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Covered in viscera and sporting a freshly trimmed mullet, trailer-trash psychopath Trevor cast his gaze out over the city below. This make-out spot of a vantage point offered up a perfect view of nighttime Los Santos. Midnight gloom had cloaked the detail of this huge patchwork of high rises, industrial parks and residential areas, now represented only by a sea of artificial lighting and the crawl of twinkling tail lights. It was stunning. Trevor wasn't one for aesthetics, though - he had an old score to settle here. This was a rare piece of virtual tourism enforced on the GTA player; a moment of self-indulgent handholding to make sure you appreciate the scale and dystopian beauty of Rockstar's Los Angeles.
Given the hilarious and murderous hour we'd just spent together in the mock-Californian trailer park wastelands, I knew Trevor and I were going to enjoy our stay. We'd already waged single handed war on a biker gang, protected a meth kitchen with a grenade launcher while stowing our Chinese business prospects in an ice container, and flown a bullet-ridden plane full of contraband out of a gunfight and right under the nose of military radar. This breathless introduction GTA V's third in an unholy trinity of protagonists was by far the most entertaining, but that's no slight on the comedic mayhem earlier created by his two counterparts back under the bright lights of the city.
Michael and Franklin occupy polar opposites of the Los Santos social scale, united only by their criminal instincts and thirst for excitement. Franklin riffs on CJ from San Andreas; an intelligent kid from the gang banger 'hoods struggling to protect his morals from the realities of escaping a deprived upbringing. Michael on the other hand is an interesting novelty for the series; a wealthy and retired heist expert living under witness protection, struggling with mid-life crisis and a dysfunctional family in the affluent suburbs. And Trevor? Well, Trevor's just a psychotic menace with a drug problem; think Begbie from Trainspotting's redneck cousin. Their stories and the dynamic between them is a welcome return to the wit and above all playfulness that GTA is supposed to provide, and the ability to spontaneously alternate between their lives in Los Santos is a welcome and significant improvement.
Tethering three interchangeable characters and their stories together coherently is challenge enough to faze any developer, but to accomplish it alongside a game world of such staggering depth is something only a studio with Rockstar's talent and resource could achieve. No environment has an atmosphere or richness of content like a 3-D era GTA city, but Los Santos carves deeper into the rock face than any of its predecessors. As always, it's the incidental details you discover that drive your thirst for exploration. From the dusty trailer parks with the echoing yaps of chained Rottweilers, to each alcove and backstreet in the heat-hazed sprawl of Los Santos, there's always something discover. It could take the form of a rollercoaster ride at the pier, an eavesdropped conversation outside a shopping mall, or a pictureseque view from which to absorb a Californian sunset on Mount Chilliad; all of this peripheral detail is as lovingly crafted as objects of the highest significance. Where most developers have an austere focus on the necessary, Rockstar invest years of man hours littering their worlds with the kind of minutiae only a small percentage will ever lay eyes on, each forming part of your own uniquely personal experience of the environment.
Aquatic elements are greatly improved, both above but especially below the surface. Waves now build from a shimmering surface, rolling and churning before breaking into white foam on the shore, the physics now weighty and commensurate with a meeting of continent and ocean rather than a hastily-coded afterthought. Vehicles also benefit from the improved physics, with the assorted Jet skis, speedboats and yachts responding realistically to their new playgrounds. From the city harbours all the way out to the remote countryside lakes, there is finally beauty and purpose to GTA's water aside from dutifully framing the landscape, with tangible rewards for exploration.
Some of the smarter features from L.A. Noir and Red Dead Redemption have been loaned out to provide further improvements, addressing the few remaining niggles and annoyances peculiar to GTA's ageing blueprints. Fail a mission repeatedly and the frustrated player now has the option to skip it altogether, rather than succumbing to frustration and losing interest in the story. Swing a car round a corner into the glare of the sun, and Red Dead's impressive lens flare interferes with your vision.
That's not to say Rockstar have simply plagiarised their stable of sandbox titles for inspiration - there are plenty of inventive tweaks such as the time-lapse effect that precedes fixed night/day missions, or the super slow-mo which initiates upon activation of the weapon pinwheel. Police chases take on an entirely new dynamic now that backstreet hiding places can be sought to lose wanted levels, rather than rote games of cat and mouse against hive-minded police patrol units. Such features might appear to be mere window dressing, but as a sum of their parts contribute to a more engaging and rounded experience. There's a genuine feeling that the developer has identified what worked, what didn't, and is willing to draw from all its expertise to maximise balance and atmosphere whilst minimising frustrations in a challenging genre.
On a fundamental level mission structures follow the familiar format, with the new heist operations a welcome twist to the more routine fetch and carry fare. The ability to choose an approach between brains and brawn and assemble a crew with complimentary skill sets is an interesting direction to take, and whilst these choices are for the most part binary, the expanding scale and complexity of each heist means they never grow stale. One mission early on sees Michael casing a high-end jeweller with Franklin, then gathering explosives, uniforms and vehicles before escaping with his crew across the city to a storm drain rendezvous point with the LSPD in pursuit. These missions-within-missions provide new vigour to what would normally represent forgettable filler between the cornerstone high points of the GTA mission structure.
Visually, Rockstar have wrung every last available capability of the ageing Xbox 360 platform. The bulky installation disk has enabled a far greater level of fidelity, with the familiar issue of draw distances, textures lagging and pop-in driven down to more acceptable levels. All this has been achieved whilst increasing the volume of clever touches you'd have to search hard to appreciate. Steal a vehicle with chrome wheels, and a swivel of the camera reveals real-time reflections of the surrounding environment warped around their concave surface. At night, the overhauled Police patrol cars daub stunning light patterns across the reflective surfaces of passing vehicles. The city's population seem more diverse than ever before, each with their own gait, mannerisms, and rarely repeating. Their AI is also markedly improved, with more realistic interactions when on foot, and angry responses to poor driving.
The satirical assault on the vacuous aspects of modern life and politics is still the beating heart of GTA, and Rockstar's sense for the Zeitgeist is still strong five years after their attack on post financial meltdown America. Billboards cheerily invite Los Santos residents to capitalise on home foreclosures, and the personalised licence plate (F1UCKYO) of Michael's mock-Audi pokes a little fun at the Obamacare healthcare.org helpline number embarrassment. Nobody is spared the traditional ridicule, and the various websites, T.V. shows and radio stations all provide forms of peripheral entertainment most games would shy away from even attempting. In this regard there's a respectful lack of cajoling towards the player - enjoyment of the humour is entirely optional, and much of it will bypass the unwitting.
The justification for a five year development cycle is the incredible scope of this game's ambition, and the endless generosity afforded to the player. Rockstar's unerring determination to provide new and interesting content is an object lesson in how valuable IP should be respected and nurtured, and serves as a refreshing counterbalance to the depressing churn of a console generation's twighlight-era. Describing all the elements which contribute to GTA V's greatness would absorb far longer than a review could allow, but suffice to say it's a grand and fitting final chapter for the 360/PS3 generation.
**This review may be posted elsewhere on the internet under a different alias**
"What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof."
As it comes courtesy of a fellow atheist Richard Dawkins held in highest esteem, I don't think it's inappropriate to punctuate this review with a quote from the late Christopher Hitchens. I chose it because it succinctly describes one of the central pillars of the arguments Dawkins and the wider atheistic movement have promoted via their writings, public debates and broadcasts over the last twenty years. I could easily have picked a more strident quote (there are many from which to choose) but I decided against it as I want to keep this review free from any bias which may stem from my own beliefs. It also serves as a retort to some of the criticism Dawkins received following the book's release, claiming he had failed to properly acquaint himself with the theological principles he sought to dispel.
I also chose the quote because it gives a flavour of Dawkins' empirical, logic-based approach to explaining the physical world and our place within it, a principle he adheres to with dogged focus throughout The God Delusion. You'd expect no less from a prominent biologist and writer of the acclaimed explanation of evolution 'The Blind Watchmaker'. Not satisfied with simply holding theological beliefs up to a scientific light, Dawkins seeks both to dismiss what he views as glorified 'fairy stories', and also perform a scathing dissection of theism, and the societal problems he believes it induces.
Dawkins lays the foundations by examining the unearned respect society affords religion. He observes that even in today's enlightened times, our instincts still lean toward a reluctance to offend mainstream belief systems, even when the ultimate price becomes truth or freedom of speech. The substitution of Loyalist and Republican for Protestant and Catholic is one particularly good example of religion being deliberately separated from negative association, and Dawkins follows this by observing that an absence of both the latter designations would remove the need for the former.
By the end of the first chapter you'll have a firm idea of whether Dawkins is a host you want to remain in the company of, and those who fall into the theological camp may find his style unpalatably abrasive. I assume his motivation for writing is fostered by a sense of duty to promote scientific enquiry as the sole means humanity has to explain the unexplained, and unless you share that view or are undecided, his persistence may become as tiresome for you as belief systems are for him. Moreover, at times I detected a distinct tinge of frustration colouring Dawkins' prose, probably borne of years spent defending his status as an authority on questions religion claims to have answered already.
Particularly in the early chapters, I sensed there was a struggle playing out between the author's passionate rejection of theology, and the imperative to at least appear equitable in his analysis. After all, Dawkins presents himself as a man whose logical world view is uncluttered by raw emotion. If you'll allow me to stray from neutrality for a moment, I do sympathise with Dawkins' plight here. Imagine devoting your entire life to becoming a leading expert in your field, only to be publically contradicted by groups not educated commensurately on the same subject. It's this fuel which ignites the opening chapters, and he invests the balance of the book's opening half identifying and rebutting the theological arguments in favour of a creator.
Of course, the branching nature of religious belief systems makes arguing against them a monumental task, so Dawkins chooses to tackle the most popular theological assertions in support of a creator. 'The God of the Gaps' is perhaps the most frequently invoked of these, and I particularly enjoyed his rational introduction of Infinite Regress to counter it. In a universe which becomes less complex the more it is broken down, how does it make sense to invoke something as complex as a God to explain the birth of the universe? Even accepting that premise, that logic asserts there must be an entity to create a God, and so on?
Naturally, as a biologist Dawkins is particularly vehement in his defence of evolution, and perhaps the strongest section of The God Delusion appears within this area of the religious debate. As recently as the last decade, Young Earth Creationists have campaigned in U.S. courts to introduce the concept of an earth younger than ten thousand years old to high school pupils; this despite not a single shred of supporting evidence. I share Dawkins' assertion that this is one of the more sinister expressions of religious interference in what should be secular subjects, and Dawkins swats the theory aside with the contempt he feels it deserves. Interestingly, Dawkins points to prominent scientists who have been compelled to abandon the principles of their profession as it conflicts with creationism, and therefore their faith. Many religious groups promote such figures as an argument for a synergy between religion and science; Dawkins turns this around by merely observing that this is the power of religion to pervert logic in otherwise logical minds. Intelligent design in evolution isn't spared from Dawkins' derision either, the best example being that of the evolution of the eye. This is an issue the author explains at greater length in 'The Blind Watchmaker', but manages to synopsise to equal effect in this book.
Dawkins continues to explore the more abstract and therefore philosophical issues of human morality, and the robust prevalence - if not expansion - of religion worldwide. One of the more sophisticated problems posed by theologians relates to the source of human morality. In a purely material world, from where do humans derive their inherent understanding of right and wrong? Of good and of evil? Many religious leaders postulate that science has no place in suggesting answers to these questions, but Dawkins proffers some compelling theories which are difficult to argue against. Again, the author follows a scientific trajectory to arrive at his conclusions, and by this stage of the book you'll find no surprises in their evolutionary nature. In response to the religious theory, he refers to the Old Testament and finds God himself guilty of dereliction of duty in moral terms, which in Dawkins' view deprives the Holy book of any mandate to claim credit for our morality. I feel the more religious reader will have an easier journey through these sections, as Dawkins cannot be quite so brusque when offering theories rather than widely-accepted fact.
Unsurprisingly, The God Delusion proved to be a polarising work, and was received with either warm praise or total hysteria from a media with more agenda than its author could ever claim to harbour. This goes a long way to justifying the existence of such an important and brave book: whether you be Atheist, Theist, Deist or Agnostic, we need the ability to discuss religion and its place in society without the pressure of the potential reaction sanitising the debate. Of course, unless you are an atheist, this work is guaranteed to eventually offend all but the most open-mind (yes, even agnostics attract the ire of Dawkins), but the author's antagonistic and forthright approach is bound to provoke fierce debate. This, deluded or not, we should all applaud. He even attempts to unite his audience with an admittedly backhanded statement:
"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."
Whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, you have to say - he's good.
"I can't take this"
I feel your pain, friend.
The text is scrawled on the floor, a digital message in a bottle left by a fellow Dark Souls player online somewhere out there. It's now the fifth time I've descended this darkened stairwell. Sword in one hand, shield in the other, I inch forward with the nervous gait of a dead man walking. Actually, if I fail this time, that metaphor will become a statement of fact (more on that later). If I can't emerge from this duel, I think I may have to give up for another night. Surely the sanctuary and welcoming glow of a bonfire must be around the next corner?
I leave the stairwell and turn left onto the medieval gallery. Almost on cue, a ghostly re-enactment of some other players' grisly demise plays out just in front of me. Perhaps it was the same stranger who left that desperate message. While my stats have remembered my previous four failures, the enormous undead knight ahead hasn't. It still stands motionless, filling the arched doorway with the same silent menace as before. I look through my inventory one last time. Shall I go with the Spear this time? The Scimitar? Will changing armour leverage an advantage? These are important choices; I'm down to my last half-bar of energy, and I can't face fighting the long way back a sixth time. I have to be careful, as the game world doesn't stop while I make my decisions, and I'm vulnerable. If this were Skyrim, I'd be spamming the save function about now, but in Dark Souls, the game decides when I get to save. Damn you, Dark Souls.
Scimitar it is. I creep along the gallery, shield readied in case it hears me. If I get close enough, I can surprise it with a cheap slice to the back. That'll learn it. I strike. The knight recoils, then turns on its heels and stares me down. My fragile looking avatar, with his skinny appendages and tatty scavenged armour, meets his gaze almost apologetically. It strides toward me, the ground trembling beneath each footstep. It lunges. I back off, avoiding the blades' point by inches, and deliver three consecutive blows in reply - enough to drain my stamina to nothing. I back off to recover while the monstrosity prepares to charge again. I must keep my distance, as it can skewer me with one blow. I know this because that's how I died the last four times.
He charges. I make an absolute mess of it, diving back into the stairwell, narrowly avoiding certain death. Now's the chance - I excitedly mash at the attack button, flailing away in vain hope I'll manage a decisive blow. Finally it falls, its soul draining away while bone and metal sink lifelessly to the stone floor. Thank God. I turn the corner back onto the gallery. Through the archway the knight previously blocked, another two messages left by another two online strangers lay etched on the floor:
"I did it!"
I share your joy, friends.
The concept of death once had meaning in mainstream gaming parlance. We had no comforting panacea if a challenge proved too tough; no checkpoints, no save files, and no difficulty sliders to delineate your path to the end credits. A life was a life was a life, and games stubbornly demanded skill and patience to succeed. Failure was a tangible punishment - you could invest hours at a time grinding to the same point in the same game, only to perish in the same way at the same time, and have to start from scratch. Dark Souls is a title which holds true to these old values, and you'll either embrace or resent them.
From your first attempts at escaping from the Undead Asylum (there will be more than one) it's clear there's a single agenda: You as victim, game as omnipresent tormentor. The Asylum is a tortured place occupied by an army of walking dead - the 'Hollow' - a last remnant of humanity imprisoned by the curse of eternal life. Having lost their minds through this mental prison, they forlornly wander its halls, waiting for some masochistic conscript to fight their way through Lordran to release them. That's where you come in.
Initially, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a formulaic hack and slash medieval fantasy RPG, with its exploration-by-torchlight beginnings and stock sword/shield combat, but the brutal tutorial quickly realigns expectations. I use the word tutorial in the loosest possible sense, as Dark Souls punctuates its renowned difficulty by consistently concealing its inner workings from you. Yet it won't take long to learn some harsh lessons in Lordran. Combat demands patience and careful observation of enemy attack patterns, as literally everything and anything which moves can murder, poison, or curse you, and quickly. If you learn these lessons fast, and tough out your fledgling hours of total vulnerability, you might just get to see the rest of the game - or at least some of it. If you don't, you'll be missing out on one of the most rewarding games of the last decade.
Dark Souls is the nightmarish antithesis to the safe, countrified familiarity of Skyrim's Tolkien-inspired lore. It's a land of almost unremitting oppressiveness, whether it be a dank sewer infested with mutated vermin, or a mysterious and rare moment of beauty which, at a stroke, could turn into a lethal trap. The lack of information forthcoming is isolating and the game's disposition curt, from the small morsels of plot which occasionally surface before fading into the background, to the scarce 'friendly' characters who talk in cryptic circles before mocking your seemingly hopeless plight.
As you gather souls from slain enemies, your ability to purchase upgrades from merchants and smiths increases. Souls are the universal currency in Lordran, and so valuable are they, you'll come to treasure every looted corpse, slain sewer rat, and felled behemoth. Death will force you to relinquish all the souls you were carrying at the time; die again before you can return to the scene of your demise, and those souls are lost forever. The catch (and it's a big one) is that when you rest, level up, or respawn at one of the scattered bonfires, every enemy except bosses re-appear, meaning you'll often be confronted with agonising risk/reward dilemmas. Do you push on in the hope a bonfire is around the next corner, or backtrack to invest your souls and fight the long fight back to where you were? Death deals the double blow of your character becoming 'Hollow' by losing your accumulated humanity, your physical appearance fading back to the bedraggled skeletal frame you started with at the Undead Asylum. You'll want to stay human, as besides the obvious, it becomes essential for gaining pick-ups from enemies, and grants bonuses in combat. It's a dynamic that's always at play, with each success, however minor, a cue for fist pumping relief to counter the frequent knuckle-gnawing moments of failure.
Even Dark Souls' online function manages to distinguish itself, as to overlay these features in an ostensibly single player experience is a risky concept, but even these retain a sense of mysticism and an inherent balance. In addition to leaving scattered hints (and often misinformation), by planting their calling card anywhere in the game world, other players can be summoned into your game for transient moments of teamwork, or 'invade' uninvited to steal your humanity - the result being a fight to the death with your silhouetted intruder. This can happen at any moment, adding tension to even the scarce benign moments in Lordran. On occasion, you'll rest at a bonfire alongside the apparition of another survivor, gaining health boosts from their activities and vice versa. There's no communication allowed outside the game's definitions though; each player you meet will be mute via the denial of voice chat.
"Praise the Sun!"
From the horrific shanty of Blighttown rising out of the swamps, to the murk of Darkroot with its Ents and Stone Giants, the interlinked open world of Lordran starts small then unfurls from the central hub of Firelink Shrine, plunging seemingly impossible depths populated by equally impossible foes. It's a grimly captivating world which demands you keep inching onward, the lone bell ring accompanying each new area underlining your grudging inquisitiveness. Whilst it's easy to be deceived into visualising Lordran as a collection of distinct pockets, a brief pause to absorb the horizon or glance over a castle wall will often surprise with a familiar and previously visited structure jutting out from the landscape in the distance. With load times non-existent (albeit cleverly disguised with transitions on lifts and suchlike) it truly is a seamlessly integrated environment. With the exception of its older sibling Demon Souls, it's been a long time since a game world boasted this kind of atmosphere and artistic consistency. The Japanese developer influence only adds to the other worldliness of the experience, with the occasionally off-target grammar and often bizarre dialogue adding another alien dimension to the Dark Souls universe.
Games with this ethos are still finding a way to market, but they're palpably on the fringe; a niche carved out by the last children of Generation X for their peer group in homage to a much loved and bygone era. In this age of maximum market penetration, focus groups, and games which read like love letters to Michael Bay, few if any publishers enjoy risking their shirts on a title with the opacity of cement, and a difficulty level likely to scare off 90% of the people you'll find in a high street GAME store. Dark Souls is a triumph for those who believe games are not and should not be on the same plane as films or music. This is an experience which provides a sense of genuine achievement rather than spoon-fed cinematic, and it's a testing experience that, if you grew up with games which made you toil for that feeling, you're bound to love.
It seems a fitting time to review a book recounting events which preceded the global financial meltdown. Around the world, tented villages of angry civilians are growing outside the very offices where The Big Short's drama unfolds. Michael Lewis has earned a reputation for shining a light on the darkest areas of Wall Street via 'Liar's Poker', his bestselling work on the stock market crash of the 1980's. Lewis, like so many of his Ivy-League university contemporaries, had been handed the levers of the global economy at the ripe age of 26, with no life experience to call on, and, as he openly admits, not much knowledge of the products he was peddling to investors. Disillusioned and dissatisfied, he walked away.
It's an unusual career move for a (presumably) handsomely paid young graduate to break rank from the marbled hallways so dependent on vested interests, and write two novels exposing the egotism and outright lunacy at the very heart of Western economies. That alone makes this book somewhat unique, and written with a level of access not reserved for your everyday journalist. Rather than engage in dry analyses of the esoteric products and instruments which caused the credit crunch, felled Lehman Brothers, and all but toppled the developed economies, The Big Short introduces a handful of interesting characters through which to contextualise the disastrous events we see in the news and feel in our pockets to this day. These characters were not only real; they were among a few who correctly foresaw the collapse, in doing so making an absolute fortune.
Lewis opens gently, with a recollection of how, in the unending pursuit of quicker and bigger profits, the Western financial industry had created an ever shortening cycle of boom and bust over the past thirty years. Whilst we were all feeling wealthier on 'main street', the privately owned monoliths, with their God-like status as fractional reserve currency creators, were in fact lurching the economy from one disaster to another; from the Wall Street crash of the 80's, to the dot-com annihilation which accompanied the turn of the century, and finally to the end game: the American sub-prime credit mushroom which towered over our economies by 2007. The Big Short overlays the careers of Wall Street enigmas such as Steve Eismann and Michael Burry - both hyper-intelligent and extremely offbeat, and both blessed with an ability to recognise a financial iceberg when they saw one.
Burry's story is particularly intriguing. A doctor working punishing shifts, his unfortunate inability to cope with gore rendered him unable to countenance a long term career in medicine. Left with only one eye following a childhood illness, he was a recluse who seldom slept, spending his nights intently reading financial statements of publically listed companies. Via a primitive blog, he managed to amass a following of investors, who, by replicating his trades, were witnessing amazing returns not seen with even the high profile investment companies. Perhaps inevitably, he was discovered by Wall Street, and managed to secure millions in financial backing to begin his own investment company. The risks he ended up taking with the proceeds would define his future, and frighten the life out of most of his clients. That is, if he got round to telling them.
Steve Eisman's career path was slightly more conventional the Burry's, but as an individual, he was equally enigmatic. Abrasive and almost embarrassingly direct, he insisted on dealing in plain English, to cut through the flowery schmoozing rife in high finance - perhaps a habit retained from his unsatisfying former career in law. At his investment company, he partnered himself with an equally direct and healthily cynical financial analyst, Vinny, who quit his big five audit firm after realising his own boss had no idea what they were auditing - which just happened to be the balance sheets of big Wall Street firms. Between them, they anticipated an impending doomsday scenario, and were busy betting against the share prices of firms with interests in the housing market. What they didn't anticipate was one of Deutsche Bank's high profile traders seeking them out and inviting them to amass unimaginable fortunes betting against the very products he was paid to sell - those poisonous mortgage bonds.
"That sounds great, Greg. But how are you going to f*** us?"
Both Eisman and Burry took differing routes to understanding the fundamental flaw at the root of American sub-prime lending and their associated snake oil products, yet they were unanimous in their verdicts: Wall Street, and the rest of the world with it, was heading for absolute disaster. They had made a horrific discovery; that provincial U.S. lenders, investment banks, and insurance companies across the world were playing pass-the-parcel with a monumental debt book, which was about to go spectacularly bad. The more they investigated, the more shocking their findings: Obfuscated by endless recycling and repackaging, and completely misunderstood by credit rating agencies, investment banks were buying up, and by implication encouraging, the most reckless of lending activities right across America. The question was: Why be so stupid as to invest in something doomed to failure? The answer is as simple as it is shocking.
The overriding emotion I experienced when reading was one of utter amazement. As an Average Joe living an ordinary life, you hope - you expect - that macro-economics is tightly regulated and approached with maturity, commensurate with its inherent importance to the stability of everyday life across the world. The bald truth is that nobody understood nor controlled the behaviour of the overgrown children in high finance, who completely disregarded the consequences of their actions; a wilful abandonment of common sense in the name of personal and professional gain. Those who dared rail against this madness, either within government or the corporations themselves, were either shouted down, ridiculed, or sacked. Those who were smart enough to bet against it but keep quiet, hit the biggest jackpot you'll ever see.
Although I already had an interest in the subject matter, I enjoyed Lewis' style and approach as much as I appreciated the factual content. Lewis has a knack for comic timing, and penetrates the occasionally sober content with moments of welcome levity. This novel reads like the plot of a good heist film, with enough characterisation to allow the heroes and anti-heroes carry the tale through to its conclusion. That said, it would be a good deal easier to read were this a work of fiction, given that the ultimate punch line is you and I and our children paying for this calamity. In many respects, The Big Short is as much a study in human behaviour as it is factual analysis, and raises some important questions about the morality, or rather lack of it, driving modern financial practices. For that reason alone, this book is essential reading.
For more information on how we are leeched by the wealthy on a daily basis, visit:
Something is stalking me, but it's been over an hour and I still don't know what by. I do know I want to avoid it at all costs, as that guttural growl sounded utterly horrific, and more than a match for my lantern. I extinguish the flame and cower in the gloom, my eyes adjusting to the darkness enough for me to see the length of the desolate corridor in one of Castle Brennenberg's crumbling wings. A shuffling sound and creaking floorboards alert my attention to something nearby. Should I run? I can't sit here for long; the darkness is affecting my state of mind, and I'm starting to hallucinate. Creeping, scratching noises accompany the arrival of an army of crimson bugs, crawling around my feet and obscuring my vision. I must act now, before I deteriorate.
Against all instinct, I emerge back into the flickering torchlight. The bugs subside. I slowly advance down the hallway. The growl returns, only much louder this time. It must be right behind me. In panic, I sprint down the hallway toward the door at its end. I can feel it gaining on me, I daren't look back. I don't think I can make it. I hurl the solid wooden door open, but I need to stop and close it to buy valuable seconds. As I turn, I catch a glimpse of some shadowy monstrosity just feet away. I slam the door shut - almost instantly, its thick panels buckle under a thunderous impact. It won't hold long. My vision deteriorates as the stress levels increase. I have to hide. The only chance to save myself is by facing the darkness again.
At this point, heart pounding and mentally fatigued, I pause Amnesia, take a deep breath, and remove my headphones. It then dawns on me that my girlfriend has gone to bed, my coffee went cold an hour ago, and my shirt is holding more sweat than sauna full of compulsive eaters. Oh, Survival Horror - how I've missed you.
As you'll probably have surmised, Amnesia: The Dark Descent isn't a game about Dominic O'Brien's journey to the summit of Everest on a particularly clear day. You begin in the knowledge that you are Daniel, a scholarly Englishman from Mayfair, and that is all. Bewildered, disorientated, and with no recollection of what brought you here, you are trapped in the seemingly deserted Castle Brennenberg in 19th Century Prussia. The first interaction you have is with a hastily scrawled note left by Daniel for himself, urging him to summon his courage and put an end to the horror of Brennenberg. At this juncture, Daniel only hints at the shadowy forces stalking him: it's advisable to embellish his cryptic inferences, as they really do no justice at all to what's laying in wait.
Scandinavian indie developer Frictional Games flaunt an innate understanding of the constituent parts of great Horror; clearly heavily influenced by the edicts of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction. Where many games rely on the overt to provoke an audience reaction, in Amnesia and its older sibling Penumbra, it's the continued suggestion yet prolonged absence of immediate threat that is infinitely more terrifying. In this environment, vulnerability drives adrenaline, and adrenaline drives imagination. The result is a thousand nightmarish visions being created by the mind rather than a single one processed by the eyes. The lack of any physical protection and weaponry is old news - Project Zero managed this masterfully years ago - but in that game, great as it was, you generally knew what to expect from both the setting and the enemy. Amnesia gives you absolutely no compass with which your mind can map its own expectations, and the result is genuinely unsettling.
Your task is to search the castle for the truth, gathering scattered pages of Daniel's journal and other clues to Brennenberg's history, whilst battling with psychological trauma and escaping the abominations stalking you throughout the decaying structures. With his mental fragility exacerbated by disturbing events, specifically being lost in darkness for too long or encountering something horrific, awful dilemmas frequently present themselves: namely how long can be spent hiding in the gloom before being forced out to face the terror. This light and dark mechanic is Amnesia's fulcrum, with the scattered tinderboxes and oil bottles throughout Brannenberg providing opportunities to stabilise Daniel's mental state, and on a routine level, illuminate the often pitch-black environs for exploration.
Sound is pivotal to Amnesia's experience; a tangled medley of instrumental, vocal, and jarring ambient effects. It could be faint whimpering, falling masonry, or the appalling growls of your shadowy pursuers; the assault on the senses is inexorable and unrelenting as the latent menace of Brennenberg slowly manifests. Trepidation greets every closed door and new location, with shifts in atmosphere or sinister effects ensuring any perceived sense of safety is short-lived. It's not just external sounds that feed the ambience; at times Daniel suffers mental instability, from either a prolonged time spent in darkness or a glimpse of something horrendous, and your hallucinations only serve to intensify the oppressive audio. Sometimes this takes the form of scrambling insects, sometimes nonsensical mutterings, and eventually accompanied by a disorientating vertigo attack. It cannot be overstated how eerily complimentary the audio and visual elements are; and quality headphones are imperative to fully appreciate it.
Puzzles provide the engine for advancement, and they generally demand little from the player. Often taking the form of the simple find item/combine item/use item cakewalks you've seen myriad times before, they are probably Amnesia's biggest failing. Despite its terrifying nature, it's not a particularly complicated game to overcome, with most of the frustrations rooted not in inherent difficulty, but in overlooking an item and having to retread an area to recover it, or in the early stages running out of tinderboxes and having to perform methodical room searches to gather more. The PC controls are well suited to the gentle physics elements though, and the momentum-driven mouse push/pulls to interact with moveable objects smartly add depth to the atmosphere, particularly when anxiously inching open a creaking door.
Visually, Amnesia cannot help but confess to its indie foundations. Castle Brennenberg is an oppressive but aesthetically similar environment, and whilst not completely lacking in variety, by the conclusion you'll be glad to see the back of the unrelenting bleakness. There are some impressively inventive touches, such as the way Daniel's pupils slowly adapt to darkness, or the foreboding murk upon entering the severely creepy Archives, but in all honesty, your senses will find themselves occupied with other, more primal activities than appreciating the architecture. On balance, bearing in mind just a handful of people can claim involvement in the final code, I think Frictional Games can be proud of their understatedly crafted opus.
Amnesia presented moments where I genuinely struggled to proceed, such is the intensity of the experience. The waterlogged Archives and its obstacle-laden sprint to safety almost witnessed my heart tearing its way through my ribcage onto the keyboard, while the frankly spiteful storage area-cum-torture chamber that followed had me crushing Daniel almost flat in a darkened recess, cowering and hallucinating, while the growls inched closer, and closer - the acoustics building to a petrifying crescendo of white noise, pounding drum beat, and the crawl of the imaginary insects swarming. You'd anticipate this technique becoming a blunt tool after repeated use, but the combination of Brennenberg, your revolting pursuers and your own psychology somehow manages to elevate the fear factor throughout. It's a perfect equilibrium between the transient relief of safety, the gradual creep of suspense, and the inevitable cardiac arrest moments, with the polarities often unbearably prolonged. It's quite some achievement for a game to use the same ploy right across the story arc and elicit consistent player responses, and some major developers could take much from Frictional's uncluttered approach.
I've always maintained it would take something spectacularly trouser-wetting to tempt me back into playing survival horror games. Well here it is, and my trousers are indeed saturated. Console fans of this style of game will probably want to know how it compares with the likes of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, two mainstream benchmarks for the genre over the past generation. In my opinion, the games are too incongruent to compare. It may be less polished than both overall, but Amensia is immeasurably more psychologically driven than Resident Evil, and far less overtly visceral than Silent Hill. For those who have played the latter, try to envisage a game that manages to invoke that sense of dread when static first crackled over your radio... for its entirety. The result is a spectacular victory for those who subscribe to the maxim that less is more, and that the dusty recesses of your own mind are a far more fertile breeding ground for true horror than any artist's sketchbook. It's an interesting take on a horribly abused genre; a genre which I thought had exhausted itself of the capacity to scare the living crap out of me. I'm not sure I could call Amnesia a pleasurable experience, as at times I genuinely wanted to wimp out as the tension became manifestly unpleasant; Christ, it very nearly had me reaching for my girlfriend's Disney movies for therapy. What I can call it though, is a near perfectly crafted mindf**k. Did I mention it cost me an obscene £8 on Steam?
Put your headphones on. Turn the lights out. Put a towel round your ankles.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5uoZh_uatQ - Headphones please, or I'll be angry.
Thieving ****ing ****ers! What a greedy, arrogant ****ing bunch of bloodsucking ****heads. **** me, I'm never opening my wallet for these jumped up ****ing ****sticks ever again. Ever. **** you, EA, **** you to oblivion, **** your CEO into next August, and **** your shareholders' ****ing dividend!!!!!!
Surprisingly, EA didn't opt to use my reaction to their Online Pass scheme in its cheerfully patronising marketing video. Sadly, nor were they running a vox-pop outside my local GAME as I took my copy of Fifa 11 back to the store in outrage, and vowed never to buy their games again. I'm sure this new phenomena has elicited similar eruptions of vitriol across the globe in recent months, and if you're considering buying an EA game this Christmas, or at any time, it's in your interests to read on. This has ramifications for not just this publisher's games, but the entire way we purchase, trade, and play them.
The EA Sports franchises are the biggest sort of gaming business. Despite them being essentially the same games each and every year, they line EA's pockets handsomely. Football. Golf. Rugby. Cricket. All the tedious games Americans call sport. These lines have contributed much to EA's profits of US $4.2bn in the last fiscal year: a 15% increase year on year, even in these austere times. It's an investor's utopian vision; perpetual supplies of guaranteed suckers, stooping at the tills every year to gleefully receive their annual insertion of EA's boney digits. Well I hope certain sensitive areas of your anatomy are feeling accommodating people, because EA has gone through a dramatic growth spurt this past few months, and those boney digits may feel a little less comfortable than when you last encountered them.
The ultra-Capitalist senior management in the game industry regard the trading, renting, and borrowing of games as a lost sales opportunity. Even though it's perfectly legal, in private they do not consider it our right to transfer the benefit of property we own and have paid for to a third party, for whatever price we ordain. They want to put a stop to it - to force every consumer into making expensive, over the counter new game purchases rather than opting for a cheaper, nearly new alternative, or simply renting or borrowing from a friend. Publishers have been scheming against this area of the game market for years. You'd think, both legally and morally, they'd be deterred from trying to impose this kind of corporate agenda on the marketplace. You'd be wrong. They've not only identified a means of disrupting the enjoyment of used games, they've made these measures practically unavoidable.
Online functionality has affected every facet of the industry, from how we interact with games, to the delivery of content, and even how we purchase them. This has resulted in additional work for developers & publishers alike; the necessity to support the online community features demands physical and intellectual resource. Before you start tuning your violins on behalf of the publishers for these seemingly altruistic endeavours, let's not overlook that online support dovetails with the provision of additional revenue streams, such as downloadable content. I think it's a fair assumption that the udders of their online activities have been dispensing warm milky profits for years, otherwise that cash cow would have been dragged to the EA abattoir and minced into burgers for sale in the staff canteen long ago. How can I assume an online presence is profitable you ask? Backtrack a couple of paragraphs for 4.2bn clues.
Online support, and by this I mean routine content updates and the ability to be matched with other players online, is a service provided almost universally free at present. I'll leave it to EA President Peter Moore to enlighten us as to how these halcyon days will soon be confined to wistful conversations with our bored (and broke) grandchildren: -
"This is an important inflection point in our business, because it allows us to accelerate our commitment to enhance premium online services to the entire robust EA SPORTS online community"
Alternatively, to paraphrase: -
"Our shareholders have decided that $4.2bn in annual net profits doesn't quite pop their Moet any more, so we've decided to go after our customers to charge more for an already profitable service, and kill off the used game market in the process. I'm on a bonus for this. Win, win!"
The marketing department might have piped "For You, Sweeties" in icing all over the top in an effort to obscure the grim realities, but it's clear the cake underneath isn't ours, and EA are intent on devouring the lot. Disguised in the kind of cynical PR regalia that usually accompanies brazen rip-offs, they've somehow managed to communicate the concept of charging again for something that has already been paid for as a benefit to the consumer. I look forward to an announcement next year that we shall now have a surcharge applied to the game packaging, as it enables EA to 'Maximise disc integrity for an unparalleled user experience'.
To my mind, a publisher's investment in infrastructure and support staff is a direct cost against the overpriced online content currently sold. Imagine the margins made on downloadable content - something usually developed in concert with the boxed game, but then cynically extracted for later sale online - but is downloaded tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of times over. Now EA are attempting to argue that they have been serving the online community putatively for the benefit of the customers, and not themselves. Let's not pretend that a company so fixated on the business of accruing your money has been running these services at a loss all this time. If you believe that, then its time to awaken your senses to the imperatives of listed companies and the interminable demands of their shareholders.
What is fascinating is how some ordinary customers are rallying around EA in support of the decision. Some remarks I've read on the subject have insinuated that the solution is to buy a game from new, suggesting that purchasers of new games unfairly subsidise used buyers, who are somehow avoiding paying EA to use their online services. 'If you just buy new, you're unaffected', I've also read. This is a flawed logic, and highlights the cynicism behind EA's press releases. By demonising the used game buyer or renter, they have turned the consumers on each other, rather confusing the fact that everyone will find himself or herself paying more. The bald truth is EA have reclassified your right to online content as a non-transferable licence to the initial buyer only, and not part of the inherent value of the disc. If you follow this through to its conclusion, the moment you activate your 'free' online pass with the new game, the market value of the disc drops by the equivalent value of the pass. Rather like a car manufacturer removing your right to sell on the wheels the minute rubber makes contact with the road.
This reality won't dawn on these corporate apologists until they realise that the market value of games they used to trade in for a reasonable sum have fallen by the value of the online pass, in fact probably more as retailers spot an opportunity to increase margins. This is a supply and demand economy, so outlets like GAME will begin offering less for your EA trade-ins on the rationale that used buyers expect the used price to reflect the absence of the online pass. So who's actually paying for these passes now, smartarses? It's not the supposedly parasitic used buyers - it's you, the model loyal purchaser of new games. Rather than online passes solving EA's supposed 'problem' of new buyers subsidising used buyers, they've shifted this 'cost' from themselves onto the very people that contributed to that $4.2bn net profit.
If you've managed to persevere with this vitriolic diatribe thus far, you might be pondering how you don't even play EA games, so there's zero impact on you. Think again. Other monolithic publishers, including Sony, BioWare, & THQ, are considering or have already implemented similar schemes. Other industry big hitters are monitoring EA's experiment closely, no doubt gleefully reacting to the press release EA released in September declaring the Online Pass a relative success. If the consumer isn't careful, this cynical practice will permeate all areas of the industry. I urge anyone buying games this Christmas and beyond to check beforehand as to whether the publisher has adopted this practice, as the greatest means of effecting change is by a refusal to pay.
"You are about to experience a new way of learning"
Michel Thomas delivers the first words of his French Language course in a distinctly authoritative and sagacious manner. The techniques he has developed, he goes on to say, will involve merely listening and responding. No learning by rote. No writing. No memorising. The responsibility for learning rests solely with the teacher, he reassuringly states. As this introduction forms part of a teaser introductory course, originally sold separately from the full content, you'd be forgiven for dismissing this as Americanised sales hyperbole. Perhaps it is, yet it renders the course no less effective. Thomas fully deserves his status as an internationally esteemed linguist and teacher, as this eight-hour Foundation box set and its Advanced supplement left me with a better grasp of French grammar than did five years of schooling.
By any standards, Thomas' life was a remarkable one. Polish born of wealthy descent, he studied in Bordeaux and Vienna, before the Second World War witnessed his metamorphosis into a resistance fighter. Even changing his name from Moniek Krosfkof to a more Gallic moniker couldn't spare him from capture, enslavement, and torture by the Nazis, although he would eventually exact his revenge: playing a pivotal role in the capture of thousands of war criminals after the German capitulation. It was only subsequent to this and his emigration to the U.S. that Thomas devised and perfected his teaching methods. At first only working with diplomats, royalty, and celebrities, he opened a series of language institutes in America, before an appearance on a TV documentary in the mid 90's led to the commissioning of his pre-recorded courses. Their reception was incredible.
By the point of these recordings, Thomas was into his eighties, yet his abundant enthusiasm for teaching and charismatic persona will quickly invigorate anyone with memories of daydreaming through tedious French lessons as a child. His blueprint is quite simple; indoctrinate the spoken work first, and the written word will follow as a matter of course. When you consider how small children adopt language, it's amazing our school curriculum took so long to realise this. Thomas is emphatic in his insistence that students follow the phonetics of everyday French, passing on all the abbreviations and dropped vowels that render the spoken word so drastically different to its written counterpart. That isn't to say Thomas isn't a stickler for accuracy; grammar, pronunciation and intonation are enforced almost regimentally - hardly surprising for a man who once trained as a Commando.
To facilitate a more organic learning experience, Thomas employs a live classroom environment. Two authentic students - one American, one British - form two thirds of a three-student classroom, with the intention that you constitute the final third. The prologue is encouraging; Thomas observes that thousands of words commonly used in modern English are a mere tonal adjustment away from becoming their usable French ancestors. When employing these in conversation, I'd advise checking you're not using one of the numerous false friends found in the Anglo-French translation, but it serves as an initial boost to confidence.
The two students, especially the American woman, who I'm sure the publishers found staggering out of a nearby pub, are at the very basic end of French comprehension. Having retained some GCSE French from school, I found the pace quite slow at first, with Thomas battling to introduce simple concepts of differing verb conjugations depending on the subject. The American clearly had no French whatsoever and/or was apparently out of her mind on Gin at the time, and slows the whole process down to the point Thomas almost completely abandons her by the fifth disc. I was literally screaming the answers at her when stopped at some traffic lights one day on the way to work, which was quite embarrassing when I turned to see an adjacent motorist staring back at me with concern.
Minor frustrations aside, I found Thomas' informal methods enjoyable. It's ostensibly a grammatical tuition, and vocabulary is never expressly taught in isolation, more as a by-product of the learning process. Thomas builds on the same or similar phrases in English for French translation throughout, with an accompanying correction once the students offer a response. His fussiness with regard to pronunciation can be irritating sometimes; he often repeatedly corrects the students when to my ear there is no difference, but by the conclusion of disc eight, and especially once you progress to his Advanced course, you'll begin to appreciate why. French is a grammatically finicky language in comparison to English, with the scope for beginners to alter the entire tense or meaning of a phrase with a simple error in conjugation or gender. Thomas goes to great lengths to explain the myriad ways to humiliate yourself, and dispenses some useful techniques to circumvent the problems, usually by clipping and merging words as native speakers do.
His style won't suit everyone - he'll often meander into discourse on language evolution and the French influence on English - but if you subscribe to his mantra of 'guess vocabulary but never grammar', you'll appreciate that even these monologues are merely reinforcing your comprehension. The art in Thomas' technique lays in the almost complete absence of jargon; instead you'll be trained to process quite complex grammatical structures through abstractions such as diving boards and door handles, without the need to comprehend the meaning of the imperfect tense and suchlike.
All this theory is wonderful, but the decisive test for any language course is in practice. Having just bought a house in France, I was looking forward to practicing on our new neighbour, Albert. Usually on a visit, even catching sight of a French person plunges me into a cold sweat, just in case they tried to converse and my complete Brit-abroad ignorance made itself apparent. Anyone with a basic command of a foreign language will know that, when talking to a native, you are one or two carefully rehearsed phrases away from making a prize dick of yourself, usually when they assume you're fluent and respond at their normal incomprehensible tempo. This is the point the conversation breaks down, and you realise that smugly asking them what they thought of the macro-economic policy of the present government was a terrible idea.
I saw Albert lingering by the fence, and bravely offered him a 'Ca va?' This was usually the start and end of our conversations, followed by some pointing at the sun and puffing of cheeks, then dementedly smiling at each other in an awkward Mexican stand off of shared unilingual silence. I can't say it was an unerring success, but I at least managed to inform Albert that we were indeed learning French, that we were going home the following Friday, and that we would be demolishing an outbuilding once we had finished decorating the house. Admittedly, most of his replies sailed higher over my head than a passing Ryanair flight to Bordeaux, but I walked back to the house with at least some sense of satisfaction. I felt like I was actually learning conversational French, rather then the usual phrasebook rubbish that's only of practical use when you're looking for the train station or library.
I wouldn't say Michel Thomas is going to 'teach you French' in the strictest interpretation of the phrase. I'd also caution that whilst he claims to have extinguished the need for rote learning, I'd argue that learning by definition is a process facilitated by repetition; it's an unavoidable demand of the human brain. I needed to revisit the entire set many times over before the more complicated concepts sunk in, and I'd also advise you to supplement this course with reading French papers or news websites, and scanning Long Wave on your radio for some distant French station. In fairness, Thomas advises you do this as well. Trust me, you'll be surprised at what you've learned, but also intimidated by how much remains. Learning a language properly is a commitment of many years, and this course is merely a baby step on a long and frustrating journey. That said, I couldn't imagine a more engaging and inspiring character to wave you "Au revoir".
A giant foam hand is the last thing I'd normally reach for when in a fight or flight situation, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. I swing wildly and catch a zombie around the head, the impact met with a dull thud consistent with your expectations of a foam/zombie coming together. The zombie falls over. It's fun. I laugh. I wait for it to right itself and do it again. I laugh again. Those zombies are sneaky buggers though, and I turn to find the toy store is now full of curious undead, all shambling toward me in concert. Suddenly, my foam hand looks somewhat inadequate.
Unfortunately, I'm not carrying anything particularly useful to help clear a path to safety, unless you count a pack of playing cards and a showerhead as effective crowd control tools. In blind panic, I begin spraying the cards back and forth in the faces of the zombies like an amphetamine-addled croupier. They seem more inconvenienced by this than physically injured. I'm still laughing as the deck runs out, leaving me and my showerhead to find a way out of the store. Then I notice on a display next to me - marbles. Wondering what good this will do me, I hit the action button. The marbles hit the floor. At once, about a dozen zombies lose their balance and slip on their arses, leaving me time to triumphantly plant the showerhead into an upright one's skull. Still chuckling at the blood spraying from the rose, I make my escape back to the mall - a mall full of zombies to murder in similar pantomime style.
I'm guessing by now you'll either be thinking:
"This sounds a lot like fun"
Or alternatively, you'll be thinking:
"This sounds a lot like Dead Rising 1"
Either way, you'd be right.
It doesn't help that DR2's subject matter is more haggard and stale than a pair of tramp's discarded trousers; zombies are right up there with Nazis and aliens in the gaming industry's list of safe cannon fodder. They surface with such tedious regularity, I'm thinking of developing my own game called 'Far-Right Martian Zombie Apocalypse: Now F***ing Get Over It' and put the matter to bed so we can go and find some other deserving minority group to pick on, like The Conservative Party, or anyone appearing on or involved with the X Factor. Undeterred, Capcom have embraced the clichés with gusto, assigning you the role of the intentionally fromage-scented, granite jawed, down on his luck 'Chuck', forced to carve out a sad existence on the T.V. show 'Terror Is Reality', which is essentially Blade Runner with the inclusion of motocross bikes, chainsaws, and zombies. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, an activist group then sets the show's zombie stock free, sparking another catastrophic infection of the populous. It then transpires poor old Chuck's been framed for this act of terrorism; will he be able to prove whom by before the army arrive to rescue the survivors?
Whilst the plot is hardly going to qualify as one of the great fictional works of the 21st Century, the essence and sentiment of Dead Rising was never about the plot; it's about exploiting opportunities to be mercilessly and creatively unpleasant without moral consequence. Capcom have expanded the scope for carnage by introducing an ability to merge previously benign objects into truly spiteful concoctions, my personal favourite being a bucket and several cordless drills. The mall environment offers literally hundreds of varieties of potential weapon, some effective, some comedic, and you'll not be short of opportunities for random acts of brutality, since Capcom have squeezed so many zombies into the playing space I can hear my Xbox muttering obscenities every time I switch locations. The down side to shoeing so much content into each area will make itself apparent the first time you try to access a new area...
... and when the game finally does restart, your previously unborn children have left home, Global Warming has claimed The Netherlands, and Meals on Wheels are knocking at your door to deliver your liquidised pork chop and steamed veg. The load times are painfully severe and obtrusive, which does about as much for atmosphere as does dropping your trousers and manually extinguishing the mother-in-law's Christmas pudding before the entire family. I haven't studied this at a scientific level, but I'm pretty sure if you see the game's ending you could proudly insert "Watching Dead Rising 2's Loading Screen" between "Sleeping" and "Eating" on those interesting little tables which break down how your life's time is invested.
Load times will be the least of your worries though, as Capcom have tipped an entire carnival of irritations from the first game into the second. Most importantly, the fixed time limit remains, meaning you must tackle each chapter of the story's progression when the game ordains. When you combine this with the fetch/carry nature of escorting random survivors back to the safe house, and making arduous journeys to find some more Zombrex for Chuck's sick and infinitely irritating daughter, the entire timed game mechanic starts to royally piss you off. The game arbitrarily dispenses locations of survivors as time advances, and you never get any indication of whether you can actually reach them before each time limit passes and they have their buttocks gnawed off by a pack of semi-deads. It strikes me as rather obvious for an ostensibly sandbox game to allow the player enough time to wander off the beaten track, but Capcom clearly want to decide when you've had enough fun young man, and make a point of dragging you reluctantly by the collar until you see the end of the game. It's like paying for your children's access to an adventure playground, then stubbornly and regimentally limiting their time on everything to five minutes before plucking them screaming and red-faced to the next activity IN THE NAME OF FUN DAMNIT.
Completing the trio of offending items bobbing around in Dead Rising's Soup du Jour are the human 'Psychopaths' littered around the environments, who, without warning, will appear via a cut scene and slice you into attractive sinewy ribbons, then furl them around their crazy little heads. This is especially frustrating when you've got a couple of survivors in tow, and made even more frustrating when you are forced to return all the way back to the last manual save point, since Dead Rising doesn't auto-save. During the first third of the game, where Chuck is marginally less dangerous then an arthritic squirrel with Gingivitis, in terms of difficulty these battles are somewhere between unifying quantum physics with relativity, and making an argument for the continued existence of Daybreak.
Dead Rising's offspring is broadly analogous to it's forbear in all the ways you'd want it to be. Regrettably, all those knuckle-gnawing idiosyncratic moments proudly remain, sullying your enjoyment like a succession of coffee flavoured Revels. Is it a fair trade-off? Imagine returning from work to find your new kitten gleefully bounding toward you, then at the precise moment you ponder what an adorable little bundle of fun it is, you notice your daughter's hamster draping limply from its mouth. Then you have to wrestle the mangled carcass from its jaws, while the kitten fails to realise that this blissful reunion has rapidly ceased to be entertaining.
Sadly, I can't put Dead Rising 2 in the tumble dryer to teach it a lesson*.
*Cats are wonderful creatures, and I advocate kindness to them at all times...
At first glance, this looks easy. I'm not unduly worried about the dangerous looking spikes protruding from the floor, because these handy balloon balls will support the weight of my structure when gravity attacks its integrity. I start plucking the bustling black goo balls off the vine-like structure, their little eyes widening when selected. The first few go on fine, their viscous appendages reaching out and eagerly grasping adjacent goo balls. Several later however, and my structure starts to sag, straining under its own unsupported weight. Contact with the spikes below would spell certain doom, so I pluck a red balloon ball off the framework and affix it to the precariously dangling end.
It helps, but it's not enough. I pick another and attach it to the same spot, only this time gravity is overwhelmed rather than equalised, and my fledging goo-bridge lurches skywards. Disaster strikes - I didn't see the spikes on the ceiling. Both balloons pop, sending everything crashing back down, the momentum of the fall forcing the outermost goo balls to brush the spikes on the floor, taking a dozen or so of their friends with them. I frantically try to salvage my efforts by harnessing more balloons, but it's an uncoordinated, unmitigated disaster. My goo bridge, along with around twelve of my goo balls, est morte. It's frustrating, but I still manage a laugh at the stifled squeals that accompany their demise. Time for a rethink.
I love games that encourage smugness then make you look an idiot. Professor Layton on the Nintendo DS did this expertly, allowing you gradual improvement then slapping you in the chops to demonstrate who's boss. Whilst Layton employed traditional measurements of IQ in return for story progression, World of Goo is a far more tactile experience, demanding an appreciation of physical forces and weight distribution to solve its puzzles. Your remit is to recover the stranded goo balls strewn across each level and return them to the Goo Corporation factory, a mysterious organisation that processes the Goo balls as a commodity. These little spheres appear to be sentient, yet oblivious to the danger surrounding them; either sleeping when out of reach, or meandering across the structures you create when close enough to climb aboard.
Being utterly helpless, and on their own only capable of lateral movement, your job is to bind the Goo Balls together to traverse chasms, set off chain reactions, or avoid any number of other potentially gruesome obstructions blocking their progress. Profligacy in your building techniques is inadvisable, because once a Goo Ball is incorporated into your structures, its eyes close, left behind forever in order to carry others to safety. Only those left unutilised can climb the distance to the pipe that leads from each level back to the Goo Corporation.
Early on, simple archways over sheer drops allow familiarisation with the Goo Balls' physics and behaviour, yet this quickly cedes to devilish puzzles involving wind, fire, liquid, and sharp protrusions. To overcome these hazards, there are a range of different Goo species; some supporting weight, some impervious to heat, others like mobile match heads. When used in the correct sequence, even the most daunting looking ascents or obstacles are surmountable, with all that's required being a little lateral thinking and trial and error.
World of Goo reverberates with indie developer spirit; a stylistic achievement belying its humble premise. From the simple but charismatic behaviour of the Goo Balls to the lovingly crafted audio and visuals, 2D Boy have shaped an experience that drip feeds its pleasures over the ten hour journey to its conclusion. Awash with minor details, each level finds ways of raising a wry smile from the player: from the dark humour of the messages and cryptic hints left for you by the mysterious Sign Painter - "Someone is Watching You", to the way the game allows you to undo an action by clicking the airborne ghosts of expired Goo Balls.
There's a macabre Burton-esque undertone to the plight of the Goo Balls and their subtly sinister universe, which directly contrasts with the cheerfully colourful exterior. Their ultimate destination, a bleak monochrome cityscape with the Corporation building looming in the background, is a safer yet gloomier environment for the Goo Balls to reside, with their various colours now all dulled to black. With 2D Boy's founders being ex-Electronic Arts employees, you get the feeling there's a metaphor or two in there somewhere.
It would be an unnecessary indulgence to break the thousand-word barrier in explaining the pleasures within World of Goo. It's available on Steam for £17, isn't particularly resource hungry, and is one of the most contemporary experiences you're likely to find in the medium. This is a title with heart: the developers built it with $10,000 of their own money and worked out of coffee shops, relying on community input for regionalisation. Go and show your support for innovation - and I guarantee you a good time while you're at it.
You often hear people complaining we live in a dumbed-down society; that we're part of a quick-win, instant gratification generation that has neither time nor patience to enjoy the more subtle pleasures of life. I'd say in most cases this is fair comment, but occasionally our slide into brain-dead stupor does manifest itself in some pleasing ways. Namely, the Role Playing Shooter.
I'm a lazy bastard with a short attention span, who barely ever completes a game before boredom or the lure of something new leads me astray. I've also largely hated every RPG I've ever played apart from Oblivion. Consequently me and the original Mass Effect, with it's endless inventory management and associated RPG fluff, were never going to be soul mates. Imagine my excitement when I discovered the sequel had done away with the need to spend painful hours pondering the relative merits of seven variants of space earmuff, or manhandling a 22nd century shopping trolley around acre after acre of alien landscape mining for rocks like some sci-fi Arthur Scargill.
Mass Effect 2 has inherited some of it's parent title's RPG DNA (YMCA), with some initial class selection and skill points to dole out to your expanding collection of freakish companions along the way, but the shift to action is palpable. ME2 is no more a role-playing game than Jamie Oliver is Cockney, and you'll waste little time before getting to blast some aliens a third set of nostrils. Clearly, Bioware anticipated this game would attract a new audience of intrigued lazy bastards such as me and drew a line under the first game: the opening cinematic culminates with intergalactic hero Commander Shepherd's charred cadaver floating off into space, as his doomed Normandy spacecraft disintegrates behind him. Normally, burning your hero to death and launching their corpse into deep space would be considered unconventional one-third into a trilogy (although in the case of Jason Statham's 'Transporter' it would be one-third too late) but since we're in sci-fi land, the writers can brazenly fill gaping plot holes with wads of futuristic ployfilla. So that's exactly what they did.
Enter the Cerberus Corporation: a privately owned company with an apartheid-like human-only membership policy, and a less than wholesome reputation among the Guardian-reading alien fraternity. Somehow managing to retrieve Commander Shepherd's shrivelled remains, they set about not only regenerating him but also his prized ride: the Normandy spacecraft. A confused Shepherd finds himself forced to cooperate with Cerberus' shadowy grande fromage, the chain-smoking 'Illusive Man' (voiced by Martin Sheen), in order to investigate the mysterious abduction of human colonies around the Galaxy by the nefarious 'Collectors'. This uneasy partnership bristles with mistrust, while Cerberus' true motives for getting involved remain shrouded under a façade of altruism.
A good deal of the main story arc plays host to Shepherd assembling an elite crew to take on the dark forces behind the human disappearances. It's a good job Cerberus didn't lease the Normandy with a mileage cap, as this entails rattling around the galaxy in their pursuit like a pea in a whistle. Beardy aficionados will rejoice that a couple of Shepherd's original crew make an appearance, while those clean shaven among us will be able to connect with their back-story well enough through the conversation options, which you can choose to follow or ignore depending on whether or not you give a f***. Most of Mass Effect's array of intelligent life will find representation in the final line up - with varying levels of ugliness and usefulness - and should you invest in the dialogue, their stories all unfold into meaty side quests, ending with a perquisite or two as reward.
The drawback of all this gallivanting is it stymies the main story's progression, which seems to be happening elsewhere for huge portions of the game while you fanny around playing alien Pokemon. Mass Effect 2 suffers the same fate as many middle children of the 'epic' trilogy stable, whereby story and setting are broadly established, so action gets to hog the sandpit while plot toe-taps in the background waiting impatiently to play again. There's nothing wrong with the story per se; it just spends too long deferring to the squad gathering to build any real resonance or suspense. It's like spending an entire Saturday night driving around picking up your mates in a minibus, then finally turning up at the nightclub only to find it's ten to three and last orders.
Hooray for combat then, as it does enough to elevate the game above the pacing issues. Battles are numerous and intense, and the shift between third/first person cover based gunplay evokes memories of Gears of War, although admittedly not as fluid. Anyone familiar with titles of this lineage, specifically Mass Effect's spiritual forebear Star Wars: KOTOR, will instantly grasp the concept of selecting team members to fight with during missions, with a maximum of two companions available to touch down on foreign soil and lay the smackdown with Shepherd. The team dynamic in an FPS environment introduces a Ghost Recon style of squad-command system, whereby the AI drives until you angrily brush its stupid clumsy sausage fingers off the wheel before it kills you all. You'll find the need to do this quite a lot, as it's often completely beyond help. Fortunately, one button click can freeze the action and activate a pinwheel graphic, enabling the instruction of multiple attack commands and strategic positioning. There's no obligation to use it, but if you don't, prepare to expend more medkits than bullets, or suddenly find a pair of alien buttocks staring you in the face as they attempt to muscle in on your cover spot.
Taking the right mix of skill sets is key to ensuring you're not caught short in a firefight with some mercenaries or mechs, and each will have abilities capable of countering the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of the varied enemies you'll confront. Picking the right blend of attributes can make for fun times and easier progress, as there's an alchemical knack to breaking down highly resilient or numerous enemies in an efficient way - armour and shields respond in different ways to different ammunition, for example. That said, there's a real difference between encouraging efficiency and demanding proficiency, and Mass Effect achieves the first with aplomb but struggles to consistently promote the latter. It's here we reach the real builder in the ballet: difficulty.
I'm not pretending to be great at shooters, but I've played off and online enough to know my way around them. I selected the highest available difficulty on first playthough - one which purports to be suitable for 'experienced' FPS players - and barely broke sweat for most of the game. The majority of my deaths came from lackadaisical play (or a pair of errant AI buttocks obscuring my view) rather than being genuinely outgunned. When combat does flow, it's sporadically brilliant - you'll experience more than a few "In your face, six eyes!" moments after clearing an area via a devastating team combination - but I emphasise my use of the word 'sporadically'. Depending on how you approach the game, all too often you'll find the lesser missions easier to blast through than a flatulent pensioner does breaking wind. I recall one occasion late on in the game where I resolved to punch everyone to death to make matters more interesting, which given my custom designed pink armour with purple trim looked amusingly camp, but in essence was an indictment of the difficulty curve. This is where the RPG and FPS elements sit at odds, as the relatively flat enemy progression renders many side quests a joke once Shepherd deduces which way round his gun should point.
While we're on the subject of progression, it would be amiss of me not to mention the 'probing' sections, which are neither as interesting nor revolting as they sound. Again, there's no direct necessity placed upon it, but if you have designs on using any of Mass Effect's more potent weapons and abilities, prepare to spend painful hours scanning planet after planet deploying mining probes for upgrade materials. Therefore, I make this impassioned plea to Bioware on behalf of Mass Effect fans around the world: -
**Mining and gaming are a horrible, horrible combination. Please remove the person responsible for this from their home during the night and humanely euthanize them. **
It doesn't matter if you're bumbling along on the surface in a buggy as in the original, or playing space darts from a planet's orbit in the sequel, it's all tedious filler, and placed at least a couple of unnecessary and irreplaceable hours between me and the game's conclusion. Unfortunately, there are similar repetitive tasks whilst on missions, which lose their novelty value quicker than a Christmas cracker toy. Safe cracking and computer hacking are amusing diversions the first few times, but by the hundredth repetition you'll literally be groaning when they rear their ugly little heads. It's not a game breaker by any stretch, but there are enough of these routine tasks in aggregate to irritate. I would have liked to see more minigames scattered around the galaxy in general, as they add depth and character, but these are generic and insipid and add nothing to the experience.
One thing Bioware do enjoy is spray treating their games with tankers full of verbiage, enhancing the sense of immersion in the universe. True to form, the writing throughout is excellent; much of your time can be spent exploring the back-story of each alien race and even planet you encounter. As usual, the themes are consistent with those witnessed in real life -conflict, prejudice, marginalisation and greed appear in equal measures - and some above average voice acting supports the dramatic effect. Some U.S. small screen and even Hollywood talent provide enough sincerity to do the script justice, with the peripheral characters naturally more inconsistent but still generally believable.
Bizarrely, Shepherd's male actor is particularly wooden, but every time he spoke I was transfixed by the face I'd bestowed upon him - a bastard lovechild of Lola Ferrari and Wesley Snipes - which was only enhanced by virtue of my Light/Dark conversation choices gradually affecting my appearance. It's a throwback to the Star Wars series, and dressed up as Paragon/Renegade this time, but has identical influence on conversation branches and the methods employed to get what you want. Rather than seeing each option verbatim, you'll have a range of paraphrased choices, which expand when selected into the underlying narrative. It doesn't always hit the mark, with some options bearing little resemblance to the line delivered, especially playing Renegade where the more acerbic one-liners are sugar coated. If I've chosen to tell the stupid alien to shut up and stop crying like a baby, then that should be precisely what Shepherd says, FFS.
There I go grumbling for paragraphs again, but I have to stress I enjoyed the overall experience and exploration of Mass Effect despite the issues. In particular, the game is a visual achievement given the scale, with an impressive artistic variety throughout. The three main 'cities' within the galaxy each have distinct personalities; Omega's red neon haze hints at the vice and crime rife within it's walls; The Citadel reeks of police state despite the veneer of peace and free trade, and the Asari Capital of Ilium occupies an uneasy position between the two. Ilium in particular is stunning, with hundreds of spacecraft weaving in-between the towering alien constructs stretching far into the horizon. I would like to have seen more spontaneity added to these worlds; disappointingly the positioning and behaviour of almost every incidental character remains unchanged for the entire game. This is fine if it's a once-visited location, but kind of shatters the illusion when you return hours of play later to find it wholly unaltered from your last visit.
How far you invest in the role-playing elements will ultimately dictate the game's duration, although it will safely provide 20+ hours without venturing far, and more like 35 if you really 'dig your digging'. By any standards, that's a decent length, and when you consider that it's ostensibly an action game that's an impressive amount of content. Whether Mass Effect's departure from true RPG status leaves enough incentive to replay from scratch will largely depend on what you did first time round, and whether you want to explore the varying battle classes and converse Paragon/Renegade experiences. Personally, I just could not stomach another bout of space mining without gnawing through my own knuckles, but each to your own.
Bioware took a considerable risk with Mass Effect 2, and just about manage to deliver the memorable experience everyone expected. It navigates a genre evolution, builds upon the existing plotline, and provides an intriguing exchange at it's conclusion to build a stage for the final act to occupy. It's not the scorecard-igniting Bolero some of the hyperbolic media reviews suggest - unless of course you choose to ignore the notable misjudgements and minor flaws - but it contains enough action and builds enough character to leave its mark. There are plenty of weaker elements, which, if fleshed out, could develop into more appealing diversions from the main story arc, but unless Mass Effect 3 attempts something interesting with these loose ends, its legacy will mirror that of its elder brother: a game that promised much, delivered most of it, but could have delivered it all.
Having joined a barely conscious and badly wounded Nate Drake on a shattered train surrounded by frozen mountaintops, you are at once involved in and confused by Uncharted's story. That is, you are for the split second it takes for the carriage to slide off the edge of a previously unseen sheer drop, leaving you dangling perilously above an icy abyss, the fragile coupling your only separation from certain death. The fall sends Nate ricocheting down the now vertical vessel, with only a desperate one-armed lunge saving his skin at the last (note: get used to this).
Cinematics then segue into gameplay, in an instant flipping your role from intrigued onlooker to main protagonist. For a moment it caught me off guard - most average adventure games would continue directing the action from here - but Uncharted isn't your average adventure game. Your first task at the controls is to clamber up the outside of the increasingly unstable carriage, your nervous ascent contending with falling debris, howling winds and unreliable footholds. For a few magic moments, I was the lead in a Hollywood Blockbuster, with scripted CGI events melding into real time and back again (note: get used to this too).
This chaotic and bewildering opening sequence is actually the midpoint in Uncharted's story arc; a technique used in Hollywood for years but seldom transposed into games, and it's not the first time you'll notice credible parallels with the silver screen. For 12 explosive hours Naughty Dog nail their execution of big-screen pacing, dialogue, spectacle and attention to detail, and the result is a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) dizzying high point for the PS3 and console gaming in general. I also have to mention here they made me feel like some kind of Spider-Man / Indiana Jones (pre hip replacement) / Chuck Norris hybrid with a dash of Brad Pitt thrown in for good measure, which clearly makes for fun times.
The story is as involving as anything found in the action adventure genre at the movies. It begins with Drake's less than altruistic quest for personal gain - on the trail of Marco Polo's treasure laden yet doomed return from China - yet his plans are rapidly disrupted by one of a succession of unexpected developments. By the time the closing credits roll, you'll have been betrayed and abandoned, become involved in a love triangle, and come into conflict with a murderous war criminal and his militia; each development bringing you closer to understanding the true significance of the mysterious Chintamani Stone and the power locked within it.
Uncharted is an embarrassment of riches, but for me its crowning glory rests either side of that perilous climb for survival over the Tibetan mountains. That scene directly follows simply the best train-top scramble I've ever played. It's a breathless way to begin the ascent to Uncharted's climax - dodging fire from helicopters and hanging from the sides of the carriages, while desperately trying to avoid the onrushing signal boxes and gun-toting militia. Although this sequence doesn't explode any boundaries in terms of original content, the production values are so high and the controls so effortlessly slick that Naughty Dog manage to elevate even the most aped movie homage to a fresh and exciting new level.
One nimble side step of a spoiler later and we get to witness the other side of Uncharted's nature. Wandering through a Tibetan mountain village in a stunning fusion of artwork, audio, and the PS3's graphical muscle, you have an enforced moment of calm to enjoy. It's rare for an ostensibly macho and gung ho game to lead you into a transient period of tranquillity, but it's a mark of how confident the developers are in their product, and rightly so. I spent longer than I should have just taking in the views and interacting with the curious villagers - playing football with some kids, leaning over the fencing to take in the mountains towering above the sun-dappled river thousands of feet below, and watching the multicoloured bunting being buffeted by the mountain breeze. Admittedly, I was quickly bettered by the urge to go and blow shit up again, but it completed the second part of a memorable juxtapose you just don't find in mainstream action games.
And really, that's the key to Uncharted's success: it invests time in the minutiae and understands how this is vital to building atmosphere and character. It never wastes a moment to entertain, littering even the quieter moments between set pieces with an entertaining exchange or pithy one-liner. The CGI sections are also superbly voice acted and painstakingly lip-synched, and when combined with some of the most natural looking gesture animation I've ever seen in a console game, you're looking at a rare feat of presentational lustre. Naughty Dog even use the accessing of Nate's journal as a device to add depth to the characters and plot; rather than having the action severed abruptly, he produces a journal from his pocket to thumb through, its contents a combination of clues to the game's puzzles and amusing little doodles. This helps to add a human element to even the peripheral characters, and if nothing else offers a few moments of unexpected pleasure. In action games you'll never get access to the extended narrative sections to flesh out a story as in the movies, and it's pleasing to see a title that wrings every last opportunity dry of its potential to compensate.
This is an important title because it paves the way forward for a genre that's been trying to achieve precisely this effect for years; taking all the poorly executed elements from its forbears and getting them absolutely right. For example, players will find not one but two solidly written and well acted female co-stars that are interesting and tough in equal measures, playing an essential role in helping Nate reach the story's conclusion. Far from being a patronising marketing ploy to lure adolescent teenage boys in the vein of Tomb Raider, Naughty Dog designed these girls to be easy on the eye but strong enough to dampen Nate's occasional childish quip with a witty retort or two, moments later saving him from falling to his death and shooting a few militiamen. They're often in control and always useful, and that's an entertaining and refreshing change in approach.
So the question of whether to invest in Uncharted really rests upon how you like your gaming. Some will say at its core is a victory of style over substance, but in my opinion whoever doesn't want to take part in this slice of Hollywood has no soul. It's exciting, funny and stunningly directed, and importantly for those with limited gaming time, highly accessible. If you're exceptionally tight or on a budget, online functionality will preserve its longevity, with both competitive and co-operative variants enough to justify holding on to the disc long after you've cracked the solo campaign.
If I was really looking to nit pick, I could mention that there isn't a huge amount here that hasn't at least been attempted previously. The platforming sections are linear and simplistic, the only complication being routes so obscure you'll occasionally need to employ the hinting system for identifying designated climbing points. The final boss battle was also a slight disappointment for me, but some of the credit for that foible has to be attributable to the stellar experience that preceded it. In fact, in retrospect, the final third of the game doesn't have quite the resounding impact of the first two, with some of the shooting sections outstaying their welcome when coupled with a noticeable hike in checkpoint intervals.
To let these minor complaints mar the experience would be to miss the significance of Uncharted in its wider context as a benchmark title. The key to its success is that it works harder to weave the plot into the action and the action into some stunning CGI, the result being a package much greater then the sum of its parts. Naughty Dog have clearly sold the family silver to pay for the production costs, but invariably the action more than holds its own in response. Before I get too carried away eulogising, it would probably be wise to point out that it's not quite a fully fledged movie script, and that it does take an inexplicable wrong turn into Implausible Street at its conclusion when it would have been far easier to continue forward into Believable Avenue. However, to those who might scoff I have four words for you: The last Indiana Jones.
DOH! Really Sorry but this has been posted on the wrong product - correct version coming soon and dooyoo have been contacted. In the meantime, a musical interlude: -
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If I was a videogame baddie I would, without shadow of a doubt, be king of the f***ing world. Despite the lessons of history suggesting that stuffing Evil HQ with high explosives and handy crates full of ammunition is a patently bad idea, successive evildoers have steadfastly refused to deviate from these dubious tactics. It's as if the real aim for all this evilness is fulfilling some kind of kinky fetish for having a group of barrel-necked marines kick down their office doors and lay manly waste to them with the butt of their own guns. Alas, Killzone 2's despot-in-chief displays a similar lack of ambition to do things differently, and it's a theme that's echoed throughout the game.
Despite all the plaudits it's been showered with by quality-starved PS3 owners, the real fart resonating through Killzone 2's fanfare is a lack of imagination. Don't get me wrong, it's the hugely impressive technical achievement you'd expect from a title four years in the making, but not once did I feel that this was even approaching new territory for the FPS genre. There are a few inspired moments which exhibit genuine invention, such as a section aboard a speeding train where air resistance slows forward momentum and prevents you from using grenades effectively, but the prevailing set-piece/lull/set-piece/turret dynamic has been implemented and executed well by a dozen 'AAA' shooters in the past ten years, and this game wades through these clichés like it's crossing them out on a checklist.
You'll have to forgive my ignorance of the first title, but from what I absorbed before the shutters went down, the story runs like this: Generic Evil Army vs. Mankind - Mankind sends in the big boys to sort them out. There's probably a deeper element to this tale, but as ever it's mired in the same depths of testosterone and sweat and the narrative delivered via the same cement mixer larynxes as 90% of titles in this genre. So in short, the plot engenders a scenario where you're faced with an army of identikit futuristic Nazi storm trooper types, who rather bizarrely enunciate like extras who've wandered out of Albert Square... via the Star Wars costume department. Seemingly not satisfied with stuffing his front room full of explosives, Mr. Nasty has kitted his cockney fascist legions out with masks sporting glowing red eyes, just to offer that extra invitation to shoot them in the face. And that's really the essence of the gameplay; find a cover spot, locate the conspicuous red dots, burst fire, hide, rinse repeat.
Killzone actually employs the peek-a-boo dynamic pretty well though, yet with nothing like the success of Gears of War's third person grace. Designated cover points have less traction, and it's not always abundantly clear what you can stick to and what you can't, often resulting in undesired emergence into the open. In fact the default controls are generally pretty cumbersome, and I never found instinct usurping conscious thought to allow my mind to focus on tactics, which meant Killzone continually broke the flow in a way that Gears & Halo for example didn't. Maybe the somewhat 'floaty' Sixaxis PS3 analogue pad made a contribution to my feeling of detachment from the controls, but I never really felt 100% in command, and consequently didn't get that adrenaline rush of pulling off instinctive escapes from certain death situations that punctuate other previously mentioned shooters.
Two things Killzone does get right though: difficulty and tension. It's a toughie alright. So far as providing brutal oppressiveness goes, this is right up there with the best in class. It's here where developer Guerrilla triumphantly slams all its Aces down on the table: their game really does bully you. As Master Chief or Marcus Fenix you felt like the hunter - a Kevlar-chinned assassin - here you are certainly not intimidating anyone. Every corridor, warehouse and open expanse is an excuse for Killzone to unload more misery upon you, and on the harder difficulties your feeling of vulnerability makes for a heart-pounding ten hours of dashes for cover under a hail of well aimed bullets. You will invariably be investing a fair proportion of those ten hours exploiting the now en vogue recuperating health system, squatting behind some precariously flimsy scenery praying you recover before you're shot in the arse again. This is perhaps the saving grace, as coupled with some pretty good AI it's going to provide a stiff challenge to all but the most hardened FPS veterans.
While we're in a positive vein, let's mention the visuals and audio. It's a tour de force for console FPS titles. Aesthetically grim it may be, some would say lacking in depth and variety, but it's an inescapable truth that Killzone's software has wrung more out of the PS3 than any other game. I'd have liked to have seen less crumbling architecture and samey walkways, but what is included is exceedingly detailed and animated, with the frame rate hardly breaking stride. There are some rather dodgy load time pauses however, which can extinguish the atmosphere a little, but if this really bothers you *put down the pad and get some sun*.
Now we're done with the nice stuff, there's some final scorn for the single player campaign: NPC's, or as I like to call them, 'brain-in-arse hindrances'. There's a fair few of these numpties unwittingly impeding your chances of success at every turn, but I'm going to pick on Rico here, since he is, without question, the most intensely irritating and blindly hypocritical NPC that ever ruined a campaign mode. Every time you're within a kilometre of enemy fire (this happens a lot) he'll bellow in an almost pantomime manly growl: "Find cover!!!" before completely contradicting this sage advice and charging indiscriminately to his own demise. Not content with insulting your intelligence and inviting questions of his own, he then insists on being healed; whining on about bleeding to death while you're stuck, rather ironically, taking cover from the people he should have been shooting at. One particularly frustrating episode springs to mind on the aforementioned train level, where he barked at me to take cover/blow up the man in the turret etc. etc. before bolting around the corner into a group of six enemies and dying immediately. This happened eight times in a row before I slammed my controller down and switched off my PS3, declaring him a 'mindless tw*t' and 'less use than a G-string in the Antarctic'. At this juncture I realised Killzone 2 wasn't getting top marks. I don't expect NPC's to complete the game for me, but just some covering fire would be nice. Don't make them tell me what to do every third step, and don't make them s**t. Ta.
This may seem a curmudgeonly and pompous write up of what is, on the surface at least, a highly competent effort for the genre, but Killzone 2 has stirred sentiments I grew tired of some time ago. Maybe it's the trite sci-fi premise. Maybe it's the cringeworthy macho vernacular which peppers almost every sentence emanating from the one-dimensional and unlikeable cast of generic army meatheads. Maybe it's the lines so embarrassing they could be mistaken for none too subtle parody, such as the hilarious pre-death corker: "Don't you quit on me now!" immediately followed by: "Medic! I need a medic!!!". It's just plain lazy in areas fundamental to atmosphere and personality, to the point where even games like Gears of War manage to outstrip it in terms of storytelling and personal involvement. I didn't care what war I was fighting or why, and that's sending you as a player into areas where all the fancy graphics in the world can't undo the damage. Admittedly, the genre has never been a literary hotbed, but ten years after Half-Life we're still holding out for another story driven shooter that delivers stronger dramatic impact with its action than clumsy am-dram death scenes or college football team bravado and bluster.
I'm sorry, this is a loooong one. Go on, skim it. I don't mind. See you at the bottom!
There's not much /scope/ for witticisms when reviewing a camera. In fact moving away from my traditional /point of focus/ in the videogames section has left me feeling somewhat creatively /exposed/. In case you were wondering when I was going to /shutter/ up and get on with the review, fear not; I think I've /captured/ all the tedious camera puns I can fit into one paragraph. Hang on, hang on... /LENS/ me your ears while I peruse the Nikon D90 VR lens kit.
I hate myself sometimes.
I'm assuming that as a reader you'll be considering your purchase as an upgrade from point and shoot or hybrid models. If you're an experienced photographer, chances are you have a more expensive camera anyway, and since this comes packaged with a cheapish lens I'd also imagine a pro will be eyeing the body only option as a backup camera. If you want a glorified technical manual there's plenty of enthusiast sites out there on the interweb to indulge your technophile fetishes. Sorry (I'm not).
ONE FOR THE NEWBIES - IS A D-SLR FOR ME?
The first consideration when upgrading to D-SLR's is what precisely you want to achieve from your photography. If you simply require a means of capturing pictures of the kids at the beach or your mate urinating into a bin with a road cone on his head on a night out, a point and shoot camera will capably select acceptable settings to take a half-decent picture. If, however, you want to inject some more artistry into your pictures and shoot sports or crisp landscapes for instance, you're going to need to expand and take control of a number of settings that are generally restrictive or on autopilot in 'low-end' cameras.
D-SLR is an acronym for Digital Single Lens Reflex - which in English means what you see through the viewfinder is almost precisely what will hit the sensor when your shutter opens. This is owing to light from the lens being diverted to the viewfinder then 'dropped' onto the sensor when you hit the button. Point and shoot cameras have an independent viewfinder which is not wholly representative of the final image - hence unreliable results and delays while the best settings are selected and focus is processed. Ever experienced those uncomfortable moments at the bottom of a group photo, with aching knees and forced grin while the man at the controls takes his fifth picture because you all keep f****** moving before it's taken? We've all been there. That's part of the point and shoot problem, and if you want or need to take high quality shots first time with custom settings, you'll need something better.
D-SLR's offer comprehensive control of aperture, ISO ratings and shutter speeds. Think of them as a set of pulleys, all changing the style of shot whilst affecting the amount of light that hits your camera's sensor. Aperture controls the amount of the shot that's in focus (a.k.a. Depth of Field) but the more that's in focus, the less light that hits the sensor. Higher ISO amplifies the available light when it's at a premium, but degrades clarity and de-saturates colour. Shutter speed can assist in capturing fast moving objects (or at the other end of the scale create arty time-lapse light trail images like those of motorways), although the speed selected is directly proportionate to the amount of light which is captured. Understanding these settings and manipulating them to get the composition you want with the correct light exposure is the cornerstone of D-SLR photography.
The ability to change lenses is also key; each with different focal ranges and aperture settings to suit certain scenarios. For longer exposures or focal ranges, you're also going to need a tripod to eliminate camera shake from your hands. You might also need a proper flash to capture details in dark areas when your subject is backlit for example. Then there's lens filters and remote controls and...
If this all sounds like some kind of nightmarish minefield of expense and tedium to you, you'll be wasting your money with the D90 or any other D-SLR for that matter. The control is there so you can capture light and colour in a way otherwise impossible, and the understanding of the various settings and equipment is key to achieving the desired results. Be under no illusion that the D90 VR kit or any other will be your final financial outlay: this will be the beginning of an expensive and confusing journey. If you're not prepared to embark upon it, I'd forget the whole idea and take up something cheaper, like yachting or F1 motor sport.
The Nikon D90 is the Japanese manufacturer's latest enthusiast-level digital camera. As is always the case with technology, this model inherits some advanced features from older top-spec models and also adds some fresh interest. The D90's USP is the interesting option of shooting HD video at 720p, which isn't full HD, but enough to carry the moniker nonetheless. Don't let this distract you from the basics though; packing a 12.2MP sensor into its frame, and offering ISO values of 200 - 3200 (can be expanded to 100 - 6400), the D90 sits comfortably amongst the other mid-range offerings such as Canon's EOS 50D and Sony's Alpha 700. Burst mode can capture a maximum of 4.5fps, which is more than capable for a camera in its class, and the LCD screen boasts a resolution of 940k pixels, which offers exceptional clarity when live previewing/reviewing shots or navigating the menus.
Aesthetically, I have to say Nikons are among the easiest D-SLR's on the eye. The D90 is no exception; it's well finished with high quality plastics throughout and sports Nikon's signature red flash under the front command dial. Despite not boasting the sturdy metal chassis construct of most other models it still feels tough enough to withstand a drop or two, although at £650 for the body alone you're probably going to be doing your best to avoid this. Included in the VR kit lens package along with the body are a number of accessories to get you started; the 18-105mm kit lens of course; a branded neck strap; hotshoe, viewfinder and LCD covers; battery charger; composite cable; USB lead; a handy lens hood and several covers for either end of your lens and camera body to keep dust out of those hard to reach crevices. Trust me; you don't want dust anywhere near them.
SCOPE FOR IMPROVEMENT
Another important consideration when first buying any D-SLR is the ongoing cost and variety of lenses. Since first party lenses only fit bodies from the parent manufacturer, you're buying into a system of equipment - effectively for life. The range of technologies is baffling; so much so there's little point in discussing here. Suffice to say Nikon have one of the largest and most comprehensive catalogues of lenses around, and the good news is that many older models can be found on the net second hand for a fraction of the price. Alternatively for the price conscious and/or tightwads among us, there are third party lens makers such as Sigma or Tamron who create cheaper lenses with an array of compatibilities.
The packaged 18-105mm VR kit lens is designed to ease you into the world of photography gently. A jack of all trades kind of lens, this is the equivalent of the chirpy odd job man who you call when the gutters are blocked or you need some tiling done. With potential aperture settings of f3.5 all the way through to f22 and built in Vibration Reduction, this lens can snap close up portraits, capture capable landscapes or zoom in to near-distant subjects. Alas, like our chirpy odd job man, this lens is unspectacular and limited when the job becomes more specialised. If you envisage shooting sports or certain wildlife for example, you'll soon need to invest in a zoom lens which reaches all the way out to at least 300mm. The VR lens also suffers at the other end of the spectrum, so those of you wanting to get in close to create intricate macro images or abstracts will need to expand your lens collection in a similar fashion.
IMAGE 'N' THAT
Let's get one thing clear here; a higher number of megapixels does not necessarily equate to superior image quality. If you aren't printing your shots in A3 or larger, you'll have a hard time distinguishing between 10MP or 15MP. In fact, just as an overpowered engine can become a hindrance to performance in car, the same applies to pixels. It's all very well capturing more data but if it's poorly processed by the camera you can end up with inversely proportionate image quality, especially at high ISO settings. So the pen- sorry pixel envy you get with mobiles is largely overplayed. Ha. The D90's 12.2MP sensor captures beautifully crisp images and performs well at higher ISO's, keeping imperfections such as 'Noise' (grain) to a minimum all the way through to the higher levels. In this regard it's widely esteemed as the overall superior camera at the price. I can't fault it; the colours are rich and vibrant and contrast clear, even in low-light conditions.
Whilst I almost always use the viewfinder, the Live View option is a real advantage, allowing you to compose images with precision, especially when shooting at awkward angles. The LCD screen gives you instant feedback, with the only notable omission being a live histogram, which means you have no idea if your exposure is correct until the image is captured. This is more minor inconvenience than a real problem, but it can mean employing trial and error, which is a shame. The viewfinder itself includes a depth of field preview option and gridline options, the latter being a real bonus for those obsessed with the rule of thirds etc.
The D90 has a healthy 11 autofocus points in a diamond arrangement, which I found to be generally responsive and rarely select the wrong subject. An especially impressive feature was the roaming autofocus, which employs colour recognition to trace a moving target through the viewfinder when panning. This is really handy for shooting high-speed sports; I'm yet to experiment with it fully but I can't wait for the motor sport meetings in the summer.
Finding your way around the often labyrinthine D-SLR menu system is an intimidating task. The D90 has made this as easy as it's ever going to be. Colour coded by heading, the various options to control everything from bracketing to whether your camera beeps at capture (a ****ing irritating beep that should be switched to OFF immediately at that) are all easily reached. If you're a clueless halfwit like me you'll probably find the 'info' button quickly becomes your best mate, offering helpful overviews of each function. I've never experienced amorous impulses towards a piece of moulded plastic before, but trust me, at times I've wanted to wrest it from its mountings and give it a... OK maybe that's taking it too far. Suffice to say that the D90 is accommodatingly user friendly.
HIGH DEF-INITELY (MAYBE)
Nikon's hype-grinder would have you believe that the reason to buy this camera is the HD video function, a first for D-SLR cameras and one of only two (the other being a top of the range Canon costing comfortably four figures) currently playing host to the feature at all. In truth, there are other more important things worth shouting about on the D90, such as the class leading image quality and value for money for example. Maybe I'd see this differently if the HD feature was implemented less crudely. That's not to say it can't capture great quality 720p video you can marvel at through your HDTV, it's just you'll have a hard job maintaining a smooth shot owing to the omission of autofocus. Really. Tracking a moving subject at varying distances requires you to 'fiddle with the ring' as it were; obviously I'm referring to the manual focus, you filthy minded pervs. Add to that a disappointing mono sound capture and what you have is the equivalent of a hulking theatre system in a sports saloon - you're not going to complain about it, and it'll probably be the first thing you show your mates, but it's not really why you bought the thing.
Digital Darkroom techniques are crucial to the modern photographer, so in addition to the camera outlay you're probably going to want to invest in an editing package such as Adobe Elements. Unlike Canon, Nikon have chosen not to include a free software alternative to keep you going in the meantime, and even the transfer software which is supposed to read your SD card didn't recognise my camera when connected. Thumbs down, Nikon.
On a similar whiny note, unlike previous Nikons the D90 won't display as a USB mass storage device on your PC. Rubbish. To access my card I had to purchase a separate USB card reader, which is more convenient in the long run, but more expensive nonetheless. Also be aware that RAW files, while representing the best format to shoot in if you want to adjust images with full control, a) take up a spiteful 10MB of room on average b) aren't necessarily recognised by image editing programs. I own a copy of Photoshop CS3, and because Adobe doesn't support the RAW editing suite for non-current versions of Photoshop via patches, I was marooned. This meant downloading a copy of their file conversion program to convert my D90 RAW files into the universal .dng format to edit in CS3. Sound confusing? You have no idea how many FCUK's I invested in discovering this (thousands).
In a nutshell, RAW files aren't all the same. Each camera effectively has a unique file type. They are working on convergence, but for now, your workflow is going to be longer than a stream of drunk's pee from a bridge unless you spend hundreds slavishly upgrading your image editing software.
AND HOLD IT THERE...GOOD
Hi again skimmers! I hope your index finger's not aching from scrolling that mouse wheel all the way down here. Welcome to the abridged version of my review. For the rest of you, I think that's quite enough. To summarise, the D90 is absolutely the right choice for upgrading to the D-SLR world. If you are remotely serious about learning photography, you might as well forget entry-level and splash the extra cash for something that's durable enough and has the specs to serve you well for a good few years. At £800 on the high street for the kit, I think this represents best value for money in the mid-range market. I'd imagine this would also serve a pro well as a cost-effective backup body to the high-end Nikons. Happy shooting.
Footnote: This review mentions the VR Kit, which is an optional package. The body alone costs in the region of £650.
We didn't see it coming.
We couldn't have known.
It's a global problem that needs global solutions.
An assortment of the bull***t blame-shifting we're having force-fed to us via the media lately. The truth is, even the most casual of armchair economists *could* see this coming. We *should* have known. The clever spivs at the keyboards hammered away. The CEO's paid the clever spivs and themselves enormous sums of money to create paper wealth. The shareholders lapped up the dividends. The government and the regulators sanctioned their actions and basked in the glory of a 'world leading' financial services industry. This we all know; a cavalcade of self congratulatory self-delusion lasting a decade and spearheaded by that smug Scot and his red briefcase. Yet the collective state RBS and their banking brethren find themselves in has created a rather convenient scapegoating opportunity here. The real culpability rests with us - or rather, the entire Western world and the way we live our lives. Not only have we bankrupted ourselves: we've made ourselves redundant.
I think if any phrase aptly summarises events of the past ten years and beyond, 'patently unsustainable' would be it. The real issue here is not 'liquidity'. It's our collective greed. Let's remember those words on each bank note: "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of". Money is a mere reflection of a nation's wealth. As we have quickly discovered, we're not quite as wealthy as we thought, and in fact are considerably worse off. This isn't just about house prices - they are a mere symptom of the problem - it's about the UK (and the West in general) not having anything worth buying and needing to buy everything worth having. It's about building our consumer economy on cheap imports and borrowing our own money back from the very countries that supply them to us. We've been sitting in our ivory towers counting the paper gains on houses and spending off the back of them, while the developing world got busy making things cheap and selling them cheaper. Well it's coming home to roost now, and God is that bird bigger than when it left.
Effectively, those in government and those who call the shots in our economy have sold our stability and way of life in the name of profit, encouraged by our unending thirst for comfort and luxury. How many things in your home were made cheap in the Far East? Well, they were probably produced by one of China's 400 million on salaries of less than $1 per day. That's more productive people working for practically nothing than live in the entire U.S.A and U.K. combined... I'll leave you to do the maths. This has enabled an enormous surplus of cash to be recycled and lent back to us via our high street banks at ridiculously appealing rates. People in the West who couldn't afford the high life working average jobs suddenly had access to huge amounts of credit. And what's the biggest aspirational purchase? Housing. Hooray. Cars didn't go up in value; you just build more of them. But people fight over houses. It's about location. It's about schooling. It's about proximity to lucrative jobs in financial services (ha-ha). Hence that old Capitalist concept of supply and demand took hold. Fuelled by a seemingly unregulated lending system, all that credit flowed into housing. £250,000? No problemo, it's the studio apartment of my dreams, and besides all I have to do is sign a piece of paper stating I'm good for the money.
I'm sorry but... DOH?!
Hence the reason the U.K. is royally screwed and more than most. We live on a small, overcrowded island where pleasant surroundings near big cities are at a premium. People fought hard and paid hard for that space. Thanks, China! No, actually, thanks to all of us too - we didn't have to borrow the money. Personally I didn't enter the housing market for fear of catching a cold, and had to endure several years of people smugly informing me that I was paying somebody else's mortgage for them. Well, my previous landlords are welcome to my money, as they'll probably be needing it to offset all that negative equity they're amassing on a daily basis. It's not my intention to revel in somebody else's misery, but ordinary people were not meant to be landlords for a good reason: there aren't enough houses as it is. By buying up all the affordable homes, the 'property investor' phenomenon achieved nothing but siphon up all the first time buyer housing stock and drive prices up yet further. Pure greed. What was this all built on? More debt.
Yet people, some of whom should know better, continued to bleat on that supply and demand was fuelling house price growth. Bollocks. Even an idiot can deduce that a commodity is only worth what people can afford to pay for it; the UK didn't stumble across some alchemical financial formula somewhere in the mid to late nineties. Our annual growth as a nation was trundling along about 8% a year behind house price inflation year on year for a DECADE. It was based on us shovelling debt into our mouths assuming we'd made it big and the banks willingness to keep pouring more borrowed money into the trough from people who were doing the real hard work. Out of this new economy sprouted a whole new raft of financial products and services which those clever spivs traded on. This was all repackaged debt, essentially. We continued to borrow more borrowed money on the back of assets swollen by money we borrowed. Surely somebody, somewhere, had a niggling doubt this might eventually go the way of the pear?
Gordon Brown can talk about liquidity until his jowly face implodes but the simple fact is this: we've spent the f***ing money. It's gone. The assets weren't and aren't worth the money we borrowed to pay for them. Square peg, circle hole. It's frightening. We still have to pay for all this, it's not going away. Trillions of pounds; tens of trillions in fact, up in smoke overnight. The problem with bloggers and the like calling for Brown's head and demanding the banks 'come clean' about their exposure so the jitters can be dispelled and confidence restored is frankly near-sighted and off the mark. The dilemma the finance industry faces is that its assets - that includes your home if you have a mortgage - can't be valued until they reach rock bottom. Forget the billions they've already written off, it's the value of their remaining assets that are causing the problem. It's like trying to estimate how much petrol you'll have in your car tomorrow only there's a fast flowing leak in the tank. RBS Group alone has £2,000,000,000,000 on its balance sheet in foreign liabilities which is weighed against rapidly depreciating assets. That's two trillion. That's twice the UK's GDP. That's one heck of an I.O.U. and as taxpayers we own 70% of it. Each day the assets lose value is another day (or more likely month or year) the U.K. taxpayer has to work to repay the shortfall.
Which is where we arrive back at square one. Our ability to repay all this is intrinsically linked to our ability to create our own wealth. This involves work. Unfortunately, as a net importer of goods and having precious few raw materials this puts the U.K. in a particularly compromising position. We've destroyed our manufacturing industry (because we outsource everything to you know where) and farming industries (because Every Little Helps) and make precious little that anyone wants or can't make cheaper at home. Essentially, it boils down to greed again, as if we had forsaken the third holiday of the year and the 50" plasma TV in favour of paying a fair price to produce food and essential goods, we'd probably still have these industries here. There's a reason our grandparents struggled to make ends meet, and that's because life is hard. We've been living under this deluded impression life could only get easier in much the same way that house prices could only ever increase. Well it appears life is about to get somewhat harder for most of us. The diabolical performance of sterling against other currencies is essentially the world's opinion of our collective ability as UK plc to pay for all that 'toxic debt'. A debt as yet unsubstantiated. How our fragile economy copes with this growing liability will define a generation and beyond.
So where from here? Who knows. You'll hear the word 'protectionism' used frequently at the moment, a term to describe what I interpret as a euphemism for a kind of reverse globalisation. National interests first. Lend at home and spend at home. I'm not sure what we're going to produce and buy here apart from whiskey and beef though. Printing money seems to be the next stop, as it's a near certainty that the current credit insurance measures will fail. This will result in devalued sterling, making our imports even more expensive hence massive inflation, and an erosion of the real value of any savings you may have. Joy. On a global level, Obama's rather direct attack on China's policy of devaluing its currency to promote exports and discourage imports is a worrying precursor to what could eventually become the severing of trade between the U.S. and China. The fact is that relationship is key to maintaining what little stability there is left in the world economy, and it's somewhat worrying to think that a country with China's ideology could have the fate of the 'free' world in its hands.
So a bit of a mess, then. At least, eventually, some kind of financial osmosis will settle the world economy down. This is almost certain to result in the U.K. falling way down the league of wealthy nations to its true position, with more than a few other big hitters joining us. That's natural and a good thing. This whole fiasco was built on placing individual imperatives over collective interests and responsibilities - unchecked greed - the big problem with our system of free enterprise. The new ethical capitalism that will emerge must hold its responsibility to the public and the world as a whole in the same esteem as shareholder profits. It must, or this will happen again. Governments must be strong and dynamic, so as not to inhibit growth but to ensure the devices and regulation exist to rein in the process that dug this hole we find ourselves in. It rests on us, too; ethical consumerism and an increased sense of personal responsibility will help sculpt the new world as it should be.
In the meantime, prepare to stitch labels on T-Shirts and man call-centres for Chinese customers for the next two decades. We've got to pay it back somehow.
[Googles Mandarin Phrasebook]