Best albums of 2010

Gorillaz, Phase Three, press image 01I’ve been enthralled and captivated by so much music this year. Below are five of the newly released albums that have stayed will me this year. The one and only Gorillaz top my list. But, really, who else was going to, mmm? Continue reading

iPhone Upgrade

I’ve being using my iPhone for a little over four months now and can only conclude that this phone has genuinely changed my life.

I never thought one device could displace my three essential pieces of portable kit: Sony Ericssion W580i, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W100 and Creative Zen Sleek Photo, but this phone has. And it’s even leaving my PSP in the dark.

My previous phone, a Sony Ericsson W580i, lasted me less than two years, and had a string of issues which have tarnished the brand in my eyes – I should say, before that phone I inherited my mum’s old Sony Ericsson which lasted a good five years. The W580i lost its ability to play music and audio of any kind, which meant I often missed calls, then the phone stopped reading the M2 memory stick entirely meaning no media could be stored on the phone, the battery began to last fewer and fewer hours and finally the software flatlined. The one grace was the manufacturer’s warranty granted me a free repair at the Carphone Warehouse.

Compared to that old dinosaur, using the iPhone is like I’ve stepped into 2045. This smartphone has become more than a communication device, it’s a entire lifestyle organiser, entertainment system and microcomputer in the palm of my hand.

I got an iPhone 3GS (16GB) in late August – despite the coaxing of a Carphone Warehouse employee to get an iPhone 4, my mind had always been set on the cheaper, more reliable 3GS, as no matter how fancy the phone, it defeats the purpose if I can’t actually make calls on it. What’s taken my breath away is just how proficient it is at all of the basic communication and entertainment functions I expect.

To begin with, there’s the multi-touch interface itself. From tapping buttons to parting two fingers to zoom out on a map, the phone’s display has changed my expectations for mobile interfaces completely. It took me a few weeks to adapt, but I can now type relatively quickly on the device – I’ve no idea how BlackBerry users cope with such ridiculously small, unusable interfaces. Not only has the spread of multi-touch devices changed lifestyle programs, it’s also changing games.

Functionally, I can add favourite contacts, text messages appear as threads, like forums and emails on the web, and even typing is faster thanks to the full qwerty keyboard and built in dictionary/auto-correction. The ease at which it can be connected to the internet also pleased me, as it’s taken me months to wrestle my home Wi-Fi network into line. I do occasional get issues connecting via Wi-Fi and, 3G or not, downloading still takes a painfully long time even for small files. Then there are the built-in email, camera and MP3 player functions.

There are a host of apps available for you to connect web services so you can send media between your desktop and mobile handset, like the very handy Evernote. More impressive to me, however, is the fact without joining any new online service, I was able to link my iPhone to my Google account directly, deciding exactly what services to allow it access to. I’ve been able to jot down some short quotes during events as well as ideas for full articles in the Notes app. Then, by logging into my account, I can copy that text for use on my laptop which is an incredible time saver.

The 3.0 megapixel camera many not be as detailed or fully featured as my five-year-old Sony DSC-W100, but unlike that compact camera which doesn’t handle action shots well or any sort of fast situation where speed is of the essence, the iPhone tends to take clear photos with little fuss and, aside from not being as ergonomic to hold, it’s a reliable camera. It’s also happens to be one the features that has stopped me taking out my compact camera as often.

The other feature that has lightened the load on my jacket pockets is the iPod. The Cover Flow option, which auto-displays your albums lined up on a beautiful reflective surface when you turn the screen horizontal, is a fast, and visually pleasing, way to surf your album collection, and its usability is as good any Apple product. Sadly, there’s no option to play custom music for the alarm – evidence of Apple’s walled garden, as a friend of mine would say. Consolidating all my music in one place has meant a long process converting my music collection over to iTunes. Plus, my laptop disc drive is incompatible when it comes to burning CDs, so anything I download first has to be converted to MP3 before writing it to blank CD. But that’s more an issue with my laptop and iTunes software than anything else. I’m still sorting playlists and things now. Having access to iTunes also, as is Apple’s not-so-sly-plan, opens up the hundreds of thousands of apps available on the App Store.

The App Store has become a digital candy store of useful programs, entertainment, tools and more. I’ve had so many good apps recommended to be by friends and shows like Click, my purchases on the App Store – which range from £0.59 ($0.99) to £3.99 ($6.99) – have fast notched up to over £40 since I got the phone. The variety and quality of apps on offer is astounding. I have communication apps, like Twitter, Facebook and Skype, media apps for BBC News, The Guardian and more, an app to check my mobile provider tariff, and productivity apps like the brilliant RPG to-do-list EpicWin (an app by Media Molecule artist Rex Crowle and indie developer Tak Fang that allows me to set quests and receive points for completing them).

That’s only the half of it, though. I’ve also enjoyed a series of games that utilise the power of this new smartphone and feel like they have truly been built for use on the move. From the enchanting 8-bit sprites and simulation management of sleeper hit Game Dev Story, to the total wow-moment of duelling towering foes in Infinity Blade, to PopCap’s slew of five-minute time-wasters, Cut the Rope, Drop7 and unethically infectious Angry Birds, I am speechless as to how much this ‘phone’ has impressed me in its gaming capabilities.

Blimey. This has gone on way, way longer than I intend, clearly because there’s some much to talk about with this phone. It much more than a phone, it’s my essential digital companion. From leaving my flat in a rush and answering my work emails on the go, to being able to tweet ridiculous observations during my commute to uni, to buying new games on the App Store to write about for, to taking my newly organised music collection with me wherever I go, my iPhone does it all. A portable device has never done so much for me or changed my lifestyle patterns in quite the same way. Bravo, Apple.

Journo Biz: Margaret Robertson

Two years into my quest to become a full-time writer, I can’t help be wonder when I meet others who’ve already trod this path if I’ll have accomplished even half of what they have by the time I reach their age.

Margaret Robertson is one of those people.

When I encountered her, chairing developer talks at GameCity 3, I must confess I was completely ignorant of her status in the UK games scene (as with Ste Curran), and worst, what a inquisitive personality she is.

Margaret was editor of Edge magazine from 2003-2007, and has been deeply involved in the gamemaking process since departing Future Publishing. She’s worked as consultant on everything from game design to story structure, she’s been a key organiser for events like GameCity and Develop, and she regularly speaks at GDC. This year she took a new role as development director at Hide&Seek, and continues to write for several publications, including Wired UK and Gamasutra.

I remember my first one-to-one conversation with her, the two of us hot footing it through the streets of Nottingham in the rain. I happened to have come prepared with an umbrella and held it between us as we walked from Mogal-E-Azam to the Royal Britannia hotel. The rain may have been falling in torrents, causing miniature rivers to begin coursing along the tarmac towards drains, and it may have been the ‘gentlemanly thing to do’, but Margaret emits the kind of authority and resourcefulness that told me she would have been perfectly fine without my aid.

From her presence alone you can feel the wisdom of a thousand stories drawing those around her to listen intently, such was the scene at Develop in Brighton 2009 when I met her for the second time.

During the conversation, we spoke about Dave Jone’s presentation on APB, and she made some very acute observations. 12 months later, APB was no more. While my predictions were poor, and really go to show how much I still have to learn, Margaret’s were bang on the money.

Not only is she an exceptional mind, Margaret is also incredibly generous and, as Alice Taylor also mentions in her equally invigorating tribute on Wonderland blog, modest. The fact that she’s taken the time to offer such sound guidance and advice, like “never publish anything that you wouldn’t say to a developer’s face,” is a real privilege. There are few people in the industry I respect and admire in the same way.

They don’t make ’em like they used to

I’ve known for a long time that you can’t trust technology – I learnt that the hard way. In the summer of 2003, I lost my original Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy gamesave to corruption. I prevented myself from earning 100% completion on a TimeSplitters 2 save by using a cheat disc. I’ve watched my cousin leave Metal Gear Solid running all day and night because he didn’t have a Memory Card to save his progress. Overwriting data has caused heated disputes between my brother and I. And of the six to eight home computers my family has been through over the years we’ve lost countless PC saves and profiles.
Having experienced all this, I’ve been employing a number of backup rituals over the years, which at my most painstaking has had me taking data from five different sources, hard copying them to CDs and DVDs, and keeping regular copies on a memory stick and my laptop HDD.
But believe me none of this, none, could have prepared me for the unfortunate saga of system failures that was to befall me, and many others, this year.
It happened on March 12. My brother text me to say our 60GB PS3, bought in June 2007, a 5kg beast of future tech that I assumed would sooner sprout wings than fail us before its time, was dead… Seems it did give up the ghost, leaving us with a PlayStation-shaped hole in our lives and choice between paying out for one of its siblings or… heck, there was never any option.
Fast forward to the summer when I called PlayStation Support. My brother tells me he’d been watching a DVD at the time and that the PS3 crashed, displaying the yellow signal light, rebooted, then crashed completely. According to the advisor at the other end of the phone line, this yellow light symbolises an unspecific system failure. We wished to do a like-for-like exchange, which they charged a crippling £130 for. Begrudgingly, we agreed to pay.
When the new system arrived in July, I found it was operating abnormally two minutes after it was set up. The internal fan was revving at an alarmingly loud rate – you could hear it all the way from downstairs. So I immediate called customer support to explain my discomfort. After booting the PlayStation up so the man on the other end could hear how loud it was too, they agreed to send a replacement.
The third time had to be the charm. It arrived in August and this time there were no noticeable mechanical issues, so I set about rebuilding our data library. Though wrapped in plastic, all the replacement consoles we received have been pre-loaded with nearly the latest firmware. Fortunately my cautious routines pay off in situations such as this. I was able to restore all but a handful of our PS3 gamesaves, thanks to them being ‘Copy Prohibited’. Nevertheless, we lose valuable progress and irretrievable data for Killzone 2, Street Fighter IV and Assassin’s Creed II – this ‘protected saves’ nonsense really has to stop.
For the next three months everything appeared to be fine. Then, on November 20, it happened again. If the first failure was suitably ‘unspecified’, this one was quite plain, even to the non-technical folks. I was testing Sims 3 at the time when the system just froze. I thought it was a disc error but the severity of the situation soon dawned on me when that hateful yellow signal emitted from the power indicator. I reset the system, it booted up just as normal, everything seemed to be OK… accept, the disc drive was suddenly incapable of reading discs of any kind – precisely the same error that my friend Dee encountered when his launch PS3 broke last summer.
Realising that yet another system had failed, and worst still that this one was out of the courtesy warranty, I almost wanted to let out a wolf cry of anger and sorrow. Instead, I took Lao Tzu’s advice that ‘the world is ruled by letting things take their course’ and did the only thing I could do – backup any data, wipe the system and wait to see what Sony would say in the morning.
The next day I explained that we’d had this replacement console for only three months and to my relief the PlayStation Support gentlemen was understanding and arranged for a fourth replacement to be sent that week at no additional cost. That system is up and run now and I pray it will find the strength to last at least until 2015. The whole fiasco has been a major hassle, especially since I’ve had to call the PlayStation Store team to reset our SingStar downloads and any other data which is locked to the system each time one of them has failed.
If you’re reading this and you still have a working launch PS3 then I must assume you’re in a very fortunate minority. In the past two years lots of people I know with launch PS3s have had their systems die on them, including uni friends and two of my Platform contributors. And, of the occasions for things to go wrong, madtyger told me that her 60GB launch PS3 copped it on her birthday.
Due to this pattern of system failures, I believe there’s a fundamental flaw with these PS3 models. If I had the time, and the connections, it’s something I’d like to investigate for myself. At the very least, I’d like a knowledgeable industry insider, like Dean Takahashi (Opening the Xbox, Xbox 360 Uncloaked), to take a crack at it.
My one saving grace in the past year has ironically been the 120GB PS3 Slim which I invested in so both my brother and I would have access to PS3 consoles while I’m away from home. Still, I’m sure we’d all prefer if the original PS3 models just worked like Sony promised they would, as features like backward compatibility and installing other operating systems have been phased out for the new versions.

The reality is the first iterations of current generations systems – Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP – seem to be horribly unreliable. Some of my consoles from the 1990s still work, including my Game Boy Pocket (incidentally, Nintendo appear to have two very sturdy devices in the Wii and DS). Though, as Ben Parfitt points out, they can do more, hence there’s a lot more that can go wrong with the new boxes. So, no matter what the promise, it turns out you still can’t trust technology.

Import Trader: The Truth about Afrika

Curiously long load and save times, menu interfaces that could have fallen out of an early DVD film and grammatical inconsistencies that come out like broken English. Yes, Afrika is every bit the awkward Japanese import.

Watching early footage of this game when it was first announced in 2006, I was equally as bemused as anyone else. It fell into the category of novel, potentially ground-breaking, titles, like Heavenly Sword, Heavy Rain, Folklore, The Eye of Judgment and Lair, that remained a strong argument for Sony’s first-party support of PS3. And it’s an argument I stuck with until playing the games for myself and deciding whether they were truly worthy to be called ‘next gen’.
Stripped away its once-impressive visuals and the semi-convincing animal behaviour and Afrika may as well be a less adventurous Wild Thornberrys spin-off. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. For me, Afrika and its status as ‘that wildlife game’ for PS3 have past into gaming mythos. The US version I own – kindly sent by a friend – has no English audio, and though the text translation falters in parts it’s nothing compared to importing a Japanese PS1 or NES game.
I’ve played a few import games on friends’ ‘chipped’ consoles over the years. Since opening my years to the worldwide gaming scene I’ve sometimes felt as if I was missing out on something magical. And, in some bizarre way, that’s what Afrika is to me, a belated standard-bearer for my fascination with a bygone era.

Though I don’t get that sense of utter bewilderment by being confronted with columns of indecipherable (by my count at least) Kanji text, there are still plenty of Japanese design traits that bring a smile to my face.

First of all, there’s the set up. You’ve been dispatched to the Manyanga Conversation Area in Africa, one of the few regions untouched by civilization. You’re not a terrifying mech, a blue-haired cute-when-she’s-angry princess or a gravity-defying ninja. You’re a photojournalist, and it’s your job to catalogue the wild kingdom the only way you know how – by getting up close and personal with the hoofs, horns and teeth that will determine whether you end up a legendary wildlife snapper or the lioness’ breakfast.
Here, you aren’t managing a bourgeoning inventory, like Resident Evil, you have to worry about your limited storage space for digital photos. Clearly, your esteemed colleague forgot to pack the 1.5 terabyte HDD. Like any video game worth its salt, this a rookie to Rodeo Drive story, and your feeble camera gear reflects this. The Jeep, the tried and true Safari vehicle, will be your ride out on the plains, but like some forced Gran Tursimo B-Spec tour, all of the characters have the urgency of a Sunday driver. Pity, as gunning towards a herd of gazelles while clicking away with a mounted DSLR, its 30x45mm lens jutting out like a turret, sounds like fantastic fun.
It’s not next gen in the way Uncharted is in my eyes, what Afrika is though is a game that could only have come from the birthplace of Hello Kitty and Akira, with all the foibles that I take pleasure in. After all, where else would this pass as helpful advice? “Today’s advice: If you think your camera is good, chances are it is.”

The Real Kinect Vision

I’ve seen Kinect in the flesh, I’ve talked to people involved with making it, and yet somehow I’ve still not played it myself.
That’s hasn’t stopped my forming an opinion about it, though. In previous posts I’ve reported on doubts from developers and listened to a friend of mine review the hardware. It was an opinion piece I wrote for where I think I was really able to nail what it was that has been bugging me about Kinect. Even though the technology is here now, developers won’t truly master this new controller-free interface for a good number of years.
Right now, it’s party games and exaggerated movements. Yet I can’t deny that, despite its flaws, this first step towards the future of gaming is tantalising.
What will impress me is when more innovative, unique game experiences start to appear for Kinect, and other motion devices. I’m talking about psychological and physical nuances that alter our behaviour towards games. Subtle gameplay, like using your facial expressions to calmly and confidently talk your way out of a sticky situation in a BioWare or Bethesda RPG. Speaking aloud to navigate menus at speed; in a game like LA Noire something like this could be used for sorting through the evidence itself, before making your conclusion. And if you happen to remember that tech demo for Eyedentify shown at E3 2005, that kind of gameplay where you’re conversing with, and instructing, non-playable characters in an innate manner.
I don’t know how far off these games are, but I do know I’ll be front and centre when they arrive.

In The Fall

You know you’re getting old when suddenly you’re content with clothes, cooking products and the odd DVD box set for Christmas. Unbelievable.

It’s shocking to think I’ve changed that much. I am supremely thankful for all of the generous gifts sent to me by friends and family. There was zero ruckus in the house, so I had a profoundly enjoyable day with the family.

This Christmas did hold something special for me on the music front. After an eventful year of Gorillaz events, the band had one last surprise in sort for fans: A musical diary recorded during their North American tour, released as an original 15-track album.

Damon Albarn, the musical auteur and co-creator of Gorillaz, recorded the music during spare time while on the road: “I did it because there’s a lot of time that you just spend staring at walls essentially. And it was a fantastic way of doing it.”

“I found working in the day, whether it’s in the hotel or in the venue, it was a brilliant way of keeping myself well.”

All of the music was recorded using Albarn’s iPad as the band travelled from Montreal to Vancouver via Seattle, Texas and Toronto.

“I literally wrote everything on the day in each place and there’s a strange sort of sound of America and its musical traditions that comes through. It feels like a journey through America.”

The Fall is its name, and though fan sites and web databases are classifying it as a studio album, this is an experimental collection through and through. It’s has been given away free to Sub Division members, and I’ve listen to my copy a few times since downloading it yesterday.

As with my Plastic Beach post back in March, these are initial impressions. How you feel about a song, especially as part of a whole album, changes according to your mood and whether it speaks to you. That said, few would argue that this album is almost strictly for fans. There are some vocal tracks, some instrumentals, solos and ensembles. As so few of the tracks jumped out at me, it feels like a B-sides album (though that sounds negative, their last B-sides album, D-sides contains some of their best work). I wasn’t expecting it to knock my headphones off – Plastic Beach did that already and I’ve learnt that magic that special takes time – yet as an experimental album written on the road it’s just the kind of innovation I love seeing from Gorillaz, and these tracks are by no means ‘throwaway’. In fact, a full album of this quality has to be the best holiday gift ever from any band I know.

Opening track ‘Phoner to Arizona’ is typical Gorillaz, a brooding chord that soon burgeons into a subconscious mind-seed – the kind of track I shun, then find myself oddly warming to after coming to some sort of mental clarity without realising it. ‘Revolving Doors’, with its curious lyrics and melodious beat, is as easy to get caught up in as its namesake. The low nautical tingle to ‘Shy-town’ and ‘Little Pink Plastic Bags’ feel like ever so gentle arrivals or exits, and resonate the same city-like vibe as ‘68 State’. ‘Amarillo’ is a laying out under the stars kind of song, like you’ve got all the time in the world. Bobby Womack also manages a heart-tugging camp fire solo, singing “let’s talk about feelings” in a way that somehow manages to be romantic. The spun gold of synth scales and piano melody in ‘Aspen Forest’ have warmed me most of all, though. It’s like being dropped into a leafy green labyrinth for two wonderful minutes before emerging from the forest canopy.

The Fall is available to stream now from and will be on general release in 2011. Have a listen for yourself and see what you take away from this musical journey through North America.