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2016 in Review

Twelve months down the line, I thought I’d post another year in review. Again, this post won’t be of any interest to anyone, but here’s a summary of some of the media I’ve consumed over the past year.

Summary

Words translated: 479,763 (plus 70,563 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Broforce, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Door Kickers, SpeedRunners, Broken Sword 5

Worst PC games: Lovely Planet, Evolve Stage 2

Board games played: 98 plays (45 games)

Best board games: Splendor, One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Worst board games: Nightfall, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Films watched: 44

Best films: Calvary, Chef, The Artist, The Wrestler, Doom

Worst films: RockNRolla, Iron Sky, Catch .44

Books read: 34

Best books: The Blind Watchmaker, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Regeneration, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, The Martian, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat

Worst books: Er ist wieder da, The Spire, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Countries visited: Austria, UK

Photos taken: 1373

A Year in Gaming

Another fairly docile year, at least as far as single-player gaming was concerned. I managed to play through Shadow of Mordor in spring, which had a really nice storyline and decent mechanics, even if I got a bit bored of running around towards the end. We also played through Broken Sword 5 which was a great return to form for the series, excellent story and interesting puzzles, without any pointless 3D models and awkward handling. More recently I’ve been running through Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime with Steffi, a cute little couch coop which has you piloting a ship through colourful space/underwater scenes to rescue bunnies… it’s a weird old setting alright, but it reminds me a teensie bit of FTL, just with two players. Hotseat the shields, engines and weapons to make it through safely!

Apart from that, most of my gaming action this year was reserved for our Thursday night sessions. Pretty amazing that we’ve kept it up for more than a year now, and I look forward to it every week just as ever. I’m also happy we’ve managed to try a nice range of titles. I think Broforce was probably the surprise highlight for me, suitably madcap, all the while challenging but without ever really being impossibly so.

Worst games of the year then? As ever I picked up plenty of cheapos or got free copies of titles for various things. I sometimes try them out at the weekends and screen them for ones which might be a laugh on Thursdays. Occasionally you find something cute, like that SpeedRunners game. Other times I find single-player titles which you can while away an afternoon on, such as Door Kickers, a cute tactical point-and-click which reminded me of Frozen Synapse without being anywhere near as serious in the planning aspect. But one truly painful half hour I put myself through was for Lovely Planet. I’m not even sure you can really call it a game! More like someone’s end-of-year project in a CS class, put together over a weekend fuelled by caffeine and bad cartoons.

Perhaps unfair, but I think the worst game we tried on a Thursday was still Evolve Stage 2. As much as you want to love the concept of that title, the game is fundamentally flawed because of the very nature of a game revolving around hide-and-seek with Godzilla. I’m sure it would be a bit more fun if you knew the person you were trying to hunt down, but essentially most of your time is spent trying to avoid combat, which makes for a rather dull game. I know they based the game off the way people enjoyed the interaction between the Tank and the survivors in L4D, but they needed to keep the story-driven elements or the environment interaction of that game to give the players something to do.

A Year in Boardgaming

So how about gaming of the analogue variety? Managed to play 45 different titles this year across nearly a hundred plays. I think that says it all for how much time you spend playing any one particular game. Remember when we were kids and you’d spend all your time playing Monopoly any chance you got, because it was one of only three games anyone ever had? Now we’re completely spoilt for choice and barely end up giving any of them any table time. Bit of a shame really, since that means there’s no opportunity to really get to learn them and understand strategies with any depth. On the other hand, maybe that helps to hide some of the fundamental flaws I’m sure many of them feature.

Anyway, we didn’t really try out any new heavy titles this year, rather sticking to lightweights. One great starter game we discovered was Splendor. Explained in 2 minutes, it’s nevertheless one which requires a fair amount of planning and watching what your opponents are doing if you want to do well. Certainly a nice opener for an evening. One in a similar vein which I found somewhat disappointing was Isle of Skye, winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres. It’s a bit of a mongrel game, with Carcassonne-style tile-laying, auctions and modular scoring, but I didn’t really like the overall package. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out your strategy, but ultimately if your opponents want to drag you through the mud, there’s nothing you can do about it, and the four-player game to me seems rather broken. Maybe it works with 2 players, I can’t say.

Another game I wasn’t overly enamoured with, though I can see why it’s popular, is 7 Wonders. For me it offers strategy with a nice ramping effect, all wrapped in a quick quality package… and that’s exactly why I dislike it! We own one called Glory to Rome which to me is very similar, but actually genuinely allows you to plan ahead, rather than dangling on the end of an unknown hand of cards. 7 Wonders pretends to offer a lot in a quick burst, but it’s superficial in my eyes, and I’d rather have a serious game to ponder over, or a quick and quirky fun game rather than a mishmash of the two.

The last game I’ll mention is one I bought a number of years ago but which we only just got around to trying called Nightfall. It was sold to me as a kind of interactive Dominion with vampires and werewolves, but I found it to be dreadful, even worse than Dominion! The rules were fairly complex, although the gameplay was straightforward; there was potential for them to really use the theme, but it was entirely wasted and you ended up completely ignoring what was on the cards and just looking at the numbers; finally the sheer variety of cards meant we didn’t really have a clue what was going on half the time and just bought and played any old random thing. We gave it two strikes and I was frankly happy when it was back in the box!

A Year in Cinema

Didn’t get to the cinema much this year, only a few outdoor excursions and the company’s annual Christmas treat (for Rogue One). But we currently have a Netflix account we’ve watched a few things over, and there are plenty of DVDs still waiting to be watched. Following on from last year’s The Guard, which I watched last year, Calvary was high up on the list of top films. Far grittier, meatier, and with some more surprising roles for certain actors, it was an oh-so-very Irish film, but highly recommendable.

Another great drama I can heartily recommend is The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. There’s not much of a plot per se, just the story of an entertainer at the end of his career, but a really poignant tale extremely well told. It’s documentary style, without going as far as to be annoying, and well worth a watch. In a similar vein I thought Chef with/by/from Jon Favreau was really good, if slightly more pointless than The Wrestler.

In terms of more action-filled movies, I didn’t see much I would recommend. In fact I saw some real stinkers and most of the rest disappointed me in one way or another. Since Steffi’d never seen any Guy Ritchie, we tried out RockNRolla and were frankly bored to tears by the end of it. It just doesn’t hold a candle to Lock Stock and Snatch. I also got a chance to watch Iron Sky and was honestly underwhelmed by the film. The idea in and of itself wasn’t bad, but it ended up falling flat even as a farce in my eyes, with very few laughs to be had. But taking the biscuit for worst film was far and away Catch .44. I’m still at a loss to explain how Forest Whittaker would take up a role for that script – although he gave a very good performance having said that! But otherwise the film had absolutely no redeeming features. It was like someone watched an early Tarrantino and thought it would be easy to copy. Inane storyline, terrible dialogue, pointless characters; it mostly came down to a bunch of criminals pointing guns at one another and using the eff word repeatedly. Yay.

As said, I managed to hit the cinema for the latest Star Wars instalment, and the Star Trek before that. Star Trek was a reasonable popcorn flick, but I was really disappointed with the story. It felt like the entire film was just an excuse to string together a few action sequences. Major kudos to Karl Urban though, his McCoy is almost as good as the real thing. Rogue One wasn’t quite as bad, probably better than Episode VII (which I watched again beforehand and thought even less about the second time round). There were a few decisions I felt were pretty stupid in terms of the overarching story, a fair number of cheesy crowdpleasers for the fans, but otherwise it was alright. Might write a post on that later if I can be bothered.

My surprise ‘hit’ of the year (despite it being a decade old) was probably Doom. I spotted it on Netflix and since I couldn’t find anything better, thought what the hell. I can honestly say I had zero expectations for this film, and it fulfilled all of them! The first hour or so they make up some fairly standard storyline about genetic manipulation, ancient alien civilisations and zombies. Then they just give up and admit they were only having a laugh, converting the film into a first-person shooter for the last quarter of an hour. Brilliant!

A Year in Books

I managed to trump this year’s target with over 11,000 pages read. A few highlights include: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a classic exposition of evolution theory; The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, a novel about domestic violence; Regeneration by Pat Barker, a brilliant story about the Great War poets, particularly Siegfried Sassoon; and The Martian, the self-published novel by Andy Weir that got turned into a Hollywood film. The story might be mundane, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but it’s definitely worth the read just for the amount of loving detail that went into writing it.

On the German side, I read through Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, which quite frankly deserves way more attention than it gets. An epic tale of roughly historical events during the Armenian genocide, it was banned shortly after publication (by everyone’s favourite bogeymen) and is probably too long to enjoy widespread appeal, but in my eyes it deserves a place up there as one of the greatest novels in the German language.

Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren gets a thumbs down from me, even if I found the concept itself pretty interesting. The whole book is written in the style of a journalistic interview with the author, just questions and answers as to the story’s motivations, developments and meanings over pages and pages. The amazing thing is that he still manages to make it a page-turner, despite there not actually being a novel to go with the interview! Nevertheless I find that kind of interview tedious and annoying to read at the best of times, so it was something of a chore to read through 200 odd pages of one. Far worse was Er is wieder da, a story about Hitler waking up alive and kicking in the present day and becoming a media celebrity. Apart from a few pages where we read Hitler’s views of the politicians who followed him, the satire in this book is mostly cheap, often tasteless, and quite frankly boring. German humour at its finest, sadly. Nevertheless it sold in droves and got turned into a film.

Finally, one book I almost ended up abandoning despite being so short was William Golding’s The Spire. I remember someone having to study that for A-level and complaining how dull it was, but based on the other stuff I’ve read by him, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad, surely! No, it really is like pouring sticky treacle in your ear. Maybe I’m just too thick to understand it, but it really didn’t grab me at all.

2015 in Review

Statistics! They’re everywhere… and I seem to have collected a lot of my own. This post isn’t of any interest to anyone, but I just thought I’d write up what media I’ve been consuming over the past twelve months.

Summary

Words translated: 583,472 (plus over 122,017 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: This War of Mine, Resonance, Sang-Froid, Heroes of the Storm

Worst PC games: Kane & Lynch 2

Board games played: 92 plays (33 games)

Best board games: Space Alert, Colt Express

Worst board games: 100 Unique Places

Films watched: 38

Best films: There Will Be Blood, The Guard, Up

Worst films: Fantastic Four

Books read: 27

Best books: The Better Angels of Our Nature, The God Delusion, The Inheritors

Worst books: Billard um halb zehn, The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours

Countries visited: Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, UK

Photos taken: 2614

A Year in Gaming

This year wasn’t particularly exciting for me in terms of gaming. Though I did get through a few coop titles, I didn’t really play any big games through on my own.

The start of the year saw a few weeks/months of playing through those Christmassy coop bargains, some better than others. ORION: Prelude was a fun little dinosaur survival game, with short waves of increasingly difficult dinos to defend your base against. It was a bit clunky, and the design seemed a bit stupid when you could drive around in a tank pounding the pursuing stegosaurus without any danger unless your driver got lost. Meanwhile God Mode and FORCED kept us busy for a few evenings, the former essentially a standard coop shooter, battling through levels full of random enemies with various boosters and weapons unlocks, the latter an isometric puzzle-driven dungeon crawler. Otherwise Fox and I played through the few remaining coop missions of Company of Heroes 2, really well designed in some cases and definitely one of my favourite RTS titles of recent years, though I can’t bring myself to play it ‘competitively’.

Steffi hasn’t played as much this year, at least not with others, but there were a few games we went through together. One was quite possibly the worst game I’ve ever bothered to complete, being Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. Terrible plot, terrible characters, terrible gameplay, just multifariously and absolutely horrific, so glad I only paid a few quid for it.

Another coop I played through with Steffi was Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, after enjoying the first one of the series so much. Isometric action adventure with plenty of puzzles, some nice interplay between the characters and some fun achievements to try to unlock meant we spent quite a bit of time on it. I also dug up Torchlight II and went on a mad quest with Steffi to finish all the achievements (including completing the game on hardcore-die-once-and-you-start-again-crying mode). Great fun, if rather grindy! We also started playing Magicka 2 with Fox, but somehow there just isn’t enough enjoyment there to warrant loading it up again. I think we had one session some time in mid-year and haven’t returned to it since.

In terms of solo gaming, as said, I didn’t really play anything that gripped me for long. There were a few smaller titles such as CastleStorm (a fairly enjoyable tower defence game), Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (classic racing title, fast cars and dance music), or the simple does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Tower Wars (definitely one I’d like to try multiplayer). I never really bothered trying to get my teeth into any larger titles. Afterfall InSanity is probably the only FPS I tried to play, but soon got bored. I loaded up Sniper: Ghost Warrior and virtually fell asleep during the tutorial. As for strategy games, I had a few goes at Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth after P bought it for me: fairly solid game, though not as feature complete as Civilization V. I also played a few missions of Supreme Commander 2, and felt like I’d seen enough. Though I did play Planetary Annihilation a fair bit more, I just don’t like the concept of the round planet.

So down to my few nice discoveries of 2015: one came right at the start of the year, probably purchased in the winter sales, called Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves. Although I didn’t play it particularly far, I liked the design elements and general storyline, hunting werewolves in mid-nineteenth century Canada, with separate stages in which you buy traps and manage resources, set up a plan of action, and then actually carry it out. Maybe that was also what gripped me about This War of Mine, a game set based on the Yugoslav wars of the 90s and played from the perspective of the survivors rather than the soldiers. Scavenge goods, cook food, defend your survivors, and craft tools to make it all easier. Gripping game that I never actually played through to the end, but which impressed me nonetheless. One other title I should mention is an adventure game I played with Steffi called Resonance. A retro 1980s graphical style, with fairly straightforward point-and-click mechanics and elements, but with an absolutely awesome storyline, decent voice acting and logical puzzles. Definitely a surprise hit for me.

What about the board games? Thirty-three different games this year, 92 plays. Ignoring the smaller card games, the top ranks are occupied by some old stalwart coop titles like Ghost Stories and Space Alert. We bought our friend the expansion to the latter for her birthday right before Christmas, so I guess that’ll be on the menu a fair bit in 2016 as well. A new title to the mix lately was Colt Express, Spiel des Jahres this year, neat game of train robbery in the Wild West with strategy, luck and a fair amount of laughs. Otherwise not too many new ‘big’ games played, apart from Caverna at Ric’s. Except for one other we added to the list just before Christmas: the game’s designer actually lives in Karlsruhe, so when I found out I sent him a random message and he invited us round to play his latest title Neanderthal. Definitely a geek’s game, perhaps more for curiosity/educational purposes than anything, but still funny to play a title with its designer.

Bad titles? Not really any worth mentioning. One small one I bought for Steffi at Christmas looks like it’ll bug me: Seven Dragons. I feel like it stole the victory conditions thing from Fluxx, so you can basically work towards winning and then have the whole game change with one play of a card. Otherwise it’s something of a kids’ filler game with laying tiles. Yawn. Another which I didn’t really expect much of, given as Steffi picked it up for a few quid in some pound shop, was 100 Unique Places. Basically a geography quiz board game on the rough premise of raising awareness about global warming yada yada, it just screwed up some of the basics. One thing was that five of us couldn’t work out the damn one-page rulebook, so we just ignored probably one of the main rules as it was self-contradictory and played a rather friendly race around the board. Other than that, the questions were as so often the case a bit dumb, some of them expecting you to know some really obscure facts without help, others giving you options for something fairly easy, or having statistical questions which essentially meant “choose one of these at random: A, B or C.” Best of all was that some of the questions had times set in the future which were already in the past… sure, the game’s five years old, but that put a weird spin on the questions: "What did scientists in 2010 think would have happened by 2013, irrespective of whether it in fact did or did not happen?" Bah!

A Year in Cinema

Apparently I watched 38 films this year, though a fair number of those were re-watches. Only went to the cinema a few times, so most of the new films were on DVD/TV, but there were a few that stayed in my mind. Up was one which caught me off guard, I’m not generally a fan of those kinda films, but it hit all the right notes and told a magically mental story really well. There Will Be Blood was another tremendous film, perhaps a bit on the long side, but it was the perfect vehicle for Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting skills. Highly recommended.

Best comedy for me was definitely The Guard, a black comedy of drug dealing on the west coast of Ireland, though one notable mention has to be Tropic Thunder. I can’t normally stomach Ben Stiller, but somehow the film had me giggling all the way through.

Another couple of highlights of the year were Inception, which I finally got around to watching despite having had the DVD on the shelf for about 4 years. A very decent film with a cool premise, which in my opinion just failed to be amazing by having an uninteresting and flimsy plot (the sideplot is more important but taking the focus off the main plot left it feeling misdirected). Keeping with DiCrapio, I also saw The Wolf of Wall Street, which was purely entertaining for its sex, drugs and humour. Finally there was Big Fish, a sweet psychedelic voyage of discovery.

At the other end of the scale there were some real stinkers. Olympus Has Fallen, not the title of a news article on the camera company, takes the crown for crappy action film of the year, with an absolutely mental plot and so many holes you could sail the Titanic through it. The final Hobbit film, Battle of the Five Armies, was probably the worst big budget title of my year, such an overinflated snorefest. At least the same couldn’t quite be said of Sucker Punch, which was essentially a film designed around a few cool set-piece scenes which otherwise didn’t have any point to being there. It was like watching someone play a computer game, having to put up with the levels between enjoying a few boss fights. We’ve also been watching the Resident Evil series (only missing the latest one) but they’re much better entertainment value, classic popcorn action horrors.

No, the real mouldy potato at the bottom of this bag of refuse is definitely the new Fantastic Four film which we ended up seeing at an outdoor cinema in late summer. I dislike comic book films anyway, but this one managed to fail hard on so many different levels, it was even dull for one of those. Character development, love triangles, catharsis, even the pure action sequences were just terrible in the extreme, and I expect the witty one-liners would only be found funny by preteens.

A Year in Books

I missed my book target this year, but read about 9,000 pages. A few highlights: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, a great study of the decline of violence in society of the past millennia, something that has largely gone ignored or at least hasn’t been given due consideration; The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I read expecting would annoy the hell out of me being written by the atheist pope, but ended up making me respect him for at least carrying his thoughts through to their logical conclusions and defending secularism properly.

On the German side of things, Lingua Tertii Imperii was a fascinating read on the language of the Third Reich. I’d been piqued by reading Klemperer’s diaries, and whilst LTI wasn’t a particularly standard arrangement, there were loads of interesting titbits and morsels for thought. Then there was Buddenbrooks, one of those classics that nobody reads. To be honest I found it disappointing, expecting more in the way of historical parallels beyond the family drama, and having said so to a few people, someone lent me Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch which I found that much better for exactly that reason.

Down there with the worst books of the year was one my dad recommended called The Numerati, vaguely about the new tech wizards and their realms of big data. An interesting topic, but it was basically written by a journalistic idiot who doesn’t know the subject and treats anyone who does know something about it as a magician. Basically the very epitome of Clarke’s third law. Not only that, but being written by a journalist it was full of the fluff you expect to find in a newspaper article in every single chapter, so the slim volume mostly consisted of padding. But my absolute worst choice of the year was Billard um halb zehn by Heinrich Böll. It’s not often that I actually stop reading a book, but I gave up after literally losing the plot. Written from 11 different perspectives, after about 100 pages I just got completely confused about who the hell was currently narrating and simply had no interest in muddling through!

GTA: Vice City

It’s good to be back!

Last week I had one of those urges that only a pregnant man can have, to step back into the shoes of Tommy Vercetti and relive the delights of Vice City. This 2003 Rockstar outing was easily one of the best games I ever played, everything about it simply oozed style and polish. It’s almost as if the developers took a standard checklist of things that get rated in a game, made sure every area got given the works, and then spent the rest of their time filling in the gaps. Because it’s exactly that which nails it for this game, the attention to detail that makes playing Vice City like stepping into the ’80s: the clothes, the music, the cars, the giant mobile phones, heck, even the intro scene features the game being loaded on a Commodore 64. Rockstar’s particular sense of humour is also here to see by the bucketload, from the tongue-in-cheek nature of some of the missions, through the fantastic dialogue and hilarious radio stations, to the small jabs and puns that little the streets of Vice City.

All of which is without even touching on the gameplay. Sitting firmly in the sandbox genre, Vice City gives you a wonderful feeling of being able to go about things your own way. Goofing around, stealing cars, running from the police, there’s plenty to do in the game when you aren’t really doing anything! But fortunately that doesn’t mean that Rockstar skimped out on the main storyline, which is by all means fantastic, and features all sorts of mission types, from starting riots, racing through the streets, to knocking off banks and delivering numerous methods of ‘persuasion’ to various denizens of the city. Aside from the main plot, there are plenty of other side missions and extras to discover, which add ample distraction to the standard mayhem generally meted out whilst driving between missions.

Left 4 Dead Review

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead (PC)

For whatever reason, Valve deemed last weekend to be worthy of celebration, and in addition to offering a welcome discount, offered a free trial for their action-packed zombie fest Left 4 Dead. Never one to pass up on such offers, and having a few friends who’d already bought the game, I spent a fair few hours last weekend testing the game out, enough so to have convinced me to actually buy the thing!

Whilst Left 4 Dead sits firmly in the survival horror genre, it is without a doubt a shooter through and through. Whilst the genre may have its early origins with games like Alone in the Dark, Left 4 Dead is to that what 28 Days Later is to Night of the Living Dead. It’s a high-energy bloodbath, which is well and truly the game’s essence. Forget setting, plot or character development, the game boils down to an assault course for four, through levels strewn with zombies to some method of escape, with occasional safe points along the way.

That might not sound particularly novel, but the game’s central tenet is its co-operative side. Whilst there are plenty of games past that have featured zombies in one way or another, none have quite provided the experiences associated with the stereotypical zombie genre. Left 4 Dead clearly owes a lot to the zombie movie, from the opening intro to the closing credit sequences, and the gaming world has been truly aching for such a game. Mods such as Zombie Panic! or Zombie Master filled a gap, but Left 4 Dead has made full use of the Source engine to create a movie experience built for four.

Reliving an Old Gaming Experience

Classics of their medium, but which will have a harder time in the future?

Classics of their medium, but which will have a harder time in the future?

In comparison to a medium like cinema, computer games suffer from a particularly poor level of longevity. The vast majority of films can still happily be viewed today, often in an updated format, though keeping to the original production. That isn’t to suggest that films do not become dated, nor that more than just distribution formats are updated in later productions. Only recently I had the privilege of watching a once lost silent Polish film, A Strong Man (Mocny Człowiek), rediscovered in 1997. As there were no hints as to what musical accompaniment was meant to be played with the film, the DVD was released with a modern ambient style, that took a short while to get used to, but actually fit the film’s plot and style rather beautifully. On the whole, however, a film produced fifty years ago can be viewed with much the same clarity today as on the day it was released.

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