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X-fire – direct hit or dud bullet...

There have been attempts in the past to make sci-fi and fantasy action game shows for TV, designed to appeal to a youth audience, who have supposedly been spawned on a diet of Star Trek, Military computer games (From C&C to dear o' Half-Life) and Lord of the Rings.

Generally, they fall flat on their faces. This appears to be due to a fallacy instilled in TV Production college, that wacking a baco-foil suit on an actor and giving him a resprayed watergun from Woollies, will always 'go down well with the kids'. This is usually accompanied with an ingrained superiority attitude, that suggests that 'it's all abit silly really don't you think' and a budget that even Doctor Who would have trouble making a Dalek with. This mix usually produces a programme that only connects with its viewers, when they throw their remote control at the TV in disgust.

I could name a few, but I'm sure there are a clutch of die-hard fans out there...oh what the hell - Games Master is a fine example of what can go wrong with good intentions and an ignorance of the subject matter. The show, in my opinion, never managed to invent an appealing way to interact with its viewers. The mini-tournaments lacked any spectator excitement, even when they had some of the best players and top games to showcase. I felt so sorry for Patrick Moore, to the extent that I used to stay up late and watch 'The Sky at Night' in the hope that my contribution to higher ratings would get him an obviously much needed raise!
Another 'also ran' has to be Fort Buyard, the show - produced by Channel Five - on the back of the outstanding success and cult status of Channel Four's Crystal Maze. The reality had no chance of living up to the hype smeared all over it. In fact, if they'd simply smeared whipped cream all over Melissa Messenger's body, rather than let her speak, its ratings would have been a hell of a lot higher! Instead of producing a golden goose the show was a total turkey, as it simply ripped off the best attributes of Crystal Maze, without adding anything new to the format.
After the first few episodes, the only redeeming factor was the possibility that they might one day let the tigers out for real during the finale. The fact that they didn't seemed an utter waste of precious production budget and an opportunity sadly missed to judge the contestant's true 'teambuilding' skills (Okay, my moral judgment may be slightly impaired from watching 'The Running Man' too many times in this case). And what about 'Dirty Den'?. How the mighty have fallen ungracefully from favour and they never let you get drunk on set, the bastards! But I have severely digressed.

So how does Channel 4's X-Fire fair - pronounced crossfire btw - as a game show based on missions undertaken by a team of paintballers? Surprisingly well. Large wodges of cash have been thrown at this venture, yielding snazzy outfits for players and henchmen alike, complimented by atmospheric mission locations snatched straight out of a Counter Strike map pack.

The six-man teams are given a briefing by the game show host (sporting the now obligatory black leather longcoat), where missions are introduced accompanied by slick 3D visuals and a series of graphical menus, indicating credits spent by the team on extra ammunition and kit, such as smoke grenades and shields. In fact, the whole style of the programme is like that of a computer game and in my opinion it actually works very well. Its obviously been well researched, and by people who have splashed copious amounts of paint around, and played a fair few computer games in their spare time.

The story line, however, is pretty uninspiring - Oh dear, aliens have landed (again), be a good chap and trundle off and get some nice snapshots of the alien spacecraft won't you? Well done! Nice pictures, but could you just pick up some evidence of alien life from a top security laboratory for me, its only defended by a team of crack special forces, but I'm sure you'll be alright...well some of you anyway.
As you can tell, it's not an X-files episode, by any means (unless you're watching a very old repeat), but the simple narrative, is designed, so as not to detract from the action, which has also been simplified.
A shot to the head or midriff means you are dead, which is pretty sensible since most normal folk can't continue, when their heads have been blown off. Hits to the arm or leg though can be ignored. They could have included penalties for non-fatal hits, but without a game engine enforcing the physics involved, it just simply wouldn't work. No one was likely to endure footage of players making ham-fisted attempts to be wounded, hopping around a compound like demented rabbits. When you allow this kind of stupidity, you're only degrees away from scenes where grown adults argue about being dead or not, but thankfully, the makers thought better of it.
The simplicity of the combat rules allows for a fast-paced and most importantly entertaining game, emphasising accuracy and good team tactics.

The programme may have been fortunate in picking a reasonable team to kick off the series, but I don't think they could have wished for a better group of guys for providing intelligent and sometimes quite witty in-mission updates. They even managed to play dead pretty admirably.
The missions are all timed, generating some excellent close calls, including a situation where the last man alive performed a passable Clint Eastwood impersonation - blasting his way to freedom, ending with a head first dive into the getaway van, with only seconds left on the clock (twisting his ankle in the process, which just goes to show that pretending to be Rambo, isn't as easy as it looks). He tried this later on in the final laboratory mission and ended up with his paint splattered body being straddled by three female members of the special forces team, which, when you think about it isn't actually a bad way to go?

The NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in the game, who are mainly members of the special forces, are very stereotypical and have acting skills on a par with the cut scenes in games like Red Alert, but thankfully better than the ham-acting that went on in Gladiator. Even though the black-clad grunts don't appear to speak, they'll not forced to be stupid - using quick legwork to generate tricky crossfire situations, as well as performing convincing mid-combat backward rolls and providing dangerous covering fire for the main henchmen.

Overall, the programme is well worth getting up for and as it's shown at midday on Saturday, it shouldn't be a wrench for even the nightcrawlers amongst you.
The show also has some nice little touches. Some are almost odes to popular games, such as the cry of "emulsified", with every successful kill. It is very reminiscent of the Quake arena gods yelling "Excellent" encouragingly, when a skilful player nails his opponent with a masterful rail shot. You could even go back further and compare it to the cry of "Fatality" in the arcade smash hit, Mortal Kombat.
I repeat though, the urge to emulate computer games, seems to have crept into the way the special forces team walk and talk, making them far from animated, but hopefully, if you're still half asleep you won't notice.

So what do you think of X-fire, or any other action game shows, past or present? Can 'cheesy' acting be so bad that it's just too damn cool? Now's your chance to name, shame or acclaim them right here.

Goto General Chat in the forums and get it off your chest!


REVISED Since writing this review of the first episode, Channel 4 has moved the show to Tuesday night at 6pm, which I think is a vindication of what the producers were trying to do – make good entertainment from so called ‘geeky’ hobbies. Roll on the day someone makes a successful TV show based on games like Quake 3 Arena. Personally, I think the new version of Speedball, might just be the game that cracks open the mainstream audience to multiplayer gaming. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until late 2002 to find out.