Game Reviews

Verdicts on Bioshock, Wii Sports, Halo 3 and Vice City Stories

Bioshock for Xbox 360/PC

Plunged into the middle of the Atlantic ocean after a dramatic plane crash, Bioshock sees you take the role of Jack, the sole survivor who, seemingly by chance, happens across the entrance to a colossal underground city named Rapture. Designed and built by wealthy industrialist Andrew Ryan, Rapture was intended to be a haven for society's elite, but genetic experimentation and civil unrest have turned it into a graveyard of ideals - one that Jack must fight his way through to survive.

Boasting one of the best storylines in gaming's history, along with breathtaking graphics and a fantastic soundtrack, Bioshock is, perhaps, the pinnacle of the single-player videogame canon. Mixing exploration and adventure alongside intense and innovative action, the game flies by at a frightening pace, still finding time to ask moral decisions of the gamer which affect the outcome of the story. Undoubtedly an adult experience, the game has a foul-mouthed script Tarantino would be proud of and more violence than one of Martin Scorcese's nightmares, but the violence never feels superfluous and it helps round out a game world that is utterly fabulous and entirely its own. Set in a 1930s art-deco-style dystopia, the coherence of the production design is faultless and all encompassing. With golden oldies playing ominously over the soundtrack and deranged, mutated enemies lurking around every corner, it is as creepy as it is compelling and is a must-have for anyone who doubts a videogame can tell a story.

Wii Sports

Of all the things Wii Sports may be, an accurate sports simulator it certainly is not. Including Nintendo's own interpretations of tennis, bowling, golf, baseball and boxing, Wii Sports is an exemplar of the unique features of the Wii console that have made it such a phenomenon.

Most notable of all, and crucial to the game, is the use of the Wii remote to play. Rather than having to worry about using a combination of several buttons to interact with the game, the Wii remote removes confusion by simply allowing you to swing it - like a tennis racket, your arm, a golf club, a baseball bat or even your fist. Due to the severe limitations of all the games featured though, with the possible exception of bowling, it does have the tendency to feel more like an elaborate technical demo than a game in its own right.

However, the intuitive controls and simple addictive nature of the multiplayer component still make it a blast to play, and where Nintendo has succeeded - and where Microsoft and Sony fall short - is that it is accessible to all types of age groups. Grandma and Grandpa can play this game and enjoy it because it requires nothing other than a little bit of co-ordination and careful timing.

Watching people try to play is half the fun, as it creates an arcade-style gaming experience in your own home which brings people together through playing and has a feel-good factor that is second to none.

Halo 3 for Xbox 360

Hype can be a terrible thing. The sheer weight of expectation resting on Halo 3's sizeable shoulders was monumental.

"The most anticipated game of all time" it bravely touted on its pre-release advertisements, so it really had to be good. Thankfully, it is, meeting - and in some respects surpassing - its promise. Once again, following the progress of the Master Chief in his interplanetary battle with the Covenant, the fight has finally come to Earth, and its future lies in his armour-clad and genetically-enhanced mitts.

The single player campaign is solid, if somewhat unspectacular, and far too short, but this game was fundamentally built from the ground up to be a multiplayer experience and is simply glorious on Microsoft's Xbox Live service. Building on the excellent multiplayer component from the second title in the series, Halo 3 is an absolute riot when played online, whether it is against friends or complete strangers.

It pushes the boundaries of what can be expected of a next-generation title in the sheer wealth of options it offers. Not only has a level editor been provided, it has become part of the gameplay; with the ability to edit levels on the fly during online games to aid team mates or create havoc for the opposition. For a more complete single-player experience, Bioshock wins out, but for its ambition and creativity, Halo 3 is an unmissable gaming event that is currently unmatched on any console.

Vice City Stories for PSP

Acting as a predecessor to the Playstation 2's highest-selling title, Grand Theft Auto - Vice City Stories gives you more missions, more vehicles and more breakneck violence in possibly the best city from any of the Grand Theft Auto games.

The only difference is that it lets you do this all in the palm of your hand and has next to no visual difference from its Playstation 2 counterpart.

The core gameplay and story elements from its console counterpart stay intact. You take the role of a small time gangster trying to elevate himself to infamy in a 1980s city which bears a striking resemblance to Miami - with Scarface and Miami Vice being clear reference points.

In order to raise your reputation, you complete a series of missions which involve stealing cars, killing mob bosses, out-running the police and generally being a menace to society.

This all works fantastically on the PSP, showcasing its graphical excellence like no other title, with responsive and effective controls for both the driving and on-foot sequences and with the same great soundtrack of eighties classics underpinning the stark brutality with a wry sense of humour.

The storyline is rather a non-starter in what is effectively a mission pack, but the ability to play Grand Theft Auto on the move is more than worth the asking price and will keep you coming back for more. Just don't sit next to young children when you are playing it on the train.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007