Lost Odyssey: Discovering Gaming Greatness

Retroactive Game of the Year 2008? Let's find out... 
It's been a long time since I last wrote a Discovering Gaming Greatness blog. A quick glance back through the archives seems to indicate that the last instalment was written way back in August, in relation to the first two Oddworld games. A lot of games has been played since then - I've worked my way through two Pokémon games (namely Yellow and Crystal), wasted a hell of a lot of time with Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise and Forza Motorsport 2, and obtained my first Giant Bomb S-Rank in my playthrough of Fallout 3. The latest name to add to this list of titles is Lost Odyssey, a fittingly epic JRPG from Hironobu Sakaguchi and the other folks at Mistwalker. As a long-time fan of Sakaguchi's other work, the purchase of Lost Odyssey seemed like a no-brainer when I first picked up my Xbox 360 back in May of last year. Despite picking it up in last June, though, the game went largely unplayed for just over a year. It wasn't until the end of August, when I hit a bit of a post-Morrowind gaming drought, that Lost Odyssey finally found its way out of its case and into my 360 proper. After three and a half months of Lost Odyssey, totalling fifty-nine hours of gameplay time and punctuated by a couple of fairly long breaks, my time with the game has come to an end, and I'm happy to say that it's without doubt one of the greatest games I've played through this year. Not only that, it's probably the best JRPG I've played since Final Fantasy X hit European soil way back in 2002. Want to know more? Then read on...
 
Every boss battle is unique and memorable 
One of the things that really made Lost Odyssey for me was the combat. While it may not cover any new ground, its true success lies in its ability to refine the age-old premise of turn-based combat to a level of near-perfection. Lost Odyssey represents perhaps one of the most finely balanced battle engines I've ever seen in any RPG. At no point during my playthrough did I ever feel like anything arbitrary was going on with the battle engine. Even little things that most players might not care too much about, like the MP cost of different spells and skills, all felt really well-balanced to me. I was also impressed by the highly tactical nature of what's going on under Lost Odyssey's hood. While being able to switch rings and accessories on the fly might not sound like a big deal, it's probably the most next-gen thing about Lost Odyssey's battle system. Not to mention the Guard Condition parameter, a seemingly simple addition which really encouraged me to start thinking about how to distribute my attacks and maintain my defence. Lost Odyssey also really knows how to do boss battles. Every one took full advantage of the little pieces of the game's combat puzzle, making for some unforgettable stand-offs. All these little innovations came together to create a truly memorable combat experience for me.
 
The whole game feels perfectly balanced 
All this excellent combat was backed up by a levelling system that took me completely by surprise. One of my favourite things about Lost Odyssey is the way the game handles experience gain. Rather than adopting a strictly numbers-based system, Lost Odyssey simplifies the process down to the most basic of levels. Lost Odyssey rewards you for taking on stronger foes, while weaker foes yield minimal experience gain. This system impressed me for two reasons. First, it makes it easy to get back on top of things if you're under-levelled at any point. Second, it discourages grinding and power-levelling tactics in order to power through the game. It also helps that this system is as well-balanced as the battle system. I stuck pretty rigidly to the game's innate 'level guide' and at no point did I ever really feel that the game was either ridiculously easy or frustratingly difficult. From a mechanical perspective, I don't think I've ever played a game as refined as Lost Odyssey.

When you see this, you know you're in for an interesting read 
For the most part, Lost Odyssey tells a pretty great story. I loved the global scale of things, and the turmoil that befalls Uhra, Gohtza and Numara is one of the games industry's more interesting 'world in chaos' plots of recent times. Less interesting were the character-driven parts of the story, which really weren't helped by the game's cast of characters. Jansen, Cooke and Mack in particular were more suffered than appreciated, I found. Thankfully, the game makes up for this with its amazing protagonist - Kaim Argonar. This is partly due to his evolution over the course of the game, but mainly owed to the beautifully written Thousand Years of Dreams stories that punctuate the game experience. Every one is interesting and appropriately emotional, and they serve as an incredible insight into the thousand-year-old mind of this troubled character. If anything ever drags me back to Lost Odyssey, it'll probably be the desire to experience more of these heart-rending dream sequences.

I'm not saying Lost Odyssey is perfect. It's got more than its fair share of issues, many of which detracted from the experience for me. The game has a major problem with loading times, for a start. While I'm not too bothered about loading times cropping up between different areas, they're a much bigger issue when they start interrupting cut-scenes. Another problem I had with the game was its unusually low encounter rate, which at times seems intent on offering up battles at ten-minute intervals. There's an unnecessary obligatory stealth sequence early on, indicating the folks at Mistwalker didn't get the memo that they went out of fashion in 2004. But, while these issues do mar the experience, they're not enough to stop Lost Odyssey from being one of the best games I've played this year. Between the expertly refined gameplay mechanics, the gorgeous visuals and the captivating story, Lost Odyssey feels like the game we might have had if Hironobu Sakaguchi had still been with Square Enix while they were working on Final Fantasy XII. I'm definitely not going to be leaving it so long before I pick up my next JRPG, that's for sure. Thanks for reading guys. I'll see you around.
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Forza Motorsport 2 (X360)
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Hack 'n' Slash 'n' Shoot 'n' Run

First things first. I'd like to apologise for my recent absence from the Giant Bomb blogosphere. I've been a little preoccupied with writing an essay for my Early Modern Literature module (a rather interesting one, actually, concerning racism and sexism in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta). While I still have yet to finish said essay, I'm also up pretty early for a Sunday morning, so I figured I'd use this time to briefly update you on what I've been playing since I finished Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, as well as to let you know what I've got planned blog-wise before this year comes to an end. 
 

Lost Odyssey

Lost Odyssey looks great and offers a solid combat system 
Ever since I wrapped up The Ballad of Gay Tony, I've been sinking pretty much all of my game time into this awesome JRPG. While I'm intending to save my thoughts on this for a slightly longer write-up upon completion, I feel obliged to say a bit about it now. I'm currently on Disc 4, having just beaten the first part of Grand Staff and seen off the Nefarious Saints. I'm absolutely loving it so far, to the point I'm willing to say it's one of the best games I've played this year. Lost Odyssey offers pretty much everything I could ever want from a JRPG - it tells a brilliant story, the gameplay is a solid mix of dungeon-based puzzle-solving and extremely well-balanced turn-based combat, and it looks absolutely incredible. It's also well and truly staved off my JRPG blues. That's not to say it's perfect - long load times and an unusually low encounter rate are among its issues, but they are (thankfully) minor. I don't want to say too much else, for fear of ruining the Discovering Gaming Greatness blog that I'm planning to write for this in the near future. For now, all you need to know is that Lost Odyssey is great. If you need a JRPG to fill the void in your 360 until Final Fantasy XIII comes out next year, you could do a lot worse than this game.
 

Team Fortress 2

I can see you... 
A bit of an interesting story behind this one. Last weekend here in the UK Microsoft held something called the Winter Xtival. For the uninitiated, it was essentially an Xbox LIVE free weekend, with some cool multiplayer events thrown in for good measure. As somebody with only a Silver membership, I decided I'd make the most of the Winter Xtival and play some online multiplayer over the weekend. My first thought was to play a little of Grand Theft Auto IV's multiplayer, I ended up changing my mind in favour of popping my Team Fortress 2 cherry. While the 360 version of the game may not have much of a community, I had a blast playing it over the long weekend. I spent my first few matches under the guise of a Medic, and ended up experimenting with all the classes before I settled on the Sniper as my class of choice. Now I've caught the TF2 bug I wish I could pick up the PC version and keep on playing, but sadly my laptop doesn't have enough "ooomph" to run it. Hopefully while I'm at home over Christmas I'll be able to get it running on the family PC and maybe even engage in one or two holiday Bombing Runs.
 

A Most Difficult Decision

That's essentially all I've played since I last blogged, with the exception of a couple of games of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (which I still suck at, by the way). One thing I've noticed while looking over the list of games I've played this year, though, is that my beloved PS2, my favourite games machine of all time, has been largely neglected in 2009 in favour of my Xbox 360 over the last six months or so. I intend to put this right by picking up a PS2 game and playing through it before Big Ben chimes midnight on December 31st. My question to you, the Giant Bomb community, is which game should that be? I've managed to narrow it down to a personal three-way choice between Deus Ex, Primal, and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, but if you'd rather head on over to my Pile of Shame and suggest something else, I'd be more than happy to consider it.
 

Blogs To Come...

Between now and Christmas there are a few things I intend to put out into the blogosphere. Here's a brief summary of what you can expect to see on this page in the coming weeks:
 
  • 2009: The Year In Review - As the name suggests, this will be a blog looking back on my own gaming experiences of 2009. Think of it as a kind of sequel to the 2008 review I wrote earlier this year. Expect this right at the end of December.
  • Why Red Dead Redemption Will Probably Be My Game Of The Year 2010 - Red Dead Redemption is the 2010 release I'm most excited for. This blog will shed a little light on the reasons why.
  • Return Of The Christmas Mega-Blog - Remember last year's three-part Christmas Mega-Blog? Well, I'm planning to write another one this year as my Christmas present to the Giant Bomb community.
  • Lost Odyssey: Discovering Gaming Greatness - As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I'm intending to finish Lost Odyssey before the year is out. As soon as I do, you can expect a lengthy write-up expressing my opinions on the way it plays, as well as what I liked and what I didn't.

I think that's enough to constitute a decent update. Until next time guys, take care. I'll see you around. 
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Lost Odyssey (X360)
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Ballad? More Like A Limerick...

As I write these words, the credits are rolling on Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. At this point, I figured I'd write up an analysis of the content similar to what I did with The Lost & Damned. However, after wrapping up the game in a little over a week of on-off playtime, I'm left feeling pretty indifferent about the whole thing, and I'm not sure it warrants such an analysis. Before the hate starts pouring in, I'm not saying the game is bad, not by any means. In some respects, it improves on areas that I wanted to see expanded upon in the main game and the first DLC pack. It's longer than The Lost and Damned by a good couple of hours, as well as boasting more interesting achievements and a more colourful supporting cast, the missions are more varied than the ones in Grand Theft Auto IV, it boasts a hell of a lot of content in the way of side-missions, and the new additions to the game's arsenal are a lot of fun to mess around with (especially the sticky bombs). It also does a pretty good job of tying up all the loose ends left over from the last two games. Yet, in spite of all these improvements, The Ballad of Gay Tony is (in my eyes) the weakest of the trinity by a significant margin.

Vice City was a last-gen masterpiece... 
Before I begin to explain why I feel this way, I think it's important to give you a bit of background information about my relationship with the Grand Theft Auto franchise. I've been playing Grand Theft Auto games since the franchise was confined to two dimensions, and prior to the release of Grand Theft Auto IV last year my favourite game in the series was without doubt Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The primary reason for this was the perfect balance that game managed to strike between story, gameplay and atmosphere. It boasted an extremely well-realised story driven by arguably the series' best protagonist to date, Tommy Vercetti. It took everything that made the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto III so irresistibly fun and cranked it up a notch, crafting some of the series' most memorable missions in the process. Finally, it dropped all of this amazing content into a fully-explorable recreation of 80s Miami, oozing authenticism in everything from the music to the cars and right down to the hawaiian shirts. It may have been a product of pop culture, but Vice City knew it, embraced it, and was brilliant because of it rather than in spite of it. 
 
...San Andreas, not so much 
Two years after Vice City, Rockstar released a sequel in the form of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game that has always struck me as the black sheep of the GTA family. While it was an awesome game with a lot to offer, it seemed to take a step back every time it moved forward. Any potential the game's story had was lost as soon as it was attached to protagonist Carl Johnson, who was incredibly flat and lifeless in comparison to his predecessor. For every logical progression of the series' gameplay (such as the ability to swim), there was an illogical one impairing it (everybody remember the jet pack?). On top of all this, the game had a very schizophrenic atmosphere that seemed to lack focus, particularly after getting out of Los Santos. Carl Johnson doesn't fit in in San Fierro or Las Venturas, because he's never anything more than a boring Los Santos gangster. My experience with San Andreas, while a good one, was definitely harmed by its overambitious scope and lack of focus.

The Ballad of Gay Tony feels like Grand Theft Auto IV's equivalent of an Undo button 
The Ballad of Gay Tony could definitely be described as the 'San Andreas' of the Grand Theft Auto IV trinity in pretty much every aspect, but for slightly different reasons. The story never even reaches the standards of The Lost and Damned, let alone the lofty heights of Grand Theft Auto IV's plot. Luis Lopez is a terrible protagonist, very flatly acted and displaying nothing even remotely resembling a personality. It's only the supporting cast that save the game's main story from flatlining completely, largely thanks to the brilliantly portrayed personas of Tony Prince and Yusuf Amir. The additional gameplay content is an awkward hybrid of stuff that needed to be in Grand Theft Auto IV (drug wars, sticky bombs) and stuff that has no place in the new incarnation of Liberty City (base jumping, triathlon races). The missions start off as diverse and interesting, but from the half-way point onwards every other mission involves parachuting out of a helicopter and it soon gets tiresome. 
 
Ultimately, it's not the atmosphere that's the problem. Liberty City was so well realised and defined in Grand Theft Auto IV and The Lost and Damned that it's impossible to have any complaints about the game's environment not being detailed enough. The primary problem is that most of the new content in The Ballad of Gay Tony doesn't fit in particularly well with the preconceived image of Liberty City. There just isn't a logical place for so much unfocused content in such a focused atmosphere. In the title of this blog I referred to The Ballad of Gay Tony as more of a limerick than a ballad, and I think that analogy stands. It's funny, but it lacks any real substance, and the end result is something that is superficially entertaining, but dramatically hollow.
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (X360)
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Dan's Ultimate Fallout 3 Round-Up

After having what may well be the worst morning I've lived through in recent memory, I'm in a pretty bad mood. The kind of mood where I want to bitchslap everybody I see because the mere sight of them seems to do me some grave injustice. So, I'm going to try and dispel all the nastiness by writing this blog. Hopefully I'll be at least moderately successful in this endeavour. Thankfully, I have a lot to blog about. The topic of choice today is Fallout 3, that other open-world free-form first-person RPG developed by the dudes what made Oblivion. I finished the game up yesterday, snagging my first ever S-rank on Giant Bomb in the process. This blog will be focused on my opinion of the game, and will also document my thoughts on all five of the DLC packs in simple YES-NO terms. With those facts laid out on the table, let's quit the jibber-jabber and press on with the matter at hand.
 

Fallout 3

This guy looks menacing... 
There's not much that I can say about Fallout 3 that hasn't already been said in earlier blogs. I think it's an awesome game. You all probably know that I think it's an awesome game. Yesterday, after sixty-seven and a half hours of traversing the Capital Wasteland, my stint with the game came to an end. Rather than showering praise on the game in the style of a review, I'm going to focus more on the little things that both made and broke the game for me at certain points. 
 
The biggest selling point for me with Fallout 3 was the sense of atmosphere and the immersion that the game managed to convey (most of the time). The richly detailed world of the Capital Wasteland, and the colourful cast of characters that inhabit it, are what really made my Fallout 3 experience. Call me crazy, but I liked the game's desolate environment, probably because the whole post-apocalyptic setting is something that really set the game apart from other RPGs of this generation. I also loved the whole "retro values in a futuristic environment" concept. I guess it all boils down to this: Fallout 3 has a distinct personality, and it's a personality that I can really identify with. With regards to immersion in relation to Fallout 3, I know this is a hotly contested issue. For me personally, it's quite hit-and-miss. When I was wandering across the gameworld on my own from a first-person perspective, simply seeing what there was to see and discovering cool stuff for myself, I lost hours. In that respect, it's immersive. 
 
The variety in Fallout 3's quests is pretty impressive 
Fallout 3's quests ranged from being awesome (The Replicated Man) to pretty dire (The Nuka Cola Challenge). I think it goes without saying that I had a lot of fun questing in Fallout 3, and one of the main reasons for that was the sheer amount of options the game gave me to play with. Right from the off I opted to build a good karma character specialising in ranged combat and social interaction, later deciding to branch out into stealth after maxing out my key stats. The result was a game experience that constantly presented at least two (but usually more) ways of dealing with the vast majority of problems. I elected to play a diplomatic game and tried to resolve things with words before resorting to bullets. At higher levels I incorporated stealth into my combat strategies, making some of the later fights real heart-in-mouth affairs. This multitude of approaches really helped in preventing the game from growing too stagnant for me, which is probably just as well considering I invested nearly seventy hours into my playthrough.
 
Insert 'Don't Lose Your Head' - style pun here 
For the most part, I enjoyed the combat in Fallout 3. The gunplay, while not exactly stellar, was broken up enough by the other aspects of questing that it never began to really grate on me (at least not in the main game, but more on that later). One thing I can say in the game's favour is that I found most of the guns in the game to be incredibly memorable, something I can't proclaim of many shooters that I've played. Most of the guns in Fallout 3, particularly the unique ones like Lincoln's Repeater and the Mesmetron, practically have personalities of their own. The other thing I loved about the game's combat was the extreme sense of satisfaction I got whenever I heard the "ka-ching!" and saw the on-screen notification that accompanied experience gain. So much so, in fact, that when I hit the level cap and stopped receiving experience points, the lack of notifications took a lot of enjoyment out of the game's combat for me. It's a silly little thing, I know, but after fifty-plus hours those sounds and notices became quite comforting, and it was difficult to adjust to their absence. 
 
The most disappointing thing about Fallout 3 for me was its storyline. After the pretty promising start with your father's escape from Vault 101, the story seems to stagnate and doesn't really go anywhere meaningful. Maybe it's because of the game's free-form nature, which kept me distracted from the main quest line for prolonged periods of play, but I found it very difficult to care about what was going on with regards to the game's plot. Maybe I was just expecting more after the comparatively stellar storyline of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, or maybe I wanted a greater scope from a game I spent nearly seventy hours with. Whatever the reason, Fallout 3 just failed to deliver on the story front for me. 
 
So that's my position on the game itself, but what about all the downloadable content packs Bethesda put out post-release? Fear not, ladies and gentlemen, for Dan has formulated opinions on all of those too! Presenting dankempster's Comprehensive Fallout 3 DLC Summary!

Operation: Anchorage 

Snow, guns, and Communists 

YES 

  • Awesome Rewards - The Winterised T-51b Power Armor stayed equipped on my character more or less from the end of the DLC right through to the end of the game. 'Nuff said.
  • Welcome Change Of Environment - The snowy cliffs of Anchorage, Alaska were a world away from the desolate Capital Wasteland, and made for a nice vacation.
 

NO 

  • Too Much Combat - Operation: Anchorage was a very combat-focused DLC pack, and the gunplay-heavy action did begin to grate towards the end.
  • Lack Of Lore - For a DLC pack that professes to deal with a major event of Fallout lore, the subject isn't explored much in Operation: Anchorage. I was hoping for more nods to the background that made the main game so memorable. 
    

The Pitt 

Industrial... 

YES

  • Grey Moral Choices - Gone were the black-and-white, blow-it-up-or-disarm-it, clear-cut choices from the main game. Upon completion of The Pitt's storyline, no matter what course of action you choose, you don't come out of it feeling like you've definitely done the right thing.
  • Great Quest Line - I found The Pitt to have the best story of all the DLC packs. From the introductory segment leading you to the train tunnel, through the arena fights and culminating in a dramatic stand-off, The Pitt spun a pretty good yarn.

NO

  • Artificially Lengthened - While it's not obligatory, the collection of one hundred Steel Ingots in The Pitt feels like a cheap attempt to artificially lengthen the DLC's play time. At least the Bobbleheads in the main game took you to different locations, and there were only twenty of those!
  • Uninspired Setting - While it was certainly a different kind of locale to the Capital Wasteland, The Pitt was a pretty drab place. With the exception of the bridge leading into The Pitt, there was nothing particularly memorable about the environments in my eyes.
 

Broken Steel

The Heavy Incinerator will always have a place in my inventory, and in my heart... 
*NOTE*
-  I never finished Fallout 3 before downloading Broken Steel. Opinions may therefore be affected accordingly.
 

YES

  • Raised Level Cap - Although I never maxed out at that point, Level 20 seemed like far too low a level cap for the game. Level 30 seems like a much more reasonable cap, especially in light of the additional content provided by the DLC packs.
  • Memorable End Game Quests - Had I completed the game before downloading Broken Steel, I think Take It Back! would have been quite the anti-climax. Who Dares Wins is a much more memorable conclusion to the game's campaign in terms of set pieces (although the story is still considerably lacking).

NO

  • Albino Radscorpions - The designer who thought that the inclusion of these bastards would be a great idea needs a slap upside the head.
  • Half-Arsed Perks - To me, with the exception of Puppies!, most of the perks beyond Level 20 seemed like they weren't really given much thought. Consequently, most of them didn't seem to be of much use.
 

Point Lookout 

Sloth's post-Goonies career was short-lived 

YES

  • Best Quests - Point Lookout has the best quests of any DLC pack from a gameplay perspective. A healthy mix of combat, exploration and character interaction ensured that the gameplay in Point Lookout didn't stagnate.
  • Longevity - In terms of length of content, I think Point Lookout is the DLC pack that most justifies its price tag. After clocking six hours focusing solely on the main quest line, with a little sight-seeing and one side quest cleared, I believe that Point Lookout could very easily hit ten-plus hours with some thorough exploration.

NO

  • Hard As Nails - I went into Point Lookout at Level 25 with most of my combat-related skills maxed out, and within the first hour of play had my arse handed to me by the "residents" no fewer than three times. I didn't expect a pushover, but man, combat in Point Lookout was tough.
  • Janky As Hell - With the exception of a couple of VATS-related incidents in The Pitt, I hadn't run into any problems with the other DLC packs. Point Lookout crashed on me a grand total of seven times. Not cool, Bethesda.
 

Mothership Zeta 

Much like dinosaurs and Led Zeppelin, space will always be cool 

YES

  • Best Concept - Alien abduction. Close encounters of the third kind. Crazy extra-terrestrial technology. 50s B-movie sci-fi influences. Outer space. Mothership Zeta definitely boasts the most awesome setting of all the Fallout 3 DLC packs.
  • Alien Weaponry - Most of the guns in Mothership Zeta were wonderfully unique and a lot of fun to use, not to mention pretty damn powerful. This, plus the addition of the wonder-material that is Alien Epoxy, means I'll probably be using my Alien Disintegrator fot a long time to come.
 

NO

  • Is This DOOM? - For all Mothership Zeta's awesome aesthetics, I couldn't get past the fact that it seemed to be little more than a two-hour long corridor-based shooter.
  • Sally - If I'd have been playing the PC version of this game, I'd have downloaded the Killable Kids mod within thirty seconds of meeting this annoying bitch.
 
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...Whoa, that's a whole lotta blog. Thankfully the whole cathartic aspect seems to have paid off, because I'm feeling a lot better now. Anyway, I guess I'd better sign off. Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you around. 
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (X360)
9 Comments

Things To See And Do In 2010

Crystal may well be the best Pok émon game I've ever played  
In my last proper blog, I presented my Official 2009 To-Do List - a list of five games that I want to finish before the year comes to a close. First off, I'm happy to report that I took the first game off this list yesterday, when I beat the Elite Four in Pokémon Crystal. I'll be sure to put out a more meaningful blog on this one over the weekend. For now, suffice it to say I've had a brilliant time with the game over the last month and a half, but it's also nice to finally be able to put that game down. After playing through Yellow and Crystal in quick succession, I'm beginning to feel pretty burned out on Pokémon right now. With Crystal out of the way, I'm moving on to another game on my To-Do List, namely The Secret of Monkey Island. I've never played a point 'n' click adventure game before, so I'm really looking forward to getting to grips with this one. I have the Special Edition on Steam, and I'm not sure whether I should play through the original version of the game or experience the souped-up, hand-drawn, voice-acted version.
 
However, there's also another list loitering around at the back of my head. Namely, a list of things I'm hoping to get around to doing in 2010. With nothing to on this chilly Thursday morning but wait for my lecture, I figured (largely through boredom) that I'd share that list with the rest of you guys here on Giant Bomb. Naturally, this list isn't completely video game oriented, so I've spared you the boring 'do-well-in-my-exams, find-a-decent-part-time-job, finally-finish-reading-The-Lord-Of-The-Rings' aspects in favour of all the juicy video gamey goodness. So, while you're all playing BioShock 2 and Mass Effect 2, here's what I'll be doing next year: 
 

Clear More Of My Pile Of Shame

This looks awesome. Why haven't I played it yet? 
My Pile of Shame continues to serve its purpose, insofar as every time I look at it I start to feel terribly guilty for buying so many games and finishing so few of them. Ever since I joined Giant Bomb way back at launch last July, I've been endeavouring to get through some of these titles, and to a certain degree I've been pretty successful. I've also drastically cut down my spending on games, which has resulted in me actually being able to reduce the number of games on the list overall. There's still lots to be done, though, with a massive sixty-one games still on the pile. A quick glance at the list shows off a few titles in particular that I'm dying to get to grips with - Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Okami, Primal, and Persona 4 are all games that I'm absolutely dying to play through, yet they all remain largely unplayed. 2010 will hopefully see me continue to reduce the size of my Pile of Shame, while also providing me with plenty of stuff to blog about.
 

Play More PC Games

I need to start treating my PC like a gaming machine 
This is something that I'd resolved to do last year, but ultimately didn't really get around to, only managing to play through the first two Oddworld games back in August. While my laptop isn't exactly a gaming beast, it's proven itself to be more than capable of running quite a few titles I've purchased off Steam. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the little fella has outright surprised me with regards to its power as a gaming machine. This also ties into the previous item on the list in that a lot of the games on my Pile of Shame are PC games - Braid, Fallout and Fallout 2, Half-Life spin-offs Opposing Force and Blue Shift, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl are the most obvious examples. I'm attempting to start this trend early by playing through The Secret of Monkey Island this year to get me in the swing of things. I'm just hoping that this is one New Year's Resolution that I'll be able to stick to. I'd hate to miss out on some of these games for yet another year. 
 

Return To Unexplored Post-Game Content

Snowier climes await in Solstheim 2010
To the uninitiated, this probably looks like pseudo-English for "go back and get some Achievements I missed first time round". While I will probably be returning to a couple of Xbox 360 games next year (Dead Space and Grand Theft Auto IV being the prime candidates), this is more targeted at games without any Achievements at all. The main one that springs to mind is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. This year I picked up the Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind for Xbox and played through the main quest, spending probably around one hundred hours with the game and seeing a pretty large portion of the subsidiary content. After spending so long with one game, I felt pretty burned out on it, and elected to leave it be for a while before I returned to tackle the expansions, Tribunal and Bloodmoon. 2010 would be a great time to return to Morrowind and get to grips with all this unexplored additional content. The other obvious example is the just-finished Pokémon Crystal. I have the whole of Kanto to explore now, but I'm all Pokémon'd out at the moment and couldn't stand to play through all that post-game content right now. In a few months down the line, I'll be more willing to return to Kanto, and more likely to appreciate the experience.
 

Play Through Final Fantasy VII Again

Tifa's boobs had no bearing on this decision whatsoever 
Here's one that's more than likely to ruffle a few feathers. If everyone can set aside their own personal love/hatred of Final Fantasy VII for a moment, I'd like to explain why this is on my list. I think everybody has at least one game that they'll always come back to, even years later, and still be able to appreciate it as they did the first time. For some, it's Ocarina of Time. For others, it's Half-Life. For me, it's Final Fantasy VII. I haven't picked it up in over two years, and I feel like I'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't play through it again at some point next year. My plan is to play through most of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII this year, starting with Crisis Core (which is still on my Pile of Shame), moving on to Final Fantasy VII proper, and finishing off with Dirge of Cerberus. After neglecting it for so long, I feel like I owe it to myself to get reacquainted with the game that made me serious about games.

Pick Up A Few 'Must-Have's

I am so excited for this game. And I don't even really like Westerns 
2010 isn't going to be all about old games, though. There are a couple of new releases that I'm really looking forward to picking up. Being a student, I've had to be pretty selective about what my money's going to be spent on over the next twelve months, but I've managed to narrow it down to three games that I absolutely must own. The first of these is Red Dead Redemption. I'm super-psyched for this, and I'm surprised to see that I seem to be in the minority, at least here on Giant Bomb. The screenshots and trailers that have been released look incredible, for a start. After Grand Theft Auto IV, the thought of what Rockstar could do story-wise in a Wild West scenario has me almost wet with excitement. Second, there's Final Fantasy XIII. Why am I excited for this? Simple, really - I'm a sucker for JRPGs. The return to the Active Time Battle system looks to be a good decision based on the footage I've seen, and it seems to be spinning a pretty good yarn from what I've read so far. Finally, I'm majorly looking forward to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. I'm a big fan of the Metal Gear games, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was far and away my favourite in the series, so any further exploration of the Big Boss story arc is fine by me. I loved Portable Ops, which I played through earlier this year, and if Peace Walker turns out to be anything like that, it'll be well worth picking up.
 
So, there you have it. That's what my 2010 is probably going to look like. Pretty much the same as my 2009, now that I think about it. Should be a pretty good year. Now that's all typed up, I'd better think about getting ready for my 11am lecture. A look out of the window reveals the weather isn't particularly inviting. Gotta love being in Britain. Take it easy, guys. I'll see you around. 
 
 
Dan
 
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Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
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Getting Off The Fence

Seeing as I've not spoken a single word on the whole Modern Warfare 2 debacle, I'm finally going to break my silence now and state my position on the game. 
  

  
...Man, I feel better after getting that off my chest. 
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
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Post Apocalyptia & Comedy Genius

Hey guys. It's been a pretty hectic week here at Dan Towers, what with essay deadlines coming in thick and fast. Nonetheless, I've still managed to break free from my busy schedule and write up a quick update on what's happening with me.
 

DEATHCLAWS!!! 
The main point of conversation right now with regards to what I've been playing is obviously Fallout 3. In between my excursions into the Capital Wasteland I've played some Rock Band and a little Geometry Wars, but for the most part Fallout 3 is where it's at. Things have really come along since my last update, so I'll do my best to fill you in on my adventures across the wastes. My character is currently at level 25, with a focus on both combat and social skills that seems to have served him pretty well so far. I'm a fair way through the main quest line, having just finished the quest The American Dream. I've also finished up quite a few of the side quests in the game and played through two of the DLC packs, namely Operation: Anchorage and The Pitt. I've just decided to break away from the main quest yet again and head over to Point Lookout. I'll be giving a much more thorough account of my opinion of Fallout 3 (including all the DLC) when I eventually finish with the game, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I'm still having an awesome time with the game and can't wait to see what Point Lookout has to offer.
 
But it's not all Fallout 3 on the agenda as we come close to the end of the year. There are a few other games that I'd really like to spend some time with and hopefully finish before 2009 comes to a close. So, with a new year (and a new decade) on the horizon, I proudly bring you...
 

The Official To-Do List - 2009 Edition  


1. Fallout 3

I received Fallout 3 as a Christmas present last year, and played the hell out of it back in January and February, but never actually finished the main quest line. Now armed to the teeth with all five DLC packs, I've returned to the game with hopes of clearing out everything I didn't manage to do first time round.

2. Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City

Actually this only refers to The Ballad of Gay Tony. I downloaded it on release day, and I intend to play through it before the year's up. Grand Theft Auto IV is my favourite game of all time, and I loved The Lost and Damned, so I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into this second piece of episodic content.

3. Lost Odyssey

As a huge Final Fantasy fan, Lost Odyssey delivers where Final Fantasy XII left me feeling a little short changed. I'm currently at the start of Disc 3 of this mammoth game, but I'm confident that it'll get finished before we see in 2010.

4. Pokémon Crystal

After playing through Pokemon Yellow earlier this year, I decided to give in to my nostalgic urges and finally picked up a second-generation Pokemon game in the form of Crystal. With seven badges under my belt right now, completing this before New Year shouldn't be a problem.

5. The Secret of Monkey Island

I've never played an adventure game before in my life. However, I've heard so many great things about this game (largely from that dear departed hustler, SuperMooseman) that I felt compelled to buy it on Steam. I intend to pop my point 'n' click cherry before the end of this decade with this little piece of history.

  
This man is very, very funny 
In other news not related to those video game things, I went out with my girlfriend last night to a comedy night on the University campus. This wasn't a spur of the moment decision, mind. I bought my ticket almost a month ago after finding out who was headlining the show - my favourite stand-up comedian, Jon Richardson. As a long-time listener of his BBC 6 Music podcast, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see him perform live for a mere four pounds. I think I identify with Jon because we have such similar outlooks on life - we're both grumpy young men who've adopted the philosophy: "The world is shit, so you might as well laugh about it". His set was ruthlessly funny, as he poked fun at relationships, student life and politics in his trademark fashion. At the end of the show, I even got to have a quick chat with him and shook his hand. To draw a comparison in the gaming industry, I suppose it'd kind of be like shaking hands with Gabe Newell. Or maybe even Jeff Gerstmann. All in all, it was an awesome night that I shan't soon forget.
 
I think on that note, it's about time I wrapped up this blog. I have a hungry girlfriend who I suspect is expecting me to cook dinner tonight. Thanks for reading guys. Take it easy, and I'll see you around.
 
 
Dan 
 
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Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
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Gaming As Research - Creating A Believable World

If I had to pick one aspect of my life to define myself, I'd tell people that I was a writer. For a long time now, I've wanted nothing more than to become a published author. Not a popular author, mind - I have no interest in attaining the same status as people like Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling. The appeal lies more in the creation of something that other people can pick up and enjoy. The thought of putting something real and physical out there into shops and onto shelves is really appealing to me. Probably because it carries the notion that, even when I'm no longer a part of this world, I'll live on through the words I've written, and in the minds of people who've read those words. 
 
Over the last few years, I've been building up the backstory to what will most likely be my first attempt at a proper fantasy novel. I've been toying with the concept for quite some time now, and I finally think things are beginning to reach a point where they constitute a full plan for a book. Things have changed considerably since the initial idea began to take root in the back of my mind. Old plot ties have been severed to make way for new ones. New characters have emerged to take the place of their older counterparts. Locations have been built from the ground up, demolished and rebuilt in a completely different fashion. This constant evolution has formed the basis of my creative thought process over the last few years, often to the point where I start to eat, sleep and breathe the fruits of my own invention. What I'm doing is, by my understanding, not too dissimilar to the process of creating a story-driven video game. Just like a novel, a game that intends to spin an interesting yarn will rely on realising its characters and its setting, as well as conveying the plot itself.
 
As I near the end of this preliminary stage and begin to think about the transition from concept into product, one thing in particular has been bothering me. I can only describe it as a by-product of being the over-protective parent of such a piece of work - a worry that I might send the result of my labour out into the world unprepared. The way I see it, with fantasy writing in particular, the success of what one writes is determined by its believability relative to our own world. The world that a fantasy writer creates has to be cohesive, and compliant with its own laws. Suspension of disbelief is a necessary aspect of fantasy, but it can only be relied on up to a point. To put it in simpler terms, it's ok to create a world where lemonade is a fuel source, as long as you back it up by adapting your world to fit - it's not going to be quite as plausible if your world doesn't have any means of sustainable lemon production. My biggest concern is that the world I've created around the story I want to tell might not be cohesive enough.
 

Why is Rapture such an enthralling place? 
So, over the last year or so I've been looking at the books I've read as a reference point. I've gone back to writers like Philip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien, writers who've created worlds that I've been both lost in and inspired by. I've also taken great care when reading new books to see how authors succeed in creating a believable, working reality different from our own. But, it's not just books that have to do this (here comes that video gamey relevance again!). Game developers also have to ensure that the worlds they create are believable - maybe even more so, considering we are not just a spectator of their reality, but an inhabitant and participant in it.With the release of games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4, we're starting to see more and more games succeed in portraying believable worlds with their own mechanics, politics and history.
 
Final Fantasy VII - proof that games can tell awesome, believable stories 
Story-telling in games has had a profound effect on me. Arguably more so than the vast majority of people who play games, I'd go as far as to say. The big one, however controversial it may prove, was Final Fantasy VII. To this day, FFVII remains one of my favourite games, and that's predominantly due to the influence it had on me when I first played it nine years ago. Before being exposed to FFVII, my experiences in the world of video games had been limited to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. These games featured slivers of narratives, but their stories were essentially only there to validate the actual gameplay. By contrast, FFVII's story and characters were the focus of the game. It completely changed my perspective on games in general, showing me the potential of the medium as a storyteller. What impressed me most, though, was the canon and history surrounding the game's main story that diligent players could unearth as they played through the game. It's the presence of this parerga within the game that really gave the world of FFVII a sense of credibility and made the events that unfolded throughout the story's progression even more believable (for me, anyway).

If you keep up with what I've been playing recently, you'll notice that the list is currently dominated by three sizeable RPGs - namely Fallout 3, Lost Odyssey, and Pok émon Crystal. Each of these three games contains a multitude of auxiliary content that helps to flesh out their world and make it more cohesive, and thus more believable. Fallout 3's backstory is arguably more interesting than the plot of its main quest, giving an insight into life before the bombs fell. Fabricated brands like Nuka Cola and the Ford Nucleon-inspired car skeletons littered around the Capital Wasteland convey the history of a world that was heavily reliant on nuclear power before it was destroyed by it. Lost Odyssey's world can be drawn on a parallel with our own thanks to the comparative energy crisis it experiences, and this is all thanks to the careful attention writers must have paid to the concept of Magic Energy. The fantasy world of the Pok émon games is made more plausible by the inclusion of related paraphernalia such as Poké Balls, not to mention the presence of fictional authority systems like the Pokémon League. It's the attention to detail in each of these examples that makes the game worlds feel "complete".  
 
To take one final example, let's have a look at a recent promotional video for the new Grand Theft Auto IV downloadable content, The Ballad of Gay Tony.  

 
The ad makes liberal use of an in-game brand, which in itself is a parody of a real world brand. The 'Sprunk' name is a tiny part of what makes GTAIV's Liberty City so believable as a parody of the real-world New York City. I think it's pretty safe to say that if Rockstar didn't build up all this supporting content in the form of consumer brands, television programmes and radio shows (to name just a few examples), GTAIV as a game would feel like a very hollow experience.

The last year and a half has been a truly enlightening experience from an authorial perspective. Playing games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Dead Space, and the first two Oddworld titles has provided me with an insight into how to make my world more believable by creating supporting content and integrating it into the world. In tandem, reading books like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Thomas More's Utopia has given me a great insight into how to integrate that supporting content into the narrative I'll be writing. I've reached a point where I'm feeling more comfortable with the way my concept is shaping up than I've ever done before, and I think that I'll be ready to actually start working on the novel itself in the very near future.
 
I think that's all I've got to say at this moment in time. For anybody who might be interested, I'm setting up a separate blog where I intend to pour out all my more authorial ramblings as I get well and truly stuck into the writing process which can be found here. I know it's devoid of content right now, but I expect it to get pretty active as we head into 2010 and the writing gets underway proper. For those of you who read my Giant Bomb blog, fear not - I won't be leaving the GB Blogosphere, and you'll still be able to find regular games-related updates here. Those of you who couldn't care less probably stopped reading about halfway into the second chapter, so I shan't offer you any parting words. To all you others, thanks a lot for taking the time to read this pretty sizeable (and probably largely nonsensical) blog post. If you have any recommendations regarding games that go a great job of realising their worlds, let me know - I'd love to investigate more of them. Take care, and I'll see you around. 
 
 
DanK 
 
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Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
4 Comments

Fallout 3 DLC And A Cute Puppy

Hey guys. Just another quick update for now. I'm sorry this blog isn't more substantial, I promise some pretty lengthy, interesting entries are on their way. I've just been a little busy with University over the last week, and a nasty bout of head cold didn't exactly help matters either. Next week will bring more meaningful content, I promise.
 
So, on to what I've been playing lately: 
 

Now Playing

1. Fallout 3

I decided to return to the Capital Wasteland earlier this week. A major factor in this was my coming into a nice helping of Microsoft Points, which I used to flesh out my collection of Fallout 3 downloadable content. Now I have all five add-ons, I think this is the best possible time to jump back into Bethesda's post-apocalyptic open-world RPG. I'm steering clear of the main quest line for now in favour of finishing up some of the side quests early on. My speech-focused character is currently Level 8, and I'm endeavouring to stay at the good end of the Karma spectrum. I'm just about to embark on the quest 'Blood Ties'.

2. Lost Odyssey

Just because I'm diving into yet another lengthy RPG doesn't mean I've forgotten about this one. Lost Odyssey is still seeing a fair amount of playtime. I've just emerged from the Ice Canyon at the start of Disc 3. My party's average level is about 32.

3. Pokémon Crystal

Rounding off this RPG-heavy list is this second-gen Pokemon title. I've just won my sixth badge in Olivine City and I'm now heading off to the Lake of Rage. My party's average level is 38.  

 
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Along with the Fallout 3 DLC, I also bought a few Arcade titles off Xbox Live Marketplace. For anybody who's interested, they are: 
 

Arcade Titles I Bought This Week

1. DrumKit

A pretty cool "game" that converts your Rock Band drums into a more conventional digital drum kit. You can configure the kit in any way you fancy, and even play along to the songs on your 360's hard drive. This should ensure I keep on top of my drumming, and at 80 Points, it was a steal.

2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

I've always had a soft spot for retro arcade shooters, although I don't play them very often. Geometry Wars cost me 400 Points and offers a fiendishly difficult (and fiendishly addictive) dual stick shooter.

3. Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Despite already owning a copy of this as part of the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, I went ahead and spent 400 Points on a second version of what I deem to be the best 2D platformer I've ever played.

4. Worms

I've always been a big fan of the Worms franchise, and a remake of the game that started it all for a mere 400 points isn't something I could pass up.

 
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In other news, my mum sent me some pictures of our new dog earlier today. Longtime readers may remember that we lost our last dog back in March to a sudden and aggressive illness. Well, my parents got a new dog just after I moved into my new flat in August. Her name is Mya, and she's seventeen weeks old. She's half border collie and half Alaskan malamute, so she's going to get pretty big. For now, though, she's one of the cutest little bundles of fluff I've ever set eyes on. Here are some photos. Anyone who disagrees clearly isn't human.   
 
 Once again, sorry for the lack of any real content to this blog. As I said, expect some compensation next week. Take it easy, and I'll see you around. 
 
 
DanK 
 
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Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
3 Comments

"I Have No Wish To Labour The Obvious"

So let's get down to business. I've been playing loads of games lately. I mean loads. I don't think I've had this many on the go for quite a while. Usually, I would go to the trouble of paragraphing this kind of information, but I've just noticed that lists can be imported into blog posts, and I'm quite curious to see how that works. Let's see how this pans out... 
 

Now Playing

...Wow, it worked! Ok, here's what I'm playing right now:

1. Forza Motorsport 2

For a more detailed explanation on why Forza 2 continues to occupy my 360's disc drive, I'd recommend checking out this blog. It's starting to get a little laborious now, but at present my stats sheet indicates I'm at Driver Level 48, with a career completion percentage of 89% All that's left to take care of are two Factory Spec championships, five Professional Series championships, and four Endurance Races. To be honest, though, I'm kinda burned out on Forza. I think I'll be steering clear of it in favour of...  

2. Gran Turismo

I'm not entirely sure why, but I impulse-downloaded Gran Turismo for my PSP yesterday. After some extensive playtime last night and earlier today during a two-hour gap in my university schedule, I've formulated enough of an opinion on the game to write this review of it. As I've only just started, I currently only own seven of the game's database of 830 cars. From what I've played so far, I like it, and I think it's the best way GT could have possibly gone portable.

3. Lost Odyssey

To be honest this is the only game on the list that I haven't played much of recently. I'm still really enjoying it, it's just gotten a little lost at the bottom of this monstrous pile. On the off chance you're looking for a more detailed account of my opinion of Lost Odyssey, you'll find in the blog linked above. I'm at pretty much the start of Disc 3, working my way through the Ice Canyon, with a party at the average level of 32. I'm hoping to put a little more time into this over the weekend while my girlfriend's away.

4. Pokémon Crystal

I played Pok émon Yellow earlier this year and loved the hit of nostalgia it gave me. Inspired to continue on the Pok émon train, I picked up a copy of Crystal and began my journey through Johto. Right now I'm training my team before I take on the Gym Leader at Olivine City. I have five badges, and according to my Pok édex I've caught 92 different kinds of Pok émon.

5. Pro Evolution Soccer 2009

This is probably the most on-and-off game on this list. I've opted not to pick up a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 just yet, preferring to spend some extra time with PES2009 and actually complete the Master League. The plan's not going too smoothly though - I'm playing it so sparingly that I'm still in my first season, about halfway up the table in Division 2.

6. Rock Band

I bought this along with a drum controller in a bid to keep drumming while I'm at university, so I don't completely forget myself the next time I'm behind a drum kit. It looks like it's going to serve that purpose. Being a big rock fan, the song list is great and features a lot of awesome tracks, including some that my band covers, so I feel right at home playing them. The drums are surprisingly similar to the real thing, despite the limitations of four pads. As long as it prevents me from losing my sense of timing and keeps my arms loose, It'll have served its purpose. The huge amount of fun is a definite bonus.

7. Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise

This is probably the game I've spent most time playing over the last week or so. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's taking over my life. The quirky characters and cute characters have an uncanny ability to draw you in, and the gardening gameplay is surprisingly addictive. It even managed to grip my girlfriend, so much so that I had to convince her to buy the DS version so I could get my 360 back. I think I'm going to be contending with Professor Pester for quite a long time to come. 

So that's what's been going on game-wise. In other news... 
 
  • I'm back at university proper now, studying for my second year of an English Language and Literature course. I'm studying some really awesome texts this year for the literature component, some of which I really can't wait to read. Right now I'm reading Thomas More's Utopia (as referenced in the title of this blog), and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Later in the year I'll be looking at texts like John Milton's Paradise Lost, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and (this is the one I'm looking forward to most) Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. The language component is looking pretty interesting too; I've chosen to focus on phonology and semantics this year.
  • On Tuesday I bumped into a guy from my hometown on campus. This would be shocking enough on its own, given I was the only person from my hometown at Essex last year, but it's made even more freaky by the fact that I used to be pretty good friends with this guy. Very scary stuff.
  • My girlfriend continues to be awesome. On Monday (my busiest day), I came home to find the flat clean. She then cooked me dinner, did all the washing up, and encouraged me to spend the evening on my 360. I genuinely believe I'm the luckiest guy on the planet.  If you're reading this, Karen, you need to stop being so amazing. You're making me look bad.
  • I got The Black Crowes' new album, Before The Frost.../...Until The Freeze, last week, and I think it's safe to say that my award for Album of the Year is signed, sealed and delivered. Also of note were The Enemy's Music For The People and Kasabian's West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum. To be honest, a lot of the music I was looking forward to this year has disappointed me greatly (here's looking at you, Muse and Editors), so it's nice to have something solid by one of my favourite bands to restore some of my faith in modern music.
 
I think that pretty much covers it all. I'm going out in about half an hour with my girlfriend to an alternative night on campus. I'm not particularly looking forward to it, given that most of the music they play at these nights tends to be awful, but considering I'm a student it's been far too long since I last tasted beer so I intend to rectify that. Take it easy, guys. I'll see you around. 
 
 
DanK 
 
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Currently playing - Gran Turismo (PSP)
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