Cultural Activities, for the week commencing 28th August 2011

Hey – how’s it going? It’s another, suspiciously sunny Bank Holiday weekend in Blighty and I’m choosing to celebrate this clearly wrong and improper series of events by staying in indoors and doing things of a cultural nature.

Sci-Fi's most-bewildered new parents

Firstly, nay imminently, we have the return of the 11th Doctor in the second part of season six of (New) “Doctor Who”. As a big old fan of current showrunner Steven Moffat (we have a shelf with DVD’s of his various series, from “Press Gang” to “Sherlock”), I am seriously intrigued to see where the second half of this season goes.

[SLIGHT SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN PART ONE OF SEASON SIX] I don’t know anybody who didn’t stifle a mild yawn when the big reveal at the close of “A Good Man Goes To War” was that River Song was Melody Pond who was Rory and Amy’s daughter.  You could make logical deductive leaps and get there – it didn’t seem earth-shattering and the events of the episode didn’t necessarily jibe with River’s proclamation that the Doctor would soar to great heights during the battle of Demon’s Run and then be brought low.  As much as I did enjoy the episode – it’s a rattling good yarn – I was left wondering when Moffat was going to start to drop the plot-revealing, rug-pulling bombs which he’s awesomely good at.  Because you know that he’s going to be dropping bombs – it’s what he does. [SPOILERS END]

So, new “Who” – the splendidly-titled “Let’s Kill Hitler” – promises much and may even deliver more than that.  I have every confidence.

It's a Metal album. Surprised?

Next on my list of cultural esoterica is Machine Head’s pivotal, nay genre-defining 2007 album, “The Blackening”.   Not many bands in the post file-sharing age get the chance to come into their own on their sixth album, but the Bay Area’s most teeth-bared, riff-heavy, harmonic-abusing metallurgists, Machine Head, managed to do just that with “The Blackening”.  It’s a difficult one to describe to people who’ve never heard the band before, but the best that I can do is to suggest imagining what an on-fire, out-of-control tanker truck crashing into a fireworks factory in the middle of a 9.0 earthquake might sound like.  With slightly better solos, obviously.

The riffs are raging, the lyrics are very ticked off indeed and the whole records barrels along the unholy heck-spawn of Maiden, Metallica and Priest.  Go and listen to the band on Last.FM and see what you think.

Reading matters, as seems to be the case a lot nowadays, are revolving around “Warhammer 40K”, the Black Library and that nice man Dan Abnett.

I don't carry anti-mugger devices any more, just Dan Abnett omnibi...

I’m two novels away from finishing “The Lost”, my first encounter with the WH40K universe, and it’s left me keen to read more – it’s gothic, bleak, far future military SF that has great characters, terrific action sequences, actually funny humour and a rich continuity that I’m going to enjoy exploring and getting to grips with.  I can give no higher praise than to say that reading Dan Abnett’s books reminds me of reading “2000AD” as a nipper.

Yeah, that good.

Inevitably, given the “WH40K” bias at the minute, I’m also playing the XBox 360 demo of THQ’s upcoming “Space Marine”.

Big Men, in Power Armour, Hitting Things. This Can Only End Well...

The advance word would have you expecting a third-person action game quite akin to Epic’s “Gears of War” series (the third game in the franchise drops eighteen days after this game hits stores).  And the advance word would be bobbins, friends.

I’ve played the bejingles out of both “Gears” games and can report that the demo of “Space Marine” requires different tactics to the adventures of Marcus Fenix and co.  Sure, you can sub in the Space Marine chain sword as roughly analogous to the Gears Lancer rifle but the gameplay and WH40K mythos require you to approach game play in a different fashion – I felt at times like I was playing a blend of beat-em-up and third-person action RPG, if that makes any kind of sense.

“Space Marine” is big on melee combat – no hiding back in cover and picking off enemies at range with a rifle here.  You can drop the odd Orc with a ranged shot – there’s a satisfying chunky quality to the Bolter gun which is one of your four standard guns – but the game wants your character to wade in to the fight, knock seven shades out of a crowd of enemies, stun them insensible and then finish them off with a nasty melange of bladed weapon attacks.  Do that enough and you get a mutha of a power-up with basically finishes off the bad guys or wounds them so badly that you can do a finishing move which regenerates your health.

In fact, this is key – although the maps have collectables dotted around, and ammo pick-ups to grab, there’s no health station to replenish your character’s energy: You’ve got to work with the game mechanics and the premise that these characters kick ass in a very specific way if you want to progress.

Technically, it’s fine – it looks like I would imagine the Warhammer 40K universe to look, it has a pleasing sense of grimness and severity which is true to the stories that I’ve read to date and offers a pretty decent challenge even on the Normal difficulty.  The only thing not in favour is that a great many potential purchasers of this game are going to want to pick up “Gears 3” not very long after this game launches.

What that might mean for THQ’s hopes of establishing a long-running franchise is anybody’s guess – is this game going to attract a community who enjoy the single-player and make the multi-player a stalwart on Xbox Live and PSN or will it be over and done by the time that October comes around?  I can’t quite decide – the Warhammer 40K brand carries a lot of weight in SF/table-top gaming and the demo is a ton of fun, but will the regular gamers who don’t have any investment in this universe be able to see past the surface aesthetic elements which recall “Gears”?  Never mind that Warhammer 40K predates “Gears” by a matter of decades…

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Filed under Books, Gaming, Geekery, Spoiled!

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