Some Lifting Goals for 2013

One of the biggest revelations of 2012 for me was discovering strength training. Lifting (not sure if my mix of power and Olympic lifts should be referred to as powerlifting or weightlifting so just “lifting” will do for now) has come to underpin my approach to keeping fit and I think it’s safe to say that I have never been this fit in my life. For the last 5 months of the year, I ran a couple of novice progressions and built my strength up to decent levels (albeit not for my bench press) and the turn of the year to 2013 marks my advance to intermediate training, with progress laid out in weekly rather than workout-to-workout increments. I’m running a Madcow/Bill Starr 5×5 routine that’s modified to include power clean and front squats once a week (in place of a light back squat session) and combining it, for the first time, with a calorie excess to make sure I can keep up with the training – up until now I’ve been in deficit or maintaining, which has undoubtedly slowed my progression as a novice.

 

I pick things up, then put them down again

I’m going to do my first cycle of Madcow, which should take me about 9 weeks and then see if I can squeeze out a couple of extra weeks, or possibly reset at the end of the nine weeks. This should put an extra 10% or so on to most of my lifts, since I’ve opted for more sedate progression rather than the 2.5% week to week increases in the main program. I feel that this is more appropriate for someone who’s still not going to be eating a monstrous surplus. Madcow is supposed to get very tough to recover from once you’re a couple of weeks out of the initial deload phase so I suppose I’ll see if my recovery is adequate and make adjustments from there. This is going to be the main determining factor in whether I try to push past nine weeks or not.

I’d eventually like to try Jim Wendler‘s 5-3-1 method for a few cycles but unfortunately training 4 days a week is impractical at the moment – perhaps I’ll be able to do this later on in the year, when I’m hoping to be in a new home with space for a home lifting setup but we’ll see. There is a three-day version of 5-3-1 for novices/intermediates that I could try out if I find Madcow too much but it’s not something I’m going to think about too much until I approach the end of the cycle I’ve just started.

So anyway, I thought I’d set some goals for myself for the coming year. I think the goals for the lower body lifts are easily attainable but the upper body ones for bench press and overhead press might be pushing the boat out a bit too far. Better to aim too high and fall short than starting out for and settling for less, I reckon.

Squat (back)

Goal: 155kg (x5)

Current: 130kg (x5)

25kg of squat improvement in a year is very much doable I think and leaves plenty of room for error. Perhaps I should push higher but this is one instance where I’ll aim to achieve this first and then reset the goal – squats are brutally tough when going heavy and doing it with 160kg seems like an immense amount of weight to shift.

Bench Press

Goal: 100kg (x1)

Current: 72.5kg (x5)

The bench is the lift I perform worst at, in my own view, and one I’d like to improve to bring it into line with the rest. The fact that I had no experience of benching prior to starting training probably has something to do with it, together with my anthropomorphy. I’m hoping that Madcow will allow to to improve it through increased volume and assistance work, together with eating more, but I think even getting the 100kg 1RM is going to be a big, big ask.

Deadlift

Goal: 210kg (x1)

Current: 175kg (x1)

The deadlift is both my favourite lift and the one that I perform best at, which probably isn’t a coincidence. I’m already doing twice bodyweight for reps and came close to getting a 182.5kg (402lbs) single in December before an unrelated back injury set me back a few weeks. I think this one is extremely doable. I’ve long seen 200kg as a real benchmark for my deadlift so getting this would be superb. And if I do… Well, I won’t be that far off triple bodyweight…

Overhead Press

Goal: 70kg (x1)

Current: 52.5kg (5)

This is possibly within the realms of a safe bet but I’m not so sure – the OHP is such a tough one to improve that I think hitting 70kg for a single would be a pretty big improvement. A concern is that I’m only pressing once per week on Madcow but hopefully improvements to my bench will help.

Power Clean

Goal: 85kg (x1)

Current: 65kg (x3)

Okay, tricky one. I’ve done 3 reps of 65kg but the form wasn’t good by any means and I’d hesitate to attempt anything higher as a single. Looking to tighten up the form on these, then getting a bodyweight or slightly higher lift would be fantastic.

I’ll report back at the end of my first Madcow cycle with how I’ve got on.

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New Year Resolution’s 2012: December Update

December

And we’re done! No real improvements on November. Some  commentary to follow in a future post.

Watch 50 films I haven’t seen before.

  1. Source Code
  2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Swedish Version)
  3. Stranger Than Fiction
  4. Old Boy
  5. Galaxy Quest
  6. The Girl Who Played With Fire (Swedish Version)
  7. The Artist
  8. The Muppets
  9. The Mummy Returns
  10. 13th Warrior
  11. Drive
  12. Raising Arizona
  13. Lars and the Real Girl
  14. Batman – Adam West version
  15. Eagle vs. Shark
  16. Hugo
  17. Master and Commander
  18. Neds
  19. Grosse Pointe Blank
  20. Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness
  21. Con Air
  22. Fantastic Mr Fox
  23. Prometheus
  24. The Angel’s Share
  25. Let The Right One In
  26. Goodnight and Good Luck
  27. Hanna
  28. Troll Hunter
  29. The Dark Knight Rises
  30. Sin Nombre
  31. Total Recall
  32. The Road
  33. The Expendables
  34. Being Elmo
  35. The Lives of Others
  36. The Avengers/Avengers Assemble
  37. The Ipcress Files
  38. Monsters Inc
  39. The Raid
  40. The Godfather
  41. Indie Game: The Movie
  42. Infernal Affairs
  43. Thor
  44. Dirty Harry
  45. The Hobbit:An Unexpected Journey (new)
  46. Captain America: The First Avenger (new)

Complete 20 videogames I haven’t finished before.

  1. Assassin’s Creed Revelations
  2. Dear Esther
  3. Mass Effect 2 – Lair of the Shadow Broker  – cheating as it’s DLC?
  4. Batman: Arkham City
  5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyim
  6. Journey
  7. Max Payne 2
  8. Diablo 3
  9. Halo: Reach
  10. Mass Effect 3
  11. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
  12. Halo Combat Evolved: Anniversary
  13. Max Payne 3
  14. Trine
  15. The Walking Dead: Episode 1
  16. Dishonored

Try 12 types of whisky I’ve never tried before.

  1. Highland Park 12 Year Old
  2. Springbank 10 Year Old
  3. Lagavulin 16 Year Old
  4. Bowmore 10 Year Old
  5. Port Charlotte An Turas Mor
  6. Ardbeg Uigeadail
  7. Tomatin 19 Year Old Single Cask
  8. Ardbeg Blasda (new)
  9. Bruichladdich The Laddie Classic
  10. Bunnahabhain 10 Year Old Cask Strength
  11. Glenburgie 10 Year Old
  12. Springbank Rundlets and Kilderkins
  13. Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
  14. Glenfarclas 21 Year Old
  15. Laphroaig Triple Wood
  16. Glenlivet Nadurra
  17. Aberlour A’bunnadh Batch 39
  18. Glengoyne 21 Year Old Spanish Sherry Butt
  19. Ardbeg Corryvreckan
  20. Yamazaki 12 Year Old
  21. Long Row 14 Year Old Sherry Cask
  22. Smokehead
  23. Tomatin 12 Year Old
  24. Benriach 10 Year Old
  25. Benriach 12 Year Old
  26. Bushmills 10 Year Old
  27. Tomation 15 Year Old

Read 25 books I’ve never read before.

  1. The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson
  2. The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkpowski
  3. REAMDE – Neal Stephenson
  4. KJ Parker- The Hammer
  5. Brian Cox – Why Does E=MC2
  6. Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London
  7. M.D. Lachlan – Wolfsangel
  8. Raymond E. Feist – A Kingdom Beseiged
  9. M.D. Lachlan – Fenrir
  10. Andrew Jefford – Peat Smoke and Spirit
  11. Brent Weeks – Perfect Shadow
  12. Ben Aaranovitch – Moon Over Soho
  13. Jonathan L. Howard – Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
  14. Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson et al. – The Mongoliad: Book One
  15. Joe Abercrombie – The Heroes
  16. Jonathan Howard – Johannes Cabal the Detective
  17. George R R Martin – The Mystery Knight
  18. George R R Martin – The Hedge Knight
  19. George R R Martin  – The Sworn Sword
  20. Mark Lawrence – Prince of Thorns
  21. Ben Aaranovitch – Whispers Under Ground
  22. Brandon Sanderson – The Way Of Kings
  23. Brandon Sanderson – The Alloy Of Law
  24. Richard Morgan – The Steel Remains
  25. Stephen King – The Gun Slinger
  26. Mark Rippetoe – Starting Strength
  27. Jim Butcher – Storm Front
  28. Jim Butcher – Fool Moon
  29. Jim Butcher – Grave Peril
  30. Mark Rippetoe and Lance Kilgore – Practical Programming
  31. Mark Rippetoe – Strong Enough
  32. Jon Schaeffer – Greyskull LP
  33. Naomi Novik – Temeraire
  34. The Secret Footballer – I Am The Secret Footballer
  35. Dan John – Never Let Go
  36. Joe Abercrombie – A Red Country
  37. James Oswald – Natural Causes
  38. Doug Johnstone – Smokeheads
  39. James Oswald – The Book of Souls
  40. Brent Weeks – The Blinding Knife: Lightbringer
  41. Terry Pratchett – Dodger
  42. Peter May – The Blackhouse
  43. Peter May – The Lewis Man
  44. Peter May – The Chessmen
  45. Dan John -Intervention (new)
  46. Michael Mathews -Bigger Leaner Stronger (new)
  47. A.S. Byatt – Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (new)

Get my full driver’s license.

  • Still nothing

Learn to cook 10 new meals.

  1. Sag Aloo
  2. Cannelloni Carne
  3. Chicken, tomato and bean orzo
  4. Chicken Chow Mein
  5. Thai Red Curry
  6. Fried Cauliflour “Rice”
  7. Prawn and Cherry Tomato Stir Fry
  8. Homemade beef meatballs
  9. Thai Green Curry
  10. Paleo beef stew
  11. Spanish Chicken
  12. Paleo BBQ Pork Ribs
  13. Thai Yellow Curry

Get my weight down to a healthy range for my height and keep it there.

  • Stayed stable in the 81.5 – 82.5kg region which is all good.
  1. Clutch – Big News #1 (bass)
  2. Nirvana – In Bloom
  3. Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
  4. Amon Amarth – Twilight of the Thunder God
  5. Mastodon – Curl of the Burl (bass)
  6. Coheed and Cambria – Welcome Home (guitar)

Learn to code webapps using Javascript (I’ve signed up for Codecademy’s Code Year lessons)

  • No further progress

Regularly post on this blog (10 posts a month/120 posts over the year)

  1. January – 12 posts
  2. February – 9 posts
  3. March – 12 posts
  4. April – 10 posts
  5. May – 10 posts
  6. June – 10 posts
  7. July – 13 posts
  8. August – 10 posts
  9. September – 10 posts
  10. October – 10 posts
  11. November – 7 posts
  12. December – 12 posts
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Farewell 2012

And so 2012 comes to a close.

As years go, it has been a big one. A very big one. I’ve achieved a major personal goal by losing a boatload of weight – 34kg or 75lbs – in the first nine months of the year and maintaining it for the remaining three, while also becoming stronger and fitter than ever before. Even this soon on, I’m confident that this achievement is going to prove to be a life-changing one, and 2013 is going to be all about building on the foundations I’ve laid. In August, when I started weightlifting, I could Squat 60kg, Deadlift 70kg, Bench Press 40kg and struggled to Overhead Press more than 30kg. Today I can Squat 132.5kg (+72.5kg), Deadlift 175kg (+105kg), Bench Press 75kg (+35kg) and Overhead Press 52.5 kg (+22.5kg). I’m leaner and trimmer than I have ever been in my adult life and best of all, I absolutely love it – the heavy workouts and the health benefits both. Okay so I#’m a bit disappointed that my Bench isn’t a bit higher but hey, you can’t have everything.

And for no reason... Lego Thor!

And for no reason… Lego Thor!

This year I also made my long-awaited return to music journalism, writing for both ThisIsNotAScene and Ghost Cult. This is something I’ve enjoyed greatly, and I’ve got to know many fantastic people and listen to lots of utterly fantastic music that I might not have otherwise been exposed to. Unfortunately I’ve had to pass up opportunities to get more involved with several different projects over the last few months due to the time demands of my day job and other interests but I have agreed to get involved in one very interesting collaboration – more on this in the next few months, I hope.

One quite unexpected development in 2012 was a renewed interest in sports, mainly due to my increased fitness levels and greater interest in being competitive and understanding the limits the human body can be pushed to. In support of my weightlifting, I’ve been devouring every lifting book I can get my hands on and have been absorbing the wisdom of Mark Rippetoe, Glenn Pendlay, Dan John et al. I immensely enjoyed Euro 2012 and the Olympic Games and have been keeping a close on on the current football season around Europe. If you told me that I’d be writing this this time last year. I’d have laughed in your face.

So yeah, an excellent year but here’s hoping that 2013 will be even better. There’ll be a little more reflection on 2012 in my final Resolution post as well as another one containing a few thoughts on how that all worked out for me but otherwise, onwards and upwards.

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In With The Old

I’m in the process of making a few changes to my web presence and tidying up some loose ends, perhaps most significant of which is my blog/portfolio site, jodimullen.co.uk. As my career has progressed over the last few years, what I need from a personal site has evolved and this blog has taken over as a home for personal musings and assorted writings, leaving the other one largely defunct. My plan is to overhaul it and turn it into a very simple one page site pointing to all of my significant web residences.

Why do I mention it on this blog? Well, there’s still a load of content over there that attracts a few hits so I plan to transfer it over to here and bung a 301 redirect on all of the original URLs. I had originally planned to put them on a subdomain on the old domain but my webhost won’t place nice and I can’t be bothered to spend the time to sort it out so migration it is. I’ll probably backdate all the old posts to 2011 so it doesn’t mess up the last year of posts but they’ll be there for anyone interested in reading them.

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Fitbit Ultra Wireless Activity Tracker Review

Earlier this year, I reviewed the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Scales, a post that has gone on to become one of this blog’s biggest source of traffic. In that review, I bemoaned the fact that much of the Fitbit dashboard was largely redundant unless you owned a Fitbit Wireless Activity Tracker – which I didn’t at the time. A week or so later, however, I did actually go out and buy a Fitbit Ultra on the recommendation of a friend and have been using it ever since. Between the scales and the dongle, getting a full Fitbit setup is actually a fairly significant investment – not too far off £200 in the UK. But then again depending on your circumstances, if Fitbit helps you to achieve your fitness and weight loss goals, that’s a relatively small investment compared to many types of fitness equipment and special diet plans.

Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit Ultra

Introducing Fitbit

For those not familiar with Fitbit, let’s start with the very basics. The Fitbit Ultra is a small electronic device, about the size of a USB pen drive that effectively acts as a smart pedometer. It clips on to your clothes – I fit mine to my belt but it will happily attach to a waistband or bra or slip into a pocket – and then keeps track of how far and fast you walk, as well as whether you climbed any stairs. This is primarily displayed in number of steps but the unit will also display total distance (in kilometers or miles), floors climbed and calories burned, based on a combination of your activity level and predicted basal metabolic rate. The Fitbit Ultra unit itself is pretty stylish and is available with a blue or purple trim.

So far, so straightforward. However, what really sets the Fitbit Ultra apart from your run-of-the-mill pedometer is the fact that it wirelessly syncs to Fitbit’s online software via the included base unit (this doubles as a charger), which you connect to your computer (the most recent model – more on this later – will sync with certain smartphones). Syncing logs all your activity to your account, allowing you to view your historic activity data alongside your weight data from an Aria Scales and any dietary information you’ve inputted. All data also inputs into the Fitbit metagame, where badges are earned for milestones related to total distance covered, daily steps taken, stairs climbed and so on. Your progress is also measured against friends in leaderboards. I can’t say that the metagame is of any interest to me, though no doubt some users will find it a fun distraction.

Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit Functionality

Far more useful  are the other applications of your gathered fitness data. By default, Fitbit sets a daily activity goal of 10,000 steps, which for me works out at around 7.81km due to my stride length. While you may struggle to hit this goal every day, you’ll find it’s a good target to aim for and the psychological impact of having a target to aim for is surprisingly compelling. Regardless of how many steps you walk, Fitbit converts your activity into estimated calories burned, allowing you to keep track of exactly how much energy you are consuming and adjusting your food intake according to your fitness and dietary goals. Better still, it totals everything up and sets a fairly accurate calorie target, showing how much you need to eat to maintain your current weight. If you’re trying to lose weight, choosing a diet plan will automatically deduct the desired calorie deficit from your target.

This is all pretty impressive but as I mentioned in the Fitbit Aria scales review, the calorie tracking functionality built into the Fitbit suite isn’t very good, especially for users in Europe due to a strong bias towards US products. Thankfully, the software can sync with other calorie tracking apps, like my personal favourite MyFitnessPal, allowing you to plug your activity data directly into the app of your choice. In MFP, this adjusts your calorie targets on the fly and I’ve found that it does it far more accurately than  trying to guess how much and how fast I’ve walked. In a very real way, Fitbit allows me to forget about keeping track of my day-to-day activity and lets me just get on with being active.

The Fitbit Ultra boasts a few other features that may or may not prove useful to different users. The unit ships with a wristband which can be worn at night to allow the Fitbit to track sleeping habits based on body motion, including total time slept and total number of times woken up. I tried this function for a couple of weeks and found it mildly interesting to abandoned it shortly after; I don’t need Fitbit to tell me that I’m not getting enough sleep. It’s also possible to enable a stopwatch-type functionality, that will track time elapsed and steps taken until the button on the unit is pressed again.

Shortcomings

The Fitbit Ultra has a few shortcomings, though for the most part these seem to be on the software side. As previously mentioned, the built in calorie tracking software is poor and most of the metagame functionality is a little redundant. Non-walking or running activities need to be logged separately and how it does so isn’t always transparent. If I log an hour of powerlifting, the app lists the activity as having consumed around 450 calories but seems to add less than that to my total for the day. In some cases, I’ve added activities like walking carrying heavy shopping bags and this has actually reduced my calorie limit for the day. It’s completely counter-intuitive and while by means a deal breaker, is something that Fitbit should at least make more transparent, if not fix it altogethre. Having to be near a base station to sync is a significant annoyance when travelling, especially since they aren’t sold separately  but something addressed by the latest Fitbit models.

Fitbit Ultra

Fitbit Ultra

Integration into Daily Routine

For the most part, the Fitbit Ultra has become a part of my daily routine. When I get up in the morning, I clip it on to my belt and I leave it there til I go to bed. I’ve found it a superb motivator and find myself hitting my 10,000 step goal nearly every day, which has had a significant impact on my fitness and general activity level. I was quite nervous about trusting  my calorie targets to Fitbit but it has actually been a spectacular success, allowing me to hit my weight goal several months ago and successfully maintain ever since. I’ve been very surprised not just how much having the 10,000 step goal motivates me but how easy it has been to obtain, even for somebody who used to be essentially sedentary. Getting off the bus a few stops early in the morning, going for a walk at lunchtime and getting off the bus early again on the way home is usually enough to push my general activity level over the 10,000 step mark every day.

New Fitbit

Since I bought my Fitbit Ultra, Fitbit have released two new models. The Fitbit One is the new top-end model, replacing the Ultra and comes with a host of minor upgrades along with some significant new features. Most notable of these is the ability to sync to a smartphone via Bluetooth, forgoing the need to sync to the base station every day, but there are a couple of other handy ones, like a silent alarm and an improved altimeter. The second new device is the Fitbit Zip, a chunkier affair that retains the basic Fitbit features and the ability to sync via Bluetooth, but loses some of the more advanced functionality. The Fitbit One is clearly the model to get hear and in the event of losing or damaging my Ultra, I can see myself replacing it with a One in fairly short order for the Bluetooth functionality alone.

Conclusion

Although a fairly major investment for what, on the surface, is essentially a fancy pedometer, the Fitbit Ultra Wireless Activity Tracker has transformed my daily life by encouraging me to become significantly more active and giving me a target to aim for – and feel guilty about – every day. Together with the Aria scales and MyFitnessPal, I’ve found Fitbit an excellent system for regulating my weight and achieving my current goal of reducing my body fat percentage. I’d heartily recommend the Ultra to anyone looking to push up their activity levels but would probably steer them towards combining it with another calorie  counting solution.

 

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Top 10 Videogames of 2012

2012 was a very strong year for games though not quite as remarkable as some in the games media have been making out. While there was undoubtedly a glut of excellent games released in 2012, too many were sequels, remakes or riffs on a theme or flawed in some way or another. However while I don’t think any individual title can match the bar for quality set in, say, 2007 or 2008, the sheer amount of variety this year, both through second-tier (compared to Activision, Ubisoft and EA anyway) publishers like Firaxis and Bethesda and smaller and indie developers is simply remarkable.

In the interests of fairness and diversity, I’ve decided to disqualify Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition on PC from this year’s list since the original version of the game came out in 2011 (and was my Game of 2011) and the added content in the PC version doesn’t really make it a separate stand-alone title. Besides, I probably don’t need my end of year list dominated by Souls games every year.

1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

 

XCOM - Enemy Unknown

XCOM – Enemy Unknown

Shamefully, I never played the old X-COM turn-based strategy games and bought this on the strength of reviews and very strong peer feedback from people with similar tastes to me. I wasn’t disappointed with XCOM, remake or not, greatly enjoying both the turn-based combat and base-building elements of the game. As well as being very tense and atmospheric, the game creates a real sense of attachment between the player and the AI squaddies, to the point where it’s a traumatic event if a veteran team member is killed – after all, there’s no coming back from the dead in XCOM. A completely unanticipated number one for 2012 but one no less deserving for that.

2. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

This one really surprised me. I’m not an especially big fan of the Walking Dead TV series and am not generally a comic book reader so I can’t say I was expecting too much from a point and click adventure based on the same source material. As it happened, I was pretty astounded by what I found inside The Walking Dead; characters I cared about, choices that mattered (or at least seemed to matter) and  a gripping story. I’ve only played the first two episodes but have the rest ready to go on iPad and really can’t wait to get stuck into them over the holidays.

3. Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3 would be top of my list this year if not for some truly bizarre design decisions that hold this wonderful game back from true greatness; the hateful save system, the barrage of pop-ups (now thankfully largely fixed by a patch) and a generally unwieldly, counter-intuitive UI. It’s unfortunate because otherwise, the game simply does so many things right – an enormous island paradise to explore freely, emergent gameplay, hours of content to get stuck into, a massive array of guns and all the animals you could ever wish to point them at.

4. Journey

Journey

Journey

Journey is one of those indie games that’s an almost perfect marriage of art, design, sound and vision. Thinking back on Journey eight months after I played it initially, my lasting experience of the game is one of feeling and emotion rather than a memory of specific gameplay mechanics. I remember the moment I realised that the other traveler moving alongside me, aiding me, was another player, I remember making the final faltering steps in the snow as the game reached its climax, unsure if I had made it or not. Most of all thoug, I remember the sand.

5. Dishonored

Dishonored

Dishonored

Magical stealth ‘em up Dishonored started extremely well, and promised to be Game of the Year for the longest time thanks to the superbly detailed Steampunk setting of Dunwell, gorgeous art style and innovative approach to stealth mechanics. Unfortunately the final third of the game really ran out of steam, from the Flooded District level onwards, with the final map being particularly poor. Very enjoyable for the first ten hours or so but I can’t say I have any burning desire to pick up the promised sequel. Still, Dishonored is important. It shows that new, risky IPs can be successful and that gamers are hungry for more than the same identikit sequels and annual iterations.

6. Torchlight II

Torchlight II

Torchlight II

Click, click, click on the monsters til they die. Runic Games out Diablo’d Diablo III with a title that, though lacking the tactical depth of the latest incarnation of Blizzard’s far more illustrious series, was simply a lot more fun and colourful and thankfully forewent any obnoxious DRM. Torchlight II is a superb dungeon crawling ARPG and pretty much the antithesis to Blizzard’s behemoth – it’s about pure fun and you don’t need always online DRM or a real money auction house to achieve that. No doubt it’ll be available for pennies over the holidays on Steam so do pick it up if you get the chance.

7. Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3

I’ve always been a little hot and cold on Mass Effect games. I didn’t enjoy the first one very much and while the second was a vast improvement, it certainly wasn’t the towering masterpiece that many claimed it was. Still, it was a pretty compelling title and so I was looking forward to seeing the story arc through to the end. Mass Effect 3 was possibly the best of the lot; while the combat was just about passable, as usual, some the the story arcs and character development was very well done. Oh and the original ending was absolutely fine. Please stop whinging about it now.

8. Lego Lord of the Rings

Lego Lord of the Rings

Lego Lord of the Rings

Tolkien gets the Lego treatment in a game that’s simply enormous fun and incredible value for money. As well as being charming and funny, Lego Lord of the Rings looks fantastic, makes great use of the IP and plays surprisingly well. The reworked cut scenes using original voice acting and Lego minifigures are a spectacular success, as are the sheer range of characters and the way their unique abilities open up different areas of the world. Undoubtedly the best Lego game ever created, this is quite possibly the best game built on the LOTR license too.

9. Dragon’s Dogma

Dragon's Dogma

Dragon’s Dogma

Dragon’s Dogma is a game I have not spent nearly as much time with as I would like but what I have played so far has been extremely enjoyable. An east-meets-west open world RPG made by Capcom, Dragon’s Dogma reminded me somewhat of Final Fantasy XII spliced with Skyrim or Dragon Age: Origins – some of the core mechanics of a Japanese action RPG married to a western fantasy setting but with a very eastern ethos. I have plans to sink a lot more time into Dragon’s Dogma in the new year, during the inevitable January/February games drought.

10. Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3

Perhaps a controversial choice; Max Payne 3 is probably the most divisive game on this list and only narrowly beat Spec Ops: The Line into tenth spot. Max Payne 3 is without a doubt terribly flawed; the first five chapters or so are pretty turgid and the constant barrage of cut scenes is just too much at times but it’s just as subversive in its own way as Yager Development’s postmodern shooter. Rockstar completely deconstruct the Max Payne character in a way that I’ve rarely seen done in videogames. It’s also very, very dark with a late game revelation prompting an almost physical sense of revulsion in me. Max Payne 3 is, in my opinion, a very midsunderstood game and one that deserves to be stuck with beyond the underwhelming opening third.

 

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Christmas Dram

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Ardbeg Uigeadail

This year, Ardbeg Uigeadail is my Christmas dram of choice. It was a choice between three whiskys – Ardbeg 10 Year Old, Glenfarclas 15 Year Old and the Oogy, which I’ve written about before – but ultimately the latter seemed like the ideal end-of-year dram, its smoke and heat perfect to help steer away the chill of winter.

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Some Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Pt 1

To get straight to the point, I thought The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was fantastic. I was a bit nervous that I’d find it a too long, my attention span having been gradually eroded by an always-online existence, but actually three hours seemed to fly by. I think perhaps my favourite thing about the movie was the way it built out the world, which is a big deal for someone who devoured the Lord of the Rings appendices as a teenager. I always thought that the Hobbit (which I read after LOTR) felt a bit insubstantial by comparison, which it is really when you consider that it was written as a children’s book, but Jackson’s world-building really fleshed out the story and added a much needed context and gravitas to Thorin’s quest that I never quite got from reading the novel. In fact, I think he absolutely nailed the tone for the most part, keeping things a bit lighter and more comedic than LOTR but without relying on the hammy comic relief, mawkish sentimentality and out-of-character behaviour that were the trilogy’s weakest points for me.

The Hobbit

Hobbitses… and Dorfs

There’s no doubt that the film is very much LOTR fan service and I can’t help but feel that those who are intimately familiar with the universe are going to get more out of it than those who’ve only seen the LOTR trilogy or read the books, minus appendices. My other half really enjoyed it too but wasn’t quite as enthused about it as I was. Still, she didn’t find it overly long or bloated either and we’re already talking of going back to see it again at some point over Christmas. I also have fewer misgivings over  Peter Jackson turning the novel into a trilogy now; while I still think it’s a bit gratuitous, I’m confident that his treatment of the appendices is going to make nearly 9 hours of film worthwhile.

I do have a few criticisms though. I thought Elijah Wood’s appearance early on was entirely superfluous and shoehorned him into the movie for no real reason. Martin Freeman was a little bit too, well, Martin Freeman for my liking and the way Radagast was portrayed didn’t sit well with me – bird shit down his face and a rabbit-pulled woods sled, really?! – but these are all relatively small potatoes and didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the film. Freeman, Woods and a rather pointless appearance from Cate Blanchett aside, the casting was spot-on and Richard Armitage, Ken Stott and James Nesbitt particularly impressed me. A special mention must also go to Andy Serkis who have simply done an incredible job as Gollum, having taken his schizophrenia/multiple personality problems to the next level in a way that’s far more sinister then anything in LOTR. The riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum was probably the single standout in the movie.

Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis

Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis

For what it’s worth, I saw the Hobbit in 2D 24FPS, as that’s what the Dominion in Edinburgh, with its awesome leather couches and bags of room happened to be showing. I’ve no interest in 3D as I hate the loss of detail but am slightly curious about HFS so I may see it that way when I see it again, as I found the battles in the LOTR films always suffered from choppiness and a lack of fluidity, making it harder to keep track of what’s actually going on. That wasn’t so much a problem here but I’m still curious what the new tech looks like.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised after reading a few reviews that made me think it would test my patience but this wasn’t the case at all. I’m not sure how it will stand up to repeated viewings but I have a much more favourable first impression of The Hobbit than I did when I first saw The Fellowship of The Ring at the cinema and spent most of the film too distracted by the changes Jackson made to really enjoy it. That came later when I’d just accepted it for what it was. I’ll definitely be there this time next year for the second part.

Oh and that a capella version of Misty Mountains is simply haunting.

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Fear Factory & Devin Townsend Project at the Glasgow ABC Live Review

Last week, I popped through to Glasgow on a rainy Friday evening in December to catch two of my favourite metal artists of all time, Devin Townsend and Fear Factory, play a co-headlining show at the O2 ABC. This was my consolation for having to miss out on Devin Townsend’s Retinal Circus back in October due to work commitments and while I wasn’t expecting anything quite as bombastic as that particular showcase occasion, Devin has never disappointed either of the two times I had seen him live previous; in fact, his performance in Dublin in November 2011 is one of the best shows I’ve had the pleasure of watching.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect Fear Factory and had read reports of them being poorly received by audiences on the current tour though without any indication as to why exactly. Though being an enormous fan of both Dev and Fear Factory, I felt that their most recent albums, Epicloud and The Industrialist respectively, were a bit disappointing and so was hoping for a setlist comprised of more vintage material.

First however, I had to endure Tesseract. Somehow I had missed that there was an additional support slot so when I entered the ABC about half an hour after doors opened, I was a bit surprised to see a band playing in front of an enormous Fear Factory banner. It took a few seconds of Googling via my phone to figure out that the act on stage in front of me were in fact Tesseract and so I put up and shut up, their prog-djent really not doing anything for me. After they left the stage, it really didn’t seem to take long for Fear Factory’s road crew to get set up; one of the fastest turnarounds for a big name band I’ve seen in all my years of gig-attendance.

Fear Factory

 

Fear Factory in Glasgow 2012

Fear Factory in Glasgow, 2012

Fear Factory opened with The Industrialist, the title track from the album of the same name, coming on stage after the intro came on the PA. It’s a decent track and while not as good as anything from Mechanise, still a solid opener. I have to confess that I was a bit taken aback by the fact that Dino Carares is, well, a rather large chap in the flesh, larger than expected. Still, he’s pretty mobile on stage and exudes sheer presence. The Industrialist was followed by Shock, apparently a live favourite but Obsolete is the Fear Factory album I’ve listened to the least so I have to confess that it left me pretty blown away. Aside from a couple of technical hitches, the sound for Fear Factory at the ABC was nigh-on perfect; crystal clear with great balance between the different instruments rendering everything distinct. Edgecrusher followed and then Powershifter, a huge personal favourite and a track that has been a staple of my gym playlists all year long.

Dino Careras in Glasgow 2012

Dino Careras in Glasgow, 2012

It was unfortunate then that it was during Powershift that Dino’s guitar cut out for a good 45 seconds, revealing just how much his enormous tone lies at the core of the band’s sound. Ever the pro, he kept playing while his tech sorted things out at the sides of the stage and re-entered the song flawlessly. However it was at this point that I finally put my finger on something that had been niggling at me all night – Burton C. Bells’ clean vocals were really rather poor. He was flat on nearly every clean section and just couldn’t seem to reproduce his studio delivery. It may have been illness but I don’t think so; more likely the demands of a long tour, perhaps? In any case, it was disappointing. Also bizarre was seeing Linchpin from Digimortal getting about as big a response as any other song on the night. I can only assume it was down to a crowd who were very clearly mainly there for Devin Townsend but it’s still odd hearing what’s essentially a nu-metal track lauded over industrial death metal classics like Martyr.

The mid-part of Fear Factory’s set was an interesting combination of older and more recent stuff, including Resurrection from Archetype (which still sounds like a NIN track for the first minute or so to me), Recharger from the new record and the aforementioned Martyr from Soul of a New Machine. The closing salvo was utterly superb with a trio of songs from Demanufacture – the title track, Self Bias Resistor (probably my favourite FF song by quite a long way) and Replica. Again Bell’s clean vocals seemed off here, especially on Self Bias Resistor which was a shame considering the obvious enthusiasm the Demanufacture tracks caused up front – especially after Dino’s request for a circle pit during Demanufacture. After Replica, the band left the stage with a promise to return. All in all a good show, with a particularly good, compact setlist that will have satisfied new and old fans alike, though somewhat diminished by Bell’s subpar performance. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’d pay full price to see Fear Factory headline without some very strong support.

Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend in Glasgow 2012

Devin Townsend in Glasgow, 2012

This was my third time seeing Devin Townsend in less than two years and given the quality of the last two shows, one of which was at The Garage in Glasgow, the other at the Ambassador in Dublin, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t prepared for a few surprises – like a new (to me at least)  Ziltoid TV reel that ran as the roadies set up the stage which  featured tons of material I hadn’t see before. I won’t spoil too much but the Ziltoid version of Badger Badger Badger was nothing less than inspired, especially in the opinion of this veteran connoisseur of internet memes.

As expected,  Dev was nothing less than thoroughly entertaining though I must confess that it was the weakest of the three shows I have now seen, largely due to a short setlist thanks to the ridiculous 10pm curfew. Seriously, who sets a 10pm curfew on a Friday night? Granted, I’ve fallen foul of late finishes in the past, like this year when I went to see Pain of Salvation and missed the last third of a epic set, but even 10.30 would have allowed for a few more choice cuts from Devin’s copious back catalogue. As it was, what we got wasn’t bad though not quite of the calibre of setlists from when I’ve seen him play before. I’m aware that I probably sound like something of a curmudgeon; I did really enjoy the whole gig and Devin is my favourite artist but I seem to hardwired to compare, contrast and critique,

Devin Townsend in Glasgow 2012

Devin Townsend in Glasgow, 2012

He kicked off with Supercrush! from Addicted, surprisingly downtempo for an opening number but one that actually set the tone for the rest of the show quite well; this was Devin in the home stretch of a long tour and he and the band seemed comfortable and at easy. No real need to gee up the crowd with a belter to start, they were doing a good enough job of that themselves. Truth from Infinity followed, a stone cold Dev classic and something he has played every time I’ve seen him. I’m not sure I’ll ever get bored of this song. A rather unexpected burst of ZTO from Ziltoid followed (the crowd loved this) before crashing into a stunning Planet of the Apes, something I’ve never heard played live before. I thought the sound was a bit off here and quite muddy but it may also have just been the fact that there’s so much stuff going on in this and other material from  Deconstruction that something is bound to get lost in the transition to the live environment.

Where We Belong from Epicloud came next and received massive approval from the crowd, as did the rest of the songs from Epicloud played tonight, which surprised me. As I mentioned at the start, I found Epicloud a bit disappointing, largely because it felt like an incoherent series of cast-offs from the four album project with massively varying quality but well, horses for courses. During War (another new one for me), Devin managed to bring out mass panic in the crowd when he stopped and announced that his throat was in such a bad state he couldn’t continue. Disbelief reigned for about three seconds until he screamed “PSYCHE!” and crashed back into the song. Still, it was clear that he was suffering and considering the trauma his vocal chords were undoubtedly enduring, he put in a very strong performance right to the end of the set.

Devin Townsend in Glasgow, 2012

Devin Townsend in Glasgow, 2012

Vampira followed, a personal favourite and a song I hadn’t been expecting to hear live. Sadly without the Vampolka intro but, well, you can’t have everything. The Lucky Animals included mass synchronised jazz hands; an interesting social experiment making a weak track a little more entertaining. Still, everyone else seemed to enjoy it plenty. Julaar was next and I again noticed the muddy quality to the sound that I picked up during Planet of the Apes, so I’m going to pin that one on the setup on the night not being ideal for Deconstruction material. Grace from Epicloud is an excellent track and simply sounds huge (both epic and loud, as it were) when played live. The visuals for this were excellent too. Devin announced that they only had one song left due to the curfew… which turned out to be the sublime Deep Peace, another one I’ll simply never tire of. I expected this to get the biggest cheer of the night but the response was actually a little muted. to my surprise.

As the final chord rang out, it became clear that the show wasn’t over quite yet and, without taking an encore break, Dev managed to slip in Liberation from Epicloud to close with. Somebody standing in front of me was shouting for Deadhead all night and seemed disappointed not to get it right at the end. Liberation does seem like an odd note to end on but at that point, I was too pleased that we were getting an extra song to quibble over the specifics. After a hurried farewell (it was clear that the band were pretty much being shooed off the stage), it was back out into the rainy Glasgow night.

Devin Townsend Mirrorball

Devin Townsend Mirrorball at the Glasgow ABC

Overall, this double header was nothing less than excellent value for money – £19 to see two of my favourite artist put on solidly entertaining shows. Not the best gig I’ve been to, by any means, but considering they were near the end of a pretty exhausting tour schedule, in the middle of a northern European winter, close to Christmas, both Fear Factory and Devin Townsend gave their all to make sure everyone had a good time. Dev, in particular, showed what a consummate pro he is, keeping on playing although he clearly wasn’t feeling well, and squeezing as much as he possibly could into a little over an hour or stage time. You can bet Ill be back to see him next time he passes through Scotland.

 

All photos by me. If re-used, please attribute with a link back to the blog.

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Dark Souls 2

So the other day a  Dark Souls 2 trailer was released, announcing the fact that the game was in development. As you may be aware from previous posts, I am an enormous fan of the Souls games so for me this is pretty much a case of:

shut-up-and-take-my-money

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