The Football Fight Club and the question of masculinity

Having been a follower of football since I could walk and talk (and play), and also being English, I have an acute awareness of hooliganism in the sport. Although the match experience is far safer these days than it used to be, football hooligans (or “lads” as they prefer to be called) are still well and truly alive.

The BBC documentary “The Football Fight Club” is a candid piece of film making that follows a select group of lads organised in their firm’s “youth teams” throughout a season. I was shocked to see kids as young as 17 amongst these roving gangs, barely out of school and spoiling for a fight.

That’s not to say these groups are intrinsically violent. They decry fighting for the sake of fighting, swearing that they would never attack another supporter, no matter what team they supported. No, football firms fight football firms.There is an odd sense of honour here, as rival firms contact each other by phone and email to arrange fights.

FFC4

“Where are you?” The leader of Manchester City’s youth firm, Carl, says down the phone to the man he’ll soon be trying to put in hospital. “How many of you? Four? We’ve got four here – you better not have six or ten, if you have let me know and we’ll grab another lad.”

When asked by the camera crew why they do this, many point towards the adrenaline rush, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of being “alive”. Not knowing whether someone could smash a glass in your face or stamp your head in is all part of the thrill for these teenagers. Standing by your mates is the epitome of being a man, as is fighting off a crew with more lads than you.

Watching I couldn’t help but draw obvious comparisons between these groups and Chuck Palahniuk’s classic Fight Club. The strongest firms tend to come from inner-city clubs like Birmingham, Manchester and London, or from towns in the North, where the opportunities for a lot of young guys are slim. Many are unemployed or unemployable, having served banning orders and prison sentences.

FCC

The men in Palahnuik’s novel were unsure of their place in society. They were domesticated, their ambitions in life dulled by the endless search for material possessions. In a world of political correctness, Calvin Klein adverts and societal expectations they lashed out the only way they could – with violence.

In a world where young men have little to rail against, the chance to throw a punch at someone in different colours to you is all too welcome. Paul, a member of Bury FC’s youth firm, lauds the ability to release all his anger at the end of the week, to forget about his life and live in the moment. The adrenaline rush is like a drug, another (masked) Man City lad tells the camera. “I work in the week, I pay my taxes and at the weekend I come out and do this,” he says. “I’m an addict.”

Violence is obviously not the way to deal with problems, but have men found a better way to do so in history? Dante, a former Spurs lad (now kept in check by his fiancée and several banning orders) heads out into the woods on match day to weight-lift trees and stamp on logs, pretending they’re Chelsea fans.

FFC2

These are clearly lads who are looking for ways to express themselves. Unfortunately they’ve been dragged into doing so by trying to kick someone’s head in on a Saturday. Men have natural instincts inbuilt into our psyche – aggression is simply one of these instincts made manifest. Even the most gentle of men will revert in some way or another: getting drunk on the weekend, taking the piss out of mates or pushing themselves into physical competitions like Tough Mudder.

Is it fair to say then, that these youth firms are some rejection of the ultra-fashionable, feminised makeover that men are told to undergo in modern society? Probably not. I’m not sure many of the young men in the Football Fight Club think about chiselled Adonis models in the perfume adverts as they’re cracking a bottle in someone’s teeth.

There is no doubt that some of these kids are lost, though. The lack of a true role model in society has left them reaching for the first thing that fit their definitions. To them these bloodied, grizzled veterans of hooliganism are John Wayne with Wolverine claws.

“I used to go to pub with my Uncle when I was little,” Dante recalls, talking about after his dad passed away. “See all the clothes and hear all the stories. I wanted to be like them.”

They’re unable see a future past their twentieth birthday, past hanging around with mates and fighting for fun. Football is the world’s greatest sport, and provides moments of true brilliance for fans and players alike, but it is a tragedy and a sad indictment of our support system that hundreds of boys see putting each other in hospital as the epitome of life’s goals.

What does it mean to be a man? Masculinity is a massive question for the modern bloke, and one that will remain a mystery for many. Until then, it seems, there will be groups of lads kicking the shit out of each other in city centres every Saturday for years to come.

Comix Zone: The Hidden Gem of the Mega Drive Generation

The year is 1995; Braveheart is in cinemas, scientists have successfully cloned a sheep from DNA and the PlayStation has just been released to critical acclaim and phenomenal sales. Meanwhile the Mega Drive, whilst coming to the end of a very distinguished life cycle, is still pumping out extremely complex games considering it’s (by then) outdated hardware.

It was amongst this last rearguard of 16-Mb games that Dean Lester and Peter Morawiec released Comix Zone, an arcade-style action game that blew many people away (myself included) with its artwork, music and gameplay.

CZ4

The game centres on the superbly named Sketch Turner, a downtrodden artist and freelance rock musician (because this is the 90s) living in New York City. Whilst Sketch works on his latest comic, the eponymous “Comix Zone”, a freak storm erupts and lightning blasts into his room, striking him and his designs. The villain of Sketch’s story, the dastardly Mortus, is suddenly blasted to life and traps our hero within the pages of his own creation. Accompanied by his trusty pet rat, Roadkill, Sketch has to battle his way back to the real world with the help of the player.

All of this is revealed in one of the best introductions to a video game I have played – some great music, artwork and pacing combine to throw the player into the game ready for action. As soon as you’re dropped into the pages of the comic book a grungy soundtrack kicks in, adding to the innate sense of style the game exudes from every pixel. Seriously, just listen to this.

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Where Comix Zone excelled, though, and where it blew me away, was the way in which the game made you believeyou really were in a comic book story. Sketch can vault between panels and pages dynamically and use them as platforms or hiding spots. Enemies, allies and Sketch himself all communicate in floating speech-bubbles that track their movements, while yellow thought boxes hover in the corners. Pieces of the pages tear off during fights or burn away after explosions. The game also included some of the first examples of physics-based puzzling – boxes have to be stacked to reach levers or pushed into hazards to progress further into levels.

Read this article in its entirety on GameGrin!

Total War: Attila – A Study in the Standalone Expansion

A standalone expansion is like an argument between a married couple:

A man sits down to dinner with his wife. She serves him up an eagerly anticipated meal he’s been waiting for. As she stands above him proud, she notices that he’s scowling.

“What’s wrong?” she asks him. “I did my best, I think it’s the best dinner I’ve ever made you!”

The man looks up at her, arms folded.

“I don’t like peas. Next time can you just keep the carrots?”

“But the meal is much nicer, don’t you think?” She pleads.

“Oh yes,” he agrees. “But I just wanted carrots. Next time just make sure its carrots.”

The next day she leans out of the kitchen: “I’m making your dinner with carrots this time!”

The man is happy (even though he’s had to eat two dinners) and so is the woman, even though she’ll experiment with her next meal and he’ll complain again.

For me it depends on the mash.

Such is life with Creative Assembly. The dev team behind one of the most successful real-time strategy series on the planet: Total War. Their legions of fans lapped up everything they released initially. Shogun, Medieval, Rome, all hailed as cornerstones in the genre. Many still count those among their top 5 games.

Medieval 2 came around to much celebration, too. It was also the first in the series to include an expansion – Medieval 2 Total War: Kingdoms.

“10GB for an expansion?!” fans cried. “What’s in this thing?”

The answer was a bucket load of content including four new campaign maps.

Fast forward past the bug-riddled Empire and the diamond-in-the-rough Shogun 2 and we get to Total War: Rome 2.

Without a doubt this had been the game every fan had been waiting for since Medieval 2. The hype train was heading full speed towards release, egged on by CA’s (admittedly) well thought out and inclusive behind-the-scenes previews.

Then something went wrong. What had been promised as a Total War game steeped in political action, intrigue, guile and clan and family-orientated conquest (seriously, compare what’s promised in the trailers to the release) arrived as a withered husk.

Previews of the game had shown a campaign based around promoting your family to glory, tailoring your generals and armies to suit your needs – giving them personalities and histories. What fans got was forgettable characters that could be replaced as soon as they died and a half-finished political system that barely worked.

Perhaps it was the early release date, no doubt clamped down by SEGA, who seem to solely rely on their dev studios to make up the losses they make on evermore awful Sonic games. Perhaps it was the pressure of emulating the original, which had been named as the best PC game of all time by PC Gamer, beating Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

The fans, which had been eating out of CA’s palm a few days prior, began to bite and snarl. The release of day one DLC only served to enhance their ire. The rallying point focused on the fact the family tree – a feature that had survived through all previous Total War games – was gone. The connection it created between a player and their avatar general was effectively gone.

Not even a joke, this is what the soldiers look like.

Despite a continued program of patches, which saw CA release fixes in large packs every two weeks, the damage had been done. Play the game now and it is a good (not great) RTS set in the ancient world. Compare it to release and it’s a shining ray of holy light gifted from God Himself.

Now CA has evidently decided to sweep everything under the carpet. Having prostrated themselves in front of fans again by updating the game to “Emperor Edition” for all existing customers, the studio has announced Total War: Attila.

Attila will be a standalone expansion in the same mould of Shogun 2’s “Fall of the Samurai” – Pushing the clock forward to implement a number of features the studio never got to try in their main game due to time constraints.

During its reveal there was an audible cheer when a screenshot showed the return of the family tree. Pandering to the fans, perhaps, but it does show CA are willing to take on board criticism and work on their flaws. Atilla proves to be everything Rome was not: family ties, political intrigue, and religious strife. It even introduces the option to raze and remove cities from the overworld map – an ambitious feature well liked by most fans.

Attila promises a realistic depiction of the dawn of the dark ages. Apparently you can’t play as the huns though…

People will always be divided by standalones. Is it a neat way to bridge the gap between old and new games or a shameless money grab. Perhaps it’s a way of testing new mechanics and features?

One should look no further than EA for a perfect example of how not to do this. Every tournament and World Cup they push out a standalone “World Cup” or “Euros” game – even if they released a game for that year. On top of that they expect people to pay £40 for a game that features just one mechanic (people still buy the damn things though).

I feel that if a studio is going to take the standalone route, they should ape CA in doing so. Essentially fans should feel like they get enough content for the amount of money they have spent. If you drop £20-40 on a game and get less than 10 hours then I don’t think you should be blamed for grabbing the proverbial pitchfork and taking to internet forums.

It’s down to the developers to decide. With rumours persisting of a Total War: Warhammer down the line for CA, the argument of whether they’re “selling out” will continue for some time to come it seems.

Brothers in Arms: The Cure to the Modern Shooter?

Back in the heyday of the PS2 and the Xbox, shooters were historical rather than modern, enemies were German rather than Middle Eastern or Russian and multiplayer was a myth, rather than a selling point.

Publishers and developers pumped out game after game set during WW2. Medal of Honour kicked the trend off proper in 1999 before Call of Duty began its steady march to power. So many video shooters piled onto the WW2 bandwagon that soon people were crying out for change.

The game that started it all...
The game that started it all…

That change occurred with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and, you could argue, the ongoing success of the Halo series). Suddenly WW2 was out and modern shooters were in. Online multiplayer became the cash-cow to focus on for developers and publishers, who wrung their hands at the prospect of yearly releases of grey-brown mini-updates charging all-too eager gamers £40 per release.

Before that paradigm shift, however, a FPS series had set itself apart from an on-the-rails one-man-army crowd. Like those around it at the time it was set in WW2, yet focused on more than one individual.

Based on the exploits of the 101st Parachute Division (and with a healthy dose of inspiration from the critically acclaimed Band of Brothers TV series), Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms aimed to show a different side to combat, as well as gaming. Instead of a one man army carrying five to six weapons at a time, players took on the role of Matt Baker, reluctant squad leader and all-too fragile human being.

Being in charge of a squad, the player is tasked with using real-life military tactics to defeat their enemy. Two fire teams have to be used to fix an enemy squad in position with a base of fire while an assault team is directed to flank them for an easy kill. Rushing well-entrenched enemies is a no, as both the player and their squad can only take so much punishment before dropping.

The original squad from Brothers in Arms
The original squad from Brothers in Arms

The game asked tactical questions of its players, something lauded when compared the “go here, kill that” mentality of other releases. Brothers in Arms arrived at the dawn of the cover-based shooter, fresh enough to be admired.

The first entry into the series received critical acclaim, for both its gameplay and its story-telling, where each member of the squad has their own personality told through dialogue and cut-scenes. As opposed to one-man army shooters players were encouraged to rely on their squadmates and care for their wellbeing through the Normandy campaign of 1944.

A second Brothers in Arms followed shortly, lambasted by some as an attempt to cash in – since it portrayed mostly the same event but from a different characters perspective. It did show, however, that Gearbox were intent of creating a narrative for the characters they had created – the game added depth and backstory to events that would occur later in the series.

Gearbox waited until the next generation had emerged before returning to Baker and the 101st. By this point Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had been released to great success, causing a number of other publishers to begin scrambling for their own modern IP. Even multiplayer greats like DICE’s Battlefield series began to modernise its highly successful model, increasing graphical fidelity and realism to cater to gamers’ new tastes.

Hell's Highway was given a huge graphical overhaul.
Hell’s Highway was given a huge graphical overhaul.

It was in this market that Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released. Featuring a new graphics engine and storyline, it focused on the 101st’s role in the failed Operation Market Garden. Many of the same features were there with a healthy coating of improvement: situational cover returned, as well as the addition of destructible environments. Two new forms of squad were added in the shape of a bazooka and machinegun squad. Tactical choices were numerous in open campaign maps allowing players to create their own unique battle plan.

In an era where huge multiplayer maps are becoming the norm and single player campaigns shunned or completely ignored, Gearbox attempted to tell a single player story that would abate a modern gamer’s needs to go online and yell at someone through a mic. There are very few games that prize their storyline over their profitability (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind) and they are usually hailed as diamonds in the rough.

It has been six years since the release of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Returning to the game now reveals a title that has lost none of its sheen: the graphical fidelity of the game still holds up, while its historical accuracy and sound design is second to none. Gearbox has since its release created and grown the hugely successful Borderlands series (itself also based on teamwork) and the “to be continued” at the end of Hell’s Highway seems to become more and more of a false hope.

The developers attempted to cash in on the success of Borderlands (and of Quentin Tarentino’s film Inglorious Basterds) with the announcement of a new entry into the Brothers in Arms series named Furious Four. Tongue-in-cheek, outlandish and cartoony, scorn was poured upon the game until finally Gearbox agreed to remove the game from the fan favourite series.

Nothing much more has been heard from Gearbox since: rumours of a Brothers in Arms set in Bastogne – where Matt Baker’s story comes to an end – are abound without confirmation by the developers. It must be said that with the new generation picking up steam and gamers finally growing tired of cookie-cutter carbon-copy modern warfare shooters, perhaps the time has come for a much-loved franchise to step up to the plate once again.

How criticism made me a better journalist

“If your work doesn’t improve dramatically I think you should seriously reconsider your career as a journalist”

That was the advice I received around one week into my first writing job, as a freelancer. I was new to the news writing game and had barely written my 10th article. After four years at university, writing well over 80,000 words of essays and reports, I figured that I was a good writer. In truth, I didn’t have a clue how to write proper news stories.

I was angry, I was hurt and upset. I took the advice and seriously considered my future as a journalist… For about five seconds.

I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and right there and then took the criticism on the chin and decided to improve. It still took me another few months to reach a level that required little to no sub-editing and I’m still learning to this day, 8 months on from that piece of advice.

I happen to have quite the stubborn personality, which apparently helps in this field. If someone tells me “you can’t” or “you’re terrible at this” I’ll just think “watch me” and throw myself into becoming better. Criticism is very hard to take, and being a perfectionist/competitive person I always take it harder than I perhaps should. As soon as I hear the editor’s keyboard clacking after I submit a story I immediately castigate myself for messing up.

Yet it’s this attitude that has enabled me to get to where I am. I have no journalism qualifications (yet) and have gone up against candidates for jobs who have got the degrees and the qualifications over and over again and been pipped to the post. If you’re not willing to improve continually then you’ll end up in a dead end.

That piece of criticism I received barely days into my journey as a writer has stuck with me throughout what happened afterwards, and I often look back at the articles I wrote to remind myself how far I’ve come in such a short time.

Good god, some of them are awful.

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