Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In Which Your Author Expresses the Opinions of a Traitor

I see that Toy Story 3 has been nominated for Best Picture, marking the first time that the eighth instalment in a franchise -- because let's face it, The Incredibles, WALL-E and Up aside, they've been making the same film over and over since 1995 -- has got the nod. It's also been nominated in the animated category, which it will almost certainly win, not least because it's up against only two other films and anyway, Pixar Always Wins.

It would take a goof of As Good As It Gets or Forrest Gump proportions for the Academy to give Best Picture to Toy Story 3 this year with such a strong pack around it, but that's not why it won't win. It won't win because it's a cartoon, and cartoons aren't Proper Films. The thing is, despite my hatred for the ruin Pixar has visited upon the animation industry, I would almost like to see them win it this year.

As the story has it, the Academy panicked when animated films started to be taken seriously -- in the US that is; everyone else was already grown up enough to realise that cartoons could be more than trashy Saturday morning fodder --- in the 1990's, with Disney pulling their socks up and getting Beauty and the Beast into the nominations, The Lion King shortly after, Miyazaki not content with the traditional single masterpiece, and yes, Pixar's arrival on the scene. Being, at the end of the day, a bunch of stuffy old snobs, the Academy set up the Best Animated Feature award in 2001 so that there would be no danger of a mere cartoon showing up the real life actors. This backfired when pretty much everyone in the world asked why Wall-E didn't even get a nomination in 2009, despite being the best film of the previous year.

It's a petty, patronising little trinket designed to silence fans of animation and nudge them off into their own little ghetto, and it should be done away with. Even if it means Pixar pick up a Best Picture statuette.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Brain Eater

My primary artistic influence has always been comics. I devoured them as a child, reading them cover to cover then grabbing a pencil or pen and drawing my own stories on any bit of paper I could find. It's fair to say, however, that I was also influenced and inspired, in no small part, by the imagery of fantasy gaming. Now, since I was a bit of a solitary sort, this meant that I spent a lot of time reading issues of White Dwarf with no real understanding of what the articles were about, as I wasn't playing the games. For kids like me, there was also Fighting Fantasy, which allowed us to pretend we were playing Dungeons & Dragons, even if we had no mates. The books also had some great art -- and let's be honest, the art was often much better than the story/game in the text -- and because the British game industry was a bit isolated and incestuous back then, you'd see the same artists popping up in different publications from different companies. As a result, British gaming products of the time developed a unique look, quite distinct from the visual style of the American gaming culture.

So while the Americans would be getting this:

We'd be getting this:

No contest.

One of my favourite artists from that time was Russ Nicholson, whose work combined an eye for fine detail with a talent for making the fantasy seem eldritch and strange. His style wasn't all that similar to that of John Blanche or Ian Miller, but they all shared a proper evocation of the weird that you just didn't see in American fantasy art.

I was pleased to discover that Nicholson was not only still working, but had started a blog, and when he ran a competition to win a piece of original art, I jumped at the chance.

I won:

I've never been one for chasing original art, and I'm not sure why, as it's great to have a piece by one of my favourite artists. Thanks Russ!

Monday, January 10, 2011


Games Workshop's Warhammer is a juggernaut of a franchise. Its runaway success has changed the company from a single hobby shop in Hammersmith to an international corporation, and the game has expanded beyond the tabletop into board games, role-playing games, video games, MMORPGs, novels, comics, and even, in the latter stages of 2010, a straight-to-dvd film, although reviews haven't been too good on that last one.

Warhammer is the company's core product, but there's also a horde of lesser games, lost to the mists of time and commanding high prices on eBay, stuff like Chainsaw Warrior and Lost Patrol. Somewhere in between is a middle tier of games that have never been huge money-spinners, but have remained popular enough to remain in production, on and off, throughout the company's life. Blood Bowl is one of these, a Warhammer-ised version of American football, with orcs and goblins beating seven shades out of dwarves and elves, and with maybe a touchdown or two thrown in. In the game, players take it in turns to advance their teams up the pitch, seize the ball, and through applied brutality, agile footwork, or dead-eye accuracy, attempt to get the ball into the end zone to score. Their chances of doing so are modified by their teams' skills and statistics as well as a significant amount of luck, as generated by the rolling of dice.

In 2009, Blood Bowl was released to a number of video game platforms, including this DS version. It lacks the 3D environment of the PC and console releases, opting for a isometric viewpoint; while some may view this as a negative, and it does at first glance seem like a retrograde move back to the 16-bit era and a waste of the DS' capabilities, the viewpoint works in the game's favour, allowing for a wider field -- pun intended -- of vision, as befits what is, after all, a game of strategy.

Similarly, the lack of a real-time mode turns out to be a missing feature which is not missed, as the end result is something which is more or less a straight translation of the board game into electronic form. The original board game is strong enough that 3D graphics and arcade-style gameplay are not improvements but unnecessary distractions, and for whatever reason they were removed from the DS edition, it has resulted in a better game. The fidelity to the source material also means that those players who want a quick game of Blood Bowl, but can't find an opponent or don't have the space to set up the board, can instead whip out the DS and indulge. There is also a rudimentary local multiplayer option, as well as a "hot seat" mode, which may be a misnomer on a portable system.

All that said, some features are indeed missed, such as the wilder players and options some of the teams bring along with them, and while eight types of team are included it is disappointing that evocative races such as the dark elves and undead have been overlooked. It is possible however that only those familiar with the original game will miss these bells and whistles, as the core gameplay offers plenty of complexity to keep strategic thinkers happy. On the other hand, those same strategic thinkers may not be quite as happy with the difficulty of the game; while the single-player mode will prove a challenge due to an aggressive CPU, the AI does on occasion seem to engage in some wild and hare-brained schemes, such as sending players to the far corners of the pitch to await passes which are never likely to come, or withdrawing strong blockers from the front lines, and so on.

The game benefits from good graphics, with good designs and smooth animation, although it would have been nice to have some variation in how the players moved. There are some neat cut scenes during the game, with the referee stepping in to conduct the opening coin toss and adjudicate fouls, and so on, and there are is a brief appearance from the game's commentators, familiar to those who have played the board game. Perhaps the most important cut scene of all is that which plays when a touchdown is scored, and alas this is the most disappointing, with dodgy-looking cheerleaders and no variation in the animation at all; it would have been a neat touch to have included burly orc cheerleaders, ethereal elven cheerleaders, bearded dwarven cheerleaders, and so on. The game also lacks much in the way of music, with only one or two tunes in evidence, although perhaps a wise move to shun in-game music, which could have become annoying with individual matches taking up to an hour to play.

This lack of polish can sometimes be an annoyance, but the game survives. There are some glitches in the code that may prove to be a more fatal issue. Outside a match, the game can sometimes take a long time to move between screens, which could be put down to loading times were it not for the simple fact that Blood Bowl is a cartridge-based title. At times, the game can lock up during these pauses, necessitating a restart and the subsequent loss of data, most annoying during a league game where a team has built up money and experience over a season. Other editions have been fixed by updates, and a new version of the game was released in 2010, but neither have made it to the DS alas.

All in all, Blood Bowl on the DS is a very basic game, and the lack of features and polish can be a bit disappointing at times. That said, the core gameplay is strong, a faithful adaptation of a great board game and at the end of the day, it's the gameplay that matters most.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Where in the World?

The old laptop on which I'm typing this right now has seen better days. It should have been replaced a long time ago, but I was reluctant to splurge on a new machine, so I staved off the inevitable with some more memory. Then the hard drive failed, then the power supply began to fail, then the USB ports began to fail, and it became clear that the poor thing was heading for a complete system implosion.

So just after Chrimble, I decided to take the plunge and took advantage of the sales to buy a new laptop. Free delivery within three days, they promised, which was dead handy as I had the week between Chrimble and New Year off. Such are the --meagre-- joys of working in education. I paid my money, and got a confirmation email, so far so good.

A day later I got another email saying that I should expect delivery. I was a bit concerned, as I was told that they would specify the method of delivery in the email, but there was nothing of the sort. Three days passed and there was no delivery, and we were heading into the New Year weekend, so I sent an email to the company to ask if they could let me know what was going on. Update me they did, but more of that in a bit; all in all I had a sinking feeling that it was going to be delivered after I'd gone back to work, and so the endless dance of "Sorry You Were Out" cards would begin.

The night before my first day back I got an email -- from the delivery company -- to say that the computer would be shipped overnight, and they gave me a tracking number. Why they couldn't have shipped it overnight the day I bought it, I don't know. Sure enough, upon checking the tracking number the next morning I saw that it was on its way, and might even arrive before I left for work.

At the office, I checked the tracking site a number of times during the day, discovering that they had delivered the item just after lunch -- five hours after it set out from the depot -- but that there was no answer at my flat -- because I was at work, checking the tracking website -- so it had been returned to the depot. I then received a reply to my email from a few days before, saying that they'd delivered it but no one was home. Excellent customer service there.

I knew how this was going to go, so instead of attempting to rearrange delivery, I requested that it be held at the depot, and I would just go and get it myself. I'd be losing the free delivery, but the money spent getting to the depot would be a tenth of the amount saved by buying online, so it would still work out in my favour.

So this morning, I got up early with a plan to nip over to the depot, get the package, and get back in time for work. The first bit worked. I got to the depot -- which is further away from my flat than the place from which I bought the computer -- and discovered that the laptop wasn't there. Why not? Because it had been put on the van for redelivery.

"But hang on," said I, "I asked for it to be held here. Which is why I've come here on the train, and walked through the rain."

"Oh," says the depot person, "Well the van is still here, so I can go check for you."

"Yes. Please do that."

Indeed, the laptop was on the van, but because the van had "already been packed" they could not give it to me. Instead, they could deliver it to my house.

"Appearances to the contrary, I am not a man of leisure, and I have to go to work. Can you deliver it there?"

"Oh yes, we can deliver it there. In fact, we do a lot of deliveries to your workplace, and it just so happens that your package is on the van which goes there today."

"Well there's some luck!" I may have said, with sarcasm.

Back I go -- PAST THE PARKED VAN IN WHICH MY COMPUTER IS SITTING -- through the rain to the station, and then to work. At this point I discovered a hole in my shoe and the resulting wet sock. Back at the office, I kept an eye on the tracking website, fully expecting it to say that they had attempted to deliver the package to my home again, but in the late afternoon it indicated that the box had been delivered! Huzzah!

I nipped over to the caretaker's office and picked up my new computer at long last. I haven't booted it up yet, but I bet it's broken.

Monday, January 03, 2011


Another image for James Maliszewski's upcoming Petty Gods, this time Neuph, the god of silent, isolated places.