Anime is Weird – Sword Art Online is Great

I used to be one of those people. I used to avoid anime. I would scroll through Netflix, see an anime title, and instantly reject it. Why? Because anime is weird. People told me to try it, they told me that it’s really good when you get used to it. This only leads me to judge those people harshly. “They’re weird, ” I thought to myself, “They can no longer be my friend” I decided. Over the past three days, my mind has been opened; anime is really weird, and yet it is also amazing.

The first I heard of Sword Art Online when my brother mentioned it to me a few years ago. He said the name in passing and my response was thus:
“Sounds like a video game.”
“Yes, it’s supposed to” he replied.
I forgot about this until earlier in 2015 when the exact same thing happened, this time in a shop. I later found it on Netflix and added it to my list. It was only a few days ago that I decided to take the plunge. I watched one episode and my reaction was to tweet the following.

And it is. I stand firmly behind this tweet. I watched all 25 episodes of Sword Art Online and you know what? Anime is weird – but sometimes it’s great. And it is greater than it is weird if that makes sense.

Yes – this is indeed an anime.

Sword Art Online is about a video game – an MMO in the year 2022 called Sword Art Online, hilariously enough. What’s exciting about this video game it that it is the first to use a new VR technology called ‘Nerve Gear’ which straps on to your head, and it’s basically like Avatar except better in every way. Your mind is transferred to this virtual world where you fight monsters and hang out with other players in a fantasy world. It’s amazing and everyone logs in on the launch day since it’s the first of its kind. Things go well until the players notice that there is no way to leave; the logout button is missing. They learn that if someone removes the Nerve Gear helmet in the real world, they’ll die. They also learn that if they die in the game, they die in real life. It’s Matrix rules without the convenient telephone situation or any other way of leaving. The only way they can leave is if the boss on the 100th level of this big old tower has been defeated (which means they have to beat the bosses of all the other 99 floors as well). So that kind of sucks and people get upset about it.

We follow the story of Kirito. Kirito is special in this world; he was a beta tester, which gives him a distinct advantage; there were only 200 beta testers (it’s worth clarifying here that the players could log out during the beta test). He’s also MLG pro-MVP god – like seriously, he’s so OP most of the time that’s it’s sort of ridiculous. There’s one point where about four other players attack him at the same time and his reaction is to tank it; his HP is so high at that point that, even with all four players attacking at the same time, he couldn’t be harmed. Kirito meets a girl named Asuna. Asuna is mysterious and at first, they don’t get along, but after time, they grow to love each other in an entirely predictable manner. I’ve no problems with this because it’s not that important – what is important is that they are head over heels for each other and damn well pleased about it. The plot then follows. I won’t spoil it for you, go watch it for yourself. Their love is cheesy, yet somehow it’s not cringy. I genuinely cared about their relationship because it’s not over the top, it’s almost subtle and you could call it realistic, depending on your expectations. I cared so deeply by the end for these two; any harm that came to either of them felt like it was harming me too. Okay – maybe not that extreme, but them sticking together felt, for some reason, really important to me.

It’s not all love and games in Sword Art Online, there are the other people as well, and more than that, the world of Sword Art Online is incredibly detailed – it almost feels real. The story is about this world and the people who live in it, and the writing really brings the world and its people to life. I mentioned that Kirito was a beta tester earlier. Well, that causes some friction early in the story and also throughout. You see, some people reckon that beta testers have an unfair advantage – a six-month unfair advantage to be precise. Worse, these beta testers, with their advanced knowledge about the game, generally decided not help new players out when the crisis began and just play solo, collecting all the good items before anyone else could get them. This, you’ll agree, is not very sporting and you could describe this kind of behaviour as cheating. Shocking – I know. These people are labelled ‘beaters’ – a combination of beta tester and cheater. I’m not sure what’s wrong with calling someone a cheater but whatever floats your boat. Beaters are not well liked in this world and some people say some right nasty things to them. Those things hurt. Beaters are discriminated against and treated with a certain level of suspicion. Because Kirito is a beater some choose not listen to him when he tells them something important – a move which seems really stupid considering that he probably knows what he’s talking about. It’s this kind of real world discrimination, brought into a fantasy world, which makes the people seem like people. A proper society emerges, with all sorts of social issues, there is a big army which keeps the peace between people, there are lawbreakers who steal from others and murders who murder each other, there’s common racism, there’re shops, there’s true complexity in the world.


I could go on. And I would if I could make it interesting. There’s so much that I want to write about – the people, the world, the story, the way the game makes sense and is generally really well thought out and so on. Honestly, it’s fantastic. I do however want to talk about anime in general and not just stick to how great Sword Art Online is. Anime is weird. Most of the time I’ve no issue with its weirdness. It really adds to the experience when something so predictably anime happens. It’s an inexplicable mix of cheesy and deadly serious, and a heap of melodrama mixed with genuine drama. It sounds like it can’t work, but it’s amazing. Just look at the opening credits for God’s sake!

The confusing translations also add to it. I’ve read those lyrics many times and I still don’t know what it’s on about. I have no issue with that. I think it’s great and can only amplify my enjoyment. Anime is anime. It’s weird, and I can’t even explain why. All I know is that there were several moments where my reaction was “yup, this is an anime.” Sometimes things happen which are so typically anime that I can’t help but feel exasperated. Women are all attractive people – far more than the men (although this may be just my heterosexual male viewpoint), and I don’t really know how I feel about it. They spend half their time being over emotional, and the other half being genuinely strong characters. I can’t think of a single woman in SAO who wasn’t up for a fight. The women are strong and feel necessary, so I don’t think I have an issue with them. Anime is weird. I can only explain why by showing you this (with the mildest of spoilers):

Sword Art Online is brilliant. Go watch it. I finished it yesterday and since then I’ve felt a familiar sense of emptiness I always get when something great ends. I got it with the Witcher 3, and I got it (not quite as much) from this. It’s an emotional ride which left me feeling warm and happy, but also sad that it was over. Yes, I know there is a series 2, but I don’t want to watch it in case it’s not as good. It doesn’t feel like something which should have a sequel or a potential film for that matter. I may try watching the next series, but I’m not interested in disappointment. Anime is weird – but most of the time, it’s great.

2015: A Review

It is a common thing for me when the year is about up I like to consider what has actually happened this year, and I discover that a lot more has happened than I give credit for. It’s times like these where I see the worth in keeping a diary, so I have a straight-forward list of things I did. I could look in my calendar, but I’m fairly sure Google deletes events after they’ve happened in order to save space, and I don’t want to take the time to check. So I suppose if I want to think about everything that has happened in the past year I should start with the mot obvious stuff and move on to the specifics. What happened this year? What would I give it out of ten?

I’ll start by thinking about deeply impersonal things. GTA for PC was supposed to be released in January and then was delayed, for the third time, until April – which is quite a delay – and the port still weren’t great if you ask me, and still isn’t. It’s playable, though, and I had quite a bit of fun playing it for a while, but my time with it was limited by the wondrous Witcher 3, released a month later in May.

I had no real expectations for this game – I played the Witcher 2 in January and quite enjoyed it – so I was pleasantly surprised when the Witcher 3 turned out to be literally the best game I’ve played in forever. Don’t underestimate, the Witcher 3 is stunningly good and I love it and will love it forever until something better comes along and I forget about it. In any case – the Witcher 3 is definitely the best game I’ve played for a very long time and by far my game of the year. It certainly makes up for the disgusting mess that was Batman: Arkham Knight (and I’m not referring to the PC port). Not a terrible game but a terrible disappointment. I have a post about it, read that.

It’s slightly strange to me that at the beginning of this year, we were all using Windows 8. Yes, all of us. I don’t care what you were using, I was using Windows 8 and so, therefore, everyone was. I never really had a problem with Windows 8, I’ve always felt that other people’s complaints were people either being stupid or pedantic. Most of the people I argued with about it seem to have been struggling with issues that could easily be sorted out if they applied their brain a little bit. I never understood why some people were using the metro Internet explorer app in desktop mode, and then complaining that Windows 8 is bad because Internet explorer is bad. That’s stupid and makes be frustrated. I’m getting frustrated just thinking about it. Anyway, I liked Windows 8 – once you get used to it it’s absolutely fine and quite easy to use, easier than 7 in some cases.

Anyway, in  late July of this year, Windows 10 was released and we all marveled at its brilliance. I like Windows 10, and I’m looking forward to promised future improvements. I sort of wish that some of these improvements were included in the initial release – particularly a Windows 8 style OneDrive system. OneDrive for Windows 10 is utter twaddle.

Windows 10 is also a landmark in that it’s the last of the versions of Windows to be released in this way. Microsoft is being terribly modern about Windows now, and telling us that if you have Windows 10 on your computer, it will be upgraded forever for free. Your computer will just update itself with new features and stuff without your notice. I wouldn’t worry too much about it; it’s not going to be things you’ll actively use most likely.

I suppose now is a good time to move on to me. What happened to me this year? That’s the question you’ve all been desperate to ask. I am of course the most interesting person in the world and all who know of me must be desperate to find out my every move. This year I passed my A-Levels and was accepted into University where I started working on a degree in software engineering. I’ve now gotten through the first semester with none of my student loan left, but that’s fine. I won an award in Photography from the ESRC, that was nice. And the most exciting development was this. This blog. I started this blog this year. It’s been somewhat successful. I’ve found it helpful to put some of my thoughts in some sort of a structured way. I’ve also found that I’m not so good at getting around to writing a post regularly when I’ve got other stuff going on, like university and whatever. Next year I’ll make a conscious effort to write more, an effort which will last at least a few weeks. I give it until half way through February.

What would I give this year out of ten? I’ll give it a solid seven. It’s been a pretty good year – back to the future happened, Star Wars was a thing and The Witcher 3 also occurred. That makes a positive year for me. Room for improvement, though. Let’s see what 2016 has for us.

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Why I’ve Switched From Windows Phone to Android

Two years ago at this time, I was given the choice of a new phone. I was excited; it would be the first proper smartphone I’d ever owned. True, I had had a smartphone before – a Samsung Galaxy Ace. Possibly the worst thing in the world. It was super slow and almost useless as a smartphone. It wasn’t a good introduction to Android for me. I’d been handed a Windows phone by a friend of mine, being told that Windows Phone was actually a pretty good operating system. After a couple hours of use, I completely agreed. The thing that blew me away was the speed. The phone he was demoing this on wasn’t a pricey phone, it was fairly budget. I must stress this – Windows Phone is snappy as hell, it’s really very impressive and nice to use. The UI is cool, funky and impressively simple – I’ve never gotten lost on my Windows phone. So when my Father asked me what phone I wanted, I replied “Any Windows Phone.”

The phone we settled on was the Nokia Lumia 820 (this was before Microsoft bought Nokia). This is on the cheaper side of the Lumia spectrum but packed with nice features and not-too-shabby specs either. It’s got a 5″ screen and an 8mp camera. Okay, so that’s not great – but you need to remember that this was two years ago and this wasn’t an expensive phone.

The most impressive thing about this phone is the screen; the colours are bright, accurate and vivid. I love looking at this screen and I love using this phone. The OS is snappy, quick and easy to use, and is bursting with features I still wish were in Android. The phone, in true Nokia style, feel indestructible. I’ve thrown it around in my time, and it’s barely scratched. I could beat someone to death and then call the police with the same phone. This is not an exaggeration.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been given a new choice. My two-year contract was up time for a new phone. Time to make the choice: stick with Windows or go Android. At first, the choice was simple for me, I was going Windows. But my internal voices, multiplied by time, wore down my confidence. Also, my brother has some ungodly power to convince me to do things. I asked myself whether I was really prepared to spend another two years on windows. I eventually decided that I was not. I went with Android.

Why then? I was so positive about it. I raved to my friends about how much I liked my phone and how everyone should use Windows because it is the best phone OS out there. I actually convinced one of them to get one, and he seems pretty happy with it. How can someone so enamored with Windows peel off and fall into the net of Android so simply? Well, I’ll tell you, Windows is almost there. It’s almost at the point where I could honestly say that it’s the best. It is, in fact, irritating close – there are just a few things which need to be fixed in Windows for it to be great. But Microsoft isn’t getting the point.

Let’s start with the little things, because the little things are the biggest problem.

I’ve recently started my first year at University, so I’ve never had this problem before now, but now it’s there it’s the worst thing in the world (besides the Samsung Galaxy Ace). The WiFi network on my campus has a login system. That means I have to enter a username and password to get online. Most operating systems would be like, “No problem, Henry, I’ll just save this in my settings and you won’t have to worry at all about connecting. You won’t even notice it happening.” Windows desktop does this, Android does this, iOS (I assume) does this. Windows Phone says, “I can remember one thing – your username or your password, take your pick”. Why? Why is this an issue? When the Windows Phone team implemented the WiFi feature, why did they design it like that? Why should I have to enter my password every time I go near the network? What’s worse is it beeps at me every half an hour until I enter it, or tell it I don’t want to. Oh, and if the WiFi drops for a second, I have to enter my password again.

Another small problem, which some would regard as being quite a large problem, is the complete and utter lack of a proper multitasking function. Windows does have a vague form of multitasking, which stores any open apps in memory until it is manually closed by the user. It doesn’t give those apps and CPU time unless it is being looked at and on the screen. This is great for if you’re trying to squeeze the battery for all it’s got but awful for productivity. The result is a multitasking system which is very slow because it has to resume operations of the running app when you switch to it. If you don’t know what that means, it means that when you switch to another app in multitasking, you have to wait a few seconds for it to remember what you were doing. Other OS’s actually run the app in the background. They may give priority to the app you are currently using, but the other apps you have open are actually open and talking to the phone. The whole experience isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but it is bloody annoying at times – especially when you aren’t in a patient mood.

The biggest problem which people always jump to when they are asked about Windows Phone is the apps. Or, put more accurately, the lack of apps. Most of the essential apps are currently available for windows phone, but that’s only because Microsoft is sensible. Facebook and Twitter are absolutely essential, and when neither company expressed interest in making apps for windows phone, Microsoft got permission to do it themselves. The apps Microsoft make are okay. They clearly aren’t as good as the official ones and are constantly behind. This is because Facebook and Twitter have dedicated teams working on their apps, while Microsoft doesn’t, and they have to keep up with the updates of the official apps. This is, I think, a fundamental problem with the development of Windows Phone, but more on that later. I’ve always told people that Windows Phone is for the individual who doesn’t really use apps, or doesn’t consider apps as an important part of their lifestyle. I think this is true, but this individual would have to go from not using most of the apps their phone has to offer, to someone who has locked them self out of the availability to those apps.

Microsoft is trying their best to combat the ‘app-gap’ by using the ‘universal app platform’ what they came up with. Microsoft noticed that a lot more people use apps on their desktop PC than then number of Windows Phones out there. They had the quite good idea of giving the developers the ability to, in one fell swoop, make an app for desktop Windows and Windows Phone. They make one app which works on desktops, phones, Xbox, and tablets. I think this is something which could very well work. It all depends on how much windows store apps on the desktop take off. I don’t ever use them and never have – but that’s just me.

They also are working on some converter-me-bob machine, which developers can feed their Android app into, and get a Windows app back. This is actually a pretty good idea, and may solve a lot of problems, depending on how well it works.

I have a theory about why it is that Windows Phone feels half finished. It has the same problem that Linux has. It’s not popular. People who use it love it, but that’s only about 2.5% of people who have phones. Most developers can’t be bothered or don’t think it’s sensible to spend the money on developing apps which will reach such a small number of people. If real money is involved, you ain’t gonna get that back from Windows Phone. What it needs is more users, users want more apps in the store to go to Windows phone, developers won’t make apps for a platform with do few users. And the cycle goes on and on. What can Microsoft do? They’re trying to make windows phone as attractive as possible for developers. It’s entirely free to get your apps on Windows Phone, which makes it attractive to young and hobbyist developers who don’t want to spend money on their apps. But this results in a load of low-quality apps. It’s not a good situation at the moment. And it’s not gonna get better until Windows Phone has more users – and we’ve already been through the problems with that.

Windows Phone currently has a market share of around 2.5%. That’s barely anyone – it’s only a little better than Blackberry. BLACKBERRY. I’m surprised they even still exist and that person actually buys from them! As far as I’m concerned, Windows Phone only still exists because Microsoft has some plan for it. Satya Nadella has said that Windows Phone isn’t dead yet. To me, this meant that Windows 10 for Phones is gonna fix everything. Windows 10 will save everything and make the OS the savior we’ve all wanted.

Windows 10 for phones is almost out, so I’ve downloaded the beta to see if this is the case. Microsoft has made some very big improvements – to the UI. The one thing I had almost no problems with. Of all the things that needed work, the UI was not one of them. Obviously, add a few things, like the new wallpaper thing, but please focus on the other glaring problems! Windows Phone has some big and small problems at the core, a lot of under-the-hood issues which need fixing. Microsoft seems to have fixed nearly none of them. This is very disappointing. Perhaps they will fix these things in later updates, I believe this is the plan. But I don’t think I can wait for an undisclosed amount of time for these problems to maybe be fixed.

So, why am I switching to Android? I’m taking a break from Windows. I want to use a complete OS until Windows is at a point where I feel like it is complete and works perfectly – as well and effectively as its competitors. I can see windows phone following two paths, depending on what Microsoft do next: It will either have a massive cash and resource injection and get the attention it needs to become what Microsoft supposedly want it to become, or it will fizzle and die over the next few years. In its current state, I’d be surprised if it’s still around by 2019. Then again – I’m very surprised that BlackBerry still exists. At least Windows Phone isn’t as bad as the Samsung Galaxy Ace because that is literally the worst thing in the world (I’m gunning for an inside joke, here).

Tomb Raider (2013) Is a Really Good Game

I was going to write this post a few weeks ago, but I got ill for a bit. Then I forgot about it. It’s a bit of a shame because I had replayed the game only a few days before so it was all really fresh in my mind. Now it is only a slightly vague memory. Oh well. On with the show!

Okay, unpopular opinion time: I really, enormously and with a full heart, love the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider – and when I type ‘love’ I am not exaggerating. I think it is one of the best games I have ever played. Now – before you lube up your maces and WD-40 you rusty pitchforks ready to track me down using Google Maps – you should know two things; my blog is hosted in America which is not where I live and don’t judge me until you have read this review.

What's she looking at?
What’s she looking at?

Okay, firstly let’s talk about the obvious thing that everyone complains about a lot. I wanna start this review by explaining the bad things about this game and telling you why you should get over them and play this game. Actual puzzles. Anyone who has played one of the original Tomb Raider games will know that they had no shortage of puzzles in them. Mostly athletic type things which involve jumping around, landing on buttons, weighing things down and stuff like that. They were often not super complicated, just hard to perform. It’s the kind of thing you have to have the patience of a monk to handle. I never didn’t like them, I just didn’t often have time for them and after a while would resort to the internet to get things moving again. In the 2013 version of Tomb Raider, there is a distinct lack of these puzzles in the main campaign. I think off the top of my head there are about two or three.

There are other puzzles, but they are all optional ones which you have to seek out and solve to get something (It was never particularly clear on what I was getting out of solving them other than a sense of satisfaction). The puzzles in the main campaign are not too difficult to work out, and they don’t take too long either. They are easy once you know what you are doing. The optional puzzles are different. Most of them are kinda challenging to work out what to do, and I would have completely given up on a couple of them if it weren’t for the obviously-Arkham-inspired survivor vision (or whatever it’s called) which, at the tap of a button, marks your objective and makes anything you can interact with glow a bright yellow. Some would argue that this makes it to easy. That’s a fair opinion, and I have a solution for you: don’t use it unless you are completely and hopelessly stuck, and let the stupid people use the easy option.

The other problem with the puzzles is – as all the good ones are optional – it’s often a puzzle to find them. When you are kinda near an entrance to a puzzle room the game will notify you with a sound effect and a popup. It doesn’t actually tell you where it is, and survivor vision doesn’t highlight it for you (unless it does and I never tried that). Worse, some puzzles you can’t enter until you get an upgrade. This means you have to remember where it was (it doesn’t mark it on the map (unless it does and I never tried that)) and come back for it later. This puzzle thing isn’t the end of the world and certainly doesn’t ruin the game for me – it just would be nice if in the next game more of the puzzles are in the campaign or just easy to find.

Well - you screwed this one up, Lara
Well – you screwed this one up, Lara

So – if the puzzles are lacking in a Tomb Raider game, what’s left? Well, I’ll tell you: lots of mind-bending and exciting action. The game starts off running, and practically never stops – this keeps you glued to the game. It’s like the game has grabbed your ankles and stops you from leaving until you have finished. Occasionally it lets loose a little bit and you can struggle free to rest a bit, but in my playing, I’ve just wanted to keep going until the game ended. There are countless action sequences which have Lara jumping and flipping, hiding behind cover and being a super action hero as you run through an area shooting people in the face with a shotgun and sniping people with a compound bow as the entire world around you blows up and falls apart leaving you to jump wildly – desperately attempting to just cling on to anything you can to survive.

There is one – what only can be described as a ‘holy hell’ moment – where you’ve been fighting on a big old boat suspended in some trees, and when the flight is over, the ropes holding the boat up on one side are broken, and the whole boat drops sideways, leaving you to hang off tiny ledges in the ground – while a maniac is shooting at you with a mini-gun. It gets a bit intense at some points.

Yep - that's Lara swimming in a river of blood.
Yep – that’s Lara swimming in a river of blood.

One thing Crystal Dynamics really vamped-up from the original games is the sheer amount of gore. The first few Tomb Raider games were known for their gruesome death cut scenes, which some considered to be a bit much. This was a practice which eventually died out in the Tomb Raider series. Well, Crystal Dynamics wanted it back, and it really is back. There are many times in the game where if you make a small slip up, a jagged, rusty pipe will end up being lodged through the base of Lara’s head and come out the top, though the middle of her brain – and other things like that.

I don’t think it will be easy for me to remember the first time Lara shoots someone in the game; it’s pretty intense. Lara tries to escape from be captured by a load of cultist weirdos and hides inside a small gap between some huts. This part is done very craftily; you expect it to be the standard Lord of the Rings style moment where the pursuer almost finds her but is distracted at the last second. I was stunned when he grabbed her and pulled her out. In an intense button mashing session (which happens quite a lot in the game) you grab his gun and struggle to aim at his head where just at the right moment – you pull right trigger and shoot him right in the face which… almost kills him. Lara is a little upset at this – as you would be – staring into the eyes of the almost-dead shivering bloody man on the ground, who had friends and a family, and who was only trying to survive. He dies after a few seconds letting Lara pull herself together and get out of there. Yeah – it gets intense. That bit left me breathless the first time I played it. Even when I replayed it I felt a little shocked; I’d forgotten how brutal it all was.

Of course, as was pointed out by many reviewers at release, this representation of the horror and brutality that is murder doesn’t last long. Withing about thirty seconds of this you have to shoot four or five people in a cover shooting battle. It’s a little jarring, to say the least, and it leaves you not sure how to feel about all of this. You quite easily forget all of that when you get more into the game and the combat system gets quite fun.

They... got in the way...
They… got in the way…

Okay, time for another unpopular opinion: the combat system in this game isn’t bad at all. I grant you it takes some getting used to and it’s not so fun when you aren’t very good at it, but when you are good at it and you unlock some of the combat upgrades, it gets deliciously exhilarating.

The combat first starts out as cover-shooting, which I normally find quite boring and I don’t really want to spend my time doing it. You start off with the handgun you stole from that guy you killed, but during the story, you find some other weapons. They’re all old, a bit damaged and kinda crappy. But that’s okay! Over the course of the game, you pick up salvage from boxes and crates. Sometimes it’s a puzzle to get it but it’s quite satisfying when you do. Using this salvage you can upgrade the weapons. They’re all themed upgrades and they’re quite realistic to the situation. For instance, you can’t attach a scope to the assault rifle; where would she have the parts to do that? But she can tape two magazines together to allow for faster reloading, she can bind the stock to reduce recoil, she can tape a flint to her torch to light it wherever she wants. All of these upgrades are realistic to the situation, and it’s things like this that I like.

The combat is brutal. It starts out as cover shooting, but evolves to more melee elements, in the most traditional sense of melee, meaning a confused fight or scuffle. Early in the game you acquire an Ice Pick for opening doors and as a general multi-tool – it’s surprisingly versatile. After a bit of upgrading, Lara learns how to throw dirt into the enemy’s eyes and drive the ice pick into their skull. Yup. You can unlock finishers which have Lara push them to the ground and pepper them with the assault rifle. Yup – it’s harsh. Fire arrows will allow you to set your prey on fire and a grenade launcher attachment to the rifle lets you generally blow stuff up. I like it. Some people don’t like how the brutality of Lara’s actions juxtapose the timidness of her character at the start of the game. I like it; it’s character development. She’ becoming the Lara Croft of legends (and video games) past. This is addressed in the dialogue at the very end. The bad guy (?) says this to Lara:

“I was only trying to save people’s lives. How many have you killed to do the same?”

(That’s not an exact quote; I don’t have super-memory) She starts out hating her experience, but at the end of the game it’ revealed that she grew to enjoy it – like Lara Croft is like in other games. The game ends with this cheesy line:

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”

“I’m not going home.”

And then the music swells and the credits roll. She could just go home, but it’s probably better she doesn’t; she may well get bored and kill a bunch of the public for taking too long in a queue or something.

Is this a DV cam, in 2013?
Is this a DV cam, in 2013?

The story is… okay. It’s quite a puzzle because the whole big thing about this game was how Rhianna Pratchett came along and was all huffy and puffy about how games never have good stories because developers don’t care enough and are evil compiling machines who just want to kill people in a digital fantasy land. Pratchett wrote the story and was all proud of it, I remember her talking about it on the radio. Personally, I think the story ain’t bad. The main complaint I’ve seen about it is it being a little difficult to follow at times. I won’t spoil it, but play the game yourself and see if you understand it.

The main problem I have with the story is not the complexity of the plot, but of the characters. You see, there ain’t much. Every character is pretty two-dimensional. Lara’s companions are a multi-race 80’s power supergroup involving an Asian woman, a black woman, a Scottish stereotype, a nerd, a Hawaiian,  a clearly-going-to-sell-us-out-at-the-first-opportunity cowardly intellectual man and a trustworthy, down-to-earth northerner. They all behave the way you expect they would. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if it weren’t that Lara’s character is so three-dimensional. Do I care about these characters? Yes, I do. Well, most of them anyway; there’s a couple who you know are going to die from the start, so forget about attaching to them.

The antagonist is alright, though. He’s this sort of religious leader type who knows what’s up on the island because he’s been there so long. He’s become hardened in his old age and will do anything it takes to get off the island. By the end of the game I pretty much was sympathizing with him; by that point Lara’s body count is pretty much in the hundreds and he’s just trying to get off the island. Granted – the process involves human sacrifice, but he’s been there for about twenty years – he’s gonna do all it takes.

No Lara - it's not a good idea.
No Lara – it’s not a good idea.

The picture above was taken at one of my favorite points in the game. It’s quite early on where Lara is trying to radio for help. The only way to get the radio tower working is by climbing to the control panel, which is helpfully located at the top of the tower. I’d like to point out that there is no reason for any sort of control panel to be at the top of the tower, but this one is. When you get to the top, it just feels great. I don’t really know why – but it does. And then you get to zipline all the way back down it’s a bunch of fun. Climbing in this game is awesome. I can’t tell you why, but I just love the way Lara traverses around the place. It feels like an action film and I love it.

Two guns!
Two guns!

So then, to conclude, this game is great. If for any reason you have not played it, I must inform you that you are missing out, and we should all be excited for the new game coming out early next year (I’m not counting the xbone release in November because I don’t have an xbone). The new game is set to have many more puzzles in the main story line and some actual tomb raiding! Seriously, play this game. Stop reading this, stop doing anything else until you have played this game to completion.

Wow, you read all of that? Thank you very much for giving me your time. You deserve a treat. How about a look at my Tomb Raider screenshots folder (warning: very vague and minor spoilers!):

The Microsoft Band Is a Great Fitness Tracker

…but not a great smart watch. I bought one of these devices last week having been told many times that it makes a great smart watch and will change the way  you use your phone and therefore your life will change forever. I’ve always liked the idea of a smart watch, as long as they aren’t too expensive, and as the Microsoft Band is only £145 on Amazon I decided to get one.

When researching the band I found myself confused; a quick peruse of the official web page will tell you the Microsoft aren’t really pushing it as a smart watch and more focusing on the fitness band side of things. You would have thought that the band would be advertised more as a smart watch considering the Apple Watch (or is it iWatch?). Microsoft could immediately put forward their smartwatch to show people their alternative, with very little effort. After all, it has basically all the  features of a smartwatch and is much better at tracking your heart beat and general exercise than the Apple Watch. I put this down to Microsoft, as usual, being a bit stupid with their advertising.

I got my band last Monday and started wearing it constantly. I enjoyed my time with it, but after a while, I started noticing some irritating problems. But first, let’s talk about some of the positives. My favourite feature of the Band is the sleep tracking. Before you go to sleep you simply have to tap the sleep icon and press the ‘Action’ button. I’ll bid you goodnight and the screen turn off. When you wake up, you press the action button again and the sleep tracking ends. Immediately it’ll tell you if you had a good night’s sleep, how many times you woke up, your resting heart rate and more. What do you do with this information? It’s up to you, but I’ve found it useful when people ask if you’ve slept well. You can give them some very specific information about your night’s sleep and even hand them a graph on your phone for them to see for themselves. I’m sure this gets old eventually.

I had optimal sleep that night!
I had optimal sleep that night!

Another feature I appreciated was the step tracking tool. You can set a daily goal for steps you want to be walking a day. Microsoft (I think based on my height, weight, and sex) recommended a daily step goal of 5000 steps a day. Sounds like a lot? It really isn’t. I achieved that goal by vaguely wandering around my house. I increased this goal to 8000 steps a day which was slightly more than I would be doing anyway. When you reach this goal the band buzzes on your wrist and congratulates you. It does work; I wanted to make the band praise me for being a great guy for reaching my goal, and 8000 steps sound like an achievement to me. If I ever get used to that goal, I can simply increase it even more. It encouraged me to find reasons to go out walking and add some steps to my count. In terms of accuracy, it’s pretty good, but not exact. I found that I could increase the step count by viciously waving my arm around in big circles. Somehow this doesn’t feel like cheating the system when the method requires such physical exertion.

My daily step count last week.
My daily step count last week.

The band does these fitness and health things pretty well. It can also track your golf games, bike rides, and runs. It also has quite a cool ‘Guided Workout’ feature, which basically makes the Band buzz and tell you when to move on to the next stage of your workout, then afterwards it’ll tell you stuff like calorie burn and peak heart rate. This would be great, but I’m not a fitness guy – I’ve never been to a gym or done a workout without being forced (I’m talking about school, not anything weird).

What it ain’t so great at is all the basic smart watch stuff. When I got texts my phone would buzz but my wrist wouldn’t, at least not until I’d read and replied to the text on my phone. I’d get a phone call and my wrist would do nothing. This is quite annoying because it makes you feel like you can’t actually trust it to tell you anything. I wouldn’t leave my phone on silent with the vibration off because I would definitely miss a phone call or a text message. When it does tell you about a phone call, text message or email, it pops up on the screen and buzzes, you dismiss it and then the icon concerning the notification will have a big number on it demanding you acknowledge the notification again. This became mildly irritating after a couple of days of it. It seems to forget when you’ve read a notification and when you haven’t.

Moving on to the actual hardware of the band, I have a complaint about the shape of the band. A band would normally be a circle which wraps around your wrist and it feels very comfortable. The Microsoft Band is a square. It’s designed with the heart rate monitor on one side and the screen on the other. Both sides are completely flat and reasonably wide. This makes you wait feel more like it’s had a vice attached to it, only a little bit more comfortable than that. This is something which you can bear for a while and eventually get used to. It would be so much better if the screen were curved just a little bit to fit over your wrist more comfortably.

I was amazed how quickly the band picks up scratches. In one week I looked after it pretty damn well and tried pretty hard not to scratch it, and it seemed to pick up scratches like nothing else. This is why the band comes with a screen protector already applied. It’s not a big problem; you can’t see the scratches on mine unless you’re looking very closely and with direct light, but that’s only after a week, what about a month, or even a year?

Some of that is smudged fingerprints.
Some of that is smudged fingerprints.

I suppose that’s it. I had fun with my band, but it’s not what I expected. I’d like it a lot if I were really into fitness, but I wanted a smart watch, and it just doesn’t fit the brief there. I’m serious, get this if you want a great fitness band, don’t if you want a smart watch. If you do want it, why not have mine? It’s on eBay right now! (Ends 20th of September 2015)

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

The Chinese Room is not new to this style of game. You may remember a few years ago when they produced Dear Esther. A game, I kid you not, I played for eleven minutes before getting bored and stopping. It wasn’t very interesting and I haven’t used to the style of game that it was. At the time, I was prone to immediately rejecting games which I wasn’t used to, and this was something completely new to me.

My opinion about this style of game changed radically when I played Fullbright’s Gone Home. If you have not played this masterpiece, stop reading this and play it now. It really is fantastic and it managed to completely change my opinion about this kind of games.

It was because of Gone Home that when I found out about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (ridiculously long title – I’ll just refer to it using the acronym EGTTR from here on out), I decided I wanted to give it a go. I wasn’t really aware that the game was by The Chinese Room when I started it, but when I found out I was willing to give them a second chance. I was ready to experience a story involving a bunch of Welsh(?) people who have all mysteriously disappeared.

What a lovely apocalypse.
What a lovely apocalypse.

The game starts off with you waking up in the middle of a road by a gate. From there you just start walking down a road. Along the way, the game teaches you the controls. Make sure you learn them; after showing them to you once, the UI clears itself from the screen and you just have to remember what buttons to press. Luckily, there’s not much to remember and you’ll probably get the hang of it quickly. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me that the game would stop prompting me so suddenly. In the game, there are some radios that are constantly emitting the sound of a woman reading out a random sequence of numbers. The first one you come across prompts you to press the X button to activate a BioShock style log entry recording. When I found the second one, I didn’t know to press X because it didn’t prompt me to do so, and I assumed that I couldn’t. It was only after about an hour did I work this out, which means I’ve missed a whole bunch of story. I may have missed some important things which would have helped me understand what was going on.

This wasn’t too bad a problem. The radios are simply an extra thing you can listen to which adds to the story. The main, important parts of the story are told by these strange, floating blobs of light which guide you around this village. At points they stop, and using some controller tilting, you activate some narrative. When this happens the world goes dark as if it were nighttime, and the light takes human form to represent a number of people and various objects they interact within the narrative. These narratives are meant to tell you about various people who live in the village and about what happened to them on one mysterious night, where everyone disappeared mysteriously.

The game is beautiful. It uses the CryEngine which is known for being good at making beautiful looking games with many lights and particle effects. What the most beautiful aspect of this game is not the visuals, but the enchanting soundtrack. It is relaxing and peaceful. It’s the kind of music which you can’t help but feel some kind of emotion for. It is great at relaxing you so you can simply sit back and enjoy the game. Frankly, it would be pretty boring without it.

On my list of things which really put me off games is slow walking speed and a lack of a sprint button. This game ticks both boxes in that criteria. You walk incredibly slowly in this game, it’s like your legs can’t move more than half a footsteps. You’re supposed to be following the strange balls of light but it’s quite irritating when they move so much faster than you. At times, I wanted to explore some of the houses and perhaps have a look at the vast open fields. Sometimes I got lost and needed to turn back. It’s quite annoying when you have to walk a long distance in a game very slowly. Perhaps the sprint button was not put in because it would ruin the mood of the game if people were just running around everywhere and rushing the game. I would hasten to disagree. Why? It took me three hours to complete the game and I’d wager that about half of that was walking and being lost. Let’s face it, walking around and getting lost does not make enjoyable gameplay. I wanted to get on with the story, not wander slowly through a village wondering where I’m going. I could do that in real life.

The big problem with being lost in EGTTR is that sometimes you don’t realize it. I had, on several occasions, lost my ball of light as I was walking, so I followed the path, trusting that the world design would guide me to where I was meant to go. You know, like a good game would. This did lead me somewhere else, but not where I was meant to be. The game is separated into following around different people (or blobs of light). You follow one person until you find out how they died, then move on to someone else. I had, twice, gotten myself so lost that I accidentally found the starting location of another story line which I can only assume I was supposed to find after I had completed my current story line. So without knowing it I had started another part of the game without completing the part I was on. I didn’t know this until much later in the game, so I had to go back and find the previous ball of light to complete their story line. I just went with it followed their story until I got lost again. This was very annoying. Not only because it meant walking back and having to find where the ball of light had gotten to, but it also completely muddled up the story in my mind. Everything I experienced was out of the order the game was supposed to happen in. The effect being that I was completely lost and couldn’t tell you what happen in the game at all. I still can’t.

After I had completed all the story lines (with great effort and determination on my part) I was catapulted back to the place I started but on the other side of the fence this time. I had one road to follow and had to walk into a big room where the final, revealing moment would happen. The moment where all of would suddenly make sense and I would finally understand what the game was trying to tell me. Alas, no. The conclusion made sense, I understood it, and I was completely underwhelmed. None of the previous three hours of gameplay mattered to the conclusion whatsoever. The ending was simply not very interesting and I felt cheated. My time had been wasted, and so had my £15.

This is what people look like.
This is what people look like.

So, in conclusion, I can’t recommend this game to you. You can get it for £15 on the PlayStation Store and I thoroughly recommend you spend your money on something more worthwhile. Like a really good toothbrush.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Note – I’m going to try to avoid putting any spoilers in this review. unfortunately, that means glossing over some big parts of the game. So… sorry about that…

Also, I’m not going to talk too much about the absolutely appalling PC port. I don’t really have enough information about what happened there for me to give any good and useful opinions about that. But yes – it’s terrible that a port that bad was released by such a well-respected and liked studio. I only hope this doesn’t come back to haunt them in later years.

I was excited about this game. I Preordered it over a year before it eventually was released, and was so quick to defend it when I heard complaints, and so quick to turn off any doubts I had in my mind that this game may not be as good as I had hoped. If you’d asked me what games I was excited about back in January, I’d have told you GTA V, The Witcher 3 and most of all Batman: Arkham Knight. That order has changed somewhat after having played all three of these games.

Before I begin, let me cast your mind back to 2009. Seems so long ago. I would have been about twelve years old at the time. It was only the year before when Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ had been released and we were all feeling a bit Batman-ey. That year my brother got Batman: Arkham Asylum for his Christmas present. That was the first game I remember really, genuinely loving. I’ve since played that game a billion and three times and can get through the main story in about five and a half hours (which is impressive for me).

Jump forward to 2011, when Batman: Arkham City was released. My brother and I had been following this game for years – ever since it was announced. We were lucky enough to actually receive our copy a day early. My brother enjoyed it so much he actually completed the game that day and I’ve also played that game a billion and three times.

My nostalgia about the previous games in this post is to express how much this series means to me, how excited I was about Arkham Knight – and how disappointed I was with what it turned out to be.

To understand the failures of Arkham Knight, we must explore the successes of the other games. The best game in the series was Arkham Asylum. That’s not opinion, that’s a scientific fact. The world is very small, but it was still somehow big and complicated, with quite an impressive amount of detail. Around every corner was something to find with some reference to the Batman universe. A lot of what I know about Batman has come from that game. This made exploring the Asylum quite a bit of fun. The world was small but the Asylum felt vast because there was so much to explore in every building and around the gardens – you simply had to stop in every room to have a look around. There was also something very cool about exploring an island where you’ve completely lost control and things are getting progressively worse at every step. It seems the more you progressed in that game, the direr the situation became. The story simple and very easy to understand, which meant that you completely cared about what happened, enough to get through even the most irritating of battles.

Arkham Knight, on the other hand, has quite a large world, which can be explored, but the player doesn’t really have much of an incentive. Gotham is not a very interesting or detailed world. I certainly didn’t care to wander into the buildings and have a look around, mainly because you can’t enter most buildings. The buildings you can enter aren’t very complicated, mostly consisting of one or two rooms, and a fight to do. Gone are the many subtle references in the main campaign to various characters in the Batman universe. Arkham Asylum had a nice little fact file section which popped up when you discovered a new character. It was fun to read and learn more about the characters in the Batman world. It would seem that most of the extra features of the previous two games have been trashed to make this one more serious and epic. It feels a lot less like a game made by people who are big fans of Batman, and more like a game made by fans of The Dark Knight. There’s a big difference.

The story of a game is normally what holds it together. As I have previously written, the stories of both the previous games have been very interesting, fun and compelling. This is because of one main factor: simplicity. Neither story was complicated. They were a bit convoluted, certainly, but that was to keep you guessing and wanting to progress. I can honestly say that at every moment in both previous games I knew what was going on, and could explain it to a five-year-old – which is actually a very good test. In Arkham Knight, I still couldn’t tell you what was actually happening in the game. The story lacked any kind of logic or sense, to the point where I found that I was doing what the game was telling me to do, but I wasn’t entirely sure why it wanted me to do it. All I knew was that it was getting a little bit serious and a little bit dark for it to hold my interest for very long. Stuff was going on, and I wasn’t sure if the story had properly started or was just about to begin. I didn’t feel that Batman was in any danger, or that he didn’t have control of the situation he was in. I was waiting for things to really start, but they never seem to. He seemed to be handling the situation pretty well. Some stuff happened which sort of felt like it could have been a problem, but then never really amounted to anything. The story lacked a lot of much-needed substance.

Rocksteady were very excited to be introducing their own character to the Batman universe: the Arkham Knight. The whole game featured characters asking each other “Who is the Arkham Knight?”, as if their curiosity would rub off on me or something. Truth be told, I didn’t really care who he was, I was mildly surprised when it was eventually revealed, but I never really cared. He was a boring villain. Here is a run down of his profile:

  • He hates Batman (like every other villain in the world)
  • He has a lot of cash and military training
  • He knows stuff about Batman that some other people don’t know
  • He’s very angry (like I was when the PC port turned out to be terrible)

That would be about it. That is all the character development we got for him. It meant that I really didn’t care who he was, all I knew was that I was wishing the villain was Joker; he’d bring a bit of life into the game.

Whoever did his face-lift didn’t realize that his mouth was not an open wound…

The other Main villain of the game is Scarecrow. “Oh! That really fun and interesting guy who was in Arkham Asylum!” You ask . No. He’s grown up and become boring. In this game he is all serious and deep, but not in a good way. He spends the entire time being all sensible and calm, and the game desperately tried to make him come across as scary or super intelligent or something like that. Not the Scarecrow we all loved the first game, who was just completely metal and was going after Batman just for a bit of a laugh. They’ve taken Scarecrow and made him even less interesting than the Arkham Knight – and I can’t imagine that was an easy thing to do.

This means that all the villans in this game just weren’t very interesting. I mean, there was this whole introduction about how all the villans had joined forces to take down Batman, but that’s something I forgot about until someone in the game mentioned it. This really didn’t feel like it really had much to do with anything. The other villans are much more interesting than the main ones, but there was next to no interaction between them and Batman. Think back to City, the main story was written in such a way that you had to go past every other villain in the City to eventually get to Joker. That was a thing about City which I really liked. It provided a bit of separation in the story between who you were dealing with, and added interesting breaks. It ultimately made the game longer. This was also prominent in Asylum, but almost non-existent in Knight. There was simply not enough of the cool, interesting villans for me to really care about their evil plan – or even remember it.

The game heavily hints that you should get on with some side missions in-between bits of the main story, and I would suggest that you do that – even if you just want to get on with the story and find out what happens next. This is because I feel that some of these side missions should have been slotted into the main story somehow, in order to make it more of a satisfying ending when you eventually do get to the end and defeat Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight. I completed the main story and felt a bit empty and dissatisfied with the outcome. This prompted me to just go on. To do loads of the side missions to completion. Let me tell you, they are boring as hell when you are just doing it all together in a big chunk. Take the fireman mission as an example. At the start of the game Batman is informed that the fire crew of Station 17 have gone missing and that he needs to go and rescue them. This basically means predator mode in various places in the city. You go in and sneak around, knock everyone out and rescue a fireman. Sounds fun, right? Not after the sixth fireman, and especially not when you realise that there are ten more to find, sneak around, knock everyone out and rescue the firemen. The game simply stops being fun and becomes repetitive. I don’t feel like I finished the game. I feel like I got bored and left it, because the ending to the main story was so vague and unsatisfying I was left feeling like the game hadn’t actually ended. Nothing changed when I completed the main story, everything kept on going as if I had done nothing.

The Batmobile
Not the most aerodynamic design in the world.

I can’t belive I’ve come this far without at all mentioning the Batmobile. This was hyped though hell and back by the Rocksteady and Warner Brothers marketing teams. It seems like it was all they were talking about. I wanted to know more about the other aspects of the gameplay. After playing the game, I now know that the Batmobile is in fact the only aspect of the gameplay in Arkham Knight. You spend more time in the Batmobile than out of it in Arkham knight, whether you want to or not. Quite a lot of the missions either involve or entirely take place within the Batmobile. And while the Batmobile is quite fun (I mean, not the best thing ever or anything like that) it does get a little stale a little bit too quickly into the game. The car doesn’t handle very well and is quite difficult to drive, the controls aren’t the standard controls for driving, and this is irritating to get used to, especially with no custom button mapping. The battles in the tank involve shooting and dodging. That’s it. It requires a bit of skill and a good reaction time. At first my thoughts were, “This is quite a cool thing in this game, I quite enjoy this.” My thoughts changed quite a lot by the tenth time I was doing it. It just became boring. The variation in the fights is simply controlled by the number of drones you are attacking. It became very repetitive very quickly. And for the final boos battle to be a tank fight was just disappointing. I wanted to fight some people with my bat-fists, not sit in a car and shoot a cannon at things. That’s not what being Batman is about.

Dual Play
The super-group are in!

Okay, I think I’ve bashed this game enough. Let’s discuss some of the things I like about it. Belive it or not, I think there are some really cool aspects to the game. I’ll start with Dual Play. People have been asking for CO-OP in these games since the beginning. This is not it. This is something I think is really cool, and better than CO-OP. Batman has quite a few allies, at points in this game one of them will come along and help him out a bit. The player (you and I) has the ability to play as either Batman, or his ally. You can actually switch between them during a fight, and this something which can be used strategically. Picture this: you’re Batman and you’ve just started beating up a brute – this takes a while and you can only knock them out if you complete the beat-down – when in the background, oh no! Some other guy is breaking into a weapons box. They’ll get a gun and ruin everything. Don’t worry; Nightwing is here and with a tap of a button you can switch to him and take down that pesky man who is trying to obtain weapons, while Batman completes the beat-down at the same time. The day is saved. It can also be used as a special combo take down. It’s not the most game-changing feature in the world, but I enjoyed it.

Another great new feature is the improvements made to predator mode (I know that doesn’t count as a feature but just roll with it). Remember those floor grates in the previous games which you never bothered using unless you were forced to? Well in Arkham Knight, you can very easily access them from up high. With a button press, Batman with getting from his high vantage point to under the ground without alerting anyone at all. When I was playing the game, I spent a significant amount of time under the floor and leaping out at people unexpectedly. In fact, it changed the whole way I treated predator mode. I used to rely on inverted take downs, but in Arkham Knight, I used silent take downs from inside the floor vents for ninety percent of the time. They’ve also added a new kind of takedown, useful for dealing with a room of three or four armed thugs. It’s called the Multi-Fear Takedown. Basically, you sneak up on a group of people and press a button, then the game goes into slow motion and you take down each of the thugs using surprise fear tactics. These two things combined have changed predator mode quite a lot and made it much more varied – which is what it needed to be.

For my honor, I should also mention the general improvements made to general combat. Combat is largely the same, but Batman can use many more of his gadgets to deal with some of the most annoying enemies, like the stun-stick people. You can use the bat claw to grab them and they’ll drop their sticks. This is different and in some cases I’ve appreciated it. Although it’s not world-changing or anything.

Arkham Knight
He’s got a lot of remote controls…

So, I think that’s about all I had to say on Batman: Arkham Knight. I want to stress that the game was fun. I did enjoy myself while playing the game, it was just not nearly as good as the previous games. I would recommend it once they have finished the PC port fixes, and when the game is a little cheaper. In the mean time, go play Asylum and City. Both are excellent games.