Monday, 24 May 2010

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Politics: Simple breakdown of UK Economic policy

The new coalition Government provides man y opportunities, and some problems, for the financial services sector. The economic policy for both parties was top of the agenda throughout the election campaign, and now that the talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg have achieved an agreement between the two parties – legitimised by an in-depth publication of the deal last week – the country can begin to benefit from the Government's pledges.

With the public outcry over bankers bonuses, particularly for those who reported significant losses on the year, the Government has said it will reform the banking system in its entirety, introducing a levy on banking bonuses to avoid the level of bonuses seen in the past, as well as a proposal to split up the banks into investment and retail in order to reduce the risk of another financial crisis.

The idea to break up the banks is one which Vince Cable, the new Business Secretary, has long supported, and he said “The banks that have been rescued or underwritten by the taxpayer must be treated as the servants, not the masters, of the economy” (BBC).

Britain's debt, another key concern for politicians, is set to be reduced by cutting costs rather than raising taxes, in an attempt to keep the electorate on side after over a decade of increasing Government spending, particularly in areas such as the NHS.

The Government has promised a full Spending Review this Autumn, while creating £6billion through cuts between now and 2011, as well as reducing spending on Child Tax Fund and tax credits for higher earners.

In an attempt to stabilise British business and encourage businessmen, particularly those in European Union, that Britain is a safe and attractive place to invest, the Government has pledged to simplify business taxes and create the “most competitive corporate tax regime in the G20 “. Also Regional Development Agencies will be replaced with Local Enterprise Partnerships, to leave more power in the hands of local businesses rather than the Government.

The biggest concert for the financial services sector is whether the coalition will make good on its promises, and if it will prove to be the decisive and effective Government the sector needs to fully recover from some of the hardest times in decades.

Initial reaction to the plans has been positive, with many considering the plans to be the best of each party's manifestos, but the stock markets have not faired well in recent days as the FTSE fell for the fourth consecutive day this morning, amid news that the Bank of Spain was taking control of commercial bank, meaning the Euro debt crisis isn't coming to an end as analysts had hoped.

The effectiveness of Britain's own recovery efforts are still uncertain, despite George Osbourne detailing the £6billion in cuts this morning, and it will take some time before the business world, as well as the public, have faith in the economy.

James Michael Parry

Friday, 21 May 2010

Film: Who on Earth is Christopher Nolan? - Background and a look at latest film 'Inception'

Whenever I mention his name eyebrows are raised, but the truth is Christopher Nolan is nothing short of a cinematic genius, in my mind at least.

The man responsible for re-energising the good-as-dead Batman franchise, as well as deliver the most gripping thriller of recent years, and possibly the best twist ending of all time.

The film I'm talking about is 2006's The Prestige, a story of two magicians who begin as friends but soon their art tears them apart in almost every way. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman star as Alfred Borden and Robert Angier in a tale which plays with the audiences mind all the way through, just like any good magician.

It is Nolan's skill at guiding the audience through complex storylines, often wrought with flashbacks and surrealism, which makes him such an effective director.

Born in London in 1970, Nolan spent his early life there as well as Chicago, since his mother was american. Nolan caught the film-making bug aged seven and during his education at University College London began making short films.

1996 saw Nolan direct his first feature film, Following, in 1996, about a writer who stalks people. Here the first signs of his penchant for unusual storytelling surfaced, with his protagonist, and the audience, experiencing events in non-chronological order.

Momento in 2000, based on a short story written by his brother and oft collaborator Jonathan, saw Nolan get his first widely-known release, nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscars.

After this Nolan directed Insomnia (2002), a remake of a Norwegian film, featuring all-round acting legend Al Pacino.

By the time Batman Begins er...began (sorry!) in 2005, Christopher Nolan was still a relatively unknown director and writer, but David S. Goyer, writer of the Blade trilogy and recently creator of the TV series FlashForward, got the green light to lift Warner Bros' hiatus on Batman and soon he and Nolan created the screenplay for one of the most successful 're-boots' in recent years.

With super-sequel The Dark Knight now safely nestled in Blu-ray collections worldwide, Nolan's pedigree as a director seems assured, but it could all depend on upcoming release Inception, a film shrouded in secrecy but which carries the surrealist tells of a Christopher Nolan film.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and an ensemble cast including: Ellen Page, Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy, the film – as far as I can make out - focuses around the nature of reality and dreams, and how dreams seem real while we are having them. DiCaprio's character works for a company which deals with “sub-concious security” and there seems to be a lot of surrealism and manipulating gravity and the elements.

Very little concrete information has come out to explain the phenomena seen in the latest trailer (YouTube it now), but the world-bending visuals are certainly a spectacle in themselves. Screen Rant have dissected some of an LA Times interview with Nolan, and suggest this is a very personal film for Nolan.

As writer and director for the film, Nolan has a big responsibility, particularly when you consider even the cast had trouble understanding the plot until the film was in production. DiCaprio said to the LA Times:

Complex and ambiguous are the perfect way to describe the story. And it’s going to be a challenge to ultimately pull it off. But that is what Chris Nolan specializes in.”

So not really a film where you sit scoffing snacks for two hours, Inception will work the audiences mind, fitting really when you consider the film is pitched as “a contemporary sci-fi actioner set within the architecture of the mind” (Variety).

Ellen Page, who plays Ariadne, said: “There’s a tangible realism even when it gets crazy, and somehow that makes the jeopardy feel more real...There’s the big scale, but the sincerity isn’t left behind. The story is complicated but never confusing.” (SR)

On top of this latest release, Nolan had been talking to David S. Goyer about a new Superman film, sub-titled on IMDB as 'Man of Steel'. Though the thought of a down-to-earth incarnation of America's favourite superhero is enough to get some hearts racing, the likelihood of Nolan directing is unlikely due to the presence of another superhero: Christian Bale – OK Batman...

Currently just referred to as Batman 3 Nolan seems to want to finish his saga: “Without getting into specifics, the key thing that makes the third film a great possibility for us is that we want to finish our story. And in viewing it as the finishing of a story rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story . . . I’m very excited about the end of the film, the conclusion, and what we’ve done with the characters. My brother has come up with some pretty exciting stuff.” (LA Times)

With release set at July 20 2012, Nolan has plenty of time to lead the caped crusader (a possible title?) through a final ordeal of superhero turmoil, though it's difficult to imagine it out-doing the late Heath Ledger's swansong.

Inception will come out in cinemas July 16 and I for one will be there to get another dose of Nolan, because noone makes a film quite like him, and when someone dares to do things a little bit differently, it's nice to see it pay off.

James Michael Parry

Acknowledgements: Wiki, IMDB, Screen Rant

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Music: Muse unveil new single Neutron Stat Collision

Just a quick post to share some new music from one of the greatest live bands of all time. Here is the infectious new single from the Devon threesome, continuing in their Queen vibe with some very welcome up-tempo beats. Take a listen:

Admittedly the lyrics aren't the most ground-breaking thing in the world, but it was written for the latest installment in the Twilight Saga - Eclipse - so it's kind of a given, here they are anyway:

I was searching you were on a mission
Then our hearts combined like a neutron star collision
I have nothing left to lose
You took your time to choose
Then we told each other with no trace of fear that

Our love would be forever
And if we die, we die together
Well I, I said never
Cause our love would be forever

The world is broken, halos fail to glisten
We try to make a difference but no one wants to listen
Hail the preachers, fake and proud
Their doctrines will be cloud
Then they'll dissipate like snowflakes in an ocean

Love is forever and we’ll die
We’ll die together
Well I, I said never
Cause our love, could be forever

Now I’ve got nothing left to lose
You take your side to choose
I can tell you now without a trace of fear

That my love will be forever
And well die, we’ll die together
Will I, I will never
Cause our love will be forever

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Gaming: Review – Splinter Cell: Conviction (Xbox360)

Stealth isn't the peak of cool it once was. Only a few years ago (well I say that, maybe a decade...) in doom-ridden blockbuster Independence Day we saw a fleet of stealth bombers tactically nuking an entire city, and who can forget the thrilling climax to James Bond's journalism-ridden (…?) flick Tomorrow Never Dies, which saw the nations favourite spy at odds with generic German #57013 Mr Stamper on a stealth boat in the South China Sea.

Now in 2010 we're in a world dominated by gritty, down-to-earth action heroes like Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and Bond's latest incarnation played by Daniel Craig. Hard-as-nails heroes who use magazines as close combat weapons, there's only one word for that: 'bad-ass'.

So where does this leave poor old protagonist Sam Fischer and the Splinter Cell series? Other franchises, namely the Resident Evil series, have faced criticism for increasing the level of action in their games, raising fears up to Conviction's release that it would be too watered down and a far cry from the highs of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

As it turns out the game has been watered down, there's no ignoring that. Recently OXM went into detail about the for and against of the “Is it dumbed down?!” argument (which you can read for yourself right here), but for my personally, I was approaching the Splinter Cell series almost fresh, having only briefly played one of the titles previously, but I found this game very easy to pick up.

Being based around the much-used 'Unreal' engine (think Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Bioshock) gives the game a certain familiarity from the off, but it would be a mistake to think the engine is out of date because it's so often used, take Batman Arkham Asylum which astounded critics last year.

A game mechanic which was unveiled early on was that mission objectives are projected onto the background of levels, not only giving information but an indication of which way to go next. This is the first of many touches which give the game a very distinct dynamic feel, it brings you into the character and avoids to many obvious game-isms, often making it feel more like an interactive movie.

Shadows are an infiltrators best friend, making pinpointing light sources and quietly taking them out a priority, as well as knowing when you are hidden, and when you are in serious trouble. The game helps you out a lot with this, making the screen greyscale when you are in shadow, and flagging up a warning when you might be detected by guards and what direction they are seeing you from.

If the worst should happen and you are spotted, a translucent outline will appear where you were seen and so if you slip away into the nearby shadows you can ambush whoever it is who comes to investigate. The main trouble with being hidden, is that often it's too dark to see what's going on, leading you to unwittingly drag an enemy over a balcony, only to have him land on a parked car and start a car alarm blaring.

The 'Mark and Execute' (MEX) system, is a major part of this game - essentially the ability to highlight targets with a simple button press and then eliminate them without aiming, after performing a hand-to-hand takedown on an enemy. At times the system is extremely generous with line of sight, meaning you often take out enemies through walls and obstructions from sheer luck, but generally as a mechanic it means that taking down a room-full of enemies doesn't mean weeding them down, one-by-one.

The game tends to play into your hands, leaving a lone enemy slightly ahead of the rest to give you that all important MEX opportunity. This emphasis on direct assault does tend to take away from the merits of the arsenal of gadgets at Sam's disposal.

Aside from standard frag grenades, which are more than capable of taking out half a dozen tightly-packed enemies at once, there are EMP grenades too, which make short work of any lights and electronics in the area, giving you time to escape, or strike.

The more unusual of gadgets include sticky cameras, which can be attached to surfaces and remotely controlled to distract guards – or even detonated to silence them – but sadly can't be retrieved again afterwards.

One of the most commonly used gadgets is the snake cam, allowing you to sneakily peek under doors, unless you can't get the camera angle right and the floating in-game actions force you to open the door of course.

The story itself would probably mean more to a seasoned Splinter Cell player, but from what I could work out it seemed much like any given series of 24, a missing daughter, terrorists, threats to the president etc.

The few missions which mix up the relentless killing work well. The occasional flashback sequences aren't as effective as those in Batman: AA, but the war mission - a strong nod to the Modern Warfare generation – is too early on before the momentum of the story gets going, making it an abrupt change instead of a welcome break after an intense mission.

Multiplayer pushes this game to the top, the cooperative prequel missions in particular are a triumph in two-player constructive, strategic play, often forcing players to work together to get every move precisely right in order for them to move forward, and, if my own playtime is anything to go by, make up the shorter main story time for Splinter Cell veterans.

Verdict: An excellent entrance to the series for those with their wits about them, while it may not be what fans had hoped for, it's quirks make it a definite progression for the series and there is still plenty of opportunity for clever stealth moves amid the flurry of bullets.

: 4/5

James Michael Parry

Friday, 23 April 2010

Live Music:Renegades (of Feeder) at The Electric Ballroom, Camden 22/04/10

Old bands 'going back to their roots' is nothing new, but when Feeder completely regenerated as Renegades, something changed significantly. Gone were the slow and thoughtful songs of old which dwelled on the untimely death of original drummer Jon Lee and in their place fans found the energy and simplicity of a fresh new band, as if the group had been transported back to their formation in 1992.

In the transition drummer Mark Richardson was replaced with Karl Brazil, from the relatively unknown band Ben's Brother, who encapsulates the bands new-found new energy with furious and relentless drumbeats.

Front-man Grant Nicholas, who you imagine came up with the 'back to basics' concept, continues to impress on stage at The Electric Ballroom, a venue far smaller than the likes of the Hammersmith Apollo which they played on the Silent Cry tour only a few years ago.

Nicholas admitted he had a soft spot for the Ballroom, saying: “I love this venue. We haven't played here for about 12 years, but even now I remember the great atmosphere it always has.”

Posters on the front doors warn Feeder fans expecting the likes of 'Buck Rogers' and 'Just A Day' that the band will be playing 'predominantly new material', and sure enough they don't disappoint, the most recent, and debatably well-known, of the tracks played is 2006's 'Lost and Found'.

“We know you all want to hear the hits”, Nicholas cries across a crowd spanning decades, “but this is really about the new material and moving forward.”

Luckily the new material delivers the sort of quality we've come to expect from Feeder over the years, albeit a bit more gritty, new band anthem 'Renegades' has even the most lost-looking fans singing along and 'Home' and 'Down By The River', a nod to the bands native Wales, stand up well on stage.

Free with the gig comes Renegades EP2, complete with four tracks: 'Home', 'Goodhead', 'In Times Of Crisis' and 'All I Ever Wanted', making a perfect souvenir for fans who are now left salivating expectantly for the bands new(/debut?) album.

For those feeling out-of-step with the Renegades there were a few 'covers' of Feeder tunes including 'Tangerine', 'Godzilla', 'Sweet 16' and grungy set-closer 'Descend'.

While many may have been disappointed with the lack of hits - the crowd broke into 'Just A Day''s infectious main riff more than once - the band is doing what it wants to do, from the plain but bold style of the merchandise to downsizing to smaller venues, and it feels a lot more personal and as though they are more connected with their fans than ever before.

Verdict: Possibly too much for the Feeder pop fans, but for those longing for some dynamic and striking music from fantastic musicians the night was nothing short of amazing.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Gaming: The Rise of Online Gaming

It's no secret that the internet, as well as consuming many people's lives, has revolutionised the way we play games together thanks to online multiplayer.

It all began back in 1973 with a little game called Maze War (well, it did if the internet is to be believed, check out the evidence) created by interns at NASA, which allowed players on local networked computers to chase each other around a virtual maze trying to kill each other. Today it's an idea we might call a first-person shooter, making Maze War the creator of an entire genre.

Since then the game has been ported numerous times and is the reason why no one can copyright a multi-user 3D cyberspace, a principle which all modern online games use. The technology has moved on tremendously since then, of course, with simple ethernet computer linking to a worldwide web of computers all communicating across thousands of miles in an instant.

During the 1980s the home computer was born in the UK in the form of the Sinclair ZX80 (and later the ZX81 and Spectrum), making computer games more popular than ever and accessible to the masses.

It was 10 years before another major game brought us closer to online gaming as we know it today. In 1983 SGI Dogfight, a flight simulator, was created for Silicon Graphics workstation computers and networking was added the following year, allowing multiple stations to play over ethernet just as later versions of Maze War had done, but in 1986 support was added for UDP (User Datagram Protocol), which allowed the game to use the internet protocol suite.

However, since the data was sent in broadcast packets, it could not be played across the internet (which itself was in its infancy at the time). It wasn't until 1989, when IP multicast capabilities were available, that it was possible for the game to be played online in the way we know it today, though due to hardware constraints the capability was seldom used.

Meanwhile, other companies were trying to get their head around this new technology, which led to the use of the X Window System, which meant a game could be 'hosted' on one computer and the screen transmitted through X Window, to the other players playing the game.

Xtrek, the first remote display game based vaguely in the Star Trek universe, and later Netrek (or Xtrek II) used this technology and the latter even combined the use of UDP and TCP (Transmission Control Protocol – a system still used today) to allow users to play online on servers.

Since then online gaming has become the norm, rendering the split-screen multiplayer classics of the late 1990s, such as Rare's Goldeneye, almost obsolete, though it has taken some time for consoles to get internet gaming just right. While they were trying to find their feet, games such as Total Annihilation, Counter-Strike and Command & Conquer: Red Alert were being played at LAN (Local Area Network) 'parties' in wire-infested living rooms across the country.

But do we really miss the days of split-screen being cutting-edge? Mark Fletcher, an English Student at Leicester University, said: “Definitely. Nothing like cheering on Perfect Dark 64 by looking at your friend's section of the screen!”

Online gaming's dominance has also caused developers to put a greater emphasis on cooperative play, which isn't well-received by everyone. Graduate Andrew Baker said: “As much as I enjoy online multiplayer I do still want a little one on one split-screen every now and then. it anoys me how a lot of things these days are co-op! What if I want to shoot my friend rather than work with him!?”

So, times have changed as they often do, but the next time you load up a game like Battlefield: Bad Company II to get virtually slaughtered for the 10,000th time, remember it's because of games like Maze War that you have to do it alone in a dark room rather than in a room surrounded by people who laugh evilly when you accidentally blow yourself up.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Music Review: Story of the Year - The Constant

The American Idiot's and Viva La Vada's of this world are hard to ignore, but anyone can like them and it not be anything unusual. What is truly great about music is when you find that album you didn't know was coming out, even if you spend time now and again picking apart the unreleased album page on Wikipedia (which tend to be a pretty reliable source of release info by-the-by), you can often suddenly notice an album which has been released completely under your radar.

These hidden gems are what make music great, and my latest discovery was Story of the Years new release 'The Constant'. While I was eagerly anticipating Alkaline Trio's new release (This Addiction, which sadly falls well short of the greatness they achieved on From Here to Infirmary), I came across this furious mix of melody and energy.

The album opens with the slightly grating sound of an old children's roundabout, with the sound of children playing in the background before the children themselves begin the intro with chilling choral vocal “Don't take this world away from me” before the main riff kicks in.

As well as 'The Children Sing' other stand-out tracks include the distinctly Lostprophets-ish 'The Dream is Over', which boasts an impressive guitar solo section, and the anthemic 'I'm Alive', a dedication to a disaffected youth which remains ever-present but never over-bearing throughout the album.

Despite being a very 'punk rock' record, the band calm down for a few tracks in the middle, notably the strangely harmonic 'Holding on to You', giving some welcome variety, something quite uncommon on this type of album. In stark contrast to that is the angry 'Won Threw Ate', which shows off the screamier side of the bands range, but is just restrained enough to mean it doesn't stray too far from the general sound of 'The Constant' as a whole.

Story of The Year, who have been around since 1995, are never a band who will take the UK charts by storm, and nor should they, but they have pulled the experience of their previous three albums into making this latest effort, and it really pays off. The songs are more ambitious musically, but not unnecessarily complex, and the album holds together incredibly well, particularly important with a name like 'The Constant'.

While you may dismiss them as another one of the 'shouty american rock' crowd, that would be a mistake, since this album shows a respectable range and draws on various influences to create songs which at times are alike to Rise Against, Nickelback and even Simple Plan, which is no bad thing.

Verdict: Undeniably catchy and well thought out, an essential addition to any modern alternative music collection.

Rating: 5/5

James Michael Parry

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Cyberculture: The truth about Computer Viruses

Fear is a powerful force. It can lead countries to war, cause panic-buying in supermarkets or lead you to totally change your life to avoid nasty consequences. The British press is by no means the biggest culprit of fear-mongering, but you only need to think about swine flu to realise how a fuss can be made over nothing.

In the last ten to fifteen years computer technology has been revolutionised, and given rise to a worldwide horror: the computer virus. You may have never had a run-in with a virus, your computer may be wrought with spyware at this very moment, but everyone has a fear that some malicious software is going to come along and delete their hard drive.

Of course, we have built up defences over the years, and people spend hundreds on the latest Norton Protection every year, but how serious really is the danger?

A 'virus' by definition is an infectious agent which spreads (like wildfire they say) until it runs into resistance and is killed. In computer terms there are some well-know types of virus, such as the Trojan Horse, the Worm and Logic Bombs.

Trojan Horses (or Trojans) don't reproduce by infecting other files, but normally hide within downloaded files from services like Bittorrent etc, and while Worms (more common in Hollywood blockbusters like Swordfish than the real world) replecate themselves fiercely they are vulnerable to anti-virus software. Logic bombs destroy data on the computer and are hidden within segments of other problems and lie dormant until activated rather than reproducing themselves.

Other malicious software (referred to as malware) includes things like spyware and adware is not truly a virus, since it does not behave in the same way, but can still have a negative effect on your computer.

The most important thing to remember is that the likelihood of the average internet user running into a virus capable of causing critical damage to their computer is extremely rare. Despite the media coverage last year of the number of computer viruses in circulation topping 1million (TimesOnline), users have never been more protected.

Any recent operating system has its own anti-virus defence in place, before you even look into the plethora of different programs claiming to over you 100% protection, ranging in price from free to over £100 for just a year's coverage.

The types of virus regular PC users may come across (from personal experience) are as follows:

Account 'Hacking' – You know the story, you're chatting away to your friends and loved ones on MSN or Yahoo Messenger and suddenly it signs you out. With an eyebrow raised, you log in again, only to be confronted with angry messages from people saying “What was that link you sent me?! What have you done???” Either your account really has been hacked by a geek tucked away somewhere in the world, or you've given out your email address somewhere and without realising given them access to your messenger, allowing an automated program to spread the infection to all of your contacts.

Cure: Sometimes they can be caused by dodgy plug-ins to your messenger, so get rid of them, if changing your password doesn't help then you'll have to make a new account – sorry!

Pop-ups – Not true viruses, but pop-ups are definitely annoying, these days advertising agencies have realised that with certain browsers (particularly Firefox 3 with Adblock Plus), pop-ups and banner ads can be blocked out entirely, meaning users can go about the

ir daily business without being tempted by a “Free IQTest” or “Win £36,746 NOW! New Winners Every Hour”.

Cure: Free software 'Ad-awarte' by Lavasoft is a highly recommended and effective way of getting rid of spyware, the tiny programs which cause pop-ups when you aren't even using your browser, providing you are connected to the internet, sometimes general virus-checkers can miss this smaller programs since they don't do anything nasty to the computer.

Hoax Emails – Occasionally you may get an email saying “Warning Your Computer is infected with a Virus, click HERE for a free Virus check” or from a company you know and trust asking you to verify your details. If you give out your details you could land in real trouble.

Cure: First of all, you cannot get a virus and destroy your computer by simply opening an email, it can't happen, no matter how many times you open it. It can send it on to all your contacts however, so still be careful. For hoax emails all you need to do is not give out your information, respectable companies never ask for personal details via email, and be sensible, why would you get an email saying you not only have a virus, but a 'free' way of getting rid of it.

The internet can be a dangerous place if you're careless, but in truth there aren't horrible people lurking behind every corner, people are genuinely nice and genuine, just like you and me, so try to see through the bad press, be sensible and you shouldn't have any problems.

For more information on the myths surrounding computer viruses check out this report by Triumvirate from way back in 2000, just after the biggest hoax of all – The Millennium Bug. You can also check out the relevant Wikipedia article and a useful virus dictionary from Jayashree Pakhare

Oh and NEVER, EVER pay for can get AVG for free and it's better, faster and more effective.

Happy browsing, check out this video from Weird Al Yankovic which sums up just how crazy the virus fear is.

James Michael Parry

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Film: Review - The Wolfman

As mythical creatures go, we seem to have been overwhelmed in the last few years: centaurs and unicorns from the Narnia and Potter-verses, goblins and beasts to give children nightmares in The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Dark Is Rising and angst-ridden teenage vampires in The Twilight Saga.

With all these children's' films around you might be fooled into thinking these creatures of the night aren't scary; The Wolfman changes all that.

From the opening giving a chilling recitation of the werewolf legend, the film embraces the clich̩s and preconceptions of Gothic horror to set its scene. Foggy moorland Рcheck, continuously murky and rainy weather Рcheck, an isolated village overlooked by a looming manor house surrounded by forest Рcheck. What could go wrong?

Amongst the trees a lone man treks through the fogged woods, with only a lantern for protection you can guess how well he gets on. It turns out the man is Ben Talbot, brother of Lawrence Talbot, played by a timid Benico Del Toro, who soon arrives straight from the stages of London to clear up the fowl business.

With such a deadly creature for a title, you'd expect a certain amount of violence, but Director Joe Johnson pushes to gore levels approaching that of a slasher-horror. Thankfully, much of the mutilation is off-screen, the audience only given split-second glimpses of the wolfman until the second act.

The CGI, which grants Del Toro the more animal side of his on-screen persona, is both terrifyingly realistic and surprisingly well used, particularly when highlighting Lawrence's splintering mind and his struggle with the beast within reaches it's most severe. One chilling moment sees the statue which lies above Talbot's mother's coffin slowly turn her head , complete with fatal neck injury, saying “Look in to my eyes Lawrence, you'll see I'm quite dead”.

Anthony Hopkins, as Lawrence's father Sir John, is on fine form and provides the most disturbing performance of the film, while Emily Blunt fits seamlessly into the period as leading lady Gwen Conliffe. Despite the usual necessity for romance, the film only hints at the tortured love that develops between Lawrence and Gwen, the reality of the situation keeping them apart.

Hugo Weaving is the real star of the show though as the suspicious Scotland Yard man Francis Abberline, who, like the audience, quickly sees the fantastic truth of the whole situation. The growling voice of The Matrix's Agent Smith and the calm wisdom of The Lord of The Rings' Elrond combine with a hint of cynicism and comedy from V for Vendetta's V to create a formidable pursuer for Del Toro.

There are some well thought-out set pieces and the flash-back moments are used for more than just the sake of it, but the pace quickens unevenly, making it difficult to continue to suspend disbelief, it almost seems as if a werewolf has been thrown in to an otherwise quiet period drama.

Since it is a remake, and one determined to stick to the original story, there are always drawbacks, and the most telling one of all is that you probably already know what happens before the Orange Wednesdays Advert has finished.

As a result the story leads to an inevitable conclusion, dissolving the tension and suspense built up the whole way through and falling into the trap of over-the-top action and gore in an attempt to build a climax.

James Michael Parry

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Gaming: Mass Effect - The essential catch-up guide

For those of you out there who are of the Xbox 360 persuasion, you may have heard about a little sequel called Mass Effect 2 – due to hit stores in Europe on Friday 29.

“But I've never heard of 'Mass Effect'?!?” I hear you cry. Well, I hope to try and explain what it's all about to those of you who are new to the Xbox family, or just those who the first game passed by, clued up on this tremendous and potentially genre defining sci-fi franchise.

So, what on Earth is 'Mass Effect'?

Mass Effect is an Xbox 360 game released in 2007 (though it also got a PC release in 2008). The game sees you control Commander Shepard, a soldier in the Alliance, through the tense narrative of a space opera, which sees you uncover the truth behind an ancient evil threatening the galaxy and defeat it. Imagine playing your way through a mixture of Aliens, Star Wars and The Wrath of Kahn and you're half-way there.

Why's it called 'Mass Effect' then?

'Mass relays' are technology supposedly left behind by an ancient race which became extinct over 50,000 years ago called the Protheans. The relays allow spacecraft to travel across the galaxy over great distances in a short space of time, in a similar way that Warp and Hyperdrive work in Star Trek and Star Wars. The Citidel is the hub of the relay network, and since the technology was discovered the galaxy has been connected through it, allowing countless races to come together to meet, trade and share their own technologies and knowledge.

So you control this guy?

When you first start a new game you must create your character. Like many RPGs (role-playing game), you are offered the choice of a male or female character and an array of different classes which affect how you play the game. The in-game universe contains three main skill-sets – Combat, Biotics and Tech - which each class has varying degrees of. Combat is the skills of a traditional soldier, if you fancy the 'all guns blazing' approach then this is the skill-set to focus on. Biotics are a strange psychic-like force which allows you to levitate enemies in the air, throw them or otherwise immobilise them, meaning fans of spell-casting classes in other games will feel most at home here. Tech is, as the name suggests, focused on technology and levelling the battlefield in more of a supporting role than an out-and-out fight, making the players who use this ability more team-focused in combat, allowing your allies to get the kills while you weaken or hack the enemy troops.

So...why does how you play the game matter?

When talking to other characters, interactive dialogue options allow you to choose what Shepard says next, meaning you can change the way you respond to certain characters or react to situations in the story as they unfold. You can be as chivalrous or as dastardly as you fancy, turning your character into a 'just' hero or a hard-ass soldier as you level up and gain skill points to spend beefing up your character's abilities and attributes. If you are nice to characters you meet in the game, they will often help you, or pay you to carry out certain missions, but if you aren't you may have to fight your way to your goals, or knock down whoever is in your way rather than talk your way past them.

What is the point of the game?

At the opening of the game, a lone human colony on Eden Prime has discovered a mysterious artefact, your first mission is to go there and uncover what is going on. It soon transpires that the colony is under attack from an race of enemy machines called the Geth, under the command of a renegade Spectre agent: Seren. As the plot thickens, you must stop Seren from unleashing an even greater enemy and wiping out life in the galaxy.

'SPECTRE', isn't that a James Bond thing?

Spectre stands for: SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance, an elite fighting group working directly under the Alliance council as their right hand their “first and last line of defence” and have access to unique weapons and equipment to get the job done, like a sort of inter-stellar SAS.

Didn't I hear something about getting cosy with an alien?!

There are countless sub-plots in the game and one of the most controversial of these is the 'romantic' sub-plot. As Shepard you can attempt to woo some of your fellow adventurers between missions as the main plot progresses, leading to the inevitable just before you visit the final planet of the game – providing you're particularly charming and romantic, obviously.

So what makes 'Mass Effect' worth playing?

For all those people who say computer games are nothing more than blinking lights and killing people, this game takes a chance on giving players a decent story to follow, and it pays off. Despite faithfully holding on to the traditions of the sci-fi of yore, the story is put across in a very sheek and modern style, and the interactive nature of the narrative means that the game can have several different endings depending on the choices the player makes during the game. On top of that the characters are full and realistic, with some very talented voice-actors lending their voices to the game, including Keith David as Captain Anderson, who has been heard lately in gaming blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as Sergeant Foley.

And what about 'Mass Effect 2'?

There are some problems with the first 'Mass Effect', but the game's developers BioWare have gone to great lengths to ensure these issues are addressed, and improved upon significantly in the sequel. The feel of the new game is much quicker, with the combat being easier to navigate and the visual detail of the game being greatly stepped-up. The most exciting feature of ME2 is the fact that the decisions you make in ME1 carry over to the next game if you continue your save. Something this ambitious has never been tried before, since the choices players have made can mean some characters will be either alive or dead in the second game. Side quests and plot points which seemed insignificant in the first game may prove to be important in ME2, creating a very different and individual game. BioWare always intended the games to pan out as a trilogy, meaning the stark contrast between different games is set to get even wider when Mass Effect 3 is released.

So, hopefully that has answered some questions. For those of you who are yet to play either game I would strongly recommend playing through the first one first, since the entire second game will be far more enjoyable once you know the characters, though if you do want to skip ahead you can start a new game in Mass Effect 2 with a 'standardised' storyline. But the beauty of this game is in the amount of detail put into it, from the moment you set foot in The Citadel for the first time, you get an epic sense of scale at what BioWare have created with this expansive universe. Even if you can only just stand science fiction, I would highly recommend buying this game. Since you can now pick it up for not much over a tenner, what have you got to lose?

James Michael Parry

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Books: Review - Meltdown by Ben Elton

Satire is a difficult thing to get right. As simple as it looks on panel shows like Mock The Week or Have I Got News For You, behind the laughter lies teams of people trawling the news and random goings on of the world to fuel the comedy fire.

Meltdown, by Ben Elton, who's comedy pedigree involves writing Blackadder series 2-4 with Richard Curtis and The Thin Blue Line, is one example of how when a number of satirical topics gel together well, you know you've got something special.

As the cover (above) implies, the book's plot focuses around the recession and the fallout created after the collapse of Northern Rock, re-named in true Elton fashion as 'Caledonian Granite'.

The recession? That's old news?!” I hear you cry (from very far off...quietly), well, keeping things right up to date – an impressive feat considering Elton spends much of his time in far-off Australia – the book touches on the likes of MP's expenses and cash for honours.

Elton, who has written 13 novels to date, has been criticised for his writing because his books often end unhappily, but really the important thing to note is that they always end as they would in the context of modern Britain. This is where Elton's satire gains its power; these are believable stories which could happen, and despite exaggerating at points, mostly they just follow a worrying aspect of UK culture through to a conclusion and see what happens.

The protagonist (you know, the main guy) this time around is Jimmy, a banker was ousted from his job when phrases like 'sub-prime' and 'negative equity' began to creep in to the media. Despite living up to the reputation of his stereotype to a degree - he is (or was) a high-flying, arrogant executive who doesn't know the value of money or the meaning of hard work – but Meltdown takes us on a light-hearted tour of what his life has become and how in many ways the fact that his ideal world has crumbled around him is for the best.

Jimmy belongs to an exclusive group representing the various aspects of high society: from Lizzie, the hard-working business woman with a world-famous catering business, David, an architect designing a building to bridge countries together, and Henry, a junior MP making his way up the ranks of the Commons.

The book is delivers what we've come to expect from Elton, though pointedly without any overly-graphic moments seen in earlier works, and Jimmy is one of the easiest of his characters to connect with, which helps draw in the reader every step of the way, from highs to lows; flashbacks to the present day.

For those who break into a grin at the thought of an MP pondering whether using his wife's hair-dryer occasionally qualifies it to be claimed on expenses is just the kind of person who will love Meltdown. For those who think Qi and Celebrity Big Brother are on the same cultural wavelength...I'm sure there's something exciting waiting for you on PriceDrop TV...

Verdict: 9/10

Surpassed only by earlier works like Chart Throb and Dead Famous, this is fun for the whole family – especially if you're a banker.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Film: AVATAR - 3D's shining light?

Director James Cameron gives lead guy Sam Rockwell a few pointers...literally

Seeing things in 3D is quite ordinary. Think about it, you see in 3D (and super-duper HD come to think of it) all the time. In cinema though there's always been a certain fascination with the third dimension, to give films depth you can't get on a run-of-the-mill screen.

Since I've already delved into the history and technicalities before (take a look at my previous post if ye dare), I'll move on to the case in point: James Cameron's much anticipated epic, Avatar.

After fourteen years waiting for technology to catch up with his imagination, or so he would have us believe, Cameron invites you to the far flung world of Pandora to learn about the dangers of damaging the environment – in a nutshell, it may fight back.

The film itself, ignoring any 3D aspect whatsoever, was good. The story and characters were on the cliché side, but the style of the picture saves it, plus a top-form performance from not-so-newcomer Sam Worthington as Jake Sully.

Comparisons to the story of kids' 80s TV show The Smurfs aren't totally unreasonable, in fact the South Park episode on the subject is well worth a watch, but it all comes down to a simple message about not destroying our beloved planet.

Never fear though, remember this is the James Cameron who brought us Aliens, so there's action and excitement a-plenty – there's even a giant tree!

But what about the gimmick/innovation that is 3D? As the screen instructs you to 'Put on your 3D glasses now' there's a well of anticipation and as the spectacle begins there's a satisfying feeling of 'oooo ahhh'. Soon though the initial shock of seeing things with a little more depth wears off and you let yourself get engrossed in the story, and apart from the occasional flurry of leaves towards your face or burning shrapnel flying perilously close towards you, all the hype of 3D sinks into the background, adding to the film surprisingly subtly.

So Cameron delivers his master-stroke with ease, and an awful lot of patience, but it's film-goers who benefit, since Avatar hammers home the fact that 3D films are no longer restricted to cheesy animated shorts or tedious specials about underwater life at the IMAX. Whether 3D will prove to be more than a fad this time around remains to be seen, particularly with home 3D technology just around the corner, but for now it's here to stay, complete with its fairly ridiculous prices – unfortunately.

And happy new year everyone! Thank you for reading This Is Entertainment this past year and I hope I will continue to amuse and inform you in the coming months as well.