Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bad Conscience Chicane


Things have been fairly quiet around here haven't they? In all honesty, that shouldn't serve as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog and thus, would be aware of my inconsistency over the years, not to mention some troubling recent months. Despite this silence I can assure you that the blog isn't dead and neither is my passion for writing on it, thinking about games in a critical or analytical way and, indeed, aspiring to my personal goal of covering the racing game genre because no one else seemingly will.

Speaking of which, I have news! It's my great pleasure to announce that I have an article published in the latest issue (#5) of Ctrl.Alt.Defeat, an e-zine that you can find here. The theme of the issue is guilt (and related emotions) and I took the opportunity to experiment with my piece and try something different -- not only in terms of writing generally, like my review of F1 2011 last year for Pixel Hunt (another e-zine, coincidentally enough), but also in terms of my Living The Life story. As most of you would know, my F1 2010 (and beyond) role-playing story has so far been firmly focused on the actual rounds of the championship, leaving no room for anything else. If I am to be honest, this format -- as crucial as it is considering it's the entire point of doing it to begin with -- became rather dull, fast, and that in turn provides some explanation as to why the first season hasn't seen its published conclusion yet, despite being finished over a year ago now in terms of playing. I imagine the format isn't that exciting to read, either, when a good portion of it involves describing small moments in various corners (such as running wide or locking a brake) which, let's be honest, would mean very little to people either uninterested in Motorsport or racing games, or who aren't familiar with the tracks that I'm talking about. I have tried to enhance the story series somewhat by adding exposition to certain points as they come up, such as explaining issues with traffic or discussing a circuit's pit-lane, but even with that I feel like the format as a whole is probably boring to all but the absolutely most dedicated, which to be honest only feels like myself.

Why do I feel like that? Well, firstly I realise that few people have an interest in the racing genre as a whole let alone the Formula 1 games and then, beyond that, my attempts to create a story out of my experience. I understand that what I am essentially doing is niche, and unlikely to interest most of my readers. But having said that, I also believe that this experiment I am doing -- creating this story -- is important in the sense that it can be used as a platform to highlight some interesting issues (within the sport, within the games, within gaming in general), and that it can also enlighten us in unexpected ways. As the player who is actually doing the story, I know it has certainly given me an amazing insight into things that I was previously oblivious to, and I'm someone who is immensely experienced with the genre and racing in general. Using that experience and knowledge to convey the less-obvious aspects of a game or the hidden attributes of a particular approach feels like a worthy endeavor, and is something that I find both fascinating and valuable -- especially if by doing so I can inform others.

So, behind the scenes, I have been thinking about ways to enhance the series and make it better, so it still does what I set out for it to do when I originally started it but does so in a (hopefully) more entertaining way. I feel I have discovered a way to improve the series and plan to implement those changes when I commence season two (believe it or not, despite silence for months now, I am still fully committed to this story) some time in the near future, but in the meantime my article in Ctrl.Alt.Defeat serves as a teaser for that change in approach. By focusing on a particular emotion, guilt, and writing about its impact on both the driver (IE: me) and the category of Formula 1 at large (and thus, by extension, Motorsport in general), the piece enabled me to highlight some of the things that are critical to racing but, for the most part, are usually overlooked. It was an opportunity to frame my story with a different but related perspective, and as a result not only do I think the piece came out brilliantly but it also gave me a foundation from which to build when it comes to making those aforementioned changes for season two. Suddenly, as if almost out of nowhere, I can make the entire Living The Life story much bigger than just the individual rounds of a given season, and that feeling has certainly reinvigorated my motivation for continuing the series.

So check it out and, should you want to, let me know what you think. It is somewhat left-field when compared to the other articles found in the issue -- again, I realise racing games aren't the most compelling genre in this medium for most people -- but it was a pleasure doing it, and I look forward to doing similar things in the future. And hey, if you're not interested in reading my article then check the issue out anyway as you'll find some great content penned by some great people, including Katie Williams, Ben Abraham, Alex Maunder and the Experience Points guys Scott Juster and Jorge Albor.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Dilyan Damyanov for giving me the opportunity to begin with. It has always been a small dream to be published in a print context (rather than just online) and that desire has now been fulfilled, so thanks Dilyan, it's really appreciated!


Now that I've told you about that, I suppose I should explain what has been going on with the blog.

As I mentioned above I haven't lost interest in writing, thinking about games or covering the racing genre. In fact, my desire to do so and my passion for it has only increased as each month has passed. Yet the silence here in recent months suggest that there's something up, and that bears addressing.

While I won't go into details, lately I have been dealing with some personal issues that began in December and continue (although nowhere near as badly) even now. That, along with life commitments and various other things combined to make writing for Raptured Reality more difficult than I'd like, and whenever there was an opportunity or three I was always too unmotivated to do it. I feel like the tides are changing again, however, so with any luck posting will resume on here in the near future. I'm not going to commit to a time frame or suggest that I'll be back by a certain date, because I've done that before and it has never panned out that way. But rest assured that this blog isn't dead, I still want to use it to post my opinion and analyse games, and that stuff like my Metroid Marathon will be resuming soon.

Thank you for your patience, for sticking with me and, indeed, for even reading Raptured Reality to begin with. It means a lot to me -- more than you can imagine -- and I look forward to things returning to normal around here very soon. Until then, however, enjoy your games and keep expressing those opinions on them -- it's why we are all here to begin with, after all!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

That Other XCOM

When XCOM: Enemy Unknown (made by Firaxis Games) was announced via the latest issue of Game Informer magazine, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as the gaming world realised that they would no longer have to worry about 2K Marin's FPS reboot of the series. Instead of complaining about how 2K Marin's title wasn't true to the franchise or how the only similarities it shared were its name and some enemies, gamers the world over could instead focus their attention on the newly announced strategy title and forget about the other one. The only problem is, they didn’t forget or move on and instead continue to take every opportunity they can get to dismiss 2K Marin's title and rub it into the ground.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter would be well aware of how much this bothers me. I’ve lost count how many times I have vented my frustrations over the attitudes people have towards 2K Marin's game, simply because it is an issue that continues to come up. In some respects, I could understand it back when only the FPS was known about -- I respect the opinions of those loyal to the franchise, even if I disagree with their thoughts on the new game -- but now, when there are two XCOM titles on the way, I think it is frankly bullshit.

My problem isn't that people aren't interested in 2K Marin's game -- either because it isn't a strategy game or because it doesn't appeal to them (everyone is entitled to their own opinion) -- but, rather, that everyone appears to be so willing to dismiss the title and not give it a chance. Practically ever since it was announced people have despised the FPS reboot, lamenting the different direction it is taking and expressing concern over what it may or may not mean for the series overall. This bothers me not because I disagree with these people, but because they are making their decision on a game that hasn't come out yet (and won't for some time) and which hasn't had the opportunity to prove itself. We still know so little about what 2K Marin are doing with the title and it remains unclear just how faithful (or not) it will be to the franchise as a whole, despite claims to the contrary, so I think it is simply unfair to be talking about the game in this way. For all we know the game could be fantastic, something that could almost be assured given that 2K Marin made BioShock 2 which was, in a lot of ways, better than the original classic. I'm not saying that their version of XCOM will or won't be a great game, but the fact that we don't know yet means that we shouldn't be passing judgement, which is my primary issue here.

And, ignoring the actual game, the strategy title recently revealed or the franchise as a whole for a moment, what about 2K Marin themselves? How do they feel about having to hear about all of this negativity and arrogance (let's be honest here) with regards to their title, something they are no doubt putting a lot of work into and something they would probably view as a labour of love? Furthermore, how do they feel knowing that a game they have been working years on has now been so easily dismissed while XCOM: Enemy Unknown is lavished with praise and interest? That's my main qualm with this entire issue: the way in which these attitudes are affecting development, and the way it may or may not be impacting the team. Whether I agree with the approach or not, it is fair enough to be uninterested in a game and to ignore it in favour of other ones, but when you are sitting there insulting one because another is appeasing your own personal interests, then I have a problem. A serious problem. 2K Marin's morale is probably terrible right now because of all of the crap, most of it unnecessary, their game is receiving at the moment; by not thinking about what they are saying and not considering the consequences, the people dismissing 2K Marin’s interpretation of the franchise are giving the game a reputation it doesn't deserve, and treating the people behind it -- talented people who have families to consider and lives to maintain -- like crap. That isn't right, no matter how you feel about a product or a franchise, or how loyal you happen to be. It is also a direct example of how people can be biased and ignorant, and it also represents the sense of entitlement and privilege some players have -- whether they realise it or not -- when it comes to certain elements of their gaming passion and/or interest. People need to stop being so selfish and dismissive, grow up, and give videogames that are in development a chance. If the final product happens to be a bad game or it has serious flaws, then absolutely go ahead and criticise it so that both 2K Marin and the industry as a whole can learn from it, but until then stop judging something you know nothing about and stop whining when something doesn’t satisfy your every need. 

Unfortunately, I feel like the attitudes will only continue right up until both XCOM titles in development are released. Everyone is happy about the fact that 2K Marin’s title was delayed until 2013 and that Firaxis’ version will be out soon. When people like the creator of the original game, Julian Gollop, are pleased with the upcoming strategy title and believes the FPS one is a “great shame”, the problem is only exacerbated even more because it is the kind of thing that can be used as justification for dismissing 2K Marin’s efforts. And, when you consider the fact that the enthusiast press itself already refers to 2K Marin’s title as ‘That Other XCOM’ (as demonstrated by Game Informer immediately after they revealed Firaxis’ game), you realise that the FPS reboot’s fate has already been decided: no one cares about it anymore, those who did are probably more interested in the strategy game, and as a result 2K Marin (or more accurately, Take Two Interactive) may as well just cancel their title and make something else.

But I seriously hope they don’t because I care about it and I am definitely interested to see where it goes. My sole opinion doesn’t matter, of course, but I still hope the game does see release and that it and 2K Marin’s efforts are given the proper consideration that they deserve.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Year That Was 2011: Games Edition

Now that we have looked back at what took place on the blog, let’s shift focus and talk about the games that I played during 2011. It was a quiet and subdued year for me, the intention right from the beginning being to hold back on purchases and only really buy the games that I deemed to be ‘must-have’. This led to a focus on just a handful of titles that I eventually began referring to as the “Big Four”. Ultimately that figure decreased to three as one title didn’t come out at all (The Last Guardian), but the sentiment as a whole describes the year that I had perfectly, and it alludes to the approach that I had throughout it. It should also be noted that this post is replacing any ‘Games Of The Year’ posts I would have otherwise done, as I do not feel that I played enough of 2011’s range of titles to truly offer an informed opinion or to highlight the things that were done right. So, without further ado, the videogames that I got to play in 2011.

Test Drive Unlimited 2

Despite clearly being a massive fan of the racing genre, I always felt a little guilty for having this title so high on my anticipation list for 2011. For whatever reason it just felt ‘wrong’ to be excited for this game when better titles (supposedly) were on the horizon like a new Zelda and Forza Motorsport 4. Yet high it was and the reasons for it were simple: I absolutely adored the original game because it enabled me to just pick a car and drive it, wherever and however I wanted to. To be able to experience that pleasure again with improved visuals, new additions like weather and off-road racing and on a much larger scale thanks to the inclusion of two islands rather than one was incredibly enticing for me, and I simply couldn’t wait to try Test Drive Unlimited 2 when it released in February. It was the first of my “big four” games and, in hindsight, it was the right choice as it absolutely delivered on the expectations I held for it.

Having said that, however, it was also a huge disappointment -- not only was it flawed it was incredibly inconsistent, too, making for an insanely fun game when it got everything right and a horribly frustrating one when it got everything wrong. It took far too long to be able to play the game as I intended -- using it for the pleasure of just driving -- thanks to a ridiculous (not to mention unnecessary) story mode; the dirt races and routes felt tacked on despite still being rather fun; and new features such as weather were nothing more than superficial add-ons at best. I have still lost countless hours playing it and just driving freely, so my experience with it has been mostly positive, but there are some serious issues with the game, too, and for the most part they are inexcusable.

I will be covering Test Drive Unlimited 2 in a little more detail in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.

L.A. Noire

The second of my “big four”, L.A. Noire was easily my most anticipated game of the year. Sure, Rockstar’s involvement with it was certainly a big factor but I was more intrigued by how different it appeared to be, and by Team Bondi’s overall ambition with the title. A meticulously recreated 1940s version of Los Angeles to inhabit; a protagonist who is a cop rather than the usual criminals leading other games; and a game in which conversations and discovery (IE: the interrogations and investigations) are the most prominent parts, not shooting or driving or any of the usual suspects? Yes please!

Unfortunately my excitement didn’t pay off as much as I would have liked as the game was somewhat of a let-down. It was still good and I am still very glad that I got to experience it, but it definitely has its problems and some of its main components conflict with each other more than they should, too, which is unfortunate. And the game’s rendition of LA, the feature I was looking forward to the most? Very impressive, no doubt about that, but also very redundant as it is nothing more than a dull and empty space.

Ultimately the game was overshadowed by the controversy that followed its release involving Team Bondi, Brendan McNamara and the eventual (perhaps even inevitable) closure of the Sydney-based studio. Despite these real life dramas and the inconsistencies that L.A. Noire exhibited, I still enjoyed the game and still firmly believe that it was an important title and certainly one worth investigating. It could have been so much more than it actually was, but what was there was still worth the time I put into it.

I plan to revisit L.A. Noire in the near future to try and knuckle down on my thoughts, as it definitely comes across as a game that I need to discuss here on the blog.

Portal 2

In all honesty I wasn’t expecting to be playing Portal 2 this year. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in it or didn’t want to play, it just happened to be a game that I was prepared to wait for like so many of the other big 2011 titles. However, shortly after I purchased my gaming PC I was lucky enough to get the game and, in typical Valve style, it delivered on all expectations.

How do you surpass perfection? By continuing to be perfect, that’s how -- precisely what Portal 2 did. There’s no denying that the sequel had some big shoes to fill and I am sure it would be fair to say that most people out there had their doubts, despite the game being made by Valve, and yet it nailed everything that it set out to do. Objectively, it is the game of the year purely because of how skillfully and elegantly it achieved its goals, but subjectively it would be a strong contender for that nod because it is just simply fantastic. I had an absolute blast playing around with the new mechanics and found myself, once again, baffled by some of the genius level design and clever puzzles. It has one of the best videogame endings of all time, I think, and personally one of the best openings, too -- I was absolutely hooked as soon as I heard how much Wheatley had to say when I left the game idling, and when I was ready to actually play I couldn’t because I was in hysterics. Humour in videogames is still seldom seen, unfortunately, so I absolutely cherish the funny moments that the entirety of Portal 2 gave to me.

F1 2011

After being blown away by F1 2010 and inspired to do things like my Living The Life series, it was inevitable that this game would be a key title from 2011’s lineup. What you might not have known, however, was that I was prepared to hold off buying it until perhaps even this year due to the aforementioned desire to hold back on my purchases. That was until I found myself in possession of a review copy, anyway.

F1 2011 is hard to comment on because, aside from playing it enough to be able to write the review, I have barely touched it -- not when compared to the amount of hours I have put into its predecessor F1 2010, anyway. What I did play, however, demonstrated to me that the game was absolutely an improvement with some great refinement being made by Codemasters, and key new features like the inclusion of the Safety Car being thoroughly welcome. It wasn’t just an annual release ready to cash-in on the brand or license, it was a genuine successor that illustrated that F1 2010 wasn’t just a one-trick pony, and that Codies had a direction that they wanted to go with the series. Whether it can sustain everything in its current form for another go with F1 2012 later this year remains to be seen but, right now at least, F1 2011 is another fantastic Formula 1 and racing game, and the franchise as a whole is well on its way to being one of the genre’s finest.

I will be covering F1 2011 extensively this year, as well as using it for the second season of my role-playing story. I refuse to focus on the title until I have covered F1 2010, however, so expect musings on that game in the very near future. 

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

The third (and final) game of my “big four”, Uncharted 3 was absolutely high on my list because it was the follow up to the impeccable Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and because it was being made by one of my favourite developers in Naughty Dog -- a studio I firmly believe deserves to be considered in the same light as Rockstar, Nintendo, Valve and the other behemoth names of the industry. Most of all, however, I was eagerly anticipating Drake’s Deception because it meant another journey with some of my favourite characters in the medium, meaning I could share more adventures with Elena, Chloe, Sully and, of course, Nathan Drake.

Interestingly, now that I have played it, I feel like Uncharted 3 was a bit of a let-down. A feeling that actually bothers me because there is nothing inherently wrong with it and because it exceeded what Uncharted 2 brought to the table back in 2009. The graphics were sublime; the set-pieces were absolutely amazing; the levels and locations were incredible; and the continuation of the story and the ability to see more of the characters was brilliant. Yet, somehow, I feel like I enjoyed Uncharted 2 more and I find that fascinating to contemplate because on an objective level Drake’s Deception is better in every way. I’m sitting on my thoughts about the game for a few months so I can revisit it and really understand them, so when I play it again I will cover it here on the blog. In the meantime it absolutely is a fantastic game (despite what some of the backlash it is receiving might suggest) and ultimately it ensures that the Uncharted franchise as a whole is one of the best to have come out of this current generation.

Forza Motorsport 4

Like F1 2011, commenting on Forza Motorsport 4 is difficult for me because I have barely played it and, once again, I wasn’t expecting to have access to it, either. For whatever reason a very generous friend decided to buy two copies and lend one to me, and now we’ve made a deal in which I will be buying the game off him once I am ready to do so. Being the Collector’s Edition means that I am rather grateful to be in a situation like this, but either way it is interesting because it was totally unexpected.

The first thing I noticed was how much better overall the sound quality was: cars sound absolutely fantastic now, and the environmental ambiance and general aural performance has been improved immensely. Physics, too, have continued to be refined to remarkable levels, something I won’t fully get to understand until I have played it for some time. The graphics are also better -- that’s obvious from screenshots alone, as demonstrated above -- but, as a simulation game, I don’t pay too much attention (okay maybe a little bit) to that.

Unfortunately, however, I just haven’t played it enough to give you any decent summary of how good it is. Why haven’t I spent time running it through its paces or driving lap after lap after lap? Because I am still working on Forza Motorsport 3 and I am trying to wrap that up before fully transitioning into FM4. Look out for some coverage on the game later in the year once I have given it a proper go.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Another game that I wasn’t expecting to play and thus, can’t really comment on, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a hard one because I both like it and don’t think it is as fantastic as everyone else makes it out to be. I realise having played very little I can’t speak to it like everyone else can, but the brief sessions I did have with it illustrated to me that whilst it was a massive improvement over The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it is also full of the issues that have plagued the series for years, too. It looks and sounds better, has a more interesting setting and features a world that looks like a joy to get lost in, and yet it still has wooden (and fairly uninteresting) characters, the same goddamn voice-overs and repetitive quests and/or dungeons. I don’t know, the game just had (and continues to have) such incredible hype surrounding it and yet that’s what the final product is? Really?

I just don’t see it, but then as I said I have barely played it so it isn’t right to judge. I am sure it is a fantastic game (I did enjoy what I played, honest!) and that I will enjoy it when I can finally play it properly, but at the same time I just don’t think the series as a whole is right for me, or that I am just missing what everyone else sees in it. I guess time will tell on that one.

Oh, and for the record: I was able to play it due to another generous friend. I don’t own it myself yet, unfortunately. 

Mario Kart 7

Yet another game I wasn’t expecting to play because I wasn’t expecting to own the platform you find it on. It wasn’t until last month, December, that I got my Nintendo 3DS (yes, as a Christmas present) and as such this game only barely scrapes onto the list. Despite this it already stands out as one of the year’s most interesting and enjoyable games, and I definitely look forward to playing it some more in the very near future.

The fact that Retro Studios had a hand in its development is also something I find fascinating, not just because of their own pedigree and what it means for the game but because of what it may suggest for Nintendo (and thus, the medium) going forward, too. By collaborating with Retro to design some tracks and environments, EAD Tokyo have indicated that they are not against the idea of working with other development teams; western development teams. This is significant information and could be very interesting to keep an eye on as the Wii U comes out and Nintendo enters the High Definition race -- Retro may not have released any HD games themselves yet but, being a Western team, they would absolutely be familiar with it. Will they be leading the charge, so to speak, when it comes to the approach Nintendo ultimately have with their upcoming console? Probably not, but it’s still an intriguing thing to observe and contemplate.

Super Mario 3D Land

As with Mario Kart 7 I wasn’t expecting to own this and because the purchase was so recent I haven’t played it enough to really comment on it. What I did see was impressive and I look forward to playing more, but having said that it also didn’t grab me as much as I was perhaps expecting it to.

Regular readers of Raptured Reality would be aware of the fact that I am not as into Mario or Zelda as most Nintendo players are, my series of choice instead being Metroid. They would also be aware, however, that Super Mario Galaxy captivated me and surprised me with its genius level design and fantastic use of perspective, so my reaction to that wonderful game definitely played a key role in my interest for Super Mario 3D Land. A mix of Super Mario Galaxy and old-school Mario platformers, in 3D, on a handheld? It almost sounds too good to be true and, if I’m honest, it is… What is there is seemingly a really well made, fantastic title, but by being an amalgamation rather than a unique experience I also feel like the game might ultimately fall a little flat for me personally. But, again, I have barely played it -- let’s revisit this subject once I have given it a proper chance.


What can I say about Minecraft that I haven’t already said countless times before? The game is a marvel, quite literally, and if hours played were a defining factor behind choosing a game of the year the thing would win hands down. Featuring it for two years in a row is also a little weird, as no other game (except maybe World Of Warcraft?) can remain as important and as prominent as Mojang’s indie sensation has. Of course, the game ‘officially’ came out late last year by finally leaving Beta status, but no matter what state the game is in one thing has remained consistent and abundantly clear the entire time: Minecraft is on this list because it is inspiring, mesmerizing and because it unleashed a creative side to my personality that I didn’t even know I had. It is one of the best games I have ever played and I fully expect that I will be playing it for many more years to come, too.

This may be a touch hyperbolic so early into a new one but, Minecraft isn’t just one of the games of the year, it’s one of the games of the decade. I eagerly look forward to seeing what other developers can do with the new genre that Mojang have created.


So there you have it, the games that I was lucky enough to play during 2011. As suggested above it was a rather quiet year for me and I didn’t get to play everything I wanted to, including The Last Guardian which was unfortunately delayed for whatever reason. I missed Batman: Arkham City, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Bastion, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and so many more games that I definitely wanted to play. Unlike 2011 my aspirations for 2012 aren’t restricted in any way so I definitely will be catching up with all of the titles that I missed throughout the year. I will also be playing a whole host of games due to come out, too, but I will have more on those in a preview for 2012 in a couple of days.

Finally, I suggested in yesterday’s post that I found the year to be disappointing. The reason for this is because I felt like all of the titles that had high expectations and immense hype either underperformed or failed to deliver. It’s not that the year’s best games weren’t great experiences and worth waiting for but, rather, that after looking so strong for so long the final outcome for each of these titles was a little… lackluster. A similar thing happened with 2010’s range of titles but I definitely feel like that year was a better success (if you will) than 2011 ultimately was. Was the year yet another example of hype reaching unrealistic and unattainable levels? Maybe, but either way it is an interesting thing to observe and contemplate. Here’s hoping 2012’s line-up has a better chance.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Year That Was 2011: Blog Edition

If I were to sum up last year with just one word, it would most likely be: horrible. I choose this word because of things that took place in my real life, such as the death of my Nan; I choose it because of how disappointing, I felt, the year was for gaming (more on this tomorrow); I pick it due to some of the events that took place within the gaming industry, such as the PlayStation Network hack; and I use it because of my unproductive, less than ideal year here on the blog. Despite starting and pursuing some things that I thought were really interesting, such as my ‘Living The Life’ series, I definitely feel as if 2011 as a whole was disappointing as far as Raptured Reality is concerned, and that it was probably my worst year of blogging to date. I am proud of some of the content I produced and some of the experiments I conducted but, for every success it felt like there were many more failures, so I am definitely unhappy with the blog’s final outcome for 2011. I tried some things that didn’t eventuate (and which you never knew about), I seemingly failed to stick to my word and keep my promises whenever I laid out my plans to you, and my consistency was… well, it was non-existent. The year is over now, though, so there is little point in dwelling on what could or should have been. Instead, it is time to reflect on the year that was, so here are some thoughts, observations and insight into some of the posts that were published on Raptured Reality in 2011.


The start to the year was interesting because it felt like I hardly published anything and yet I did get a fair bit done. I explored some interesting subjects, continued to add to things like my Living The Life series and I started a new tradition, too, by looking back at the year that was 2010. Re-reading over that post now brings to my attention that I didn’t get to do a lot of the things I wanted to as I began 2011, but despite this it was interesting to reflect back on the insanely packed year that 2010 was and to remember the games, issues and themes that defined the year for me. I revealed the ten games of 2010 that were important to me through two extensive posts; achieved a mini-goal of mine by looking at and responding to the reveal of the new Tomb Raider (the goal being to respond to things I found interesting more often, also demonstrated by a look at the cancellation of Perfect Dark Core in March); continued to display a deep affection for and addiction to Minecraft by taking a look at the addition of Wolves to the game, of all things; and I reflected back on the season so far of my Living The Life series after finishing the fifth round (of nineteen) of the season. This last one was particularly intriguing and fun to do as it enabled me to look back on the story both in character and out if it, highlighting some of the things that doing this role-playing story had enlightened me to as well as explaining some other aspects that were only merely mentioned in the summary of each round up to that point. It is an aspect of the series that I plan on continuing as the season progresses (it’s already finished in terms of playing but, obviously, not in terms of being published here on the blog) so look out for more insight as more rounds are published.

February also marked the release of the first of my “big four” games of 2011 (more on those tomorrow) with Test Drive Unlimited 2, a game I was eagerly anticipating after loving the original but ultimately a game that was somewhat disappointing, too. I still love it of course and will explain why in the near future but there’s no denying that it has a lot of problems and flaws, too, and that it didn’t meet expectations either. A trend that seemed to be a theme for the entire year, actually, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for me to elaborate on that.


April was a particularly significant month for two reasons, one public and one private. Publicly, it was the month in which the PlayStation Network hack occurred and where gamers around the world were concerned about whether their credit card details were obtained or not. Personally, while I was worried too, I was more interested in the response to the debacle and whether other companies, Sony themselves or industries in general would learn from the situation and use it to ensure online security in the future. It was the most important ‘event’ of the year, no doubt about it, and I really wanted to see everyone react to it in that way but, instead (and like I expected), people got over it pretty quickly -- especially once the PlayStation Network itself was back up and running -- and now it is almost as if the entire thing didn’t even happen. That is the most disappointing thing about 2011 for me as a whole, but it is not surprising at all and was probably predictable from the start. When the potential was there for identity theft and personal information to be obtained (if not utilised) everyone rightfully was in a state of panic, but once it became clear that the only real impact was a lengthy down-time for the ability to play games online on the PS3, everyone expressed their disdain and then ultimately moved on to forget about it. Not only is that an example of how quickly people move on and forget on the Internet but, more seriously, it is also an example of how blasé industries, companies and consumers all are when it comes to the convenience of the thing and its many online services. When things go wrong the complaints come thick and fast but when they become ‘right’ again, everybody goes back to their routines, privileges and schedules, and it gets lost in the digital ether until the next big disaster takes place. It really bothers me (if you can’t half tell) but that is the Internet for you, so whining about it here isn’t going to change anything.

More privately the month was also significant because of something that was happening behind the scenes and also something that ultimately didn’t eventuate. Any regular reader of this blog knew that I had a strong addiction to Minecraft and that part of that obsession involved watching videos on it such as Coe’s Quest, a series I had mentioned in 2010 a couple of times when discussing my experiences with the game. What you didn’t know, however, was that I had contacted Coe and asked if I could interview him, something he kindly agreed to. I requested it because he was approaching his 150th episode and I thought it would be a good thing to coincide with the milestone and, some email exchanges later, I had a series of questions and answers ready to go. So why wasn’t it ever published? Quite simply, because it wasn’t finished and for whatever reason Coe never responded to one of my emails. He had a particularly busy period with his work and also preparing for that milestone and as such he went quiet for a few weeks, apologising every now and again for not replying to me. I told him that it was fine and that I was happy to wait (that and the 150th episode still hadn’t aired yet, so I thought there was plenty of time) and after that I never heard from him again. As you can imagine that was quite annoying as we had already progressed quite far and, because interviewing someone was something new for me (one of the many experiments I ended up trying in 2011), I was really looking forward to finishing it and publishing it here on the blog. Despite these frustrations I don’t hold anything against Coe for failing to respond and I am still glad I got the opportunity to try interviewing someone, even if it didn’t pan out or ever see the light of day publicly. I even still watch Coe’s Quest which recently hit 200 episodes and continues beyond that, so really nothing has changed for me and my relationship (if you will) with his story in Minecraft -- the only thing that was different was that I had talked to him and no one ever knew about it. That’s disappointing to be sure, but it is the way things go sometimes, too, so I put it down as an interesting experiment and nothing more.

April was also rather hard to bear as it was the month in which I wrote a tribute, of sorts, to Bizarre Creations. When news broke that Activision were shutting down the studio I was pretty upset about it. Sure, studio closures and lay-offs were nothing new in the industry -- especially last year -- and as such, it is something I should be accustomed to, but it was particularly hard news personally because Bizarre made some of my favourite racing games of all time and were absolutely one of the best developers in the genre. Alongside Criterion Games (thankfully still alive and well), Bizarre defined what Arcade racing thrills meant to me so to lose that was not only serious -- due to insane talent losing their jobs and thus, livelihoods -- it was devastating, and probably the other big low-point of 2011 for me. Most of the talent appear to have landed on their feet and now work for other studios, which is good to see, but it was still a significant loss to the industry and, perhaps more importantly, the medium of videogames itself, too. Rest in peace Bizarre Creations.

May was also a busy month as it saw the release of L.A. Noire, the second game of my “big four”, as well as posts looking critically and analytically at Gran Turismo 5 and Mafia II. The former also marked the beginning of my ‘Behind The Wheel’ series which is where all my racing game critical coverage will now go. I enjoyed looking at Gran Turismo 5 from three different perspectives and definitely took pleasure in trying to pin-point just what made GT5 unique, but I was also fairly disappointed, too, because looking back on the year as a whole I now realise that I still haven’t finished appraising that game in the way that I intended. Something to attend to this year, then, especially considering that I feel like the game has been rebooted (in a sense) after the release of Spec 2.0 in October: a significant update to the game that brought with it some interesting changes and was released in preparation for the (then) upcoming downloadable content.

Even worse than failing to continue my look at Gran Turismo 5 in-depth was my failure to continue talking about Mafia II, a game that left me with incredibly mixed, strong feelings and a title that still to this day stands out to me as intriguing and important. Back then I likened it to the way in which Mirror’s Edge ultimately made me feel, an analogy that I think is even more apt now as I reflect back on my time with Mafia II and realise that, despite its flaws, I really loved it. I think one of my goals for this year will be to return to Mafia II and knuckle down on what my overall thoughts on it actually happen to be because I truly do believe the game deserves some more time in the spotlight. I think it will be even more interesting to do it now that I have also experienced L.A. Noire, as the two games have more than just their 1940s setting in common.

Perhaps luckily after all of that, June was a rather quiet month, the distraction that is E3 being particularly prominent. Even so I still managed to begin another series that I have since left neglected. As you would expect I am not proud of the fact that I posted just one entry in the ‘Evaluating My Driving Style’ series before leaving it dormant, so that’s something that frustrates me especially now that we are in 2012. Having said that, I never lost interest in doing it as I believe the series as a whole will offer a fascinating insight (for people who aren’t as familiar with the racing genre -- or racing in general -- as I am) into the ways in which someone can approach a videogame or, indeed, racing. So I definitely intend to continue the series this year. I have the entire thing planned out and drafted so in a sense it is appalling that I never got it done, but these things happen and I will rectify this problem in the future. I promise.

As I touched on above, E3 was particularly significant in June with many games revealed, many more announcements made and the industry as a whole taking the time to celebrate all things gaming. What you might not have realised, however, was that I didn’t post anything on the show last year, breaking a self-imposed tradition that I wanted for Raptured Reality in the process. I had eight (!) posts lined up in reaction to the show, believe it or not, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get them done straight away and then later in the month my Nanna passed away, distracting me even further. Obviously I regard her death as the biggest and most unfortunate event of the year, which makes June the worst month of the year for me by default, but even so I found it frustrating that I couldn’t offer my thoughts on E3 or anything related to the show. In hindsight, it was probably good that I didn’t get to publish the other thing related to E3 that I was going to, which was a response to all of the snark and sarcasm that appeared, particularly after the conclusion of each press conference. I was absolutely appalled by some of the comments and behaviour exhibited by various people -- both whom I knew and random comments on trailers and stuff like that -- and really wanted to rant about it and call them out on it, but it didn’t take place for the same reasons any E3 coverage here on the blog didn’t eventuate. Having said that, people really need to think about what they are saying publicly because a lot of people looked absolutely silly during E3 and we as a collective whole are never going to move forward or mature if everyone is behaving like that. Hopefully this year’s E3 is different but, if I am to be honest, I expect it will be even worse -- especially if the big three reveal their new consoles…


The third quarter of 2011 was perhaps the best part of the year for the blog, for a variety of reasons. Not only was it the most packed and varied in terms of content, it also saw the beginning of two new projects and the publication of a few posts that were important to me. I also happened to buy my purpose-built gaming PC in July, finally giving me access to a platform and range of games that I had to ignore for so long prior to that purchase. Of course, my love affair with Minecraft and inability to keep on top of the things that I commit to has resulted in my Steam library remaining largely untouched, but as the months and years go on I definitely look forward to exploring PC gaming fully, and having an even deeper understanding of and connection to the medium I love so much: videogames.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened in the third quarter was an especially important milestone for a franchise that I absolutely adore: Metroid. Not only did the series celebrate its 25th birthday, an incredible feat that few other franchises can manage, the milestone also inspired me to get on with a series of posts I had been planning for months: my Metroid Marathon. So far, I would say the Marathon has been a success with people enjoying my analysis and coverage of the game -- particularly the post in which I look at the game’s 'Magic Moments' -- and personally I have really enjoyed the fact that I can take such an in-depth look at what is easily my favourite franchise ever. It has gone a little quiet in recent months for various reasons, but so far it has been great and I look forward to continuing it throughout 2012.

Other interesting posts to come out of the period included some musings on Let’s Plays, continuing my desire to respond to various things; a post lamenting the inevitable ‘loss’ of Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV once it is succeeded by even more impressive cities, most likely from future GTA installments; the continuation of my Living The Life series after yet another little hiatus, as well as a look at some discoveries I had made whilst playing F1 2010 out of character; a look at the ways in which developers can (and do) approach realism in racing games, including a convenient example not long afterwards; and an editorial expressing my desire to see games use Mother Nature and natural disasters a little more effectively and in ways that affect the game experience. Writing that last one was hard as it had to be delayed a few times due to (and out of respect for the victims from) the many natural disasters that took place in real life during 2011, and because it is hard to contemplate the subject as it relates to games when it is unclear as to what will and won’t be possible in the future. In theory the ways in which games can use disasters and Mother Nature to impact the gameplay has massive potential and, as such, that’s why I would like to see that aspect of the medium explored further; in practice, however, it’s simply not clear what technical limitations will impede on the possibilities in this area, so I will continue to observe with interest as we continue moving forward into the new generation and beyond. I do hope we can make some progress in this space, however, and that weather in general doesn’t just remain a superficial element of videogames only.


If the third quarter was the best part of the year for the blog, then the final quarter was the worst. All three months were relatively quiet with very little happening on the blog, mostly because I needed to take a break from my usual routines as I dealt with some stuff in my personal life. This silent period bothers me because I don’t like being inconsistent, but history from previous years would suggest that consistency as a whole is an issue that I have always had trouble dealing with and that, in particular, the final months of the year are always rather quiet here on the blog. I would like to take the opportunity now to apologise for that because it is in no way intentional but obviously it keeps occurring, too, so it is something that I need to work on.

Having said that, the period wasn’t all bad. I still did some interesting things, the most significant being yet another experiment. In October I may have only posted one post but that post was a link to and additional musings on my very first review which focused on F1 2011. I wasn’t really expecting to try my hand at reviewing back then but I am glad I was given the opportunity and thought that I did fairly well for my first attempt, though whether anyone who read it agrees is another thing entirely. Obviously I haven’t reviewed anything since, either, which may or may not suggest things to you, but overall I am glad I tried it and wouldn't mind doing so again in the future if the opportunity ever arises. Even if it doesn't, however, I would be fine with that too as I much prefer the freedom that editorials provide, and my incessant ability to ramble certainly ensures that I prefer longer-form writing as well.

Perhaps ironically, the month after my first review I published a post that looked at some recent reviews surrounding the blockbuster videogames that had just been released, expressing concern with the seemingly relentless praise these titles were garnering. The idea wasn’t to suggest that these reviews were “wrong” or anything like that but, rather, that critics should (and need to) be careful with their appraisals and should try to avoid falling under the spell of hype and excitement that the end of year release schedule usually brings. Seeing a whole host of games be awarded ‘perfect’ scores (IE: 10/10) was worrying not because they were full marks, but because of how easily (and quickly!) titles can have a backlash a few months after release. In the post I used The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess and BioShock 2 as my examples; now, just a couple of months after release, there’s people retracting their opinions on Batman: Arkham City, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception -- all titles that received perfect scores at some publications.* I’m not going to be so bold as to say I told you so or anything like that, because that is just being arrogant, but the change in perception around these titles certainly suggests that I was right to be as concerned as I was.

The final significant thing of the year, aside from yet another return of the Living The Life series after another hiatus, was a post looking at the announcement of Grand Theft Auto V. Any regular reader would know how much I love GTA IV so it was only natural that I was going to be excited by the announcement, and eager to hear more about what direction the franchise was heading in. I used the opportunity to lay out some of my own desires for where I think GTA should go, as well as gave some predictions for GTA V. Really, though, I simply look forward to the day that I can step out into the re-envisioned Los Santos for the first time and discover what it has to offer -- I love getting lost (figuratively) in new virtual environments and can't wait to explore the city and its surrounding countryside when the game finally hits.


And there you have it, a look at the year that was here on Raptured Reality. As I said this is now a blog tradition for me as I find it really interesting reflecting on the year that I had and commenting on some of the posts that I made, giving you insight into how I go about writing here as well as the way in which some posts came about. It wasn’t exactly the most ideal or pleasant year, but overall I'd classify the year as a learning one. Will 2012 be as experimental and inconsistent as 2011 was? Honestly I have no idea, but unlike last year I have some direction for where I want to go with the blog this year, some of which you will be seeing sooner than you may think.

Hopefully you have enjoyed this look back at 2011 as it fared on Raptured Reality. Come back tomorrow for a look at the games that I played throughout the year, as well as some explanations as to why I found the year as a whole to be rather disappointing.

*I’m actually somewhat surprised that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim isn’t receiving a similar level of backlash, as I would argue that the titles that are receiving some negativity are more polished than Bethesda's title ultimately was.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Living The Life: Valencia #2

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, part two of the European Grand Prix in Valencia.]

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying, Cloudy 

I was a little more enthusiastic about Qualifying after the improvements made in P3 earlier this morning. I had no expectations, of course, knowing full well that my 10-spot grid drop penalty would seriously affect my ultimate starting position. Despite this I was still anticipating getting out there and attempting some Quali-style laps so overall the mood wasn’t as bad as I thought it might have been. Virgin, on the other hand, did have expectations, their desire for Valencia being 20th place or better. The team also added a new electronics update to the car between sessions, giving me that throttle map after my tests during Practice. 

As always, allow me to detail the events of each segment of Qualifying before speaking about the end result and my feelings towards it.


The first run of Qualifying was clean with no dramas, although I did have a slight brush against the wall on my third lap which was enough to cause me to abort it and come in early. No damage from the touch, though, so that was nice. 

The second run was a little more eventful, however, an issue with Pedro De La Rosa on my first lap being particularly frustrating as he blocked me on the bridge. It’s already incredibly tight and narrow on that thing -- not to mention so abrupt, too, since it is such a short section of the track -- so it’s definitely no fun when there’s a Formula 1 car in the way as well. I also almost lost the car in turn 13 on my third lap after sliding the car to avoid running up against the wall, but I was able to control it and continue with no real impact on the lap. Otherwise the run was good, yielding a time of 1:43.868 which was good enough for 14th and progression into the second segment.


Things happened fast in this segment, my first run being great with no issues whatsoever and a nice time delivered instantly. I didn’t want to go out for a second run to save my tyres and, more importantly, my engine, but I was forced to due to how my rivals were performing and as such I went out for a quick dash near the end of the segment. It didn’t result in any improvement, however, so my fastest time from the first run was all I could manage and, therefore, my Qualifying session ended with me in 11th place on a 1:43.220. Obviously my penalties ensure that I will actually be starting in 21st tomorrow, but I’m still satisfied with my time regardless because it was very close to being another progression into Q3, and I also exceeded Virgin’s expectations as well. That lap was my best of the weekend, too, which is a positive sign after starting Friday in less than ideal circumstances. 

As per Practice form, Vettel, Webber and Hamilton grabbed the first three positions for tomorrow’s race. Clearly Red Bull are on form here although it is nice to see that McLaren are giving them a run for their money, too.

An interview after Qualifying asked about my title hopes, which I thought was a little curious, as well as my thoughts on the session and how Virgin are faring with car setup for each circuit. I replied by suggesting that my championship hopes are probably non-existent this year given I am a rookie and in a brand new team; that I have been and will continue to give it my all with each Qualifying session; and that so far Virgin have been doing pretty well with car setup considering we have been punching well above our weight, something that is evident in rounds such as Turkey and Canada.

I may be starting at the back of the field tomorrow but, after today’s efforts, I have to say I am actually looking forward to the race. It remains to be seen if my decent results in recent rounds will continue, though.

Sunday Afternoon, Race Day, Sunny

I go into today’s race with little to no expectations, instead preferring to just do my own thing and be happy with whatever I can get. Virgin are approaching the race differently, however, expecting a position of 18th or higher in the race. I think that’s certainly achievable, especially given recent form, but there’s no denying that my penalties are already affecting my chances so we will just have to wait and see what happens. Despite not making Q3 and thus, not being required to start on them, Virgin have given me a fresh set of Option tyres to start the race with, no doubt hoping that I can use them to gain a few places early and start things off positively. Being a street circuit I’m not so sure that’s the right move to take but it is their choice, of course, and I will be happy to have good rubber under my belt to get things started, so I’m certainly not going to argue with them about it. Being Options, however, the grip will no doubt fade quickly so right now the strategy is to pit at around lap 18 or so and switch to the Primes. I guess it depends on the race’s pace this afternoon, and how much dirt and dust is hanging around off the racing line as well. Anyway, I have some sponsor commitments to attend to so wish me luck.

Race Start; 57 laps

Despite feeling like it was slow initially, that was probably my best start in Formula 1 yet, my quick thinking and success in taking advantage of the opportunities that were before me resulting in a nice advancement up the field whilst everyone else slowly -- to avoid collisions -- sorted themselves out. By the bridge and turn 10 I had made up 3 or 4 places and I took another position -- around the outside I might add -- by the end of the first lap. Not long after that I grabbed another one in the fast series of corners after the hairpin (turn 17) in sector three due to cars going slower than usual, yet again, as they sorted themselves out. As I commenced the third lap, I was already in 17th -- not a bad start given it is a street circuit. By lap 5 I had made it to 15th, where I stayed until my pit-stop on lap 18. On lap 10 my (Option) tyres started to go away from me which ensured that I ran wide a few times at various corners but Liuzzi, who was behind me, was unable to pass and I gained some time back in sector three where I appeared to be more comfortable and confident than some of the others. He came close a few times to be sure, but I was able to hold position for the first stint and even as I entered the pits, too, as he followed me in. Virgin even complimented me on the stint while I was driving down the lane because of how many positions I gained -- who said passing in F1 was impossible? 

I left the pits on lap 19 in 16th after Buemi passed me on the straight. I quickly received another compliment over the radio for a “perfect pit-stop” which was nice to hear and certainly wonderful encouragement for the rest of the race. I should ask Virgin to say things like that in every race. Anyway, I managed to get 15th back on lap 25 and then went on to have an eerily quiet few laps between lap 25 and 31, especially on the bridge and the subsequent (first) back straight. Like Bahrain and Turkey, the lap around Valencia feels somewhat like a journey, a feeling exacerbated by just how long the circuit is. Unlike those two venues, though, Valencia does stick close to itself so it was only in that particular section where things were rather quiet. The frontrunners began lapping me on around lap 32, and I had a small brush with the outside wall of turn 3 on lap 38. After that things were good, clean and consistent, with nothing in particular occurring and my driving remaining smooth and at a steady pace. On lap 55 I had a lockup in turn 2 that I couldn’t get out of in time as I had already committed to the corner, meaning that instead of running down the run-off area like I did a few times in Practice, I collided with the wall instead and lost my front wing. Naturally the team ordered me into the pits to get it replaced but when I heard the margin I had over Liuzzi who was (still) behind me, I decided to try and nurse the car home instead. This decision paid off as I kept my position and finished 15th, a decent result considering my starting position and the mistake at the end of the race. 

Despite that mistake and my woes earlier in the weekend, particularly with the penalties, I’m really happy with that result and that race as a whole, so much so that I think it has to be one of my best yet. That makes three consecutive races in a row where I’ve had a positive weekend with better than expected results so, right now at least, I’m really satisfied with my performances and how my season has progressed so far. I think Valencia is one of my better rounds because of the general consistency I showed throughout the majority of the race, and for my many passes during the first stint -- not many passes happen at the start of any race let alone on a street circuit, so to do what I did today was remarkable and something that I am definitely pleased with. Perhaps my love of street circuits is starting to show after all? 

Virgin was also happy as, obviously, I was three places ahead of their expectations today. They also seem pleased with how things have been progressing thus far, so it feels good knowing that my efforts aren’t just doing wonders for my development but for theirs as well. Interestingly, Valencia reminded me of a few of the street circuits I used to race at in America, probably because of the way in which the sunshine lit up the track. It helps, too, that the track is so modern and looks wonderful. 

Anyway, Lewis Hamilton won the race with Alonso coming second and Vettel rounding out the podium for third. Lucas Di Grassi, my team-mate, finished in 23rd. Without being cocky or arrogant, I think it is fair to say that I am performing at a much stronger level than he is right now, something that has been consistent for most of the season so far. Hopefully this works to my benefit later in the year but, of course, we will have to wait and see on that one. My result today means that I am still 21st in the drivers’ standings, while Virgin remain last (11th) in the constructors’. 

With the way things are going lately I’m beginning to think that a points-finish can’t be too far off, surely? Here’s hoping I’m right, first and foremost, and that it happens at the next event in Britain and the world-renowned Silverstone circuit. I have mixed feelings towards Silverstone which I will elaborate on when we get there. It’s undoubtedly a classic track but they have been making changes to it recently, too, so we will see how I feel in a fortnight’s time. 

Note: All images, save for the course map, are courtesy of Xbox Live friend and fellow F1 fanatic Rossa Au.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Living The Life: Valencia #1

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, the return of the story and part one of the European Grand Prix in Valencia.]

Arriving in Valencia this weekend for the next round of my first season in Formula 1 means three things: it’s a new venue that I need to acquaint myself with; it’s another street circuit which makes its learning curve difficult but more enjoyable, too, as I love racing so closely to the barriers and within tight chicanes and corners; and, on a personal level, that this round is interesting due to what it represents.

While this isn’t the first time that the Valencia round has been held in Formula 1, it is still interesting to consider because of what it means. Technically, this round is classified as the European Grand Prix because Spain already has a round in Catalunya and Bernie Ecclestone -- the head of Formula 1 -- doesn’t allow two rounds in the one country. Previously, the ‘European’ round has been held at tracks such as the Nurburgring GP circuit in Germany but since that now alternates with Hockenheim each year, the new round takes place here in Valencia and on the still reasonably new street circuit that was built along the harbour. This particular venue is also interesting because it represents what a modern F1 race circuit should be, with exceptionally smooth tarmac, wide corners and long straights; carefully placed marshal points and easily visible LED screens for when the track is under yellow conditions or there’s a red flag; and a unique visual style that screams modern rather than the well-worn appearance of classic tracks such as Canada or Australia, or even the still relatively young (but not compared to Valencia!) venues at Malaysia and China. It is almost an insight into where Formula 1 racing will be in the near future, if you will, but regardless of that it’s an interesting circuit to consider because it is visually distinct, and because it’s such a contrast to some of the recent rounds we have had. Naturally, it is even more impressive for someone like me who is new to the circuit and has only seen it on TV previously, so it should be fun driving those first few laps in P1.

Also notable this weekend is the presence of the press or, rather, how much more people there appears to be when compared to previous rounds. I have been asked for interviews and have had cameras following me around a lot more than any other round prior to this one, so is that something exclusive to this round only or are people starting to notice me after my great performances in Turkey and Canada?

Speaking of which, at the end of Canada I honestly thought that I would be kicking myself a little bit for some of the mistakes I made during the race and that, as a result, I might be feeling a little less enthusiastic for this weekend. Instead, I’m feeling fantastic and I can’t wait to get out there and tackle the street circuit for the first time -- am I maturing as a driver by having a much more relaxed, motivated attitude or am I just going through a decent and positive period right now? Either way, I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

Friday Morning, Practice One, Sunny

As seems to be the case every race weekend these days, I got some laps in early whilst everyone else was focusing on preparing their cars and running installation laps. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the track while it was quiet, which was nice, and to begin learning what makes it unique as well as what it takes to put a decent lap together around here.

Valencia appears to have a good flow but it is also incredibly busy -- there's a lot of corners,  25 in fact, and as a result the lap is rather long when compared to some of the other venues we've visited thus far this season. Even the straights, of which there are three main ones, feature steering wheel input of some sort as they turn slightly as you progress down them. These corners, including turn 1, can be taken flat out of course but it's still worth mentioning because there's little time or room to take a breath around the lap; it's maximum concentration, all of the time, and for a longer period than other venues -- exactly what a street circuit should be. The track looks sleek, too, despite our driving perspective being so close to the ground and the barriers obscuring the view. It's somewhat pleasant, in a way, to be driving along the lap and realising that you just passed a couple of luxurious yachts while doing so. I like the contrast of raw speed against blissful exuberance.

My initial laps weren't entirely perfect, though, the usual mistakes and run-offs that always happen when learning a new circuit occuring as you would expect. I also got confused in one corner (I can't even remember which one), taking it far quicker than I should have. This resulted in some front wing damage after I clipped the outside wall and was sent careening into the opposite one. This ensured some lost time in the pits, too, as the team got to work on fixing it.

Subsequent runs brought to light some issues with traffic, as well as personal problems with turn 2 -- I ran wide and off twice there while exiting the pits because it sneaks up on you so fast -- as well as turn 10 which is the hairpin coming off the bridge, and the final and very tight corner leading onto the front straight. I also ran wide at turn 4 and had to completely back out of things as I had to cut turn 5 in order to get back on track. No penalty, though, because I slowed right down. I also had some minor struggles with turn 17 at the end of the second back straight, as well as an amusing moment when I recovered from running off at the corner at one point: I had to let a gaggle of cars through upon getting back on the circuit and couldn't help but laugh at them because they have all the room in the world on this long track and yet they're all together like that? Why waste your potential behind other cars when you can find plenty of space if you just wait a bit? It didn't make sense and I chuckled as a result, but it is their weekend that is (or could be) getting affected, not mine, so it's not my problem.

My third run was about tinkering with the car's setup as well as taking care of Virgin's R&D requirements. They wanted a lap time of 2:12.622 to test for a new throttle map setting, another time that was easy because I had exceeded that well before I even attempted it, probably even achieving it on my first lap around this new (to me) circuit. That's fine, though -- I prefer lenient goals like that because it means I can get them out of the way and focus on other things, such as testing what the changes we made to our setup did to the car and, of course, it gives me a chance to learn the intricacies of the place, too, particularly important at a track like this. I took care of it within the first lap and went on to have a slow and quiet run as there were few cars out at the time, and I wasn't able to find any pace or develop a rhythm, only improving my time in minor increments. I also had a minor spin on the curb exiting the bridge (turn 10), and my final lap was impeded by a bunch of slow cars. On my way into the pits I was also given a 5-spot grid penalty for speeding in pitlane. This is the fourth grid drop penalty I've had in as many rounds and it was frustrating because I wanted to break that trend this weekend, but the penalty itself was fair as the reason I was speeding was due to the tricky entry pitlane has. Situated on the final hairpin turn, it's rather abrupt as you still navigate the hairpin, sort of, and then as soon as you have done so you need to hit the speed limiter because you are directly in the lane. Most other circuits have a bit of tarmac that preceeds the lane that gives you the chance to prepare for entry, but as it is immediate here it caught me by surprise and I was reprimanded (rightfully) as a result.

My fourth run was fairly lackluster despite my attempts to wrestle the car (on purpose) around Valencia as I tried to find some pace. I didn't improve my time at all and received another warning for corner cutting, too, on the brief right-hander before the final turn. There was also another minor spin at turn 12, the corner at the end of the first back straight.

I changed my setup again for the fifth run opting for lower downforce and higher top speed. This, combined with more grip now that some rubber had been laid down around the track, should have resulted in some improvement but ultimately didn't as I had some more issues during the run. I had to abort my first lap after brushing up against the wall exiting turn 3 and had my second lap affected by some slow traffic who were entering the pits just prior to it, ensuring a less than ideal entry onto the main straight to commence the lap. I was also still feeling uncomfortable, too, my efforts to find pace or push the limits resulting in no gains, despite how quickly I learned the track's layout earlier in the session. Unlike other venues my ability to learn a circuit quickly just wasn't paying off here, and it was definitely starting to affect my mental state for the weekend.

This continued into the sixth run, too, as I had to abort my first lap yet again due to traffic. I also had another spin in the corner at the end of the first back straight (turn 12) which was fine until, as I waited for traffic to pass so I could recover, I was given three warnings for illegal blocking by the stewards. I understand that it's tight down there and as such, I was close to the racing line, but what else was I supposed to do as my rivals approached? I didn't want to get in their way or block their laps while I was recovering, after all, so I thought it was best to just wait. Guess I was wrong, however, as these warnings resulted in another 5-spot grid penalty -- my second for the weekend and this session -- which I thought was unfair but the officials obviously deemed it to be unsafe. In frustration I threw the car around a bit for my final lap which, ironically, was faster initially but didn't yield any improvements as you'd expect. I finished the session 14th on a 1:45.731 which isn't too bad but I definitely felt as if it should have been better, too. It doesn't really matter now, though, with two penalties basically ensuring a race at the back of the field. Hamilton topped the time sheets and Button and Vettel followed him closely behind.

Friday Afternoon, Practice Two, Sunny

I had mixed feelings about the rest of the weekend entering the second Practice session after my guaranteed 10-spot drop. I wasn't feeling particularly motivated, and I was debating with myself as to how I'd approach things now that my chances weren't as positive as I felt they should have been. On one hand, as a response to my situation, I felt like approaching it lazily and perhaps being a bit blasé, but on the other I'm a professional race driver with a job to do and who should always be striving to do their best, so I was torn between a more relaxed attitude (with any decent results being a nice surprise) and doing what I'm paid to do.

Somewhat unusually, this was perhaps a little evident in my actions as the session commenced, as I went against my normal trait and sat in the garage for ten minutes letting the others do their thing while I waited. This was nice as I was able to watch the timing monitor for a while and see what the others were up to, but when I did eventually go out it meant that I was doing my first run with a busier circuit, with more cars on track. This meant that I had to abort my first few laps due to slower cars in front and traffic in general, an issue that was becoming particularly prevalent here in Valencia. I also made some mistakes and had another spin off the bridge (turn 10), too, which didn't help things.

My second run was fine, if a little lackluster, the only thing of significance being two warnings for corner cutting. The first of these happened at the final turn and the second at the end of the first back straight (turn 12), but since I have never actually been penalised for cutting corners (yet) I didn't mind too much and ignored the warnings, for the most part.

The third run was, once again, about fulfilling Virgin's testing requirements, a time of 2:12.755 (which is actually even more lenient, slightly, than P1's goal, interestingly enough) being the goal this time around. As usual I took care of it immediately then went on to find a little bit more pace throughout the run, despite still feeling a little unmotivated and as if I wasn't "in it" this weekend. I also got another warning for cutting the right hander that preceeds the final turn (turn 24), but like before I didn't take much notice. I did pay attention to the spin I had off turn 5's curb, though, as it highlighted to me that I just wasn't concentrating enough as I got front wing damage, once again, as I was sent towards the wall. Despite being minor damage overall this put a damper on the session -- not that it changed my mood all that much anyway, considering I was already feeling down -- and I went on hoping for the session to end so I could put the day behind me.

I had no time improvements in the fourth run and also had a somewhat strange issue where the team told me over the radio about yellow flags in sector three, yet every time I arrived (it probably happened about three times) there was nothing there. That was off-putting because I was intentionally slowing down each time to be ready for anything that might be there and nothing eventuated, which I found to be a little bizarre.

Virgin informed me to watch my revs in the final run as my engine was apparently showing signs of wear, news that added to my seemingly negative weekend as you might expect. The run also ended up being a non-event, too, as I got some wheelspin as I changed gear out of turn 3 and clipped the outside wall as I corrected it, sending me spearing into the opposite one and damaging my wing yet again. I recovered to the pits with no hassles but there wasn't enough time to go out again, so that was the end of the session for me. I finished 15th with a time of 1:45.215 which was faster than my P1 time but still average and off the pace. Vettel was on top whilst his team-mate Webber and McLaren's Hamilton were second and third respectively.

For someone who is supposedly good at and enjoys street circuits, my performance and circumstances thus far at both Monaco -- an abysmal round for me -- and here in Valencia have been terrible. Here's hoping tomorrow is a little better.

Saturday Morning, Practice Three, Sunny

I woke up feeling better today and a little more optimistic too, something that should and did help with confidence, concentration and enthusiasm during the morning Practice session.

It began with more R&D testing in the first run, a time of 1:55.842 being expected and something that, as always, was easily achieved on the first lap. Interestingly Virgin elected to keep my worn engine in for this session and, indeed, the weekend, opting to try and save some of our others (out of an allocated eight for the season) for future rounds. This made sense strategically considering that Virgin are a new team with limited resources but it was a little frustrating for me personally, because it could have affected our car performance for the weekend but didn't appear to in this session. Thankfully.

Like yesterday, traffic became an issue quickly and made itself known in my second run, as did my personal problems with turn 10 off the bridge and the final turn. My first lap was hampered by Adrian Sutil who was exiting the pits and decided to swerve abruptly to get on the racing line, as opposed to waiting for me to pass. This forced me down the run-off area behind turn 2 in a similar manner to my offs leaving the pits in P1, which was a little unnecessary. My third lap also had some drama with Karun Chandok causing Hamilton (who was also in front of me) to hesitate and thus slow, the two of them together blocking my path heading into turn 4. This was entirely Chandok's fault and Lewis even came up to me after the session finished to make sure I knew that he didn't mean to get in the way, which I thought was nice of him. While preparing for the next lap (still on lap 3), a slow Vettel moved aside at the last minute as I approached the final turn, forcing me to throw the car at the apex in order to make it. Naturally this caused me to cut and I was warned, but I accepted this warning in my stride as I didn't feel as if this particular mishap was my fault. The last lap of the run also saw another minor spin at the turn 10 hairpin exiting the bridge, but there was nothing to be concerned about with that one.

My third run was fine save for more traffic issues. Seriously, if someone is exiting the pits as you navigate the flatout turn 1 then that lap is basically ruined because no one moves out of the way or stays offline until you pass. It's so bad I actually collided with Sebastian Buemi on my third lap -- my front right with his rear left -- because he didn't see me coming and went straight onto the racing line. I didn't receive any damage but he didn't receive any penalties or warnings over it, either, so it was incredibly annoying. And what's with the traffic problems anyway? This track is huge and far wider than most other venues we visit. There shouldn't be a problem at all.

The final run was also fine save for the inevitable traffic problems, my plans to use the Option tyres (which I had finally switched to after spending the entirety of yesterday using the Primes) not coming through -- I did improve my time and progress forward as you would expect using the softer compound of rubber, but I couldn't nail any of my laps because of the aforementioned traffic so I didn't get to see their full potential. I finished the session 11th which was a nice enough improvement, on a time of 1:43.702, my fastest for the weekend. That was because of the Options, of course, but I also felt as though I found some pace and picked up my performance in that session, so it was a nice reward to see myself move forward after the less than ideal events of yesterday. Vettel was on top again and Webber and Hamilton rounded out the top three, repeating the front results of P2 yesterday.

An interview after the session asked if the team have been happy with my Qualifying performances so far, and how I have been coping with the testing ban. I responded by saying we’ve been doing okay with Quali so far this season, and we are dealing with the lack of testing the same as any other team, really. Now that things seemed to have turned for the better, I look forward to tackling Valencia under Qualifying conditions later this afternoon.

Note: All images, save for the course map, were provided courtesy of Xbox Live friend and fellow F1 fanatic Rossa AU -- thanks yet again man for all your help.