The Volkswagen XL1 – Introduction to the Future of Motoring

Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and current chairman of Volkswagen Group, seems like a man who likes to get things done. His work includes design work on the Le Mans-winning and record-setting Porsche 917, the iconic Audi Quattro and insisting on the development of the Bugatti Veyron. It’s easy to see, therefore, that he’s been rather ambitious over the years, but not content with developing some of the most iconic racing machines in the history of motorsport, he’s turned his attention the other way – towards building an extraordinarily efficient, yet practical machine for the road.

Enter the Volkswagen XL1. This sleek, futuristic car is the culmination of about ten years of development from Wolfsburg and is the third iteration in Volkswagen’s so-called “1-litre car” project. Like the previous iteration, the L1, the XL1 uses a parallel hybrid system using a 0.8L two-cylinder turbo-diesel engine producing 47 horsepower and an electric engine with 27 horsepower. All of this pushes a sleek, two-seat body weighing 795kg, made from carbon-fibre reinforced polymer.

The effect of all of this is astonishing. Despite being able to hit almost 100mph, and do so efficiently, the car still gets a reported 313mpg on the combined cycle and produces a mere 24g/km of carbon dioxide. This won’t come cheap, though – Top Gear Magazine reports that Volkswagen plan to make no more than about 6,000 XL1s a year, and at a cost of about £30,000. However, with the technology being more promising than most other hybrid systems, and being able to be transferred to other cars in Volkswagen’s range, you’d better believe that I’ll be keeping my eyes on this.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn – A Comprehensive Gaming Review

Camelot Software Planning’s Golden Sun, released in 2001, along with its 2003 sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age, was among the most critically acclaimed games on the Game Boy Advance, and represented one of the best RPG experiences seen on a handheld console. A dedicated group of followers grew up around the series, waiting patiently for a sequel to the first two games. In late 2010, their waiting paid off, with the release of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for the Nintendo DS.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is set thirty years after the Golden Sun event, caused by the relighting of the Elemental Lighthouses which held the secret to Alchemy, a powerful force which held the world of Weyard together. The protagonists of the first two games became world-renowned heroes, known as the Warriors of Vale. Two of the protagonists, Isaac and Garet, live on Mount Aleph, the former home of Sol Sanctum, a holding place for the Elemental Stars which held the trapped forces of Alchemy when the Elemental Lighthouses were extinguished.

Alchemy rules Weyard again, saving the world from imminent destruction, but creating other problems at the same time. Firstly, the revival of Alchemy has forged empires which seek to control the world, and some of which have begun fighting for control of the world. Secondly, the release of power from the Golden Sun event drastically changed the conformation of Weyard, causing entire sections of the world to be completely redefined, along with the formation of Psynergy Vortexes, which suck away alchemical power from the world – and the Adepts which can manipulate Psynergy, the manifestation of this alchemical power.

Isaac and Garet live with their two sons, Matthew and Tyrell, protecting the ruins of the erupted Mount Aleph from the world. The daughter of Ivan, another of the protagonists of the first two games, has joined them. When Tyrell, in a moment of rashness, destroys the Psynergy-driven soarwing which Isaac and Garet use to explore the ruined mountain, Matthew, Tyrell and Karis are told to journey to find a feather from the legendary Mountain Roc in order to repair it. However, their journey soon becomes fraught with trouble, and they end up in a scenario which could decide the fate of Weyard once again.

If the above summation has confused you, don’t despair: While the game’s plot is easier to understand if you have played the first two games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is largely self-contained, and it’s possible to play it without any knowledge of the prequels. That said, you’ll probably enjoy the game quite a bit more with prior knowledge of the series.

Gameplay-wise, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is very similar to its predecessors, with a standard turn-based system differentiated through the use of Djinn, small creatures linked to the elements and granting additional power to characters. As with previous instalments of the series, the Djinn can also be set to enable powerful summon attacks, and different selections of Djinn on different characters can unlock powerful master classes such as Ninja or Samurai. A few minor changes have been made to combat as a whole; all weapons now have special critical hit actions which become enabled as the characters become more experienced with the weapons, and the inclusion of bows into the weapon mix adds a bit more variety to weapon selection. What’s more, a character targeting a creature which has been previously destroyed doesn’t automatically defend, removing an outdated and irritating element of the original games.

As befits the move to the more powerful Nintendo DS platform, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has undergone a substantial improvement in graphics over the Game Boy Advance instalments. Full 3D graphics replace the isometric sprite-based graphics of the original game, but thankfully, the game retains the vibrant, vivid colours of the original games. It makes a good counterpoint to the “real is brown” movement found in too many games today.

Another aesthetic element where Golden Sun: Dark Dawn invokes memories of its antecedents is in the exciting soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba. While the soundtrack isn’t as technically impressive as the ones in the first two games, where amazing things were done with the relatively crude sound systems of the Game Boy Advance, the music in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is just as enchanting. The soaring main theme has been remixed, and the energetic battle themes and atmospheric music in the dungeons, towns and overworld tops off an excellent set of music.

All of these features will come as welcome additions to the game by existing fans of the series. The Psynergy-based puzzle gameplay is also retained, although this is where the game starts to show a little weakness – none of the puzzles is particularly difficult. While this means that there is no tedious analogue to the second game’s Air’s Rock, it’s still a bit disappointing to see the puzzles take such a drastic drop in difficulty, particularly given that Golden Sun demonstrated the use of its equivalent of magic outside of combat, a logical step which surprisingly few JRPGs have taken.

It’s not just the puzzles which have become less difficult – the combat has taken a step down in difficulty as well. There aren’t as many bosses as before, and most of them can be dispatched without much difficulty, making the summon features of the Djinn look quite a bit less important than in previous instalments.

The plot isn’t the most riveting in the genre either. While it will satisfy fans of the series, who will be happy to discover what happened in the years after the Golden Sun event, but the game takes a while to really build up and ends rather abruptly with a pretty obvious sequel hook. The antagonists aren’t properly defined until the end of the game, and even then, a lot of questions are left unanswered by the end of the game. This isn’t through lack of dialogue either, which shows up in pretty hefty quantities throughout Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.

Ultimately, though, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is still a fun game and an enjoyable experience. It may not be the strongest entry in the series, but it still manages to capture a lot of what made the first two games worth playing. It does appear that the game is more targeted towards the fans, who will be more equipped to understand certain elements of the story, but the game is still a serviceable JRPG nevertheless.

Bottom Line: More of a game for the existing fans than any new audience, but still a decent JRPG regardless.

Recommendation: Fans of the series should consider buying Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, while people who haven’t played the previous games might want to wait for the price to drop.

Le Mans – A Cinematic Review

“When you’re racing, it… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after… is just waiting.” – Michael Delaney, Le Mans.

Le Mans is a 1971 racing film, directed by Lee H. Katzin and starring Steve McQueen. Directed as a response to the 1966 film, Grand Prix, which Steve McQueen had hoped to star in, Le Mans is a homage to the legendary French 24-hour endurance race.

The film focuses on a professional American racing driver, Michael Delaney, as he competes in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. Racing in one of the Porsche 917s entered by Gulf Oil and John Wyer Automotive Engineering, Delaney returns to the race after a devastating accident the previous year, in which a competing driver was killed. This time, though, Delaney is in contention for a victory, but the race is long and arduous, taking its toll on cars and drivers, and he must compete with the drivers of the Ferrari 512s, including a German rival, Erich Stahler.

The plot, frankly, never gets very deep in this film. The story is simplistic, merely forming a backbone for the racing action. To truly understand the film, one must know the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the history of Ferrari and Porsche. One must know about the domination of Ferrari during the early 1960s, cut short by a vengeful Henry Ford; the underdog status of Porsche, class winners competing for an outright win; the close finish in the 1969 race, where Porsche was denied a victory 120 metres from the line at the hands of an outdated and overweight car driven by a remarkable rookie and the ingenious plan by Ferdinand Piech to take advantage of a loophole in the FIA rules, leading to the barely-concealed prototype that was the Porsche 917.

There isn’t much characterisation either, and apart from a few brief looks at the rivalry between Delaney and Stahler, the growing relationship between Lisa Belgetti, wife of the driver killed in Delaney’s accident in the 1969 race, and several of the drivers in the race, and a subplot involving a driver intending to retire after the race, most of the characters remain one-dimensional and unexplored.

However, the film compensates for these missing elements with some of the most intense and realistic racing action ever seen in the world of cinema. Le Mans is a film made long before the introduction of CGI, and the scale of the film rules out an over-reliance on stunt doubles. Instead, extreme steps were taken to ensure realistic, believable racing action – some of the racing footage is filmed from the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. Steve McQueen, owner of the production company, went as far as to enter his own personal Porsche 908 sports prototype into the race itself for use as a camera car, and would have entered the race in his own right had his insurers agreed.

Internet cookies go to anyone who can spot the camera car in this shot.

Even the original footage was filmed with the drivers going flat-out. As a result, the racing action looks completely real throughout the entire film. The cars slide around the corners, kept in check with opposite-lock, and scream down the straights, eventually reaching in excess of 230mph on the terrifying Mulsanne Straight. Just as importantly, the cars sound completely real throughout the entire film as well, with the high-pitched screams of the flat-12 Porsche and V12 Ferrari engines, along with the raspy notes of the back-runners in their flat-6 Porsche 911s.

The attention to detail in this film is mind-blowing. Along with the actual footage of the cars captured from the racing camera car and the sides of the tracks, the rest of the racing action shows a true knowledge of racing from the production team. Drafting manoeuvres can be seen as the leading Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s leapfrog each other, the “traffic” from the drivers in the lower classes is accurately depicted, and both of these become plot points at various points in the race. Flashing lights from the overtakers can be seen several times, and the night and rainy racing are dealt with in a consummate and skilful fashion.

The low visibility and slippery track make racing in a wet twilight an unenviable prospect.

The pit action doesn’t suffer either, with anti-static clips connected to the chassis during refuelling, drivers leaving their cars as mandated by ACO rules, and an accurate depiction of the uncomfortable and dangerous conditions which the mechanics found themselves in. Some of the attention to detail is so subtle that one won’t often notice it until a large contrast is made, including cars which acquire dirt throughout the running of the race.

With this attention to detail to the racing, one may logically assume that the rest of the film suffers as a result. However, despite the minimalistic plot, Katzin and McQueen manage to show not only the race on the circuit, but also the people attending the race. There are various fantastic shots of people sitting by the track, attending the carnival outside the circuit, and even a homage to the original Le Mans start with a race between toy pedal cars while the sports car race goes on alongside them.

Considering all of this detail, it seems strange that the plot is so simplistic, but while this will alienate the general viewer, the minimalistic approach will certainly satisfy racing enthusiasts. At its heart, this film is very much a niche film, eschewing many Hollywood conventions to bring the most accurate depiction of racing at the time to the screen. Even the mandatory Hollywood romance is dealt with in a subtle and slowly-paced way.

Nowhere is this minimalism more apparent than in the dialogue. Indeed, the character with the most lines is the track commentator, and most of the main characters have very few lines, including Michael Delaney. Even then, most of the lines said by the main characters are focused on the race itself, and more is said through body language than dialogue, but in among all of this, Delaney expresses succinctly the reasons why the drivers risk their lives in such powerful cars, making the viewer very aware that some of the world’s most daring deeds have been performed by men with flawed personalities.

While most of the soundtrack is provided by the roars and screams of the cars, some of the scenes are backed by a great ensemble of music by Michel Legrand, which helps establish the mood without becoming overbearing. The sound elements of a film in this fashion are as important as the visual elements, and the engines certainly suffice in providing their own sonic impact.

Two Porsche 917s on the exit of Tertre Rouge, entering the legendary Mulsanne Straight.

Le Mans is certainly flawed in various respects, including the simplistic plot and the one-dimensional characters. However, at the same time, it is a marvellous film, showing attention to the smallest details in a way that rivals the films of Stanley Kubrick. By all means, it is a niche film, and won’t be enjoyed by the general audience, but for racing enthusiasts, it’s unmissable.

Bottom Line: Le Mans is a racing film for racing enthusiasts. The uncompromised view of some of the most amazing cars ever made will satisfy any petrolhead, but the simplistic plot and lack of dialogue will alienate most viewers.

Recommendation: A must-see for racing enthusiasts, but give it a miss if you’re not a fan of the automobile. A great present for the budding petrolhead.