It’s one of the immutable laws of the universe. When an actor’s mentioned on the back of a DVD case, their name has to be followed by exactly two other films they’ve been in that might generate a spark of recognition in the prospective viewer.

Pity the poor sod writing the blurb for the Highlander DVD who has to find two more Christopher Lambert movies that anyone other than blood-relations of the cast might have seen. In the end, they’ve gone with Mortal Kombat and Subway (no, me either). It might have been slightly more honest to try Highlander 2 and You Know, That One Where He’s That Bloke In That Prison.

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Want to watch Rocky, but don’t have time to watch Rocky? Don’t worry, Blue Man Sings The Whites is here to help you out. Just skip forward to about five minutes from the end, and the last round of Creed-Balboa.

After fifteen brutal rounds Apollo knocks Rocky to the canvas and Mickey’s screaming at him to stay down and avoid any more punishment. For a moment it looks like Rock’s going to take the good advice and do the sensible thing, but then with the help of the ropes he climbs unsteadily back to his feet. Apollo’s shoulders drop, he shakes his head and looks away for a second with an expression of total disbelief and no of course I’m not, my eyes are just a little sweaty today.

There you go. The whole film encapsulated in about a minute of screen time. You’re very welcome.

Not just my favourite moment of the series, but one of my favourite scenes from any film, ever.

(Although respect must be paid to Rocky running through the streets of Phliadelphia followed by a crowd of children (CAUTION! Somewhat spoileriffic link!) from the second movie, the awesome “I’m gonna bust you up!” / “Go for it” exchange at the start of Balboa-Lang II, and the frankly hilarious deathbed scene (CAUTION! Hugely spoileriffic link!) from the same film which sees Stallone uttering the immortal line “MUH? MUH? GuhwuhbuhnuhwuhwuhbuhhuhguhwhughunuhNNNNNNNNNNUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHHH!!” Man. they don’t write ‘em like that any more).

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Inspired by this thread on the forums of the ever-excellent PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun (and by my FunSquare SuperPlus’s European Vacation), I’ve been pondering what games the complete novice needs to experience to understand the PC as a gaming platform.

It’s been a slow week, OK?

What we’re talking about here aren’t necessarily my favourite PC games ever, but rather the best games that you can’t play anywhere but on the PC or the paragons of those game genres that are fundamentally linked with the Big Beige Box. For that reason I’ve not considered things like Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, the Max Payne games, Oblivion, Beyond Good And Evil, Fallout 3 or the Grand Theft Auto series – all of which I played and loved on PC, all games for which the PC version is arguably superior to its console siblings but none of which are quintessentially “PC games”. The line’s a bit thin and wobbly in places (especially around the likes of Oblivion) but it’s like art – I can’t reliably define it, but I know it when I see it.

With a certain amount of pain and heartache I’ve whittled my personal list down to the magic ten. It’s entirely subjective and a long way from perfect -I’ve got no point-and-click adventures in there f’rinstance, despite that being pretty much the PC-iest gaming genre of them all.  Unfortunately, I came to the PC a few years after the Golden Age Of Lucasarts and so missed out. A mate and I did play through Loom in a slow afternoon while he was nominally in charge of a comic shop and I had a decent enough time, but I don’t have the fond memories of the likes of The Secret Of Monkey Island or Day Of The Tentacle that many of my contemporaries seem to. Sorry.

Enough of this self-regarding nonsense. On with the self-regarding nonsense!

The Top 10 PC Games You Need To Play, Part The First.

10 – City Of Heroes (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, 2004)
The crowning glory of this rather groovy superhero-based MMORPG is its character generator. Practically unparalleled in terms of breadth and flexibility, it hugely increases your involvement in the game by allowing you right from the off to craft an in-game persona that’s recognisably and distinctively yours. Whether you’re starting with a fixed idea of what you’re looking to create, or just playing about with the tools until you come up with a character who’s suitably imposing/cool/ridiculous, the CoH character generator is a terrific bit of kit.

Mumorpergers aren’t my scene, partly because they require a time commitment that I’m unwilling stroke unable to make, partly because they feel a bit too much like actual work, mostly because I hate the overwhelming majority of people that I’m forced to share this ridiculous planet with and deeply resent being forced into contact with them. However City Of Heroes goes out of its way to make life easy even for lazy misanthropic n00bians like me. While soloing adventures is perfectly feasible, the game encourages you to form impromptu teams by offering XP bonuses that escalate with each person you’re teaming with, and gives you plenty of options to help integrate even characters with vastly differing experience levels.

City Of Heroes looks somewhat dated these days, but its graphic style is perfect for the four-colour world it’s recreating, and the game’s immersion is greatly increased by the cute addition of passers-by or enemy cannon-fodder speaking of your past deeds with awe/trepidation. Yes, there are dozens of berks in Spandex running around the streets at any given time but crucially the game never stops trying to make you feel special, like you stand out, like you’re making a difference, like Only You Can Save Mankind. If there were any actual role-playing on show in this so-called role-playing game it’d be close to being my perfect time-sink. But for that flaw you have to hate the players, you can’t hate the game.

As I said, Mumorpergers aren’t my thing but if you have to play one – and to get an understanding of the PC as a gaming platform you really do have to play one – it ought to be City Of Heroes.

Don’t Try That, Try This!
As mentioned, MMORPGs are rubbish. For similar damned-close-to-being-a-job-you-don’t-get-paid-for perverse thrills but without the huge  drawback of having to talk to other people, you can’t beat a Diablo clone. My recommendation is the rather lovely Greek-Em-Up Titan Quest. You click. You walk. You click. Monsters appear. You click. The monsters die. You click. You take all their stuff. You click. You juggle your inventory to fit your new stuff in your backpack. You click. You walk somewhere else. Every once in a while you go up an experience level and get to pick new skills that make monsters die quicker when they’re clicked on. Somewhere along the line, you realise you’re being entertained, but you’ve no idea by what. And you realise that it’s gotten dark outside. It’s awesome.

9 – Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (Online Multiplayer First-Person Shooter, 2003)
While we’re biting the multiplayer bullet, let’s go ahead and get the nomination for the essential online FPS out of the way, shall we?

As previously mentioned ad nauseam, 95% of people in the world are worthless gits. If you’re restricting your sample to just people who play first-person shooters online, that number rises to just a few decimal places short of 100%. The general teenage wingnuttery of Xbox Live is deservedly the stuff of legend, but the untamed wilds of PC gaming servers really aren’t a great deal better. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (or ET to its friends), being a completely free, completely standalone team-based multiplayer game originally designed as an expansion for Return To Castle Wolfenstein, attracted more than its fair share of every stripe of online shooter idiots. It had abusive idiots, whiny idiots, loud idiots, over competitive idiots, idiots who didn’t understand the game, idiots who didn’t know the maps, idiots who pursued their personal score to the detriment of the rest of the team, idiots who deliberately set out to sabotage their team and idiots who didn’t even realise they were supposed to be on a team. It should have been unbearable.

It wasn’t unbearable. It was glorious.

Despite the abundance of dipsticks, the sense of teamwork and camaraderie generated by either playing with a couple of chums or finding a few other like-minded, vaguely competent players was wonderful.  And you only needed a few players co-operating to get a huge advantage over even the most skilled individual idiots.

And killing idiots is always fun.

With only six maps, even a chump like me learned to find his way around in fairly short order, leading to tense, daring two- and three-man end-run commando raids on enemy positions or ingenious, heroic defences of vulnerable objectives. Objectively speaking, there have been better-designed, better-looking and just plain more fun games than Enemy Territory. But ET is the game that I have the most affection for, that’s given me the most memories and the most war-stories, and it’s the game that makes me smile the most to think of it. And that’s why it makes my list.

Don’t Play That, Play This!
Yeeeeeah. Could try and be clever and confound expectations, but in all honesty it’s got to be Team Fortress 2 really, hasn’t it? I’ve banged on at length about my admiration for the Team-Based Shooter Game Of Champions before, so I won’t say too much more. It’s incredibly polished, it’s wonderfully well put together, it’s got a perfect character for every conceivable playing style, it’s utterly, utterly beautiful and you should play it. Really, play it.

Join us next time, when just for a change of pace I might be talking about games in genres that I actually like.

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So, why did nobody tell me that Doctor Who got good again pretty much the moment I stopped watching it?

I bailed about halfway through Season 3, after the shambolic, eye-popping awfulness of the Daleks In Manhattan two-parter. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more a meandering away – if they couldn’t be arsed to make up a better monster than this, I couldn’t be arsed to find the time to watch it.

This weekend I was feeling a teensy bit fragile following a prolonged encounter with Wollabang Australian Chardonnay (“this is not a wine for drinking. This is a wine for laying down and avoiding”) at our works Christmas do on Friday night. With my FunSquare currently on holiday in Frankfurt my only option was some undemanding telly. My shabbiness regarding Doctor Who had been nagging away at my Nerd Conscience for some time, so it got the nod.

Eight episodes. Not a duff one amongst them. Why was I not informed of this miracle?

My run started with The Lazarus Experiment and Cindy-from-Eastenders-falling-into-the-Sun-fest, 42. They probably represented the weakest episodes of the bunch but were perfectly fun and watchable, and following Mister Squidhead and the ridiculous Daleks story they felt like stumbling onto two undiscovered episodes of Firefly. Then on to a cracking two-parter set in a British boarding school in 1913, which largely revolved around a belting performance from the always-excellent Jessica Hynes (née Stephenson), best nerd-known as Daisy from Spaced. The story wasn’t completely watertight and lost its way a bit in the third quarter, but generally it used the time that the extra episode gave it really well and allowed tension to slowly build in classic Who fashion.

(One of the biggest problems with New Who, particularly in its first couple of seasons, is that too many of its single-episode stories seem to be uncomfortable with its running-length – plotlines amble along pleasingly enough, then suddenly seem to realise it only have fifteen minutes to resolve everything and turn either into a confused mess or an unsatisfying deus ex machina.)

Everyone who’d seen it recommended Blink in “if you watch nothing else of the third season, watch that” terms, so I was absolutely delighted that it completely lived up to its billing. Funny, inventive, unnerving (see: the Doctor’s videotaped monologue – “Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck!”) and featuring a classic Doctor Who brain-trumps-brawn resolution, it’s everything that Who seemed to me when I was ten years old. Steven Moffat has conclusively proved that he understands what makes Doctor Who tick, that he understands what makes the character and the series special, that he can produce one gem of a story per series (see: The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace). I don’t know if that means that he’ll be able to handle the head writer/executive producer role he’s inheriting from Russell T. Davies in Season 5, but I certainly can’t think of anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Boss Sweden” that I’d rather see have a crack at it.

Season 3 finishes with a traditional RTD mega-enemy world-threatening three-parter. And, unlike pretty much every other RTD mega-enemy world-threatening three-parter, it’s not terrible. John Simm left me slightly cold as The Master, it’s a faintly uncomfortable reminder of how vastly superior the Steven Moffat-scripted Captain Jack is to anyone else’s take on the character and the resolution was a teeny bit cringe-inducing but on the whole it was a perfectly good story told perfectly well.

This may sound like faint praise. It IS faint praise. But it’s enough to have me looking forward to watching Season 4 with a renewed sense of optimism even though Caroline Tate is prominently involved. I mean, she was really good in the act-y bits of Big Train before she became someone who bellowed catchphrases for coins, right? She might be perfectly acceptable in this, right? Right? Right?

More news as it comes in.

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Whilst discussing/ arguing with a few contemporaries about the return of inexplicably still-somewhat-mainstream misogyny-fest Miss World, I found myself faced with a couple of separate but related lines of argument from folk who’ll defend to the death a woman’s right to be displayed like a side of pork in a butcher’s shop window.

“Well, it’s not like people watch football players for their brains either, is it?”

“Proposing to ban everyone from modelling, are you?”

Here’s a photo I took on holiday of an advertising standee in a swimming shop that I hope helps illustrate my response.

Click for a bigger version.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being attractive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person primarily being valued for their physical attributes above their mental ones. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person’s profession being based primarily on those same physical attributes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with modelling, even.

But look at that bloody thing up there. If I’d set out to create a satire of how the bulk of the media presents images of male and female beauty, I don’t think I could have come up with anything more perfect.

“You are MAN! You are POWER! You are STRENGTH! You MASTER your environment! GRRRRAW!”

“You are WOMAN! Stick you bottom out a bit more, we can still see some of your swimsuit.”

(I hesitate to point out even in jest that the bloke at the top is intent on riding his long, thin pointy thing into the wave’s big wet hole. Holy Sigmund Freud, Batman!)

That’s the difference between watching Tommy Smith dance down the right wing on a Saturday afternoon and gawping at Miss World contestants. Yes, you’re objectifying both in a sense – you’re certainly not bothered about either’s intellect or personality. But one is active, the other a completely passive request for approval. Taken in isolation it’s probably not that big a deal, but it ISN’T an isolated example – with few exceptions Hollywood, TV and adverts all repeat the dichotomy that’s writ large in that ad. Men are told to Be All They Can Be. Women are told that Some Day Their Prince Will Come. It’s patronising, it’s reprehensible and it leaves all of us culturally poorer.

I don’t want to ban Miss World. I don’t want to take away anyone’s right to do whatever they choose with their body. I just wish that as a society we’d see beauty contests for what they are – a tacky little symptom of a much wider malaise.

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So. Despite giving not even so much as a hint of bad behaviour since the day it was bought, my XBox seems to have suddenly developed a terminal illness. Whenever the AV cable is connected to the console, it won’t power up, gives one red light on the power ring and spits out an error message. It’s remotely possible it’s the cable that’s the problem, but that’s not the way I’m betting.

Naturally, this is happening exactly THREE FLIPPIN’ DAYS after its year’s warranty expired, and so far angry phone calls to the shop I bought it at and Microsoft’s support line have produced nothing except a £50 repair bill. Given all the technical problems that Microsoft’s relentlessly shoddy hardware design has had, you’d think they might be a bit more understanding and helpful, but apparently not. Even so, I’ve shoved in a polite-but-hacked-off email so fingers crossed.

I’m a poker player (of sorts). I grasp the theory of how pot odds work. I know that it’s a bad idea for an opponent to call your pot-sized bet when he has nothing but a gutshot straight draw, even though there’s a chance he could win. In the same way given that the majority of problems with gadgets happen in the first six months, I understand that if there’s less than a 30% chance of a given electrical device falling over between it being one year and three years old (which there always is), then the at-least 30% extra you’d pay for the three-year extended warranty is a rubbish deal (which it always is). I realise that I’ve saved tons of money down the years by not shelling out for these bad-bet warranties.

Doesn’t make it any less frustrating and irritating on those occasions were you play the percentages correctly but lose because the long-shot draw comes up, mind.

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