Category Archives: Reviews

The Unstoppable March – # bearandhare

November – the month when all the major retailers in the UK begin their relentless sales drive for Christmas. So begins a month where you’re being bombarded with bargains, offers, and deals whenever you’re unfortunate enough to experience an advert break on the TV. Like stuffing a turkey, you’ll have fliers detailing yet more offers crammed through your letterbox, and almost when you think you’re fed up of the pseudo-Christmas that has become November, the shops will start putting their garlands up early, the products you buy will get their festive packaging, and you’ll be hearing the same Christmas songs before December has even begun. You’ll just want some peace and quiet. You’ll be thinking it’s not even December yet, and resign yourself to the yearly conclusion – that every year, Christmas only seems to become even more commercialised, if that’s possible.

Why then am I writing a post about Christmas adverts? Why have I mentioned #bearandhare, the tag for retailer John Lewis’s Christmas advert for 2013? Well, it’s not to single it out as a caricature for an article about Christmas being too commercial – like the adverts we’re subjected too, that argument comes every year, stronger and earlier. We’ve all heard it before, and it would be a waste of time to write about that topic. Instead of despairing at the amount of crass advertising on the airwaves at the moment, I’ve chosen the John Lewis 2013 advert because it does something, so far, that I haven’t seen other companies do. What can I be on about? Let’s watch!

Strange. What have we just watched? An advert for Christmas that doesn’t mention a single price. It doesn’t feature a tirade of products. There’s not a single mention of savings, deals, or offers. There’s not even any of that small print at the bottom of the screen telling you the actual conditions of those seemingly ‘too good to be true’ bargains. Instead, we have a sweet animation about a bear and a hare, with an underlying message telling us to not buy something, but give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget. Let’s take a moment to think about that. Give (not buy) someone a Christmas (not a product) that they’ll never forget.

What? It sound’s unbelievable when you put it like that. If we want to be really cynical, we can perhaps take a guess that the one moment of product placement is the alarm clock that the Hare gives the Bear, but that’s so fleeting it feels like we’re clutching at a straw – not to mention it fits within the story being told. Or you can say that their message of giving a christmas that they’ll never forget implies that you can do that by shopping at John Lewis, and I think you’d have a good idea there. But you can’t deny it, this advert makes you smile. It’s sweet. It’s emotional. I don’t roll my eyes in exasperation because it doesn’t conform to the trend of this time of year; that is the tirade of hyper-commercialised Christmas imagery. Let’s take a look at a different advert.

Oh, the product placement. The assurances that we’ll get the presents we want. The iPad being made by elves, the Coca-Cola that seems to be everywhere. It’s unnerving, isn’t it? The message of doing good is being tied to the product, in the hope that we’ll form an association with the two. This makes me sceptical, because underneath the Christmas message there is the very obvious desire from the company to make us buy their goods. You can even suggest that Christmas is theirs – and it’s an idea you can be forgiven to think, given the company’s long association with Santa Claus.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.

(Source Accessed 11:58AM GMT 17/11/2013.)

If you’re interested, I recommended giving that article a read, as it details how Santa Claus has been used in their marketing campaigns since the 1920’s through to the present day.  However the implication that Christmas is tied to Coca-Cola is one we already acknowledge. Remember how we say it’s only Christmas once we’ve seen the Coca-Cola truck? Here’s a video with precisely that.

Again, it’s the implication that the “holidays are coming” exactly as the Coca-Cola trucks roll in. This isn’t the only company to try to claim their influence over Christmas, it happens everywhere. Supermarkets are always keen to promote their food for the holiday season, eager to claim Christmas dinner as their own. They compete to be the company that provides the perfect meal, and to do so they fill the airwaves with sensuous displays of piles of steaming and perfectly prepared food.

Yes, Christmas dinner is done the best, but remember you’ve got to “spend some dough to put on a show.” If you’re looking for something that takes Christmas and really encourages you to spend money and revel in consumerism, it’s the above advert. It appears glutinous, certainly encouraging over-indulgence and spending in the hope that the consumer will be driven to recreate that perfect pile of food wonderfully rendered in their advert.

To draw this back to the Bare and the Hare, John Lewis have been making adverts for Christmas in a similar thread for years now. As we’ve seen, plenty of other retailers are keen to carve up Christmas for themselves in their adverts, and subject the viewer to a tirade of products and crass consumerism. They encourage us to spend money, to buy and to indulge in wealth, while at the same time of year many charities begin their appeals for Christmas. What makes the current John Lewis advert so effective? It gives a carefully thought out message – to make a special Christmas someone will never forget. As all the other retailers bombard our senses, this quiet message stands out because it demonstrates a sensitivity that no other retailer has so far been prepared to follow. While the underlying motivation for the advert is to make us spend money at John Lewis, I think it’s good to see a retailer thinking carefully about how it wants to advertise to us, rather than subjecting us to a frenzy of sales. There is a tangible dignity to the advert, and I think that’s the underlying factor that makes it such a powerful piece of advertising. To end, I leave you with the John Lewis advert from 2012, and wondering what we might be seeing during advert breaks in 2014.



Total War: Rome II Review

I’ve always been a fan of the Total War series, so it came as no surprise to me when I pre-ordered the creative assembly’s remake of a classic title – Rome Total War. Released on the 3rd of September, this latest instalment from the franchise made some big promises, chiefly that it would have more content that any previous Total War game. Well truth be told, I was extremely sceptical of this latest release. The last Total War game I bought was Shogun 2, many months after it’s release when it comes up in the steam sale. Shogun left me feeling that the Creative Assembly were taking things in the wrong direction. Shogun, despite its gorgeous graphics and improved performance left me feeling that the future of Total War was short, simple arcade battles where X unit counters Y unit every single time and that the days of Campaigns that took whole days to finish were gone. Instead of building your empire from the ground up, it felt that you were meant to rush into every conflict without any pause for strategy because your amount of turns would soon be over.

How far would I go for Rome? At first, not very.

When it came to announcing Rome II, I didn’t hold out much hope. The main games of the Total War series I play are actually Medieval II and its expansion, Kingdoms. Those weren’t the vanilla versions either, but community mods like Stainless Steel and Third Age Total War. All very deep, very well made community mods. I stuck with the title for the reason that the community stepped in to fill the gaps in both difficulty and historical accuracy, stretching the game’s interface further from its simple design. The promotional question, “Who far will you go for Rome?” ran sarcastically in my mind, the answer being getting it on the cheap in the steam summer sale a year later.

However, I’m pleased to say some of the worrying trends have been reversed. In terms of immersion, having historical accuracy is crucial to keeping it feeling like you’re forging an empire. Rome II does an admirable job of doing this, with their mantra of authenticity instead of accuracy. All this means is that it creates a balanced vanilla game that refers to history though not slavishly, nor does it get lost in arcade style battles. I will say, the one, tedious, slightly annoying thing I’ll say is this. Victory Points. Why? In siege battles, this just takes the same duty as the central plaza did in all other Total War games. However, as the defending side in battles on the field, you can be forced to stay next to a victory point that is conveniently the worst place for you to defend from. It effectively kills the advantage of the defender choosing the terrain. However, this did appear only in a battle where the enemy was attacking me in the field while laying siege.

I’ll boil the main good points down. Very detailed units, beautiful campaign map, good AI – I had a siege battle on normal difficulty where the attacking computer constantly tried to find a way around my defences, hanging back from committing all it’s forces into one slog-fest that used to always happen in previous titles. I know some reviewers have had problems with the AI, but I haven’t encountered any in my gameplay so I can’t comment. Back to the list of the good. The campaign map is huge. The way cities are built and provinces are managed is a great step up from previous titles. Armies and recruitment are a lot more streamlined, and the days of the Rebels faction are gone. Every province belongs to a faction, even if it is one of minor importance. This really helps with immersion, as it feels like time has been spent researching the period at large, not just the main, well-known factions.

It really is that pretty.

Downsides? I think there is a horrible spectre lurking in performance. I’m running Rome II on extreme graphics, on a new desktop computer I got only about a month ago. Quick run-down of specs: 4th Gen Intel i7 (over-clocked to 4.3Ghz) , 16GB RAM, Nvidia Geforce GTX 770. However, I think like Shogun 2, they will release patches that improve performance, however I don’t think this is a game that you can throw at a computer that is already struggling. The main bulk of user problems will be down to hardware, so I’d advise against buying it and being disappointed if your rig can’t cope with it. There are plenty of reviews online slating the game for user performance issues – one of which blamed the game even though it was being run on an anaemic laptop where the user had upgraded RAM instead of finding the bottleneck. On balance, performance demands have never been a new thing to Total War.

It gets close, but in reality it probably won’t look this good on your rig.

However, I’m not quite done. After playing for hours, and once the initial excitement had worn off, I found myself asking what will keep me playing this game? It all works very well, it’s all very pretty, but what will make me keep coming back to it? It seems the more you play Total War, the more weary you become of vanilla modes. I’m already starting to get bored with the Spear Levies, the Hoplites and light cavalry. Where are the special, faction specific units? The ones that make you feel like you’re not playing a clone or some mysterious alter ego? I’m hoping from the small unit lists for some factions, more units will be added later. Otherwise, I fear we’ll have the same situation as in Shogun 2 – Katana Samurai beats infantry, Yari beat cavalry…

The verdict? A good, solid game, however Total War fans shouldn’t rush into playing it without asking questions.

Oh, Nostalgia – Were Games Better in the Past?

Thou art a devious wretch! Don’t worry, the archaisms are deliberate and fitting, I promise.

Whenever it comes to a conversation about games these days, most, if not all tend to deteriorate into general rants about how video games were far superior in the past, suspiciously when they were in their childhood. Being someone born in the 1990’s, the earliest games I played were classics such as Tomb Raider (1996) and Age of Empires (1997). Now, the temptation is to look back at those titles with rose-tinted glasses and hail them are far superior examples of games that the linear, recycled titles of today.  It might be fashionable, but it’s not wholly accurate. A lot has changed, and you can never make an accurate comparison by taking one game from one era and comparing it to one from another. You won’t achieve anything there.

The greatest thing we must understand is time. Perhaps the greatest illustration for the effect of time, and all the technological improvements it brings, is in the differences between Tomb Raider (I) and it’s 2007 remake, Tomb Raider Anniversary.

I don’t remember it was so… blocky.

Here was have the same game, the same plot and even the same environments, but with vast gulfs in graphics and gameplay. You can make some valid points when comparing these titles. The first is archaic, with bigger blocks than Minecraft, but with some horrendously fiendish puzzles. For instance, in the original there was a level that entirely revolved around throwing levers to raise the water lever to a correct height so you can reach the level exit. Only problem is that said switches could only be thrown once, and had to be done so in such a specific sequence that meant you only realised your mistake when it came to get out. At that point it was too late. Oh, and if you hadn’t saved at the beginning of the level? Start at the beginning of the game. Again. Oh yes, I made that mistake.

In Anniversary, the level is merciful. The principle is still the same, but the water can be raised and drained, removing that punishing element. You can grumble that this was making it easier. Perhaps. But as I outlined above, if you got it wrong in the original, the result most likely was that you had to restart the entire game. I mean, who really saves the game at the beginning of every single level? In truth, I remember this instance not because it was a great puzzle, just that it was a horrible part in the game. The latest incarnation of the game brought with it new gameplay mechanics that made Lara behave more like a human and less like a robot. Sure the graphics were better too, but any item you could pick up had to sparkle, just in case you couldn’t see it.

The gorillas are angry! They want the blocks back! They’ll even use one to make their point.

What are we left with then, in this direct comparison? Well, two very different games. I’ve recently been replaying Tomb Raider since I picked it up in the recent Steam Sale, and I have to admit, while I think it’s a brilliant game, that’s just me being nostalgic. The cold, hard fact is it doesn’t stand up to anything today. It might be like Age of Empires and hailed to be the father of strategy gaming (a claim that can be contested), but when it comes down to it, you won’t find these titles on the shelves of retailers. I’m glad for that, because this is 2013, not 1996.

Anyway, please share your thoughts on the games you are especially nostalgic for! Do you think games today are better or worse than those in the past?

Bioshock Infinite Review (Without Spoilers)

You’re Booker DeWitt, off to the floating city of Colombia to retrieve a mysterious girl kept locked away in a tower. It sounds like a potential steampunk version of a questing knight. Save the damsel in distress. Simple? Well, after being announced in 2008 and now finally released in 2013, this game isn’t as straightforward as a what you’ve just read. We’re no longer in the depths of the sea, but high up in the clouds. Quite a change of setting, and a risky one at that. Bioshock and Rapture go hand in hand, and I remember that when the details of Infinite were announced it was hard to perhaps see why they’d take such a move after the success of Bioshock in 2007. The formula we’re used to now is that if a franchise is successful, you just keep on publishing new editions of that original formula that struck gold – and reel in the cash. The best example of that is the Call of Duty franchise; since Modern Warfare in 2007, it’s kept coming back with a new number the only change to the title. So why not do the same? Well, one of the reasons I think well of Infinite is because it’s a recognition that an idea can only last for so long while still being good. Rather than try to make a Bioshock III, it was time to move to pastures new.

Ah, you say that like a sequel to Bioshock was never made! You’re ignoring Bioshock II.

That’s true, they did make a sequel to Bioshock, but things become problematic when you look at things closer. Instead of being developed by Irrational Games (who were once 2K Boston) like Bioshock and Infinite, it was developed by 2K Marvin. So it sounds like a change in development teams? Well, that seems to go fine until you find out 2K Marvin were involved in development of all three Bioshock games. Besides, in terms of reviews it did well. IGN gave it 9.1/10. Eurogamer gave it 8/10 and Game Informer gave it 8.25/10. Then when we start thinking about development times in relation to when Infinite and Bioshock II were announced, it becomes hard to pin down a date when it was decided that Infinite would be in a floating cloud city. But even as we look at developing studios, it seems the only answer I can pin down is that Ken Levine was the lead writer and creative director for Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, but had no involvement in Bioshock II. Either way, what’s important to note that the change of tack has happened in accordance to what material there was available for the third game. After the idea of playing as a big daddy in Bioshock II, it became hard to see where next Rapture could go. Still, onto reviewing Infinite.

One of the obvious points I’ve heard grumbled about infinite is the simple interchanging between Vigours and Salts, with Plasmids and Eve. They’re there, and they both function in exactly the same way as they did in Rapture. But a Bioshock game without plasmids/vigours wouldn’t be Bioshock, and once you come up with a system of genetic improvement that gives the wielder superhuman powers it’s hard to say it’ll ever be different to what it was in the previous games. The question really is, if you’re grumbling about that, then you try to come up with a new system that is different to the plasmid one but still delivers the core Bioshock experience. I just see this as a frankly irrelevant point, because an Infinite without vigours/plasmids would be just a dull shooter.

Sometimes, there just isn’t a big enough gun for the job. That doesn’t matter when you can throw fireballs from your hands, or better yet, catch their bullets and shoot them back!

The next point to move onto is then the actual vigours themselves. They all pretty much do exactly the same thing, to a greater of lesser degree when compared to the plasmids in Bioshock. It’s a fair observation, but one that is more of a nitpick than anything else. Some truly new vigours would have been welcome, but this is more an observation make in hindsight, rather than as you play the game. It’s no pressing concern.

Perhaps the only other point to make about gameplay is either the uselessness of being able to aim down sights. It’s a good feature, but more one suited to Call of Duty. The problem is that on the PC with the original controls, using the sights is awkward and annoying at best. The default bind is “Z”, which in combination with using WASD for movement controls is just awkward. This however, is a nitpick. For one, it can be solved by setting a new control for it. On the other, I never actually used the sights and I never once felt that it was impeding my ability to play.

The other big, looming half of these games is the storyline, and for those unfamiliar with the Bioshock franchise must note it’s something to set it apart from other games out there. In this case, the game wraps its plot around the story, rather than having the story as nice window-dressing for the actual gameplay itself.

Infinite is a shooter where the combat serves the plot, rather than the plot being a limp excuse for violence.

Why does Bioshock Infinite hold such high esteem for me? Quite simply, it shows maturity. The franchise has grown, it has matured. Bioshock was a great game in itself, but it leapt in at the deep end with a dystopian society where horror and revulsion where its main playing cards. You arrive in Rapture to where the signal is so very clear that it is a dystopia, and a place that has already plunged into chaos before your arrival. But with Infinite, it’s not so straight forward. When you first arrive in Colombia, you slowly get drip-fed clues that something isn’t quite right about the seeming floating marvel. It’s a great example of pacing, and the sum doesn’t arrive when you number 77 wins the raffle. With the Vox Populi set up as seemingly as the good guys, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s where the story would lead itself, where the player is the champion of that faction. But no. Even as you have Vox Populi allies fighting with you, the under-trodden and the oppressed who would have the player’s sympathies then show a very dark streak – and this is where Infinite proves its maturity over Bioshock. No longer does the series view morality in fixed terms. It all reveals itself to be ambiguous where there are no easy ways out. This is what makes Infinite feel more mature as a game compared to previous titles. While Bioshock might allow the player an influence in moral choices, and thus have the ability to be good and have a good ending, Infinite allows no such choice. You just watch the world burn and you’re hopelessly caught in the crossfire. Infinite can be criticised for having not choices in gameplay that affect the outcome, but the whole point of that becomes clear in the ending – where there is no choice.

What’s also worth commenting on is the depth of supporting characters – the Lutece “Twins”. These two draw upon Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play which deals with the inevitability of fate. The Twins behave in the spirit of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the above mentioned play, and bring a fresh diversity to characters. Their comic relief is generated by their absurd manner and dry humour, which gives Infinite greater depth. At times, the characters pay direct homage to the play by using dialogue and scenes taken from the play, in this case the heads or tails scene.While it might seem bizarre, this scene is used to set up the ending and the two sides of the coin comes to fulfil the two sides of DeWitt.

However, the greatest of the supporting characters is Elizabeth, and it seems unfair to even label her as such. Though the cover of the game might bear the image of DeWitt, Elizabeth really deserves the title of being the main character rather than a support, because in all respects the story belongs to her. However, to explain in greater details would spoil things. But, what’s noteworthy is that she is extremely well characterised. As a AI character who follows you around, her contribution to gameplay is another breath of fresh air. Instead of having a dimwitted NPC that manages to get itself into trouble, Elizabeth is a great addition to gameplay. In combat, she will randomly throw you ammunition, salts and health kits during fire-fights which is useful on paper, but during gameplay adds a much more organic feel. There have been times when I’ve been running low on ammo, or just about to die until I get a health kit tossed at me, and my life is saved. This mechanic is great because it makes Elizabeth function more like a human player than a computer controlled one.

Elizabeth. Not just a pretty face.

To summarise, Infinite is definitely a great game. Is it going to be the best game of 2013? I wouldn’t be surprised. Will it live up to claims of being the game of its generation? Only hindsight will tell. My verdict however is that Bioshock Infinite rescues a franchise that seemed in danger from sub-standard sequels like Bioshock 2, and at the same time breathes into it a new life.  It is certainly a game that you must play. It will drop a bomb on you in the end. However, what makes this game stand out is the seamless blend between storytelling and gameplay. It suffers in neither department, and neither antagonises the other. As a game, that’s no easy feat. When the balance is wrong, everyone notices. When it’s right, no one realises it.