#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.