Sunday 30 August 2015

Mini-Reviews #3 - Summer Happened

Right, summer is almost over, and it feels like it’s about time I bashed out some new unfettered opinions on stuff. Perhaps it will even help pass the time before Metal Gear Solid 5 comes out. One can only hope…

Terminator Genisys

Crikey, where do I even start with this one? It’s no secret that this latest attempt to resuscitate an iconic franchise didn’t exactly turn out that great, so the question remains, is it still worth watching? Well, yes, kind of, but please deposit your brain by the door. This, after all, is a film that insists, without question, that the only way to stop a nuclear apocalypse is to time-travel to merely hours before it’s due to happen, despite the fact that you could theoretically stop it years in advance. This is a film that thinks that the Terminator attempting to smile - a scene from Terminator 2 that was deleted to make room for better scenes, deserves screen-time as running gag. This is a film that spoilt its only legitimate twist in its own bloody trailers - and - if you successfully managed to avoid those - the posters too.

It can be fun though, a lot more fun than the tiring ad-nauseam of Terminator 3 and the bleak, bland, boringness of Salvation. Watching an old Arnold fight his younger-self, realised in impressive CG, it hit me, this is nothing but a big-budget fan-film, and shouldn’t be held in any higher regard. In that respect, it has its moments. But as an intelligent sci-fi flick to rival the original films? Don’t even go there. 

Bonus thought:  Paps! I had no idea Emilia Clarke could be so annoying.


No, I’m not just reviewing this to help justify the ‘mini’ in this blog title.

Okay, so I’m going through a bit of a superhero fatigue phase at the moment. I haven’t even watched Age of Ultron yet, so it will probably strike you as odd that I went to see Ant-Man this summer. Well, put this one down to morbid curiosity I guess. I’m a giant Edgar Wright fan, so the fact that he had such a heavy involvement in the early days of this counts as a definite plus for me. Of course I’m disappointed that he didn’t direct it, but I’m sure he had his reasons. Having seen the finished film, I can think of plenty.

Ant-Man’s not bad - it is what it is. I appreciate the simplistic approach and the fact that it accepts the ridiculousness of its source material so unabashedly… After all, Ant-Man is about a man who shrinks in size and controls ants using mind-powers. It’s just… despite everything, I found the film very forgettable. It’s quite hard to put a finger on what went wrong - it’s like the whole film has been muted with a layer of mediocrity. A couple of ‘tip’ sequences in which director Peyton Reed mimics the style of Wright just feel off because they lack the kineticism we’re used to seeing in the likes of Shaun of the Dead. The effects look good, but there’s never enough weight to the action, leaving the audience is in a state of permanent detachment. Still, the final fight is quite something, hinting at the ludicrous potential that could have been unlocked since it establishes that literally anything can be shrinked or grown at ease. Perhaps it’s good that they didn’t go crazier, but a little more insanity might have made the film stand out a bit more. As it stands, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the film - if you’re not suffering from superhero fatigue you’ll probably enjoy it quite a bit. 

Bonus thought:  A cameo from Marvel’s ‘bottom of the barrel’ Avenger feels like the most shoehorned-in bit of ‘universe building’ nonsense that’s ever come out of one of these films.

True Detective Season 2

The biggest problem with True Detective Season 2 is the fact that it’s called True Detective. The first question anyone asks will inevitably be, ‘is it as good as the first season?’ which is an unfair comparison for so many reasons. It’s an entirely different story, different cast, different location, and the circumstances surrounding its release are totally different. Season 1 came out with virtually no fanfare, and became a big hit. For Season 2 we’re all expecting something great from the get-go. I guess it makes sense to make it a ’sequel’ for marketing purposes, but the point I’m getting at here is that for all intents and purposes, they shot themselves in the foot with this one, and this should be treated as a separate show.

Christ, that was rambling. Maybe I should talk about whether it was as good as the first season…

Well, it’s certainly a more laborious watch, if that makes any sense at all. The meandering plot is dark, grisly, and kinda all-over-the-place. Ask me to describe it, I’m tempted to just shrug and blow bubbles, such is the convolution here. Watch it for the characters, I’d say, and the general atmosphere. It gets under your skin in a mildly hypnotic way, even if long stretches of episodes are padded out with meaningless pretentious dialogue. Performances are good for the most part, especially Colin Farrell, who I don’t think has ever been on such fine form. There are some great action and set-pieces sequences peppered throughout, especially towards the end, though there’s nothing as insanely well crafted as McConaughey’s one-shot drug-fuelled gang infiltration from the first season. 

Bonus thought: Not sure Vince Vaughn convinces as a honcho tough-guy gangster type. Oh, maybe that was the point.

Fear the Walking Dead: Pilot Episode

As if superhero fatigue wasn’t enough, I’m gonna go ahead and add zombie fatigue to my list of impairments. Specifically Walking Dead fatigue. Because my god, is there a lot of The Walking Dead around at the moment. I could ramble for ages about some of my problems with the main show, but let’s not do this now. Let’s talk a bit about the new spin-off prequel that debuted last week.

I was cautiously optimistic about Fear the Walking Dead, as I figured it would be a fresh new perspective for the franchise. Away from the repetitive trudging through forests, sitting contemplatively, more trudging, more sitting contemplating… the crickets, oh god the crickets never stop!! But I digress. Fear the Walking Dead’s setting is boring. The pre-apocalypse world is boring. The action is boring. Sorry if this sounds pre-emptive and immature, but it’s simply my knee-jerk reaction to many of the generic decisions that were taken with this pilot episode.

They’re generic because this story has been done to (pardon the pun) death. Of course there’s the drugged up protagonist who makes first contact with the undead and doesn’t know if what he’s seen was real. Of course there’s a character who’s been reading up about mysterious outbreaks and is met with skepticism by others. Of course there’s the viral video of the one zombie being gunned down by police, long before anyone suspects something is up. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I’d like to be surprised once in a while, guys. In spite of these things, and the mostly sub-par acting, I started to warm to the show towards the end. I found Frank Dillane’s Nick character to at least be engaging, as he wanders about in a state of deluded panic, seemingly channeling a young Johnny Depp. Maybe it’s his face. Anyone want to reboot Edward Scissorhands? I lost track again. Where was I? Oh yeah, talking about a show I don’t care about. Well, whatever. I’ll see how this pans out over the next few weeks. 

Bonus thought: Opening with a guy stumbling around would be nice zombie foreshadowing, but Shaun of the Dead did it already. Yes, I’m namedropping that again.

Rare Replay

Now to balance out the negativity from above with some good old-fashioned gushing. Yes, I've talked about Rare Replay already, but now that I’ve been sitting with a controller glued to my hands for the past month, I can confirm that everything went well with this one. Great value, great presentation and a great set of games to boot. Let’s dig deeper…

Quick reality check. The games are dated, inevitably, and there’s nothing we can do about that. The ZX Spectrum games are ancient and cryptic to the point of incomprehension. The Snapshots feature is alright, but pales in accessibility to NES Remix. Jet Force Gemini’s controls are weird - I personally have no problem with that, but I can see why people can’t get past it. And yes, Conker’s Bad Fur Day doesn’t hold up well against the more recent Xbox version, which unfortunately wasn’t included here. Neither is GoldenEye, of course, but we can’t help that. I definitely suggest digging out your old N64’s for it though - split-screen multiplayer is still a blast.

I like to think of Rare as being the Aardman equivalent in the gaming world. I grew up with their games, I follow what all their devs and ex-devs are up to on Twitter, and I know far too many facts about the history of the company. So the Rare Revealed video segments are great extra material for me - interesting too, talking candidly about Nintendo on a first-party Xbox product (despite the whitewashing of all Nintendo logos and more in the games themselves). These behind the scenes videos did leave me wanting more though - thankfully they’re planning to continue the series on YouTube.

What’s important to me is that this marks the resurgence of Rare in the gaming industry as a force to be reckoned with. I don’t normally care about charts and stuff, but there’s something satisfying about the fact that Rare Replay is the company’s first game to hit number 1 since the Banjo days. I hope it encourages Microsoft to give Rare a more hands-off approach, to nurture its IPs better (as they’ve already started doing with the likes of Killer Instinct and Battletoads) and to let them to preserve their iconic British charm - its quite telling that there’s no mention of Kinect Sports in this whole collection. 

The Banjo games are brilliant. Perfect Dark is one of my favourites of all time. If you want to start somewhere, I actually recommend the obscure haunted house brawler, Grabbed by the Ghoulies. It was unfairly treated at the time, and it’s brilliant, easy to play but with a lot of challenge to boot - it’s a cacophony of silly noises and hilarious designs and stands as a brilliant summation of the company’s humour and visual appeal overall. Diddly-doo!

Bonus thought: I’d never played Viva PiƱata before but I’m thoroughly hooked now. Though I wish the Rare revealed video explained who the hell thought using Comic Sans as a font would be a good idea.

Well, that was quite a bumper set of reviews. Though I’m looking at the clock, and Metal Gear Solid 5 still isn’t out yet. Bugger. 

Sunday 28 June 2015

Belated thoughts on E3 2015

Alright, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Turns out, if anything was gonna convince me to write a new blog, a major gaming event littered with big budget bombshells will. So, without further adieu, here are my belated thoughts on some of the big announcements from E3 2015:

Star Wars Battlefront
(Nov 2015 - PS4, Xbox One & PC)

It’s been years since we've had a proper Star Wars game. No, I don’t count Kinect Star Wars. I’m not sure if I even count The Force Unleashed. No, for me, I’ve always found the idea of piloting X-Wings and AT-STs far more exciting than running around as an overpowered Jedi. So here’s Dice’s big new Battlefront, and it looks almost too good to be true. Which may well be because all we’ve seen is an incredibly precisely choreographed slice of gameplay, with no context as to how well things will work out on launch day. Nevertheless, it’s Star Wars. It’s big and loud and pretty and it couldn’t be timed any better. It’s no secret that this isn’t the first time a third Battlefront game has been in the works, as the story of LucasArts’ downfall and Free Radical’s failed attempt is pretty well known by this point. While that previous concept was ultimately more ambitious, featuring massive seamless land to space battles, I’m not mourning that loss any more. This new game doesn't even feature space battles, but... man... I want it...

Pros: Extremely authentic and polished, no Star Wars game has ever been this spectacular.

Cons: Question marks around online performance and DLC / monetisation plans

The Last Guardian
(2016, PS4)

Yep, The Last Guardian’s back after being off the radar for a good 5, 6 years. I’m not really surprised that the game is still happening - I know it was rumoured to have been cancelled many times previously. I’m more surprised at just how similar it looks now to it’s original unveiling. That’s not a criticism by the way, it looked amazing back then… it must be a testament to that original design that after all the stops and starts that occurred over this game’s torturous development, the design of the creature and surrounding presentation was strong enough to survive it all. It’s clear that this game is essentially Ico again but with a much larger companion - a rather literal blend of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus that certainly shows Ueda’s intentions at making this a spiritual successor. And when those two games are considered among the greatest of all time, I think it’s safe to say we should be very excited indeed.

Pros: Great surprise to have this back right when people were writing it off. Looks beautiful. I want to pet the giant bird dog thing. 

Cons: Hopefully more than just heartstring bait. Does anyone remember how annoying Ico’s gameplay actually was?

Doom (Remake)
(Spring 2016 - PS4, Xbox One & PC)

Doom is back, once again proving that nobody does FPS gibs like id Software. Anything new from the studio that gave us the Wolfenstein - Doom - Quake lineage back in the 90s is instantly worth note. This time, they seem to have taken a cue from the popular fan mod Brutal Doom, that ups the gore to absurdity levels. The controversy surrounding the ultra-violence showcased in the demo is a bit amusing to me. Complaining that a Doom game is too violent is like complaining that a racing game contains too many roads. What exactly were you expecting? My main point of concern isn’t the level of violence, but the fact that so much of it seems to be shoved in your face, bringing the gunplay to a standstill while you wait for a preset animation to finish. Quick time events are not something I want in a Doom game. It’s a shame, and hopefully most of it’s completely optional, because in all other respects the pacing looks fantastic. While it’s a bit of a cliche that every single shooter these days features fast sprinting and double jumps, I love that circle strafing and speedy movement is back in the game; it’s absence from Doom 3 is what made the game feel… well, not like Doom. Add to that the extremely robust looking level editor tool that’s bundled with every version of the game, and I think id are on their way to a winner.

Pros: BFGs, super shotguns, fire imps, revenants, circle strafing, that E1M1 music…

Cons: Too start - stop with all the execution moves. 

Fallout 4
(Nov 2015 - PS4, Xbox One & PC)

I haven’t played a Fallout game before, which I guess makes me a nutter. But what I’ve seen of Fallout 4 looks really pretty spectacular indeed. Director Todd Howard’s demonstration of the game was quite something - my brother already described him as the ‘Steve Jobs of game presenters,’ (but that’s not exactly much of a compliment considering the competition). He even managed to make a ludicrously exuberant limited edition sound worthwhile. Anyway, Bethesda look to have put together something that’s a real generational leap over the likes of Skyrim, with loads of variety and depth (even managing to riff on Minecraft and the like). There may be no Liam Neeson on voicing duties, but the new dialogue branching sounds interesting, and the dog interaction sounds great too. Luckily, it sounds like the dog will be indestructible, so there’s no need to keep the tissues on standby in anticipation for that heartbreaking scene we all envisage when hearing the word ‘dog’ mentioned in the same sentence as a violent video game. So yeah, I may well break my Fallout virginity upon the game’s release this Winter. Oh wait, I already have, I’ve been playing mobile spin-off Fallout Shelter the past couple weeks. I don’t even like mobile games, what’s going on?

Pros: An open world game that actually stands out from the crowd. The dog can’t die.

Cons: I don’t know if I like Fallout games yet.

Rare Replay
(August 2015 - Xbox One)

I thought it would be nice if Microsoft acknowledged British studio Rare’s 30th anniversary with some kind of compilation, but I wasn’t expecting anything near this generous. Now excuse me for sounding a little bit overly excited here, but this is literally my entire childhood being pressed into a single disc. 30 games, consisting of almost all of the company’s hits (though no licensed games, GoldenEye is out) all in one place for an absurdly cheap price. Sure, the games themselves are likely to be rather bare-bones emulations, but it’s the thought that counts. The overarching interface is well presented, at least from what I’ve seen of the preview videos, and with some cool extra features like a snapshot mode that lets you chain together snippets of older games, NES Remix style. So consider me impressed. And I never, ever expected games as obscure as Blast Corps or Snake Rattle ’n Roll to get a rerelease. Definitely a labour of love for (what was formally) my favourite game developer of all, and as if that wasn’t enough…

Pros: Absurd value for money, nice theatre based presentation. They’re re-releasing Jet Force Gemini.

Cons: Well, obviously there’s nothing new here. Nitpickers will complain that the games aren’t fully remastered. Conker Live & Reloaded didn’t make the cut.

Sea of Thieves
(2016 - Xbox One & PC)

…Is it fair to say Rare is officially back now? Between this, Rare Replay and the recent Kickstarter smash hit for Banjo successor Yooka-Laylee, the stench of years of disappointing losses and mediocre Kinect games is starting to be washed away. Plus, it’s pirate themed, which is extremely fitting for a company that for so many years has insisted on putting pirates in games but never giving them a game for themselves. It’s a new IP, which is a great move, even if it’s effectively a reimagining of the old Project Dream concept. There’s not that much to go on so far, but the visuals are looking lovely, and if this can build on some of the big open world pirate game concepts that Assassin’s Creed IV toyed around with, there’s a lot of good that could come out of this.

Pros: There may not be much of the old staff around, but that’s definitely a Robin Beanland score I hear, and long-time designer Gregg Mayles is on board, judging by the fake usernames floating about in the trailer. Pirates!

Cons: It’s clearly got it’s ambitions in the increasingly worrisome ‘always-online’ arena. Let’s hope they don’t mess it up.

Star Fox Zero
(Q4 2015 - Wii U)

Nintendo’s online E3 event was surreal and shambolic, being mostly comprised of (admittedly entertaining) puppet antics, shockingly light on new game announcements other than ones that angered the entire core fanbase of the company. The one thing that stuck out for me was the game Nintendo decided to focus the most on, their new Wii U Star Fox. My first thought upon watching gameplay for Star Fox Zero was something along the lines of ‘that is definitely Star Fox.’ My next thought was ‘this is almost too Star Fox.’ Artistically and conceptually, Nintendo have adopted an incredibly old-school, almost backwards approach with bright, basic visuals, cheesy dialogue and a general quirky tone that’s right in line with the last ‘true’ game in the series, Star Fox 64. You know, 18 years ago. I loved that game. I don’t know what people without a nostalgia hat are going to make out of this, you know, if they had to choose between this and Star Wars Battlefront.

Pros: First authentic Star Fox game in decades. Platinum Games co-developing.

Cons: Almost too retro? Wii U control gimmicks might end up being a hindrance.

Other thoughts:

Super Mario Maker  - Now that’s a game creation tool I can really get behind…

Metal Gear Solid V  - It’s coming so soon that I don’t want to spoil it for myself, so no comment.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3  - Almost looks like a superhero action game now. Running out of ideas?

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate   - Another one. This time with Cockneys. Think I’ll pass.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole   - Brilliant title. That’s all I wanted to say.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End   - Flawless cinematic action. Except for the fact that it breaks every time they show it.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake  - Well that’ll shut the fanboys up at last.

Shenmue 3  - Ditto. But doing it via Kickstarter is a bit disingenuous, surely?

No Man’s Sky  - Is this ever going to come out?

Horizon: Zero Dawn  - Female Turok versus robot dinosaurs, or something.

Cuphead:  Oh my god, it’s beautiful.

Dreams - Okay. what is it again?

Halo 5: Guardians  - Pew pew pew. Locke is the most generic character of all time.

Destiny: The Taken King  - They won’t be ‘taken’ my money this time. Hur hur hur… Wait, are those new subclasses? Shhhiii…

Gears 4:  Uh… Too many games with guns. It’s melting my brain.

Rise of the Tomb Raider:   Nope, there’s no way she survived that.

Microsoft’s Hololens:  Waiting to see more of it. If I was into Minecraft, I’d have crapped my pants.

Final thoughts? All this virtual reality tech is certainly very intriguing, but I'm not sure this guy's really sold me on the new Oculus controllers.

That's all guys!