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REPLAYABLES: Driver, San Francisco (2011)

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A funny story prefaces the reason I own this game; we found the disc lying in the bottom of our family’s pool. Someone had thrown it over the back fence and it had landed in the water. Five months after we fished it out, it still operates on the PS3. So for being not only an enjoyable driving game but for sheer ability to survive in chlorine and salt, I’m reviewing Driver San Francisco on how likely it is to be replayed, years after its release on multiple consoles.

Consisting of over one hundred and twenty cars, huge networks of roads and playable areas and nineteen brilliantly constructed multiplayer modes, Driver San Francisco boasts of some great features. The initial storyline is straight from a ‘Fast and Furious’ script – a thrilling manhunt for an escaped crime boss across the city while trying to anticipate and bring a halt to the evil man’s dastardly plans. As someone who doesn’t usually become engaged in stereotypical fast-car plotlines it was a decent crime story to use as an excuse to race a lot, jump things, blow stuff up and shoot the hell out of the city while buying new and better vehicles at various points throughout the game. You play as the protagonist Tanner, a disgruntled cop chasing desperately after the crime lord Jericho but you can share the experience of other individuals you interact with during the course of the story which shakes up things a little. These ‘city missions’ are a variety of stunts, races and demolition-charged chases in different locations. Tanner can also take challenges to build up on willpower and gain other advantages for the game. A combination of competitions, drifting, smashing stuff up and movie-inspired contests – the challenges are decent entertainment and worthwhile completing. For the truly brave there are various dares located at icons throughout the city, which are fun to attempt even if the payouts aren’t that much.

Then of course, there are co-operative plays, either online or in split screen against a friend with another controller. Competitive or co-operative challenges – you choose. Personally, this is what makes the game so worth pulling out again years later – the fact that I can try to annihilate my friend on my favourite tracks. Co-operative running from the cops is also enormous fun, I thoroughly recommend you have a go with someone and see who panics more. For the more fanatical car drivers there are accuracy-dependent games of skill and technique but be prepared to give up a lot of the time if you spin out of control with the slightest nudge from another car. Frustration abides in all of the various modes of play. 

The graphics are pretty and the mechanics can be a little tricky but once you get used to how the cars drive the experience becomes a great test of skill. Not being a car fanatic, I have to admit there is a plethora of driving experiences from cars famous in the 60’s until today with various gimmicks and advantages. By far one of the best features of the game is the ability to ‘shift’, jumping forward into other cars or using other drivers on the road to advance you forward. It also makes the artificial players much harder to overcome because suddenly, in a burst of lightning, they can spawn in front of you to cut you off. The leveling system is also one of the best I’ve seen in a racing game – simple and straightforward but resulting in a great sense of achievement when you are successful at acquiring another level.

All in all, this game can be replayed many times over, either with your friends or online or even just to try and find everything to complete in the story mode. I’m not even a massive fan of the genre but I can admit that the straightforwardness of Driver San Francisco and the ability to customise to your liking makes this an enjoyable game. It’s not run-of-the-mill at all and I applaud the developers for streamlining what makes an effective racing game whilst making unique features.

Pull it down off the shelf and have another go. This one is worth it. Even if you do throw it over the back fence into a neighbour’s pool because your friend beat you. 

OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’

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I’ve been choosing a lot of very soul-searching books lately for this blog, I promise I’ll move onto something lighter next time but to continue on this leitmotif is ‘Change of Heart’.To summarise, the story revolves around the lives of Claire and June Nealon, a daughter and mother struggling with the fact that young Claire needs a heart transplant to survive and that the remainder of their family were murdered before Claire was born by a man currently residing on death row – Shay Bourne. When he is transferred into his final stay in custody Shay has a ‘revelation’ of sorts and offers to donate his heart in recompense. As June considers this extraordinary offer from the murderer of most of her family, a number of other miraculous events happen around Shay Bourne before his sentence of death can be carried out, leading to a court case over whether he may be able to donate his heart that coincides with some in the community who believe Shay is actually performing messiah-like miracles.

Picoult’s novels always carry the timbre of heavy emotional charge and ‘Change of Heart’ is no exception. But as she focuses heavily on themes such as law, religion, murder, justice, families, love and death I guess it’s always going to be inevitable. This book also uses her much-loved ‘same story told from many different viewpoints’ technique but each voice is extremely unique and there is little overlap between the standpoints of each character. Reading the story through the eyes of all these different fictional people is a bit like gazing through a many-sided glass crystal: look at the same piece of sunlight through different sides of it and the colour changes remarkably. Same story, very different perspective. And the results are spectacularly disparate. It lends a powerful level of depth to the narrative, no matter what your personal opinion is on the subject at hand. It is these characters that carry the emotive themes so well and Picoult has carefully chosen a huge array of fictional lives to examine the story through. To list them: a very young mathematics major-turned priest haunted by past decisions, a homosexual death-row inmate with AIDs who murdered his love when he caught the man cheating, a level-headed and discontent female ACLU lawyer and of course, the mother, June Nealon.  As standalone characters they’re each quite unconventional but there’s a layer of reliability within each person that pulls the story frighteningly close to your heart as you read. I would not in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who does not want to shed a little tear at the end of it or who has had any kind of trauma recently in their lives; it’s not cheery and can leave you quite blue by the end, as well as appreciative of all the good things you have going for you.

‘Change of Heart’ employs a lot of  what I like to term ‘emotive legal,’ as there is a detailed foray through a court sequence but the focus is not on the evidence as such, just the emotion behind it. Apart from this level of tear-jerking, the book itself isn’t a difficult read but for sheer content alone I’d have to hazard that it is suited primarily to females (not to leave out the men but I am seriously generalising in this recommendation) above the young adult age bracket. I can’t honestly imagine anyone below sixteen ever finding this story engaging unless they are extremely seriously-minded or mature. It is a mature story, because the ‘bread and butter’ of it wants you to question what you believe. Do miracles exist? Can anyone ever atone for murder? What if everything you knew about the person you loved was in fact, false? What do you do after you’ve lost a child? How would you sit through the days leading to your death? Could you sentence someone to the death penalty?

“You know why I think we still execute people? Because, even if we don’t want to say it out loud – for the really heinous crimes, we want to know there’s a really heinous punishment. Simple as that… I guess the question is: Who gets to identify those people? Who decides what crime is so awful that the only answer is death? And what if, God forbid, they get it wrong? What we’re left with is death, with the humanity removed from it.”

Tangled stories like ‘Change of Heart’ carry a few really well-executed (pardon the pun) plot twists which can change your whole view of the story at any given moment. Prepare to have the rug pulled out from underneath you a few times. And for goodness sake, bring the tissues and maybe something cuddly to hug.  Bring your perceptions of religion and messiahs and miracles in the modern age. They’re about to be challenged. Bring your definition of justice and see if it changes substantially by the end of the novel. But hey, why not? Everyone needs a little bit of a challenge once in a while. This book can shake you right to the core and I do not say that lightly. 

Thanks for reading this through, let me know if you think differently about the novel. Please pester me on Twitter to keep this going or if you have a book you’d highly recommend me to pull off the bookshelf. SophA

OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’

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I’m a fairly quick reader and even as a kid, there were times I’d pick out a book purely for its extraordinary length. A well-written epic is an experience like riding one of those escalator walkways at the airport. You get onto it, enjoy the smooth journey and then before you know it you’re at the end, trying to get off without falling flat on your face from the unexpected speed. ‘The Passage’ certainly has all of the facets of an epic with an unsettling realism that makes time slip away very quickly as you read.

“And then she knew, knew it for a fact. They were in danger, terrible danger. Something was coming. She didn’t know what. Some dark force had come loose in the world, and it was sweeping towards them, coming for them all.”

Cronin is a professor of English and clearly a master craftsman of the ‘journey’ form of writing. ‘The Passage’ begins with the backstory of a little girl named Amy, whose single mother leaves her at a convent after murdering a man. Sister Lacey takes it as her charge from God to protect the mysterious and friendless little girl. It then jumps to the emails from a man on a research project in the middle of a jungle, who not only encounters a strange interest from the military in his project but is suddenly put into an extremely dangerous situation that not many of his research party survive. Again, the story then catapults the reader into the lives of Agents Doyle and Wolgast of the F.B.I. who are given instructions to bring several death row inmates to a remote testing facility, where it is revealed that they will spend their lives being human guinea pigs for a viral vaccine that the fatal research project has left as a lasting legacy into medical examination. Wolgast and Doyle are also charged with the job of delivering the six-year-old Amy as a new test subject for this facility – a task Wolgast in particular finds does not sit well with his conscience.

Without giving away too much more of the storyline, which trails and twists and turns in all sorts of directions, jumping forward and backward through time as it wills, the resulting breakout of the virus from this facility transforms America into a post-apocalyptic world battling creatures reminiscent of vampires for survival. Little Amy becomes frightfully important to the survivors many years later, as she holds the key to answers the human race desperately needs.

So then, what is this book like? Well, creepy to begin with. Cronin is extremely gifted at revealing tiny pieces of the plot to you one morsel at a time – enough to keep the ball rolling but in small fragments that leave you wanting more. It’s word heavy; I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who wasn’t keen on a hearty novel and wasn’t willing to invest some serious time in it. But dear lord, some of it reads just like poetry and it’s a dreamy kind of prose that wraps around the descriptive language like the chocolate coating on an ice cream.

‘The Passage’ is definitely along the vein of ‘The Walking Dead’ and all those other zombie survival horror stories everyone seems to be fascinated with this year. I’d have to say the most similar novel I’ve come across to this would be Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,’ right down to the vague underpinnings of religious themes. Other similar books include ‘Wool’ by Hugh Howey and ‘World War Z’ written by Max Brooks. They’re almost a study in human nature under extremely testing conditions – what we as a race will and won’t do to live, to love and to keep doing what we want to do all the way into the future. And it’s an intense study of the ferociousness of our fears, the depth of our desires and the simple kindness that we can give when we’re not being selfish idiots. Survival stories (‘The Passage’ definitely qualifies as one of these) have grittiness to them and make up a bunch of rules that are supposedly necessary under the brave new world of the novel, which is an interesting feat of imagination versus reality. Cronin walks along this thin line very well and creates a remarkable post-apocalyptic regime which I can only just imagine using the darkest, dankest corner of my mind’s eye.

Overall it is a sweet piece of literature, catering to an older audience of serious readers with intents of committing to the series. It does have a sequel published, ‘The Twelve,’ which details the evolution of the infected and draws even more characters into the main plot of Amy’s fight to save humanity. Be aware that there are a heap of characters in this series and it is at times difficult to keep track of them all, as the story spreads out into a kind of spider’s web determined to encompass the whole of America and stretch across a vast expanse of time. You have to be a fan of complexity and able to juggle multiple storylines well for the book to have its full effect but keep at it. Trek the journey with all those voices. The ending is nowhere in sight for this series yet, so expect some more books in future. All I can say is, bring it on. But please let me know your thoughts. I love comments, I love other opinions and the purpose of this blog is to get you to try something and see what you think of it. SophA

OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Matthew Reilly’s ‘Jack West Jr. Series – Seven Ancient Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors’

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There is an unmistakable intrigue with all things ancient and largely unexplained; it is a skilled author who can mesh what is known about antiquity across many countries and timespans with their imagination, filling in the gaps. This type of creative history is becoming increasingly popular, what with writers such as Dan Brown and Phillippa Gregory even transforming their version of history into spin-off movies and television series (if you haven’t seen them, they currently include ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Angels and Demons’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, television series ‘The White Queen’). There is a staggering amount of similar bodies of work and Reilly has cleverly constructed a distinct, military and archaeologically-heavy story around a more modern version of Indiana Jones – that being Jack West Jnr or as he is also known, the Huntsman (after the Australian spider). 

“From the pyramids of Egypt to the swamps of Sudan, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the boulevards of Paris: the desperate race begins for a prize without equal.” – Seven Ancient Wonders

Without spoiling the story for you, the series currently encompasses three novels ‘Seven Ancient Wonders’ (also sometimes known as ‘Seven Deadly Wonders’), ‘The Six Sacred Stones’ and ‘The Five Greatest Warriors’. Jack is depicted as a elite Australian ex-special forces officer who has instead devoted his life to the preservation and protection of ancient artefacts, stories and the solving of long-lost riddles in dead languages. His colleague and mentor – Max Epper otherwise aptly known as ‘The Wizard’ – discovers dangers to the planet that only the ancients hold solutions to and the stories are typically a race against vastly superiorly equipped foes with only wits, team spirit and courage to locate and unlock long-forgotten secrets. Literally, that is the beginning of every single one of these books, with the two sequels linked with past books so I wouldn’t recommend skipping in the series. The premise for the entire series lies interestingly in the history of a young girl named Lily whom Jack is charged with protecting due to language abilities she inherited at birth.

 “And so life went on for Lily – at the farm with Jack… until that fine summer’s day when the sky above the farm filled with parachutes.” – The Six Sacred Stones.

What are these books like? Well, if you enjoy stories that cleverly combine fact with fiction into a scarily blurred line than you will love this series. It covers the old favourites such as ancient Egypt and Greece, but delves into the Hanging Gardens, Genghis Khan, Jesus Christ, Stonehenge, ancient China and other, more obscure, historical notables. There is a very strong military bent to all of Reilly’s work but compared to his other series it is lighter and much less of a focus. Indiana Jones-type traps and obstacle courses while solving riddles and symbols is much more in the spotlight with Jack West Jnr. With Reilly there is a very slim romantic subplot but the focus is on the family dynamic and friendship, with the team saving the day as a combined effort. Reilly has a simplistic, forward action-packed style that drives the book at a punishing pace and I did stop several time to take in what had just happened, as the sequences read like a Hollywood movie; they’re huge, bullet-saturated, energetic fights and races and car chases. It’s not subtle and it’s not very in depth but when a gigantic, cataclysmic fight is being conducted on the peak of a historical wonder it’s certainly effective. And enjoyable. 

“He’d uncovered many ancient things in his time: the scrolls from the library of Alexandria, most of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the tomb of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. But this was something else. This was something more.” – The Five Greatest Warriors.

So if you are a fan of the more swashbuckling, history-rich adventure novels these are for you. It does delve a little into war history but only insofar as to provide background on villains and heroes. It is the ancient times, full of riches and monuments and rituals that command the most respect in these books. Very light supernatural-mystical elements are in the story, but for the majority it is believable, if highly unlikely. Think of Indiana Jones on steroids and you have the series. I’d probably encourage those from the young adult upwards to read it, only due to the slightly gruesome nature of some parts of the book but it isn’t a total gore-fest, it just addresses some slightly disturbing methods of warfare. High stakes are involved and where there are high stakes, Reilly delivers intensity. If you’ve read and loved ‘Atlantis’ by David Gibbins or other works by Matthew Reilly or Paul Sussman’s style of writing, I’d have to say that this series incorporates elements of all of these. Bear in mind it is probably not suited to people who enjoy meandering and complex plot lines or excessive character development or a story without details about the tools of warfare.

Let me know what you think, if this was helpful and what you’d recommend in the comments. Have a look at my gaming reviews if that’s also your thing; I’d have to say if you’re a fan of the Uncharted series of games you’ll also enjoy these novels. Follow me on twitter too @sophmidget for updates or to pester me about continuing to update this blog. SophA

BOOKS AND WRITERS AND REVIEWS, OH MY!

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As a reader, a writer and a bibliophile (it’s not as dirty as it sounds, look it up) I detest the ‘review’ of a book or a specific body of works. It makes my skin crawl and I find myself making an involuntary growling sounds, like an angry puppy.

You see, I understand that certain books are not for everyone and some people may not enjoy them. I get it. But the thing to understand is that when you walk into a bookshop, shop online or download an ebook, you are only looking for yourself. It isn’t possible to stand back and objectively critique a novel because you will always be searching for that inexplicable grip that pulls you in.

I detest some novels, I’ll admit that. Fifty Shades of Grey or anything else will never make it on my ‘must read’ list on Goodreads. It ain’t gonna happen. But I can appreciate that there are readers out there who will forth and gasp and thoroughly enjoy the series. It’s just not for me and I respect the people who have different tastes. I’m certainly not about to review the book that you love and bag the hell out of it simply because it’s not to my tastes. There are trends and there are favourites and there are the so-called ‘classics’, but at the end of the day it is up to the reader’s tastes. To this end I find the only helpful reviews (ones that aren’t selling or nonsensically tearing the thing to shreds) are the ones that tell me if I might like this book if I love another similar series.

Therefore, as an insatiable writer and reader, I’m going to try something different with your permission. Every week I will write a summary of a series or a novel that will attempt not to sell it, not to critique the writing or the characters or the plot development, but instead I will tell you what this book is like and who may enjoy it. I will in essence give you the ingredients of the book and you can decide whether you devour it in one gulp or you approach hesitantly, knowing there’s something in there you haven’t tried but are willing to give a go. I’m going to try and jump genres, age groups, fiction and non-fiction as much as possible.

With that said, leave me a comment or send me a message on Twitter if you have suggestions.

Sopha Out.

REVIEW: Year Walk

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For Something a Little Bit Different: The Creepy Beauty of the Swedish Countryside

In days long since past, man tried to catch a glimpse of the future in the strangest of ways. After playing Year Walk, I walked away with two things: I can appreciate how incredible the artistry of ‘Simogo’s’ creative team and I have learned how to have hallucinations without taking acid…

But the game is incredible on so many levels.

The premise of this game is a little different – it is based on an old Swedish folklore that if you wanted your fortune told, instead of visiting the local gypsy, people would lock themselves in dark rooms without eating and walk out in the forest at the stroke of midnight. Whatever you came across whilst tripping was supposably a symbol of your future. Swedish folklore is full of strange, dark creatures and a foreboding mythology. These were apparent symbols of the dangers and fortunes ahead in a person’s life. It’s a very cool concept.

Right from the start, the design of this game is freaking incredible. Every cut scene is old silent-movie styled, and reveals that your character is caught up in a love story, wanting to know his future. How adorable. There is also a free side-app companion to accompany the game, allowing you to read through the Swedish folklore behind every creature or image you encounter. The game actually tells you where to go to achieve the best ending through these symbols.

Once the Year Walk actually begins, things begin to become much more ominous. I’m going to admit, I expected a jump-scare every time I found the next step forward. And that music! Jeepers, creepers – so beautiful and so horrifying at the same time. They have deliberately used the ill-lighting contrast to bright, white snow and the jump between the two states is frightening. Every view can be manipulated, so you will spend many minutes zooming around the three-dimensional landscape, trying to figure out which way to wander in the snow.

Occasionally you’ll find creepy spirits who will lead you to an early death. You know, things happen. Sometimes you’ll run into small, quite tricky puzzles in the darkness. It will really put you on edge. As you collect the keys to your future, the game only becomes more macabre and sinister.

Not to mention, the deaths will give you a heart attack every time. There is some very undignified shrieking involved when playing this game.

The only drawbacks are the IOS controls and the necessity to use the side-app. Sometimes scrolling sideways to view the entire scene is awkward; there are some sections where you are required to hold an item with one finger and move with the other. I spent many minutes feeling stupid, trying to move anywhere, without success. Without the use of the side-app you can wander about without a clue what on earth you are doing, or why you’re trying to do it, when the answer is staring you in the face through a creepy man with a horse-head. Obviously, there are some difficulties if you choose not to read the folklore.

So I reached the point where a goat-faced man stood in front of me, with the galaxy under his coat and a floating, bleeding heart. It was here I realised something. Year Walk is as gorgeous as it is grotesque. I didn’t play to decipher the storyline (which was very adorable and heart-wrenching), I didn’t play to be challenged by puzzles; I was sitting there astounded by how beautiful the gameplay was. I was sitting there waiting to scream and instead was captivated by the artwork. Well, how about that.

My final verdict on Year Walk is that it is worth playing solely for the incredible mixture of terrors and art. I never thought 19th century Sweden could be as intriguing as this game made it to be. Sure, it can be a little awkward to move around at times and yes, it is much more understandable with the companion but I really enjoy anything that can make me stare in wonder and creep back in fear at the same time. It is a glorious concept; one I hope will be expanded upon in the future.

REVIEW: Lego Marvel Superheroes on PS3

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Be the heroes and villains of Marvel!

 

I will state from the outset that I am unabashedly a huge fan of nearly all of the Lego games, mainly because there is something exceedingly satisfying in making one of your favourite characters tear the scenery into absolute shreds and being rewarded in showers of coloured bricks. The Harry Potter Lego games however weren’t nearly as good because you had to use your wand to do everything and I resorted to screaming at Harry, begging him to forget his wizarding ways and just kick the furniture apart with one of his plastic feet. I’m pleased to say that from this perspective Marvel Lego Superheroes fits the bill.

As far as characters go, you can play as all of your standard big-franchise names – what with the Avengers, Thor, Captain America, Ironman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four being in the spotlight of movie madness at the moment. Marvel’s popularity is certainly winning favourites with the cinema-goers and the Lego variation of these characters are simply too adorable for words. You get all of the associated famous villains and heroes for your block-decimating pleasure. There are also some minor Marvel faces that I thoroughly enjoyed, although I still have only a limited knowledge of who they are in the expansive Marvel-verse.

The game itself is bright, colourful, doesn’t take itself too seriously and only requires a low level of skill to get through the main story mode but there’s enough to do wandering around and replaying in free mode that it can be an exceedingly lengthy game to complete to 100%.

Another major plus is that the open world is the entirety of ‘comic book’ New York. I’m not going to lie and try to convince you that the inner nerd which resides in my heart did not skip for glee when I realised I could not only fly to the summit of Stark Tower but also the Empire State building. The mechanics of flying with different characters is extraordinarily good fun. And you can drive any vehicle you encounter along the way (my sister and I had a brief interlude of hijacking cars GTA style and running into other road users until their vehicles simply exploded, giggling like maniacs and driving off to complete every race through the streets we could find). There are random civilians that barrage you with their problems and often that just entails running off into the subway, beating up some foes and rescuing someone’s favourite shovel but the effort is worth the bonuses of accumulating enough gold bricks to unlock other areas and challenges. Deadpool has some fantastic comic-book-styled levels that are scattered all over the city as well, some of which involve fighting other villains and some of which mean setting up a party in Tony Stark’s pad for all the heroes. The means by which you find the entire staggering amount of characters are suitably comic-book and none of the vehicles are particularly difficult to unlock and buy but are fantastic to get around in.

But the game isn’t without issues. Firstly, it is primarily a two-player co-op game and while this is great if you have a friend who is considerate and kind and won’t murder you constantly, it can become irritating; however it is tedious to attempt it all on your own. There are additional problems too – the damn split-screen camera is extremely temperamental and just when you are standing completely still so your mate can set something on fire as the Human Torch it lurches away and you must attempt the section utterly blind. Unlike in the Batman games it is also harder to switch characters, so if you and your friend want to try another character in story mode one person has to drop out, you switch and then drop back in. The sheer amount of possibilities in the game in terms of characters and their abilities has its drawbacks; often the solution to getting into a secret area is absurdly simple, meanwhile you’re there jamming all the buttons on several characters trying to figure out who on earth you’re supposed to use to get past an obstacle. Here’s a hint if you get stuck in this situation – usually the way forward is via a dumbly placed lever. Once again those cameras work against you, hiding the obvious. And don’t get me started on the glitches. They’re primarily in story mode and if your poor character gets squished up against a wall say goodbye to your progress. Do it all over again. Expect to Hulk out multiple times in frustrated fury.

But it’s fun and gimmicky and it’s so Marvel – from the ridiculous puns, hilarious cut-scene interactions to the signature character fighting styles. The story is good and the cut scenes are well-done and the attention to detail is commendable. It’s a children’s game but there’s a little child in all of us, who re-watches all the Marvel films (expect for the original Spider-man movies, I cannot think of these abominations without an instantaneous surge of bile rising to the back of my throat) and digs out all the comics and dreams of being a superhero. Just for a bit. You can fly or hover or drive or ram through things with the Hulk, you can sail through the Bifrost, you can find Stan Lee on every level and that’s the way Marvel should be. Uncomplicated and glorious.

Anyway, that’s off my desk. Not sure if I’ll do these consistently – if you like my stuff send me a message on Twitter or something. Follow if you have even more faith in me. Whack a comment down below if you’re especially kind and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I watch the new Lego movie. It looks amazing.