Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Bat's Fantastic. Batman: Arkham Asylum Revisited.

Below me, from my hidden position in the rafters of a massive hallway, are at least fifteen of The Jokers cronies. Fifteen, big, burly, tattooed, meat-heads just looking for somebody to vent their roid-rage on. These are big, angry guys. 

But I'm Batman.

I drop from my place of hiding and fall as my cape opens with a snap; allowing me to land softly in their midst. For a couple of long seconds no one reacts as I stand calmly among them, hands relaxed at my side, then with a shout, they notice me and I find myself surrounded. If they're disconcerted by my unnerving stillness it doesn't show, and the bravest of them throws a punch at the back of my head. I see it coming and reverse the blow, then kick him in the backside to send him sprawling into his mates. Another comes at me swinging a metal pole and I catch it mid swing. A second later and I've clouted him around the head with it. 

And so it goes on; one by one they wade in until the fight develops into a roiling mass of attacking and countering, dodging and jumping. Me bouncing between them like an unstoppable, bat-pong ball of bat-fu-destruction, until they all lay across each other, slumped and unconscious. It's fantastic stuff born of a simple, yet expertly implemented mechanic of right click to defend and left click to attack. A right click - when correctly timed with a baddies punch - will trigger an awesome (and painful looking) reversal animation, while a left click will send you flying with convincing force into whoever you are pointing the screen at. When you get the hang of this you'll find yourself entering into a kind of cold, zen-like trance; judging and countering enemy attacks, then launching your own when you see an opening. Massive combos can be built up, and it looks absolutely spectacular when it all comes together and you wipe out a whole room of goons without taking a scratch. Right click and left click. That's it.

This game would be almost worth the entry price for the fighting alone. I'd buy it if it was just a linear series of random punch ups against increasingly insurmountable numbers of ugly fist-fodder.  

But you have the excellent and inventive stealth sections. The fantastic voice acting. The wonderful and convincing array of bat-gadgetry. The Riddlers' riddles. Bat-vision. The tape recordings and character bios. The superbly rendered Arkham Island that gets more and more insane the further you progress. It's a veritable bat-stravaganza of content. 

Lets just try and forget those unimaginative boss fights and Games for Windows Live. Both of which blow as much as my bat-jokes.

Get it on Steam for £14.99. 

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Chillin' With Mah Gnomie. Then Launching Him Into Space.

A Tale of One Free Man and his Gnome.

Before I begin, I'd like to make two brief statements.

I don't think that I'd be exaggerating if I said that Half-Life 2 and it's episodic content was my favorite game of all time. I reckon I've played it from start to finish at least five times since episode 2 was released, and in my opinion, no other game that I've unleashed upon my humble PC thus far can match it for pure undiluted fun from beginning to end.  

I hate achievements. I don't do them. I believe that the core content of the game is what makes it fun. I enjoy the journey, the story, and the simple pleasure that comes from interacting with game mechanics that work well. I also enjoy launching explosive barrels at zombies with Zero Point Energy Field Manipulators.
I don't feel the need to complete arbitrary tasks set by games developers just to extend that happy-fun-time period a game provides before boredom sets in. Of course, this is just me.

If you want a reason to obsessively squash every ant-lion grub in the game then that's up to you! Although surely that pleasing squishing sound is reason enough?

Bearing all of this in mind, I was extremely surprised recently when a blog post by Tom Francis from PC Gamer inspired me to have a go at one of the more interesting achievements Episode 2 has to offer.  
My task? Pick up the vacantly smiling garden gnome found in a shack towards the beginning of the game, and carry it all the way to White Forest near the end. All the while, trying not to get shot, stabbed, crushed, head crabbed or exploded.  Once there, and upon the successful loading of his perpetually happy face into Professor Magnusson's rocket, I'll be awarded the achievement. My conversion to the dark side of gaming will be complete, and the gnome will be launched into space.

This is my record, in pictures, of an epic journey to send a gnome to the stars.

The Gnome.

Alyx and Dr Kliener wonder if Gnome is up to the task.

I discover that the gnome is flame retardant...

.... and explosion retardant.

Alyx just thinks he's retarded.

 The Gnome looks on in cold indifference as she is wounded by the hunter.
Of course, he's all smiles when the Vortigaunt arrives on the scene...

I try and convince Griggs that we definitely didn't step on any ant-lion grubs. Or is that Sheckley?

With The Gnome safely entrenched, the ant-lions attack.

The Gnome has seen the face of death, and stared vacantly back at it. The Gnome is unyielding.

With the ant-lions in full retreat, we return to find him face down, surrounded by the mutilated remains of his enemies.

The Vort seems indifferent to my claims that The Gnome is ant-lion retardant. 

Shortly after, he and Alyx take a moment to reflect on their near death experiences.

After failing to convince The Gnome to get down for his own safety, the Vort turns to me in frustration. 

... Xen lightning retardant.

He claimed to have found them like that.

The Gnome has an odd form of torettes that forces him to randomly slide out of moving vehicles without any provocation. So when we finally acquiring some wheels, we had to find a way to transport him. This didn't work.

We found that if we drove slow enough, cramming him into the foot well of the back seat kind of worked. There were times though, when we just blasted him through the air with the gravity gun and caught up later. He's impact retardant obviously.

The awkward moment when Dr Magnusson learns of my mission to load a gnome into his rocket.

Alyx feels uneasy at The Gnomes glassy lack of emotion when faced with death.

Not even the emergence of a giant, brain sucking, grub monster, can draw a reaction from him.

As the car bursts into flames we find that The Gnome is not good at fixing stuff.

The Gnome can only destroy!

As I lay wounded on my belly, covered in mud and slime, his unshakable good mood starts to wear thin. 

But, repairs completed, we are finally ready to get back on the road. Alyx is pleased with our new sat-nav.

An Inn! Finally, we can take a break from this madness! It was a good job the Combine stuck that roadblock there or we would never have found it.

Fuck. You.

Don't worry Alyx. Things cant get much worse.

We start to get the feeling The Gnome is mocking us.

We finally make it to White Forest. However, our arrival is tarnished slightly by DOG's refusal to acknowledge Alyx's existence.

I struggle to get The Gnome through customs.

No one can quite believe that I was serious about the whole 'gnome into rocket' thing.

He discusses the logistics of the mission with ground control.

I feel an odd sense of loss as I load him into the launch capsule, but my mission is complete. I've actually deliberately completed an achievement in a game and sent a garden gnome into space!

Maybe these 'arbitrary tasks' aren't so bad after all....


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Good Morning Disillusionment.

It started like any other working day. With the frenzied vibrations of an iPhone set perpetually on silent, desperately trying to raise me from a slumber that I very much do not want to be raised from. 
Gammy-eyed and groaning inwardly I reach out and pull it under the covers. It continues to buzz at me like some kind of demented wasp as I struggle to bring the screen into focus so that I can hit the snooze button, rewarding me with another fifteen minutes of blissful nothing.

Six thirty in the morning.

Six forty five.

Seven o'clock.

Every morning me and my phone engage in this battle of wills. A stubborn duel that can only ever have one outcome: Me rising from my bed like some kind of slumbering troll fifteen minutes before I need to be in the car and on my way to work. 
Clothes are liberated from the spot they were casually thrown the night before and groggily clambered into. The toilet is filled and flushed as I sway in gentle circles on the spot. Teeth are brushed. Hair is artfully and quickly messed up and waxed. No need to shave. That happens in the shower and they are only for evenings.

Sometimes, as I pass through the kitchen, there is a lukewarm cup of coffee on the side. I don't know where it has come from or who it was originally intended for. Either way the outcome is the same. This morning it was there. 

Slightly caffeinated I fall into the drivers seat of my car and slam the door behind me. Iced up. For fucks sake.

Anyone else at this point would probably get back out and scrape the windscreen. Not me though. I hunker down and turn the heating to full before directing its not-yet-any-warmer-than-the-air-i'm-sitting-in blast at the offending frozen water before I stuff my hands into the pockets of my hoody, pull the hood over my head, and wait. 

I wonder sometimes why I do the things I do. In fact it's subject to a heated inner debate that rages daily within my odd little brain. I imagine a gleaming white Roman forum with both stacks of seats packed to the rafters with shouting variations of me. One side is dressed in ill fitting hoodies, star wars t-shirts, cargo trousers, torn jeans, knitted bobble hats and untied multi-coloured shoelaces belonging to trainers that cover inadvisedly matched socks. Their hair is unkempt and fluffy and a closer look would reveal dilated and shadowed eyes that hadn't seen sleep for days.
The opposition are different. Blazers over shirts tucked into belted black trousers. Shined and new shoes on every foot. On every head the hair is reasonably short and styled and the faces fresh and eager. They seem to heavily outnumber their counter parts. But they are definitely not louder or more convincing.
All the while a lone figure sits in between them all. Bored, he checks Facebook on his phone for the millionth time and wonders how he ended up in such an overblown metaphor.

As I sit there shivering like some kind of desperate homeless person waiting patiently for those first tiny holes in the ice to appear, I ponder the growing pile of fish and chip boxes in the footwell of the passenger seat. I'll definitely throw them away when I get home tonight.

I wont.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Avada Kadavra! Does Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 kill off my dislike of the series?

I can't deny the popularity of this franchise, but I really seem to have a problem with the Harry Potter movies. There is something about them that, for whatever reason, just doesn't quite capture the magic of my own imagination from back when I read the books. A school full of wizards just seems a bit childish when it hasn't been edited to my liking in my head. I mean, am I really supposed to take Dumbledore seriously when he's wearing a silly hat?

'That isn't what apparition looks like!' I'll cry, as Harry is sucked into thin air as if by an invisible vacuum cleaner. 

'Voldemort! Hold your wand like a man!' I'll shout as he prances about, brandishing it like a feather duster.

'Hermione! Stop violating my mind with your enchanting good looks! You're supposed to be plain. Plain goddammit!' 

That third one only applies to the recent movies I swear. 

They have always felt really rushed too. As if there wasn't quite enough time to focus on any real character development before time constraints forced the story into the next set piece before it was ready. I guess this is an inherent problem with trying to cram hundreds of pages of novel into a feature film, which makes sense, but unfortunately doesn't dispel that niggling feeling that I simply don't care enough about these impostors of my imagination to ever be emotionally invested in the story. A story that already holds no surprises because I've read the books. Which are better.

Does Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 break away from the same perceived problems and redefine the franchise with a last ditch attempt at greatness? The answer is yes. And also no.

This is without doubt, in my opinion the best Harry Potter film to date. It's isn't perfect, but as the second in a two part set, it benefits from the blessing of not having to worry too much about lengthy exposition and development. Or what should be lengthy exposition and development but isn't. As a result, the breakneck speed at which we move from each major event to the next doesn't feel rushed anymore. It feels exciting. And you can enjoy it without wondering why that bit in the book has been left out that explained fully why somebody did something somewhere.

In a very early scene, the trio escape from Gringotts the underground bank on the back of what is probably the coolest CGI dragon that I have ever seen. And lets face it, dragons are cool. I got a real sense of elation as it emerged amongst a mess of screeching metal and flying mortar, spitting fire into the air and bellowing at the top of its lungs.  Fortunately this set the precedent for most of the movie culminating in a fantastic assault on Hogwarts by Voldemort and his Death Eaters that was exciting, moving and sometimes funny, in a good way.

I need to make special mention of a particular scene, regarding a major plot development concerning the connection between Severus Snape and Harry, that very, very, nearly moved me to tears. Between Alan Rickmans mournfull hang dog expression and the movies fantastic musical score I was nearly broken. I can tell you that maintaining a stoic macho presence in the cinema while dealing with this kind of emotional punishment was not easy. However it was a nice surprise to be moved like this by a film that I traditionally don't care about.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson obviously all reprise their roles as Harry, Hermoine and Ron and for the most part put in decent performances. Grint in particular is both convincing and funny. I was especially impressed at his reaction to a death of a major character and find him very watchable. Daniel Radcliffe can be a bit wooden at times, but did what he had to when he needed to and I found myself routing for him, so he must have been doing something right. 

Nearly all of the other major characters make an appearance and some get their own moments of glory or heroic death. Most notably Neville Longbottom, (Matthew Lewis) and Molly Weasley, (Julie Walters) who both get to participate in some major asskickery.  Helena Bonham Carter is good value as always as Bellatrix Lestrange coming off well as a deranged sidekick to Lord Voldemort.

Ralph Fiennes is fantastic in his flamboyant and (it has to be said) slightly camp depiction of the great You-Know-Hitler-Wizard himself: Lord Voldemort. 

Unfortunately, just like in the books, it's the convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion of Voldemort and Harry's story arc that lets it all down. Only in the movie, we have to deal with the cliché that is the main baddie suddenly acting retarded in the big showdown at the end. If it isn't Hans Gruber fucking around at the end of Die Hard it's Agent Smith pissing about with trains. In this, without spoiling too much, Mr Greatest Dark Wizard Of All Time forgets how to use his unblockable  killing curse. Happy trails Riddle!

It undermines Harry's eventual triumph and is just plain annoying. Then on top of that, if you add the ridiculously contrived mass confusion over who is the actual master of the Elder Wand into the mix it just gets silly.

However, there is still far more good than bad in this magical family romp. And I just got to use the phrase 'Magical family romp' in a serious review. Accio coffee!