Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel (Spoiler-free Xbox 360 Review)

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Back in 2008, the video game landscape was changing. No longer was a decent single player experience good enough for the gamer holding the purse strings, instead the demand was high for as good a multiplayer element as it was for any solo campaign, setting developers a tough task.

One idea many developers utilised was to make the campaign itself multiplayer by introducing co-op. Gears Of War was already setting the standard for such a social gameplay element, and Halo was soon to follow suit so Electronic Arts chose to jump on the bandwagon, the result of which was Army Of Two. Telling the tale of mercenaries Salem and Rios, the game saw you undertake objectives which relied entirely on your ability to co-operate, celebrating each boss take down with ridiculous amounts of air-guitaring and high-fiving. A wise-cracking macho load of old posturing nonsense with mildly flawed AI if playing solo, the game was, nevertheless, huge fun and sold enough to warrant a sequel.

The 40th Day built on the successful formula, making everything bigger and louder, adding morality moments to choose between and a greater sense of scenic destructibility. Moving away from the Afghanistan conflict, the game took in the sights and sounds of Shanghai but still kept with the terrorism theme. The cover system was improved (hiding behind a dead rhino in the zoo level being a particular highlight) and the game delivered a decent story which expanded the AOT universe, leading us nicely to today and the third game in the series, The Devil’s Cartel.

Perhaps concerned that doing the ‘global terror nutjob’ thing was stepping on Call Of Duty’s toes a little too much, this third game in the series is a far more localised effort. Taking place in Mexico, the game moves away from Salem and Rios and focuses on two Trans World Operations (see what they did there?) agents, Alpha and Bravo as they attempt to take down the deadly drug cartel La Guadana.

The original characters do still feature in the game, and the crazy masks are all present and correct, but there is a lot less of the over-the-top machismo, preferring to leave the banter to a few post-firefight wise-cracks. It seems a shame to have the original characters sidelined in this way, especially in the first three quarters of the game, and to not build up any sort of back story for the new playable heroes (other than one has ‘a girl’ back home, yawn) is a touch odd, but at the end of the day this is a game about destruction on an epic scale and that’s one way in which it truly delivers.

Despite the reliance on cover-based shooting, you never feel 100% safe behind your crumbling position and coupled with your enemy’s unerring accuracy with grenades, this adds a huge amount of tension to proceedings. You’re aided throughout by the returning Overkill system which turns you invincible and increases the power of your bullets for a short time, but with both yourself and your partner able to trigger this ability, it does make things a little too easy at times, even if it is fun to destroy reams of scenery in one ridiculously fiery 30 second burst.

The scoring system will also probably divide people, as the game splits itself into 50-odd sections, interspersed with brief ‘how many kills did you get’ calculations. Personally, I preferred these short interludes as an opportunity to reset my weaponry and buy new gear, and they do a good job of getting rid of chunky loading times completely, but it’s never abundantly clear how to get the big, big points or how you will be rewarded for obtaining them.

As for the setting, Mexico is really pretty in all its HD glory but it also seems to be a heck of a desolate place. You don’t come across any locals other than those who want to shoot your brains out (and even they all look pretty similar) and although the game looks very good graphically, it does all feel a bit done to death in the shooter genre, with the traditional quarries, mansions, churches and inner city slums all playing a part in the story.

The third game in the AOT series also feels a lot more stripped down than previous instalments. On my play through I didn’t control any vehicles, instead I only had the option to man helicopter machine guns or occasionally jump on the back of a truck to decimate small armies. These sections were still enjoyable, if mindless, but the lack of variety and linearity to the levels will challenge those used to choosing your own way through a game.

It’s probably in this mindlessness that The Devil’s Cartel lets itself down the most. I’m not a huge fan of strategy titles but the first two games in the series did at least make you use simple decisioning to get through most levels. This time out, it’s generally enough just to shoot everything in sight with little consideration for how to flank shielded foes or use your ally intelligently. The ability to team up behind a single shield is still there, but I only realised this right at the end in a set-piece that gave me no other choice.

There were also a couple of major glitches which required either a complete Xbox reboot or at least a trip back to the not-that-recent previous checkpoint, all of which should really have been patched a couple of months as it is after release. Moving from cover to cover is also frustrating on occasion, with the complete lack of ability for your character to roll or jump almost heresy in this day and age.

Yes, it is possible to rattle through The Devil’s Cartel in a day or two, but after the initial realisation that you’re just going to be shooting bandana man and cowboy hat man (oh, and the odd bulletproof vest man) for a few hours, the game is actually fun. The story is a little cliched but still takes the franchise further and there is more to it than just taking down a generic Mexican drug lord, but I’ll leave it spoiler-free for now. The shooting itself is solid, despite the customisable weaponry being a little soulless, and the explosions can be absolutely joyful to witness. Plus let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the franchise, you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for.

Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel may set its own universe on fire frequently but it wont do the same to the real world. Nevertheless, this is still a solid enough addition to the franchise, staying just about fun and brash enough to stand toe-to-toe with its rivals. Next time out though, EA are going to have to come up with something a bit more special or it’ll be over and out from the masked marauders once and for all.

BioShock Infinite: Sky High Delight Or Underwater Menace? SPOILER-FREE

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Columbia: There’s a better home a-waiting.

I don’t usually review video games for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I never have the time these days to really plough through a game straight after release and then cobble together something that is both timely and reflective of the full experience.

There is, however, one exception to this rule. Back in 2007, 2K Games released an intriguing little shooter called BioShock. A spiritual successor to the System Shock games, the sinister underwater setting and core production values instantly installed the game as one of my all-time favourites, and I would go to bed at night with the Circus of Values chimes running over and over in my head. Finally a game had harnessed modern console power to produce a stunningly immersive experience and a storyline in which you actually gave two hoots about the main characters.

Six years on and after the not-quite-as-good BioShock 2, we finally get the game we’ve been waiting for; BioShock Infinite. Early trailers and screens had given away the theme, with 2K taking the setting from fathoms below the Earth to miles above it in the floating city of Columbia, its gleaming spires hiding something sinister within.

The story is pretty simple in theory, even going so far as to mirror the earliest of Donkey Kong games; rescue the girl. But that is where the simplicities end. As lead protagonist Booker DeWitt, you are charged with not only finding the girl in question, Elizabeth, but also uncovering exactly what debts you will be repaying by doing so, and exploring the majestic flying city as you do.

To cover off the full plot would take another 2000 words, and as the game really needs to be experienced I’m not going to go into too much detail here. It doesn’t give too much away to say that Columbia is governed by Father Zachary Comstock, leader of a group called the Founders who strive to keep Columbia orderly against the rising discontent of revolutionaries the Vox Populi. A self-proclaimed ‘Prophet’, Comstock spends his time warning his people against the coming of the False Shepherd who is said to be responsible for bringing about Columbia’s downfall.

The city is a brilliant dystopia, rivalling Rapture as a morally ambiguous haven for saints and sinners. Throughout the game, you’ll come across various other characters from businessmen and scientists to shopkeepers and slaves who you can choose to treat either with respect or disdain, depending on your reading of the game’s society and of your character’s motivation.

Weaponry comes in the form of the usual line-up of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, sniper rifles and RPGs, all of which can be upgraded to the hilt, whilst kit parcels hidden amongst Columbia’s buildings give you special abilities which can be swapped in and out depending on the enemy you’re fighting at the time.

Of course, you can’t have a BioShock game without some supernatural special powers and just as the original had plasmids, here we have vigors which provide you with magical, mystical abilities. Powered by salts, the vigors feature amongst their number the ability to unleash a quite literal murder of ravens upon your foes, the power to shoot Sith-like crackles of electricity at all and sundry, or a talent for possessing machines and humans to do your bidding. All of the vigors have a secondary ability too in the form of traps which can be laid in the path of on-rushing foes, adding a nice tactical element to proceedings.

The combination of weaponry (right trigger) and vigors (left) works exceptionally well, and you’ll quickly be raining bullets down on enemies before finishing them off with an electrical burst or bull in a china shop charge.

The other part of your arsenal is the Sky-Hook. Created for attaching yourself to the monorail system that coils around Columbia, the wrist-based hook can not only be used for speeding around the city, but also as a melee weapon with which to batter your opponents.

An integral part of the game is Elizabeth herself and again it isn’t really a spoiler to say that you will travel with her for some of your journey. Elizabeth serves a few purposes and most importantly, she looks after herself. The game would have been severely hampered if 2K had focused on you having to constantly watch her back, so it’s pleasing to see the young lady intelligently taking cover and even going so far as to search the surroundings, lobbing you salts, ammo or money when required. She can also pick locks and open tears in space and time, allowing you to ask her to bring through assistance such as turrets, drones or cover during some of the trickier battles.

Graphically, there is little that surpasses this game on modern consoles. The environments are varied enough without ever being jarring and seeing the city both sparkling in sunlight and shrouded in darkness are equally satisfying. Enemies are insanely designed enough for you to know that you’re in a BioShock game and despite Infinite being set a fair few years before the first two in the franchise, similar stylistic themes prevail.

A special mention should also go to the soundtrack. Not only are the voice actors involved all on top form (including veteran Troy Baker as Booker) the music throughout is everything from haunting to jolly to maniacal, topped off by a brilliant cover of Tears For Fears ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’.

So, is this game better than the first Bioshock? Possibly. It does look even better than its forebear, whilst the mechanics have been tweaked just enough so that it is familiar but also as tight as a gnat’s chuff.

There are a couple of minor quibbles, however. Medium difficulty generally gives you plenty of opportunity and cash to restock with ammo, but a random section suddenly provided me with zero ammunition for an extended length of time. Fortunately, this only served to make me more resourceful with my vigors and Sky-Hook. There are also a couple of ‘stuck in the scenery’ moments when the area you’re in becomes particularly dark (warning kids – don’t knock your brightness right down at the start) and the game also glitched once, refusing to let me past without a reboot, but presumably that will get fixed with a patch.

All in all, BioShock Infinite is a stunning game. As soon as I completed it I had to sit in awe, watching the credits and taking some deep breaths, trying to digest all that had been presented to me over a pretty mammoth 15+ hour journey through Columbia and beyond. 2K Games have delivered an astonishing, thinking person’s shooter that sucks you so far into its world, you’ll wonder if you or Booker will ever escape.

Sony – The End of a 20 Year Love Affair

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Sony and The Affs – the end of an era.

Those who know me will be aware that I’ve always been a massive proponent of Sony technology, so you may be surprised to hear that myself and Sony could well be over.

My relationship with the brand began when I inherited my mum’s stereo. It was a turntable-topped, double tape deck, CD drive-based beast. I used it constantly, stunned by the sound from those great speakers, and forever showing off its monolithic appearance to my circle of friends.

It wasn’t long before everyone started getting Walkmans (Walkmen?) so I just HAD to seek one out (with a radio on it too) to keep me occupied on those long car journeys to far flung parts of England on the annual family holiday. A massive supply of tape-recorded albums and mix-ups courtesy of my friends would be a god-send, along with cassettes of some gigs recorded directly from the radio (swearing usually included due to sluggish broadcast-delay editing).

A Sony Discman soon entered into my Sony-stash, a good £100’s worth of prime tech, pumping pristine shiny disc music into my ears wherever I went. It may have been bulky and it certainly skipped every time you moved too quickly, but it was still a revelation in portable music technology.

When the offer of a new stereo came with my 18th Birthday, I had no hesitation in picking out a magical neon-lit five-CD changing behemoth from the company I knew I could rely on for quality and for design spectacle.

Mini-disc arrived next, and I bought a little silver Sony machine with great build quality and an (admittedly now misplaced) view that I was staring at the future of portable music.

When I went off to University I took my Sony kit with me and added a Sony dictaphone to my stash. A staple requirement on any journalism course, I was once again unconcerned with paying that little bit extra for a trusted bit of tech.

After finishing University, I treated myself to the hugely impressive PlayStation 2, finally getting a DVD player in my life along with a whole world of possibilities. I’d skipped the original PlayStation as I’d previously been a Sega fanboy, but as they slipped away from the video game hardware world, I defected to the new Japanese pretenders.

When portable music took a new turn, this time towards a digital future, I bought one of the first Sony MP3 players that saw the light of day. I wrestled with the god-awful Sonicstage software, insisting to people that the sound quality and reliability made it better than any grey-screened iTunes-locked down iPod or web developer friendly Creative Zen box of tricks.

I then bought a house, and used the opportunity to kit it out with the latest and greatest from the Sony Corporation. Trinitron TVs both upstairs and down, with matching VCRs and DVD players. Even the bedside clock radio was a Sony device, preferring that to cheaper models, despite it largely being a glorified timepiece. The PSP soon followed, seeing me again fighting against early reports of a a clunky, non-ergonomic design and Game Gear-like battery life. I even bought the PS3 on launch day for a mammoth £425, and more recently the PS Vita, a new HD Sony Bravia TV and a bedside iPod/iPhone dock radio.

I’ve also owned Sony earphones for a good three or four years now. This was a no-brainer compared to Apple’s own shockingly bad buds, but I still turned down Sennheisers and other top-name brands in order to go with safety and security from a brand that I trusted.

Even last year when it was time to spend my hard earned cash on a new laptop, I turned a deaf ear to those insisting I should go with a MacBook Pro, purchasing instead my second Vaio, along with a netbook for on-the-go scribbling. But now I can’t help but think I should have listened all these years.

Back in October, my then 15 month old Vaio would not turn on. Initially thinking it was a charging or battery issue, I plugged it in, charged it overnight, all to no avail. Quickly searching the Internet, the main reasons people had reported were with the motherboard itself. I was initially shocked that the main board of such a new machine could die so quickly, but knowing it to still be in warranty (I got a free two-year extended warranty when I bought the laptop) I went about getting it looked at.

My first port of call was the Sony Centre from where I had originally bought the product…until I realised it had shut down. With no other Sony store nearby I went online and followed the process to log the fault electronically. I soon received correspondence back saying I would receive packaging via DHL in which I should place the laptop and send it away for them to look at. So far, so good.

I got the DHL man to come to my place of work, expecting him to hang around whilst I popped the unit into the box, but oh no that would be far too easy. The box arrived but the courier was “not allowed” to hang around. Instead I had to package my laptop up and call DHL to get them to come back again and pick it up. Painful, but not the end of the world.

Again, service was quick and I soon had a voicemail from Sony saying the engineer had looked at it and it would cost £320.08 to repair. Knowing this to be a mistake as it was still under warranty, I called back the offshore call centre who had left the message.

They stated that the engineer in the UK had found the fault to be caused by liquid damage and this was something not covered by the warranty therefore it had to be paid for. I vehemently protested this diagnosis, as the laptop had never even left my house, let alone ever had anything spilled on it., but there was no arguing with the operator who only seemed capable of reading from scripts and so I had no other option than to request they returned it to me, unrepaired.

Looking at my other options, things appeared bleak. I knew of a few people who were handy enough to replace a motherboard, but getting the appropriate part for such a new model looked like costing the same as it would via Sony. I wondered how the machine could have got such damage and as it was certainly not caused by myself, I could only assume that the fault was present at purchase and corroded over time, so I sent Sony UK Customer Services a letter stating that I wished to get the machine repaired free of charge under the Sale of Goods Act.

Eventually I received a call from Sony’s complaints/customer services department in this country. They explained that my first port of call should be with the shop from which I bought it as they, as the retailer, would be responsible under the Sale of Goods Act. Explaining to them that the store was no longer open, they admitted that they’d had a similar problem with other customers as many Sony Centres had closed down. They then admitted that Sony Centres were in fact unrelated to Sony themselves and weren’t even franchises. They advised that I should look for head office details on my receipt to try and find who may now be able to help, and after taking an email address for Sony’s department in case I needed them again I grudgingly began to explore this route.

Unfortunately there were no head office details on the receipt, so I started digging around on the Internet for contact information for the administrators. I received no response from them, and so I emailed Sony customer services again to explore my next options and to express my concern that I and many others buy Sony products from Sony Centres as we expect to get suitably preferential after-sales care from a seemingly affiliated outlet. The next email from Customer Services did admit that although they were un-affiliated, the level of service they offer does impact on the Sony brand. Nevertheless, there was nothing more that they could do to help.

After running through my options, I decided that my only choice was to pay to get the machine repaired, get all my data and information from it and then sell it in order to part fund an Apple MacBook Pro.

I emailed Sony again, simply to enquire whether I needed to log this repair as a new job or if I could just package it up in the box I still had and get a collection arranged. A few weeks passed and on chasing my request again, I was eventually told to phone an 0870 number.

I did so, and was promptly on hold for over half an hour, before being put through to an offshore operator who could not help and would need to arrange for me to receive a callback from the team who could deal with pick ups and charge any pre-pick up fees. I strongly informed the operator that I had already received a quote for the repair and had been charged no fees previously and after trying to pull him away from his script, he eventually admitted that I would pay no more than was originally quoted, £320.08.

When I received my callback, the latest operator I spoke to told me that I would need to pay a £60 “logistics fee” as in my reporting of the repair, I had told them it was due to liquid damage which was not covered by warranty and so the DHL costs were also exempt from Sony picking up the tab.

Outraged, I suggested to the operator that I could, in theory, simply telephone back and report the laptop as being faulty, without suggesting a reason, thus avoiding this charge and she admitted that I “could do”. I decided to pick the issue up with the UK-based Sony team again to see if I could get some rationality and common sense and again after an extended wait I then received a call, during which I again expressed my disappointment with the time taken to resolve my issue and also with the inconsistent messages coming from the company’s various departments. The customer service agent did eventually agree to waive the logistics cost and arranged for me to receive a call back from the collections team once more.

A day or so later, I received the call, and again I enquired whether to save everyone’s time and effort I could just package up my laptop in the same box as last time. I was told that I couldn’t as I needed a new address label (the possibility of sticking this over the top of the previous one appeared alien).

I then asked whether the DHL courier could wait whilst I packaged up the laptop, but again the only scripted response I received was that he would need to leave and I would need to phone to arrange a new pick up. With no alternative I had to again follow this ridiculous process, phoning DHL to arrange pick up almost immediately after the original driver had left the building.

Two more days passed, before I received the call from offshore advising of the cost…it had gone up, and was now going to cost me £343.26.

I again had to call Sony, to ask why on Earth this cost had risen and they confirmed that a logistics charge applied. After checking with their supervisor, they agreed to remove it, bringing the cost down to the previously quoted amount.

I now await delivery of the repaired laptop so I can go about the process of getting everything off it,  restoring it to factory settings (if it isn’t already in that state) and then getting shot of one arm of Sony’s hideously admin-heavy, customer-unfriendly corporation from my life.

So that’s it then. One of the biggest companies across the globe has finally lost my business. And do they care? Doesn’t look that way. The majority of responses have been hugely scripted with no research into an individual’s issue and zero personal service.

I don’t necessarily expect Sony to be be less than faceless due to their size but there ARE plenty of companies out there these days that deliver a personal touch. Take Virgin, O2 or Tesco for example to see a classy, modern online customer service strategy in action. Instead, Sony make the customer jump through hoops, forever implying that they are in the wrong and charging hideous fees for anything that doesn’t suit their approach to warranty-related repairs.

All I can say is thank you Sony. Thanks for the previous 20 years, but no thank you to the next 20. I’ve spent a lot of money with you over the years and recommended others do the same, but that isn’t going to happen any more.

Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse – 2.8 Hours Later Style

When I think about the zombie apocalypse, I don’t tend to think of it as starting in Manchester and involving more orienteering than the average cub camp. But when the opportunity arose to play kiss chase with the undead on a dark Thursday night, I jumped at the chance.

Let me rewind a little. A while ago, some of us at work were discussing horror films, tv shows, and video games, as per usual, when the subject of survival tactics in the event of a zombie holocaust arose. After discussing how to defend deserted castles and the best way to make supplies last, we stumbled upon a company running something called 2.8 Hours Later. Being big fans of the namesake films, we explored it a bit more.

It turned out that it was in fact a city-wide zombie chase game, the objective being very simple, get from checkpoint to checkpoint without succumbing to the ‘infection’. The game takes place on specific dates in selected cities around the country and begins in a secret location. From there you are given co-ordinates, and using a map you move from one place to the next chatting to the odd survivor and obtaining important information along the way.

As part of a colleague’s 21 years of service at our company, we bought him four tickets to the Manchester one and left it up to him who to invite, knowing that we could snaffle some more tickets if he had a few interested parties.

As they day of the event drew near, we started to research what we could expect. We didn’t want spoilers as such, just a bit of a head’s up as to what may occur and how the whole thing worked. We saw videos on YouTube of zombie hen parties, car park horror and mad sprints to the safety of the finish line. All of which seemed pretty ruddy TERRIFYING.

On the day itself, it’s fair to say that a fair few nerves were jangling. We prepped by buying torches, expecting a few pitch black haunted house style moments. Other than that we didn’t really have much else other than ourselves to rely on when we hit the first location in a slightly less than salubrious locale in darkest Ancoats. After a briefing and a bit of a queue, the four of us were released along with our two additional team mates with the simple job of heading left and then right, and it wasn’t long before we encountered a lady in a dressing gown, out in the street.

Not too uncommon a sight in the area, we soon realised she was actually our first zombie apocalypse survivor. She told us that she was looking for her paramedic husband and gave us the co-ordinates of where she heard there may be more survivors. Following the road around, we had our first undead episode. Feeling cocky, and seeing the slow pace of the zombie in question, we decided to sprint nearby rather than taking a wider berth. It wasn’t until halfway down the street that we realised there were three and that their taste for human flesh gave them a decent lick of pace.

Arriving at the next location, we waited outside a small housing showroom. One slight problem with the game appeared to be that the sheer amount of players meant there was some bunching at key locations, but it did thin out later on. After a bit of a queue our group was let in by the salesman. As the situation turned nasty, we were ordered out directly past two zombies, our legs a blur as we pegged it clear.

Heading towards town we entered a church. The vicar was sat near the altar, deep in prayer. Knowing we needed information, we accepted her offer of helping to pray for the missing, only for her to lash at the nearest of a group as it became apparent she was chained up and infected.

Next up, we encountered an office block and were let in and told to follow a stairwell up. After a fair few flights, we emerged onto an empty, but brightly lit office space…with a zombie in the middle. Needless to say we wasted little time in hurtling to the door, and up another flight, only to encounter another member of the undead. Another quick trot and we came to the office boss who gave us further co-ordinates.

As we headed towards central Manchester it started to dawn on us how odd it probably seemed to the Thursday drinkers and shoppers that loads of luminous-arm banded people were navigating around the city. But it wasn’t until we got to the main shopping stretch, Market Street that things got even stranger. Realising we had to get from one end to the other, we soon noted that to do so, we’d have to run through a group of three or four zombies.

As they shuffled around they appeared harmless enough, so I chose a pretty direct route, only to find that they were quick. Very quick. I didn’t look back as I was very much in flight mode, but by all accounts they were on my shoulder for much of the dash. We lost a team member in this section, discovering she’d been tagged as she ran through. The tagging took the form of the zombie touching you, which meant you had to stop and be marked by said zombie, and at the end of the game, everyone was scanned for signs of having been caught.

At the bottom of Market Street we encountered the paramedic we had seen in the picture earlier. After telling him we’d seen his wife previously, he gave us a map reference for St Anne’s square, another prime, busy, city centre location. The task here was to help a diabetic lady by getting her some of her sweets from outside a shop on nearby King Street. This truly was a challenge considering the road was relatively narrow, and filled with shoppers. Oh and three prime zombies.

This was our first real attempt at tactics as we tried a few times to draw them from the bag and allow another runner to go for the target. After a few attempts we succeeded and headed back to receive our reward.

Our next location was outside Urbis, where a scientist was claiming to have found a way to tame the zombies. She encouraged us to get closer and even pet them, before once again, the inevitable happened and they ran directly for us. Another brilliantly jumpy moment, which we laughed about as we went on our way. We eventually got to a skate park where a woman was asking for help for her prostrate boyfriend. Not trusting the situation this time we were quick to get our next location and prepare to dash, as sure enough he rose to his feet and chased us out.

Approaching two and a half hours in, we presumed the end was near, and encountered the safety of a pub housing a single lady. Once again though, all was not as it seemed, and in a brilliant nod to Shaun of the Dead, the opening bars of Don’t Stop Me Now struck up on the jukebox and a zombie appeared behind her. Not hanging around we, legged it once more and onto our final location.

We encountered a square, on the other side of which was the solace of the survivor camp. Unfortunately, the narrower of the two routes through had two female zombies lurking, whilst the other was a wider path but had two male zombies present with a couple more tucked around the corner for good measure. After a few test attempts, we all ended up choosing different tactics. I preferred to try the wider route and it was here that I was finally infected, on the home stretch.

We got to the end, pretty exhausted but exhilarated with the reward being a zombie disco full of survivors alongside the infected players who had been made-up to look like the undead.

A few members of the general public along the way did ask what we were doing and we were happy to give out free promotion for something which can only be called a very different way to spend an evening out and about.

Yes it was just a game and we weren’t going to get chomped for real, but I fully admit that I took it all pretty seriously and even succumbed to a few zombie movie cliches in my attempts to survive. Overall, the night turned out to be a brilliant, exhilarating, energetic event that any genre fan should have a go on. Be prepared to run, be prepared to be scared. But most of all, be prepared to be entertained by a great one of a kind night out.

The iPhone 5 – How Apple Continue To Test Brand Loyalty

Last week saw one of the biggest anti-climaxes in the history of Apple, as the iPhone 5 was launched to an audience who already knew exactly what it was going to feature.

Unheard of under the late Steve Jobs’ watch, the already-leaked phone matched the prototypes we’d all seen in height and design, coupled with a ‘no-one will really notice’ faster chipset and iOS6 features which are very tenuously classed as ‘improvements’.

Oh, and there was a slightly better battery and a smaller camera. According to the official tech specs, the advertised improved power cell can be proven by 225 hours of standby, 25 more than the 4S, but this is still way short of the 700+ on rival Android devices. And surely this improved battery is going to be chowed through by the phone’s LTE high speed data capability, so a true improvement won’t be seen? As for advertising the smaller camera as a feature? I’m really not sure how this improves the handset one bit, other than admittedly making the device thinner and lighter than before.

And then there’s the connector. Oh dear. Apple has finally decided to sack off the 30-pin connector of old (you know, the one which features on all four of your docks and five of your chargers) in favour of ‘lightning’, the ridiculously-named replacement. Other than saving Apple space on their device, this new connector does nothing to improve the phone whatsoever, preferring instead to inconvenience millions of dock-wielding punters. Fear not though! Apple have unveiled an adapter that can bridge the 30 pin of old to the new connector. The bad news? A cursory glance around the Apple store shows that the bulky accessory is going to retail at £25 and isn’t available until a month after the phone comes out.

As far as technological bollock dropping goes, Apple could well have really done it this time. They must still be reeling from having to dish out bumper bars due to the notorious iPhone 4 signal issues, and the consumer backlash around the lightning connector can surely only result in these adapters being given away for nothing to satisfy furious fanboys?

Another big let-down has already been talked about by app developers who have been getting hands-on with the iOS6 pre-release. Firstly, the replacement of Google Maps with Apple’s own seems to lack the detail of the old, with the map’s usefulness being glossed over by demonstrations of flashy 3d fly-over functionality. Also due to the Apple/Google fall-out, the old YouTube app has been removed, replaced by a money-making ad-heavy one.

It isn’t just Apple who are getting complacent either. The UK mobile networks have been jumping on the money-making bandwagon, with O2 only offering 24 month contracts with the iPhone 5, knowing full well that customers who HAVE to have the latest tech will still pay and get hooked into long-term deals.

So, overall, what we’ve got is an expensive and not-much-improved-over-two-years device with the inconvenience of having to buy all-new accessories, a loss of operating system features, and some new earphones which surely can’t be of any interest to those who value half-decent sound quality and so invested in decent lug-hole speakers years ago rather than putting up with the awful bundled ones of yore?

When Apple first launched the original iPhone five years ago, it was playing catch up to a grand master in the form of Nokia. Following the vast improvements to its device, the iPhone 4 truly became a leader and almost made Nokia bankrupt, but now it seems as if Apple is on the back foot once again, this time behind the slew of Android devices from the likes of Samsung and HTC.

So, is there light at the end of the tunnel? Of course there is. Apple die-hards have already been pre-ordering in their droves. The guaranteed 5S next year will also up the ante once more, and there is a massive question mark over where mobile phones can actually go next from a technology point of view, with 3D devices not exactly setting the world alight.

One thing’s for sure, those thinking that Jobs’ legacy has been decimated would be wise to look at all the other times when Apple have been written off; they’re sure to not go down without a fight.

Self-righteous and Lazy Journalism

Over the past couple of days, the media has once again been in the spotlight, with Murdoch deemed neither fit or proper, and the role of England football manager being given to someone who the press hadn’t pre-approved and are now seemingly liable to destroy.

But are the media really in a position to be so holier-than-thou and what right do they have in 2012 to be judge, jury and executioner?

Since the launch of the BBC website nearly 15 years ago, the aim of most major news organisations has changed massively. All of them are now vying to get the big stories to the public before everyone else, and often at the expense of accuracy and decent journalistic standards. The public’s expectations have now been lowered so much, that the power of a picture and a quick quote has overtaken the respect garnered by a full length feature article. Many now prefer the cheap and cheerful likes of the Metro over tucking into a broadsheet during their supposedly time-poor days.

Unfortunately this has led to lazy practices from across the media world. Time and time again, the papers as well as the online media now rely solely on Twitter for their news, with one headline on Monday this week stating “Englandstars keep quiet on Hodgson appointment.” Strangely this was BEFORE Roy Hodgson had even been interviewed let alone appointed and based entirely on the fact that Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney hadn’t been as vocal as they were when Fabio Capello first resigned. Once again, the press were trying to goad a soundbite from professional footballers in order to create news themselves rather than wait for it to happen. It also appeared that they were trying to create a rift before Hodgson had even begun his new role, and even after the official appointment, they’ve continued to ridicule the man for his unfortunate speech impediment. No doubt these same organisations will be the first to criticise him when players don’t perform as they should in anEnglandshirt, and they’ll probably blame it on a lack of respect for the manager, something which they will ironically have helped to create themselves.

It can also be argued that what people put on Twitter, in the main, isn’t news. Yes, times change and more people are making announcements (Lady Gaga touringEuropefor example) via Twitter as it is such a quick and easy way to communicate to fans. But is this really news? Or is it just a modern day soapbox that just so happens to be accessible to most people across the globe? Surely it is far too unregulated to have any sort of journalistic integrity, missing many of the checkpoints that any good journalist should hit in order to prove the accuracy of their story?

Forgive me for going into detail, but being taught journalism isn’t just about telling people how to cut an essay down to a couple of columns, it’s about the legality and the accuracy of the writing that you are producing, and your responsibilities to the public interest. Any error, whether it is the spelling of a person’s name, or the date of a hearing could be hugely damaging and distressing, and journalists have a responsibility to check and check again before publishing any of their work in print or online.

The panic to be faster than everyone else to the big news stories of the day has resulted in some major errors, most recently during the recent Ched Evans rape case when Sky News “accidentally” revealed the name of the victim. This is something that would have been nigh on impossible to do only a few years ago, but instead it highlights just how poor standards now are. Interestingly, police have threatened to arrest those on Twitter who also revealed the girl’s name, but Sky seem somehow exempt from any sort of similar action, simply by claiming it was a mistake. To me, this simply isn’t good enough.

Maybe I am too pedantic. Maybe I am spotting things that don’t really matter, or mistakes that people don’t notice in their rush to skim the day’s news. I can’t help but feel though that by allowing standards to drop in the media, we are also encouraging poorer attention to detail and accuracy across the board. I’ve seen a lot of CVs in my time, and the amount of simple mistakes made which in my eyes disqualifies people from an interview immediately is unforgivable.

We need organisations such as the BBC to lead by example and I just wish that they would take more time writing and sub-editing their web news, rather than publishing it in a half-finished, typo-filled shambles. The Guardian used to be absolutely pilloried for their shocking mistakes (Private Eye even mocking them by calling them “The Grauniad”) but nowadays it seems to be an all too easily accepted part of media production.

Hopefully lessons are being learned, and in a post-Commons media committee/Leveson Inquiry world, the large media corporations will sit up and take note. If they don’t, we could see more than just the News of the World going out of business in the not too distant future.

Should Tesco Be Accountable For Their iPad Pricing Error?

Yesterday, Tesco briefly offered the new iPad, 64GB, 4G version for £49.99 on their website. Sure enough, news of such a great deal spread quickly across social networks, and it looked as if numerous people took them up on this offer. But eventually Tesco brought down the offer and ultimately the Tesco Direct site in order to prevent further losses. Admittedly this still took them quite a while, as even when the offer had been removed from their navigation, the direct link was still accessible, showing some naivety on the company’s part.

An article on the BBC website  appeared soon after, with Tesco claiming that the issue was caused by “an IT error” and that although they love to offer their customers “unbeatable value”, they wouldn’t be honouring purchases made at this price. No apology, no holding up of hands, just a flippant blaming of tools.

But is this really good enough? Surely Tesco have a duty to advertise their products fairly and correctly. It takes a lot to publish an incorrect offer and it must be questioned whether this was done purely to push hype and sales ahead of Friday’s new iPad launch.

If this happened in the financial services industry, the FSA would be all over the company like a rash, forcing them to adhere to an advertised APR or other product benefit. A defence of “it was the computer” doesn’t really wash and quite rightly too. I could stick an offer up on this blog for iPads at £50 or personal loans at 3% APR, just to get traffic in, to collect people’s personal information and to collect payment details. But this wouldn’t be fair of me would it?

Martin Lewis would also usually be attacking a company for false advertising in these situations, but Tesco appear to have wriggled out via small print stating that “If, by mistake, we have under-priced an item, we will not be liable to supply that item to you at the stated price, provided that we notify you before we despatch the item to you.”

Once again, no apology and no admittance that they were in the wrong and unfortunately this doesn’t just happen with Tesco online. I’ve had numerous issues in their store when multi-buy offers haven’t gone through the till correctly and it has always been me who then has to go and queue for a second time over at the kiosk waiting for them to muddle through getting me some sort of refund. Similarly, their bonus Clubcard points offers often don’t work as intended. I once had one for 50-odd bonus points when buying any fresh meat. The voucher didn’t work, according to the cashier, because the bacon I had bought was pre-packed and not fresh. I told her in no uncertain terms that I hoped to god it was fresh!

Don’t get me wrong I know that mistakes can happen. For me, it is all about how companies admit their mistakes and deal with them, and this time round, Tesco, for all their profits and successes were more than sloppy. I’m not one to attack them for being hateful capitalists killing the high street as some people do. I fully support them in being a business and making a profit. I like their online offering for its convenience and its level of customer service. I also don’t necessarily agree with those who jumped on this iPad offer and tried to buy 30 iPads just to sell on, but they had every right to try, just as someone would have every right to buy a job lot of baked beans if Tesco offered them at a knock-down price.

All I’m asking for is for Tesco to honour their deal and follow the lead of other companies who have held their hands up previously, such as Marks & Spencer.

I’m a long time Tesco customer and to me, the flippancy with which they have dealt with this error is unforgivable. Come on Tesco, put your money where your trigger happy web publishing finger is. And if you agree, please do join this group and spread the word amongst your friends and colleagues.

Handheld Gaming – The Rise & Fall Of The Pocket Pleasure

Handheld gaming has been around for longer than most people think, with Mattel releasing the first electronic palm pleaser way back in 1976. Over 30 years on and almost everyone has a gaming device of significant power in their pocket in the form of their mobile phone. Casual gaming at its zenith, mobile apps give short sharp experiences particularly suitable for killing time on the daily commute or for the instant gratification required by this time-poor nation of ours. Strangely, it is against this backdrop that Sony has decided to launch a new dedicated handheld gaming device, the PS Vita; but why did they choose this moment? And is the console that nobody needs actually any good?

Before I write about that, maybe it’s time to look back at how the handheld gaming industry has evolved. My first experience of handheld gaming (other than a Speak & Spell) probably came with the Nintendo Game & Watch series. My brother owned Snoopy Tennis and Donkey Kong (on two screens!) and I had a copy of Mario’s Cement Factory and Donkey Kong Jr. I still remember us spending long summers competing for top scores whilst staying at our grandparents, the speed at which Snoopy Tennis could ramp up to was incredible and challenged even the most nimble of childhood fingers.

Whilst they were simple LCD delights, these games absorbed hours of our lives, but after dabbling in TV-based console gaming it was time to call in the big guns and invest in a Game Boy. The monochrome device is still a classic today, combining simplistic gaming and a massive range of A-quality titles from launch in late 1990. Car journeys became far more interesting, especially when my Dad also got one so we could cable them together and duel at Tetris. I probably completed Super Mario Land about 100 times and never tired of handing out cans of whoop-ass at Tennis with Mario himself as my umpire.

The colour wonders of the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx may have been more visually impressive, but they never caught on as much as the Game Boy, mainly due to their crippling battery sucking prowess, and the Game Boy sold over 25 million units in its first two or three years. The success of the original Game Boy was such that Nintendo didn’t bother updating the device until nearly a decade after its initial Japanese launch with the release of the Game Boy Colour in 1998, followed swiftly by the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and Game Boy Advance SP in 2003. With the latter two consoles, Nintendo continued to do what they did best, creating brilliantly accessible gaming experiences that were loved by old and young alike. I for one loved my SP and again spent long journeys trying to beat my foes around a Mario Kart track or two.

By this time though, there was a new player in home videogaming; Sony. It wasn’t long before the Japanese electronics giant saw a new market to tap into and were soon announcing a more ‘grown up’ handheld, the Sony PSP. Combining PlayStation 2 levels of processor power and a beautiful widescreen display, the new handheld offered a very tempting proposition for the hardcore gamer.

Of course Nintendo weren’t going to take this challenge lying down, but rather than rival the PSP for power, they did what they always do best and got to work on innovation and accessibility. Launching the Nintendo DS shortly before the PSP, the console used an interesting dual screen concept, one of which featured relatively untested touch screen technology. The DS offered the staple Nintendo delights of Mario but also tapped into the growing casual gamer market with short gimmicky games that offered players the ability to play around with what they saw on screen with a stylus or their finger. The machine was a good device that again trumped its rival on battery life, but it couldn’t handle portable equivalents of some of the big home console titles like the PSP could. Aesthetically it also failed to hit the mark and I was surprised by how big, bulky and toy-like it felt when I first got hold of my hot of the press machine.

Sony’s PSP on the other hand, went for a different focus. Using a new format of media, the UMD, Sony tried to make the machine fit for both high-end gaming as well as movies on the move. Unfortunately, Sony hadn’t learned their lesson after the failure of the MiniDisc and UMD films were soon available at stupidly cheap prices when their popularity failed to catch on. The PSP also suffered somewhat with its controls, the single analogue ‘nub’ being no substitute for twin sticks on its console big brother, and the machine’s ergonomics (or lack thereof) gave some severe hand cramps after prolonged sessions on Wipeout Pure or Ridge Racer.

I was still pretty pleased with mine, but the launch titles weren’t anything to really write home about. In fact, Sony probably never had a true killer app on the PSP throughout the machine’s lifetime as it never really decided what sort of gaming device it wanted to be; unable to handle First Person Shooters with its limited controls, but also too good to just throw simple mini games your way.

Combined with a poor battery life, the console never really hit its potential despite numerous redesigns and an eventual shift to non-UMD download-only gaming with the PSP Go.

Nintendo were also busy at refining their DS concept and the hugely popular DS Lite with its Brain Training software suddenly collared a whole new older demographic. Mums, Dads and Grandparents were all putting the device on their Christmas lists and Nintendo even responded to growing demand with a fogey-friendly DSi XL featuring a much larger screen and pre-installed software.

Now here we are in the 8th Generation of handheld gaming and the two competitors aren’t actually fighting each other anymore. Instead, it’s almost as if they have chosen to both go up against their mobile nemesis the smartphone, trying to prove that a dedicated gaming device is still relevant in the 21st Century.

Having led from the front in the touch screen world before smartphones had barely even tried, Nintendo took a further gamble by dipping into the juvenile 3D market with its 3DS handheld. Souped up processing power and goggle-free 3D visuals were promised and despite some concern over the quality of the 3D effect and the impact on infant eyes, the 3DS still offered a brand new concept and a new spin on the classic Mario Kart and Mario World titles.

Not to be outdone, Sony swung even further towards their own bread and butter; hardcore gaming. The PS Vita was announced as an almost PS3-powered machine with an overhauled operating system, front and rear touch screens, dual analogue sticks and a new memory card format for their games to boot.

It was almost as if they had suddenly realised what they wanted the PSP to do all along (in fact the Vita is far more comparable to original PSP concepts designs than the PSP itself ever was). But the fact remains that we’re in a world of smartphone dominance where many fail to even get time to play triple-A rated games on their home consoles, let alone crowbar a slot into their day to rattle through yet more titles on the move.

I’ve only just got my Vita and my 3DS has yet to have that full a workout, but shortly, you’re going to find out whether it’s Sony or Nintendo who have really found handheld heaven.

The Techpocalypse 2011

So, it’s been an interesting week for technology users to say the least.

First, we get the announcement that many were expecting regarding the latest iPhone, the 4S from Apple. No redesign outwardly, but inside is a processor faster than before, a new, improved camera and a whole host of other lovely features courtesy of iOS 5. It came with the usual Apple backlash, that after a 16 month wait this wasn’t good enough etc etc, but in reality, what would a redesign do? A bigger screen would cause a massive headache for app developers who would be forced to resize their wares, and the build quality and design of the iPhone 4 was always one that would stand the test of time. The technological changes are easily a big enough leap to keep the device ahead of the game in the mobile market and the phone has since become the most pre-ordered of Apple’s handsets.

Then came more news from Cupertino – that the founder and revolutioniser of the tech world, Steve Jobs, had died aged only 56. We’d all known that he’d been ill for some time but the news still shocked the globe. Never before had we seen such a figurehead in the relatively young computing and technology world and one who had been so visible at product launches and speeches across the planet. Jobs truly was a man of the people, and one who had an idea and the desire to make something of his life that would change millions of others’ lives forever. And he succeeded.

After such a massive blow, this week Apple seemed to have been dealt a boost, after Samsung claimed they held back the announcement of their new handset, the Nexus Prime as a mark of respect for Jobs’ passing. More likely is that they simply aren’t ready to unleash this Ice Cream Sandwich Android OS beast yet, but they truly are the main rival to Apple’s monopoly as proven by their Mobile of the Year award at the T3 Awards this week.

Another major player, RIM, have also now handed Apple a big advantage with the now-global failure of many BlackBerry services including the rioter’s favourite BlackBerry Messenger. Initially confined just to a few regions, the server issue now appears to have surfaced Stateside and if people needed convincing about the imminent iPhone 4S, then this may be the proof they were looking for.

But then came iOS5. Launching two days before the handset on which it comes as standard, the operating system has seen numerous problems as millions attempt to download it and install it on their i-devices. The ‘3200 error’ is trending on Twitter and rather than having some great new features to play with this morning, users are instead left with iPhones in various states of app-deletion and recovery mode loops.

Of course, this is purely symptomatic of Apple and their success. Which other company would see this level of excitement over the release of an Operating System? No-one. The hype around iOS5 is warranted as it pretty much changes the entire way people will use their iPhones. This is proof that Apple have almost single-handedly made the impenetrable accessible and turned technology into that which can be used by anyone from grandchild to great grandparent.

And for that, I think we have one man to thank. Rest in peace Mr Jobs.

FIFA Through The Ages – A Love/Hate Relationship

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas when the latest video games all have a number in their titles. Unfortunately I’m a sucker for a decent franchise and do buy into the possibility that sequels can sometimes overtake their predecessors. One odd one to this rule though is FIFA.

Over the years I’ve been all over the place with footy games. I started on the Spectrum with Football Manager, watching my 80s Liverpool side trounce Crewe Alexandra et al each week after some tactical dealings in the transfer market and watching the highlights of the match in 8-bit jerk-a-thon.

Next up came MatchDay 2 (I must have missed the first game) and finally I had full control over my team of stuttering melon-headed players. Not a classic, but I had a few decent rounds of the game which was probably more akin to rugby than football.

The mid-90s then saw a football revolution. FIFA 95 and 95, the isometric utopia of soccerball fun arrived and I was as happy as a pig in the proverbial. Wonder goals would go flying in, and I even created an all-black kit-wearing team that consisted entirely of Pat Nevin from one to 11. Don’t ask. But they were world beaters.

At the same time, my computer-owning friends weren’t left out with the genius of the Sensible Soccer games coming to their Amigas and Atari STs. I still have fond, fond memories of sticking a finger up at hayfever by taking my Sega Megadrive joypad to my friend’s house to play hours of Sensi World over the school summer holidays, pausing only for a quick Southern Comfort and Tango raided from his parent’s drinks cupboard (it felt like a summer-y concoction at the time).

But after these glory years, it all went a bit, well, wrong. FIFA 97 on the Sega Saturn (I had upgraded my Megadrive) introduced what can only be described as “ice-rink” physics, with David Ginola and Chris Sutton alike skidding all over the place like demented penguins. The five a side mode was still fun, but the game had lost its spark.

Then a new challenger emerged, World League Soccer. Initially tricksy controls and a tendency to crash very, very frequently (most games did on the Saturn) didn’t put me off this little gem. On going to University, we played quite a bit of WLS until other’s loans arrived and PlayStations were soon being snapped up, leading to the inevitable return of FIFA.

FIFA at University didn’t need to be a world-beater. It didn’t need to be an in-depth, hugely involving simulation. It needed to be quick to pick up and play and addictive enough to play all night with only Asda’s own Scotch and a few friends for company.

And sure enough, FIFA did just that. I think I still have the hand-scribbled league tables of Liverpool doing the business over Sheffield Wedneday, Bolton Wanderers and Man Utd on regular occasions. It didn’t matter that many of the games ended 8-7 after over-use of the through ball that was a dead cert every single time. It still brought about some amazing all-nighters and some shockingly poor essays written with bleary-eyed regret the next day.

When I left Higher Education, I didn’t really know where to turn video game-wise. I’d always stuck with Sega, but Sony, this new pretender to the throne, seemed to be making all the right noises. The Dreamcast was a thing of genius but expensive and liable to be obsolete in record time, so I sided with the newly-minted PlayStation 2 in all its black boxy beauty.

Soon after, the decision had to be made, which football game do I go for on my new console? I’d played ISS Pro on PSOne at University and found it a bit too simulation-y for my liking, so I didn’t really fancy Pro Evolution Soccer, its natural successor. But could FIFA hold a place in my heart after a few years away? I tried to love FIFA again, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I decided instead to see what all the fuss was about Pro Evo, and I was instantly hooked. Absolutely, this was the game I had waited ten years for (albeit full of made up player names and stadia, but I could painstakingly hand-alter them). Even after three or four sequels, the game held up strongly against the cheap and tiresome cash in of subsequent FIFAs (I kept on playing the demos just in case), and their ghetto-based “Street” series. I even tried the FIFA games out on PSP, but they were probably even worse.

Suddenly though, EA knew they’d dropped a major clanger and shipped development of FIFA off to Canada of all places, and the magic returned, just at a time when the lack of official licenses was really starting to grate on Pro Evo. I dipped back to the dark side and haven’t looked back since.

The options. The licences. The likenesses. The animations. The shots. The online multiplayer. The genius of little dinked through balls and chipped shots over the on-rushing keeper. Playing with work friends over the Internet is now like playing out those epic confrontations on Sensi World in a friend’s bedroom circa 1995, albeit with less of the Diner soundtrack and more of the responsibility of having to get up at a ridiculously early hour the next day.

But with each iteration comes that inevitability that EA will change something that could be a game-changer all over again. FIFAs 09, 10 and 11 made subtle changes, but despite that initial joy-pad throwing hissy fit, after a couple of games, it’s always been easy to get back into the swing of things.

But FIFA 12 has arrived. It’s scarily got a bit at the start which teaches you how to defend all over again, fighting against three years of experience and instinct of doing it completely differently. It’s less arcadey. It’s….not quite FIFA. It’s going to be a rough ride…