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Race Driver: Grid
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I had been looking forward to this game for some time, having enjoyed playing through Colin McRae: Dirt some months ago, so I was excited when it dropped through my letter box and fired up for the first time.
The looks, unsurprisingly, are very impressive, and coupled with very slick presentation and an extremely well thought out UI and menu system, they draw your interest and leave you eager to get started on each race. This uses the Dirt engine, but it's been optimised, so not only are the graphics a little crisper and smarter, they also run more smoothly than previously, and the knock-on effect is that this will run nicely on a more modest PC than its rally predecessor. It's a fun and involving game. However...
Let's say it's lucky I didn't write this review straight away, as the opening races (where you are picking contracts to race for random other teams) were a painful experience. The first car you drive handles like a wet bar of soap on a pane of glass. The next car will handle differently; it might be Imperial Leather instead of Dove... I got so annoyed fighting with my xbox-controller-for-PC (essential kit for this game) that I almost destroyed my entire set-up. At that point I would have written a very damning, probably amusing, spleen-venting rant of a review...
But I persevered. For several reasons. Partly because I love racing and car sim games above any other genre, and usually don't have this initial problem with them, and partly because I had read such positive reviews elsewhere.
This game comes into its own when you finally reach the point of starting your own racing team (when you've earned enough dosh by racing for other teams). I am always a fan in these games of starting at the bottom and slowly working up to the more powerful machines, and this game offers that once you get past the initial stages. This is an interesting idea, making it more of a "career" for you as a driver, but it is akin to throwing a novice swimmer in the deep end and telling him to retrieve a brick that's in the shallow end.
When you do finally get your brick though, the game becomes a joy to play. Its slicker-than-slick presentation and flashy style can be slightly irksome, but it doesn't interfere, and when I did finally work my way back up to the more powerful cars, I found that all the practice with earlier models had got me used to this game's "soapy" handling, and I had no further troubles.
The revolutionary trick this brings to the table is the ability to rewind time. Codemasters have implemented it by basically taking the replay system, which is otherwise the same as 90% of other current racing games, and giving you the ability to restart racing from any point in the replay (which generally extends back about 20 seconds before the opint it's triggered). This means that a tiny loss of concentration that sends you into a barrier of careering off a corner can be rewound and eliminated. You can do this 5 times per race on the default difficulty level, and it's a good feeling and an interesting addition. Be warned, however, that the races have been made damned unforgiving to compensate!
So anyway, I urge anyone who's picked this up then ignored it in a blind fury to give it some more time. Even once you're into it, this game still has the ability to annoy beyond reason from time to time, far more so than any other racer I've played recently, so consider yourself warned. But it also brings many good things to the table, and is a worthwhile addition to the colection of any race-head like me!
I hope my thoughts have been helpful.
Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures
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Just to get it out the way first; yes there's some issues at the moment with this game. It's an MMO, and a big one at that, and to be frank I expected it to be in a far worse state than this. Perhaps I've been lucky, but it's not crashed at all for me. In fact, personally I haven't had any difficulties at all so far on my way to level 30.
What problems I know of have been ones I've read about on the forums, and there are quite a few. However, Funcom are working flat out fixing things, with patches and corrections going on every day or so, and problems are being fixed fast.
I've also read some complaints about the "high system requirements", but if I may be brutally honest, that's just stupid. It's a brand new game with very impressive graphics, and enormous play areas. It looks stunning, and yet on my machine, which was high end more than a year ago (and hence upper mid-range now), I can still ramp all the graphics sliders up to maximum and it stays at a playable framerate. So to those of you moaning that World of Warcraft doesn't need such a powerful PC, I say OF COURSE IT DOESN'T; it's game engine is over three years old for goodness' sake! Progress means extra oomph requirements; live with it.
Anyway, bile vented (messy!), to the game. It keeps hold of many of the accepted systems of MMORPGs, so systems such as abilities, action keys, feats, and many of the shortcut keys will be familiar to WoW and EQ2 players (among others). This makes sense, as many players coming to the game can get on with appreciating what is new rather than needing to re-learn systems unnecessarily.
But it's the differences that make Age of Conan interesting. The combat system is far more direct than other MMOs, with three keys directly controlling left, right, and frontal attacks. Initially this seems excessively simple, with you simply choosing the angle of attack based on where the opponent's defenses are concentrated (in a visible aura surround thier character). However, advances in level bring combos, which take the form of triggerable abilities that ask you to press attack keys in an appropriate order to pull them off. Initially used as "special attacks" to complement you mundane assaults, these quickly become the only way to fight if you want to survive. This is an elegant system, as the complexity grows along with your character, allowing you to get familiar with the basic game mechanics before throwing you into the combative deep end.
The graphics are beautiful, wlthough I was disappointed with the skin textures on the main avatars, but that's a very minor quibble when the landscape you're running through looks so lovely.
The combat looks brutal, with great gouts off blood sluicing off your blade as you slice your foes open, and occasionally a particularly vicious "fatality" triggering, resulting in limbs and heads flying off in wonderfully gory detail.
Most importantly however, this game has a gritty, dirty, believable atmosphere which most fantasy games lack. It's dark, violent, centred almost entirely on human characters, and suffused with a grim humour that permeates every aspect of the game's presentation.
So in summary, the problems are all fixable and, seem mostly centred around the later game, so only the rushers are likely to hit most of them before they are fixed. For me, the more human feel of this game sets it apart from anything else out there at the moment. It's not a game to replace Warcraft or Everquest or City of Heroes. It's one to play in addition. I believe that's what the creators, who clearly adore the Conan lore, intended, and I think it was the right way to go.
Tristania - CD
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I need to make one thing clear at the outset here. This album plays host to two amazing songs. Namely track 5 ("Destination Departure") and track 10 ("Deadlands"). Both are stunningly beautiful, perfectly executed, wonderful examples of what can be achieved with a choir, an orchestra, a metal band, and a writer with the soul of a poet. This album is worth buying for these two tracks alone. However...
Tristania are a band which, for me, is still working up to its best material. I also own their albums Widow's Weeds (great title, brilliant ideas, average songs), Ashes (if you'll excuse the pun, this album leaves me cold), and World of Glass (deep, powerful, but with some average tunes).
Illumination is their best album to date. Tracks such as the opening Mercyside and Down are strong, suitably heavy performances which showcase the album's excellent production, and the aforementioned tracks 5 and 10 are simply fantastic. However, there are weak links. It's as if they spent so much time perfecting a selection of the tracks that the others didn't receive the attention they deserved.
Tristania are a very talented band, capable of some of the finest metal around, and I am confident that they will soon be producing top notch albums; they just need to spend a little more time on them, and increase the consistency of their excellent material.
Illumination (Limited Edition Digi Pack)
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Dark Passion Play
Nightwish - CD
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There's been much arguing on the internet over this album, and whether Nightwish made a good choice with their new vocalist, but to me it's somewhat pointless to compare this to early Nightwish material. The band has clearly taken this as an opportunity to change gear and (in my opinion) further refine the sound that they've been working on for the last decade.
Dark Passion Play is a collection of songs packed with Tuomas' trademark creativity and determination to be both different and exciting at the same time. Similar to all Nightwish albums, the quality of material varies significantly, but as with their last effort "Once" there's enough weight, enthusiasm and polished production to successfully cover any cracks.
The new singer has a less operatic but very pretty voice, and some of the songs have clearly been tuned to work with her sound, which I think is a better approach than trying to force her to fit the music. General album highlights are Sahara and Eva, but they pale next to the opening track.
The Poet and the Pendulum is a fantastic tune. It's very long, hugely powerful, and is a perfect showcase for how orchestral and metal music can be integrated to their mutual benefit. Opening an album with such a monster is a potentially risky step, but it's such a good track that I can't see this as a problem. (The only other album I can think of which starts with a massive tune is Meatloaf's "Bat out of Hell 2", and that's also an excellent album!)
The only problem with opening on this note is that the rest of the album feels almost watered down, and never quite regains the highs of its initial song.
So in summary, I would say that Nightwish are still improving, and changing their lead vocalist has not harmed their development. There's still some adjustment for them to do, but Dark Passion Play nevertheless takes it's place as one of their best efforts, and given all the upheaval, that's a grand achievement in itself.
Dark Passion Play (Limited Digipack)
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The Heart Of Everything
Within Temptation - CD
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I discovered Within Temptation, like many people, having loved the first Evanescence album and been hungry for more. (This became especially true as Evanescence took their band name a little too seriously and seem to be working on steadily disappearing!)
I first listened to The Silent Force, Within Temptation's last album, and loved every moment of it. Similarly to Evanescence, they occupy the more commercial end of the gothic metal scale, striving for a weighty yet catchy sound, and this is no bad thing. For those seeking to continue their journey into the genre, as I did, I recommend bands such as After Forever, Nightwish, Tristania, and the astonishing Epica.
But anyway, onto this, the new album. I seem to be virtually alone in not particularly liking the opening track (The Howling); to me is sounds a little awkward, like they had the ideas for a great song but couldn't get the musical elements to line up right. However, the disappointing opening is immediately blown away by the excellent What Have You Done, gorgeous Frozen, ridiculously catchy (and wonderfully cheesy-serious) Our Solemn Hour, and the excellent, complex title track.
As always, the ballads are stunning (for me, no metal band makes better ballads than Within Temptation) and the production is both smooth and effective throughout.
I do think it's a slight shame that the band has lost some of its more experimental edge (their debut album Enter played host to the tracks Candles and Enter, both groundbreaking, complicated, and excellent), but I can't complain as the popularity they have gained by going in a more commercially pleasing direction helped introduce me to a genre with which I am now obsessed!
For me, this isn't quite as good as The Silent Force, but it's a close call, and this is still another very strong album by a very strong band.
The Heart Of Everything - Special Edition (CD & DVD)
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My Winter Storm (Deluxe Edition With Bonus DVD)
Tarja (Nightwish) - CD
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It's clear that this album has stirred up some emotions in people (especially Nightwish fans!), but to me this just makes the somewhat rarefied gothic/operatic/orchestral metal genre more interesting.
For myself, I am very impressed with this album. If Tarja's solo sound is somewhat different to that of her old band Nightwish, that's surely an intentional move, and certainly a positive one to my mind.
But anyway, on to the music. The album has a heavily classical/orchestral leaning, lending it an overall feeling of being lighter but deeper than a lot of its bedfellows. It's far more like classical with metal elements than the metal-with-classical of most similar bands and artists, and this gives it a distinctive, somewhat refined character. Tarja's voice is, as always, powerful and graceful, leading the melody through both thick and thin accompaniments. She also displays a remarkable range here, reaching for more lows and highs than I have heard from her before, and injecting songs with vocal performance where appropriate (in a way which reminded me, strangely, very much of Kate Bush!).
There's a decent mix of songs, from the instant-like opening pair to tracks which grow steadily on you (always the best!), and the quality is consistently high throughout.
Production is remarkably clean; there's a definite attempt to steer away from too much electronic trickery and let the sound speak for itself, which works when the material has the strength that most of this album holds. The one significant exception to this is the cover version of Alice Cooper's Poison, which is hugely over-produced. Presumably this was an attempt to inject the song with an extra energy and verve, and help make it different to the original, but it spoils what might have been a very interesting cover of a classic song, and for me this is the weakest point of the album.
Additionally, on a couple of tracks, the mixing is not perfect, with guitar riffs coming in a little too suddenly, making it obvious that they were recorded seperately. This is hardly unusual, indeed being pretty much the normal process in modern music production, but it would have been nice to have it disguised a little more!
There's one more thing that merits mention, and that's the thematic nature of this album. The beautifully produced inlay booklet says it all; different characters, behind and subjects of the songs, presented in all their contrasting glory. The songs make a good stab at following this through, with some wonderful use of sound and music to produce feelings of cold, excitement, threat, and wonder. If there's a new album coming, I hope this side of things is developed more, as it makes for a far more interesting listen, and a far more complete package, than a straight collection of songs.
So in conclusion, this is a very impressive project. Tarja has resoundingly answered the question of whether she can go it alone (and indeed Nightwish have equally impressively proven that they can go on without her), and she has managed to carve herself an interesting niche outside of anyone else's shadow. There's room for improvement, certainly, but this is nevertheless an excellent candidate for expanding the collection of anyone who's into this style of music.
My Winter Storm (UK Edition)
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