Here’s proof I’d rather do anything than what I’m supposed to. Right now, in order of importance I probably ought to be a) preparing for tonight’s first session of a game I’ve never played before in a genre I’ve not GM’d in, oooh, 15 years?, b) sorting out my Christmas list or c) working. Instead, here’re some one-paragraph brainsplurges on some stuff that’s moved me to having to write over the last few months.

Once
The low-key and super-low budget story of the friendship between a Dublin busker and a young Czech pianist it made me laugh, made me weep like a tiny child for approximately 75% of its running time, then made me rush off and buy the DVD and soundtrack album. It’s not a musical, but rather a film about music so it’s just as well that the songs are absolutely bloody wonderful, by turns beautifully delicate and spine-tinglingly passionate. In an attempt to claw back my Hard-Bitten Internet Cynic image by proving that there’s nothing so exquisitely crafted and personally affecting that I can’t crush it under the lumpen weight of objective overanalysis, I’ll say that Once is better than Garden State and the Commitments, about on a par with Almost Famous but not as good as Magnolia. Rank: A

The Beatles: Rock Band (Xbox360)
We bought the game solely to replace the drum controller that got knackered on our heroic expedition up the north face of Mount Rock a couple of bank holidays ago, so it was a pleasant surprise that the game was so good. It’s fair to say that nobody in the family is a big Beatles fan – personally I’m so amazingly ignorant that before playing this I’d never previously heard While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Dear Prudence (other than the Banshees’ version, obv) – but this game totally won us over. The enthusiasm that the developers obviously have for their subject matter comes across over and over again, in the animation of the band members, in the often-beautiful staging of the songs (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends being a particular highlight), in the wealth of unlockable photos and video that’s included, even in the names of the Achievements. The Beatles: Rock Band is like reading an article by a really great writer on a subject they really know and really love but that you never previously cared about. Rank: B

Lie To Me
Someone’s seen House and gone “I’m getting me a piece of that action!” Quirky take on an established (some would say tired) TV genre – check. Grizzled veteran British lead actor who’s plainly having a whale of a time – check. Troubled but charismatic and brilliant central character with a distinctive gait (House’s limp, Lightman’s bizarre half-gibbon, half-Quasimodo shambling) – check. Unbelievably formulaic scripting with exactly the same story beats every week – check. The always thoroughly watchable Tim Roth does a nice job with a part that calls for him to say “Ah! Now THAT’S the truth!” fifteen times an episode but that doesn’t cover the fact that this is a slightly degraded photocopy of a show that itself has no pretentions to being anything other than disposable fluff. Rank: C

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Love it. Love it love it love it. It’s a properly beardy fantasy RPG for properly beardy people. I could pick nits – I’d like the game mechanics to be a bit more transparent so that I could make more informed decisions when levelling up, and while the main story feels decently epic it doesn’t wander far from painfully familiar fantasy tropes – but that would be stupid because this is the best game I’ve played this year that doesn’t involve a man dressed as a nocturnal mammal jump-kicking people in the face. What makes it come alive for me above anything else are your NPC party members, as consistently likeable a group as I’ve ever encountered in a CRPG. In particular, the droll-but-dorky Alistair (Chandler Bing in plate mail, but nowhere near as annoying as that sounds) and Morrigan the sarky heartless sorceress have spent most of the game in my active party, in large part because I enjoy them sniping at each other so much. Only slightly less fun are desperate romantic Leliana, the golum Shale who’s reminiscent of the (awesome) psychopathic android HK-47 from the (awesome) original Knights Of The Old Republic, and lust-for-life Elfish assassin Zevran who’s spent most of his time with the group trying to get into my pants. Bring on Mass Effect 2! Rank: A

[rec]
An hour of enjoyable-enough mockumentary zombie hokum, 15 minutes of HELL ON TOAST. In a good way. Rank: B

Dexter
When I first heard the premise of Dexter – a serial killer working for the Miami police department who preys on other serial killers – I was utterly repulsed. It sounded tacky and sensationalist and dark-for-the-sake-of-darkness and generally not my cup of tea. But eminently sensible people kept singing its praises, so eventually I gave it a whirl and was duly blown away. After a bit of a wobbly second series it got back on track with an excellent third (starring Jimmy Smits’ enjoyably terrible Cuban accent), and now the new season is easily the best yet. The latest episode – set on Thanksgiving – is like a distillation of everything that makes the show worth watching. It’s got Dexter struggling to cope with regular human interaction, it’s got terrific performances all round (particularly from John Lithgow in magnificently creepy form) and it’s got incredibly tense sequences alongside moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. It really is pretty much as good as telly gets at the moment. Rank: A

Lungs – Florence + The Machine
Since last.fm arrived on the FunSquareSuperPlus, I’ve spent a fair bit of time listening its automatically-generated reccomend-o-tron. It seems that Skynet has decided that I’m almost exclusively into impassioned and slightly eccentric female singer-songwriters. And, you know. It’s hard to argue. So it’s fair to say that there was a better-than-average chance I’d go for this album. And sure enough, it’s awesome and proof positive that modern pop really needs more a) harp-playing and b) songs about werewolf-themed sexuality. Rank: A

Let The Right One In
Unsettling lo-fi Swedish vampire flick that plays with themes of alienation and adolescence. But better than that sounds. I couldn’t shake the feeling there was stuff going on here that I was too stupid to understand – what was with the repeated shots of characters’ feet, f’rinstance? Rank: B

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The number of tracks available for the Rock Band series reached went over the 1000 mark this week. That’s a daunting amount of music to wade through, and so to celebrate the release of what people are calling The Three Songs That Everyone’s Been Waiting For Off Nevermind, I thought I’d chuck together a quick list of ten downloadable tracks that you really shouldn’t miss.

So I did. And this is it.

Hard To Handle – Black Crowes
Yeah, it’s just an “As Made Famous By” jobbie, but it’s a total crowdpleaser, not least because of the big a capella chorus that everyone can join in on. As good on bass and drums as it is on guitar, which is this good: very good indeed.

Live Forever – Oasis
Chance to do Liam’s Manc whine plus two of Oasis’ three best guitar solos = winner. Mic stand and singing with your hands clasped behind your back compulsory.

Crushcrushcrush – Paramore
It’s a rubbish song, and I’m obliged to grumble whenever my daughter picks to sing it (which is only, you know, every time we play it). But secretly, playing the chorus is an absolute hoot. Don’t tell her, alright?

More Than A Feeling – Boston
Cheesier than the Waitrose deli counter, but the pre-chorus riff that ends with the two rapid bursts of three notes? Possibly my favourite guitar bit in the whole game. And brilliantly there’s a long sustained note straight after it that gives you plenty of time to bask in the warm glow of your own awesomeness.

Gouge Away – Pixies
Not a difficult song on guitar and bass, but it’s got a significantly different “feel” to almost everything else in the game and that makes it interesting. And Frank Black hits the sweet spot where his vocals are demented enough that you can give them EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT but not quite so demented that they’re impossible to replicate (hello, Debaser!).

Skullcrusher Mountain – Jonathan Coulton
“I made this half-pony half-monkey monster to please you
But I get the feeling that you don’t like him
What’s with all the screaming?
You like monkeys, and you like ponies
Maybe you don’t like monsters so much?
Maybe I used too many monkeys?
Isn’t it enough to know that I ruined a pony
Making a gift for you?”

Lyrically and musically Coulton’s stuff is, almost without exception, an absolute blast to sing. I’d highly recommend checking out Re: Your Brains, too. Word around the campfire is that The Future Soon is next up which should also be a winner, although I’m still hoping for Shop Vac at some point.

The Way That It Shows – Richard Thompson
It seemed an odd choice from RT’s extensive back-catalogue, but as soon as you play it you can see why they went for it. It’s a song that’s put together like a Swiss watch, every element meshing together with exquisite precision. The guitar part, predictably, is outstanding – gradually becoming more and more intense as the song goes on before reaching its climax in an extended, incendiary solo.

I’m Eighteen – Alice Cooper
Maybe the best song about being a teenager ever, and this live version is agreeably ragged and twiddly.

Stonehenge – Spinal Tap
Heavy Duty is technically trickier, doesn’t have long periods in it where certain band members aren’t doing anything and is arguably all-around more fun to play, but I can’t get enough of that mandolin solo. And doing the “Nobody knows who they were… or… what they were doing” line in the Nigel Tufnel stunned, spacey Mockney voice is yet to get old. Might want to keep an eye on your drummer, though.

Tribute – Tenacious D
The kind of song that Rock Band does best is the overwrought power-ballad. This? Well, it really is the ne plus ultra of overwrought power-ballads. Great fun on guitar and drums, even more fun on vocals – “He asked us… *Snort-grunt-growl-thing* ‘Be you angels?’ And we said ‘NAY! We are but men! ROCK! *Long-drawn-out-overtheatrical-wailing*”

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This started as an entry in my soon-to-be-forthcoming One-Paragraph ThingThink Roundup but it spiralled wildly out of control AS YOU SHALL QUICKLY SEE. Also: of the 20 people who read this blog, about 3 of you are likely to be even remotely interested, but apparently I really needed to get this off my chest. So, sincere apologies. And so, without further ado:

I owned every single Madden game between 1994 and 2008 before EA ditching the PC as a platform led to me missing last year’s. If there’s a series of games that I’ve sunk more time into over the years I can’t think of it. This isn’t a boast – blimey, it’s almost the opposite – but I mention it for context, so that you’re aware that these opinions are in no way coming from a sniffy Eurotrash “I Find It Curious That A Nation That Prides Itself On Machismo Feels The Need To Strap On Thirty Pounds Of Armour In Order To Play Rugby” sort’ve place. With that out of the way, here are my top ten problems with Madden 10:

  1. The running game doesn’t work. At all. For the opposition or for me. Running’s always been rubbish in one way or another in pretty much every iteration of Madden but this year it’s particularly broken – your typical sequence of runs will go 0 yards, -2 yards, 1 yard, 1 yard, 0 yards, 2 yards, 35 yards, -1 yard, 1 yard, 0 yards. It’s like you’re playing Advanced DeShaun Foster Simulator 2010. Yes, after some fiddling with sliders it’s possible to get your back to the giddy heights of a semi-consistant 2.5, three yards a carry, but why the HUG do I need to be roostering about under the hood in order to get one of the FUNDAMENTAL ASPECTS OF A HELMETBALL GAME to work? In addition to which…
  2. …it’s almost totally impossible for a receiver to beat a corner deep. So when you add that to the ground-game’s ineffectiveness, it means  the only type of offence that works with any reliability is a junky semi-West Coast Captain Checkdown sort’ve thing built around short passes. However…
  3. When I first started playing Madden, quick out-routes were almost impossible for defenders to cover man-on-man. A few years ago, hook patterns were basically 10 free yards every time you ran them. This year, both of those have been so unrealistically cracked-down upon that trying to complete either, even when your receiver has position, will work maybe one time in ten and get picked off about half the time. So when I say “the only offensive strategy that works reliably is passing short”, I in fact mean “the only offensive strategy that works reliably are very specific short passes, namely slants, dumpoffs to your backs and, if you’re feeling really adventurous, the odd drag route.” Which is frighteningly realistic if you happen to be playing as Andy Reid, but for anyone else it’s pretty profoundly rubbish.
  4. If I’m playing Superstar mode as a quarterback, why can’t I look left or right, or “focus” on one receiver? There’s a play in the Packers’ repertoire that has the flanker run a corner-route with the slot receiver close by performing a “quick hit” five-yard hook. Several times, I’ve been in a position where the defence is in a cover-2 or similar zone, with only one defender in the vicinity of the two receivers meaning there’s an easy completion available to one or the other of my guys straight off the snap IF I COULD SEE WHICH OF THE TWO THE DEFENDER WAS TRYING TO COVER WHICH I CAN’T BECAUSE OF THE STUPID FIELD VIEW YOU’RE FORCING ON ME YOU USELESS, CRETINOUS MORONS.
  5. I quite like the ability to upload the replays of my Plays Of Awesomeness to the Internet. HOWEVER, this seems to have come at the cost of the instant-replay option only being able to record X number of seconds of action. Unfortunately, X seconds is considerably less time than it takes to, say, take a kickoff return back for a touchdown. This means that for longer-than-average plays (you know, the sort that you MIGHT WANT TO SAVE) you often lose the first few seconds of action (you know, the bits where your receiver gets open / running back breaks through the line of scrimmage / returner busts through the first line of defenders, the bits you MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN RE-WATCHING) leaving your replay only showing the ballcarrier running in the open field for 60+ yards (you know, the boring bit).
  6. Why is there no create-a-playbook function? The one in Madden 08 was clumsily implemented and occasionally irritating to use but that’s a lot better than, hmm, let me check, oh, nothing. And to make this even more annoying, why can’t I preview the existing playbooks to find the one that suits me best, instead of having to guess, load up a game and flick through the plays there? Oh, and while I’m on the subject, why can’t I select a set of audibles that work with whatever team I’m playing with? Why do they have to be locked to one “favourite” team? And seeing as we’re talking customisation let’s indulge a tiny niggle – how come if you move a team or start with a new custom team there are no names that the commentators will use? In every version of Madden since 2003 there have been “default” names that go with the custom logos that are recognised by the  game – now, nothing.
  7. The Achievements are rubbish, almost entirely based on doing certain things with certain players (tackle Antonio Gates inside the 5-yard line, or intercept Pointing Manning three times in a game) with next to nothing on offer for, well, actually acheiving anything. Win a Super Bowl? Draft a rookie who goes to a Pro Bowl? Run for 200 yards in the game? Get your Be A Superstar player to the Hall Of Fame? Child’s play, now get back to trying to juke Bob Sanders. I generally don’t give much of a cuddle for my Nerd-O-Score, but it still seems a bizarre and mildly annoying decision not to focus Achievements on the way the vast majority of people play the game – Franchise mode.
  8. Why can’t I turn off the incredibly bland, totally useless, load-delay-infested “halftime show” that is inflicted on me every game? The cliché with EA Sports games is that they’re a bit soulless but glossy and beautifully presented. Well, this is a bit soulless and it’s presented horribly. The commentary is repetitive and even more prone to mis-reading the game situation than it was when Madden and Michaels were on the mic. The menus are a pain to navigate. On top of everything else…
  9. In-game marketing just washes over me as a rule. But Madden 10 abuses the privilege. Delaying me from starting a game for three seconds so that Snickers can tell me to “Be a Chompion!” started as a mild annoyance but has made a swift ascent up the north face of Mount Infuriation to the point that I’m now ready to choke a marketing executive to death on a delicious bar of nougat, caramel and roasted peanuts smothered in thick, thick milk chocolate. Mmm, Marathon really satisfies.
  10. And while we’re at it, having a menu item almost constantly on display that’s ever-so-discreetly nudging me to part with actual cash-money for a cheat-code, well – you stay classy, EA Sports.“Given that millions of people are already habitually paying full price for a glorified spreadsheet update every year, do we really need the relatively paltry sums that are brought in by milking the fanbase in this incredibly tacky way and corroding the user experience for everyone?” We don’t need the money, Piers, we just want it. Because we’re very, very greedy.”

I don’t know. Despite the many, many issues I’m still getting some enjoyment out of the game, but that may be because by now it’s physiologically impossible for me to have less than a tolerably decent time playing Madden. However, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that Madden 10 is a significantly worse game than the 2008 version. The fundamental problem for me is that your offensive playcalling is so utterly hamstrung by the hopelessness of the running game and desperately narrow range of options for getting a receiver open. How is it possible, after 20 years of iteration and refinement, to produce a game that fails so completely at such a basic level? It’s like shipping a FIFA game in which corners and crosses were completely ineffectual, where the only way to score was the dribble-and-shot. Which come to think of it was exactly what EA did every year before Pro Evo came along and ruffled their feathers, wasn’t it? Of course, given the EA’s exclusive licence with the NFL, there’s zero chance of that happening with the Madden titles which might go some way toward explaining the bloated, unlovable, complacent mess that is this year’s game. Rank: D

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