Not Compensating For Anything

So while my 26-inch Samsung LCD that I bought in early 2006 was great for its time, back when an HDTV actually became affordable to a mortal and I was making less than the minimum wage, I’d decided a while back that I wanted something bigger and better.

I’d been thinking about LCDs in the 37-inch range and set myself an absolute maximum of £1,000 to spend, but when I found that decent models were well below that price (as low as £650 online), I decided to go all out. Why settle for an 8 ms response time and 8,000:1 contrast ratio when I can get 0.001 ms and 30,000:1? That’s how I came to have such a magnificent beast as the Panasonic TH-42PZ80B – that’s a 42-inch 1080p plasma, reviewed here – sat at the end of my bed.

Panasonic TH-42PZ80B

As much as I enjoyed having the old LCD, I found that when I was watching HD video material I wasn’t really getting the full benefit. It looked sharper, but from my perch it didn’t look worlds beyond an upscaled DVD. Indeed, a competent DVD could be almost indistinguishable, which meant dropping the extra cash on the Blu-ray/HD DVD over the standard DVD was done as much for being future-proof as anything. Not to mention that black levels of LCDs have never been great (check out this comparison), which annoyed me with low detail in darker films. Batman Begins on HD DVD, for example, has a highly rated video transfer that was frankly a bit grey and murky via LCD.

Compared to the old one, this is a revelation. Watching a Blu-ray in 1080p at 24Hz with no overscan at that size would convince anyone that it’s worlds ahead of DVD, to the point where even my excellent little player upscaling to 1080p can’t keep up anymore. My go-to demo disc, Pixar’s Cars, looked amazing, with vivid colours, sharp detail and smooth motion, as did the recently acclaimed Narnia.

Rambo Blu-ray

While the black levels are undeniably superior, it’s not all roses, though. I’ve found that I’m one of the few per cent of people who can see the phosphor trails on plasma displays, a flaw endemic to the technology. Films are largely – though not entirely – unaffected, but certain games like Call of Duty 4, with its high contrast and fast movement, can almost look like one of those red-on-green 3D double images. Thankfully it’s something that will supposedly fade as the panel wears in over the first couple hundred hours, but I’ll suppose I have to get used to it. Even so, it looks dramatically better than any LCD that I’ve seen, so I’m going to take it as a worthwhile trade.

Still, given the choice between the grey blacks, slow response and poor scaling of an LCD and the phosphor trailing of a plasma (admittedly that only a small percentage of people can even see), it kind of makes you wish that reliable old CRTs weren’t so bloody big.

Indy IV Impressions

Indy IV Poster22 May 2008 had the potential to be a very, very good day. Still on a high from United being champions of Europe and double winners (again), I had a free trip to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I wasn’t expecting Raiders, but anywhere from Temple of Doom upwards would have been considered a success in my book. Frankly I just didn’t trust Spielberg’s ability (and George Lucas’s influence) to avoid schmaltz and constant age jokes. Yes, Harrison Ford is old; I’ve noticed.

I was following my usual policy of slight pessimism that I take to anything with ‘George Lucas’ in the credits, with the logic being that you can’t be disappointed when you have low expectations (unless it’s Star Wars Episode III). In this case, keep your expectations realistic and you’ll probably have a good time. Just don’t expect Raiders.

Firstly I’ll address the elephant in the room and say that yes, Ford is old. Apart from one point near the end when I noticed how grey his hair was, though, it was never an issue. He’s still the man and the action is split well between him and Shia LaBeouf, to the point where you never feel like it’s being held back. It feels much more like another Indy film than other recent ‘comeback’ movies – Die Hard 4.0, Terminator 3, Rocky Balboa – ever did for their respective series.

I felt like I was right to be worried about the Lucas/Spielberg effect, though, with a few too many moments where you can picture them talking about how awesome this would be on screen – skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re avoiding spoilers – like that painful Tarzan-swinging sequence, getting off a cliff in a truck via a conveniently placed tree that just happens to drop them gently into the water (straight out of a live action Wile E Coyote cartoon), the swordfight between cars and, most bafflingly, Indy being thrown miles in a fridge without receiving a scratch, the unexplained native tribesmen who are just there (see the graveyard and the end sequence).

The CG animals everywhere had Lucas written all over them, because he was doing the same stuff in the Star Wars prequels. Similarly, everything looked like it was shot on a soundstage with CG coming out of its arse. So much for the back-to-basics stunts and practical effects.

Anyway, you should really skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it. While I won’t be specific, I’m about to talk about the ending and the nature of the quest in this film.

The MacGuffin in the Indiana Jones series has always had a supernatural element and this is no different, but it just seemed a bit too ‘out there’ to me. Whereas Raiders and Last Crusade got heavily into theological legends, those could be explained away with something simple like “the wrath of God” or “the cup of Christ”. This one doesn’t have anything that elegant, and there’s a reason why this stuff usually has to be drowned in technobabble to make it work in film. I won’t even start on trying to reconcile it with the religious revelations (the Judeo-Christian god clearly exists in the Indy universe) of the those previous films, because they don’t seem compatible to me.

Overall, I think it’s a good summer action film, made much better by Harrison Ford back in form and the fact that it’s still Indiana Jones. Just know that “swinging with the monkeys” is the new “jumping the shark”.

GTA IV Post-Mortem

So I finished GTA IV’s story last night after just over 43 hours of play (still only 75.5% complete overall!) and just wanted to put together some thoughts. Be warned that I won’t mark spoilers and although there aren’t any plot specifics in here, I’ll freely talk about mission mechanics. If you don’t want anything spoiled, stop reading and let it suffice to say that I loved the game and my immediate reaction would be to put it among my favourite games ever. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but that doesn’t make it worth any less than full marks to me. Continue reading GTA IV Post-Mortem

Persona 3 FES

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FESMuch as I’d like to, I can’t spend all my time playing GTA IV (16 hours over the long weekend was quite enough), and with the rest of the development world going into hiding until everyone gets bored, I’ve had to turn over a few rocks for something else to play.

So I came to this: the expanded edition of last year’s well-received Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. This is where I put a rant about how it’ll never come out here, but I only just found out that the original game did, in fact, come out in the UK. Still, that doesn’t improve our chances of getting a remix of a game that probably didn’t make it out of four figures in sales. Import is the only way to go if you want FES (pronounced ‘fess’, as it’s short for ‘festival’).

Right, here comes the synopsis. I’ve played some weird games in my time, but this one takes the biscuit. The premise is that there’s a 25th hour to every day called the Dark Hour. Most people are completely unaware of it, as they transmogrify into coffins (seriously) for the duration and return to normal at 12:01 as if nothing has happened. But a select few are able to retain their form and must spend their nights fighting ‘shadows’, demons that emerge from a mysterious labyrinth called Tartarus, which only appears during the Dark Hour. Someone dies or inexplicably becomes catatonic during the night? That’s the shadows getting up to no good with them.

Naturally, your protagonist and some of his school friends are among those with the ability to roam the Dark Hour. They also have the handy ability to control personas – personal demons called forth from their psyche by shooting themselves in the head. Yes, really. Strengthen your personality by day by making friends, having relationships and joining clubs, and it makes your personas and their spells stronger for when you roam the randomly generated 200+ floors of Tartarus, grinding and fighting occasional bosses to build yourself up for monthly story events that occur during the full moon. Continue reading Persona 3 FES

RIP Video Game Centre

Today was a pretty meaningless day in the grand scheme of things. For most gamers it simply represented the return to the grind after an extended weekend of GTA IV, but it was a sad day for the hardcore gaming community of Bournemouth, and for those regulars from all around the country: today was the last day of trading for the Video Game Centre.

Video Game Centre

Since it opened in 1993, it was one of the biggest sellers in the country of import games and game-related oddities. No one misses the days of £90 SNES imports, but back in the day this place had a huge pool of regulars who were willing to spend that sort of money on the latest and greatest but also who would spend all their Saturday afternoons in there, just talking games. As someone growing up as a gaming obsessive at the time, it was heaven.

Alas, the Internet happened, as did supermarkets and their loss-leading games, and the pool of regulars started to dry up. Internet forums have become the hangout of the hardcore gamer, and the number of people who are willing to spend only a couple of quid under the RRP for a place to break street date has dwindled.

Looking at that photo, taken circa 2002, just makes me come over all nostalgic. The new games on the TVs, the Shenmue poster on the door there, whole import sections for every console. Next to the TVs you can see the accessories, with everything from the expected official controllers and AV cables to the handy weird stuff from Japan and Hong Kong that’s been impossible to find since Lik-Sang disappeared. And above and to the left of the PAL N64 games on the back wall you can see AES and Neo-Geo CD games – where can you get those without braving the bootleg minefield of eBay?

I miss the independent retailers in general. Where is there for people to get knowledgeable advice from people who’ve actually played the game, to try it before they buy and to get help with importing and modding hardware? And when I do shop in a physical retailer, I like to do it without being given the hard sell on extended warranties, official guides, and shitty, own-brand controllers. This was one of the last ones, and it had been one of the best.

So it looks like I’m going completely online now, and I can be happy with my favoured sites for both imports and PAL games. It’s just a shame that I can no longer pop in for a chat about the latest Edge scores…

The Token GTA IV Post

Niko BellicAs much as I’d like to sit in my ivory tower and blame GTA IV for effectively shutting down the release schedule until June, I’m afraid I can’t. Unlike when I talk about Metal Gear, Smash Bros, and the like, where I’m objectively right (it’s true), anyone who says that GTA IV is anything less than a brilliant game is just being a cynical twat. Besides, if anything can stop this generation’s Nintendomination, it’s this. It won’t win, but at least the HD consoles can now say that they tried.

My first thought when I got to run around and actually play GTA IV was actually quite underwhelming. It was dark (turning up the brightness in the options definitely helps), the controls feel slightly old-fashioned in these days of twin-stick control, the cars felt heavy, and in which century do we hold a button to run? You do know what analogue control does, right?

But while some of those are minor niggles, they really are minor. Taken as an overall game, GTA IV is a phenomenal technical achievement and an improvement on the other games in almost every way. Significantly, the elephant in the room of the previous generation’s GTAs, the gunplay, is finally workable and even enjoyable. It’s not quite Gears or Uncharted because the cover system isn’t quite as intuitive, but given the significant improvements between GTA III and San Andreas (seriously, try GTA III’s shooting now and see just how bad it is), I’m hoping that by the time we reach this generation’s equivalent of Vice City, GTA’s biggest flaw could be a thing of the past.

Technically, it’s simply an astounding accomplishment. Having only just reached the second main island after over 13 hours of play, I’ve only scratched the surface of what they’ve miraculously fitted onto a DVD with room to spare. I know only a couple of neighbourhoods, and I’ve only been in one shop. I’ve already visited three different bars and there are bar games that are as in-depth as some dedicated games. I’ve been to the cabaret show three times and seen six acts, but I know for a fact that there are others, including a stand-up show from Ricky Gervais. There are 19 radio stations, and I’m still hearing new stuff on my favourites. Not to mention that the game reckons I’m only 31% of the way through. It’s unbelievable.

As with the aiming, the characterisation in the GTA games got better as the series went on and, again, it takes a massive leap forward with Niko. He’s an actual character, unlike GTA III’s Claude. He’s more sympathetic than Tommy Vercetti, who was a good character but about as likeable as Tony Montana (deliberately, I assume). And while CJ was streets ahead of his predecessors, I just didn’t enjoy the whole Boyz n the Hood thing. I suppose the fact that I liked a lot of the characters – all of whom are mass murderers to various extents – was testament to what a good job they did with that material.

Anyway, we’re talking about Niko. I’m not going to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that he’s likeable, funny, sympathetic, and by far the best GTA protagonist so far. Likewise, although some of the supporting cast fall into the usual mobster archetypes, they’re all exceptionally written. Little Jacob, the Rastafarian dealer, is just flat out hilarious. Think this scene from Airplane if you haven’t played it yet.

One other thing that deserves plaudits is the animation provided by the Euphoria engine. Wow. Gone is the canned animation of previous games as your character tried to make an epic leap over a knee-high wall, in favour of procedural animations, so Niko might steady himself after a short fall and roll to take the impact of a higher one. It’s seamless as he goes from vaulting a wall or fence to dropping into one of those animations, but it’s car crashes that provide the most impressive showpiece. When you hit someone who realistically crumples from the force, their head bouncing off the bonnet as they’re sent backwards, it’s the closest thing that I could describe as ‘sickening’ (in the nicest possible way) in a game as violent as this. Whereas in older GTAs I’d happily mow through the faceless pedestrians, here the fact that they don’t all look quite as identical and get taken out with such force makes sticking to the road during high speed pursuits something to do where possible.

I think it’s been made clear quite how good GTA IV is: it’s the only game I can remember that got perfect scores from all three major gaming sites and Edge. It’s one of the few next-gen ‘event’ games that won’t fob you off with a seven-hour campaign. Production values are through the roof, and rumours that it’s usurped Shenmue as the most expensive video game ever produced ($100m, up from $70m) are wholly believable. It’s a stunning game, and the first time in ages that turning on the 360 has become my first action on getting home, ahead of turning on the computer or going to the toilet.

Even if you’ve had misgivings about the series in the past, don’t miss out on this one. If something beats it to my game of the year, I’ll be very surprised.