Archive for the opinion Category

Writing: Fear of the Second Novel

Posted in General, opinion, Personal Development, writing with tags on March 2, 2013 by Jim St Ruth

So I like to write. I’ve written one book, Darkness Fell and the Demon’s Sceptre. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve even managed to sell to a few people that I don’t know and had my first royalty cheque (£10.71 doesn’t sound like much, but believe me it’s a huge confidence booster)… but the tales of other authors abound. The fear of the second novel looms and, if I’m honest, for a long while I was trapped by it.

Many people say that the second novel is the hardest. Why wouldn’t it be? You’ve invested a huge amount of your time and emotional energy in completing your first big story… When you finish you feel tired. Big Nap Tired. Several days are spent napping and dreaming of the future. You’ve published your first work on Amazon, iTunes or used Smashwords to handle the whole caboodle. You’re trying to plan your marketing strategy and, if like me, you’ve only the internet to guide you. You’re feeling positive. You’re on a high… and at the back of your mind you’re yearning to get started on your next writing project; another novel that you either just want to get out there or dream that it could one day top the best-seller lists on every marketplace you could ever dream of… but wait. You’ve got some ideas. You’re full of energy. Where do you begin with your next project?

This is a tale of caution, dear reader. I’m sure that it’s one that anyone who has written over a hundred thousand words of anything can relate to. This is not a tale of fear…. it’s one that, I hope, can be of aid to others and, if not, what the hell is the point? I say that with a distinct LOL, but the point is serious.

A brief, I promise you, background. I suffer from mild schizophrenia. I hear voices. I hate crowds, though I love the people in them. I shop at quiet times and hope to high heaven that the gym is quiet when I go there in the mornings. I would never harm another person. My mental state is frightening to me but, to my psychiatrist, I’m very able, not matter how or why or when or where I try to reason the details of the mental state that I’m in. When I last saw him – they’re on a six month rotation, so always new but he put it more clear than most – he looked at my Amazon web page for Darkness Fell, read the reviews and said I’d achieved quite a lot for someone with ‘my condition’. He offered to host a free version in the hospital’s library, citing reasons of encouragement to people that were struggling with similar conditions. I honestly thought ‘F*** me’ and decided it was a good idea… but the reasons behind his comment really struck home. I’d written a novel. I’d succeeded in ignoring my voices and trying to reason away their terror to achieve something that I’d always wanted to achieve.

I came home and thought. A lot. I dreamt. I enthused. I sat and thought about my next work… and almost eight moths later I was still struggling with what to do, and more importantly how to do it.

If you’re a writer, you’re aware of the power of nuance. You know that you have an idea but there are seemingly infinite ways to describe and actually write those ideas down and turn them into gripping works that will enthral even, at the least, just a single reader. You want others to be captivated. To read. To buy. To rave. To… simply just enjoy.

This is where we return to my point… you’ve done that first book and, no matter what your state of mind, I think this is highly cromulent… for, riding on that high of self-publishing, you want to continue… and that’s where the cautionary aspect of my tale kicks in.

I had lots of ideas for my second book. I story-boarded. I mind mapped. I filled countless pages of A3 paper with ideas and tried to whittle them down into something useable. There was nothing wrong with that approach. I got a lot from it… what did it was that I was so eager to continue on my high that I jumped in and started writing.

That might work for you… It didn’t for me. I wrote my starting chapter all full of energy and convinced that what I was doing was right… then I rewrote it. And rewrote it…. and rewrote it again. As of January 2013 I’d been through six months worth of re-writes, headaches, too-long napping filled with stress and worry that I wasn’t good enough to do anything else. I was always meant to improve as a writer, yet now I was stuck. Nothing I did felt right. It wasn’t good enough for me… How would it ever turn into something that I could publish, be happy with and say ‘Yes! I did that!”

My views on achievement are simple: I’m now thirty-seven, but I’m still alive. That might be a tad negative for some, but I find it’s a very soothing measure of gain; my worries pale into insignificance compared to some, but if you’re still here then that’s a biggun. You should feel proud. Life has its ups and downs and if you make it to whatever age you’re at… you’re a winner. Plain and simple.

So I went back to the drawing board. I tried to focus on what I was achieving… and went back again,

then,as if my magic, my partner Paul said a few and, frequently I kick myself for not listening to him, wise words: your first chapter has to achieve three things. You have to grab the reader (duh!). You have to establish sympathy for your main character (OK, I thought, Professor Edward Grimly-Knight is X Y and Z) and you have to demonstrate your premise… the evolving, as you initially approach it, formulae of X does Y to do/overcome Z… and it hit home. Then, just as Paul was uttering the words ‘and always you should signpost the rest of the book’ the thought hit me… Bam! Like a Spice Weasel.

Your inciting incident is always important. It does all of the above and leads into everything that follows… yet I realised the crucial point. In Darkness Fell I’d actually started at what is now Chapter Four – the first point at which my imagination as a writer had first been gripped. I loved the scene where Darkness had examined the threat posed to her. I’d written it enthused with her character… and why the hell shouldn’t I approach my second book in the same way?

In my enthusiasm to repeat my meagre success I had launched into what I love: writing… but I had missed that vital energy. That one scene that somehow highlighted everything that I wanted to achieve… and it’s so I present to you the similarly meagre words that might help focus your mind and help prevent you from falling into the Second Novel Trap.

  • What is your your premise?
  • How do you grab you’re reader’s attention?
  • How do you instil, in you’re reader’s mind, sympathy for your main character/s?
  • How do you sign post the other events in your story?

The answer, for me, was to produce a very long treatment. A treatment should normally be concise and be only three or four pages long… That isn’t what I’m doing. What matters is that you consider what is right for you. You might start at page one. You might start at page eighty-six. You might just stick some much-valued posts in the sand and say that those key points are what your story will hinge around.

What matters is that you take a step back and consider what really energises you… for therein lies the secret. You’ll not only not be held back by pre-conceived ideas or the details of your own expectation… you’ll remain free. Freedom is the ultimate weapon of the writer. By all means, and ultimately it’s a must, you should bare in mind your target audience… but damn it, write and plan and theorise what ever gets you going. Don’t be held back by the pressure of trying to repeat what you’ve done. Every work you do, no matter how small, is worth every one of the thousands of words you produce.

Just take a step back. Consider the points above. Think about the mood of your work and revel in it… for when your imagination gets going, no matter how that might be… you’ve got it.

Just don’t be limited by what you perceive or remember as what has come before. You’re fluid and your work is. Believe in yourself and don’t give up…

Your imagination is worth it.

Review: Doctor Who, The Eternity Clock

Posted in Games, gaming, General, opinion, reviews, science fiction, scifi with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2012 by Jim St Ruth

Anyone who knows me, even slightly, knows that I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. I’ve adored the series, its characters, its stories and its sense of wonder since I was a kid and so I bought The Eternity Clock with an eager need. It’s worth saying that although this is the fourth commercial Doctor Who game released in the last few years, it’s the first one that I’ve plumped for; none of the others interested me and, after playing around in the lackluster free adventure games a couple of years ago, I’ve felt rather jaded about the whole Who-gaming experience.

The Eternity Clock was to be different though; the press releases told me so… and that’s exactly where I should have realised that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

The Eternity Clock has some great and time-tested ideas at its heart; a side-scrolling platformer with enemies to avoid, puzzles to solve and fun to be had. The first few moments are fun; the Doctor arrives inside the Bank of England’s vault and must make his way out, but it quickly becomes apparent that this game is a shallow, frustrating and often uncontrollable affair with very little creative effort put into its design.

The button controls dont’ behave quite like you’d want them to; your action button and jump button are the wrong way round compared to a lot of games and, honestly, they often just dont’ react when you press them. An attempt to jump and grab River’s hand doesn’t do anything; which is a real pain in the unmentionables when you’re trying to beat a hoard of Cybermen to some unmentioned goal. As you run off ahead and wait to give her a leg up, she dawdles for a few seconds and then either runs or simple walks to your side; there seems to be nothing that controls which she should be doing, despite the aforementioned chase and the urgency it should require.

The side-scrolling is very reminiscent of the recent Tintin game; lots of crawling and ducking and avoiding bad guys, and ont he odd chance you can play as River Song (why not let me switch characters when I want to?) you can grab your bad guys and stun them with a good old dose of hallucinogenic lipstick. Tintin was pleasant enough, but very boring, even for younger players; its repetitive and unimaginative level design was a huge let down, and one that prompted a quick resale via Amazon. The Eternity Clock is worse though, and for several reasons. It’s initially very charming, but after a few seconds that charm fades into frustration and obvious repetition. The collectibles (pages from River’s diary and hats for the Doctor) are a great idea, but you can’t do anything with them; why give the Doctor fancy hats to collect, let him comment on them, and then not let him actually *wear* them? Plus the clunky controls, very dodgy AI for River and the other guards, laughably ineffective cover system for hiding from enemies… the list goes on.

How could something with so much promise turn out to be so awful? How could the BBC trust the development of a game of one of their hottest and most profitable programmes to a company with such a small portfolio? How did this product ever get past the keen eyes of development managers at BBC Worldwide? Why did I chose a digital download version that I can’t resell?

These answers add up to a cliff hanger that won’t ever be answered by me… but I’m sure you can guess the answers.

A waste of time and money; full of glitches, frustration and repetition, devoid of the magic of the series. To be avoided.

Review: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Posted in Design, Fantasy, Games, gaming, General, opinion, PS3, reviews, xbox with tags , , , , , , , on March 30, 2012 by Jim St Ruth

Available on Xbox 360 and PS3.

There are two important things that are revealed within the first ten minutes of this game. The first is a twist given at the end of the introductory story, given in a wonderfully dramatic tone by an unknown woman; the story is likely to be a good one. The second is that all gnomes are Scottish.

Kingdoms of Amalur is a great game that builds on established RPG fare. Graphically it should be familiar to anyone who has played any of the Fable games; its look is slightly cartoonish, and wonderfully colourful with it. After the greys and browns of Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, this comes of something of a relief. Your eyes are always stimulated and frequently the game comes across as beautiful. A lot of effort has gone into the art work for Amalur, and it’s paid off. There’s not a moment where things look drab or unappealing, and it’s very easy to lose yourself in its wonderful visual flow.

From the caves and forests, to desert plains and dark foreboding cities, this game is wonderfully appealing and a joy just to wander through.

The gameplay is also very familiar, with much owed to other well known titles; Fable, Skyrim and Fallout again, but the old tropes and methods are nicely played out, with the battle mechanics in particular a great deal of fun to play with. There’s none of the annoyances of Skyrim; press a button to swing your sword or staff or to bring up a menu in the heat of battle, and your command is instantly completed. Skyrim and Fallout 3 in particular suffered from this; if my character’s dying I need to drink a potion quick sharp, not stab the button with an increasing feeling of helplessness as the brutal creature before you viciously hacks you to death. So, from the word go, Amalur is a joy to play.

The AI isn’t particularly impressive and, although stunning to look at, there are aliasing issues around most of the characters when you’re viewing them up close. It seems that the development team would rather your character was made up of separate pieces of armour that move independently rather than flexing as a whole, whilst sacrificing some of the graphical smoothness to enable it. To be honest, I don’t mind the odd jagged edge to a model; I’d rather it moved more convincingly, and that solid plates of armour didn’t bend.

The game map is huge and, after playing through for a good ten hours at the start of the game, there’s obviously much still to do. Like other games of its type, the world map tantalisingly offers many places to explore and, unlike the open-world blandness of Final Fantasy 14, there are many crooks, hollows and ruins to run and fight through aside from those that are reliant on your main or side quests. There are plenty of side quests too, and it’s easy to find them; any character that can give you something to do is marked on your local map and on the main game screen with an exclamation mark over their heads. Want to travel to the other side of your map, then the ubiquitous Fast Travel is there to save you plodding through the woods and plains like a drunken, meandering yoyo.

There is a simply huge variety of weaponry to loot, steal and buy, and the game offers you the chance to make your own. The crafting elements are well thought out and never a chore; it would be nice for them to have been developed into more of a mini-game than a few clicks of your action button, but they’re simple enough and I’d much rather the developer take this approach than making crafting monotonous (again, Final Fantasy 14, I’m looking at you).

The character development has been developed well enough, with a skill tree that should be familiar to anyone’s that’s played Titan Quest. There’s lots to chose from, but one thing to note is that levelling isn’t quick. It’s usually the case that initial levelling is accelerated; many games want you to feel more accomplishment whilst the bad guys and monsters are easier to defeat, but although the levelling is much slower than you might be expect, it doesn’t detract from being able to enjoy the game. It rewards frequently with lots of loot, but doesn’t go overboard like Titan Quest did; you won’t be overladen with a thousand Bangles of Ageing-Moose or fifty Daggers of Eternally Tasty Bacon (would-be items from the RPG of my dreams), but there’s still enough for you to check your weapons for the most powerful dagger, staff or sword for you to use and, combined with the crafting elements you can easily obtain and build some great kit to dish out your wrath with. The ability to salvage parts from unwanted weapons is a bonus too, with component parts not too numerous to get confused over.

There are a few niggling downsides to the game, though.

Primarily, there’s no auto-repeat on your button presses when your navigating through your item and weaponry lists. Got fifty items in there and you’re after the item in position forty-nine? You’re going to have to press your down button forty-none times then. This is a simply omission, and a confusing one. I’m not a developer, so I don’t know what code or action from a game engine’s library should be called, but it isn’t there and sometimes it’s downright frustrating (see the above example).

The second is more minor, but I think only because the side quests are so numerous that there’s always something going on, either to push you to your destination or just keep you entertained; the story, whilst obviously well thought out, seemed a little thin to me at the beginning. Plenty of good stories start out slow, but with so many actions to keep you busy it almost seems as if the main story isn’t that important. This will obviously be less noticeable later on, and to be honest it does therefore encourage you to explore rather than run straight to your next target; too many games lately have made me feel as if I’ve missed a load of content when I’ve finished them, and although I doubt this will be the case here, I’d still like things to feel more meaty dramatically.

An excellent game, full of colour, great gameplay and well implemented battle mechanics. Lots to do and without the clinical, ‘all to brief’ feeling that I got from Final Fantasy 13-2.

One to play.

Review: Rayman Origins

Posted in Funny, Games, gaming, General, opinion, PS3, reviews, xbox with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by Jim St Ruth

Wow.

Every once in a while something magical happens in your life. Something that brings you joy; that special kind of pleasure that reminds you of what it was like to be a kid. No responsibilities. No bills to pay. A great red fish creature pestering you to be your friend… well, ok, maybe it was blue for you. The point is you can have such fun again and, for the price of a video game on your choice of format, Rayman Origins is the way to get that carefree wonder back in your lives.

Sometimes when a franchise returns, the results are disappointing. The story doesn’t go where you want it to go. Your favorite actor was busy doing something else… you know what I’m talking about – but there’s no fear of that with Rayman Origins. It’s pleasure is endless and captivating and full of an insanity that only The Muppets could surpass.

The game is simple platforming in all it’s glory. There’s nothing new that’s been added to the mix, and this game is an excellent example of why sometimes a great experience doesn’t need to be changed, only built upon. The end of area shoot ’em up levels make a welcome return; one that will have you replaying them just to get a high score.

It’s visuals are absolutely stunning; pure high-definition cartoon loveliness. All the characters have excellent ranges of animation, as does much of the environment – and what doesn’t move looks just as stunning. From the rippling image of your chosen character through ice, to the rocks, ice and jungle surroundings… and that’s before you even get underwater.

You start of playing as Rayman himself, but you quickly unlock more characters that you can change into at The Snoring Tree; even the name strikes a great, simple story-telling mood, and it’s one that’s carried out through the game. Each character has its own charm, though many are similar – but that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

The music too is fantastic, ranging from playful tunes to upbeat jazz, and the sound effects that go with them are perfect… I’m just holding my breath for a release of the sound track, and please Ubisoft, release it with the sound effects too. My mobile is crying out to have my new message alert cry the ‘Oooh’ of wonder when you discover a secret area. There’s shades of Carlton Browne of the FO in the music, as well as Mario and some other recognisable themes, and all have great charm.

Verdict

Frequently insane, occasionally frustrating, always fun. Rayman Origins is a game for everyone; kids, grown ups and red (or blue) amphibians alike.

Available on PS3, XBox360, and Wii. Highly recommended.

Review: Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012

Posted in diets, exercise, Fitness, gaming, General, health, Motivation, Motivational, opinion, reviews, running, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2012 by Jim St Ruth

Your Shape Fitness Evolved was something that I was really looking forward to. The original Your Shape for Kinect was a great fitness product, though it suffered from a lack of variety and a confusing menu structure, as well as issues with the body tracking .The first trailers for the product seemed to show that these three issues had been solved; greater variety, extensive routines and customisation and a new tracking system developed by Ubisoft to make the feedback and scoring system much more accurate.

I’ve been using YS2012 since it was released in November 2011, so I’ve had plenty of time to try out the different routines, set myself some goals and ache where necessary… it’s been fun, mostly good exercise and another great way to burn off those calories, but it’s not been without its problems and annoyances. A mixture of good and bad, then and, whilst some of these issues just come down to personal choice, several mar an otherwise great experience.

Silhouettes and Interface

The first thing that you’re presented with is the new user silhouette; load up YS2012 and you’re there in all your glory for a moment before the software magically wraps your on-screen self in cling film and shrink wraps it tight. You play, not as a cosmic-coloured shadow of yourself, but as some strange plasticised doll version of yourself and, unless you wear something on your feet, your legs end in stumps. It’s funny to see, and to watch your toes appear as you lift them off the floor, but it’s also a little annoying. I’m pretty self-conscious and whilst it’s great to be able to see a more accurate version of myself on-screen, I don’t actually want to recognise that it’s me. This will bother some people and other hardly at all, but it would have been nice to have the option  to change between the two.

Next you’re presented with a much improved interface, which is reminiscent of Microsoft’s Metro style interface. It’s much easier to navigate than the previous iteration of the game; ‘ much easier to find, and divided into coloured categories so you can quickly swipe between sections to the set of routines that you want. There’s also a welcome user section, where you can set yourself goals and view milestones and totals for your workouts – but this needs more than a total number of press ups down to be useful of keep me motivated. Much of this section either doesn’t actually do anything (for example a ‘favorite moment’ panel that seems to randomly come up with a day, but there’s no way for you to say which recent workouts were your favourites, and other such panels that have labels but that you can’t actually press) or the information is extremely limited. It seems odd that whilst the system has collected so much data about you, so little of it can actually be seen. Many users might just want to do the workouts, but th marketing suggests it as a great way to get a really good workout; it’d be nice to be able to see some stats on what I’ve achieved to help keep me motivated and encouraged. This user section therefore seems like some people had some really great ideas, and they were either never followed through on or compromised somehow; more on this feeling later.

Exercises

The exercises themselves seem to be greater in number, and indeed Ubisoft tout the software as containing over 90 hours of routines. That’s a big claim to make and, to be fair, though there is a lot of mileage and variety in the routines on offer, it seems like a claim that’s just not true. I admit, I haven’t gone through and counted up the hours, but after having gone through most of the exercises on offer, it feels like an exaggeration.

There is plenty to keep you going though; from workouts grouped together by muscle group and some decent cardio routines, toning exercises, routines to help you prepare for several sports and then dance routines, cardio boxing, yoga and their ‘zen energy’ classes (which are based on Tai Chi), what ever your mood, there’s something there for you. Ubisoft have also included a set of warm up routines which were absent from YS2010; something that users have been crying out for, and to be honest they’re pretty good. Stretching work or relatively low impact exercises like virtual jump rope or a virtual ‘Simon Says’ mini game are on offer amongst others, and it’s easy to be impressed.

Two sets of routines that are worth a specific mention are the ‘Run the World’ and ‘Boot Camp’ options.

The former set you running round virtual representations of major world cities, and with its curved streets it looks like the Matrix’s White Room version of Inception. Unlocking more routes as you progress, you’re not simply there to jog, but take challenges wich are presented to you as a guide talks about landmarks of interest around you. The challenges can be tough, depending on your ability, with tasks like keeping your knees up for sixteen seconds pushing your ability. The Run the World is a nice option, and it’s easy to compare it to the jogging routines on Wii Fit Plus and feel that this comes out the better of the two. It feels more professional and less like something for the kids; fun, but seriously aimed at improving your fitness rather than something just to get you off the couch.

The Boot Camp, however, was a nightmare to try to complete. The exercises were great and I would have enjoyed the routines, except for the Boot Camp approach itself. I’ve never been one to take being shouted at, least of all by a piece of software. Whilst some people have really enjoyed these routines and think the approach is useful or even funny, it just wound me up.  The Boot Camp section didn’t get more than one-quarter of a run through; personal preference again, and there’s plenty of other routines to keep me occupied.

The cardio routines are great and really make you sweat, but in many there were one or two exercises that I either just plain didn’t like or could do. The triple side step punch is a good example, where the trainer moves with something approaching superhuman speed; my body just won’t move that fast and it’s easy to cheat and just hope and punch on the spot to still burn some calories, but it feels wrong to cheat at something that’s meant to improve yourself, and this is one area where the cracks in Ubisoft’s body tracking technology begin to show.

The Yoga and Zen workouts really show these cracks and open them wide open; white lines are overlaid on your on-screen double’s body, arms and legs in an approximation of your basic skeletal structure, and they turn green when it thinks you’re in the correct position. It gets ridiculous when, although you’ve managed to get all those lines to go green and you see your perfect routine score go up, your leg suddenly decides to spin around in its socket and then wrap itself behind your head. Unsurprisingly, this halts your perfect routine count, and is hard to correct without you making the affected limb move away from your body so that the tracking system can spot it again. For exercises like Yoga and Tai Chi, where a calm, relaxed approach is needed and encouraged, this is just off-putting. There have been complaints of similar problems in other routines, particularly affecting the right side of the body. Whilst lighting is obviously an important factor in getting tracking right, many users report that the same exercises in YS2010 work perfectly under exactly the same conditions, and little seems to being done by Ubisoft to correct the errors.

It’s also worth pointing out that whilst there are exercise groups to workout areas like your glutes, legs, arms and back, the chest is notably absent. Whilst there’s going to be overlap with compound exercises, it’s disappointing not to see a dedicated section that other major muscle groups have been given.

Customisation

One of my main criticisms is, though, the lack of customisation in the game.

The adverts show men and women selecting routines and chaining them together, and the impression is given that you can choose specific exercises and build up your own routines; neither is actually possibly. This doesn’t ruin the experience or lessen motivation at all, but it mars the experience. Why be shown something that you can’t do? Considering that such options are given to you in Wii Fit Plus, it’s frustrating to see it absent in an otherwise superior product; if Nintendo could do it three years ago, why can’t Ubisoft learn from them and do it now. It’s not as if Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus weren’t popular, and asking users about their experience of other products seems a basic part of market and product research.

It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s an important issue. Some people live in apartments and can’t go bouncing around their living rooms, but they can do most of the exercises, just not stamp their feet. Some people have minor injuries that prevent them from doing one or two parts of the routine. Some exercises can be just downright annoying. Instead of making people stand still and wait for this bit of the session to end, or feel that they just can’t do a routine because of the exercises it contains, why not just allow them to edit those exercises out? For a workout game that supposedly gives people choice, this seems like an obvious omission.

Other Niggles

There are several other niggles that I’d like to mention.

Firstly, the session time and calorie counts have been removed from the game altogether; at no point whilst you are working out can you see how long your session has been, or how many calories you’ve torched. To do this you have to log into Ubisoft’s Your Shape Centre portal; a web area that’s full of its own bug, and whether it’s in another room or on another device doesn’t matter. I want to be able to check my session’s progress, feel great about my efforts right away, and maybe even push myself to burn a few more calories right then and there. That’s not going to happen if I have to go to my PC or bring up the app on my phone. That would take me out of the experience I’m having right then and there. It’s here, with the split between Xbox and web/app that the feeling of the vision for the software being compromised really shows. There’s a disparity in function, and it’s both unwelcome and seemingly pointless. It’d be great to check out my routines online sure, but I want that on the Xbox within the software that I’ve bought too. I also don’t want my goals to be changed online without me saying; set up a goal of burning 1,000 kCal in ten days in one area, then view it or edit it in another and the time’s reduced to three days. If I reset the value, it either doesn’t register or deletes any progress towards my goal made so far.

Reporting this or other issues to Ubisoft gets a response within a couple of days, but watch out! If you don’t update the ticket it’ll close automatically within 24 hours, whether or not a solution has been provided, and most often it isn’t. This, and the lack of communication and apparent monitoring on the official forums give the impression that Ubisoft isn’t listening. They’ve taken your cash and made a run for it. Ubisoft release a lot of great games, but they also release a lot of games that are very buggy on release. I pay £40 or $60 for a piece of software, I want it to work, and if it doesn’t I expect bug fixes to be released. Ubisoft doesn’t seem interested.

The main area where this is a problem is the calorie counting. After many complains about the new calorie counting system (which was apparently a MS system that worked off your Kinect profile, and estimated much about you), Ubisoft released a patch to address the issue. Now finally able to input my age, height and weight into the system, the new system throws everything in the air and introduces further disparity. Two minutes of vigorous jump ropes gives a burn of 7 kCal, as does two minutes of yoga. Cardio boxing used to give me between 70 and 90 kCal in fifteen minutes, depending on the routine; now it gives me 17.  I can only presume that the calorie values are estimated using your stats and a MET (Metabolic Equivalent of Task) as a multiplier; the system is based on averages from research with many people, and gives a good approximation, but it seems that the MET values in YS2012 are wrong and haven’t been corrected.

What’s the point in a fitness game if the calories are so wildly wrong. They’re only ever estimates without hooking people up to proper monitoring equipment, but the figures are way out and if your certain the values for one exercise are wrong, how likely is it that the values are right for any of them?

It’s also impossible to import DLC from the YS2010, meaning that in some areas (such as cardio boxing) you’re actually more limited than in the previous versions of the game.

Verdict

A good, solid product from Ubisoft with some problems, both major and minor. If you want variety in your fitness routine, and don’t have the time or money for the gym, then you’ll enjoy it, but you need to be tolerant of the game’s bugs and turn a blind eye to the calorie counting.

Opinion: Deus Ex: The Human Revolution

Posted in Fantasy, Games, gaming, General, opinion, PS3, reviews, science fiction, scifi, Uncategorized, xbox on August 28, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game that I’ve been waiting to be released for a long time. The prequel to Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War, the game is a scifi shooter/RPG set in a 2027 where the power of corporations is on the rise, as augmentation technology offers the prospect of self-controlled evolution. It’s a world of have and have-nots, with the gap between rich and poor starkly obvious. It’s also a world where violent protest towards augmented ‘cogs’ and the companies that offer those technologies is on the rise.

It’s a beautiful looking game. Its look ranges from the luxurious and comfortable to the seedy and tatty, and all within a few feet of one another. The design is reminiscent of Blade Runner (which is set eight years previously – and in a different continuity), with its dark city skies, immense buildings and innumerable neon signs, but without the gothic feel to the buildings that were part of Blade Runner’s iconic look. The graphics that make up the world are well thought out and produced and, whilst there are other games that rival Deus Ex in terms of quality, there is variety in the layout of the game spaces and their textures that puts a lot of other shooters to shame. This is a Square Enix game at their visual best and, whilst the PS3 and 360 versions of the game are notably lower in visual quality than a version running on a high-end PC gaming rig, they are still a treat and utterly absorbing.

Graphics alone don’t make a good game, though, so what about the gameplay itself?

The game offers little in the way of something new, but that’s not a bad thing – especially if the game does what it sets out to achieve and uses well established mechanics, tropes and set pieces to good effect. I don’t want to give anything about the game’s story away, but it’s engaging and well paced and plotted. I can’t help but feel that a number of action and scifi films that I’ve seen in the last year could learn from Deus Ex; not all games transfer well into movies or TV, but Deus Ex has a well grounded background mythology (which I’m always a sucker for) and characters that have been crafted well with their own obvious motivations and idiosyncracies.

The gameplay mechanics are easy to follow and fun, with a great set of video tutorials (that, importantly, can be skipped if desired) that pop up and guide you through actions and menus without complication. Weapons are varied and are great and for the most part customisable, with a few notable exceptions. The Stun Gun, for example, lacks a cross hair when aiming towards a target from behind cover; a little frustrating, and I’ve no doubt it will outright annoy some players, but it does serve to make the game more challenging and I didn’t find my own annoyance detracting from my enjoyment of the game.

The game spaces are multi-levelled mazes, where a clear path towards your objective is not always clear, but that encourages the player to explore and there are plenty of items and XP bonuses to be had from creeping through air ducts, scurrying down side corridors and seeing where the odd ladder will lead you. It feels open, and there is some freedom as to how you reach your objective, but the world is not truly open and, if anything, it heightened the sense of urgency and the danger of being caught. The mechanics encourage stealth over outright confrontation and it can get tense at times. I’ve no doubt a seasoned shooter-player could storm their way through most of the levels with ease, but bonuses are granted for not being detected in several missions, and it’s fun to play hide and seek with the guards…

I even found myself tilting my head to see round corners. My monitor isn’t 3D in any sense of the label.

Battle is hard… but not unforgiving so. I decided to play the game through on its normal setting (whereas I’d normally do my first play-through on easy), and I died… quite a lot at first. Part of this is due to the way in which character abilities are unlocked; as with the level design, this appears quite open, but some missions are harder if the right upgrades aren’t bought for them. I’m only part way through the game, and this doesn’t appear to lock any missions completely out should you choose the ‘wrong’ upgrade; but if you increase your hacking skills over your armour or reaction stats for the bounty that can give you access to, you might find yourself dying more often.

The hacking mini-game, required to successfully access many computers and doors within the game, is good fun and can be a race against time. The NPCs will chat with you to varying degrees and, sometimes, useful information comes out of those exchanges. It’s nice to be playing a game that, whilst it is sometimes difficult, treats the player with respect and doesn’t talk down to you… if you read any of the many eBooks lying around the game world, you’ll quickly see what I mean, and see how much effort the designers have put into making a ‘complete’ world for the player to explore.

Comparing Deus Ex to other games isn’t necessarily fair, but I can’t help but think that Fallout: New Vegas was decidedly poor compared to it. It’s worth saying that I’m enjoying Fallout:NV immensely, but with its dated graphics engine, game crashes, troublesome controls and lag (why is it so hard to bring up my Pip Boy to change a weapon and recharge my health when I’m in the middle of a battle?), Fallout: NV can be a decidedly frustrating experience. All the big problems that Fallout: NV has just don’t appear in Deus Ex, and that alone makes this game much more enjoyable.

If you want a good scifi RPG romp, and like games such as Splinter Cell and FEAR, then this is one for you. There’s a well painted world to explore, with plenty of gun-totting action to be had and an excellent score by Michael McCann to keep you immersed. Highly recommended.

Review: Tesco Diets

Posted in Cooking, diets, exercise, Fitness, General, health, opinion, reviews on July 27, 2011 by Jim St Ruth

Continuing my quest to lose some body fat, two weeks ago I thought I would stump up the £28 for an eight week membership of Tesco Diets.

My aims were simple:

  • Track my calorie intake for eight weeks.
  • Lose body fat.
  • To cook some new recipes (given in the Tesco Diets diet plans).
  • Be more conscious about what I’m eating so that when I come off the diet plan I’ll be more aware of what combinations and quantities of foods constitute over eating/ consuming more calories than I burn.
  • Use the calorie tracking to spot areas of my diet where I can easily, and healthily, cut calories and support my fat loss.
  • To do this in as simple and as hassle free a way as I can – there’s no point in making this a chore.
  • To come up with/ use the meal plan to cook main evening meals that are healthy for me and my partner.

Those are pretty simple aims and when I joined Tesco Diets I was initially very impressed. They offer a wide variety of diet plans, from low GI to mediterranean and low-fat diets, even offering specialist diets for people with diabetes. My first issue came when I was looking through the sample meal plans – a breakfast loaded with fruit and other sugars on a low GI plan isn’t good, and certainly isn’t low GI.

When you sign up, you enter your sex, height, weight – all the obvious things that you’d expect for a dieting tool. Then you set your preferences for imperial or metric weights for you and meal ingredients and as well as being able to say whether you’re diabetic, wheat intolerant or vegetarian, you can also exclude some foods from the meal plans that you simply don’t like. For me, this was eggs, and I was really excited about a system that let me say that; I wouldn’t have to go through and remove scrambled eggs from the meals. The meal plans are created automatically, but you can change both the ingredients and the actual meals themselves. Tesco Diets provides a reasonably long list of meals, and you can search for ingredients to build your own recipes, save them as favourites and get easy access to them at any time – and all the while it tracks your total calorie intake, alongside carbs, proteins and fats. You can also change your diet at any time, and create new meal plans whenever you want.

In these respects, Tesco Diets is extremely interesting for anyone wanting to shed some pounds and, along with the ability to monitor your fruit and veg, calcium and water intake, the focus on eating healthily seems spot on. That you can set aside an alcohol allowance for the week makes it even better; you don’t have to go without the foods you like. Then, as well as a weekly weigh-in and feedback from a Tesco Diets Mentor once a week, there’s a user forum to ask questions and get support from people. If you have a family, or even if there’s just two of you to cook for, you can select to have easily scalable meals in your meal plan, plus budget meals for those of us who need to watch their pennies – like me.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I certainly thought it did… However, beneath an exciting and motivating exterior there are a number of big problems with Tesco Diets that the team either doesn’t seem to want to address, don’t know what to do about, or simply just don’t understand.

Firstly, the meal plans regularly too me over the recommended calorie and fat intakes for a day, and brought me in under the recommended intake for protein. When I spoke to a mentor about this, I was told that things should even out over the course of the week, but I couldn’t help but feel that they should have put more attention into providing recipes and plans that made you follow your intake budgets.

Then, looking at the details of the meal plans, it became apparent that there was often a good 15 – 20 minutes of cooking and preparation for lunches. This is simply idiotic. few people, whether working, looking after the kids, or simply those lucky enough to have the freedom to do what they want, want to spend that amount of time cooking every day. The meals themselves have simple enough recipes to follow, but have items like and orange or an apple tacked on the end because the recipes themselves don’t provide you with your 5-a-day; so the nutritional aspects of the diets feel tacked on. The recipes themselves are a mixture of quite interesting to… to be honest, completely awful and it seems that the people writing the recipes have no idea how to cook.

One recipes for a stew-like meal required a tin of tomatoes to be simmered with herbs and onions for twenty minutes before doing anything with this sauce… why? No meat had been added, so why would you do something like that? Certainly the development of flavours wasn’t a consideration.

My next steps was to say, hands up and be honest, what am I really looking to use Tesco Diets for? I decided on forgetting about new recipe ideas and simply use the system to put in my own meals, track my calorie, protein and fat intake and look for areas where I lower the quantities of carbs and fat that I’m eating. I’m taking medication that has the side effect of weight gain but, although I’m active and healthy enough to have a steady weight, actually weight loss is pretty hard for me.

So, I stripped out all the meal plan suggestions and put in meals of my own; everything for a simple breakfast, salads for lunch and a healthy home cooked dinner, to more convenience foods and ‘throw in the over’ meals like fish fingers, chips and peas. You can easily search for ingredients to build up the components of your meals, but it soon became obvious that actually finding the products I eat wouldn’t be easy.

One of the appeals of Tesco Diets is that it includes both brand and non-brand foods. I don’t regularly shop at a big name supermarket (£1.20 for a whole cucumber, Sainsbury’s? Honestly?), but I do once a fortnight or so for food that I can’t easily get anywhere else without paying for a bus ride that would cancel out any savings I make by not simply dropping into Sainsbury’s. Tesco Diets lists generic brand, but also food from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Aldi and M&S amongst others… however, the foods they list are very incomplete, and this is frustrating in the case of Tesco products because the Tesco grocery site holds all the nutritional information for their own products.

After spending a week and a half searching for rough calorie, fat and protein-alikes for food like petit pois, Tesco Salt and Vinegar Crisps, and other obvious  things, I left a message on the forum asking why Tesco Diets doesn’t simply have the data from the Tesco groceries website? The reply state d that if I wanted any specific item added then I should just email one of the nutritionists and ask for it to be added… which kind of defeats the point for me. It seems I can either track things roughly in real time if I go on a Big Supermarket website and search for an item, or I an wait up to twelve hours or them to add last night’s dinner to their database.

For £30 I don’t expect to have to do that. I expect it to already be there… especially since Tesco already have the information for their own products..

It was suggested that, because of my problems finding items and tracking them, that I could switch to the Totals diet, which was completely customisable… and then Ryvita Crackerbreads vanished from the database. The system is so buggy – and so slow – that it seems the content of the database changes according to what diet you’re on. When this is something as obviously diet-friendly as Ryvita, that’s a big problem.

Then came the issue of Preferences. I set measurements for my weight and body to imperial, but my measurements for food to metric. People tend to use one system or the other, and a lot of people (including me) find measurements in their unfavoured system baffling. For me, I weigh food in grams and kilograms and find ounces and pounds confusing, but I always weight myself in pounds or stone, and measure my waist in inches… a little strange, that combination, I admit, but Tesco Diets doesn’t care. It lets you chose whatever you want… except that it doesn’t work.

Some foods were given in grams, as I requested, but no matter what I did some were still given in ounces. I’ve got a set of electronic metric kitchen scales at home, so I have to work things out in my head. This isn’t a big problem, but why give you the chance to set a preference if it doesn’t make any difference. The response from the team basically restated the problem, without realising that it was a problem. That’s no good. Neither is giving food quantities occasionally in ‘portions’.

Tesco Diets still has much to offer the dieter and I’m happy that some people have had great success with the system, but I wanted something that was simple to use for my money and Tesco Diets is just too filled with niggles for me to use. I changed to the Totals diet plan and was presented with things in calories, grams of fat and protein, and a points system that looked superficially similar to Weight Watcher… but on changing to the Totals plan I wasn’t given easy access to information about what that points system meant, or even how many points I was allowed.

There are a number of other niggles to the system, but I’ve covered the main points that were a bother or an annoyance to me. There are many plus sides to the system too, but for me it hasn’t had enough time spent on developing it. I expect those things just to be done right for my cash and, although I’ve fed back my concerns to the Tesco Diets team, I’m not paying for them to have a think and make the changes; they should already me there after having the site set up for a reasonable amount of time.

I cancelled my account, knowing that they don’t give refunds.

I did get one very useful thing from it though: I don’t regularly consume more calories than I burn.

I’ll just forget the calorie counting, pick up the exercise some more, track what I’m eating this week and eat less of it next week. That seems to be the best way forward… it’s just a pity that it cost me £28 in having that concept confirmed.