Friday, 29 August 2014

THE RISE (OR FALL) OF THE TOMB RAIDER

Way back when Lara Croft hit the games consoles she did so on the Playstation One. From that moment on Crystal Dynamics started one of the biggest grossing game franchises that spawned adds and two movies.
Over the years the adventures of Lara Croft have evolved to the point where, under Square Enix, Tomb Raider was re-invented without losing her appeal. Old and new generations of gamers were united in their approval.
So.... a sequel was on the cards.
A trailer gave some inkling about Lara Croft's next adventure...about becoming 'the person that was meant to be'.


Then at Gamescom 2014 came to big announcement...."Rise Of The Tomb Raider" was to be an Xbox console exclusive.


What?


Square Enix says that their fan base is important to them BUT the deal with Microsoft will enable the developer to invest more money into the next generation of gaming.


Much is written on the net about this....but I don't believe, for one minute, that developers do really care about their fan-base. It is all about the money (except no one likes to say it out loud).


What it really comes down to is that the Xbox One is still being outsold by Sony's Playstation 4 (and ditto is happening with the Xbox 360 by the PS3). What better way for Microsoft to attempt to turn the situation around than by harnessing one of the top game franchises.


Truth is that this situation will have no winners - only losers.


I doubt if Xbox sales will improve....and they want to build a community where your friends can jump into your game whether they own it or not.


Square Enix will not garner the expected profits and their rep will drop.  Will the fans go for a 'Tomb Raider 3' should it come back to it's real home on the Sony Playstation.


Finally, the fans....neglect them too much and they will become unforgiving. It is one thing for developers to realise their dreams and go ahead and do their own thing. And while developers go 'yay, we done it' nothing is achieved when the fans don't part with their cash.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

J. T. EDSON - R.I.P

Sadly, one of the great western writers, J.T.Edson, passed away on the 17th July 2014.
No one who has read his books can forget the likes of Dusty Fog, Mark Counter and the Ysabel Kid - characters that were brought to life in strip form in the Lion comic of the sixties.
J.T. Edson paved the way for many other British western writers and will be missed.

Monday, 14 July 2014

1952: TEX RITTER'S TEXAS WESTERN SPECTACLE

Saturday morning pictures at the Odeon Cinema in North Finchley was packed out most times. A cartoon, a serial and a movie. More often than not there was a western as the main feature starring the likes of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter. For 6d (two and a half pence) that was real value for money.


The early fifties was quite an austere time work like food and clothes were still on ration. Days out were for the most part free. A whole day could be spent in Friary Park - but when an event like the Festival Of Britain in 1951 occurred it was a great day out. Likewise, Trooping The Colour and The Lord Mayor's Parade in London were all free days out just as were visits to the museums.


So, when mum took me out for a trip to Haringey (North London) I expected to be wandering around the shops. At seven years of age - even then it was boring. But the shops were not to be our destination - but the massive arena. This was a total new experience. The place was packed out with kids almost outnumbering adults and the air was electric with expectation. I just sat there staring down at a sawdust covered arena - gobsmacked.


I had walked into the place so mesmerised that (I do believe even to this day) none of the posters outside registered. I was that unprepared that when the first horseman rode in I jumped as the entire audience screamed their delight.


This wasn't cinema - this was the real thing. Cattle thundered across the arena as cowboys demonstrated herding and driving. Roped them in for branding. Rodeo riders bucked on broncos and bulls. And the gunfights - I don't think that anyone had experienced the euphoria and the magic of that day - so much happening; so much to take in.


And the finale - who can forget that. The stagecoach running around the arena, kids on their feet roaring it on. Behind, rampaging Indians ever threatening to kill all on board - the tension rising until that bugle call that announced the arrival of the cavalry. And how we all stood and cheered.


In the midst of it all was Tex Ritter - the singing cowboy himself - astride Flash. The spotlight began to swing around the audience and when it stopped one lucky child received a twin holster and a pair of guns.


When it was time to go we left our seats and went to meet my granddad. He was a master carpenter and joiner and had been working behind the scenes - looking back that has to be how we got the tickets. Then granddad beckoned to me to follow him - he spoke to one of the cowboys who turned around and smiled at me. He said something but my tongue just got tied up in knots and just couldn't speak - fortunately, my mum spoke me - but, I mean, this was a celluloid hero. This was Tex Ritter. However, as I shook his hand I managed to stammer out a 'thank you'.


Tex Ritter's Texas Western Spectacle remained at the Haringey Arena for six weeks.


I have never been out West but I have not forgotten that day in 1952 when the west came to me.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

HOMEFRONT: THE REVOLUTION

Some time back I wrote about a game and a book called 'Homefront' that came from the pens of John Millius (Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now) and novelist Raymond Benson. Both came under heavy criticism from games reviewers - the 'Homefront' game recoding an average score of 7.
And sure it could have been a Call Of Duty clone - with a demoralised America invaded and under the thumb of North Korea. Makes a change from the Russians but, still, the format was the same. Even some of the dialogue was the same......"I've got your six"; "Pick up those grenades", "Take out that tank." and this from a man who looks after himself by hiding. At least the other character knows what a gun is for.
For all the flaws and lack of originality in most places - 'Homefront' managed to do something that was a touch different and that was a world that was structured. Weapons have to be salvaged and survival depended on behaviour. The background story builds into a coherent reason for America's collapse with echoes of Iraq, Afghanistan and the recession.




Although there was a vague hint, at the time, that another game 'Homefront: London' could be forthcoming the whole idea died a death. With the demise of 'Homefront's' developer THQ - the story should have been over.




Now 'Homefront' is about to rise, phoenix-style, from the ashes. Crytek UK has not only breathed new life into the franchise but expanded the whole experience into open world. Early reports say that 'Homefront: The Revolution' may be streets ahead in design, depth and concept than the first games that were released with the new consoles.


The storyline picks up four years after the events of the original game and moves to the deserted streets and ruins of Philadelphia. The hero is Ethan Brady who is just an ordinary guy who has had enough of the draconian rules that he has been living under. Weapons are not his forte - his first weapon of choice is a Molotov cocktail - but he is a man determined (in the first place) to survive.
The premise looks good; the graphics atmospheric - even those that dissed the original seem to be impressed. Like they say there's still life in an old dog.


CrytekUK's 'Homefront: The Revolution' is scheduled for a 2015 release on both Xbox and PS4.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

CALL OF DUTY: ADVANCED WARFARE

Well, the announcement at E3, that Activision are bringing out a new Call Of Duty title on the 4th November has not gone down well.
Call Of Duty's Facebook pages are awash with nay sayers. For many it is the end of the line of a game that seems to be spiralling forever downwards.




In fact the Call Of Duty loyalists want a return to the old days when the video game series concentrated on action during World War 2. While others want a Modern Warfare 2 re-make. All of which is met by wild rebukes from those who think otherwise.




In my own mind Call Of Duty World War Two games could only be compared to the Medal Of Honour series that my sons played. We are all pretty certain that Medal Of Honour came first but that is all a little immaterial right now. Nowadays, it seems, they both travel the same road.


I did not play any Modern Warfare games until the release of MW3 - so a bit slow off the mark there. On it's own it didn't make much sense until the fact that '3' registered. So....Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare kicked off the story arc that begins with Cold War tensions between the US and Russia. Hovering in the background is a baddie named 'Marakov' who is stirring things up a bit. He really comes into his own in Modern Warfare 2 with, probably, the most controversial scene ever with the shooting up of an airport. This would be matched in the third instalment of a family outing to London ending with the detonation of a 'dirty' bomb.


What makes the Modern Warfare trilogy so good is that there is a continuing story arc that is as compelling to play as it is to watch (if it were a movie) or read if they were books. But the trilogy is done and it is complete.


This trilogy was perhaps the best set of games that I have played.


The second trilogy that came along began with Call Of Duty: World At War followed by Black Ops and Black Ops 2. World At War opens with action with the American forces in the Pacific and the Russians on the Eastern Front. And via the Black Ops stories continues into the Cold War and Vietnam. The difference here is that the storylines are confused and blurred......so, yes, disappointment by some gamers is understandable.




Last November saw the release of Call Of Duty: Ghosts.  The storyline is plain and simple. The war is over (think MW3) - one of the myths is the story of the fifteen survivors of an 'Alamo' like stand rose from the ruins looking like ghosts. Now someone is taking them out and that someone is aiding and abetting a Federation of South and Central American countries to attack a weakened United States.  Storywise this is a return to what made the Modern Warfare series a success - and those who signed out of the game when the credits came up they would have missed the bit that says that there has to be a sequel.
Also, to hark back to the Modern Warfare saga a character from number 2 was called 'Ghost' and the mask crops up from time to time - so, a connection is well and truly made.




So with a little background to this we come to the next story arc (opener?) with Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare.  The trailer shows the chapter titled 'Induction'. The action takes place in Seoul, South Korea in 2054 with lots of future technology. While many say Titanfall/Halo clone - from what little I know this is a story that echoes the rise of the private security firms - mercenaries that fight for the highest bidder. The idea sounds pretty good and feasible from what we already know about these companies.
This game comes from Sledgehammer developer who was working on this idea some years back but put it on hold to develop Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. This alone is one good reason for me to give the game a chance.




On the other hand maybe it is time to drop the 'Call Of Duty' tag.  Ghosts could stand on it's own two feet and, I expect, Advanced Warfare will as well.


If any of these games has a flaw then it is down to the player to do everything while the three team mates hide behind walls claiming to have your character's back.  This compared to Battlefield and Gears Of War when all four members of the team are in action from the kick off - and while you, the hero, still has to down the enemies with specialised weapons you feel confident that they do have your back. This is, as I said, lacking in Call Of Duty games - it needs fixing.



Monday, 9 June 2014

E3 2014

It's that time of year when Los Angeles, California plays host to the Electronic Entertainment Expo. A time when the giants of the gaming industry come out with the big reveals.
2013 saw the announcements that Microsoft and Sony had new consoles ready for the Christmas rush. That was a battle won by the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One is still trying to play catch-up. Though I have to admit that seeing Xbox One games still on show after six months from release seems a touch on the sad side.
On the other hand it is understandable - Activision's 'Call Of Duty: Ghosts' on the Xbox One is interrupted mid-multiplayer game by the message that the player needs to be connected to Xbox Live network. A network that is running OK - still I can play the 'Squads' matches. According to Activision's helpline I can't because if I don't have the network for one then I can't have it for the other - except that I know different. So, is there a solution? No, only silence. Still this was a problem that plagued a lot of players with 'Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2' - so nothing has changed there.
Forza 5 too has problems that, to date, have not been resolved. Badges that should be achieved do not unlock and one unlocks when the player drives a different car to the one designated ('73 Firebird Trans Am unlocks the '77 Firebird badge).




So what can Microsoft offer game wise to the disillusioned - Activision's much hyped 'Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare' will, no doubt, top the agenda. However, this is not a game that is exclusive to Xbox One nor would I be tempted to purchase it for that console - twice bitten etc.


In fact looking at the proposed lists of games that the likes of Activision, EA and Ubisoft are flag waving this year are not inspiring at all. Reality is that  it is more of the same or clones of other games. 'Watchdogs', much hyped and should have been released last November proved to be nothing more than a Grand Theft Auto style clone. 'Assassin's Creed: Black Flag' if anyone played the originals then Black Flag has been played and, I suspect, the same will apply to the soon to be revealed 'Assassin's Creed: Unity'. So, all the usual titles are on their way including another in the 'Halo' saga, 'Far Cry 4' and 'Uncharted 4' - as I say more of the same.


To my aged eyes games have sort of declined. There have been two notable re-inventions in the shape of 'Tomb Raider' which proved to be a lot better than I expected and the re-mastered version for the PS4 was even better. I would like to see a second instalment. On the other hand there was the re-invention of Dante in 'Devil May Cry: DMC' - all connection with the originals were lost and became so repetitive that I couldn't be bothered to complete it. (Believe me sales figures do not impress me).


Real games are few and far between - 'Heavy Rain', 'The Last Of Us' and 'Murder: Soul Suspect' are three that come to mind. Also 'Red Dead Redemption' (a sequel is mooted) and 'L. A. Noire'. All these games are designed to make the player work things out - not all gunplay.
And while I may not be 100% happy with multiplayer - the storylines of the 'Call Of Duty' games can be involving and 'Gears Of War 3' has to be the best game in that trilogy - so well scripted that if a pack of Kleenex is not available you will wish you had for one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen played out on a video game. When I compare games with other players I get surprised when I find that online players seem not to play the 'campaign' storyline but have the game to play online only. So why not produce a game that gives the player the option and a cheaper multiplayer disc (like 'Titanfall' for the online gamer).


So what am I expecting from E3? Nothing - just more of the same.
I expect great graphics will figure large but the new consoles were not built for that alone.
And a game that doesn't need an app downloaded to a tablet or smartphone - even in these days of technology not everyone has these nor do they want them and kids (the prime target in the gaming world) can't afford them.


The technology behind the consoles may have moved on - the development in games has not. Well, not yet but 2015 is another year and who knows what that will bring. Will 'Drive Club' arrive? Will 'Quantum Break' make a breakthrough? The former was destined for a release to coincide with the new consoles last November - although I placed a pre-order this is now cancelled as I feel that games that are that hyped and do not get released has to have problems and may just not live up to expectations.


Anyway, next on my hit list is 'The Order:1886' looks interesting from the trailers.


Catch up with E3 online, on the Xbox One, the Playstation 4, tablet and smartphone.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A LIFE IN BOOKS - Part Two

The influences of the second world war were all around in the fifties and early sixties. It took a long time for a bomb damaged London to re-build; rationing was still around and simple things like oranges and bananas were something completely new to us - born during and after the war.


Both Westerns and war films dominated in the cinema while books of both genres crowded the bookshelves.




The factual books of the time like Guy Gibson's 'Enemy Coast Ahead'; Willi Frischauer and Robert Jackson's 'The Navy's Here' and Richard Collier's 'Eagle Day' brought a narrative to war books. The writing styles not only maintained interest but read like a novel. These books were far removed from the stiff and formal histories available at the time.




Authors like C.E.Lucas Phillips brought Alamein, Kohima, the raid on St.Nazaire and the exploits of the Cockleshell Heroes to life while Ralph Barker took to the skies and down into the drink with his real life stories of the R.A.F.




In turn many of the war novelists drew on their own experiences. John Harris (ex-air force) had a successful debut with 'The Sea Shall Not Have Them' about the air sea rescue team battling to find a downed bomber crew that is, unknowingly, drifting towards a minefield. This book was turned into a movie and it proved successful for John Harris was to continue writing war books. Amongst these and written in the sixties was 'Covenant With Death' about the young conscripts who answered Lord Kitchener's call during the First World War. It follows their lives and their training through the march to the front - from romanticism through to the harsh reality of the Somme 1916.






At secondary school the books to read were Derek Lambert's 'The Twenty Thousand Thieves' and the sequel 'Glory Thrown In'. The Australian Army on the march in the North African desert - Benghazi and Tobruk in the heat and dust. Officers who lived a class apart still living in a colonial past and despised by the men some of whom had worked for them. First World War attitudes clashing on the field of battle with Second World War reality.


Many others turned their wartime experiences into novels. Alexander Baron's (I have written more about this author in an earlier blog) army days are recalled in the accounts of the Scicily and Italy campaigns while Nicholas Monserrat wrote about his naval career in 'Three Corvettes' and 'The Cruel Sea'. Peter Elstob showed what life was like in a tank with the excellent 'Warriors For The Working Day'.




Another British airman was the author Elleston Trevor who wrote about the Battle Of Britain in 'Squadron Airborne'; Dunkirk with 'The Big Pick Up' and Falaise with 'The Killing Ground'. Elleston Trevor went on to more fame as 'Adam Hall' creator of the Quiller series.


The list goes on but there were two American authors who wrote about war in a completely different way. One was Irwin Shaw who wrote that brick of a book 'The Young Lions'. Of the three characters only two stand out. Christian Diestl is a pretty decent character - he's not a bad guy it is just the times and the need to survive in Nazi Germany that makes him become the way he is. Noah Ackerman, on the other hand, is a nice guy - but being Jewish doesn't work in his favour. Here Shaw cleverly shows a parallel with the Nazi way and bullying anti-Semitism of his peers. Michael Whitacre is a middle-class, fence sitter who tries to do as little as possible while handing out unwanted advice - only Noah Ackerman just will not lie down nor stay down.


The other American author, who should be better known, is ex-USAAF pilot James Salter who used his experiences during the Korean war to the fore in 'The Hunters'. Sabres vs MIGs - this wasn't anything like the 'Blackhawk' comics. The hero of 'The Hunters' is Cleve Connell who has one ambition - to be an ace pilot with five kills - but does he have what it takes? Even he has doubts about his own abilities.


These are just a few of the war novellists that I read in the late fifties and early sixties. Some may be remembered while others have been forgotten. Every book that I write about, though, is still on my bookshelf.