Thursday, 20 November 2014

The peculiar curse of Christmas TAT

There has always been a trend with kids toys to sell something that looks awesome either on paper or in a television advert but once you get the actual thing, it's, well, utter crap. Bigtrak was probably the one offender that sticks in my mind from my youth. Now I never had a Bigtrak, but from what I can tell, if you were lucky enough to come downstairs on Christmas day to find the computerised all terrain track laying vehicle wrapped up and under the Christmas tree, your visions of programming it to do all sorts of exciting things would descend into the reality of pressing some buttons for an intermidable period of time, only to see the thing fail to move due to the depth of the shagpile carpet your parents inexplicably thought was a good idea at the time.

My own "Bigtrak" came in the form of Gore the Lord Protector. Gore the Lord Protector was part of the Zoid range of build it yourself robot animals/dinosaurs that may have had their own cartoon but definitely looked really cool in the adverts that ITV had on incessantly in the run up to Christmas. I remember the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning and spending a couple of hours building Gore the Lord Protector, only to see it move apathetically on the spot due to it's pathetically weak motors and general poor design. What was worse, unlike my funky Action Force (the UK branding for GI Joe) toys, it wasn't really possible to play with Gore the Lord Protector. After some umming and arring, I took the thing to bits entirely and then rebuilt it because that was really all it was good for.

Gore the Lord Protector was a crap toy and in the however many years since I found that out, there are now so many more crap toys out there to con kids out of enjoyment. A lot of them seem specifically aimed at girls; either that or Fifi has an uncanny ability to fall under the influence of their advertisements. Why have a soft toy that you can play with when you can get a hard battery powered puppy that can sort of ride a battery operated skate board? Why have a nice doll that you can dress in a variety of clothes when you can have an oddly shaped one that crawls like something from a Japanese horror movie?

It's like there is a special ops department in every toy makers creative department that devises a cunning advertisement that cannot help but ensnare the young and then, as an afterthought, they have a quick chat to product design over a coffee and some piece of tat is churned out that is destined to get played with a lot on Christmas Day but will never see the light of day afterwards.

This is a different sort of Christmas tat to the likes of Bigtrak or Gore the Lord Protector in a sense because back then we were oversold the abilities of our toys dramatically. Now days we're just sold stuff that looks good in an advert but is so limited in it's functionality that it's almost impossible to play with. The trick is talking the kids out of wanting something that is in essence an anti-toy and convincing them that they'd like something that they can actually play with...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Xbox 360)

When I went to the launch event for Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham at the London Planetarium last week, there was one thing that really stood out for me with the game and that was the teams love for the characters and world they were creating. The lead developer ran through a couple of levels in freeplay to show us some of the unlocked characters (all 150 of them), and the character quirks that each has. While the special skills may be similar from character to character, each character has his or her own distinctive animations and costumes, and it's this attention to detail that is really stand out. For example, the first time Wonder Woman takes to the air, the 1970's TV show theme tune plays quietly in the background (and continues to do so every time she flies in fact) and Cyborg's stealth suit that allows him to sneak past cameras is actually a washing machine. All these little touches show a development team with the time to make a wonderfully polished game, rather than a game that's shoved out the door half finished and patched later.

The game is imbued with the wonderful humour that is present in all LEGO games, with some running jokes reappearing throughout the game- I particularly liked Robin's obsession with a speech that he thought broke Brainiac's mind control over Batman. There are also loads of subtle references to DC superheroes that will go over most peoples heads but if you're a comic book aficionado, you'll appreciate moments like Killer Croc coughing up Doctor Fate's helmet, which Robin inadvertently uses to avoid Brainiac's mind control.

Still, there is only so much you can do in terms of playing a game at a launch event and even if the game looked lovely on a PS4, I don't have one, and in the absence of the Wii U version to take home, I settled for the old gen Xbox 360 version. To be fair, although all the LEGO games look lush, they also look lush on the previous gen hardware, so it was no great loss.

We have an interesting relationship with the LEGO games in our household. We loved LEGO City Uncovered on the Wii U- it was basically a kid friendly version of Grand Theft Auto-and have played a fair bit of LEGO Star Wars Trilogy, some of the first two LEGO Batman games and some of the LEGO Harry Potter games. As the boy has gotten older, the amount we've played has increased but even at 7, some of the puzzles are a little obtuse for him to solve on his own, so we've tended to do co-op play.

Although it's the third game in the LEGO Batman series, in reality Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham is really the DC universe equivalent of LEGO Marvel Superheroes. In LEGO Batman 2 the player got to control some of the other Justice League characters but that happened right at the end of the game; here you can play with all the big hitters much earlier on. You get to use a wide variety of DC superheroes during the course of the game, and some of the puzzles can't be progressed without swapping to some hero or other, so they're not there just for eye candy. There is a particular puzzle on Brainiac's spaceship that requires Wonder Woman to use her bracelets to bounce a laser beam onto an object which stands out particularly in my mind.

There is a different dynamic to  Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham compared to previous iterations though. Previous games were a lot more story driven and linear in progress,  Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham has a central hub in the Justice League Watchtower which can teleport you to various different locations. All the places you go are interesting and packed with other stuff to do besides the main missions but what it does do is slightly diminish from the "game world" by making it feel more like a number of separate and distinct levels. It's not so much a criticism, more of an observation really.

I have to say I was hooked from the start:
Once or twice a puzzle has been too obtuse and I've had to resort to the internet to find out what I'm actually supposed to do- for example there's a bit on Brainiac's spaceship where you need to smash some LEGO constructs that are off the ground and you can't reach by just using the attack button to get some jumping bricks to build a switch but you can't see easily that the things are destructible because you're looking in through a window, or there's another instance where you have to use a big tough character to shatter a wall of mirrors to reveal the lift behind them, neither of which I'd probably have got in a hundred years of wandering around- and on another occasion, after defeating Brainiac on his spaceship, I had no proper idea where I had to go or what I had to do next to continue the main story.

Still, that perhaps says more about me and my ability to solve puzzles than it does about the game, and these are the exact sort of puzzles that fill pretty much every LEGO videogame anyway but don't expect your small child to waltz through the game on their own without fairly regular help from you. The freeplay option is much more suited to letting younger children have some fun, and you can unlock this for each individual level when you complete it. Unlocked levels in freeplay are accessible from the Watchtower and you can pick and choose any of the characters you've unlocked to play through with too. If you Google Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham character unlock codes, you might even find a few unlockable characters to get you started.

You may notice on the game's front end screen there is an option for something called a "season pass". If you're wondering what this relates to, it basically means you can pay a one off amount for all the future downloadable content. I'm not going to get into a discussion about the pros and cons of downloadable content but I will say in this instance it doesn't feel like a lot of the content has been stripped out of the game only to be sold to the buyer at a later date as extra content. This is in complete contrast to a lot of other games out there, so should be held as a big positive. Having said that, the £11.99 that you can pay for the season pass will get you access to 40 extra characters, vehicles, achievements and much more. On it's own £11.99 isn't a huge amount but on top of a £40 game, it does put the overall cost of ownership up. Of course you don't have to buy it and if the small person in your house doesn't know it's available, that removes one potential issue right from the start.

We've thoroughly enjoyed Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, it has been played excessively this week past, and it was a struggle to get the boy to do his homework on Saturday before we sat down for what, predictably, turned into a massive gaming session. Traveller's Tales has done a great job in making an immersive world for all ages to play in.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Tumble drying versus airing

Over the summer our electricity bill almost vanishes as we put stuff out on the line from the crack of dawn and don't use the lights much either. Winter however is another matter entirely. Our washing machine (a Bosch, since you asked), has a 1,400 RPM spin cycle which you would think is enough to get most of the moisture out of whatever it washes. It turns out this isn't the case though...

Since we had our garage converted and I accidentally burnt the motor out on our old tumble dryer (the washing machine had packed up and I put a ton of sodden clothing straight into the dryer, which immediately couldn't cope with the weight), we've had a condensing tumble dryer rather than an externally venting one. This means I can keep a fairly close eye on the amount of moisture that the tumble dryer extracts from our clothing.

This is the result of a mornings worth of tumble drying:

Now imagine sticking those three loads of washing on an airer. That moisture has to go somewhere, and the chances are if you've not got the windows open (for example it's pissing it down, which is the reason your clothes aren't up on the line in the first place), it's going to get absorbed by your wallpaper and soft furnishings. 

I suppose you could spend some money on a dehumidifier to capture the excess moisture but that sort of seems to defeat the purpose really. That's why we tumble dry stuff in preference to using an airer. It might be massively more expensive but at least I know where the water is going...

Friday, 14 November 2014

As the Christmas lights go up in town...

...and Eastender's Phil Mitchell is scheduled to turn them on at the weekend, I begin to despair how the Christmas period now seems to run for well over 6 weeks, regardless of any thoughts I have on the meaning of the celebration being totally forgotten. Every year I fight a losing fight to not put the tree up until the 2nd or third week in December, every year the shops seem to start it sooner. Within a week of writing this I'll cheerfully want to murder Noddy "IT'S CHRISTMAS!!" Holder with a heavy blunt instrument.

The funny thing is, the kids favourite Christmas book is Richard Scarry's excellent The Night Before The Night Before Christmas. Mr Frumble, the accident prone but ever so helpful pig is a fond favourite of ours, and his adventures as a Santa's helper (and a stand in for Santa Bear himself) are a particular favourite. Why is that funny? Well through a series of Frumble related mishaps, Santa Bear goes out a day early to deliver his presents, not on the night before Christmas but on the night before the night before Christmas. No bugger in Busytown has finished putting up their Christmas decorations, and this was broadly the tradition; it was even considered unlucky to bring evergreens in doors before Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

An excessive love of dip dip

All our children follow my terrible example of covering most of their meals in an excessive amount of tomato ketchup, or dip dip as it is better known in our house. I take full responsibility for this; it's a habit that's stuck with me from childhood that has a very sensible reason behind it. For the majority of my youth, my mum did most of the cooking and whilst a lot of the dinners were perfectly tasty, a lot of them suffered that 80's phenomenon that was peculiar to women of my mums generation.

A lot of the meat we ate wasn't cooked, it was incinerated. Properly charred, dry and almost inedible. The only way I was able to lubricate my throat enough to swallow some of the meat we were fed was to douse it liberally in tomato ketchup and swallow hard.

How overcooked? For example, I never realised how delicious liver and bacon could actually be until my dad took early retirement and started doing cooking. Tender, succulent liver was in stark contrast to the inedible black lumps my mum served up that were only really good for skimming over the lake up the park. Even once my dad took over the cooking though, the habit stuck, and it's obviously rubbed off on the kids, as you can see young Ned is finishing off his dip dip with a straw...
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