Thursday, 21 January 2010

Game Review - Football Manager 2010

I hate West Ham. Virtual West Ham mind, not the real life club. They are my nemesis. Every time I’m drawn against them in a cup, I lose. If I play them in the league while on a good run of form, I lose. It’s maddening but I always say to myself, “next time, West Ham, next time.”

Football Manager 2010 fuels the fantasy that every football fan holds, that he/she is a motivational and tactical genius capable of winning trophies with any club, even Accrington Stanley. The romantic vision of prowling the touchline in a tracksuit whilst shouting at millionaires is alluring to almost every fan. Sports Interactive know this which is why they've even incorporated actual shouting into the game. Yes, SHOUTING. Sadly the shouts are not the same as the four letter curses I fling at my screen.

The latest version, FM2010, does have one major change that represents progress from the last incarnation – the new tactics screen. No longer do you have to fiddle with sliders in order to set just the right frequency of long balls, crosses or shots. Now you simply assign roles to your players. You choose a formation to suit; 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-5-1 (if you’re some kind of beautiful game hating troglodyte.) Within that formation you select the role each player will take. Fullbacks, for example, can be assigned as purely defensive or attacking wingbacks that charge up and down the pitch. The new system then assigns the slider settings in the background so you don’t have to worry about number crunching in your tactic. The new system is a lot friendlier and encourages experimentation of your own rather than dashing off to certain Football Manager websites and hoping that a killer tactic has been posted which will do all the tedious slider work for you.

So the new tactics system is a winner, but what about the 3D match engine? The inclusion of 3D to the traditionally text based match engine was always a controversial topic amongst fans. This year’s iteration is an improvement on the ropey looking effort from last year. Players now have a wider variety of animations and the stadium has now been improved to include a crowd. The match engine still looks primitive but behind the 3D players is the same complex and rewarding simulation of matchday. And if you can't stand the 3D chaps then you can always go back to the old 2D engine with floating disc men.

The game provides a frankly ridiculous amount of statistics and numbers on almost every player on the entire planet. The research and care taken in accurately reproducing every league is obvious on each screen of endless, mind boggling statistics. Once you become a veteran player though, the information is rapidly consumed and processed via a mere glance. Before you reach that level of expertise there is a collection of backroom staff who can advise you on what tactics to use, who to buy, and how to train your squad. This is all very useful for new players and jaded veterans alike.

One major niggle I have with this new version is the new way in which news is presented to you. In an effort to scale back on the sheer amount of information given to the average manager there is a separate news page complete with filters. These filters are designed to reduce the amount of in game mail you receive and avoid filling your head with useless information on obscure events in the gameworld. It's a great idea in principle but it doesn't really work. The filter now hides a lot of information in its news section, including stories about your shortlisted transfer targets. This is news that should go straight to your inbox rather than on a different news page, buried under reams of less important info. Also, the game now seems to avoid informing you about job losses for other managers, maybe it doesn't want to demoralise you or have you worry for your own job safety, but I miss knowing when a manager of a major club has been shown the door (so I can then immediately jump into their shoes.)

Transfers are largely simple affairs of bidding and counterbidding but what does seem to have changed in this version is that players are a little more fickle about which clubs they'll play for. In my experience players don't always choose the most famous club or the one that offers the most money. Loans seem to have become an expensive habit now, I don't know if this is a real change in the actual football leagues but every club wants a cash sum up front before they'll lend you their inexperienced 18 year old striker or grizzled 35 year old goalkeeper. I've always thought loans were free deals where it was accepted that the club taking the loaned player would cover the wages. Not anymore it seems. This can make managing struggling lower division teams a struggle as you now have to scrape together the funds to afford the loan fee.

No other game is as adept at fashioning stories out of spreadsheets. Epic masterpieces are told via a collection of numbers and tables. Triumph, betrayal, friendship, incompetence, noble failure, mind games; they’re all there in the stats. This being the 21st Century Football Manager has attempted to sexify the stat lines with alluring features such as a 3D match engine, press conferences and flashy new skins. The attempted sexiness is unnecessary though; we play Football Manager for its intelligence and personality, not its looks.

Grumbles and niggles aside, FM2010 is still the same management sim that has built an empire. The game is still as accurate and enthralling as it has always been and the addiction can still take hold like an angry python. I've wasted so many days of my life on this game but the stories I could tell about European glory, last minute winners, and glorious defeats are all worth it. In fact I'm sure I can squeeze in a couple of games now. Excuse me...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Game Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum

Everyone knows Batman - you, your mum, your gran, even your hamster. The developers of Arkham Asylum know this and don't waste time attempting to introduce the brooding dark knight. From the very start Arkham Asylum draws you into its story via cutscenes, interactivity and stupendous voice acting from its principal cast.

The game begins at the end of one of Batman's off screen adventures, he's just captured the Joker and is once again taking the Clown Prince of Crime back to his comfy padded cell in the titular Arkham Asylum. Once the cutscene ends, you become Batman. You walk through the halls of the asylum, taking in the security arrangements and layout whilst chuckling to yourself at the Joker's deranged banter. It's not long before things go incredibly wrong and you find yourself trapped in the asylum with an army of thugs.

The true genius of this game is that it's not long before you realise that much like Rorschach in Watchmen, it's not you who is trapped with the thugs. It's the thugs that are trapped in with you. Batman has an arsenal of gadgets available to him and he can use these to terrorise the ever loving piss out of the bad guys. The game encourages you, via its array of gadgets and room layouts, to improvise whilst facing a room full of armed thugs. There is no right or wrong way to clear a room of ne'er do wells (apart from one frustrating instance) and discovering new ways of breaking limbs or rendering men unconscious is a delight. The most amusing method is the inverted takedown which allows you to swoop down from a gargoyle, grab a villain and then hang 'em upside down from the gargoyle for his friends to find. Hearing the frightened cries and worried challenges from the thugs is a joy as you consider your next move.

Combat is a smooth and enjoyable affair as it actually makes you feel like a hyper competent, millionaire, martial artist. It's a simple system, there are no complicated buttons combinations to be pressed, just a simple system of blocking and striking. Whenever a villain tries to take a swing at the pointy eared one, a warning flash appears above their head just beforehand. If you time your button press correctly then Batman will block the manoeuvre and deliver a punishing counter attack. The melee action feels smooth and looks well choreographed, in fact I'd say that the fisticuffs look more convincing than the action in Batman Begins. It makes you feel in control and powerful and you'll find yourself looking forward to facing increased odds in combat as you show off yet more combos and manoeuvres. Instant takedown moves are particularly satisfying as Batman unleashes bone crunching blows on his unlucky opponents.

Arkham Asylum rewards exploration too, there are many clues and trophies dotted around the asylum grounds and it's a genuinely rewarding experience to uncover them all. There is a degree of frustration at first as the game doesn't make it clear early on that some items cannot be reached because you lack the relevant equipment. You will have to backtrack if you want to uncover all of Arkham's secrets and this can be a little tedious once you've completed the main story. It does provide a reward in terms of extra snippets of story and is well worth the effort for the Bat fan.

Mark Hammill reprises his role as the Joker from Batman The Animated Series and he hasn't missed a beat in the decade or so since his last performance as the character. His Joker is funny and chilling at the same time, you'll find yourself laughing at the threats he delivers to his put upon minions and then find yourself shuddering as you realise the threats will be carried out with horrifying repercussions. Kevin Conroy also makes a very welcome return as Batman.

Batman: Arkham Asylum captures perfectly the atmosphere of the comic book and film incarnations of the characters involved. If you're a comic book fan then you'll delight in the many references to be found via the Riddlers clues. There are patient interview tapes to be found (ala Bioshock) which provide background and story elements for certain characters. It's clear that the developers have a lot of love for Batman's comic book world as no reference is too obscure to be included as an easter egg somewhere within the game.

Batman: AA is the greatest power trip since watching your parents die, becoming a millionaire, training with ninjas for years, and using your immense wealth and large armoury to assault the criminal underworld.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Stupid Films That I Love - Big Trouble In Little China

Big Trouble in Little China (or BTiLC) is a comedy rollercoaster action movie where the hero, Jack Burton, is an incompetent, swaggering, truck driver. If you’ve never seen BTiLC then I’ll try and explain what the film is about without sending myself mad. Jack Burton (trucker extraordinaire) visits an old friend in San Francisco China Town and becomes embroiled in a mystical adventure when his friend’s bride-to-be is kidnapped by a street gang. Shit gets unreal when Jack hits a sorcerer called Dave with his truck. There’s a lot of running around, guys on wires, guys shouting into camera, facekicks, a journey into the Underworld, and guns and explosions in that special 80s way where people get catapulted into the air by explosions and automatic weaponry always misses its target at less than 10 feet. The story is also told in flashback but the flashback doesn’t actually frame the story from beginning to end, and it doesn’t really make sense as a framing device as the character telling the story wasn’t present for most of it. The faults don’t matter though as the film is infused with so much energy and enthusiasm that you just feel yourself going along for the ride and forgiving the plot holes.

Jack Burton is played by Kurt Russell, who, after his hard bitten heroics in other Jack Carpenter movies (The Thing and Escape From New York), clearly relishes playing an action man that isn’t quite as capable as he believes. Jack Burton is a trucker, drifting from town to town whilst broadcasting his philosophical pearls of wisdom over a CB radio. Jack likes to think he can handle anything and sees himself as very capable; the great thing is that he isn’t and a lot of the fun in the movie is seeing Jack overcome obstacles through dumb luck and pluck. Jack's bumbling makes his act of genuine skill at the climax of the film all the more enjoyable.

BTiLC is full of great quotes and one liners, almost all of them given to Kurt Russell. The quotes from the movie are so popular, certain blogs have featured them as the sole content in a post. BTiLC quotes entered my teenage nerd lexicon as my friends and I would often quote movies during games and BTiLC was a source of quite a few of them. God, we were annoying.

The special effects are a little creaky in comparison to today’s modern CGI creations but that’s part of the charm. The slightly dodgy effects and costumes give the movie an almost theatre-like feel and add to the action-movie-as-pantomime atmosphere. I especially like the temple draped in neon (complete with giant neon skull) which is something I haven’t seen in an evil cult’s lair since. The flying eyeball monster is still cool though.

BTiLC is a unique film; there’s never been anything quite like it since (probably due to its failure at the box office.) What’s interesting is that the story was initially conceived as a Western with Jack Burton as a wandering Clint Eastwood type. Now that’s a movie I would love to see.