Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Travissty of COGs and Mandos (Author Review)



I'm putting this up one day ahead of the usual Thursday slot due to problems with a work schedule, but I hope the length and detail of this piece makes up for this slight change.


This is a slight departure from the usual viws as it takes a look at the problems with one author, Karen Traviss, mostly focusing upon her novels within the Star Wars franchise rather than a single item.
Some readers might not like what I am about to say and I am going to be critical of the author's actions as much as her writings. Mostly because her behaviour and personality seems to have led to the decline in quality of her work.


But before I begin there are a number of thing which I wish to state.


I do regard Traviss as being a somewhat competent writer.
The style in which she describes scenes both in and out of combat is highly professional and detailed. What's more is that while there are a lot of elements within her books which I hate, there were more than a few ideas which I took an immense liking to. One such example being the ARC Null unit.


If she had kept out of Star Wars and her Republic Commando series had been written as an entirely independent universe, the chances are that I would be a fan of it.
Her main problem is that she's a terrible writer when it comes to universes already heavily expanded upon and seems to have incredible difficulty characterising individuals written by other authors.
What Traviss needed was to move onto a franchise with little in the way of novella already having been written about it. She's now doing this with the Gears of War series and managed to achieve the position of head writer for the final game, so it appears she is not as incompetent as it would seem from her Star Wars tales.


Secondly I want to point out that I'm a long time fan of the clone troopers and Mandalorians. Characters like Alpha-17, Jango Fett and Canderous Ordo are some of my favourites amidst this universe. I also enjoyed the grey morality which was occasionally displayed with their civilisation and while I thought they made better villains it was good to see elements of how they developed from the Crusaders into the Defenders.
I'll also give Traviss credit for trying to create a Mando'a language through the rhythmic chanting present within the opening screen of Republic Commando. The only complaint of which is how grammar was simply tossed out the window making it somewhat painful to read/use.


Now, with that out of the way I'm afraid I'm going to have to start criticising her works.


The first and foremost of these is her apparent obsessions over Mandalorians. Or outside of Star Wars a number of very similar proud warrior cultures she portrays as being utterly superior to all other races. Similarly she's intent upon bashing a franchise's current heroic faction and demonizing them to make her own group look better.
This is just as visible within Gears of War as Star Wars with her books containing COG operated mass gang raping facilities with some contrived reason for them wanting a steady supply of soldiers to be sent into warzones.
Ignoring the massive logic problems with these facilities having only been in operation for a few years, how long it takes a child to grow, the obvious and easier alternatives to this etc. I just want to point out that she's trying to demonize an organisation of soldiers already being forced to commit atrocities in the name for survival by turning them all into operatives within a group which utilises rape activities.
Additionally, the weapons developers which humanity needs? She repeatedly tries to hammer in the idea that all of them are war criminals, no matter their intentions or for what reason they're creating them.


Traviss also introduced us to the Pesang warriors. These are presented as being hyper-competent, misunderstood and absolutely perfect. They are shown as presented to be almost exactly like her version of the Mandalorians within her Star Wars books and just happen to be fighting for humanity and frequently outdoing the COG units at every turn.
 The exact same thing is present within Traviss' portrayals of Jedi and Mandalorians within her Star Wars novels. Whenever a Jedi appears she often does everything within her power to show them to be the worst kind of irredeemable scum possible. Ignoring almost all good they can do and making them incredibly decadent, weak and overconfident. This is done to the point in which a Jedi character within Hard Contact is taught how to properly melee fight by a Clone Commando.
She also showed them to be incredibly hateful even to members of their own kind, something I'll get into later on, and treat those who lack 'sufficient Force power' as being inferior. In Traviss' mind any Mandolorian would beat the living crap out of any Jedi no matter the skill or stature of the Force user.

They're constantly used as an excuse to either show how badass her Mandalorians are: Convert to being a Mandolorian; or sit quietly in the corner and listen to very long speeches by Mandalorians about why they suck so badly. Always being highly impressed by them in the process. In fact, Traviss goes so far as to directly portray the Jedi as being Nazis while understanding nothing more than the bare basics of their society, comparing their raising Force sensitive from child birth to relentless desire for a genetically pure race.
In spite of the fact that their number consist of hundreds of species rather than a single race.
In spite of the fact that this is impossible as the Jedi of this time were bound to oaths not to enter any romantic or intimate relationships with others.
In spite of the fact they dislike the use of cloning and genetic modification.


Oh and the Force? That power which binds all life together? That ability which allows those strong in it to use telekinesis and telepathy? That power which shaves reaction times, allows certain users to move in bullet time, pinpoint accuracy, precognition, strength enhancement? That helps to better oxygenate the blood and even heal wounds in a matter of seconds?
In her books it does nothing for them or is never used in an intelligent manner in the slightest. In spite of the films, novels, comics, cartoons and short stories all contradicting this portrayal of them.


Keep this portrayal in mind while I define the Mandalorians and Clone Troopers as she shows them in her novels.


The Clone Troopers of her stories utterly contradict those shown in every other book in the Star Wars EU. Traviss ignores all that mental conditioning, training, sleep taught tactics, discipline and everything else which they have spent the last decade being given to make them more sympathetic and misunderstood.
So, she shows them mostly to be child soldiers in grown men's bodies who've been handed small notes upon which way to hold a gun and sent out to be used as cannon fodder. The only exception to this seems to be the Commandos the novels focus upon so they can be shown to be superior to Force users. The Jedi (who again in everything else) were shown to be sympathetic towards the clones and hated having to use them as soldiers, are presented as bloodthirsty slave drivers caring nothing for the troops under their command.


I should point out here that Traviss ended up contradicting herself badly with this statement and even with the average clones she showed hints of her undying love to how 'awesome' they are in terms of their kill counts. The average Clone Trooper was noted to make two hundred kills before being brought down. This is a ridiculous amount even by action film standards, and to prove my point here are some statistics for comparison:
The Bride in Kill Bill (Vol. 1) – 76 on screen kills
John Preston in Equilibrium – 118 on screen kills
When an average unnamed faceless grunt is capable of outdoing John Matrix then the author has clearly either gone too far or is trying to parody herself.

I'm not going to go and bash the characters of her stories, as I enjoyed some of their portrayals. While there were a number of characters I disliked it would take me too long to give a proper in-depth analysis of the aspects I was at odds with, so I'm going to ignore them for the time being.
However, that's not going to stop me from bashing the Mandalorians as shown in the series.


Now, let me give people here a quick history lesson on how the Mandos have been portrayed in other novels. Jango Fett's group were mercenaries more interested in getting the job done than doing the right thing but still held a good moral compass and were unwilling to commit direct actions of wanton destruction of they could avoid it. However they were still living an existence which had them killing people on a daily basis and were far from being the most sympathetic of people.


In Knights of the Old Republic they were shown to be a very 'grey' morality force at the best of times and frequently villains who were being led to self destruction as a result of their life style. All of their tactics and strategies frequently validated the use of war crimes and atrocities against sentients. They frequently ignored honourable tactics in favour of mass orbital bombardments and sneak attacks against planets who could fight back. Terror tactics, mass destruction, targeting civilian populations with war machines, genocidal campaigns to wipe out whole species, all were used. Just look at the Cathar.

Those who survived these attacks were frequently either sold into slavery or press ganged to be used as cannon fodder in future crusades in a failing attempt to sustain the Mandalorians' numbers. Even genetic experiments and mass torture were used almost purely because they wanted to test if their enemies could actually put up a decent fight.
By the time of the Clone Wars their defeat and their efforts to antagonize everyone in the galaxy had left them with only a small handful of worlds, enclaves, with their kind trying to hide and prevent others finding an excuse to wipe them out. As such while they did change and kept many of their values they were in no way the perfect society Traviss portrays them to be.


In Traviss' version their whole civilisation is perfect and they can do no wrong. To quote a compact and good description of their existence:
Traviss' Mandalorians have a mandatory draft for all males, who craft their own armour. Females often do likewise and go to war as well. Some of them stay at war, acting as high-paid mercenaries for various individuals and governments, although some take up less warlike professions (apparently the surname "Fett" means "farmer") all are nonetheless required to have armour and fighting capability.
The language has a single gender-neutral pronoun for living things and is quite easy to learn; the society is welcoming to those who can fit into it, all of them love children, marriage and divorce are done with a few phrases in a few minutes. Women bearing sons traditionally wait five years to conceive again, one year if it's a daughter, because daughters don't always want to go to war. While this would be an interesting and valid society, and it's more developed than a lot of the others in
Star Wars, Traviss always portrays it as a desirable culture with several of people wanting in and no-one but a few degenerates wanting out, and with most Mandalorians believing themselves superior to all the other societies.



In essence Traviss portrayed them in the same light as James Cameron does his Na'vi. Ignoring all the wrong they have previously done (and still do) and showing them to be people who can perform only good deeds. No race in any franchise which plays a major role in events should be shown as this, bar one off civilisations which are only mentioned or briefly appear. But not one so heavily intertwined with the history of Star Wars and heavily focused upon.


Now with that out of the way I can start to move onto some of the background information of this author and her works.
Let me just repeat something at this point though: I still think that had this been set in its own universe rather than Star Wars it would have been at the very least a very good setting. The idea of having a corrupt sect of geneticist psychics leading armies of clones who are little more than child soldiers against vast robotic legions, as well as having the only 'good' society are a handful of scattered worlds left over from a fanatical crusader civilisation, would have made a good series.
It could have been very dark and used to highlight a lot of good elements of morality and been given the freedom to expand upon the themes Traviss wanted them to. Her major mistake was trying to join a universe which she was seemingly uninterested in, had never read any novels from and held no interest of sticking to the established history. Or writing up about characters that she had not created.


I've already brought up points upon how she has broken from the canon with both the Jedi and Mandalorians in incredibly bad ways, but this is nothing compared to some of the character portrayals.
As she has simply no interest within the rest of the Star Wars universe, much of the information she gets are things she asks for from other writers who have a much broader understanding of the universe. For her novel Order 66 she asked for a number of Jedi characters whose deaths had not been confirmed and could be used in the novel. I'll avoid much of the things which irritated me in that book but I'll point out one character that briefly appeared within it: Scout (Tallisibeth Enwangdun-Esterhazy).


The character was a Jedi who had previously appeared in a book called Yoda: Dark Rendezvous who was noted to have little in the way of strength with the Force. This lack of ability was made up for by her resourcefulness, sheer determination and willingness to use very creative tactics to win battles. Yoda respected this, believing her to have a future ahead of her within the order as a result of this as did a number of older Jedi. Traviss appeared to only hear the part relating to Scout's lack of strength with the Force and as such she appeared within Traviss' novel stating that she had been thought of as worthless as a result of this. Thus contradicting not only her entire history but the core idea and basic aspects of her character.


Similarly very jarring events and personality shifts took place in the ill fated Legacy of the Force series:

•In an effort to shoehorn the Mandalorians into the series Jacen Solo suddenly becomes a hideously violent monster, something he had admittedly been working towards under the guidance of a Sith, and beats Ailyn Vel to death in an attempt to gain information rather than through more tactful methods.

•Jacen also gains the Force ability to time travel and view events of the past in spite of no such ability ever having even been suggested to exist.

•Luke Skywalker becomes an incredibly callous character during one book and begins leaping to conclusions, eventually executing a villain in cold blood with a movie quip. In spite of it being heavily against his character and the teachings he has followed for all of his adult life.

•Tahiri Veila appears to ignore all character development she had in the previous twenty preceding books by other authors and goes from a strong and independent individual to latches onto Solo and follows his every command. Resulting in a horribly abysmal death for Gilad Pellaeon, one of the oldest and best established Imperial characters of the series.

•Daala becomes a tactical genius despite every aspect of her history contradicting any capability of good leadership or understanding of battle tactics. This was a woman whose every military campaign had either led to massive casualties amongst her troops or total failure.

•Jacen Solo, a master of the darkside, only survives a brief encounter with a handful of Mandalorians because their leader ordered him not to be killed. They took him down in close combat without breaking a sweat.

•She then decided that there had been no female Imperial Moffs (systems governors) in spite of the series directly preceding this contradicting that.

•And an early major error in one of her book previews stated that Qui-Gon Jinn had killed a Sith on Naboo. I should just point out that in this instance she proved to be unable to even keep track of a major event within the films which spawned the books she writes, and the prequels' first major character death.


This is simply skimming the largest problems her books have created and in spite of all these errors and questionable events they are not the worst elements of her works by any length.
The worst aspects of her works come from her reactions to criticism and her personal views of the fanbase.


One rather glaring flaw repeatedly pointed out within her works was the estimate for the numbers of clones used by the Republic in its war against the Separatists. Rather than correcting a small piece of trivia which stated only three million clones made up the entire army, Traviss decided to stick with it and make the estimate an official fact. Meaning that the republic's 1.3 million worlds had approximately two clones to help defend each one. The size of this force means that in every single major conflict displayed within the cartoon, comics and films the Republic was deploying a huge portion of its entire fighting strength.


This was a factor repeatedly brought up and questioned by fans, scientists and military soldiers all of whom pointed out that the numbers were ridiculous and could not match up in the slightest. Rather than correct this or back down against this criticism Traviss decided to try and 'pull rank' upon them, pointing out how she had once been a deck seaman (the lowest rank within the British navy), and initiated one of the stupidest plots in the history of the franchise in an effort to get back at them.
In a venomous act against the 'Jedi fanboys' she wrote a story called Odds in which it was revealed that the Jedi and Confederacy of Independent Systems were conspiring together to prevent anyone knowing the true scale of the war taking place across the galaxy.
An even worse attempt to strike back can be seen in Dooku's internal monologue in the novelization of the Clone Wars film. I'll let it speak for itself:


"I've spent years preparing to break the Republic's strangle-hold. Years. A long way to go, still, but it'll come. The galaxy is ready for it. Worlds want to run their own affairs. Make it happen soon, Darth Sidious. The Republic's the worst kind of dictatorship-a pseudo-democracy cloaked in smiles and tolerance, as long as you do as it says.

And I will not do as anyone says. I'll think for myself.


Dooku stared into the mesh of light that showed the plan of a castle-like structure full of passages, chambers, and high walls.
Don't think, Padawan Dooku

"You were wrong then, Jedi," he said aloud. "And you're wrong now."

Destiny was not about feeling; destiny was about thinking, about rationality. Dooku didn't see reacting blindly to feelings as some mystic virtue, but as a weakness.

In a child, he would have punished it as giving in to impulses, a lack of maturity and self-control.

As a child, he had been trained not to think. As a child, he had been trained to be a Jedi.
Don't question so much, Padawan Dooku. Feel. Don't doubt. Believe.

Well, he questioned things now. And he didn't believe. The Republic was corrupt to its core, and the Jedi were its lackeys-sanctimonious mercenaries. Their comfortable little cartel was coming to an end. Darth Sidious would finish it off, and Dooku knew it was his moral duty to help bring about that day,

Then he saw the snow again, not the polished apocia wood desk; a battlefield in winter, finally silent. The schematic's hair-fine lines of red light became spatters and trails of blood that Dooku feared he would never be able to wash from his hands.

He was standing ankle-deep in the muffled, ice-cold whiteness of Galidraan in winter. Jedi and Mandalorian dead lay every-where. And he could still hear his own appalled voice, his own shame.

What have we done?

It was a massacre; and the Jedi had carried it out, pawns of the corrupt Galidraan governor, who had set up the Mandalorian army for his own agenda. Looking back on it, Dooku saw it was the tipping point that had changed his life. It was the moment he had started to think.

I believed my Masters. I didn't think for myself. They didn't question, either; they took the governor at his word. They just believed. And we killed people. We killed them on the say-so of a criminal.

If you were going to take lives, go to war, then there was no benefit of the doubt to be given, no other's word to take. Dooku trusted only proof now.
What have I done?

You came to your senses.

But I'm setting up the Jedi now. That makes me as degenerate as they are.

Think of it as using their own complacency against them. Turning their own weapon on them. Poetic justice. Whatever it takes. They won't say sorry and step down simply because you point out the error of the Republic's ways, will they?


He had these arguments with himself more than ever lately.

The snow had melted; the dead were buried. But he couldn't erase Jango Fett's face, the face of a man back from the living death of a slavery that Dooku had delivered him into, etched with all the bitter lines of surviving only to have his moment of justice. It was always the last image to leave Dooku. It wasn't just the millions of troops cloned from Fett that made forgetting impossible. It was that Fett hadn't lived to see the downfall of the Jedi. Fett's motive for sharing - aiding - Dooku's ambition hadn't been greed, he realized, but the same understanding that the Jedi Order was a destructive, destabilizing cabal.

The Jedi had killed Fett in the end. But most of him seemed to have died at Galidraan anyway, and only his insatiable hunger for justice had kept that formidable body moving.

We'll have our day, Fett.

Dooku opened the comlink again, this time to the monastery on Teth. It was time for the next stage of the operation.

"Ventress," he said. "Ventress, is the Huttlet all right? Bring me up to speed."



Now, ignoring the character's statements about the Jedi desiring their members not to think and only obey there's one obvious problem in this entire section. She has essentially rewritten Count Dooku's entire background and reasons for falling to the dark side to get revenge for the Mandalorians. This not only contradicts the basic aspects of his character, but contradicts his reasons for meeting Sidious and starting to fall to the dark side in the first place.


More and more of her plots within the books she made began to focus upon getting 'revenge' against certain critics to the point where some fans began to swear off some of her later works.
In the novel of the same name, Order 66 itself seemed to be written to excuse the clones as they mass murdered the Jedi. This was done to the point where a Jedi who had more or less converted to being a Mandolorian sacrificed herself to protect a clone from a Jedi padawan fighting for his life.


Later on she began directly insulting any fan who began questioning her writings or the portrayals within them.
When a fan questioned why she hated the Jedi, Traviss responded that it was 'impossible to hate a non-existent idea', then started calling fans neo-Nazis for liking them. Regarding the Jedi as being just Nazis for somehow trying to create 'genetically superior master race' by only accepting Force sensitives into their ranks.
She accused fans of being low life misogynists for telling her that she had clearly not done her research upon many of the subjects she was writing about. Insinuating that they thought a woman could not understand Star Wars. In truth no one I have seen or spoken to ever stated 'no woman', just her.
And finally she began to refer those who continued to point out the errors of her works and try to get her to correct them as being 'Tallifans'. And yes, that was an intentional reference to a certain extremist group of religious suicide bombers killing soldiers and civilians alike within the Middle East. Classy.
Amidst all this she constantly dared critics who pointed out flaws in her works to do better, challenging them to write something better than she had produced.
Many of these blogs and messages were deleted by her when even she began to realise she was going too far but records of what took place still exist within some circles.


That is why people dislike her. Because she treated those who did not share her views with no respect and endlessly insulted them, as well as directly opposing the writers who had come before her.


Finally I'll finish on this note: Her writings apparently became so conflicting with the universe they were set in that the writers of the Clone Wars series retconned them out of existence in one episode, choosing the history of other writers over her own works.
In short she was becoming so much of a problem for Star Wars that a mainstream series intervened to prevent her doing more damage to the established timeline. She was becoming such a problem with her "improvements" that writers openly rebelled against her and stuck with the stuff she had tried to write out of the SWEU's history.
When you manage to frustrate so many people that your co-workers agree with the fans and try to undermine your nonsense, you have officially crossed the Matt Ward threshold of horrible writing.


Had she not let her ego get the better of her, kept her inner Mando-fangirl on a tighter leash, and tried to be more accepting of criticism I feel that her series would have been welcomed by the vast majority of the fanbase. Instead her works now exist as a monument of how not to do Star Wars books.
In spite of that, I would recommend at least taking a look into Hard Contact if you are interested in the series. It's the best example of her works before she became truly hate driven against the Jedi and started preaching for the Mandalorians; and does feature some genuinely good ideas about the clones and the training of the Republic Grand Army.


And before any of you start sending me hatemail, please note I was being reasonable with this. If you want someone much less forgiving about the author's flaws take a look at YodaKenobi's views of just one of her books.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Film Review)


Having been created during the mid 70s by John le CarrĂ©, and popularised by a series starring Alex Guiness, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy will mostly appeal to an older audience. Those who have seen it before and are familiar with the era it was made in will want to see how the film adapts its source material as well as displays life in the 70s. It heavily contrasts with things like the Bourne trilogy and has much more realism than the newly revamped Bond films with Daniel Craig.
In all of those films the crisis’ are exceptional, something to be never seen again and will shake the world. In this film the threat is just a part of daily life of the spies of MI6.

The plot revolves around the legacy of Control, the former head of MI6, and those now in charge of the Secret Service. A retired agent known as George Smiley is brought back in to help deal with a possible Soviet mole, unraveling both past histories and old plots as he investigates his old workplace.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy makes good use of the resources it has and is a very artfully made film. While it has a great cast of talented actors, they seem to have specifically been written to act like spies. That is, most of them would easily pass as being an average person and do not stand out.
Gary Oldman’s Smiley especially embodies this, playing such a toned down and quiet character that not one single person would ever recognise as being a member of MI6. Their characters, save for one or two exceptions, aren’t bold or openly stand out amongst the crowd, being deadpan throughout most of the film. Had director Tomas Alfredson not been able to get together such a great cast, capable to quietly give their roles character without the overtness of many fictional characters in modern mainstream cinema then it could have spelled disaster for this flick. Despite this what makes the film stand out the most is not its story or even its actors but its great cinematography and editing.

There’s a definite feeling of voyeurism about the presentation of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy which makes it feel more like a documentary than a film. Frequently minor scenes which serve no apparent purpose to the film turn up and there are a great deal of choices by the director which seem odd at first glance.
One example is early on where several of the characters briefly talk to one another while in a car as they are irritated by a bee before swatting it out an open window. Another is the scenes where, in true Hitchcock style, the camera views events with objects obscuring the characters. Viewing them from a distance, looking at them through windows or with banisters in the way. They’re just small elements but they make the film feel much more like a look into a person’s life than something constructed for the big screen.

What also helps with this sense of realism is the choice of lighting and music, or rather the lack of it. What little music there is proves to be very unintrusive and usually serves as a reminder of past events, something the characters previously heard, rather than to try and evoke emotions. The lighting of each scene is minimalistic and very flat, casting shadows and usually obscures the actors’ features. Both of these elements help to add to the realism and punctuate the scenery, showing locations as being very grotty, grey and dreary places.

There is also distinctly little violence. Only four gunshots are fired during the course of the entire film and any moment of brutality only lasts scant seconds. Most of the actual wetworks takes place off screen with the audience seeing only the aftermath of events. Much like how assassinations and attempts to silence others would never be seen by the real world, only their results.

By no means is this a film for everyone. You have to watch this with your brain actively reading things, the lack of action and apparent emotion might bore some as will the quietness of events. It is something which will not appeal to everyone and feels more like the Harry Palmer films than today’s spy flicks. That being said this is a very well made film and is recommended for anyone even vaguely interested in the spy world. It stands out well amongst other films of its genre and it is well worth seeing due to the contrasts with most modern espionage flicks.
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Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy all related characters and media are owned by StudioCanal UK and Universal Pictures.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Alien Versus Predator Redemption (Film Review)


Whenever an AvP film is mentioned on the interwebs, you’re bound to see one of two reactions: apathy or seething hatred. The first film by the infamous Paul W. S. Anderson was a popcorn flick which didn’t stick to the established canon but was more mediocre than outright bad. Requiem was a steaming pile of feces which got every single last possible thing wrong with directors apparently mistaking the complaints of the first film for suggestions for their one.
In both there was too much bland dialogue, too much stupidity, too little atmosphere, too much incompetence from the Predators and too many annoying human characters.

After these betrayals people cried out for an installment which actually tried to stick to the canon. Thankfully one man answered the call. In 2010 a fan of both the Predator and Aliens franchises, Alex A. Popov, took time, effort and $500 dollars to try and make a good fan film with the cinematic horrors killing one another. The result was the aptly named Alien vs Predator Redemption.

The plot this time is vastly different from the two official films, being set into the far future of the Aliens franchise. The film opens up on the decommissioned USS Sulaco being used as a genetic research station, in a video message a scientist explains they have retrieved a still warm, almost intact, body of a predator from a wrecked spacecraft. Not long after arrival a chestburster erupts from the corpse and contact is lost with the ship.
The message is intercepted by the predators and one of their hunters is dispatched to the Sulaco.

Being a low budget one man project this is by no means a perfect film. It’s only twenty-two minutes long film and the CGI is definitely below today’s cinematic standards. Matching Knights of the Old Republic’s cutscenes in terms of graphical quality at the best of times.
Unlike Damnatus, Redemption uses CGI for everything but its actors and costumes so it’s hard not to notice you’re watching someone fighting in front of a green screen.
The film also takes quite a while to get going with the first half depicting the buildup and the predator being ordered to respond to the incident on the Sulaco. These are the only complaints worth making.

Unlike the two official films Redemption has almost no dialogue or humans in it, with the focus squarely being placed on the titular antagonists. The predators are smart, professional, tough, and don’t make mistakes. The aliens are numerous but always go down fighting hard and, unlike Requiem, the predalien does far more than just mouth rape infants.
The backgrounds are well designed with some throwbacks to showing up as the protagonist goes through the seemingly deserted Sulaco such as power loaders and dropships. The guns use the classic pulse rifle sounds, the ship looks suitably industrial and the homemade non-CGI predator costume looks exactly like something out of the films.

There’s some good atmospheric buildup when the protagonist first boards the Sulaco, cutting his way in and cautiously advancing through the ship. There’s very little lighting and the minimalistic editing keeps you looking about at the screen expecting to see something stalking him in the background or leap out at any moment.

Despite my comments about the CGI and some disjointed editing, the brawls are very entertaining with aliens being taken out in enjoyable brutal ways. The conflicts also keep escalating with more formidable enemies turning up until the film’s explosive conclusion. It’s definitely the highlight of the film and considering the money spent on it the delivery is exceptionally good.

This is by no means another Damnatus, but it’s definitely the sort of thing fans have been wanting for years. For anyone disappointed with the two AvP films or a fan of the franchises, give this one a shot. It’s easy to find via google searches and it’s a fun way to kill some time.


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Alien, Predator and Alien Versus Predator all related characters and media are owned by 20th Century Fox.

Alien vs Predator Redemption was created by Alex Popov.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Flash Gordon (Film Review)


See this film before you die. No, really, this is a motion picture which needs to be witnessed to be fully appreciated. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, even if you’re utterly averse to all films, even if you utterly despise over the top camp productions, you need to see this film at least once.


The entire film's can be summed up in this one shot.
Well, except for Freddie Mercury.
 Based upon the comic strips, film and serials of the mid 1930s and early 40s, Flash Gordon is astoundingly loyal to its origins. Insanely so, with every eye searingly bright colour, gaudy backgrounds, ridiculous outfits being taken from its source material, all of which is presented without any hint of self concious humour. It carries every ludicrous point of its plot and aspect of its total insanity with the utmost sincerity and as if the actors were in a Shakespearean stage production.
Max Von Sydow plays the role of Ming the Merciless as the exact definition of a Saturday morning cartoon overlord who makes every mistake possible, but with complete and utter seriousness. Almost to the point where you can actually begin to buy into the character himself. Even BRIAN BLESSED’s Vultan, who is fittingly bombastic, loud and essentially a flying space Viking, is portrayed without any intentional self parody.

Watching this film is like seeing an extremely good joke told by a straight faced deadpan comedian for an hour while duels between Shakespearian actors take place behind him and Queen occasionally appears to perform music.

The film’s story is, fittingly, very stock. Emperor Ming attacks earth because he’s evil and the protagonists head up to try and stop him in a home made rocket. Being initially captured by Ming’s forces, they soon end up leading a rebellion and trying to prevent the earth being destroyed.
There’s not much else to it than that, and most of the actual flesh of the film comes from characters interacting/scheming against one another, to an almost hilarious extent, and the action scenes. The latter of these two points is really what holds up the film, with Mike Hodges using his experience as a director to film some fairly good action sequences and take full advantages of the special effects.
You can draw comparisons between his filming style in Get Carter and this film, yes the man who did Get Carter directed this mountain of cheese and camp, but if you’re looking for that sort of thing you’re not watching the film in the right way. Having your brain switched on will only detract from the fun of watching it and make the many plot holes and leaps in logic all the more obvious to you.
The soundtrack ranges from Queen songs to more Queen songs. There’s not much else I can say about that besides, well, this.

It’s definitely not a great film, anything which requires you not to think can’t be classed as “great”, but damn if it’s not one of the best examples of camp, fun films from the 80s.
Definitely get this one if you can find it on DVD.

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Flash Gordon and all related characters and media are owned by Universal Studios and was produced by the Dino De Laurentiis Company.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Mass Effect 2: Overlord (DLC Review)


The Mass Effect 2 DLC Overlord can be described with one word: Perfection. It embraces the very best of Bioware’s flagship series and there is honestly not one single worthwhile complaint which can be made about it. In terms of immersion, cinematic style, gameplay and story it is almost impossible to find a mission which tops this DLC. The conclusion feels even more emotional than the attack on the Collector Base which served as the finale to the second game, and the weight of the moral choice made in Overlord resonates much more strongly than the one there.

The DLC has you tracking down a Cerberus base which has recently gone silent and was conducting a number of experiments involving combating the Geth. Things have gone very bad there and in a suitably epic fashion it’s quickly revealed that your failure to stop what was created there will result in an apocalyptic catastrophe. There’s really nothing more which can be said without spoiling some of the best parts of Overlord. What is worth noting is that it’s all but completely unrelated to the rest of Mass Effect 2’s storyline which allows it to focus on telling its own tale much more effectively.

While the core gameplay remains the same, there are many new mechanics added. These are small gimmicks which are introduced and abandoned in extremely quick succession and help the DLC to constantly feel very active. One good example of this is where you fight a Geth turret and are frantically forced to repeatedly trick it into blasting its own shield generators so you can take it down.
The Hammerhead makes its return from the Firewalker DLC and is used as your primary method of travel throughout Overlord and it makes very good use of it. As you traverse the grassy terrain you are constantly fighting hacked turrets so there’s plenty of combat to be found there and as with Firewalker the vehicle sections are used to include some platforming amongst the frequent gunfights.

DLC truly shines in its presentation. The cinematography of the cut scenes is some of the best seen in the Mass Effect games, with some glorious backdrops and some of the most beautiful and terrifying environments you’ll see in this series. These range from aforementioned grass covered canyons to a derelict ship which is not quite as dead as it seems. The antagonist of the DLC, the titular Overlord, is similarly extremely well presented. I’d seriously recommend that players pay attention to his appearance throughout the missions and the seemingly garbled yells he spouts as both change over time.
The fact his initial appearance so easily radiates menace and hatred makes the DLC’s big reveal all the more horrifying. This is constantly helped by the soundtrack which contains some of the most haunting themes ever to be included within any of Bioware’s games, slowly changing to match with the plot.

There is very little dialogue within the game but this actually works in its favour. Rather than feeling like you’re watching Shepard’s story it makes you feel like you’re there, adding a lot of immersion for each reveal, event and plot twist.
What little dialogue there is mostly delivered by the ever great Simon Templeman who delivers a fantastic performance as Doctor Archer, the sole survivor of his experiment gone amok. There’s also a few dark, Portal-like, moments of dark humour dotted throughout the DLC. Mostly appearing on the derelict ship section and in small quips by Shepard upon completing objectives. It is something definitely needed and helps to vary the emotions evoked by Overlord.

It’s arguable that its key flaw is its short, only a couple of hours long, but that fully works in its favour. It feels like nothing has been wasted and it has been trimmed of any unnecessary fat in terms of its gameplay and story.

I cannot stress this enough: if you own Mass Effect 2 get Overlord.
You won’t regret it and you’ll be getting one of the, if not the, best mission in the whole series.

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Mass Effect and all related characters and media are owned by Bioware.

Some images have been taken from Mass Effect Wiki.

Star Ocean: Second Evolution (PSP Review)


When it comes to Square Enix (and originally Enix) JRPG series in the west, Star Ocean has always been the underdog. It has always been overshadowed by the monolithic Final Fantasy franchise and despite its age there are comparatively few people who recognise the series’ name. It has also been long plagued with a few almost iconic problems such as bad translations and overtly horrible voice acting.
That’s not to say it’s not been unsuccessful though, the series having drawn enough attention to have instalments still being made today, the latest of which is The Last Hope.

Apparently trying to reproduce some of the success of the original titles, and fix some of the more glaring errors while they’re at it, both of the first games have been remade for the PSP. So let’s see how the redone Star Ocean Second Story, now called Second Evolution, holds up.

Background and Story

Second Evolution has little to no connection to the first game. While it is set in the same universe and the basic plot of its predecessor is retold during the opening it’s really a stand alone title.

The game takes the same story gimmick as the rest of the series; setting a number of characters from advanced cultures in a feudal world of magic and dragons. In this case an officer aboard a Federation exploration ship visiting a dead planet, Claude C. Kenny, activates a machine which warps him to the world of Expel. Even before he can get his bearings he encounters the second protagonist, Rena Lanford, running away from a monster the size of a big rig.

In the ensuing fight Claude manages to vaporise the monster with his phase gun, all but burning it out in the process. Rena, watching it and with little to no understanding of what has happened, mistakes the weapon as the “Sword of Light” of legend.
Taking him back to her town, Claude quickly learns that Expel is a world being plagued by monsters, spawned from a fallen astral object known as the Sorcery Globe. The kingdom closest to it is fighting a losing battle against an endless tide of monsters and his appearance apparently matches a legendry Hero of Light who is prophesied to defeat them.

So, one technologically advanced man trapped on a seemingly doomed medieval planet, trying to get off of it, and a heroic prophecy behind him. In essence Outlander with less Vikings and more monsters. Sounds promising doesn’t it?
Well, the game never goes anywhere with it.

Claude quickly does his best to dispel the fact he might be the Hero of Light and aside from NPC comments in the first two towns it’s never brought up again. You might think this is to later reveal that he has a much bigger destiny but no, he has no link to the prophecy in any way. Sure it’s one way to throw the player a red herring, but it feels like it’s an unfinished plotline.
Furthermore, though Claude is much more advanced and has a much better understanding of the universe, it’s an aspect of his character never used. Aside from occasional comments and inner dialogue the idea is never really used until quite late on into the game, and even then it’s underplayed. Actually, the idea is almost completely undermined at a number of points such as when a JCB shows up being used on the supposedly primitive world. Or when you apparently lead an assault fleet on board a modern day oil tanker. Say what you want about Final Fantasy X but at least it tried to clearly show Tidus reacting to an utterly alien world totally different from Zanarkand.

There are a surprising number of inconsistencies like this throughout the first part of the game, and with such a simple background you’d think it would be easy enough to make it look primitive. Instead it looks like most towns still using sailing ships should already have access to firearms and steam engines. It’s something not helped when you get to a much more advanced civilization which is still using swords and magic.

In spite of these problems, and that the story is very generic until you get to the big reveal about the Sorcery Globe, the game does offer you plenty of reason to keep playing. It’s mostly due to the characters and well rounded personalities.
Claude and Rena are mostly straight forwards as a hot headed hero trying to get out of his father’s shadow and a girl with an unknown past along with mysterious powers.
Ashton is a down on his luck mercenary who ends up being cursed, Celine is a surprising voice of reason but with a streak of vanity, and while they are always background figures no two seem the same. Something the game definitely with a wide assortment of playable characters. Surprisingly for a JRPG there are also almost no characters which grate on your nerves, most are well rounded and are mostly inoffensive. Save for Leon anyway, someone so irritating even the writers seemed to realise this and scripted Claude to punch him in the face not long after meeting him.

Graphics and Design

The graphics of the game are simultaneously very good and very bad. The characters are displayed in 32-bit graphics but the backgrounds are incredibly lush pre rendered environments. They’re arguably some of the best seen on the PSP and can easily outdo many games with supposedly superior graphics like Resistance Retribution. It makes for a very strange experience, playing characters that look like they’re from the Gameboy Advance combined with PS2 level background graphics.

Actually, speaking of the Gameboy Advance players of the Golden Sun series quickly find aspects of talking to NPCs, and party members, very familiar. With emoticons, sweat drops and thought bubbles appearing in time with the flow of conversation. In addition to this there are small drawn anime images which are supposed to better represent the emotions they’re conveying.
A good idea, but not well implemented. Rather than having enough images to cover the full emotional spectrum for each character the game has only four or five at the most per character. This left the programmers to approximate which one to use at which time. This resulted in Bowman having a perpetual smirk on his face when he is supposed to be serious or determined, Celine looking like she’s barely interested in anything taking place and various other problems. At one point where Ashton is supposed to be angry and resentful they bring up this expression for him:

In spite of this, the anime drawn parts of the game aren’t all bad. There are some very well made animated segments and a gloriously explosive introduction for the characters before the game starts. It’s just a shame they spent so much money on infrequent cut-scenes than the constantly used conversational drawings.

One final problem actually comes from the towns themselves. While it was noted that all of the environments were lavishly put together there was surprisingly little variety amongst them. On Expel you only come across a grand total of four towns and three cities with a slightly larger number of dungeons littering the maps.
All of the towns save for the first one felt very similar to one another and not enough time seemed to have been put into differentiating them from one another. It probably doesn’t help that half of them seem to share the same theme music.

The same really goes for a lot of the major offensive spells seen in the game. All of them, right from the very first Laser Beams attack, are light streams which fall from the sky in some way and trigger shockwaves. As impressive as they might be it feels disappointing that the developers didn’t take the time to give the characters more variety of attacks, like a fist which rises out of the ground to crush enemies or summoning plant monsters. Like a lot of aspects of this game they look impressive but they quickly become repetitive.


The lack of obvious diversity within the spells and towns their might be is made up for by the designs of the game's creatures, their outwards appearance ranging from the unconventional to  outright insanity.
They start off fairly conventional, most enemies you run into being very weak bandits with occasional unholy beasts. Then about the time you head for Krosse things stop making sense.

You see this? This is your airship. 
Amongst the diverse enemies you fight you come up against giant multicoloured rectangular frogspawn with poisoning attacks.
Then they are soon followed by creatures which look like the bastard children of Dune’s sandworms and Venus fly traps.
And who could forget the man sized hourglasses with floating hands which attack you by tipping over and firing flamethrowers from their “heads”.
Expect to see some very weird things while playing this, not all of them good ideas but certainly memorable foes.

Gameplay


Second Evolution features many of the traits commonly found in all JRPGs. You travel across an overworld, going from town to city, dungeon to dungeon, talking to NPCs and doing side quests. There are random encounters, you get EXP from killing monsters, have points to spend on attributes, have various generic RPG classes and pick up new characters along the way.
The thing is though, the game tried to actually be inventive with its genre and change a few things. It’s still recognisably a JRPG but it took a very different direction from, say, most of the Final Fantasy games.

While there are cut scenes and the game is very plot focused, there are very few lengthy sequences in which control is taken away from the player. The story, while central to the plot, never feels like its intrusive and is trying to ram things down the player’s throat with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Actually some elements are so unobtrusive you can almost go throughout the entire game learning only what your companion’s names are and their fighting specialities if you so wish. You have to spend time in each town, entering it while breaking up the party so the other members can wonder about, to speak with them and learn more about them. It’s certainly a novel idea. Anyone who doesn’t like the talking to NPC aspect of JRPGs can skip them without any trouble. For anyone who does, spending the additional time to do this and seek out Private Actions feels like the game is rewarding you for going the extra mile in playing it.

The combat is the same. Rather than having all the fighters stand in one place, occasionally lobbing potions at people and hitting enemies with swords you can move about. You fight in a small featureless area, in real-time, and switch between controlling each member of the party or giving them general orders. It means you have to think a lot faster and have a lot more freedom for strategies than in turn based battles.
It’s not something which is unique now, especially since Final Fantasy XII, but it was new then and makes it stand out from other RPG titles on hand held consoles. Actually almost the entire game feels like it was made trying to be unique, being the total opposite of what you’d usually see in other releases.

Take for example the classes. While you do get some fairly generic ones, Celine for example being fairly standard Black Mage spellcaster, many were a break away from the usual class tropes. Rena mostly served as a healer but doubled as a fighter early on and gained a number of attack spells in her later levels, Claude mostly served as the party’s tank but learned “special arts”. Things which weren’t spells but covered everything from performing dynamic entries out of the sky to firing Dragonball style ki blasts out of his hands. And then of course you have Ashton, a character who simultaneously dual wielded swords and dragons.
Second Evolution isn't so flexable that can turn a white mage style healer into an effective tank but it’s very nice change from what’s usually seen in the game's genre.

One other aspect of the characters which is very different from other JRPGs is the abilities they learn. As mentioned before each of your characters get points to spend on attributes, but not ones which help in combat like strength or agility. No, instead you get to spend them on certain bits of knowledge your characters learn such as technology or aesthetics. These are used to primarily do one thing: create items.
With the right set up your characters can forge new weapons and items, create new healing potions and cook food. Surprisingly, the last one is actually the most useful as Rena begins with all the necessary starting knowledge, the ingredients are cheap, and some of the best HP/MP healing items are food. Yes, apparently eating fruit sandwiches can cure lacerations far more effectively than magic healing potions can.

What you create is based mostly upon random chance with the quality of the item influenced by how many levels you have of certain skills. For example trying to forge protective equipment at low levels frequently seems to produce rings which double a character’s weakness to certain spells. In spite of this experimenting with item creation at high levels can produce some indispensible things such as items which make characters immune to petrifaction.
You can learn new skills through buying them in towns and by recruiting new characters.

Actually character recruitment is the other thing which is another memorable aspect of the game. Adding certain characters to the party frequently bars others from being recruited at points in the game, for example Bowman or Precis cannot both be recruited in a single play through. Other characters can be barred due to the protagonist you have chosen with Dias only joining a party led by Rena. It, along with item creation, gives the game a surprising amount of replay value. It’s often interesting to specifically recruit different characters than you’d normally choose just to see how they develop and interact with one another. The fact the game has more than 80 endings means there’s plenty of reason to keep coming back to Second Story and trying to play though things differently.

Conclusion

As portable JRPGs go, Star Ocean Second Evolution is a fairly good game. It’s got some obvious flaws but there’s enough to like to make you do at least one play through. If you’re someone who is missing the classic Final Fantasy games, I-VII, or you loved Golden Sun then you’re going to enjoy this one.

With its high replay value, lack of necessity to endlessly grind levels and aspects like item creation, I’d suggest it to anyone who is open minded about the genre. Just don’t expect to be playing the PSP equivalent of Dragon Age Origins if you buy it.

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Star Ocean and all related characters and media are owned by Square Enix.

Some images have been taken from Star Ocean Wiki.