Professional Scrawls

Time for a little self-promotion. We use this blog for our personal thoughts on art and entertainment, but we’re also active on other social media online. In case you’re interested, here’s some of it:

 

Travelcases

What started as a writing excercise on another free wordpress.com domain evolved into a regular travel blog with its own domain. On http://travel-cases.net/ we regularly post practical tips and stories about international travelling. Pay us a visit or like our Travelcases Facebook page!

Funny Blog Spam

We get a lot of spam on our Travelcases blog, which is of course annoying but sometimes also hilarious. So we decided to share it on Twitter. If you like the occasional random denglish in your twitter feed, then follow us on Twitter!

LinkedIn

We both do professional writing, blogging, proofreading and a bit of SEO on a freelance basis. If you’re interested in our work, then have a look at our LinkedIn pages: Alex or Saskia.

That’s it for now, thanks for reading!

Alex Reviews: “Insurgency (PC)”

Based on a mod of Half-Life using the Source Engine, INSURGENCY (originally called Operation: Counter-Insurgency) was a squad based, modern combat FPS released in 2007 by the same people who made the original Red Orchestra mod. Since then the team hasn’t sat still. With the idea of making the game more accessible and graphically impressive, they began work on INSURGENCY 2 (later renamed to just Insurgency) which recently saw release on 22nd January 2014.

Image courtesy of SubParGamers.

Having built up nearly 100 hours since I bought it four weeks ago, it’s safe to say that this is one of my favourite FPS games since Counter-Strike: Source was released. Drawing heavily on the squad-based combat of CS:S, Insurgency endeavours to add more realism and tactical importance to Counter-Strike’s more arcade elements. This isn’t a game to be taken lightly. Categorised under the term “hardcore”, Insurgency is indeed hard. One small mistake, one step out of cover, is all it takes to leave you staring at someone else playing the game for up to a minute. And there is nothing more frustrating than watching someone who doesn’t know or want to play the game properly, while you sit helplessly dead and unable to communicate with them.

You see, Insurgency is an objective-based game. There are no deathmatch or team deathmatch game types. It’s all about working together and communicating efficiently to capture and hold territories, defend/destroy key points or protect/eliminate a VIP. This means there is nothing more aggravating than spectating the last living player on your team sitting on top of a hill with a sniper rifle, watching the enemy capture the last territory to win the game. Despite this however, Insurgency is a game that actually rewards camping most of the time. Finding a clever defensive spot or a hidden approach to an objective is by far the most effective way to defeat the enemy. This is not Call of Duty and charging head first into a fire fight is the best and quickest way to get yourself killed. Work with your team, call out targets and watch each other’s backs if you want to win.

Image courtesy of SubParGamers.

In terms of style, the game draws heavily from the likes of Red Orchestra and Rising Storm. There is no cross-hair and iron sights are the only reliable way to aim. There are a variety of weapons to choose from, based on the class you choose at the start of the game. The basic classes are Rifleman for Security and Fighter for the Insurgents, with standard weapons being the M16A4 and AKM respectively. The weapons are well crafted and balanced, with each one having it’s own pluses and negatives. For example, the AKM is powerful and able to lay down a lot of fire, making it a perfect assault weapon for clearing rooms and corridors. However, when firing over range the recoil makes it all but useless. Countering this, the M16A4 is an excellent medium range weapon providing accuracy and significantly less recoil. However, despite the burst fire mode, it is still inferior to the AKM in tight spaces. In order to balance the weaponry even further the game also allows for each player to add attachments and upgrades to their weapons before the round starts. Heavy barrels and foregrips reduce recoil while AP bullets and silencers allow for highly effective stealth kills. When playing in a well-coordinated team this lends itself well to tactics, with the SMG wielding Specialists capping the points while the longer ranged Designated Marksmen and Snipers cover them.

Interestingly the development team chose not to include kill notifications and recently removed the ability to see kill to death ratios outside of spawn points. This significantly adds to the realism game mechanic of Insurgency as sometimes you’re not sure whether the person you were shooting is actually dead or not, especially as they could be wearing heavy body armour. This uncertainty is a large part of the game and leads to difficult situations when you’re never sure which direction the enemy might approach from.

Image courtesy of SubParGamers.

Ultimately, the only downside to this game is the number of maps. Currently there are only seven (which are sometimes changed slightly for the different game types) and after playing as long as I have you start to know how best to move between cap zones without being seen or where most people will sit when defending. Fortunately the dev team are very involved with the ongoing progress of the game and I have no doubt that they will soon be introducing more maps, if not more weapons, attachments or other goodies.

In the end, this is a great breath of fresh air for modern warfare gaming, providing something for fans of Red Orchestra who are dismayed by the run and gun arcade mechanic offered by other titles. Highly recommended for those who want to put in time and effort for a very rewarding FPS experience.

9/10

Alex Reviews: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I was relatively late to the game with picking up XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I had heard the name a few times and seen friends and family playing it on Steam, but the only impressions I got were the grainy shades-of-blue squaddie imagery and the erroneous idea that it was some kind of third-person shooter. However, when the lovely green “-75%” appeared next to the price suddenly all the positive comments I’d heard and read about became that much more persuasive.

Image courtesy of NewGameNetwork.

Upon first opening XCOM, I wasn’t really aware of what I was playing. You get thrown head-first into an introductory tutorial mission upon starting a new game and this was the first time I discovered that XCOM isn’t the game I thought it was, its actually a turn-based squad strategy game, akin to the retro classic Commandos.

At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t impressed. The over-sized and blocky weaponry of the squad members, paired with the tank-like build of the men and the skinny femininity of the women made the whole thing border on ridiculous. The environment around your headquarters also feels very surreal and unrealistic, like everything is made from painted polystyrene. On top of the aesthetics, I also thought there wasn’t a great deal of drive or direction given to the player and I frequently found myself looking at my underground base full of various facilities thinking “Ok, now what?”

It only took me a few hours of game play however for all of these complaints to pale into insignificance. Once the tutorial missions are over and you get to decide your own course of direction in your battle against the alien menace, that’s when XCOM comes into it’s own.

So you’re sitting in your underground super-secret base when suddenly one of a wide variety of emergencies happen (alien abductions, alien terror attack, UFO landing, council request, etc.) that you need to handle. Then begins a series of choices that can have long-term affects on how the rest of your game plays out. Firstly, you have to choose which squad members you want to send on the mission and what you’re going to equip them with. This is relatively simple at first because they’ll all be rookies without any special skills and you won’t yet have any decent equipment. However, after a few missions your troops will start getting promotions and specialising in their own type of combat and suddenly each mission becomes a painstaking choice between more grenades or another medikit, and do we really need two snipers? Throw into that mix the fact that one wrong choice on the battlefield can lead to a trooper being out of action for several days (at the very minimum) and who you choose to take with you suddenly becomes a far more significant issue.

Image courtesy of stormsweeper.

The battles themselves are very well designed. The landscapes are nicely detailed without being too cluttered and they all force you to make the heart-quickening choice of safety versus fire superiority. You will end up fighting in a wide variety of locations and situations, where each of your squad members will either excel or become useless, sometimes in the same mission. There are also a good amount of enemy variants that each prove to have their strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to change tactics at a moment’s notice to be able to effectively combat them.

Once the battle is over, assuming you were successful, you will receive alien artefacts such as alloys and a new element known as Elerium. If you killed any enemies you will also collect their corpses and your science team back at base can be instructed to autopsy them in order to learn more about your foe. This adds a great dynamic to the game in that depending on what missions you undertake and how you perform, different research will become available to you. The research you perform will then allow your engineering team to construct new technology and this will have a direct effect on the outcome of later missions, and so the whole process repeats.

Image courtesy of faseextra.

Image courtesy of faseextra.

Politics also plays a role in the game as the alien invasion sparks panic around the globe. A cross section of nations from all continents form “The Council” which ultimately funds the XCOM operation and expects to be protected by it. Consequently, when several emergencies happen at once, panic will erupt in the places that you don’t have time to defend. If this panic is left unchecked the member nation will leave the Council, taking it’s funding with it. If too many countries abandon XCOM, the aliens win. Consequently you may have to take on more difficult missions to please countries, sell arms and resources to them, and pay to manufacture satellites to provide UFO surveillance. Just when you thought it was hard enough keeping your guys alive, now there are also political implications to your actions on the battlefield.

Despite all these different aspects and game mechanics, XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn’t feel confusing or overly stressful. Everything is fluid and there is a freedom of choice rarely found in games of this kind. Even while juggling all the different elements outside of battle, the game still delivers the thrilling feeling of successfully blowing the face off of a giant roaring monster from point blank range with a shotgun or expertly picking off a psychic grey from across the map with a well placed sniper shot. In fact, all of your careful planning and research leads up to these glorious moments of alien destruction, when you realise that you made the right choices and who knows, maybe you can actually win this thing?

 

9/10

Alex Reviews: “Night Train to Lisbon”

Welcome to the first instalment of “Alex Reviews” which is basically going to take on the format of me reviewing stuff I experience. Expect to see anything from music and films to restaurants and days out. Basically, anything and everything that is entertaining, I will write about.

Night Train to Lisbon (2013)

Night Train to Lisbon poster

The film centres around an ageing and solitary philosophy professor (Jeremy Irons) living in Bern, Switzerland, who, while on the way to work on morning, saves the life of a woman about to jump from a bridge. He takes the woman with him to his work but she abruptly leaves, forgetting to take her coat and a copy of a collection of memoirs by a mysterious Portuguese writer, Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston). Upon finding the book and trying to return it to the woman, our protagonist enters himself into the complex and emotional life of the author and his friends, and the dark, dangerous lives they lead during the Portuguese revolution.

Although a slow and thoughtful piece that takes it’s time to get going, the film is full of gripping drama that prevents it, even at it’s slowest moments, from becoming laborious. The characters are starkly real and fleshed out and special recognition must go to the talents of the actors playing the older versions of the characters as they recount the stories of their past lives and the traumatic experiences they’ve been through. Charlotte Rampling especially does a spectacular job of conveying the role of Amadeu’s troubled sister trying to distance herself from her past.

Over all the film does a great job of telling a story within a story, all overlaid with Amadeu’s bitter but honest philosophies. The film captures this feeling of introverted speculation well and the whole thing feels like a visual representation of Amadeu’s musings.

Unfortunately the drama can sometimes overdo itself, especially when the troubled love sub-plot becomes the focus of the narrative despite the great danger of the revolution going on all around them. Nonetheless, even this deviance can be forgiven given that the tale is being retold by the people who experienced it and thus their emotions are likely to carry a lot of weight in their memory of the events. Similarly, pure coincidence plays a large role in the film, at several points conveniently occurring to point the protagonist in a new (and correct) direction in his search to uncover the story. This detracts only slightly from the plot, fortunately, as coincidence in itself has become a recognisable and acceptable plot device in the majority of modern film and television.

In the end, director Bille August does a sterling job in smoothly moving between complex and multi-layered story lines while keeping the plot easily accessible and the roles of the characters memorable. ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ is ultimately an enjoyable and thought-provoking insight into the lives of a few great people living in a dark and terrible part of Portuguese history.

8/10

The Homeless Man

The homeless man sat on the bench all day in his sleeping bag and raincoat. He never moved, save to find food and relieve himself, and at night he lay down on the bench and slept soundly, not waking even when people walked past him. Ever so often someone would notice his constant presence and enquire of him “Sir, why do you always sit here and never move? You have no job, no home, no responsibility. You could go wherever you want.” And he would smile at them, tilt his head slightly and say “Why go anywhere, when all I want is here?” and, perplexed, the intruder would walk on, mulling over his words. The homeless man would sit back on his bench, quietly content.

One day a small boy went walking past carrying a balloon. Spying the homeless man, he stopped and stared unashamedly. The homeless man stared back. The boy walked slowly closer and then sat down next to him.

“Hi,” he said “I’m Jack Duggart. Who’re you?”

“My name is Eric Harding.” the homeless man replied.

“Why do you always sit here? Don’t you have a house?”

The homeless man smiled slightly.

“No,” he said “This bench is all I have.”

“Oh.” said the boy, thinking for a moment. “Would you like this balloon?”

He held out the balloon to the homeless man and it swayed lightly in the breeze. The homeless man’s smile widened, and became a laugh.

“No, thank you.” he said, “Everything I want is already here.”

“Oh, okay.” said the boy, standing up. “Well, I better go. Nice to meet you Eric Harding.” The boy ran off then, his balloon trailing behind him.

“Nice to meet you Jack Duggart.” answered the man, to himself.

Many years later Jack Duggart returned to his childhood home once more. He walked along his old routes to school and back, remembering so many things he’d thought forgotten. But it was the sight of the bench that brought back the memory of the old homeless man. The bench however, was empty, but next to it was now another bench fashioned in a similar style. Jack walked slowly over to them and sat on the first one, as he had once before, remembering. The homeless man had nothing, and yet he had claimed to have everything he wanted right here? Jack was puzzled, and he turned to lay down on the bench to contemplate. In doing so he noticed something on the seat; a small gold plaque. Sitting up he stared at it closely. It was worn and the writing on it had almost disappeared, but after rubbing it with his sleeve he managed to read it. It said “Rachel Harding 1974 – 1999”. Getting to his feet, Jack walked quickly over to the second bench, which had a similar plaque attached to it. Already knowing what it would say, Jack read it; “Eric Harding 1972 – 2009”. Jack left quickly and returned three minutes later. He tied the balloon he had just bought to the second bench, smiled to himself, and went on his way.

By Alex

Old Man Gloom

The Rizla paper folded neatly in the old man’s experienced hands. It rolled tightly around the tobacco inside, and stuck without a crease after he licked its edge. He placed the end in between his lips and raised the lighter. Flick. Flick. Spark. Memory.

“Delta-One-Niner this is Alpha Patrol, requesting immediate fire mission four klicks North of our position. Over.”
  “Fuckin’ A!”
“Start ‘er up Sam-boy!”
“Repeat, this is Alpha Patrol. Come in Delta-One-Niner, we need assistance! Fire mission four klicks North of our co-ordinates, do you copy? Over.”
The pilot was stoned. The co-pilot was stoned. Shit, we were all stoned. Keefy was taking his turn as the chopper lifted off. Puff. Puff. Puff. I sat on the edge, looking out through hazy eyes at the ground moving further away and my feet dangling freely above it. I shifted my M-16 from the crook of my arm into my lap, so I could get a better look.
“Steady on, Albino” wheezed Sam-boy, who was half-passed out in the centre of the chopper, “You’ll fuckin’ fall out!”
“That’d be the day” I replied, “Short, sharp drop and then someplace better than this.” Sam-boy giggled and passed me the joint. It was almost finished. I took the remaining drags while watching the trees fly past and the huge mountain tops overlooking them, in the distance. It occurred to me then how minuscule this event was. Alpha Patrol. Vietnam. America. When all was said and done, these mountains would still be the same. They’re so old, perhaps they wouldn’t even notice what had happened, recovering like a person recovers from a grazed elbow. I began to chuckle at this, quickly becoming a laugh. Then Sam-boy started laughing too, and Keefy. We didn’t know what we were all laughing at, only that we needed to. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.

The lighter sparked and the flame ignited in the darkness of the street at night.

Boom. A flash so bright I had to turn away.
“Whooo-hooo!” screamed the pilot over the radio, swerving the chopper round to the left so we could get a better look. Keefy began laughing maniacally, swinging his M-60 machine gun around wildly, spraying bullets into the trees. I looked back and watched as the liquid fire of napalm stuck to everything it touched. The trees looked like they were melting. A small village burned bright orange, clouds of black smoke rolling up into the sky.

The smoke drifted upwards casually, looping in on itself in the slight breeze. The old man inhaled sharply.

“Fuckin’ VC bastards!” Sam-boy shouted, as people started to run from the burning houses, “Let ’em all fuckin’ burn!”
I gaped. The people were on fire. They ran in circles, screaming, blinded and maddened by their agony. A fierce anger rose in me and I leapt over Sam-boy to where Keefy was still manning the machine gun. I shoved him off and swung it round, pointing it at the burning huts.
“What the fuck are you-” Keefy started to protest, but I let rip before he could finish. The sound of the gun fire filled the chopper. Bullets rained on the people below. Leaves were shredded from the trees, huts were torn apart and people were torn to bloody pieces.
“Yes! Die you fucks, fucking die!” Sam-boy screamed, waving his fists in the air and laughing crazily at the carnage below him. Keefy was laughing too, spittle spraying from his mouth, smacking his hand on the side of the chopper cabin. I fired on, not letting go of the trigger. I didn’t stop until the bullet belt ran dry.
I earnt a lot of respect for that. Men from other platoons would come up to me and say things like “You’re the guy who cleared an entire village of Gooks? Fuckin’ A man.” But they didn’t understand. They thought I’d done it because of the guys we’d lost, or for freedom, or against Communism, or some other bullshit. They didn’t understand that I had to do it.

The old man took a drag on his cigarette. “Better to be shot,” he thought, “than to burn.” But in his heart, he wasn’t so sure.

By Alex

The Production of Beauty

Collage - The Production of Beauty

Collage – The Production of Beauty

By Saskia

Noise! His Final Masterpiece

Collage - Noise! His Final Masterpiece

By Alex

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