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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Bread

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If there’s one thing in this world I love, it’s bread. Well, in fairness, it’s Lego, football, gaming, rabbits and bread. But bread features really quite highly.

Last year I tried to take this passion a little further. I put to one side the Kenwood breakmaker and started making break from scratch. For a while I experimented with some basic white loaves but after a bad run of poorly risen, deflating, or denser than dense creations I decided to stop trying to be the next Paul Hollywood. However, after that hiatus I have returned. Inspired jointly by a couple of choice Christmas gifts and the Great British Bakeoff I’m going to start down that road once more.

Many people have said to me how they find breakmaking theraputic and I’m beginning to see that. First time round I tried to use a mixer a little too much and so the whole process felt a little bit too mechanical, merely going through the motions to get to the bread stage. This time I’m using my hands a lot more. I’m still taking advantage of Ali’s Kenwood mixer to get that initial mix going but I’m learning to enjoy kneading. The tactile sensation of hands on bread makes me feel far more engaged in the process and is ultimately quite calming.

It’s only been two weeks but I’m already enthused with what I’ve been able to do: a basic white that kept us going in sandwiches all week, and a tasty stilton and cranberry loaf that went against my initial expectations and proved a nifty flavour combination. Where this will stop, I don’t know, but as long as I get an 8-way plait going to dazzle Mr Hollywood then I’ll be happy.

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PS4 ::: The Games

Although the power of the PlayStation 4 was revealed on Wednesday night, the new tech was not shown off to any great extent. Putting to one side the graphical prowess, the other pillars of console – community sharing, new touch screens, and Gaikai-powered streaming – barely featured in the onstage presentation. Ultimately what this lead to was half an hour of poorly stage-managed hardware and system unveilings, followed by a further 90 minutes where it was left to the games to sell the new Sony’s flagship product.

And when you start the next-generation you want to do it with a bang. Something big. Something that will make people instantly get online, pull out the credit card, and pre-order. What we saw first for the PS4 was a cartoon game featuring orcs and robots that looked no more “wow” than a very smooth Jak & Daxter. Accomplished, but not an opener.

Next up was Evolution studios, they of Motor Storm, and Drive Club. There was an almost fanboyish nature to their presentation as they wittered on about modelling the carbon weave on the body work, and the way the polish would refract sunlight. I don’t think I’ve heard the word “club” mentioned so many times in a five minute period as he spoke of the virtues of online social play, but the game looked like just another racing game.

Then there was an underwhelming trailer for an inFamous sequel, David Cage showing off a high resolution head, a pretty but not next-gen Jonathan Blow and Witness. For nearly an hour I was willing the hardware to be given its moment in the sun but with each awkward presenter came either pre-rendered trailers, disappointment, or both. There was not a single game in the list above that indicated we needed a new generation.

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Thankfully for everyone Media Molecule were on the bill as they showed off a strange 3D modelling demo. Players took the Move controller and carved from virtual clay everything from bunnies to guitars and then puppeteered them. The stage show saw four members of MM grab control of a rock band and wail their way through a quick song. It was the shot in the arm, the novel twist on the norm, that the audience had needed.

The show then began its march to the end with a host of third-party offerings. Things got very pretty as Capcom demoed a gorgeous looking Skyrim-alike followed by Square Enix with a repolished version of last year’s Final Fantasy trailer. Both looked amazing but to say they were running on PS4 hardware would have been a stretch, and the level of quality without any noted gameplay elements only went to prove they were nothing but target videos produced on high end PCs.

There were two highlights however. Both Killzone and Watchdogs made appearances and not only showed themselves to be graphically impressive but playable. Actual gameplay, something sorely missing for so much of the evening. There had obviously been a lot of attention lavished on Killzone as it proved a tour de force, showing off flights through packed cities, fog and explosive effects, and such smooth animation that you wondered why it didn’t open the show.

In fact there were a lot of things to wonder on. Why present so many games that were also going to be available on the outgoing PS3? Why not highlight true innovation to make us eager for the new generation? Why give so much time to pre-renders? Why lead with such average looking titles? Why omit crucial elements such as gameplay? And where were the big guns such as The Last Guardian? The mind at time boggled as to who had booked the procession of middle aged white men and why they allowed them to drone on for so long.

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Though I found the technology and philosophy of the next-generation genuinely interesting the overly long presentation ultimately left me slightly deflated. Had they been snappier, put more able presenters on stage, and only cherry picked the flashiest or most interesting titles it could have been one for the ages. In there was a system I wanted to know more about but no one seemed to want to focus on it.

As it stands the ball is now in Microsoft’s court. With a rumoured April announcement they’ve a couple of months to polish the script and take a long hard look at where Sony wowed and where they fell flat. Though reports point to less horsepower under their hood, a good show can make that mean nothing. With the right games and a little showmanship the battle for the next-generation can begin.

PS4 ::: The Tech

So, did you stop up and watch it?

At the end of just over two hours of Sony’s press conference it felt a little on the cusp of whether it was worth the late night, but looking back on it I’d say the only reason that there was to doubt it was because they frontloaded the most interesting information into the first 30 minutes. The other 90, though packed full of interesting and shiny looking game unveils, was very slim in actual next-gen content.

But before we get into that let’s focus on the juicier parts of the night. For one, it’s confirmed that the next PlayStation will simply be called PlayStation 4. There’s no addition of an interesting name ala Nintendo or the rumoured dropping of the suffix altogether, they’ve kept it simple. I for one miss the wonder of a console’s unique name being plucked from almost thin air, but I guess for every “Dreamcast” there’s a “Wii”.

There were no actual images of the PS4 chassis, however, the console just existed in name and specs as a rather creepy, wide-eyed man talked unblinkingly about the beefed up x64 architecture, how it was developed for developers, and had a chunky 8GB of RAM. A point that had originally been touted as 4GB but after leaked Durango specs it seems Sony wanted parity. If indeed it is parity then that will make the next generation very interesting as porting from one to the other, using the same processor, same size of RAM, and a PC layout, should be far simpler than we have seen between Xbox 360 and PS3. That also bodes well for the back and forth between the PC market for the endian is now the same and the processors not so insanely scattered. Farewell, Cell, we barely knew thee.

We did see the controller, though. A slimmed and more stylish version when compared to the leaked version that surfaced this past week, but complete with the gubbins suggested by said shot. There’s a light on top that will be used by the next iteration of Move/Eye Toy to pick out the player’s position in the room; a headphone jack underneath, suggesting a move away from the Bluetooth reliance of the PS3; the curious touchpad sat above the dual sticks; and a share button. We’ll move onto that last one, but for all the features that were packed into the new Dualshock there were absolutely no demonstrations of any of them. The new forms of input are still a mystery as to how they are envisioned to work, which is very disappointing for me.

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What was demoed was the new philosophy of sharing. The PS4 will buffer the previous few minutes of you playing any game – it’s built directly into the system – and by just tapping a button on the controller you’ll be able to share you experience online. As someone who’s just started into video capture, I find the ability to plumb it straight in and out of a console amazing. Plus you can watch your friends live streams if they’re brave enough to share their digital fumblings with you.

The aspect that terrified the developer within me was the casually dropped in line of “you’ll be able to jump in at any point and help your friend if they’re struggling.” At any time? That’s some drop-in-drop-out programming that’s going to go on there. Good luck, peeps.

PSN as a whole seems to have been given a bit of a shake, looking like it’s more than borrowed a few ideas from Facebook, Xbox Live and Amazon Recommends in the process. There’s talk of making it far more social, sharing far more and then taking it past more than just your PlayStation friends. Details were quite wooly but if your friends lists becomes your Twitter followers and your Facebook account then I think that’s very cool.

Online will also see the integration of Gaikai, the game streaming service brought to us by Papa Earthworm, Dave Perry. Having snapped the company up last year it was always mooted that it would appear in the next-generation and it was shown today to provide instant access to demo and games from the PlayStation Store, and possibly be the solution to backwards compatibility. Whilst the hardware itself won’t support PS3 discs, there is talk of having them run in The Cloud and streamed to your box. A novel solution indeed, but I think the focus here should be on the possibility of pulling down from the servers instantly streaming new releases. That alone opens up possibilities for game rental, the PlayStation Plus account, and saving on installing countless Blu-Rays to a limited hard-drive. That to me is the biggest next-gen feature on show.

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This was backed up with a rallying cry to all Vita owners: using such streaming, the Vita will have Remote Play for every PS4 title. With the tap of a button, what you see on the telly will instead be piped to your handheld for you to continue playing whilst your other-half watches Embarrassing Bodies. This is the shot in the arm the much maligned portable has been needing, and if they follow through with this promise then not only will they see Vita sales rocket but also take away one of the Wii-U’s USPs.

Of course elsewhere the graphics were pretty and everything, and I’ll talk game specifics later on, but that was implied by the very notion of the 4 in the consoles name. The real advancements that I was interested in were in the controller, the services and the way the technology was used. Sadly there weren’t a great deal of demos surrounding the new features, but I guess that’s what we may see at E3.

For now though I was impressed. There were enough new concepts and shifts in company focus to have gained my attention. They may have been presented by a serious of oddballs, all of which seemed to be lacking sleep and as a result be in various states of delirium, but throughout the lacklustre presentation the nuggets of real information that surfaced made me hungry to see more.

Sony. You have my attention.

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Borderlands 2 ::: Hands On

We continue to work through our pile of shame – blame Christmas and a lack of time for the back log – and stumble upon Borderlands 2. Not a fan of the first one, James tries again with three other chums as they seek the perfect gun.

Of course there’s no such thing as the perfect gun; it can always have flame bullets, or fire mini RPGs. But it’s fun looking.

Wreck-It Ralph

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How did you spend your Valentine’s evening? Roses? Chocolates? Candle lit dinners? Well I pity you all as I was treated by my lovely wife to an evening out to see Wreck-It Ralph, the new gaming-centric film from Disney.

Set in an arcade it follows the adventure of Ralph, a lummox who plays a role very similar to that of Donkey Kong in the great ape’s debut. Each time a quarter goes in the machine, Ralph scales a building, smashing it up on the way, and then hurls odds and sods down at the hero of the game, Fix-It Felix. After 30 years of doing this however the “bad guy” label is souring Ralph and he looks instead to become a hero. Hijinks ensue as Ralph then heads off around the arcade in search of recognition, glory, and something shiny.

Though Ralph, Felix and the rest of their game is complete fiction, a huge part of the draw to see Wreck-It Ralph was the lengths Disney had gone to make them feel part of real video gaming history. The well-publicised early trailer shows Ralph mixing with other “bad guys” Zangief from Street Fighter, Bowser from Super Mario, and Doctor Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog. Furthermore, the scenes set in Game Central Station drop countless nods and winks to many arcade games past and present. This is the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of gaming and with each cameo or hidden Easter Egg to our hobby it not only cements Ralph in the world but makes the uber-nerd in me squeal with excitement. At one point even Ali leaned over to me – breaking the code of conduct – and whispered “Is that ‘Leroy Jenkins’ graffiti on the wall behind Felix?“

With such great fan service there was a large part of me that worried whether the film would only hold its own because of these references. Thankfully, that’s not the case and I came out afterwards pleasantly entertained. After the early scene setting, Ralph and the cast break out into the handful of fictional arcade games that the plot revolves around and settles into traditional animated fare. There’s the humour, the side kick, the misunderstanding and then the triumphant return from the misunderstanding: a tale as old as Disney itself. Whilst not up to the lofty level set by Pixar, Disney hold their own and tread a good line between sentimentality, action and humour.

In the latter case there’s a good kid’s level of jokes that centres around silly insults and the mistaking of the world “duty” for something more faecal. For the adults, there aren’t too many sniggering at things kids wouldn’t understand; instead we get away with appreciating all the gaming references from our youth. It may be a different way to bring in both audiences when compared to the makers of Toy Story but it’s a solid tactic all the same as nostalgia is a very powerful thing.

It won’t stay with you as long as other animated classics, but for anyone looking for some extremely accomplished mainstream love for our pastime you can’t go far wrong.

Paper Mario Sticker Star ::: Hands On

Very pleased with the cradle he made to capture Wii U tablet footage, James returns and creates a harness for his 3DS.

Join him as he takes you on a tour of the latest in the Paper Mario series. Wielding his trusty hammer, Mario sets forth to save the Mushroom Kingdom is this quaint, 2D RPG. Just make sure you stick it on straight.

XCOM ::: Review

Usually it’s FIFA that sees me trot out the well-worn phrase “a game of two halves”, but never has it been more appropriate than with XCOM. Though it has been much vaunted for its turn-based-strategy, pitching a handful of elite soldiers against the best an invading force of aliens has to offer, it also has a deep management simulation attached to it too. Sim Earth Defence Force, or Men in Black Tycoon, if you will.

For every shot that’s fired on the battlefield, there’s a wad of paper being pushed behind the scenes to make sure that your forces are funded and provided for. Engineers and scientists need recruiting alongside your hardened marines, captured aliens require interrogating (and in turn dissecting), plus the skies above earth need defence jets and satellites to monitor the alien’s presence. There’s a lot to juggle.

However, rather than being awash with cash as the world’s nations turn to you for protection, they throw a pittance of a budget at you and expect you to do wonders. That money then needs splitting and how you divide that will affect your mission readiness. Launching a new satellite may reassure the world and bring in little extra cash, but the base is running low on juice and could do with a new power plant being built. Whichever way you turn the money could equally have been as well spent elsewhere. Even at the height of the evasion with Paris under imminent invasion, I built a new fighter plane and I had guilt pangs knowing how many sets of body armour or plasma guns I had just sacrificed for France. Bloody France!

And for me that was captivating; the well balanced trade-offs that meant for every advancement there was a sacrifice paired with it. Completely ignoring a portion of the operation will only spell defeat, and yet overinvest in an area and you may find everyone else struggling to reap its benefits as they bid to catch up. Though it may not be as open or deep as many standalone management games, it’s very easy to spend a great deal of care and attention balancing every department’s and country’s needs.

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All the time this frugal simulation takes place with the XCOM building itself the backdrop, as though a very high-tech ant farm. In mission command, the hologram of the world will blaze away, whilst to the left engineers and scientists buzz about their business and to the right your soldiers prepare for insertion.

These soldiers are the life blood of XCOM: the souls that you’ll be commanding directly, and used as your own well-armed chess pieces against the alien invasion. From a high view above the battlefield you’ll move them from cover to cover, sweeping across the ground, taking out any bogeys they encounter. It’s a turn based affair, with each of your men (or women) getting two actions to move, shoot, take over watch or perform a special actions, such as heal or fire a special weapon.

With the enemy getting the same, it turns into a very strategic battle with both sides fighting for cover and to get the drop on the other. Left out in the open and your troops will be lucky if there’s enough left of them to fill a body bag, so most turns are spent ensuring that your advancement is to behind trees, building corners and walls, only then poking your nose out to shoot. It’s a slow but rewarding pace as you stretch your forces out, close in and apply pressure.

Actual shooting comes down to a dice roll, taking into account a soldier’s skill, any perks they have, and the angle they have on their target. It’s not simply a case of lining your cross hairs up. This further plays into the engrossing battlefield tactics as you seek to expose weakness through outflanking, playing to your strengths or just overwhelming force if it comes down to it. With different classes at your disposal from medics to assault troops, they all mesh together to help you form a squad that will play to your preferred style of play. Those who like blunt force could load up on nothing but heavies, saturating the battlefield with heavy machine gun fire, whilst I much prefer an approach that sees two crack snipers lurking at the back, finishing off the targets flushed out by my ever-advancing assault troops.

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The enemy is equally varied, if not more so, with giant floating metal discs, insectoid monsters that turn their victims into zombies, and greys that like to mind-control your best men. They’re a highly diverse band of invaders and this alone helps keep you on your toes as you tackle each map. Though they’ll all succumb to withering fire eventually, different approaches are required to tackle each race efficiently, whilst facing multiple types at once always proves testing as you try and prioritise threats.

What comes together is a very simple mechanic that is elevated by the superb way it’s varied. Through forests, cities and crashed UFOs you’ll patiently stalk your prey, only to find yourself on the defensive as their assault troops crash through your lines, or their psychics play merry hell with your minds.

Although a few hours in, once you’re used to the brutal difficulty level and the caution it promotes, you’ll find yourself settling into a routine. Edging forward, setting as many men to over-watch as possible, you become a well drilled military outfit. By the sheer length of time you find yourself going through these motions, preparing for combat, it can occasionally grind. Routine missions will definitely feel as though you’re on auto-pilot, and just as in a FIFA season there are times when I longed for a “simulate” button so I could go on tinkering with XCOM’s financials.

Quite conversely, some of the best experiences are when things have taken a significant turn for the worse. The squad’s been torn asunder and with only a sniper and a medic left I’ve scrapped my way out through a mix of sheer luck and a lot of hiding. Popping that last alien right between the eyes and reaching the extraction zone truly makes you feel like you’ve witnessed a supreme feat of human heroism against more advanced beings. Plus you’re just grateful your ace sniper is still with you.

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What XCOM boils down to is an incredible act of balancing. In the management sim, the trade-offs you’re forced to make are all equally worthwhile and therefore equally painful to take; in the field, it’s whether to send in the talented veteran or the expendable but less dependable rookie; do you risk getting close and capturing the alien aggressors to aid your scientists, or pepper them from afar to stay safe. They all come from a game that gives you so much choice, all of it fair.

Firaxis has created a supremely clever strategy game, one that is equally accessible but demanding. It’s scratched that itch that I’ve been looking for ever since the last Full Spectrum Warrior and all I hope is that I don’t have to wait the same length of time again for another.