Archive for the ‘ Musings and Ramblings ’ Category

The Big Bad Woolf

Virginia Woolf is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most over-rated authors in the history of English literature. No classical, theoretical or any other variety of bias could ever hope to defend the utter horror that is working your way through the muddled fiction she creates. English students around the world are assaulted by her rambling stream-of-consciousness writing style every year, and I feel it is only right to defend their pleas against writing about this woman’s failed attempt at inspirationally original literature in some way or form.

Today, I attempted to tackle the literary mess that is Mrs Dalloway. Within a few sentences, I began to develop the same feeling in the back of my mind that I had experienced in 2006 when attempting to comprehend To The Lighthouse. Quite simply, she’s a terrible author. Rather less simply, I shall expand on this, as I feel a failure to recognise a false icon in literature, to this degree, constitutes a failing by the ruling classes of academical literary criticism, and is simply comprised of bored professors punishing students by attempting to get them to tackle “real” literature.

To read Mrs Dalloway, as I did, with the theme of trauma and its disruption of literary narrative firmly in mind (I find if you explore books by pursuing a certain theme, they become less boring literature and more the English nerd’s version of a CSI episode), is a rather ironic experience. This is due, pretty much, to the trauma you yourself will undergo in an attempt to decipher what exactly Woolf is trying to say to the reader at any given moment. Call me blasphemous all you like – I am no author of the Great English Novel, by any means, but the woman uses more semi-colons in a paragraph than I will in a year. I find the acid test for whether or not a sentence is too long, and either needs to be cut in half or simply saturated with the correct punctuation to maintain the flow of prose you are attempting to construct, is to read it out loud and see if you can reach the end without running out of breath.

In her case, I wager I would asphyxiate approximately eight to ten times, per page. However, when reading it out loud, this is very much a problem. Thankfully, as a Londoner who enjoys relative silence on a daily commute, people don’t generally read out loud in contemporary Britain, and thus we are spared the swathes of dying literary sycophants.

*comes back to this post, six days later*

Frankly, I’m done with this woman. She’s a horrible novelist, and writing about her is like writing about the village fair – it’s quaint, and everyone accepts its existence, but ultimately, the only ones who accept it as a force of all that is good and whole in the world are either fifty-five or think videogames are for mental patients.

I think I’ll wait until Bioshock 2, and imagine every British-accented splicer as Woolf herself. The manic laughing, deranged outfits and bizarre syntax fit just right.

That being said, after a novel’s worth of literary analysis, so do embedded bullets. As an optional fashion accessory, of course.

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All I want for Christmas, is two.

I’m completely serious. What I would have liked to see out for the Christmas break, was not only the long-awaited sequel to Mass Effect, but Bioshock 2 in addition. Why the hold-up? I’ve got a fairly damn good idea why we’re waiting until late January/early February.

Fear.

Why fear? Well, it’s long been said that an artist’s greatest fear is the first creative work he engages in after his stunning début, be it four years into his career or four days. Imagine how Dan Brown felt after (some would argue, anyway) catching lightning in a bottle with the ridiculous appeal of The Da Vinci Code, only to realise that The Lost Symbol needed to be an improvement?

It was, of course; but mainly due to the fact that The Da Vinci Code, when compared to the stellar Deception Point, Angels and Demons and Digital Fortress, was horrendous, predictable and not all that exciting. But with videogames, are we seeing a major difference in what is required? It’s not just about a better narrative, or one that solidly connects to all the plot points of its predecessor. We need new achievements (or rather, less that involve doing the same fucking thing four hundred times in a row), better graphics, a better engine, and of course more DLC than the last title had.

Did I mention the DLC must also be cheaper?

All right, so I’m ranting a bit. The fact still stands that, for what it’s worth, the sequel to a game I love comes out on the 29th of this month, and I’ll be damned if it’s not an improvement. But the fear, the raw anticipation the online crowd exudes is comparable to a pack of wild, rabid dogs awaiting several bloodied steaks due to cascade at any moment over the barbed-wire surroundings of their violent existence.

These dogs, or fans, if you will, are no more than amateur critics. Of course, Shephard will still be nimble in combat, but turn like a god-damn Panzer when simply strolling around the Citadel (or, in this case, Omega Station – props to those who read the fiction). Of course, the level cap will be lower – was the “level 30” Power Gamer achievement not enough indication of this? Why should we need to get to level sixty when the skills screen clearly shows we could maximise almost everything in less time, with a less complicated attempt to get Shepherd’s big number to go from one to the hallowed two?

With Bioshock 2, I feel somewhat more apprehensive. The multiplayer is all very well – it’s been written into the lore (hilarious, as by validating this odd multiplayer world, 2K are essentially validating third-party content as a part of their own mythology, damning those millions of modders who spent hours upon hours tweaking Fallout 3 to display just the right amount of nudity – in most cases, full-frontal). But the concept of it to someone who’s already worried about Levine’s lack of involvement?

It’s blasphemy, I tells you.

Why should we forage for reasons to pander to the multiplayer masses? Let them have their Call of Duty, their Halo, their StarCraft. Stay away from the single player experiences that we hold dear to our hearts. In terms of contemporary gaming, it’s bad enough we’ve got collectibles in almost every game, excused by the pitiful reasoning given by the developers in the form of “but they work so well with gamerscore!” Modern Warfare 2 is mainly a multiplayer game, ridiculous and slightly offensive short campaign aside – but there are no achievements for the online content. Why? Because your reward for engaging in multiplayer, as it were, is social interaction. Us lonely bastards, us single player enthusiasts – we need those achievements. Give us ten missions, and let us turn the difficulty to “easy” and have fun. Don’t make me play NINJ4ST4R99 fifty times for ten gamerscore I could’ve gotten by healing for the first time.

It’s clear, however, that 2K have no desire to ever return to the narrative space that made the idea of a trilogy so exciting: the war between Fontaine and Ryan, before Rapture’s fall from grace. To see those streets, immaculate and shiny in their below-the-surface, 1950’s wonder would have been an experience to cherish. But alas, they are forging forward chronologically, and no doubt the battle for control and development in Rapture will one day surface as a sub-par RTS title for consoles, relegating the idea’s originality to the bargain bin and stealing from us the ability to experience Rapture properly.

I’m aware the appeal of the broken down, the destroyed, is in the vision of the environment as it once was. To see “New Year’s Eve 1959” banners draped on the floor and covered in soot, blood and other miscellaneous detritus that points to an apocalyptic war, is heartbreaking. If only they’d reached the 60s – it would’ve all sorted itself out, maaaaan.

Sequels are becoming more and more frequent – some of them necessary to continue a sturdy, popular narrative – and I look forward to every single one of them. Have the developers learnt? Has the franchise grown? The protagonist married who? He has how many kids? All of these questions motivate the franchise-committed gamer to lay down his wallet in an attack of new IPs. But for how long? Eventually, even the Land Before Time got shunted into straight-to-VHS format. Will the same happen to Gears of War?

Back to School.

It’s January, and I’ve just renewed this domain name (and the relevant WordPress domain add-on) for another year. In the recession, I think it’s important to make use of anything you spend money on, and I plan to.

Things are getting more intense and exciting this year, though I share the same doe-eyed wonder when perceiving the world around me as I did last January when Eddie gave me a column over at GamerNode. A year ago, I’d just begun my journey into games journalism, after working an almost month-long stint at IGN and beginning to hound the Escapist for articles, all attempts failing in the process.

A year and a half into this freelance journalism lark, and I’ve got Escapist articles banked and thanked for, along with various other journalistic opportunities. Soon, with luck, I’ll be delving into the world of financial journalism, and I’ve got to be honest, I’m more excited for it than I have been with anything else. It sounds like blasphemy on a blog dedicated to videogaming and my own critique of the aforementioned medium, but I assure you, I have my reasons. The financial industry is a seriously exciting place to be, with new laws coming into place and new rates to tackle recession, and for some reason that seems so much more real, so much more mature, than the current saturation of the games market by titles like Bayonetta and The Saboteur.

It begs the question: do I think about journalism – or the act of critiquing an artistic medium whilst still maintaining some façade of indifference to various platforms for the expression of said artistic think-pieces – differently now than I did whilst working the news desk four years ago at the Financial Times?

I’d wager I think about it very differently, having now seen both the light and dark sides to the art of putting pen to paper with only the intention of either upholding someone’s artistic efforts, or casting them down into the fiery pit of the game-shop bargain bin. “Journalist” is a pretty powerful word; something that symbolises criticism, expertise and the ability to render a marketing campaign null and void through the lack of a single star or half-per cent due to a small hiccup during the review process. Artists, novelists, games designers; all have had their career growths stunted due to the odd disappointment in the eyes of the critics, and it is this power that makes being a reporter, critic, journalist – whatever word you use in place of “advisor to those who wish to be reassured” – such an interesting task to undertake.

Unfortunately, with games journalism you’re at the bottom of that particular food chain. To most of the British public, you’re not really a journalist at all – in fact, you’re most likely a geek with a penchant for slagging things off on the internet, and then covering your own arse with clever rhetoric and a pseudonym in order to avoid any retribution for too scathing a response to a game you had sent to you for free. Most entertainment journalists are accused of simply doing the work they do for the stash – those free games, t-shirts and various other items given to us at preview events in Soho hotels – and not, in fact, to uphold unbiased commentary on the medium they claim to uphold so passionately.

Let me assure you, this is far from the case.

Looking back, I should have known that day in Birmingham was going to be an odd experience. I’d recieved the call two days prior to the event, a collegue back at IGN UK asking me if I’d be interested in previewing a fighting game (whose name I’ll remove for the sake of the lovely man in PR who I’d rather remained anonymous). I knew right then that, through covering Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, I’d been pigeon-holed into the journalist IGN used to cover games that involved people hitting other people in a ridiculously melodramatic display of masculine insecurity and hidden sexual frustration. I sighed, but I knew the money was good and I wanted the experience. That, and the developer’s PR staff are about as pleasant as you can get – their presence at the IGN Christmas bash alone being evidence enough to quantify this, as not many of those who sit on the other side of the fence are then called back into the warm fold of the thankful journalist.

Upon arriving, we stood in the station, a mob of geeky individuals trading banter with the PR staff and various journalists waiting to jump on the coach and go to a gym. They spoke of the gym as if it were a mystical place – as though we’d not really fit into the lean, mean, keen demographic that (I take it back, “lean” may be correct) would visit this place. I’ve got to be honest; looking at us, I had to agree. Eventually, we arrived at the gym and took our goodie bags.

I’m a child, let me state this for the record now, your honour. I am a child, and when someone hands me a bag with presents in it, I’m going to take a look, even if I’m never going to actually use or consume the contents of this mysterious sheath of plastic between me and the free bits and bobs doled out at events, presumably in the vague hope of tilting our bias towards the positive. In the bag was a massive plastic cup – protein shake mixer, I suppose, though I only use it for water, even now – and various discs and bits of paper allowing us access to the images, videos and banners we’d need to compile the visual aspect of the article.

However, hidden near the bottom, was a little tub of what I can only describe as mild steroids.

“Weight Gain Pills,” the label loudly proclaimed. After presuming this to be the case, Lex’s mother – a nurse of some thirty-plus years – assured me this was not, indeed, the case at all. In fact, they’d given a load of games journalists a bag full of steroid-chugging manly equipment to firmly put us on the road to looking like the blokes on the covers of Men’s Health who we all claim to despise but secretly admire for their ability to put the gym over the other G-word (I am, of course, referring to “gamerscore”).

Bags of stuff, however, don’t exist in the financial journalism world, as far as I’m aware. Information vital to the talk taking place is of course, present, but outside this, there are no legendary bags of swag. There are, therefore, no more awkward thank yous on receipt of said bag, and then the mad hunt to find somewhere to leave it inconspicuously so the publication’s office staff don’t think you’ve been bought off (they needn’t worry, the game was of questionable entertainment and filled with the precise sort of hyper-macho bikini-clad sweating muscular bullshit that makes FHM one of the most successful magazines in the country despite a complete lack of journalistic merit – and yet a five star review by The Daily Star is more valuable to my District 9 DVD than a mediocre review by The Guardian).

Soon I’m off to a course to brush up on my knowledge of the financial services industry. My father is an independent financial adviser, and, though he denies it, a bloody good columnist for a number of financial publications. Growing up in that household, I took business studies at GCSE, though initially it was simply to understand what he was talking about when he got home from work. Finding that business studies is simply a mixture of basic maths and common sense, I decided to persue the subject to A-level, before realising I’d rather write about the company with a big return, rather than having a 90-hour-a-week part in bringing the revenue in.

Fund management, new banking laws, the RDR (a law stating your examination qualifications have to be redone to continue being an IFA in a post-2012 environment): all of these are important to me, now, though I realise they’ve all had some resonance in my life growing up in a household where I was taught to budget before I was taught to pronounce the word itself. An odd childhood, sure, but it’s resulted in financial stability and a forward thinking attitude.

Sometimes, if you’re writing a blog post, it’s best not think forward. I’ve gotten through 1398 words in 15 minutes or so simply by writing without thinking, and it’s all very well. With news, there’ll be press releases, maybe a calculator application open; and with features, simply myself, a keyboard, and occasionally a phone to harass poor IFAs/developers about what exactly makes their pension plan advice/level 27 sub-boss so damn important and better than that of everyone else.

*pause*

Good lord, will someone give my writing purpose, before I start penning romantic comedy novels.

Tag, you’re it.

I was going through my spam comments when I noticed a ping from the Big Red Potion blog, and decided to check it out. If you download their latest episode, and get to around 45 minutes in, you’ll hear Sinan and Joe tag me on my recent obsession with Dragon Age: Origins.

I’ve got to hand it to them, as they’re kind enough to mention me, not take the piss, and on top of that, implied that my stamp of approval on the origin stories was enough to imply they must be good – a huge compliment for a narrative nerd like me. The two of them deserve a lot of credit.

Big Red Potion was initially a podcast I heard about through GamerNode Ed-in-chief Eddie Inzauto, who flagged them in iTunes after showing me his appearance on said show. The first thing that struck me was it was hosted (initially) by Sinan, solo. Impressive though this was, he was also a Londoner. After listening to 1UP, Gamers with Jobs and other American-dominated podcasts, it was so refreshing to hear that sarcastic, cynical inflection on streamlined audio think-pieces about videogames.

They’ve discussed a wide variety of topics, two of which I’ve personally jumped in on, and we’ve had Sinan over at the Vs. Node podcast during the origin period in which I played editor, recorder and host. The pair of them are an extremely dynamic combination, each bringing their own verbal style to the table. I like listening to a long, eloquent diatribe about PC RPG titles from Sinan, and then chuckle as Joe refutes some of them due to their “click click click” nature. They swap places with blunt and smooth dialogue, almost a Dante and Randal of the videogaming podcast genre.

If you get the chance, check them the hell out, because I promise you of no better podcast to sit and absorb than the musings of two city boys (London and New York) and the occasional outbreak of what I like to call “the giggles,” always unscripted, unedited, and honest. Two great guys, and this weekend I’ll be returning to said audio experience to discuss a few things, and dismiss any rumours about me getting any kind of tattoo related to Bioware, Dragon Age: Origins or Dwarven iconography.

Never Got Round to It: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

Think of this as a first of many articles in which I, the person who tends to miss more titles than he actually plays, go back and find games I’ve been curious about for years and actually play them. I was a Nintendo-only person for the whole of the last console generation, and never really much of a PC gamer outside Grim Fandango and anything developed by Valve.

This instalment, it’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a game that I feel I should have tried to appreciate prior to playing seven hells out of Fallout 3. But nonetheless, it’s my first step (excluding Valve) into PC-FPS territory, so I’ll give you a stream-of-consciousness breakdown of what happens when I’m playing.

It’s a Monday night, and I’m trawling through my RSS feeds, absorbing a lot of games news whilst tracking Kevin Smith on his endless Twitter announcements, a pastime I enjoy as it allows me to Twitterise my little world without actually having one of the diabolical pieces of social-network-cancer myself. I notice the fine fellows over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun have drawn attention to an FPS of a few years back that almost slipped past me, if it weren’t for a scathing review in a magazine I don’t remember the name of, any more.

I log onto Steam and see that yes, the price has indeed been dropped to a nice, unemployed-friendly price of three and a half of Her Majesty’s pounds sterling. I drop the cash, and get the download, letting it sink onto my hard-drive in bits over the next 48 hours.

These 48 hours pass, and I’m now loading it up, tweaking a few graphics settings and revelling in a fairly recent FPS my laptop can actually handle. I look over at Lex, watching her work her way through yet another academic paper on 19th-century literature, the odd forlorn glance at my screen betraying the struggle between the FPS-nut and the literary scholar taking place in her subconscious. I watch the opening video, wincing slightly at every bit of dialogue as the sound goes half a second out of sync, ruining any chance I have at reading the quality of facial animation. It’s brilliant regardless.

That being said, I do a double take when the truck in the FMV crashes because it was hit by lightning. I shit you not, this actually occurs in the opening sequence. A truck explodes, from the back, with nothing in the back bar ten corpses, because it got hit by fucking lightning. I remind myself I’m engaging in a medium where marsupials run around collecting crystals for a living, and bite back the instant urge to criticise the absence of realism present.

“Okay,” I mutter to myself. Here we go. I find myself talking to a fat Ukrainian gentleman, who teaches me how to use my PDA, containing the functions of mission-keeping, map-reading, and even ranking Stalkers all in one handy package. Odd, I muse to myself. Food is scarce, and yet everyone’s got some kind of iPhone. He sends me off on my first mission, and I charge across the nearby field to assault a set of buildings, with little regard for tactics. I die fairly rapidly, and decide to change difficulty – I had a “badass motherfucker” moment when setting it – and try a slightly more intelligent approach.

I am rewarded with not only the most brutal shotgun I’ve ever seen, but a gleeful Fallout-esque bout of looting corpses and deciding what I’d like to leave on the soon-to-decay cadaver, and what of its meagre possessions interest me most. I’ve still not worked out the map yet.

*

Fast forward around two hours, and I’ve changed level twice. This process baffles me. The first time, I shot a man in the chest, and it asked me if I would like to change level. I was a little thrown at first, truth be told. Yes or no? I choose “yes,” even though I’ve got side missions left to do, which all get deleted as I move on. The second change came shortly after a firefight against ridiculous odds which began to give me an idea of why some men want nothing more than for someone to compare them to Steven Segal.

Currently, I’m helping a bunch of Stalkers fight off a group of army troops. Why they’re attacking isn’t clear, but at this point my moral compass is rapidly devolving into whether the person is a red or a green crosshair. With that strategy firmly in mind, I begin to lay waste to the troops with a machine gun, before looting a couple of them to fill my ammo back up. But of course, their ammo and weaponry is of a completely different scale to my peasant-style aggro-garb. I decide to step it up a notch, and take his gun.

At this point, I feel conflicted. I own a pistol, two machine guns, and a sawn-off shotgun. While in Fallout 3 this wouldn’t be a problem, as I was a stamina-heavy player capable of hauling a couple hundred pounds of gear at any one time, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. won’t let me play the same tune. My weight limit is fifty kilos, but I’m sitting a couple kilos over. What could it hurt, I wonder?

The answer came as me and my new-found friends sprinted for cover out of the army’s reach. My sprint faltered, and my field of vision was now mainly comprised of the floor as I staggered forwards, gasping for breath. They wasted no time, however, in sending me down into a pitch-black tunnel network to kill some bandits, seemingly completely unrelated to the army attack, which was never explained. I take out the bandits, deciding against using my flashlight as theirs is a dead giveaway (tip: when in a firefight in the dark, attach lamps to poles on the ground, not to your skull). I climb back up the ladder, and bam. Level change.

After realising, finally, that “level change” is sometimes the equivalent to Half-Life’s infuriating loading bar that activates geographically, I head back down into the dark, worming my way through passages filled with odd warped-air effects representing Anomalies (physics anomalies… *sigh*). I kill a crazy Licker-like creature that has the ability to cloak (seemingly so it can stand facing a pillar), and die to a horde of bandits who are seemingly impervious to acid, bullets and/or gravity. I quit for the night.

*

And I never actually went back to it.

Most would assume this is me simply copping out, not wanting to make the effort and play the entire title start to finish. Perhaps you’re right if you’re making the rather arrogant decision to force your own mentality on my own and apply them to decisions I myself make. However, the real reason was much more simple; I didn’t enjoy it enough for it to drag me back in.

At first, I wondered about the lack of gamerscore and whether that added to my unwillingness to play the game after being thoroughly sucked into the Xbox point-score fanaticism. But that being said, I play DS games and TF2 regularly enough, and I recieve no points for these, surely? I adore the Medic class and have exhausted most achievements for the gentleman in gloves and a lab coat, but I still play the game because it engages with me on a fundamental level.

With S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it was a different experience. The shooting mechanics are great, the movement fluid, and the inventory system all very neat and Diablo-esque in its own little way. But where was the fundamental background? Telling a long, flowing story is all very well, but imagine The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe starting in Narnia, with no explanation of how they got there, only their dialogue indicating they’d been anywhere at all? Ridiculous, no?

The missions were well-scripted, as was the character animation, but it was the anomalies that finally sent me packing. The concept is beyond inspired; warped clouds of altered physics that will damage anything coming near or into direct contact with them, pacified by a small grenade-type piece of equipment. But ultimately, they were physical obstacles. Characters were concerned with getting their coats and killing other Ukranian thugs in the locality. Yet, were they concerned that the fabric of space-time itself was wandering around, semi-sentient, hell-bent on throwing them in the air and collapsing their skeletal structure from ten yards away? Where were the science-soldiers, the ones tasked with restoring the balance?

I sigh at this point simply because it defies belief that you wouldn’t expand on the anomalies from the beginning. Look at Half-Life, and imagine if there had never been any explanation to events whatsoever. You can’t introduce science fiction into an average, post-nuclear military narrative, and then have it not become the focus of what draws the player in. As I write I wonder what engaged others so much; those brave souls at RPS proclaimed this to be one of the best PC games of the last decade, and in the age of titles that redefined videogaming, titles such as World of Warcraft, Left4Dead and Wii Fit, are we really bestowing this accolade on a title that merely flirts with science fiction and inspired design?

What’s more, where was the emphasis on the post-nuclear setting? Chernobyl is a real place, and I’m confident a title set in the unbelievably bleak wasteland that is the real, contemporary Chernobyl. The second fictitious explosion is logical enough, with that alternate reality being an actual possible reality in today’s Ukrainian society. The playable area you inhabit is based on the real-life Zone of Alienation, an area full of radiation, suffering and poverty brought on by a disaster of unimaginable proportions and a lack of support from those who are fearful of venturing into the cancer-stricken radioactive environment. A moral dilemma exists within the location itself, and in my opinion, the fact this is real, existing place with similar problems (minus the floating lightning balls) is something that needs to have attention called to it. This is no Alternate Washington, this is, minus the excessive gunplay and mutants, something that draws from real life.

I’ll expand on this in a longer article, soon, but for the meantime, look at Fallout 3. Everywhere, the emphasis was strong on what would happen if the rockets that sit under our collective feet were ever launched. Most people found it inspired, found it to be “cool,” as it were. Personally, I found it chilling. I don’t see nuclear war as a bogeyman story for children, I see it as a cultural inevitability. In order to cleanse the human race of the arrogance and violence so inherent in its culture – by this I mean real life, not Call of Duty, a game criticised for its violence when the events it was based on were never criticised by the same demographic in turn – the human race will need to destroy and reinvent itself. No pain, no gain.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a good game. Great, even. But it’s just not to my taste, and in my opinion, the taste of any gamer who values a sturdy background in order to accept such a massive change in pace, scenery and historical events that pre-date the timeline of the playable sections. I never got around to it, and I doubt I’ll get around to finishing it, simply because there are other titles where I can sit behind the eye sockets of a hero in a forlorn wasteland and think about nothing but survival, and I don’t see the thrill of a new version of that idea arriving until Bioshock 2 makes its debut. Think of my tastes what you will, but consider this: when a game claims to instil a raw need for survival in the player, are they not making the fundamental mistake of assuming the player doesn’t want to survive already?

Thoughts on Dragon Age: Origins.

Okay, before we start, I think I need to nerd out for a paragraph or two, here.

I’m a massive fantasy nerd. In my lifetime, I’ve absorbed huge swathes of swashbuckling elves and evil wizards, I’ve painted little mages and sent them into battle, and I’ve even dressed up as a mythic fantasy warrior and charged around for a weekend smacking people around with a fake sword. In short, I absolutely love fantasy, though I’ll say now (naysayers can moan, but it’s true), that Lord of the Rings is not really what you’re going to get from mainstream fantasy, in the same sense Harry Potter isn’t really a true fantasy wizard.

There are a few tenets of fantasy that are vital to creating a successful legion of fans who will, often, put overweight people in leather armour whenever you’re signing their novels:

  • A back-story stretching thousands of years, preferably with at least one race who was “there when the (insert creator-race here) were first beginning their work.” I’m talking races, politics, great wars you’ll only hear about in whispered discussions in dark taverns over a mug of ale from a dwarf with more scars than skin.
  • A world in which everything is possible, geographically. I’m talking about dwarven mine-fortresses, lava and daemon-filled wastelands, lush, verdant forests and tiring, endless desert. Everything must be covered, and at great length, though you’re welcome to take the time, as most fantasy novels barely leave the starting town for eight hundred pages.
  • A strong sense of factions – I’ll give an example. Dwarves are not all linked, generally, by the fact they’re all small, hyper-masculine and extremely pissed off. There are many different types of dwarf, and it’s important to establish that not everyone in your novel/fan-fiction/game/film/glue-and-macaroni sculpture is simply a cookie-cutter stereotype with nothing to individualise them whatsoever. Strong characters need to break the mould, and rebel against the constraints set upon them by men like Tolkien, in which every dwarf is angry, ridiculously noble and hiding some kind of secret pain. That’s not fantasy, that’s a Hatebreed concert.
  • I like dwarves, have you noticed?

DAO2

Now, to look at Dragon Age’s character creation screen, we’re presented with a wealth of options, but not so many as to spoil the idea of fun and logically-contained originality for the player. Dwarves (hah!) can be commoners or nobles, humans can be of similar varying backgrounds, and most interestingly, elves are either rebels or slaves. Chew on that, Legolas.

I think this is an important idea, and one they’ve built on since Mass Effect. In ME you were given the ability to give your Commander Shepherd one of three different backgrounds, and within that one of three defining moments in his military career. The six bases for the avatar you’d be playing for a long time (and at my girlfriend’s last count, over 100 hours) are simple. The son of a Navy couple, bathed in blood defending a strategic objective from a horde of oncoming foes whilst his friends lay dead and wounded. An Earth-born urchin with no future save enlisting, earning his recognition in the galaxy as a ruthless war-hero who would ignore civilian casualties to take out the enemy. Many options, and they all contribute to certain missions cropping up, certain reactions from those aware of Shepherd’s reputation.

Bioware have built on this idea in DA by not only giving you six different choices, but ensuring the first two hours or more are completely based on whose mind you choose to immerse yourself in for the next fifty-plus hours. I think it’s a great step forward for the RPG genre – remember, WoW fans, how you’d start a new character simply to immerse yourself in the one-to-ten starting zones? It’s essentially a very similar thing with DA, and I think it’ll be a massive success.

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I will nitpick about the graphics, and that’s simply because I don’t think it fits the genre. Good science fiction, or in the case of ME, amazing science fiction, is all about believable, mature conversation about topics NASA would kill children to put into active use. The animation for these conversations in-game are what make them so effective, as no one is in any way being melodramatic or putting too much physical emphasis on their lines and more lines of dialogue.

In fantasy, I’m not so sure I can see this working. Fantasy is William Shakespeare to science fiction’s August Strindberg – the melodrama serves the universe in which the fiction is set. Dwarves are angry, Elves are arrogant, and humans are, generally, bumbling idiots but hold a few exceptions that amount to either suave anti-heroes or comedic relief. However, the conversations in the trailer still look fairly Bioware-static, and I’m worried they won’t be able to convey the stage-presence style of the dialogue that, by the look of it, remains very true to the genre in which the title is set.

As for the skill system? It’s WoW meets Mass Effect, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Specialise in one or two handed weapons, blocking, agility, tanking… and this is just for the Warrior class. Obviously, this is never going to become a multiplayer game, and it’s always a shame to see a three-man RPG suffer like this, especially if it’s on the PC as well. However, we said this initially about Too Human, and the eventual multiplayer in that case was abysmal.

The squad system has taken some seriously clever cues from the best RPG combat mechanic, in my opinion, of all time: the gambit system from FFXII. The gambit system, for those who never played FFXII, was a simple set of instructions for your allies that were all conditional: use potions when low on health, use magic until out of mana, then use a mana pot and keep on blastin’, and so on. The only major difference between the two was you had to unlock gambit options in Square’s epic RPG, and here it’s all up to you from the word go. This works very well in a game where you’d really not feel like managing the minutiae of your squadmate’s spells if you’ve chosen a physically-focused character for a reason.

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The game comes out on November 6th in Europe, and I can’t wait to stick up an in-depth review here on FTGG, though you’re looking at Christmas, earliest: if it’s being done for my enjoyment, you’ll know I’ll have only touched the review once I’ve geeked out and done every single possible thing in the game. Most reviewers will be skipping a fair bit of content, as it’s ridiculous for someone to have to write a thousand words while compressing down fifty-plus hours of gameplay, especially in the space of a week before the article due date. There are some games I’m so glad I played, rather than reviewed. This will be one of them.

You’re all heroes.

Looking back, as my graduation ceremony rapidly approaches, I think about the ridiculous amounts of work there is to do, the long nights and longer essays, and how things are only getting worse. Let me share a few personal opinions with you, and say you’re all fucking soldiers for doing the following:

  • Putting up with teachers who mark you down when you disagree with an opinion.
  • Reading and writing more in a year than the people who’re telling you to do so and failing to set the example.
  • Managing to finish your degree, and if not, even the year, to get qualifications that, due to career overcrowding and university entrance requirements getting consistently lower, no longer matter as much as they did five years ago.
  • Putting a brave face on and paying attention in lectures when you’ve been in and out of them for eight hours, with no lunch.
  • Paying fees that have risen by almost 25% in the last three years.
  • Making the most of accommodation that, for the most part, encourages depression, isolation and financial hardship due to outrageous rental charges.
  • Managing to read even one out of the four 500-page novels you’re given every week with little regard for your health or spare time.
  • (This goes double for subjective topics) Putting up with parents who don’t understand why 75 out of a possible 100 is an excellent grade and should be celebrated.
  • Making the most out of a university system that fails to encourage anyone to aim high due to the failure to use the top 20% of the grade table.
  • Shelling out for public transport when it’s free for those who are having an easier time, academically, than you are.
  • Even considering paying back a student loan that you should have never had to take out in the first place (Scotland? Free uni, and they’re not bankrupt yet).
  • (To those who do, I understand and identify if not) Working part-time jobs to pay for books and equipment that had been provided for free earlier in life because education to that level is made to feel far more valued.
  • Not complaining when a teacher cancels a lesson after a three-hour commute, knowing full well that not rescheduling prior to the following lesson has just cost you several hundred pounds.
  • And finally (lots more, but I’ve got to cap it somewhere), starting university in the first place, full of hope and deliberately ignoring all the moaning and doubts of those of us who’ve seen the dark side to the experience.

Everyone who goes to university, be it for three days or three years, should be damn proud of themselves. The system in England is horrendous and completely unforgiving, and encourages a country crippled by debt to become even more so. I hope you all get the grades you deserve, and to those who are upset that this hasn’t been the case (hell, I started off getting firsts), bear in mind that your peers will one day be at the top of the food chain, like yourselves, and you’ll be able to give graduates a better chance than they have at present.

Keep reading, keep writing, keep pushing forwards. From economics to physics, biochemistry to art history; we are the future, and the supporting structure of the next fifty years of human civilised evolution. Nothing can take away your achievement, of making it through eighteen years of complete academic bullshit and coming out sane the other side.

This is by no means a subtle reference to myself, as I’ve experienced most of the problems listed, but not all. I simply wish someone had said all of this to me when I was a freshman, as it would have made all those 59’s and 69’s, late nights and punishing exams that little bit easier. The best of luck to you all.