#OneNorthernUKAdministrativeRegion

I start writing this one week out from Scotland’s independence referendum, where as you may have heard Scotland narrowly decided to remain in its dysfunctional co-dependant relationship with the rest of the only-accurate-by-five-percent “United Kingdom”. As you can probably gather from the outpouring of bitterness, I was on the 45% side of that decision, and the scant consolation of the next few years of “telt ye so” helps very little with the inescapable feeling that we’ve voted to go down with the ship.

No matter what poll you look at, the takeaway was that the fears of the old outweighed the hopes of the young, as the cynical juggernaut of Project Fear and its wildly inaccurate claims were allowed to go unchallenged by a lop-sided, “No” dominated media. It’s difficult to see the repeated refrain of “don’t risk your pensions” as anything other than an attempt to intimidate the elderly, and it’s especially disappointing that no outlet challenged the basis for this – given that by the Department for Work and Pensions’ own admission, they’d be obligated to pay out pensions exactly as they would have done. It has, after all, already been paid for by a lifetime of work. I’m sure there’s an articulate case for remaining tethered to Westminster’s system, but the most repeated ones were all nonsense.

Anyway, if the “Yes” camp’s reaction has been a sense of sadness and disappointment, you’d expect the “No” supporters to be jubilant. I suppose they were, in their way, as the scum of the earth descended on George Square, starting running battles around Glasgow and, with a keen sense of situational irony, giving Nazi salutes from in front of a war memorial. Classy stuff, and all from behind a “No Thanks” banner.

We shouldn’t tar everyone with the same shitty brush, of course. There are some “No” supporters that aren’t the biggest fuck-knuckles to walk this Earth’s face, but you can’t dodge the fact that they’re on your team. UKIP are on your team. The BNP are on your team. The National Front are on your team. The Orange Order are on your team. Very marginally less disgustingly, the Tories and the Lib Dems are on your team. All of the daily mass media are on your team. The bankers are on your team. The Chinese government are on your team. Does that sound like a team you want to be part of? Does that sound like a team that’s got the same interests and aspirations as you do? Does that sound like a group of people, to use the term loosely, that has your best interests at heart? Hey, I’m as libertarian as the next guy. You can hop into bed with whomever you feel like, but you’re the person that has to look at themselves in the mirror the morning after.

An altogether more boring but no less disturbing reaction occurred in the politisphere, as the much lauded “vow” to deliver more powers to Scotland immediately started to fly apart, with the various parties fracturing off over the scope of what’s to be done. It’s almost as if, rather than being a comprehensive, detailed plan of action, this was merely a last ditch attempt at placation from an opposition backbench MP who’s so disinterested in government that he’s appeared at a mere 13% of House votes. It’s perhaps too early to say that the vow that, we have to assume, steadied some wavering voters is going to tear itself apart in subcommittees and then get voted down by angry Tory backbenchers, but I’m not going to be in the least bit surprised at dropping another “telt ye” bomb.

Meanwhile, it looks very much like we’re about to start dropping actual bombs as we start Yet Another Iraq War, but this time also with bits of Syria, which means we can soon add Bashar al-Assad to the list of people on our team. Yay, us. So glad we’re still punching above our weight on the international stage, killing off more people with armaments that cost enough to keep one of our burgeoning number of food banks running for a year. This is the direction that 55% of Scotland voted for. It’s a minor tragedy for us, and a soon to be pretty major one for those soon to be declared “militants”.

The final battlefront is, of course, by far the least important, as the cauldron of Twitter stirs up the usual amount of shite. Twitter has long been the single best place for the poorly informed to sling reckon-bytes at each other in 140 characters, guaranteeing the maximal amount of misunderstanding and upset on all sides of the argument. This is why every topic on Twitter, regardless of importance, devolves into Youtube comments.

The latest attempt at hashtag clicktivism, or whatever buzz-worthy slogan is being used today to describe digital time-wasting, is a One Scotland campaign, where a generous interpretation would be an attempt to move forward with the issues facing Scotland. A rather more grounded interpretation would be that they’d rather we weren’t talking about referendums at all.

This will, of course, fail miserably. Independence has been on the Scottish political agenda since 1707, and it’s not likely to be removed soon. This is many people’s lifetime political goal. Not the same person since 1707, of course, but suggesting that we ignore what’s just happened is madness.

It’s also a highly undemocratic way to attempt to stifle political opinions, and the rationale for it is transparently false. People can work together without having to homogenise opinion, and there’s simply no need to do so. After all, despite the political landscape being dominated by the referendum for the past few years, Scotland appears to have avoided burning down, almost as if Holyrood can chew on more than one policy at a time. Who’d have thunk it, etc.

We need to talk about this result, probably for years. It’s huge. And hugely divisive, by it’s very nature. The fourth biggest city in the U.K. doesn’t want to be in U.K. That’s a thing we’ve found out. We have to think about what that means for everyone, and it’s much too complex a topic to move on from, or indeed capture your thoughts on in a snarky tweet.

Frankly, I’m not even going to touch on the other side of the this pulling together business, which would mean working with people who’ve been demonising us for past two years, with such constructive arguments as you’re liars, you’re cybernats, you’re bullies, you smell of wee, and such like. To an extent that’s just the internet talking, dragging everyone down into the filth, but it’s not the sort of behaviour that makes reconciliation a particularly attractive option.

The biggest loser in all of this is difficult to predict – there’s a great many people who will be losing. There’s a solid argument that it’s Scottish Labour, though. It’s widely acknowledged that they’ve led a hopeless campaign, continuing under the hopeless leadership of Johann Lamont. Clearly, they’re now refusing to learn from their supposed-to-be-unachievable crushing at the last Holyrood election and are locked into their blinkered path of focusing squarely on bashing the SNP. They have been rewarded for this laser-like focus by losing traditional support base in areas such as Glasgow, and by vastly increasing the SNP’s membership.

This is just another step in the continual lurch to the right that’s removed the Labour party from anything that would be remotely familiar to its founders, a party of austerity and cutting child benefit. Their continued tone deaf approach to their support will, I predict, leave them facing real problems at next year’s election. They have already alienated enough of their support that the phrase “anyone but Labour” is starting to be heard. That’s the real reason for the One Scotland campaign, to attempt to ameliorate the coming maelstrom. There’s quite a lot of people who aren’t likely to allow that to happen.

It’s crazy what you could’ve had.

How do you solve a problem like Falkirk?

(I wrote this a few weeks back for an apparently aborted current affairs satire podcast pilot, born of an excess of enthusiasm and vodka. The somewhat embarrassing dropping of any charges against the union brought it to mind, so I figured I’d promote it out of my ‘scraps’ pile.)

I am, of course, uniquely placed amongst the commentariat on Labour’s ongoing issues in the Falkirk West constituency, given my status as an escapee from the stifling confines of smallish Central Belt town to the stifling confines of Glasgow, giving me a differently stifled perspective on the political infighting that’s somewhere between a storm in a teacup and a battle for the very heart and soul of the Labour party. Which implies that the heart and soul of the Labour party can fit in a teacup, I suppose. I don’t have any paperwork to back that up. Let’s say “allegedly” and hope that’s weasly enough.

For those who, understandably, pay little attention to Falkirk, Central Scotland’s answer to Iowa, a recap may be in order. Let us introduce you to then Labour MP Eric Joyce, taking over the Westminster constituency after the respected MP (of which there used to be a few, surprising as that may seem to youngsters) Dennis Canavan chose to move to the Scottish Parliament, and was booted out of Labour as result, which does not seem to have proven much of a career impediment.

Joyce, although born in Perth, chose to represent Falkirk like a native, fighting for the interests of the people, particularly the segment of the people named “Eric Joyce”. He proved to be the top claiming member of the House of Commons between 2005 and 2006. A disappointing slide in form say him drop to 11th in the 2006-2007 grifter’s league, but some intense profiteering saw him back on top in 2008-2009 – including a spectacularly reasoned £180 expenditure on three oil paintings. When asked why he had used taxpayers’ funds in such a way he replied, “because they look nice.” Your tax pounds at work, there. All this hard effort paid off spectacularly, for Joyce at least, becoming the first MP to claim more than £1 million cumulatively in expenses.

It’s vital that we get value for money from our public officials, of course, and Joyce has chosen to help out with this country’s dire employment situation by ensuring that the Police are kept busy. Starting his criminal record with a comparitively boring six month driving ban for racking up 12 points on his licence, he moved on to more challenging offences, arrested in 2010 for failing to provide a breath test after another vehicular escapade.

Looking to up the ante, he was again arrested in February 2012 for assault, having been described as “going berserk, Falkirk-style”, headbutting a Tory MP and clocking his own party’s whip in what we in Falkirk would call “a normal Wednesday night”. Hot on the heels of this came a Daily Record article claiming the then 49 year old MP had “relations” with a 17 year old schoolgirl working for his campaign in 2010. That proved to be one straw too many, and Joyce soon tendered his resignation to the Labour party, presumably about ten seconds before he’d have been fired anyway.

However, like a particularly tenacious dollop of shite Joyce refused to be flushed from the system, choosing instead to merely not seek re-election in 2015. Despite now being out of Labour’s league table of nutballs, Joyce has proven to keep match-fit in the interim, bothering the po-po twice in the intervening year or so, once for cutting off the electronic tag awarded for his previous triumphs and again for another boozed up, taxpayer subsidised Parliamentary bar brawl.

It’s said that you get the government you deserve, but even at its very worst Falkirk’s not this horrible.

At any rate, the matter now at hand concerns picking the replacement candidate for the next election, normally a matter for the constituency Labour party. I’m left with the impression that this process wan’t thought about too deeply, as the now redrawn seat of Falkirk is now a so safe a Labour seat that it could be won by a tub of lard with a red rosette on it.

Following allegations that Unite chairman Stephen Deans had been on a recruiting spree at the local refinery, offering to pay their Labour party membership fees, which by itself doesn’t seem like much of an incentive, to be honest with you, questions have been raised at the national level of the extent to which Unite and other unions influence the Labour Party.

From a legal standpoint it appears the membership drive / ballot stuffing isn’t illegal, presumably more in a “technically not illegal” sense that politics is so good at finding, but it certainly looks suspect to most outsiders, particularly those already minded to think that those evil unions already ruined Blairite revenge fantasy by picking the wrong Miliband brother – not the anointed one, David, but the annoying one, Ed. Well, okay, they’re both annoying, I concede.

The investigation resulted in the National Labour Party taking over the selection process, and the suspension of Stephen Deans and provisional candidate Karie Murphy, which angered Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey. However Red Len McCluskey does rather give the impression of someone who’s always the merest slight away from fuming, incandescent rage. Heaven forbid a Starbucks barista mistakenly scribble “Ben” on the side of his machiatto, in the admittedly unlikely event he’d be allowed from a PR persepctive to order coffee from anywhere other than a burger van, or maybe Greggs on special occasions.

The more concrete, non-Unite word-slinging fallout may be more problematic for the Labour party, as Karie Murphy turns out to have been MP Tom Watson’s office manager prior to this fofferall. Tom Watson, I’d argue, is the closest thing the Labour party has to a respected, opinionated politician that can get results thanks to his involvement in the investigations into just how shitty the U.K. tabloid press is. If you don’t want to know the results, look away now: they are really, really shitty.

At any rate, Watson, incidentally Len McCluskey’s old flatmate, has resigned from his role as Campaign Co-ordinator in the wake of all of this nonsense, which is hard to see as anything other than a blow for a Labour party that’s struggling to look even remotely electable. At this rate it’s going to take Cameron and Osbourne campaigning on a platform of “firstborn children to be slaughtered” to move the needle towards the beleaguered Miliband camp, and even then it’s not a slam-dunk for the reds.

If this fiasco does result in the now mooted breaking of the bonds between Labour and the union movement, which lest we forget was the reason it was formed in the first place, it’s bound to be even more trouble for a party already decried as the Diet Tories. By stripping themselves of their founding and defining characteristic, they’re in danger of winding up as characterless and unappealing as their present leader.

And it all began in Falkirk. We’re so very sorry.

The Annoyingly Capitalised "TNA Wrestling iMPACT", on the Equally Infuriatingly Capitalised "iPhone".

The few positives first: graphically it’s basic, but competent, and there’s a decent roster selection.

The negatives are everything else.

There are things that are out and out missing, like match commentary, or pretty much any sound effect at all. There’s no in-match music, and I hope you like the first fifteen seconds of the theme song as you’ll be, bafflingly, hearing it on a ear-achingly annoying loop in every menu, including the create-a-wrestler mode.

The otherwise reasonable CAW mode hints at the other problem with the game, as you select the two (yes, two, as in one more that one) moves that your wrestler can perform in the normal course of things. Two? C’mon, folks. I suppose it’s accurate for Hulk Hogan, but it’s lobotomised for everyone else.

Things are no better in the ring, with no atmosphere, sluggish movement and super-dodgy timing leading to missed moves aplenty. Which, actually, might not be a bad simulation of an actual TNA match, but it makes off a disastrously poor video game.

Marvel at the number of times you ponderously attempt to stomp on someone halfway through a standing up animation. Wonder at the number of times the AI decides the best thing to do is run away from you, off the ropes, and let you get a free drop kick in, which has such dodgy hit collision you can practically perform on the other side of the ring and still see the other dude fall over. Thrill to DDTing a guy ten times in a row because, as Pulp teaches us, there’s nothing else to do.

We’re only scratching the surface here, folks, but if you want to waste your cash on a catalogue of disappointments then this is the game for you. This is an embarrassment to all concerned, and I worry about the number of 5 star reviews this had. They must be fraudulent, as I cannot fathom the mind of anyone who could claim this is competent, let alone enjoyable. Even at the current sale price, it’s a total rip off.

Dreadful.

Mac Half-Life (Very Beta)

Towards the tail end of January, alert Mac-based Steam users may have noticed a surprising addition to the Library section, depending on what they’d bought from the formidable PC selection. Above the Half-Life 2 entry, which surely any self-respecting gamer has obtained, there now lurks a Half-Life (Beta).

This is, just as it says, a (very, apparently) beta version of the original Half-Life game using the original Half-Life engine, the pride of 1998. This is not to be confused with the more-recent-although-hardly-new release of Half-Life: Source, a recreation of the original game with the Half-Life 2 Source engine. That engine being the pride of 2004. God, I’m so old.

Nope, this release is aims to be true to the original to a fault, replete with the blocky models, sparse voice acting and quite astonishingly low resolution textures we’ve come to know and love. Quite why this has come to pass is something that no-one seems to have the low down on. Perhaps it was simply a coding exercise to port this to OSX and Linux given to the interns at Valve that co-incidentally marks the 15th anniversary. At any rate, on an otherwise miserable weekend that saw me unfit for anything more worthwhile, it appealed enough to my nostalgia centres to give it a bash.

Now, to be clear, this was more of a stroll down memory lane thing than me looking for a serious challenge. I was more interested in seeing if I remembered the game rather than giving it a serious playthrough, although the initial office sections seemed just as I recalled. Mechanically, it’s just the same, so I decided to hammer through the rest of the game with all speed, primarily by cheating.

I mention this in case it has any bearing on the bugs uncovered, although perhaps the first bug I found is that most of the standard console cheat codes aren’t hooked up to anything. Sure, you can type ‘god’ in as often as you want, but it’s not getting you any closer to being a deity. Likewise, ‘give’ stubbornly refuses to give you anything, however ‘no target’ works quite well against anything other than a few boss roadblocks and gun emplacements.

With the game’s enemies reduced to standing still and staring blankly at you, the game’s rather quicker to get through. Turns out I didn’t remember the game quite as well as I thought, having completely forgotten the ‘Blast Pit’ section, although the rest of it up until ‘Surface Tension’ was broadly familiar.

However the game proceeded to rather fall apart at this point. After getting past the Apache hovering around the dam, we reach a section where we crawl through some of the game’s many pipes (seriously, around 96% of this game takes place in an air duct, inside a pipe or crawling on top of a pipe) to reach a minefield guarding a storm drain. My first, route one attempt at crossing the minefield did not work so well. Ka-boom.

Anyway, clicking to reload puts you back in the pipes, near to the exit and just before an area loading trigger. Unfortunately now going through this load point causes the game to crash, and I’m dammed if I can find a work-around. You could skip ahead and load the next area with a console command, but you arrive there naked and itemless, and with no way to ‘give’ yourself anything (including your iconic HEV suit ‘n’ crowbar combo) it’s not much of a fun experience.

In desperation, I figured I’d reload a save from a while back and see if the same fault occurred. Firstly, it did, but secondly and rather more bizarrely, the save file had developed a kind or precognition. By which I mean that even though I was starting back near the start of the ‘Residue Processing’ chapter, it had handily pre-killed all of the enemies and pre-collected all of the power-ups I’d picked up in the previous run-though. Travelling without moving, wheels within wheels, plans within plans.

So, yes, what I’m getting at is that the Beta label is quite well deserved in this instance, and perhaps it’s best to leave this until the rest of the kinks have been worked out. Admittedly, I didn’t spend too long looking for a fix, in the main because I was getting dangerously close to the rubbish Xen sections, and I have better things to be doing with my time. Well, by which I mean Kingdoms of Amalur, which I at least hope is a better thing to be doing with my time.

An Even Longer List Of Annoyances From Mass Effect 3, Indicating That I’ve Thought About This Entirely Too Much

I suppose I should have left this game series for a little while, given my extended bout of niggle-picking, to allow a process of healing, or at the very least amnesia, to occur. However, thanks to the fine people at Lovefilm dropping the concluding part to the Mass Effect saga through the door far earlier than expected, I thought I’d plough on and stick a stake through the franchise.

Wiser people may not have bothered, but like Magnus Magnussen, I’ve started, so I’ll finish. For the most part, the game is a further refinement of Mass Effect 2, meaning a great deal more crouching behind space walls and firing space guns at space monsters in the same professional, clinical space way that every other quarter-way decent cover-based shooter does. But in space. I’ve little further to say about the mechanics of this over that of Mass Effect 2, other than to say it’s all very competent and disappointingly bland.

I should interject at this point, before the Diatribe Engine cranks into full roar, that for all of my whining I was still happy enough to sink 40-odd hours into doing everything the game offered, and to see out how the character (and indeed entire civilisation) arcs play out. While you can (and I will) take issue with some of the storytelling, and perhaps it’s not how I think it could have most satisfyingly wrapped everything up, we must stop and recognise that across the three games, this series has the most fleshed out and complete characters, history and universe that we’ve seen in videogaming.

You could perhaps make the case for the Elder Scrolls games being on a par, but to my mind a lot of their world history is flavour text rather than anything integral to the adventures. In Mass Effect, the wounds from conflicts settled long before humanity even bothered their first Turian are still evident, and the fallout from these believably shapes the universe you explore.

Now, it’s rather less convincing that all of these ramifications have to be sorted out over the course of this game by one dude in a spiffy spaceship making a couple of mildly inspirational speeches after shooting lots of things from behind low alien walls, but a sense of closure is nonetheless welcomed.

The broad strokes of the story arc ties up pretty well. The details, however, are often bafflingly clumsily handled, from the very outset. At least you don’t die at the start of this game, however you do start under house arrest for reasons that are never really made clear. Unless, of course, you’ve bought the DLC pack where you perform the actions that put you there. I’m not a knee-jerk anti DLC kinda guy, really, but when it starts deleteriously affecting the storytelling of the core game its firmly over the limits of acceptability.

DLC as a way to extend the life of the game or tell additional stories, such as The Shivering Isles pack for Oblivion, are perfectly fine, indeed that pack would almost pass muster as a standalone game. Zero day DLC packs, however, can get fucked. It’s not something extra that designers have slaved over after a game’s release, it’s content created for the game launch that’s been deliberately ring-fenced in order to nickel and dime more cash from eager punters. It’s predatory, annoying and I’ll have no part of it.

At any rate, your incarceration is brought to a swift end as the Reapers make their long-threatened, often warned, always ignored arrival on Earth and begin to ruin everyone’s shit, taking a curiously long time to do so given how we’ve been banging on about how powerful and unstoppable they are. This allows us to make an escape to rally up some forces to take back Earth, while the Reapers leisurely eat cities at a rate determined only by our process through the Priority-level missions. This is a game, after all.

Your first real hint that the writers may be over-extending themselves comes with the escape sequence, at one point stumbling onto a small, scared boy hiding in a ventilation shaft who scrambles away rather than accepting your help. It clumsily screams ‘recurring motif’, and indeed as we depart the planet we see him scamper onto a rescue shuttle only for it to be burned by the Reapers. Oh noes, the horror, etc. I suppose this was done in an attempt to drive home the gravity of the situation, especially as most subsequent updates on the situation on Earth offer few more details than “it’s bad”.

If it stopped there, that wouldn’t be too dreadful. Ham-fisted, but forgettable. Obviously, it isn’t. After a few missions we return to the Citadel to speak to the ever-helpful Council, who have yet to do anything of any use or indeed display one scintilla of sense over three games. On returning to your ship, and I mean immediately on pressing the ‘open’ button at the dock airlock, we are transported to a black and white forest, surrounded with shadowy wisps chasing that their small boy.

I ask you this – name me one game with playable dream sequences that wouldn’t be improved by removing them. This is no exception and, joy of joys, there are multiple occurrences. Besides, would it have killed you to at least show us going to sleep?

Anyway, the bulk of the game at least allows a measure of vengeance against those Cerberus pricks I so railed against in the last write-up, as they seem hellbent on interfering with our attempts at alien-wrangling for reasons that are only vaguely defined, but whatever. If it allows me to mindlessly slaughter hundreds of footsoldiers, I’m happy.

Indeed, we seem to spend more time fighting the bafflingly well funded renegade human faction than the Reaper footsoldiers, which seems a tad strange. Speaking of Reapers, there’s a few new models of them to contend with, and if they weren’t either dumber than a bag of hammers or slower than a wheel-clamped Sinclair C5 I imagine they’d be quite tough to deal with. As it stands, the only difficulty the present comes from the massive stack of hitpoints they hide behind, putting your ammo (grrr, ammo) stocks in more danger than your person. I can only imagine the “fun” this would present on the Insanity difficulty mode.

Speaking of lazy video game fallbacks, there’s a disappointing reliance on cut-scene superpowers and idiocy, with your enemies getting the former and you the latter. If I never see one more purposefully unwinnable boss fight again, I will be a happy man. It’s particularly galling after spending a few minutes taking on this supposed bad-ass, drilling him full of assault rifle holes while remaining untouched yourself only for him this to trigger a cutscene where he gets the better of you, and then have him gloat about beating you (he didn’t!) and the aftermath of characters disappointed in your failure (I didn’t!) and the repercussions (there shouldn’t have been any!). I wish they could find a better, less obnoxious way to drive the plot forward.

The particular irritant in question here is a Cerberus assassin, Kai Leng, who is a useful character to talk about inasmuch as he typifies the sloppiness in storytelling. Apparently, Leng’s a legendarily powerful bad guy. We know this because we are told this numerous times before we meet him. However, he’s no exception to the general axiom of show, don’t tell, and we aren’t shown him doing a damn thing worthy of his attitude.

Perhaps if you’ve read the Mass Effect books that, as best as I can gather, the character is drawn from, there might be some reason to give this stupid, emo-looking harlequin some credibility, but there’s none given in Mass Effect 3. I suppose I could read the novels, but the quality-to-drivel ratio of game novelisations is perhaps worse than game to film adaptations, so I think I’ll let that opportunity pass me by.

It seems that, rather sensibly, no-one on the face of the planet was fond of the mining sub-game / exploration replacement in Mass Effect 2. Surprisingly, this has been seized on as an opportunity to make it even more frustrating. We’re not looking for curiously unsellable mineral wealth this time round, just “War Assets” – various units or McGuffins that will help the preparations for the strike against the reapers. And we don’t need to spend hours probing planets, as the scans can be performed from the solar system maps, and cover a wide enough area that it’s not uncommon to envelope two planets in the range for discovering things.

This sounds like a major improvement, but there’s a slight wrinkle. Most of the areas we’ll be scanning are in Reaper-infested space, and scanning alerts them there baddies. Should the alert levels raise too high, they’ll show up and Game Over you, unless you run away, and they remain on patrol until you go off and complete a mission. Given that in many of the systems, if you were to search the entire system you’d be using ten to twenty scans, and that the maximum number of scans I’ve ever gotten away with in a system without raising an alarm is three, you can see that this isn’t adding up.

So, it seems that the designed method for finding these assets would be to draw up a grid search pattern for each system, scan two or three blocks, mark them off, repeat for every single system in the game, then do a mission and repeat until your grip on sanity finally slips and you wind up in one of those news articles ending with “before turning the gun on himself”. Lunacy. Alternatively, we’ll consult Gamefaqs and end around this stupidity.

The reward for all this ridiculous tedium, incidentally, is that a number on a console very marginally increases.

That’s a little reductive, but increasing your available War Assets to the maximum, and I’m skipping over the multi-player bonus multipliers that can fuck right off, thank you, makes very little difference in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it contributes to “the best” ending, but not in much more than a few different line of dialogue, as best as I can gather. It’s completely overwhelmed by the more direct actions Sheppy takes, which does rather render the whole thing a bit of a pointless time-sink.

Ahhh, the ending. It’s already caused enough Internet Outrage that I think there’s little point in delving into it, and I’m trying not to make this too spoilerific. To be honest, the bruhaha is overdone, but I have some sympathy for the complaints. Again, it ties into the general storytelling problems of the broad strokes being there, but the details are more clumsy than I’ve come to expect from the writing team.

There’s certainly an issue with what the game clearly thinks to be the “good” outcome, which is far more morally complex than it makes it out to be. It’s also reflecting a theme that’s frankly only hinted at in this game, and not at all in the previous instalments, and if this was planned to be the canon ending from the start it really needed to be more interwoven with the actions and outcomes of the universe.

Actually, I rescind my earlier comment. The problems aren’t that the details are clumsy, the problem is that the details simply aren’t there. The three galaxy redefining options essentially give you a different colour of lightshow, and the sequence then rather unceremoniously ends. No details given at all about the aftermath or implications of these actions. Perhaps it’s leaving the way open for more stories in this universe, but it’s a massively unsatifying way to round off over a hundred hours of investment in the games.

Is it bad enough to require apologising and promising free DLC packs to explain themselves? Well, I’d say not really, but Bioware themselves apparently disagree, so who am I to argue?

An Inexhaustive List Of Things That Infuriate Me In Mass Effect 2 Now That I’ve Thought About Them.

I enjoyed this game well enough when playing it, but given a few days distance to let it percolate through my mind, I find myself nearly apoplectic with incandescent fury, or at least slightly peeved. Here are a few of the reasons why. Much of this was prompted by a similar rant over at Arcadian Rhythms.

There was a tremendous amount of PR hay made at the outset of the series about your decisions in the first game effecting the rest of the trilogy, and you character having a consistency across all the games. Odd then, that the first thing you do on starting a new game is reset your character. Even if you decide to keep your original character appearance and character class, there’s no reason for your alignment (your paragon / renegade scores) to be reset.

I don’t mind, really, completely changing all of the combat mechanics. If you want to re-jigger the powers and weapons to make the hiding behind endless low walls and shooting over them a little better, knock yourselves out, although that’s always been the absolute least of the reasons I liked ME1. Just do it silently and we’ll all be polite and not draw attention to it. Don’t, however, then try and write a bafflingly stupid Codex entry trying to retcon these, because it’s insulting. Every gun in the entire universe was remodelled based on a Geth technology apparently uncovered in the first game, but never seen in the first game, in a mere two years? Do one.

While we’ve got our retconning shoes on, what in the hell is going on with Cerberus? The bulk of the interesting sidequests in ME1 were based around establishing Cerberus as an unalloyed, inexcusable evil. It’s at least one game too late to be making excuses for them, and forcing us to accept that they’re just a misunderstood gang of folks wanting to save mankind, jus’ like you, Shep!

Let’s run down what we learn from the first game. Cerberus killed an Alliance officer, tried to build an army of Thorian creepers and rachni, destroyed a settlement by turning the colonists into husks, and as I’m playing with the “Sole Survivor” background, was directly responsibly for the most traumatic event in my characters life (at least, prior to what unfurls during the events of the game), killing my entire squad through Thresher Maw proxy.

My Shephard would have put a bullet in the head of your erstwhile new buddies Miranda and Jacob, and probably also himself just to deny Cerberus the satisfaction. Not even being able to mention the Sole Survivor deal to any of the Cerberus apologists is a really glaring, frustrating plot hole, of the sort that really throws doubt on how much anything I do influences anything in the game that Bioware might deem narratively inconvenient.

This might seem like nit-picking, and it is. However the more you keep having to scratch these itches the more it pulls you out of the game, and reminds you that you’re sinking forty odd hours into pushing electrons around a screen rather than doing anything worthwhile with your life.

It hurts immersion, and that was what I found so spectacular about the first game. Not the combat mechanics, and to be honest not even the main narrative. It was the well detailed characterisation, and the feeling that there’s a massive, well thought out, cohesive galaxy to explore with all the attendant alien races and mysteries.

Mass Effect 2 is about crouching behind low walls and firing over the top of them. Occasionally alien low walls, to be sure, but it’s mainly interested in running between walls, crouching and firing over the top of them. Exploration is purely there to allow mining, and that is hardly a positive.

There were certainly things wrong with the planet exploration in the Mako of ME1. The solution was, apparently, to delete them entirely and replace them with an orbital mining ‘game’. I would have loved to have been present at the meeting where it was decided that the best way to increase the Mass Effect 2’s fun quotient would be to hold down a trigger while slowly moving a cursor around until the controller vibrates, then pulling another trigger. I would bring a hammer to this meeting.

All sense of scale has gone. The universe has shrunk in the wash. I understand that there’s constraints on these things, but look at what happened to the Citadel. Events at the end of ME1 notwithstanding, it still ought to be a massive galactic hub, complete with the unwieldy navigation and endless running between sectors of the first game. Now it’s, what, three shops, a few staircases and a bar?

Everywhere else is just as bad, with any exploration or poking around ‘streamlined’ and minimised in favour of getting you back out, hiding behind walls. There’s some rationale for it, I guess, but the capital of the Krogan homeworld really ought to consist of more than ten rhino-people standing around a fire in an old oil drum, like some intergalactic hobo convention.

Characterisation has broken completely in Mass Effect 2. The Shephard I controlled in the first game would not be working with Cerberus, but there’s no choice about that – which requires some breathtaking, unbelievable head-sand interfacing from the Intergalactic Parliament, or whatever they’re called, and a complete abdication of the only responsibility the Earth Fleet Dudes, or whatever they’re called, have.

Sheppy aside, what in the hell was the point of convincing Garrus to go back to C-Sec if it’s discarded in one line of dialogue? How does the first game’s socially awkward blue archaeologist turn into the galaxy’s number 2 intelligence agent in two years? Why would I want to buy that story separately?

I’m pretty sure all of this talk of decisions from the first game effecting the second is based entirely around the bit characters from side missions who can be spoken to, and I have to pretend to remember what petty dispute of theirs I solved a couple of years ago, which make no impact on me at all.

At points I was running low on credits to purchase the upgrades littered around, so figured I would sell off some of my mineral reserves, surely impractical to hold on a small starship. Except, of course, you can’t, because there is no functioning economy in Mass Effect 2 to allow selling of the most valuable commodities in the universe. Hmmph

Okay, the more I think about this game the less I like it, so I’m now going to stop thinking about it and crack open the Deus Ex: Human Revolution disk Lovefilm have sent me.

The Last Remnant …to the end(ish)

Here’s an oddity, at least in the realms of my game-playing habits lately. I purchased a game, from a real-life bricks and mortar “shop”, as I believe they are known, and put that game inside of a game-playing device within 24 hours of the transaction, and played it for a length of time that could not be rounded down to zero in any statistically significant sense. That’s unusual, but should not necessarily be taken as an indication of quality. Regardless, my Mastermind-esque creed of “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” means that The Last Remnant becomes a prime candidate for my intermittent series of game review / journal things.

Purchasing The Last Remnant was a decision taken with almost no consideration whatsoever, which may turn out to be a mistake. Still, as part of a two for ten pound promotion with a game I actually wanted, it also wasn’t a decision that necessarily required much consideration. Indeed, by providing two paragraphs worth of blog material already, it’s gone a long way towards being considered good value for money.

My knowledge of the game was limited, more or less, to the blurb on the back of the box, and a nagging feeling that as I’ve not heard of it, it’s probably not worth hearing about. However, given that I more or less bury my head in the sand concerning all game releases these days this is not an unfamiliar state of affairs. The one undeniable fact garnered from the marketing blurb is that it’s a Japanese RPG published by SquareEnix, the 400lb gorilla of the Japanese RPG world.

I have an ongoing fascination with SquareEnix, as they’re a company that is continuously massively successful, despite making RPGs that are, in my estimation, barely playable, let alone enjoyable. Of course, these days they’re a monolithic publisher doing everything up to and including the oft-lauded Deus Ex franchise, but my feeble brain pathways still struggle to move them out of their Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest box. Statistics and sales figures would suggest I’m an outlier in this regard, but rather than do anything sensible like “stop buying their games”, I persist with the notion of picking them up cheap and attempting to work out what’s so appealing about them, to some folks at least.

Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

Well, now that I’ve got my flimsy rationale for playing this over, say, the untouched copies of Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age out of the way, let’s dive in.

Day One

Egads! If there’s one thing that makes me run screaming from most Squeenix JRPGs I’ve tried, it’s the puzzling insistance on making the player controlled character a barely pubescent, screeching frat boy irritant. It’s afflicted most of the modern Final Fantasy games I’ve played, and in The Last Remnant the improbably named Rush is another such annoyance. If this doesn’t gets less annoying over time, I may have to rename this series …to the end of my patience.

At any rate, in our introductory cut scenes we’re introduced to Rush and his sister Irena on a remote, peaceful looking island, watching a holo-video-thing from their absent parents. They’re world-famous, respected researchers into mysterious, ancient artifacts called Remnants, massive constructions of great power that can be controlled and “bound” to individuals. The two kiddywinks barely have time to consider their situation before some wallopers fly in on a funny looking bird thingy, later revealed to be one of them there Remnants, and kidnap Irena.

There’s your motivation in a nutshell, chasing after your sister, trying to uncover who took her and why. One jump cut later and we’re with the youthful David, Marquis of Athlum, leading his army against a group of monsters. The battle is cut somewhat short when David unveils Operation Overwhelming Force, uncorking a Remnant under his control, effectively a tower-block sized instagib laser cannon. Rush stumbles into this mess, and over the course of a brief spot of tutorialising David and his generals agree to investigate this kidnapping scenario and get some answers.

Now, in terms of wandering around towns, talking to people in pubs for information, buying new kit and such this is barely any different from any other RPG you can imagine, so I’ll skip over that. Well, perhaps one exception, but I’ll get to that in due course. The battle mechanics, on the other hand, are so different from the norm that I’m not even going to attempt to describe them until I get a better handle on them. I hope this occurs soon.

Day Two

Scooting through a few of the missions, which largely involve tracking down a few ultimately dead-end leads while still attempting to teach you the byzantine gameplay mechanics, leads us to uncover a few more areas to travel to, including the neighbouring town Celapaleis.

Principle storyline concern so far is that those behind the kidnapping may be linked to the Academy, the powerful body responsible for researching remnant artifacts, and also the employers of Rush and Irina’s parents, giving the whole abduction thing a patina of legality. Suspecting political machinations afoot and bristling under the demands of Celapaleis’ envoys, David plays things safe and starts taking a more circumspect look at the situation. Cue annoying ranting from annoying lead character, who decides to strike out on his own before, gratifyingly, realising he’s being a dick and besides, would have no chance on his own before he’s even left the city. Maybe this guy’s not irredeemable after all.

Speaking of leaving town, here’s the difference between this and a lot of other RPGs. There’s no real “overworld”, in the sense of traipsing around a world map to get between towns and ‘dungeons’. For the sake of brevity, let’s define a dungeon as any location you have to wander around hitting enemies with sticks until you find something/someone to advance the main story, regardless of whether it’s actually a dungeon or a ruined castle or a woodland glen or a marshmallow factory or anything else.

To move between locations, you simply tap the little used ‘back’ button on your Xbox 360 joypad (or alternative system equivalent) a couple of times to bring up a world map, and move a whacking great arrow over where you want to go. Easy enough, I suppose, and cuts out some of the busywork. After certain conversations or events, more areas become available to travel to. More unusually, tapping back once while in a town brings up a location map that’s used to travel, effectively, between town streets.

This is particularly weird in comparison to behemoths like Fallout 3 and Oblivion, where you will wander around the world and into town often with nary a loading screen to be had. Perhaps this is a limitation of the Unreal Engine used in the game, as it hasn’t helped with are the loading times which aren’t exactly snappy even after installing the game to hard drive and verging on intolerable from disk. Perhaps it’s another convenience aimed at removing time taken wandering through the backstreets to reach the shop or tavern you want to visit.

I suspect the latter, given some of the other oddities. For example, early on you meet a character in a tavern asking to deliver a letter to someone who’s wandered off into a monster filled area. Ever the helpful chap, you agree to deliver this. Without even a chance to prepare yourself, the screen fades to black and you’re deposited in the dungeon, directly in front of the intended recipient. You talk to him. He takes the letter. Everything fades to black again and you’re back in the tavern talking to the quest giver and claiming the cash reward.

While this has removed a lot of ultimately pointless button presses for me, it’s a pretty weird experience. It’s essentially removing the gaming elements from the game, to the point that it might as well just have given me the money without bothering about the whole letter idea. Admittedly at that point I might as well be entering numbers in a spreadsheet, and Excel ain’t no game. It’s striking a peculiar balance between convenience and gaming, and I’m not altogether sure if I like it or not.

Day Three

I suppose I’ve dodged this for long enough. The battle mechanics in The Last Remnant are unique, to my knowledge, so I have to applaud the spirit even if I remain unconvinced about the execution. On engaging an enemy wandering around the dungeons, you are presented with something that’s halfway between the usual fight/spell/item/run selections from RPGs since the dawn of time, and something more akin to a tactical RPG, or perhaps even a variant of the Total War franchise.

You, and whatever lackeys you have hired in the Guildhalls of the world, are lumped into something called a union, although really “squad” or “battalion” would be a less confusing term. The composition of these unions is subject to various limits, for example at the moment I am limited to nine fighters in total, with a maximum of five in one union. I can form up to three separate unions. There are two types of hirelings, leaders and soldiers. As you’d expect, each union must have at least one leader, who typically have better statistics and abilities than soldiers, and currently I’m limited to a maximum of four leaders.

More oddities abound. Members of your unions share a pool of hitpoints, and you can only give them relatively vague instructions on how to attack. While the bog standards ‘Attack’ will have them all run at your enemies in an attempt to bash them over the head, the usual other options of ‘Attack with Combat Arts’ and ‘Attack with Mystic Arts’ will result in your chaps, depending on their abilities and seemingly the phase of the moon, performing a selection of either special melee strikes or magic attacks.

This is decidedly odd. It’s like giving a general idea of how your character and those nominally under his command should behave and watching how it pans out. It would be like Sonic the Hedgehog presenting an option at the outset saying “Run right, jump as required” then watching a demo of the game until completion.

Now, if this does wind up as the greyed out option on the screens imply see you controlling at least five squads of sixteen soldiers, micromanaging each individual’s actions each round would be about as dull an experience as I can imagine, so I can sorta see why it’s built this way.

However, we’re coming straight back to the issue of convenience versus gaming. Final Fantasy 12 was criticised in some circles for having an option to take essentially all decisions in battle away from you, and leave it up to the AI. The game was basically playing itself, which led people to question what the point of that was. That was, however, an option that you did not have to avail yourself of. There’s no such option here, and I do wonder how this will play out over the coming days.

Day Four

Hey! Where do you think you’re going? We’re certainly not finished with explaining the game mechanics. Well, I say explain. Parts of it remain fairly opaque to me, but we’ll do what we can.

Let’s give a worked example. Say we’ve got two combat unions under our control, and we decide to take on, let’s say, five groups of oversized cockroaches. The groups start off scattered around a minimap that looks on first instance to have more tactical significance than it really does. We set our two groups to attack the nearest cockroach cluster to them, and they charge off towards them.

Our first group run headlong into their target and start bashing them up. Both parties enter a slightly mis-named state called a Deadlock, meaning that they’re engaged with fighting each other. For the sake of argument, both groups survive and remain Deadlocked.

Our other group was heading towards their target, but another closer, faster bunch of enemies engaged them first – an Interruption. They Deadlock and start hitting each other for the turn. After that, another group of enemies attack, and as you’re still engaged with fighting something else, they get to “Flank Attack” you, a state requiring less explanation than Deadlock. They get a damage bonus against you.

Of course, you have another flank to be engaged on, and if yet another group attacks it’s from behind, oo-er missus. This “Rear Attack” will hurt even more, again, oo-er missus. If another group attacks, it’s termed a Massive Strike, presumably to avoid copyright infringement with a Bristol based trip-hop outfit. So that’s all reasonably understandable. It’s often frustrating, as you intend on unleashing a series of devastating attacks on a dangerous group of enemies only to be Interrupted by a low value target, “wasting” your attack turn and potentially leaving you open to Flanks from those more dangerous opponents.

I say frustrating, because there seems to be no way to combat this. There’s no obvious way to control your position on the battleground, so it doesn’t seem like there’s any skill to this mechanic. And if there’s little or no control you can exert over this, you have to question why they make so big a point of it. There’s massive text overlays coming up on screen every time these Deadlocks or Flanks et al happen, and given that there’s very little that you can do about these situations other than the default RPG Plan One of “kill everything”, it’s just giving the trappings of a tactics system without having any actual tactics system.

Oh, yes, and the remaining major state, Raidlock, makes no sense whatsoever. The text describing it does, admittedly. A union that’s not physically close to another union can enter a special Deadlock state called a Raidlock, nominally by hitting them with some ranged magical attack, getting a damage bonus. So essentially, covering fire. Makes sense, except every single time this happens to me, seemingly at random, at most one of my team has been using a ranged attack, and the rest run up and bash them with swords. So, to be clear, a Raidlock is a state of Deadlock for units that aren’t physically close to each other but that are nonetheless physically close to each other.

People have claimed that the battle system in The Last Remnant is too complicated. Actually, the problem is far worse. It’s a battle system with all the obfuscated seeming of complication, without actually having any at all. It promises tactics and delivers helplessness, and that’s plainly not satisfying.

Day Fuck This Noise

We’re probably up to about Day Ten or so, in reality, with the intention being to backfill in more information on the combat mechanics and a few other things I’ll get to, but I’m calling a halt to this game on account of it being more of an exercise in perseverance rather than anything I’m getting any enjoyment out of.

The last word I’ll have on the combat system will be kept relatively brief, mainly because it’s a horrible idea that you can turn off. As your squads go through the motions of attacking and defending (for the twelve millionth time), there’s an opportunity to get an enhanced result by, joy of joys, a quicktime event. There is, as we all know, no game that features a quicktime event that could not be significantly improved by removing the quicktime event, so it’s heartening to see that this can be turned off in the options. Or rather, falling back on your character’s base stats to automagically see whether you hit or miss.

The point, I suppose, was a last ditch attempt to inject some feeling of control or involvement in the battles, which never stop feeling like a spectator sport rather than something you’re nominally directing. If your solution to a lack of action is to dump endless, excruciating gauntlets of quicktime events, you know you’re getting into “nuke from orbit” territory.

So, combat-wise, it’s a brave experiment and I’m glad I’ve played it enough to form an opinion on it, but it’s a failed experiment. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve would up having my parties wiped out because while it’s obviously necessary to heal up this round, my only options are to carry on a doomed frontal assault or some such nonsense. I wouldn’t mind giving up control quite so much if I didn’t feel I was giving up that control to a bumbling poltroon.

Given that any RPG is likely to be heavy on the combat, and given the usual Squeenix focus on grinding this is particularly so in The Last Remnant, it’s not going to work out very well for the game if the combat is, at its best, a total drag. So we’ve already worked out the primary reason to punt the game into the long grass and find something else to play. There are many others.

Marginally annoying, rather than outright frustrating is the resource gathering. Components, ores, herbs and the like are found either in shops, from vanquished enemies or from points around the maps, which brings us onto Mr. Diggs. With no explanation whatsoever this puzzling little steampunk mole thing attaches himself to your group to enable you to gather more resources, which means watching his canned ten second animation another four and a half billion times over the course of the game. It’s not particularly impressive first time around, and grows rapidly more grating each subsequent time. The same can be said of all the attack animations, really.

The voice acting, for the English version at least, is reassuringly dreadful. The main character is outright annoying, with the supporting characters swinging between ‘bland’ and ‘somehow worse than the lead character, baffling as that may be’. Of particular note is the bloke lumbered with David, Marquis of Athlum, who sounds like a cross between a bad David Bowie impersonation and every accent in every Guy Ritchie film thrown in an accent blender.

Perhaps the most obtuse gameplay mechanic of The Last Remnant is that it’s very often not remotely clear what you’re supposed to be doing to further the plot, and there’s also no indication that you’re well prepared enough to progress further. I came very close to knocking this on the head after, ooh, four days or so, after growing tired of the side-quests that were taking up a great deal of time while presenting no significant challenge. I wandered up to the plotline mandated fight with a Mr. “The Conqueror”, who smeared me into a fine paste in short order. Aah, I realised, this game mandates grinding. Which was a massive red flag.

Sure, I was happy doing the side-quests in Fallout 3 and Oblivion, but not because I wanted to farm experience points to get past a boss. It was because they were, for the most part, interesting stories on their own terms, and enhanced the feeling of being in a living, breathing world. There’s nothing like this depth shown in The Last Remnant, and nothing like motivation for doing them.

Even putting the wider game world to one side, the main storyline doesn’t have the attraction required to put up with the grind required to progress it. What starts off as a simple, relatable tale of a missing family member rapidly devolves into world-spanning political powergrabs featuring characters we have barely seen, let alone know anything about. The supposed Machiavelli behind all of this is so obviously guilty from the first time we clap eyes on him I suppose there’s no point building up any subtle, deceptive plots, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss it.

Without liking either the story or the game’s mechanics, there’s clearly no point going any further, or longer. And I could well have gone longer – despite pumping something like forty hours into it, the point I gave up was the seemingly wide-accepted arsehole of a boss battle at the end of the first disk, which seemed very much like I’d have to firstly go back to a save from hours ago and level up more, and even then face a battle based more on luck than wits. I’m sure this timesink would have doubled from the second disk, but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed any of it.

The battles are repetitive, drawn-out and tedious, and the lengthy loading times add to the feeling that this is more a game you are invited to watch, rather than play. It still looks pretty good, I must admit, which is to its credit, but hardly its salvation.

There’s very little of interest in this game, for most folks. It may appeal somewhat to the more obsessive-compulsive crowd, or those who take interest an in studying and breaking games systems on a more cerebral level. Basically people who can understand the term “min/max character build” without requiring a flowchart.

I certainly got my money’s worth out of The Last Remnant, going by the time taken, but I’m not altogether sure I got too much enjoyment from it. I had far more fun subsequently going through Arkham Asylum, in far less time. If longevity is your only rationale for judging a game, I suppose The Last Remnant scores highly. By any other criteria, it ought to be avoided.

Culpability

I guess you have to own up when things aren’t going quite to plan. I had every intention of upping the level of productivity going into the various web properties that I’ve got kicking around, and that’s happened. Not exactly to the extent I’d hoped, but I’ll keep trying.

One thing that was a hasty, poorly considered decision with the benefit of hindsight was attempting to marry up posting an image with posting a screed of text, with nary a connection between them. Baffling decision, and completely confusing to everyone.

Also, splitting out the old stuff and leaving it in an old WordPress install, with the new stuff in a new WordPress setup was a very dumb idea. Not necessarily in the philosophical terms of a clean break, but in pure technical sense of maintaining updates to prevent security holes, which is pure drudgery – less so these days, admittedly, but not exactly fun.

So, I’d better remedy this. From now on, words go here, the bulk of my photos go on my Flickr, and I’ve put together what is, I guess, a portfolio of my ‘best’ photos over here – best being, of course, a relative term.

The posts from the old blog are back on here, and I’ve futzed around with the theme, and created a massively egotistical front page. Booyah.

Alan Wake …to the end

I have acquired a hell of a lot of games over the past few years that I haven’t really given much attention to. Before buying anything else, it’s time to play them …to the end.

The following is a rambling log of thoughts, experiences and opinions that might, if you squint a bit, loosely be termed a review.

As an aside, I wrote the bulk of this some time ago and promptly forgot about it. My memory’s not so good these days. As a consequence this tidied up version may be a little light on details, but I think it gets the spirit of the game across quite well.

It wasn’t long after the completion of Max Payne 2 that rumours surfaced of a new game from Remedy, and if nothing else Alan Wake cut a mean trailer, back when you could call the Xbox 360 and PS3 ‘next-generation’ machines with a straight face. After it’s lengthy gestation period it was unleashed upon a world that seemed largely to have forgotten about it. Now an Xbox 360 exclusive, it received almost universal acclaim in the press, although these days sadly this is more an indication of the quantity of advertising placed with the press than of quality of the game.

Regardless, it’s the only game that willingly describes itself as, at least in part, a survival horror that I had the slightest interest in playing over the last decade, so let’s plunge into the world of thriller writer Alan Wake as he investigates the disappearance of his wife during their holiday in the remote town of Bright Falls.

Day One

So, a few hours in and I’ve completed the first, half tutorial episode and most of Episode Two before my interest waned. My initial thoughts are that someone’s been spending a hell of a lot longer on the concept of the game rather than the mechanics.

While the concept of nightmares within nightmares seems interesting enough, the sections of trudging through forest occasionally stopping to shine a light on some lumberjacks before shooting them isn’t exactly setting my world on fire.

Given the way the narrative’s going, I suppose there’s no point picking up on any of the plot holes that occur fairly frequently, given that the “J.R. stepping out of the shower” scene towards the end is pretty clearly signposted.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is the character models, specifically the granite-like fizzogs on display when characters try desperately to emote. For a game that’s been in development since, I believe, the beginning of recorded time, you’d think they’d have come up with something better looking than a launch title. The ‘actors’ seem to be walking around with a stick up their collective ass, but on closer inspection they’ve really got more in common with the sticks.

Why am I trying to collect a hundred coffee pots, by the way?

Day Two

I find myself concluding Episode 2, and trudging my way through Episode 3. So far, still an awful lot of traipsing through woods, shining flashlights at lumberjacks. For a game that took five years to create, I had figured that there would be a touch more variety shown in the mechanics. I suppose there’s not a vehicle to drive between the locations for the bouts of flashlight wielding, and some poltergeist thrown objects to shine a torch on, but this is hardly redefining the boundaries of video gaming.

I suppose I shall play on for the sake of continuing the story, but so far it’s doign very little to draw me in to the narrative. I think I’m being put off by the continued references and namechecking of Steven King, a writer up with which I shall not put.

While we’re at it, if this game is supposed to be narrative based, would it not have been a sterling idea to get a few decent writers in? The dismal writing is showcased not only in some dreadful, grating voiceovers, but also in the hamfisted, clunky manuscript pages I have no interest in reading, let alone scouring the levels trying to find. I’m afraid the Cheevo points alone are not that strong of a draw for me to engage in arbitrary gameplay extension.

Day Three

A radical departure for the game in Episode 4, as we find ourselves traipsing through a garden and a farmyard, shining flashlights on lumberjacks.

I sure hope this game has something unexpected and special for its ending, as if it goes the way it’s been threatening to go for the first half of the game then the storyline as developed in this chapter would completely undercut any building of tension.

That said, I still struggle to work up any interest at all in the plot and find most of these daylight cutscenes to be an excellent opportunity to play Slingo on my iPhone. I’m multi-tasking.

I’m growing more than a little bored by the recurring contrivance of stripping your weapons and flashlight at every available opportunity. Once might have been fun, but this grows tiresome quickly

I had wondered why I was finding your occasional in-game companion Barry so irritating, given that his characterisation is far less annoying and pretentious than our nominal hero. Eventually I placed it as residual hatred for Max Payne 2‘s Vinnie Gognitti, sharing as they do the same voice actor. You will remember Vinnie, of course, as the ‘star’ of the stupendously annoying Captain Baseball Batboy suit section that was so obnoxious I’m half-convinced it was a parody of all computer game escort missions.

Day Four

The fifth chapter of the games sees a radical departure from the previous formula, consisting of a few arbitrary equipment strippings followed by running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. Oh, hang on, that’s not actually a radical departure at all.

Perhaps I’m not being fair to Alan Wake. After all, there’s is a short section set in town where we have to take a needlessly circuitous route through buildings because the quick way is ‘blocked’ by a three foot fence that has become unscalable, somehow. That’s not at all annoying, nor is Barry’s accessorising of his puffy jacket with Christmas lights.

I have to give this game some credit. For being composed entirely of lazy writing, filler action sections, pointless platforming puzzles, unlikable characters and sub-standard acting I’m really only finding it a trifle dull rather than teeth-grindingly dreadful.

One oddity that occurs to me, seeing as it shows up in this chapter more, perhaps, than any other. There’s what amounts to this games’ equivalent of landmines scattered throughout, that are dealt with by — what else — shining a torch on them. As I’ve yet to encounter them at the same time as being attacked by the Taken, they’ve reduced to the role of another very minor roadblocks on the narrative path.

The most questionable aspect of their inclusion is really there visual design, as they look for all the world like piles of haunted horse manure. Terror incarnate, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Day Five

I take it all back. The thrilling final chapter radically ups the ante of game mechanics with a exhilarating ‘push a cart out of the way by tapping the “A” button’ segment that really ties the game together. It’s repeated a few times, but that’s okay. It remains just as brain-meltingly non-awesome as it does on the first time.

Actually I have been doing a grand dis-service to the variety on display in Alan Wake. There’s also the frequent stops to start up diesel powered generators by tapping the “A” button a few times. Finally, video games have delivered on the promise of the old ‘interactive movies’ of the 1st gen CD-ROM games. It’s just like being in a movie!

Other than these, the bulk of the level consists of dodging poltergeist-inhabited oil drums and running through woods shining flashlights on lumberjacks. The final boss, such as it is, at least presented an interesting visually break from the norm, but mechanically isn’t much more than another object dodging session.

I suppose I was a little disappointed, if not overly surprised, to see that the game did not end with a satisfying, neat conclusion. I suppose at best I can credit it for not overtly flashing up a billboard telling me that “THE NOT-AT-ALL DREARY TALE OF ALAN WAKE WILL CONTINUE THROUGH AN INTERMINABLE SERIES OF DLC FLEECINGS”. Hey, at least the first one’s free, right kids? Well, free to folks that bought the game, but seeing as I’ve only borrowed Alan Wake from my good friend Baron Sir Lord Craig of Eastman I’d better not redeem that token, so it’s really all over bar the finger pointing.

Finger Pointing

I think by this point I’ve made myself clear that I didn’t enjoy this game. It’s very far from being the worst thing I’ve played on the Xbox, and if I’m being fair there’s not really any one aspect of the game that falls below competent.

However, basic competency is the bare minimum that we’re demanding of a game, and Alan Wake doesn’t go a hell of a lot past this. The gameplay mechanics, and for the most part the entire gameplay engine might well have been lifted wholesale from Max Payne 2. Or perhaps Max Payne 1. Amongst its peers it feels clunky and stodgy, and I’m not buying the excuse that you wouldn’t expect a writer to dive around like an action hero either.

Perhaps I would, had this been more immersive. It’s trying to be, I’ll grant it, but if your lead character (and by extension, you) are represented by a whiny, spoiled brat of a character suffering inordinately from first world dilemmas then it’s not going to be remotely effective.

If you don’t care about the character, you’re unlike to get into the narrative, so its shortcomings become all the more obvious. I suppose spoilers are less of a concern this far from the game’s release, but nonetheless I’ll leave it at saying the story, like all of the Steven King works it charmlessly apes, is as stupid, annoying and obnoxious as the game’s lead character.

The best I can say about this game is that I played it all the way to completion, and it didn’t feel too much like I was only doing it for the sake of this article. Without the dangling carrot of another few thousand easily ignored words of content for my corner of the internet, I’d still have finished this game having started it – which is rare for someone with limited time for gaming.

That’s hardly the best recommendation for the game, and it does rather make me wonder if I’ve played a different version to the game so glowing reviewed in the glossy magazines and major websites. It was hailed as a leap forward in storytelling for games, and for it’s pacing. This is straight-up mental. It’s a games that screeches to a halt and throws cut scenes at you, with the barest of attempts at linking or enhancing any narrative revelations in the gameplay sections.

There’s very little atmosphere built, and the attempts at scares fall very flat. Had this game appeared a year or two after Max Payne 2, it would have been a revelation. As it stands, it’s a very real disappointment and barely worth playing, and certainly not something I’m going to recommend.