals intelligently with emotions such as loss and betrayal and is never caught being patronising. Recommended for readers of any age