bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Final Fantasy X HD Remaster (Vita)

Before we go any further, I’ve decided to split our review of Fial Fantasy X\X-2 HD Remaster into two seperate articles, with this one covering Final Fantasy X and a later one covering Final Fantasy X-2, this is purely because of the size of the two titles that are included as this re-release of one of Square-Enix’s classic titles. This will, unfortunately, mean a sizeable gap between the two but the cirumstances behind this release, plus those of a personal nature, pretty much limit me to doing it in this manner. Plus its nice to take a look at them at the seperate entities that they originally were.

This Vita release of Final Fantasy X is the “International” release of the game, by that I mean it doesn’t have any drawbacks that we saw with the original PAL release back in 2002. This results in a nice full screen with no borders, 50hz refresh rate and a nice crisp frame rate whilst the animations are at the full speed that they were for the American and Japanese markets instead of the floaty, slow motion animations we got originally. These are arguably only small things but it really makes the difference (I recently revisited the opening couple of hours on PS2 to remind myself of the game before I got my hands on the Vita release).

For those that are new to Final Fantasy X, and without going into too much detail, the story focuses on Tidus, a boy from Zanarkand who’s also a star “Blitzball” player (a kind of water polo game). During a Blitzball game his homeland of Zanarkand is attacked by a giant creature known as Sin, an old acquaintance, Auron, comes to his aid. However Zanarkand is destroyed and the pair are transported to a land known as Spira. Upon his arrival, Auron is nowhere to be seen and Tidus begins to learn more about Spira, its fight against Sin and the journey of the lands Summoners. It’s that latter point that leads to the progression of the story which takes in quite alot of religious symbology and how the people of Spira and Al Bhed fight against the permanent threat of their towns, cities and world being destroyed by Sin. Obviously, this being Final Fantasy, more and more is revealed as time goes on and some of the reveals within this tale are pretty brave for a game of its time, not to mention the hype that surrounded it. Whilst the series has tried to handle topics such as love, religion and sacrifice in the past, it hasn’t previously been able to do so with quite as much confidence and flair as on display here and the entire production feels like Yoshinori Kitase, Kazuhige Nojima, Daisuke Watanabe and Motomu Toriyama are all at the top of their games.

It does have its set backs though, but they’re only really massively apparent now, after over a decade since the game was originally released. The voice acting was always a bit hammy, Wakka “…Yah” at the end of a sentence can really great and Tidus’ voice actor can often swing between deadly serious and incredibly whiny within the same sentence, its often hard to tell if Lulu sounds disinterested because of the performance of her voice actor or because thats how the character is supposed to be portrayed (even though she’s far from disinterested, in fact she’s probably the most measured personality out of the bunch, and most of your understanding of what is going on comes through her explaining things to Tidus), and this is all before we mention the infamous “HAHAHA! HAHAHA!” moment in the story, which whilst done on purpose, does make you grimace a little bit at the rather over the top nature of it. However, Final Fantasy X was the first Final Fantasy to feature voice acting, and whilst the series still doesn’t really have as high a standard as some of its competitors (such as Atlus’ Persona series), its not too bad and was a bit of a relief to those that had grown tired of reading the PlayStation era’s blue boxes.

My absolute favourite element of Final Fantasy X however is its battle system, its typically traditional in appearance, with three party members on your side against whatever opponents the game throws at you, and whilst battles are random (i.e. you cant avoid on screen enemies like in the Tales, Grandia or Persona series), thats never really been an issue for me personally. The thing I do like is its fluidity, it moves at breakneak speed (for the genre) and the ability to switch characters in and out at any point allows you to switch the focus of the battle depending upon your needs, be it a need to step back and dish out buffs and healing spells whilst one party member keeps the attacking element up, or going for an all out onslaught with other options available in between. Just swapping one character for another brings a whole new element to each battle and the game toys with this a little by twisting the old Jobs system a little. Like with Final Fantasy Ix, each character has a particular job type, however here they’re not designated as “Thief”, “Warrior” etc but they’re each assigned skills and traits that, initially at least, are exclusive to them. Yuna is your healer and Summoner, whilst Lulu is your sole Black Mage at the start of the game, as you progress round the Sphere Grid (a kind of game board that you insert spheres into in order to learn new skills and gain better attributes), characters can begin to take on multiple roles. Weapons also come into play here, for example enemies with strong armour require a weapon with a Piercing ability. Most of the time this kind of enemy is best dealt with by either Auron or Kimhari, but other characters also gain weapons with such an ability, so as the game progresses, your ability to customise and taylor your characters to your playing style evolves, and the game is always giving you different options for each scenario it throws at you.

What we have here then, for PAL players, is Final Fantasy X as it was intended to be, in a handheld format thats surprisingly adept at being left on standby and alowing you to pick it up and play as and when you want. The latter is mostly thanks to this particular stories rather linear progression from a story aspect as the world doesn’t really allow for much in the way of exploration and being sidetracked like the PlayStation instalments did. If you’ve never played the series before, X marks the end of the kind of traditional JRPG gameplay that attracted so many players to it during its blockbuster era (arguably VI through to X) before the series arguably begun to decline (aside from the amazing and seemingly under-appreciated by its creators, FFXII), if you want an epic story and a rather meaty game for your Vita then Final Fantasy X HD Remaster is certainly worth adding to your collection.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Luftrausers (Vita)

Theres some kind of romance attached to the dog fighting pilots of the Second World War, lines are drawn in sand, the British were brave, tea drinking sorts who piloted their Spitfires with great skill, the Americans were incredibly patriotic and gung-ho, the Germans evil calculating and incredibly accurate whilst the Japanese would do anything to win, even if it meant losing their life. Watch any World War II movie featuring aerial dogfights and those stereotypes will make an appearance. Luftrausers kind of ties itself into that entire world, a world where men would take to the skies to protect their lands in displays of aerial ballet, albeit with a lethal edge (and in the case of Luftrausers specifically, without most of those tropes mentioned above).

In fact the game feels like it places you as part of the German Luftwaffe as a kind of test pilot for a wide range of weird and wonderful death machines, and a big part of the gameplay is reigning death upon other craft including planes, battleships and even blimps, you’ll also find yourself exploding an awful lot yourself, which suggests this particular group of German military types have managed to clone a large number of test pilots (or at least have an endless supply of willing volunteers). Theres no motive attached to any of this, and the above is purely how it all works out in my mind.

The hugely surprising thing about Luftrausers is how quickly it throws you into the action, almost immediately after launching the game from your Vita’s home screen you’re encouraged to “Press Up to Raus”, from there you find yourself zipping around the skies in a plane that handles a little like the ship from Asteroids. However, its not as simple as unleashing a hellfire of bullets upon the skies, because by shooting at things you risk taking damage yourself, this can only be repaired by taking a break from firing your guns to accelerate around the screen until your health has been replenished. Rather than filling the screen with all kinds of bars and other HUD style displays though, Luftrausers uses audio cues to tell you when you’re in any kind of danger or even when you’re out of said danger.

This isn’t the only way that it uses sound in a rather intelligent way. The game focuses around constructing different planes, so as you progress you unlock more parts, with there being three catergories in total. So thats guns, body and propulsion, each has their own positives and negatives and its all about finding what works for you, just because you unlock something a bit later on, it doesnt always mean its a better option. In order to unlock more parts you have to meet different goals for the parts you are using, which can be hitting a certain high score or taking down a set number of a particular enemy. Each time you change a part or create a new combination, your new creation gains its own name and to fit with that it also has its own soundtrack. Thus the game encourages experimentation and generally toying around, and its this element, plus the aspect of it having that “just one more go” feeling thats great for any arcadey handheld game that will keep you coming back.

Coming back to that mention of Luftrausers being “arcadey” for a moment, this isn’t meant in the way you would describe an arcade racer, what I mean by this is that with a set of earphones in and the volume turned up, the game really drags the player into the mindset of being in an old Games Arcade, as mentioned it has that “Just one more go” feel, which, tied in with its visuals and the audio, really digs into a sense of nostalgia that quite often feels like is missing from modern gaming, and its all of this tied together that makes Luftrausers a brilliantly compelling little title.

Books

Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku – Yuji Kaku

Shonen Manga has become fairly predictable, most taken on the tropes that popular stalwarts such as Bleach and Naruto tackle in their initial issues and then building from there. You often get the hero that the reader is supposed to identify with, they’re usually either forced into having some excellent powers that they have to learn to harness or they’re desperate to become all-powerful and show the world just how good they are at whatever it is that everyone else in the Manga is really, really good at.

That’s not to knock those titles, and its certainly simplifying Bleach and Naruto an awful lot, and initially I was worried that Hell’s Paradise was going to be more of the same. Here we follow Gabimaru the Hollow, a Ninja that has been captured whilst on an assassination mission. He’s given the punishment of being executed, except any time the authorities try to do so their attempts are thwarted. A master swordswoman, Yamada Asaemon Sagiri,  interviews Gabimaru and ultimately comes to the conclusion that despite his claims that he wants to do, he actually doesn’t and wants to return home to his wife, contradicting the legend surrounding him that he has no emotional connection to this world (and thus is “Hollow”).

From here the authorities decide to send him, along with other criminals, to an island. Each criminal is accompanied by an executioner, with Gabimaru being paired with Sagiri. Typically all of the criminals are violent in specific ways, one Kunoichi has the ability to kill via a kiss (or that is what I think she does as it’s only shown in one panel). It’s clear from the very beginning that Gabimaru is a highly skilled ninja (let’s just ignore the fact he was captured), that’s not the point of this Manga. What we have here is a Battle Royale scenario as the criminals all search the island for the Elixer of Life, many of them deciding that the way to ensure that they’re the ones who find it, and thus are awarded with a pardon for their crimes, is to turn on the rest whilst there will be others that decide to team up (though that hasn’t happened as yet).

This first volume is mostly predictable and there’s little character development, we get to establish some kind of relationship between Gabimaru and Sagiri and learn of their motives (Gabimaru wants to return home, Sagiri is a stickler for the rules and as she is a minority in a very male-led profession, has a point to prove), but it does set up the premise nicely and zips along at a decent pace, hopefully leaving further volumes to really expand on these foundations.

What stood out to me though is the amount of action within the panels, fights break out easily and we really get to see the level of skill that Gabimaru has developed. There’s a lot of gore too and in some moments it goes full-on Swamp Thing body horror as the fauna and flora of the island attempts to take over its new visitors. With that in mind, this is definitely a book created with a mature audience in mind, and squeamish readers are better off looking elsewhere. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on future volumes.

An advanced PDF was provided for review purposes from Viz Media and NetGalley.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Football Manager Classic 2014 (Vita)

Sports Interactive have tried on several occassions to shift their hugely popular and ridiculously addictive Football Manager titles to systems other than the PC. They’ve seen some success in adapting the system to iDevices in recent years and now its the turn of Sony’s PlayStation Vita. On the surface it really does seem like a great match, the system is respectably powered and features touch screen controls. The systems sizable screen should also lend itself well to the interactivity of the series, plus the ability to play where ever you want means addicts never have to leave their game ever again (especially if they also own Football Manager 2014 and play the Classic mode on that as you can switch your save file between the two almost seamlessly).

And to be fair, they’ve done a really great job of cramming the entire Football Manager experience onto the system, okay those of you who like to have dozens of leagues on the go and be able to scout the furthest reaches of the globe to gather talent for your teams may feel a tinge of disappointment at the number of leagues you can have running, but I’d say its a small sacrifice to pay for the portability of Football Manager Classic 2014.

Sports Interactive have built the entire game around the Classic Mode that they introduced with Football Manager 2013, here its titled Career Mode and is the core focus of the game, those of you who know the series will know what to expect, for those of you who haven’t played Football Manager before, well, you take over a team of your choice and try to lead them to glory by playing around with formations, buying or loaning players and generally operating as you’d kind of expect a football manager to do. It’s incredibly compulsive and I personally have been known to have notebooks and spreadsheet documents full of formations, squad line ups and all sorts of other things. Hell, at one point, with Football Manager 2009, I kept a blog of a rather topsy turvy career as manager of the French Ligue 1 team Bordeaux. It’s pretty much every football fans dream, after all, we all know better than the man who is actually hired to run the football elements of the clubs we watch week in and week out every season.

The amount of detail and the number of options available in this handheld version of the game are absolutely astounding, and its very very difficult to find any differences between this and its “bigger” PC relative. The differences do start to emerge though, and its most noticeable in the games user interface. You see, Football Manager has a bit of a reputation for having menu’s within menu’s within menu’s, its rather SRPG in its nature, you can change exactly where you want a player to start a game, but also give them tailored instructions for how much you want them to press, if you want them to play as (for example) a winger, inside forward, wide play maker or any number of different things, with additional inputs available for how much you want them to push forward, mark another player, the tempo of their passing the list goes on.

This all works great on PC, its ridiculously easy, even on the stripped back “Classic Mode” (the PC version full fat mode goes into further tactical depth), however, here, crammed onto the Vita’s screen and with Sports Interactive seemingly neglecting to include the option of using the face controls as well as the touch screen, literally limiting you to the latter, filling the screen with tiny icons, text links and buttons with sluggish response times, well it all feels like a let down and turns an incredibly compulsive and addictive experience.

The thing is, this is Football Manager, to watch the game being played it looks like it should and everything is in there to make it into the experience it should be, but purely because of the design of the games various screens and interactivity options, plus the way the developer has neglected to take proper advantage of the controls on offer (one suggestion being to make the left analogue stick into a controller for a mouse pointer like the PSP releases) makes Football Manager Classic 2014 into a rather frustrating (for all the wrong reasons) experience, even if it is still as addictive as ever.

Gaming, review

Duck Souls+

Things aren’t quite what you expect them to be with Duck Souls+

If you’re judging by its title, you probably expect roguelike mechanics, clumsy control mechanics, a lot of atmosphere and punishing enemies at every turn. If you take a look at screenshots then maybe you’re thinking a cute little one screen puzzle platformer.

That last one is close to the truth, its also misleading. Yes, Duck Souls+ is cute, its brightly coloured and fun to look at, its also a one-screen puzzle platformer, but don’t let that fool you into thinking its easy as its anything but.

Unsurprisingly you play through the game as a duck, challenged with retrieving the lost duck souls or something to that effect, the plots only really referenced very early on and isn’t important to what follows. Once that little intro sequence is done with you’re plonked on a full-screen level and challenged with getting from one point to the other before being allowed to move onto the next one. As you progress more challenges are thrown in your way. You’re then given a few levels to get used to each new obstacle, first on its own and then mixed with other obstacles you’ve previously had to learn.

Thankfully Duck Souls+ realises that we’re all at differing levels of skill, with developers Green Dinosaur Games providing two difficulty levels, Normal and Hard, the main difference being the former gives you well-placed checkpoints in levels allowing the player to take a breather and figure out the next step without worrying that a mistake will see you sent right back tot he beginning of the level. However, the beautiful thing is, you can drop out and change the difficulty level at will without there being any gateway preventing you from progressing if you choose to chop and change between either of them. Add in that the levels never really outstay their welcome and you have a short sharp, entertaining little game that’s perfect for both long gaming sessions and just picking up and playing.

It’s that last point that I’d like to build on a little. I played the PSN version of the game, which is compatible with both PS4 and Vita, and whilst there’s no Cross-Save feature here, meaning you have to play through each installation individually rather than being able to switch between the two at will (a feature that the Switch version benefits from due to it being one system with two methods of playing it rather than two separate consoles). I tried it on both systems and personally found the more confined screen but smaller controls felt much more accurate than playing it on the households main TV using a Dual Shock 4, in fact, the Vita’s d-pad is absolutely perfect for this game, add in the systems sleep function and I found myself picking it up and playing it in little fits and starts rather than the more dedicated time I tend to have with the PS4.

The games price point is definitely worth a mention, at £4 on the PlayStation Store, its ridiculously cheap, the budget pricing gives the impression that its a budget game, but it genuinely feels anything but. the presentation is nice and a lot of care and thought has gone into the level design, decisions such as the interchangeable difficulty level sitting alongside this price point does make it slightly disposable, but there’s also far less pressure on the player to just “Git Gud!”

Formats: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (version tested), Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation Vita (version tested)
Release Date: September 8 2019 (Steam), April 2020 (Other Systems)
Publisher: Ratalaika Games
Developer: Green Dinosaur Games

#throwbackthursday, Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IX, Gaming

#ThrowbackThursday Final Fantasy IX playthrough part 26

After heading east I find several quicksand pits, so I begin to examine them and am thrown into a battle with a seriously difficult Antlion that not only packs a serious punch but also blinds my entire part. I weather the storm, having to revive Vivi and Eiko in the process. Ultimately I use Eiko’s Fenrir summon to finish the fight, I’ll admit then after that I cheated a little by checking a sandpit then restarting the game if a battle began. The very last pit I check is the one I needed to find (of course). The screen fades to black and white text appears

“Huhahaha…I knew you’d come. Everything is going according to plan…”

Cid and Zidane find themselves in a circular room, Zidane seems to have been knocked out. Neither of them have a clue where they are or where the others are. A voice then speaks to them

“So you are finally awake”

Zidane knows its Kuja

“I’m happy to see you again”

Zidane: You rat bastard! Where are my friends?”

Kuja: “My, my… Aren’y we feisty today?
No need to worry about them.
They’re in rooms not unlike yours
Oh, yes… By the way;
I should probably enlighten you as to your current situation”

Image2554

The floor opens up revealing some red mist or lava beneath it.

Kuja: “I’m sure that even your feeble mind can grasp what would happen if you were to take that plunge.
Ahahahahahahahahaha!”

Zidane: “Kuja! You’re dead!!!”

Kuja: “Oh, dear. Was it something I said?
Either way, now that you’re aware of your predicament I’d like you to do a tiny little favor for me.
I’ll let your friends live if you say yes”

Which obviously leaves Zidane with no choice but to accept whatever plans Kuja has.

Kuja: “Very good. You’ve chosen wiseley. First, step outside”

images (4)

Outside is a balcony with lots of identical doors. Zidane asks Cid to look after the others. Kuja then instructs Zidane to stand between the two Black Mages that are waiting for him, once he has done has instructed he is teleported to a poorly lit room where he finds Kuja stood by a fireplace. Kuja tells Zidane he’s sending him to a place called Oeilvert, which he tells him is sought of Seaways Canyon on the Forgotten Continent, which means as much to Zidane as it does to you or I. Kuja claims he can’t go there due to an anti-magic barrier that surrounds Oeilvert, that’s why he’s sending Zidane, he believes he”s “too stupid to use magic”.

Once there, Zidane is to retrieve the Galug Stone, he says that Zidane can choose three companions for the trip. Emotionally I want to choose Dagger, Vivi and Freya, but the anti-magic barrier would render Vivi useless. Ultimately I choose to take Dagger (who can’t cast regardless of if she goes or not and I imagine Eiko will be needed at Kuja’s palace as these things are never straight forward), Freya (for Reis’ Wind) and Steiner, leaving Vivi, Quina, Eiko and Amarant behind.

All three of my chosen party are summoned to Kuja’s quarters and all four are sent to board Hilda Garde I, and are no doubt heading into some kind of trap.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Feast For Crows – George R R Martin

As mentioned in my Asterix post, Book Club is on hiatus at the moment until things begin to look brighter here in the UK and it’s safer to meet as a group and socialise again. That being said, I’m still actually playing catch up from February when things were tough for me personally (I still have Akira vol 2 to go, not that there’s pressure to read everything, it’s my choice to do so), but I began A Feast For Crows shortly before the last time we actually met up, sat and listened to everyone discuss a book I’d only read about 200 odd pages of and then continued to grind my way through it.

And what a grind it’s been. If this book was a game, it’d be the tedious bit in a JRPG where you’re just doing random battle after random battle for what feels like forever as you try and get strong enough to actually finish the damned thing.

To say I struggled through it would be an understatement, but I’m here now, it’s done and it can be checked off. Now, I know this book divides fans, some think its the best, others think its the worst. I think I fall on the side of the latter, and if it’s not the worst, then it’s definitely my least favourite, and there are a few problems I have with it.

It’s biggest issue is the pacing, at over 700 pages long the reader knows they’re going to be spending a long time with these characters, and that’s not an issue. I wasn’t expecting things to zip about and lots to happen, this is A Song of Ice and Fire, after all, it’s famed for a lot of not a lot happening, but here, it feels like literally, nothing happens until the final few chapters of the book. That’s not to say that everything beforehand is pointless, but it feels like padding and like it belongs as part of something bigger. Of course, Martin admits this at the very end of the book, he wrote too much and rather than split the story in half (which I think kind of worked in the paperback publication of A Storm of Swords’ favour), he decided to pick a few characters and tell their stories with the following book telling the other characters stories. Why he chose this particular chain of events I’m not sure, there’s probably an interview out there somewhere, and this isn’t a case of me preferring other characters (I love Sam, Brienne and here Cersei is at her venomous best) but their arcs here mostly feel drawn out.

Whilst we’re on the subject of characters. I know most people regard this as Martin’s feminist book, maybe that’s the wrong term, but I’m putting all this down after only having about five hours sleep on the third Sunday of the British Governments so-called “Lockdown”. But the core of the cast here are his key female characters (aside from Danaerys), which when I heard that before starting, I was genuinely excited by. What I didn’t expect though was just how much oppression they’re all put through and that they all are imprisoned in some way or another.

Brienne, we all know how devoted she is to being honourable and servitude, but here she’s held captive by her own moral compass, spending far, far too long searching for Sansa Stark and doing so in a naive manner. It’s only when she has to begin to use her training as a knight that we begin to see her break free of these trappings and begin to see her question other peoples motives. Through Sam, we also get to learn more of Gilly, who herself is imprisoned by the orders placed upon her by Jon Snow as she travels with the Slayer to the Citadel.

Both Arya and Sansa are imprisoned by their identity, Sansa is in hiding, pretending to be someone totally different and has to be cautious all the time, her new persona is for her own protection, and whilst Arya shares some of these issues, her challenges with her identity are for a totally different reason, she’s trying to break free of her family name. Sansa actually surprises me here, I’ve complained about her before, but of all the characters she’s been subjected to the most horrific of things throughout all the books so far and if anything this book gives her a little respite, even if it’s not the world she dreamed of for so long, and despite Creepy Petyr being Creepy Petyr, she’s possibly in the best place she’s been in since she left Winterfell.

However, as I alluded to earlier, out of the female cast it’s Cersei that gets the vast majority of the good stuff, though its not good stuff that happens to her. We begin to see how her mind really works here, but we also see her dive headfirst into madness and paranoia, the more she tries to control everything around her the more things fall apart and slip through her fingers and this is best shown in her relationship with Jaime (who’s chapters are also brilliant I might add). Both constantly think of the bond between them, but whereas Jaime seemed to genuinely love his sister, Cersei’s thoughts on their relationship appear to be purely about having him under her control and being of use to her, with his sword hand now gone and her brother going through a lot of personal change (overall for the better I might add) he no longer provides the same uses as he once did.

I think, also, that the tone of the book is the series at its worst and that’s possibly situational, Westeros is in a bad place, its people have suffered due to the war, winter is definitely on its way and we get to see first hand that nobody is prepared for it, crops are burned, corpses hang from trees and nearly everyone (maybe aside from those at Highgarden?) are suffering, and in these troubled times we are all currently living through, its a tough pill to swallow. Still, its read and done now and there’s going to be a bit of a break where I can maybe read something a little more positive over the coming weeks.

Gaming, bitparade

bitparade: NASCAR ’14 (PlayStation 3)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines! Or so says SEGA’s Arcade classic “Daytona USA”. However, whilst this isn’t the high adrenaline cabinet racer featuring the “Sonic Turn” our story does start at the infamous circuit in California. For this I decided to dig out my old “Beer Hat”, bought from the Gadget Shop over a decade ago, pick up some cans of a popular American beer and sit down for a few extended, arse numbing days of that past-time that was created by the countries Probation era bootleggers.

NASCAR 14 takes you through the career of being a NASCAR driver. No surprises there, upon starting the game your asked to input a few details, your name, country of birth (Great Britain, not England…) plus some other things like which manufacturer you favour (from Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota) to what number you’d like to be associated with during your career (my normal picks of 34, 27, 22 or 18 weren’t available as already established real-life drivers already had those), I went with 30. From there you head to Daytona for the first of two races, thats, of course, after a few practice and qualifying sessions. This obviously allows you to get to grips with the games handling. Thankfully, the Daytona International Speedway is a traditional Tri-Oval and isn’t too challenging as there are area’s of the games handling model that leave alot to be desired. This doesn’t become apparent until you head to Phoenix for the third race of the season and you’re suddenly in need of actually using the brakes. Now I’m no NASCAR expert, hell I’ve only ever actually watched a few laps of any given race at any time but the cars must have better brakes than are available here. I found it near impossible to slow the car down enough to get through the corners at the Phoenix circuit let alone bring the car to enough of a crawl to prevent me receiving penalties when trying to enter the pits during the Daytona races. The cars also wobble a fair bit under braking, which feels incredibly odd as there really isn’t any sensation of speed or inertia apparent in the game, which gives the overall experience a really odd feeling.

But back to the career. At this point its important to note that you dont get to pick to be in one of the top teams, you’re essentially creating a brand new team, so your car is pretty basic. For the first few races of said career you’re left with the choice of either using refurbished parts for each race or buying a stock part at a time to try and push you up the field. This does make it sound like you’ll be among the back-markers, but this is NASCAR and as much as horse power is important here, so is being able to use the circuit and your opponents to your advantage. In the first race, which I set to a full race distance of 60 laps, I managed to get as high as 8th and was catching 7th when the two cars I was battling with tangled, bringing out the safety car. Now anyone who’s watched Cars or Days of Thunder knows this usually results in a rush of pitlane activity, and this time things were no different. Once out of the pits it was time to follow the safety car for the final half of the lap and this is when things went wrong for me. I accidentally overtook when you’re not supposed to do so and was trying to yield the place I’d taken, but did so too cautiously, ultimately finding the rest of the field flying past me and leaving me dead last. A few unwise choices in positioning my car within the pack led to me and a few others dropping back and it took the remainder of the race (some 20 laps) to claw my way back up to my final position of 12th.

This was actually rather enjoyable, every position felt fought for and like it was a combination of my own skill and the work of my “team”. The latter is largely thanks to all the indicators you’re given, namely the HUD icon that tells you where cars are around you and who’s drafting you, plus the vocal communication of your race engineer telling you where you’re clear, how aggressive you should or shouldn’t be or where to take your car (high, low etc) in order to work your way through the pack. There’s also added strategy involved in fuel management, tyre wear and engine temperature, all with their own HUD indicators, and despite there being so many different things on the screen to watch, it never becomes confusing or cluttered.

As you progress you’ll gain sponsorship, which grants you more cash, which can ultimately be spent on R+D for your car, plus gives you a bunch of stickers to plaster all over your machine. The appearance of your machine isn’t limited to just putting corporate brands all over it though. Theres also a fairly weighty livery mode where you can create layers and decals to make your car your own. If you’ve played any of the Forza Motorsport titles then its pretty much the same as that but isn’t half as user friendly as Turn10’s package, but it does its job.

I’ve actually been taken aback by NASCAR 14, I was expecting it to feel a little lazy, look damned ugly and be mind numbingly dull, however Eutechnyx have managed to do a comendable job with the license, and whilst there’s no escaping the pins and needles I began to feel in my right hand after going for full race distance on a few of the races (although there was no way I was doing a full distance Daytona 500 event!) thats hardly the developers fault as they’ve given a fairly accurate (from my understanding of the sport) portrayal of NASCAR racing with a few neat ideas that could be built upon for future instalments.

TV

Red Dwarf: The Promised Land

Red Dwarf is a show that’s close to my heart, it was often quoted in the playground, I also took my school nickname from it (not through choice I might add, but as my name is Duane, well it speaks for itself) but most importantly it’s a show that my partner and I watch over and over again, in fact, she struggles to sleep at night unless we’ve left it playing in the background. It’s return to TV thanks to Dave has been a bit of a mixed bag, but even so, when the crew get the word out that they’re working on a new series, we both get a little excited. Add in that it was going to be “feature-length” after decades of rumours about a Red Dwarf movie (and an ill-fated attempt to make an American version of the show, don’t Google it, it’s atrocious), plus they then said it would be released on April 9th, my OH’s birthday, and everything was set for a good night in front of the TV.

But was it?

Well, yes and no.

Plot-wise, it was a bit all over the place. A bunch of Cats who still believe in Cloister (having never met Lister unlike The Cat, who we must remember remained behind on Red Dwarf as he was a bit stupid, though not as stupid as his “jelly-brained” father who chewed his own paws off) are being chased by their “Feral Leader” who is trying to squash the cats who believe in the Holy Poppadom. The small group of religious cats escape and send out a distress beacon, which is picked up by Red Dwarf and from there we’re treated to something I’d describe as a Greatest Hits of Red Dwarf.

Throughout the entire thing, we obviously get lots of dialogue discussing Lister not being the deity the Cats believe him to be (“The End”), them expecting miracles of him and the crew bundling through every obstacle placed before them that only intensifies the moggies belief. Holly returns, with Norman Lovett returning to the role, except he’s been rebooted and now does everything by the book then later returning to the Holly we know and love (“Queeg” but Holly also changed from being portrayed by Norman Levvet to Hattie Haydridge and back again during its original run). Rimmer becomes a better version of himself and also goes through some heavy self-reflection (“Holoship” and any episode with Ace Rimmer), I could go on.

As fans of the show would expect, its finest moments come when the crew in confined area’s. Kryten pulling out the Haynes manual for Starbug may remind me of “But we’d have to change the lightbulb” but it still properly cracked me up and Lister having a heart to heart with Rimmer harks back to Lister having a similar conversation with Cat about realising how much he needed Rimmer (though the two will never admit it to each other) and Lister’s dream about him returning.

The thing is though, whilst it all doesn’t feel fresh, it does work and the cast pull off their performances as comfortably as you’d expect. Besides, after all this time, who could really complain about the show going down the route of rehashing some of its finest moments? I certainly can’t. That’s not to say it’s a laugh a minute, and at two hours (including ad-breaks) it does begin to out-stay its welcome just a little, though that could also be a symptom of my partner and I normally being about ready for bed at around half past 10.