Dark Souls 2

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Bearer of the curse, seek misery.

Seek souls.

As she speaks to me, the ocean crashes upon the cliffs around Majula, the haven. I stand and stare into the distance. The bonfire behind me crackles, a candle of warmth encroached upon by the sea. Surrounding Majula is the misery she wants for me. A sunken ruin, a crumbling castle, a tower so distant that it seems only a vague shape. And the souls. I will lose them time and time again.

As she asks, I will seek misery.

The thing is, however, that the Dark Souls series is not actually about despair, but about hope. This giant bastard in front of me has eaten my face 9 times… but the 10th try will be its undoing. That bloody trap keeps knocking me off… but this time I dodged it. I used all of my health regen on this boss… but a link with another world gave me a sliver more, just what I needed to keep my face on my head. Praise the Sun.

Dark Souls, despite initial appearances, does not want to break your spirit, but to test it. And Dark Souls 2 asks you directly to seek misery, knowing full well that with the controller in hand, you’ve already made the choice. Seek misery, because hope is nothing if not contrasted with despair.

The changes from the original are small yet significant. The player can now switch between 3 weapons in each hand, a significant increase from the 2 provided by the original. From pure numbers alone, this provides the player with a lot more options in a fight. The player can now wear up to 4 stat-boosting/ability granting rings now, double that of the original

There are small changes to combat too. Unlike the original, where the left hand weapon could only be held defensively (swords, for example, were used only for parrying and blocking when held southpaw), DS2 allows the player to hold sharp objects in both hands and make stabby motions with both of them. The weapon in either hand can now be held two handed for stronger attacks – two handing a shield, for example, lets you whack people round the face with it, or use it to do a charging bash attack.

Healing is different too. The meagre 5 Estus flasks (healing potions, rechargeable at bonfires) given to you at the start of the original Dark Souls now seems excessively generous compared to the solitary Estus that DS2 gives you. Estus healing now carries on even through being hit, but only after taking damage – so if a hit would have killed you anyway, drinking like a fish won’t save you.

Lifestones can also be found around the place, another healing item – one that can be used in combat without being rooted to the spot. Unlike Estus, lifestones are one time use only items, and although one can move while using them (and even use them on ladders), it does mean lowering the shield for a moment. Often, it’s better to brave a fight out with no health, rather than try to heal and end up taking attacks from all angles.

Is DS2 harder than the original? Enemies will eventually disappear from areas if the player dies too many times there, making it somewhat easier to make it through problem areas. However, dying has a new penalty – the loss of the top end of your health bar. Die while human, and you of course lose your humanity. Die again, and you lose some of your maximum health capacity. Your skin turns green, and signs of rot and decay begin to appear on your body. Die again, lose more of your maximum health, and you appear to rot more again. Eventually, I ended up resurrecting with half of my maximum health and a body that looked like something blown into a tissue.

These subtle changes make the game different, for sure – but as to whether or not the game is more difficult than the original, I’m afraid I can’t definitively say either way. What is for certain is that the challenge of the original remains intact, albeit tweaked.

The fast travel system accessible at bonfires seemed to take some of the risk out of carrying souls – all one has to do is make it to a bonfire and then fast travel to the shop that’s carrying the item you need. Bit of a shame, I thought. Then four of the bastards cornered me and gave me a steel overdose. 2500 souls dropped. I resurrect at the bonfire, and find that the shopkeeper normally sitting nearby had buggered off anyway.

So, it may or may not be harder than the original – really, a few years must always pass before these things are fully worked out by players, and at this stage DS2 just hasn’t been played by anybody to the same extent as the original. The secrets and tricks haven’t been found yet – but when they are, and when the community has got together and fleshed out a wiki for the game, then the question of which game is actually harder can be approached.

Although the blind approach to DS2 is undoubtedly the best way to play (and, right now, there’s not much choice), it can cause some hair-tearing issues. I spent about 5 minutes picking out a moustache for my character, and a hairstyle to match. My bloke looked like a cross between a medieval knight and Arthur Shelby. Ok, I thought: that’s a moustache I’ll be happy to see for the rest of the game.

It was therefore a surprise to find that, sometime later, my character had inexplicably turned into a woman.

There is a reason for this (one which I won’t spoil for you), as confirmed by a google search later on – but as I’d been wearing a helmet, I hadn’t noticed it at the time. This is the sort of thing DS2 does to you – it is sometimes so obscure that you honestly don’t know whether you’ve fucked up or the game has.

However, this uncertainty, this madness, is part of why I love the series. The sweating and swearing that it inspires makes me love it. The best praise that I can give DS2 is that, unlike most games, I feel like I’m playing the fucking thing. I feel like my choices matter, whether or not I know what I’m choosing. When I win, I feel like I won. Not like the game took it easy on me,  gave me a simple QTE… no, DS2 won’t insult me like that.

Directly after playing a bit of DS2, I tried out the new Lords of Shadow 2 demo. That there game is everything that DS2 is not. Primarily, that demo is utter shit, but apart from that… LoS2 gave me the powers of a superhuman vampire, and when I fought things, I felt weak. All of my flashy moves didn’t matter, especially as ridiculous god-combos look a little superfluous when used to bounce mere humans round the room. It was a case of more and more ‘so what’ piled up on top of a load of ‘who gives a shit’. Pretty colours, pretty empty.

DS2 gave me a sword and a shield, and told me to get my hands dirty. Every failure laid another step on the staircase to success. I died, I sweated, I swore, and I loved every minute of it.

And I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’m not calling this a full review, because there’s no way I’m going to cane through DS2 just in order to see the last boss and then write ‘very good, 8/10’. No, as I’m not getting paid for this one, I don’t feel bad in any way about taking my time and enjoying this game. I don’t want to run to the end just to say that I did, because I’m really enjoying the journey.

What I will say is this. Based on what I’ve played so far, DS2 is a worthy sequel, and looks amazing even on the consoles. Like Snake Eater before it, it’s probably the last great game that will be released for the current generation of consoles. And, like Snake Eater, it’s so damn pretty, and so damn good that occasionally you just have to stop, put the pad down, and stare and listen.

Seek misery, but praise the sun.

Bloody Good Fun

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Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a bloody stupid game, and that’s a damn good thing. There aren’t many games that make me actually laugh out loud, and fewer still that seem so wholly devoted to the task. Furthermore, it’s a modern shooter that you can play without the feeling that you’re in a recruitment office, and that’s a damn good thing too.

I may have felt stupid while playing this, but I didn’t feel dirty. Absolutely everything is played for laughs, and I can’t help but appreciate a game that doesn’t seem to want to do anything but put a big stupid grin on my face. There’s a lot of mishits, but with so many shots on goal it’s hard not to be glad of the effort. Even when the deliberately obnoxious tutorial becomes genuinely “go fuck yourself” irritating, there’s still a sense that this big, stupid dog of a game just wants to please.

What Blood Dragon has to offer is the chance to run around shooting cybersoldiers with Robocop’s gun, while your character swears at people. Your character is played by Hicks from Aliens. There is a lot of gun in this game. Lots of explosions too. Things bleed, so that you can kill them. MARK IV STYLE, MOTHERFUCKER!

I can’t help it. This game has infected me with something. I feel like I’m a little lad again, watching Predator or Commando for the thousandth time. In a few months time, maybe I’ll be able to properly criticise Blood Dragon – it’s a far cry (yeah, yeah, and what?) from perfect – but frankly, it leaves me with a big stupid grin on my face and I get to run around cybersoldiers (cyberbloodyeverything, actually) firing Robocop’s gun and swearing – or rather, having Hicks from Aliens (Michael Biehn, for those who don’t know) do the swearing for me.

I have a laser assault rifle too, which is a bit inaccurate at the moment, as I haven’t upgraded it – but that doesn’t matter, because it means I get to fire it more. And then there’s the minigun which I can just carry around like it ain’t a thing, even though it really bloody is. And then there’s the fact that what jingoism there is in the game is a clear parody of the over the top pro-US, anti-Soviet, flag and willy waving propaganda that was an essential part of many an American action film, rather than being a completely unironic pro-military wankfest like SOME OTHER GAMES.

Blood Dragon is funny, as long as the premise of the joke is funny to you in the first place. If you never had a soft spot in your heart for 80’s action films, then this may well just irritate you. Personally, it had me in bits.

Contrasts – Wrocław, Poland

Wrocław Ratusz

Travel guides are often useful when abroad, but sometimes it’s best just to ask a local – in my case, the man at my hostel’s reception desk.

“Where’s the most beautiful place in Wrocław?”

The reply comes without a pause – Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island. When I arrive, I instantly agree with the receptionist.  At midnight, it could be the most serene place on earth.  The sound of my wooden soles (a poor, yet atmospheric choice) hitting the cobblestones of Katedralna reverberates loudly and sharply, the only break in the otherwise perfect silence. Just a few hundred metres away over the Odra, the vibrant, modern city of Wrocław blares – but here, there is only the silence of the past.

The staff at the fantastically named Boogie Hostel turn out to be some of the friendliest bed-providers I’ve ever stayed with. Not only do they, like the majority of Poles, smile and encourage my attempts to use Polish – never the easiest of languages – but they’re genuinely friendly and welcoming in a way that suggests they care about more than just putting money in the till. So friendly, in fact, that I plead with them to find me a room for a second night, rather than (as I originally planned) having to move to another hostel across the city.

More than anything, they remind me why I use hostels, instead of hotels. It’s not just a question of price, but of atmosphere, and of friendliness. Hotels (or at least, hotels within my budget) are sterile, lifeless, and detached. Great for families with children, of course – but for the solo traveller, a hostel gets you closer to the real life of a place, and is cheaper.  You get what you don’t pay for.

Modern Poland is perhaps best defined by its contrasts. It is a country that looks forward, yet often turns its eyes back to history. Nowhere are the contrasts in modern Poland more immediately obvious than in Polish buildings. The short walk from the vibrant and busy city centre, crossing the Odra via Most Tumski, illuminates this contrast, just as both the more modern city centre and Ostrów Tumski illuminate their buildings – the electric lights highlighting the sharp angles of the Ostrów Tumski’s gothic cathedrals being one of the few reminders of the present day.

Wrocław Cathedral

Most of the city centre can only be called modern in relative terms – in around 10 minutes, one can walk from the beauty and stillness of Ostrów Tumski right the way through the modern city centre, where the concrete gravestones of communism remind one of another era in Polish history.  Here, a tiny shop bears the sign ‘Chemia z Niemec’. It is a surreal anachronism, stocking only a few items – all German (and supposedly superior) cleaning products. Shower gel, washing powder, and so on – as if Poland lacks its own detergents.

A few minutes further is the main building of the University of Wrocław. This beautiful, cream coloured, 300 year old building, ornate yet orderly, stands across the street from a modern building that is nothing but straight lines and smoked glass. A sign on the glass advertises the budget restaurant inside in Polish, English, and German – “All for one price, you only pay for 100 grams.” Doubtless it is as popular with students as it is with tourists.

Wrocław University

Deeper into the heart of the city centre, there is the Rynek, the market square. The Wrocław Town Hall (Ratusz) sits in Wrocław’s Rynek, a fairytale building that barely seems real – the sort of building that looks written, not built. Around it, buildings from the past have been filled and surrounded with products from the present. McDonalds does its best to disturb the atmosphere, but to no avail.

Walking through Wrocław is like walking through a microcosm of Polish history; albeit one not arranged in a linear fashion. From street to street, building to building, differing architectural styles give the pedestrian a simplified, fragmented, and disordered version of the development of Poland – a mandala, evoking ideas of both longevity and impermanence.  The old mixes with the new – they never blend completely, but rather crash and rebound.

Ostrów Tumski, however, is an entirely distinct lesson in contrasts. Here is the part of Poland which both wishes to be kept separate from the modern world – and which threatens to keep modernity out of Poland too. Poland’s Catholicism is one of its defining features.  Reverence for Pope Jan Paweł, as Ratzinger’s predecessor is known at home, is as Polish as pierogi. Even the extremists have a loud voice in Polish politics, with the hardline traditionalist and nationalist radio station Radio Maryja having close links with the right-wing Law and Justice party – the second largest party in Poland.

Just as Catholicism dominates Poland, the red brick spires of Wrocław Cathedral dominate Ostrów Tumski. Illuminated and overbearing, they are as terrifying as they are impressive. They give the impression of being vast radio antenna, broadcasting silence and stillness. These towers, just like the other buildings that surround them, are undeniably beautiful even to a confirmed atheist.

What they may represent to modern Poland, and what part the church should play in Poland’s modern development are both points open for debate. Certainly, the teachings of the Church are becoming less relevant to the younger generation, and the symbols of the old religion look less and less tasteful to them every day. The influence of the Church may wane, but its symbols will retain their potency – even if they, like many other Polish buildings, eventually become only symbols reminiscent of times past. The silence of Ostrów Tumski is ironic, given the current debate, and the vocality of the Catholic Church – but, alone here, at night, the silence and the beauty seem to be the only things that matter.

 

 

 

Self Inflicted Disease

Writing

Aren’t we forgetful in this country?
I mean, we do it without trying.
I say that without lying – we certainly don’t try.
I could have sworn that just a week ago
The NHS was so important
We wouldn’t let a good story like that go.

Yet is it in the news this week?
Nope, not a squeak.

I don’t understand this selective amnesia.
Are we seeing fear from the media?

What have we been hearing?
Big tings last week, wasn’t it?
And yet, now, nothing.
When things look bleak
For our beloved NHS
When the button has been pressed
There is nothing.
Not even a damp squib.

We – me and you, we’re apathetic.
How fucking pathetic.

Is this an admission of defeat?
60 people in Birmingham’s streets
Stood, braving the cold, for minutes at least
In a vigil for our dying NHS.
Holding candles, “eternal flames”
And many other groups did the same,
Because standing around is now activism.
This is Britain. Modern Britain
The Big Society, where everyone helps!
Where we give a shit, For as long as the weather holds,
Until we get bored of it, or until we get cold
And then Jack can go fuck himself.

At least these small crowds turned up.
Still, with so many people opposed to the bill
We must now confess:
We weren’t really trying hard enough.

I must confess.
I can’t throw blame around without taking my fair share.
I did almost nothing – read a bit, whinged a bit.
Like I expected someone else to care
More than me – like anybody else gave a shit.
Same old fucking story.
My apathy is your apathy.
Somebody else will always pick up the baton, right?
No.
Self evidently, that’s a load of shite.

Same as ever here.
We complain, again and again,
In the weakest ways,
Ineffectual, and ultimately vain.
But it’s not really up to us.
We’ll make a bit of a fuss,
Sure,
As if that’s a cure for our
Self-inflicted disease.

Please.

Nobody forced apathy upon us.
Social indoctrination is one thing
But do we try to break our programming?
No, because we don’t make enough of a fuss
Soundbites and platitudes are enough for us.
We’re so proud of our reserve
That when we get served shit sandwiches
We teach ourselves to enjoy the taste.

We have learned nothing.
We are a disgrace.

A Day of Division – EDL and UAF demonstrations in Birmingham

For one day, the streets of central Birmingham were tense on a level not felt since the riots. Separated from each other by police lines, the monolithic Central Library, and the Hall of Memory, both the EDL and Unity/Unite Against Fascism came out to protest. Two fundamentally opposed groups – one a proponent of multiculturalism, the other a vehement opponent; each protesting against the ideologies of the other in a city that is both a hotbed of racism and one of the most proudly multicultural cities in Europe.

Thankfully, the expected chaos never manifested; the two groups were kept well apart from each other by a police force that seemed to have learned its lesson from the last EDL protest in Birmingham, with officers from Wales brought in to bolster the West Midlands constabulary.. The EDL were rumoured to be extremely unhappy that their demonstration site had been moved from the planned Victoria Square, in front of the Town Hall and Council House, to Centenary Square, due to the presence of the Occupy Birmingham camp in Victoria Square. Protestors at the camp told me that the fence surrounding them had been put in place by the police for their protection from the EDL.

Occupy birmingham protestors fenced off by police

Despite a crowd surge by the EDL during their speeches, the police held their ground; with pleas from the EDL’s own security team for order, the sudden anger of the crowd was quickly placated and a relative amount of order was restored. I say relative, for the police were unable to stop the throwing of glass and detonation of fireworks among the EDL supporting crowd. One officer acknowledged to me that fireworks were indeed not allowed, his Laconic brevity speaking volumes to me about the nuances of crowd control.

A minor argument between a few participants in the demonstration  and a small group of non-EDL supporting observers quickly turned into something much more potentially dangerous; as the police intervened, the crowd seemed to move as one, ignoring the speaker on stage and rushing towards both the scene of the previous verbal altercation and the police line. Thankfully, what could have resulted in an extremely volatile situation was quickly calmed, in part due to the efforts of the EDL’s own security team. I spoke directly with one of the people who were the target of the EDL’s crowd surge – he told me that a few EDL supporters had overheard their conversation, assumed that they themselves were being discussed, and reacted angrily. When I questioned him about how he, a young black man, had the fortitude to stand fast in the face of the crowd, only moving back when instructed to do so by police, he didn’t seem to give much thought to fear – his reply being ‘They’re cowards, really.’

EDL security try to calm the crowd

The EDL have long been fighting to shed their violent, racist image, and scenes like this seem to me to signify a struggle within the group itself – while the high rankers may see the need to be more publicly presentable, and indeed make many attempts to portray the EDL as such, the question still remains as to how much of this ideology filters down to those who don’t hold rank, but do follow and support the EDL. For a public demonstration, there was a surprising amount of hostility towards anybody holding a camera – my first attempt to photograph the group drinking outside the Brasshouse on Broad St resulted on one of the group warmly shouting ‘don’t be fuckin’ takin’ photographs!’

Photographers were personally hassled by demonstrators, me included – even while standing next to fellow EDL members who were themselves posing for the photographers. Some who objected to being photographed at a public demonstration retaliated with their own photography – others were more threatening.  Despite the EDL’s protests that they are not a racist group, it is hard to hear chants such as ‘Who the fuck is Allah?’, ‘Allah is a paedo’, and ‘Burn your mosque’, and witness an Asian cameraman being malevolently stalked out of the square, while reconciling these scenes with the image of an organisation that neither promotes nor desires violence or hatred.

EDL and the police

After the EDL demonstration had finished, I made my way over to the Unity/Unite Against Fascism demonstration in Chamberlain Square. Barely a few hundred metres away from the EDL, the atmosphere here was different – tense, but at the same time far friendlier. There was certainly a feeling amongst the crowd that, with the EDL in town, and a massive Asian presence in Chaimberlain Square, something big and nasty could happen – I overheard one young man saying to his friend that the EDL could ‘come, cos we will knock them out.’ However, the crowd were by no means as overtly hostile as the EDL were – those who I spoke to were friendly and talkative. There was still an underlying sense of anger, and the sentence that I missed the start of but caught ‘…but not all white people’ wasn’t the most positive thing I’d heard all day – but all things considered, it was delivered in a far more welcoming atmosphere than I’d encountered just a few hundred metres away.

A group comprised mostly of Asian lads noticed my camera, and asked me what I was taking photographs for. As soon as I mentioned that I was a reporter, their arms were around each other, all wanting to get their picture taken. They asked me if I was in the EDL – pointing to my shemagh, I asked if they thought the EDL would have someone who wore one of these. ‘Nah, not with your Taliban scarf!’ was the reply. Immediately afterwards, another shocked me by saying ‘You’re my brother Barry!’ I like to think that Chris Morris would have laughed as much as I did.

Youths at the UAF/Unity demonstration

Within minutes of this comedic exchange, however, the mood changed, and the tension escalated. Just as the EDL did, the crowd here began to run towards the police lines, looking for an exit. Unlike at the EDL demonstration, the riot shields were not out – there was simply a line of police blocking each exit. Despite pleas for calm from those inside the group, and advice from the police to ‘stop or you’ll be arrested’, the push was uncontainable. Breaking the police line, the crowd sprinted in groups through the streets of Central Birmingham. I followed them, but there seemed to be no real objective, nor any one group large enough to track. A group of young Asians is hardly an uncommon occurrance in Birmingham, and I didn’t feel that it was either wise or necessary to approach any of them and ask ‘have you just been running from the police?’

Protestors break the police line

There was no organisation in this breach of the police line, no grand plan to reform in a different place, or to intercept EDL members – although that last point may have been hoped for by some of the crowd, the real intent seemed merely to get away, to be released from the police cordon. With this breach, the demonstration, and indeed the day was over – confirmed by the new emptiness of Chaimberlain Square upon my return. The only significant reminder of the events of the previous hours was the continued police presence, and the fence which still encircled Victoria Square.

Overall, a day which could have been marred by violence was instead relatively peaceful. Despite tense feelings, and a noticeably nervous police force (a nervousness completely understandable, given the circumstances), the city remained as peaceful as could ever have been expected. While remaining as objective as possible, I must note one final thing. Namely, that I, a white English male, felt far more at home and welcomed amongst the Asian demonstrators with whom I met yesterday, than with those who would consider me their brethren. I guess I’m not English anymore.

The Killing – an example of TV’s fear of showing intelligence

I missed The Killing the first time it was aired in Britain, which was a silly thing to do. I’ve been watching it over the past few days, and I’m absolutely blown away. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV for the simple reason that it’s mostly a load of toss. As a result, I’m often slightly late to get into some of the fantastic shows that have been produced in the past few years. Band Of Brothers, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Thick of It, The Inbetweeners (I don’t see any incongruity here, it’s a fantastically well-written load of bollocks) and many more; all shows which I’ve only got into once they sold out and stopped writing songs for their real fans. Er, I mean, I’ve only found them after the Guardian or Charlie Brooker (often both, often together) told me I should see them.

The Killing (judging purely from the seven episodes I’ve seen so far) deserves the hype. Frankly, it deserves a lot more hype, as I’m sure that it’s still not getting the viewing figures that it deserves. Quite why shows of this calibre aren’t given as much publicity as they deserve is a mystery to me – TV executives must presumably live in fear of being widely and publicly denounced as boffin twats, or possibly massive gays, and therefore try to put as little intelligent programming on as possible. The BBC tries its best, but still tries to look hard in front of it’s mates, and therefore The Killing, which so far is one of the most masterfully written pieces of art I’ve ever encountered, is tucked away on BBC4 at 10PM, and I bet barely anybody will see it. The BBC is hiding its poetry books in case anybody takes the piss. It should instead be proud to have shows like this on the BBC1 schedule. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s tucked away on BBC4 is that somebody at the BBC really wants to show it, but a lot of other people there are worried that it puts most British drama to shame?

It does.