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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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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NBA 2K11 (Xbox360)

It appears that sports games with roleplaying elements may be my Kryptonite. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that I’ve a long and generally regrettable history of adding roleplaying elements to those sports games in which, strictly speaking, no roleplaying elements existed. In any case, the reason I’ve spent the past few weeks enthralled by a game depicting a sport in which I have little interest and less knowledge can be summed up in three words: “My Player Mode”. It’s strikingly similar to the Be A Pro mode in FIFA 09 which ate so much of my life – you create and control a single player through the course of his professional career, gaining experience points depending on how well you perform which you then use to increase that player’s abilities. And so: DIRK JUSTICE.

YOINK!

Jrue Holiday is momentarily distracted by an imaginary deceased tortoise. JUSTICE! takes full advantage.

The first pick of the second round of the 2011 draft by the New Jersey Nets, at the start of the season he was a tall, quick point guard whose talents included: a) a pretty sweet medium-range jumpshot and b) nothing else. DIRK JUSTICE! spent exactly six games in New Jersey being played out of position, not getting the ball and watching team-mates launch hopeless shots into the first four rows of the crowd before demanding a trade and taking his meagre talents to the Pacific Northwest where he survived as a soldier of fortune. After a few months of development playing as a facilitator and streaky scorer for the Trail Blazers, he has now turned into a tall, quick point guard whose talents include a) an even sweeter medium-range jumpshot b) an awesome Sideshow Bob hairdo / serial killer moustache combo and c) nothing else.

Note the score and game time remaining. This is what is professionally known as "Sticking The Boot In." Or possibly "Suck It, Bryant".

It’s possible that NBA2K11 is a rigorous and authentic recreation of basketball. I haven’t the faintest idea, because I know as much about basketball as Danny Dyer knows about string theory. I just know I love the announcer shouting “HERE’S JUSTICE!!” like an Eighties straight-to-video action movie hero every time I take a jumpshot. I love that different teams and different players play noticably different styles, forcing me to adapt my game to beat them. I love that the game’s a significantly different experience playing as a centre than as a shooting guard. Mostly, I love that enough is out of my control that it emotionally involves me.

That seems a bit counterintuitive, so let me try to explain.

When your player releases a shot in NBA2K11, it has a percentage chance of going in. That chance is based on how far from the basket the shooter is, his skill at that range, whether he’s spotted up or shooting off the dribble, how tight the defence is around him, how well you time the button press to make him release the ball and probably several other factors. No matter how ideal the situation you’ve manufactured to take the shot, no matter how well you time your release you can’t guarantee a basket, only shift the percentages in your favour to a greater or lesser degree. This means every shot gives a small gambler’s thrill when it swishes through the hoop, or a sudden spike of righteous annoyance if it clangs off the rim. Either way, the emotional stakes are increased, either in an “I AM A GOLDEN GOD OF BASKETBALL!” fashion or an “I’LL GET YOU NEXT TIME, GADGET!” sort’ve way. The perfect balance of control to Mongo Only Pawn In Game Of Life is found in My Player mode, where I’m regularly delighted by the play of my AI teammates but even more regularly frustrated with them. Crucially though, I’m usually frustrated by them in fairly predictable ways – Greg Oden’s reluctance to attack the basket or Deron Williams’ monomanaical tendancy to take ridiculous shots, for example. Those tendancies make me mentally assign personalities to algorithms, make me get invested in what I’m doing, make me develop a relationship with the other nine players on court and a relationship with the game itself. This results in the sort of emergent narrative you get playing a game like Championship Manager, where the abstraction and random element both fill in the gaps in the AI, playing into the natural human tendancy to see pattern and design where none actually exist. Essentially, the instinct that makes people turn the shadows cast by curtains flapping in the night breeze into a vengeful ghostly apparition, or made a bunch of frozen Scandinavians decide that lightning hitting trees was thrown by a beardy alcoholic with an enormous hammer is the same instinct that makes me shout at Kevin Love for bricking open but insanely optimistic 3-point attempts. I’d like the game to embrace this even more. When I score or block a shot it makes me feel the overpowering urge to declare my awesomeness / taunt my opposite number. To that end, I wish there were some equivalent of the insanely detailed FIFA goal celebration mechanic in the game – if he sinks a clutch shot it would be nice to have DIRK JUSTICE!!! bounce back up the court doing Sam Cassell’s Testicle Dance, f’rinstance.

Derrick Rose gazes with wistful admiration at the majesty of JUSTICE!!'s hair.

Other nittiest of picks – the commentators aren’t brilliant, there’s way too much repetition and they don’t seem to recognise that season averages will be reduced if you’re not playing full-length games. Hence you hear things like “He’s not a regular scorer, but he’s contributing tonight” when DIRK JUSTICE!!!! is 3rd in the NBA in points per game. Also: in “The Association” mode (the game’s equivalent of a Madden Franchise mode, where you’re in full control of a team, functioning as its GM and coach as well as playing every game) you have the option of reducing the number of games played in a full season from 82 down to 54 or even lower. Bizarrely, that’s not available in My Player mode, you’re forced to grind through a full-length season or nothing. Oh, and why are there no glasses available in the otherwise nicely comprehensive player appearance editor? Amar’e Stoudemire has his excellently stupid goggles present and correct, why can’t DIRK JUSTICE!!!!! have the same? Or even better, Rip Hamilton’s mildly terrifying Phantom Of The Opera facemask?

The hypnotic power of the JUSTICE!!! crotch leads to a simple basket.

These really are trivial complaints. NBA2K11 looks good, feels brilliant and has me shouting at Imaginary Brandon Roy for not JUST TAKING THE BLOODY WIDE-OPEN SHOT THAT I JUST SET HIM UP FOR WHERE ARE YOU GOING? OH MY HUGGING GOD. That’s what I want from a sports game.

RANK: A

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(This is something of an experiment with structure and word-count. Your pardon is pre-emptively begged.)

CRACKDOWN 2 (Xbox 360)

A free-roaming third-person action game, Crackdown 2 casts you as the ultraviolent cyborg enforcer for a fascist police state. Your mission is to keep the citizenry of Pacific City safe by bounding around the streets and rooftops raining ballistic death on the mysterious monstrous “Freaks” who roam the city at night and the malcontents who roam it by day. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds. And a useful insight as to what the country will look like after 5 years of Tory government OMG TEH SATIRE.

Crackdown 2 gives you a big, varied gameworld to fool around in. While the setting lacks the authenticity, nuance and humour of the Grand Theft Auto games which were an obvious influence, Pacific City’s neighbourhoods range from rickety shanty-towns to glittering skyscrapers with each district presenting a different challenge to traverse effectively.  The game has an attractive comic-book aesthetic – all flat colours and thick black outlines – which rather suits its knockabout b-movie storyline and over-the-top action.
 
Sensibly given the multitude of threats it throws at you, Crackdown 2 starts you with superhuman strength, resilience and leaping ability then only makes you stronger as the game goes on. Killing enemies bestows “experience points” which improve whichever method you used to carry out the kill – firearms, explosives, melee or vehicles. Your foot-speed and jumping are primarily increased via collecting “agility orbs” which are scattered on rooftops around the city, the collection of which becomes almost a game in its own right – part free-climbing, part scavenger hunt.  You’re never explicitly directed to carry out a specific mission, rather the game scatters tasks to be performed all over the city and leaves you to pick your own path through them. However, they are all variants on a few basic themes – vehicular checkpoint races, footraces over the rooftops, attacking an enemy base or defending a point from waves of Freak attacks – and even given that moving through the city is fun in and of itself, by about halfway through you have seen everything the game has to offer and the action has begun to feel somewhat samey.

That’s something of a wider theme. Crackdown 2 lives by the motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to an even greater extent than most sequels. This is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Crackdown was an awesome game, and everything that made it fun – orb hunting, stronghold assaults, bouncing from spire to billboard to tower like a cybernetic fascist super-kangaroo – has been transferred to Crackdown 2 with a bit of extra polish and some rough edges taken off. I would have no hesitation whatsoever to recommend it to a newcomer to the series. However, anyone who played the original will likely find that the relatively minor additions and innovations aren’t enough to dispel the nagging feeling that you’ve been here and done this before. Personally, it’s been three years since Crackdown and I was ready for another one. Of it. Your milage may vary.

RANK: B

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Sorry so long without a post but hey, it’s not like you’re not used to frequent inexplicable losses of signal from this direction, is it?

Here’s a measure of how eventful and thrilling my life’s been in the time I’ve been away: I’m seriously considering trying to re-watch my entire DVD collection. In alphabetical order. The drawbacks I can see to this plan are a) it would would mean watching Alien, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection then Aliens, and b) it would mean watching Batman & Robin.

Anyway, some stuff that’s been great that I’ve discovered in the last three months:

The latest Metric album (especially Gold Guns Girls). The latest Raveonettes album (especially Heart Of Stone). Moon. Mount & Blade. The latest Yeah Yeah Yeahs album (especially Dragon Queen). The Incredible Hercules. Drag Me To Hell. The Sounds (especially No-One Sleeps When I’m Awake). Castle. Lloyd Doyley’s first ever senior goal. Forza Motorsport 3 (especially after finally working out how to use the XBox steering wheel I got for Christmas last year and has been lying shamefully unused since because of my general hamfistedness. Turns out I just needed some patient tutoring. Actually, one sentence of impatient tutoring. Actually, just my wife saying “You’re turning that wheel like you’re driving a hugging clown car”). The second series of Being Human. The second series of Newswipe. Pretty much everything Gail Simone’s written for DC Comics, especially her brilliant brilliant work on Birds Of Prey, Wonder Woman and Secret Six. The Answer Me This podcast. Lego Rock Band. Snow. Oh, and the iPhone.

Some stuff that’s not been great in the last three months:

Champions Online. Work. The Doctor Who Christmas special. The end of the best coverage of any sport on UK telly as Channel Five show (probably) their last Yankee Helmetball game. The Digital Economy bill. All car insurance ads in the history of all things, ever. Flash Forward. The iPhone’s battery life when you’re playing games on it.

So yeah. Alive and reasonably well. Further updates to follow. Eventually.

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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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