Friday 30 March 2012


When I first bought an XBox 360 it came with a game bundle that contained Epic Games Gears Of War 1 and 2. I didn't like the first game as a)the enemy seemed to blend with the scenery and b) my character got killed too quickly despite taking precautions and using cover etc. So I gave them to my sons.
Gears Of War 3 came out in September 2011 and it was suggested that I get hold of a copy. I didn't have to play the game itself, my boys said, but there were some great online games to be played.
Well, that was true the online maps and games were brilliant with excellent graphics.
Then my youngest son suggested that I had a go at the story mode. The memories of the original gameplay made me hum and haw a bit. Anyway, I gave it a go and discovered that I was still playing online with them. This way they got me through the first couple of chapters.
I wound up completing the story mode - most of it solo.
What struck me about Gears Of War 3 were several things.
The first was the interaction of the characters. The constant banter between the Australian sounding Samantha Byrne and technician Daniel Baird. The brashness of devil may care former Thrashball player, The Cole Train compared to the cautious youngest member of Delta Squad, Jace Stratton. And, at their head, Sgt Marcus Fenix with his friend and second in command Dominic Santiago. Of course, no team is complete without a 'love' interest - Lt Anya Stroud the former controller of Delta Squad and now very hands on.
The action begins aboard the helicopter carrier 'Sovereign' which comes under attack by the Locust Horde who are now backed up by a new enemy known as the Lambent. This as the Chairman of the Coalition Of Ordered Governments (COG for short) turns up. He is wounded in the attack and hands Marcus Fenix a disc that contains vital information and reveals that Marcus's father was not dead but very much alive and held prisoner on the island of Azura.
And so the intrepid magnificent seven take on all kinds of 'baddies' and obstacles to reach this island that is protected by a vortex. The only way to acheive this is to go in underwater. To do this they need both fuel and a submarine.
The squad are aided in their quest by Dizzy Wallin - this grey haired, grizzled old man has no love for the COG. He was one of the millions left to die when the Chairman unleashed a powerful weapon to destroy the enemy. With great respect for the members of Delta Squad who helped to rescue him and his family Dizzy takes the role of their combat engineer.
There is a sequence in the Chapter titled 'Ashes To Ashes' that underlines that back story as the Squad enter the city of Char. Bodies and scenery that echo both the destruction of Pompeii and Hiroshima.
Gears Of War 3 is not really the normal kind of third person shooter. The gamer is not alone. The other characters act both independently and as a team. They, like the main character, kill the enemy and, unlike many other games, run out of ammunition and need help.
The most important factor here is that there is a strong story to tell here. Characters are fleshed out so that when one of them sacrifices himself for the team you feel their grief and understand all the factors that make him do it.

Well, the story is the work of English author Karen Traviss who, I suspect, has used her Territorial Army training amongst other things to bring in that feeling of men at women at war.
Karen Traviss has written some of the Star Wars Republican Commando and Clone Wars novels. She has also written four of the Gears Of War novels with a fifth 'The Slab' due out in May 2012.

All in all I have to say that this is one of the best games that I have played in a long time. So, yes, I'm going to take another shot at 1 and 2.
This also comes with downloadable content and I can say that the 'Shadow Of Ramm' is value for money in as much as this is another game.
And no glitches or bugs - well only the bugs you kill.

Monday 26 March 2012


Once in a while I pick up the odd movie for no particular reason - though, I suppose, a title like 'Machine Gun Preacher' clicks because of Glen Ford's 'Heaven With A Gun'.

Gerard Butler plays the part of Sam Childers who we meet leaving prison for a bit of kerbside sex with his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan). Childers is a drug dealing biker who gets into a bit of a temper when he discovers that his wife has given up cigarettes, drinking and making a meagre living out of stripping. Her reason for all this is that she has found God.
So, Sam goes off and finds friend Donnie and they go out and shoot up (this has several connotations and Sam manages to use all of them).
Eventually, he goes to church with his wife and daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll)and winds up getting baptised. From this point on Sam's life begins to change. He gets a job which he finds that he is good at and this leads to him forming his own construction business.
After building a church that no one wants to preach at - Sam becomes a reluctant preacher who opens the doors to the strippers, the addicts, the prostitutes and those low lifes often ignored by the established churches.
When he hears about a job in Uganda he goes off to take a look around and persuades a rebel soldier Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane) to take him to places that the tourists don't get to see.
What he finds appals him as he is introduced into the world of child soldiers. Now Sam Childers becomes fired up and practices what he preaches. He builds a mission and goes out to rescue these children and give them a place of safety. This does not come easy and is the core of the film. Along the way he discovers that 'Christian charity' does not exist - so he sells his business to finance things.
Meanwhile, Kony leader of the Sudanese LRA puts a price on Sam Childers head. He doesn't like the way that Childers is killing off his soldiers and depleting his army by rescuing the children.

Reading back on what I have written it seems that this may sound like an action, do gooder hero thing. First, Gerard Butler gives flesh and substance to Sam Childers. I had never heard of Childers let alone realise that the movie that I had picked up was based on a true story.
Jason Keller's screenplay is gripping and the movie under Marc Forster's direction rarely flags. If there are any flaws then it has to be simpering strings in the soundtracks and wide eyed looks to underline sentimental moments. They are moments that don't need to be underlined.
Nor is this a movie for the squeamish - there are atrocities here on full display. Want to find out what really happens when someone steps on a landmine?
The other thing about this movie is that despite it's subject matter it doesn't preach at the viewer.
This is a movie about a man who had his life turned around, found something to believe in and was prepared to back it up with a gun - if needs be.

Before the movie was made both the scriptwriter and director went out to Africa to see Sam Childers at the mission for Angels Of East Africa. They saw from first hand some of the things that Sam Childers had done.

As far as I'm concerned I'm glad I followed my instincts. This is a far better movie than initial critic reviews suggest - but after watching it I guess the movie makers weren't out to make friends. Still, I think that this should have had a cinema release in this country - but, I guess, this went straight to dvd. And for those who ask 'Is this really a true story?' I got two words for you..........

Sam Childers has written a book 'Another Man's War'.

Saturday 24 March 2012

STRAW DOGS (the re-make)

If there was ever an argument against re-makes then this latest version of 'Straw Dogs' ticks all the boxes.
I picked up the dvd out of curiosity and because I thought that maybe - just maybe - Rod Lurie could bring something new to the original.
Sadly, this was not the case.
James Marsden takes on the Dustin Hoffman role only instead of being a mathematician he is a scriptwriter who met wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) during the making of a TV series. Now he is retiring to the country to write a movie script about the greatest battle of the Second World War - Stalingrad. So our hero is a writer, so you would think that there were some things that he would know - like when the hunting season was. I mean I know when both the fishing season and hunting season begin and end here and I don't have an interest in either of these activities. Whatever, this was a non-engaging character.
This may be a touch detailist but a small point.
Now I never took much to Dustin Hoffman for in the original he was as animated as The Graduate standing at the bottom of the swimming pool. But after this new take Hoffman gets a touch more respect.
Bosworth in the Susan George role lacks a lot. Susan George made Sam Peckinpah's movie in many ways. And, of course, there was that rape scene. Susan George's Amy kicked and fought back - unlike Bosworth who gives in too easily and protests not.
And when the bad boy (Alexander Skarsgard) is done he sits down to watch his mate have a go. Yet the bored look on his face says it all - 'what am I doing in this?'
By the time we get to the toned down violent ending I had lost interest enough that I hoped that the bad guys would win.
Though, one character did bring something new to the movie. James Woods was brilliant as the loud mouthed bullying Coach. Almost on a par with Peter Vaughan's manic role.

To my way of thinking re-makes should bring something new to the story. 'True Grit' does that. So, too, did '3:10 To Yuma' though I didn't like the ending. At least, there were new ways of looking at the story and characters.
'Straw Dogs' was based on the Gordon Williams novel 'The Siege Of Trencher's Farm'. The original is a 'western' set in the English countryside. Gordon Williams distanced himself from the Sam Peckinpah movie and had his names removed from the credits. Yet his original male lead was far more animated than either Hoffman's or Marsden's portrayal.

I guess that there are times when originals should be left alone.

Thursday 22 March 2012

XBOX 360 - The Future?

Well, I've cancelled my membership to Xbox Live.
I enjoyed the journey with the ability to play with others online.
Then an article in the Xbox 360 Official Magazine made me sit back and think.
Really it was a debate on whether or not an Xbox 720 (which, no doubt, will be unveiled at this years E3) was necessary.
Well, the arguement against was that the writer didn't engage my attention by telling me that he wasn't embedded in the stone age. While the guy who was in favour of the new console said that he liked shiny new things and was thinking about buying a new fridge as the one that he had was over eight years old. Sad to say I never found out if he did or not. Nor did he get around to defining why he was in favour of the Xbox 720.

Anyone who has an Xbox 360 can guess at the future. It is no longer just a games console. There is access to music channels, Facebook, Twitter and You Tube. Sky TV, Netflix and Love Film are there for the asking. And you can play DVDs on them.

The new Kinect system allows you to play hands free games and, with voice control, demand Bing to find you stuff.

Lurking in the background is something new.
First there was 'Arcade' games and then some 'golden oldies' that could be bought and downloaded. Nowadays up to date games can be downloaded straight to the hard drive.

Therein lies part of the future and the arguement for an Xbox 720 with a larger memory makes sense. With a greater memory new games will be downloadable - watch out for those small words in brackets (there is no refund). In other words games companies will have greater control over their games. No more trade ins to stores like Game, CEX or Gamestation. So, when a game like 'Dead Island' turns up full of glitches you won't be able to take it back to the store and get your money back.

Now I don't blame games companies for taking control of their products. Wish authors could do the same. Like books, cds, dvds etc when a game is bought second hand Electronic Arts, Bethesda, Activision and their like see nothing of that money.

So there is a plus side to the creation of an Xbox 720 that has nothing to do with fridges.

My real bother with both this and the current Xbox 360 is something a little deeper.
Games come with Downloadable Content - DLC - and these cost. Some games have a 'Pass' like a loyalty card that allows you to download for free. If you buy the game second hand you can either buy the DLC or a season pass. Cheaper if you buy the game brand new as, originally, the pass came with it. Not all DLC, these days, are cheap - roughly ten pound a pack. Ergo, ten packs can set the gamer back anything up to £90 or £100 a game. So after an initial outlay of say £40 for the game add on the extras and - that's a tad expensive.
This would vary depending on the game and price of DLC. But the above is for a game called 'Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3'. However, this expenditure can be avoided by subscribing to the Elite edition of the game. So for £34.99 you get the DLC for free - well, not entirely free. This subscription is annual and, although I can't find anything definitive, is supposed to cover all DLC for subsequent Call Of Duty games.

Another downside is that pressure is put on gamers to download content. THQ who produce the wrestling game 'WWE 12' (which has an atrocious download system) prevents people from playing online unless they have downloaded content. Electronic Arts insist that you sign up to them before you can go online with any of their games.
With 'Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit' they bought out a new download online game that was incompatible with the existing one.
Downloads cost money.
I can forsee a time when every game purchased will carry a subscription charge on the same basis as the current 'Call For Duty'.
The fee to go on to Xbox Live currently stands at £34.99 per annum. If you add in the subscription fee for 'Call Of Duty' then the annual bill, so far, stands at close enough to £70. Add in other downloads and you are taking the annual expenditure into the hundreds.
Faced with a choice of a subscription to 'Call Of Duty' or another game - my choice would be a game or something else like a cd, a book or a video.

Personally, I think that the gaming industry is walking a very thin line. We shall see.

Right now, I favour the Xbox 360. I am returning it to what I bought originally - a games console.

What really needs to be done is for developers to produce bug free games. I can wait a bit longer - all it needs is the same care that was taken with the original games for the PS1 and 2. Not wrong with competition - just so long as it is healthy and bug free.

Tuesday 20 March 2012


This album was released at the end of 1967 - but I, along with others, would hear the whole thing live at the Orpington Folk Club before that release date.
This wasn't just a collection of songs but well crafted short stories that could well have been a soundtrack for Colin Wilson's 'Adrift In Soho'.
'Bedsitter Images' may sound depressing yet the storyteller is living a lie. He's gone to London expecting one thing and has found that dreams just do not come true. At the same time he is fooling his friends and himself that things are alright.
'Swiss Cottage Manouvres' takes the listener into the world of the second hand bookshops and chance encounters. 'Pretty Golden Hair' has another tragic tale to tell of a young man who suffers the consequences of his hair.
Yet that is the substance of this album refelections of life as it was at the time the songs were written.
But it is also about the London that I loved. Charing Cross Road and the characters that haunted Old Compton Road and the streets of Soho and Chinatown. Shabby and romantic - but listening to this album it is really a time that was.
During the interval I was fortunate to be able to talk to Al Stewart about the songs and as can be concluded many of them were drawn from life.
We were served by a pretty blonde girl, it was the only time that I had seen her there. A year later I met her again - almost to the day - she became my wife.
So 'Bedsitter Images' has another meaning for me.

'Bedsitter Images' was re-released in 1970 as 'The First Album' with two tracks deleted and replaced by 'Lover Man' and 'Clifton In The Rain'.
I still think that the original was the best.

Monday 5 March 2012

HELL ON HOOFS by Lance Howard

Hell On Hoofs is the way that the dime novels have dubbed gun for hire John Laramie.
Laramie is a troubled soul who is looking to retire from his way of life and believes that the town of Lancerville might be just the place to lose himself. But Lancerville is a town that is living in fear and the reason why is soon explained to him by a bargal, Bethany Lewis. All this after she has drugged him and tied him to her bed.
It appears that the problem is her half-brother, Drake, who is the problem and all Bethany wants is for Laramie to kill him.
Laramie is a reluctant hero who is battling his own inner demons. So, too, is his antagonist.
However, this is a Lance Howard book and nothing therein is that simple. The characters have depth to them and the reader is in no doubt about their strengths and weaknesses. This in turn takes the storyline to an unexpected conclusion.

Sadly, Lance Howard, died earlier this year at the age of 50.
Reading this book reminded me of the talent that has been lost.
After my stroke the second book that I read was by Lance Howard. When I joined the Black Horse Western group, he was the first to greet me. For me it was a magic moment. Howard, along with the group, encouraged me to write again. I am not alone when I say that he will be missed.

It may be a prophetic title but May sees the publication of a new Black Horse Western by Lance Howard called 'Twilight Trail'.

Sunday 4 March 2012


Bandidas directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning.

Luc Besson is best know for movies like 'Leon' and 'Colombiana' so it was interesting to discover this overlooked western movie.

The pairing of Salma Hayak as the spoilt rich Sara with Penelope Cruz's poor farmer's daughter Maria was a piece of good casting.

The story centres around the New York Bank and Trust buying up land to invest in a railroad. Their representative is a cold-blooded killer, Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam) who has a way with words. When a farmer says that the only way Jackson will get his hands on the land was over the farmer's dead body - Jackson obliges.
Control of the local bank passes to the New York Bank after Jackson kills Sara's father and triggers the union of the banker's and the farmer's daughters.
They engage the services of former bank robber Billy Buck (Sam Shepherd) to teach them how to go about getting revenge on Jackson and the Bank. What they learn is how to bond - then how to rob banks.
It is not long before it comes clear that Tyler Jackson and his gang are looking to line their own pockets and leads to a showdown on a train.
But not before they meet up with New York policeman, Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), who brings in something that I cannot recall in a western - forensic science. It is the use of this that Cooke is able to reveal that Sara's father was murdered. He is then seduced by Sara and Maria into helping them.

This film has a good script with enough action, pace and with lacings of comedy that makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes.