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Lifers - Channel 4

What a fascinating programme, particularly one man that struck me: David.  I am no psychologist (someone who engages in the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context) or psychiatrist (a medical practitioner specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness), but I did spot one pattern.  Most of the men discussing their crimes would "fast-forward" in their descriptions of the night of their murder(s).  They would describe what happened up to a certain point, but then would say something like "and then they were dead" or "and that's when I knew I'd murdered them."

But this one chap, David, was the one person would could more vividly describe what he'd done, saying (please excuse my paraphrasing) "I looked down at my forearms and could feel how tense they were, and that's when I looked down and saw I was strangling her." That imagining of your forearms engaging so tightly to apply a force really hit home.  He was able to look back and say that he had simply snapped and gone into a state of complete and utter irrational rage.

What was also quite interesting was that his daughters, both born of the woman he had murdered, have both forgiven him and visit him regularly.  He is also studying for an Art History degree.  The programme set him up as an "intellectual prisoner" describing that he'd previously worked as a Civil Servant for the MoD.

A shame 4oD doesn't last forever: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/lifers

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Watch Dogs @ E3 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcMRkyoHKeA

I cannot quite bring myself to believe that the recent debut of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs is an example of a "next-generation" game.  There are wildly speculative reports from places including Eurogamer.net that it will be a cross-console game, seeing release on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, plus their eventual successors, which some are suggesting will be revealed at E3 2013.

I really do not think Watch Dogs will be a cross-generation console release as it risks the general consumer failing to "spot the difference" between the same game on two consoles. I seem to remember looking at puzzlement at Need for Speed: Most Wanted which I'd just enjoyed on the PS2 yet it was an Xbox 360 launch title, then looking with incomprehension at Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter where a dreadful version was knocking around for the Xbox and PS2, yet it looked superb on the 360.

Ubisoft Montreal are a talented studio, being responsible for many high profile videogame entries in respected franchises, including Rainbow Six: Vegas, Far Cry 2 and Assassin's Creed.  They, like other key developer/publishers (DICE and EA, or Rockstar and Take-Two) can consistenly produce brilliant-looking games from console hardware within two years or less of the machine's release.  Thus, it would seem to me that journalists in some quarters are engaging in wishful thinking, willingly believing that new consoles are being deliberately held off just because it's difficult to let go of previous assumptions.  Each console cycle has often renewed itself every five years or so, give or take a handful of months, but I genuinely believe changes are afoot this time around.

What I'm trying to say in a very long-winded way is that it seems even more likely that the earliest MS or Sony release a new console will be late 2013 or even early 2014, and I agree with this. Strategically I believe both Sony and Microsoft will do everything they can to launch their next consoles within six months of one another, if not closer. This is based on the "death" of the original Xbox once the 360 rapidly approached shop shelves and the headstart it allowed Microsoft as Sony struggled to push the PS3 out of the gates.

All in all Watch Dogs would need to break entirely new ground and unveil itself as exclusive to a new console right now for maximum effectiveness. But that obviously relies on the hardware companies being ready to allow that. They aren't, and so I think it will stay as a brilliant example of a "last hurrah" for the 360 and PS3, rather than the beginnings of the next-generation.

Sources:
http://www.gamesradar.com/microsoft-says-xbox-360-has-more-two-years-left/
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-06-08-e3-reaction-the-next-generation-arrives-at-e3

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The Expendables

A fairly pleasant surprise, and particularly the scene featuring Stallone, Schwartzenegger and Willis, which I think can be classified within the top three scenes of the film.  The script made some good self-referential jokes and ensured it didn't take itself too seriously, which struck the correct kind of note and hearkened back to the classic action movies of the 80s that it was meant to.  The action scenes were generally well choreographed, with Statham and Li having some quite cracking action sequences.  I enjoyed the ride overall, although a few funnier one-liners would have been better, and quirkier catchphrases like "He's dead tired" or "Let off some steam, Bennett!" or any others that I can't remember right now.  Statham I think is the closest we have to a decent modern action hero but I haven't seen much outside of The Transporter.

My only minor gripe is that what used to be 80s slow motion has now become short, snappy, "fast-forward" sequences for showing driving or a car flipping over after an explosion.  That makes me feel old, as I feel like the rest of the audience is too impatient to sit through the other four or five seconds it would have taken to watch those sped up clips at normal speeds.

But yeah, here's hoping number 2 will be just as good.  Stallone is actually a halfway decent screenwriter.

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A lament for voice controls in video games

Once upon a time I played a few levels of Rainbow Six 3 on the original Xbox and was swiftly taken aback by the integration of the microphone headset in order to command your fellow squad-mates.  I couldn't quite believe that you could tell them where to move on the level, or that you could issue commands to breach rooms ahead to truly work as a unit under your command.  For me, it truly was a new era of video game immersion.

Fast forward almost a decade and I've never really experienced the same joy when it comes to console gaming.  I once even plugged my Xbox 360 headset into my controller in the vain hope that the radio messages in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare would be  relayed via the earpiece.  I was sorely disappointed.

With my knowledge of programming limited to BASIC, AMOS and C+ between the ages of eight and twelve, undoubtedly this is something I can moan about without knowing how difficult it must be to script AI that dynamically reacts to voice input, but then can return to its own routines.  But this issue struck me again recently because of two games.  And it struck me that the industry should still keep working on how audio is delivered, aside from how the player can use their own voice for interactivity.  The idea of voice control is coming back to the fore again with Kinect, and it now needs to be deployed as an "industry standard," like other gameplay mechanics this generation, such as regenerating health, or magical magnetic walls you can take cover behind.  So then, the two games...

First of all: the radio messages from your engineer in Formula 1 2010 (and now 2011, and soon 2012).  It seems odd that the option to hear these via a headset was not included as a quirky minor feature for whatever reason.  Side-stepping the idea of voice control for a moment, this headset delivery would be a step in the immersive direction for the player, despite it being a subtle one.  If the idea of voice control in addition to having audible engineer messages delivered through a headset were taken to its conclusion, then the interactivity of a game like F1 2010 would be heightened greatly.  The ability to request pit stops or check the status of, say, your brakes, engine or tyres would be fantastic.  Even better would be the ability to ask where certain drivers are in terms of their lap times or tyre wear to decide tactics on-the-fly.  Surely the quality of the finished product would be worth the pain and hassle of programming it?

Secondly has been the surprisingly good use of the Wii remote speaker for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.  Phone calls and eeries messages are relayed through its tinny, tiny speaker and adds to the overall creepiness of the game.  It all hearkens back to Eternal Darkness, where you feel you're being played by the game just as much as you're playing it.

It makes me despair that all I get from my headset are annoying teenagers in multiplayer matches either blasting loud music you cannot discern, or people doing nothing but "trash-talking" one another.  Why pack in headsets with your consoles, Sony and Microsoft, if we aren't going to see them used fully and extensively in single-player gaming experiences?

P.S. Two interesting sources I checked on whilst writing this - many thanks to Giant Bomb and Hardcore Gamer for recent highlights of games that do feature voice controls:

http://www.giantbomb.com/voice-commands/92-295/games/

http://www.hardcoregamer.com/2012/02/22/the-top-5-voice-controlled-games/

I
 think I might have to pick up Endwar at some point to see how that pans out.

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L.A. Noire

There are many things that Team Bondi's L.A. Noire does brilliantly - setting, audio and most of all, narrative.  Certainly, this doesn't rank as a literary giant and comes across as a by-the-numbers detective story, but its dedication to thrusting you into the genre and its use of a supporting cast as good as, dare I say it, the Half-Life series, goes some way towards proving that nobody publishes games like Rockstar.

Of course, there are many criticisms to make of the game...the city of Los Angeles is nowhere near the "standard" seen from other R* published titles such as the Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption or to a lesser extent, Bully (originally Canis Canem Edit).  The pedestrians don't have their own conversations it seems, and are content to drone on repetitively about your latest cracked case, in a rather Fable-esque manner which quickly gets tiresome.  The map, whilst impressive, is very much a backdrop for sightseeing, rather than any planned interactivity.  There were, for example, places I only walked into (bridges, some railway yards) after I'd finished the main story and had begun collection film reels as part of an Xbox 360 achievement.  Furthermore, I only entered the airport for the first time on a downloadable content case.  That is bananas! It seems as though Team Bondi didn't really take the time (or have the time) to flesh out their city, or really use the landmarks as fully as possible.  This makes the "drive-chase-search-question-shoot" mechanics of the game far more repetitive than they should be, but the genre of detective fiction helps vary the game's pace and greatly helps sustain interest despite the samey-ness of it all because you're meeting different people and solving different types of crime.

Characters are what makes this game stand out; Rusty Galloway being one of my favourites - constantly berating suspects and women that are no longer part of his life - one can see why.  The eventual development from surly elder within the Homicide department to joking confidant to Phelps is a generic one, but it matters.  It matters that a game that isn't an RPG is attempting serious character development, and that each character in L.A. Noire has real human flaws.  This has been done before with GTA and Red Dead but R* and their partner developers seem to be the only video game companies willing to make their products strive for better characterisation and dialogue that goes beyond cliche or addresses some of the social issues underlying the settings of their games: racism, sexism, class barriers, homophobia and so on.  Gears of War, Assassin's Creed and Fable (the first entries of each) were all so bland and predictable in their plots, which was frustrating; despite Assassin's Creed breaking new ground with science fiction, it still boiled down to a "one bad guy I have to kill" ending.

Dialogue that gives depth to characters is what made Gaz and Captain Price from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare so loved, before Infinity Ward turned them into generic Hollywood action heroes in the sequels, being wholly self-sacrificial with barely any of the British wit that defined them in CoD4.  I am aware I'm straying into the bounds of hypocrisy here by calling Call of Duty out for using stereotypical templates when L.A. Noire doesn't break the mould of the detective thriller in the Hollywood vein, but this is partly because in terms of narrative, video games are still definitely playing catch up with film, and literature.

What I am trying to say though, all of the niggling and moaning aside, is that I bloody love L.A. Noire and am keen to see the series develop further.  Whether Rockstar change the time and setting remains to be seen, but if the development time is shortened as I imagine it would be with a sequel, I'll be more than happy to jump straight on that particular bandwagon.

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Silent Hill 2

So, since I've been looking forward to replaying Silent Hill 2, I took a quick look on the GameFAQs PS2 SH2  message board and found that there has actually been a novelisation of the game.  It's fully covered (and partly-translated) on a Wiki: http://silenthill.wikia.com/wiki/Silent_Hill_2:_The_Novel
I do think that done well, Silent Hill 2 would be a cracking novel.  If only there was an easy way of getting hold of a print copy of an English translation...
I now realise that I haven't done very well with keeping up with the series; I tried playing Homecoming on the 360 and Origins on the PSP but only spent a couple of hours with each before getting bored or moving onto a different game.  I am sure that I will enjoy revisiting Silent Hills 2 and 3, even though I fundamentally disagree with calling this new release a "Silent Hill HD Collection" when it only includes 2 of the 4 mainstream releases from the previous console era.  I sure am looking forward to replaying #2 though, since it still stands as one of my favourite games of all time.  Roll on Friday!

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Half-Life 2: Episode 3

Now that the hype machine is generating excitement for the forthcoming release of Portal 2, my thoughts turn once again to the next Half-Life game.

Ever since Portal was given a backstory, the two corporations of Black Mesa and Aperture Science have been coming closer to collision. The endings of both Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode 2 confirm this fact. So then, I propose the next logical step for Episode 3...

Gordan Freeman will travel to the Aperture Science research vessel mentioned at the end of Episode 2 (Borealis) and there find or acquire a version of the Portal gun from its namesake series. Allow me to explain in greater detail.

Valve as a company always seem to follow a design philosophy which emphasises tangible change during games (or sequels). Thus, their games always work hard to introduce new concepts in terms of gameplay, weapon and environmental design carefully to the player. The best example for my argument here is the alteration of the gravity gun towards the end of Half-Life 2. Enabling it as a better offensive weapon overall gives the player greater freedom about their approach to firefights and the navigation of levels. The tutorial for the portal gun also works in the same way, albeit more rapidly, going from the blue to orange portal functions.

To attempt to take a metaphorical step back from the games, it would appear that scientists from both Black Mesa and Aperture Science were developing similar technologies with both guns. It would make sense to assume then, that in Half-Life 2: Episode 3, an anomaly might alter the gravity gun into a portal gun. This will finally segue both series' plots and weapon designs together.

The thought of each fictional universe coming together to create an excellent final instalment to the Half-Life 2 trilogy is incredibly exciting, which perhaps explains the ridiculous length of time between the release of HL2: Episode 2 (2007) and the creation of Episode 3. As of April 2011, there are only two credible news stories I was able to find on the game, and even then they both suggest the game is still in early stages of production. See below for the links.

And as a final, stupifyingly obvious aside for this Half-Life/Portal gun argument, why else would the colours of the gravity gun exactly match the portal gun?

GamesRadar.com article on concept art for Half-Life 2: Episode 3, published July 10th 2008. Auth: Logan Decker.

http://www.gamesradar.com/pc/half-life-2-episode-three/preview/the-first-concept-art-from-half-life-2-episode-three/a-20080710155756131049/g-20080710154921839018

MTV news article, based on interviews with company chief Gabe Newell, published 26th March 2010. Auth: Brian Warmoth.

http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2010/03/26/valve-wants-their-next-half-life-to-scare-you/

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Cormac McCarthy's The Road

 Blown away by the film adaptation.  What a beautifully terrifying piece of cinema.  Why did I put off watching it?

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Call of Duty: Black Ops

Initial disclaimer: my observations are based only on some five hours of playing, divided between the single-player campaign and the multiplayer games.

I am getting quite disheartened that none of the campaign missions for Black Ops will reach the giddy heights of those in CoD4: Modern Warfare.  Advertising itself as a game where the player can experience secretive missions conducted (in part) by some CIA-directed unit across the globe, none of the missions I've played so far have the stage presence of those I can recall from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (herein MW).  Two missions that stand out in my mind from this game's predecessor are Blackout, where you stalk through to a mountain village in Russia in order to rescue an informant on behalf of the S.A.S., and All Ghillied Up, where you hunt for a target to snipe in Chernobyl.  Those missions had a constant sense of daring, and importantly, loneliness.

There are a few key reasons for the disappointment I feel.

One is the way Treyarch have decided to deliver the narrative.  There are annoying points during certain missions where they metaphorically reach into the game and press the fast-forward button.  The player is dragged out of their mission, shown a mish-mash of cut scenes or screenshots with some angry voiceover work, then rather ungraciously deposited somewhere further downstream in the same mission.  It really breaks the flow of play and enjoyment, and deliberately disorients the player's overarching knowledge of the narrative.  I am all for disjointed narratives and experimentation with structure, but this is does not deliver with the finesse of something like Assassin's Creed.

Another irritation is linked to the apparent disconnect between the aforementioned advertising and the types of missions the player is required to carry out.  This is not solely Treyarch's fault.  Prison break missions seem to be becoming common since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but they are overblown, all guns blazing action, not stealth-based critical missions.  It is as though the developers (both Infinity Ward and Treyarch) now neglect the imperative behind missions and simply focus on making missions chock-full of relentless action.  This is highly detrimental to the overall feel of the games in question.

The first few missions of Black Ops are supposed to be assassination missions, but there is no sense of secrecy or silence that exists with similar missions from MW.  There is no stalking, no silenced weaponry, and early on you are ludicrously fast-forwarded from being in a nearby town escaping the police/military to work towards the assassination target and their compound, into suddenly being up in the hills, overseeing the place, one zipline away from the side door.  It all seems as though you're being directed not with gentle nudges and prods, but with shoves and sledgehammers.

That above example, and others like it, are essentially, is my main gripes with the game so far.  After all, what is the point of a game based on Black Ops when there is no secrecy?

Perhaps I shall find the drive to continue this later.  For now, I finish.

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Escape from New York

 My my, what a delight.  I wasn't actually put off by any of the 1980s computer graphic sequences, nor the obviously fake glider shots.  All in all that was quite a watchable film, if for nothing else than set design and eerie synth soundtrack, which made things better rather than worse.  Reminded me of Blade Runner in a positive way.  I wonder now how old Kurt Russell was when that was filmed.

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