The Mist is the single grimmest film of recent memory. Somebody once summed up writer-director Frank Darabont’s earlier work The Shawshank Redemption as “you have to get through an awful lot of Shawshank to get to the redemption.”  The Mist is an awful lot of Shawshank for no redemption whatsoever.

The story can be summed up fairly easily – a bunch of ordinary folk are trapped in a supermarket by – guess what? – a mist containing malevolent wibbly-wobbly things. Holed up together with a faceless, alien enemy outside pretty soon the people are factionalising and turning on one another, with less than hilarious concequences.

This is a properly horrific horror movie. Brutal and unrelentingly tense, it’s got the claustrophobic, fear-of-the-dark paranoia of Alien combined with the ghost-train BOO! shocks of Aliens. Like the best films of its genre it’s got something to say but the allegory of the survivors as a microcosm of society when faced with a threat they don’t understand only adds a layer to the story, it never overpowers it. It’s beautifully shot (the image of the mist as it first rolls down off the mountains is absolutely breathtaking, f’rinstance) and features universally rock-solid performances with Thomas Jane, Toby Jones and Marcia Gay Harden (as a terrifying wild-eyed fundamentalist) standing out.

The Mist isn’t the most fun I had with a film last year (that’d be Iron Man obv), or the best-acted film of last year (step forward, No Country For Old Men) and I’m not even sure I could even hand-on-heart recommend that you seek it out. But at the end of it (and BLIMEY, what an ending) my wife turned to me and said “I feel like I’ve just been fed through a cheese grater”. I’d probably have gone with “run through a mangle”, personally – my chest muscles were physically aching from being subconsciously tensed through most of the last two hours. With so much of the entertainment we’re fed being so much superficial dreck whose only purpose is to be something your eyes are pointed at for its running-length it seems wrong not to celebrate a film that dares to provoke a reaction, even if that reaction is shell-shock. Crikey, I was forced to watch two episodes of bleedin’ Hustle straight after viewing, because I desperately needed to take refuge in something that wouldn’t make me think, worry or emotionally engage with what I was seeing in any way whatsoever.

So yeah. The Mist – it’ll make you happy to see Marc sodding Warren and his stupid Mockney chipmunk face. There’s a box-quote for you.

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1 – Fallout 3

Yes, alright, I probably ought to make some effort to explain why it’s my favourite game of the year. I’ve already covered the nuts and bolts in my last post, and there’s not a lot more to add there. So instead I’m just going to tell the story of what happened in a little over two hours’ worth of play last night.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Starting from the ruins of a Washington DC suburb now turned into a stronghold for Mad Max-style leather-and-mohawk raiders, I set off south-south-west toward a tower-block I could see jutting up out of the lone and level wilderness on the horizon. Almost immediately I ran into a bunch of heavily-armed well-entrenched fanatics in power armour who told me that they were outcasts from another bunch of heavily-armed, well-entrenched fanatics in power armour who weren’t sufficiently heavily-armed, well-entrenched or fanatical enough for the outcasts’ liking. The folks I was talking to were on a mission to preserve what technology still remained in the wasteland, but I figured that I was doing a decent enough job preserving all the (mostly shooty) bits of tech I’d found so I bid them a cheery farewell and went on my merry way.

On the way south, my careful and quiet progress was interrupted by a wild-eyed fellow who came racing up to tell me that a bunch of raiders had rigged him with explosives. Never one to turn down a) the opportunity to help my fellow man or b) free explosives, I had a pop at trying to defuse the pack. Unfortunately, it was beyond my skill and before I could offer apology the poor schlub ran away back into the wilderness to take his chances with the mutant mad bears.

Arriving at the tower-block, I discovered that it was an enclave of insular bigots led by a spectacularly unpleasant former mercenary who spent his days sitting on his balcony with a sniper rifle taking potshots at passersby. I expressed my disapproval at his lifestyle choices by shooting him square in the noggin, stealing his clothes and his sniper rifle and chucking his corpse off the balcony.

It’s the only language they understand.

From the tower I turned east, walked past the headless body lying on the ground in its pants and started to make my way back across country toward the city. Walking along a ridge, I saw motion in the near-distance and whipped out my spanking new sniper rifle to get a proper dekko. It appeared that some citizen of the wasteland had bumped into a pack of four vicious mutated giant mole rats, and before I could get a bead on the creatures the poor sod went down under the combined weight of their attacks. With his fate sealed there was no point in wasting precious ammunition, so with a philosophical “rather you than me chum” shrug I shouldered the gun and ambled onwards.

On the outskirts of the city, I found a little community protected by rusty barbed-wire and barriers made of timber and corrugated iron. The only person in sight was a small boy who told me that he was annoyed that his father was making him marry the daughter of the only other family in the settlement. The lad wasn’t sure why, but it didn’t seem right for him to marry the daughter of his father’s brother. No, it probably isn’t but given that the land’s barren, the water’s poison and getting out and meeting other people means risking getting wired to explode by lunatic raiders, getting savaged by mutant mad bears or getting eaten by mutant giant mole rats, I couldn’t hand on heart say it definitely wasn’t the lesser of several evils. I said a slightly uncomfortable goodbye and picked up my journey east, making my way past a seemingly largely-intact cola bottling plant and paused only to use my mad technical skills help out a bloke with a faulty robot (and to get given some power cells for my laser rifle in return) before continuing on into Washington DC proper.

The wilderness was dangerous, but the streets were even more so. I had to pick my way carefully through the rubble and ruins playing a tense game of hide-and-sneak with unnervingly large packs of raiders as I carried on east. Every once in a while I picked off an isolated enemy with a sniped shot to clear my path and eventually I reached my goal – the building that’s spoken of as the last surviving library in Washington.

I could have stopped there. But I realised my wanderings had taken me as close as I’d ever been to what was rumoured to be the largest town in the DC wilderness. Given that I’d come this far I’d be an idiot not to investigate it, wouldn’t I?  So, onward. A short while later my radio picked up a long-forgotten Chinese propaganda station, presumably set up for the war two centuries ago and still broadcasting the message that the Alaskan front had been lost and that the US’ defeat was inevitable. The signal sputtered and faded away as I passed into the shadow of the imposing walls of the Pentagon, still largely intact and now home to the bunch of heavily-armed, well-entrenched fanatics that the previous group of heavily-armed, well-entrenched fanatics I’d run into had splintered off from.

Even with applied cajoling, these pantfish wouldn’t open the door to me so with a hearty “screw you, then” I went for a quick swim across the narrowest part of the Potomac. At that point the river was only maybe fifty metres wide and I was able to get across quickly enough to suffer no significant sickness from my exposure to the highly radioactive water, allowing me to reach the Jefferson Memorial more-or-less intact. However, the Memorial appeared to be absolutely crawling with giant, green-skinned, automatic-weapon-armed super mutants so I stayed low and hugged the coast, giving the place as wide a berth as humanly possible. I’d almost made it to safety when one inconveniently sharp-eyed sod spotted me, so I put a couple of bullets in his head and made a run for it over the bridge to the river’s eastern bank. There, I pretty much stumbled smack into a huge dust-up between a trader caravan and a nest of super mutants, and I dived in at the tail end of proceedings for some cheap experience points and cheaper salvage (which I cheekily flogged to the bloke who’d just done most of the killing, natch) before parting from my new chums and strolling over a slight rise to see the end of my journey – a  beached and broken aircraft carrier that a band of inventive settlers had cobbled together into massive, glorious rusting hulk of a city.

Dunno, does that sound appealing at all?

OK, OK, that’s it I promise. I won’t bring the flippin’ game up again. Cub’s honour.

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3 – Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Seems bizarre saying this of a game whose graphics solely consist of little neon outlines of 2D geometric shapes, but GW2 is definitely the title that’s benefitted most from our recent upgrade to an Enorm-O-Telly. Before, it was merely a brilliant, addictive old-school arcade style twin-stick shooter which improved over its predecessor in pretty much every conceivable way. Yeah. That’s all it was. On the big screen, though, it’s even easier for the game to suck you into the zone, into a place where you’re no longer giving any conscious thought to controlling your ship and playing almost entirely using the Force. It’s even easier to get swallowed up into its absurdly simple, absurdly beautiful abstract world, particularly in Pacifism mode where your ship has no guns and you’re focussed entirely on mere survival.

I hesitate to say this, but it’s true – on the Enorm-O-Telly Geometry Wars 2 is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a psychedelic experience. Yes, I know, I need to get out more.

On top of that, GW2 was the first game in ages to make score-attack gaming compelling for me, which it did through the simple but brilliant move of making the high-score of the person above you on your friends list permanently visible in the top right of the screen. This means that you always have another seemingly achievable target to aim for making it difficult to turn the game off till you’ve passed that mark and promoting entertainingly petty, tit-for-tat rivalries (damn you, Numjerlunker! Damn you to HELL! Stupid young people with their stupid young people’s reflexes) with your FunSquare Live nerd-o-chums.

With the exception of the magnificent Pac-Man Championship Edition it’s the best original game on the Live Arcade service by miles, and for 800 points (about £6, give or take) it’s an absolute bargain to boot.

2 – Rock Band / Rock Band 2
Talking of bargains, Rock Band plus its sequel/expansion pack/general tidy-up of rough edges cost a hundred and seventy quid plus I don’t-even-want-to-think-how-much on downloadable additional songs.

I realise that may not fit everybody’s idea of a bargain.

But for that Christ-HOW-much? you’re effectively getting at least three full (and absolutely massive – more than 150 songs between the two disks) games in one – a Singstar-esque karaoke game (with better music than any Singstar game ever), the traditional Guitar Hero style button-matching guitar rhythm game and, best of all, the tie-around-your-forehead, Christ-my-arms-my-arms-the-music-it-is-trying-to-KILL-me drum section. It’s comfortably the game I’ve played the most this year, it’s the only game we own (other than the splendid and just-missing-out-in-this-roundup Fable II) that everyone in the family is into, and it’s the only game we own that 80% of us can play at once. And still regularly do. I’m not much for multiplayer gaming as a rule but when I think back to my favourite moments in gaming in 2008, 4-player Rock Band with all of us screaming into the chorus of Hard To Handle is right up there.

And talking of playing in the zone as we were (no, really, we were) – Harmonix’s rhythm games have always been the Daddies Of The Zone for me. The thrill of something like Guitar Hero wasn’t just based in the combination of two of life’s greatest joys – videogames and air guitar – it was also in those moments where your fingers take over and get you through a phrase with absolutely no input from your brain, where you stand like a statue, become part of the machine (SEE: the very last flourish of guitar at the end of the solo on Sweet Child O’ Mine or the riff leading into the chorus of More Than A Feeling).

That deaf dumb and blind kid sure play a mean plastic guitar. Or something.

Rock Band initially seemed a little weaker than its predecessors in that area, at least on guitar. The necessity of filling the game with songs that were more-or-less fun for all four participants seemed to dilute the challenge to the point that on Medium difficulty only one song on the disk required a retry to get through.

There was only one thing for it. I was going to have to bite the bullet and make the dizzying, terrifying leap to the Hard difficulty level. I’d tried a couple of times on earlier Guitar Hero games and ended up dyin’ at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, my brain totally unable to cope with the completely new skill I was being asked to develop. See, on Medium difficulty you’re only asked to hit the first four buttons on the fret so very quickly learn that green corresponds to your index finger, red to your middle, yellow to the ring finger and blue to your little finger. After a certain amount of confusion and faff it becomes second nature and it’s merely a question of your fingers keeping up with the notes on-screen. When you jump to Hard, a fifth button comes into play, meaning that you regularly need to shift your hand up and down the fret to cover all five. So not only are the finger-to-colour links that have become hardwired in your brain completely screwed up, but also you’re having to start considering each song tactically, planning exactly where to move your hand to make hitting the notes as easy as possible.

This is where Rock Band’s gentle difficulty curve was a blessing in disguise – the transition was still difficult, but the presence of more manageable songs encouraged perseverance and the brilliance of Harmonix’s game design is evident when you realise that your skills are developing even when you don’t realise they are. It happened jumping from Easy (only three buttons/fingers needed) to Medium back in the original Guitar Hero. I spent a week with my little finger aching like a pantfish and thinking “I’m never going to get this, never ever ever”, then almost overnight something clicked and I was totally comfortable with it. It happened again here – without any warning, I went from struggling along like the ham-fisted goon I am to managing runs of green-to-orange and back without a milisecond’s thought and, ah, THERE’S the zone again, I’d been wondering where it had gotten to.

Rock Band – and in particular Rock Band 2 – is chock-full of cool little touches that show how much the developer loves and understands this sort of game. If you’re doing the solo vocal tour, the game automatically edits out the long instrumental sections of songs like Green Grass And High Tides or Won’t Get Fooled Again so that you’re not sitting for five minutes with nothing to do. If your whole band is performing well, the crowd start singing along with the song, which is spine-tinglingly awesome the first time it happens. The song library is sortable in pretty much every useful way imaginable – alphabetically, by difficulty level for any individual instrument or by the overall band difficulty, by band, by musical genre, by decade and probably by a couple of other criteria I’ve forgotten. You can select specific characters to fill out the rest of the band if you’re playing with a less-than-full set of chums.

I’d love more customisation options for the characters – four different general move-sets and about ten different faces per gender isn’t really enough. I’d love the ability for the rest of the band to sing backing vocals (I mean, not that we didn’t do that anyway, it’d just be nice for the game to recognise and reward it). The archetypal “lead guitarist plants his foot on the stage monitor and wails away” is an egregious absence from the performance animations. Rock Band 2’s tracklist isn’t as strong as the original game’s, with far fewer crowd-pleasing, recognisable songs – this was less of an issue in the Guitar Hero series, but it’s almost impossible to sing something you don’t know beforehand.

These are all just quibbles, though. Rock Band is comfortably the best fake-instrument game ever made, comfortably the best in-room multiplayer game ever made and the game that revealed my middle son’s affection for the Sweet. That’s pretty good going, even for *coughcoughspluttermumble* pounds.

The Rock Band Charts

Top Five Best Fun Songs To Play (Solo)
Tied 5. Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots (Vocals) / Everlong – Foo Fighters (Vocals)
4. Roam – The B-52’s (Guitar)
3. Wanted Dead Or Alive – Bon Jovi (Vocals)
2. Hysteria – Muse (Guitar)
1. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones (Drums)

Top Five Songs That Caused The Most Distress For Innocent Passersby When I Was Trying To Clear Them For The Vocal Solo Tour
5. Electric Version – The New Pr0nographers
4. Highway Star – Deep Purple
3. Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden
2. Ballroom Blitz – The Sweet
1. Maps – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Top Five Best Fun Songs To Play (Band)
5. Hungry Like The Wolf – Duran Duran
4. Dani California – Red Hot Chili Peppers
3. White Wedding – Billy Idol
2. Are You Gonna Be My Girl? – Jet
1. Hard To Handle – The Black Crowes

Top Five Favourite Mis-Sung Lyrics
5. “I’m a leading man, and my eyesight’s bleeding also into cats, also into cats!” (This Ain’t A Scene It’s An Arms Race – Fall Out Boy)
4. “And for a thousand men are swimming every day” (Don’t Fear The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult)
3. “Sheeps… running out the door… Sheeps running out, sheeps run, run, run, run!” (Creep – Radiohead)
2. “Burns like a redwood dolphin…” (Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones)
1. “Ooh my little pretty one, my pretty one, when you gonna give me some Times New Roman?” (My Sharona – The Knack)

“Streets Of London” Award For Songs We’ve Now Played More Often Than The Original Artist
5. Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor
4. Say It Ain’t So – Weezer
3. Epic – Faith No More
2. Blitzkreig Bop – Ramones
1. In Bloom – Nirvana

Top Five Albums That Need To Be In This Game
5. Appetite For Destruction – Guns & Roses (Paradise City, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Welcome To The Jungle, oh my!)
4. Shoot Out The Lights – Richard & Linda Thompson (Genius guitar, vocals in a range I can actually sing and the awesome title track.)
3. Bat Out Of Hell – Meat Loaf (Don’t judge me.)
2. Road Apples – The Tragically Hip (I’d be happy with Up To Here or Fully Completely as alternatives.)
1. Raw Power – Iggy & The Stooges (My favourite rock album ever.)

1 – Fallout 3
Yeah, I’m still playing it. It’s still great.

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5 – FIFA 09
Saints be praised, at give-or-take the 20th time of asking, EA have finally made a good football game.

Yes, of course it’s pretty. FIFA games always are. Yes, of course it’s slicky-presented. FIFA games always are. Yes, of course it plays a genuinely good game of football in which goals are relatively tough to come by and always completely satisfying to score, FIFA games… no, hang on, the other one.

Personally, the core of FIFA 09’s appeal is the Be A Pro mode where you create and control just one player and guide him through his career. You pick up experience to improve his abilities and renown to increase his standing with the fans, leading to the opportunity of becoming your club captain or being picked for your national team. Be A Pro mode is compelling and genuinely well put-together – one thing that really impressed me was how different teams don’t just have different skill levels or play in different formations, but actually have noticeably different styles of play. I started “my” career as Roy Race, a blond be-mulletted striker in the reserves of German 2nd division team FC St. Pauli (because a) they have a disgusting brown strip…

Eat Raceys Rocket, Fritz!

Eat Racey's Rocket, Fritz!

…and b) it was the team that Andrew Eldritch sponsored while he was living in Hamburg) and they were typical lower-league cloggers – racking up dozens of yellow cards getting stuck in at the back and building their attacks by flinging balls into the box from all angles. When I eventually joined AC Milan (following in the footsteps of the mighty Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuther, obv) it was a complete culture shock – the team were practically allergic to passing more than 10 feet along the ground, and completely refused to dive in for tackles, rather standing off, keeping their formation, jockeying the opposition and trying to provoke a mistake.

It took some getting used to.

Be A Pro mode is pretty close to being a footy RPG, but it’s a bit bare-bones as it stands and I’d love EA to develop it further in later iterations. It’d be great if you had the press and managers big-upping or having a pop at individual players, dressing-room discord, Player Of The Year awards, the sort of stuff that games like Football Manager or New Star Soccer have been doing for yonks. Also, there’s unrealised potential in the transfer system – at the moment, you get a list of teams who’re interested in you at the end of each season and you get to pick a new team without fuss or repercussion. Wouldn’t it be ace to have a bit less control, to occasionally be put up for sale against your will or conversely to have to angle for a transfer from a team that didn’t want to sell you?

Yes, it would. Shut up.

Related to that, I’d really like the chance to slag off my team-mates in the media. In every RPG I’ve ever played I end up going down the “nice” path because I’m too wet and woolly to even be unpleasant to computer-animated marionettes but ten games into my second season at St. Pauli I suddenly turned into Nicolas Anelka.

“EVERYBODY on this team SUCKS but ME. Just give me the ball, you disgusting pantfishing NOBODIES, then get out of my way and ADMIRE.”

If you do decide to take the plunge with FIFA, I highly recommend picking up a few of the free alternative-language commentary packs that are available on EggBox Live. Brazilian bloke bellowing GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL! > Martin Tyler.

4 – Burnout Paradise
Grand Theft Auto IV was a game with some issues. Its stab at a more mature and thoughtful storyline sat uncomfortably with the over-the-top ultraviolence of the gameworld in general and missions in particular. I greatly disliked being hassled every five minutes by needy clingy gits wanting me to take them to play darts. It was the least funny game in the series and In common with every GTA game in the history of all things ever, its third island was a bit dull and anticlimactic. Its biggest sin for me though, was that it fixed something that definitely wasn’t broken – out went the drifty, cartoony, knockabout car-handling model that made it so enjoyable to tear about the streets playin’ the radio with no particular place to go. In came stodgy, heavy, more “realistic” cars that responded to even the lightest touch of the handbrake by spinning you out into somebody’s front garden.

Fortunately, I’ve found where GTA’s nimble, nippy stable of cars went after San Andreas – they’re all tooling around Paradise City at seventy squillion miles an hour. Burnout Paradise gives you a big, colourful city plus a bunch of big, colourful cars and leaves you to decide what you want to do with them. There’s a good variety of different events to take on, depending on your mood and whim – straight races, time trials, stunt events where you try to rack up points for skidding, boosting and flying of the dozens of ramps scattered about the streets and Marked Man races where your goal is to reach the finish line without being wrecked by two persistent and aggressive pursuit cars. Then there’s the hilarious and absurd Showtime mode where you control your car as it bounces down the road trying to cause as much destruction and traffic chaos as possible. My favourite, through, is generally the demolition derby Road Rage events where you’re simply tasked with causing as many opponents as possible to crash. Sideswiping opponents into bridge supports, nudging them into oncoming traffic or, best of all, flying off a ramp and landing on top of them (screaming “DEATH FROM ABOVE!” optional) is never less than satisfying, particularly combined with the game’s wince-inducing damage model.

Ah, the damage model. For all the occasional frustration when you clip an oncoming car and provoke a slow-motion cut-scene of the physics programmers dancing on your grave ((c) Yahtzee 2008), crashing in Burnout Paradise is almost as much fun as racing. After watching your car go spinning through the air, smashing into scenery and other road-users scattering wheels and body panels over a wide area before colliding with something immobile and ending up six feet shorter than it started out the standard joke in our house is a deadpan “I reckon that’s drivable”.

Burny Pee isn’t without its own problems. Whoever decided that the mini-map in the corner of the screen shouldn’t rotate as you turn (making it next to useless for mid-race navigation) needs a punch in the gentleman’s area. And for all Criterion’s insistence that the streets would be so packed with Stuff To Do that it wouldn’t be necessary, the absence of a “Retry This Race” button is the stupidest design decision since some nincompoop on the Mirror’s Edge dev team decided that what an already crazy-hard trial-and-error first-person platformer really needed was to throw a bunch of hateful nigh-invulnerable pantfish shooting automatic weapons at you every twenty seconds.

At the end of the day, though, it’s fun to weave crisp-handling sportscars through traffic. It’s fun to slide wallowing SUVs around sweeping corners. It’s fun to barrel-roll a rugged stock-car off a cliff. It’s fun to kick in the boost, hear the awesome afterburner-y sound-effect and go screaming through the streets at a decent fraction of light speed. Driving in Burnout Paradise is fun, and that excuses quite a lot of mis-steps in other areas of the game.

Get that, Rockstar North?

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