Blood Moon Rising

I played Esper at our inaugural Tiny Leaders tournament (Or 3DH as our TO refers to it) and while Thopter/Sword is a bloody good combo, the manabase was complicated (and expensive). In fact every deck’s mana, bar one, seemed pretty complicated. This video should explain my thought process as the name ‘Blood Moon’ entered my head:

And this list was born:

Main                                                Lands                                   Side
Preordain                             Sulpher Falls                   Red Elemental Blast
Fire/Ice                                 4 Mountain                      Pyroblast
Sudden Demise                   Flooded Strand               Anger of the Gods
Counter Spell                      Waistland                         Negate
Think Twice                         7 Islands                           Elixir of Immortality
Mizzium Morters               Delta                                  Graf Digger’s Cage
Snappy                                 Foothills                            Pithing Needle
Shackles                               Desolate Lighthaus         Ye olde fork’ed bolt
Manaleak                             Steam Vents                     Tormod’s Crypt
Miscalculation                    Command Tower             Flash Freeze
Brain Storm
Shattering Spree
Rolling Earthquake
Cyclonic Whifft                                         Some stuff I was missing:
Counterflux                                                          Vermillion Click
Daze                                                                           Combust
True Name                                                           Maybe Impulse
Dragon Master Outcast                            Maybe Kargan Dragon Lord
Bloodmoon
Magus of the Moon
Duck Faygin
Electrolyze                                                                       Commander
Hinder                                                                          Nin, The Pain Artist
Izzet Charm
Ancestral Vision
Miss Tickle (Tutor)
Flameslash
Ponder
Force Spike
Bolt

Please excuse any typos; I assure you only half are deliberate.

I play Nin in duel occasionally so I’ve got a rough idea how to play this and it always warms the cockles of heart when an opponent picks her up for the first time and goes “Oh, I guess you can ping my creatures.” The goal of the deck is resolve a moon effect against the format’s greedy manabases and get free wins, while Nin draws you binders worth of cards to counter/nuke everything else. Basically, the more colours you see on a general the happier you should be. Seems fair.

I run scalable wraths rather than tiny sweepers like Pyroclasm and Whip Flare because I dread the higher toughness of rock style decks like Anafenza. Graf Diggers + Anger of the Gods is a concession to all the bloody Ayesha decks I saw the other week (can’t blame them, cool character). Blasts are for Geist and help vs blue in general. Tormod’s helps vs shenanigans. Elixir of Immortality is for the two mill decks that telegraphed themselves in the chat before the event. Counter magic also a good bonus here. Pithing needle does work as and when. The only thing I’m disappointed about is that Ruination costs 4. That would have been fun.

Expecting to see Geist, lands, elves, Ayesha, Shu Yen (tempo and storm) + mystery mill decks. Maybe MBC or Kemba (Really want to see Dack vs Kemba).

 

The Tournament

Names have been withheld to protect the innocent.

Round 1

Monoblue Mill helmed my Ambassador Laqautus

Game 1. Blood Moon is clearly off to fantastic start. Fortunately he doesn’t have many blockers for my meagre pressure and my superior counter magic had game this in hand. After an epoch or two I finally have him dead on board only to get cocky and forget the flashback clause on some weird Innistrad mill card. Whoops!

Game 2 was even slower. The only exciting thing to happen for the first seven turns was his resolving a Mindshrieker, which I promptly Shackled. Sadly he had Top next turn to control my Shrieker activations and prevent it getting out of hand… which was working right up until he got greedy and decided to pop Top for a counter spell in response to my bait. Top promptly gets milled and Mindshrieker goes hog wild.

Game 3. We go to time with him 1 mana short of going off with Basalt Monolith. Oh, how I chuckled.

Round 2.

U/B Sygg Tribal Zombies

Blood Moon why?

Sygg is a brew from a friend of mine who always has a unique build on the go and who would probably rather eat a wasp sandwich than net deck.

Game 1 is slow – with him developing a board of smallish creatures, while I resolve True Name with counter back up and Sudden Demise in hand. This worked out poorly for the zombies with a 3-4-1 in my favour. Dack then comes down and begins digging. Opponent does pull an out for True Name in the form of Sudden Spoiling, but I have a counter for the removal spell that follows and things go south quick.

Game 2. My opponent has a cheeky turn 1 Phyrexian Reclamation, but promptly gets stuck on two lands. Meanwhile I’m digging through my deck like a traction engine. He manages to get up to three lands only to be met by mystical tutor for Anger of the Gods. He never draws another land while I lay down Dragon Master Outcast with massive protection. The lands continue to slink around on the bottom of his deck and concession soon follows.

Disappointing game as that Reclamation was pretty spicy and we had a great match that went to the wire the week before.

Round 3.

Thassa Monoblue control.

Bloodmoooooooon ;_____;

Game 1. I get a mirror of my previous opponent’s game and get stuck on two lands for the first 5 turns. I should have conceded on the spot as my opponents win condition is literal to wait until you deck out. Seriously. Elixir of Immortality was the win con.

Game 2. First game lasts so long we go to time almost as soon as game 2 begins. Nothing to write about here.

Round 4.

U/W Geist.

Finally, the match up I’ve been waiting for! These were definitely the best games of the night, a lot of back and forth and some lovely banter.

Game 1. Stuck on two lands, but I leak his turn three Geist and top deck the Sulpher Falls that enables me to cast… BLOOD MOON! And he only has 1 basic in play!

Opponent is not impressed and calls me something that sounded a lot like ‘Vicious Bar-Steward,’ which is odd as I’ve never worked in a pub in my life. Anyway, I decide the best thing to do here is double down with a Magus of the Moon and start poking away at his life total (my only regret is that I didn’t have a Back to Basics so I could triple down). Unfortunately he top decks the island he needs to recast Geist and I’m left with the serious danger that his next turn might see a pair of boots on it, so I throw value out the window with a Rolling Earthquake for two. The next thing I know he has another plains to Council’s Judgment my other moon effect. Oh no! We ponder the morality of this decision for a while and finally agree to disagree.

With an empty hand it’s time for Nin to try and dig me out of this mess. I pass, only for Clique to flash in and mess about with my hand and life total. His subsequent SoF&I threatens to put the game away, but a redirected sword trigger sees Nin popped for four, which nets me… Dack Fayden! Dack + Counterflux back-up subsequently net me a magic sword, which certainly looks good with the True Name I’ve drawn. However, my opponent has also been fondling the top-deck luck-sack and manages to suit up Geist with Steel of the Godhead, walloping me for 13. I’m in the tank, but what’s that waiting for me on top? Sudden Demise! Bye-bye Geist! You cost 9cc now! Equip True Name, swing, bye-bye Clique!

Game 2. I keep a greedy hand with only two islands, but also with Preordain and a Brainstorm. My opponent proceeds to lay down a turn one Pithing Needle naming… Nin! What a charming young man. Preordain sees Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast, which I must both sadly bottom to draw into more islands. I manage to hold off Geist with counter magic, but a Stone Forge sneaks through searching up SoF&I. Fortunately Brainstorm picks me up a Wooded Foothills, which enables a timely top deck appearance from… Dack Fayden! Dack soon dies to an irate Kor stone smith, but the damage is done as Magus of the Moon picks up the unattended sword. Concession swiftly follows as my clock and CA go through the roof.

Flukey top decks for the win!

 

What we learned

Well, my plan to prey on greedy manabases didn’t work out too well this week, which is a shame as there were two Marath decks and a Lands deck amongst the competitors. C’est la vie. If I were to change anything it would probably be to swap Force Spike for Mental Misstep, shoe-horn in Clique Boom-Boom and maybe take Graf Digger’s out the side (Also I’d play better and have fewer two land hands).

Apart from the decks mentioned above there was also a Toshiro (control), tricked out Ezuri, budgeted Eldamari, and an Alesha (aggro) in attendance. Unfortunately, all-in-Geist, Kira merfolk and Shu-Yen aggro had work or social commitments.

 

Musings on the Format

This is going on the assumption that the format as played at your LGS is a competitive one, as it’s far more like Dual or Legacy than EDH. I like brewing for this format and it’s the first thing in a long while to actually encourage me to frequent my local store again. The 3cc and highlander rule combination can lead to some very interesting card choices and deck building solutions; there’s a caveat to this though, you must first ask yourself three questions. Can I answer Geist? Can I answer Ezuri? Can I actually play against Lands? If the answer is ‘no’ go back the drawing board. Those decks will bloody annihilate you otherwise. It’s what’s me holding back from building a decent Hannah deck, as I just can’t see myself beating Geist or Elves without a cheap effective sweeper (Ratchet Bomb does not pass the ‘effective’ criteria for me).

My other issue is that not all commanders are created equal and this does lead to some awkward restrictions. Your commander is the one resource you’re always guaranteed access to, so you need to have them helm a build that puts their unique characteristics to maximum game-breaking use. While there are supposedly 200 possible commanders, since 80% of those are total guff (and not the good sort like Commodore Guff) you’re really looking at between 20/30. Furthermore the commander’s abilities typically bottleneck deck construction in a certain direction unless you’re playing something truly degenerate like Lands, where they only serve as colour enabler/coaster. Which is easy to illustrate below with a nod to Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western.

The Good: Anafenza is a beast and easily slots into an aggro, midrange or control build depending on your tastes.

The Bad: You don’t really want to build a deck around Ichiga, Who Topples Oaks, unless there’s some splendid two piece combo he’s a part of and easily assembled in monogreen that I’m not aware of.

And the Ugly: Sygg. A good general, but one that only really fits into an aggro/tempo build and is the only legal B/U legend I’m aware of.

So there’s no real U/B general that suits a control play-style, while some colours simply don’t have a single decent 3cc legend, or one at all in the case of BUG or 5cc.

It’s still far too early to really discuss whether the format has been ‘solved’ in a similar way that standard or modern are and I think I’m going to have a lot of fun while the format pans out over the next month or so in my local area, but that’s probably because I deck build like the Grinch.

Take it away Creedence

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Jane and Godzilla

Recently, I picked up two beautifully illustrated comics, which for wildly different reasons made me feel intensely sentimental. AND HERE THEY ARE:

Godzilla: The Half-Century War
James Stokoe

1954, Tokyo Bay, Lt. Ota Murakami and Kentaro Yoshiara are a tank crew standing by on orders to expect… something. You can guess what happens next. A fateful encounter that sparks a fifty year obsession with Murakami, as he pursues Godzilla and his various antagonists on a global tour of apocalyptic proportions. The parallel here is obvious: this is a story about Godzilla fans by a Godzilla fan.

This isn’t a particularly complicated tale – plot twists and character development are completely dwarfed by the spectacle of space lizard wrestling. However, the crucial difference here is that the human element is still compelling, where as in a traditional Godzilla movie it is an exercise in tedium so exact that it is almost scientific. Which is just about the only departure (and very welcome one) from the typical Godzilla format. Otherwise this is a proper rogue’s gallery of studio Toho villains engaged in multi-panel swathes of municipal destruction, all with the proper amateur-wrestling-with-fireworks vibe of the old movies.

G-Man getting all up in there.

JUST LOOK AT IT.

Of course, the primary reason to pick up a Stokoe is the artwork. Half century war certainly doesn’t disappoint. The work has a glossy, almost greasy feel to it, with a heavy focus on purples and reds which is incredibly arresting. What really makes it pop though is the paradoxical balance the art strikes between intricacy and clarity. It’s like when you were a kid and tried to draw a battle scene, spending an entire afternoon jamming in as many incidental details – fighter jets, exploding paratroopers, tommy-gunning yetis – as possible. Stokoe is exactly like this, but in his hands, rather than becoming a complete mess of leaking felt-tip pens, it all comes together into an elegant tapestry. Special mention going to his character designs for the Anti Megalasaurus Force – if these don’t form the basis for Pacific Rim 2’s jaeger crews it will be an absolute crime.

This is the perfect adaptation of the B-movie into comic form by someone that really understands and appreciates the original subject matter. It’s a chance to take a guilty wallow in a small, but highly nostalgic facet of childhood, but minus the 45 minutes of mind-numbing nonsensical exposition and a dubbing track that makes the cast sound like concussed robot yokels.

I think it’s time to go and watch Godzilla Vs. Kumonga (feat Baby. G) on youtube again.

.

Jane, the Fox & Me
Fanny Britt

Bullying. Everyone’s experienced it, either a victim or perpetrator and often as both.

Helene is a young victim from the city of Montreal, a metropolis of muted greys, downcast eyes and identity crises. Her only escape comes through the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the stoic wisdom of the titular heroine, which is a somewhat novel way of dealing with ones problems (OHOHOHOHOHOHO).

Britt has perfectly encapsulated the isolating environment that bullying is capable of producing; so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this book is at least slightly autobiographical. Helene lives in a bubble, cut off from her peers by their scorn and from her family through a misplaced sense of guilt. Her self-image entirely at odds with reality, which hardly seems to matter in her muted wrung-out world. The insults of Genevieve, off-hand antagonist and memetic genius, echo round the school corridors and weigh on her soul. It’s a bit emotional really.

My sympathy for bookish outsiders is in now way a reflection of my own childhood. NO WAY.

Look at those devil eyed bastards. Stay strong Helene.

For a story that focuses on such depressing themes, the beauty of the artwork is phenomenal. Penciled almost entirely in various shades of black and grey, the artwork has an amazing grace which belays the cartoonish depiction of the characters. A still and Lowry-like world, but one filled with a wonderful sense of motion and vivacity, especially in the carefree body language of Helene’s classmates. There’s a lot of life in Montreal, but not one Helene can experience through her grey filter. This funeral parlour atmosphere only relents during her brief escapes into Jane’s world, where colour splashes out across the page in a manner almost as startling as it did in Schindler’s List. A lot of these panels would not be out of place on gallery walls.

Of course this may seem a bit heavy for what is ostensibly a children’s graphic novel, but this is also story of progression, sensitively told, of a life waiting to fill itself with colour. Plus, if that’s not enough, Helene’s musings on the difficulties and similarities of Jane’s world contains what must be one of the best parody scenes of all time. Of all time.

P.S
For any British readers who manage to grab a copy of JFM: Jujubes are essentially Midget Gems.

P.P.S
Having now seen the 2014 Godzilla reboot I wish I’d just stuck with the Half Century War.

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Random Acts of Senseless Violence

Book review: Random Acts of Senseless Violence

Sometimes you get struck by a story, it lifts you up out of that featureless buzz ‘of that’s all right’. It stays with you and rides around on your shoulder, whispering to you at unexpected times. Welcome to Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence.

It’s the story of Lola Hart, a preteen, upper middleclass girl who crucially doesn’t discover that she has super powers, or that she’s in love with a vampire, or that she’s the chosen one destined to save the world. She just discovers that her parents are losing their jobs and that the comfortable world she once took for granted is starting to unravel under her feet, while society gallops its way toward economic and social collapse in a mess of petty isms, persecution and repression.

RASV

Make no mistake, the title isn’t ironic, this is a book about violence. Not in a graphic, Tarantino-esque, splatter house way, but the violence of the everyday; the causal cruelty of peers, the violence of poverty and an uncaring system. This is a story that recognises that sometimes a telephone conversation can slug as hard as clenched fist and the results aren’t pretty. There’s a relentless and thoroughly believable grimness to Womack’s world. Every day the Harts wake up to find out that, through no fault of their own, they’ve slipped a little further down the cliff. And the harder they struggle the less of a handhold they seem to have – on their lives, their health, on each other.

Which seems a desperate situation when your making the transition into teenage life. Fortunately, Lola’s not one to plunge her head into the sand, but meets this world head on. Forming tentative then rock solid relationships with her new peers, becoming more responsible, more resourceful. Tougher. Ultimately mastering the rhythms of her new life in a way her desperately naïve parents and vulnerable sister can’t. It’s a gradual metamorphosis, but beautifully illustrated in the language of Lola’s diary; a spottily punctuated flow of consciousness which gradually shows more of the Nadsat-style language of the streets she finds herself drawn toward. The irony being that the more Lola finds herself liberated by the freedoms of her new life, the more it seems to imprison her in a downward spiral of depression and violence. Which is the point really. There are no real villains here, just everyday people careening off each other as they struggle to get by.

Which may leave you wondering whether there’s any form of release for Lola, catharsis for us? Well there is. Of a sort. Even one we might see as justified, even hoped for, but like most things we think we want, hollow and ultimately regrettable.

Sweet dreams then.

But seriously, this is a really good book.

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Pacific Rim

Has been talked up to be the biggest, stupidest and funnest film of the last decade, with a passport guaranteeing transportation to that distant kingdom known as Youretwelveagain. Giant monsters (Kaiju) appear and start tearing up coastal settlements like a pack of British lager louts on a package tour. There is only one solution to this problem: build big robots with even bigger knuckles.* LET THE THUMPING BEGIN.

There’s so much about this film that I love, mostly in the ‘wow’ factor . There are definitely goose bumps during the suit, boot and shoot phase of getting the pilots into their robots. Loads of clanking gears, superfluous cogs and shink-shink-shink of metal links locking together. No one can fail to enjoy these. The robots themselves are an earth shaking delight – swaggering steel avatars of barely restrained violence. The fact that each Pacific Rim nation has its own unique robot + pilot team is utterly gratifying, like some genius decided to cross Starlight Express with WWE. Particular kudos must go to the Russian team who look like Zangief and his date during their teenage glam rock years and who devolved me into helpless fits of giggles whenever they strode on screen.

And yet despite all this it doesn’t go far enough. If there was one film that had carte blanche to go absolutely hog wild this year then it was this one, yet there’s a definite sense of wasted potential. Most of which I blame on the subplots.

There are definitely boring moments in this film and they typically crop up whenever someone isn’t sitting in a giant robot head thrashing 18 types of hell out of a giant swamp beast with a nun-chuck made of railway tracks.

Why do we have character development in this film? It’s not very interesting, they don’t have time to really develop it, the clichés are thicker than Gypsy Danger’s thighs and nobody cares too much about its delivery. It’s just totally dumb and not in a fun way that football pitch sized piledrivers are. Precious minutes are wasted with pointless nattering when there could be crumpling happening.

Now Ron Pearlman’s scenes are wonderful. Ron Pearlman is wonderful. He has special shoes. Shoes so special I can’t even talk about them. Go see his special shoes for yourself. But I would cut his entire screen presence in heartbeat if it meant I could see a robot try and ram a train car down a giant alligator’s throat. Or maybe just give him a robot to drive…. just imagine…

Worst of all though is the pool of effluent that makes up the whacky scientist subplot. This is utterly pointless, introducing two stereotypical spongewits, presumably for comic relief purposes, whose only successfully contribution to the film is to suck up valuable air time.

Subplot problems in a nutshell:

Does not enhance story.

Not entertaining.

Takes focus away from robo bashing.

TAKES FOCUS AWAY FROM ROBO BASHING.

GOD DAMN.

Exorcising all this needless sidewank would have given us at least 15-30 minutes more time with the Russian and Chinese robots, which were wonderful. I can’t remember their names, so instead I’m going to refer to them as Windymiller and Knuklebunker.

Knucklebunker is quite frankly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on film or off. If it were real and the law allowed, I would marry Knucklebunker without a second thought. Everything about it is just utterly fantastic, from its clunky hammer-like fists to its brutalist bucket head.

Mwhaa

Mwhaa

Don’t fight underwater. Seriously. Have you ever fought underwater? Bipeds don’t do it very well. It’s one of the reasons why sharks are totally bollocks. There’s just not much you can do with a load of salty water with a bit of sand at the bottom. Cities, on the other hand, are delightful playgrounds full of interesting improvised weapons and smashable scenery. Every minute we spend with two behemoths wrestling in an urban environment is utterly delightful and we really could have done with more.

More is the watchword I found myself repeating during this movie. Probably in an attempt to fill the gaping void that is my innerself. Why even have an ending? An ending is crap, it means the robots have to stop fighting. More fighting, more violence, greater violence. Robot tagteams. Clotheslines, leaping knees, elbow drops. More surprise weapons. CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER. MASS HYSTERIA.

Perhaps I ask too much. Go see the film and either be sated or left wanting. It doesn’t matter which, only that you comply. If we give them money now they might make a dumber one next time. Where the only dialogue is nothing but attack screams and the noise of gears sinking into jaws.

I hope they make a Top Trumps set based on this universe.

❤ KNUCKLEBUNKER ❤

*Unconfirmed reports that several Mediterranean resorts have started a government study on the feasibility of this for the tourist season.

POST REVIEW SPOILERS

The early deaths of Knucklebunker and Windymiller are utter bullshit. Especially as they essentially accomplish nothing. Wasted. Just wasted. For chirstsake, Windymiller had three pilots who all simultaneously activated a move they called Thunder Cloud Formation. THUNDER CLOUD FORMATION. Nobody gets killed off instantly after activating Thunder Cloud Formation unless they’re taking on the last boss.

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Roll On

The other day I went and saw a subculture sport for the first time. It’s called Roller Derby. You’ve probably heard of it. Because you’re cool like that. If you haven’t though, the gist of it is two teams of women skate around the track as fast as they can trying to knock one another over. Maybe there’s some point scoring involved?

Think

I didn’t bring a camera with me, so because I'm a disgusting hack I'm just gonna stick up some stock images. With only tangential relevance to the piece.

PLUS

The important stuff is: roller skates, teams, body checks. It’s like coming out of a coma to find society ruled by one of those bloody future sports like in the Running Man. There’s probably some sort of reward system where the audience can chuck helpful items from the stands to the flagging team, like bottle rockets, bags of ball bearings, or bayonets.

Anyway, London Rockin’ Rollers (LRR) the Capital favourites were playing host to fresh-faced up and comers Hot Wheel Roller Derby (HWRD) who had skated down all the way from York, at the fabulous Newham Leisure Centre.

First impressions are promising – a scene of uniform anarchy, masses of punked up skate soldiers rolling around in colour-coded packs. As we learnt to our cost in Return to Oz, watching people with fully functional limbs that terminate in wheels is a bit weird. It’s like looking at a different species, a flock of human/starling hybrids gracefully wheeling and darting about in tandem. Except instead of the whirring of wings you get the chatter of the crowd, the tortured squeal of skates brought to sudden stops and a DJ station pumping out Gary Newman’s Cars. Magnificent.

The general atmosphere is astoundingly upbeat and infectious. There’s a strong sense of do-it-yourself community spirit – a lot of people seem to know one another, like at Sunday League football or a club night for a particularly niche fetish scene. The tuck shop is in equipment shed, there’s a charity bake sale being run by a solitary teenager, kids running around behind the stands playing tiny basketball and absolutely nobody is behaving in the typical human fashion i.e. like an insufferable bell-end. It’s like Narnia, but with tattoos and a shed load more Instagram.

Of course there’s still the matter of which team to support. Fortunately, each team member gets their own introductory lap around the ring to endear to the crowd. Since each skater is encouraged to develop their own style and character, complete with puntastic pseudonyms, it’s actually pretty entertaining. They’re all pretty good and it could go either way… until

“And here she comes, flying the flag, it’s FANNY BATTER.”

That sharp crack you hear is the ball leaving the park.

If I wasn’t with York before, I am now irrefutably bound to them as parent to its child.

The whistle blows, wheels touch off and… it’s chaos. I have no idea where to look, there are players careening around the track caroming off one another, a load of shouting, someone goes down, meanwhile there’s one skater zooming along ahead of the pack and suddenly time is called and LRR are ahead by a handful of points.

EH?

EH?

It takes a few tries and quick glance at the rules guide to work out that points are scored by ‘Jammers’ a solitary team member whose job it is to pass the opposing blockers and begin the ‘Jam’ (a lap of the ring) every opposing skater she passes subsequent to this earns her points. Of course to do this the Jammer has to make her way past the Blockers, a pack of tightly knit bruisers whose job is protect their own jammer and hopefully transform the opposition’s into a greasy smear on the track…

… Or maybe not, body checks have to be done from the side and they have to be checks – you can’t just grab or shove opposing team members and my hoped for concealed chariot blades and ‘accidental’ knuckle dusters seem right out of the question 😦 The checks are still pretty brutal though and if the blocker squads are close together things can develop into a scrum where fallen rollers can be swiftly trampled by the pack.

While I’m trying to work out what the hell I’m looking at, LRR quickly pull ahead in the score stakes. HWRD mount a valiant attempt at a comeback, but rather than bridging the gap it gets steadily larger as LRR put away Jam after Jam like a demented WI member preparing for a nuclear holocaust.

It’s actually a mite depressing really. This isn’t HWRD’s first dance and they aren’t exactly phoning it in, but the harsh fact is LRR’s players just seem to playing on a different level – their speed and coordination is through the roof. Most visibly they have a mighty jammer going by the name of Jack Attack, who has a skull face, double armloads of tats and even a dinky toy doppelganger being sold in the stands. It doesn’t take you long to realize that Jack Attack must have been conceived, born and raised in a centrifuge because she goes round the track faster than a jet-propelled greyhound lure. If this were a Disney high school sports movie she’d be a smoking scene in the bathroom away from being the villain.

Joyously though, HWRD never surrender and inch until it’s been dragged from their scratched and bloodied hands. So the game goes on and as familiarity grows the little nuances and tactics employed by both teams slowly come to light. Also, Fanny Batter. In fact the only fly in the ointment is that I didn’t hear Getting into the Jam played at any point.

Final Scores on the Doors:

     LRR                      HWRD

252                         104

BUT WAIT. With time called, a large proportion of the audience stream down from the stands as all the skaters roll up into Chinese dragon formation to do a lap of the track while executing a massive Mexican high-five wave with the assembled audience. This is just so…

Its+so+beautiful+_56c39523d2842cf094d93e26a747726e

Roller Derby is awesome.

Upcoming Matches for these glorious competitors:

11/05/2013: London Rockin’ Rollers vs Hellfire Harlots

27/04/2013: Hot Wheels Roller Derby vs Auld Reekie Roller Girls

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Black Mesa

This man could beat University Challenge with one arm behind his back and the other holding Duke Nukem in a headlock.

Say hello to Granddad. Like a colossus he bestrode the top of PC game Best Ofs for YEARS. Really, he just couldn’t be beat. Too much style, too much character, too much polish. Look at how he effortlessly spawns Team Fortress and Counterstrike from his loins. Everyone go home now. But the years have passed, Granddad now sits alone in his armchair, forgotten, slowly calcifying, don’t ask about the bedpan. Who would dare disturb this slumbering behemoth from its stupor? Turns out a team of rogue developers have been training, teasing and shaping Granddad for years now, ever since Source became a thing. They’re sending him back into the ring with an new name. They call him Black Mesa now.

black_mesa_cover_artwork_02_by_unhingedmouse

RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE GRANDDAD. SHOW THEM YOU’VE STILL GOT WHAT IT TAKES.

So here’s the skinny.

You are Gordon Freeman, a PHD scientist with birth control glasses and a ginger beard, on your way to work at the local clandestine research facility; a place with more government secrets and pressure locked doors than you can shake a subscription to the Fortean Times at. Predictably, today’s routine experiment either fails or succeeds with catastrophic results: fire, death and alien lifeforms everywhere. Your task is to fight your way to the surface with the help of your trusty HEV suit and a previously unknown talent for skull shattering ultra violence and call in the FBI/army/fire service/coastguard/your mum.

First off, this is an old school shooter, with health packs and a complete lack of a cover system, so refresh your memory on how to side strafe. Freeman carries so much ordnance he makes Iron man look like tinfoil covered cereal box with a peashooter glued to it – none of that primary weapon/secondary weapon nonsense here. Old hat you say? Wrong. Well aged is the term you’re looking for. It’s been  a decade since I first fired up Half-Life on a device closely related to a Commodore 64 and yet the struggle to the surface is just as I remember it: an exercise in gut wrenching, yet darkly humorous, survival horror, battling your way through service hatches and exploding laboratories, while fending off bloodthirsty monstrosities and having to mash the heads of your puppeteered former Co-workers with a crowbar. That’s right, not a collection of levels with a goal flag strapped to the end, but a grimy organic world you happen to be hurtling through with your viscera stained crowbar.

So what’s changed?

The most striking departure is obviously the skin lift. By today’s standards Half Life has a face like a dog’s breakfast. A dog’s breakfast past its prime. That someone’s been a little sick on.

She was beautiful once and would still be now if the years had been kind, if the years had been kind…

Like a beloved sofa you just can’t bear to part with, Black Mesa has been fully reupholstered with the Source engine. This includes the ability to actually manipulate your surrounding environment somewhat (no gravity gun/saw blade style shenanigans though) but the main thing is that it looks absolutely gorgeous.

Obviously it didn’t look this good on my machine because my machine isn’t made of quantum powered space tungsten.

Now this shouldn’t really be an issue, games should rise and fall on the merits of their game-play after all, but it really does help with world immersion in one key area: the survivors. As you run screaming though the rubble, you’ll occasionally encounter colleagues who can assist with information, passage through otherwise inaccessible areas, and even a handy little bit of covering fire -it was one of the touches that made Half-life so engaging. Now with the engine overhaul all these guys have individual character faces! It’s impossible to understate how endearing this is and unless you’re a skin-tag gnawing socio-path  you can’t help but want to give aid to your fellow eggheads and blue collar gunslingers.* Maybe even form a small team of them, a party if you will. There’ll be lots of gallows banter, nicknames like ‘Specs’ and ‘Crueller’ and WE’RE ALL GETTING OUT OF THIS TOGETHER. Except you can’t. While gaming technology has proceeded apace, Black Mesa is still hamstrung by the limitations of its original design, your pals unable to traverse ladders or game sections. Every time their scripting left them unable to continue there was a genuine pang of regret – I was under no illusions that these fragile clouds of pixels wouldn’t last another minute outside the watchful shadow of my twelve gauge. I felt like dragging some boxes and desks over to build them a little fort and stocking it with as many excess health pack and submachine guns as could be found… time to go outside in the fresh air for a bit methinks.

Or maybe its time for some more gushing? It’s not just the visuals, the sound has been fully cleaned out and rebooted, with a couple of thousand extra lines of expertly scripted and executed dialogue that really helps give a sense of character to the personnel inhabiting the complex. Not to mention the completely new soundtrack composed by Joel Nielsen. Tense, industrial and with hint of Vangellis. It’s just what you want on your Walkman** when squeezing your way through dusty hellspawn stuffed ducts and, crucially, it’s actually worth listening to in its own right. Hot Dog. Pass me a towel.

Maps have been retooled, some of this is just cosmetic, but by enlarging many to encompass more game sections loading times have taken a steep climb, so keep book by your keyboard. Your opponents are definitely tougher; the basic alien grunt has slashed the charge cycle on his projectile attack and Sound Hounds are actually a credible foe now, with a massively increased speed and threat radius, gambolling toward you like a pack of murderous, explosive pugs, but the AI isn’t quite as ground breaking as it was back in 98′, when Penny Farthings were a thing and Guy Fawkes was on the throne. The weapon rebalancing is somewhat curious; most obviously in that you can only carry a maximum of three shells for the grenade launcher, though as compensation the Gluon gun seems much improved, hoovering through ammo like a commodities trader in a cocaine factory, but near instantly turning enemies into glistening piles of summer fruits pudding.

Yes, before you ask, I would taste the fruits of the Gluon gun. I expect them to be coppery but delicious.

One minor tweak, but a very welcome one is that Freeman no longer treats ladders like each rung is a hissing cobra coated in grease that he must fly along like a shrieking roller-coaster of terror, invariably climaxing in him shooting off the end like a champagne cork and the HEV’s toneless announcement of another major compound fracture. So there’s that.

Of course there’s always has to be a wasp at the picnic – a small minded buzzing bastard that wants to ruin everyone’s good time. That wasp is called jumping puzzles. I will never understand the mania to input jumping puzzles into a game with a first person perspective. It literally makes no sense. The perspective and controls are just so ill designed for it the very notion is perverse. Imagine trying to arabesque your way across an eel’s back while blindfolded and wearing jelly roller-skates. Black Mesa’s jumping puzzles offer all the agonising frustration and prat falling promised by this, but with none of the sweet, sweet triumph actually accomplishing such a feat would bring. Arbitrary is the word here, your mind devolving into a blood tinged fugue, your fingers mechanically holding down the shift key and charging into the breach again and again until the game decrees it’s had enough of a laugh at your pathetic attempts and deigns you make it to your goal. The average amount of reloads one of these hell spawned sections propagates would actually cause Sisyphus himself to shed a single silent tear on your behalf. The odd thing is, these sections were clearly in the original game, so either the interceding years had allowed me to forget them, like a suppressed childhood trauma, or the Black Mesa team has made them at least twice as frustrating as they were before. If they had any sense at all they would have been surgically excised from the game like the malignant tumours they are.

Ahem.

So where are we at? Are we looking at a bunch of cosmetic embellishments to a game even my nan thinks is old? No. This one of the best games ever coded, now polished to such a degree you use it for a lens in the Hubble telescope. Black Mesa is your definitive Half-life remix. Now is the time to either return to the fold or embrace your new religion. Except the jumping puzzles and especially except the teleportal jumping puzzle. That part can fuck itself with a glass pineapple.

*Everyone bar those higher ups running the vivisection labs. Those shady fuckers are getting escorted straight to Nuremberg.

** Stick your Ipod up your bum.

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Cliffbanger, or How I learned to Hate.

When they come for me, there will be accusations, wild and inaccurate.
Let it be known, the mountain shot first.

Every year thousands of have-a-go-hikers descend upon the well trodden trails of Snowdon National Park. They’re looking for a challenge, an experience, a rite of passage, plus it costs toss all compared to a trip to the Alps and you can get pie and chips down the bottom. This year, for some god awful reason, I’ve somehow found myself among their number.

Minute 0, the Quest Begins

So, after a traditional hearty breakfast of grease and gristle and armed with a pair of expensive boots, whose advanced eyelet technology the assistant at Blacks assured me will do 80% of my walking for me and a rain jacket I last wore when I was six, I embark on my date with destiny.

The weather is wonderfully warm and overcast, the sun literally seething behind a thin veil of cloud. Luckily, it swiftly turns out this hiking lark isn’t as hard as everyone makes out. As far as I can tell it’s exactly like walking except more upward and I’m soon overtaking young families and elderly dog walkers, even a group of Air Cadets in berets and everything, with the contempt they deserve.

One thing they haven’t lied to about is the local scenery, which is frankly staggering. The whole thing is just one jagged, mist shrouded, BBC period drama wet dream. Since in Wales it only stops raining to make way for the hail, the local flora is incredibly vibrant and everything pops with such a degree of sharpness you suspect Photoshop must be involved somehow. The lakes are literally black; not the black of tar-like sludge, the cool icy black of glittering jet. This is television water, Hollywood water, with not a shopping trolley, soggy condom, or dead fish in sight. Fortunately, the rain begins to pick up at this point so that glancing at anything but your toe caps is like trying to stare down the nozzle of a garden hose.

Oh well, we’re here to walk, not gawp, back to work

10 Minutes Later

Not normally one to complain, but there seems to be an awful lot of walking going on here. The thing is there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. I can’t even see the peak I’m supposed to be gaining, just an endless succession of meandering paths disappearing around bends, which, when navigated, lead on to even more bends. As a result, a combination of rain and perspiration has left me as slick on the inside as I am on the outside (Fifty Shades eat your heart out). Worse, altitude sickness has also clearly begun to sink in and I am forced to make a brief stop at the roadside until the wheezing and nausea subsides. Starting to wish I hadn’t had that box of chicken wings and dripping for breakfast.

An unfortunate side effect of my recouping is that the group of air cadets I encountered earlier in a rush of rosy cheeked youth. One of their number even spares me a sympathetic glance as they roar by. The bastard.

Hour 1

Back on track and have found myself attached to the tail end of a company of American tourists as they wander along talking about accents, scenery and the ‘English’ weather. Disappointed that a member of Plaid Cymru doesn’t jump out of the bushes to bludgeon them.

A distant chuff and rumble announces the arrival of the Snowdonian train service. It’s Bollinger swilling occupants alternatively disdainfully wave or derisively shower us with scorn and peacock tongues as they glide past on their opulent Flying Welshman. Bloody Tories.

I’ve only just removed the last piece of tongue from my ear hole when we reach some sort of crude way station thrumming with itinerant ramblers. Rat-eyed spivs eye these punters beadily from behind makeshift market stalls, pencil moustaches dancing gaily across their lips and watch faces glittering along their forearms as they belt out the Christie’s esque prices for cans of cola.

There seems to be some sort of bottleneck on the path here without much forward movement. The reason is soon made apparent, a hand painted wooden sign yawns from a gibbet like structure bearing the legend

Abandon All Hope
None Shall Pass
Next rest stop 6ft (under)

Since I’m well versed in the European service industry I don’t bat an eyelid. I do, however, bat an eyelid at the gravel speckled nightmare that lies beyond it.

The angle of the path has suddenly changed for the worse; it’s no longer a gentle arching slope, but a rabid, nigh-perpendicular, experiment in ankle twisting. Slabs of raw rocky gristle jut from the trail like broken tombstones specifically designed to tear out knees, backed by a layer of scree primed to shoot out from underfoot and send you careening straight to a hospital stay.

The Americans decide they’ve had enough and wave me off with a haphazard selection of state flag handkerchiefs. The only thing I know is that I’ve gone too far to turn back now.

Day 1, Hour 3

Air seems thinner, may have to resort to the oxygen tanks soon and the general mood picked up from other occasional hikers is certainly grimmer. My fellow travellers are fewer and far between and most are beginning to look distinctively gaunt. Cannot comment on own appearance, but fear it must be similar. The wheat is definitely beginning to separate from the chaff.

Thoroughly enjoying the walk now though; feels as if my shin bones are trying to impale themselves through my knees. It’s no wonder Mountain people have a reputation for toughness, if you had to make this trip every time you wanted a pint of milk and a scratch card you’d soon develop calf muscles capable of booting a Volvo over a bus shelter.

Day 1, Hour 4

Feelings of loneliness and isolation are beginning to set in; the only regular company I enjoy is the gentle susurrus of slate against slate as my legs slowly drag themselves forward.

Think I’m beginning to hallucinate.

Day 1, Hour 7

Progress is good, despite the rough terrain and my dwindling food cache. However, I nearly mess myself in fright when what appeared to be a pile of rubbish by the track suddenly rears up at me, clawing at my shins. It is, or was, a man. His garb, now torn and soiled, is that of prosperous merchant, but now the fever of madness lights his eyes and crumbs of Kit-Kat mat his beard. Piteously, in a cracked whistling moan, he beseeches me to hear his tale.

Once a man of some means, he and his headstrong young daughter set out on an expedition to reach the fabled summit and harness its fabulous secrets for the gain of all mankind. Alas they were undone by the dastardly machinations of his jealous business rivals, their provisions and equipment lost and his daughter critically wounded in the struggle. Leaving her with the bulk of their remaining supplies in the shelter of a natural cave he hastened alone down the mountain in search of help, only to slip and do in both his legs. In agony he dragged himself onward, ever mindful of his progeny’s plight, until pain and malnutrition finally took its toll, leaving him stranded with no help in sight.

With an unsteady hand he presses 38 Welsh silver dollars into my palm and promises me more, much more; acres of land, trains of servants, wealth beyond measure, to find his daughter and bring her back alive. Unfortunately I can’t speak Welsh and so, unable to understand him, nudge him gently aside with my boot and continue on my way. His choked tears serenade me as I continue my eternal march.

Day 1, Hour 10

Have reached Snowdon’s wall. Everything up to this point has clearly been a gentle joke designed to entertain the whimsical and young at heart. What rears before me can only be described as vertical slide into infinity. This is a place where even goats come to die. This must be the ultimate test, the last challenge before the manifold delights of the summit, that eyrie of the gods with its attendant fields of blazing saffron and crowds of giggling, gauze swathed nymphs.

Such delights cannot be denied. With a will I scrape, I batter, I flounder and I heave. Finally, after leaving the better part of my skin across the rock face, I manage to drag my body over the lip of the last ledge and onto a plateau. With an arthritic rattle I regain my poise and rise to embrace the glories of my hard won reward.

Another length of slope continuing onward towards a bend.

I take this philosophically, remembering my Confucius

Oh fuck off
You’re
taking the piss.

Day 2, Hour 11

The mountain is become my nemesis, a poisonous mirror to my own self, it is everything I am not and I hate it. Every time my boot thumps down I imagine I’m plunging it into its rocky face in a mechanical symphony of hate. Slipping on a loose flag of quartz, I land straight on my arse. The pain is excruciating, but I embrace it: hate is tattooed on my bum cheeks also. Breaking the summit will become a personal shame from which the range will never recover and I will be lauded as a King of Men. Moans of anguish occasionally echo up to me from the lower reaches as lesser climbers slowly succumb to the inevitable.

Day 2, Hour 15

Encounter a band of surviving pilgrims sheltering under a black stone railway bridge and warming themselves around a fire of carrier bags and bootlaces. They’re a rag-tag bunch of thrill seekers, fund-raisers and fortune hunters all bearing the scars of the trail and an air of dirtied glory. I am immediately welcomed into their number and invited to share a hearty stew of Belvita and Roundtrees Randoms. The paint thinner is soon flowing freely and grandiose toasts to team work and eternal loyalty are sworn.

I decide it is probably a good idea to murder them in their sleep. Gently I thumb the razor of sock wrapped flint concealed in my raincoat sleeve.

Soon.

Day Two, Hour 21

Sometimes we do things we have cause to regret, but are necessary nonetheless. Eat the last of my emergency Revels. Except the orange ones – nothing will leave me that desperate.

Day 3

Have gained finally gained the mountain proper. The rain has disappeared, if only because the surrounding atmosphere seems to have adopted saturated as its default state and as for the view… Clearly everything before was some muddy, paint-by-numbers rubbish reserved for the casual hill scrumper. What lies before me now is clearly the reward for those with courage of their convictions, the secret world of the mountain revealed only to the most inner and trusted devotees of the Way of the Sole.

Actual wisps of cotton white cloud drift across your vision like cheeky ghosts. Jagged, lichen choked spires leer out of the mist, while the vagaries of the wind grant fleeting glimpses of perilous drops and brief swathes of eye seeringly blue sky. Teetering on the edge, wind ruffling my hair beneath my hood, I feel just like Katniss on Mount Doom just before Boromir turns her into a vampire.

The path ahead is smothered in the same mists, visibility extremely limited, but can see that the incline does not relent.

Day 3, Hour 7

It’s like being at the bottom of the ocean, nothing to hear anymore except the rough scratch of cloth on rock and my own straining lungs echoing in my ears. Occasionally other hikers loom from the mists. We pass like ships in the fog, our glances meeting for the briefest span, a shared understanding of pain, pain today and more pain to follow. Then we return to the task at hand, a retreat into our own private suffering in this vast communal hell.

Day 3, Hour 12

Come across a mound of splintered bones and clothing locked in a grisly tableau of altitude sickness induced madness. My footfalls disturb one of the piles and a small rust spattered Air Cadet badge goes tumbling back down the trail, ringing though the mists. Justice.

Day 6

Haven’t seen anyone for a long while. Using hands almost as much as feet now. Would feel lonely, but fortunately the wind has picked up so now have a miniature gale rattling through my waterproof rags, this is helping to keep the fires of my hate well stoked and my mind wonderfully focused.

Eat the last of my orange Revels in orgy of choking and self loathing. Just about manage to keep them down. Will have to rely on wits and hunting instincts from now on.

Day 72

I am fairly certain that the passage of time has become irredeemably corrupted. If I ever make the summit it will be to encounter my own six year old self. If so, I will regale him with sage wisdoms so as not to repeat the mistakes of his older self, these wisdoms will involve this mountain and references to dynamite. Despite seriousness of situation, have not lost hope; know that I can glean meagre nourishment from surrounding mosses and lichens. Vow to continue walking even if reduced to pair of skeletal feet bound by a pair of threadbare boots. Righteous loathing and foul necromancies will animate them right into Snowdon’s face, whereupon the kicking will begin.

Day 203

I haven’t eaten in minutes and, since moss no longer appears to grow at this height, have begun to chew my own knuckles for sustenance. Taking nearly all my efforts not to be borne over the edge by the arctic blasts that now regularly scourge the cliff face. Can no longer be sure if I’m heading along the path or into the embrace of the void. Am I even walking at all? It doesn’t seem to matter. I know now that Man never left Eden, God just filled it with gradients. This peak is unclimbable, the task Sisyphean. It is apparent now that both Summit and Base are one; to achieve victory is lay yourself on the path to suffering once more.

A sudden burst in the fog, a glimpse of twisted spire.

The peak?

Could it be?

In a rush of excitement I urge my body onward, but it’s too late, I have nothing left to give. After a few faltering steps my strength deserts me. I sink to my knees. In this hour of need the call is made, I beg my old friend Hate to help me rise, but I feel nothing. The mountain is too close to me now, its sheer sides my own, its granite the stuff of my ribs and I cannot come to hate myself. Instead I lay there, the gravel softly tickling my nostrils, waiting for the cold to soak in. After a while my breath will seep into the mountain, returning me home. But from the depths of this Stygian fugue something remains, a solitary spark, roaring through my veins and into my soul, it carries with it the words of Britain’s first female president:

Light of my life,

Fire of my loins,

Give me them gold coins.

My trembling legs straighten beneath me and I rise again, warmer now than even hate could make me. Slowly I discard the tattered shroud that flaps about my emaciated frame and peel the slivers of leather I once called boots away into the wind. As I slip my knickers over my thighs I remind myself about everything that has lead me to this moment, the pains, fears, losses and triumphs, of fallen friends and vanquished foes.

The mists part. Steps are easy now, revitalising even. I stride forward to my destiny.

AVENGE ME.

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