Mutant Crackdown

It’s time to crackdown on the lowlife scum of Pacific City. And by that I mean watch the prequel web comic produced by Microsoft for Crackdown 2. If you’re unfamiliar with the original, it was a functional, if noticeably jerky, open world action game. It had a pretty laughable co-op mode which was just ripe for goofing off, but it’s mostly footnoted as being the carrier for the Halo 3 beta – a mass market success that saw Crackdown shot up the charts.

Crackdown 2 (from Ruffian Games, some of the guys who brought you the original) is out in Europe today. So what better way to celebrate this year’s most likely candidate for the ‘sequel that never should have been’ by reviewing its animated backstory?

Seems themed gangs aren’t outlandish enough these days. Introducing Pacific City as once again becoming a haven for crime and civil unrest, the Crackdown 2 web comic aims to make its implausible plot something to buy into. There are mutants in Crackdown 2. Yes, angry, drooling, deformed mutants. It’s total B-movie cheese. The five episodes (written by Ed Campbell) don’t follow a linear narrative, but rather summarise a brief history of events, treating you as a law abiding citizen and vigilant eye of the Agency. Catalina Thorne and the Sunburst project are introduced as two objectives that will be central to the game, but true character is thin on the ground.

I did find the art style (by Alex Ronald) to be quite striking for what they’re going for – although it’s more vivid than the game’s cartoony art direction. The slight shaky cam effect also helps set the tone for the rough, urban wasteland that is presented.

If these episodes appeared as a series of public announcements they could easily be watched out of sequence and still be understood. That’s a testament to the fact that the Crackdown 2 web comic makes some positive use of its medium. However, its lack of character means motion comics like Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel and Uncharted: Eye of Indra have the edge in terms of engagement. Like the game it’s based on, repeat viewings of this web comic will unearth little you haven’t already seen in one sitting.

Brand Personality

Brands. They’re much more than colourful logos these days. They define policy, service quality and the personality of a company. And these days, companies are increasingly interested in giving customers an identity through their brand. In other words, companies and the idea of ‘branding’ have evolved to appeal to your values and personality. You only have to look at the astronomical uptake of Facebook fan pages to realise at people like making aspiration statements about themselves.

While the progression from print and billboard adverts, to television and now the internet has had many transformative effects – mostly advertisers’ globe reach, the subject of branding and ideology is one that’s given me much to ponder. Particularly where journalism sits, in the no man’s land of cajoling PR hands and a duty to audiences to provide balance, facts and truth.

After all, media is a business and a business aims to make money. My university studies and wider reading into the financial and ethical influences on journalists has helped me to look at such topics in a commercial, but also moral, way. It’s like shifting roles between promoter and advisor. It’s the combination of intellectual material and associated values that are packaged up to make a media brand. For example, when the sales team at Elle, NME or even Official PlayStation Magazine are pitching to advertisers, they’re referring to me and you as the magazine’s ‘imagined audience’. The values and beliefs of a magazine’s imagined audience can be quite different – for Elle they might be targeting young, aspirational women, with plenty of disposable income and who regularly indulge in new fashions. And they want to convince advertisers that their readers trust the magazine brand like an intimate friend, so will be receptive of the recommendations (paid adverts) from that friend.

For me personally, I have to admit that over the years I’ve slowly surrounded myself with more and more brands that some part of my subconscious probably hopes will build an ephemeral identity of association for me: OPM, Edge, MCV, The Guardian, Wired, BBC Click. Picture the scene; I’m at a plush delegate’s party. All the attendees are media players, people who could set me up with my dream job. I’m nervous. Gulping down a bubbly alcoholic beverage, I approach a circle of editors, radio presenters and TV producers. “So, what do you read?” says one. “Oh, you know, the usual…” I say, and begin to rattle off a long list of brand names that I’m hoping they associate with creativity, curiosity and intelligence.

Buying into intellectual brands does give me the substance I need to enrich my mind with established publications’ style, views and stories, as well as the important stimulus to keep me striving towards my goal. But too large a proportion of the media sees people as ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’ nowadays. Business is important, but I’m a liberal people person first and foremost. Brands aren’t bad in themselves, but what’s more important are the people and substance behind the ‘consumer ideology’ and that the public are aware of them (the Nestlé boycott sticks out in my mind). I’m motivated by sharing facts, stories and opinions, and though I’m just another impressionable mind, I don’t plan on letting the brand men take me or my craft without a fight.

Mirrors, Signal, Manoeuvre

Clutch in, clutch out. Find the biting point and shift into first gear. Check the five points around you using your windows and mirrors. Hands on the wheel. Signal. Handbrake down. Bringing the clutch up and you’re away.

Today was my first practical driving lesson and it was an experience of procedure and repetition. My instructor, a patient and friendly guy by the name of Paul, who seems to be quite at home in his role as a driving professional, made me feel quite at ease as he introduced me to the motions of starting a car and controlling it for the very first time.

Having let off the handbrake once when I was young, it was pleasant to finally understand how to actually start a car and even better to drive down a road without ending up in someone’s boot. It was also incredibly empowering to be able to take the car, a Vauxhall Corsa riddled with chequered patterns and learner stickers, up to 20mph in second gear – at last I can put all my time spend on everything from Gran Turismo to Micro Machines to use.

Today was all about me getting comfortable with basic manoeuvring. Paul drove us up to a wide drive in Woodford. On the way he said the locals don’t really like seeing learners about, and when we got there I’m not sure I could blame them. There were at least four other learner drivers already practicing manoeuvres on the wide, flat tarmac. Of course, we all have to start somehow, but it didn’t really help that the size and mild elegance of the houses indicated the sort of well-off people who lived there.

After listening to Paul to explain how his shabby laminated diagrams corresponded to the car’s components and what I’d be attempting, it was time for me to go through the motions. On my fist attempt, I managed to start the car no fuss. Then I was all nervous energy as I took my foot off the clutch, surprised at the car’s newfound eagerness to leap forwards. Equally as ready, I pressed down on the accelerator with my right and felt a struggle of power from the 1.0 litre engine. This was mechanical technology at its best; a beast that guzzles and groans, yet offers so much freedom to those that can tame it.

I stalled the car a couple times, and had several moments of confusion among the levers, switches and viewing instruments around me. It takes time to adjust the feel of the car and get your muscle memory to the point where actions become automatic – driver’s sense or something, but it’s just like the learning curve on games accept there are stricter rules. Overall, it was a great first day. I was able to angle the car to park parallel with the kerb and later I improved my braking, by getting my head around the pedal switching. Having been bandying around an uncool provisional licence for the past three year, it feels good to have started practical lessons at last.

Although, there is the small matter of my theory test, which I’ve not yet done so I will have to accelerate my learning once again. I’m a long way off from drifting like a racing pro or even owning my own MINI Cooper, but at last I can fully understand why some people find so much pleasure in taking about manual drive cars.

Fast Food Pyramid

Like many on the crust of this great celestial meatball, I like to indulge in fast food now and again. I tend to avoid it at all costs if I can, but sometimes there are those moments when your brain is just hankering for the soft, warm meat of a chicken burger, with slim, salty fries and an ice-cold soft drink to wash it down. Ahhh, yep, nobody does it like brightly-lit-fast-food-brand-x.

However, fast food restaurants themselves have always given off a sense of hidden disquiet to me. Maintained by poorly trained youngsters will little love for their jobs, thanks to the manner and lack of respect they’re treated with by their employers. Reading Fast Food Nation opened my eyes to some startling accounts by former fast food restaurant workers. But it also added new context for views and theories I’ve already encountered about equality. More than any other industry, the fast food industry operates with a pyramid system at exists right at the base level.

Recently, I stopped off at a service station to settle the rumbling in my stomach with a filling meal from KFC. The procedure is well drilled by now, an accepted part of modern life: wait in line, request your order, pay, receive your order, then escape the impatience looks from the queue behind you. Unless, of course, there’s a problem with your order, in which case you have to return to the counter and communicate – often in an apologetic or enraged tone – with the ‘people’ behind the counter.

Only, thanks to the fast food giants, they’re not so much people anymore as automatons with hands, mouths and polyester t-shirts that bear a name tag and the company logo. It hit me when I arrived at this KFC out in the middle of the M3. All the staff were oriental, from the sales assistants to the kitchen re-heaters. There wasn’t a black, white or East Asian face among them. And the manager? Nowhere to be seen as usual.

“Can I take your order?” says the first oriental girl, whose name tag reads: Sonam. I placed my order, declining the offer to ‘go large’ or add ‘extra cheese’, then I quietly observed their faces as they served the other customers. Where have I seen those dull, tried expressions before? Ah, now I remember. At the KFC outside Victoria Centre in Nottingham, which just happens to be run by a staff of all black workers, more than a hundred miles away from the M3 service station. Still waiting for my order, I watch as two more oriental sales assistants flank the first and the three of them huddle tightly towards one of the few active tills. Three sets of eyes all fixed on a greasy screen, their faces in perfect alignment like porcelain dolls, all sharing the same monotonous resolve – it’s a pitying image.

It’s quite plain that none of them want to be there, but more likely than not they have to be. Perhaps they have family to support or they’re trying to fund their education. Though, even if their reason for working at a fast food chain aren’t that noble, it still disgusts me to see people being herded in to a marginal group and subconsciously taught to accept certain workplace values. In others words, targeting minority groups and recruiting people of similar class and race to develop branch uniformity, so that workers feel relaxed with their colleagues and don’t question their employers.

This system keeps the minority groups away from the managerial and decision-making positions, ensuring that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Of course, in a conformist environment such as a fast food restaurant, when a worker of ethnic background does make manager what’s to stop them repeating the patterns that they had been forced to believe for years? Fast food giants are quick to present shining examples of equality in ads and carefully selected case studies, but treat views that they exploit and disrespect their workers as false claims. Yet when I see social inequality of this kind, that has been going on for years and continues to replicate itself, there’s no coincidence about it.

Aiming for the Shortlist

The entry barrier has closed. But this time things are different.

Yesterday was the closing date for entries to the Guardian Student Media Awards 2010. Established in 1999, after splitting from the NUS Awards, the GSMAs are the UK’s most prodigious student media shindig.

They are the Oscars of student journalism. Nominees enjoy a lavish evening full of food, wine and minor celebrities, and the opportunity to meet some of the most well known faces in Britain’s media industry today. As for the winners, they are guaranteed to have job offers filling their inbox at an alarming rate the second their name is announced, and the after party…

OK, that’s a far cry from what it’s actually like – accept for the buffet and minor celebrities. In the past, Platform has won two GSMAs (though, nominated at least three times by my count). However, coming from a former polytechnic with one of the best journalism and media track records in the country, it’s surprising that we haven’t been nominated more often. This has partly been down to restraints, for instance, Platform’s editor was a sabbatical position in the past so we weren’t eligible.

But this year we’ve never been in a better position to enter. The magazine has become more professional, our online presence has expanded to Olympian heights and, unlike some of our predecessors, we’ve managed to submit all our applications and samples on time.

There are far fewer categories and, worse still, no cash prizes this year, but we’re all still hoping we can make it through. To get the website or magazine nominated would be an incredible achievement. And, just like our friends at Fly FM, it would be great to travel down to the awards night as a proud Trent posse. Competition is tight however, especially from the Redbricks and publications that have won in the past, like Gair Rhydd and York Vision, plus our Nottingham rivals Impact.

I’ve put myself forward for Writer of the Year and Digital Journalist of the Year. Now all I can do is wait for the nominees to be announced in September later this year. Onward and upward, then.

Workshop Lounging

Here I am again, typing away in my cluttered, disorganised den. It’s been an ambling kind of month. I took to watching more of the BBC’s annual Glastonbury coverage than usual – mostly due to Gorillaz, Dizzee Rascal and Florence and the Machine, plus I always have time for Lauren Laverne.
You might remember back in March I wrote about my
original 60GB PS3 having a system failure. After arranging for SCEE to exchange the console with a like-for-like replacement – which means all my progress on copy protected games (Killzone 2, Street Fighter IV, Assassin’s Creed II) will no longer exist and only some of my PSN data and backups can be salvaged. Having received the replacement I soon found out that this broken PS3 saga is yet to end. The first time I switched it on the internal fan began to produce an unacceptably loud noise that could be heard from the staircase. The noise has continued to persist, making it impossible to relax with the entertainment system as my family and I did with the original, so I’ve had to request another exchange. Third time is the charm I suppose.

Fortunately, I’ve still got access to other consoles so I can work and play. I’ve been working no some plans for next year as well as prepping for Develop in Brighton and some of my leftover term-time projects. Just getting back to some games for review (and leisure). It’s my aim to get through as much as I can, but I’ll have to be realistic about all this. I’ve not yet played enough of Blur to accurately judge it, and I’m still hoping to play Joe Danger, Demon’s Souls, Batman: Arkham Asylum this summer. The amount of unopened and unplayed games stacking up in my room is starting to become an epidemic.

Another source of excitement and anxiety for me is my first ever driving lesson next week. It will soon be time for me to put down these simulators and arcade racers and actually get my hands (and limbs) round the real deal.

With an assertion to try as many new things as possible – and have the time to enjoy myself – I’d quite like to have a part-time job right now just so I could have some more spending money. But with all the time and effort I’ve been devoting to Platform and attempting to get some paid freelance work that may be even more detrimental to my lifestyle. No, best to forego these luxuries. Less distraction, more progression.

Comedy Come Home

On June 24, Futurama returned to US television seven years after Fox put the show back into cryosleep. However, neither Sky nor Comedy Central will be broadcasting it here in UK which is weak. Yet another blow for transatlantic TV coming to the UK thanks to money-conscious network politics. Since the double bill premier, I’ve not yet heard the fan reaction but I aim to keep external reception to a minimum until I’ve had a chance to view them for myself. Fortunately for Fox, I don’t use torrent applications for fear of fatal system infection, so I’ll be waiting till the series arrives officially – I’m banking on September 2010 or January 2011. Can’t say the same for some of my friends who think little of breaking the rules of cyberspace though.

Even if I won’t be seeing the returning of my favourite animated comedy this summer, there’s plenty comedy for me to see on TV which is sure to have me stifling smirks as I recall dialogue and sketches at the most in appropriate moments.

The BBC is currently showing reruns of The Impression Show with Culshaw and Stephenson (BBC One). This sketch show isn’t what you’d call ‘sophisticated viewing’, but the pairing of impressionists Jon Culshaw (previously worked on Dead Ringers) and Debra Stephenson has delivered some of the most hilarious parodies I’ve seen in good while. They poked fun at Ashes to Ashes, Top Gear, The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing, Jonathan Ross, Ray Mears, Davina McCall, Cheryl Cole, and Gordon Brown. You have to have seen the people and shows they’re parodying to really get it, but their impressions, their body language and accents, are effortless. With Dead Ringers meeting an early grave, I hope the BBC bring this new sketch show back on a yearly basis – as the only real comedy on BBC One it deserves an opportunity, but would be more at home on BBC Two, the Beeb’s traditional comedy channel.

Another comedy I’m fond of is The IT Crowd (Channel 4). Now into its fourth series, The IT Crowd is a sitcom about three basement-dwelling IT employees – Roy (Chris O’Dowd), Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Jen (Katherine Parkinson) – who, through their unusual combination of computer knowhow, social ineptitude and Irish wit, find themselves in hilarious fixes. From Friendface’s part in an outrageous, relationship-damaging college reunion to the secret Countdown hipsters club where linguistic hardballs drink milk and party with ubiquitous exotic temptresses, this show maintains the humour, atmosphere and character I love about British sitcoms.

The series was created by Graham Linehan (also known for cult hit Father Ted) who is a self-confessed tech geek and gamer himself. I love seeing references to classic games, geek culture and the sci-fi posters that plaster their office in the show. But Linehan pays close attention to the current gaming scene as well, throwing in the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Guitar Hero right when they were on gamers’ wishlists. Always ready to have a cheeky laugh with its audience, and at its characters, The IT Crowd is essential viewing for anybody who knows the ‘difference’ between memory and RAM.

Image: Matheus Sanchez

Misplaced Acclaim

Much like condemning the Twilight films, this post will probably result in a large proportion of teenage girls dismissing me – not to mention some of the amateur radio presenters I know, who will probably elbow me repeatedly in the ribs.

Ellie Goulding is horribly overrated.

After being awarded the BBC Sound of 2010 and releasing her debut album, Lights, Goulding has been raised up on a pedestal like she’s the next Madonna. The promoters and press in the UK music scene have decided that she is this year’s ‘singer of the moment’. There was Duffy in 2008, whose music I must confess I rather like, then Little Boots and Pixie Lott in 2009. But Ellie Goulding? It’s perplexing, because to me she’s just so average, uninteresting, background filler.

In interviews she’s very much the naive new arrival, praising all the other acts and afraid to pass any real criticism. She appears to have stumbled into fame and is coping well enough through openness and youthful charm. But the lady behind the music seems irksomely two-dimensional. There’s nothing monumentus or particularly captivating about her story: she quit university, decided to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter (like the other 1,000,000+ wannabes out there) and started work on some material, got lucky by getting offered a record deal and suddenly she is everywhere.

Goulding can reach some elevating notes with her softly, tinging voice that flows like a meandering aqua melody. Yet she emits little energy will her performances and her songs are disappointingly safe vocal pieces. And topping things off, friend and producer Fin Dow-Smith (aka Starsmith) has broken what little of her LP was to my taste by overlaying excruciating techno and dance beats on the acoustics resulting in an experimental recipe that’s about as noxious as pickled goat’s cheese.

Alexis Petridis from the Guardian put it best with: “Lights boasts a kind of effortless commerciality: hip enough for Radio 1, mainstream enough to get played on Radio Maldwyn, back hear home. But those interview protestations of ordinariness weren’t false modesty so much as statement of fact. Quite normal is exactly how you’d describe Lights.”

I’m not entirely inimical to Ellie Goulding – she is probably a nice regular 23-year-old with very little uniqueness to express – but until her song writing can match the bloated acclaim she has bizarrely been afforded I will remain apathetic towards her music.