Thursday, 19 October 2017

A Post about Cuphead

Cuphead came out on Xbox One and PC a couple weeks back, and given that very, very little was heard or shown for nearly five years as it was being put together, I imagine that lost some people some bets. For my part, I didn’t know shit about it until it came out and everyone lost their minds. Never one to miss out on a cup of koolaid, I decided to head to the Steam store to see what all the fuss was about.

What we’re fussing about is a 2d shoot-em-up from indie studio MDHR, reminiscent of Contra or Mega Man, with focus on elaborate, multi-phase and bloody difficult boss battles. You assume the role of Cuphead (and optionally his brother Mugman for co-op), a cheerful boy with a cup for a head whose penchant for gambling with the actual Devil has got him into quite a bit of trouble, the little scamp. Satan, ever magnanimous, offers to waive the soul debt if Cuphead retrieves the debts of the other inhabitants of Inkwell Isle (the bosses), which he does by shooting them up (the battles).

These fundamentals are solid, but not particularly special. The specialness is the style. Cuphead channels the vibrantly hand-drawn cartoons of the ‘30s and ‘40s, trying its hardest to look and feel like it came straight out of the golden age of animation. Believe it or not from my world weary outlook and, tired, soulful eyes, I’m about 70 years too young to have been fully immersed in the cartoons Cuphead homages, but I’m familiar with the type- Tex Avery and all that.

aye awrite Billy Bitcoin calm down
And here’s the thing – the look, the sound, the style of this game is perhaps better than the real thing ever was- an idealised, rose tinted hindsight on what was pretty good to begin with. I can’t exaggerate how much I love it. Also, unlike real old-timey cartoons, it’s not, you know, racist. It’s a big statement, but I got a big mouth- Cuphead’s visuals are basically perfect. That is to say it succeeds completely in the style it sets out for, the ‘30s animation thing. Everyone should know by now that art direction beats the piss out of technical finesse every time when it comes to great graphics, and Cuphead proves it.

But it goes further than looks, a lot further. Every detail, from sound effects and music to the layout of menus and title screens, is excellent and feels so right. Let me tell you how a level starts in Cuphead- c’mon, it’ll only take a paragraph. You first traverse the prettily handdrawn overworld to a start point. There’s an amusing title card, like it’s an episode of a show, says something like “Hilda Berg in Threatenin’ Zeppelin”; you select difficulty and it loads up- well drawn Cuphead at one side, a beautifully drawn villain at the other, and an exquisitely drawn background behind. There’s an announcer who has only a handful of voice clips, but all of which just fit with the experience, in the words and speech- “A great slam and then some, and begin!” The word ‘WALLOP!’ flashes across the screen, a wonderful and period correct jazz tune swells in accompaniment, and only now does battle begin- you haven’t even played Cuphead yet, but you’re having a wonderful time just looking at it.

But when you do play, the next thing you’ll notice, the other thing about the game, is the difficulty- there’s quite a lot of it. You normally have three hit points, and while these can be expanded with equipment it comes at the cost of damage output and precludes you from using other items. Three hits until death is a fairly tall order with these bosses shooting, punching and leaping at you in pattern memorisation bullet hell fashion- die, and you have to start the fight from the beginning, no checkpoints.  Bosses, by contrast, have huge, unseen health pools that you have to chip away at while evading, and will switch to a (usually far nastier) new form two or more times upon taking enough of a beating.

it was hard to get screenshots and also fight this rat guy sorry 
Fights are demanding and unforgiving in a very old school kind of way- I told you, Contra and Mega Man. Honestly, I’m not even that good- it took me 14 hours or so to get through, and that length is almost all beating my head off of tough bosses. But for me at least, it was the good kind of difficulty, that makes you reflect on how to improve and which you feel so so good at conquering- I never got apoplectic about my many deaths in Cuphead, but your mileage may vary. While your Dark Souls and such has made difficulty trendy, some folks that were maybe art fans more than game fans were drawn to the game by the look, and found it not their cup of tea. They might have a point when they ask if Cuphead, a game where the main appeal is the looks, need to be so punishingly exclusive about the skill levels of those who get to look at it?

My answer is yes, but only because the talented creators at MDHR wanted it that way. I understand these madmen remortgaged homes and such in their commitment to the project, and it has paid off and then some. Cuphead is a solid set of mechanics with a distinctive level of challenge and greatly elevated as a package by the quality of its presentation- a creative work only gets to be that way because it was made with a huge amount of love and attention. Independent production by a small team allows vision and personality to be deeply ingrained in the product rather than stamped on as an afterthought- the style and challenge of Cuphead makes it one of the most charming and personality-filled games I’ve played in a long, long time. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

WipEout Omega Collection- Faster Remastered

So the WipEout Omega Collection came out last month, and I’m not sure how I feel about all that. On the one hand- WipEout is bloody great! So great I will type its name in all its ridiculous stylisation. I love the pace and weird handling of the futuristic anti gravity racing and the sheer style of its presentation, and I have done since I unexpectedly got a PSP with WipEout Pure because it was the cheapest bundle.

On the other hand, this is merely a collection of content previously released over the last 9 years or so (most of which I’ve already tasted), and the reason there’s nothing much new here is because Sony ruthlessly killed the series by shuttering developer Studio Liverpool in what I still consider a targeted attack on my way of life. I bought it anyway.

What you buy is a package of the PS3’s WipEout HD, its vast and combat-focused expansion Fury, and WipEout 2048, which was previously exclusive to the ill-fated Vita handheld. That’s actually a hell of a lot- three full campaigns with several exciting modes, dozens of tracks and ships to choose from, comprehensive custom race options, and probably other things I take for granted as one steeped in the world of AG racing. Visuals are shined and polished in the way you’d expect from the now ubiquitous remaster release, with 4K support for PS4 Pro owners, and these games which were gorgeous to begin with look appreciably better even in 1080p.

WipEout is a unique experience- its floaty but fiercely quick hover-ships, complete with airbrakes and pitch controls, handle nothing like simulated cars, and though you pick up weapons from the track and hit boost pads where you can it’s certainly not like playing a kart racer. Every event is genuinely, pulse raisingly intense- races and battles due to the aggression and proficiency of your rivals, time trials due to the extreme precision needed to meet challenging targets, and all of them coming with a truly relentless sense of speed. Every discipline has its place, but my favourite remains Zone mode, a sort of survival event where you’re strapped into a ship that will continue accelerating forever, whether you’re crying or not, and must keep it in one piece for as long as you can before sweet relief comes in the form of inevitable disintegration.  

Moreover, the game is fucking cooool. The art direction on ships, scenery and even the interface is appealingly futuristic, although not believably so as it suggests the future is likely to be good. Race sounds, from the hum and whine of ships to the voice prompts warning you of incoming shooting, fit perfectly, and the driving electronic soundtrack contributes massively to the overall atmosphere. While plot is wisely left largely absent, there is a certain amount of pleasing background lore for those who care for it, with each of the game’s racing teams having a larger than life backstory. Effort and craft has gone into making the game’s vision and style coherent and attractive- particularly evident in the 2048 content, which covers the first days of anti-grav racing in a world recognisable but enhanced, contrasting with the WipEout HD’s extremely techy and far off era.

So I like it, but I liked it when I bought it before. The 2048 content is new to me, but only because I was too smart to fall for the Vita- everything else is familiar. The remake and remaster trend is nothing new, of course (and I do keep buying them, with Crash Bandicoot and Call of Duty 4 joining the collection last week), but I sort of resent the marketing of this release, playing to nostalgic fondness- “remember WipEout? Wasn’t it good?” Yes I remember, you bastards, and I remember how you cut it down in its prime! Supporting this release isn’t really a show of support for the series- Studio Liverpool, formerly Psygnosis, is dead, and given their intimate connection to the game from the very beginning it is safe to assume any future possibilities for this fairly niche franchise died with them.

Remastered re-releases of games seem to be a hallmark of this console generation- some of them are well executed and enhance the original, but all of them share the lazy basic premise of selling something they sold before. Digging up the classics is one thing, but the treatment being applied to a recently defunct series makes me uneasy. Yes, I enjoy having a new WipEout release to play through, and developer XDev has done a great job with this remaster (I’m assured it looks genuinely incredible in 4K)- however, the whole thing seems to amount to a requiem. Though sales have apparently been strong, I can’t see anything new for this unusual series, and without its parent studio holding the joystick I’m not sure I’d want it. So is this Omega Collection a treat for those who cared for WipEout and thought it was over, or a cynical effort to cheaply and easily cash in on a nostalgic fanbase who deserve better? Am I and the rest of the WipEout faithful being saluted, or exploited? It could be both- certainly what’s being sold here is quality- but I can’t help but wish WipEout hadn’t gone out like this.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Game Review: DOOM (2016)

I wasn’t sure about the new Doom for a while. Why would I be? Doom 3 was lacklustre, and Doom 2 was twenty years ago. There was no reason to think the thrash metal glory days of the game about beating up literal demons in literal Hell, the game that made first person shooters what they became, could be reclaimed in this wretched age of metrosexual pop and games with no challenge about people’s feelings.   

My skepticism was compounded by having sampled the multiplayer beta before release, to find it deeply uninspired. I was reassured to learn that this component was developed separately from the main campaign, which was to be the focus. £40 for a game where I know going in I’m not interested in a big part, though? It felt steep enough for me to hold off until I saw some reviews and got bored enough to want something new. Doubt lingered, however; with the legendary id software founders behind the originals long since departed from the studio, could a new Doom game be a good Doom game? Could it even be a good game at all?

Well, shit yes, it turns out. Doom of 2016 has against the odds pulled it off, creating an impressive and surprisingly modern re-imagining of the legendary series. It’s not like classic Doom, not really- that’s a very old game, where everything took place on a single plane, there was no free look, and technical limitations restricted enemy behaviours and player abilities. That heritage is respected here, but the trap of embarrassing faux-retro pandering is avoided, with the game very much offering a fresh take on the old principles of thrilling, high-speed combat, intelligent level design and also dizzying ultra-violence.
Breakneck action makes non-blurry screenshots impossible.

For the uninitiated, the premise is this simple. You are a nameless warrior only referred to as the Doom Marine. You have awoken on Mars in the far future, because the research colony there has got itself overrun by an army of horrifying murderous demons. You’re going to fight every Goddamn one of them.

And fight you will- I can’t possibly rave about the combat enough. Modern shooter staples like health regen, aiming down sights and even reloading are thrown out the airlock. A loading screen advises you that to stop moving is to die- the natural inversion is that to move is to live, and the incredible vibrancy of Doom’s battles supports this. You jump and you strafe and you run, constantly dodging into whatever gap you can find between flying claws and fireballs, blasting away all the while at the diverse cast of otherworldly abominations. Most combat encounters have a vertical element (something I really like in shooters), from raised areas or platforms and also from flying baddies like the Revenant, a gigantic screaming skeleton with rocket launchers that returns from the old games with the truly horrifying addition of a fucking jetpack. Classic Doom does not have this kind of mobility, but it is a perfect evolution of that game’s run ’n’ gun spirit.

Speaking of guns- this game has some. Mostly fresh takes on the original’s arsenal, all look and feel superbly meaty and satisfying. Though many of the game’s enemies are so large and nasty as to require lots of shooting, it does not feel that your weapons are weak, but rather that your foes are mighty. This is an area where some modern game design has been effectively included, as weapons have attachments and upgrades earned through play and exploration. These upgrades are instrumental in turning the tide, but don't feel out of place in the new formula. The chainsaw is of course back, and is here made an occasional use instant kill that produces a piñata of gore and more usefully ammunition- a welcome spin that fits this game well.
You like Terminator 2? We all do.

Essential to the new gameplay is the “glory kill”, where wounded enemies are opened up for an especially gory hand-to-hand finishing move, causing them to drop health items. There’s a little bit of variety in these, with different animations (with the same gruesome results) playing out depending on your aim and angle on the unfortunate beastie. It works well as a replacement for the now-ubiquitous health regeneration in shooters because it forces the player to be proactive- when in a tight spot, you must not retreat but attack, contributing to the freneticism of every fight. I didn’t get fed up with these as I feared I might, and they are snapped off so quickly that they don’t bog the game down. They’re pretty damn satisfying for the most part, enhancing the player’s feeling of badassedness that is core to this game’s appeal.

In keeping with the respect for the classics, the difficulty settings have the same names they always did, and there seems to be a good step in between them. I played on Ultra-Violence, which amounts to hard mode, and was challenging, but at times I found myself considering bumping it up to Nightmare, partly because high-speed extreme-violence demon murder seems to be something I have a prodigious natural talent for, but mainly because I wanted more fighting. The combat is so good, so thrilling and so satisfying that finally clearing a room of its swarm of monsters leaves one minorly disappointed that there is nothing left to kill.

Having, ahem, sorted out the demon problem, you might have time to notice that there’s a lot right with the level design, too. The game’s stages feel particularly old-school, with maze-like elements driving the player to seek out keys (which are sometimes cards, sometimes coloured skulls and at least once a severed arm) and backtrack to the corresponding doors- very old-Doom, very Quake 1. And like those games, there are secrets! Remember those? Every level has several hidden areas containing useful upgrades, weapons that would otherwise be obtained later or delightful collectible Doomguy bobbleheads. Exploration and close attention to the automap are thus rewarded greatly, with diligent players gaining a significant advantage from the extra gear available to them.

On my extremely sick gaming PC, that I recently built myself from raw components like Tony fucking Stark, the game runs on Ultra graphics at 60ish frames per second, and looks pretty nice. Interiors hark back to Doom 3’s gritty industrial setting, exteriors at times offer striking Martian landscapes, and the Hell levels are suitably nightmarish. Most demons are familiar, and their new designs are largely good, if mostly on a brownish palette- my favourite is the frightful Revenant, which I might remind you has a bastarding jetpack now, with the Imps taking second place thanks to their impressive animations. The textures are crisp and the models well drawn, but I would say the art direction generally failed to blow me away. Mad props must go to Mick Gordon’s excellent techno-metal soundtrack which perfectly complements the dark aesthetic and pumps up the intense action.

One small criticism I have is for the game's storytelling. Purists may regard this as superfluous, and it is, but they did a little of it and I think more could have been done. There is a plot, told through cutscenes and radio messages, that is at least a little interesting, if only because the mute protagonist is clearly paying as much attention to it as your average shooter fan might. The writing's hammy in a way that works, but the only additional flavour available comes from collectible datalogs scattered around. These paint a picture of the events that led to the cataclysm, but I found myself missing some Half-life style environmental storytelling. I'd have really liked, for example, to encounter one or two survivors hiding out and holding snippets of information. Instead, every living thing you meet is a horrible monster. It's nice for the conscience to know that there's zero risk of civilian casualties because literally everyone has already been killed by demons, but it does leave the whole place feeling a little, well, lifeless. I suppose it does work to keep the game moving, and is a minor objection in any case.

I still haven’t touched the multiplayer, nor the significantly more promising "Snapmap" custom level features, but Doom of 2016 is one of my favourite games of this year. Not only does it stand well on its own thanks to the incredible combat, it's a delightful surprise and a loving homage to a legendary piece of gaming history. I love it, and I'm so pleased that the franchise is in safe hands and relevant once again. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Unknown Roads- Baby's First Attempt At Travel Writing

I’m not a travel writer. I’ll give you my ass-ignorant ill-considered on videogames, movies,  books,  and automobilia, whatever trash is on my mind, or half-assedly turn out a short story or grossly exaggerate my plans for novels, but I never tried that noble genre that people actually like to read- travel. There’s a good reason for this- I studiously avoid travelling anywhere for any reason. My sincerely held belief is that everywhere on the Lord’s earth sucks ass, and going anywhere to experience the local suckiness is a waste of valuable time and resources that could be better spent on doing nothing at all. However! I sincerely enjoy motorcycles, and because they have wheels, travelling is a necessary function of using them. So when a trusted associate of mine informed me he was planning a camping trip with some trusted associates of his, I promptly invited myself to ride up and join them for a day, and since this has now happened I will, in fact, write something about the experience for you.

My associate assured me that I would be welcome to join in, but that the intended destination, Loch Morar, was too far for a mere jaunt. Consulting the map, I found this was true- it was about 150 miles, which meant a round trip would be a 300 mile day in the saddle. My poor ass quivered at the thought of such punishment- this would, after all, be my first ever proper long-distance two-wheeled tour. Overnight, then. I’d bungee a tent and some beer and the less essential stuff to the back, ride up and camp with the boys, then return the next day. Far better idea.

However, it did raise issue of cargo. My newly-acquired 2003 Suzuki SV650S, the steed for this mission, had only one small storage space beneath the passenger seat, big enough for the toolkit and a small bottle of Pepsi at a push, so creativity would be required. The instruction manual for the throwover panniers I was able to dig out of the garage was apologetic straight away, whining about motorcycles being a “hostile environment for luggage”, but with inventive use of the straps and hooks provided I was able to affix them fairly securely. The tent was another story- a huge relic of the seventies that my father dragged out of some dusty spider den in the attic, the monstrous thing had to be perched on the pillion seat and optimistically wrapped up with bungee cord and hope.
The route, complete with quite optimistic estimated travel time.

Things got easier when my contact revealed that poor weather conditions had kiboshed the camping notion, and that the team had retreated to a house to which he had a family connection and accordingly keys. The bulky tent was immediately ditched, and the panniers and rucksack more readily carried were filled with what I deemed myself to need (beer, junk food and a sleeping bag). At this point, I was not at all concerned by the ominous phrase “poor weather conditions”. Later, I would be.

The route, at least, was simple. Pick my way across Glasgow city and get on the A82, then follow that up and up and up all the way to Fort William, passing Loch Lomond and Glencoe on the way, then hop on to the smaller A830 towards Mallaig until reaching the town and loch both named Morar. Fast roads and killer scenery all the way. North, north, and some west, into some proper Highland shit, through places with names like ‘Achallader’ and ‘Ballachulish’.

It was windy and drizzly as I prepared to leave, but not at that point frighteningly so. I backed the bike down the driveway, zero’d the trip computer and checked the luggage hadn’t already fallen off, and set out. I got across the city of Glasgow without incident, no mean feat in itself, opting to cross the river via the Clyde Tunnel rather than Erskine Bridge due to the wind. I passed Dumbarton with little more than drizzle, but as I approached Loch Lomond the rain really started. Really, really fucking started. It’s an unpalatable truth of all outdoor activity that even the best waterproof gear is eventually permeable, and rain this hard found the cracks in my own outfit in mere minutes. Worse, the combination of rain in the air and on my visor was nearly blinding, and water was standing on the road, decimating grip and concealing potholes. Bunched up with tourists and trucks, I trooped on through the downpour.

It rained hard the entire length of Loch Lomond, and that’s a long damn loch. Very cold and very wet, I broke off the main route to stop in the village of Crianlarch. A vile mini-mart coffee reinvigorated me somewhat as I tried to dry sodden gloves with a public bathroom hand-dryer, and, sheltered in a bus stop, I tapped out a text to mother that glossed over the full horror of the weather.

Despite the load of luggage and my flabby body, the punchy Suzuki climbed past Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy without a murmur of complaint. Acquired only a couple of weeks previously, the SV was my first large capacity bike, with my previous 125cc machine only sold the day before, and it was refreshing to ride a bike with this kind of easy torque. Even in top gear, opening the throttle gives an urgent surge of acceleration, and above about 6000RPM things start to go quite bananas as you approach the redline at 11,000. Attack-mode high revving wasn’t appropriate, of course, but at a cruise the chilled out 650cc v-twin motor sounded great and ran better, happy to sit on most of the sweeping A82 in fifth or sixth gear, only once attempting alarmingly to grab a mythical gear in between. As I moved onto Glencoe,  weather soured once more, spoiling the magnificent road and scenery somewhat and adding challenge to the constant task of passing dawdling tourist traffic without obstructing the occasional very enthusiastic big-BMW touring bike as they passed my dawdling ass.

Christ, there were a lot of big BMWs. Slowed up by traffic after Glencoe, I pulled into the McDonald’s at Fort William for a well-deserved cheeseburger and startlingly decent coffee behind an R1200GS, and it’s easy to see the appeal. The ultra-rugged Paris-Dakar design with heavy duty weather protection and inbuilt hard luggage openly declares its unburstable long distance ability. I hear they have heated damn seats- for rider and passenger! They call these (and their many imitators) “adventure bikes”, and their drastic overcapability for what a normal rider needs has made them a huge sales hit. For the kind of ride I was doing, that’s the tool to have, all right- but for the kind of budget I have, the SV is a more realistic (and, it was turning out, perfectly capable) choice.

Knowing I was getting into some real Deliverance type backwoods shit from there on, I topped up the tank before I left Fort William, though the high-gear open road cruising was not thirsty work. I wasn’t sure what the final leg would entail- I knew I’d be following signs for Mallaig but not going all the way there, and my father had advised that his recollection of the A830 was of a very narrow, very country road. The reality was a little different. The road had undergone some renovations in the (many, many) years since Dad had last traversed it, and was now a wide, smooth highway sweeping up the coast with branches out to various villages en route. Aside from the still iffy weather conditions, the only hazard came from the death defying overtaking antics of locals- when a tiny hatchback and large van simultaneously blazed past me as I progressed at an indicated two over the speed limit, I knew they were not fucking about.

Eventually I found the exit for Morar, which turned out only to be before Mallaig by about two miles. The weather had relented, and I rolled into the quiet village in some very pleasant evening sunshine a mere two and a half hours later than planned (most of which could be attributed to my lengthy stops, but I value the skin on my body enough to reduce my pace in such hellish conditions). The boys welcomed me as a hero, partly because my sodden clothing betrayed my trials, but mostly because I had beer and they did not.  We ate and drank and I recuperated in the really very pleasant house, and I found that my trash bag luggage waterproofing system had been, surprisingly, one hundred percent effective. As we watched a ridiculous Ray Mears DVD, I took a moment to reflect on what had been a tricky day- a long, wet ride through unfamiliar places, and realised I was already looking back fondly, and looking forward to the return leg.

After a few hours of fitful (and according to the other chaps, very snorey) floor sleep, Wednesday brought clear skies and dry roads. We tidied the house and convoy’d over to the lochside for a quick walk; the SV’s easy handling allowing me to dodge cyclists, sheep, and sheep shit on the narrow single-track. With the sun shining, the sweeping A830 back to Fort William was the kind of road a biker dreams of, and I got the hammer down enough catch and pass the rest of the guys despite their headstart- though given they were in a rented Vauxhall, that was perhaps not some Tourist Trophy shit. I was under the impression we’d be rendezvousing for lunch, but the bastards passed straight by while I waited at the supermarket, bleating that they had to get to car back to the rental place on time. No matter, I realised. With a dry and sunny Glencoe ahead, the ride home was going be magnificent- and so it proved.

And the real truth is that the ride is what’s important. My first ever tour, though a reasonably short one, was a blast despite the very worst efforts of the weather. As obviously, unmistakably awesome as a top of the line BMW is, “adventure motorcycle” is something of a redundancy. Any ride is an adventure- any bike is for touring, especially one so user friendly as my SV650. And while there are pastimes other than touring a motorcycle, I’m confident that none can match the feelings of freedom and exploration coupled with the simple thrill of riding- so, I don’t give a fuck about any of them.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

On First Bikes and Next Bikes

My current bike, a Yamaha YZF-R125
I love my motorcycle. Let me introduce you- it’s a 2008 Yamaha YZF-R125 in the slightly unfortunately named “Impact Yellow” colour scheme. Yamaha saw a gap in the L-plate suitable small-displacement motorcycle market for something that was actually desirable, and promptly filled it with a bike that sold tremendously. The bike combines noob-friendly handling and power output with the look and feel of a proper big-engine motorbike. As a first bike, it comes highly recommended. But! Alas, that little engine isn’t enough to keep a bike fiend entertained forever, no matter how much he thrashes it, and sooner or later I’ll sadly part ways with my beloved little Yammy for something with a bit more grunt. The question is- what?

My lizard brain immediately answers- R1. Small wonder that the atavistic part of the human psyche that wants only to fight, fuck and devour (in that order) everything it sees is attracted to Yamaha’s ferocious 180 mile-per-hour race-bred 1000cc superbike flagship, but the more developed primate brain feels differently. An R1 is far too much for someone with just one year’s riding experience to handle, it says, you’d die and lose your licence (maybe not in that order). Such a fierce machine would be a bit wasted on the fifteen mile commute to university. Plus, once there, such a predatory bastard thing slouched indifferently on its sidestand by the gate might frighten the more sensitive female students.
The widowmaking Yamaha YZF-R1.

So an R1 (or any of its similarly mental litre-class stablemates from the other manufacturers) is not really an option (yet…). Much as I dig the race-bike aesthetic, the less powerful 600cc supersports bikes are probably still a bit much, in their aggressive, track-focused handling setup perhaps more than raw power, and used examples are likely to have been thrashed relentlessly by horny lizard-men. And, let’s face it- they’re compact and uncomfortable and not really for massive fat bastards like me. What's to be done?

Believe it or not, there are some bikes I’m drawn to that aren’t insane, that might even be sensible. The Suzuki SV650 has a very manageable power output from its fruity V-twin engine, and, while on the budget end of the spectrum, can still call itself a proper sportbike with a straight face. Plus, in half-faired “S” form, it’s a jolly handsome bike. This is important because people judge a man based on how good his bike looks. It’s not just, but that’s life. The SV is cheap, though, in more than just list price, and there are more thrilling rides out there.
The playful Suzuki SV650.

A Kawasaki Ninja 250R would be a decent shout. The wee green machine (or black, if the first owner didn’t understand the fucking point of a Kawasaki) is a new-biker favourite in the US and with good reason- it looks good and inspires confidence. With only a little bit more poke than my current bike, the Ninja is available to me right now, unlike more powerful machinery which would really have to wait until the two-year probationary period on my licence had elapsed in December. A 250cc bike would still offer much of the economy and usability I’ve grown used to from the 125cc- good, since my primary use is commuting through town to university. However, it’s only a kind of half-step, and I’d still want to make another upgrade once it was available, and they’re
expensive, too.

A Ninja 250R in the correct lime green.
Perhaps the most promising upgrade prospect comes not from one bike, but a class of them. Prior to the current trend for really hardcore racetrack focused sports bikes, there were 600cc all-rounders that combined comfy seats and road-friendly design with more than enough speed to thoroughly upset the constabulary. These bikes, notably the Yamaha YZF600R Thundercat, the Honda CBR600F and the Kawasaki ZZR600, really fell from fashion once the (admittedly far sexier) race replica bikes came on the scene, and as a consequence can these days be picked up for not really much money at all- I’ve seen roadworthy examples for £800, and shite but redeemable ones for under £500. But there’s nothing wrong with them! They’re quick, reliable, good looking (except maybe the ZZR which is a bit of a land-barge) and less harsh to ride than the bikes that succeeded them. And they’re not complete pussycats either- before the new racier bikes hit, these were what were used for racebikes, and they’ll give you 150mph and 11 second quarter miles. However, one of these would still be a considerable leap up in performance from the R125, with all the bastarding running costs associated with that, and even the final models released are old now, with all the bastarding repair costs associated with that.

Left to right- A CBR600F, ZZR600 and YZF600R Thundercat- each overlooked in favour of their sexier but higher maintenance younger sisters.
Difficult decisions, eh? It’s probably worth remembering that modern Japanese-built motorcycles are basically quite good, and that it’s hard to get one that’s just shite- there’s not really a wrong choice to be made here. But it still weighs heavy on my mind, occupying brain function that really should be devoted to nobler pursuits, like passing my law degree and convincing a nice young lady to go out with me. Fucking motorcycles! Dangerous even when you’re out of the saddle!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Note On 1990 Era Performance Cars

This is a third generation Nissan Skyline GT-R, and I am about to rap to you about why it should make your little dick hard like frozen diamond. What, it look like a respectable saloon? That’s its fucking secret. This is a straight up fucking weapon with the perfect disguise, like a six year old girl packed with dynamite and Soviet ideologies. How does a 2.3 litre inline-six cylinder engine sound? Awesome is the answer, it’s all snarly and sharp like a 150lb wasp. Also, there are two turbochargers. Two, you punk, because forcibly cramming  fuel and air in the combustion chamber for the wildest possible explosion once is simply insufficient when your goal is to make Sonic the Goddamned Hedgehog weep at his relative lack of speed. Nissan claimed about 280 brake horsepower, but this was modesty, and really it was over 300 when the car was running good. It was the late eighties when the car they would call Godzilla was conceived. Some Nissan engineer was all like, “shit, let’s make a car that will make every race series in Japan look stupid as hell by walking over the top of them” and his boss was like “haha yeah ok bro do it” and then it actually happened.  We got this fucking magic all-wheel drive system, I don’t know how the fuck it works, that lets the car cling to the track like Spiderman to a naked tit but still corner like the magic bullet that killed JFK. The whole car is overengineered as shit, too, so the fast and furious tuner boys can’t get enough of it. You can, in theory, tune this engine to produce a power output approximately equivalent to that of twenty-one supernovae, and thanks to the torque-splitting-centre-differential traction sorcery all that power will just be delivered with no fuss, and uproot the nation’s entire fucking road system, spooling it out the back like in a Looney Tune, as you rocket off, pulling 0-60 figures that cannot be measured by modern science en route to a top speed comparable to that of light. For real- can you imagine some smarmy shit of an investment banker’s face when his brand new Porsche convertible is smoked away from the lights by a fucking NISSAN!? Nissan, like who made the Sunny! That’s the kind of range they have as an engineering company- like Bryan Cranston is equally convincing as goofy dad and as crank kingpin, Nissan are equally skilled at making boring hatchbacks for boring people to cart their ugly kids around, and howling performance icons like this beauty. It’s not that beautiful, actually. The later models looked a lot better. And went faster. Shit.  Whatever- the GT-R was a Goddamned revolution.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Vive la Différence: How GT5 and Forza 4 Prove the Industry Wrong

We gamers, and this site not least, often lament how modern games have ever less variety- how modern action games are clones of one of Call of Duty, Uncharted or Gears of War. We often complain that seeing something different is far more unusual than it should be, and we get perhaps over-excited when we see something that is- see Watch_Dogs. On the face of it, one might think that racing games would be the most guilty of this- the premise of driving a car around a track is identical for damn near every one of them, right?

Well, maybe. As a car fan without money for cars, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the two biggest names in console race sims- Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 and Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport 4, and it turns out that the variation between two outwardly similar games is greater than it appears; it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference in design philosophy, pervading every aspect of the games, that sets them apart from one another to attentive eyes.

GT5 presents a simulation experience, pure almost to the point of harshness, but deep too, with multiple disciplines, a huge range of cars and meticulous attention to detail. Over a thousand painstakingly recreated vehicles make up the roster, and each one drives differently. Real world and virtual tracks are included, all with their own subtle nuances, and the player can race at night, in the rain, or on snow or dirt tracks to their heart’s content. Career progression and menus, however, can be very clunky at times, and AI opponents often seem oblivious to the player’s car- it’s clear that this is a game that is all about the driving simulation, with no room for compromise.

Forza, on the other hand, is a far more player-focused experience, offering a more structured campaign and the polish for the smoothest possible player experience. The career mode is smooth and well-designed, menus slick and car customisation intuitive. The online suite offers the ready usability of a Call of Duty game, and carefully planned DLC offers new cars and tracks that add to an already complete experience. For all its polish, though, it lacks GT’s range and depth of cars and experience, not to mention a little of its character.

Everything from menus (slick in Forza and intimidating in GT) to race physics (with GT’s lending each car more personality but Forza’s superior feedback) to my mind illustrates that these games, supposedly interchangeable, are in fact two very different creations born of very different but equally worthy visions. Which is better? I couldn’t possibly say; Forza seems to represent the console ideal of challenging gameplay accessible to all, while Gran Turismo’s unwavering focus and clear passion are admirable. As a car fan and a game fan, I like both very much; both sold well and received praise from critics, despite taking very different approaches to the same basic formula. Neither game releases annually, either, and both are receiving impressive post release support in the form of patches, DLC and community events.

Why, then, do so many developers seek to follow trends and copy the competition? Here, surely, is proof positive that visionary and talented game creation yields a truly worthwhile (not to mention marketable) product, distinct from the competition. Forza and GT are franchises with unique identity and vision; trends come and trends go, but I believe that a game with that identity can stick around for a very long time.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out- it's great and actually gets updates unlike my stupid goddamn blog.