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30 Days of Video-games - Day 29 - The Best Voice Acting

There are a lot of games out there with absolutely superb voice acting, more so in recent history with the combination of studios realising that they need decent actors to properly portray a character instead of just sticking the programmers voice in as a stop-gap which never actually gets addressed AND actors finally starting to realise that it can be just as rewarding to lend their voice (and increasingly their likenesses) to a game as it can be in a TV show or movie.

I could list dozens of games, or gaming franchises, which have seem to have reached that conclusion and perfected the marriage of an actor’s performance with great game design - the Uncharted series, Red Dead Redemption (and just about everything else from Rockstar Studios too) and I defy anyone to claim that Portal's voice work wasn't absolutely wonderful. Even the indie game scene has started producing some amazing voice acting with titles like Bastion or Thomas Was Alone knocking the whole ‘narration’ gig right out of the park.

But the pair of games I specifically want to talk about this time around are the Batman: Arkham Asylum / City games from Rocksteady Studios.

These two games are widely regarded as not only the best Batman games ever made but also the best superhero games ever made in general. Everything from their slightly exaggerated comic-influenced art style to the strong, well-written narrative and wonderfully crafted game play has already had just about every gamer on the internet raving about these titles for a few years now.

Rocksteady spared almost no expense when they tried to craft a truly immersive Batman game, where they managed to create the sense that the player was actually playing as the Dark Knight himself and not some wimpy wannabe. A large part of this success was due to one thing which most other Batman games completely overlooked - the actors. 

As most fans of Batman will tell you, for a number of years now, there have only been two people who could be Batman and The Joker - Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill respectively based on their work in the Batman: The Animated Series TV show starting back in the early nineties. Rocksteady approached the making of the two Arkham games with only these two actors in mind to reprise their roles (and if memory serves me, they used a lot of the cast for the Animated Series in the games where they could too).

While the casting of the principle actors gains Rocksteady a lot of credit with their audience but where they really went above and beyond was in all the incidental details - the voice acting recorded for the henchmen and other NPCs in the game has had frankly an amazing level of detail paid to it.

During my entire time with the games, I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear a single line of dialogue repeated by any of the NPCs, apart from things like the stock standard cries of “IT’S BATMAN!” once they became aware of my presence or “WHERE’D HE GO?!” if I succeeded at breaking their lines of sight. I was also impressed by the fact that the henchmen have entire, coherent conversations recorded which I also never heard repeats of. I was particularly impressed by the fact that, if I could resist the urge to swoop in and just start kicking the ever-loving shit out of them right away, I could sit in the shadows and listen to these blue collar thugs and learn a surprising amount about the events of the game from someone who wasn’t a major player in the story but rather just another piece on the board.

It also became second nature (particularly in Arkham City) for me to pay attention to what goons were saying when they thought it was just their friends listening. I gained quite a few valuable tidbits from eavesdropping, like overhearing some of Penguin’s gang talking about how he was keeping “some sort of monster” in the museum. Knowing that (and knowing that Rocksteady wouldn’t have bothered putting that in if it wasn’t relevant in some way) kept me from absolutely shitting myself when I was attacked by the giant fucking shark in one of the rooms. (And while I’m pretty sure that dialogue was supposed to be a reference to Solomon Grundy,  which means it functioned as a double warning , at least for me personally).

Rocksteady did such a fantastic job with every aspect of these two games that it’s genuinely hard to imagine any other studio doing nearly as good a job at it. And based solely on the quality of their voice work (let alone, the rest of their laudable skill sets), I’ll be very interested in their future projects.

Filed under 30 Days of Video-games video games Batman Batman: Arkham Asylum Batman Arkham City voice acting acting Kevin Conroy Mark Hamill Rocksteady Studios The Joker Uncharted Red Dead Redemption Portal Bastion Thomas Was Alone Day 29 Best Voice Acting

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Thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 photo ca550e9a-997c-4699-b8ea-3f04c26f5a22_zps68e25b1f.jpgThis was one of the games I was avidly following the development of before I went through a two year gaming fast (otherwise known as Travelling Through Europe). It was also the only game that I genuinely considered purchasing in the UK and posting home to Australia, so describing it as one of my most anticipated games of recent years isn’t hyperbolic of me in anyway.

I’m still technically playing it as I writing this post (well not  literally simultaneously, shut up) so my opinions could change wildly once the credits have finished rolling, but I think that’s highly unlikely since it checks a lot of my favourite things off the ever-present list of Stuff I Like.

Set in a cyber-punk (check) future where technology has progressed to the point where people can voluntarily ‘upgrade’ their bodies (check) with everything from neural implants to help a pilot fly better to robot arms (check) with retractable sword blades in them (and super ultra-check!) and beyond. Of course, the operations aren’t cheap and being Augmented means being on a drug called Neuropozyne for the rest of your life in order to prevent the body from rejecting the technology.

When terrorists attack Sarif Industries, their head of security, Adam Jensen, is nearly killed. In order to save his life, Adam is Augmented on the operating table without his consent, leaving him “more machine than man” and questioning exactly what it is that makes someone “human”.

I really like the game; I like the themes and the presentation and I like the way it presents stealth game-play (more so since I’ve reached the point where I’m Augmented enough to be the predator in most situations rather than the prey) but, if I’m completely honest, it’s kind of a let down.

Leading up to its release, Human Revolution promised a choose-your-path kind of game – guns blazing, son of Rambo and Robocop, non-lethal ghosting-through-levels and everything in between. Which sound incredibly fun. In practise however, Human Revolution is a stealth game – the majority of the Augmentations available to Jensen are stealth-related: invisibility, sound-dampening etc. The game itself even advises against engaging enemies directly, suggestion either avoiding confrontation all together or finding opportunity to attack from the shadows.

That’s cool, I usually go for the stealthy approach anyway. That’s just how I roll. And then I got to the boss fights, which are uniformly combat-orientated and don’t allow any consideration for an Adam Jensen who is non-lethal, stealth-oriented and DOESN’T HAVE A GUN IN HIS FUCKING INVENTORY!

The first boss was bad enough, I had to resort to chucking the conveniently placed explosive barrels at him until he died, but the second boss? The only reason I got through that encounter was because I’d invested points in the Augmentation which turns Adam into a living shrapnel bomb. And the only reason I did that was because I remembered all the bitching about the bosses on the internet and figured there was a better-than-even chance I’d need it at some point.

The other thing that is different to how the game was marketed is the world itself. Over the course of the game, Jensen travels to three separate cities – Detroit, Hengsha and Montreal – which function as hubs where you can undertake side quests alongside the story missions. That’s cool, I like that way of doing things. What bothered me is that all three of the cities feel incredibly small, and aside from one or two side quests each, there’s nothing to do in them.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually refreshing to play a game without collectables but it feels strange to have “hidden areas” (with an accompanying XP reward for finding them) that serve no in-game purpose. If I’m honest, this is more motivating for me than if there were 100 fiddley trinkets scattered for Jensen to collect, simply because every time I’m faced with that sort of task, I know before I start that I’m not going to find them all. Whereas Human Revolution rewards me for simply exploring and I want as much XP as I can get because I want as many Augmentations as I can get.

On the writing side of things, it’s clichéd as all get out – it’s got the gruff ex-cop in a trench coat that every Noir story features; it’s got the flesh vs machine ethical/philosophical debate from every cyberpunk story ever and a set of global conspiracies that would make Robert Ludlum blush. And frankly, I’ll be more surprised if some of the plot ‘twists’ I’m expected don’t play out the way they so obviously will.

But, for all that, I still like it as a game and I don’t regret purchasing it at all. However, I am glad I didn’t get around to buying that £90 collector’s edition I had my eye on back in London.

Filed under Deus Ex Deus Ex Human Revolution Human Revolution gaming videogames cyberpunk review Adam Jensen Augmentation stealth

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Thoughts on The Wrong Goodbye by Chris F. Holm

Another day, another review. And at this rate I’m going to have to change my blog title from “Reviewer” to “Angry Robot (& Imprints) Reviewer”. Long time readers may also recognise the name of the author I’m reviewing too – I reviewed his debut novel a few months back and absolutely raved about it. Now it’s time for round two with The Wrong Goodbye by Chris F Holm.

Meet Sam Thornton, Collector of Souls.

Because of his efforts to avert the Apocalypse, Sam Thornton has been given a second chance – provided he can stick to the straight-and-narrow.

Which sounds all well and good, but when the soul Sam’s sent to collect goes missing, Sam finds himself off the straight-and-narrow pretty quick.

Right up front, let’s be clear. I’m going to make so (a lot) of references to both the first book in The Collector series (Dead Harvest) and my subsequent review of it so if you haven’t read it (the book, shame on you!) or it (my review, eh) then just nod along and make non-committal noises every so often. For those who have read it (the book, you have damn fine taste in books) or it (my review, yay I have readers!) then I have good news and bad news.

The good news is – Sam’s back.

The bad news is – I don’t know how he’s managed it but he’s even more fucked than last time. (Which is really just good news for the reader, isn’t it?).

Chris has taken the Rule of Successful Sequels (Do what you did last time but do it better) and applied it so thoroughly I’m surprised he didn’t just call the book Chris F. Holm Punches All Other Noir Writers In The Nuts. Again.

Sam is such a great character, fitting the Noir genre to such a degree that I have no hesitation in saying he’s up there with classic characters like The Saint or Dick Tracy. Although to be honest, I’m a youngin’ and my frame of reference isn’t limited to the old pulp stories (and comics) but things like film and TV and videogames. The character Sam most reminds me of is Max Payne and what’s more, I think he’s every bit the standard bearer for the modern genre that Max and L.A. Noire’s Cole Phelps are.

However great a character (or an idea) might be, they’re only ever as good as the person behind the words can make them seem. And with that in mind, I genuinely think Chris is one of the best writers in the Urban Fantasy (or Fantastical Noir as he dubs his mash-up of genres) market at the moment.

Every genre has it’s clichés and conventions – fantasy has magic; spy thrillers have a global conspiracy and westerns usually involve horses and guns. This isn’t a complaint, but an observation. These are things that  fans of a genre have come to expect in form of another and they’re things that we enjoy to a certain extent. What differentiates the good from the bad (and the just plain ugly) is how they’re used.

A lot of the genre staples for both Noir and Urban Fantasy are present in The Wrong Goodbye but their presence only becomes apparent after all the facts are known and the story has been told. And that’s all down to Chris’s skill as a writer.

Back in the Dead Harvest review I said that Chris was close to knocking Jim Butcher off of the top of my favourite Urban Fantasy authors list but that I was waiting for a pedigree to be established. That pedigree has now been established with The Wrong Goodbye and with only his second published novel, Chris has become one of the authors I genuinely admire.

You know what? Forget “Angry Robot (& Imprints) Reviewer”, let’s cut to the chase and change it straight to “Chris F. Holm. Fanboy”.

Filed under Angry Robot Books angry robot books book review review noir urban fantasy fantastical noir Sam Thornton The Collector Series Chris F. Holm Jim Butcher damned souls heaven hell gangsters appocalypse

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Thoughts on Shift by Kim Curran

What’s this? Another review so soon? Well, yes, I’ve been a bit lax over the last few months regarding my reviews due to near constant travel. However, after being bitten by the Strange Chemistry bug with my first review for them, I’ve thrown myself right into another of their titles – Shift by Kim Curran.

When average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made. At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed. In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.

There are books that I liked while reading and there are books that I loved while reading (there are also books that I hated while reading, but generally we don’t speak of those one). Of those two categories, there are books that I have to get used and others that have me hooked after a chapter of so. Shift is one of the latter.

Kim demonstrates an amazing level of talent in her debut novel – the voice is strong, consistent and impressively well constructed; the pace is taut and never loses its focus for one second and the plot has nothing unnecessary in it for the entirety of its 294 page length.

Forgive me the pretentious writerly praise there, sometimes my own writing course rears it’s ugly head in my analysis of a book. In this case though, I feel it’s worthwhile – I spent twelve months in a Young Adult class, surrounded by other writers grappling with learning the genre and I’m pretty sure Shift is the novel we were all trying to write.

I started reading Shift about half-past nine on Sunday night and by early Monday afternoon, I’d finished it. I hadn’t even had time to finish reading the acknowledgements page before one of my friends had snatched it away from me and started reading it herself.

There are few books that I read and genuinely want to see made into a TV show or movie but Shift is definitely one of them.

Kim mentioned on Twitter that there the second novel (Control) is already being edited and that she’s working on the third (Delete) in the trilogy now, which is good because I’m not sure I can wait too long for more of this world and these characters. And while I usually prefer not to have to wait for a series to be finished before starting it, Shift manages to work as a standalone novel as well. This is literally a book I can’t fault.

The only thing I would change about Shift , if I were a Shifter myself, is that I’d have picked it up and read it much sooner. Kim Curran is another author I need to keep an eye on and Strange Chemistry continues to be one of the most exciting new publishers in the marketplace. 

Filed under Strange Chemistry Kim Curran book review review Young Adult science fiction sci fi fantasy Shift Shifter choice consequences government agencies

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Thoughts on Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard

Regular readers will know that I’m a reviewer for Angry Robot Books, a relatively small publisher dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. Over the last few months, the team over at the Angry Robot offices have created and launched Strange Chemistry, an imprint dedicated to Young Adult novels, and they asked members of the Robot Army to become Strange Chemists if they were interested (and by god, you all have no idea how much both of those titles please me).

I’ve finally managed to get onto reviewing one of Strange Chemistry’s first four novels – Katya’s World by Jonathan L. Howard.

The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea.

There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however;  Katya Kuriakova will soon encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges.

For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.

Science fiction is something that I don’t get to read a whole lot of, but it is something that I enjoy. Similarly, I haven’t gotten to read much of Jonathan L. Howard’s backlog, just the first Johannes Cabal novel, but I’ve seen enough of his writing to say that I enjoy it too.

The world building demonstrated here is superb – by the end of the prologue, I understood everything about Russalka that I needed to for the story to progress at it’s (surprisingly) rapid pace without ever leaving me confused as to how or why something was happening. The same can be said for the characterisation – every character is a believable product of their world and a genuine, flawed, personality.

As with all the best writing, there are no black and white, cardboard cut-outs here. Everyone has a constantly shifting net of motivations for their thoughts and actions and this meant that I found myself constantly changing which faction I wanted to see come out victorious.

The only criticism I could level at Katya’s World is a relatively small one – Katya herself feels a little inconsistent in terms of her age. At several points, she is described as being twelve years old but reads more like a mature fourteen. It’s far from a story-breaking problem but it is still a little jarring.

After reading Johannes Cabal, I thought Howard was a decent writer but not someone that I needed to keep a close eye on. Katya’s World has changed that. As a follow up novel (meaning the second novel from an author that I’ve read, not their second published novel), there is a major leap in quality of writing and is most definitely a trilogy that I want to see the end of.

Katya’s World is also a pretty amazing “first” novel from Strange Chemistry as a publisher. They’ve managed to set the quality bar really high with their first release but they’ve also made me very excited to see what they come out with next.

Filed under Strange Chemistry Angry Robot Books Katya's World Jonathan L. Howard science fiction sci fi Russalka

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Thoughts on The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

I’ve spent the last few months firmly ensnared by the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft but, now that I’ve successfully managed to extract myself from that Cyclopean task, it’s time to get back into the Angry Robot swing of things with a modern novel – The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp.

Kill the demon.
Steal the treasure.
Retire to a life of luxury.

Sounds easy when you put it like that.

Unfortunately for Egil and Nix, when the demon they kill has friends in high places, retirement is not an option
.

Whenever I pick up a new book after spending so long reading something markedly different, I always try to go in with my expectations as low as I can intentionally get them – to prevent my opinion being negatively influenced by the sudden changes in tone, style and subject matter. So imagine my surprise when I picked up The Hammer and the Blade and Paul S. Kemp had me utterly hooked with-in the first ten pages.

After reading Lovecraft (who is a stolid, slow-burning tension kind of writer who waits until nearly the very end of a story for his twists and big reveals to come out), Paul’s story feels like it absolutely blazes along with twists and double crosses and new developments coming two or three to a chapter.

Paul plays with both the conventions and the clichés of the genre in a manner indicative of someone who is intimately familiar with them but at the same time aware of their inherent limitations.

Combining the ability to create entertaining characters, a vibrant world and the talent to distinguish “humorous dialogue” from “humorous writing, The Hammer and the Blade manages to be a epic fantasy novel which is genuinely worthy of being called a “romp”.

Very highly recommended to all well-written fantasy fans but with one warning attached - expect to lose two or three days of your free time to this book (and if you’re anything like me, several hours when you’re supposed to be working).

Filed under Angry Robot Books angry robot Paul S. Kemp fantasy thief priest demons traps tomb robbing

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Editorial - Beyond: Two Souls vs The Last of Us

Two of my favourite games studios have recently announced totally new intellectual properties (IPs) which seem indelibly linked to each other. The first is Quantic Dreams Beyond: Two Souls while the second is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

These two games are almost inseparable from each other to me, and seemingly to the wider gaming press as well – whenever a games magazine or website has an article about one, it seems mention of the other isn’t far behind. As an example, last month’s issues of Edge featured a close-up of Jodie from Beyond while competitor gamesTM  had Ellie from The Last of Us leaping into action.

I genuinely don’t understand why they seemed to be paired together, aside from being announced around the same time (and both being PS3 exclusives, I think), they don’t have anything in common. In terms of plot, Beyond is a supernatural thriller involving ghosts (at the least) while The Last of Us is a gritty, realistic look at survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The only real connection these games share seems to be Ellen Page, and even that’s not entirely accurate.

When The Last of Us first appeared, the young female protagonist, Ellie, bore a striking resemblance to Ellen Page (and the similarity in name didn’t slip my notice either). Then Beyond debuted with another eerily similar looking character model for it’s young female protagonist, Jodie, but with the kicker that Ellen was actually providing the voice and motion-captured performance for Jodie.

Of course the newest footage for The Last of Us shows a significantly changed Ellie – a bit younger, less Ellen Page-y (although the similarity is still there as far as I’m concerned) so the unintentional link between these two titles should have vanished. But it hasn’t.

It’s strange. I’m a fan of both Quantic Dreams and Naughty DogHeavy Rain was a game I bought out of curiosity and which was probably my surprise release of that year and I’ve loved everything from Crash Bandicoot to Jak and Dexter to Uncharted and yet I find I’m drawn Beyond more than The Last of Us.

I think this reversal of pedigree (surely the game studio who has made a minimum of nine games which I’ve enjoyed should be more likely to present me with another ‘want to play’ title than the studio who has only produced one?) is down to Beyond feeling more ‘game-y’ than The Last of Us. While I think the supernatural aspect helps Beyond feel more like something I want to play, it’s not the main reason.

It’s actually something that comes up a lot in discussions about video games, or rather discussions about video game content: violence. Violence is an inherent part of games going all the way back to Pac Man and Space Invaders and usually I come down on the Pro-Violence side (for lack of a better term) of the argument; I can play just about any violent video game you care to name for hours on end then put the controller down and resume my normal life like a functional human being without any problem whatsoever.

In Beyond, the violence is the typical game stuff – press the buttons and make the ghost smash up the place. But in The Last of Us, the violence is much more visceral and confronting. There are no supernatural beasties or waves of stupid goons to gun down with a witty quip. It’s just you, desperate to protect a young girl and survive yourself in a world which has gone to shit. And yet, for some reason that I can’t quite define, I find The Last of Us much more affecting than I usually would. I find the brutality on offer here to be morally upsetting even though (or possible because) I because that, in a real life situation like the end of civilisation, humans would descend to exactly the same level of brutality that Joel and the enemy humans do.

Maybe that’s all there is to it, maybe I prefer Beyond because I can distance myself from the action – the trailer shows Jodie smashing the ever-loving shit out of an entire SWAT team with supernatural powers – in a way that I can’t with The Last of Us. Joel and Ellie undertake actions in the name of survival that, if push came to shove, I could emulate.

It’s actually kind of ironic that I feel this way because David Cage, head honcho at Quantic Dreams has explicitly stated that his goal for Beyond is to focus on character and emotion and story in a bid to make the player actually feel a deeper connection with Jodie. (However, considering that he tried to call Heavy Rain an ‘interactive drama’ instead of a ‘game’, perhaps the level of failed pretension isn’t all that surprising). While Naughty Dog have never claimed to be making anything except a maturely themed video game.

I play games for light entertainment and yet complain that there’s little actual maturity in those very same. While Beyond: Two Souls appeals to me more as an example of the former, perhaps I owe it to myself to pick up The Last of Us as a pretty good example of the latter.

Filed under Beyond: Two Souls The Last of Us Ellen Page videogames video game trailers editorial comparrison naughty dog quantic dream Edge Magazine Edge GamesTM journalism PS3 x-box X-Box 360 violence heavy rain Crash Bandicoot Jak and Dexter Uncharted David Cage.

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Thoughts on Breath of Death VII: The Beginning

It’s been a while since I’ve written a game review. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game enough to feel comfortable reviewing it to be perfect honest. But over the last couple of days, I’ve finished my first run through of Zeboyd Games retro RPG Breath of Death VII: The Beginning.

Now, first thing’s first – despite the name, BoD7tB is a standalone title and there are no other Breath of Death games … or if there are, they’re completely unrelated. What BoD7tB is, on the other hand, is a retro-style RPG which acts as a passionate love letter to all the classic games that adult gamers grew up with – Fallout, Earthbound, Warsong, Wasteland, Resident Evil, Pokemon, Castlevania, Legend of Zelda, Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy, Megaman and Super Mario Brothers. There were even nods to Mass Effect and The Simpsons tossed in there for good measure.

Surprisingly thought, BoD7tB also manages to be a pretty decent game in it’s own right, which is incredibly rare. Most games which wear their inspirations so openly on their sleeves tend to get so caught up in saying “Look at how many cool things I know about, aren’t I clever for knowing about them?” that they forget that they need to make their own game worth playing too.

While BoD7tB isn’t the most in-depth game ever created – there’s almost no actual story beyond some basic world building – and the running time is far shorter than almost any other good RPG – I completed the game in a little under 8 hours, including getting lost for ages in the final dungeon – it still managed to be a very fun, impressively well-made game that rekindled my interest in retro-style RPGs. Also, the condensed play time meant that BoD7tB was able to fit in around my life in a way that most RPGs simply can’t.

This is also the game which got me into PC gaming in any meaningful way, ever (playing single player Starcraft with cheats as a kid notwithstanding). Before I picked this up, PC games were the realm of gamers who actually thought that playing with a keyboard and mouse is preferable to a gamepad (I disagree and am still unapologetically a console gamer). Now however , I spend a good few hours a week browsing through Steam, looking for more titles to add to my radically expanding wishlist and collection. But my newfound love of Steam is a whole other post, suffice to say that I wouldn’t be on there at all if it weren’t for BoD7tB.

Usually I finish these reviews off by saying “If you like X then you’ll probably enjoy Y” but for Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, that would be doing it a disservice.

While it’s true that fans of retro RPGs will enjoy this, considering the insanely cheap price (it’s undiscounted price on Steam is £1.99) and the fact that it’s bundled with Zeboyd Games’ next game, Cthulhu Saves The World, even people who only have a passing interest in the genre would be silly to not have a look at this game.

Filed under review videogame review videogame pc game rpg retro Breath of Death VII: The Beginning Zeboyd Games BoD7tB Steam Cthulhu Saves The World

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Editorial - E3 2012

I’ll get this out of the way right at the beginning – this post is based entirely on the information from the conferences of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. This is not comprehensive and doesn’t reflect information released by specific developers or in the other presentations given over the course of E3.

Microsoft .

There was almost nothing exciting offered except for fourth or fifth sequels to franchises or the standard release of a yearly title. They opened with footage of Halo 4 and closed with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. In between those two titles, they revealed Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Fifa 13, Madden 13, Fable: The Journey, Gears of War 4, Forza 4 and then it was on to firmware updates, including the announcement that Internet Explorer was coming to Xbox.

They did talk about their new Smart Glass, which was interesting but I’m not sure how much it’ll actually get used by anyone except for the rabid tech geeks.

Also, any hope that Kinect was on it’s way out was summarily crushed since every demo used it in one way or another. Which was disheartening. The only function I was mildly interested in was using voice controls to attract the attention of enemies in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, although I think Mac Hall already highlighted the potential issue with that back in 2005.

Highlights –

  • ·         Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
  • ·         Obsidian is developing the South Park RPG.
  • ·         Smart glass.

Lowlights –

  • ·         Kinect for ALL the games.
  • ·         Halo 4 / Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
  • ·         Internet Explorer for Xbox.

Sony.

Right from the start, Sony’s presentation felt much more polished than Microsoft’s. Probably to do with the fact that they’re not changing hosts ever couple of minutes and the complete lack of dudebro fake enthusiasm.

Nice reveal of new IP right off the bat with Quantic Dream’s Beyond before bringing in a couple of heavy hitting franchises in Assassin’s Creed 3 and Farcry 3. There was a bit of Vita stuff thrown into the mix, including an Assassin’s Creed title with a female lead that I really want in on and the PS1 ‘classics’ range being downloadable titles. Then the Move got it’s obligatory time slot which was more gimmickry. They washed the taste of Move out quite effectively with another franchise sequel, God of War: Ascension (which I didn’t realise was coming to the PS3 at all) and wrapping up with more new IP in the form of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.

All in all, Sony’s presentation was much better than Microsoft’s – more coherent, equal focus on new and existing IP along with brief mentions for both Vita and Move. The presentation also felt like it was aimed at the ‘core’ demographic, without once descending into condescension.

Highlights –

  • ·         Assassin’s Creed 3 gameplay / trailer.
  • ·         Beyond tailer.
  • ·         General delivery.

Lowlights –

  • ·         Move’s continued gimmickry.
  • ·         Reveal of a female Assassin for a platform I don’t own.

Nintendo.

Another good presentation, although they’re very clearly still aiming squarely at the family games market. This was easily the most ‘fun’ of the three presentations.

A good opening , with a focus on the WiiU and what looks to be a Mario launch title. That alone is gonna get launch sales. They brought out a great range of titles, including a surprising amount of attention for the ‘core’ audience, which they’ve been neglecting almost entirely for the current generation of consoles. Almost all of the core titles are ports – Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 among the titles – but it’s not the titles that is exciting, it’s the fact that the WiiU will be able to handle them that is enticing.

The new IP looks great – LEGO City: Undercover, ZombiU and Avengers: Battle for Earth all look like the sort of high quality third party titles that the Wii has been sorely lacking. (And honestly, I’m so excited for LEGO City: Undercover, that I might buy the console just for it).

I’m surprised that they didn’t mention the new controller that’s been revealed across the web; that seems like something that could have only helped strengthen their renewed appeal to ‘core’ gamers. I was also surprised at just how much of Nintendo’s announcements were interesting / relevant to me and how genuinely enthusiastic they all seemed.

Highlights –

  • ·         LEGO City: Undercover.
  • ·         Harley Quinn’s interruption of the conference.
  • ·         The banter between presenters.

Lowlights –

  • ·         Mentioning features that “might not be available at launch”, you guys did that for the 3DS and we’re still waiting for some of those to rock up.
  • ·         Continued appearance of motion-controlled party games.

After watching all through console developers’ conferences, it’s pretty clear who ‘won’ this E3 -

Sony, simply for having the most information that was relevant to me and for being the most professional in their conduct. Coming in second was Nintendo who managed to become relevant to me again by making a concentrated effort to appeal to the ‘core’ audience who have been waiting for a reason to love them again. And in last place is Microsoft with their continuing focus on alienating their entire install base though a combination of stagnating ideas, insisting on Kinect as a part of every game and a general attitude of dudebro douchebaggery.

Filed under E3 videogames games Electronic Entertainment Expo Microsoft Sony Nintendo editorial

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Thoughts on Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World: Revolution by Matt Forbeck

I haven’t picked up my pen to write a review for an unreasonably long time, so bear with me while I get back into the swing of things.

I’m writing this review for an entirely different reason than I usually have: regular readers will know that I don’t keep up with release schedules in regards to what I’m reviewing. I talk about whatever I want to, whenever I want to based entirely on what happens to be interesting to me at the time. This review on the other hand is being written not at my whim but at the request of Matt Forbeck himself (probably because I’ve reviewed him quite well three times previously).

It’s 1999 and not only do superheroes (called ‘Deltas’ in this world) exist, but they’re a fully functioning part of the U.S Government under the Delta Prime law enforcement agency. Former ‘Primer’ agent John ‘Patriot’ Cruise has gone rogue and is leader of the rebel superhero movement, Defiance. While trying to rescue a girl from Delta Prime’s ‘recruitment’, Patriot is captured by the agency he used to work for. Desperate to rescue their leader, Defiance put their most dangerous plan into motion - a direct assault on the Delta prison site, New Alcatraz.

The Brave New World trilogy (Revolution is the first book) is based on a tabletop role-playing game of the same name (which is sadly no longer being produced). It’s also the very first book in Matt’s wildly ambitious 12 for Twelve project where he’s challenged himself to write 12 novels in 2012, using Kickstarter drives to fund each of the four planned trilogies. I mention this only to provide context for the following comments.

BNW: Revolution is one of the best short novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading - prior to picking up the book, I’d never heard of the game or the setting but I was hooked right from the very beginning. Due in no small part to the inherent limitations of writing a novel in a month, BNW: Revolution moves at a blistering pace, jumping from set up to (what I’m coming to think of as his trademark) open ending without any unnecessary prose allowed to survive.

I’ll admit that there were times where I wished for a little more character building or some deeper explanations of plot points but only because I was enjoying the ride too much. If I’m honest, Matt could have given me another twenty thousand words worth of prose and I’d still ask for more.

While the novel was perhaps a little rougher than his other works, Matt’s obvious passion for both the story and the setting shines through (he was actually the designer for the game itself back when it was being made) and makes up for the minor issues I might have had with the plotting or pace.

As a short novel, BNW: Revolution is very impressive. As a short novel written in 30 days (less, if Matt’s daily word count tweets are accurate), it’s extraordinary.

When he first started 12 For Twelve, I thought it was utter insanity - an author producing 1 trilogy in a year would have been amazing, but trying to do it 4 times over? No-one could do it. After reading Brave New World: Revolution, I’ve changed my mind. Oh it’s still utterly insane but if it can be done, I firmly believe Matt Forbeck is the guy to do it and to it well.

Filed under Brave New World Brave New World: Revolution Deltas Matt Forbeck awesome book review nerd review science fiction superheroes tabletop RPG 12 For Twelve Kickstarter

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Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire - Book 1 - A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I’v e spent the vast majority of my reading life as a confirmed fantasy geek. Nearly 3/4s of my bookcases are filled with the genre (primarily the High and Urban sub-genres) and I am a self-confessed genre-snob. And yet, despite all this, I never got around to picking up A Song of Ice And Fire by George R.R. Martin

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly knew of it but I shied away from starting to read it because, to put it simply, I am an impatient reader. I don’t like having to wait for a story to be written, preferring instead to be able to sit down with a complete story and to just work my way through it from beginning to end. And the wait between each book doesn’t get much longer than for Epic Fantasy novels.

To give some sense of context, Martin published A Game of Thrones back in 1996 and fans of the series are still waiting for book 6 to come out now, in 2012.

With the recent TV adaptation produced by HBO, the series popularity has exploded on to a whole new level - everyone is talking about it and it’s been increasingly hard for me to keep my resolve to read it only after Martin actually finishes the story. I finally caved in and started reading A Game of Thrones when I began to suspect the giant I work with one of my co-workers was going to start smashing things if he couldn’t discuss the books soon.

So I started reading and before I knew it, I was hooked (it took a couple of chapters to get my head into the book and used to Martin’s writing style). I had favourite characters and ones I wanted to see murdered in their sleep; there were plot twists that had me almost fist pumping at and others which all but got me groaning in horror. Every morning of the ten days it took me to read it, my very first thought when I woke up was “Can I justify taking a day off work just so I can spend the day reading?”

In short,A Game of Thrones hooked me in a way that Epic Fantasy hasn’t managed to do in a very long time.

It’s also possibly the least fantastical High Fantasy novel I’ve read with almost all the traditional tropes completely missing. The closest thing to a magical beast present are the direwolves that some of the main characters keep as pets and magic exists only in stories and myth. What Martin presents his readers with instead is political intrigue and the diametric opposite of the fairytale. It’s said that “In the game of thrones, you win or you die” and there are very few winners in Martin’s book, if any at all.

It’s bleak and brutal but hugely entertaining and a definite contender for “Best Fantasy Novel I’ve Ever Read”. I maintain that I would have preferred to have started to read it after Martin finally finishes the story once and for all but now that I’ve started it, all that’s left to me is to devour the five books which already exist and join the horde of people waiting for the final two books.

Filed under ASoIaF A Game of Thrones A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy High Fantasy George R.R. Martin GRRM Westeros Book book review review novel nerd magic politics Winter is Coming

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Thoughts on The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I don’t think I’ve ever come to a book by such a bizarre path as I did to Erik Larson’s historic fiction: named as a source of inspiration for one of my most anticipated games for 2012, BioShock: Infinite (which is itself the second sequel to one of my all time favourite games, BioShock). So 2K Games is directly responsible for turning me on to it.

Set in Chicago in 1893, it follows the dual stories of Chicago’s attempt to build the most impressive World’s Fair ever held and the deeds of Dr. H.H. Holmes - America’s first documented serial killer.

It’s a strange mix of topics, especially since neither story really affects the other (apart from the fact that the chaos in Chicago caused by the construction of the World’s Fair masked Holmes’ actions for for longer than otherwise might have been the case) but it works quite harmoniously. Probably something to do with the fact that Larson was able to swap between two entirely separate narratives and give the reader a break from Holmes’ horrific deeds / the construction story as needed.

What surprised me the most was just how involved I found myself getting, in not just Holmes’ story but with the story of Burnham and the other architects as well. There were several instances where I think I was more on the edge of my seat when reading about the World’s Fair than about the serial killer.

I honestly was not sure where the history stopped and the fiction began while reading (and still don’t know) which is surely a sign of good historical fiction (though I’m hardly a connoisseur of the genre). Common sense tells me that the majority of the sections dealing with Holmes would have had to have been conjecture since he was a pathological liar - he wrote three separate confessions himself, all of which contradicted one another AND some of the established facts).

This is a hard book for me to recommend though - fans of true crime may be put off by the shared focus on the World’s Fair and history buffs would likely be more interested in a book that doesn’t have the word ‘fiction’ built right into the genre. I really enjoyed the book (so much so that I intend to purchase a hard copy of it for my shelves back home) and what’s more, I enjoyed the half of the story that I honestly didn’t think I was going to as much as (if not more so than) the half that I originally wanted to read. The writing was almost clinical and, at points, quite dry to read and yet Larson’s novel just wouldn’t let me go.

I’ve a good mind to go back through blogs and interviews now and see if there are any other “sources of inspiration” for my favourite games because, apparently, I’ve been missing out.

Filed under book review book review historical fiction serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes The World's Fair 1893

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Thoughts on The Woman In Black

I’ll be honest, the only reason I went to see this film is because of Daniel Radcliffe. If the lead role had been anyone else, my interest in a Victorian ghost story complete with Gothic mansion would have been negligible.

Recently widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is sent to a small, isolated, village in the English countryside to finalise the estate of a recently deceased woman, it seems like a straight forward matter. When he arrives however, he finds the village is actively hostile to outsiders - no one will talk to him; the hotel his firm had made reservations for him at claims to have no record of any such booking and there’s an on-going spree of mysterious deaths among the local children.

Desperate to finish his business and return to his young son, Arthur decides to stay at that mansion in order to finish up sooner rather than later. But he’s not alone in the house, The Woman In Black is watching. And she doesn’t like outsiders either.

Every hack-writer on the planet (myself included) has been compelled to add “Harry Potter and” to the front of this movie’s title (myself included) which totally conveys the wrong image for this story.The Woman in Black is a true Horror, in the sense that it attempts to truly horrify you instead of just scare you.

That’s not to say there aren’t parts of the film that made me swear at it (quite loudly too) for making me jump but despite that the overall tone was closer to Stephen King’s better novels rather than to the Freddy Krueger / Jason Vorhees / Michael Myers style of horror slashers.

I went to see this film simply to see if Daniel was capable of carrying a movie without the franchise which has (and will continue to) defined his career. The good news is that he can. The majority of the film is him without another actor to play off of and he carries the film well, conveying a wide range of emotions (depression, rage, sadness, terror etc) very convincingly.

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I don’t spend a lot of time with Horror in any form, be it TV shows, movies, games or books (my adoration for Stephen King not withstanding) for a few different reasons. Mostly though it’s because I have a particularly … fertile … imagination and the scary shit tends to stay with me. After watching The Woman in Black, it wasn’t the “OOOoooOOOO! I’m a freaking ghost!” scares that stayed with me (though I do admit that I still avoid looking at the corners of my bedroom too closely just in case) but instead it was the hopeless, helpless horror that the film ended with. And for that reason I can say that while it was a very good film, it is also a film I have absolutely no interest in watching ever again.

Filed under The Woman In Black Film Review review film movie horror daniel radcliffe ghosts gothic scary

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Thoughts on The Muppets

I’m a Muppets fanboy – I’ve got all of their movies, I’ve got the Muppet Show DVDs and the soundtracks to match and my wife bought me a Fozzy Bear plushie a few years ago that is probably one of my favourite non-LEGO toys that I’ve ever had.

So upon hearing that there was a new movie being made, I was quite pleased, if a little wary. As more details emerged, I began to gain more confidence -  Jason Segal on writing duties and Brett ‘Flight of the Conchords’ McKenzie would be in charge of the music, there was every chance that this movie would get the Muppets back on track.

While on a tour of the dilapidated Muppet Studios, life-long Muppets fan Walter overhears evil business man Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) discussing his plans to demolish the theatre and drill for oil once the Muppets’ lease on the site finally expires. The only way to prevent this from happening is if the disbanded Muppets can reunite and come up with $10 million to purchase the studio outright.

Right out the gates, this is obviously the Muppets do The Blues Brothers (although there were no overt references to this fact) as they attempt to reunite theband cast, save theorphanage studio and sing some catchy songs along the way.

To be honest, I think the film fell a little short of it’s ambition to bring the Muppets back to the mainstream simply because (as Kermit himself points out) the world is far more cynical today and their brand of naive optimism just doesn’t ring as true as it used to. There are two distinct audiences that will enjoy this film – confirmed Muppophiles (like me) and kids who are just interested in the cute puppets being funny.

There are some moments of utter brilliance on display here and my own highlight of the film is an even tie between Jim Parsons in the best (and most well-contained) cameo in any Muppets film yet and watching Chris Cooper perform a gangsta rap (which could only have been written by Brett McKenzie).

It’s cute, clean and quite well written (if a little schmaltzy at points) and, if you turn off your cynicism for it’s 90 minute run time, a highly enjoyably romp. After an absence of ten plus years, it’s just good to have the old gang back together again. The lights may be flicker and the music may be out of time but this is the closest we’ve gotten to raising the curtain on the Muppet Show for a very long time.

Filed under Jason Segal Amy Adams Chris Cooper Jim Parsons Brett McKenzie Flight of the Conchords The Muppets film film review review movie kid's movie Animal Rowlf Fozzie Bear Kermit the Frog Miss Piggy Sweet'ums Bunsen Beaker Gonzo

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30 Days of Video-games - Day 28 - A Game Studio / Designer That You Admire

This isn’t even close to the ‘real’ topic for this day (and given the fact that I stopped following the list’s order some time ago, this is a doubly random post).

This is also a topic that I could wax lyrical about for quite a while as I talk about all the developers I admire from Bethesda's introducing me to action-RPGs with their work on Fallout 3 through to Double Fine having the guts to totally overhaul the focus of their releases from boxed retail titles through to Bioware's commitment to completing a full trilogy in one console generation with the Mass Effect series and so on down the list.

Instead, the developer that I’m going to talk about is one which occupies a unique position in that they’ve earned my respect despite my never having played a single one of their games. I’m going to talk about Grasshopper Manufacture's auteur Suda 51.

The name is the online handle of Goichi Suda a Japanese game developer who, to my knowledge, hasn’t had a single commercial success in his entire career. What he has had is an unbroken string of cult classics across multiple platforms. Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and (the soon to be released) Lollipop Chainsaw are probably his most well-known works but they’re just the tip of his creative iceberg and they’re all unmistakably ‘Suda 51 games’. And the only thing that they have in common is that anyone exposed to them for any length of time will inevitably come to the conclusion “This could only have been made in Japan”.

They’re also the sort of games where, if you like ‘em you’ll love ‘em but if not then you’ll be left in a confused heap. A serial killer with the ability to transform into one of seven separate personalities with their own skills and physical appearance; a man who sets out to be the Best Assassin in the World with what amounts to a home-made lightsabre; a man armed with a sentient, transforming gun who has a fixation on phallic jokes, who ventures into hell to rescue his girlfriend and a stereotypical American high-school cheerleader who opts to fight zombies with a fucking huge chainsaw and lots of panty-flashing. If none of those made you even vaguely interested, then you can safely ignore anything Suda 51 releases in the future.

But it’s not just the oddball “seriously, what the fuck?” nature of Suda 51’s output that I admire, but the the man himself. In every interview I’ve read, he exudes a thoughtful calmness that is almost zen-like (which, given the frenetic and bombastic nature of his games, is all the more surprising). This contrast is something of a rare quality in game development, or at least in Western game development. Despite his calm demeanour, his still manages to convey an intense passion for his work and a level of respect for his peers which I’ve only ever seen in writers, painters and masters of other classical arts. Which makes Suda 51 the first true artist I’ve encountered with-in video-games.

He’s also demonstrated the ability to be quite witty, in a semi self-deprecating manner, despite a language barrier (his interviews all appear to be conducted with an English translator on hand and I’m unsure whether he can’t speak English or is just not fluent) which I admire even more than everything else about the man.

His games occupy a strange no-man’s land where, pre-release, the games media will sing his praises to such a high degree that you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s the second coming of Shigeru Myiamoto. But, upon these same games actually hitting the shelves, those same journalists decry him for releasing games so unconventional that they border on surrealistic. To make it all the more bizarre, every single gamer I know who has (willingly) picked up and played his games has absolutely adored them, flaws and all.

Suda 51 makes art - albeit art that happens to exist in a medium which is still struggling to be seen as more than “kid’s stuff”. I say ‘art’ in the sense that it is original, ground-breaking and genuinely interesting. And in an industry which is increasing creatively bankrupt, that makes him someone incredibly valuable.

Filed under 30 Days of Video-games Day 28 Favourite Developer Suda 51 Goichi Suda Grasshopper Manufacture games video games Japanese Games No More Heroes Killer7 Shadows of the Damned Lollipop Chainsaw