Dominion is beautiful like the inner workings of a pocket watch. The teeth of its precisely-engineered gears mesh together to create something intricate but perfectly comprehensible if you’re willing to study it close enough. I totally get why some people find it a bit cold and sterile but for me that’s part of its charm. It’s incredibly clever and it makes me feel clever when I play it well.

Galaxy Trucker is beautiful like a fireworks display in a poster-paint factory. It’s chaotic and confusing and largely out of your control. It’s three-parts bonkers and you feel stupid for being caught in the middle of it.

In Galaxy Trucker you are a trucker. In the galaxy. It’s your job to build yourself a galaxy truck then truck across the galaxy as part of a convoy of other galaxy trucks piloted by other galaxy truckers. During the course of your truck you’re likely to come across planets where you can pick up cargo to sell once you’ve reached the other side of the galaxy. You’re more likely to come across terrible things that will do terrible things to your galaxy truck, such as destroying the cargo holds you just filled with cargo. Once you’re done trucking you sell whatever you might happen to still have on board, score points depending on how quickly you made the trek across the stars (no, that’s something else – Ed.) and pay a fine for whatever bits of your truck have been left scattered across the spacelanes of the galaxy. You then repeat this for two more trucks across the galaxy, each time facing more and more risk with bigger and bigger trucks for greater and greater potential reward. Whoever’s got the most cash after you’ve trucked across the galaxy three times is the best galaxy trucker.

By the by, I really like the name “Galaxy Trucker”.

Here’s the thing with Galaxy Trucker, and one of the big reasons it won’t work for everyone – it’s a machine that’s been deliberately built to produce screwups. Every piece you add to your ship has to connect to the central cabin and can’t be rotated or moved once they’re placed so the amount of advance planning you’re able to do is basically zero, so you’ll make decisions in the moment that will become stupid almost immediately. There aren’t enough spaces on your ship for it to have all the capabilities it will need to reliably complete its journey, so you’re forced to make stupid compromises all the way through the building process, and if that’s not enough you’re competing with everyone at the table to find and grab the most useful components and being forced to do it under time pressure. That’s ridiculous. You’re going to make stupid mistakes. It’s practically inevitable. You’re going to have double-lasers and double-engines and forget to add any batteries to power the bloody things. You’re going to get the connectors wrong and be forced to remove a vital piece that results in the half of the ship that’s got all the shields being left on the launch pad. You’re going to have an entire wing of the ship that’s only attached to the rest by a single vulnerable bit that appears to have been constructed out of bloody asteroid-magnets. You have to go with it. You have to accept from the off that you’re not going to be able to create a perfectly-optimised machine and learn to love the misshapen evidence of your incompetence that’s squatting in front of you. It’s not a coincidence that both the expansions for the game seem to have been made with the express purpose of making it even more complicated and even more difficult and even easier for you to hug the space-pooch. If you’re a bit of a neat-freak Galaxy Trucker will eat you alive.

Of course, once you start off on your truck across the galaxy even your least-awfully-laid schemes will gang aft agley. You can build the best ship that circumstances will allow. You can even look down the road to see most of what trouble might be coming (if you’re willing to spend time during the building phase looking at the encounter cards – time that might otherwise be spent finding the last shield tile before some other hugger nicks it). But at the end of the day you can and will still be lifted up to glory or cast down to humiliating failure by the stark vicissitudes of fate. Again, I totally get why this sticks in the craw of some people. To me though, the truth of it is in the bit of the Galaxy Trucker rulebook that says that any player who makes it to the end is the winner, it’s just that the person who made the most money is slightly more the winner than anyone else.

Galaxy Trucker is all over the place. It’s tense. It’s brutally unfair at times.  It’s a game about making decisions based on the imperfect information you had at the time, then learning to live with the inevitable consequences.

It might be the most perfect metaphor for the human condition in all of boardgaming.

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Good God. Join me as we plough into uncharted waters – the third installment of a series of themed posts.

There are a bunch of games in this list that make me laugh. There are games with evocatative themes that fire the imagination. There are some games with gorgeous art and wonderful components that are just beautiful things in and of themselves.

Dominion cares not for these things.

Dominion’s pretty po-faced. Nominally you’re a noble trying to expand your fief faster than your neighbours can expand theirs but in practical terms it’s basically got no theme at all. It’s just a bunch of cards and tokens whose illustrations swing wildly between really rather nice and eye-shatteringly hideous. It’s probably one of my five favourite games that I own.

Part of the reason I think so highly of Dominion is that the game is sheer elegance in its diabolic simplicity. Each player starts the game with a deck of seven “Copper” cards, which are used for nothing other than buying new cards, and three “Estates” which give a single victory point apiece. Each turn you’re allowed to play any one action card that you’ve bought from a selection of ten that are available. You can then buy one card with a combination of whatever money the action card might have given you plus any money cards in your hand. That done, you take any cards you’ve bought, plus any cards you’ve played and any cards left in your hand and discard them, drawing five new cards from the deck. If you don’t have enough cards left in your deck to draw five, you draw what you can then reshuffle your discards to form a new deck. This continues until all the availalble 6-victory-point Province cards have been bought or else any three supply piles of cards are empty, at which point the game ends and whoever’s got the most victory points in their deck wins. That’s it. You now know everything you need to sit down and play Dominion. That’s the whole game.

Well OK, it’s kind of the game. The proverbial’s in the details and so forth.

The action cards that I breezed over are kind of where the game lives. Each game starts by laying out ten piles of ten identical cards from a possible selection of anywhere between thirty different piles (if you’ve only got the Dominion base set) and about 150 different piles (if you’ve bought all the expansions and are thus forced to store Dominion in something roughly the size of a coffin). So there are roughly SEVEN SQUILLION possible combinations of 10 supply card piles that could be available at the start of a game, meaning that to all intents and purposes you never need to play the same game of Dominion twice. Assessing the available cards and working out how best to synergise your deck is the bulk of Dominion’s challenge. Are you going to grab Villages (which let you play extra action cards) and Smithies (which draw more cards into you hand) to construct something that will eventually let you draw your entire deck every turn but will take a while to get running? Are you going to buy attack cards which screw with your opponent’s hand or insert unwanted cards into his deck? Are you going to get trashers to clear the dreck out of your deck and leave it purring like a rectangular cardstock Ferrari? Are you going to nick that great combo that one of your opponents has just played? Assessing the available cards, sussing out a strategy and then working out on the fly how it needs to change in reaction to what the rest of the table is up to is just such a satisfying intellectual challenge that I’m yet to tire of it despite umpty-thrumpty kajillion online games.

But there’s more! To win the game you need victory points. To get victory points, you (mostly) need to buy victory cards. But those victory cards don’t (usually) do anything for you. They’re just ballast, clogging your hand and weighing down your deck. So you have to perfectly judge the right moment to stop improving your deck with more money and/or actions and start getting the points you actually need to win. Go too soon and the victory cards will gum up the works of the sleek, beautiful economic engine you’ve built until the whole deck grinds to a shuddering halt and the tortoises around the rest of the table come trudging past your exhausted hare. Go too late and the game might be over before you can make your deck’s superior efficiency count. It’s such a brilliant bit of design and it turns Dominion from being a game where you’re purely concerned with optimising your own play into one where you have to be watching exactly what your opponents are up to so that you’re ready to react if and when the endgame starts unexpectedly.

Dominion is one of the few games that I love on an almost purely cerebral level. It’s more austere and detached than most games that really speak to me, but it’s so elegant and smart that that’s a feature not a bug. I don’t get it to the table as much as I’d like because though Dominion can play up to 6 every player past the third kind of detracts from the game, plus at least one of my regular group really doesn’t care for it. But Dominion is in the very small group of games that I would literally play at any time with anyone, and just writing this post has given me a hankering to fire up the iPad for a quick chukka or two.

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Catacombs is the natural result of crossing Heroquest with Shove Ha’penny. You are adventurers who are BOLDLY GOING where every fantasy game in history has GONE BEFORE: ie, down a DUNGEON. Which may or may not contain DRAGONS. But which definitely contains QUITE UNNECESSARILY UGLY ART. There you will meet MONSTERS. Who you will attempt to SLAY. By means of MIGHTY DEEDS. By which I mean: flicking a little wooden disk across a board.

Let me get this out of the way right now so that there can be no doubt: Catacombs. Is. Amazing. I can mock because I love. It is amazing because it is so simple. Your adventurer is a little coloured wooden disk. Each turn you flick him (or just barely her) at these other coloured wooden disks. Which are monsters. If you hit a monster, you hurt it. If you hurt a weak monster, you kill it. If you hurt a stronger monster, you flip its disk over and the next time someone hurts that monster they kill it. Once all the players controlling adventurers have had their go, the player controlling the monsters gets to flick them at your party. Each time you get hit, you take a wound. Take enough wounds, you die. THAT’S ALL. That’s all you really need to know to get started playing Catacombs. The rest is just fluff. Each player and some monsters get special abilities like being able to fire arrows (read, flick small wooden disks) or cast a fireball spell (read, flick a big wooden disk). Killing monsters gives you gold which you can spend on cool equipment and/or spells once you reach the shop which is situated in the middle of a dungeon because of course it is. Some other stuff. NOT IMPORTANT!

Catacombs is amazing because as soon as you’ve spent the 90 seconds it takes to grasp the rules you turn into the love-child of Erwin Rommel and Stephen Hendry. The act of flicking your piece feels so natural and instinctive that tactics immediately start suggesting themselves to almost literally anyone, ever. Can you hit that goblin and ricochet off to hide your adventurer behind a column, safe from retaliation? Can you kill both of those skellingtons with one flick? Can you nudge that troll out from behind cover and set him up so that your mate the barbarian can finish him off on his go? I don’t know! But you’ll definitely try. And when it works you will feel like the BOSS of the hugging WORLD.

So. It’s accessible. It’s sneakily deep. It’s tense. But those are not the real reasons Catacombs is amazing. Catacombs is amazing because it is funny. Oh my god is Catacombs funny.

In about the third room of our first game, my two oldest sons get into THE MOST impassioned and detailed tactical discussion in the history of human conflict vis a vis: which of them is going to take the next shot and exactly what they are going to attack. Without a word of exaggeration this goes on for literally fifteen minutes, each passing moment seeing the argument getting more and more nuanced and more and more heated. Finally, an uneasy detente is reached. The wizard leans over the table and lines up his attack with painstaking care. After a long, long moment he draws back his finger and… flicks. His piece prompltly flies down the board at roughly twice the speed of sound, sails clean over the assembled slavering undead horde without so much as brushing a single enemy token, shoots across the room and vanishes under the sofa. The game is then held up for five minutes while everyone present collapses in fits of hysterical laughter. And is then held up a further five minutes as we try to coax the wizard’s disk to emerge from its sub-upholstery lair.

(Half an hour later another ludicrously extended frank and thorough exchange of views ended with my other son lining up for a shot at a distant enemy, then somehow managing to almost completely miss his barbarian piece with his finger, the disk shifting like half an inch. Well played, Catacombs. Well played.)

I am a dude who loves a dungeon-crawl. When I was a young teenager I conducted whole campaigns of Advanced Heroquest on my own on my bedroom floor. I’m currently playing a grumpy barbarian-thief with an upper-class English accent in a Pathfinder game on the BGG forums. I own seventy squillion pounds of Descent stuff. Measured both in value and in weight. Is Catacombs my favourite flavour of dungeon crawl? If I’m in the right frame of mind, it might be. It’s all very well moving your little dude four squares and rolling the right number on a die to kill the giant. But being able to reach across that table with everyone’s eyes on you and make the shot the party’s depending on you to make – that’s proper heroism. It’s a particularly stupid sort of heroism, but it’s heroism all the same.

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New year! New focus! New series of posts that I might even get to the end of this time!

I’ve probably spent less time playing computer games this year than I have any year since getting a 32K BBC B Microcomputer at age 10 (still the best Christmas present ever. Thanks mum and dad!). What’s filled the gap? Well, to a certain degree it’s been, y’know, this but it’s also been boardgames. Due in no small part to the impending arrival of aforementioned dangerously adorable time-consuming inconvenience, preparing for a proper RPG session has been incredibly difficult this year and so most of our more-or-less regular Monday night get-togethers have been spent messing about with lovely, lovely, no-prior-legwork-required boardgames. I’ve also taken considerable joy in inflicting the odd game or three on any family members who’ve been foolish enough to sit still for long enough for me to lunge at the bookshelf. And so! Why not splurge some words about my 13 favourite boardgames that I played in 2013?

No reason why not, that’s why not. And so: hurrah! Let us celebrate this new endeavour by immediately disregarding the rules and jamming two games into one slot!

Mascarade and Coup are both small, quick, light card games where each card depicts a role with grants its owner the chance to take a different action each round. The role you hold is determined by a card or cards that are dealt face-down in front of you, however you can take any action from any card so long as nobody challenges your claim. Unsuccessful challenges bestow a penalty on the challenger so you can’t call people’s bluffs with complete impunity. I’m grouping them together here because it’s fascinating to me that despite the fundamental similarity of their premises these games feel nothing like each other in play.

Coup is a game of calculation and bare-faced lying. It’s quite intense and very cutthroat, with negotiation and politicking playing a fairly major role – deals in the style of “target your assassin somewhere else and I won’t coup you next turn” are reasonably common. There are only five roles, three copies of each role in the deck and you know what the two cards in front of you are, so you actually have a decent amount of information about what’s in play, particularly as the game goes on and more and more cards are turned face-up. This happens if someone pays to have one of your cards killed, or else if you’re caught in a bluff or unsuccessfully challenge someone else’s role claim. Once one of your cards is face up, you can no longer claim its ability (unless you can convince people that your other card is a second copy of the same role, of course!) and if you have to turn over both your cards you’re out of the game so every decision to bluff or call is tense and weighty. It’s not enough to believe that someone’s lying, you have to weigh up how much you want to block the specific action they’re currently taking because if you call and are wrong it’ll see you halfway out the door.

Mascarade is a different animal. You’ve only got a single role card in front of you and there’s only one copy of each role in the game. Since anyone can use their turn to swap (or pretend to swap) cards with you and because you’re only allowed to look at your role if take your entire turn to do so you’re very rarely totally sure which role you’re currently holding. To balance that, if someone claims a role it’s not enough to know they’re lying (which they like-as-not are, they just might not know it). To challenge in Mascerade you have to counter-claim the same role. This leads to hilarious situations like three people claiming to be the King only to discover when they flip their cards over that none of them are. However since the penalty for unsuccessfully bluffing or challenging is much lower than in Coup, Mascerade is a somewhat loosey-goosey game with bluffs called frequently.

Coup is an icy game. There’s humour in it, but it’s black and vicious – the amusement of watching someone punished for their hubris. You win the game only by knocking everyone else out so you can’t get ahead except over the broken bodies of your rivals. The rulebook explicitly states that there’s no second place in Coup, there’s only one winner and a bunch of losers. By contrast, Mascarade is warm and jovial. There’s almost a feeling of everyone being in it together, because almost everyone has equally little idea what the hug is going on at any given time. There’s no player elimination and the win condition is accumulating 13 coins, so while you sometimes drag someone else down to lift yourself up it’s not actually necessary and it’s perfectly possible to win by just quietly taking coins from the bank until you hit the magic number. Coup’s defining moment is when you claim a third different role for your one face-down card and someone finally calls you, only for you to smirk thinly as you reveal that this was the time you were actually telling the truth. Mascarade’s defining moment the expression that crosses a player’s face after they’ve taken someone’s card to swap under the table and realised that they’ve forgotten which hand had which card in it and so are now at least as confused as their “victim”, to the general amusement of the table. Coup is a game for B’stards. Mascerade is a game for people who don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re both fantastic, although it’s entirely possible that your group/friends/family/random passers-by might take to one but not the other.

I love bluffing games. I am terrible at bluffing games. These will not be the last bluffing games on this list.

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OK. Let’s see if I can remember how this works.

Pacific Rim had me at “Guillermo Del Toro giant monster movie”, because that’s a dude who knows how to make big-screen beasties work. Like Prometheus I went in pretty sure the film would be wonderful to look at no matter what its other flaws might be.

I think the comparison to Prometheus is kind of telling, and not just because it’s another sci-fi monster film by a one of the best world-builders in the business that features the always-watchable Idris Elba in a position of authority. Prometheus was a film that I appreciated on an aesthetic level but couldn’t connect with because it was filled with so many stupid characters doing so many stupid things in service of such a stupid plot. During Pacific Rim my reaction was more “Hmmm, I sort of think this would work better if they’d either turn the melodrama down a notch or up a notch HOLY HUG THIS IS AMAZING WHAT IS THAT I CAN’T EVEN!!!”

The last time a movie action sequence hit me like this was when Qui-Gon O’Jin The Oirish Jedi and Poor Old Ewan McGregor first drew their lightsabres in The Phantom Mess. And that was a moment that had the weight of fifteen years of nerd anticipation behind it. By contrast, I’m not a kaiju movie guy. I’ve got no particular nostalgia or affection for the bloke-in-a-rubber-Godzilla-suit genre of films that inspired Pacific Rim. More than that, I’m someone who, for example, loves the Iron Man movies when Tony’s quippity-quip-quipping at people but quickly tunes out as soon as they turn into guys in CGI robot suits clobbering each other. And yet every time Pacific Rim deployed a robot suit to smack the heck out of a three hundred foot tall monster my mouth was literally hanging open.

I wish there had been a chance to get to know certain characters better so that their fate had more emotional punch. I wish the dialogue had been a bit snappier. I wish there’d been more than one and a quarter female characters. I wish I’d loved it rather than just really liking it. But in general I wasn’t bored when the mechs weren’t on screen and was COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY when they were which is, you know. Not too shabby for an Orange Wednesday.

Hello again everyone, did you miss me?

RANK: B

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Because I a) own a Sky dish and b) apparently hate myself, I have seen every film in The Fast And The Furious Quintology (“The Fast And The Furious“, “The Faster And The More Furious“, “The Fastest And The Furiousest” and “The Ludicrously Fast And The Positively LIVID“). I even quite enjoyed one and a half of them. So I’m not speaking from a place of ignorance or sneering middlebrow dismissiveness when I tell you that Fast 5 might be the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.

And, you know. I’ve seen The Happening.

This is a film where the opening scene sees its protagonists deliberately forcing a fully occupied prison bus into a high-speed crash, causing the bus to roll at least half-a-dozen times. It then shows us a news broadcast from the scene where a reporter tells us with a straight face that “miraculously, there were no fatalities.” Somehow this doesn’t even crack the top three most ridiculous things that happens over the next two hours. If you count the casting of the two leads  it might not even make the top five.

Fast 5 stars Vin Diesel as an ambulatory side of beef. Even twelve years ago you’d have charitably described the Vinster as someone whose physicality did most of his acting for him, like mid-period Sly Stallone or any-period Arnie. At this point, Diesel seems to have lost the ability to emote altogether. Now, Diesel might be a dead-eyed mumbling shambles but at least he’s got a modicum of screen presence. This is more than can be said for co-star Paul Walker, a man so utterly lacking in charisma that I kept forgetting his character’s name despite having already seen three films centred on the same character. McSomething? O’Something? And then there’s The Artist Formerly Known As The Rock And Also Pretty Much Currently Known As The Rock, who spends the entire film being gruff, striding purposefully and dripping with a frankly distracting amount of sweat. Seriously, it looks like they were actually hosing the man down with water between takes.

These powerhouse thespians lead us through what’s less a plot and more like a series of things that apparently happen. Halfway through the film it suddenly decides it’s going to be an ensemble heist movie and uses the opportunity to reintroduce such beloved characters as That Guy Who I Think Was In The First One Oh Actually Maybe The Second, One Of The Baddies In Blade 3 Wait Was He In Fast And Furious As Well? and, of course, I’ve No Idea Who That Bloke Is. There’s no easier mark for a good cinematic caper than me (and I’ve got the Gone In 60 Seconds and (bad version of) The Italian Job DVDs to prove it), which is why it’s such a disappointment that Fast 5 makes such a hash of it. When you assemble a team of people who are The Best At What They Do you’re supposed to give us a chance to see each of them Doing the thing that they are Best At! If you don’t, all you’ve done is give yourself a much-too-big supporting cast of borderline-indistinguishable characters who’re now just clogging up screen time that would be better served going to your leads… Oh. Actually, scratch that. Point being, where’s your respect for genre conventions? Further point being where are the montages? I NEED MY MONTAGE.

You know what, though? I didn’t hate it. Fast 5 has the same go-for-broke, throw-everything-at-the-screen attitude as Doomsday. It’s nothing like as good as Neil Marshall’s underappreciated b-movie gem, but in an era when most action movies are nasty, boring or both there’s something to be said for Fast 5′s cheerful live-action cartoon excess. It’s a complete mess but hey, at least it’s an inventive mess. And it might be the film best suited getting some mates together and MST3K-ing the hell out of it since that wildly hilarious ode to Steven Seagal’s towering hubris, On Deadly Ground.

RANK: C

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Here’s Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team being, on balance, pretty cool after having made a gay joke in a public forum:

Even if I don’t care about you, it doesn’t mean I’m OK with making you uncomfortable or upset with a comment that references anything  that is out of your control. That is not the person I want to be. I’m happy to pick on you if you root for the wrong team. I’m happy to pick on you if you like doing The Wave. I’m happy to pick on you for a lot of reasons. Your sexuality should never be one of those reasons.

OK, so Cuban wasn’t cool enough to avoid saying something a bit stupid and hurtful in the first place, but he’s at least sufficiently cool that he’s offered a fairly straight mea culpa. Usually, a celebrity who’s made a fool of themselves in public will respond via an infuriating non-apology apology like “I’m Sorry If You Were Offended”, or worse still “I’m Not Homophobic So Obviously I Didn’t Mean It That Way And Anyone Who’s Hurt Or Offended By What I Said Is Oversensitive Or Just Looking For Trouble. Anyway Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay”.

That second sentiment is a nasty little bear-trap I’m uncomfortably familiar with. As a relatively well-off straight white bloke I’ve gotten used to the world revolving around me. The fact that society is largely set up to help me get ahead and so much of our media is aimed straight at me has unfortunately but naturally led to a childish sense of entitlement. I’m so used to everything conforming itself to suit my perspective – films with white male leads and little or no female presence of any note, games that treat women and minorities as set-dressing – that on those occasions I’m called out on my boy-cow-leavings it’s a shock to the system and my natural reaction is to start spluttering like a bulldog chewing a nettle. It’s hard to hear that you’ve been thoughtless and the immediate knee-jerk response is denial and defensiveness. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. All we can do is try to guard against them, to listen when it’s pointed out how we’ve screwed up, to learn from that and to honestly try and make amends. When someone as prominent as Mark Cuban seemingly gets this, it genuinely brightens up my whole entire day.

But this is veering dangerously close to “Aren’t Affluent White Guys Who Are Aware Of Their Privilege The Real Heroes?”, and isn’t the real reason that Cuban’s post interested me. Here’s what I actually wanted to talk about:

I’m the last to be politically correct and the last thing I am trying to be here is politically correct. I honestly don’t give a [STUFF] what you think about me. But I think being the person I want to be includes not blurting out throw away jokes about sexuality, race, ethnicity, size,  disability or other things people  have no say in about themselves.

Now.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that anybody who uses “politically correct” as a pejorative is someone whose opinion I’m happy to ignore. The majority of people who declare their contempt for political correctness are actually saying that they like using the n-word (and the b-word, and the three-letter f-word) more than they care that they’re making life a little bit more unpleasant for people who already have a pretty bad time of it. Worse than that, actually – they’re taking the act of being a lazy, selfish boor and trying to present it as heroic defiance of censorship and orthodoxy. They’re cravenly recasting themselves as the oppressed rather than the oppressors, seemingly unaware that there’s nothing noble about being a bully.

To make it clear – being a blinkered feckless bottom-hole isn’t a crime. And despite some people’s deeply-cherished persecution complex, nobody’s trying to make it one. Nobody’s censoring anybody. Nobody’s saying that you can’t throw those ugly, hateful words around as much as you like. Some people are just saying that on balance most of the time you possibly shouldn’t. That you should be careful how you express yourself. That the casual use of gendered, homophobic or racist epithets contributes in at least some degree to a society that makes life unfairly difficult to anyone whose face doesn’t fit the straight white male “norm”.

(Here you go, try this (language really really NSFW). And yes, I know that’s probably not the actual origin of the f-word. Way to miss the point, Obtuse Rhetorical Device Reader!)

Wow. OK. Believe it or not, that isn’t really what I wanted to talk about either. So here’s the thing that struck me about that quote by Mark Cuban:  he tries not to “[blurt] out throw away jokes about sexuality, race, ethnicity, size,  disability or other things people  have no say in about themselves.” But he doesn’t regard himself as PC, and though he totally doesn’t care what you think of him he wants to you to be absolutely, completely clear  that you really, really shouldn’t think that he’s politically correct. The thing is, as I’ve now rattled on about at tedious length,  in as much as ”political correctness” means anything it means knowing better than to blurt out jokes and jibes about things people have no say in about themselves. That’s more or less ALL it means.

If the majority of people who denigrate political correctness do so to make themselves feel better about callous disregard for their fellow human beings, the minority denigrate the term so that it won’t be applied to them. Which is understandable, but still somewhat sad. For decades now a certain section of the media has been on a weird crusade to paint political correctness (and, not coincidentally, feminism) as sinister leftie killjoy groupthink. There have been dark hints about an armies of faceless bureaucrats making rules about what people can and can’t say, do-gooding Men In Grey who have banned Christmas and stopped children singing Baa Baa Black Sheep and stopped the BBC using the BC/AD suffixes when they talk about dates. The fact that all these stories range somewhere between gross distortion of the truth and bare-faced lies matters not even slightly – no smoke without fire, am I right? People who find the idea of moderating one’s language to prevent offence unacceptable are quick to throw out the idea of PC being an Orwellian conspiracy to control thought through controlling language. Somehow they manage to hold this opinion while simultaneously giving no credence to the idea that their choice to use inflammatory and denigrating words might be helping to shape attitudes and perpetuate inequality and prejudice.

“Political correctness” is to be honest a pretty terrible name, imprecise and vaguely sinister-sounding even before the Daily Mail and its ilk made the term so loaded and toxic that even people who practice it are desperate not to be labelled as such. The thing is, being aware of your privilege and not using it to pile on to the less well-off isn’t and shouldn’t be a left verses right thing. It’s a consideration verses cruelty thing. It’s a respect verses contempt thing. It’s a part of the solution rather than part of the problem thing.

So if “political correctness” is irredeemable let’s find a new, more descriptive, more inclusive label that everyone can get behind without recourse to equivocation and self-flagellation. My suggestion? “Basic human decency”. Who’s with me? If nothing else, it would at least bring the subtext to the surface:

“He’s lewd, rude, and definitely lacking basic human decency!”

“Basic human decency is killing free speech!”

“It’s basic human decency gone mad!”

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ACE COMBAT: ASSAULT HORIZON (XBOX 360)

Let’s get this out the way first. “The strongest Ace Combat in a decade” says the end of Eurogamer’s review.

No it isn’t.

“It’s Call of Duty in the air” says the start of Eurogamer’s review.

Yes it is. However, I’m not as keen on this development as that reviewer seems to be.

Since the very start of the series Call Of Duty’s single player campaign has been a shooting gallery, a theme park ride from Man’s-Inhumanity-To-Man World (The Shootiest Place On Earth!). It rolls you through a series of action set-pieces featuring explosions and carnage dialled up to eleven. It never makes much of an effort to disguise the fact that you’re on a predetermined path, that everyone playing the game is going to have pretty much exactly the same experience as you. That approach gives the game’s designers a great deal of control over the pacing and staging of the action. This allows the construction of awesome experiences like Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s sniper missions which start with the unbearable tension of slithering through long grass as a company of enemy troops marches past and over you, and end with you fighting off seemingly endless waves of enemies in a post-Chernobyl radioactive ghost-town fairground. Another example would be the Death From Above level from the same game, which made you the gunner in an AC-130 gunship but used a combination of abstracting “night-vision” visuals and minimalist sound design to make you feel distanced and removed from the action, turning a completely familiar rail shooter setup into something eerie and weirdly affecting.

The tradeoff for having that tight control over the experience is obviously that the player’s freedom is greatly curtailed. If you’re building a game around these pre-fab cinematic moments you need to make sure that the player’s in the right place to see them. It means that you’re telling a story rather than allowing the player to make his own. None of this is inherently bad. Some of my best friends are linear action titles. Not every game is served by being a sprawling, freeform open-world affair.

Ace Combat is served by being a sprawling, freeform open-world affair. After all, what’s appealing about flying a jet fighter? Isn’t it speed? Isn’t it the power that that speed grants you? Isn’t it the ability to go where you choose and rain down with great vengeance and furious anger those stuck plodding impotently through the mud below? Isn’t it going up-diddly-up-up and down-diddly-own-own? Isn’t it looping the loop and defying the ground?

The prior entry in the series, Ace Combat 6: Fires Of Liberation might be my favourite game on the 360 (Non-Plastic Guitar Division). And a major reason for that is that it understood that need, the need for speed. It provided big, sprawling maps so you had the space needed to thunder across the landscape and it provided big, sprawling missions so you had plenty of targets to swoop on like a supersonic metal seagull of DEATH. A side benefit of the large playing area was that you got room to breathe – Ace Combat 6 was hectic and action-packed, but it also gave you time to make decisions, whether they were based on tactical considerations or sheer capricious whim. It made you feel like a king of the battlefield.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does not make you feel like a king of the battlefield. It makes you feel like a put-upon underling being ordered from one task to the next. And that task always seems to be ”Go And Have A Knife-Fight In A Matchbox”.

In other words, it’s Call Of Duty in the air.

Project Aces have clearly decided that the best bit of Ace Combat is dogfighting at close range so wouldn’t the game be better if you did more of that? Like, a LOT more of that? Like, making that pretty much all you ever do? The game’s been built around a new mechanic where getting close to an enemy allows you to press both triggers to kick in Dogfighting Mode. In DFM you give up control of your plane which just automatically follows your target (often along a pre-determined PATH OF AWESOMENESS, twisting and turning amoung skyscrapers or around oil-rig booms or whatever is needed for the requisite Call Of Duty set-piece spectacle). You just concentrate on keeping a crosshair locked on the enemy plane ahead, firing your cannon and launching heat-seeking missiles until it ceases to be a problem in the most pyrotechnic way possible, often spraying your canopy with spots of oil as you zoom through the explosion. It’s pretty fun, the first half-dozen times you do it. By the twentieth or thirtieth nigh-identical repetition of the process the thrill’s worn pretty thin.

What makes it even more annoying is that the designers have gone all-in on Dogfighting Mode, sacrificing pretty much every other aspect of the game to it. Missiles now require you to be behind the target to even have a chance of hitting, obviously making them much less effective. Long-range and multi-target missiles are still present but are almost worthless. I complained about the small maps and linear missions in HAWX but AC: Assault Horizon makes HAWX look like Operation fricking Flashpoint. A group of enemy fighters spawns out of thin air practically on top of you in the middle of the cramped battlefield, the game waits until you’ve shot all of them down (including the enemy’s flight leader, who you’re explicitly told is practically impossible to destroy in any way other than via DFM), at which point another group of enemy fighters spawns out of thin air. You’ve got no agency, no tactical decisions to make, you’re just being dragged by the nose from one pre-canned encounter to the next.

Air-to-ground missions might be even worse, since it lacks even the firework-display distraction provided by Dogfighting Mode. There’s no planning, no tactics, not really even any use for special weapons. You’re given a pre-planned flight path through the enemy forces which when followed allows you to destroy pretty much every available target in one pass with your cannon and the occasional missile. It doesn’t just lack thrill, it’s actively boring.

It would be unfair to claim that lousy fighter missions are all AC:AH has to offer, though. There are also missions flying an Apache gunship which are vaguely tolerable although slightly awkward to control and which suffer from the same lack of agency as the jet missions. There are missions where you get to be the door-gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter which are terrible because door-gunner missions are always terrible. And there’s a mission where you’re the gunner on an AC-130 which might sound familiar because it’s a hackneyed rip-off of the same mission from HAWX 2 which was a hackneyed rip-off of the previously-mentioned same mission from Call Of Duty 4.

In fact, Assault Horizon feels more like a sequel to HAWX 2 than to Ace Combat 6. Beyond the already-belaboured point about linearity and lack of elbow-room that blighted the HAWX series, AC:AH has the same sort of airport-novel military-fetish plot as HAWX 2. It’s got the same reliance on a gimmicky control method (DFM vs. Assistance Off mode). It puts you in the shoes of several protagonists in the same way and has the same vague sense that it’s embarrassed to be a game about jet fighters. Assault Horizon’s helicopter dalliances are more fun than HAWX 2′s interminable spy-drone missions, but only in the sense that dinner with John Major is more fun than dinner with Nick Griffin.

I’ve been trying without success to think of a game that’s disappointed me more than Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Sequels are often let-downs for a variety of reasons, but I can’t think of another example of a game series that Lost It overnight, that took such a huge step away from the things that made the previous games so special.

Gaming now has its Red Dwarf Series 6.

RANK: D

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10 – The Paddypower.com Vanquisher Of Straw Men

“Cor, look at how ridiculous this is!” says our chummy everybloke champion. With one voice, we reply “Yes, of COURSE it looks ridiculous, you made it yourself with the express purpose of making it as ridiculous as possible!” On the other hand, the spoof advert is actually fairly nicely observed. On the third hand, it looks way more like a perfume ad than one for mobile phones which rather undercuts the point. And without recourse to hyperbole, that point seems to be “Adverts are pretentious, so why not have a bet? The illicit high of gambling will distract you at least temporarily from the depressing spectacle of Western culture mindlessly eating itself.”

9 – The Ladbrokes Shouty Commentator

http://youtu.be/v_-GjKaqh9Q

Do you SEE? He is FOREIGN. And from thence the HUMOUR AROSE.

8 – The Bet365 Matey But Menacing Cockney Geezer

http://youtu.be/KrwiMgb0p0w

I like Ray Winstone. Everyone likes Ray Winstone. I’ve liked Ray Winstone ever since he was Lambeth walking around with the Merry Men begging the inevitable but frustratingly unstated question “what part of Nottingham did you say you were from, again?” But Ray Winstone is really testing our imaginary relationship at this point. We’re now several years into his We’re Mates So You Want Me To Be Happy Don’t Ask What Happens If I’m Not Happy corporate shill phase and it’s getting very old very quickly. What we are learning from this list so far is a that all adverts for bookies are absolutely awful, even if they don’t involve Paddy “Hugging” McGuinness.

7 – The Head And Shoulders Jensen Button

In which a man already compensated far beyond the value of his single skill – guiding a rocket-powered rollerskate along a windy country road – feels the need to pocket a relative pittance in order to turn up on my telly, admire himself in a mirror and annoy the wee-wee out of me. Without recourse to hyperbole, I defy anyone to endure Jensen’s delivery of the line “Wow, it’s bracing!” without wanting to smash in his stupid smirky self-satisfied face with a claw-hammer.

6 – The InjuryLawyers4U “Injury” “Lawyer” “For” “You”

“Hi! I’m Billy Murray. No, not that one. You probably don’t remember me from such movies as Strippers vs. Werewolves. I’m here today to try and reposition frivolous litigation as spiritual enlightenment. I know, right? Still, I’m going to get three solid years of work out of this gig, which will eventually culminate in a hilariously cliched ad that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube. It starts with me swanning around the Gherkin, because that’s definitely where a company called InjuryLawyers4U would have its offices. Then I teleport to a random rooftop where I’m joined by the cast of an ultra-low-budget British remake of Ocean’s 11. Which coincidentally is my next movie project. Watch out for Seaside’s 5, available from the DVD rack of all good petrol stations, summer 2012.”

5 – The WKD Gaggle Of Sniggering Manchildren

This really would work better if their sickly-sweet alcopop slop was named ARSHL. Without recourse to hyperbole, if there really are enough people in Britain going “Ahahaa, YES. That’s EXACTLY like me and my mates! WE’RE inconsiderate, entitled, feckless misogynist hugwits as well!” to make this campaign a success then, without recourse to hyperbole, the total implosion of British society cannot be far away and I weep for us all.  FULL DISCLOSURE – the Robocop one is alright.

4 – The Pepsi Max Gaggle Of Rapey Manchildren

The WKD ARSHLs might be obnoxious wastes of perfectly serviceable carbon, but at least they’re not actual psychopaths. To be honest, even taking aside this particular breathtakingly ill-judged ad in which a manufactured threat of apocalypse is used to manipulate an emotionally traumatised woman into sex these absolute huggers would still make the list for that nauseating self-congratulatory dance they do at the end of each advert. “WOO!! WE RUUULE!!! GO TEAM RAPE, YEAH!!!!”

3 – The BT Family Who Care A Bit Too Much About Telecommunication Technology

A chilling satirical vision of a dystopian future where enthusiasm for the tools that allow us to communicate with other people has supplanted any genuine feeling we might have for other humans. Friends and family drift aimlessly around us tethered by faint, brittle echoes of emotion but no actual affection survives in this weird, sterile, utterly alien world.

2 – The G- C-mpare Abomination Of Nature

There is apparently a school of thought in advertising which believes that it doesn’t matter if an ad annoys you or delights you so long as it gets an emotional reaction, because either way you’re likely to remember the product in question. Without recourse to hyperbole, it’s exactly that kind of pragmatic, careless, self-regarding workaday evil that’s causing the decline and fall of Western civilisation. Do not give in to it. Do not allow it a foothold. Do not permit something that was deliberately, callously designed to make your life just a little bit worse cause you to give a moment’s thought to a price-comparison website identical in every respect to the twenty other available price-comparison websites. Do not give it power. Do not speak its name.

1 – The BMW Singularity Of Smugness. And His Brother Freddie

Despite severe provocation I have carefully avoided using the word “smug” in the rest of this post to make sure that I don’t reduce its impact here. Because Adam Who Works With Architects and his brother Freddie The Actor And Model are, with due respect to Simon Cowell, the smuggest things to ever appear on British TV. They’re so smug it’s practically a superpower. They’re so smug that the sheer mass of their self-regard threatens to cause the fabric of the universe to collapse in on itself. It’s hard to put my finger on the single smuggest part of this smugathon, and if I watch it one more time to try and narrow it down I’m reasonably sure I’ll lose my increasingly tenuous grip on sanity. The line “Freddie on the other hand, he likes to play it smooooooth” makes me want to vomit until my lungs come out, but then the shot of Adam in black and white at the 0:20 mark looking oh so very pleased at his exquisite taste in automobiles makes me want to start walking and not stop until the waves close over my head and the water’s cold embrace drags me to sweet oblivion. And yes, I HAVE watched this hugging thing enough times to tell Adam and Freddie apart and that is knowledge I cannot un-learn.

G- C-mp-re might be indicative of everything that’s wrong with consumer culture. But at least I can fathom how it came to be. I can understand the train of thought that led to its conception, disgustingly foul and cynical though that creation was. I cannot say the same for this BMW ad. I cannot start to imagine the perverted fever-dream that might have led anyone, anywhere to believe that this advert might actually sell cars to anyone, anywhere. If the reaction they were hoping to elicit from the viewer was Pavlovian urge to slash the tyres of any BMW they happened to pass in the street, then that might be understandable, but making those cars seem more attractive? Surely that’s out of the question? This advert is grotesque, obviously, but its true horror lies in the implacable alien incomprehensibility of its mere existence. The G- C—— advert is Hitler. This BMW advert is Cthulhu. Why does it exist? What cosmic sin have we collectively committed that the universe judges this as a fit and proper punishment? I don’t understand. In his BMW parked outside R’yleh smug Adam and his brother Freddie wait dreaming of SOOOOOO MANY SKINNY LATTES. The STARS are RIGHT. I do not understand OH SWEET MERCIFUL LORD PLEASE HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND.

Without recourse to hyperbole, I don’t really care for it.

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While watching the BBC’s coverage of U2′s Glastonbury set, I had a sudden, uncomfortable epiphany. I’ve always believed that U2 had been a decent band throughout the eighties but turned bloody awful shortly after the release of Achtung Baby. Watching God trying to drown Bono on stage in front of umpty-thrumpty thousand people, all of whom seemed to equally value U2′s nailed-on classics and their parody-of-themselves output of the last 20 years, I was struck by a blinding flash of the obvious.

U2 didn’t suddenly become terrible in 1992. I suddenly became 17 in 1992.

Pre-Achtung Baby U2 were music I’d grown up with, songs I got attached to before I had anything approaching critical faculties, before I had a taste in music that had developed beyond absorbing whatever was on the radio and whatever my friends listened to. This same period has left me with an affection for Roxette, A-Ha, Fleetwood Mac and Poison’s “Flesh And Blood“, so it’s actually a little amazing that I never questioned myself before now. 1992-93 represents the crest of the wave I was being carried along by, the point at which I picked up Floodland, New Miserable Experience and Little Earthquakes, the point at which I started developing and defining my own opinions for good or (largely) ill. Without the candy-coloured fog of childhood attachment it became laughably clear that Bono is a tool and his band are a bunch of stadium-bothering dad-rock merchants.

For the sake of sanity, let’s not consider this principle in relation to the Star Wars movies.

And so: The A-Team.

I loved the A-Team in my preadolescence. Yes, it was rubbish. But it was fun rubbish. Face’s white Corvette with the red go-faster stripe was literally the most glamorous thing my ten-year-old self had ever seen. There was Mr. T, whose appearance and demeanour was so far outside my experience he might as well have arrived from Mars. Plus: a VAN! HELICOPTERS! ENGINEERING! One of the FIVE BEST TV THEME TUNES EVER!

Turning those ingredients into a generic action movie just seems like such a missed opportunity. Turning it into an impossibly boring generic action movie with three-and-a-half charisma vacuums in the lead roles (headlined by a Liam Neeson performance embodying the Where’s My Paycheck? intensity of late-period Gene Hackman) seems a little tragic. Then there’s the bizarre subplot that treats it as a bad thing that one of the characters has decided to stop killing people, and the film’s delight when he decides that actually properly-applied brutal murder is a really good thing. What the ACTUAL hug?

Still, Bono has now opened my eyes to the fact that this is almost certainly nostalgia talking. Thanks, Bono. By the way, wearing those stupid shades at night makes you look a right git. And you do KNOW that we all realise your hair’s not really that colour any more, right?

RANK: D

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