Sunday, June 01, 2014

MAOS!




A long time ago, when I first heard about that there was an Agents Of SHIELD TV series in the pipeline, I was hugely excited.

Then, when I heard they were changing the title to Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD, I thought that was a bit of a mouthful and a bit surplus to requirement. The Marvel universe must have the kind of brand recognition enjoyed by Coca-Cola by now, surely. Still, it amused me that Disney owned Marvel and you could now form the acronym MAOS out of the title. You know me, I can’t resist an opportunity to take the Mickey. (Haha.)

Now that we’ve reached the end of the first season, I’m inclined to think they need to stamp the Marvel brand on more boldly.

It’s been a fun ride. A bumpy rollercoaster at times as it found its feet and direction like a newborn superhero discovering its powers, learning its limits. Presumably too, like any Whedon-produced show, it faced uncertainty as to whether it was going to have a future. Still, where weaknesses and a degree of tentativeness have been apparent, it has generally won me over with its Whedon school of humour and the charisma of its cast.


Clark Gregg is terrific as Coulson, natch: he doubles as a vital bridge between the TV and movie worlds and provides us with one of the season’s strongest load-bearing threads – i.e. the question of what the hell he’s doing alive. I’m not normally a fan of characters being brought back from the dead, but in this case they made something of it and the mystery surrounding the nature of Coulson’s resurrection dangled an interesting hook in front of us for much of the series. Good call.


My principal favourite is Agent May. And yes, this has much to do with my Ming-Na bias. I’ve been an admirer since first seeing her in Joy Luck Club and of course she was one of the many many reasons I was a fan of ER. In May, SHIELD have their own Black Widow for the home screen and in a superhero universe where female leads are still under-represented I do think the producers owe it to her and the series to give her a more prominent role. Her involvement showed steady improvement, thankfully, over the course of the first season, so that’s a start. Early on, I detected a tendency to treat her as ‘the cavalry’ – sidelining her until she was needed to come to the rescue – a name which, in case the producers haven’t yet gotten the message, she does not like being called.


I’ve also really liked Chloe Bennett as Skye and I’m looking forward to seeing how they further her character development, especially in light of the unfolding mystery surrounding her background. For the actress’ sake and ours, I do hope we don’t learn that she was exposed to a huge overdose of gamma-rays and is obliged to turn into a (very cute) She-Hulk every time she’s pissed off with Ward.

Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elisabeth Henstridge) are an engaging double act. The team could have gotten by with one science geek, but the decision to split them in a creative process not unlike cellular division turns out to be an inspired one. Good call. The way their initial comic banter flourished into a bond of real warmth and affection has been a treat to watch.

Ward was, well – I’m sorry, with the greatest respect to the actor (Brett Dalton), who delivers the role as per the job description - and then some when handed the better material towards the end, I found the character as interesting as Clark Kent. And just to clarify, for those that don’t know, I find Superman the least interesting of all superheroes. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Who cares.

There’s a strong possibility that Ward was never meant to be interesting to me – I’m guessing he was there for the female viewers. But there seems to be a belief in TV (and movie) land that strapping soldier types should never under any circumstances possess any personality. He would not be out of place in the list of Buffy’s boyfriends (before Spike). He improves as a villain – not merely by virtue (if that’s the right word) of being bad, but we are given some sense of the character’s growth and how he wound up on the evil path. The twists and turns of his closing few episodes worked wonders to redeem the character, if not in the moral sense then in terms of worth. So for that at least, Hail Hydra!

For our sake - and Skye’s, in case she does have that She-Hulk gene – I hope that his story is over and done and he won’t be back. Except, I have a feeling the show isn’t finished with him. But in the event he does return I trust that the producers have something more inventive planned for him than turning him away from the dark side.

In the meantime, the Agents of SHIELD are a team and I think it would serve the series tremendously if attention was paid to keeping everyone interesting. Sure, a large part of that is subjective, but in casting my mind back to Buffy, it was rare indeed for any member of the Scooby gang to be anything less than entertaining at the very minimum.

What else would I like to see for the second season?

First and foremost, what I think the show needs is the addition of more Marvel. It should be MARVEL’s Agents Of SHIELD. More than capitalising the prefix and rendering it in bold, it needs to build firmer bridges (Bifrost or otherwise) between its world and the Marvel universe. As it stands, it’s not Marvel-less, but it could do with being more Marvel-lous.


It seemed to me that just as The X Files generally (until its latter years anyway) seemed to step up a gear in the ongoing arc episodes, MAOS was elevated and energised by the appearances of (the legendary) Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Cobie Smulders (Commander Maria Hill) and Jamie Alexander (Lady Sif). The tie-in with events of (the quite brilliant) Winter Soldier was like planting a firm super-soldier boot on the accelerator. So, more Marvel, please.

Of course, I appreciate there are going to be rights, not to say money, issues with the various characters and properties under the Marvel umbrella. But the official Marvel pantheon is vast. I mean, it would probably give the Chinese pantheon a run for its money.

All right, maybe not that vast, but there are plenty of characters who are never, with the best will in the world, going to have their own movie franchise. And I say that even in the knowledge that Ant-Man is in production. (If Anteater Man is his first enemy, it'll be a short-lived franchise.)

Obviously, chucking in a lot of the dafter and possibly slightly rubbish super-villains is not going to improve things. But that still leaves the option of taking one of the dafter or slightly rubbish characters and improving on them. Superhero movies have by and large been all about that: re-creating comic book characters in a more credible context. As credible as they can be, anyway, in a world where monomaniacal super-rich guys build their own flying suits, self-irradiated scientists can turn big and angry and green and Norse gods drop in for the occasional visits.

Part of the reason Winter Soldier worked so well for me was that the Cap was up against an enemy who was pitched just right. Many of the lower-echelon Marvel villains would be a perfect match for the SHIELD team: powerful enough to throw down a real challenge, not quite so powerful as to wipe them out with a sneeze (e.g. Black Bolt) and – crucially for the series – a bona fide fully licensed paid-up badge-carrying member of the Marvel club.

We have Agent Carter to look forward to, with the excellent Hayley Atwell, and – depending on the writing – I anticipate that could do well without too many Marvel frills, albeit I’d like to see members of the Howling Commandos get more screen time, while their Cap is busy in the 21st century. For one thing, it will have the period-piece appeal going for it. For another, Hayley Atwell.


As the Marvel explosion continues, I think they’d do well to throw their weight around the way The Thing throws buses. Big and orange, bashful blue-eyed Benjamin Grimm isn’t actually all that shy when it comes to his superpowered activities. And yes, maybe some properties (FF, Spider-Man, X-Men) will be off-limits and others will be expensive. But even in the cases where cost would be an issue, I’d suggest to any Marvel execs listening out there to just chuck the dollars in the hat.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is not going begging. It’s a fun show, with heaps of wit and chutzpah and slick production values. But I do know a few too many viewers who’ve dismissed it as a poor second-cousin of the movies. Which is a shame. A bit of an Injustice League. But it also suggests that an investment will see a good many returns. Viewers who might well be tempted back if they start to hear that the series is a bit more Marvel.

And the rest of us, who’ve stuck with the show from the beginning, will simply applaud and cheer and get all super-excited like the fanboys and fangirls that we obviously are. Maosketeers? Er, yeah. Let’s not call ourselves that.

Hail Hydra! More importantly...

Go SHIELD!

SAF 2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Time And Towels


Tick tock.

Happy Towel Day! And here's to the late, great Douglas Adams.

Today struck us as a timely time to unveil the cover of the next volume in our Evil UnLtd series.

Evil UnLtd Vol 4: Tempus Sinister will, barring any chronic hystereses, be available in December 2014.

Lord, it's about Time.

SAF 2014

Note: 100% of royalties from all Evil UnLtd sales will continue to go to Cancer Research UK, at least for one more year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Heyyyy Miss Carter!




“Everybody say, Hey Miss Carter.”

Hey Miss Carter!

“Everybody say, Heyyyyyyy Miss Carter.”

Heyyyyyyy Miss Carter!

Woohoo! Here I am! Over here! To the left of the stage. (Your right.) Not a million miles away, but it feels like maybe half a mile.

Too far away to get noticed, that’s for sure. But by this point in the show, you should have realised that it’s not about you. You didn’t come here for her to see you. You came to see her. Beyoncé Carter (née Knowles).

(And yes, you heard right. That was Miss Carter. It’s a southern thing, y’all.)

And even if you can’t see her very well from that distance, you can feel her. She has a global presence so it’s easy to fill a space like the O2. There’s no danger of the atmosphere thinning, no matter what altitude your seat’s at. The audience go so mental for this lady, they were cheering at the ad for her new perfume that flashed on the screens during the pre-show interval. They cheered for her Pepsi Max ad. They cheered – and by cheered I mean roared, every time – for her short promo for her Beygood campaign. Basically any reminder that she would be here some time soon.

So you can imagine the volume mustered by the crowd when she actually turned up. I swear she could’ve stood on stage and done nothing and the whole place would have gone wild. Indeed, she did just that at one point. Waiting, it seemed, for the crowd to make sufficient noise. And they did.

What a tease.

A great moment. A pause in which you fully appreciate the extent to which she commands an arena with a simple pose, a look. It’s as effective an illustration as when she conducts an arena full of people in singing an entire verse and chorus of Irreplaceable. Probably more effective, because the understatement speaks volumes. It’s a role she plays, this alter ego of hers – Sasha Fierce – and she plays it spectacularly.


Of course, keeping folks waiting is the privilege of a diva. It works brilliantly when she’s on stage. Not so much when we’re actually waiting for the show to start and to be fair, like Shakira before her, she takes her own sweet time to kick things off. Similar to that show, we had a (poor) support act on for half an hour followed by a lengthy delay before the main event. Sheesh, I don’t know why you ladies take so long to get ready.

Okay, okay, I was only joking. You know you’re totally worth the wait in gold.

While we had some mediocre (I’m being kind) gurl band warming us up for Shakira, we had some Dee-Jay for this show. Frankly, I’d never heard of him and if I pay to see live music that doesn’t mean watching someone queuing up records on his deck and occasionally stepping out to wave his arms in the air. A large part of the crowd appeared to enjoy his act, but for me it just made the wait longer.

To be fair, I’d struggle to think of anyone who could do the occasion justice. I’d read that it was supposed to be X Factor’s Screwbo supporting, but that would have been an odd match-up. And anyone would be in danger of seeming like a drone compared to Queen B.

Anyway, this minor disappointment was promptly blown out of the water once the main show launched. Beyoncé’s Countdown followed later in the set, but it was definitely blast-off from 9pm.

A spicy mix, as you’d expect, of back catalogue and standout numbers from her latest ‘visual album’. And that is pretty much the show she gives – not literally translating all those videos to stage, but she’s so abundantly a performance artist, shaking up a cocktail of bootyful dance routines and big pyrotechnics and a lot of bling lighting displays. With (in part, I’m sure, to cover for those crucial costume changes) linking video installations. You get the impression everything is planned meticulously. Most of all, you’re just impressed.

There’s not really a screen large enough to convey the scale. But that said, I am hoping there’ll be a DVD I can pick up as a souvenir.

On occasions the band – the Suga Mamas – disappears behind a curtain to make way for the displays, left to play their hearts out behind there, unseen. They’re a vital element, underpinning the whole experience – that’s them you can feel pumping around your veins alongside the adrenalin – but like the dancers and the fireworks and the raining glitter and all the rest they’re just part of the system. Planetary bodies orbiting the central star.


Of course most astronomical stars have the decency to stay relatively still. Beyoncé manages a few spells which could almost be described as static, if only because of the electricity. And there are quieter songs, like the wonderful 1+1 where she confines her movements to some gentler writhing around on top of a piano.

The energy is incredible. And even if the dancing is often of the sort some husbands go to see at clubs, she’s elevated it to an acceptable mainstream artform. And my wife was perfectly happy to let me go see her.

There were two or three notable tracks I missed seeing and hearing, but if she’d done them all she’d probably have been on stage for four hours. Which I wouldn’t have minded, but I gather she was due to do the whole thing again the next night. And the next. And so on. So that might have been unreasonable to expect.

She does a clever job of stringing together a few medleys, which at least give you a flava (as they say) of some favourites.

Individual highlights for me had to be 1+1, the supremely seductive Naughty Girl, the sublime Halo, the irresistibly uplifting XO and Partition, which included a provocative and memorable chair dance.

Alas I have no photos to illustrate these – the images are stored in my head. My camera let me down – I think I would have needed one of those Nokia phones with the 42x zoom.

Yes, it’s true I wish I had been closer. Especially when you’re watching Bey being all flirtatious with those pressing around the front of the stage. Sigh, colour me envious.


But ultimately, half a mile, a quarter, whatever. It’s thousands of miles closer to Beyoncé than I find myself on a daily basis.

And the thing with stars is you can admire them from afar, you can bask in their light, soak up some of their energy and take it home with you.

Shakira warmed us up on a winter night a few years back. Beyoncé poured heaps of of honey n suga on this year’s pancake day.

In the end I was happy enough to be able to say, I Was Here.

SAF

Monday, February 10, 2014

READ ALL ABOUT IT!



Check out this sexy threesome.

Yes, Evil books have a habit of multiplying.

Evil UnLtd Vol 3: EVIL UTD has been available on Kindle for some while, but in our ongoing efforts to reduce the rainforests we've finally rolled it out as a paperback.

Signed copies are available direct from the author, via Paypal (see links in the sidebar). Alternatively you can obtain copies from Amazon.

100% of royalties from all sales (ebook or paperback) will continue to go to Cancer Research UK at least until May 25th 2014.

Check the official Evil UnLtd site for further information and updates on this and other books in the series.



SAF

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Writer's Blog

For a writer, it's pretty rare that I blog about writing. It seems there are already more writers on the net than there are readers - and most of those writers can be found writing blogs about their writing. So I tend to avoid it and instead write blogs about other random shhhh-stuff.

Still, when invited to join a blog tour by the very lovely and talented Hannah M Davis I couldn't refuse. For one thing, it allows me to point you in the direction of her blog, where - among other things - she talks about her writing process and features her excellent novel Voices Of Angels.

www.hannahmdavis.com/blog
 

And in turn there's an opportunity here to share the work of three other writers. (See below for details.)


1) What am I working on?

Lots. Generally, I prefer to have a variety of projects on the go at any one time. Usually, that amounts to one primary project that's my main focus and others that I can dip into as the mood or inspiration takes me.


This year my magnetic opus - the work that draws me most - is a sci-fi novel that's close to my heart. It's actually a sequel, part of a series I've been developing for some years now. More than that, I can't reveal as yet. But meanwhile, I'm pressing ahead with another sequel - Volume 4 in my SF comedy series Evil UnLtd. I hadn't intended to follow up on Book 3 quite so soon, but the characters demanded it. And I have another side-project in the shape of a YA fantasy novel, also possibly the beginnings of a series but it's early days on that one so we'll have to see how that turns out.

Also, as an alternative to blogging about writing, I have been posting actual writing to another blog, in the form of serialised short fantasy tales in The Tortenschloss Chronicles. (You should definitely check out those stories as an alternative to reading about my writing process.)







2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?











It's by me.


3) Why do I write what I do?



In order to answer that, I guess I could expand on my answer to the previous question.

I'm not interested in emulating anyone. I'd like my ideas to make the world a richer place in some small way. Not just add more of the same.

Obviously, I have my influences like everyone else and any of those might feed us ideas and inspire us to write, but it's always been important to me to be as original as possible. Now, it's often said there are no original stories, but the originality arises from telling stories with your own unique voice. Most of the time, for me, that means character voice. I'm not just viewing scenes through my eyes, it's generally through the eyes of the characters involved. So you (hopefully) have a fresh spin on any situation or story, by virtue of their being examined and experienced through the eyes of original creations.

And I suppose because they're my original creations I'm driven by a desire for their views to be heard, to be shared. Like any good parent. Hence, I write them.


Another way to look at it is that I'm frequently heavily pregnant with ideas and have to get them out of me. If you have a brainchild it'll keep kicking you until it's born.

4) How does your writing process work?

Most of the time it begins with the characters. And when it doesn't - when I'm struck by the germ of an idea (like in the case of Evil UnLtd where it was just a thought about too many sci-fi series focusing on do-gooders and heroes traveling the universe) - the ideas don't usually come alive until I have a clear portrait of the characters in my mind.






Again, using Evil UnLtd as an example, I felt the central premise - villains are the heroes - had bags of potential but it was the cast of characters who really brought that idea to life. Luckily, they all came to me pretty readily and fully-formed.



After you have your characters, then you can turn your attention to specific plots and situations and I find you only need your starting point, plug your characters in and watch them go. I know them, I know how they'll behave in pretty much any scenario. Obviously it follows there are times when I have to go back and revisit certain niggly plot points because the characters have gone and done their own thing and they may have led your story into a bit of a fix that, well, needs a spot of fixing.

With my Tortenschloss Chronicles I'm quite keen to keep to the age-old method of 'making it up as I go along' - and there's a tremendous freedom in that. But with other more complex tales - as in Evil, where you're juggling quite a few characters with ambitions that may be at odds with one another - it pays to plot events out in more detail. But any plans I prepare have to be flexible in order to allow for the characters being single-minded and doing their own thing.

If it all goes wrong and I get stuck, I can always blame them. But I know in my heart that it's all my fault for being too rigid or too attached to the original plan or perhaps for overlooking some small detail that makes it all click.

Beyond that, I don't tend to think of it as a process. Thinking of it as a process is like thinking of it as work. Which it is, sometimes hard work. But it's more fluid than that. And it always goes much better when it doesn't feel like work.


And there you have it.

So, if you're a writer and you've read this, the question is, are you interested in doing a blog tour?

Ordinarily, I would be supposed to have asked other writers in advance, but I tried that once and it was too much hard work with only two responses. So this time I'm doing it differently.

I have opportunities for three writers to carry forward. Authors, think of it as free adverstising space for your own writing blog. First three come, first three served.

The blog is simple. Acknowledge the person who invited you answer the 4 questions below, nominate three authors to follow and include a short bio for each on your blog and links for all.

Step one: Acknowledge the person & site that involved you in the blog tour: Me. Include a link to this blog and/or my website www.simonforward.co.uk

Step two: Answer the 4 questions above about your writing process

Step Three: Say who is on next week (your own chosen three) – give a bio and
link to their website.

If you’re up for a spot of free promo please send me a short bio and your website/blog link, which I can incorporate into my blog. in the space below!

I look forward to hearing from you. Creativity is meant to be shared. And the slogan for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation applies just as well to us writers:

Share and enjoy!

SAF

Monday, January 20, 2014

So Last Year



So, last year was all about Doctor Who. Nothing wrong with that, but I'd thought it might be nice to make the first blog post of this year about something different. Because, you know, I do have other interests. Like games, for instance.
 
I’ve no idea what the top games of 2014 will be. There are a few titles – like Thief, say – which show promise and no doubt many gamers are anticipating the release of Call Of Battlefield 37: Modern Black Special Ghost Ops Recon. But not me.

Microsoft and Sony would probably like me to get all excited about the PS4 versus Xbox One debate, but while I’m not averse to upgrades I’m holding fire on either of those until a combination of significant price drops and improved range of available titles proves too irresistible. In conjunction with a nice windfall.

No matter how strapped for cash we are, we plebs need our bread and circuses. And for now the Xbox 360 is my arena of choice. Then it’s just a matter of your preferred entertainments in that arena. Me, I don’t mind a spot of blood on the sand. Just whatever you do, don’t throw me to the Christians.

Anyway, since the immediate new year seems barren of fresh titles that appeal to me, it seems a good time to cast an eye or two back over the games that won my admiration during 2013. They could serve as some indication of the kind of thing I might go for in the coming year, assuming there’s anything similar in the pipeline.

At worst, it’s a chance for fond reflection.

All my top highlights surfaced in the latter half of the year and it seems appropriate to kick off with the one that’s still currently providing much fun and entertainment for the whole family. (That’s me and my wife; not the cats especially, although one of them appreciates having a choice of laps as both of us are fixed to the sofa for a few hours at a time.) I refer, of course, to:


LEGO Marvel Superheroes

A perfect marriage of two mighty franchises! LEGO games rarely disappoint – the only one we’ve played that wasn’t quite up to par was LEGO Indiana Jones and that had more to do with the limited cast of standout characters. No problems with that in the Marvel universe. From Ant-Man to Galactus, Avengers to X-Men, they’re all unlockable and playable here – and they’re all cute. There’s the usual array of inventive puzzles and challenges that encourage multi-hero (and villain!) co-operation and there are brilliant little touches, like having to rescue lots of little Stan Lees throughout each adventure and the fact that musclebound bulldozers such as The Hulk and The Thing are unable to assemble Lego bricks. Hulk smash! And Thing clobbers! Others build.

It’s a vibrant, colourful world and it’s almost a shame to smash bits of it up. Haha, who am I kidding? It’s fantastic fun. But in my defence, it’s the most creative rampage of destruction you are ever likely to experience.


Batman: Arkham Origins

In contrast, the Batman games are on the darker side. But in a good way.

While Assylum benefited from the confines of its setting, I welcomed the more sprawling open world of City and it’s back here in Origins. There’s a bleak midwintery ambience, affording plenty of shadows for Batman to lurk in while the villains provide the splashes of comic-strip colour. Bruce Wayne’s a moody sort and to be fair he’s not given much to laugh about this particular Christmas Eve but there’s no shortage of humour amid the gloomier proceedings: Alfred with his dry butlery stand-up routine and a rich supply of comic banter from the thugs scattered across the city. It’s worth listening to them before you beat them up.

Combat is nice and varied with a great range of moves and gadgets, as you’d expect, and the free-flowing frenetic melees are almost as much fun as the clever stealth takedowns where I like to imagine even Batman indulges in a quiet tee-hee as he slopes away to prey on his next unsuspecting victim.

 (NB In Dark Knight mode, the game becomes an altogether different beast – I found it ranged from annoying to impossible. So I wussed out and settled for being an ordinary hero. Those tougher modes are your reward for completing the game on Normal difficulty and I don’t know about you but after a long Christmas Eve doffing up bad guys I like things to get easier.)

It’s no mean feat to construct a story that embraces quite such a large cast of diverse enemies for Batman to confront and the developers have pulled it off on three occasions now, with this instalment introducing some of the less widely known villains along with some very familiar (evil) faces.

Luckily Gotham doesn’t enforce capital punishment and these baddies are only ever banged up in prison, all set to escape and fight another day.


Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

But if crime doesn’t pay in the DC universe, it pays rather handsomely on the islands and open seas of the Carribean. Yes, me hearties, I heartily enjoyed the naval battles in Assassins Creed III, so I was very much looking forward to swashing my buckle in Black Flag. The game lived up to expectations and then some.

Although, like all AC games, it did have this annoying habit of butting into the action with those dull and comprehensively uninteresting modern bits. Dear Ubisoft, I didn’t care about Desmond and I’m even less likely to care about some faceless corporate slave blundering about the Abstergo offices. Fortunately, you’re not tasked too frequently with this mundanery, but it’s still an occasional intrusion when you just want to get back to your piracy and, well, like it implies in the title, assassinating.

These episodes run counter to the immersive experience in what is – again – a vast and richly constructed historical setting laid out for you to explore and plunder. Especially as the scenario here assumes you are plundering memories in the interests of making movies, games and other merchandise based on characters and events within the main story. Luckily, the main action is so much damned fun that it fends off these misguided attempts by the developers to distance you from it all. But I’d love Ubisoft to drop all the modern drudgery altogether. Round it all off in a separate game if you have to – so I won’t have to buy it – but ditch it. Then release further games that pack me off on historical adventures.

Like this one, with more swashes and buckles than you can shake a cutlass at.

Melee combat isn’t quite as free-flowing as I’ve found in previous AC instalments – it seemed trickier to string together parries, which resulted in more interrupts – but fights tended to retain their semi-cinematic qualities and our ‘hero’ has a nice array of moves and gadgets (albeit not quite enough to rival Bruce Wayne’s).With treasure maps, side games and side missions, the opportunity to upgrade your weapons and fit out your ship with various improvements, there’s heaps of stuff to occupy you outside of the main story.

You can even collect an extensive library of sea shanties for your crew to sing – if only to tell them to shut up a few bars in. Highly recommended. Silence is golden, after all, whether on stealth missions or manning the wheel of your brig and admiring the beautifully realised ocean view. Just before engaging that legendary ship coming at you over the horizon.


GTA V

Of course, if piracy isn’t your preferred brand of criminal activity, you can always play the stockmarket using insider information and giving shares a nudge in the right direction with a well-placed bullet, that sort of thing. This is only one of the more white-collar activities available to you as one of the three leading characters in GTA V, last year’s game blockbuster from Rock Star.

Seriously, seriously good. In major part because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The fact that much of its content horrifies Daily Mail readers is just a bonus.

Once again (and I’m sensing a theme here) it’s a truly expansive, beautifully realised world to roam and freely explore in between a terrific range of story missions and side activities. It’s a modern epic with a spectacular blend of over-the-top action setpieces and compelling human story. The characters are worthy of an Elmore Leonard novel – often unpleasant, dysfunctional, even psychotic and invariably funny. Heightened reality with a touch or two of the utterly surreal and a bumper, brilliant colour catalogue of stuff to do.

The heists, in particular, are immensely satisfying, taking you through the planning, the prep and the score. There are vehicular and aerial stunts, diving to explore wrecks, stick-ups, races, shooting sprees, tennis, a golf course (finally, Tiger Woods meets GTA!) and walking your dog, to name a few.

At first, I wondered if the facility to switch between lead characters might dilute the sense of involvement, but the truth is they are all so well-written and portrayed I grew attached to each of them and wanted them all to live by story’s end. There was one (by now notorious) scene I was uncomfortable with – because I’m a sensitive soul at heart – but there’s something about the dangerously unstable and thoroughly disturbed Trevor that makes him a winning personality in spite of all he does. Michael and Franklin go about their criminal ways with a few more principles between them and again they and their situations are so exquisitely scripted and played that it’s impossible not to empathise with them.

And it’s probably worth stating that for the benefit of concerned Daily Mail readers I’m not in the least bit tempted to go out and do any of the above activities for real. Except maybe golf or tennis, assuming I was fit enough. I’d walk a dog, but we have two cats.

Still, on top of grossing out some folks, GTA V outgrossed a lot of movies last year. And deservedly so. It’s better than most of last year’s movies.


Saints Row IV

Last but by no means least, I have to mention Saints Row. Often considered a poorer cousin of GTA, it may have been that once but it has evolved to become increasingly dafter with each iteration in the series. To the extent that this one kicks you off as President of the USA, plonks you into a virtual world and gives you superpowers to help you fight off an alien invasion.

Already makes GTA V’s collecting UFO parts sound kind of tame, right?

It’s good that these games retain their distinct styles and Saints Row has style aplenty. Big, dumb, bold, bright and huge fun to play. Have yourself a tremendous blast, leaping, bounding and/or flying across the cityscape, freezing, torching, shrinking and otherwise kicking alien butt in all manner of imaginative ways.

Alternatively, pimp yo ride and drive around the streets like a normal human being and shoot the aliens with the customary array of firearms or beat them down with the, er, flexible choice of melee weapons. Ironically, the driving’s one thing I sort of missed from the previous instalments. I mean, you’re free to have and use as many vehicles as you like, but you’ll find as you develop your superpowers that driving is a bit, well, pedestrian.

Some of the activities, like hacking stores, can get a little repetitive but it’s not that difficult to get those done and out the way, leaving you to focus on more important (and entertaining) things.  As with GTA V, I cheerfully frittered away a lot of time in this virtual world because I didn’t want the story to be over too soon. Okay, this story is not worthy of Elmore Leonard, but it is a wonderfully hokey action blockbuster with a good variety of missions, decent challenges and enough silliness to keep Mr Silly in silliness for a whole string of silly seasons. Winner of the best side activity has to be the insurance fraud, where bouncing and ragdolling all over the city even beats flying as a mode of travel.

Mad, bad and great to know.

And it has one key feature over and above all the others – and, as far as I can tell, the vast majority of the coming year’s titles...

A female protagonist. Well, it’s a choice anyway.

Maybe I have a heroine addiction, but surely someone in the games industry has noticed that their market consists of about a 50% male-female mix. Add to that all the lads who’d surely rather watch Lara Croft’s derriere than the chunky armoured buns of some hardened space marine and it leaves me honestly perplexed as to why there aren’t more titles that feature a female protagonist – or at least, as with Saints Row, the choice. It’s the one area I’ve felt that Rockstar have been consistently lax in – fair enough, it’s never done their sales any harm so maybe they know their market better than I do, but with three characters to switch between in GTA V it felt like more of an omission this time.

Okay, Lara Croft used to bounce around like a cartoonish sex doll and we’ve moved beyond that. But the reimagined Lara of the latest Tomb Raider is a mature, strong female character and there’s call for way more of those. Points also go to Bioware for Mass Effect and their female Shepherd – so popular she warranted her own cover for Mass Effect 3. That’s right: players demanded she get her own cover. There’s a demand.

So where’s the supply, games industry?

While you’re busy pushing your next generation consoles with pride, you might consider the next generation of gender attitudes and representation.

Just a thought.

In the meantime, if the gaming highlights of 2014 turn out to be anything comparable to those listed here, 'so last year' will be no bad thing.

Games industry, bring your A game.

SAF