Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Zombies zombies zombies!

In recent years the whole zombie thing has been so overdone in popular culture to the point of becoming seriously stale.

Despite this, as we all know - you just cant keep a good zombie down and a few choice bits here and there have recently resurrected my interest in all things involving the shambling undead.

Okay. I’ll stop with the zombie puns now…

The first was picking up a cheap copy of Techland’s Dead Island, which first gained interest through this epic promotional trailer – which unfortunately was simply a marketing tool and was not in any way representative of the how the finished game would be like.

Hearing mixed things about the game I held off buying it when it first came out, but playing it recently, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, its got its fair share of technical glitches and a repetitive mission structure, but as far as creating an open world zombie game, its pretty successful in creating an explorable playspace.

Rather than funneling you through corridors or set pieces such as say, in the Resident Evil games, there is a genuine sense of ‘place’ throughout, especially in the first part of the game where you are free to wander around a tourist beach resort – with objects strewn about everywhere evoking the unsettling aftermath of when the zombie outbreak first occurred.

The combat is focused mainly on melee attacks, and coupled with the first person viewpoint, leads to genuinely terrifying up close and personal encounters with the undead – the first few times causing you to swing away in a blind panic as a zombie lunges at you. The game is pretty violent too, with plenty of blood, dismemberment, bone-crunching sound and great ragdoll physics employed when knocking the enemy down with a particularly powerful blow. There is shooting too when you get your hands on some guns later on, but its
unfortunately not on par with other FPS games.

Although it's a game full of flaws, its still one that I am enjoying playing – and I haven’t even tried the four player online coop yet! I’m going to try and finish the game on my own first before I have a go at that.

The other zombie related thing that has been taking my interest recently is the currently airing second season of The Walking Dead.

After the first season ended up deviating a little too much from the story of its comic book source material, it's good to see the second season back on track with the arrival at Herschel’s farm.

What’s great about TWD is that, like all good zombie stories, it’s about the people involved in the situation and how they react to their circumstances rather than overly focusing on the undead themselves. Here, the zombies are pretty much the backdrop to the story - you care more about the characters and whether or not they can survive the dire situation they are in – not only from the threat of being eaten or infected by the undead, but more often from themselves and other survivors, due to the state of lawlessness that comes with the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

I’m currently only two episodes in and have several more to watch until I’m up to date so I’m looking forward to that – and you’ll probably hear more about it in a future post.

28 Feb 2012

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Alice - Maddening Level Design

American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns was a game I was intrigued by – a dark and twisted version of Alice in Wonderland that combined both platforming and combat elements – it seemed right up my proverbial gaming alley.

Managing to snag it at a low price, I recently played through it - and although I did finish it, was left severely disappointed.

First impressions were good. Really good.

The art style, aesthetics, character and enemy designs were all top notch. Exploring the children’s home and the old cobbled streets of Victorian London left me gobsmacked. It was like I was wandering the set of Corpse Bride or something.

Similarly, first setting foot into Wonderland was amazing. Bright and colourful and yet also dark and decrepit – the world was so wonderfully designed. This is what Tim Burton wished his Alice in Wonderland film was like.

So what went wrong? Well at first the combat and platforming seemed fine. Riding gusts of wind, hopping on invisible platforms, weighing down a switch, shrinking to fit through a small space – so far so ordinary. And then… that was it. For the rest of the game! Literally every level just continued to recycle these basic mechanics used over and over ad nauseam. I’m sorry, but a simple reskinning of these platforming mechanics to suit the levels theme simply isn’t enough to keep interesting what is essentially doing the exact same things repeatedly. It doesn't help that the levels are really long either – they just seem to drag on and on.

There are the odd 2D parts to break up the tedium but sadly these are also woefully underdeveloped despite showing initial promise and similarly overstay their welcome.

Usually game don't make me angry – if a game is bad so what I think, just don't play it. But this game genuinely made me frustrated. There was so much potential here –such imagination and an impeccable art style – made impotent here by shamefully lacklustre level design.

Two examples that some up my crushing disappointment with this game:

One - At the end of the first level, the rabbit and the mouse you have been chasing get together in a huge robot monstrosity ready to assault you… except it doesn't. Instead of a boss fight the hulking junk beast just inexplicably falls apart and you go on to the next level – for more of the same platforming. In fact, apart from the very end, there are no boss fights in the entire game!

Two – you are in an underwater realm and you come across a city, where all the inhabitants are fish. The surrounding buildings and are so beautifully realised and you cannot wait to explore this watery metropolis and see what it has to offer… except you cant. Nothing here is interactive, just a place to pass through to reach the next set of floating platforms, the fish denizens wordlessly frozen in place by their cruel creator.

To be fair the combat in the game works well – its just not enough to save it from the mind-numbing tedium of the rest of the experience.

This game is actually a sequel – the original PC game American McGee’s Alice released in 2000 is also included in the package. Just a shame it hasn't aged well and is nigh on unplayable by today’s standards – le sigh….

17 Feb 2012

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Lost - The Ending

[Spoiler Warning: Plot points of the TV Series Lost are discussed in this article.]

Finally, I’ve finished watching Lost.

Having just watched the finale of Season Six, I can say that the series does tie up the major events of the story in a fairly satisfactory way.

After 121 episodes, one of the most complex, thought provoking, character and emotion rich stories has come to an end.

The final season would be just as confusing to newcomers as starting anywhere else other than the very beginning as yet another timeline is added into the show. So as well as having the main story of events happening on the island in the present day (no more time travelling now) there is an ‘alternative timeline’ featuring characters and events as if Oceanic 815 had never crashed.

Oh, and there are also a few regular flashback episodes thrown in there too – mainly for Richard, Jacob and the Man in Black. So – it's as complex as ever then.

That leads us on to the subject of new characters – yes, there are more in this season too. As well the aforementioned Jacob and his unnamed brother having more exposure, we have more ‘Others’ being revealed (living in a big temple) and also Widmore’s crew that have finally made it on to the island.

But to be honest, most of them die – in fact a lot of people die in the final few episodes, even main cast members – one particular death nicely bookending how the whole show started.

Emotionally, the show does come full circle and give a sense of closure to the whole thing – plenty of teary moments, many previous characters in Lost popping up for guest appearances (mostly in the ‘alternate timeline’ story) – most big mysteries explained.

On the flipside though, there were so many threads posed in countless other episodes that just weren’t tied up – so many little niggling questions never answered – and now likely never to be answered now that the series is finished. Watch this funny video HERE that brings up just some of them.

My feeling is that the writers didn't have absolutely every detail planned out from day one and often were just writing mysterious things into the script to keep people hooked. The monster of Lost’s greater mythology grew so big and wild that by the end they just couldn't account for every unexplained detail that had happened over the course of 121 episodes.

So if you are a person that needs explanations to everything then the ending of Lost is sure to be a maddening experience – but purely in emotional and story-telling terms the end wraps things up nicely – and I’m glad it got the graceful finish it deserved rather than fading into obscurity due to lack of audience interest or being unceremoniously cancelled without a proper resolution as some other series end up.

It was truly an epic journey – and despite all its flaws, Lost holds a special place in my heart.

For purposes of nostalgia or simply just curious? - check out this article on the Top 25 Moments From 6 Years of Lost for some highlights of the series.

16 Feb 2012

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


Castlevania is most probably my favourite game series of all time – EVER.

I am particularly found of the 2D ‘exploratory’ entries to the series - the ones classified as ‘Metroidvania’ by fans due to their Metroid-esque exploration of the environment. Among these are the multiple entries on the GBA and DS, as well as the seminal Symphony of the Night on PSX.

So when they announced Castlevania: Harmony of Despair as a downloadable title on Xbox360 back in 2010, naturally I got excited for it - hoping for a PSN release. This was a Metroidvania styled Castlevania release starring multiple protagonists from previous Castlevania games, played as a multiplayer game online – and in glorious HD! A fan boy’s dream!

When the PSN version was finally released at the tail end of last year, I didn’t have too much time to play it, but now, having played it for the past few weeks, I have been pretty obsessed with it.

At first, I wasn't sure whether or not I liked it. The fact that you could see the whole map from the start of each level, including all the enemies, bosses and chest locations pretty much took out the ‘exploration’ aspect. The other thing that appealed to me about the original games was that you could level up with EXP from defeating enemies and therefore grow stronger over time. That was gone as well. No EXP from enemies now.

It didn't take too long to finish all the levels and beat all the bosses, both on normal and hard mode. Gaining new weapons and equipment through both regular and boss chests meant that you could raise your stats without EXP - and also having other people play with you online to show you tactics and provide assistance in tougher boss battles made things easier. In fact you could probably get through it all in a couple of hours.

If you only played the game for the sake of clearing all the levels you would probably feel a little let down Рafter all, nearly all the enemies, abilities and graphics are recycled from previous games. The real game lies in the farming and the desire to collect. In the same vein as say, Pokémon, the addictive quality of the game (that exists to a degree in all Metroidvanias) is the irresistible urge to be a completist - whether its simply to get the best stats and equipment for just one character, to max out all characters, to collect all enemy souls and spells or even to go as far as to get everything possible in the game.

Now this isn’t as easy as it sounds as chance plays a big part in getting a hold of certain items – the best items usually only obtainable through rare boss chest drops on hard mode – so even if you do manage to kill the boss it's still quite a low probability that you will get the exact item you want. It’s kind of like gambling or playing the lottery - but without money being involved.

With the rarest items we are talking really low drop rates – only a few percent sometimes – which makes them even more coveted, the hunt more exciting and the reward more thrilling when you do finally manage to obtain that which you seek.

Here is an example of one player's reaction when he manages to snag a certain rare item.

So that's pretty much what I have been doing recently - trying to get all the best equipment for certain characters. Beating bosses repeatedly just to have another roll of the dice to see if the chest holds a rare item that I just plain need to further power up my character.

So for now, I’m addicted. There are a few more items I need to get and the urge to do just a couple more runs is ever present.

13 Feb 2012

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Tragedy of Ou Est Le Swimming Pool

I like listening to all kinds of music and enjoy the thrill of exploring and discovering new bands or artists, at times by perusing sites such as youtube or soundcloud. One band that I came across is the idiosyncratically named British synthpop group Ou Est Le Swimming Pool.

After listening to and enjoying one of their singles, The Key, I was surprised to find they only had one album released and were only active for a year. Further delving revealed a tragic tale involving the death of vocalist and frontman Charles Haddon - which abruptly ended the band’s career.

So what? – one might say, musicians die all the time. However, this particular scenario was especially saddening as not only was it revealed that Haddon’s death was a suicide, but also that the events leading up to it were particularly tragic.

After having read up on the facts that were widely reported at the time, the sequence of events is roughly as follows:

Just after the end of a performance on stage at Pukkelpop festival in Belgium on the 20th of August 2010, an over excited Haddon suddenly dived into the audience. Caught by surprise, most of the crowd in the vicinity instinctively moved away instead of catching him and he ended up severely injuring an unnamed young girl and causing a ‘near riot’.

“I’m sure he didn't mean to hurt anyone,” an eye witness was reported to have said, “The look in his eyes when he stood up and they pulled the girl from the ground was very scary.”

The view of the girl on the stretcher deeply effected Haddon and the performance was cut short - the band later reported to have a ‘furious argument’ backstage. The girl suffered injuries to her leg and four vertebrae and fearing that he may have crippled her for life, Haddon despaired and committed suicide a few hours later by jumping from a telecommunications mast in the backstage car park.

Two further points added to the tragedy of the events. Firstly, Charles Haddon was only 22 years old. Having previously supported for La Roux, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool were just starting to make it big and had a number of other festivals in Europe lined up as well as a tour of Australia. Secondly, despite her injuries, it was later revealed that the girl was likely to make ‘a full recovery’, but by then Haddon was already gone.

Some have called Haddon selfish, but even though we may understand the circumstances, it is hard to fully comprehend the feeling of being racked with guilt that he must felt at the time. It was also speculated that he may have already been suffering from depression at that time and that the incident simply spurred him on to take his own life.

The only album released by the band, entitled The Golden Year, was released posthumously - and listening to it with the knowledge of the aforementioned events adds to melancholic undertone of the songs (frequent lyrics about coping with loss being particularly poignant) despite their initially cheery synthpop presentation.

Of course, this is likely just the power of hindsight influencing our interpretation, but its hard not for me to feel a sense of sadness every time I listen to The Key. If you havent already, watch the video for it (made up of performance footage) and you will see what I mean – Haddon’s final bow being especially affecting – forever linked in my mind somehow to his tragic fate.

10 Feb 2012

Monday, 6 February 2012

Film Roundup January - Part 2

Part 2 of January’s Film Roundup!

Firstly we have the third in the series of Michael Bay Transformers films, Transformers: Dark of The Moon. Despite Bay’s insistence that each film will be a better than the last, alas we are treated to more of the same – all sound and fury with little substance.

Sure, the special effects are impressive - but the film lacks a cohesive story and character development, and is full of misjudged comedy – although the fate of the world is at stake we find ourselves just not caring if anyone lives or dies.

Many have criticised Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s performance but to be fair she isn’t given all that much to work with and really her lack of acting experience is the least of this mess of a film’s problems.

There is talk of making more Transformers films in the future – after all they are profitable at the box office. How about another animated Transformers film instead? With no silly humans getting in the way - switch it up a little.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have super low budget film The Devil’s Rock. This tale of Nazis dabbling with the occult during WW2 is largely confined to a single location with only four actors and yet manages to be entertaining through its mystery, tension and ‘battle of the wits’ interplay between the characters.

With good acting and make up effects this film was a pleasant surprise and although the budget constraints occasionally do show through, I would gladly watch films like this over the overblown Transformers films any day.

Matthew Sunderland’s performance as Colonel Klaus Meyer is a particular standout. If you like horror films then this one comes recommended.

Lastly we have I Am Number Four, based on the first entry in a series of best-selling teen books a la Twilight and The Hunger Games, and despite going in with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. As far as a teen movie goes, this film delivers – striking an odd balance of fitting all the familiar tropes of a the ‘teen’ film genre whilst at the same time being constantly surprising by bucking convention.

For example the film opens with a chase sequence, which despite the expected setup, ends in a brutally sudden fashion. When the main character is introduced having fun in a teen dream ‘paradise’ beach resort, this is promptly ditched for one of a very different kind – a rainy dull backwater town.

In a similar way, the lead actor (Brit Alex Pettyfer - grown up since Alex Rider: Stormbreaker), despite his handsome ruggedness displays a remarkable level of vulnerability.

The film also boasts strong action sequences and good support in the form of Timothy Olyphant (seemingly great in everything he is in - bar Hitman of course) and Teresa Palmer playing the badass chick to full effect as Number Six. Although the baddies may be slightly too pantomime for some, Kevin Durand is awesome as always and having a hoot (again!) under all that make-up.

Chances are that you probably wont enjoy I Am Number Four too much unless you are a fan of teen films – but if by chance you are then this one comes recommended.

6 Feb 2012

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Abandoned Places

As the Internet continues to expand every day like the unstoppable behemoth that it is, all kinds of interesting hobbies and niches reveal themselves.

The rise of sites such as tumblr has given blogging a new lease of life, and although most people who use it simply reblog other’s pictures, animated gifts and motivational messages to bolster their own identity with an asinine need to project their personality, some tumblr pages gain fans simply by being dedicated to ridiculously niche topics.

Fancy looking at a collection of photos of various Goths up trees? Then check out gothsuptrees.net. No really, it exists.

Some tumblr pages that I have come across, however, do hold a genuine interest for me. One such blog is Abandoned Places, which is dedicated to photos and descriptions of various abandoned buildings and sites throughout the world. As well as relatively famous places such as Pripyat in the Ukraine or the Japanese Gunkanjima, local places to the author or those submitted by readers are also included. Abandoned malls, theme parks, hotels and other living complexes all make an appearance – dilapidated, crumbling, rusted and reclaimed by nature.

Rather than being presented in a morbid or fetishistic way, there is a genuine human quality to the writer’s approach - a revered and respectful tone, occasionally tinged with sadness for things that once were. Many of the photographs displayed are hauntingly beautiful – one that springs to mind is the abandoned theme park of Takenouma Greenland - shrouded in mist, its rusted rollercoaster tracks spiralling off and disappearing amongst overgrown trees.

In a lot of the cases it is not just how the places currently look, but the stories behind them that are the most moving. Why were they abandoned? Sometimes it is a specific tragic event –such as a natural disaster or an accidental death having occurred at the site. Other times it is simply to do with the march of progress and down to economic factors that these places are left behind. In a few cases the reasons are entirely mysterious.

With many of these places still resembling how they once were due to the sudden departure of the occupants - various items strewn about can also infer their own stories – hinting at past lives.

It’s not merely the bricks and mortar of an abandoned place that evokes feelings in us, but it is the absence of people (in places where it appears there should be) -and it's that strange void that gives us a feeling of unease and melancholy.

Human loss is a powerful emotion and in many of these places the feeling of their abandonment is palpable simply by seeing that which is left behind.

Check out Abandoned Places on tumblr HERE.

1 Feb 2012