- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
The concept of Vistaprint is immediately appealing to anyone running a small business or working as a freelancer: 250 high quality business cards provided quickly, easily and for free. Something for nothing? Well, it's largely true though there are a few caveats. When you enter the site, you are given a selection of thirty different business card templates from which to choose. The variety should be enough for anyone to find something that suits them. They vary from simple, plain designs to fancy full-colour cards. Personally I chose a plain, professional design with just a splash of red. Having selected the card design, you move on to the text. There are a number of standard fields in set places for things like Name, Company, Address, etc. You can use any of these fields for whatever you want, subject to length, or leave any of them blank. Having entered the text, you press the "Preview" button and after a few seconds you get to see your design with the text as it will appear, an excellent facility. You can play with different text on different backgrounds until you're happy. Your options for free cards are limited to this, so for example you can't change fonts or move text around at will. Once you're happy with your card, you proceed to register and pay by credit card. What's that? Pay? I thought these cards were free. Well yes, they are. However, you have to pay for postage and packing. Despite the "vistaprint.co.uk" address, this is just a front end to vistaprint.com Cards are printed and posted in the US. Postage is thus more than nominal; it currently costs £5.95 or £7.95 depending on whether you want normal or fast delivery. There are also a number of additional options you can choose to purchase. For example, the free cards have a small Vistaprint logo and the message "Business cards are FREE at Vistaprint.co.uk" on the reverse, for £6.99 you can remove this. Payment compl
ete, you sit back and wait for the cards to arrive. And wait. That's my main problem with the site. I selected the "rapid" option for £7.95 which is supposed to get your cards to you within ten days. My order was placed on 4/7/2001, I received an email on 10/7/2001 saying that the cards had been shipped. Great! Unfortunately, they didn't arrive until today, 6/8/2001. Strangely, the franking on the box says "Air Mail" yet has only twenty cents postage, which sounds wrong. I suspect someone made a mistake somewhere. Well at least they arrived, well packaged and safe. Were they worth the wait? Absolutely. These are as good as many cards I've used before, printed well on decent weight stock. They are also fairly standard size, just a touch small at approximately 49mm x 87mm. I have to say that they look even better in real life than on the web. How can they afford to do this for free? Well, they claim that they do this because they are so sure that you will like the product they will get paid orders from you later. That's probably true to a degree. However I suspect they are being a little disingenuous. Even for genuine airmail, £7.95 postage sounds expensive. My suspicion is that the "P&P" subsidises the production costs and you are effectively getting the cards at cost. Presumably this increases Vistaprint's turnover sufficiently that they benefit from better economies of scale in their commercial dealings. So, not quite free yet far from expensive. If you want a small run of business cards and don't mind a wait then Vistaprint is an inexpensive way of doing it.
Ah, Gauntlet. If you're as ancient as me then you'll remember the stir that the original Gauntlet game caused when it appeared in the arcades decades ago. A graphically superb third person shooter which could be played by four people at once! No sophistication, just blast away at everything that moves and most things that don't. For its time it was a genuine quantum leap forward in gaming. Many were the hours wasted feeding coins in to the machine. I remember one afternoon when friends and I had been playing Gauntlet at the arcade for ages. I suddenly became aware that I was running short of change. Unable to face dropping out of the game I took a tenner from my pocket, thrust it at a passing kid and said, "Get me change!". Remember that this was back in the days when a tenner was worth having and I was giving one to a kid I'd never seen before. To my amazement he returned a few minutes later with a pile of coins. Maybe in my deranged, half-drunk, game obsessed frenzy I resembled Withnail and was too scary for him to risk stealing from me. I prefer to think he was just a good kid. Reflections on human nature aside, back to the game. "Gauntlet - Dark Legacy" is the latest in the series, this time available for the PS2. If you played the original then you will be delighted to find that nothing has changed. That's nonsense of course - everything has changed. At the time the original machine was in the arcades, the power of a single PS2 would have dwarfed all NASA's computers put together. The graphics are like nothing we could have imagined back then. Yet it still *feels* the same. It even has that hilariously over the top deep, dark voice making statements like "Blue archer has gained a level" as if they were of gravest import. Turn this game on and you are transported back to those arcades of yore... Gauntlet is the most basic of games in that you run around different levels sho
oting almost constantly. On the way you pick up keys, magic potions, assorted power-ups, etc. Kill enough critters and you gain an experience level, getting more powers as you do so. Role-playing games have always faced a basic philosophical question: where do the "wandering monsters" come from? Gauntlet answers that question with a stunning audacity. Monsters come from monster generators! However many you kill, they keep coming until you wade your way through the corpses and dispose of the generator. Each level also has a number of sub-bosses to deal with. In addition to just clearing the level, there are also artefacts, runestones and special areas to find. Hidden away are trapdoors leading to "Bonus levels" (remember them?) which if completed open up new characters with which to play. The game is split in to a series of different regions, each with a theme (eg sky, forest, desert...). Initially only one region is available to you. To open the others you must collect enough magic crystals of the right type. Each area consists of a number of different levels that culminate in a Boss. These bosses are very nasty, however each is vulnerable to an artefact that you might have located elsewhere. When you defeat these Bosses you gain loads of gold to spend on magic, extra abilities, etc. Your ultimate aim is to collect the runestones and magic shards from each region in order to open up the end game. Here you defeat Big Bad in order to save the universe or something like that. Graphics are efficient in a primitive way. They *look* like computer graphics, they make no pretence at realism, yet they are attractive. Each region has its own distinctive look and feel. Gauntlet has no pretensions to grandeur and makes no over-hyped claims; as such achieves its goals admirably. It is nothing more or less than a very old-fashioned shoot-em-up that is extremely well implemented and great fun in a mindless way. If you enjoy
that style of game and/or have nostalgic memories of the old Gauntlet then you'll love this. If you're looking for a modern game that pushes the envelope of the genre then go elsewhere.
I've always been suspicious of "something for nothing" offers. Over the years I've learned the hard way that "if it sounds to good to be true then it probably is". However Tombola doesn't cost me anything to play and I could do it whilst going through my email, so why not? It appears to be the exception to the rule. After a few months of morning scratching, one day I was playing Lycos Fetch, one of the Tombola games. I'd finished the game and almost closed the window down without thinking before noticing that I'd matched four footballs. Ten quid! Frig me, I'd won. Well, I still didn't really believe it. Then a few days ago a cheque for a tenner came through my letterbox. So, it really does pay out. The least I could do was to write an op. Tombola is an umbrella site for a number of free games, each of which you can enter once per day. The games change every couple of months so I won't list them in detail. All tend to be similar in format - they are basically electronic scratch-cards. You scratch off or click on the relevant sections of the card and reveal symbols. Depending on the game you either need to reveal three or four of the same symbol or match a list of randomly generated symbols. Do this and you win, anything from ten quid to several thousand. There are two main categories of game on Tombola, those they host themselves and those they host for third parties. The latter currently include Lycos, eBay, CashMatch and LastMinute. There's no real difference between these except that the latter fire off in a separate window. My guess is that even the third party games are probably hosted on Tombola servers, though I don't know that for sure. Be aware that third party games have their own terms & conditions - check these out. I've refused to play the CashMatch game because of the section in their T&Cs saying that they "...may use your information to kee
p you informed by post, telephone, email or other means about products and services which may be of interest to you." email spam is bad enough, no way do I want their telesales people pestering me! Technically, the games are very well done. They look good, are simple to use and make sense. Best of all, they are written as Java applets rather than as ActiveX components. Load times are reasonably fast though occasionally one game will refuse to load. How can they afford to give money away? Well, the games are all surrounded by adverts so presumably this is the major business model. With the "partner" sites, they clearly want you to become a customer of theirs. Given the downturn in the global economy and the squeezing of advertising budgets I'd recommend getting in quick on Tombola. A tenner is hardly going to change my life. However it is money for nothing and more than I've ever got from schemes like iPoints, Beenz, etc. The big question is whether it's worth playing. Since they don't charge to play they have no obligation to display the odds of winning. I suspect these are small. However, people do win - even me! Overall I'd say that if, like me, you have some form of unmetered Internet access it's well worth it - after all your game is effectively free. If however you are still paying per minute for your net connection then the cost of the time online probably outweighs your expected return.
Red Faction has to be the second most hyped PS2 game to date (after Gran Turismo 3). We've been promised a graphically spectacular first person shooter (FPS) with an intricate plot involving a revolution on Mars. Perhaps more important, Red Faction features the brand new Geo Mod system allowing you to blow away anything you fancy and for the first time truly interact with the game world. So, does it live up to the hype? Of course not. Nothing possibly could. A fairer question to ask is whether or not it lives up to reasonable expectations. Unfortunately it doesn't even do that. Graphically it is indeed superb, and as a basic FPS it is effective with a number of interesting weapons. The principles are familiar - wander round shooting people and picking up weapons, ammo and health. A couple of areas stress stealth as opposed to all out carnage, which is nice. The game starts impressively: you are working in a mine when trouble breaks out. Initially you don't even have a weapon, let alone any idea what's going on. As the plot unfolds you make contact with the resistance and are given instructions and advice over a comm link. The big hype point of Red Faction - and the reason I bought the game - is the "Geo Mod" technology. In essence, this means that you can blow away the scenery and it will (in theory) react realistically. The implied promise is for a much deeper level of gameplay with a much more immersive feel. Don't know how to open a door? Blow it up! Want to take out a whole squadron in one go? Start an avalanche! Great idea, unfortunately it doesn't really work. The main problem is that the places where you can use this are very limited. Most of the doors are immune even to powerful rockets! You could try blowing through the wall, but with no map available you have no idea whether there's anything on the other side or whether you'd just be digging a long tunnel. Ammo is too sc
arce to risk speculatively shooting at random walls. In fact very few objects actually respond in depth to being blown up, in most cases all that actually happens is that the skin is removed. It looks good and feels satisfying the first few times you do it but soon becomes boring. There are occasions where you can usefully blow up the scenery, however these are rare and are carefully choreographed. It's obvious that the designers have said, "Let's provide a Geo Mod opportunity here." Hardly the open-ended virtual reality I was hoping for. The game itself appears to be completely linear. Yes, there are different ways of dealing with each section. However the actual storyline appears to be single-threaded, moving from one pre-set encounter to the next. Nothing you do changes the plot; either you succeed and move on or fail and die. Yawn. A nice element is the ability to "hijack" a number of different vehicles during the game. Unfortunately "ability" is the wrong word since it implies that you have a choice. In fact, they're simply one more chain in the story and usually the only way of getting from A to B. Once you reach B you get out of the vehicle and leave it behind. No option to use different vehicles at different times, etc. Though I must admit I enjoyed running over guards in the ATV. Some of the aspects of game design are positively antediluvian. Examples: you can carry enough weaponry to arm a small country, yet medi-kits cannot be picked up and saved for when needed, they are used immediately; the weapon-selection mechanism is slow and clunky and, incredibly, almost impossible to read against some backgrounds; non-player characters reach new heights of artificial stupidity (for instance the guy you are supposed to protect who stands stock still in the middle of a firefight and just waits to be hit); no mapping facility, not even a compass. All reminiscent of any first generation FPS
from years back. The usual localisation problems are present. The saved game date stamp shows in US date format. Why? The PS2 setup has a date format option, how hard would it be for programmers to use it? The dialogue language is American rather than English. Thus for example the characters talk about the "third floor" when they mean the "second floor" and "elevator" when they mean "lift". Unacceptable. To be fair it's not all bad. The graphics are indeed gorgeous. Most of the game controls are intuitive and responsive, even climbing up and down ladders isn't too much of a chore. There is one hugely welcome innovation: the ability to save the game at any time. No more tedious replaying the game from the last arbitrary save point or end of level. You'll need this feature - Red Faction is not easy. Undoubtedly I was expecting too much from this game. However, even if I had come to it cold I think I would have been extremely disappointed by the linear storyline and the game design faults mentioned above. I am becoming increasingly intolerant of designers who think that good graphics automatically mean a good game. If this had been a launch game for the PS2 it could be forgiven, as it is they've had enough time to produce something better than this. If you fancy a bit of graphically awesome mayhem and don't mind being spoon fed a story that you can't affect, turn off your brain and enjoy this.
Pitch Black is a welcome addition to the "SF Horror" category, most famously represented by "Quatermass and the Pit" and by the Alien series. The plot can be described as "Nightfall with critters" - Nightfall being the famous Isaac Asimov short story. Pitch Black actually contains a nod to its inspiration in that one of the characters makes a point of using the unusual word "Nightfall" early on. Despite this, don't confuse Pitch Black with the film called Nightfall that was also released in 2000! The story begins on an automated spacecraft with the passengers and crew in cryo-sleep. During an encounter with a meteor storm the ship is damaged, the Captain killed and the remaining crew awoken. They then have to try to crash-land the ship on the nearby planet without killing everyone on board. During this landing pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell) is tempted to improve her own chances of survival by jettisoning all the passengers. This key moment of weakness haunts her for the rest of the film. They land successfully, of course, and the few survivors are a varied group that includes religious types, children and the film's star: Riddick (Vin Diesel), a murderous psychopath who was being transported under top security conditions. Also along is his jailer Johns (Cole Hauser), a man with more past than at first revealed. The planet is an inhospitable desert and the characters' first priority is to find water. As they explore, they realise that something is not quite right. Others have been here before yet all that is left if them are bones. What happened? The second act begins when they discover the answer to that question. The planet is inhabited by critters. Nasty critters. Nasty, hungry critters. To pile on even more pressure, the three suns set and the long night falls. Pitch Black follows the classic track of killing characters off one by one as they attempt to find a way off the planet.
Which - if any - will survive, and what are they prepared to do to save their lives? Tension is kept high and the film manages to kill off unexpected characters at unexpected moments. Ultimately the story is about the personal journeys of the characters and the search for redemption. Technically, it's a great film. The writing (Jim Wheat, Ken Wheat & David N. Twohy) is superb and the actors all give excellent performances, especially Vin Diesel whose intelligent psychopath is believable and truly scary. The special effects work well and complement the film without overpowering it. The only thing that lets it down somewhat is David N. Twohy's direction, which is a little confused at the wrong times. Not a classic but better than most. Well worth a look, preferably on the big screen.
The 1963 film Billy Liar, starring Tom Courtenay, has long been one of my favourites. There was also a TV series in the seventies of which I have fond memories. Yet for some reason I've never got round to reading the original novel. My loss. Billy Fisher is a teenager from a dull working class family in Stradhoughton, a dull working class Northern town. He lives with his family and works as a clerk in the local undertakers. Like many people, he finds solace in fantasy and escapes from his dreary life in to daydreams. Billy's daydreams are on a rather grander scale than most and he has developed a whole country called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia he can - depending on his mood - be the world's greatest lover, single-handedly save the country from invasion or have his entire family beheaded. Unfortunately Billy is unable to keep his imagination in check. He lies almost instinctively, making up stories and presenting them as fact. He's lied about so much for so long that he is very good at it. He is engaged to two girls simultaneously, neither of whom he actually likes, and contrives to share one engagement ring between them. He has also told each of them different stories about his family, something he regrets when one of them is invited to tea. Then there is Liz, the girl he really cares for and to whom he is not engaged. Liz is an independent young woman who escaped from the town's clutches years ago and now comes and goes as she sees fit. Billy's one genuine ambition is to become a comedy scriptwriter. He sends some gags to Danny Boon, an established comic. Boon writes back saying that he can use some of them and will buy them. Billy immediately exaggerates the significance of this and quickly comes to believe that Boon has offered him a job in London. Convinced that he has a show business job waiting in London, Billy plans to leave town. He resigns from his job and this precipitates the slow, agonising
collapse of the house of cards he has built with his lies. The return of Liz with her freewheeling life-style makes things worse, then everything is put in to perspective by a family problem. Billy has to decide between committing to Liz, running away to London or staying with his family and facing his problems. Billy Liar is a classic example of "bitter sweet comedy": funny without being laugh-out-loud and touching without being saccharine. It's a light, easy read and at fewer than two hundred pages it won't take you long to finish. Given that this was first published way back in 1959, you'd expect it to be dated. In fact, it has lasted very well. Yes, there are cultural references that anchor it in time, especially sexual mores. The England of Billy Liar no longer exists, yet the same human problems remain. The basic themes and story of Billy Liar are still relevant. It's all about adolescence, rebellion and - just possibly - growing up. ISBN: 0-14-001783-6
There's a famous quotation from Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Well I can hold my head up and proudly say that I am both a blockhead and a DooYoo addict. Why do we do it? What is it about DooYoo that keeps us scribbling away? What's the allure? It aint the money, that's for sure. Of course DooYoo *do* pay and pay better than some of their competitors. It's true that if they stopped paying or reduced the amounts then I'd leave. However, that's a matter of principle - DooYoo make money out of our ops so I want a cut. It's a token, no more; the money itself isn't the motive. Given the amount of time it takes to write a decent op, the occasional Amazon voucher doesn't even amount to minimum wage. In terms of opportunity cost, writing ops for DooYoo is effectively a loss maker! One thing that people say keeps them here is the community spirit. That's a fair point. The friendliness of the site is certainly great and I've met some good people here. From DooYoo's commercial perspective I understand why they are keen to stress this. I used to work in IT and know that building a "Community" was the marketing department's holy grail - with all that implies both positive and negative. Yet nice though the community is, there are plenty of other ways to meet people, either online or by old-fashioned methods like going down the local pub (if it hasn't been turned in to a green painted Irish themed cyber-cafe). The community aspect alone doesn't explain why I keep on coming back. At the end of the day the reason I am here is simple: I am a writer. As are you if you write ops here. You might not make a living from it, you might not have been published outside of DooYoo, however if you write then you are a writer. Some of us are not just writers, we are Writers. If you are one of us then you'll know it, you'll fe
el it inside. That's not to say we're any better at writing, just that we have a burning *need* to write, to mould words, to communicate. So for me it's not really DooYoo that's addictive, it's writing. DooYoo gives me a way of getting a quick fix and knowing that my words will also be read. In a way it's a displacement activity from "real" writing. Yes I should be working on my novel, yes I'm half way through my sitcom, yes my screenplay needs more work. There are times when you simply can't face the big stuff. Call it writer's block, fear, laziness - you just can't do it. Yet that writing muscle needs exercise, you feel that compulsion to write something. Anything. That's when I turn to DooYoo and write an op. Be it on the book I just read, what was on TV last night or even a cheap consumer product. It's writing. It's all about getting words down and read by other people. That is my addiction. Anyway, that's enough literary limbering up for today - back to that sitcom. The vicar was just about to walk in to the room... with hilarious results...
I've never been very good at driving games. Let's face it, I'm simply a lousy driver. However hard I try to do the right thing, I end up smashing in to other cars, running over pedestrians and getting chased by the cops. When I come indoors to the Playstation my driving gets even worse. So Crazy Taxi was clearly the driving game I had been waiting for; a game where you can't crash, where there are no police and where you get bonus points for dangerous driving! Crazy Taxi began as an arcade smash, then moved on to the DreamCast. It's finally arrived on the PS2. As you've probably gathered by now, it's not entirely the most serious driving simulator. It is the most enjoyable. The basic concept is that you drive your taxi round town and pick up a fare. They will tell you where they want to go and you have to get them there. You have to do it as quickly as possible by whatever means it takes. The faster you finish the job, the more money you get. In addition, if you scare the pants off your passenger in the process they will pay you a big tip for the fun! Fail to complete the journey in time and the passenger leaps out the cab without paying. That's the trouble with open tops... Potential passengers are indicated by circles drawn round them, which are colour coded according to whether their journeys are expected to be Easy, Medium or Hard. The colour coding is counter intuitive with red being easiest and green most difficult. Once you've picked a passenger up, you're committed to them until you get to the destination or their time runs out. No saying "South of the river at this time? Sorry guv, no can do." Some destinations are easier to reach than others and once you get to know them you'll find yourself groaning at certain passengers. During the ride they will chatter incessantly, complementing or insulting you and backseat driving. Initially you will have no idea wher
e anything is in the town. To help you out, you are shown a picture of the location you're heading for along with the distance to go. There is also a large green arrow floating in the sky to give you a hint. This is useful as an initial guide, however you can't rely on it 100%. It doesn't always point the quickest route. In fact sometimes it appears to point in to a dead end. I assume this is due to a short cut that either wasn't implemented or which I haven't managed to find. All of which sounds like a fairly standard game, however as I hinted at in the first paragraph Crazy Taxi is anything but. It's much more fun. For a start, there are none of those irritating rules of the road to follow and no police to enforce them. Just drive where you want. Anywhere. Yes, anywhere. On the road, on the grass, off the flyover at the highest point, down the railway track, on the floor of the ocean... Anywhere! Whilst you're doing it, feel free to hit anything you fancy. Often bumping in to another car - or a building - is the easiest way to stop. Your cab is, of course, invulnerable with none of this irritating "damage" that you get in other games. Just floor the accelerator and go! A lot of the fun in the game is in finding the quickest and most interesting route to a destination. When you finish a game, you are given a grade. Highest grade is "S" and as a reward for achieving this you get to... watch the credits. Er, yeah, great. Thanks guys. There are two town maps available from which to choose. The "Arcade" map is, predictably, the original Arcade game map. There is also a brand new map - which is confusingly called "Original". You can either play in Arcade mode - limited time, with extra time gained for delivering passengers - or for a fixed length of time. The latter is for wimps, though it is useful as a practice mode and for getting used to the town. Finally
there is "Crazy Box", a set of tests to introduce you to the basic handling of the cars. Most of these are more difficult than playing the game itself! Four different taxis and drivers are available. These all "feel" different in their handling, however no information is given as to exactly what the differences are. The graphics are competent though not the best I've seen on the PS2. Who cares, you'll be too busy for sightseeing. The music is fittingly fast and furious if limited and hence repetitive. Options allow you to adjust the difficulty of the game in a way that really works - you can tune it from nigh impossible to piece of pastrami. Complaints? A couple. The manual is even worse than most. For example, it explains the few "special" moves available but explains them so badly that I had to work them out by trial and error. The manual also spends two pages on the biographies of the four drivers without explaining how your choice affects gameplay. Another page is wasted on irrelevant descriptions of some possible customers, instead of basic facts like whether pressing the horn actually has any affect or is just for atmosphere. I would normally complain about lack of localisation. The UK version of a driving game should give the option of driving on the left. In Crazy Taxi this is irrelevant since you drive anywhere and everywhere that takes your fancy! What is annoying is that the high score board displays the date the score was achieved yet only does so in US date format. This especially puzzling since the publishers are Acclaim who proudly boast of their Cheltenham location! No map is provided. I still haven't made up my mind whether or not this is a problem. Certainly getting to know the neighbourhood is one of the most interesting facets of the game and gives it longevity. Yet there are still a few areas of town that I simply can't get my head round. A rough map of s
ome sort would probably have been a bonus. So there are a few problems, mainly omissions. Overall this is an extremely enjoyable, addictive game with staying power.
Do you remember "The Time Tunnel"? Despite initial appearances that was not usually science fiction; it just used an SF concept as the hook for a series of mainly historical costume dramas. "Six Million Dollar Man" was not science fiction; it just used an SF concept as the hook for a series of espionage adventures. "Quantum Leap" was not science fiction; it just used an SF concept as the hook for a series of schmaltzy morality plays. It is, of course, incredibly dangerous to judge a series after just a few episodes. However I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that I see the trend continuing: "Seven Days" is not science fiction; it just uses an SF concept as the hook for a series of contemporary action dramas. Time travel has always been an exciting concept, hence "Doctor Who" - the most successful SF series ever. What Doctor Who recognised is that it's not enough to just go back in time and have a traditional adventure, you need other elements to make science fiction. Seven Days has a very simple premise. A Top Secret government group ("Project Backstep") has been working on a time travel device. They intend to use it to "undo" world disasters by sending one man back in time to stop them happening. That's it. You can almost see the series unfolding before your eyes. It's competently made with decent if unexciting production values and reasonable enough acting. The story certainly zips along at a cracking pace for the 45 minutes per episode. Personally I find the gung-ho militarism irritating; the main character - Parker (Jonathan La Paglia) - is himself an ex soldier who had been locked away by the CIA. For romantic interest we have Olga (Justina Vail), a Russian scientist who had the sense to defect to the good ol' US of A. There is a little humour, however on the whole it seems to take itself very seriously. Science was brushe
d aside with casual arrogance in the first episode. "We have a device that can allow us to send one human being back in time seven days". Why only one person? Why only backwards? Why the seven day limit? (The latter "has to do with the size and power of the reactor. Do you want me to explain it?" "No." How fortunate.) The number of times they can use the device is limited because they might run out of "the element required". As if to excuse the scientific nonsense we're told that technology comes from a crashed Roswell UFO... pleeeaase! If you can't come up with a better rationalisation than that, don't bother! One of the interesting things about Seven Days is what it reveals about the American psyche. Take the first episode. You're doing the (double-length) pilot for a new series, you want to really grab people; what's the worst, most frightening global disaster you could come up with? Er... the bombing of the White House and the killing of the President and other top politicians. Now, I don't agree with terrorism and dislike the idea of *anyone* being killed. However the belief that the death of a politician is a national tragedy is one that most people in the UK would find laughable. The episode tried to rack up the emotion level by having the blast also kill children at a nearby school, including Parker's estranged son. However this is such an unbelievable coincidence and the cheese laden on so thickly that the subplot became laughable rather than tragic. Parker's estranged family also feature on a semi-regular basis along with other attempts to humanise Parker and add emotional clout. As usual with US TV, these aspects are handled with the subtlety of a lead brick; they severely detract from the show instead of adding to it. I suspect the US approach of adverts every 10 minutes is part of the reason for this tendency to break characterisation down in to simple, discrete ch
unks. It is early days for this series on UK TV, however I've read a few episode guides on the web and I belive my first impressions are right. A few "jokers" are added to some of the stories - think along the lines of Star Trek transporter malfunctions - however the basic structure remains the same. All of which is not to detract from what Seven Days does do well: it tells a fine story. Seven Days is competent, watchable drama. It's good, unchallenging teatime viewing. However it is not unmissable TV and is definitely not science fiction.
At last! A PS2 game that both looks good and plays well, a game with variety that requires some degree of thought. AC2 is set on a futuristic Mars ruled by mega-corporations who are at war with each other and with Earth Gov. You are a Raven, a mercenary who sells the services of your AC to the highest bidder. An AC? What's that? It's an "Armoured Core". Imagine a heavily armoured robot bristling with weaponry. Now imagine yourself wearing it like a suit and blasting everything that moves. Oooohhh... makes me shiver just thinking of it. It's enough to give you testosterone poisoning! AC2 is at heart a third person shooter. You take your AC through a variety of missions (over thirty are apparently available, though you don't get to play them all). If you complete a mission successfully, you get a reward with which you can buy new and better equipment. Unfortunately you also have to pay for repairing and rearming your AC, so it is possible to complete a mission successfully and make a loss. At the beginning this is a serious problem, though by the end of the game you should have money to burn. The graphics are great and the missions have a feeling of reality. Things react, they move properly, you get really involved. There's an occasional problem of seeing through the ceiling, but that's a rare lapse. Initially you'll be annoyed by the sluggish turning speed of your AC. That's not a game bug - there's an optional part you can buy to speed up your turn rate. I'd recommend it as an early priority. As well as the missions, there is an "Arena" mode. This is a ladder where you can challenge increasingly powerful ACs and try to climb to the top. This provides a break from the missions (some of which are extremely difficult) and lets you experiment with new weapons and tactics. Arena mode is basically a "free lunch" in that you don't have to pay the usual rep
air and rearm charges. If you win, you get a financial reward and occasionally a new AC part. At the start of the game this is the easiest way of getting the cash that you need to upgrade your AC. If you don't play the Arena you're unlikely to get far in the missions. I've mentioned "new parts" several times. Customisation is the real appeal of AC2. There are dozens of different parts available, some of which work together, some of which are incompatible. Needless to say the manual is totally inadequate as regards explaining them, however you can pick most of it up (there are still a few things I don't understand even now). If you just want to get out and blast things you'll find this aspect of AC2 boring. If, like me, you're a born fiddler then you'll love it. You can change everything about your AC - for a price. You want spider legs? You got 'em. Replace your arms with rocket launchers? Done. All these changes affect the visual look of your AC and since this is a third person shooter it is visible during the mission. What makes this configuration facility really interesting is that there is no such thing as the "best" AC. Most items have pros and cons. Heavy armour means less speed. Powerful cores have less option slots. Heavy rocket launchers tend to carry less ammo. These trade offs combine with the different sorts of mission. Most are simple "shoot everything that moves"; others stress speed, conservation of ammo, etc. Different missions imply different optimal AC configurations. All of which means that this is an attractive, exciting PS2 shooter which requires you to use your brain. It can be done! So if it's that good, why does it only get three stars? Well, it loses one star immediately for the incorrectly spelt name. That might seem petty, but there's an important point here. If game manufacturers are going to segment the market artificially o
n geographical grounds then at least they should respect local languages. It's bad enough that British gamers are already treated as second class citizens without having American spelling forced on us. The other star is lost for a number of irritating problems with the user interface. For example, let's say you want to replace your weapon with a new mega-gun for which you've been saving. You have to go to the shop, go through all the "Sell" menus to sell the old one and get the cash you need. Then you have to trudge through all the "Buy" menus to get the new one. Then you have to leave the shop, go to the Garage and go through the menus to enable the new gun. Only then do you get the message that your AC is overweight! Which means you have to reverse the whole damn process. There must have been a better way of organising this. Another example: at several stages you are given a new AC part as a reward. You receive an email saying, "Have this part". It doesn't tell you *which* part it is. You then have to go through all the menus to find it. Third example: When you first press "Start" the game menu defaults to "New Game" rather than "Load". If you accidentally press this there is no way to back out; you have to go through the whole AC creation process and the first mission before you get the chance to do a load (it's much quicker to press the reset button). These and other misfeatures are intensely annoying and could have been fixed extremely easily. So, AC2 is a great game. What a shame it's let down by some really sloppy User Interface design and US linguistic imperialism.
Val McDermid is an experienced crime novelist who has written some great stuff. She knows the importance of the "body on the first page". Killing the Shadows certainly doesn't want for bodies. Within the first twenty pages we have four murders in three countries! There is a murder in Edinburgh that appears to be a copy of Jack the Ripper. There are two murders in Spain that appear to be the work of the same person. In addition, there is an old murder in London where the man accused has been acquitted because of police entrapment. The latter - involving the murder of a woman out walking on Hampstead Heath with her children - bears a striking similarity to a certain real world case. Within a few pages more, we also learn of a serial killer out to strike down thriller writers. Which if any of these are related, and how? In to the fray comes Professor Fiona Cameron, a psychologist and computer expert who has developed new profiling techniques. Things start to become personal - her partner is himself a thriller writer. It certainly starts out with a bang. Unfortunately it doesn't have the substance to follow up. The plot trundles along for many, many pages with various thriller writers popping up only to be quickly bumped off. Eventually we reach an exciting ending, though the explanation of why thriller writers are being targeted is at best contrived. One wonders if McDermid is indulging in a few in-jokes at her colleagues' expense. Which brings me to my big problem with this novel. Fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. Puncture that and the reader fails to be caught up in the story, becoming instead a disassociated observer. One thing that always destroys my personal suspension of disbelief is a story about a writer. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer myself, I don't know. Whatever the reason, having a main character who is an author constantly reminds me that I'm reading a work of fiction and henc
e breaks the spell. It's worse if the fictional writer works in the same genre as the book - for example, a science fiction story about an SF writer or, as in this case, a thriller about a thriller writer. Killing the Shadows suffers badly from this. As I've already said, the main character's partner not only happens to be a novelist but also happens to be a thriller writer who just happens to write about serial killers. The cover blurb describes the book as "multi-layered" and it's true that there are different levels to the story. Even the title has (as usual with McDermid) multiple interpretations. For me it was all irritatingly self-referential, so much so that it imploded and I couldn't get absorbed in the story. Perhaps that would have been OK if McDermid had hurried us through the story quickly enough that we didn't have time to stop and think. Unfortunately, after the first part the book drags badly until the climax. It resembles a film that lost its way in Act 2. As one would expect from McDermid, the novel is competently written and well plotted. Unfortunately the story just isn't strong enough to justify the length and the basic concept is a mistake. If Killing the Shadows had been written by an author less established than McDermid I doubt it would have been published without a lot of editing. ISBN: 0006514189
The standard advice to anyone going abroad used to be "Don't drink the water". The Jingoist implication was, of course, that Johnny Foreigner couldn't match our British standards. Well that's all changed now. In the post-privatisation years we've had a series of scares and accidents concerning our piped water supplies. Of course, the vast majority of the time British tap water is safe. However even when it technically meets the standards it can still be hard, discoloured and/or unpleasant tasting. I live in the London suburbs and the water here is extremely hard and not at all nice to drink. As a result I decided a while back to buy a water filter. In fact I don't just have one Brita unit, I now have two! Both are permanently full. One is known as the Atlantis and is the largest of the range. It has a whacking 3.3 litre capacity and when full can be difficult to lift with one hand. This provides water for my many cups of tea, for cooking and for the odd quick drink. Yes, plain water can become a pleasure to drink! The Fjord is a slimline unit, which holds 2.6 litres and is designed to fit in the fridge. During hot summer days (what they? - Ed) it's a joy to be able to grab cool, clean water either to drink on it's own or for cordial. You should be able to get either unit for under twenty quid, though I have seen them selling for more. Both come with one filter. Filters are of course consumables and hence an ongoing cost. Presumably these are where Brita make their money. The filters cost around four quid each or fourteen quid for a box of four. Each lasts around a month and there is a little LCD indicator on the jug lid to remind you when to change it. This is simplicity itself - soak a new cartridge in water for 15 minutes, then place in the jug. Fill and discard twice then you're ready to go. One advantage of the Brita over some other brands is that the filters can be bought almost everywhere -
supermarkets, kitchen shops, etc. Clean, clear, good tasting water. Oh, and my kettle now only needs descaling twice a year instead of monthly. No going back.
When thinking about my Top Ten Horror Films, the first thing that struck me was the sheer number of truly *bad* horror films there have been. Sure, there are bad films in all genres - but horror really does seem to attract the turkeys. Why is this? I believe it's because in recent decades the emphasis has been on gore and special effects. These are piled on at the expense of the fundamentals of filmmaking: writing, direction and acting. The result is technically superb films that look good yet are simply not frightening. If you notice the special effects then it reminds you that you are watching a film, that it's all just a story. The way to scare me is to drag me in and get me to associate with a believable experience. As the old cliché goes, it's what you *don't* see that scares you. This explains why most of the films below are old ones. I desperately want to be scared by a modern horror film, I really do. So I applaud The Blair Witch Project as a brave step back in the right direction; it's just a shame it was such a bad film! +++ Number 10: Gothic (1986) Ken Russell at his over-the-top best in this story of the weekend Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Byron, the Shelleys and Dr. Polidori spend a weekend getting high on laudanum and experiencing very weird goings-on. +++ Number 9: The Sixth Sense (1999) Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who meets up with a young boy (Cole - brilliantly played by Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people, everywhere. It's not an original film, in fact it's a very, very old idea. However it is done with such style and is so engrossing that I didn't spot what should have been a predictable ending until half way through. In particular the *writing* of The Sixth Sense is superb. After watching the film, get a copy of the script by M. Night Shyamalan just to see how these things should be done. +++ Number 8: Carry on Screa
ming! (1966) OK, hardly scary, however we need a bit of light relief. The "Carry On" films were always a mixed blessing, this is one of the best. Pure unashamed silliness which the cast seem to be having great fun making. It's also a treasure trove for the lover of bad puns. +++ Number 7: Alien (1979) Classic SF/Horror crossover with the immortal tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream". A film that works by its use of suspense and shadows rather than buckets of gore - meaning that those moments when we do see blood are all the nastier. None of the sequels come close to the oppressive claustrophobia of the original. +++ Number 6: Eraserhead (1977) Now this one's just plain nasty. Some people can't sit through it and I understand why. David Lynch's masterpiece of black and white industrial nightmare. I'm not going to try to explain the plot because I don't claim to understand it - it's a surreal nightmare. Like Alien it is pervaded by an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling. When it finishes I always feel the need to go and have a shower. +++ Number 5: Quatermass and the Pit (1967) Arguably this is an SF film, indeed it'll probably appear in my top ten SF films. However it is also one of the scariest films made. In the London underground a Martian relic is uncovered, awakening a powerful psychic force. Writer Nigel Kneale and director Roy Ward Baker build the tension wonderfully and in places it is very, very scary - in particular its depiction of the hatred of "others". One of the few examples of a film being better than the TV series on which it was based, the film has a better pace. +++ Number 4: Curse of the Demon (1957) A British film, "Night of the Demon" was retitled as "Curse of..." for the US market and the opening changed. For once, the American version is superior to the original. The plot - based
on "Casting the Runes" by M.R.James - revolves around a cursed parchment. Anyone receiving this parchment must pass it to someone else or die horribly at the hands of the demon. What is especially nice about this film is the dualism, the way that most of what happens could have a perfectly natural explanation, if you believe in coincidence. +++ Number 3: The Evil Dead (1982) Is it a horror film or a comedy? Well it's both. Mixing those two genres is an incredibly dangerous feat, yet this film manages it. It is both very funny and also scary. The plot is classic B movie stuff. Five friends visit a deserted cabin in the heart of a forest. There they discover an ancient magical tome with which they accidentally conjure up evil forces. Said evil forces then proceed to destroy them one by one. Yes, it's a lousy plot yet it's a brilliant film. +++ Number 2: Don't Look Now (1973) Following the drowning of their daughter, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) travel to Venice. There they meet an elderly psychic couple and are troubled by sightings of what might be their dead daughter. The image of the little girl in a red anorak disappearing around a corner has become a film classic. As a bonus, Roeg's trademark crosscutting is used to create one of cinema's most erotic sex scenes ever. And finally, the number one horror film of all time. I have no hesitation in declaring it to be... (drum roll)... +++ Number 1: The Haunting (1963) If you've seen the 1999 remake then you have my sympathies - try to forget it. It's a different film. The original 1963 version - based on "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson - is one of the most frightening, understated films of all time. The plot is simple: Doctor Markway (Richard Johnson) brings a group of people together to study a reportedly haunted house. Things happen, people get scared, it all
builds up to a horrible climax. What makes this film so good is that nothing is explicit. There are no special effects, no latex masks, just noises-off and shadows along with some ominous camera work. There are also superb performances from the female leads. Theodora (Claire Bloom) is gay (in the book she appears bisexual) however this was 1963 so they couldn't say it; instead Bloom has a great time suggesting her sexuality. Eleanor is brilliantly played by Julie Harris as a woman on the edge - possibly over it. Yes, it's dated, yet it's still one of the few films that literally makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. If you can get hold of a copy, watch it alone at 2AM with the lights turned way down.
Richard Matheson has a long pedigree - not many novels, though plenty of film & TV work. Born in 1926 his first published story appeared in 1950. His work has inspired films as diverse as The incredible Shrinking Man, Duel and most recently What Dreams May Come. This particular novel was published in 1954. It was filmed as The Omega Man though you'd be hard pressed to recognise it. It's a classic that I'd never got round to reading; would it have lasted through the years? "I Am Legend" falls somewhere between the horror and the SF genres. The story is set in the 1970s - which when it was written was "the near future". Following a catastrophic world war, plague and pestilence sweeps America. From the ashes of civilisation emerge the previously undetected vampire race who proceed to kill or turn all humans. As the story begins, the hero Robert Neville is barely surviving. As far as he knows he is the last human being alive. During the day he roams the local towns staking all the sleeping vampires he can find. At night he cowers in his barricaded and garlic-protected home getting drunk to escape the taunting cries of the undead. An encounter with a true living creature, a dog, snaps Robert out of this rut. He determines to fight back. To do this he must understand vampirism. Robert is a rational man and is convinced that vampirism must have a "scientific" explanation. Most of the book consists of his studying the subject and exploring hypotheses. Ultimately he has a theory that seems to fit. This is a short novel - 160 pages - and easy enough to read in a day. Yet it is very powerful. The set-up means that Matheson has only one central character so we get to know him very well. We learn about his past in flashback and feel his pain as his wife first dies then returns. His fight against the odds is as much against himself as against the vampires. It's very well told and manages to avoid ma
ny clichés. Certainly the ending is not the one I was expecting. You'd expect a book written in the 50s to be dated, and to some extent this is true. For example, Robert listens to music on a record deck and watches films on a movie projector. Yet these are minor details. The basic post-apocalypse concept and the one-man-against-the-odds story work just as well today. In addition the writing is in keeping with today's sparser style and not bogged down with the purple prose I'd expect from 50s sf If there is anything wrong with the novel it is perhaps the level of scientific detail. It's a bit much. One gets the impression that Matheson actually believes his theory on vampirism and is trying to persuade the reader. The technical detail will probably appeal to the "hard SF" fans, personally I'm prepared to take some things on trust. My other gripe is with the physical quality of the edition I have (Millennium SF Masterworks, 2000). The text is definitely a bit fuzzy; it looks as if the original book has been scanned in and printed rather than being typeset afresh. That would be OK if it were correspondingly priced, however at 6.99 for a 160 page book I expect better. Those small points aside, this is a classic tale that still works amazingly well nearly half a century after first publication. ISBN: 1-85798-809-4
Talk about starting with a bang! "Storm" begins on a North Sea ferry - appropriately named the "Amphitrite", hinting at what is to come. The very first line of the book is: "I have just been informed that there is a bomb on board." Within a few pages the ship is sinking, and the book establishes a pace that never lets up. Our first introduction to the main character - DCI Kate Beauchamp - is as she is fighting to escape alive. We quickly learn that she is smart and resourceful. She is also totally ruthless in adversity, a fact that shocks even her. Being trapped on a sinking ship in the middle of a storm is a preview of hell. Kate does, of course, escape and returns to Aberdeen where most of the story is set. Just as the immediate danger seems to have passed, Kate learns that the investigation in to the ferry's sinking is to be headed by her estranged father. This is a man she never wanted to see again in any circumstances, let alone the aftermath of tragedy when she is feeling guilty about her own survival. Just to complete the pressure on Kate, Starling then throws in a sadistic murderer whose victims are tortured and mutilated. It's enough to leave you quite breathless - and it's still only Monday. There's the rest of the week to go before we reach the end of the story. Although the main character is a cop and there is murder at the centre of his book, it's not just a crime novel. The crime is - the crimes are - almost a backdrop for Kate's personal psychodrama. In particular Starling gives an excellent rendition of the effect of trauma. For me one of the most unpleasant moments did not involve mutilated corpses; it was when Kate snaps and verbally lashes out at the four-year-old son she loves. The "Storm" of the title is not simply the physical storm that sank the ferry. The whole novel is written in present tense - even the flashbacks
. This unusual approach gives a sense of immediacy, especially combined with the telescoped timescale of the story; everything happens within seven days. There's also a lot of detail in this book - for example, I now know how to determine the gender of an adder! My one big complaint is that Storm contains links back to Starling's first novel Messiah (the adaptation of which is about to be shown on the BBC). The problem isn't that you need to have read Messiah to understand Storm, not at all. The problem is that Storm contains massive spoilers for Messiah. That aside, this is a gripping book. Starling certainly knows how to keep a story boiling. In fact, he keeps things going so fast that you don't even notice the huge and unlikely coincidences on which the plot is built! It's not until you reach the end that you think "Yes, but..." and by then it doesn't really matter. "Storm" starts unpleasantly then just gets nastier and nastier. It also kept pulling the rug from under me: about a hundred pages from the end I was slapping my forehead and shouting "Oh no!"(or words to that effect). This is a book that truly justifies the description "page-turner" - I was reading until 2 AM to finish it. Compelling stuff. ISBN: 0006512054