I've never been great with titles...

Having thoroughly redesigned my blog page into the most bland, unimaginative slab of monochrome HTML abuse imaginable, I'm back - and as bitter and unrestrained as ever.
Yes, after another year of inactivity and neglecting my duties as a worthless, over opinionated internet blogger writing egotistical nonsense nobody cares about, I'm back to write another clueless, pointless and vaguely unpleasant rant about whatever I feel like verbally attacking this month, which given the amount of time I've been away will be rather a lot. In fact, in the following wall of text you can expect the following: seven pictures(!), a review of Gran Turismo 5, two all-new rants and some self-indulgent tripe of interest to nobody but myself concerning both my new car and a new career path!
So, before my motivation wanes let's get this show on the road.

The two previous viewers of this blog may have noticed I'm no longer sporting the 'Beware of the Level Designer' title. Well, that's mainly because I'm no longer a level designer. I'll explain fully at a later date, but suffice to say that having spent two years working on a course in possibly the worst public college in Europe I came to the following two bitter conclusions:

Firstly, although I was a barely passable designer the job had completely lost its allure for me.
Secondly, my pencil and paper artistic skills were certainly not passable even in a pre-school and would hamper my career as an artist or a designer, the two games careers I was interested in.

Therefore, with my Distinction-Distinction-Merit-grade National Diploma in Games Development freshly placed atop the contents of the junk box in my attic I give my leave to the once alluring games industry. Not to sound bitter, but from the way it's evolving, I think I left just in time - before I could become a part of what is likely to be either its undoing or its evolution into what the IT industry has become - a corporate wasteland where money is firmly in control of everything and everyone.
Obviously, the games industry is too big and too diverse to collapse at this point, but it's been getting steadily worse since its '70s origination, where auteurs would release entertaining pet projects that publishers would happily greenlight and send to arcades nationwide. Up until the 1990s and early 2000s there would still be some original and artistically brilliant projects making it to market, but today we have to make do with atrocious movie tie-ins and the 73rd sequel to a franchise whose teats are so sore and desiccated that milking them constitutes an act of torture, both for the developer and the player. Obviously games themselves are too artistically dependent to be completely subsumed by corporate greed, and original titles will still slip through the spreadsheets on occasion, but the trend has been overwhelmingly depressing so far, and with people like Bobby 'The Tick' Kotick piloting industry-leading publishers like Activision, one has every right to be a doomsayer on the matter. And that's not all.

While major companies like Sony and Microsoft, publishers like Activision and EA and even developers like Treyarch and Infinity Ward are waging bloody conflicts in the streets for people's money the games industry is completely lacking the cohesion or cooperation necessary to change its immature, 'child's toy' public image. This means the games industry has and is increasingly going to balloon into an even fatter, easier target for blind, misinformed halfwits to blame for society's problems, exploiting their position in said society to get their foundations, charities or movements into the headlines by making all-sweeping generalisations about matters unrelated to whichever extremely inappropriate subject happens to be in the news.
I find it somewhat ironic that the Irish, a people renowned for their drinking, fighting and womanising is trying to undermine the cause for a violent act. It brings to mind the image of a drunken Irishman sitting in a police holding cell, yelling incriminating lies about his friends in order to occlude his own guilt, possibly convincing one of the slow-witted coppers to free him.
(You see, Mr O'Dowd? I can spout misinformed, bolshy propaganda as well, mine just doesn't make the headlines. Please stop unquestionably parroting the speeches handed to you by your grubbing press officer, do some actual research on the subject that goes deeper than Fox News headlines and Jack Thompson's website and come to your own, less media-friendly conclusions.)

Phew, rant over.
You'd think that we gamers would be used to the frequent assaults on our pastime by self aggrandising pricks manipulating the public into thinking they're fighting for 'family values' and 'ending violence forever', and yet every time they mingle their way into the crowds of other lies broadcast on the Fox News network I still have a surge of bile work its way into my typing fingers.

Anyway, with any hope I might have had at employment in the games industry lying smashed and broken in the pages before my bloodshot eyes, I take another swig of Captain Hotmug's patented Morning De-Fogger™, better known as coffee, and look towards my future. I suppose every wrong turn gets me one step closer to success, or at the very least a step closer to life as a syringe-riddled corpse floating face down in the browny-grey waters of a disused bathhouse. On that note of optimism, I should like to present my appropriately optimistic (read: deluded) case as a writer. Having no discernable talent for anything other than spitting myself into a stupor every morning Jack Thompson wakes up alive I think any other artistic (read: do-nothing) career would be somewhat out of reach to me, and life as a retail assistant or short-order cook doesn't particularly appeal to me, given that interaction with live humans is necessary in order to sustain it.
So why, I hear you sneer disgustedly at your screen, does any of this matter to me, the reader of this two-bit internet skid mark? Well, for starters it means that I might take this blog slightly more seriously from now on, providing anything up to monthly updates as opposed to my previous 'whenever' policy. One might also assume that the quality and variety of the content may improve as well, but I honestly wouldn't get your hopes up. Given my prior record it's a bad assumption to make at all.

Having made a mockery of both my past and future careers I would now like to present something that I take very seriously indeed. Those with a short attention span may wish to skip ahead a few paragraphs until I start berating something again. This shouldn't take long.

Having a life-long interest in both cars and games means that I have naturally owned several copies of the famed Gran Turismo franchise over the years, and later on in this wall of text there is a review of its latest incarnation, but for now, a nostalgic trip back through my childhood.
Of all the cars in the original two Playstation 1-dwelling GT games, the one that stuck with me through the years was the 8th generation Mitsubishi Galant. Despite not being anywhere near as exciting or as obtrusively fast and brash as, say, a Honda NSX or a '71 Charger, it wormed its way into my subconscious with its discrete, pseudo-aggressive front and hard-lined form. Its mere inclusion in Gran Turismo must have also had an effect on my opinion of it, as I mentally categorise it as a performance-oriented car, even though it was never designed as such. Even the rally-bred, range-topping VR4 was adapted from the existing chassis, rather than the chassis designed for it.

Many of you at this point with an automotive knowledge may be of the opinion that I don't exactly have high aspirations, especially when you consider that the Galant is a mid-range, mass-produced, front-wheel drive 4-door saloon car that dropped off the end of the production line almost 9 years ago. Well, naysayers, I put it to you that this car is better looking than any diesel-powered box excreted by any wholly-owned Volkswagen subsidiary over the last twenty years, which includes most of Europe at this point. In fact, I'd be so bold as to say that the Galant, with its gaping, consume-all air dam, its calmly determined eyes, all-forward bonnet bulges, beaky nose, subtly flared arches and bulging upper-midship is more handsome than any 4-door in the world, and to me at least, the best looking car design thus far in our history. Sure, the backside is slightly anonymous, with an unappealing boot and a set of subservient taillights, but it can't all be good. The addition of a low spoiler greatly improves the look of the poopdeck, and the taillights encourage trailing BMW and Audi drivers to overtake, comfortably allowing them to settle into the firing line of its unnerving stare.
Sure, the design is somewhat derivative of the Germans that came before it but Japan is famous for improving upon existing designs by making them sharper, more efficient and adding layers of cutting-edge tech.
There are many who would argue that a lowly saloon can never beat the beauty of a classic Ferrari, a Lamborghini or even a boldly designed hatchback, but the fact of the matter is when you accelerate past a crowd of waiting people at a pedestrian crossing in your bright red ZZX-620 Kompensator, every one of those people is going to immediately envision an over-privileged twat behind the wheel, snorting at the peasants outside his world of leather and wood for not being as rich as him.
A well designed sports saloon can slip past the crowd unnoticed in comfort and style, but once out of earshot can swiftly overtake the yuppie and be out of sight before he even has time to consider ringing his local BMW dealer.

Anyway, I realise that beauty is naturally subjective so here are a few pictures which state my case for the beauty of this freshly polished car's design.

Galant Picture #1
Galant Picture #2
Galant Picture #3
Galant Picture #4
Please excuse my shitty number plate photoshopping.
Sigh. It hasn't been this clean since I took these pictures in October last year.

If you know about Galants you'll probably know that this is a UK-spec post-facelift (2001-2003) Galant saloon with the UK-exclusive alloy wheels created by Team Dynamics. It styles the same bodykit as the top-of-the-line VR-4, and while that may be a slightly hollow choice given that it only has a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder 4G63 SOHC producing 131bhp, it's a bold design that sets it apart from other saloons in its class. Of course, the ambition is to one day own the 4-wheel drive, twin-turbocharged super-saloon that is the Galant VR4, but until the insurance costs become slightly less extortionate, my valiant pretender will do just fine.
That's not to say I'm not going to try and improve on Mitsubishi's work - oh no.

The 4G63 engine sold in bottom-tier UK Galants is undoubtedly one of the smoothest 4-cylinder engines ever produced, with its rolling rockers, balance shafts the size of barbells and a mild, smooth-revving manner - but it's inescapably a dinosaur. It's based on an iron block that's been around since the early '80s in one form or another, and while it is eminently tuneable, I would prefer not to brand myself as a ricer by bolting on a bright purple air filter and drilling holes in the exhaust.
Instead, despite the one-off cost of the work involved, I'm going to be removing it, replacing it with a 197bhp MIVEC-equipped 6A12 DOHC 24v V6 from a donor Mitsubishi FTO. This engine, while quieter and smoother than a 4-cylinder, also makes a BMW-like power output of nearly 100bhp per litre of displacement - the holy grail of naturally aspirated engine design. It features a three stage MIVEC variable intake and exhaust timing system which, while requiring some RPMs to provide any real kick, makes a superb growl which evolves into a roar as the system actuates.
For those of us unfamiliar with the complex language of Car, this roughly translates into the following - "I'm going to make it go really fast".
Mitsubishi themselves sold a 6A12-equipped Galant in East Asia as the Galant VR-M, but this is the only market in which these two entities saw union.

I also plan to have an exact duplicate of the factory exhaust system made in stainless steel for longevity, and the addition of a double-din satnav system/stereo should improve its usefulness as a long distance cruiser - the car you realise the Galant was always destined to be once you take one for a drive along a motorway.
Cosmetic modifications will be few but tasteful; a low-level boot spoiler, some 'Sport' edition fog lamps, stainless steel 'Galant' kick plates and some floor mats - all genuine Mitsubishi parts designed for this car.
The idea is to make a car that, aside from some material improvements, Mitsubishi could have designed and built themselves, using all-original Mitsubishi parts (wherever available) taken from other MMC vehicles.
Recycling every scrap I remove, I also intend to turn the original engine block into a coffee table by removing the head, having the iron block treated to prevent rust, polishing it, and affixing a sheet of custom tempered glass using the original head bolts.
While all of this may sound extremely expensive and wildly over optimistic to readers unfamiliar with this car's past I can blushingly admit that since its purchase I have already spent a little over £6000 on repairs, restorations and replacement parts, and it's still not finished. I bought it for a few pennies over £1000 just before Christmas 2009 and from that you can probably hazard a guess as to the state it was in. Any logically thinking person would have simply scrapped it and cut their losses, but a person in love with a ton and a bit of metal isn't likely to be thinking logically. I can at least console myself with the knowledge that the money I lavish on it could just as likely have been spent on the girlfriend I have in some alternate universe.
Besides, the image of some future incarnation of myself watching TV with my feet up on my shiny 4G63 coffee table is infinitely motivating; backlighting the glass with the application of LEDs inside the cylinders is of course optional.

Conversely, my review of Gran Turismo 5 is certainly not optional given that it was promised earlier in this post.
Drawing on my self-destructive habit of exploding a small issue into something that insults the entire gaming community, I should like to start with my view of GT5's journey to market so far.

Gran Turismo 5 cover picture

Gran Turismo 5 has had a development time of approximately six years, if you assume they began work immediately after finishing GT4, and during that time it has been Sony's prize fighter - an unwilling mascot with questionable abilities thrust into the world of public conflict, of console vs. console, of Sony vs. Microsoft - used as a crude instrument in a marketing war designed to help a major corporation win millions of dollars from its competitors.

Playing Gran Turismo 5 is a very different story. Every memory of the war this game has fought fades away and is replaced with the image of a small, dedicated team beavering away somewhere in Japan on their vision of a perfect racing game. This is an experience which manages to completely separate itself from the hype, hysteria and promise of its marketing and simply do what comes naturally to it.

Starting from the 'FINALLY!' moment after game finishes installing itself onto your hard drive, you're greeted, oddly, by planet earth.
What follows is Gran Turismo 5's introductory video - an abridged journey of a car's trip from ground to track, as its metal is harvested and turned into a familiar shape by a series of vast industrial empires. The chassis, the bodywork, the glass, the engine, the interior - all fly past the undercranked camera accompanied by a sophisticated classical piano composition - reminiscent of the PS3's equally adult boot-up sequence. Even shots of a working engine are interspersed with the madness, beautiful in its complexity and delicate function. What follows the manufacturing process is a reminder of what the end result of this process means to its consumers - freedom. A series of headfirst clips of some inspiring roads are fired at us, including some famous racetracks, to remind us of what the car has meant to humanity since its birth, and what it is capable of. We are then given a bird's eye view of the arteries of Tokyo, running red and white with lights of thousands of cars, pumping their occupants through the largest and most advanced city in the world - emphasising the car's importance in Japan's post-war development.
This stunning montage of history and technology then ends with a spinning V6 engine slowly revealing itself as that of the R35 Nissan GTR, which greets us with a blaze of light.
At this point the piano ends as abruptly as it started and we hear the howl of modernity assert itself over the scene, slowly evolving into a modern rock song which gives us a tour of Gran Turismo 5's wide repertoire. From WRC to NASCAR, F1 to Kei cars, from the fifties to the two thousands, Gran Turismo 5 seems to relax into the satisfaction of its completeness and, like its difficult birth, ends in its best bit - the game itself, or in the case of the video, the Red Bull X2010.
However, is its best feature any good?

Galegnum around Autmumn Ring picture
Above: Can you see what it is yet? My 'Standard' Pyrenees black Legnum in action.

I'm not going to pretend I went into Gran Turismo 5 with anything other than hope.
I prayed that my childhood memories of early PS1 and PS2 Gran Turismo games wouldn't get brutally stepped on by some ham-handed rehash of past glories - I wanted it to succeed. I prayed it was soul and substance, not just flash.
However, my scepticism fell away like an old newspaper in the rain because almost immediately you're charmed by its class and simplicity - the slightly dated Japanese piano tunes that play on the menus create an atmosphere of optimism and potential.
The gratifying rush of excitement stimulated by buying your first car in a Gran Turismo game was always vaguely reminiscent of buying your first real car, and 5 is no different. Taking it to a race event and nosing past your opponent over the finish line is made into an ecstasy as you receive a shining trophy, a handful of experience points and some currency which you can use to improve or replace your car - all set against a suitably congratulatory ditty.
This is the reason GT5 is such a joyful game to play - every positive action is attributed value and significance - however seriously you want to take it - and the addiction of buying cars, tuning them and powering them to victory is made ever stronger.

However, it's not the gratification that will keep you playing Gran Turismo 5, nor is it the superb gameplay which I'll mention in a minute, it's the detail.
Any given car may be represented in GT5 with multiple versions - different engines, different years of production to include minor suspension or engine changes, identical cars sold under different badges (so you can buy the version of the car sold under the brand in YOUR home country), different trim levels and special editions... and most of these aren't even to pad out the game's 1031 cars, either - many of them aren't even recognised as separate models. While it does become tiresome to wade through the millions of variants of RX7, NSX, S2000, Impreza and Z-car in the used car lot to buy the car you were actually looking for, I'm glad for the frankly stupid amount of choice.
Another example of this near-rectal level of detail is the game's camera mode.
A feature carried over from Gran Turismo 4, this allows you to photograph your freshly-polished baby in one of several glitzy locations - all beautifully created. Once you've walked around the scene and positioned your motor in a nice spot, adjusted its wheel angle, headlight setting and orientation, you walk your camera over to comfortable distance and go into camera mode. Here, you enter a prostate-tickling camera viewfinder and are able to adjust tens of settings - some I haven't even figured out yet. Focal length, exposure, light exposure, lens shape, composition, filters... it's insane.
It's features like this that really let you know what Polyphony Digital were doing for those six years.

Alfa Romeo 147 picture
Above: My 'Premium' Alfa Romeo 147 snapped in photo mode.

Aside from every member of staff earning a fairly comprehensive proctology degree they must have spent quite some time driving cars, too.
I do not take it lightly when I say this: the handling is perfect.
I thought Grand Theft Auto IV's handling would take some beating (yes, I've changed my opinion on GTA4 again - story for another time), and yet GT5 manages to capture the same weighted feel with none of the unresponsiveness or on-rails feeling that GTA sometimes had when pushing cars to the limit. Every single car, however small the differences between them, feels different. Buying a new car is a genuinely tense experience the first time you throw it around a track, as you slowly learn its quirks and kicks and compensate for them. A car will often genuinely amaze you if you've been driving something else for a few races.
Don't get me wrong - GT5 definitely has a recognisable style of handling unique to it, but there are so many possible variations within this style that it's mind-boggling to consider the implications. This is even considering the most advanced and powerful car in my garage is currently a 365bhp Lamborghini Countach - I'm genuinely looking forward to trying some of the legendary Italians, technical Japanese and power-infused Germans later on, but I'm buying cars as I need them - not as I want them.
If you want to know how it feels like to hold a car's potential in your hands, to experience the weight shift as you flick into a corner, to explore the limits of grip and maintain control once you break traction then I cannot recommend a better game than Gran Turismo 5. It's intuitive enough for anybody to pick up, but deep enough to enthral even the most pedantic car bore.

As for criticisms of GT5, I have but two - firstly, the aforementioned wading and waiting required when searching for a specific used car, and secondly the game's sound effects - every car still emits the same dull drone as it screams around a track, however hard you thrash it. That's not to say it hasn't improved from previous GT games, far from it - each car now sounds unique and there are some recognisable noises made by specific cars I am personally familiar with, but they still lack the satisfyingly grumpy noises provided by, say, Project Gotham.

As for the generally agreed-upon criticisms cited by so called 'professional' reviewers like Gamespot who get told by their advertising agency what to say, here is my retort to each of them.
Yes, the Standard cars don't look as good as the Premium cars that they far outnumber (as seen in the two pictures above), but who cares? I have 14 cars, two of them premium, and they still sound great, drive and tune up just as well as the Premium cars. If like me your PS2 died before you had a chance to buy GT4 they'll all still be new to you. Besides, Polyphony Digital has stated an interest in remaking the Standard cars as Premium models and releasing them with subsequent patches, so this could be addressed in the future. I'd personally like to request doing the TOM'S Toyota Chaser, Mitsubishi Legnum VR-4 and Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird first, please!
Also, confusing menus? Christ. Unless you're so thick-skulled you could fall out of a moving train and walk away with an unchanged IQ then you learn them straight away, just like every other game you've ever played. They're different to mainstream western games, I'll grant you, but if you're not used to the slightly unusual way Japan designs games after twenty years then there's no hope for you.
And yes, the AI is still completely autistic - the one legitimate criticism that I have no mature comeback for, so I'll sit here blowing raspberries until you go away.

To sum up then, Gran Turismo 5 is a terrific experience.
It carries itself off as a completely classy, classless racing game that has appeal enough for anybody with a muse wrapped up in the automotive. It still manages to engage me like a plug in a socket, just like it did 13 years ago when it debuted.
Quiet, dignified - totally lost in its own world, GT5 can sometimes seem slightly eccentric and clueless; occasionally losing sight of the big picture.
In the end though, it comes through, and provides an utterly realistic experience with food for the soul. Bravo.

You get none of this sense playing Forza 3 - and yes, I'm aware of the volatile rivalry between the fans of both these games, and mentioning them both in the same breath, especially if that mention is a comparison, is tantamount to weighing up the pros and cons of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad and deciding a victor.
With Forza, Microsoft seems to have repeated their market strategy, last seen with Saints Row, of creating half-baked, Americanised rip-offs intended to saturate the void left by Sony, who faff and wile the evenings away making pie charts of their ever-decreasing market share, waiting for the call from Polyphony Digital, Square Enix or Rockstar Games.
By capitalising on both the absence of a then-current Gran Turismo game and the popularity of the riced up, dumbed down, twat-ridden 'Fast and Furious' culture, they commissioned a game in which you customise Datsuns. Feel free to read that last sentence in Jeremy Clarkson's voice.

Okay, fine - Forza's ample choice of Ferraris, Porsches and roll cage-equipped racing machines construes me as a hypocrite for using the earlier criticized practice of ignoring the evidence to make an untrue point, but I challenge you name me one car featured not instantly identifiable to anyone who's watched both MTV Cribs and Initial D.
Who knows, maybe this is its appeal to the knowledge-vacant youth of modern America, and while it's a commonly levelled (and not unfounded) criticism of Gran Turismo that it's dull, this is purely because of the seriousness and pedanticism with which it approaches its subject matter, and how precious few sacrifices are made in realism to accomodate gameplay.
And speaking of gameplay, even with all the driver aids switched off (which is in my opinion the only way to play a racing game), GT5's cars are predictable enough in their handling to complete a lap of a given track without tasting grass.
In Forza when you turn into a corner, even in a traditionally predictable front-wheel drive car, its numb and uncommunicative handling model gives you absolutely no feedback as to the position or orientation of the front wheels, leaving you to either understeer wide or, if you're more cautious, hug the inside line and get blown away as your competitors overtake you on the outside.

Now of course there is always going to be an element in gaming society that will send me badly spelled emails accusing me of being a whinging, pre-pubescent Playstation, Gran Turismo or Sony fanboy, but simple fact of the matter is that GT beats Forza over their most important feature - the driving. Forza has never exactly had a concrete reputation as a lifelike simulator unlike Gran Turismo, but given it's trying so hard to imitate its forebear you'd think they would at least try.
Now, be forewarned; I am about to completely invalidate my opinion to the aforementioned children who cling loyally to the legs of the multi-billion dollar corporations that own their dignity, by stating that I've only played the demo of Forza 3. Well I'm sorry, but if you want a full review you're going to have to buy me the game because I would rather give my money to the makers of the franchise who are at least honest in their intentions. While Forza has earned the distinction of my categorising it as a franchise worth watching, I consider it as nothing more than that.

Before you click send on the expletive-filled retort you've no doubt prepared in retaliation for this attack on your beloved corporation, consider this: the above distinction is just as worthless as my opinion on the subject. The only difference is I was motivated enough to spend the three minutes necessary to create this Blogger account and begin pissing said opinions over the once pristine internet.

End of rant number two.

Completely changing the subject, and with a record amount rants, masked apologies and fanboys provoked for a few of hours' writing, I would like to leave you with the altogether more pleasant promise of some near-future raves rather than rants.
Having slightly disgusted even myself with the above ejection of foul-smelling bile I feel the need to brighten this page up by posting something slightly more digestible. For now, I bid you adieu - hopefully into the pages of a slightly less depressing site.

Coming soon: An artsy, bespectacled analysis of the Kane & Lynch franchise, my pointless opinion on the Mafia II demo (I'm broke, don't judge me) and a summary of 2010's major releases.

TL;DR: Considering a career change. Bought a Mitsubishi Galant. Love GT5. Deplore Forza 3. More horseshit coming soon.

Thanks for reading. Complementary eye soap is available at all the exits.


Mute Math's Armistice

Image: Armistice

Well now, it has been a while. Nearly a year in fact, which is approximately a third of the time that Mute Math has kept their fans waiting for a new full-length album. I'm going to start now by doing exactly what they have done, by alienating about half the fans with a strange new direction. Yes, I'm going to review a music CD.

Now I realise that quite early on Paul Meany stated that people who loved the first album probably won't like the sophomore, and I'll state right now that I thought the first album, referred to from here on as 'STDA' (or 'self-titled debut album'), was almost perfect. From that you can probably deduce the direction for the rest of this review.

Now, I don't hate it. In fact it will probably be spending the next few months in pride of place on my MSN 'What am I listening to' display. However, there's plenty of things about the new album that have left me out in the cold.
To start, the whole album has been ruthlessly trimmed so there are no more tension-building intro and outtro sections to the more prominent songs (think 'Collapse' and 'After We Have Left Out Homes'). The entire album is like a collection of singles, and there are no purely instrumental tracks like Reset, either. With any other band I wouldn't care, but I was of the opinion that these medleys were an integral part of Mute Math's untidy, complex and organic style. Everything is far more self contained, and as a result less atmospheric. All of these tracks were prepped for single release before they even left the studio.

Now onto the instrumentation. Great, right? Wrong. Go stand in the fucking corner.
Well okay that's a bit harsh. Some of the new instruments they're using are really interesting and I especially approve of the extra piano that tickles away in the background of many of the tracks. However, in order to make room for all this new jazzy, ethnic sound much of that which is quintessentially Mute Math has been lost; no more Atari, no more pseudo-'80s synthesizer backing tracks and messily distorted sampling (with the exceptions of Backfire and Clipping). Every track is akin to a series of random instrumental solos played over each other. It's fair enough if they want to mix up the composition and instrumentation a little bit, but when you change the overall sound to the point where it doesn't sound like you anymore you've got a problem.
The hyped up and loudened drums on every track also reek of fan service to worshippers of Darren's insane drumming. Not that there's anything much wrong with that, since Darren King is probably one of the best drummers alive at the moment, but I think it cheapens the whole experience.
One thing I did love here was Paul's vocals, which have improved immeasurably since the first album. He seems to have stretched his range and become far more smooth than he was on previous tracks. I will also mention Greg and Roy here, because their talent has become far more apparent with this new style. The bass and guitar solos in some of the tracks are 'wicked sick' (pause for distant gunshot sound for using that phrase).

Finally, the last thing that's bugging me is the tone of the album. Everything is more dark and brooding, like a hormonal teenager going through a goth phase (irony realised, thank you). The first half of the tracks of the album sound aggressive and have some very cynical lyrics.
Speaking of lyrics, this is another thing I wanted to bring up. On the STDA the lyrics were some of the most interesting I've ever heard. Almost everything was ambiguous and spiritual, unnerving in some cases, and it added to the atmosphere of the thing. No track ever made a statement, but rather howled questions into an abyss. On Armistice we find stuff like Electrify with its generic 'she' that reminded me irresistibly of Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys. Another throw-away 'the girl' track like the four hundred billion million others out there. Obviously this isn't a universal truth; examples like the brilliant bonus track 'Architecture' (which can be found here incidentally, it took me weeks to find) keep the ambiguity alive, but all of their tracks used to be like this.

Now for all my bitching I will just say that I do love Armistice. It's just no longer the head-above-the-crowd indie rock that it used to be. And no, I'm not one of those 'indier-than-thou' pricks who won't listen to any band with more than nine fans, but so many groups are pulling the weird instrument angle (Coldplay's Viva La Vida springs to mind) that it just doesn't have the impact it would have had a few years ago. Instead of being quirky and unique it's become far more pedestrian.

So Armistice, then. Yes it's a worthy successor to the STDA, but no the new direction isn't to my liking. I'd like to think that the guys themselves are out there reading this from their homes in New Orleans cursing me and calling me a philistine for failing to appreciate the subtleties of their new musical direction, but the bottom line is that, to me at least, it just doesn't sound as enticing as their previous efforts, and some of the unexplainable Mute Math 'soul' (probably a fabrication of my pretentious mind) has been lost with the addition of the myriad of new instruments. For my money their best work so far is their old stuff (Reset EP and the STDA), but that said, I'm longing to hear what they can produce in the future. Let's hope there's a B-side release of Voice In The Silence, eh?
To summarise the album in a more focussed manor, I'll give a mini-review of each track.

The Nerve
After some of the later tracks, this sounds a little underpowered. The lyrics are very interesting, if rather moody and aggressive.
An atonal mess, pulled together by an excellent chorus and top class vocal work by Paul. Definitely a single, although certainly not their best work and I don't think it will have mass appeal because it's a bit marmite.
The kind of thing you listen to just before shooting yourself. The lyrics are desperate and the grungy intro synth sets a dark, gritty tone which is maintained throughout the whole song. The piano gives it an emotionally piercing edge and adds an almost rain-like quality. The vocal work towards the end (chiefly the 'hey's at about 3:35) is superb.
This has been out for quite a while and I'm sick of it now, but I liked it a lot when I first heard it. It's trying a bit too hard is my main complaint.
No Response
Builds up beautifully - probably the most atmospheric track on the album. You can hear the guitar echoing off into some distant street or alley. Paul's doubled up vocals don't really fit and make it sound slightly inconsistent but an aurally pleasing track overall.
Pins and Needles
A more relaxed tune, this. Until it gets to the point it seems a bit lost, but the lyrical content is interesting and its echoing, jazzy sound is rather memorable. At least until it gets to the string outtro. Urgh.
A much more mainstream track. There's nothing here that isn't straightforward and I'm not dead keen on the weird guitar hits that play periodically, but the vocals on this track stand out as some of the best on the album.
Wonderful drum track on this one. Everything here is quite simple and melodic - nothing atonal. The vocals here are excellent and the choice of instruments is refreshingly simple by comparison, and the ambient vocals here add a bit of soul into it.
Urgh. Well it's a nice tune, but the lyrics are fairly bog standard and the whole thing fades into a frenzy of melodical and lyrical mediocrity towards the end.
An almost Latin sounding jam which harks back to the 1970s with the jazzy brass and guitar work. Vocals and instrumental breaks here are superb and the minimal synthesizer and sampling work keeps it clean and gives the band a chance to show off their instrumentional talents a bit.
Lost Year
Mute Math do Coldplay. Personally, there's nothing I really like about this song.
This sounds more like three or four tracks melted messily into one, but it's a cool sort-of-end to the album. The section containing from 6:32 onwards is superb, mesmerising and uplifting, and the samplings of their earlier 'Earlylight' from the Spotlight EP are well used.
Architecture (US iTunes Bonus Track)
One of the best tracks 'on the album' for me. Possibly because it's closer to their previous work than any of the other tracks. An extremely infectious track that I love, even if it is a tad repetitive.
Clockwork (Japanese Version Bonus Track)
Where the hell is Voice In The Silence? This is good, but not as good as that. Clockwork also strikes me as being somewhat unfinished. The intro comes in far too suddenly and it ends too abruptly.
Valium (VIP Tour Bonus Track)
Valium has a thumping beat behind it, despite being a slow track. The vocal echoes are wonderful and it is generally an uplifting joy to listen to.
Armistice 2nd Line Version (VIP Tour Bonus Track)
A slightly stripped down version of the original with a slightly harder, more streetwise edge on it. I think I prefer the original.

Anyway, enough of that musical malarkey. Last week I attended the Ground Zero Airsoft Weekender for a second time. It's basically a camping trip where you get shot at when you wake up, and the number of wounds upon your person is directly proportionate to your success. The number of bleeding BB wounds on my neck is a testament to the fact that I did poorly, on the first day at least. By the end of the second day I had about ten kills under my belt and had managed to score one piece of intel for my team with a bit of quick sprinting and some balls.
Coming up is a 10000 word essay on my experiences, where each picture is worth 1000 words.
Right Click > View Image for slightly higher resolution, or alternatively, if I know you, email me and I'll mail you back the originals.

Image: GZW
Relaxin' all cool and all shootin' some b-ball outside of school.

Image: GZW
Our campsite, tents, my car, and a couple of oiks throwing a fucking volleyball at it.

Image: GZW
The sun setting over the campsite, and Tim about to get hit in the face with a volleyball. Look closely.

Image: GZW
Ieuan in the John. The rifle sat outside it is almost iconic. So are the portaloos, mind. Those things were fucking unbreathable after about a day.

Image: GZW
Jewbu and Ieuan (far left, far right respectively) chilling on a hill. Feel the excitement!

Image: GZW
Me taking a photo of Ieuan taking a photo of some noobs.

Image: GZW
The dead zone. No, not the film. Various members of various teams taking five after getting shot.

Image: GZW
John resting his tank barrel on the floor (in-joke).

Image: GZW
The beautiful and fertile land of Groundzerostad.

Image: GZW
Meanwhile, just to the left, Ieuan fails to smile for a picture while Jewbu and Carly don't even turn around.

After three days of sprinting, shooting and more sprinting I spent the next four on the sofa with a duvet over me watching TV, coughing up bits of lung into my cereal, but it was an immensely fun weekend out and the booze-up inbetween firefights was a great laugh.
A big 'hurro' to Jewbu, Tim, John, Ieuan and Carly who I went with. Hope you guys had as much fun as I did.

Coming 2052: another post!


Eurogamer Expo 2008

Whelp, in a kind of spur of the moment kind of thing myself and my pop popped off to the Eurogamer Expo 2008/Gamesindustry.biz Career Fare on tuesday, partly to get some inside advice for my future Level Design career from some industry employees, and partly so I could grab a play of Mirror's Edge and a couple of others. I ultimately ended up having a go on Mirror's Edge (twice), Far Cry 2, Red Faction 3, Saints Row 2 and Killzone 2, which I will now brag about and give some impressions on. Mostly brag.

Mirror's Edge. Wow. I'm not really sure how to even approach this. God knows I've seen the same opening level played enough times in videos at various games expos, but to actually play it yourself is something totally different. The controls are incredibly simple but ultimately work very well, the graphics are highly stylized but fecking awesome (radiosity lighting doing its magic) and the whole game just feels excellent. The main thing that surprised me was the level of skill needed to play the game well. I sort of expected it to become insultingly easy after the first couple of tries at a level, but even after figuring out that you used the left joystick to stay stable whilst walking across the red pipe I was still falling to my death three or four times per turn. Doing a soft landing is much harder than it looks as well - you need to press L2 at just the right moment to execute a roll so you don't break your knees upon impact. Overall I'm massively impressed with Mirror's Edge. Playing it has only heightened my desire to grab a copy of it around Christmas time, which indeed I will be doing. There should be a demo of it around sometime today if you want to try it for yourself.

Far Cry 2 on the other hand was quite contorary to what I expected.
The introductory sequence was pretty good despite the terrible anti-aliasing problems and low-res normal maps, which were no doubt a result of Ubisoft's typically awful PS3 port, or may have been an issue with the unit I was playing on. Either way I'm getting the PC version so I don't care too much. Visuals aside, the gameplay was clunky, stiff and I felt like I wasn't really in total control of my character. Enemies take an entire box of ammunition before they go down, wildlife is rare and despite being billed as an open world game it feels terribly linear and the environments seem repetitive. Despite all this I now want to play it more than ever. Don't ask me why because I have no idea. I just get the feeling that I had a bad experience and that the actual game will be much better. Some issues are to be expected in an open world game, after all.
The game is out now and it doesn't look likely that Ubi are going to release a demo, so I guess I'll have to buy it if I'm to find out.

Killzone 2, if I'm honest, I haven't really cared about until now. The original, which I borrowed from a friend, was pretty average. The reload animations were good but that was about all it had to its credit. I was amazed to find that not only is Killzone 2 one of the prettiest games on PS3, it's also one of the most meaty and satisfying.
I played a small section a couple of levels into the game where I was basically following some dope in a Marine cap through a series of encounters. Once I clumsily got used to the controls rather badly in front of an audience of 7 or 8 others waiting to play, I found the combat to be very satisfying indeed. The guns feel weighty and powerful, the iron sights feel very precise and solid and enemies fly backwards in a whirlwind of airborne blood and shattered armour when you empty a magazine into them. Killzone 2 is, to my delight also using radiosity lighting and it looks pretty damn stunning as a result. My turn ended, however, when a puzzle involving the PS3's sixaxis presented itself. It told me I needed to press L1 and R1 together and rotate the controller to turn a valve. It moved about a quarter turn then refused to budge. After handing the controller to somebody else a Guerilla rep told them that you needed you release L1 and R1, then turn it back the other way, then press again and turn, sort of how you would turn a real valve. To the newcomer, however, this is quite purplexing and hopefully easily disabled in the final build.
Killzone 2 has shot from 'meh' to pre-order in my book and I'm definitely glad I decided to try it out. Unfortunately it's got a 'when we feel like it' release date so it may be a while before any of us get to play it for real.

Saints Row 2, like Far Cry 2 I got off to kind of a bad start with. Somebody else had already created a character, played through about 10 or 15 missions and wasted ammo for all the available weapons before me so I was thrown in very much at the deep end. Thankfully the controls haven't changed at all since the first game so I was able to defend myself fairly well. One thing that has changed from the first game is any kind of restraint. The original was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on speed, but with SR2 it's more like LSD. Characters with the most absurd make-up, bling, hair styles, clothing and facial defomities populate the world and I seem to be the only person who notices. Everything seems bright, multicoloured and densely packed. I didn't get to see much of the city because, paradoxically, it rained the whole time I was playing and the first mission I jumped into took me into an ironically bland casino building for the duration, so I can't really comment on that, but it looks like the visuals have changed slightly and the animations have received some much needed smoothing and blending.
I didn't really get a very firm impression of Saints Row 2, mixed signals seemed to be coming from everywhere, which means I'm all the more eager to play it and clear up some of the mystery. Saints Row 2 is already out and has been for some time but no demo is available at present, so I guess I'll have to wait until I get it.

Red Faction Guerilla hasn't exactly been pushed very hard. It's been kind of like a distant humming in the background; you know it's there and you want to investigate, but it doesn't do much to tell you where it's coming from or even if it exists at all. Perhaps you have a brain tumour and you're slowly going mad, or maybe your friend has been doing it, but when you turn around and accuse him he has you committed. Perhaps it's the noise of the nanomachines inside your brain the government has been putting into the drinking water to enforce social conformity and council tax payments!
Ahem. Anyway. Having caught a play of RFG I can safely say it lives up to the Red Faction name. The open world gameplay (which I was, again, thrown in at the deep end of) of course won't make the most of the plot, but it certainly makes the most of the destruction, which is undoubtedly the main feature here. Straight away I whipped out my sledgehammer and began to 'disassemble' a nearby building, the walls giving way in satisfying, crunchy chunks. I then found out that the previous player had been doing a mission where this particular building was the object of the exercise, so I ran to a nearby monster truck and proceeded to drive it into the side in a shower of crumbling Mars concrete and rebar. I then found the button to change weapons and made use of the sticky mines to obliterate the remains. I also joined a base assault a bit later on where I was ironically killed by a falling water tower (ironic because I felled it to try and crush some nearby enemies) and can confirm that the combat is meaty and the cover system is as good as GTA IV's, which isn't bad all considered. During the time I was playing I had several in-game messages requesting help from various factions or requests that I destroy such and such a building, which was annoying since I had done nothing to invoke them. They were, however, quite easily drowned out by loud cracks of sledgehammer against concrete or human flesh, and gigantic explosions, so no harm done.
Overall, the game feels a bit like an early beta or tech demo; there doesn't seem to be much substance or plot to follow (again, perhaps because I was already a few missions in when I started playing), but the gameplay certainly makes up for it. Red Faction Guerilla could well be the Crackdown of 2009 if it continues the way it is. The physics are impressive, the gameplay is very solid and it has little to no plot, which is the perfect recipe for a game more fun than smoking marijuana at a bowling alley. Unreal Engine 3-esque muddy brown visuals aside, I'm really looking forward to Red Faction Guerilla. Destruction is one of the core elements of a fun game and Volition have put a lot of time into making it as easy and as satisfying as possible. Multiplayer battles could be a heck of a lot of fun on this game when it's released.

Semi-finally, I also went to the Gamesindustry.biz Career Fare, which I also went to last year when it was a separate event. It gives us aspiring designers, programmers and artists a chance to mix with the 'employed' crowd and ask a few newbie questions, as well as gain valuable information from inside various studios.
After asking around a few studios (Ubisoft Reflections, Realtime Worlds and Starbreeze) it seems that I'm doing all the right stuff so far, but that going ahead with my mod idea would be a smart career move. Because of this I've decided to go ahead with the damn thing, so readers (yes, both of you!) can expect to see some content related to this in the future. Perhaps even a recruitment drive or two.

Finally, I would also like to mention that I acquired an Oyster Card during this particular trip to London, which I guess makes me a sort of honorary Londoner. Hooray!

Stay tuned for many more gobsmacking revelations next week/month/year!


Viva Venezuela!

It's been a while since I've made a post, but since I was such an enourmous fan of the original Mercenaries back in '05 I thought that a small review was in order.

For those that don't know, Mercenaries was one of the first games that let the player destroy almost everything. This includes vehicles, houses, skyscrapers, bridges, crates, fences, Koreans etc. and a wide variety of tanks, choppers and air strikes were provided to make the process a little easier than attempting to take the building down by repeatedly smacking it with the butt of your rifle. It featured believable if clichéed characters, a wonderfully atmospheric Korea to explore and destroy and a plot which you could almost see happening any day after release. I personally ranked Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction in my top five best games ever made, and not just because I enjoy ruthlessly carpet bombing legions of poorly equipped North Korean soldiers into glass whilst a heart-stoppingly good orchestral score roars up and down in time with the blood-curdling screams.

The sequel promised to be much the same, only with many key features added to address nitpicks with the original (namely parachutes, which didn't make the final cut anyway), and set in an oil war-torn Venezuela.
The rather distant Asian geopolitical plot of the original game has been ditched for one that directly addresses the player, but at the same time one that has more clichées than the original Space Invaders does now.
It's your basic double-cross betrayal; you do a job for a guy with the unlikely name of Ramon Solano, he shoots you in the ass and doesn't pay you. Naturally instead of forgetting the small amount he owes you and the impossibly fast healing 7.62mm hole he leaves in your ass, you go on a rampage, the magnitude and lucrativeness of which renders your original objective of killing the guy rather pointless. Stacks (literally) of money pile up in the vast million-dollar villa which you steal from him in the second mission as you take on contracts from various factions within the world, and yet as the UN and China enter the conflict with fleets of tanks and gunships and Solano goes into hiding, your choice from a group of the original three equally clichéed protagonists still continues the hunt unabated.
Basically, the plot's about as thick as a melted ice cream, however plausible the actual war is, but that's not what you buy a game like this for. Onwards to gameplayville!

Before I start, I would like to mention that in the build up to release of Mercs 2 I decided to replay the original, partly for the lulz and partly so I could make a brutal comparison between it and its next-gen cousin, which I was amazed to find out is not shit despite it being published by EA, although many tell-tale signs of EA's influence are scattered throughout the game.
Possibly the best one of the new features is the ability to create and run your own PMC, or Private Military Company. Admittedly you recruit people by simply completing a task for them, and it's always the same three people you recruit, but calling in your chopper pilot to pick up two 500lb bombs which your jet pilot then drops on a gaggle of unsuspecting Venezuelan soldiers standing around a gigantic fuel tank has never been so sweet.
Aside from this and a few other gimmicky new features, it's very much a port of the old game given shiny new graphics and a new setting - the PS2 version didn't even get the former - but the first game was genius anyway so it's not exactly a bad thing. You can still derive the same twisted pleasure from turning 100 acres of AK-wielding government soldier-infested rainforest into a pile of smoking twigs and 'meat surprise' for the local pasty shop, and believe me when I say there are hundreds of ways to do this.
You could fire a tank shell at one of the trees starting a massive fire, you could call in a fuel-air bomb or any one of 20 other air strikes to start a blazing inferno, you could pick up a fuel tanker with your attack helicopter's winch, drop it over the forest and ignite it with a volley of HE rockets... the list goes on.
What I'm trying to say here is that the destruction is better than ever, and from the amount of time they've had to perfect it you'd effing expect it to be. One thing, however, does not live up to months and months of delays, and that is polish. The game has more bugs than a Mexican chef's sock drawer, with randomly appearing and disappearing objects, horrible pop-in, AI you'd expect to find in Goldeneye on the N64 and lots of strange saving/loading bugs which often cause saved games to become corrupted or fail to load properly. While the game's sub-par graphics are excusable given the amount of stuff you can destroy, bugs are not.

I'll just make a separate paragraph about the AI here as I feel it needs a special mention.
I can sort of see what Pandemic were trying to achieve here - enemies firing in short bursts from behind cover at long distances... but since this AI doesn't adjust to light you up with all 30 rounds if you get within two inches of their face, taking down enemies is no harder than dodging a burst and then sprinting straight up to them and knocking them flat on their backs with the melee attack, which is apparently more powerful than 30 7.62x39mm rounds to the chest as one punch will send them 15 feet backwards into the nearest wall, stone dead and already cold before they hit the ground. Enemies are also incapable of anything other than firing from behind cover. While I acknowledge and applaud the admission of enemies entering and firing from the prone position, they still refuse to flank you or indeed follow you around behind any cover you may have got yourself behind, quite content to crouch down behind their little row of sandbags taking potshots at you all day.

While the ground troops are thick as canned shit, the chopper pilots and tank drivers are not.
Enemy choppers will circle around you, dodging basically any missile you fire at them, and launching infinite numbers of horribly overpowered heat-seeking anti-tank missiles at you whenever you dare to enter a vehicle without their direct permission. Highjacking enemies' choppers is as easy as one-two-three though, which kind of makes their whole being there a bit pointless other than a way of acquiring transport or additional firepower quickly.
Tank drivers are about half way inbetween these two extremes, but jacking tanks is incredibly difficult, given that you need to kill the gunner while he and the driver are still firing at you before you can haul yourself up and along the barrel and pop a grenade in the hatch after a generally annoying button matching sequence.
The inconsistency of the AI really is quite jarring, especially when you see some moronic VZ soldier clumping over to steal your chopper and watch as he magically turns into an evil version of Einstein the second he enters the cockpit.

As already mentioned, the graphics are nothing really special to look at, but given the feature list it's excusable. The developers seem to have taken more than a few pointers from Just Cause in terms of the environment (as well as the grappling hook amongst other things), with large, sweeping countryside areas and mountainous vistas adorning the landscape. I won't hang around the graphics or general look of the game though, as a slew of next-gen games have taken place in tropical environments so we're all pretty bored and over-familiar with the look at this point.

Sound design is solid for the most part. Weapons sound adequate and explosions sound epic, which is good as these are the two sounds you'll be hearing the most during your time with the game. Dialogue is quite repetitive though. As noted by various 'professional' reviewers, many of the same lines have been recorded by different people in the game, so you get two people saying the same line in their own way. It's rather jarring and detracts from the experience, but there's nothing game-stopping in this department.

Despite all my nitpicking, the game is generally brilliant if you love to blow stuff up even half as much as I do, only it lacks the greatness and epic nature of the first game. My recommendation? Go buy the first one if you haven't already. If you liked the first one and want a different country to blow up then buy this. Rent it first though, or download the demo whenever it arrives as I can't guarantee you'll like it based on what a lot of people have told me - I think I'm almost unique in my view that this game is genius.

Next week: WIP Level Design images!



GTA IV review + tech stuff

Last month's mindless wishlisting aside, I'd like to present to my waiting audience of five my opinions on Rockstar's latest blockbuster creation, Grand Theft Auto IV. However, before I let rip I'd like to discuss lots of boring gaming technology which the average adolescent gaming halfwit probably won't understand, so if you match the above description or in any way find the Unreal Engine 3 to look 'cool', please skip down five or six paragraphs and then run head first into a wall.

Since the next-generation of gaming began there's been very little in the way of progressing next-generation games technology. People think that as soon as you add a couple of thousand extra polygons, a dogshit brown or gunmetal grey colour correction filter and a ghastly normal map to a game (QED UE3) that it automatically becomes 'next gen'. While EA and many other companies seem to agree with this philosophy, I do not. Graphics alone do not the game make. In recent years (well, year) gaming has taken great strides forward in realism and graphics, without actually advancing, and indeed taking huge leaps backwards in depth, gameplay and overall fun. What are games about, after all? It's all well and good to see a 7000 polygon gleaming bullet enter the shiny, tear soaked eyesocket of a normal mapped fat Puerto-Rican man in slow motion, but if your character handles like a diesel engine and has a personality as flat as a pancake without any toppings then chances are you're going to get bored and throw the disk out of the window. But I'm getting a bit away from the point here.

Nobody has really done anything to advance the technology of next-gen games aside from Crytek, who failed miserably to make a game whose hardware requirements are anything other than, to say the least, optimistic. Two little nuggets of hope have entered the crapper of sorrow however, in the form of HDR Audio and Radiosity lighting (Global Illumination).

HDR Audio didn't really seem to be anything special until I played DICE's Battlefield: Bad Company demo in which it makes its debut. It's basically an audio version of HDR lighting, which creates a blinding effect when you walk from a dark corridor into a bright, sunlit courtyard. It essentially drowns out the quiet sound of a mouse scurrying across some beams when you light up the little bastard with 30 rounds from your HK416. Every bullet in the ceiling above him, the audio adjusts to make his scurrying away sound loud again. In any other game the mouse would still have been audible under the gunfire. If you're a bit thick, there's an explanatory video here.
I'd imagine it's a relatively simple technology to code and implement (I'm sure DICE's development team will disagree), but amazingly effective all the same. If you haven't actually played the BF: BC demo yet I suggest you do so and experience it for yourself.

The other technology is Radiosity lighting, which is a form of Global Illumination. I can't begin to describe the technology myself in text, so here's a handy picture courtesy of Wikipedia:

On the left is realtime lighting technology up to this point, where nothing can actually be 100% dark. It's either illuminated or it's not. On the right is radiosity, which not only allows colour bleeding (notice the pink-ish walls and ceiling), but also reflects the light from the more shiny surfaces, allowing for a much more realistic and less binary fill of a room. It's by no means a new technology; Half-Life 2 was (I believe, please correct me if I'm wrong) the first to use radiosity lightmaps back in 2004, but since then nobody else has taken up the torch and used realtime radiosity, which is strange considering it's easy to implement with a relatively low impact on framerate, and adds so much more to the atmosphere of the game. Illuminate Labs' Beäst and Geometrics' Enlighten, which are third-party realtime Global Illumination solutions, have been on the market for quite some time now (along with many others), both offering integration with the Epic's Grey Environment Simulator Mk. III. Beäst is being used in this format in DICE's upcoming Mirror's Edge to beautiful effect (here, notice how the red of the crane has 'bled' onto the rooftop), but it's the first for four years.
Anyway, just a few pointers for any developers that happen to be reading this blog (yeah right).

So, onto my GTA IV review for those that care.
At a glance Grand Theft Auto seems to have taken the predictable path that most next-gen games have by investing in a shiny new game engine and then filling it with utter crap. Well, that's a little unfair. IV still manages to keep players entertained with a wide variety of stuff to see and do, but if you've played the previous three GTA games you'll probably be just the slightest bit disappointed with IV.

To begin with, IV looks pretty much as you would expect a next-gen game of this genre to, perhaps a little less so on first glance. The rain especially looks fantastic, adding a mild specular and normal map to the pavement which reflects light sources within the scene. While I don't want to go on about the graphics too much as aside from this they're really nothing special, this one effect pretty much makes up for the rest of the graphical shortcomings. Everything is really nicely detailed but there's not enough variation to keep you noticing the details for long. It's the same three dustbins, skips and empty coffee cups strewn down every alleyway in the whole bloody city. It is atmospheric, but nothing like as atmospheric as it should be. Rockstar's claim that you could stand in a random area of the city and tell exactly where you are by the ambient noise turned out to be a load of rotting bollocks; it uses the same ambient drone over the entire city with varying numbers of emergency vehicle sirens. After a while most of the sound effects become repetitive, and the music is abysmal
for the most part (that's not just my opinion, most other people agree), punctuated by Rockstar's humour which is either lacking this time around, or I just no longer find it funny.

Going back on what I said last time around, gameplay is below average for the most part. I've played better shooters, driven better racing games and can go bowling any time I want in real life. Fun and engaging gameplay have both given way to gimmicky crap stolen from other places, like Saints Row's mobile phone and ragdoll physics, Gears of War's cover system and a generic multiplayer mode, which is admittedly quite fun. I'm not particularly impressed by Euphoria now I've seen it in a game either.

The friends and girlfriends system SHOULD NOT have been carried over from San Andreas, and makes almost every waking moment of gameplay a nightmare where lots of psychotic, drug-addled freaks nag you to take them drinking every five minutes. And what's more the game genuinely wants them to be a chore; wherever you are, the game always places your friend's pick-up point at the other end of the map and his/her preferred destination just down the road from you, meaning you need to drive in an enourmous circle all around the city just to get a quick meal, which you have to pay for. All of the characters are genuinely unpleasant as well; Brucie's gobshite wittering about how awesome he is, Roman's constant snyde remarks whenever you miss a shot at pool, Dwayne's depressing whinging about prison and Packie's coke-fuelled rants about his lifestyle all make you want to stab them to within an inch of their lives and leave them to bleed to death in an alleyway, which I do frequently. Dwayne's heartfelt text message about 'dragging his sick ass all the way back home from the hospital' (because I'd shot him several times the night before and left him in an abandoned warehouse, then ignored his calls for me to pick him up from the intensive care ward) actually had me in stitches.

For a conclusion I'm going to reiterate what I said on GTA4.tv:
It's the same tired old formula in the same tired old city with little in the way of actual innovation, just gimmicky crap which keeps you distracted from the game's almost total lack of fun for a total of 2 hours. The new 'realistic' image hasn't done anything positive for the game and sits in jarring contrast to the childish sex jokes and radio adverts. Honestly, I laughed more at the radio on Saints Row more than this crap. It just seems as if Rockstar is following the crowd of realistic games which have so far characterized the next-gen with their dull, repetitive gameplay and bland environments, when instead we need more games like Crackdown and... well... Crackdown is the only example I can think of.

It's ok for the first of a trilogy, though. It's not an overly bad game, it's still okay to play but it makes a lot of bad choices. GTA III had a similar 'gritty' vibe to it when it first appeared, but Vice and San Andreas didn't continue it. If IV is setting the tone for the next two of three games then you can bet your balls I won't touch them, especially if they redo Vice and San An again, which would essentially mean paying £40 for a graphics upgrade. "BOYCOTT!" he screamed, with an air of Che Guevaran revolutionary authority in his voice.

TL;DR: If you've played San Andreas, don't bother.

Lastly, I guess I should stop ranting off about the games industry and start living up to the title of this blog by posting some WIP levels. I'll get around to it eventually... probably... maybe... nah.