Why Stealth Features Make Not A Stealth Game

After a lukewarm reception to Assassin’s Creed III following its release that some fear may have disillusioned some fans, Ubisoft went all-out in their marketing campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the series. As a fan of the series (and, incidentally, one who didn’t buy AC3 following the less than perfect feedback it got), I have no problem with this, and was intrigued and excited to see some of the features being implemented get put to use. However, one particular bit of promo material that caught my eye was the stealth gameplay walkthrough, which talks up the various stealth features employed in the game.

[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]

Y’see, watching that video got me thinking about the role of stealth in the Assassin’s Creed games, and eventually led me to the conclusion that, at its heart, the Assassin’s Creed series is not a stealth franchise. I could justify that statement by pointing out the huge variety of stuff the game offers beyond stealth (free-running, the admittedly awkward ‘wait around for counter chances’ combat, and traversing the high seas spring instantly to mind), or by pointing out the extent Ubisoft is prepared to go to to ensure you don’t ever actually have to use stealth if you don’t want to- I mean for heaven’s sake, they’ve just announced a new mobile game based on Black Flag called Assassin’s Creed Pirates, which allows you to do all the sailing around and piratey things without any of the exciting running around on rooftops that made the game so popular in the first place. But this wouldn’t actually address the core reason behind the AC franchise’s non-stealthness- for that we must consider exactly where the stealth genre comes from.

To explain: every game genre is basically defined by a single, core game concept, a sort of combination of mechanics and the emotional hooks that get us to enjoy (or not, as the case may be) games of that genre. In an RPG it’s about the characters and your advancing skills, in a strategy game it’s about the concept of ‘playing god’ and dictating how a whole system works rather than an individual, and in a stealth game the core concept involves hiding. This central concept naturally extrapolates itself into a series of other features after a while. In many (but not necessarily all) cases, waiting becomes a core mechanic too, as once our protagonist has hidden from whichever bad guy is appropriate it would be strange for him to be able to move out of cover immediately- as Extra Credits said during their episode on the subject of stealth, the trick to making a good stealth game is to make waiting fun. Not only that, but a key part of making the experience of hiding compelling and fun is for the player to be able to use it aggressively to their advantage. Thus, protagonists in stealth games are also generally able to make highly effective sneak attacks on an unaware enemy, frequently one hit kills such as slitting the throat or the Dishonored choke hold.

Thus far, Assassin’s Creed is sounding very like a stealth game, and it’s true the games have always featured stealth gameplay heavily. The game’s most characteristic feature is, of course, the hidden blade, intended specifically for insta-killing an unaware enemy (with the option for a suitably dramatic dive throwing them to the ground for good measure), and in later games this can be adapted to allow an enemy to be poisoned, meaning he won’t die until you’re well out of reach of any blame. AC2’s introduction of attacks from ledges, hide spots and rooftops also expanded on this, introducing a new range of ways for a player to get into a killing position whilst remaining undetected. Not only does the series’ ever expanding array of hide spots help this, but they also give the option of helping a player to run away from a fight if they so choose, meaning fighting need not be the only option. But then again these features alone aren’t enough to make a stealth game: by way of example, Skyrim had a sneaking system that allowed for high-powered sneak attacks on unaware enemies, but is quite clearly an RPG with a few stealth elements rather than a true stealth game.

Thus, mere adoption of stealth gameplay features does not make Assassin’s Creed a stealth game, and it fundamentally is not one for the following reason: for hiding and waiting to become a game’s central features the player must have a reason for doing so; hiding must benefit the player in some way. Not only that, but the usually slower-paced stealth approach must some how become the more attractive option compared to a full-frontal assault, which from the start has the advantage of being faster, more direct and more exciting. One can attempt to railroad the player down this route by making the player instantly fail if they are detected (as the AC series has done on multiple occasions), but this is a clumsy way of doing things that fails to make the stealth experience more fun and only serves to frustrate the player as to why they can’t just rush in all guns blazing. In most true stealth games, the player is forced into hiding by making it the most favourable defensive tactic (ie the best way to stay alive), which is achieved by making sure they have relatively little health/armour/defensive ability so can’t really stand up in proper combat.

And this, really, is what distinguishes Assassin’s Creed as not fundamentally being a stealth game. The combat in AC games is frequently (and rightly) criticised for being formulaic and repetitive, and part of the reason behind this is that all AC characters are really good at defending. To block just about all incoming attacks merely requires the ‘high profile’ button to be held down, and if the counter button is pressed at the appropriate moment then almost every incoming enemy can be killed the moment they attack. If countering isn’t your style, then many a foe can be taken down by simply bashing the attack button, and as later games allow you to upgrade your weapons by the end this can result in a very quick death for any NPC foolish enough to get in your way. And all that’s presuming the player wants to stand and fight; even in AC1 enemies could be taken out from afar with throwing knives (which I suppose could be tenuously considered stealth weapons), and by later games our protagonist has grenades and a ****ing gun* at his disposal, which aren’t stealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

By making it so easy to fight, to cut through swathes of enemies with hardly a thought, the developers of Assassin’s Creed have ensured the focus of their game is not about stealth, and although this is by no means a bad thing (not every game need be stealthy) this fact does, I feel, somewhat undermine many of the stealth features they have chosen to include in their various games. Just so I can consider my point proven, some months ago the Assassin’s Creed Facebook page asked its readers which series was their favourite: Assassin’s Creed or Thief, the series that almost single-handedly invented the stealth genre and had recently announced a new game (the fact that this game has subsequently turned out to be terrible is, of course, an entire other point). How did these people, who I shall remind you were writing on the official Assassin’s Creed Facebook page, respond? Why, overwhelmingly in favour of Thief, of course.

This was, however, before AC4 was released.

*That list doesn’t even mention stuff like the hookblade and parachutes which, cool though they are, do nothing for the games’ stealth elements other than distract from them.

Twitch Plays Pokemon: Humanity in a Nutshell

In the three weeks or so since its inception, Twitch Plays Pokemon has come very close to taking over the internet. It has spawned its own memes and in-jokes, its own subculture, has been reported on by major news networks around the world and has somehow persuaded hundreds of thousands of people at the time to repeatedly type ‘up’ into a chat menu in the vain hope their input will make a difference. And somehow, this all makes for surprisingly compelling viewing.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: a stream of a Pokemon videogame broadcast live over Twitch TV, with a mod for the chat that allows viewers to enter onscreen commands that will effect gameplay- so somebody typing ‘down’ into the chat will cause the player character to move down (assuming, of course the command is not received whilst the character is in the midst of stepping from one tile to the other. Thus, people from all over the world are forced to work together, or at least in something vaguely approaching sychronicity, to progress through the game, and the more people they are the more chaotic and hard to control the whole business becomes. Naming Pokemon is a quite hilarious farce. With no central control of the game, viewers are forced to try and negotiate immediate aims and decisions through the ever-scrolling chat before even attempting to implement them, and if no clear consensus is reached then the character is essentially condemned to walking back and forth around a city or other immediate area whilst everyone attempts to move in different directions. And, this being the internet, there are more than a few trolls- those who delight in the inherent chaos of the game and make it their job to hamper progress wherever they can.

Somehow, the image of a pixelated figure walking randomly about the screen has proved wildly popular, with hundreds of thousands of people watching and contributing to the adventures, functioning as a group brain that has become known as the Hivemind. The nature of the stream has led to a large number of somewhat bizarre oddities compared to a regular Pokemon playthrough- with the game playing day and night with a rotating cast of controllers, grinding for hours on end to level up Pokemon is less soul-destroying on the player and will quite often continue for hours on end as the Hivemind endeavours to decide what to do next. As such, Pokemon tend to level up fairly quickly and battles, even against Gym Leaders, are relatively speaking straightforward to win. However, successfully walking to where the Hivemind ‘wants’ to go, unlikely to have been considered a challenge by the original developers, is a far more taxing business. A series of one-way ledges in the early days of the stream took over a day to navigate, and a subsequent mountain pass had to be attempted on multiple occasions after several ‘accidental’ uses of Dig took them back to the start- the 30 second delay between the chat and the screen doesn’t exactly help. An attempt to deposit the offending creature in the PC, another unintended yet extreme challenge involving multiple successive ‘correct’ button presses, ended with the party’s two best Pokemon being released and lost for all eternity, and attempting to buy a water stone (after many hours of heated debate) ended in similar failure. One maze required the entire nature of the stream to be restructured as ‘Democracy mode’ was initiated- hell, even getting through the door to the Pokemon Centre has baffled users for more time than it has any right to.

But perhaps the main motivator behind TPP has been the lore and humour developed within. A veritable religion has sprung up surrounding the Helix Fossil, an early game item that, being early up in the items list and unusable in general play, was consulted on many occasions- the player character was said to be ‘looking to the Helix for guidance’. Its counterpart, the Dome fossil, has become a Satanic figure, with several particularly annoying game features (such as the aforementioned user of Dig) becoming ‘servants of the Dome’. The chat has also come up with its own nicknames for the selection of Pokemon with strings of random letters for names and has more recently (at time of writing) become fixated with the captured ‘Doges’ (this is the internet after all), aka the Pokemon Poochyena.

So… why am I talking about this? Well, other than because I find the thing faintly amusing, I find what TPP represents truly fascinating, and I think it exists as the perfect microcosm of, and metaphor for, human existence and society. Think about it- we have thousands of people united only by a common goal (completing the game), yet each with very little power to achieve said goal. They do what they can, hampered by the limitations of the world they find themselves in, and a chosen few rise above the rest and at least attempt to give the masses direction toward they go. But all do not function in harmony- different voices all compete for attention, with every participant sure they have a way to make things so much simpler if only everyone would agree. Others act as saboteurs and dissenters, criminals if you will, their efforts in a stroke undoing the hard work of others as they contentedly giggle to themselves from the sidelines, whilst still others just go about their duties almost randomly in the hope their efforts will count for something. In doing so, the Hivemind has developed its own gods, religions, folklore and history, providing the entertainment and distraction needed for the stream to keep going. Sometimes, these distractions and other differences of opinion have held the stream up for hours, halting forward progress. And yet, despite all obstacles, despite what should surely be unmitigated chaos, this stream has achieved things many would have thought impossible. They have overcome their obstacles, put aside their differences and (after a fashion) made decisions, have captured some of the rarest and trickiest to obtain of all Pokemon (most notably the singly-occurring Zapdos hidden in an obscure corner of Pokemon Red) and ultimately completed two games (Pokemon Red & Crystal). They are even making good progress on a third (Emerald) at time of writing.

Society at large is, to me at least, not too dissimilar. Each and every one of us goes about our daily lives, doing what little bit we can in the grand scheme of things. Some of us attempt to make the world a better place and do so, others have no such lofty goals but end up doing so anyway, whilst others, either deliberately or through well-meaning but failed attempts, end up dragging us down as a collective. Some have risen to ‘lead us’, many of whom make very little difference to the way we each individually function, whilst other things, from organised religion to what’s on TV this evening, have kept us distracted and motivated to keep on going. We have struggled, we have failed, we have bogged ourselves down for aeons as we all pull in different directions, and yet somehow we have prevailed- and not just that, we have thrived. We have built this amazing world around us, a society that puts the food in my belly, the roof over my head and the internet connection that lets me write this and watch the very stream that has inspired this post. The Hivemind of planet Earth has somehow achieved great things, and for those cynics among you who so often wonder how, I would look no further than Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.

The Final Round (Six Nations 2014)

Saturday, March 16th 2014: the day the sun finally shone on European rugby (both literally and metaphorically). With firm pitches underfoot and glorious playing conditions, the final round of the Six Nations ended with an eye-watering 20 tries being scored as European rugby finally showed what amazing stuff it can produce given the conditions for it. One of the Six Nations’ most entertaining days, it was a great day of rugby for all (well, at least for those not wearing blue), and now, to wrap it up, here comes my final round of awards.

I feel like I may be repeating myself a little here with ITALY‘s award, but I still think it’s warranted-the Wax Lynchpin Award for Being So Badly Let Down by Just One Thing. For many years, Italy have been the Six Nations whipping boys, salvaging plucky wins against struggling sides whenever they can but never really looking like serious contenders. The perennial story was always one of ‘give their pack a back line to finish things off, and maybe we’ll get a good rugby team out of them’. Nowadays however, they have genuinely turned a corner- Jacques Brunel has selected a back division with strike runners of genuine quality, Michele Campagnaro has undoubtedly been the find of the tournament, and Luciano Orquera & Tomasso Allen find themselves in the position of being Italy’s first international-quality fly halves since Diego Dominguez. All in all, they have been transformed into a side who genuinely look like they belong on the world stage, but unfortunately, this has yet to manifest itself where it really counts- on the scoreboard, and it all comes down to the breakdown. The ruck is undoubtedly the single most important battle ground in modern rugby- games are frequently won or lost around them, and when you are as comprehensively unable to compete at them as Italy proved on Sunday, there is simply nothing a team can do. You control no possession, have no ability to affect the pace of the game, can’t build a territorial advantage, and essentially have nothing to do but exhaust yourself against an attack who can pretty much pick & choose how they want to attack you. The result was demonstrated quite emphatically on Saturday, as England ran seven tries past the Italians whilst the Azzuri themselves were restricted to one piece of lucky opportunism. Brunel has done a wonderful job getting Italy this far- now he just needs to complete the puzzle.

There are many awards I could have given ENGLAND after their display: some thing about aerial ability would have allowed me to wax lyrical about the English locks again, or I could have made mention of the (entirely deserved) third MOTM award this tournament for Mike Brown who looks set to win man of the series. Then there was their frenetic speed of play, and a sign of things to come after George Ford’s adroit little cameo to finish off proceedings, but really there was only one candidate- the Demon On The Dancefloor Award for Best Try Celebration. Props rarely go into a match expecting to cross the whitewash, and on the rare occasions when they do they are generally just lucky enough to be on the end of a sweeping attacking moves. They do not expect, as happened to Mako Vunipola on Saturday, to ease themselves up from a ruck and suddenly find the ball delivered into their hands with the line at their mercy. As such, Vunipola didn’t exactly have much time to mentally prepare himself for his little moment of glory, and neither did he have hordes of team-mates ready to congratulate them (they all being at the base of aforementioned ruck). Unfortunately for him, Vunipola didn’t quite realise his isolation until very slightly after beginning his unplanned try celebration, resulting in a truly beautiful compromise between celebration and playing it cool; a little penguin hop into the air, arms flailing by his side, followed by a rather embarrassed stroll away from the line. One feels that video may come back to haunt him over the rest of his playing days.

For SCOTLAND, however, the embarrassment was collective and continuous, after what must rank pretty highly in the annals of worst international rugby performances ever (as a proud Scottish fan, it pains me to have to say those words). Being a Scotland fan at the moment is a pretty trying task, but all credit must go to those brave souls who made the trip down to Cardiff and were forced to watch their countrymen… well, let’s just leave it unsaid. They are deserved recipients of the Loyal To The End Award for Most Committed Fans. At around the hour mark, Scotland were 44-3 down, having conceded six tries already and offering next to zero resistance, but the Scottish fans were not to be defeated so easily: as the BBC camera panned around, it focused on a small core of them, standing proud in their tartan and smiles on their faces. From the depths of their lungs and at possibly the last moment one would think pride in the blue jersey were warranted,  ‘Flower Of Scotland’ rang around the stadium for all to hear- a genuinely heartwarming gesture, and a great advert for the spirit of the game.

However, the scoreline Scotland conceded was not just because they played badly; Stuart Hogg must also take some of the blame, after his dismissal (after an uncharacteristic and frankly horrendous shoulder to the face on Wales’ Dan Biggar), whilst WALES must also take due credit for capitalising quite as spectacularly as they did. In doing so, they won my It’s Not Quite Rugby League But… Award for Best Advert For Making Rugby A 14-Man Game. Without Hogg’s reliable presence at fullback, there was a hole ever-present in the Scottish line, and Wales took full advantage of their continuous overlap. 14 men is, apparently, not enough to cover the full width of a rugby pitch properly, and without the Scottish defence pressurising them in any way, the Welsh were able to secure fast, reliable ball and unleash their devastating strike runners to amazing effect. North, Roberts, Davies and Co. ran rampant, throwing it around like the most wild & exuberant of afternoon kickabouts, producing a game that felt to watch rather like an extended highlights reel or YouTube ‘best of’ compilation. Now all they have to do is prove themselves against a team who can play rugby.

After an offside call on Taulupe Faletau put paid to a wonderful Welsh move featuring enough cross kicks and clever offloads to make Will Genia need to change his underwear, Wales were in the running for the Rugby Needs A ‘Because It’s Awesome’ Rule Award for Most Cruelly Denied Try. Instead, however, the award goes to FRANCE; in what ended up as only the second game of the championship where they actually played well (for which all credit must go to Remi Tales winning his first test start), they dogged Ireland throughout and put two tries past an Irish defence that has otherwise been tight as a drum throughout. And, at the death, it looked like they’d stolen it from right under their noses- pressurising the Irish line in the 78th minute at just two points down, some good phase play sucked defenders in in classic fashion before a wicked move swept the ball right and found Damien Chouly unmarked on the right to scoot over. To a Frenchman (and indeed any Englishmen watching- a French win and the championship was English), it was the stuff of schoolboy tales and fairytales, and there wasn’t a man or woman in the Stade de France not weeping tears of elation or heartbreak- except, of course, referee Steve Walsh, who immediately called for the TMO. Video analysis revealed that the crucial pass delivered to Chouly had gone forward, leaving the Irish ahead and worthy champions. Even if they did make a meal of it and lose the resulting scrum.

IRELAND making a meal of their victory was something of a running theme during their match on Saturday; after four rounds of calm consistency, it did have to be in the title decider that they decided it was high time to earn the Stress-Related Aneurysm Award for Unnecessary Tension. Much of this came thanks to the French deciding to show up and play some rugby for a change, but the fact that the Irish appeared to choke on the big occasion and virtually stopped playing for the last 20 minutes didn’t help. Neither did Jonny Sexton. The Irish flyhalf is, at least on paper, the best in the northern hemisphere, and whilst he’s not quite Leigh Halfpenny his boot is nonetheless a reliable source of points for his team. Not so this time round- at least 3 kicks that a club kicker would have regarded as sitters went sailing wide, keeping France far too close for comfort and Irish nails ground down to the bone. My own personal theory for why it went so close, however, concerns a certain Brian O’Driscoll- in his last ever international, he clearly wanted to go out on a big one (heaven knows he deserved to), so why not make it one the of the tensest and most dramatic games of his career? I mean it’s not like it’s the winning match of his final, and victorious, Six Nations anyway or something.

OK, I’ll admit the theory falls down a bit there.

Nations: 6. Round: 5. Twenty: FOURteen

It’s back! For some reason, this particular two week-long gap between Six Nations fixtures seemed an especially long one, and I was positively salivating at the prospect of a weekend’s rugby when Friday rolled around. So, without further ado, here are the awards.

Poor, poor ITALY. For so many years the whipping boys of the championship, condemned to scrapping for the wooden spoon in their desperate search for a weapon beyond a strong scrummage- and now, whilst playing some genuinely great, fluid rugby, a true professional outfit, they are takers only of the Are You Sure You’re Adding That Up Right? Award for Most Deceptive Scoreline. A casual glance at the scoreline of their game against Ireland, and indeed of many a slightly lazily written match report, would tell you the Italians were soundly thrashed on Saturday, and to be fair the Irish played very well- they were dominant at the breakdown, controlling the vast majority of the game’s possession and executing a number of excellent attacking moves that made them well worth each of their eventual six tries. But, rucking aside, the Italians scarcely put a foot wrong- despite their lack of possession forcing them to make an exhausting 208 tackles, their defence was solid as a rock for most of the game. When, during the first half, they were able to maintain some degree of parity with regards to possession, Ireland’s advantage on the scoreboard remained very slim, and they made the most of what opportunities they got- continually making probing runs and playing at a frenetic pace, their one try (courtesy of winger Leonardo Sarto) coming from a great piece of opportunism and an excellent solo run. One day, Italy will be a force to be reckoned with in this tournament. One day.

However, IRELAND‘s game on Saturday was only ever going to belong to one man: Brian O’Driscoll, who wins everyone’s In BOD We Trust Award for Outstanding Contribution to Rugby/Best Send-off. O’Driscoll has dominated Northern Hemisphere rugby for over a decade, and for most of his career has been the undisputed best outside centre in the world. Barring the World Cup, he has won just about every trophy going as a player, has captained his country through some of their most successful seasons in living memory and, as of Saturday, is the most-capped international player ever (current tally stands at 140). But to think of him merely in terms of numbers belies his true genius: blessed with a superb rugby brain and the silkiest of skills with the ball in hand, he can also tackle and scrap with the best of them and is one of the few players ever to play world rugby with no clear weaknesses or flaws as a player. Season after season, even has he has aged, he never ceases to confound defences and delight crowds with his imaginative and immaculately executed moments of pure rugby genius. His display on Saturday, his last ever home match for Ireland, was a typically sublime one, hard-hitting tackling combined with a dominant, controlling attacking display that directly made two tries and played the Italian back line like an instrument: one that would have deserved the eventual Man Of The Match Award had his entire damn career not merited it a hundred times over. As he fought back tears in the post-match interview, the crowd clapping and cheering in the final act of a wonderful farewell, one realised just how special he is as both a man and player, and just how badly he will be missed when gone.

Whilst the poignance (and, for that matter, result) of the Ireland game was heavily forecast, few would have expected to get such an entertaining a showing as they did from Saturday’s other match (well, half of it at least), SCOTLAND‘s clash against France. The two sides have both had troubled tournaments thus far, Scotland struggling to find their cutting edge and France simply failing to execute theirs, but in spite of the predictably atrocious Murrayfield pitch and a howling wind, Scotland were able to win my Who Are You And What Did You Do With My Team? Award for Least Characteristic Play. Scotland have been characterised for much of this tournament by slow and frankly unadventurous play that has rarely seemed to threaten an opponent’s tryline, but on Saturday they were able to produce one try (through Stuart Hogg) borne of uncharacteristic ambition through a well executed chip & chase, and another through a sublime bit of interplay, straight off the training paddock, that must have put a smile on Scott Johnson’s face as Tommy Seymour raced over. It’s a shame the entertainment didn’t have the grace to extend as far as the second half, but we can’t have everything.

Many pundits spent their post-match analysis asking exactly how Scotland, for all their first-half heroics, still managed to end up losing to a decidedly poor FRANCE side, but to my mind the answer is simple, and it earned them the Picking Quite A Moment Award for Best Timed Try. Early in the second half, France were in trouble; 14-9 down and struggling to create anything, Scotland were threatening their tryline with  a sweeping cross-field attack. With an overlap out wide, Scotland elected to throw a long pass that should have given their outside men at least a 3-on-2 and a probable try to finish France off. As it turned out, big mistake- that few seconds of the ball’s flight time was all Yoann Huget needed to latch onto the pass, outpace the Scottish defence and dive under the posts for the only try France ever looked like getting. It proved crucial, putting France back into contention and, with the Scottish attack starting to falter, keeping them within range in time for a final penalty to seal a French win. The Scottish fans may feel deservedly pissed off that they didn’t win that one.

However, all these matches were only ever going to be a warm-up for the veritable clash of titans that was lined up for Sunday: WALES vs. England. Last year, Wales denied a Grand Slam and stole a championship from under England’s noses- the year before that, some highly contentious moments in a desperately tight game gave Wales a victory that eventually landed them the Slam. England had a point to prove, reigning champs Wales had a reputation to uphold. In the end, however, 14 of Wales men hardly needed to have turned up, as Leigh Halfpenny proved himself deserved winner of the One Man Army Award for Biggest Individual Contribution. With Halfpenny’s metronomic boot, him contributing all of Wales’ points was hardly unsurprising, if not exactly desirable from a Welsh perspective, and given his prodigious skillset in other parts of the game his being their best player is also far from unheard of. However, when up against Mike Brown in the form of his life, to make even he seem merely good by comparison speaks volumes about the sheer quality of Halfpenny’s performance in an otherwise uninspired Welsh team- not a kick was missed, not a catch unfielded, not a gap left unprobed by boot or darting run in a virtually flawless performance marred only by how infrequently he was given the ball. However, perhaps in defence he was most significant- as Wales’ last line of defence he presented a brick wall to England’s (far too frequent) line breaks, frustrating them throughout the second half, and ended up dislocating his shoulder in the line of duty whilst stopping what would otherwise have been a certain try from England’s Luther Burrell- a man five inches taller and nearly 4 stone heavier than he. That injury has, unfortunately, ended his season, but his fine tackle in doing so saved many a Welsh blush and his overall performance effectively masked the countless other errors of his compatriots. Wales, and indeed the rugby world, can only hope his recovery is swift.

Last time out ENGLAND kept every one of their fans on the edge of their seat in a desperately tense encounter- this week it was merely the rugby historians among us who shifted nervously in our seats as England won the Don’t Mention The War Award for Coming Worryingly Close to Repeating History. Of all of Wales’ many victories over their Saxon neighbours, perhaps none have been more celebrated in recent years as their classic victory in 1999. England had been the tournament powerhouse, on course for a Grand Slam coming into their final game against the Welsh, and after two first-half tries they would appear to have had the game in hand- had Neil Jenkins’ metronomic boot kept the Welsh well within reach. Despite numerous line breaks, England had frequently struggled to turn their dominance into meaningful control of the scoreboard- and if we substitute the name ‘Leigh Halfpenny’ for ‘Neil Jenkins’ over the last two sentences, we have a pretty accurate description of Sunday’s match as well. In ’99, the half time gap was just 7 points- here it was but 5, and even though Wales could not, in the end, find similar heroics to win the game this year as on that famous day 15 years ago, it was enough to make me rather unnerved over my half-time pint. And when England, in the last few minutes of the game, elected to kick for the corner rather than take the easy three points, it raised a wry smile- at least this time round, the gap was more than 6 points.

SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

Aaaaannd as the Six Nations returns once again to our screens, so awards return to my front page. Whilst the lowest-scoring of the three rounds of the competition thus far (a fact that pisses me off greatly), there was much good rugby played and I very much enjoyed seeing my beloved sport enjoying such quality time in the spotlight.

However, FRANCE didn’t exactly get things off to a great start on Friday night, their lacklustre display meriting only the Pfff, C’est La Vie Award (my apologies for the casual racism implicit in that phrase) for Not Giving A Toss. French rugby has always been a topsy-turvy affair, with ‘which France will turn up?’ being one of the most commonly posed lazy journalist questions in the game. Many a time very good French sides have let themselves down through overambition or (more frequently) ill-discipline, but seldom has such apathy as they displayed on Friday stricken the side. So far this tournament France have fed off their opponent’s mistakes, and despite a strong defensive line Wales gave France enough opportunities to do so again- but being able to capitalise on them would have required the French to a) not drop the ball every four and a half seconds and b) actually seem to care about crossing the whitewash. Jules Plisson seemed content to boot the ball back into Welsh hands every time it came his way, Fofana and Bastareaud in the centres were both all out of ideas, and only Louis Picamoles and Hugo Bonneval seemed to have any  ambition or go-forward. When Picamoles was yellow carded around the hour mark, with his side two tries down, it was the final nail in France’s coffin.

However, WALES‘ victory on Friday can hardly be considered as entirely France’s fault; the Welsh players acquitted themselves well enough to create and take advantage of their opportunities (when they themselves could be persuaded to take a break from the night’s apparent main event of dropping the ball at every opportunity), but a more significant contribution is what gains Wales their award: the 75,000 Man Overlap Award for Biggest Contribution from the 16th Man. The Welsh crowd at the Millennium stadium are rarely described as a quiet, conservative bunch- the venue is never at anything but capacity and the hordes of wild Welsh fans who fill it are some of the most vocal and passionate rugby has to offer. Even so, the atmosphere they created on Friday was exceptional even by their usual standards- even watching on TV, the way ‘Bread Of Heaven’ rang around the ground was enough to transport me 200 miles to the gates of the stadium itself, and one almost felt the roar generated at every Welsh half-chance was enough to blow over any unwary French defender. Before the match began, I would have put France as favourites- but when the crowd’s rendition of ‘Land Of My Fathers’ sent shivers down my spine, one felt that something was on.

A mention should, I feel, also be given to Alain Rolland, for whom the Wales-France game represented the end of his refereeing career. Rolland has frequently courted controversy during his time behind the whistle, being accused of favouritism to his mother’s country of France and famously dashing Wales’ hopes at the 2011 World Cup after Sam Warburton’s tip tackle. However, despite all this, there are few who would deny that he has always been an uncompromising referee, never afraid to make the big call or stand up for his way of doing things- a man who does not take s**t, always a good quality in a referee. His decision in this game to send off two props, not because he could pinpoint anything they had done wrong but more because they were ruining any chance the scrum had of behaving itself, was a typically ballsy yet wise decision, and one for which I felt he received insufficient praise. The man has refereed a World Cup final and been a huge presence within the rugby landscape for season after season- if a great player deserves a send-off at the end of his career then so too, I feel, does Mr. Rolland.

Anyway, back to the games. After a rather dull match on Friday, ITALY got us back on track with a more vibrant, exciting performance on Saturday, and one that won them the Moral Victories Get Old After A While Award for Least Deserved Losing Streak. Italy have played some great rugby thus far this tournament, and some of the most exciting too: from memory, they are joint second on number of tries scored and have been the side most willing to run the ball and do something interesting with it. Despite being officially bottom of the Six Nations table they are most certainly not the guaranteed easybeats of yesteryear- all of which makes their lack of victories to show for it all the more maddening. They have ran Wales too close for comfort, kept France under constant pressure throughout the first half of their match, and it took a last gasp drop goal and two excellent tries for Scotland to overcome a half-time deficit and snatch a win from under the noses of the Azzurri- a matchup that, after Scotland’s lacklustre performances so far this tournament, the Italians would have been justified in targeting for a win. They now face table-topping Ireland and England in consecutive weeks, and although a win against either would be a reasonably long shot it would take a braver man than I to bet against them. I’d like them to get one, at least, even as an England fan.

SCOTLAND played their part too in the entertainment, finally breaking a try drought that has lasted more matches than I care to count and in the process winning the Thumbs Up The Arse* Award for Most Entertaining Lineouts. In modern rugby, the lineout is probably the single biggest different between the game at elite and lower levels: whilst the latter tends to stick to the tried and tested unmoving two-pod structure, top-level lineouts are now intricate affairs involving lots of flashy loops, dummies and precision throwing. For rugby nerds like me, they are great to watch, but rarely have they proved quite so entertaining as Scotland’s on Saturday. Even at international level, there are usually a few simple calls reserved for when a team is under the cosh and wishes to be reliable rather than incisive, but in keeping with the carefree spirit of the game the Scots seemed to have left these at home. At every lineout players were flying this way and that, numbers constantly chopping and changing as they kept attempting to outthink rather than out-jump the Italians. And it worked; a team that has struggled at the lineout so far this tournament today found their groove, winning all of their own ball and even nicking the first two of the Italians’. As a Scottish fan, it was great to watch- more of that please.

*This is, by the way, exactly what I got told when I learnt to lift in lineouts

If Italy-Scotland provided the fast-paced entertainment for the weekend, then IRELAND‘s trip to Fortress Twickenham provided the thrills and drama. Whilst other matches were characterised by errors and the occasional flash of brilliance, here we had possibly the two in-form sides of the championship thus far playing close to their best in a desperately hard-fought, uncompromising encounter, two titanic defensive performances going up against attacking displays that would probably have yielded at least three tries apiece against any other side. In fact, it’s a miracle such a high-stakes game didn’t attract more foul play, but cheating is an integral part of the game of rugby and a vital skill in any successful forward. With this in mind, I congratulate Ireland’s Paul O’Connell on the award he won for his team- the Trained By McCaw Award for Most Well-Executed Bit Of Cheating. With his side pressuring the English 22, the smallest of gaps were beginning to appear in England’s defensive line- not enough for a break, but enough to show that only the smallest bit of leverage need be applied to create holes. And O’Connell provided exactly that leverage- standing up following a ruck, just a little bit of lazy walking was all that was required to block Joe Launchbury as he attempted to get to the next one. Nothing definite, nothing even that would stand up as evidence to the TMO, but it was enough to just make him a second or two late to defend the ruck- which, it transpired, was enough to leave a gap open just a few seconds longer. It was all Ireland needed- a simple draw-and-give, the kind of thing to bring tears of joy to the eyes of any age group coach, put Rob Kearney away for Ireland’s first try, giving them a 7 point cushion. Even if, in the end, it proved not quite enough.

When it comes to ENGLAND‘s performance, I’m spoilt for choice for potential award candidates. Joe Launchbury’s ability to be absolutely everywhere on the pitch at once would surely have won him a Man Of The Match award in any team that didn’t include Mike Brown playing like a man possessed, whilst (on a less positive note) Owen Farrell and Jonny May were close to picking up something related to Luckiest Avoidance Of A Card (after a truly dreadful ‘tackle’ on Dave Kearney in the first half) and Worst Butchering Of A Try (not, admittedly, entirely May’s fault- that he had defenders on him at all is thanks to England’s apparent inability to play with their heads up) respectively. However, I’ve eventually gone with the Donation To The NHS Required Award for Causing Heart Attacks Among Rugby Fans, after making me sit through an experience that I later described on Facebook as being ‘more tense than having a shotgun shoved in my mouth for 80 minutes’. Stuart Lancaster had said before the game that he anticipated a margin of only 3 or 4 points, and only once during the match did the difference exceed this. This left fans on both sides biting nails down to the bone throughout, neither side able to either establish a safe lead or be so far out of touch that victory wasn’t a tantalisingly dangled carrot. If anything, being on the reverse end of the scoreline was a worse experience to me; with England 4 points down prior to Danny Care’s try (the result of a characteristically superb piece of running by Brown), I was worried but not attempting to eat my own hands. For the scoreless 15 or so minutes that followed it… well let’s just say I’m not sure I breathed whilst there was a 7 on the clock.

Gravity

At time of writing, I’ve just come home from watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s recent space-set thriller. And my immediate reaction can be essentially summed up in three words: holy f***ing shit.

OK, OK, I’ll fill in a bit; if you weren’t already aware, Gravity tells the story of a space shuttle mission gone disastrously wrong whilst in orbit, leaving just two survivors: George Clooney playing essentially a spacegoing version of himself as the suave, talkative veteran Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced, depressive and perpetually scared Dr. Ryan Stone. With their craft destroyed, both are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to return to earth alive- without the luxuries of a ship, communications, equipment or much ability to control their own movements. And that’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers- indeed, I feel like the rest of this review may end up giving away a fair few details. However, since the main thrust of what makes the film such an experience is not contained within its plot, so unless you have a burning desire to see Gravity completely unspoiled you’re probably not going to lose out on much by reading on.

The result is something pretty amazing, but Gravity is not flawless by any means- I doubt any film ever was. I don’t know whether the story of former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield getting thrown out of a Canadian cinema for shouting about the film’s inaccuracies at the screen is true or not, but if so I can see where he’d have been coming from- I am no astronaut, but I know enough about space to say that communications and spy satellites operate at completely different altitudes, neither of which are in the range depicted by the film, and that during re-entry there should not be random objects floating around the cabin like it’s in zero-g. Those are only the more obvious errors- the film does a grand job of delivering the general gist of a spacial environment, but had I so wished I could have spent the entire film pointing out minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies. But then again, I’m no astronaut- and besides, Gravity is hardly the only film to take some rather serious liberties with the laws of physics.

It’s not only in terms of its scientific accuracy where the film has flaws. Its characterisation is almost non-existent, the plot is as stripped-down and oversimplified as it could possibly be whilst still existing, multiple story elements seem decidedly contrived and the whole thing has precisely zero thematic complexity between the tried & tested ‘indomitable human spirit’ arc. But that’s all kinda the point. Gravity is not an actor’s film, nor indeed a writer’s- indeed I have a sneaking suspicion that Cuaron may simply have done three days filming, then locked himself in  a room with his cinematographer and CGI person for a few months putting together the rest of it. The result is nothing less than a jaw-dropping spectacle of a film, something genuinely amazing: to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s even a compliment. It feels more like a simple description of the film’s nature- even if this had been the background setting for something written by Ed Wood, the sheer amazement factor of how the film presents itself would still have left me sitting back in my seat mouth open like a goon.

I mean, just consider the visuals. Alone, they would be enough to make watching Gravity a special experience, capturing as they do both the scale and beauty of the view from space alongside the strange unreality that is sitting in a tin can hurtling at unimaginable speed thousands of kilometres above the surface of our mother earth. The film’s extensive use of CGI (because seriously, how else do you create an action set piece around a ****ing space station) is noticeable, but by keeping the visual style very consistent the film avoids drawing attention to it and maintains a highly immersive experience. Then there’s the cinematography; from the early outset Gravity sets a baseline for weirdness and confusion as a constantly moving, rotating camera reminds us of the nature of space, and the total lack of a reference frame that one has in it. There is no up or down- there is only ‘over there’, and when ‘over there’ is flying around madly as you tumble uncontrollably towards it, as happens frequently during the action set pieces, the whole thing gets decidedly disorientating. I’m rather glad I don’t get motion sick, or indeed scared of heights once the film decides to point out that space flight is, in fact, nothing more than falling very, very quickly.

But what makes Gravity really work is how it creates an atmosphere. The whole thing seems specifically designed to make space seem as utterly, utterly terrifying on all levels to make our hero’s struggle seem that much more daunting and amazing, and the film pulls off on that spectacularly. A key part of its toolbox is its use of thematic contrast: the huge, jaw-dropping visual spectacles that are the action sequences keep the danger and blind terror foremost in our mind, but are offset by the near-silent intimate moments that both give the audience time to process the beautiful insanity playing out in front of them and to remind us all that, surrounded by airless wilderness, ‘in space, nobody can hear you scream’. Cuaron deserves particular credit for his use of music in this regard- it’s one of those things you almost don’t notice, but every set piece is built up slowly, cranking up the tension, before launching into a booming orchestral inferno of noise as the action gets into full flow. And then- silence, save for our protagonist’s terrified breathing. I don’t think any film has ever made me feel a character’s emotion quite so much, and certainly none has done so to a faceless spacesuit.

Ultimately, I’m not sure me spouting words can really do the film justice- it’s one of those things where I could describe the entire storyline, down to the last scene, and it’d still be the barest shadow of what viewing the film in all its glory is. Just let me put it this way: Gravity is an hour and a half of watching people falling out of the sky through the most hostile environment in the universe amidst a chaotic firestorm of broken metal and machinery. And it is every bit as terrifying, jaw-dropping and downright awe-inspiring as that sounds.