You know the drill by now. Some feeble pun or other on the multiple meaning of the phrase “Bolt Thrower”. I really can’t be bothered today, so let’s get down to it.
There are several games that I’ve reviewed twice, but I’ve made history this week by giving Commands & Colors: Ancients a third going over. The reason for revisiting it is partly because I thought the upcoming Playdek version for iOS made the game of above-average interest for the NoHighScores crowd and partly because I’ve never satisfactorily managed to articulate my feelings on the small fly in the otherwise delightful ointment that this game presents. Which is basically that the system engine is just better suited to simpler games, but you kind of need to detail it more in a review and that’s proved hard. Not sure if I’ve done any better this time. Anyway, it offers a delightfully smooth path into being a conflict simulation while remaining a demanding, thrilling ride. It’s very good, just stopped from greatness by a few too many rules and a bit too much seriousness bolted on to a fairly light framework.
I have been reading a book called The Resurrectionist, which is the tale of a surgeon's apprentice in Victorian London, and his fall from polite society into vice and, eventually, shocking crime. It’s a strange and curious book which seems to have attracted a lot of opprobrium from other reviewers who have slated it for weak characters, a dull plot and for advertising itself as a gothic horror when it’s nothing of the sort. I do not agree. Most characters are, I agree, one-dimensional, but the protagonist is most certainly not. Indeed I would argue that the thin manner in which they’ve been drawn is symptomatic of his disinterest in them, of his distance from the rest of humanity. You may gather from this that the main character is largely unsympathetic, which he is, and personally I think that’s what is putting people off the book. It may not be a classic gothic horror, but the setting is certainly gothic and the subject matter is fairly horrible. The plot is very slow burning, certainly, but it is not dull by any stretch, and its leisurely unfolding leaves the author plenty of room to deploy his most potent weapon: an atmosphere so claustrophobic, strangling and dense that you could practically slice it into wedges and serve it at a dinner party. I found it a startlingly well-crafted exercise in word-craft, in setting, and most of all in illustrating how few steps there can be between polite society and barbarism.
TV & Film
Since last time I’ve been making a dedicated effort to try and catch up with some of the higher-profile films I missed at the cinema over the last year or two. First up was Super 8, which I enjoyed thoroughly while watching and then almost instantly forgot. Only a couple of weeks after watching it I can quite literally no longer recall what was good about it. I remember thinking the child cast did extremely well and being impressed by the loving manner in which the ‘70s setting was re-created and also wondering why Spielberg didn’t direct it himself since his fingerprints were all over it. But beyond that, no, in recollection it seemed a pretty pointless, schmaltzy film that idly recycled ideas and concepts we’ve seen a hundred times before elsewhere.
Then it was some action films, both of which had bombed critically but which I was interested enough to watch anyway. I went into my viewing of the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian with the lowest possible expectations and came away moderately impressed. It’s nothing special but it does what it says on the tin: action scenes are frequent, well choreographed and drenched in plenty of gore and the cast generally take the whole thing with the correct tongue-in-cheek attitude. Except, sadly, for the lead who threatens to ruin the whole thing with a glowering attempt at being serious. So, fun while it lasted but not something I’d watch again, in stark contrast to the original which actually seems to improve with repeat viewings. Sadly the same cannot be said for the next film which was Sucker Punch. I am left wondering how a film that has so many fantastic ingredients could be so utterly, irredeemably awful. Not only is it soul-suckingly boring - a quite inexcusable crime for a film so packed with action and visual effects - but the mildly erotic elements just come across as being creepy and exploitative. It joined the select few films that I’ve been unable to watch all the way through: after about 70 minutes I forwarded on to see if the ending would improve it at all. It didn’t. Avoid.
I have been tired and ill of late, and going to bed early to read rather than sitting up to play computer games. One thing I have spent some time with is the iOS version of Spiderweb Software’s RPG Avadon: The Black Fortress. It’s very, very old school: gameplay is reminiscent of pre-Baldur’s Gate RPG’s. You wander round big areas on an isomorphic map, getting lost, fulfilling quests, killing monsters and collecting items. For the most part this no longer grabs me as being particularly entertaining and the interface is not brilliant either which doesn’t help. But it’s just about held my interest with one redeeming factor, which is a well-judged and pervasive sense of moral confusion. Gone are usual black-and-white, good versus bad plots typical of fantasy settings. Instead there’s a real sense that the cause for which you are working is unpleasantly oppressive, if necessarily so, and that your enemies frequently have understandable and occasionally noble motivations. There are elements of this in even the smallest side quests in the game, and it changes what would otherwise be a fairly forgettable and dated title into something engaging and playable.
Also, I have an Xbox 360 now. So this section may expand in future.
It has been a time of discovering new music for me. Unfortunately most of it has been music that lots and lots of other people have already discovered and so is likely to be of minimal interest to you all. Kanye West, for example. I mean obviously I’d heard his stuff before and dismissed most of it as light pop hip-hop, but then I heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with its big, complex, bombastic sound so unlike the usual stripped down soul samples of other hip-hop and was reasonably impressed: the skit at the end of Blame Game was hilarious. I also heard Florence + The Machine for the first time - genuinely the first ever time - and thought her latest album, Ceremonials was quite fantastic, managing the impossible feat of being simultaneously very modern and very retro. For my money, however, the rest of the albums to completely overshadowed by the enormous, exhilarating Remain Nameless with its unbelievably lascivious bass line and divisive lyrical interpretations: is it about casual sex, or God? Within 48 hours I’d gone from never having heard it before to it being one of my top 3 most played tracks of all time on Last fm as I just sat and listened to it on endless repeat.
I did uncover one relatively obscure band as well, though, Welsh folk-pop duo Paper Aeroplanes. Their material ranges from bouncy up-tempo love songs to more sombre and reflective material. The former is largely forgettable, but they’re at their best at the moodier end of the spectrum: I’ve been particularly haunted by Save It and Same Mistakes, both from their recent EP We Are Ghosts. But the stand out thing about Paper Aeroplanes is not the songs, nor the fingerpicking guitar, but the singer Sarah Howells and her extraordinary ability to rapidly switch around her impressive vocal range to wring every possible ounce of emotion out of her lyrics. I discovered that she’s also worked with a number of trance DJs and producers and picked up some of that material too, figuring that sort of voice would work extremely well in that environment and haven’t been at all disappointed. I used to listen to a lot of trance, back in the days when a good night out consisted of popping a few pills and hitting the dance floor for five hours straight, and cheesy as it might be, it was great to hear some again. I got a particular rush out of Skies on Fire which, to bring us full circle, turned out to be a remix of a Paper Aeroplanes track. I think I prefer the trance version.