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Hitman: Triple Pack
I've been a fan of the Hitman series since the days of Codename 47 (probably 10 years ago now) and this is amazing value for money! Forget the 50% discount - this would be a great deal at £20, but at £10 its almost unbelievable!
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is beginning to show its age a bit now, graphically at least, but thanks to interesting level design, solid enemy a.i. and some excellent physics, it still has plenty to offer. Contracts was not a favourite of mine, but it is a great game on the whole, and somewhat different in feel and design to Silent Assassin (this is pretty much why I didn't like it as much). You might prefer it?
Blood Money is great - the best of the 3 for my money. All the previous games in the series had control problems, awkward camera position and sometimes lacked freedom in the way the missions were completed. Blood Money has addressed these issues, and this is most noticable in the great range of alternative ways to complete a mission - stealth, followed by a quick kill perhaps. Or stage an accident and get away clean. Or even go in all guns blazing (if you're brave (stupid) enough).
All the Hitman games demand dedication to complete with a good rating - some levels are almost impossible to complete in stealth mode, but if you put the effort in you'll reap the rewards - better weapons and higher payment, and most importantly the immense satisfaction!
For a tenner you'd really be mad not to - if you enjoy even one of these games as much as I have, then you'll have had your moneys worth.
Juan Martin - CD
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Wow! This is as uplifting and exciting an album as I have heard for a very long time, speaking both as a lifelong music lover and as a guitarist!
Firstly on the music - Juan Martin has taken the intense passion, irresistable rhythms and unmistakable melodies of the flamenco repertoire, and placed his unique interpretation upon it. To my ear, this album captures the best of traditional flamenco spontaneously and infectiously, and yet offers a sound less alien to the contemporary listener.
As a guitarist, I find Juan Martin's powerful technique and tremendous knowledge of his instrument exhilarating. Any guitarist, indeed any musician will understand the feeling of listening to a master of the form in full flight - the moment when your mouth drops open, and then spreads into an involuntary grin as you wonder how on earth such phrasing and speed are possible. Don't get me wrong - I'm certainly not interested in technique for its' own sake, but where it goes hand in hand with musicianship of this calibre it simply blows me away.
Anyway, I can't recommend this CD highly enough - it features musicians in tremendous form, playing music they love and understand. Superb!
The Black Swan
Bert Jansch - CD
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I've been a fan of Bert Jansch for around 12 or 13 years now, after discovering him very suddenly when given a spare ticket and an invite to one of his live shows in the North of England - I'd heard the name but never the music, and it was a bit of revelation!
Jansch has a style all his own - his guitar work is broken and nevertheless full, full of dazzling runs, hammers and chiming stops (as a semi-professional Jazz guitarist I can assure you of his tremendous skill!). His harmonies and resolutions are unique, and his voice is better described as beautiful than pretty - the fact that he makes it work is testament to his great musical powers!
This album marks a step further into the country influences that have appeared more and more in his work over the years - there is some great slide guitar and some lovely "pickin'" here, and although it doesn't always quite work, this is a soulful and sad album that still leaves you with a great faith in life and love. The lyrics are not always profound, but they are genuine without fail, and always pure Jansch.
The collaboration with Beth Orton is a little disappointing at times - the vocal harmonies they produce together are great, and Beth's voice suits much of the material, but at times it all feels a little too amateur - "Watch the Stars" is a very weak track, and it feels like they only included it because they wanted to sing together, not because it's a worthy inclusion. On the other hand "When The Sun Comes Up" shows Orton at her best, and is one of the standout tracks.
This is one of the best albums from Bert in recent years in my opinion - stripped back to the musical basics that set him apart. The title track is superb, and "Bring Your Religion" is a personal favourite. As usual, the best tracks are those where Bert simply sings and plays his guitar, and the tracks with lots of other instrumentation seldom come close for real feeling - "Texas Cowboy Blues" is a perfect example, very well performed but over-complicated and lacking any atmosphere.
Overall this is a cracking album, and I would highly recommend it to Jansch fans. Those unfamiliar with his work would be better to start elsewhere I think.
I bought this game because it was produced by the makers of the excellent "Hitman 2 - Silent Assassin", in which the graphics and physics were great, and the gameplay varied and with superb replay value. "Freedom Fighters" provides all these things, although in a very different format of game. In the alternative history of the game, the Soviet Union won the race to create the Hydrogen bomb, and communism subsequently spread to Europe, much of the Middle East, Central America and finally Mexico. You play as Christopher Stone, a New York plumber who is thrown into the forefront of the underground resistance movement, after the Soviets invade the United States.
The game incorporates two new and brilliant features. The first is the use of a central command centre in the sewer system from which campaigns are coordinated. In practice this means that in order to achieve a goal or capture a building or vital piece of infrastructure, you may need to fight for and win back up to 3 separate areas of the city. From the sewers, you can decide which area is the most important strategically, and attack that first. Any decision you make will affect the battles you face in every area.
For example, imagine a theoretical mission: if you capture area 1 where helicoptor support is based, you can battle for areas 2 and 3 free of helicoptor attack, but the fight for the area 1 will be especially fierce because you have yet to cut the troop flow to the area by destroying a strategic bridge, which lies in area 2. Or perhaps by attacking area 3 first you can capture some better equipment which will help in the battles for the other areas, but you will have to do so under heavy helicoptor AND ground attack from areas 1 and 2. Its really difficult to decide where to go first, but the fighting in the streets of New York is excellent, and you will have great fun whatever you decide.
The other new feature is the recruit and command system, which allows you to recruit resistance fighters and command them in battle. The number of fighters available to you is determined by your charisma level, which rises as you complete missions and do other good deeds like giving your medpacks to wounded civilians. The control system for your squad is very simple and extremely effective, with only 3 basic commands, which can be issued to all fighters or any individual.
As for the basic qualities of the game, it scores well on almost every front. The enemy troops are intelligent and well-trained, and you need to think about your plan of attack carefully. The game sounds great - the epic, orchestral music, gunfire, shouted orders and screams of wounded soldiers all combine to immerse you very quickly into the environments, which are extremely detailed and visually pleasing. I found the controls very intuitive to use, and I liked the way game teaches the basic mechanics of play - the very first level sees you trying to escape as the invasion unfolds around you, and you learn the basics without even realising it - very clever. The biggest problem with this game is the length, I felt it was too short. However, it is very intense, and the multi area approach means that there is excellent replay potential. The story is probably a bit simple and unrealistic too, but never enough to bother you.
Overall this is an excellent and highly recommended game. Its great fun, strategically challenging and genuinely innovative.
Deus Ex 2: Invisible War
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Deus Ex was a genre defining, superbly designed and absorbing game that absolutely rocked my gaming world when I first played it. The story was far bigger and more open than in any previous first person shooter, the augmentation and skill systems were revolutionary, and the game world was crammed with interesting and useful characters, and huge amounts of information, making it one of the most replayable games ever (I personally played through it at least 6 times, and found new things every time). So Deus Ex: Invisible War was always going to struggle to match its predecessor.
First, the bad points - the AI is poor, and not up to the current high standard, although the AI in Deus Ex was generally woeful (one of it's weakest points), and Invisible War is certainly an improvement. The graphics are quite good, but again they do not hold up favourably against other current titles. The game world doesn't seem quite so rich - there are no newspapers lying around, or emails to hack from computers, and this is a sad loss from the original. The soundtrack isn't as memorable as that in Deus Ex either, and some of the voice acting is a little bland (although there are none of the truly terrible voices that occasionally appeared in the original - Hong Kong). Your character Alex D, isn't as charismatic as JC Denton, and ultimately you just don't care as much about him or her.
However, this is ultimately a very good game, and there are substantial improvements in some areas. The greatest strength of Deus Ex was it's freeform gameplay, and this is just as good, although different, in Invisible War - at times there are literally half a dozen ways to complete even a simple objective, and the only limits seem to be your imagination and the equipment you happen to be carrying- excellent. Some very fundamental changes are evident in the skills and augmentation systems too - biomod canisters can be installed in one of 5 slots, each of which corresponds to an area of the body, and can hold either an official or black market biomod. The abilities they give tend to influence your style of play far more than in Deus Ex, and this is a good thing in my opinion, although some may not agree.
The plot is a little loose at the beginning, but progresses smoothly, and with great realism. There is a real sense of freedom in your actions, and no matter what you do, the game has been designed to react accurately, and characters will often refer back to decisions you made several levels ago - this is impressive and creates a real sense of cause and effect. There are dozens of missions which are not crucial to the story, but carry rewards of equipment, money or information, and these seem a natural part of the game, rather than a tacked on extra.
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I should say first off that I really enjoyed this film - I didn't really know anything about it, but I know the director from his other work, and I'd heard some good things. It was a thoroughly entertaining watch!
On the good side, the creature, the 'Host', is superb, and it makes a great change to have it out in the open causing mayhem. It's movement and reactions are fantastic and more natural than Hollywood would ever allow, and it looks and feels like a real animal because of it. The first 'rampage' is thrilling, and gets things off to a fantastic start. The main characters, especially the father of the little girl taken by the creature, are brilliantly engaging, and I really cared about the outcome by the end.
There are some big problems with this film. The main one is a distinct lack of really chilling or frightening moments, although there are plenty of jaw-dropping and exciting ones instead! The fact that this film was made in Korea, and by a truly original director, are the main reasons for its appeal for me - the look and feel, the entire approach are different from what we expect, and it keeps your interest. However sometimes the differences distract from the story - the emotions of the characters at key moments sometimes seem very strange and jarred with my own.
Overall I would certainly recommend it - for those who enjoy Asian cinema, for horror fans who don't demand too many 'shocks' or for anyone who enjoys something a bit different from the norm. It's an original, enjoyable but somewhat flawed effort, and I'm not sure if I'll watch it again in the near future.
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood - CD
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First off let's say who these excellent players are. The Scofield in the artist list is the legendary John Scofield. John Scofield is a Jazz guitar virtuoso, and has covered as much ground, and inspired as many advancing players as any other guitarist in Jazz history! Medeski, Martin and Wood are a trio of 12 years, who play some of the dirtiest, funkiest jazz on the market - all three are real virtuosi on their respective instruments, and they demonstrate an infinite capacity to swing their asses off while also being able to lay down thick, hypnotic grooves.
The first collaboration between these 4 artists was "A Go Go" released in 1998 (an absolute classic). This album eclipses the brilliance of its predecesor and raises the bar to potentially unreachable levels. This is inventive and satisfying music, played by a superb group on top form, who are clearly having a really great time.
This is one of the finest, funkiest offerings I have ever heard - these are four of the finest musicians in Jazz today. If the word Jazz puts you off, please don't worry, because this album mixes virtuosity, out-there improvisation, catchy hooks, and amazing groove in even measure! Even if you aren't into Jazz, you will tap your foot, swing your hips and nod your head like a fool to this GUARANTEED! From the first track, based on a simple blues riff from the 1950s, you will know that this is some of the tastiest playing you have heard in a long time. Personal favorites include the irresistable "Little Walter Rides Again", (which also wins my best title award) and the superb "In Case The World Changes its Mind", which features some fantastic lines played by distorted bass and guitar in unison, and best use of creepy harmonica of any album this year.
As a good friend of mine said upon hearing this for the first time - "These guys were made for each other. The groove is so damn deep you can't climb out!" She's right - I couldn't put it better myself.
Deep Blue (1 Disc)
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This is a wonderfully enjoyable way to spend 80 minutes. A film with very limited narration, focusing instead on the drama and violence of life in the world's largest, most turbulent and least understood habitat. I am an enthusiastic viewer of natural history films, amd this is a very different and very rewarding change from the usual. There is one major problem with this piece, and that is the sound - it is inconsistent in volume, and occasionally distracting, but the score itself is well-written and beautifully performed, and I absolutely do not agree that it detracts from the film in any fundamental way. Other than the sound issue, this is a superb release.
The camerawork is exemplary - the visuals are vivid and beautiful, and with subject matter this captivating, this DVD contains some of the most stunning images ever captured of the ocean and it's animal and plant life. The editing of the film is superb too - the impression is that you are a silent, passive observer in a strange and dangerous world - the action unfolds without any hint of human interaction, and this creates a real sense of immersion. Some of the footage here is simply breath-taking, and I mean that literally - including a pack of sharks in a feeding frenzy on the ocean floor, and a seal being flung a hundred feet into the air by a killer whale - this is powerful, dramatic stuff.
There is almost no narration at all, and this makes a great change - there is a tremendous range of documentary material available, some of it brilliantly informative and educational, but this film speaks for itself, and more narration would simply lessen the experience. Previous reviewers stated that some of the footage from "The Blue Planet" has simply been recycled here without narration - that is true, and it is stunning footage, all the better without mandatory education over the top of it! "The Blue Planet" is a superb documentary - much more informative, and more complete in scope, but the aim of this DVD is clearly very different, and I believe that it is successful and worthwhile.
This is a powerful, moving journey through the oceans of the world - visually stunning, dramatic - it will leave a great impression on you, and if ever you needed an environmental wake-up call, then this is it. At this price, I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the natural world.
These Are The Vistas
The Bad Plus - CD
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If you like your music unexpected, restless and difficult then this is the stuff for you - the drums are all over the place, the pianist has a very "individual" harmonic palette, and the material is interpreted and arranged with no respect for convention - the results are absolutely superb, and this album inspires me as much today as it did on first hearing it abround 2 years ago - this album, and indeed all the albums by this trio of American thirty-somethings are in my regular listening list. Reid Anderson (Bass) is a real groovy player, who operates by feel, and creates a powerful undercurrent - and he has one of the best sounds in Jazz! On piano, Ethan Iverson is quite simply unlike any other pianist I have heard - I would call him the modern Thelonius Monk, although that's not quite right - suffice to say his unique style is immensely satisfying and well worth a listen. David King (Drums)is another unique player, with a light, restless touch that fills the record with rhythmic interest - he does not appeal to everyone, but he certainly appeals to me!
Right now as I write this I'm listening to track 4, the wonderful "Everywhere you turn" - a powerful, piano led groove, that manages to be incredibly chilled despite it's big sound and busy drums - SUPERB!
Many of you may have noticed that the band cover "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on this album, and some of you may be appalled at the prospect - Nirvana fans will be spinning wildly in their metaphorical graves, and Jazz aficionados will be wondering where serious jazz musicians will find the meat in a grunge anthem? Well, as a massive Nirvana fan (I started playing guitar the year before Nevermind was released) who now plays jazz in a bebop quintet, I can safely say that it should please a good few from both camps! Although the original holds a dear place in my heart, I can honestly say that this cover honors it and presents an alternative arrangement that I absolutely love. Other covers attempted by the band on this and other albums include "Iron Man", "Heart of Glass", a couple of Aphex Twin numbers, "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and numbers by The Bee Gees and Queen.
Overall, this is one for the acoustically adventurous, and one that will keep you entertained and intrigued for months if you make it past the first play! I can't imagine a world without a band like the Bad Plus in it, and I reckon you should check them out! By the way, if you get the chance to see them live, DO IT!! They love what they do, and put on an amazing show.