Tuesday, 29 June 2010
So after all the hype, all the hope, and all the insane pressure from the fans and media, the England football team have once again failed to deliver. More than that, they crashed out in a spectacularly depressing fashion, suffering their biggest ever defeat in the World Cup Finals 4-1 at the hands of their arch rivals, Germany.
Needless to say, I feel as though I should say a word or two. At times like these it's so difficult to maintain an objective standpoint and distinguish between the hyperbole of the lazy media narratives, the knee-jerk masochism of disappointed English football fans (and as a Chelsea fan I have more experience with this than anyone), and that most elusive of things, reality. Big problems face English football, and maybe we're looking in the wrong places for answers.
As many of you know, I have been voicing my concerns for a number of months now on England's world cup preparations, so it comes as absolutely no shock to me to see us fail so miserably at this year's tournament. As I pointed out, the warning signs were there, we just chose to ignore them.
Now that reality has finally set in amongst England's passionate and hopeful fans, there remains confusion. it seems that no one is quite sure who to blame, with accusations being sprayed every which way. The typical gut reaction from fans is to blame the manager, and indeed there is much to criticise of the job that Fabio Capello has done with the England team.
Capello came to England with promises that he would never pick out of form players, never pick players who weren't playing regularly at club level, and the astute observation that the England players were suffering some sort of psychological mental block that was preventing them from playing to their potential in big games, and he promised to get to the bottom of this. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he lost sight of these words, went on to pick out of form players, and people like Heskey who simply don't play at club level.
But it's his failure to fulfil that last guarantee that carries the biggest consequence. England players, more so perhaps than players from any other country, face absurd pressure from the media and from fans. It doesn't take a BSc in psychology to deduce that this pressure is related to the apparent mental block these players have, and so arguably the most important thing that an England manager needs to do is ease the pressure. But Capello, inexplicably, did the exact opposite.
Capello's entire management style seems to be based around keeping his players on their toes, from his icy demeanour around the players to his refusal to reveal lineups until the day of the match to his unceremonious dumping of Robert Green from the lineup. Capello wants to keep his players in doubt over their position in the team and constantly fighting for his approval, a tactic which may work well at club level, but is completely counter-productive in this high pressure situation. England's players, from Rooney to David James, to John Terry, have all hinted at the apparent discord between the players and the manager's style, as smiles were conspicuously absent on and off the pitch. This was clearly not a happy England camp.
Of course then there is the John Terry incident, which I have already discussed at length. In retrospect, this decision appears to be the turning point in Capello's England career. England played brilliantly during qualifying and in friendlies with John Terry as captain, but as soon as he was sacked the team fell apart, and we were absolutely dire in every single friendly after that, as well as in the tournament itself. Either this is an unbelievably unlikely coincidence, or it was a disastrous decision.
Let me make clear, this collapse has little or nothing to do with the relative abilities of Terry, Rio and Gerrard as captain. Indeed it's also implausible to suggest that the former captain's unethical actions alone caused this loss of spirit, the alleged affair took place in early 2009 and England continued to perform brilliantly for over a year after this. No, the instability in the camp only seems to have arisen in the past few months once Capello decided to allow the British media to dictate his team selection policy, and who could blame them? Time and time again we've seen England managers cave in to intense pressure from the media in terms of their management of the team, it's why Scolari refused the job after all, and when Capello stuck his neck out to strip John Terry of his captaincy, against unanimously strong objections from within the England camp, the players could only have felt a sickening sensation of deja vu.
Certainly, one can make the case that this is a problem with hiring foreign managers. After all surely an English manager would know the gutter press well enough not to let them influence the team. I know Sir Alex Ferguson is not English, but with his experience and deft handling of the media can you imagine him taking a similar action with his team? Of course not, it's a real morale killer to suggest that an England manager not only dignifies trashy tabloid fodder with his attention, but is willing to let it govern his decisions. Ferguson would have gone and done something completely outrageous and inflammatory in the media in order to direct attention away from his players, which is exactly what you want. On the contrary, Capello took unnecessary steps to shine the spotlight intensely on John Terry and make an example of him, basically setting the precedent that the British press has the power to bring down any England player's career; suddenly their lack of focus at the World Cup doesn't seem all that hard to understand, does it?
A lot of ire has been aimed at the players as well. Fans have lambasted the likes of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard as overpaid, overprivileged millionaires with more interest in maintaining their lucrative club contracts and sponsorship deals than representing England, for which they get no wages.
It's true, they have been awful; slow in both movement and mind, lacking in ideas and creativity, and many of them really beginning to show their age. Only Ashley Cole and James Milner leave this year's World Cup with any kind of credit to their names, although Lampard does get high marks for his efforts against Germany, including a wonder goal that was absurdly disallowed (he had a dire tournament other than that game however). People have begun to say that perhaps these English players are simply not as good as we think they are; lacking the technique to match more creative sides like Germany or Netherlands.
Well I certainly agree that English players, by and large, are massively overhyped, but otherwise I simply don't buy this excuse. For starters, England played very well indeed during qualification, I didn't imagine that. Secondly, as is often touted by apologists, these England players are fantastic for their clubs. But more important than any defence I can come up with for these England players is the blunt statement of fact that far worse players somehow do manage to play well at international level. Greece won Euro 2004 with a performance built entirely on staunch defending and direct movement, Italy won the World Cup in 2006 with a similarly uninspiring style of play.
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that more often than not, the teams which play uninspiring, defensive football win. Just look at every team José Mourinho has managed. And how many times have you seen completely average players have fantastic tournaments? Kevin Prince Boateng has been one of the players of the tournament so far this year, even though he spends the rest of his time languishing in mediocrity for Portsmouth. So I'm sorry, but this theory holds no water with me.
The FA and the Premier League
The manager and players are not the only ones to blame for this fiasco. One thing you're going to see a lot of in the near future is blame for the FA and the entire grassroots system for player development in England.
In this regard I could not agree more. There are fundamental differences between how footballers are developed in this country as opposed to somewhere like Brazil or Netherlands. Training methods in this country are still very much outdated, focusing strongly on stamina and endurance training. Meanwhile in the Netherlands, children (starting at a much younger age) are simply given a football and told to express themselves, and their training programmes encourage this type of behaviour. The difference is plain for all to see, with a Holland team full of exquisitely gifted and creative footballers, vs an England team with the likes of Matthew Upson and Gareth Barry.
Not only are the methods archaic, but the infrastructure simply isn't there. The National Football centre in Burton has been languishing in limbo for over a decade and doesn't appear any closer to completion. It's a real problem, and who is going to invest in the necessary facilities?
The FA has serious financial difficulties right now, an after effect of years of wreckless and arrogant spending, not to mention the landmark £800 million cost of the new Wembley. Then there are the idiotic wages England managers are paid (Capello is paid £6 million per year, more than twice what any other international manager is paid, and the FA will have to pay £10 million in order to terminate his contract). Worse still, the FA's sponsorship and licensing contracts all run out this year, and will have been hoping for a strong World Cup performance to drive up the price. Add to that the recent turmoil of three high profile sackings in three months and it's clear that the FA is in no position to do anything to help English football, but it gets even worse.
In 1992, the FA allowed the most powerful clubs to run the top flight division in England, the Premier League. These clubs, understandably, have been running the league with their best interests in mind and in doing so have turned it into the biggest league in the world, and a highly lucrative asset. Job well done then, but the problem is that the interests of the domestic league are often at odds with the interests of the national team.
Money makes the world go round, and the Premier League hasn't become the most lucrative in the world by giving pity cash towards English player training, they've done it by attracting the biggest names in football from all over the world, and in the process stifling homegrown development.
This is a uniquely English situation, this dysfunctional antagonism between domestic football and the national team. The German, Dutch and Spanish Leagues, for example, work closely with their respective FA equivalents. Unfortunately it's hard to see anything changing here with so much money at stake.
The Fans and the Media
We are not without blame ourselves, each and every one of us. Wayne Rooney may have been out of line when he criticised fans for booing after that abject display against Algeria, but it comes from a real place. Far too many England fans have not given England the backing they deserve.
The media constantly try to undermine the team, knowing that it will sell papers. The fake sheikh in 2006 and John Terry in 2010 are both disgraceful examples of how dangerous an unscrupulous press can be.
Meanwhile the fans all too often refuse to leave petty club rivalries at home. The John Terry incident which could well have scuppered England's chances ahead of this world cup unfolded with glee among partisans who arbitrarily hate him and had been waiting for an excuse to get at him. People still boo Ashley Cole, one of the few players to actually perform at this year's tournament. And it's not all one way. I'm ashamed to say that there are many Chelsea fans I know who were thrilled with Rio Ferdinand's injury from the team after he stole the captaincy from Terry, and are licking their lips in anticipation for when Steven Gerrard's latest super injunction runs out.
It's completely and utterly pathetic. Football is a game, and club rivalry used to add a good natured spice to it, but if you really feel so consumed by such a pointless and petty hatred, so threatened by the notion of having your partisan mindset challenged that you have to carry it over to the national game, then there is something very wrong with you.
At the same time, one has to be careful about these knee-jerk reactions in the heat of the moment. Yes England have been poor lately, yes Germany were much better than them, but at the same time they should have gone into half time of that game level, and can raise very reasonable questions over the influence that bad officiating has had on their fortunes. 2-0 down and looking completely lost, England staged a miraculous comeback, one of the all time greats, 2 goals in 5 minutes. It was the sort of moment that makes you proud to be English. But one historically bad call by the officials took that away from them. And they've gone from potential heroes to villains at very little fault of their own.
It doesn't take Diego Maradona to tell you that had the referees not made that inexplicable error, the game would have played out completely differently. England would have had the momentum and the confidence, while Germany would have been shaken.
Of course it's impossible to say what would have happened after that, with how well Germany played it's likely they would have won anyway. But one thing that we can say is that Germany would not have caught us on the counter attack for their two second half goals, after all they would not have been able to launch any such counter attack had we not undeservedly been forced into pushing for the equaliser.
England were certainly hard done by in that match, by all rights they should have been going into that second half in a very different position, with a very different mindset, but don't let that paper over the cracks of how shambolic this England team's preparation has been.
Bad Officials and FIFA Incompetence
There has been a real issue this World Cup with the quality of the officials. From the American goal vs Slovenia, to the England goal that never was, to the Argentina offside against Mexico, to the pathetic red cards against Brazil and Chile... the quality of officials at this tournament has been generally awful. I think FIFA ought to be ashamed of themselves for allowing such lax preparation on such a prominent stage.
Increasingly people call for the use of goal line technology, a completely unobtrusive and common sense move to make, and even instant replays, and yet FIFA continues to trot out tired and nonsensical excuses. "It will slow down the game too much" and "It's too unreliable" have made way for the laughable "Error is a part of the game".
That's right, FIFA is convinced that delegitimising the sport by undermining its own rules and leaving big gaps open for incompetence and corruption is crucial to the enjoyability of football. Or more accurately, Sepp Blatter thinks so.
You know Sepp Blatter right? That's the guy with 30 pages worth of corruption charges, the guy who tragically mishandled a player's death during a match and then used it for his own political gain, the guy who banned impoverished high altitude nations from playing at their home stadiums based on "health risks" without a single medical study to back him up.
Blatter is a corrupt, petty, racist, sexist relic from an age when "elected" officials were not held accountable for their words and actions. And many English football fans will remember his role in trying to ban English clubs from European football, as well as his long history of slander towards English football, its leagues and its clubs.
So do we add incompetence to the charges based on his mixed up ramblings with regards to the implementation of new technology? No, it's worse than that. As with most things in football, the real issue is money.
The simple fact of the matter is controversy sells. It's one of the central pillars of the media. Controversy leads to increased exposure, and greater advertising revenue. This is why News of the World loves its scandals, this is why Fox News loves to keep its audience angry and scared. I can tell you from my first hand experience with iFooty that advertising revenue skyrockets when something like this happens.
The reality is that if the referee yesterday had used an instant replay and awarded England the goal, people would not be obsessing and talking about it for days on end like they are now. This one error has at least doubled their revenue over the next few days. This has the added bonus of driving up the prices they can charge the television networks and video game companies for their licensing fees next year, human error makes those contracts more lucrative.
And then there is gambling, an entire industry built around the unpredictability of football. Do you really expect FIFA to take human error, one of the biggest causes of this unpredictability, out of the game? Less money for the gambling industry is less money for FIFA through advertising.
The long and short of it is that through these mechanisms, as well as doubtless many other interconnected ways in which television networks and digital data providers accrue wealth, a controversial incident is an extremely lucrative thing indeed. When you ask FIFA to remove this element from the sport, you're basically asking them to throw away easy money. It should come as no surprise to anyone that with someone like Blatter in charge, the integrity of the game takes a back seat in priority to its income potential.
So what does the future hold for English football? It's hard to say. The FA is in poor shape, and unless something drastically changes in the relationship between the Premier League and the national team, it's hard to see where any impetus or investment is going to come from in order to bring English football into the 21st century.
As long as this is the case, it's always going to be an uphill struggle for England, but by no means impossible to overcome despite what all the boo boys will be saying in the wake of this nightmare tournament.
Less than a year ago we were all singing praises of this England team and how Capello had turned them around. Remember that night in Croatia where we thrashed a strong side 4-1? This was a team full of spirited players playing for each other, with a brilliant manager at the helm guiding them. This was the same team we just saw flunk out of the World Cup finals, honest, the same players and the same manager.
So you can dismiss this English team as being full of bad players, with a bad manager if you like, but our recent performances simply disprove this. So what happened this summer that it all went so badly wrong again?
I think Capello really hit the nail on the head when he first took this job, saying that the England team was clearly suffering from some kind of mental block that was preventing them from performing under the intense pressure. Unfortunately somewhere along the way he completely forgot about this, and everything he has done in the past 6 months, from the Terry scandal, to Rob Green, to team selection and his poor relationship with the players, has only added to this problem.
Look at how England played during qualification. They can play together and play very well. You don't even need an expensive world renowned manager. You just need someone who can simultaneously hold the respect of the players and still relate to them, someone who understands the mood of the camp, which Capello clearly doesn't. Ultimately you need someone who has the balls to simply ignore the latest machinations of the media and play the team and tactics that will get the best out of these players.
The likes of John Terry and Steven Gerrard need to be taken out from under the magnifying glass and reminded that at the end of the day they only have to answer to themselves. Real distance needs to be placed between the world of football, and the world of football coverage in the media. One is business, the other is a melodramatic soap opera, and the two are dangerously confused in this country. Players need to be reassured that their careers aren't one small stumble away from disaster when they pull on an England shirt, and most importantly they need to remember how to actually enjoy their football.
In order for this to happen we need a manager, an English manager, who understands the motivations and deviousness of the gutter press in this country and knows how to ignore them. We need a manager who knows what's in the mind of these players and how to keep them focused and happy, someone familiar with the England camp. Gentlemen, we need to take a risk.
Throwing another multi-million pound contract at some wily, "been there done that" manager is not going to fix a damn thing. Mark my words, if we hire Hodgson or Redknapp, good managers though they may be, we will be right back here in four years time, with the lucky man being sent to the unemployment line with a big fat cheque in his hands.
Look at the success of Argentina with Maradona, Germany with Klinsmann, Holland with Van Basten, Brazil with Dunga. At club level look at the success of Rijkaard and Guardiola at Barcelona. Experience really isn't everything. If the FA are wise they will go a similar route and appoint someone young, someone fresh, an ex player with a strong connection to this England camp.
There has been buzz in the papers recently about the likes of Beckham, but frankly I think we're missing the obvious choice. What about Alan Shearer? Unlike Beckham, this is a man with actual coaching (and even brief managerial) experience, but still recent enough to know what makes the team tick.
Still think I'm crazy? Look at the teams that are setting the world alight at this very tournament, how many of them have experienced managers? How many of their managers are sitting their first ever managerial post? A lot of them, as it turns out. I submit that it's far more important to have a man who understands the players, the set up, the context and the country at the helm than one who has experience in very different jobs.
In terms of the players, I dare say this is the end of the line for most of them. I think it's high time we started focusing on youth. The likes of Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and James Milner will stick around, hopefully Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon will finally find some consistency and fitness, but otherwise I'm not sure that any of these players should be in the team for World Cup 2014. It's time to focus more on the next generation.
In goal we will have the likes of Joe Hart, an amazing prospect. From the games I've seen him play these past two years, and the friendly appearances for England, I can honestly say I haven't felt this safe with anyone between the sticks since David Seaman. Finally I think we have an heir to the Seaman throne.
Certainly Jack Rodwell will be a part of this team, at the age of 20 I'd already welcome him with open arms to the Chelsea squad, a real talent that lad.
The likes of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young will hopefully have taken their game to the next level by then. But beyond that it's hard to see who the next wave will be. Perhaps in four years time we'll be talking about Shawcross, Cattermole, Huddlestone, maybe even Daniel Sturridge, possibly the most talented young English striker I've seen since Wayne Rooney. How about Jack Wilshere?
But ultimately, I fear that the greatest threat England will have to beat comes from within. As long as we have a fanbase divided between supporting the country and relishing the failures of club rival players, we will not succeed. As long as we have a shameless and unscrupulous media looking for any opportunity to score cheap points off anyone who dares take the limelight, particularly one that can actually influence the England manager, we will not succeed.
This England team has a great many issues to deal with; from an ageing and mentally fragile team, to a manager who simply has no idea how to get these players into the right mindset, to a fan base with divided loyalties, a far too powerful media, to an outdated and archaic player development programme and a messy, antagonistic relationship between what remains of the FA and the indifferent Premier League.
If we can fix all that, then we might just have a shot.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
Good news, everyone! Futurama is finally making a comeback to television. And this is not a faux comeback like the dvd movies released in recent years, but a proper 26 episode season comeback, this time on Comedy Central. After 7 long years, Futurama is back!
On Thursday night, two brand new episodes will premiere. Fans will be hoping the show is back to its best after the recent films were met with a mixed reaction. Personally I loved the first one, but the three after that seemed terribly lacklustre; a few laughs here or there, one or two classic moments (The "Scary Door" segment in Bender's Game made me laugh harder than I've laughed in a long long time), but overall lacking the quality of the earlier episodes. Some have suggested that what the show simply works best in the classic half hour episode format.
Well having seen the first two episodes now, I think I would have to say that the jury is still out.
The first of the two episodes, Rebirth, picks up right where the last movie left off, literally. And in many ways it feels like a continuation of the same style that we've seen in the films. The episode deals with questions of sentience and identity, and the issues of replacing a lost loved one, in this case as a robot (basically the exact plot of AI).
Sure, there are some funny moments, a few good gags (especially Studio 1^2*2^1*3^3, the Professor's 'traditional medicine', and every moment featuring Zapp Brannigan), but the jokes often feel laboured, and it's just not as subtle or as intelligent as the classic episodes. The running joke in this episode of Bender having to party non stop or else he dies became tedious quickly, and it wasn't funny to begin with either.
When it was at the height of its powers, Futurama could also produce some good dramatic storytelling (I don't want to meet the man who didn't come close to shedding a tear at the Jurassic Bark episode), and in this regard the movies (with the exception of the first one) felt, and the new episodes still feel, somewhat lacking. The twists in this episode just felt forced, particularly the exposition in the final segment which didn't allow the episode to maintain any sort of effective flow.
It's not bad, let's face it there is no such thing as a bad Futurama episode, but from this episode the show is certainly not back to its best.
The second episode, In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela, starts off much better, probably due to the increased prominence of Zapp Brannigan. This felt more like old school Futurama, with the jokes coming more frequently, and with much greater success. The cheesy 1950s sci-fi styled sequences which bookend each act are good, and the writers take a particularly glorious snipe at the silliness of CSI. Better.
In this episode some kind of death-sphere is on the way to probably destroy Earth. Zapp and Leela go on a mission to defeat it and wind up marooned in a mysterious wilderness. Zapp goes about his business trying to get Leela to sleep with him, and Leela, who is now dating Fry, has to resist temptation. Here the episode starts to fade; Leela is unconvincingly portrayed as a complete idiot, making her far less likeable as a main character, and the funny jokes and references are dialled down, instead making way for some pretty generic gags about tv censorship. The final act in particular is weak and ends the episode badly.
All that being said, this episode is definitely an improvement, and the first half suggests that the writers still have a sense of humour, which bodes well for the future of the series. The jury is still very much out on the success of this comeback, but I've seen enough to be optimistic that the show will be back to its best given the time to get back into the swing of things.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Genre Indie pop/rock
Label Lookout Mountain
Producer Duncan Lewis
Release Date June 22nd
Southampton based indie band Delays have always been something of an enigma, ever since their highly promising, highly hyped debut album Faded Seaside Glamour. They have seen exceptional critical acclaim, without ever really achieving major commercial success. Anyone who knows the band and has listened to their music will probably agree that this is a band that should be bigger than it is.
Over the course of their three studio albums, the band has produced some great songs, Long Time Coming, You and Me, Love Made Visible, Hideaway, and more, but the rest has tended to be something of a mixed bag. This fifth album continues in a similar vein.
Airy, ethereal soundscapes are the order of the day, reminiscent of Cocteau Twins or Kyte, but it's the falsetto of front man Greg Gilbert that really distinguishes Delays from other bands. The undoubted highlight of this album, Unsung features Gilbert at his finest. And a good pop song it is, with a driving, feel-good melody, but the slightly bland chorus lets down an otherwise excellent song.
Other particularly catchy tracks include Lost Estate, Lakes Can be Lethal and May 45, each of which is a potential single, though none really match up to the best the band has to offer.
Meanwhile in other songs things slow down more than we're used to from this band, with the creepy Find a Home and the desolate Hold Fire. Delays should be commended for mixing things up a bit, but this is certainly not the best sound for the band, and feels somewhat phoned in.
Ultimately this is a decent enough album, but once again something of a mixed bag. We have one very good song, a couple of good songs, and then the rest, while by no means bad, feels like filler, relying too heavily on repetitive lyrics/melodies and generic choruses. The album is no classic, then, but when the band still has such a knack for producing fine pop songs, I'm prepared to take a few lesser tracks along with them.
May 45 (no link yet)
Lakes Can be Lethal (no link yet)
Saturday, 19 June 2010
song of the week: "Dreams (cover)" by "Passion Pit (originally by the Cranberries)"
thing that makes me smile today: The World Cup.
pic of the day
Monday, 14 June 2010
Genre Indie pop/rock
Producer Tom McFall
Release Date June 22nd
Without a shadow of a doubt, Stars (aka the best thing ever to come out of Canada) are one of the most underrated bands in the world. Though they have been releasing albums since 2000, not nearly enough people are aware of their work.
This is truly a shame, because over the years and five studio albums they have produced some fantastic music, ranging from slow ballads to acoustic numbers and hard rocking tunes, showing the kind of consistency and multi instrumental musical talent that is extremely rare. This quality is perhaps best typified by the sublime "Your Ex-Lover is Dead, though trying to find a single song to represent a catalogue of such varied styles is a largely futile pursuit.
This month they will release their eagerly awaited album Five Ghosts, and it comes highly anticipated by music fans in the know.
While Stars have recorded a number of fantastic songs over the years, most of their albums have generally been a bit hit and miss, with a handful of amazing tracks and then an equal number of forgettable ones. Five Ghosts is certainly more consistent than their other albums, which is partly due to the album being cut down to just 11 tracks, and more than any other album they've released feels like a cohesive whole, rather than just a collection of songs.
The sound has evolved somewhat as well, and listeners will find this album to be much heavier on the synth than they are used to from Stars. But fortunately the essence of Stars remains intact, the finely orchestrated melodies, the rhapsodic choruses and intricate lyrical jousting between Torquil and Amy.
The themes here will be familiar to any fan of the band. It's introversive stuff, with lyrics about awkwardness, sexual tension, self-doubt and frustration. But more than that it's about longing, and the driven pursuit of self-understanding. Lyrics that can occasionally border on the depressing and transformed into upbeat pop gems by this passion and energy that can be related to by romantics everywhere.
The album opens with a suitably surreal number in Dead Hearts, a melancholic duet ushered in by urgent guitar strings and dreamy progressions which builds to a climactic finish. Perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the album.
This is followed by one of the best songs on the album, Wasted Daylight, a mid-tempo number with soothing vocals and a lightly electronic flourish in the chorus, reminiscent of the Cranberries or some of Imogen Heap's better songs. A good summer song, talking about lazy days in bed perennial ennui. Very tight and polished.
The slightly creepy I Died so I Could Haunt you is another good song with tempo and drive along the same lines of Take Me to the Riot from their last album. The thunderous finale to this song epitomises what Stars are all about.
The next song, which is also the first single, Fixed, is the closest thing to Ageless Beauty on the album, a dynamic and properly rocking tune with some of Amy Millan's finest vocal work to date.
It speaks to the quality of the album that I find the second single, We Don't Want Your Body to be one of the weaker songs on the album. Quite different from most of their music, this one is undeniably catchy, but for my money a bit monotonous and sounds somehow cheap.
Here the album takes a bit of a dip, with the forgettable and self-indulgent He Dreams He's Awake, though Changes makes a nice change of pace offering a likeable, silky Dusty Springfield-esque ballad.
The Passenger is a heavily electronic song by their standards, and I imagine will be something of a love it or hate it element. As with even the poorer songs on this album it is undeniably catchy.
This is followed by The Last Song Ever Written, a song with uncharacteristically terrible lyrics from Stars, but still extremely listenable, particularly once the song reaches the half way point where things really spring to life. With respect to Torq, as soon as Amy starts singing the song ratchets up a level, something that's probably true with a lot of Stars songs.
After a few sleepy numbers, How Much More takes a surprisingly upbeat turn. This is Stars at their most uplifting and intense and would have made a fitting closing track, finishing the album with a bang. But instead Stars opt to leave us on a more somber note with the brooding Winter Bones, effectively bringing the album full circle.
This is not the best music Stars have ever produced; more so than with their other albums, this one might take a few listens to grow on you. There are a lot of good songs here, but perhaps not one that really shines as brightly as others on previous albums.
That being said, the overall quality of the album is definitely higher and more consistently good, and the top tracks on this album are really pretty excellent. And as with all other Stars albums, creativity is abundant and the mixing and production is absolute top notch. The album is definitely the better for bringing back producer Tom McFall, not seen since Set Yourself on Fire.
In the end, this is another fine addition to the Stars library, and certainly one of the best albums from this year so far. Stars have written better songs than these, but don't let that take away from some really fantastic music.
How Much More
I Died So I Could Haunt You
Saturday, 12 June 2010
song of the week: "Go Do" by "Jónsi"
thing that makes me smile today: Robot Unicorn Attack, a strangely addictive game that looks like something an 8 year old threw up after eating too much candy and glitter glue, and the Erasure song just puts it over the top.
pic of the day
World Cup 2010
36 hour days
24 hour days
Thursday, 10 June 2010
Women of the world say goodbye to your husbands/boyfriends/sons for the next month, it's time for the biggest sporting event in the world, the World Cup. This year's tournament sees its contestants travel to South Africa, the first time the tournament has ever been hosted on the continent.
South Africa has come a long way as a nation in the past decades, and now with the opportunity to shine on tv cameras broadcasting all around the world they are pulling out all the stops. The parties have begun, the vuvuzelas are being prepped, but through all the festivities this month is about 32 teams and 700 players including some of the world's biggest stars.
Each team has it's own unique story to tell, so here is our team by team guide to the World Cup 2010.
Manager: Carlos Alberto Parreira
Key player: Steven Pienaar
World ranking: 86
Automatic qualification to the World Cup for the hosts might seem sweet at the time, but in reality it means a lack of competitive football where other teams have had a gruelling qualification campaign with which to prepare.
In addition, the team failed to even qualify for the African Cup of Nations this year, and have endured a multitude of off the pitch personal troubles with manager Parreira. Frankly there is a real probability of the hosts being embarrassed here, particularly in such a difficult group. The hosts are on a mission to show the best side of South Africa, and in doing so cause an upset as they did back in the 1995 Rugby World cup, and they'll need to in order to get any further than group stage.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Javier Aguirre
Key player: Rafael Marquez
World ranking: 15
Mexico are a team that everyone seems to underestimate. They may never have won the competition, but more often than not they give a good account of themselves, including the last world cup where they took a very impressive Argentina side into extra time at the last 16.
At the back they have the quality and experience of Marquez, and the steady goalkeeping hands of Ochoa, whereas up front they have the skill of new West Ham favourite Guillermo Franco, Carlos Vela, and Giovani dos Santos. They certainly have the quality to proceed to the next round, but will face a strong challenge from a revitalised Uruguay team.
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Oscar Tabarez
Key player: Diego Forlan
World ranking: 19
Once upon a time Uruguay were one of the major powers in world football, winning the World Cup on no less than two occasions. Now they are synonymous with inconsistency and known for a physical, some might say dirty, game.
In terms of players, focus will certainly be on star player and Europa League winner Diego Forlan, who will be looking to replicate his stellar club form for his country.
Can Uruguay return their football to the glory days not seen since the 50s?
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Raymond Domenech
Key player: Franck Ribery
World ranking: 7
You're never too sure what you're going to get from France, and I doubt I'm the only one who's surprised that Domenech is still in charge. Raymond Domenech has never been the most popular manager following a tradition of contentious decisions during his tenure, and indeed following their Euro 2000 win they had begun to develop something of a reputation for under performing until their somewhat surprising trip to the final in World Cup 2006 (courtesy of a contentious semi-final decision).
This year they came second in their qualification group below Serbia, and only qualified through the playoffs (courtesy of another contentious call), and few pundits are giving them much of a chance. However it is worth noting that they had been on a similarly terrible run of form in the build up to the 2006 World Cup as well, and look how that turned out. For a lot of these players the best may be behind them, but you still have to respect a squad with the likes of Ribery, Anelka, Malouda, Evra, Diarra and Gourcuff. Should still qualify for the next round though.
Domenech proved all his critics wrong in the last World Cup, can he rise above it all and do it once again?
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Diego Maradona
Key player: Lionel Messi
World ranking: 8
Probably the most interesting team to watch at the World Cup this year. On paper Argentina have some of the best players in the world and one of the best teams in the world. They would probably be my favourite for the tournament if not for their manager, and the awful qualification campaign he has led them through. In Maradona, Argentina have made the worst possible choice for a manager, someone with no experience or expertise, no humility or ability to admit mistakes, and worst of all so deified in his homeland that no matter how bad he fucks up he can never be fired.
Argentina just barely qualified for this world cup by the skin of their teeth, and judging by the questionable squad selection (no room for treble winning Zanetti or Cambiasso, a first team spot for Veron- yes THAT Veron) they probably shouldn't get their hopes up for much. Reports are coming from the team camp that the manager also has massive personal problems with several of his key players, notably Leo Messi. In short, there is so much drama and strife off the pitch that whatever happens this month it's going to be a spectacle.
Emotions are running high, as we saw with Maradona's tirade against all his critics when his team finally qualified for the World Cup, if he can pull this off it will certainly prove to be the biggest comeuppance the field of sports journalism has ever had, and will bestow upon Diego an even more God-like status among his compatriots.
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Shaibu Amodu
Key player: John Obi Mikel
World ranking: 22
The headlines recently have been more focused on age scandals (Kanu is HOW OLD??) than their dramatic qualification story, but with a squad boasting the likes of Obafemi Martins, Yakubu, Yobo and Mikel, regardless of how old any of them are, Nigeria are one of the strongest teams in African football.
They should have enough about them to get through this group, provided Greece don't pull a "Euro 2004".
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Huh Jung-Moo
Key player: Park Ji-Sung
World ranking: 52
They coasted through qualification with a superb defensive record and are a threat going forward thanks to the pace of Park Ji Sung.
However, they have predictably floundered on the world stage since the genius of Guus Hiddink took them to the semi finals on home soil back in 2002, and would do well to get beyond this group.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Otto Rehhagel
Key player: Sotirios Kyrgiakos
World ranking: 12
Somewhere parties are probably still ongoing in Greece following their miraculous Euro 2004 victory, but make no mistake, aside from that competition their record is appalling. Victory in 2004 was built around a solid organised defence to make up for a lack of attacking talent, and this is precisely the problem, it's hard to see where the goals are going to come from.
Don't expect another miracle, expect lots of low score lines.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Fabio Capello
Key player: Wayne Rooney
World ranking: 9
Spirits were high following one of the smoothest qualification campaigns in English football history, under the stewardship of one of the finest managers in the world. But recently the wheels have started to come loose, with off the pitch scandals (poorly handled by the man in charge) starting to affect their performances on the pitch.
But despite this, England still have a great squad. The injury to Rio Ferdinand is a blow, but with his recent form and a switch of captaincy to the more capable Gerrard, England may actually find themselves better off. Without a doubt any success England have will come through Wayne Rooney, currently one of the best players in the world, but with a core of Lampard, Gerrard, A. Cole and Terry, this is a team that can compete with anyone on their day.
Can this team of perennial underachievers unite and rise above the ruckus of the gutter press and partisan club rivalries to prove the doubters wrong? Believe.
Verdict: Semi Finals
Manager: Bob Bradley
Key player: Landon Donovan
World ranking: 14
The United States is a country going up in the world of football, following strong showings at the last world cup, and particularly last year's Confederations cup where they beat favourites Spain and nearly beat Brazil. They have also had a strong qualification campaign and will be looking to qualify from this group.
US have typically based their teams around organisation and hard work, lacking flair and creativity. However, with Landon Donovan hitting the form of his life, and the likes of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore providing attacking threats and the underrated Tim Howard in goal.
It seems inevitable that a country with the demographic and socioeconomic advantages America has will rise to the top of world football one day, as they have in pretty much every other sport. But will it be this year?
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Rabah Saadane
Key player: Karim Ziani
World ranking: 26
It has been a long time since Algeria have appeared on this stage, and understandably few people are tipping them to do much of anything. However anyone who has actually seen them play (as I have) will tell you not to underestimate the drive and technical ability this team possesses, and they could easily surprise a few people in the group stage if not approached with respect.
I don't expect them to progress from this group, but they should do enough to go home with their heads held high.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Matjaz Kek
Key player: Milivoje Novakovic
World ranking: 33
Slovenia are a side with a bit of buzz about them heading into this tournament, which is surprising to the casual observer. However, this is a side that brushed past Guus Hiddink's Russia side in the qualification playoffs, and that is enough to earn the interest of the football cognoscenti.
But it's worth remembering the off the pitch distractions that were facing Hiddink at the time, particularly with regards to his future employment after this summer. Indeed while Slovenia have a habit of causing upsets in the past, they don't have the quality to really worry anyone this year.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Joachim Loew
Key player: Miroslav Klose
World ranking: 6
Ever an important fixture at these World Cups, Germany will nonetheless be without captain Michael Ballack, a massive blow. Despite this they still have plenty of strength throughout their squad, including the likes of Klose, Podolski and Schweinsteiger. They also have a few youthful prospects in their ranks to keep an eye on, particularly Mesut Ozil, star player at the U21s tournament a few year back, and by most people's reckonings a true star of tomorrow.
They should win the group, but it will be tougher than most people expect, particularly with the injuries the squad has.
Verdict: Semi Finals
Manager: Pim Verbeek
Key player: Tim Cahill
World ranking: 21
Another team recently in the headlines based on the merits of one Guus Hiddink, with their unlucky defeat to eventual winners Italy at the last world cup. The man may be gone, but this is not a team to underestimate. With the likes of Schwarzer in goal, Lucas Neill in defence and a midfield duo of Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill, there are a number of familiar, and talented, faces to be found.
Group D is an exciting one as potentially any of the four teams could qualify, and I think of the "other three" the Aussies could be the team to clinch 2nd.
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Radomir Antic
Key player: Nemanja Vidic
World ranking: 20
Punching bags at the last world cup, particularly against Argentina, who scored one of the finest goals ever seen at the cup finals and ran out 6-0 winners. They have fortunately come a long way since then following a strong qualification campaign.
The squad contains the likes of Vidic, one of the world's top defenders, and Branislav Ivanovic, one of the top performers in the Premier League this season and voted into the official team of the season at right back. Meanwhile they have their own Peter Crouch up front in Nikola Zigic who can be a potent goal threat on his day.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Milovan Rajevac
Key player: Sulley Muntari
World ranking: 37
Ghana are one of the major forces of African football and have a strong qualification campaign to prove it. However they have suffered a killer blow by losing Michael Essien, one of the world's best midfielders and without a doubt their best player. Should still give a decent showing, but without him are unlikely to see much success.
It's a shame that for the first big tournament being hosted in Africa, one of the best African players will not be present, but they can still take heart from a strong squad featuring the likes of Sulley Muntari. They are unlikely to progress through a tough group.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Bert van Marwijk
Key player: Wesley Sneijder
World ranking: 3
The Netherlands were one of the best teams at Euro 2008 until they were knocked out by Guus Hiddink's plucky underdogs, and they have had a stunning qualification success this season, becoming the first European team to qualify for the tournament (aside from Italy).
But we've all seen this story before, Netherlands rock up and play some brilliant football, free scoring with the likes of Robben and Van Persie and the sublime Wesley Sneijder and Van der Vaart, only to suffer for inconsistency and weak defending come the knockout rounds. Mind you, the odds of 11/1 are pretty tempting if you're looking for a smart bet, considering the problems other teams are facing, and the overall attacking strength of this Dutch team.
There is no question that this team is gifted, but can they finally find the consistency that has been lacking and win the biggest prize of all?
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Morten Olsen
Key player: Nicklas Bendtner
World ranking: 26
Their subjugation of Portugal during qualification has got a lot of people talking. But those people don't seem to have noticed how mediocre Portugal are these days.
Not much should be expected from this team though, and if you want to know why just look at the "key player". The likes of Jon Dahl Tomasson is still around but nowhere near the player he used to be. In with a good shout of beating off the likes of Cameroon and Japan in order to qualify to the next round, but unlikely.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Takeshi Okada
Key player: Shunsuke Nakamura
World ranking: 43
Gave the illustrious likes of England a scare just the other week, but make no mistake that was more about England under performing. That being said, they have been improving in recent years, and Celtic's Nakamura, though getting a bit old, is still a top player.
Not an easy group for them though, and despite a good effort will probably not finish in the top 2, likely finish bottom of this group.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Paul Le Guen
Key player: Samuel Eto'o
World ranking: 11
Always one of the big African teams, Cameroon's hopes as usual rest on the shoulders of one man, Samuel Eto'o. After a few years where it appeared that his star was fading, Eto'o is back to his best at Inter Milan and a real force to be reckoned with in these games.
They face a real fight to qualify for the next stage, but if their recent form is anything to go by I would expect them to come 2nd in the group.
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Marcelo Lippi
Key player: Mauro Camoranesi
World ranking: 4
The World Champions look in poor shape. For starters, their best player Andrea Pirlo is injured and unlikely to appear during the group stages. More importantly though their team is ageing and Lippi has done little to try and bring through the next generation of Italian footballers.
A defence of their title looks unlikely, and it wouldn't even surprise me to see them go out early. That being said their group is one of the easier ones in the tournament and they should do fine there.
Returning manager Marcelo Lippi resigned shortly after winning the World Cup in 2006, only to return at a time of desperation for his nation's football. Can he give this ageing group of stars one final hurrah, or is it a tournament too many?
Verdict: Quarter Finals
Manager: Gerardo Martino
Key player: Roque Santa Cruz
World ranking: 30
Paraguay impressed everyone during qualification by finishing just a point behind Brazil and sealing their progress with a win over Argentina. However a number of key players from recent years have retired and this squad is still something of an unknown force.
Oscar Cardozo and Roque Santa Cruz will be key for them, and should still be able to qualify from this group.
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Ricki Herbert
Key player: Ryan Nelsen
World ranking: 77
A bit of a newcomer at this level, New Zealand have nonetheless proven that they have the stomach for a fight. It seems unlikely that they have the quality to go with it that will be necessary for any kind of success.
Blackburn defender Nelsen is undoubtedly the highlight of a squad that contains a large number of lower league players. Whipping boys, sorry Kiwis, but hey thanks for Flight of the Conchords.
Verdicts: Group stage
Manager: Vladimir Weiss
Key player: Marek Hamsik
World ranking: 34
Well done Slovakia on qualifying for your first ever World Cup finals, but don't get too comfy. An outside chance to qualify from this group, but in all likelihood are going home early.
That being said they're no bad squad, with the likes of Hamsik, a future world star by all accounts, and Chelsea youngster Miroslav Stoch who was a major part of FC Twente's league win this season.
Verdict: Group stage
Key player: Kaka
World ranking: 2
What really needs to be said about Brazil? They have won the competition more times than any other nation and go into each and every tournament as favourites. Renowned for playing the beautiful game in its purest form, manager Dunga has now added graft and responsibility to help them compete in the modern game.
With the likes of Kaka and Luis Fabiano up front, and one of the best defenders in the world right now in Lucio, they have a squad that can beat any in the world. Favourites to collect a 6th World Cup.
The great entertainers are here, and now they've got strength at the back so that they have the freedom to entertain.
Manager: Kim-Jong Hun
Key player: Hong Yong-Jo
World ranking: 84
Something of an unknown quantity in world football, and likely to make more waves for political reasons than sporting. Unlikely to have much effect on anything else. Let's just hope they don't somehow come up against South Korea. It's notable that the two teams were drawn so that them playing each other is the least likely possible fixture in this tournament, not that it was manipulated or anything.
They also happen to be in the toughest group of the tournament.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Sven Goran Eriksson
Key player: Didier Drogba
World ranking: 16
Seen by many to be the strongest African football team, with the likes of Eboue, Kalou, Tourés both Yaya and Kolo and of course the captain Didier Drogba. Last World Cup they played very well and were unlucky to be drawn in the toughest group against Netherlands and Argentina, narrowly losing out. Once again they have been handed a tough draw, but this time they might just have the edge over Portugal if Drogba is fit.
Though seen by many as a bit of a mercenary, Drogba's goal while playing for the Ivory Coast is no less than uniting the people of his country in the name of football, and bringing an end to his war torn homeland. He was recently named in Time magazine's most influential people in the world list for his humanitarian work and it's easy to see why.
Didier Drogba recently received a worrying injury, though it now looks like he could make a speedy recovery for the tournament. One would certainly hope so, as the first tournament to be hosted in Africa will certainly be at a detriment for losing one of its biggest stars and an absolute icon for the continent.
Verdict: Last 16
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
World ranking: 5
Portugal are a team that should really be better than they are, especially with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo within their ranks. However they made hard work of qualifying and are just not in a good vein of form right now. Something will need to be done to turn it around, but I feel they might not get out of this difficult group stage.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Vicente del Bosque
Key player: Fernando Torres
World ranking: 1
The champions of Europe and one of the big favourites at this year's World Cup. It's easy to see why, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Fabregas in the midfield, Fernando Torres and David Villa up front, and the best goalkeeper in the world Iker Casillas in goal. It's an embarrassment of riches that makes them, on paper, the strongest team in the tournament.
But this is not new for Spain, who have always looked good on paper, only to choke when it matters. For this reason it was something of a surprise when they actually lived up to their billing and delivered victory in 2008, but can they do it two in a row?
Verdict: Runners up
Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Key player: Alexander Frei
World ranking: 18
Switzerland are never going to be a favoured team, but rest assured they are no push overs. In Hitzfeld they have a very capable manager and a decent squad featuring the likes of Frei, Barnetta and Inler.
They stand a good chance in this group, but will be wary of the threat posed by dark horses Chile.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Key player: Wilson Palacios
World ranking: 38
Honduras have Wilson Palacios. Other than that, it's hard to see where the danger is going to come from, particularly against the likes of Spain.
Off the pitch political troubles back at the homeland will undoubtedly pray on the minds of these players as well, meaning an early return home is likely to be on the cards.
Verdict: Group stage
Manager: Marcelo Biesla
Key player: Alexis Sanchez
World ranking: 17
Chile are not a team I imagine many people will know anything about at this year's tournament. So I can imagine it comes as some surprise when I say that they play some of the best attacking football of any team at this tournament. With the likes of the superb Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Suazo, who finished top scorer in the South American qualifying stage, they have wowed pundits and fans over the last 2 years.
It is unfortunate then that they don't really have a defence to go along with it, and also shipped more goals than most teams in qualifying. Could just edge Switzerland to get out of this group, but unlikely to get any further. The prospect of Brazil vs Chile in the second round will be one for the neutrals.
Verdict: Last 16
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Developed by Rockstar San Diego
Published by Rockstar Games
Genre Sandbox, 3rd Person action adventure
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
Release date(s) Out Now
It's long since been taken for granted that any game released by Rockstar is going to be hyped as a contender for game of the year, especially when their last game GTA4 was widely praised by critics as one of the finest games ever created (not an opinion I share, though it is very good). Now they take the classic GTA formula and attempt to give it a WIld West twist with Red Dead Redemption. There will be spoilers.
Many people probably won't remember, but Rockstar have actually tried this once before with Red Dead Revolver which came out 6 years ago to mixed success. Fortunately it seems that they have learned a lot since then.
Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, an ex criminal trying to go straight who is being coerced by the Government to track down some of his old gang mates in exchange for his freedom. In typical Rockstar fashion the story telling is engrossing and the writing of a uniquely high quality compared to other videogames and indeed compared to many films. You won't be disappointed as once again the Rockstar writers manage to deliver twists and emotion, purveyed by interesting characters and satirical observations.
In addition, the voice acting is top notch (with one major exception) and the musical score is probably the best I've ever heard in a game, including a track by none other than José Gonzalez, who you might remember from this. Honestly one of the best things about this game is that through the music, the visuals, the writing and the ambiance, they have really captured everything you love about the old west in a way that has rarely been done, especially in a videogame. And you will frequently see references and homages to classic Westerns and timeless films.
But in the end this amounts to very little unless the game itself lives up to expectations.
I'll begin by describing the activities of one of my early days in the game. Woke up at 9AM in MacFarlane Ranch (one of the earliest locations) and around me I see people going about their morning business; women are washing clothes, cattle are being herded, and one man is playing fetch with his dog. I unhitch my horse and ride over to the nearby town Armadillo through the morning sun.
Along the way I run into one of the game's many random encounters, in this case a shootout between rival treasure hunters in the middle of the dust choked desert. Upon my arrival some of them turn their guns on me and suddenly I'm drawn into the conflict, but in a matter of seconds I've dispatched all the remaining men. Rooting through the carnage for valuables I find a chest, which upon closer inspection contains a treasure map. Back at the town I head to the shop and sell some of the goods I've picked up and replenish my ammunition. I see one of the town deputies nailing a sign to the train station, upon closer inspection it's a wanted sign for a cattle rustler. I hunt him down, hogtie him, and bring him back to the authorities alive for extra pay.
I then retire to the saloon to spend my earnings, and after having a drink and winning a few hands of poker, I'm back off to the ranch. By the time I return it's the early evening, and being that the ranch is in need of a good night watchman, I help out for a little extra cash, in which I bring a man to justice before he is able to steal one of the ranch's prize stallions. Then, content with my day's work, I sleep.
The key thing here is that one can, and will, go through days like this without even touching the main part of the game, the missions. The brilliant thing about Red Dead Redemption is that there is so much to do that you can spend days at a time playing this game without progressing at all, and it won't get boring.
For starters, the game world is absolutely huge. It is divided into three regions, each of which is further subdivided. You begin the game playing in New Austin, a lazy, dusty region inspired by the American south-west with regions representing Texas and the deserts of California and New Mexico, complete with mines and ghost towns and ranches.
Then you head south across the river to Nuevo Paraiso in Mexico, a more lively and dangerous region filled with desperados and Latin passion, where you will frequently come into contact with the Mexican army and revolutionaries.
Finally you end up in West Elizabeth, a more civilised area which attempts to bring to life the more Eastern territories, with lands that vary from grassy plains and blossoming trees to thriving port-towns and snowy forested mountains. Needless to say this provided a great variation of scenery during the game.
One complaint that was commonly levelled at GTA San Andreas was that the wilderness which connected each town was too empty and lifeless, a complaint you won't hear with regards to Red Dead Redemption. This world is teeming with life, with many different locations, a variety of animal life (at least 34 different species), people going about their business, and many side missions.
But the real stroke of genius is the random encounter system. There are as many as 100 unique different random encounters which can be seen in various locations and random times. These encompass a variety of activities, such as breaking up fights, saving people in the wilderness from animal attacks, being challenged to a duel or hunting challenge, being mugged, catching criminals, or even just coming across other travellers who have set up camp and want to invite you to hang out for a while. And crucially, this system is balanced in such a way that these encounters occur often enough to keep the game lively, but not so often that they seem forced.
The developers have also added one of the key things that was missing from GTA4, a proper jobs system which enables you to keep earning money even after the main missions have ended. This includes night watch jobs, breaking horses at ranches and bounty hunter missions, all of which are pretty fun.
In addition you have what are called the "ambient" challenges. You see, in this game you can hunt all of the many species of animal life and then skin them in order to harvest hides, teeth, fur or what have you and sell it at shops. There are also a variety of herbs and plant life throughout the world which can be collected and sold. The game gives you a series of challenges for hunting, plant gathering, as well as sharpshooting and treasure hunting. Completion of these challenges will unlock certain secrets and abilities, for example finishing the hunting challenges gives you the ability to make meat vittles from animals you hunt which you can then use to replenish your health.
Then there are the mini-games. In towns all over the game you can join in on poker, blackjack, arm wrestling, liars dice and more. These are not just fun, but really addictive. I've wasted far too much time playing poker (partly why I took so long to review this game). These games vary from location to location as well, with more high class locales offering higher stakes tables and more intelligent gamblers.
A lot of work has been put into the horses in this game as well. Not just because the look amazing and are well animated, but there is a large number of different breeds, all of which have their own qualities and attributes. You can go out into the wild and attempt to tame undomesticated horses, or you can buy deeds at the local shop if you don't fancy the effort. The longer you ride with a single horse, the closer the "bond" you form with that horse, giving the horse greater stamina and making him more obedient.
And of course there are collectibles and unlockables in the game, including treasure, new outfits, safehouses, rare breeds of horses and rare weapons. There are also "legendary" animals you can hunt, and gang hideouts you can storm. As you can see there is a lot to do in this game.
What makes it especially amazing is that I haven't even mentioned the main part of the game! The missions follow a traditional GTA style, meet your contact, get a mission which generally involves either infiltration, escort, collection or straight up gun slinging. There are a few more unusual missions out there that I won't spoil here, particular among the side missions. One side mission in particular named "I Know You" is absolutely stunning once you get to the end and realise what was going on, one of those rare moments in a videogame that encourages you to actually think and use your imagination in wonderful ways.
There are also multiplayer modes, the pride and joy of which is the "free roam" mode. This is essentially the single player world, except populated by other human players, with it's own set of new challenges and activities.
So needless to say, this game is absolutely huge, with a potentially limitless lifespan. That is not something I've ever seen accomplished by another game. But how does it play?
The gameplay is generally pretty similar to GTA4, third person shooter with a cover system. It has been tweaked and refined and in most cases it works pretty well and is a lot of fun to play. It is especially satisfying that there is such a variety of weapon types and combat styles for you to play around with, keeping things fresh. The dead eye shooting mode (slow motion targeting) also allows for some pretty sweet gunfights. The jobs and mini-games and horse riding is all mostly well done as well.
But it is not perfect. For starters, the developers have brought in this "radial wheel" weapons selection menu where you hold a shoulder button and move the analog stick to choose a weapon, a bit like in Mass Effect 2. However whereas in Mass Effect the game would pause as you choose your weapon, this does not happen in Red Dead Redemption. This can be especially irritating as the game has a tendency to automatically select your lasso, so if you find yourself ambushed randomly in the desert, you have to faff around with radial menus for about 10 seconds in order to get the right gun and load it up to fire, by which point you're probably dead.
This issue is exacerbated by unnecessarily slow and clunky menus. The designers felt the need to add all kinds of cool dissolve and animation effects when you bring up a menu, which means a simple setting change which should take 2 seconds might take more like 20. It sounds slight, but trust me it gets very annoying after a while, especially in the middle of an intense part of play. Since the natural instinct will be to get through the menus as quickly as possible, you will invariably end up pressing the wrong button at one point or another while the game's lagging menus struggle to keep up with you, requiring you to faff about even more.
By far the biggest issue I have with the gameplay is the cover system. Sometimes it works just fine, other times it's completely and utterly moronic. For example it is often unclear as to what constitutes "cover" and you can spend a few seconds mashing the cover button only to find nothing happens. This is made even worse by the fact that the game is often quite picky about where you have to be standing in relation to an object in order to "activate" cover. This means that it can take far too long to get behind an object for cover, and a long time before you realise that you can't actually take cover behind this particular box which for some reason is so different to every other box lying around. In addition, this strange cover selection sometimes results in your character taking cover on the wrong side of an object in plain sight of bad guys.
It can also take an annoyingly long time to slip in and out of cover, often with drawn out animations and slow response time, which is particularly a problem when you want to quickly move from behind one cover to another since you have to "click in" and "click out" of cover repeatedly, and that's with the picky cover selection mechanic I've already mentioned. Lastly, let's say you take cover behind a box and you have enemies on the other side of the box (unable to shoot you because of your cover) and behind you (with a clear shot at you). If you try to turn and take a shot at the guy behind you, your character will strangely stand up and get out of cover, enabling the other enemies to kill you.
All in all, while the cover mechanism works fine a lot of the time, it also has a number of issues and design flaws that can make it quite frustrating. Other games (Mass Effect) have done cover systems far better than this, though one can probably chalk that up to this game still using the GTA4 engine, which is now a number of years old.
And of course then there is the ending of the game, which is something of a love it or hate it story. Turn away NOW if you don't want to see spoilers. At the end of the last mission of the game, the writers decided to kill off your character, and from that point on you play as the character's son. It seems like a bizarre decision, to kill off a character you have spent 20+ hours getting to know, getting attached to and replacing him with a completely unknown character who you are then stuck with. In addition, this new character has incredibly annoying and whiny voice acting, no story, and only one mission (a revenge mission). The whole thing seems pretty pointless and I can imagine a lot of people not wanting to play on with such an empty shallow character, especially after the character they actually built up over the course of the game has been cruelly killed off. The only way I can see this making sense is if they are planning to bring out DLC which expands this character's story. SPOILERS FINISHED.
So as many of you will know, I love to really analyse a game in depth and pretty much tear it apart. So even though there are a few things that annoy me about the design of this game, and the roughness of certain gameplay elements, the fact that I can only find these minor gameplay tweaks to complain about should tell you everything you need to know about how great this game is.
And it is great, The cover system might frustrate, the menus might be a bit clunky, but it will barely detract from the overall experience. There has never been such a full, well realised game world as this. This is a game you could spend absolutely ages in if you wanted to, and it is all carried off with such panache that we have come to expect from Rockstar. But this goes even further, it's the best game Rockstar has ever produced, even better than any GTA. Bravo.
Sloppy cover system
Clunky menus/weapon selection
I've spend far too much time playing
Saturday, 5 June 2010
song of the week: "Bicycle (Little Loud Remix)" by "Memory Tapes"
thing that makes me grimace today: The ever growing list of world superstars who will be missing the World Cup. Beckham, Rio, Drogba, Essien, Mikel, Robben, Ballack, Xavi, Torres, Altidore... probably more have been injured since I wrote this.
pic of the day
Red Dead Redemption
Grand Theft Auto IV
Tuesday, 1 June 2010
It doesn't seem like so long ago that England fans were filled with optimism and confidence. In Fabio Capello they had one of the best managers in the world, with a proven track record of getting the very best out of pampered high potential/low output superstars, like the kind the England team is filled with. But as we head into the World Cup, uncertainty looms over his future, and questions are being raised over the team's recent lacklustre performances. Is Capello losing the plot? Or is there a deeper underlying issue here? And does it matter?
England can now look back on a highly impressive qualification campaign, arguably epitomised by their 4-1 demolition of Croatia, the team that kept them out of Euro 2008, in which young Theo Walcott scored a hat trick. That day now looks an era away as Theo's star fades away as fast as it rose, and the England team in general look shakier with each performance.
At the time I raised a question over Capello's controversial decision to sack John Terry as England captain. After all this was a team that had played together for over a year after this affair came out in the open with seemingly no ill effect, so it made no sense to change the captain for the sake of team performance. Instead it became apparent that this was a decision made in a misguided attempt to appease the press and ward off pressure, a decision only someone who is woefully inexperienced with the British gutter press could make.
Conversely, I worried that this decision might in fact bring drama and tension to a dressing room where previously none existed, drive divisions between groups of players, and in dignifying the sensationalism of the press with a response, encourage and lend credence towards such actions. The reason a manager like José Mourinho is so successful is that when something like this comes along he diverts attention away from his players and onto himself with his shenanigans. Here Capello has flown in the face of conventional logic and done the opposite. I defy anyone to fault that logic.
In retrospect, it would appear these worries were well founded. The England team we have seen in these past few games has been one bereft of the confidence and organisation that a real captain with strong leadership qualities would bring to the team. It has not been helped by a captain facing serious fitness problems, who has looked increasingly shaky in recent games; in the Japan game his attention lapses could and probably should have gifted Japan another two goals. It boggles the mind that people even bring which clubs these people play for into the equation. Forget Terry and Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and even David James would have been better choices to wear the armband than Rio Ferdinand.
Meanwhile Vice Captain Gerrard has his own affair and underage pregnant girlfriend scandals to worry about. As of yet his super injunction is preventing these tales from hitting the press, but what if they do before the World Cup, what then? More chopping and changing from Capello? The manager's first big mistake as England manager has set a dangerous precedent in a world where Terry-esque scandals are common tabloid fodder, and one that appears to be affecting the performances of his stuttering team. This should be a massive worry for any England fan in the run up to the World Cup.
But are England's woes primarily a result of mismanagement and off the pitch strife, or is there more to be concerned about? Let's take a position-by-position look at how the team is doing right now.
Clearly we have had issues with the position of goalkeeper in recent years. Robert Green has been first choice for a while, but his form has waned recently, not helped by the burden placed on him at the poor club he plays for. David James is better but is getting on in the years, and is still prone to the odd blunder. He has the experience, but his faffing about in the first half vs Japan did little in inspire confidence in anyone on or off the pitch. Young Joe Hart is easily the best English goalkeeper right now, and has next to no experience at this level. Fresh are the memories of then hotly tipped Scott Carson's disastrous introduction to international football from which he has never recovered, but Joe Hart has done much to allay such fears with a strong and cool headed performance against Japan. If Capello is feeling brave he might just find that Joe Hart is the answer to this problem, this year and for many years going into the future.
Meanwhile, defense has generally been England's strongest asset in recent years, and indeed this is a defense that pretty much picks itself. Ashley Cole is arguably the best left back in the world, something few can deny with a straight face after the past few seasons, and Terry and Rio are both top notch centre backs. Glen Johnson is a bit of a weak spot at right back, but there is little question that he is the best option available, especially with Micah Richards' current loss of form. Despite this, they have looked pretty shaky these last few games, lacking organisation and cohesion. Much of this can probably be blamed on Rio's struggle for form and fitness, but one still has to worry about the lack of structure this back four has shown, when it is the captain's job to marshall them all together.
The midfield is a part of the pitch over which many questions remain. The biggest dilemma has been the loss of Gareth Barry to injury. Carrick and Huddlestone both look ill equipped to fill in for him, and the manager has strangely refused to try out Scott Parker in this role. Instead it looks like we'll see a return to the Lampard/Gerrard partnership in the middle of the pitch that has stirred so much controversy, and personally I think that is a great decision. I am always stunned to hear assertions that these two players can't play at the same time. After all Gerrard did start his club and international career as a holding midfielder, where he was absolutely fantastic. How easy people seem to have forgotten that they played together in the middle throughout the qualifiers and finals for Euro 2004 to great effect, arguably that tournament is the best England have played since Euro 96, why do people ignore this?
The secret is you have to tell Gerrard to sit back a bit and play responsibly, as he used to do, and Sven just didn't have the balls to do this. Capello does it seems. Many people seem to take exception to the notion of Gerrard sitting back when he's so good at going forward. Well ok, but he's also fantastic at playing deep and controlling the midfield, arguably he's better there in fact and that's probably more important for this England team which currently lacks a good holding midfielder, while they already have in Frank Lampard one of the best attacking midfielders in the world at the moment, a position Capello has indicated zero possibility that he will give to Gerrard ahead of Lampard. One of Ancelotti's biggest mistakes as Chelsea manager was playing Lampard in a deeper role, remember how poorly Lampard started this season? As soon as he pushed him forward he sprang to life, brought Chelsea the double and had the most prolific season of his career. This is a lesson Capello would do well to note, and it looks like he has.
There has also been some question of who to play on the wings, with many suggesting that we try an exciting fast paced duo of Lennon and Theo. Well after seeing just how toothless the two of them are in recent friendlies, I think we can safely put that experiment to rest for now. Maybe in a few years time, but not now. There is little doubt in my mind that those positions would be better in the hands of James Milner and Joe Cole (with Lennon as an impact player), or Gerrard if Barry is fit to play the holding midfield role. These players have quality and creativity in abundance and have shown some top form in recent months.
Up front we find one of the few certainties in this England team, that Wayne Rooney will start. Rooney is one of the best players in the world right now, and without a doubt essential to England. The question is who will partner him. The answer depends on what role you want to play Rooney in. Do you play him in an advanced position where he can bag a ton of goals, or play him deeper where he can control the game more. Traditionally he has played the latter for both club and country and frankly few players anywhere do it better. But this season, following the departure of goal-machine Ronaldo, Rooney has pushed into a more advanced position for United, and scored hatloads despite missing out on the golden boot.
Presumably if you play Rooney in this typical deep position you would want to partner him with a goal poacher like Defoe or Bent, and if you play him further up you would partner him with a workhorse like Heskey or a target man like Crouch. Right now it looks like Bent is going to be dropped from the final squad, perhaps indicating that Capello intends to play Rooney in an advanced position. Then again, Crouch's awesome scoring record for England suggests that he could arguably play in the more advanced position with Rooney behind him. At the same time one has to wonder what Heskey has done to earn his place in the squad, despite not playing for his club. Indeed he's been pushed out of the Villa side by Agbonlahor, another Englishman who strangely doesn't get a look in.
The alternative is to play a 4-3-3 formation, as England did for 20 minutes against Japan, with Rooney up front on his own, two wide men supporting him and three central midfielders. This is good as you could presumably then play both Lampard and Gerrard in advanced positions with Barry sitting back. But remember that England have tried this in the past with Rooney, and it didn't work out too well. I expect Capello will keep it in mind, but won't use such a tactic unless he feels he has to.
Following this analysis, I think I can make a pretty good projection of who Capello is going to pick for his final 23 man squad tomorrow:
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham).
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Tottenham), John Terry (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Gareth Barry - if fit (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), James Milner (Aston Villa), Theo Walcott (Arsenal).
Forwards: Peter Crouch (Tottenham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
And for the record this who I would pick, with first team selection in bold:
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham).
Defenders: Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Tottenham), John Terry (Chelsea).
Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), James Milner (Aston Villa), Scott Parker (West Ham), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City).
Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Peter Crouch (Tottenham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Although if Gareth Barry is fit I'd probably play him instead of Joe Cole and stick Gerrard out on the left.
So ultimately, should England fans be worried or upbeat? This is, without a shadow of a doubt, an England team with things to be concerned about both on and off the pitch, and real questions being asked of both the players and the manager. But frankly one would do well not to read too much into pre-tournament friendlies or even the final qualifiers as an indication of form. After all both finalists from 2006, Italy and France, had pretty underwhelming pre tournament friendlies, scandals and off the pitch strife to rival what England have this year. Believe chaps, and hope that Fabio knows what he's doing.