2016 a look back


Regular visitors to this blog will already know what my major highlight of 2016 was … hey, I still can’t stop talking about it.  Yes it was going to watch my favourite band Garbage perform at the Troxy theatre in London and to actually meet them.  Wow, I still pinch myself that it actually happened but it did and I feel so proud of myself for achieving a true dream of mine.  Their latest studio album ‘Strange Little Birds’ also impressed.

garbage troxy

Other than that event, I think 2016 has been a decent year for quality movies, something that will be reflected in my end of year Top Ten coming on New Years Eve (make sure you check back here then!).  But it hasn’t all been great.  There’s also been a number of disappointments and rubbish I’ve had to sit through just to bring my opinion to you, my readers.  Particular disappointments include the rather poor Legend, a new movie about the British gangsters Ronnie & Reggie Kray, and despite the casting of Tom Hardy in both roles, this was a borderline insulting Hollywood-isation of a violent and gritty true story that was done so much better when the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet did it in the early nineties.  I really didn’t get much out of The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! either, which should have been a fun, fascinating snapshot of old Hollywood, but had a limp script and a confusing plot that just felt like a slog despite good production values.  Also along the way I felt underwhelmed by Deadpool … probably the most hyped and acclaimed comic book movie of the year that left me a little ‘meh’ despite finding it funny, it just seemed a bit of a one note show.  The summer also brought with it some further disappointments … let’s all agree that Batman V Superman could have been better, and well, wasn’t Suicide Squad a let down, promising so much and delivered so little?  I wasn’t that impressed with Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! either – a deflating spiritual follow up to his classic Dazed & Confused.

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It was also the year that I tried to branch out, listen to more music (not just the aforementioned band) and discovered new artists like Kristin Kontrol, PVRIS and Against The Current … yeah, thankyou Apple Music.  So broadening my horizons has been fun, even if in the music industry it has been sad to see the passing of legends such as David Bowie and Prince this year.  With that said, the music industry continues to irritate me however and I find myself left cold by much of today’s most popular music (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and to an extent Gwen Stefani all delivered rather ‘average’ albums despite plenty of publicity and hype).  Yet I find solace in those artists existing outside of the heavily publicised, record label controlled mainstream and well, there’s some really good stuff to find if you’re willing to look beyond what you’re told to listen to.

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On the TV route highlights of the year for me have definitely been the last season of Game of Thrones, arguably the best yet and some of the best TV I’ve witnessed all year.  I also got a lot of enjoyment out of House of Cards (I’m still behind…currently on season 3).  Daredevil was also good, despite a slow start.  However the big surprise this year has been just how good West World turned out to be, of which I’m due to watch the final episode any day now.    Orange Is The New Black was underwhelming this year though and despite some shocks towards the end, really needs to step up it’s writing and characterisation for the next season or I can see myself switching off.

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Oh and hasn’t it been a packed year for videogames?  I enjoyed and completed the following:  Uncharted 4, Deus Ex Mankind Divided and Titan Fall 2 … but have played many other titles, some of which have been too huge to finish (yet) or have caused me to lose interest.  One such game like that has been The Division, which managed to lose it’s appeal after a while and I haven’t gone back to it in ages … something I can’t say for the similar Destiny which with it’s expansions and still-intriguing concept keeps on pulling me back even two years since release.  The news of updated versions of current systems wasn’t so good however, having spent a great deal of money on owning the PS4 and Xbox One only to have the advent of PS4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio to eventually replace them.  But for now I’m still happy with what I’ve got and will continue to be until games stop getting released for these machines.

I wanted with this post to touch on the various things that have interested me and stood out for good or bad this year and with that I’ll sign off for now.  There’s some more reviews on the horizon and of course my end of year Top Ten.  So watch this space for much more soon.

Craig.

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My gaming year 2014


It’s certainly been a very fun year on my gaming calendar.  I had only got my Xbox One in December 2013 so by the time 2014 rolled around it was still very new to me.  One of the first games I played during the year was Dead Rising 3, an open world zombie slaughter-fest with immediately impressive visuals mostly down to the number of zombies all after my blood, and the tongue-in-cheek storylines and comical weapons and outfits kept me coming back.  Then we got the remastered edition of Tomb Raider, arguably Lara Croft’s best adventure yet and it looked incredibly detailed on the XB1 and meant I went on to complete it a second time, having previously owned it on PS3.

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As the months rolled by, I got my hands on the much anticipated Titanfall.  Now this game may have lacked a story of any particular significance, and it’s single player was pretty dire – but the multiplayer, wow … really grabbed me, I felt for a shooter it had real depth and the inclusion of parkour, titans and some great maps kept me playing for a good while.  I’d even go as far as saying it’s the best multiplayer shooter I’ve ever played, and for me I felt I could be good at it and it was fair and easy to learn.  I haven’t played it in a while, and well, I really need to get back in there.  One other similarly hyped game was Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, which although visually and concept-wise impressive left me feeling it could have been much more.  It didn’t have the replay value I had hoped, was way too easy to get spotted whilst sneaking around and well, despite an interesting (short-lived) campaign that set the stage for MGS #5, I sold it after a short while owning it.

Titanfall

I got Battlefield 4 with my Xbox and that certainly got a lot of time in the drive.  I must have played through the excellent single-player campaign at least twice, because I got almost to the final mission then a bug caused me to lose my progress, so I had to restart.  I thought it had a great story with really good characters and some top-flight visuals.  One of the best launch titles for the XB1.  The multiplayer also was very addictive, but as with the likes of Call of Duty, after a while it just seemed to get too popular and too difficult to be fun anymore.  Another game I had with the XB1 was Forza Motorsport 5, which I still dip into today, and is a great, serious racer with some sharp visuals and lots of fast, meaty cars.  Certainly a game I can really lose a lot of time to and has depth and a lengthy career mode that I’ll admit I still haven’t finished.  I played it recently to compare it with the PS4’s Drive Club, and not being biased whatsoever – Forza was just immediately more accessible and more ‘fun’.

During the year, off and on I had a lot of fun with the ‘Record That’ and ‘Upload’  features of the XB1, which is very easy to play around with and the inclusion of being able to edit several clips together or narrate them etc. has been endless fun.  I also like how XB1 allows you to upload said clips not only to their own Upload service but also to Youtube.  Xbox Live’s Games with Gold was also very welcome as I pay almost £40 a year for the service and have enjoyed getting my hands on freebies like Guacamalie, Limbo and Super Time Force to name but a few.  It’s a great incentive and I look forward to what Microsoft gives away in the future.

Another highlight was Watch Dogs … yes, it was downgraded following the E3 2012 reveal but damn if it didn’t have a great cyber-hacker story and some great characters.  I think the whole hacking the city game mechanic set a blue print for the future and any sequels will only build on such an interesting concept.  I think I was fairly on my own for liking Aiden Pierce – he was an anti-hero, a troubled character, flawed but believable and I thought he was a great lead for the story.  I still come back to this one as the rendition of Chicago is very well done and well, let’s be honest here, at night, with it raining and the lighting etc. – this game can look amazing.

watch dogs

In recent weeks it’s also been a case of too much choice not enough time or patience to really get some games completed.  Good examples of this are The Evil Within, which I’ll admit has scared the crap out of me more than any game this year (yes, even more than Outlast) and the onset of the horror survival genre has meant I’ve purposely avoided similar titles.  Evil Within is different though as it still plays like a classic Resident Evil game, has action not just scares, and a great atmosphere.  Still not finished it though.  Another is the polar opposite Sunset Overdrive, probably one of the most unashamedly ‘fun’ games I’ve ever played, with a perfect mix of Dead Rising meets Jet Set Radio in probably the most colourful city I’ve ever visited in a video game.

Destiny remains my biggest disappointment of 2014 as far as gaming is concerned.  Initially yes, it was all wow for me … gorgeous visuals, decent shooter gameplay and the ability to upgrade your character, weapons etc. within an always online open world.  Then after a few weeks, repetition crept in.  The single-player which seemed to promise so much was over and a big let down and then I’m meant to just keep playing the same raids and missions over and over until I cap out my character’s level?  I also didn’t like how Bungie pretty much promised the earth and delivered something ultimately very bland.  It’s still on my XB1 dash board … I may pick it up again just for the sheer beauty of it, but it’s not a game a have much of an urge to rush back to.

Of course I ended the year very similarly to how I ended 2013 … by getting a new console.  I purchased the PlayStation 4 and am very glad I did, having a lot of fun with the impressive Assassin’s Creed Unity.  The machine itself seems a simpler design to much of the ambition of the XB1 and despite more power under the hood, plays it very safe, very PS3 in comparison.  2015 will be the real time it get’s to spread it’s wings, so for now XB1 is still my console of choice.

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It will be interesting to see how 2015 shapes up.  The big games I am looking forward to are the XB exclusives Quantum Break and Rise of the Tomb Raider, as well as the PS4 exclusives Uncharted 4 and The Order 1886.  I’m a bit on the fence on how the much anticipated, heavily hyped The Division turns out, it being by Ubi Soft who do have a habit of over-hyping stuff and not entirely delivering … but it was one of the best looking games on show at both E3 2013 and E3 2014 … but I’ll wait and see if the final product looks (or plays) anywhere near as good.

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So with 2015 on the horizon, this gamer / blogger is very excited to see what it delivers.

Xbox One – what next?


Xbox One Controller

I have had my XBOX One for a few months now and have been quite happy with it.  Not so happy have I been with all the negative press Microsoft and it’s new machine have been getting.  Firstly I am puzzled by this emphasis on 1080p / 60fps that the PS4 has been touting in many of it’s games.  What really is the big deal?  How many gamers out there play their games on 50 inch televisions?  Because that or close to that size is how you’ll notice much difference from 720p to 1080p … and having sat and played Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Titanfall, both games that are running below full HD resolution on the Xbox One … I can confirm that these are ‘superb’ looking titles that more than satisfy me even as a self-confessed graphics whore. 

I like the user interface, have enjoyed the Kinect even if I feel it’s a little under-used (although XBOX record that is awesome, as is pausing Netflix).  The controller is also great and feels great and is a joy to use.  Yet I do get the feeling that Microsoft rushed out their machine in wake of the PS4’s announcement – really, it so looked like that.  This can be confirmed with the wealth of updates to the console to add features that a little longer development time would have put in place from day one.  Yes the machine isn’t as powerful as the Sony platform and that’s unlikely to change even with the recent announcement of DirectX 12 for the machine, which will reportedly aid development, something which developers have struggled with, resulting in games running with slightly less bells & whistles (see above…).

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But what can Microsoft do about this, to win back fans to their console brand who may be looking to the PS4 more favourably?  In a word – games.  This year’s forthcoming E3 promises to have a big show from Microsoft and Xbox, and I really hope there are some big announcements – but what we really need, and quickly is in-game footage of announced exclusives such as Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive and Halo 5 … come on Microsoft, sell your system by doing what you did with the 360 – throwing down our throats big names, quality games that the public can’t ignore – regardless of what is coming to PS4.  You have the money, you have the ability … just f*****g do it already!

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On a plus there’s games I am looking forward to.  I am open minded about Watch Dogs despite the delays and recent reports of a visual downgrade since the E3 2012 reveal.  It could still be a very involving open world game.  Also I am tempted to pre-order Murdered: Soul Suspect which also looks good, sort of a supernatural spin on L.A. Noir.  The future looks good for XBOX One despite the bad press and there are plenty of things to look forward to … Microsoft just need to start making some wise and clever choices and let the games sell their console rather than the media features.

I’m not saying I won’t get a PS4 some time in the future, but for now in comparison to the Xbox One the games just aren’t grabbing me.  That could all change, so we’ll see what happens.

Falling for a Titan


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Well it’s here, after much anticipation and a teasing beta, now I have the actual game in my hands!  Yes I am talking about XBOX ONE’s much anticipated exclusive (at least as far as it not coming to PS4) … Titanfall.  Developed by ex members of Infinity Ward, the guys responsible for the highly popular shooter Call Of Duty, this futuristic online-only game breathes some much needed fresh air into what was becoming a tired genre.

The basic concept is that you fight in two teams, at first on foot, but as you battle to kill the apposing team, each player is able to launch a titan… a hulking robotic exo-skeleton not that different to the ones seen in movies like Avatar and The Matrix Revolutions.  Then you battle either in or out of your Titan, as well as being able to free-run the environments on foot with wall running, double jumps and the like.  Its a great deal of fun!

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It stings somewhat their isn’t a single-player story element, and just a bolted on multiplayer-campaign which doesn’t really do much that you can’t experience playing in the various multiplayer modes – just with added commentary and a few extra battles going on around you … it’s still games of Atrition (deathmatch) and Hard-Point (domination) overall.  A wasted opportunity … but this is at least made up for by 14 detailed and well designed maps that offer a ton of enjoyment, as does the deep and rewarded levelling and customization options.

As a big release for the XBOX ONE which continues to dwell in the shadow of PS4’s success, I think it’s a crowd pleaser overall and at least its aiming at the right audience.  Call Of Duty, Battlefield etc. all continue to dominate, so it’s a wise move making this a potential system seller.  I personally think it’s a mistake on Microsoft’s part to allow this to be released on the XBOX 360 as well, giving an excuse for the undecided console owners not to jump to a next-gen system just yet.  Halo didn’t require other formats to make XBOX sell, and neither should Titanfall.

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There has been some controversy over Titanfall’s final display resolution of 1408 x 792p compared to the much desired 1920 x 1080p of full HD (something the PS4 seems to handle with ease).  I only have a 26” 720p display so … what’s it like in reality?  Its gorgeous!!  Very smooth at an almost steady 60fps (surely most important??) and with very detailed graphics, great lighting / shadow effects and large, complex environments.  Screen-tare does rear it’s head, but isn’t that noticeable.  On my TV such shortcomings like lower resolution are a non-issue and well, with the games I have played on the XBOX ONE, such as Dead Rising 3, Forza 5 and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition … I can firmly say they are all slick, very detailed and attractive games that make me happy with my purchase.

So if you hanker for a new breed of online shooter, or just want that excuse to go for a new console … you could do far worse.  It really is a great game … lacking a little with no single player, but as a pure multiplayer experience, its fantastic.  Prepare for Titanfall!

XBOX ONE – hands on thoughts


Xbox-One-With-Kinect

Well it’s been about two weeks with the next generation of gaming that is Microsoft’s much hyped XBOX ONE the successor to the highly popular XBOX 360 that actually came out eight years ago!  Whether this new generation will last as long, only time will tell, but for now here’s my impression of the new console after a lengthy amount of time with it.

The games I have played are as follows: Forza Motorsport 5, Battlefield 4, Killer Instinct and Dead Rising 3.  All pretty cool.  Out of these I’d say Battlefield 4 has had the most time played, mostly down to the online portion, which as many will attest, is the real meat of the game – although I greatly enjoyed the single player campaign and consider it one of the more underrated experiences around.  The game has been cursed by bugs and issues, such as single player progress getting wiped (happened to me once, when I was almost at the end of the game…grrr) and various issues with the multiplayer, most annoyingly the inability to join a game.   Graphically I might say that Forza impressed me the most, with its slick 60fps and 1080p capabilities, something that has been a bit of an Achilles heel for the XB1 so far, with games such as BF4 and Call Of Duty Ghosts suffering from lower resolutions than their PlayStation 4 equivalents (although apparently with more consistent 60fps than PS4 to make up for this).  I’m not that taken by Killer Instinct … its just doesn’t feel very polished, despite some nice visuals, and the menus, character select are sluggish.  Dead Rising 3 however has been a great deal of fun.  Immediately the amount of zombies on screen at one time is a wow factor, and overall I think its a very detailed, very impressive looking game.  Strangely the game seems to have a dislike of any sort of water or rain effects – meaning this isn’t included at all … and after the lush water seen in BF4, it’s disappointing.  Yeah I know, a small thing … but surprising nonetheless.

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The machine itself I am enjoying.  I have had a lot of fun with the Kinect sensor, and overall it responds well to regularly used phrases like ‘XBOX ON’ or ‘XBOX PAUSE’ or ‘XBOX GO TO DEAD RISING 3’ and proves useful and a fun part of the whole experience.  Apps such as Netflix, 4OD and YouTube work flawlessly in my experience and are a joy to use.  The only real issue I experienced recently was with UPLOAD, the built in gameplay capture software that stores all your recorded clips.  Now this is a great part of the XBOX ONE and playing a game like BF4 and getting a great moment and saying ‘XBOX RECORD THAT’ is so wonderful, I am surprised it’s taken this long to be included in a games console.  However for reasons unknown, one day I went to view my recorded clips and the XBOX just kept trying to load them, sometimes saying I didn’t have any.  I have 29 goddamit!  I cursed, and of course this got me worried that something was wrong.  After a quick Google search that told me a fix if some apps become unresponsive I power cycled my console … which is done by holding down the XBOX logo on the front of the machine until it reboots.  This clears the cache on the system and also resets your network card – meaning I had to manually input my wi-fi details again.  Then like magic, everything was working again, and has been fine for days now.  Very odd.  The only other issue I have come across is a slight lip-sync issue when playing Blu-rays.  Now this I discovered only occurs when having the 24hz option ticked in the settings.  When that tick is removed, Blu-ray plays fine.  Some may have issue with not being able to take advantage of 24hz playback which is pretty much a standard for Blu-ray (and works fine on my PS3) and I hope there is a patch to fix this soon … but for now, I am not overly bothered.

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The controller in relation to the original XBOX 360 one is similar, but lighter, still requires AA batteries (surprising considering the PS3 and PS4 both use USB charging … but battery life is about a week after causal gaming (2-3 hours each day).  I also love the rumble in the triggers, which gives Forza’s driving and BF4’s shooting real immersion.  I should also point out the machine runs very cool, only gets moderately warm after a lengthy session of gaming, and despite a small wiring / humming of the fan, is relatively quiet in operation.  Other things to note is that game installs (mandatory) are fairly painless, slowed down initially by the games I have played needing a hefty-patch which has to download, but usually the game is ready to play fairly soon (half an hour max? – I haven’t actually timed it).  There are things I would love to see added, such as being able to manage hard drive space or see the battery life on your controller, both easily done with a patch … and Apps like Sky Player and BBC iPlayer at some stage.  Being able to upload game footage straight to Twitter or Facebook needs to be implemented to I think.  Also here in the UK the linking your XBOX ONE to your TV service is reportedly not that well done and something I haven’t even tried or likely to.  I see how Microsoft wants it to be an all-in-one entertainment system, but that aspect isn’t something that interests me beyond the already good on-demand services.

For now only a slight games drought bothers me, with many big name titles not due to see light of day until at least March (Watchdogs, Titanfall) or not having a release date at all just yet (Tom Clancy’s The Division, Quantum Break) but this does mean there is plenty to look forward to in the year ahead.  Just what the machine is capable of I don’t think we have even witnessed yet.  Exciting times.