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So this is it, then. After nine and a half years (around half of those as a Guide) and nearly 1400 reviews, my Dooyoo career is over. Not through choice, but thanks to Dooyoo's "amazing" new website.
Quite how the new website ever got the green light to go live is beyond me. Any redesign results in a few kinks that are only uncovered when it starts being used for real, but this one was bug-ridden beyond belief. This wasn't even a beta test version; it looked like a mock up someone designed as an initial proof of concept. Putting aside the aesthetics (people would have got used to this eventually if the site had actually worked) the implementation was risible. Almost no-one could log in; those that could sometimes got logged in as other people and saw their personal details. Most couldn't post a review and if they did it looked awful, no-one could rate it and they weren't awarded any Miles. Even if you were awarded Miles, they were no good to you, as you couldn't "chash" them in (as the site insisted on calling it)
So, Dooyoo became a review site for sharing consumer opinion where it was no longer possible to write reviews or share opinions. That's a bit like having a bike with no wheels.
If Dooyoo had responded quickly they might have salvaged the situation. Instead, they chose to bury their heads in the sand. Almost four months after the "new, improved" website launched, the same old problems persist. There are still people who can't log in, can''t post a review, get rewarded for it or "chash" in their Miles (that word again). Emails are routinely ignored, posts to their Facebook page mostly get the same treatment. Occasionally there's the odd "update" (punctuated with infuriating smilies) that tell you nothing, making vague promises about improvements that never arrive. Or they just carry on like nothing is wrong, running pointless competitions that hardly anyone can actually enter.
It's testament to the loyalty of Dooyoo's members that many hang on in there, hoping (against all evidence) that the site will somehow rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. Not me; not any longer. I've lost the faith.
I might return at some distant point in the future to see if they have got their act together but for now, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, "so long and thanks for all the fish."
It seems hard to believe that the Discworld series is now 40 books old. What's perhaps most surprising is that (with the odd dip here and there), the series is as strong now as it has ever been, and I'm happy to report that Raising Steam does not let the side down.
Steam trains have come to the Discworld thanks to engineer Dick Simnel and his creation Iron Girder. This brings great possibilities to the Discworld - faster travel, the ability to move large amounts of cargo and, of course, paying customers. However, some people - especially the Dark Dwarves - are not happy with anything that comes out of Ankh Morpork and are (literally) seeking to derail this new invention.
The hallmark of the Discworld series has always been Pratchett's ability to blend science fiction and silliness. In many ways, Raising Steam is a return to the old style Discworld books. The pages are littered with footnotes (at times perhaps a few too many), there is clever word play and plenty of clever gags along with some great characters. There were so many times when Raising Steam made me laugh that it was a damn good job that I read most of this book at home and not in public, otherwise I would have disgraced myself frequently.
It's not necessarily that Raising Steam is funny in the way that a good joke is funny; it's just that Pratchett has that rare ability to see the amusing, ironic or absurd in just about any situation. He then has the intelligence and talent to put it into words in a clever and amusing way. Along the way, he also tells a fun (if slightly bonkers) story.
As ever, the book covers pretty much every style of humour going. There are absurd situations, daft dialogue, outright jokes, amusing misunderstandings and lots of lots of in-references. Not all of them work, but the hit: miss ratio favours the former. It's littered with in-jokes and references to earlier books and these are real fun for the veteran Pratchett reader to spot. Sometimes it might just be the way he uses certain phrases; at other times it might be a particular line of dialogue, whilst there are a few explicit references to earlier books. This helps to give the overall impression that Raising Steam is simply another part of a larger, on-going story and this in turn helps to bring the Discworld to life.
Of course, this does bring certain difficulties for new readers. Raising Steam (understand) assumes that it is addressing an established readership. Newcomers might struggle to understand certain references or ideas. But that's perfectly understandable - this is book 40 in the series after all - so the author is entitled to make certain assumptions. That said, even if you've never read a Discworld book it's not so dependent on previous books that you won't find plenty to laugh out - you just won't get quite as much from it.
Perhaps most crucially of all, the book is littered with my favourite type of Pratchett humour. This is where he takes a fairly unassuming and unamusing situation or line of dialogue and makes it rib-ticklingly funny simply through his choice of words and phrasing. Pratchett has a real mastery of the English language and knows just the right way to phrase something to raise the maximum possible mirth. Other writers can make dialogue funny; Pratchett makes it sparkle.
There's no-one can create characters as odd, yet as human as Pratchett. It's not necessarily that they are particularly imaginative or do anything especially surprising. It's more the way they interact. Their inane (yet somehow apt) musings on life, their bickering, the way they manipulate each other and the way they spark off each other all somehow adds up to something wonderful. It's hard to define exactly what it is, but (to paraphrase Dick Simnel) Pratchett has the knowing of writing good characters.
If you were going to criticise it, you could argue that the central plot (an idea taking physical shape and becoming almost sentient) has been used before in the series (Soul Music, Moving Pictures). That would be a little churlish, though, and rather like accusing a murder-mystery writer of only ever writing books in which people kill other people. The fact is Pratchett is good at what he does. He has proved it time and time again and (as if he needed to) he proves it again with Raising Steam.
Raising Steam might not make it into my top 10 Discworld novels, but it would certainly be somewhere in the top 25. Many series get stale long before they reach book 40. There's no evidence that that's about to happen with Discworld.
The book costs around £9 (hardback) or £7.50 (Kindle)
(c) Copyright SWSt 2014
I'd heard a lot of good things about the Little Big Planet series, but until I downloaded this as part of my PS Plus subscription I'd never actually played one. Whilst it's not the type of game that I would normally go for, I can certainly see why people like it.
At heart, your task is to guide cute little Sack Boy from one end of a level to the other, in what boils down to a modern updating of the traditional platform game: blocks have to be pushed into place and barriers cleared to make progress. Along the way you have to collect prize bubbles which contains stickers or new costumes which can be used to personalise your own Sack Boy.
Whilst Little Big Planet 2 might not be terribly imaginative when it comes to the basic concept, it is good fun to play. It's not overly challenging, but it is a game that is going to appeal to all ages and levels of gaming experience. Whilst I'm not the sort of gamer that bothers personalising my character beyond a few basics, the idea of the prize bubbles unlocking new content is a nice one and gives a real purpose to the idea of collecting. If that's the sort of thing that appeals to you, you could spend almost as much time personalising your character as you actually do playing the game!
One gripe I do have is that I found LBP2 a little slow to get going. A number of tutorial levels introduce you to the basic ideas and controls and I found these rather dull. Whilst going through them, there was an awful lot of stopping and starting, so that for every 2 minutes of actual game time there was 2 minutes of listening to dialogue or having something explained. I appreciate that LBP2 is intended as a family game that's accessible to all ages, so this is necessary, but the opening levels (which can't be skipped) were a bit of a chore.
Once you're over that, LBP2 is a lot of fun to play. Levels are brilliantly designed and you can complete them in any number of ways - just get through them, challenge yourself to see how quickly you can make it to the finish point, or take your time and try and discover all the hidden items. The levels display a huge amount of imagination and some of them are quite fiendish if you want to try and collect everything.
Graphics and sound are quite simply brilliant and really show off the PS3's capabilities. Graphics are wonderfully big: colourful, surreal and full of imagination. Sack Boy himself is bursting with character, as are many of the other creatures he encounters along the way. There's a certain cute appeal to your on-screen avatar (even down to the ability to control his facial expressions) that makes him such a great character to control. This cuteness factor is not over-played, though, so that the game remains appealing to grizzled, cynical old gamers like myself!
The highlight of the game has to be the wonderful narration from Stephen Fry. His wry, encouraging, humorous, witty and surreal comments make the game. This is one of those games I could happily sit and watch someone else play, just so that I could listen to the comments. It's a shame that the commentary is not continued into the actual levels (characters revert to nonsense speak with subtitled speech bubbles) but the linking dialogue and narration is superbly delivered.
Controls are also well balanced; easy to pick up, but giving you a high degree of control over Sack Boy. They are actually very intuitive (which again makes the inability to skip the tutorial levels frustrating) and after a few experimental button presses, you will soon have worked out what you need to know. After that you'll find yourself racing along grabbing things, dragging things and leaping around like a veteran Little Big Planet player.
You could argue that the main Story mode is not particularly long or challenging (around 30 levels or so) and most gamers will whip through them in no time. In fairness, this is because LBP2 has a co-operative mode where you can team up with other gamers as well as the ability to create (and share) your own levels. So, in theory, it has an almost infinite amount of gameplay.
Whilst this might be true, the issue of longevity remains if, like me, you prefer gaming to be a solitary rather than a social pastime. I'm not interested in co-op modes or online gameplay and am too lazy to create my own levels, so I'd completed the main levels, there was little reason to return to the game.. In fairness LBP2 does very obviously pitch itself as a social game, so if I choose not to play it in this way, it's my fault and not that of the game.
Whilst it's fun, LBP2 is not really my type of game. I'm not much of a social gamer, so the ability to collect and share things doesn't appeal to me. And although the basic game is highly playable, there are a lot more challenging puzzle/platform games out there that I would play in preference. Having said that, I can appreciate it for what it is: an accessible game that will appeal to gamers of all ages and levels of experience. For that reason, I can put my only personal prejudices to one side and happily award it 4 stars.
Little Big Planet 2 has been out for quite a while now. If you're a Playstation Plus subscriber, you can still download it for free; if not you can pick it up for around £7 new.
© Copyright SWSt 2014
"You should never go back", so a wise man (or woman) once said. That was the thought running through my head as I started reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King's somewhat belated sequel to The Shining. But you know what? Wise men (or women) don't always get it right, and neither do little reviewer monkeys, because Doctor Sleep is far, far better than you might expect.
Many years after the horrific events at the Overlook Hotel, Daniel Torrance is a troubled adult. His special power, "the shining" has all but gone and, like his father before him, he is a deadbeat drifting between jobs and increasingly dependent on alcohol. Then a young girl - stronger with the shining than Dan ever was - begs his help in battling a group of predators who kill young children with the shining and feed off their power.
Initial concerns about the wisdom of writing a sequel to The Shining appear to be justified. It's been a long time since the original novel and King has to spend a fair amount of time bringing the reader up to speed on Torrance's life since. This makes the book's opening segment quite slow going. These early pages also make heavy references to the original book (which I last read over 20 years ago) and it took me quite a while to get them sorted in my head and remember who was who or who did what. That made Doctor Sleep less immediately accessible (and hence less instantly enjoyable)
You really do need to have read The Shining to get the most out of Doctor Sleep. Whilst it's just about possible to read it in isolation, you will miss out on an awful lot and struggle to keep up with some sections. Wisely (for the sake of pacing), King doesn't provide a recap of the first book, so at the very least you need to know the basic story outline. Even if you've read it before, it might be useful to read it again before you tackle Doctor Sleep so that the references in the early part of the book make more sense.
At the same time, the setting for this sequel initially felt wrong. One of the reasons why The Shining worked so well was the incredible sense of claustrophobia. The characters were trapped in a single location (the Overlook Hotel), unable to escape. Initially there isn't this same sense of claustrophobia to Doctor Sleep: it seems that Torrance can go anywhere he wants to. As the book progresses, however, you realise that this is not true: Doctor Sleep might not be as claustrophobic in a physical sense but it is a powerful tale of a man trapped by his past, unable to move on.
Once you have adapted to this (around 100 pages in), Doctor Sleep really starts to fly. Having brought the reader up to speed, King is free to move on with the main plot which, with his usual skill, he slowly builds, adding layer upon layer and keeping the reader absolutely gripped. Whilst there are often several sub-plots vying for the reader's attention, these are well-handled so that the reader never feels confused.
King has shown time and time again that he is a master storyteller. Despite writing long novels, he knows how to take the reader by the hand, guide them through the tricky early stages (when characters and places are new and strange) and develop a plot which is both intelligent and interesting. No matter how much detail King went into or how much he appeared to be side-tracking from the main story, I was never less than enthralled. Doctor Sleep was one of those titles that I simultaneously wanted to read as quickly as possible (to find out what happened) but to never end (because I was enjoying it so much).
What works so well (and shows how King has matured as a writer) is the way in which Doctor Sleep captures so many human emotions. Its roots are still firmly fixed in horror, but King can also capture genuine emotions: happiness, love, revulsion, sadness, regret... Doctor Sleep is an emotionally powerful book as well as a damn good story, and it's testament to King's power as a writer that he sums up all these emotions without being too obvious or making them overwrought.
You could argue that the ending is a little disappointing. The final climactic battle is over a little too quickly and almost seems too easy, whilst it also recycles some elements from The Green Mile. What has gone before it, however, is so good that such minor disappointments are quickly forgiven and forgotten.
I admit I was both excited and concerned when I heard that Stephen King was re-visiting The Shining. As I read it, my concerns subsided and excitement became the dominant emotion: Doctor Sleep proves to be yet another compelling tale from the master of horror.
Available in hardback for around £9 or on Kindle for around £5.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
© Copyright SWSt 2014
It's a little easy and convenient to dismiss Unstoppable as nothing more than Speed on a train and more than a little unfair. Whilst they might share a huge dollop of DNA, they are different films trying to do different things. Speed was more of an action movie; Unstoppable aims for tension.
(Vaguely) based on true events, it tells the tale of an unmanned train that runs loose on a city's railway lines. Packed with dangerous chemicals, a massive disaster is looming unless train driver Frank and Conductor Will are able to chase down the rogue train and stop it.
Unstoppable's not without its faults: the frantic, kinetic directing style of Tony Scott can (as always) be a little much, there are a few too many disaster movie stereotypes (school kids in peril, a heroic but fruitless attempt to save the day by a minor character) and a couple of sub-plots that feel slightly artificial.
Yet none of these are sufficient to derail Unstoppable which proves to be a surprisingly solid and entertaining film. Scott does a good job of building the tension and doesn't allow this to dissipate by making too long a film. At a relatively lightweight 98 minutes, Unstoppable is well-paced; long enough to build the plot, characters and tension adequately, but no so long that it becomes dull.
Whilst you are never in any real doubt about the outcome, the film still has the ability to leave you on the edge of your seat. Director Tony Scott knows how to handle his material and creates a small series of peaks and troughs - moments of high tension interspersed with slower moments which aim to introduce an element of character development. All of this serves to ramp up the tension, so that by the end your nerves are rather fraught.
It's helped by a strong pairing in lead roles - Denzel Washington as train driver Frank and Chris Pine as Conductor, Will. Pine might sometimes come across as the new Chris O'Donnell (competent but bland) but he is a solid and dependable actor. Whilst his character is not exactly deep (and follows a fairly predictable arc) Pine fills the role in his usual, reliable way.
Denzel Washington, of course, is as good as ever. Washington is one of those actors whose mere presence can automatically add a star to any film's rating. Whilst it's perhaps a surprise to see Washington starring in an unashamed pop-corn muncher, it's not a bad thing. He makes Frank hugely likeable - spiky yet caring. Like Will, there might not be a lot of substance there, but Washington brings his usual easy charm and charisma to the role.
The film's secret weapon is the spark between Pine and Washington and the interaction between them. It might not be ground-breaking stuff (simmering hostility turning to grudging respect before being forged into genuine friendship), but it's a crucial element of the film. The two leads work well together, sparking off each other and producing a likeable double act. Without their likeable everyman personae, Unstoppable would have been a lot less engaging.
You could argue the film suffers from a few too many technicalities about trains and railways, with lots of jargon being thrown around in an attempt to make it sound authentic. None of this is crucial to the plot, however, and you can simply let it wash over you without worrying too much about it.
The other issue is Tony Scott's ever-exuberant directing style. Although it's toned down a little, he still prefers quick editing, jumpy camera work and all sorts of directing tricks. Whilst the frantic, energetic camerawork adds a sense of panic that underlies the films "race against time" theme, it can be a little too in-your-face at times If you suffer from motion sickness you might find some segments a little tricky to watch.
Unstoppable is little more than standard Hollywood fluff. Yet thanks to a strong director and some good central casting it manages to rise above its rather mundane and unoriginal premise. It's not essential viewing, but it is highly entertaining. Given that you can now pick the DVD up for around £3, there's really no reason not to own it.
Director: Tony Scott
Running time: approx. 98 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2014
Since his first novel, Fatherland, Robert Harris has proved adept at taking historical events and creating a work of fiction around them. He returns to his roots with An Officer and a Spy - a fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair that rocked French society in the early 20th century.
Following a humiliating military defeat to Germany in 1870, French confidence is at an all-time low. When a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, is found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans he is imprisoned alone on the forsaken Devil's Island and forbidden any meaningful contact with the outside world - including his wife and children. Back home, however, evidence is starting to come to light that Dreyfus might not be guilty after all.
If you know nothing about the Dreyfus Affair, there are two ways to approach this novel. One is to do a bit of background reading to familiarise yourself with the basic facts and timeline; the other is to do nothing and simply uncover the facts at the same pace as the narrator. Both approaches have their benefits and pitfalls. With the former you have a general grasp of what is happening, but some of the shock impact is lost; going into it blind ensures the events retain the full force of their shock impact, but you might find large parts of the book feeling a little at sea. In my case it didn't matter, since I already knew the basic outline, but it is something you need to consider because your decision might affect your enjoyment.
There is no doubt that Robert Harris' skill as a writer lies in his ability to take historical settings and events and insert a fictional layer into them. He is deeply skilful in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, creating a convincing and fascination story around real events. Some of the events he has reconstructed - individual conversations, personal thoughts - are obviously made up, but they feel deeply plausible within the context of the overall book. There are parts of An Officer and A Spy when you get the impression that Harris feels slightly constrained by having to dovetail into real events, but for the most part this is a convincing recreation.
To achieve this sense of reality, it's obvious Harris has done a phenomenal amount of research. His narrative includes excerpts from Dreyfus' own correspondence whilst in prison, the text of official documents relating to the case and other public speeches made for or against Dreyfus. Whilst Harris might add fictional elements to them, every character in the book actually existed. Despite this extensive research, this always feels like a novel first and foremost, rather than a lesson in historical reconstruction; the facts he includes feel like natural off-shoots of the narrative. Unlike some writers, you never feel that he is including information just for the sake of it.
There are times when the pace can feel a little slow. This is particularly true for around the first 150 pages or so which essentially provide the context behind the Dreyfus affair, introduce the main protagonists and slowly cast doubt on Dreyfus' guilt. All this information is necessary and it is done about as well as it could be. However, it might feel as though you have to make your way through 150 pages of preamble before you get to the real meat of the novel. There is a very real risk that some people will give up before they reach this point, disenchanted by the apparent lack of action, which would be a real shame.
Once you get over this initial hurdle the book really takes off. The narrative picks up pace as dirty secrets and conspiracies are uncovered and it becomes a deeply engrossing read. The events of the Dreyfus Affair still have the power to shock over 100 years on, and they make for a compelling read. The material is well-handled by Harris so that even if you know what happened, there is still a real sense of tension as the book reaches its climax.
There's also a message and warning in the book's theme: Harris delivers a compelling a reminder of how far we have come in terms of open and transparent government, whilst also giving a salutary warning of how quickly that progress can be lost if we allow governments to operate in secret. In this sense, An Officer and a Spy is both a fascinating insight into the past, and a warning for the future. Like the other elements of the book, though, this message is well-handled and not done in a preachy heavy-handed way.
Robert Harris has quickly established himself as the go-to author for intelligent, historical novels. If you can persevere past the slightly sedentary opening, you will find a gripping and well-researched historical thriller.
Available for around £9 in hardcover and £5 on Kindle.
An Officer and a Spy
© Copyright SWSt 2014
Having conquered the round ball world with its omnipresent FIFA series, EA Sports is also a big player in the bat and ball game of tennis. It's not quite as ubiquitous as FIFA (there's not a "new" version released each year), but Grand Slam Tennis is still a well-established series and one which is popular with fans.
As you would expect from an EA Sports game, the attention to detail and depth of the title is second to none. You can play as dozens of different players from across the recent history of the game (Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Djokevic and yes, if you must, Andy Murray). It features loads of different tournaments, including all the grand slams and you can play at lots of different venues, all of which are well realised, making it a highly accurate game.
There are also plenty of game modes available, from a Career Mode to a single game; doubles matches (either competitive or co-operative) and online play. This gives Grand Slam Tennis 2 a serious amount of long-term appeal. It also makes it ideal whether you want to just have a quick knockabout with friends or take on the more gruelling option of a tournament or career.
Graphics are highly impressive. Venues are beautifully rendered and look stunning; players bear more than a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts (although some are more convincing than others) and the animation is fluid. In fact, if you passed someone playing this game and only glanced briefly at the screen, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a real tennis match. The attention to detail even extends to whether certain players are left or right handed (I have my brother in law to thank for this observation, as I wouldn't have a clue!)
Sound is as you would expect from EA Sports. The music is OK (nothing special, nothing awful), crowd effects are pretty generic and other in-game effects sound realistic. The commentary from John McEnroe and Pat Cash treads just the right line between informative, entertaining and funny. Of course, like any such commentary, you keep hearing the same comments repeated again and again, but this never becomes too annoying and Messrs McEnroe and Cash make for good company.
Perhaps the biggest issue is with the controls. It's not that these are bad, rather that they require quite a bit of practice to get to grips with. The default (and simplest) sees you use the left analogue stick for movement and the right to hit the ball (here timing and direction determine the angle of the shot). Timing is particularly crucial and it can take quite a few goes before you get the hang of even hitting the ball back, let alone making that killer shot. Persevere, though, and you slowly find yourself making progress, able to return the ball and even able to determine where you want it to go and at what speed. You do have to invest time in mastering this, though and whilst you are, the game can feel like an exercise in frustration. The game is also compatible with Playstation Move, but I can't comment on this as I don't have it.
It's slightly annoying that the controls occasionally feel a little bit unresponsive. This is particularly noticeable when you are receiving a serve. You press the joystick to move, but your on-screen avatar doesn't respond for a crucial second... by which time the ball has gone past you.
I'm not a tennis expert, but the interpretation of the rules seems pretty much spot on. My brother in law (who's a big tennis fan) certainly thinks it's pretty faithful. Player AI is good and reflects real life, with players like Federer, Nadal and company being harder to beat than lower ranked ones.
The one frustration with the game's AI comes with the Net and Out rules. There doesn't seem to be any logic to when these occur and it feels as though the game just randomly decides when it's time one of your shots went into the net or out. This can be frustrating - particularly when it happens at key times in a set or match.
The only one I've previously enjoyed was Sensible Software's International 3D Tennis and in many ways I see Grand Slam Tennis 2 as its successor. Both had excellent, fluid graphics (although they took a very different approach), both were realistic and accurate interpretations of the sport with logical in-game physics and (most crucially) both appealed to newcomers whilst providing a long-term challenge to veteran computer tennis players.
Tennis might not be my sport of choice, but I can definitely recommend Grand Slam Tennis 2. Available new for around £24.99 or second hand for around £5-10
© copyright SWSt 2014
It seems 2013 was the year of the sequel for big name authors. Stephen King returned to The Shining with Doctor Sleep, whilst Sycamore Row sees John Grisham return to the characters and setting from his first novel, A Time to Kill.
An old man dying from cancer hangs himself, leaving behind a handwritten will that disinherits his children and gives his $20 million fortune to his black housekeeper. They naturally contest the will leading to a big court battle. As if that wasn't juicy enough, the will also makes a mysterious reference to something which the deceased and his brother witnessed a long time ago.
Sycamore Row is your usual John Grisham affair - and whether you consider that a good or a bad thing will depend on how you viewed his other books. It can sometimes appear as though Grisham is writing to a template: big, high profile court case, greedy lawyers fighting over a large pot of money, innocent (and not so innocent) victims caught in the middle and a David vs. Goliath fight. All these elements are apparent in Sycamore Row and Grisham is not exactly stretching himself when it comes to plotting.
Yet despite a lack of originality, Grisham once again proves that he has a real knack for storytelling. Even though I had a pretty good idea from early on where the book was ultimately heading, it made me keep reading it and maintained my interest throughout. It's helped by the fact that Grisham uses the apparent predictability to lead you astray. He seems to be going down a well-trodden path then will suddenly throw in a curve ball which leads you to question what you thought they knew. This helps to keep the narrative feeling fresh and the reader interested.
It's true that Sycamore Row suffers from a few too many plot jags at times. It seems as though Grisham has thrown in virtually every plot twist he can think and not all of them work. Some of the issues (which are central to the way the story unfolds) feel rather too coincidental and many are extremely unlikely. There is a sense that Grisham is making things up as he goes along, bringing in new developments to make sure the plot is able to go the way he wants it to.
Yet no matter how unlikely the plot developments and coincidences become, they work within the overall context of the book. There were certainly a few that made me raise my eyebrows, but none that were so ridiculous as to spoil it completely. Although the pacing can sometimes feel a little slow (with too many ideas thrown into the mix all at once) there was no point where I stopped enjoying the book. Quite the opposite - I couldn't wait to get through it to see how it all panned out. Whatever his weaknesses when it comes to plot, Grisham remains a born storyteller.
Although Sycamore Row is heavily billed as a sequel to A Time to Kill it only partially fulfils that promise. The lead character is once again Jake Brigance (the white lawyer from the first book) and it's good to catch up on what has happened to him in the three years since. However, there is hardly any information on any other aspect of the original novel. There is no reference to what has happened to the Hailey family (the main black characters) and only a few vague references to the trial that was such a sensation. If you didn't know this was a sequel, there's actually very little in the book that would make you realise it was. That's a big disappointment. Whilst I understand that Grisham wanted the freedom to create a new plot with new characters he needed to satisfy the readers' curiosity too. It's not really a sequel; it's merely a book set in the same location and featuring a small number of returning characters.
The biggest disappointment of all is saved for last: the ending. After crafting 400 plus pages of a compelling story, Grisham turns in a really wishy-washy conclusion that is deeply dissatisfying, highly unlikely and leaves you feeling cheated. It's not quite "and they all went home and had some tea", but it's not far off.
Overall, I enjoyed Sycamore Row and would recommend it. There might be a few mis-steps in the plotting and the way the book has been marketed, but there's no doubt that Grisham can tell a good story that keeps you entertained from start to finish.
Available for around £9 in hardback (new) or £6 on Kindle.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
© Copyright SWSt 2014
This is the third game in the Batman Arkham series and it shows. On the one hand, the game feels more assured, the graphics are improved and the odd annoying glitch has been ironed out. On the other hand, it's far less innovative and imaginative. The plot might have changed, but the basic structure, missions and even the setting are more or less identical to Arkham City.
Despite being the third game, Origins is actually a prequel to the previous outings and is set early on in Bruce Wayne's Batman career. As such, many of the villains he comes across, he is encountering for the first time. He's going to need all his skills, as criminal overlord Black Mask has hired eight deadly assassin's to kill The Bat.
As with the previous games, Origins' strongest suit is that it makes good use of the Batman licence and combines it with a decent plot. The game exudes atmosphere and Gotham City feels like a very real (and very dangerous) place. If you're not particularly a Batman fan, you can just enjoy the game and gradually learn more about the various characters from their profiles. If you're a massive Batman fan, then you will be thrilled to see your favourite characters brought to life and the game goes out of its way to include a lot of geeky references that will delight fans.
The plot hangs together well. It feels like a comic book storyline being played out on your PS3. The plot is interesting enough, even if it's only really there to give some structure to the game. It's slightly disappointing that there's no real innovation behind the underlying missions and in terms of content (go to this place, find/fight this person) there's nothing new, but I still found it interesting enough. The fact that it's a prequel does produce a few plot holes and inconsistencies and it doesn't always tie in with events in the current DC Universe. However, unless you're a serious continuity pedant, this probably won't concern you too much.
Graphically, Origins is an improvement over Arkham City. Many of the improvements are quite small, but they are noticeable. Fans of Arkham City will instantly recognise their surroundings (it takes place in the same setting, just several years earlier) which makes it easier for seasoned players to navigate their way around, without being too intimidating for newcomers. At the same time Origins feels more epic, bigger in scope and far grander than previous environments. The setting is an integral part of the game and the dark, brooding graphics add to the sense that something is deeply wrong within the rotten city of Gotham.
Character graphics are superb with some of Batman's biggest enemies being brilliantly realised. From the very early fight with Killer Croc, the graphics would not look out of place in the pages of the comic book. Characters look suitably grotesque and deadly, without every becoming an over-stylised caricature. I'm a big Batman fan, so have read many comics featuring these various villains and was impressed by the way that they have been brought to life within the game.
Although many of the frustrations of earlier games have now been ironed out, there is still the odd graphical glitch and usual camera angle issues that mar all modern 3D games. However these are not so frequent or intrusive as to be more than a minor irritant.
The sound on the game is equally strong. It's a shame that Mark Hamill no longer provides the voice for the Joker, and the Penguin's faux cockney voice still grates, but elsewhere the vocal work is performed to a high standard, with dialogue perfectly matching the look of the on-screen characters. Two particular bonuses are that Batman's voice (which annoyed me in the previous two games) is better - more aggressive and gravelly; and there is a greater opportunity for Alfred to bring his droll sense of humour to the game. Other ambient sound is identical to Arkham City and, like many other aspects of the game, lacks the same sense of originality
Anyone who has played the previous Batman titles will immediately feel at home with the controls, since they have not changed. Newcomers will also feel comfortable, as they are pretty intuitive and the early levels act as a tutorial, talking you through the core moves and combat techniques. Crucially, the controls feel natural and responsive. Within just a few minutes, you will have full control over Batman and be leaping across rooftops or taking down bad guys with scarcely a thought to which buttons you are pressing.
Arkham Origins has some massive long-term appeal. I would estimate Story Mode will take you around 20-30 hours to complete, but even once you've done that, there are always new things to explore and side missions to complete before you get a 100% completion, and I'd say there's at least another 10 hours to that. There's also some downloadable content available for certain versions of the game and online multiplayer action (which I've not tried) as well as several different difficulty levels for the main narrative.
What really lets it down, though, is that it's a very safe title and offers virtually no new ideas. Arkham City was a significant development over the already excellent Arkham Asylum but Arkham Origins feels like it's treading water. The sole innovation (analysing a crime scene to reconstruct events) actually annoyed rather than impressed me, and I felt that it slowed the overall pace down. Arkham Origins actually feels more like an expansion pack, rather than a new game in its own right. It's clear the developers have been told that the franchise has hit on a winning formula and they are not allowed to tinker with it.
Despite this, it's still a decent game that will give you hours of gameplay. It's a shame that it feels more like Arkham City 2.5, rather than a genuine leap forward for the franchise, but sadly, that's what we have to expect from software companies these days. Let's hope that the developers of the next Batman game are given a little bit more freedom to play around with the formula and bring in some innovations. Otherwise the series is going to start feeling seriously stale.
Available new from around £15.
© Copyright SWSt 2014
For some reason, we all think that that everyone else lives in better places than us. Our towns are barren wastelands; everyone else is enjoys superb amenities, low council tax and has golden dustbins. This book - a guide to the 50 worst places in the UK - sets out to disabuse you of that notion and suggest that maybe, just maybe, you're better off where you are.
According to the foreword, this book came about when the authors wrote about the deficiencies of their own towns on the Idler website and encouraged readers to send in their own suggestions. They were inundated with replies from every corner of the country and so decided to create a book featuring the 50 places nominated most frequently.
Whilst this method of selection might be a very democratic way of doing things, it is also rather idiosyncratic and results in a few surprising choices. It's no surprise to see places like Widnes, Milton Keynes and Slough featuring and few would dispute their right to be there. But: Oxford - one of the 50 worst places to live in the UK? Really?
I suppose that's the nature of this kind of book. Some people will read the entries and agree whole-heartedly that Town X is a bog hole, whilst others will leap to its defence. It's also one of those books where an existing knowledge of the place(s) in question will make the entries far more relevant. As a general rule, I tended to find the entries on towns I knew were much more interesting as I could nod wisely, agreeing with the comments or ranting about how unfair the author was being. This is where the book is at its strongest - when provoking a reaction- whether laughter, agreement or apoplectic anger!
In the interests of fairness, some entries contain a rebuttal from someone prepared to defend the town and point out its finer attractions. Mostly, these come from either the local council or a famous person who lives/lived there. Sadly, in most cases, these make for pretty dull reading: bog standard press releases from the local council or tourist information board, devoid of any real interest. In most cases, it's clear that respondents have taken the issue a little too seriously rather than accepting that the book is meant to be a bit of tongue in cheek fun.
The democratic approach o selection and writing does have a more serious impact on the quality of entries, which can be very variable. They are provided by many different contributors and appear to have received only light editing before publications. Some are amusing and well-written but others are a bit dull. Some have taken a tongue in cheek approach; a light-hearted look at their town, others have done a complete hatchet job, providing little short of an unpleasant rant. Again, the more tongue in cheek approach works best and it's these contributors who have best grasped the concept behind the book.
There's also no standard length for articles either. Some towns get 2-3 pages; others just a couple of hundred words. This also impacts on their quality and readability and the longer entries tend to be better written and more interesting, with the writers having more space to set out their arguments.
This relaxed editorial policy does give the book a slightly odd, uneven tone. It's not tongue in cheek enough to be a humorous title, nor factual enough to be a more serious survey of modern urban life. In fact, it's a little difficult to work out exactly who it's aimed at. When reading it, I found parts interesting and entertaining, but other parts were a struggle. To combat this, I found that the best approach was to limit myself to reading a couple of entries a night. Anything more and things started to get a little repetitive.
For me, though, by far the most interesting aspect was the odd bit of trivia that was dropped in about a particular town, Sometimes this related to its history or the derivation of its name; other times an odd event that happened there or a famous resident. I actually learned some quite surprising things about places thanks to this book.
Whilst the quality of the entries and the writing might be variable, there's enough in it to justify the price, particularly if you can track down a second hand copy (which is not too difficult). My copy cost me 50p and you can expect to pay under £2 unless you want it new. It's nowhere close to being an essential read, but neither is it a complete waste of time.
Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran
© Copyright SWSt 2014
It's fair to say that I'm not a big football fan. My sport of choice (Rugby League) leaves little room for the prima-donna antics of soft, overpaid football players. I tend to have the same attitude towards computer versions of the sport too, so whilst I enjoyed Sensible Soccer on the Amiga, the last football game I owned was the very first EA FIFA game 96. I'll be honest; I only picked this up because I saw it for £1.50 in a second hand store and couldn't resist it at that price.
Despite this unpromising start, FIFA 12 is actually a pretty decent game. What really impresses is the thoroughness. Competitions, teams, leagues and players from dozens of countries are represented, giving you the opportunity to play in the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga and so on. The attention to detail is incredible and it seems that no matter how obscure the competition, it is recreated in FIFA. Of course, you do have to bear in mind that this edition reflects teams at the end of 2011 so it's no longer accurate, but if that sort of thing matters to you you'll already have bought FIFA 14 anyway. For the rest of us, a slightly outdated game for £1.50 is perfectly acceptable.
Equally impressive is the level of customisation. Difficulty levels can be tweaked in, controllers set up to reflect your preferred methods and squads altered so that if you really do have to have up-to-date teams, you can change them manually. It gives you a real feeling of control that many other games lack.
This extends to the game modes which are extensive and give the game massive long term playability. If you want to dive straight in, you can play a single game; if you want a bigger challenge you can play a whole season; if you want to make things even tougher, you can take full control over your side through the management option. It gives FIFA 12 a real depth that caters for everyone's tastes. Throw in multi-player offline modes (competitive or co-operative) and online matches (which I've not used) and FIFA 12 offers an awful lot.
At this point, you're probably thinking that this is all very interesting, but how does it play as a football game? The answer is: very well. Once you have got used to the controls, the game feels very fluid. Passing feels natural, as does shooting. Within just a few games, you begin to get the hang of passing the ball around, whilst tackling is also easy to get to grips with. Set pieces (particularly corners) are a little more challenging, but it comes with practice. The crucial thing is that FIFA plays like a real football game with crisp, accurate passing and a good implementation of the rules. Computer AI is decent (depending on difficulty level) and computer controlled teams play a good game of football.
The difficulty level is also well-honed to meet the needs of all players. If you've never played a football game before, you can alter the difficulty levels to make it as easy as possible; if you're a FIFA veteran, you can ramp the difficulty levels up. Unlike some games, this makes a massive difference to how the game plays. As an experiment, I played an FA Cup tournament on the lowest difficulty setting and the highest. On the easy setting, I won the cup easily, beating Manchester United 6-1 in the final; on the hard setting, I didn't get past the first round, and I'm not going to tell you the final score! Essentially, however good (or bad!) you are at games, you will still be able to play FIFA.
Graphics are very good indeed. Stadia across the world are faithfully recreated and, whilst the game doesn't have photo-realistic graphics, the players at least bear a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Animations are generally very fluid and the game's perspective works well giving you a decent view of the pitch so that you can attempt a proper passing game, rather than just hoofing the ball up field and hoping for the best.
Sound is perfectly adequate, although was the one aspect I was less impressed by. As background noise, the game features songs from various artists (some well-known, others less so), although the choice of some titles is a little odd. In-game commentary is provided by Martin Tyler and Alan Smith. Whilst this is perfectly adequate, like all such games, it can become repetitive, with the same phrases cropping up time and time again. Crowd and background noises are also a little disappointing. These are pretty generic stuff and don't really capture any sense of excitement.
The one major complaint regarding controls is one suffered by every football game I have ever played. In standard game mode, the PS3 assigns you control of whichever player it thinks is best at the time. You can switch to another player by pressing a button, but I find this can be a little unresponsive. Too often, by the time you have selected the player you want, your opponent has run past the man and you have to start all over again.
The other downside to the game is the deplorable way EA Sports treat this franchise like a cash cow, essentially releasing the same game year on year with just a few tweaks, whilst charging gamers around £45 for the privilege. How EA can justify this practice is beyond me... but I guess as long as people keep buying it, they will keep doing it.
Still, the upside to that policy is that if you're willing to have a slightly older version, you can pick them up dirt cheap. I got my copy a while back for £1.50 (second hand), but I've seen it as cheap as 75p. And you really can't argue with that.
© Copyright SWSt 2014
Men can sometimes feel a little excluded from the whole process of pregnancy. Everyone (quite rightly) fusses over the health of the mum-to-be whilst the poor old father gets side-lined. Despite the fact that having a baby is a life-changing experience for both partners, almost all the information is geared towards telling the woman what to expect; the man is pretty much left to fend for himself and just expected to pick things up as he goes along.
Jon Smith's Bloke's Guide to Pregnancy seeks to redress that balance by giving men the information they need in one handy volume. The book comes from his own personal experiences of becoming a father for the first time, as well as those of other first-time fathers that he interviewed when writing the book.
It's probably fair to say that most men would not welcome a serious, academic tome on pregnancy. Recognising this, Smith adopts a jokier, more jovial approach. This makes the book quite a lot of fun to read and there were several entries that really made me laugh out loud. The "blokey" tone of the book can become a bit too much at times (it rather stereotypes all men as being interested only in football and going to the pub), but most of the time Smith stays the right side of the line.
Just because it's funny, though, don't write it off as useless. Smith is aware that the main purpose of the book is to provide confused dads-to-be with the information they are going to need. It's a purpose the book fulfils well. Amidst the humorous asides, the book is packed with some genuinely useful stuff. He covers all aspects of the whole pregnancy journey - from the first time you hear those magical words "I'm pregnant" through to the realities of suddenly being responsible for a screaming, purple-faced bundle. There were many, many times when a doctor or nurse mentioned something and I was able to nod my head knowledgeably because I had read about it in this book. It was also far more informative and valuable (and a heck of a lot cheaper) than the excruciating NCT classes I attended.
The book is easy to read and arranged in a logical fashion. There are different chapters covering various aspects of the pregnancy - the three main trimesters, the actual birth and looking after baby once it has been born. This means that you can read the book in chunks. Personally, I found a helpful approach was to read each section either as you entered phase, or just before. This helped to give you an idea of what to expect and whether what you were feeling and experiencing was normal.
Within these separate chapters, the book is split down into brief, almost diary like entries. These are relatively short (typically just a couple of paragraphs) but focus on a specific aspect and are generally informative and entertaining to read. Thanks to Smith's style, you will not object to reading this book and (although you would never admit it), you may even actually enjoy it at times.
A real strength is the focus on many different elements of the pregnancy. It covers physical aspects and emotional ones. Crucially (and this is where most literature falls down), it considers BOTH partners. It points out that most men will experience different and changing emotions throughout the pregnancy, but also underlines the very real physical and psychological changes the mum will go through and helps you to understand them better. After reading this, I certainly found I had a far better understanding of what Mrs SWSt was going through than I did from any amount of leaflets provided by the midwife.
There can be times when Smith goes a little overboard (sometimes this is the result of the over-exuberant humour; occasionally down to other factors). The book can also be a little scary to read as it goes into all the things that can possibly go wrong during the pregnancy, which can lead to some unnecessary worries. Having said that, when Mrs SWSt had to have an emergency caesarean, I felt at least vaguely prepared for it, thanks to what I'd read here.
Overall, Smith's book addresses a real gap in the market. It gives fathers to be the information they need in an entertaining and easily digestible form. It will reassure you that the emotions you experience throughout the nine month journey and beyond are perfectly normal, and give you a good understanding of what your partner is experiencing - making you better placed to support her.
The book is available on Kindle for around a fiver or in paperback for about £7 (copies can be picked up slightly cheaper second hand). If you are going to become a dad soon and want to be better informed about the whole process without wading through lots of pompous mum-centric text, then this book is for you.
The Bloke's Guide to Pregnancy
Hay House, 2004
© Copyright SWSt 2014
Ripping Yarns might legitimately be sub-titled "Or what some of the Pythons did next". Written and starring former Monty Python team members Michael Palin and Terry Jones, it's a rib-tickling spoof of the "jolly splendid" Boys' Own adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s.
And who better to deliver it than Palin and Jones? They had already shown in Python that they could write funny scripts and act them out (within a given definition of "act"). There, they had to compete for space with the contributions of the other Pythons. Here, they have a freer hand to do what they want, free of wider constraints. And they use that freedom to good effect, taking the silliness of Python, but giving it a little more story and structure.
To modern eyes, there's something naturally funny about the somewhat naive attitudes of early 20th century Brits (particularly those from the ruling classes). Whilst it's not particularly original to send this up, rarely has it been done with such aplomb. There are nine episodes in total on this disk and each parodies a different type of Boys Own Adventure story: from explorer tales (Across the Andes by Frog) to war stories (Escape from Stalag Luft 112b) from spy stories (Whinfrey's Last Case) to Agatha Christie style murder mysteries (Murder at Moorstones Manor). The genius of Palin and Jones is to take these familiar ideas and to turn them into a thirty minute programme that is utterly ridiculous, yet brilliantly funny.
Inevitably some episodes work better than others and are more consistently funny. Whilst there are none that fall flat on their face, there are a couple which struggle to make much of an impression (Across the Andes by Frog and The Curse of the Claw are particularly weak). You could also argue that many of the episodes are based around a single idea (parodying late 19th/early 20th century outlooks and attitudes) and that that single idea/joke can't be sustained for a whole 30 minute episode. Yet even in its weaker offerings, Ripping Yarns still has moments that will make you laugh out loud, whilst the better episodes are packed full of them.
Ripping Yarns glorifies in its silliness. It is stupid, nonsensical, idiotic, utterly mad and very, very funny. It is, in other words, a worthy successor to the surreal Monty Python. The format may have changed and been stretched (sometimes over-stretched) into a 30 minute episode, but in the innate silliness of it all, the essence of pure Python is retained. Essentially that's a good guide to whether you'll like this or not: if you find Monty Python "too silly", Ripping Yarns in not for you; if you loved Python, you will lap this up.
Most of the episodes feature Michael Palin in the lead role. Palin has a natural, easy charm that makes him watchable. He was also the most versatile and chameleonic of the Python team; an everyman who, thanks to his background, could portray working class man or a gentleman and everything in between. More importantly, he has a superb sense of comic timing, delivering lines to perfection to wring the maximum possible laugh out of them, as well as a knack for finding just the right voice for each character, so that those already funny lines become even better.
Lest this starts to sound like a love letter to Palin, we shouldn't overlook the contribution of Terry Jones. He might only appear in smaller roles or isolated scenes and have a more limited repertoire (usually squeaky voiced confusion or indignation), but like Palin, he has a sharpened sense of comedy, so that his every line or appearance will at least raise a grin.
The beauty of these episodes is that they will appeal to all ages. I first watched them when I was about 13. Some of the jokes went over my head, but I can remember finding it very funny overall. As I grew up (Mrs SWSt may dispute that statement), I've watched them again and found that I appreciate different bits. Like Monty Python before it, by adopting a broad approach to humour, Ripping Yarns appeals tastes, combining silliness and cleverness to good effect.
Some of the reproduction on this DVD is a little disappointing, particularly in regards to the sound. This is probably the fault of the original source of the recording, but I did find sound to be quite muffled and distorted at times, with some dialogue difficult to make out. Certainly when playing these episodes, I had to have the TV turned up far louder than I normally would. For a series that is (at least partially) based around words and wordplay, this is unfortunate.
Ripping Yarns is well worth owning, since it is a series you will want to watch time and time again. There are various DVD box sets of the series available, with most of them priced at around a tenner. For 9 episodes and nearly five hours' worth of laughter, that's a pretty decent investment.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2014
Originally released on the Playstation One, Carmageddon caused controversy on release. Gamers, of course, lapped it up and (partially fuelled by the controversy) the game did very well commercially and spawned a sequel. If you missed the fuss first time around, you can catch up now with this version for iOS.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future you are a racer who takes part in violent, deadly races to earn money. Cash can be earned by winning the race, taking out opposition racers or (the controversial bit) running over pedestrians. Money earned can then be used to upgrade your car to make it faster, stronger and deadlier.
Putting aside the controversy and judged on its own merits, Carmageddon is a fun game, although I think it's perhaps one that people look at through slightly rose-tinted glasses. The underlying gameplay is instantly appealing, but offers decent long-term appeal with lots of tracks (each with numerous ways to beat them), 3 difficulty levels and plenty of challenges. However, it's also a little bit shallow.
Graphically, Carmageddon does show its age. Normally, I'm quite forgiving of this (being a fan of retro), but Carmageddon perhaps suffers because it falls between two stools. It's not quite old enough to be "retro" (where bad graphics can have a certain charm) but not new enough to be "modern". Graphics are pretty blocky and a little rough around the edges (when you see a pedestrian close up, it looks quite ropey). Although they have been re-touched for their iOS debut, they have not received a complete respray, so betray the fact that they are now around 17 years old (a long time in gaming terms). However, they do their job and there are some nice touches: the splat of red when you run over a pedestrian, the little camera image of your driver whooping or grimacing as you do well or crash all help to add to the atmosphere.
The same could be said of the sound, which might sound a little basic to modern gaming ears, but works well enough. The roar of engines, the shouts of joy (or frustration) from your driver, the crunch of metal and the wet splat as you hit a pedestrian all add to the game.
The game's slightly sick sense of humour will either repel or appeal, depending on your outlook. You get extra points, for example for mowing down pedestrians with style (in one memorable incident, my car was upside down and being shunted from behind by a rival racer which caused me to plough into some pedestrians, much to the game's approval!) This adds an extra dimension to the gameplay. As you get better you look to take out opponents with panache, rather than just chasing them down. The gameplay is simple, but surprisingly satisfying - and a great way to relieve stress after a hard day at work!
What makes the game a lot of fun (and more open-ended) is that Carmageddon eschews the traditional idea of "finish first to progress to next track". Instead, there are usually multiple ways you can win a race. You COULD go down the usual route and look to finish first, but that's boring, right? Alternatively, you can seek to destroy all your other opponents or kill all pedestrians (no mean feat as there are often hundreds of them). This no-holds barred approach to winning suits the game's plot and works well.
It might only be a small change, but it gives Carmageddon a surprising sense of freedom. Unless you follow the checkpoint option, there is no set route. Within the confines of the course, you can go where you like and do what you like -you can even venture underwater! Initially this was rather confusing and in my early games I felt rather lost and aimless. Once you get the hang of it, though, it's really rather liberating. Unlike many racers, it's not disastrous if you miss a turn - you can just shift your focus to one of the other objectives, which are usually far more fun anyway!
Where Carmageddon really falls down is in its lack of depth. Race locations and exact objectives might change and there might be plenty of tracks, but the underlying gameplay is the same throughout. Carmageddon is one of those titles that I find is fun to play in short bursts, but not one that I want to sit and play for ages. Still, the crucial thing is that it is actually fun and I do return to it.
Carmageddon is a good example of a developer taking care with an old property, converting the game in a way that works within a touchscreen environment. When it comes to the controls, it doesn't do anything different to other iPad racers (buttons to control steering, braking and speed), but it implements it much better. Controls are highly responsive and give a strong degree of control over your car, although it can take a few games to get used to them: on my first couple of games I spent more time crashing into walls than pedestrians. Once you get the hang of them, though, they work beautifully.
When it was released on the PS1, Carmageddon cost the best part of £20 to buy. The price for this iPad port? Just 69p. Yes, the gameplay might be a little shallow, but at that price, Carmageddon represents one of the iPad's best buys.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2014
When the Robocop reboot were announced, fans of the original were up in arms. The main criticism was not that a remake was unnecessary (although it is), but that the film was to have slightly different plot. Being a fair-minded little monkey, I was prepared to give the film the benefit of the doubt until I'd actually seen it. Unfortunately, it turns out that the detractors were right.
Detroit 2029: cop, loving father and husband Alex Murphy is critically injured in a car bomb explosion. His wife gives permission for OmniCorp to place him in a robotic suit that will allow him to live and continue his law enforcement career as Robocop. OmniCorp, meanwhile, are hoping to use Robocop to win the American public over to the idea of a robots responsible for law enforcement.
It might only be February, but Robocop has to be an early contender for dullest film of the year, which comes as quite a shock. How can you make Robocop boring?! Surely, it should be full of action, explosions and excitement? I know that's what I was expecting. Prepare to be disappointed. Robocop has been turned into an angst-ridden family drama with only limp, sporadic action. The first hour in particular drags very badly as the dull-as-ditch water characters and plot are established.
Odd though it sounds for an 80s action film, characters were an important part of the original Robocop. You felt a sense of loss and sadness as Murphy's consciousness slowly asserted itself and he remembered his happier past. Here, he's aware right from the start, which dampens any emotional impact. Apart from one brief scene, there's no real sense that Murphy is suffering as a result of his new identity and he adapts to it far too quickly. Add in a convenient plot device which turns him into more of a machine than a man during combat and you lose that all-important human connection.
The lack of any obviously identifiable bad guy for much of the film is also a serious issue. Whilst the pantomime boo-hiss villain of the original might not have worked today, the lack of an obvious foil makes the whole film feel directionless and pointless.
The decision to turn the film into a family drama rather than a sci-fi action film is also a poor one. The characters are so underdeveloped that they have no resonance with the viewer and the acting is too weak to make you care. Joel Kinnaman's voice is too full of emotion to convince as a robot but too cold and sterile to pass as human. Abbie Cornish's Clara Murphy is a mere cipher; supposedly summing up the human tragedy, but not bringing the requisite emotion to the part, whilst John Paul Rutten as Murphy's young son David does what most child actors do - stand around looking mildly confused.
Michael Keaton makes for a bland CEO of OmniCorp with a patently obvious character arc. He's certainly not a patch on Dick Jones from the original. Jackie Earle Hailey does his best as the slightly sinister Mattox, but is little more than a bit-part player, whilst Samuel L Jackson's turn as media rabble rouser Pat Novak is just embarrassing. Only Gary Oldman escapes censure as Robocop's creator Dennett Norton. His character arc may be just as obvious as Keaton's but at least he brings a splash of warmth and humanity to it.
The film suffers from something of an identity crisis. It's almost like there are two films here fighting for our attention. There's the one the director wanted to make (a violent satire on corporate greed and media manipulation) and the one the studio wanted made (a kid friendly action thriller that would clean up at the box office). The end result is an uncomfortable mix that just doesn't work.
At the end of the film you are left puzzled over what Robocop was hoping to achieve (other than big piles of cash). Whatever it was, it falls way short. As a satire on media manipulation and corporate greed, it is nowhere near sharp enough, lacking bite and with a message that's as dumbed down and facile as the news broadcasts it is supposedly parodying. As an action film, it's a confused mess. Sequences are badly filmed, using frantic kinetic camerawork that makes it hard to see what is happening. Attempts to show gun battles from Robocop's perspective is a nice idea but they up making the film look like a First Person Shooter computer game - Call of Robocop, if you will.
Robocop 2014 will satisfy no-one. When it treads close to the original, it's inevitably exposed as inferior; where it tries to be different, it gets it horribly wrong. It's rather telling that the best bits are when it nods back the original (a brief appearance for the original Robocop suit, a few bars from the original score). That probably tells you all you need to know about how unnecessary this remake is.
Director: José Padilha
Running time: approx. 108 minutes
© copyright SWSt 2014