Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lulz Security and the pursuit of lulz

So, for those of you that missed it, yesterday was Titanic Takeover Tuesday, brought to you by the hacker group Lulz Security.

Now before I go any further, I’ll go on record to say that I don’t agree with what LulzSec are doing. I prefer to get my lulz via other means. At the same time, I’m not a /b/tard, or anyone with a particular grudge against LulzSec.

At the weekend, the group announced that they had hacked the Bethesda servers, pilfering the user data of some 200,000 Brink players. They also hacked into the US Senate website.

During the course of Titanic Takeover Tuesday, they launched coordinate DDoS attacks on The Escapist website, the Eve Online login servers, the site of IT security company Fin Fisher , and the login servers for both Minecraft and League of Legends.

Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from irate gamers and, doubtlessly, many lulz for LulzSec.

I should say that I am possibly one of the people whose details were hacked from the Bethesda servers as I regrettably purchased Brink. I have a Minecraft account, have played Eve Online, and regularly read The Escapist.

So I must be pretty pissed off right now, right? Nope, not really.

Don’t get me wrong; at first I was jelly. But when I thought about it, I realised I didn’t really have any business being angry.

For a start, the whole thing reeks of double standards. I was one of the people cheering on AnonOps when they were hacking websites in the wake of the arrest of Julian Assange, and applying pressure to those who would seek to deny Wikileaks funding. I even deleted my PayPal account in protest.

But it’s a bit fucking hypocritical of me to support AnonOps simply because they choose ‘right on’ targets, and then get annoyed when LulzSec do the exact same thing to a target I care about. It’s that classic ‘It’s fine as long as it doesn’t affect me’ attitude, and it’s not right.

This attitude was evident on various gamer web forums where people were one minute gloating at Eve Online being taken offline, then later crying because they couldn’t play League of Legends. I felt like reaching through the interwebs and bashing some heads together.

It’s a tangible atmosphere present even in the professional media, with outlets who were previously silent on the AnonOps hacks being up in arms about LulzSec messing with the PBS site, and I can’t stomach that kind of hypocrisy.

Even then, that’s only when the media chooses to report accurately. Ars Technica had me under the impression that LulzSec were going to release the Brink user info if Bethesda didn’t give out more details on the upcoming Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and also add top hats to the game. When I actually got the chance to read the statement from the group, the tone was light-hearted, and not very threatening. The top hats suggestion was added almost as a funny afterthought. Not quite the blackmail that Ars Technica had implied.

There also appears to be general misunderstanding about what motivation LulzSec have. Reading some forum posts on the topic yesterday, it was clear that the poster were divided between those who thought LulzSec were terrorists (yes, terrorists) and those who thought of them as being some sort of collective freelance security operation.

They are neither, as best I can see.

The posters claiming they were terrorists reasoned that since they had the user database, they could use this info to sow fear and blackmail the individuals contained therein. I would suggest that, given the abundance of free pronography on the internet, it could be considered a bit foolish to wilfully add your details to a huge database of pron users. Especially if one was in a position whereby the revelation of such ‘hobbies’ would be harmful. But then I have a thing for individual responsibility.

Nor are they hugely interested in their target’s security. Sure they may have advised Bethesda to ‘fix their junk’, but, if we use the burglar analogy, that’s like a burglar kicking in your back door, drinking all the lemonade in your fridge, sniffing your dirty laundry, taking a dump on the kitchen table before leaving a note that says ‘Your back door is broken.’.

So why do they do it?

Really: It’s for the lulz.

It’s not that knocking down a particular website is entertaining in itself. But when the myriad users of that site then take to Twitter to castigate LulzSec, lulz are had. When it is revealed that Lulzsec have stolen user details and people take to newsgroups and web forums to register how angry or fearful they are, lulz are had. When the Senate website is hacked and the FBI are called in, lulz are had.

Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is a timeless concept, and LulzSec represent schadenfreude in the digital age.

Their activities are arguably criminal and I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if some arrests came from it, but I’m also certain that LulzSec are doing their best to avoid this outcome and hide their tracks, with seven proxies and the like.

As for me, you and Joe Average, there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it. Evidently general web security isn’t as sophisticated as it should be and these attacks will no doubt serve as part of a catalyst of change.

Until the proverbial hatches can be battened down, all we can do is keep an extensive list of alternative passwords. Think of it as background radiation or environmental change, something you just have to put up with.

Oh, and try and have some lulz along the way.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Crunch Time - Do we need ethical game development? I think so.

Last week, an article about 'crunch time' appeared on the Ars Technica website, about the problem of crunch time in game development and it got me thinking.

For the unitiated, crunch time is the period in a games development cycle where the developers have to shift their working patterns into the highest gear in order to ship a game on time. The worst of these are 85-hour working weeks that can last for months, but the practice of operating at a 60-hour working week for periods of up to a year is becoming increasingly common.

There are two reasons for why this happens. Firstly, when a game is set to release on a particular date, delays hurt profits. Well, that's the theory anyway. In this age of pre-orders and easy internet patching, ensuring that the game is released on time is of paramount importance to studios and their bean counters. Secondly, and somewhat more cynically, working studio employees harder and therefore shortening the development cycle means less money spent employing full teams of staff per project and a higher bottom line.

Most gamers will be familiar with the EA_spouse essay from 2004. In this letter, Erin Hoffman, then fiancee of EA developer Leander Hasty, highlighted the horrendous labour practices that developers at EA were subjected to. Read the letter. It's a hugely depressing tale of 12 hour days and 7 day working weeks. There was huge attention drawn to this issue at the time and it led to some law suits and some changes to the industry at large. All good right?

Not really. Following the release of Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar were criticised for using excessive crunch time. Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, made comments suggesting that his studio wouldn't employ anyone who wasn't willing to work 60 hours a week. It would seem little has changed. Indeed, if industry insiders are to be believed, the practice has got worse.

There are obvious drawbacks to crunch time. There is a tangible human cost. Individuals who are working an 85 hour week (12 hours a day, 7 days a week) are paying a toll with their physical, mental and emotional health. Working those kinds of hours leave no time for anything short of eating and sleeping. No kids birthdays, no Sunday lunch with the family, no hungover Saturday mornings in bed with the other half. In short - no opportunity to do anything that makes life worth living.

As well as that, it destroys people creatively. The standard 40-hour working week has been shown to generate more employee productivity over an extended period than an increase in hours. The more hours an employee has to work, the less productive they become. And in an industry that relies heavily on creative people being productive, heck, needs creativity to survive, treating game developers in this way is nonsensical. To paraphrase the Ars Technica article, do you think that Clint Eastwood would be directing movies aged 80 if he was expected to work twelve hours a day?

Erin Hoffman aka EA_Spouse

It is also worth noting I'm not talking about a team of developers throwing their weight behind an unplanned game feature that they have to rush to finish before the game launches because, to quote Tenacious D, that's fucking teamwork. I'm talking about treating people like machines.  

One could point out obvious comparisons between games developers and, say, junior doctors who work a similarly punishing schedule. Why should it be any different for games developers? I'm not saying it should, I'm saying that asking an individual to work 80+ hours a week isn't desirable in any profession, but at least there is a possibility of making changes to how the industry operates.

You see, as consumers, we endorse this system. Every single time a studio employs ridiculous crunch time practices, only to see the game in question make millions, we are sending a message. We are saying "Hey, it's ok! Run these men and women into the ground. Show no regard for their wellbeing or that of their families. Just make sure you get that game out in time so I can claim my pre-order bonus. I don't give a fuck about the people who made this product, and I will prove as much by giving you my money." Don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming the moral high ground here. I have bought crunch time games, and because the practice is becoming more pervasive, I will probably do so in future. It also doesn't help that we often don't find out about these tings until well after the game is released, so it is impossible to make an informed choice on release day.

Either way, it makes me feel fucking shit doing so and I would like it to stop.

Personally, I would like to see studios sign up to a voluntary code that ensures their developers are not subjected to unreasonable and damaging crunch time, and that they are properly remunerated for those periods when overtime is unavoidable. Similar to the Fair Trade mark which idenifies genuine fair trade products, a stamp could be awarded to those studios who can prove that their games are ethically produced. It would not only provide reassurance to the consumer, it would also identify those studios whose labour practices are in tune with what we expect from a decent society.

I was recently interviewed for the Culture NI website on whether games can be considered art. It occurs to me that this issue has relevance here.

How can we ever elevate games into an art form if we allow their creators to be treated with such contempt?

Follow @xbuttonkill on Twitter and find me on Facebook.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Goodbye Guitar Hero! And Fuck You Activision!

Yesterday brought the sad news that Activision Blizzard have decided to axe their music-game business areas.

What that means is buh-bye to Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, and True Crime: Hong Kong, as well as around 500 Activision Blizzard employees losing their jobs.

First and foremost, it sucks to see people losing their jobs. Sadly there is no shortage of developers out of work at the minute thanks to the ongoing financial fuckup and a significant number of studios going tits up in the past year.

I never played DJ Hero. I didn't aspire to be a DJ when I was young and I reckon I can get the same effect from listening to a single earphone, while saying 'fikka fikka' in a high-pitched voice and pretending to scratch a record.

Also, the one True Crime game I did play was a mess of a game that tried, and failed, to compete with the Grand Theft Auto series in the glory days of the PS2.
In short: I’m not hugely disappointed that we won’t be seeing any further DJ Hero or True Crime titles, though their cancellation is symptomatic of a sickness that has already infected one major studio, and may begin to pop up in others.

The first time I heard about Guitar Hero, my reaction, I’m sure, was the same as many other people’s: Why the fuck would anyone willingly be seen in public with a small plastic guitar strapped to them? It struck me as the kind of thing Lennie Small might do if left unattended in the Early Learning Centre.

But then, one drunken night, I found myself gazing blearily at a friend’s TV screen, trying to mash buttons in time with Sum 41’s Fat Lip and it occurred to me then that ‘HOLY FUCKING SHIT, THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN INVENTED EVER!’

The following Friday, I took a trip into town and returned to my house with a plastic guitar and a copy of Guitar Hero. I tried to coax my flatmate Fil into having a go on it. I explained the principle behind it:

‘Look, it’s simple. Just press the coloured buttons as directed on screen, at the same time as hitting the strum bar and that’s basically it.’
‘Errrr…I dunno, seems a bit…stupid’
‘Oh, go on. Look, it’s got ‘Ziggy Stardust’ on it. You like that.’
‘Oh alright, but just a quick go, I have things to do.’

Next thing I know, it’s Monday morning. I’m drunk, probably sacked, I’ve spent all my money on booze, there aren’t any cigarettes left in the world because we’ve smoked them all, Fil and I haven’t left the house in two days and there are people whom I’ve never met before arguing over who gets the next go and whether the song choice should be ‘Symphony of Destruction’ or ‘Bark At The Moon’.

That was the beauty of Guitar Hero. It could bring people together under the mighty banner of rock and get them fucking smashed in the process. In the weeks that followed, our hand eye co-ordination skills improved while our livers took the beating of their lives. People actually started coming into our fusty, damp living room of their own free will! It was a magical time, and the release of Guitar Hero 2 and the purchase of a second guitar gave us the gift of rock competition. In our heads it was like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen having a shred-off, only WE got to be Eddie Van Halen!

And then what happened? Two things. One, the people behind the development of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, were purchased by MTV Networks to work on a new IP known as Rock Band. The second event was that the manufacturers of the game peripherals, Red Octane, was bought by Activison, who also retained the Guitar Hero brand.

And this is where things went wrong.

                                                           Alternative caption for this pic: 'So be it, Jedi'

Activision Blizzard, under the helm of Bobby Kotick (read: the gamers Antichrist), are a force for pure evil. If there was ever a Galactic Empire of the gaming world, it is Activision Blizzard, and Bobby Kotick is a mixture of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and Jar Jar fucking Binks, poured into a lumpen, shareholder-friendly container.

Kotick has talked in his past about the desire to take the fun out of making games, and his aim to exploit Activision franchises for the maximum bottom-line. And from what we’ve seen from Guitar Hero, that second ambition is very true.

Now, as the head of a public company, that Kotick only feels a responsibility to his shareholders is both understandable and nothing new. He only desires to maximize the profit generated by Activision Blizzard’s titles, which keeps the Activision Blizzard stock prices high, and gets him pats on the head from the shareholder. The sad part about this is that, in doing so, he systematically dismantles and destroys his franchises in order to wring as much money out of them as possible before discarding them, and in doing so, devalues the positive memories and experiences that his companies’ games have offered.

Let’s look how this happened with Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero 3, admittedly, wasn’t bad. It was pretty much complete by the point Red Octane was acquired by Activision. It retained the core gameplay from the previous Guitar Hero games, added online multiplayer, introduced a narrative story mode and had a decent track listing. But even then, it had started to feel stale. Bear in mind that Guitar Hero 3 released in the same year (NA, 2007) as Rock Band, a game which allowed you to play guitar, drums or do the vocals on a range of tracks. In short: Rock Band was Guitar Hero, but more.

It was after this point we began to see the Activision conveyor-belt game development system in action. In case you aren’t aware, this means putting out a game from a particular franchise once a year. The problem with doing this is that a) it provides fuck-all time for a studio to make any major innovation between two titles of the same IP, b) gamers get fatigued, as the lines between one game and another blur, and finally c) it pisses gamers off, as it is generally accepted that such a short turn-around time reflects a shitty, churned-out product.

Therefore, the fourth game, Guitar Hero: World Tour, released in North America almost exactly one year later in 2008. And what was new this time round? They had added support for drums and vocals! And only a year after their main competitor Rock Band had done so. La-dee-fucking-da!

What other ‘innovations’ did World Tour offer? The introduction of a Beginner/Retard difficulty level, where the player simply had chew on the end of the guitar controller and say ‘Duuuuuuur’ and the game would say ‘Good job! You rock!’. It removed the need to actually unlock songs, so there wasn’t really a difficulty curve as such, apart from that imposed by the player. And it also had a loveable feature whereby it would require the player to play notes that didn’t actually exist in the song, and to remain silent for notes that did. Maybe this game should have been called Guitar Idiot?

2008 also saw the first Guitar Hero expansion (read: desperate attempt to squeeze as much money from the fans with as little effort as possible) dedicated to a specific band, namely Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Not a bad effort, if you’re a fan of Aerosmith, but it highlighted an issue that would blight subsequent band-focused expansions; a large percentage of the songs in the game weren’t actually by Aerosmith. If you look at the track listing, you’ll see The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult and others. You see, due to licensing, many Aerosmith songs weren’t available, so they had to fill out this release with other guff. To be fair, this wasn’t as pressing an issue with subsequent expansions, but it gives an indication of the level of thought going into the Guitar Hero franchise at this point. 2009 saw the release of Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (a cynical collection of tracks from earlier GH games, not an expansion based on the now-defunct pop magazine). That’s right. Three separate expansions released in a single year, of which one was decent, one was shite in a jewel case, and one was a rehash. 2009 also saw the release of…

Guitar Hero 5 is memorable mainly for the legal wrangling to get Kurt Cobain as a playable character in the game. To this day, I don’t understand why Activision didn’t just take a shit on his grave? As much as I loved Guitar Hero, I’m fairly certain Cobain wouldn’t have endorsed a game produced by a multinational corporation where the player can rock out to ‘In My Place’ by Coldplay, so defecating on his final resting place would have been a much more effective way of giving his memory the finger. But then again, without regular injections of Botox and engine oil, Courtney Love just grinds to a halt, and that shit is expensive, yo. Guitar Hero 5 also saw the reintroduction of unlocked tracks, but by this stage to difficulty curve was so shallow, you could just put the guitar on the ground and stamp on it to proceed.

Finally, in 2010, came Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. When Rock Band 3 released in 2010, it added a new instrument in the form of a keyboard as well as a new feature in the shape of a ‘Pro’ mode, which had the potential to actually teach the player how to play guitar. When Warriors of Rock launched, it added Gene Simmons.

Yes, Gene Simmons, a man built from money and self-importance, voiced the game’s antagonist, the Beast. I say ‘voiced’, but it was more like ‘stumbled over the words like a child learning to read’. The game also devoted a significant section of the ‘Quest’ mode to 2112, Rush’s seven-part prog-rock wankfest. Aside from that, there was nothing new. It was the previous year’s game with new songs and venues and some other cosmetic changes, but that was it.

It was at this point it became clear that Activision had given up on trying to do anything even remotely interesting with the Guitar Hero series and this last shot was just a test to see if fans would continue to vomit money on the latest peripherals. The answer to that question was no. Warriors of Rock performed poorly, both amongst critics and players. The critics didn’t like the lack of innovation, felt that many of the songs didn’t fit the feel of the game and that it was, overall, boring. With poor sales, it would seem that gamers concurred.

For most other studios, if one of their major franchise titles performed so poorly, they would hold back, rework the game, try something new with it and if it didn’t float, bin it/put it on hiatus. Not so with Activision and Guitar Hero. The second that the franchise ceases to be profitable, or requires reworking to become profitable again, they ditch it. Fuck the people who spent years making it, fuck the people who spent their money making it successful, just ditch it and move on to the next thing.

In terms of pure numbers, between Activision acquiring the Guitar Hero series and their announcement yesterday, they released eight (EIGHT!!!!) Guitar Hero titles. That is eight titles in the space of just under four years, and I’m not counting special Wii/DS or mobile releases.

And you can see the same thing happening with Activision’s Call of Duty franchise.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision in 2007 to huge critical acclaim.

Call of Duty: World at War was released in 2008. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 arrived in 2009. Call of Duty: Black Ops was released in 2010, and Modern Warfare 3 is expected to release this year. And yet the best of those games listed is the first, with subsequent releases becoming more derivative, and attracting less favourable criticism, with nothing approaching innovation included.

Such is the level of ‘all eggs in one basket’ currently being employed at Activision, they currently have five separate development teams working on various elements of the Call of Duty franchise. Other than Blizzard’s titles (WoW, Starcraft, Diablo), the only AAA Activision has left is Call of Duty.

And all it will take is for another multi-platform, innovative FPS to take a bite out of CoD’s market share and then maybe we’ll see Activision’s share prices take a nose dive, hopefully with Bobby Kotick removed from the games industry and a message firmly sent that you can’t run a long-term successful videogame company on a minimum investment/maximum profit basis.

Or, more likely, Bobby Kotick will just find another burgeoning franchise to exploit and run into the ground.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Movies, Games and Videos

Heeeeeeeey! What up peeps? Long time no see, huh? Yeah, I had things to do! You're not my mum! Unless you are, in which case: Hi Mummy! Can I have a glass of chocolate milk?

Now, with that out of the way, let me tell you what has been happening in the exciting life of Mr. Kill. I've been working and playing video games and rolling deep with my homies and drinking (chocolate milk for me, and also chocolate milk for my homies).

I've been seduced by World of Warcraft again thanks to Cataclysm which is, sadly, fucking awesome. But more on that at another time.

Did you know that a Warcraft movie is in production, huh? I bet you're as excited about it as I am. Because I'm not. Ha! Videogame movies uniformly don't work, for a myriad of reasons that I'm not going to go into here because a) it's fucking boring and, b) I didn't want to do that much research.

What I would like to do, however, is have a look at some examples of this genre of movie and make snarky comments about them which distracts from the fact I am deeply insecure about my own sense of creativity and position in life. DOES THAT SOUND GOOD? NO? THEN LET'S GO!

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Oh dear. The first major motion picture to be based on a video game, Super Mario Bros. stands as a testament to the enduring ability of videogame movies to be crap. I would have loved to have been at the pitch meeting for that movie.

'So we wanna make a movie based on that videogame, Super Mario Brothers.'
'Super Mario Brothers? Hmmmm, I dunno. How would that work?'
'Well, we looked at all the imagery in the game, and the themes, and the idea that even the most unlikely of people could become a hero...'
'And we decided to ignore all that and make it about a race of futuristic human dinosaurs'
'FUCKING FUTURISTIC HUMAN DINOSAURS? Why didn't you say so? Where do I sign?!'

The flaws in this film are too numerous to mention, but I'll point out a few:

A lot of the movie is Dennis Hopper chewing scenery and wondering where his career went. Also, what is with the bleach blonde hair ridges? He looks like Annie Lennox.

There's some form of mechanical boot contraptions, which Bob Hoskins secures from a dinosaur transsexual. They allow him to bounce around for no good reason other than to fit in the 'Look! Mario is jumping like he does in the games' factor.

John Legui...Legoo...John Legozammo plays Luigi. Not that he's a bad actor, as such, it's just that the movie contrives to set up Luigi in a romantic entanglement. Now to be fair, it would have been a trifle odd to see Bob Hoskins putting his tongue in Samantha Mathis' mouth, but I feel the filmmakers overlooked one crucial aspect of the Mario universe, namely: Luigi is a filthy, dirty man and he is kept in a basement and he never gets anything good because he deserves to be treated badly.

Street Fighter (1994)

Oh Street Fighter. Street Fighter, Street Fighter, Street Fighter.

Where to begin? Let's start with the cast. Trying to recreate the roster of characters from the game was always going to be a tough call, but instead of focusing on two or three central characters, the producers opted for an ensemble cast and shoehorned in every character they possibly could. An ensemble cast works beautifully when you have A-list actors involved, but if you look at the cast of Street Fighter, it's like a who's who of who the fuck are you.

Also, Cammy features prominently. Fucking Cammy.

The plot of Street Fighter 2 was genius. A bunch of men and women with abilities bordering on magical fly around the globe, meet in a variety of locations and kick the shit out of each other. Hence the Street part and the Fighter part of the title. Genius in it's simplicity and throrough in its exploration of man's need to travel and punch.

Not so for Street Fighter, the movie. At this stage, I was going to point out some of the crappy elements of the plot, and decided to check out the wikipedia page of the film to refresh my knowledge. After reading the page, it occurs to me that the plot doesn't make a lick of fucking sense. Not one. Seriously.

The film begins in the fictional nation of Shadaloo, where a drug lord turned General named M. Bison (the M is for Marianne) has taken hostage a number of members of the Allied Nations, which in no way bears any resemblance to the United Nations. It's also refreshing to see that career opportunities are plentiful in Shadaloo. If you tire of your chosen job path as a drug lord, you can look to the military for a career.

Now this M. Bison cat is threatening to kill the hostages if the Allied Nations commander, William F. Guile, doesn't secure a $20 billion dollar ransom. Incidentally, the 'F' stands for Fanny. Bison asserts that if the hostages are executed, the world will blame Guile. Two things here: Firstly, M. Bison couldn't have been much of a drug lord if he needs to extort money from the international community. What was he dealing? Aspirin? Secondly, I hate to break it to ya Bison, but if you kill a bunch of hostages, people are probably going to blame YOU for it, not some other bloke.

Meanwhile, Ken and Ryu are fighting some dude and then another dude is a dude who dudes a dude. I can't even try and poke fun at the plot anymore, it's depressing me too much. It just does not...make sense. Seriously, check out the wikipedia page. I could cry.

Also, the fighting in it is shit. Which is a problem when a film called Street Fighter features a poor selection of both streets and fights.

The only saving grace is Raul Julia, who plays M. Bison. He also played Gomez Addams. No doubt he knew that the role and film were trash, but he was too professional to give it anything less than his best shot. Sadly, Street Fighter was Raul Julia's last film. What a note to end on :S

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

This is one of the better ones of the bunch, but it's still not very good. It's like shitting your pants just as you are leaving the house. Sure, the damage and embarrassment are limited, but you've still just shit in your pants.

Lara Croft is played by professional tits-on-a-stick Angelina Jolie, who effects an awkward English accent throughout. That is, of course, whenever her gigantic lips aren't flapping about in the breeze.

The film opens with Lara Croft in some sort of temple, trying to secure a diamond when she is attacked by a big robot. Luckily, Lara manages to rip out the robot's motivational circuits and it gets all depressed and just wants to lie in bed all day. She secures the diamond and it transpires that the whole sequence took place in a specialized training room inside her mansion.

Oh yes, in case you didn't know, Lara Croft is a toff. It would have been much more humourous had this film been called Lara Croft: Toff Raider, and featured Angelina Jolie riding around with a pack of beagles, wondering aloud where one can find a reliable silversmith these days and thoroughly misunderstanding the plight of the working class. But I digress.

The plot is the usual sort of non-offensive adventuring and derring-do (incidentally, what the fuck does 'derring-do' actually mean?) that makes it acceptable family viewing and centers around the usual 'messages from a disappeared father leading our heroine to a variety of exotic locations and implausible action set-pieces' scenario with an ending that's as utterly predictable as it is setting up a sequel. It's also worth pointing out that, until the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which I won't mention here because I haven't seen it), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was the highest grossing film based on a videogame of all time.

It also features Daniel Craig. You know, James Bond with the wee swimming pants.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

I'm not going to dwell too long on this film. This is a weird one, this is. As much as a 'look at how fucking realistic we can make shit look, bitches' demonstration as it is a film, this movie suffers again from the rambling, incoherent plot disease that infects so many videogame movies. However, in this case it's not unexpected as it's related to JRPG's, which themselves are not known for having the most coherent of plots.

No shitting, but it is pretty. It was on TV again some weeks ago, and even after all this time it looks impressive.

The story features a future Earth which has been overrun by Phantoms, aliens which kill on touch. A scientist called Aki is trying to collect 8 spirit signatures, like some sort of ghostly petitioner, which will rid Earth of these aliens. At its heart, it's the common theme of touchy-feely understanding of spirituality versus man-made violence and destruction. And, unfortunately, the touchy-feely part wins.

Come on, I can't have been the only one who watched Avatar and wanted to see the Na'vi get their asses kicked? That dude with the grey hair and the scars was one cool-ass motherfucker. PEW-PEW! 'Your flying birds are no match for my tactical missiles, budgie boy!' BOOM! 'Your creepy hair tentacles won't protect you from a sniper's bullet, you gangly blue bastard!'

'Ha, ha! Stop crying, you fools! It's just a tree!'


Resident Evil (2002)

Last one on my list. I've seen others but writing about how terrible games are as movies hurts my very soul.

I saw this one in a cinema in Paris with French dialogue and English subtitles. Even watching Milla Hohohovitch running around saying 'Sacre bleu, le zombies!' couldn't really improve it.

The opening sequence, with a whole bunch of office workers being wiped out by a malevolent AI and a grisly sequence in an elevator, is unfair. Unfair because it's pretty awesome, and makes the remainder of the film pants by comparison.

The director Paul W. S. Anderson, who directed the brilliant and terrifying Event Horizon, eschewed any of the subtlety or creeping sense of dread present in the games in favour of a heavy metal soundtrack and guns. Lots of guns.

It features Milla Hohohovitch, also known as MultiPass weirdo from The Fifth Element, as Alice and Michelle Rodriguez as a mean-faced hardass with an indistinct sexual preference. So pretty much Michelle Rodriguez playing herself, then.

If you are familiar with the games, the film involves zombies and other nasties and I won't bore you with the details. All I would say is that the special effects aren't great. The zombies often look like the zombies from Michael Jackson's Thriller video, and there is a scene later on involving a CGI creature called The Licker (which, now I think about it, sounds like a ladies sex toy) and the damn thing looks like it was made on a Commodore 64.

There have been a number of sequels to Resident Evil, which have apparently been much better, but I don't care and you can't make me.

Honourable mention: The Wizard (1989)

This is one of the few films I can think of that, while not based on a specific videogame, features videogames heavily and didn't shit all over a game franchise that I loved.

It features a young boy called Jimmy who has been suffering from an unknown mental condition since the death of his twin sister. Jimmy doesn't really speak, is obsessive and always carries his lunch box. Not because he's a fat fucker, though.

Jimmy's mother and his step-father are very understanding of his needs and put him in an institution.

But luckily his older brother, played by Fred Savage, comes along and busts him out in order to take him to California. Point of interest, I always thought that Savage was a made-up name, it's like being called Mr. Beast. But then I met a guy with the name Savage, so now I know it's real.

They go across country and it transpires that Jimmy is a genius at videogames. Some skank they pick up along the way nicknames him 'The Wizard' (you see?) and suggests entering him into a gaming tournament called Video Armageddon, where he could win $50,000. Don't worry, easily frightened people, the world doesn't actually end, there isn't really an Armageddon.

They also meet a pretty dude who has a 'Power Glove' and makes a lot of fists. The homoerotic subtext is mindblowing.

In the end, Jimmy wins the contest, evades a runaway-child hunter (read: paedo), and stops acting like a retard.

It's a beautiful film. And it's pretty much a 100-minute long ad for Nintendo.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Nuclear war has never been so much fun

Ok, so again it has been a whole since my last post but there are three main reasons for that: Halo: Reach multiplayer, Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout: New Vegas.

On the first, the multiplayer on Halo: Reach is awesome fun. On release, the Sniper and SWAT game modes were included in the Team Slayer playlist, but thankfully a recent patch has rectified that so now the retards can run around shouting 'Herp derp I killed that Halo with a haedshot' in their own games and leave the rest of us decent people in peace. Add to that the future removal of the rank cap and a new map pack coming at the end of November, and it looks like Halo: Reach will be around for a long time to come.

As for the second, I picked up Dragon Age: Origins on a whim and I don't regret it. I was thinking about doing a few retrospective reviews on games that people might have missed and DA: O would make an excellent study. A friend asked me what it was like and the answer was that it was like 'Oblivion meets Knights of the Old Republic meets Baldur's Gate meets World of Warcraft with a pseudo D&D ruleset and a small helping of bestiality'. So, all in all, it's very good, and also soaked in gore. Yummy.

The last, and most recent, reason is Fallout: New Vegas, which was an unexpected gift from my other half.

I must confess I never played the first two Fallout games. I was never a huge fan of the isometric perspective, and somehow the games passed me by.

I loved Fallout 3 however.

The sheer wealth of options and playstyles made it, quite simply, a very sound investment. In a time where it feels like single player campaigns almost feel like an afterthought to the multiplayer aspect (yes, that means you, COD), a game that you can get engrossed in for hours and marvel at the depth of character and story created by the developers seems more and more like a rarity. Therefore, £30 on Fallout 3 in return for hundreds of hours of gaming meant that picking up the sequel was a no-brainer.

And thanks to my lovely, lovely lady, I got it the day after release.

I'm not that far into it, only about ten hours but so far, it's like seeing your father in a dress.

By that, I mean you know it's your father, it's familiar, but a lot has changed. I am the motherfucking king of analogies.

The story so far (and I have only played about 12 hours of the game) is so so. You play a courier who has something stolen from him and been left for dead, and you set out on a mission to find the men who did it and recover your property.

Combat has been refined, you can now aim down the sights of whatever firearm you are carrying, which blurs the line between RPG and FPS even further. VATS is still around but it doesn't have the 'must use or die' quality that it had in Fallout 3.

As well as being able to build weapons, they have added a feature to allow you to create new ammo or convert existing ammo into another type. Of course this is all dependent on your chosen skills, but it saves you from the somewhat ironic position I found myself in with Fallout 3 where it was possible to build a weapon and then spend ages trying to scrape together enough ammo to actually put it to meaningful use.

In a move reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Bethesda have added various plants around the game world which can be collected and, when cominbined with the Survival skill, used to create rad-free foods, boosters and trading commodities. Personally, I find this addition a bit...meh. Unless you decide to max out Survival as a major character trait, you'll have little spare points to put into the skill, meaning a lot of the things that can be crafted will pass you by. And the items available from investing heavily in Survival just aren't enough to justify diverting points away from other skills.

Also added are various factions that you can win or lose confidence with. This has been implemented extremely well, as the relationships you can develop are quite complex. For example, near the start of the game I wiped out an entire camp of bandits and became villified by their faction, meaning they would attack me on sight. Much later on, I inadvertantly rescued two of their members and now I am known to them as a Kind Thug. They hate me and refuse to trade with me, but they won't kill me.

The game world is huge, and you will constantly be discovering new things. The game is also packed with humour, depravity and pop culture references, all the hallmarks of a Fallout game. So far I have picked up references to Blade Runner, Robocop and Anchorman, as well as seen children eating a rat and had a mad man tell me he was taught magic by a mole.

The game is far from perfect though.

If you have read any of the mainstream reviews of Fallout: New Vegas, you will have read about the bugs. I played on the PC version on the day after release, by which stage a patch had already been released that should be coming to the consoles soon. Apparently this fixed many of the issues, but I have had repeated crashes and texture pop-in. Minor but annoying.

A less minor, but kind of funny, bug I encountered was in the middle of talking to a character about a quest, he shouted 'What the hell?' and ran out of the room, through a wall and out of the game world. Which meant that I had to fast travel to another town, reboot the game, and return to the NPC to carry on with the game.

If you do pick this up, SAVE OFTEN.

One other gripe of mine is the map and compass. It remains unchanged from the previous game. Meaning that if there is an enemy nearby, a red blip will show up on your compass. If the enemy is above or below you, there is no indication of its elevation, meaning you can wander around an area looking for an enemy who is two floors above you. Also, the local map is woefully inadequate. It looks poor, doesn't reflect an accurate picture of your surroundings and frequently get's confused. It really isn't acceptable.

All in all, Fallout: New Vegas is an excellent game. It is clear Bethesda had some pretty ambitious ideas, and for the most part, the meet their aims. In pure terms of value for money, I've already got my next two playthroughs planned.

For the next playthrough, I intend to create an avatar that looks exactly like my other half, dress her in a summer dress, make her specialise in energy weapons and play it through as evil as I can possibly be.

After that, a melee-weapon-using bruiser with a heart of gold.

Mojave, mo' problems. Stay classy New Vegas.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Why It's Awesome Being Me

Right, well, the title of this entry might be a bit misleading. Sure, you might be thinking ‘What makes you so fucking awesome, Mr. Kill?’ and I assure you, there isn’t enough storage on the internet for me to properly answer that particular question, but what I really meant to explain is: Why it’s awesome being a gamer.

But before I get into that, I must apologise for the lack of new posts recently. You can blame Halo: Reach multiplayer. I find myself in a strange situation, namely somewhat addicted to a game I’m shit at. I plan to review the multiplayer elements of Halo: Reach at some point in the future, because it does have its flaws, but maybe not anytime immediately soon. I don’t know. Shut up.

There’s also been tons of gaming news recently that I should mention: Sony showing that they still hate their customers, a release date for the 3DS, positive reviews for the Sony Move system, a HD re-release of cult classic Beyond Good and Evil, and a whole bunch more.  

Anyways, on to the task at hand. Now, if you are a gamer, you probably already know what I’m talking about. Most of us stride throughout the land, towering over lesser mortals, reacting to things with the reflexive speed of a Jedi on Ecstasy, giggling at jokes about George Lucas, while pirate wenches and zombies fall at our feet (the former from hysterical lust, the latter from a well-placed headshot).
But it has occurs to me that not all of our digitally-inclined brethren are aware of just why it’s awesome being a gamer, so I’m gonna point out a few things.

We are never, ever bored

It’s true. While other people may wake up on a Sunday with a hangover, lazily watch T4 for four hours and then catch the Eastenders omnibus before getting a Bargain Bucket from KFC in their pyjamas, finishing the day off by wanking themselves into oblivion and then crying themselves to sleep, this isn’t true of the gamer. Bored? Fire up a game of Fallout 3 and play it as an evil lady who only kills with a pistol while wearing a summer dress. Or boot up your favourite online shooter and belch down the microphone while repeatedly killing your team mates with grenades until you get permabanned from the server. Great fun, and before you know it, it’s time for bed. Obviously, I can’t guarantee you won’t still wank yourself into oblivion and cry yourself to sleep, but at least you didn’t have to watch Big Mo’s bulldog face banging on about her haemorrhoids for two hours. Maybe I should take that back. The actress that plays Big Mo is Gary Oldman’s sister, and that cat is Sirius Black and I wouldn’t want him to Jinx my Bubotuber. Maybe I would, it sounds sexy.

We are the first point of call for tech stuff

Generally speaking, if the non-techy people in your life have a problem with their printer/laptop/calculator, they will come to you. Why? Because identifying yourself as a gamer is equivalent to identifying yourself as knowledgeable in tech. It’s great when it comes to earning points with your work colleagues. Sure you never get invited to the park for an office kick around on account of your wheezing and deathly pale complexion, and you aren’t included in the office football sweepstakes because you can’t tell your Sheffield Tuesday from your Charlton Automatic, but when Dean, the beef-cake in Accounts who everyone thinks is cheating on his wife with the intern in IT can’t sync his Blackberry with his mail server, you can charge in like a polygonal white knight and save the day. And next time Dean is popping out for a fag, he’ll offer you one, but you’ll have to say no because you had polio as a child and using your lungs too much makes your heart sore.

Small talk is a doddle
Personally, when I meet someone for the first time, I tend to ignore them. This will continue for some time. It’s not because I am an ignorant fucker…well, I am an ignorant fucker…but that isn’t responsible for my reticence. No, I just feel awkward making small talk when sober. When I’m drunk, I’ll be all up in the new persons grille, blowing smoke and breathing Buckfast fumes on them and touching them in a slightly inappropriate manner, but sober, I’m mildly sweaty and quiet. Unless said new person expresses even the slightest interest in games and then I’ll be all like ‘NO WAI!’ and we can talk for ages. To ensure this tactic has the widest spread possible, it’s best to play as many different types of games on as many different systems as possible. That way you can converse on everything from the best builds to take on 4-1 in Demons’ Souls, to the most effective way to ‘catch ‘em all’ in Pokemon on the DS. Also, it pays to familiarise yourself with the likes of PES and Fifa. That way, if you ever find yourself surrounded by manly men who like to talk about fighting on buses and playing sport in the fresh air, you can pose this question: Which is better, Fifa or PES? You’ll immediately be one of the gang and the men will buy you beer and fight people for you.

You’ll have improved spatial awareness and reflexes

It has been shown in scientific studies, by scientists, that people who regularly play certain types of videogames have higher levels of spatial awareness and quicker reflexes than non-gamers. This is only half true for me. Sure, my reflexes are like a cobras. At all times I am coiled and ready to go off, like a bomb or a carton of milk that’s been left out. No seriously, give me plenty of notice, and a lot distance, and call my name and then throw something gently toward me and 45% of the time, I’ll catch it. That’s what 20 odd years of gaming will do, make you a fucking catching supremo. However, as for spatial awareness, maybe not so good. I can’t reverse around a corner without hitting the kerb and I still manage to piss all over the floor when I pee, even if I’m sitting down, but I figure one out of two ain’t bad, like that Meatloaf song.

You are at the cutting edge of media
In post-WWII America, kids were flocking to cinemas to watch movies like the Wolfman, or Boris Karloff sucking. It was a new form of media, an art form refined far beyond what was initially thought possible. It was a great time to be alive, apart from all the socially-acceptable racism and threat of atomic kitten war. And who would have been raised on these sorts of films? I’ll tell ya, people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and shit. Now, despite the fact that Stevo has daddy issues and George Lucas would stamp ‘Star Wars’ on dog shit and try to sell it, these guys were partially responsible for revolutionising cinema and have made some truly awesome movies. Now, imagine the generation of kids who are being raised on games like Call of Duty, or Mass Effect, and one can’t help but look at the future and smile.

Finally, a riddle 

 How many bears would Bear Grylls grill if Bear Grylls could grill bears?

Monday, 13 September 2010

Reach Around: My first one and a half hours with Halo: Reach

So, ya, I ordered Halo: Reach when I bought my 360. On Saturday I had an email from Amazon saying delivery would be delayed, and today I came home from work to find it awaiting me amongst an envelope from the Reader's Digest (apparently I have won £100, 000 in a draw I don't remember entering) and associated other shite from local businesses.


I've played the first hour and a half, maybe, and figured it might be a good idea to give you a grasp of the initial stages and my first impressions.

Before I loaded up my first game, there was a message for the beta testers explaining that, as it is ahead of release date, some features aren't working, mainly multiplayer. Not that I'm bovvered, it'll take me a week or so to get my head around multiplayer and I just wanted to talk about a few things that had struck me during play.

Modern Warfare, you have a lot to answer for

Seriously though.

The influence that games like Modern Warfare exert is particularly telling in Halo: Reach.

From the outset it is clear that Halo is a half-step outside the Halo formula we have come to know and love and that is definitely no bad thing.

For a start, Halo: Reach is darker. I hate to use that term, but it is the only one that fits. In it's own way, Halo: Reach is much more military shooter, somewhat less sci-fi shooter, and benefits considerably from it. If you've come to depend on the bright colours and vibrant environments familiar to the Halo franchise, you may have to adjust a bit. Sure, the plasma grenades are still neon blue, the Jackals carry Mardi-Gras shields but there is definitely a more understated, realistic palette put to use here. It could divide Halo purists but I, for one, love it. The counterpoint of gritty rifle fire, explosions and hot pink Needler rounds is excellent. There is so much more of a sense of humans fighting against a thoroughly alien foe.

A further addition is your squad. You can pick up rank and file marines to join your fire team as you go along, but the story is driven by other members of Noble team, and so far their characterisations are very good. I'll need to play more to determine whether the player will connect with them, but so far I am pleased.

Towards the beginning of the game you are warned by a colleague that your 'lone wolf act' won't work on Reach. Heed these words carefully. The beautiful one-man-army gameplay of Halo, running into a crowd of Covenant flinging grenades and spamming melee attacks, is here in all it's glory but you must pick your battles carefully and make more precise use of tactics if you wish to succeed.

And with good reason, as the enemies I've encountered so far have learnt some new tricks. The Grunts are a lot more grenade happy and also much more keen on the plasma kamikaze attacks. The Elites Seriously. Whilst the roll mechanic was something new in Halo 2, they clearly learnt from these guys. Not only are they rolling, but they are jumping, dodging your gunfire and generally being a wee bit sneakier.

I must also mention the equipment you can now select for your character. One of the features of Halo 3 was the ability to get a single use out of various pieces of equipment, bubble shields etc. The same principle returns in Halo: Reach, only this time the player can use these items repeatedly, dependent on a cooldown. So far I have encountered Sprint (bog standard sprint ability) and one that makes you invincible for a few moments and can allow your shield to regen whilst fully immobilizing you. These are great wee additions and I can't wait to find more and also see how they play out in multiplayer.

There are some negatives so far.

Back when Halo released, it was at the cutting edge of graphics. Not so much the case here. Don't get me wrong; they are great and very sharp. It's just they aren't mind-blowing. I also noticed some drops in framerate when there was a lot going on, which is a particular pet peeve of mine which I hope doesn't carry over into multiplayer.

Also, as with Halo: ODST, the ability to dual wield is gone. I'm personally not fussed, never used it much, but that may annoy fans of the system.

In all, Halo: Reach is great. I cannot wait to see how the story pans out and I'm itching to have another bash at it. I had a browse through the multiplayer menus and that, and there appears to be a HUGE amount of unlockables, as well as a dearth of new game modes.

From this early taster, it would seem that Halo: Reach is the perfect game to end the Halo franchise and I sincerely hope I am proved correct.