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R. McDonald "rossmcdonald2" (Southampton)

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A History of Venice
A History of Venice
by John Julius Norwich
Edition: Paperback

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative and readable, 24 April 2007
This review is from: A History of Venice (Paperback)
It's a real testament to the skill of the author that this emerges as a fascinating and exciting read as well as a comprehensive and authoritative account of such a wide swathe of history. It chronicles the Republic's changing fortunes from beginning to end through eleven centuries, conveying a real sense of its spirit and character, with major players and battles leaping from the pages. The inevitable fall, when it comes, is all the more poignant for all that has come before, and casts the modern depopulation and disintegration of Venice in a new light. It's a great story whatever your interest in the subject, and this version must be pretty close to definitive.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 21, 2009 9:03 AM BST

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (Nintendo DS)
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (Nintendo DS)
Offered by CD DIXIE
Price: £22.95

36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun and addictive, 12 April 2007
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
Puzzle Quest is an interesting game in that manages successfully to combine two gameplay styles that ought to be completely incompatible, and do so in a way that makes for a fun handheld experience.

On the one hand you get all the depth of a fully-fledged RPG - you can choose a character class, level-up, learn new abilities and spells, buy new armour and weapons, explore a gigantic world, recruit a party, even build a fortress and lay siege to other cities.

But what it all boils down to in the end is a simple, highly addictive, Bejewelled-style block-matching puzzle game. Line up a row of three or more skulls to attack, coloured blocks build up your elemental spell attacks, purple stars give you experience, and gold gives you.. er.. gold. The fact that it's turn-based, and that you have a whole arsenal of special moves, bonuses and modifiers, make it an incredibly deep and satisfying experience. If you don't want to jump straight into the quest mode you can simply select `instant combat' option to play a randomly selected monster of an appropriate level.

It's not perfect. The graphics and story definitely aren't going to be winning any prizes. But it's an addictive game, and different enough to be worth spending your hard earned cash on.

Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
Offered by games.empire
Price: £11.15

37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Close to perfect, 28 Mar. 2007
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
Every Final Fantasy game of the Playstation era inevitably gets compared to the legendary Final Fantasy VII, and this is the first one that really comes close to matching that legacy, although in fact so much has changed now that it's very hard to make a meaningful comparison. Both are superb games, but whereas VII told a tight, intense story, XII is a more of a sprawling, drawn-out epic that takes something like twice as long to complete and will sometimes see you exploring absolutely massive environments for hours on end between plot scenes.

The combat has been changed to do away with random battles, so that the gameplay has become a lot more fluid. The balance between direct and automated control, and between combat and exploration, has been tweaked very carefully, with the result that the game is a lot of fun to play, and very deep to boot. It's just as well that it's so good, because the game world is physically absolutely massive (we're talking MMORPG massive here), and you'll still find that you have to plough through endless hordes of monsters to progress, though now at least now you feel like you have some control over engaging them.

Graphically it's simply stunning. The individual character designs are awesome, and the environments you explore are astonishing. Each landscape is broken down into a series of `rooms' which you pass through loading screens to transition between, but you can always see beyond the area you're in, which means you can see geographical features that are miles away in game terms. The game must physically be something like 10-20 times as large as FFX, say, and the scale means that you'll no longer miss the world map.

The story. On the one hand it's much more daunting than previous Final Fantasies. On the other hand it's much more mature, better written, and beautifully translated. FFXII requires you to keep track of dozens of characters and the internal politics of at least three warring kingdoms. The difference is that in previous games, the player would learn what was happening as the characters did. This time the characters are intimately involved in the labyrinthine plot, and it's sometimes frustrating to feel that they understand a lot more about what's going on than you do. Occasionally the game will send you out to retrieve an artefact without any very clear idea of why you're doing it or what you're trying to accomplish. But it doesn't really matter, because the plot and dialogue are so good, and the characters so deeply engaging, that it keeps you playing. FFXII is much more subtle than the previous games, much more westernised, and almost completely devoid of Japanese quirkiness. Some people will love this, others will be alienated by it. This game is not going to please everyone. But it is a great return to form for the series.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2009 12:08 PM BST

The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred (Allen Lane History)
The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred (Allen Lane History)
by Niall Ferguson
Edition: Hardcover

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, but a dark and terrifying read, 15 Mar. 2007
Make no mistake: The War of the World is a fascinating, detailed and informative page-turner, but you are likely to emerge from it with any residual faith in humanity seriously damaged if not completely destroyed. We all know that the 20th century, and in particular the first half, was perhaps the single darkest chapter in human history, but such are the depths of depravity, slaughter and inhumanity exhaustively catalogued, enumerated, and endlessly reinforced here over some 650 pages that the accumulated effect is nothing short of devastating.

As usual, Ferguson takes a cross-grained approach to conventional wisdom, aggregating all the eastern and western conflicts, pogroms and massacres, so that although the substantial focus of the book is on the two world wars, the flow of blood is continuous. His central thesis concerns racial friction as a catalyst for conflict, and the endless repetition of the same patterns across so many disparate stages is truly frightening.

Nobody emerges well from this - the British are hesitant and stand-offish, but quick to justify the extermination of civilian populations in the cause of victory; the Americans slaughter Japanese PoWs indiscriminately, and the Allies are ultimately content to throw Eastern Europe to the wolves in full knowledge that they may be sowing the seeds of a still more devastating third war. Doubtless many of Ferguson's assertions are contentious, and occasionally he dismisses some evidence seemingly for no better reason than because it doesn't suit his thesis. Could the Third Reich really have been nipped in the bud if appeasement had failed a year earlier, as he argues at some length? What would the consequences of this have been for Europe's future stability, assuming the game of Empires had continued?

But ultimately history is all about interpretation, this is certainly the most compelling, chilling, readable and instructive overview of this period that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 30, 2007 6:01 AM GMT

The Golden Ocean
The Golden Ocean
by Patrick O'Brian
Edition: Paperback

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good starting point, 25 Jan. 2007
This review is from: The Golden Ocean (Paperback)
The Golden Ocean is the first of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, and it's one of a pair set during Commodore Anson's circumnavigation of the globe in 1740 (the other is the Unknown Shore). These books came immediately before the 20 novel Aubrey-Maturin series, so if you are looking for the starting point for O'Brian's naval stories, this is it.

Anyone who has ever read and enjoyed one of these novels knows that once you have read far enough to be hooked, it becomes incredibly difficult to read not only other historical fiction, but almost any other fiction at all, because everything else seems so flat and worthy by comparison. The breadth and depth of detail, the lightness and humour, the contemporary attitudes and speech patterns -- all are so rich and so believable that it's almost impossible to believe the author didn't somehow experience it all at first hand.

This style is well-established even at this early stage, and the Golden Ocean is still one of his best novels. It's also very difficult not to see some of the seeds of Jack Aubrey's character in Peter Palafox - even though it's worth bearing in mind that the setting is quite far removed in time. Very highly recommended.

The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (GameCube)
The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (GameCube)
Offered by Berkshire Retail
Price: £129.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Legend continues.., 18 Jan. 2007
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
This Zelda is really two games in one. On the one hand, the core gameplay, the early dungeons, items, horseriding, and even the map and locations are all similar to or the same as Ocarina of Time, although on an absolutely vast scale compared to that game. This means that it will very familiar to anyone who has played that game (it even feels as though it might be running the same game engine, although with much improved graphics). On the other hand there's an entirely new game here as well - one where you get to explore the game as a wolf, travel through the twilight world, watch the story unfold through stranger and edgier cutscenes than ever before, and just be amazed at how massive the whole thing is. The later dungeons also start to do things you haven't seen before - in fact several of them don't feel like dungeons at all.

It's almost as though the Wind Waker didn't happen at all. If you played it occasionally you might catch yourself missing the crisp cel-shaded graphical style of that game, but basically this is a direct sequel to Ocarina, set just a couple of centuries after that game and aeons before Wind Waker. Ocarina was an out and out classic, and even if that does mean it feels over-familiar at times, it's big enough to offer plenty that's new. The difficulty level is tuned almost perfectly, in that although you can die often and you are required to stop and think occasionally, it never gets frustrating and you're never held up for long. The bosses, however, are mostly far too easy once you figure out how to take them on.

There are no major differences between the Gamecube and Wii versions aside from the controls and the mirroring of the world, which actually work to make this version more of a direct sequel to previous Zelda games. This version doesn't support widescreen either, but the aspect ratio is such that it doesn't look stretched on a widescreen TV or squashed on a 4:3 set. Certainly one of the best Gamecube games of all, possibly one of the best games ever.

Saints Row (Xbox 360)
Saints Row (Xbox 360)

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to Stillwater..., 11 Jan. 2007
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
This review is from: Saints Row (Xbox 360) (Video Game)
Saints Row is the latest entry in Rockstar's best-selling Grand Theft Auto franchise. Except that it isn't. What it is is a game so close to being a direct copy of GTA that it should be illegal, but which somehow, amazingly, manages to better it in many respects.

The graphics are obviously amazing, but funnily enough it's the little tweaks to the gameplay that you really notice - the solid physics, the easy navigation, the HUD, the solid combat, the way enemies will duck behind cover. Then there are some great little quirks that add personality like the sarcastic comments of passers-by, and the fact that there are almost as many girl gang members as boys. Add to that the awesome soundtrack, clever script and big-name cast.

There are only a couple of minor criticisms I can think of. The city of Stillwater lacks the scale and recognisable landmarks of GTA - and the weapon select system doesn't work as well as it should. Also there are no vehicles other than cars - no boats, planes, bikes or helicopters - but hopefully those might come in future sequels.

Volition really stole a march on Rockstar by making this. If you've ever come close to enjoying a GTA game, can't wait for GTA4, and happen to own a 360, you should really check this out.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Xbox 360)
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Xbox 360)
Price: £12.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all about gameplay!, 25 Nov. 2006
= Fun:4.0 out of 5 stars 
Speaking as someone who tried and failed to get into this game's predecessor Morrowind, the single thing that I'm most pleased about with this game, aside from the beautiful and immersive next-gen graphics, is just how much more playable and accessible it is. The controls layout is well-thought out, the combat is solid and fun, and the ability to warp around the map at will allows you to concentrate on the plot and story progression - or not - as you wish, without having to embark on epic hikes between locations (although the breathtaking scenery sometimes makes these worthwhile).

Both indoor and outdoor locations look sumptuous, so a lot of the time you spend with the game is simply going to consist at gawping at your surroundings. The plot is genuinely compelling if a bit confusing, and the voicing and production values are superb, often spookily reminiscent of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (though with some jarring American accents).

A few minor criticisms: the character animations are a little stiff, and the world definitely follows some rigorous preset rules that can take you out of the reality of it. Also the choices you make in the opening stage of the game that determine your character attributes can have annoying repercussions later on if you get them wrong. And please, whatever you do, don't buy the horse-armour on Xbox Live. We need to convince Microsoft that making you pay extra for pointless consumables like this just isn't a valid business model!!

Canis Canem Edit (PS2)
Canis Canem Edit (PS2)
Offered by CDandVinyl
Price: £11.93

18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great looking game, but .., 23 Nov. 2006
= Fun:3.0 out of 5 stars 
This is a pretty good game, but on the whole I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I think I was supposed to, so I'll try to explain why. As you probably expect, it looks and plays very like Grand Theft Auto, except that here the emphasis is on detail and character rather than scale. There's no denying that it looks amazing, and that it does a good job of painting Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town and residents. The game plays out over the course of a full year through five chapters, and in each chapter you face off against a different faction and have the option of exploring a new section of the map. The game is stuffed full of variety and some terrific detail - for example the way that Jimmy collects trophies of his exploits in his dorm, and the way that you will actually begin to recognise the people who populate the background.

The biggest problem for me was that it just isn't that much fun to play, and progressing through to the end felt tedious. Getting around is a pain - for the majority of the game the fastest vehicle available to you is the bike, but you can only pick it up from a few specified places. Your skateboard is available to you at all times, but Jimmy Hopkins is definitely no Tony Hawk. Not being able to hop in a car a la GTA is a big loss. The story missions are nicely varied but all incredibly easy and usually tedious, and the only times I had to repeat them was when I messed up the controls because I thought I was playing GTA (this happened a lot). There isn't a great sense of progression either, and the reward for most missions and side-quests is money, which would be fine except that there isn't really anything to spend it on besides new costumes. Also for a game that's supposed to be a comedy, although there are plenty of truthful observations, it just isn't all that funny.

As to whether it deserves all the controversy.. well yeah. For all that the developers might protest that it's not a game about bullying, it is still a game that allows you to throw a firecracker into a younger pupil's face, and where the easiest way to deal with someone who's harassing you is to lock onto them and pound them repeatedly until they drop. The further you progress, the more violent and chaotic it becomes, as though the developers assumed the ratings board wouldn't play it through to the end. It doesn't help that Jimmy isn't a particularly sympathetic or likeable character at the outset, and develops into an increasingly arrogant thug as the story progresses.

On the other hand, there's still plenty to love about this game, as you'll be able to tell from all the positive reviews you've probably read.. You have to make up your own mind, but personally I was disappointed that it fell short of my expectations..
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2012 11:33 AM BST

Acer AL1916WS 19" Widescreen LCD Monitor
Acer AL1916WS 19" Widescreen LCD Monitor

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very satisfied with this, 25 Oct. 2006
I'm going to have to agree with most of the reviews here in saying that this is an excellent screen and tremendous value at this price. It's very light but doesn't seem flimsy, the screen area is very large, and as the blurb says the ratio makes it ideal for watching widescreen DVDs through your computer. The non-standard ratio wasn't a problem once I'd found the appropriate settings for my laptop's display and graphics card, and it was a breeze to plug in and install. The screen is very bright, and although I seem to have one dead pixel it's so small it's scarcely noticeable (ACER won't replace a display until it has 5 or more dead pixels - they usually aren't too obtrusive, and it's a rare LCD screen that doesn't have at least one out of the box). One other thing I should probably point out is that this monitor doesn't have a DVI input, so if digital input matters to you, eg. because you have a flashy graphics card, you'll probably want bear this in mind. But overall I'm very happy with my new screen and would recommend it to anyone. After years of working from a laptop display, the difference it makes is amazing.

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