Sunday, 30 September 2012

Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan (Episode Review)


So. The ending for the Amy and Rory, two of the most beloved to fans since the series was restarted in 2008. Their final end. It should have been a two parter. Yes, I know, it’s been said repeatedly about so many stories in this series but if there was ever one episode which deserved it, it was this one.
We all knew what was coming, we all understood the fact everything was coming to a close and it’s been foreshadowed for weeks now but the end result just could have been so much more.
Whenever one of these reviews looks on an episode and criticises it, none of it is out of malice or even dislike. It’s usually disappointment; with me thinking “you could be so much more than this. You could be so much better and deliver upon the brilliant ideas you’ve got.” And really that’s this episode all over. It could have, should have, been so much better than it was.

If you’ve not guessed it from the title this episode is set in Manhattan and features the weeping angels for the first time in this series. As the Doctor and co. visit the big city in the present, an investigator is going through it in the past; searching a building complex at the behest of a powerful man terrified by statues. It is not long before he finds what he is looking for. The angels are present in force, lurking in the city throughout time and they have a new target to feed their hunger. One who traverses the time streams in search of adventure…

Already you might be able to see where the episode begins to go wrong. It’s introducing the weeping angels into the story in a big way and as we’ve seen in just the last episode big villains can easily domineer over smaller character driven stories. That doesn’t quite happen here, especially as they are directly involved with the companions, but it squashes things down to a smaller size. The other thing is that it just keeps including elements which diminish the story further and creates a rushed second act. Either not explaining them because it doesn’t have the time or introducing them because Steven Moffat wants to.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the presence of River Song who, as usual, is presented getting the better of absolutely everyone. Yes, I know people like here and I’ll be the first to say Moffat has gotten much better at writing her since she was first introduced, but he always feels compelled to devote as much time to her as possible when she’s involved. She’s an obvious creator’s pet and is visibly skirting or outright crossing the Mary Sue line damn near constantly, so throwing her into a story where she’s only present as a plot device and dragging more attention away for the departing couple was a big mistake. It especially doesn’t help that in an episode which needed somber emotional consistency throughout its running time, or at least from act to act, she’s frequently used to inject humour into the script. That and repeatedly say “Ha-ha! Look at how much better an adventuring time traveler I am than the Doctor!!!” There is perhaps one moment which does justify the presence of River besides her role as a plot device and that is to help highlight the choice Amy makes in the finale.

Speaking of Amy and Rory I will credit the episode that when they do leave it has considerable emotional impact. It’s not as overblown as David Tennant’s infamous regeneration scene but nor is it as quietly powerful as Jo Grant’s choice to stop travelling with the Doctor. It comes instead as a punch to the gut, something which snatches them back at the last moment and just when it looks like they’ve escaped this week’s monster one last time they fall. The way it is delivered makes it truly sad and when it is given some real focus in the last act it shows just how good of an episode this could have been if all the other pointless elements hadn’t been thrown into it. The acting is fantastic all around, the foreshadowing never comes across as heavy handed; it’s just that it’s all shoved aside for one cut down portion of the running time.

There isn’t really much which can actually be said about this besides this is good in parts but it is horrendously flawed. It’s clunky, carrying so much additional baggage and really the best bits come right at the beginning and right at the end. This review can’t even end with “you should avoid this as…” because just about every fan will go and watch it anyway due to the departure. When you do go to watch it though, just be prepared to sit through some very big flaws and a few stupid moments to get to the good stuff.

Like how some angels remain stone still even though no one is looking at them.




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Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the BBC.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Doctor Who: The Power of Three (Episode Review)


Sorry about this being one week late, delays were suffered due to technical difficulties. In other words I couldn’t get a hold of a computer to watch or write about the episode. Now without further ado, onto the regularly scheduled review:


The first thing to say about The Power of Three is that it doesn’t quite achieve what it set out to do.

The story is supposed to question and highlight Rory and Amy leaving the Doctor; showing their conflicting lives and what happens with them. The problem is that while the episode is given many good moments to reflect on this, both the introduction with them talking about their two lives and the Doctor speaking of his previous companions, it often feels like a side story.
This is because the plot largely focuses upon what the Doctor is doing there and now; investigating billions of identical black cubes which have appeared all over the world. The year, Amy narrates, is the year of the Slow Invasion and the one time the Doctor truly became a part of their normal lives…

This is supposed to be an episode commenting upon Rory and Amy’s lives with the Doctor but it keeps being derailed or taken away by other plots; namely the alien invasion. The thing is none of the plots themselves are actually that bad – The idea behind the alien invasion itself and the force launching the assaults is really good and even by this series standards fairly original. The problem is that it domineers over what should have been a very small scale tale focusing upon the companions and with only one more episode to go I’m worried that pushing them to one side now is limiting the effect of their departure.

I do understand what the episode was trying to do, show the “normal lives” of the companions clashing with that of their “Doctor lives”, it’s just it could have been far better handled with a much more forgettable threat. It would have left the writers the opportunity to save the villains of this episode for one of their own and fully show the impact the Doctor has on the Ponds’ lives.
It is never the less very fun to watch, even when the Doctor goes missing for a big chunk of it and the more normal moments do contrast heavily with the zaniness of whenever Matt Smith is on screen. What helps to ground and bridge the two lives is the presence of Brian Williams (Mark Williams) who shows a very normal person who has been changed by his brief meeting with the Doctor. He’s adventurous in his own way but still manages to preserve the mundane aspects of everyday life. In other words he’s actually got a reason to be here as opposed to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

Atop of this we get the return of UNIT and more reflections upon Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s death, a very nice thing to include after Nicholas Courtney’s passing away last year. They favour a more scientific approach now and the black cubes actually prove to be an interesting foe for them face because they’re not outwardly menacing and their slow un-menacing appearances just leads society to accept their existence.

If there are any real flaws to criticise, besides “this should have been two separate episodes”, they’re these: First is that Chris Chibnall has some strange ideas about how time travel works. One of Rory’s co-workers notes how he’s apparently missing for months on end and this just strikes me as being very strange. He’s in a time machine for crying out loud; they could quite happily go back to mere seconds after they had left. Sure, the TARDIS tends to be somewhat inaccurate but there’s nothing to stop the Doctor repeatedly trying to get them back to the right time and place until he succeeds.
Another big problem is that the conclusion to events felt fairly contrived. Well, perhaps not contrived but it certainly felt like something just short of one big last minute deus ex machina rather than something the episode had built upon since the second act. Neither of these wrecks the episode but they do stand out as things you’d expect the writers to be past by this point.

And, finally, there's a brief mention of how Amy has been travelling with the Doctor for ten years now; something which is very hard to believe even if you were to be extremely generous.

Still, for all its flaws The Power of Three is none the less an extremely enjoyable episode. Despite falling short in a few areas and lacking the more serious story driven moments we’ve come to expect it still managed to just about hit all the right notes. It felt like a more lighthearted break from the more serious A Town Called Mercy and showed Brian having been changed from when we last saw him, meaning that Dinosaurs on a Spaceship actually contributed something good to the series. If you’ve not already seen it check this one out on iPlayer, it’s definitely a fun way to pass the time.

Oh and if the villain seems familiar to you, you might want to watch Octopussy again.



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Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the BBC.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (Film Review)





To put this simply this isn’t Doctor Who. He’s not even in the title. You see Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. was a direct adaptation of an early serial, made by people trying to capitalise upon the wildfire popularity of the daleks and without much concern for anything else in the show. As such a lot of bits from that serial were dumbed down or removed to make it more accessible to audiences. In this, Doctor Who (yes, Who is his second name and he's played by Peter Cushing) is a human inventor from earth who invented a time machine called Tardis, no it’s not an acronym here, in his back yard in his free time. He’s accidently sent time travelling in the opening of Dr. Who and the Daleks and, since he’s still travelling, apparently decided to just keep going.

In this film the plot is… actually explained in the title. The Tardis crew are in 2150 after the daleks have invaded earth. They’re quickly separated, prevented from using their time machine and end up dragged into a war to save the earth etc. etc. The thing is though, even with the changed background this still might have worked. It was based off of a classic story, had a much bigger budget to film stuff with and about a billion more daleks to shoot with. Where it falls apart is the execution.

Say you were the creative powers working on this. You’re told that you’re adapting a very grim and dark story for its time. One of occupation; set in the ruins of a conquered city which seems to have suffered a more terrifying version of the blitz, focusing upon a scared few survivors and a time displaced family. What music do you give it? If you said something sombre or sad in any way; congratulations, you have a better idea of how to set tone than the people who made this. What did the filmmakers give this as a soundtrack? Big band jazz. No, you did just read that. When they run into a dalek for the first time, the film sounds like Dizzy Gillespie is playing just out of shot with a band. Halfway through the first act I wasn’t sure if Peter Cushing was going to end up facing off against the Dalek Empire or Spike Spiegel.

As if this weren’t enough, the directors decided that the film about genocide in a ruined city desperately needed scenes of slapstick comedy. While the Dr. Who and the Daleks might have had one too many jokey scenes trying to break up the tone; this film is littered with them. There’s an entire minor subplot where one character is pretending to be a dalek servant which is used purely for laughs. Guess what else: That specific subplot is introduced about ten minutes after the film shows a particularly lengthy massacre of resistance fighters at the hands of the daleks.

And this is just the start of the film’s problems.

As well as having no idea how to handle emotional themes or maintain consistency, the script and studio design came up with decisions which ranged from ludicrous to batshit insane. Just to pick out one particularly irksome scene; two of the characters are trying to escape a dalek command ship. Not only do they accidently set off a food dispenser in a, you guessed it, slapstick comedy routine but they then take the time to find a disposal chute for it all. A chute on an alien spacecraft which has been labelled in English
Later on we’re also shown that while the daleks are immune to high explosives and bullets; they can quite easily be taken out by moderately fast collisions with minivans.
Were this not enough bear in mind that the daleks seem to have chosen the same interior decorators as Ming the Merciless, often what isn’t chrome or shining in some way is fluorescent to the point of glowing in the dark. That includes most of the daleks themselves and also their weapons; their doomsday device in particular. The few humans and locations which avoid this look like they’ve come right out of the 1950s, leading you to wonder what the hell the costume designers thought the future would look like. The ending also features so much pyrotechnics that I get the feeling Michael Bay’s entire career has been a one continual effort to try and surpass it in its sheer ludicrousness and wanton destruction.

As for the acting, well, it’s either inconsequential or over the top. The script left Peter Cushing so little to work with even the acting legend couldn’t make him stand out and one of his companions, Louise, has so few lines there were times I forgot she was in the film. Add to that contrived motivations, insane decisions and mass sudden ineptitude to help drive the plot forwards and you can probably guess the rest yourself.

To put it simply, without turning this into a several million word rant, Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. gets nothing right. It abandons most of what little Who mythos there was at the time, has a script which seemed to be made up as time went by, and the few attempts at originality pale before the moderately budgeted BBC tv series. Even taken on its own merits without any link to the science fiction classic, it still simply isn’t very good. The previous film, Dr. Who and the Daleks, is inoffensive enough to warrant a look if you’re into campy sci-fi but this one doesn’t even reach so bad it’s good territory. 

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Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the British Broadcasting Corperation.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Marvel, Enough With The Heroes Vs. Heroes Already




If this is retreading old territory then you have my apologies. It’s likely already been talked about a thousand times by someone else but I feel the need to state this myself. I’ve been reading mainstream comics on and off for about twelve years now from various companies. While I don’t pick up individual issues anymore I do occasionally take a look at what is being printed and the major storylines.
I’ve watched how everything has been progressing over the years and I’ve now got one plea to make to comics companies: Could we please get back to having heroes fight villains?

This line of thought has been going in my head for a while but it really sparked with something recently. After the Avengers DVD release I finally got brave enough to pick up an issue of Uncanny X-Men again and see what is inside. The last time I read any was in the early 2000s when the X-Treme X-Men (yes they were really called that) were fighting Khan and Grant Morrison had finished penning E Is For Extinction. Both had flaws but above all else they featured heroes acting like heroes; fighting to save the world, protect innocents and bring down the bad guy. They starred characters you could root for and wanted to win.
The issue I picked up featured near god-like members of the X-Men fighting the Avengers, slaughtering innocents en-mass and acting no better than those they’d fought in the past. The plot didn’t seem to be “heroes fight villains” so much as “Which group of “heroes” are you rooting for in this moronic, petty, ego driven slugfest?”

This is a problem for comics in general but Marvel is by far the biggest offender. In recent years superhero teams seem less and less concerned about fighting crime, or villains for that matter, and more about brawling over conflicting ideologies and egos. Civil War, X-men: Schism and World War Hulk all almost completely focused upon groups of good guys fighting one another. Even those which do not have this as a main plotline have writers trying to cram in constant bickering, internal unrest and fighting. With Secret Invasion focusing upon mass paranoia and distrust between heroes, apparently trying to force fights between them; and Avengers Disassembled effectively focused upon one insane member outright destroying the group.

The idea has been repeated so often over the recent years that they are now beating a dead horse to the point where the very idea of a superhero civil war induces dull apathy. There’s no point in rooting for one side to emerge victorious because no one will truly win and in a few months we’ll be back to this yet again with someone else. With each battle characters seem to be occupying less of any moral high ground and becoming closer to the villains they’re supposed to be better than.

Now none of this is to say that the concept of hero fights of is outright bad. We’ve had plenty of good comics with this over the years, most famously DC verses Marvel which was a fun crossover brawl the same goes for a lot of those heroes had during the Silver and Bronze age. What makes the recent big ones bad is that the writers don’t embrace the spectacle of it or for the conflict to even have a point. The writers seem much more interested in how grim, depressing and controversial a story it can be and proceed to have it negatively impact upon as many characters as possible. Often at the expense of their established personalities or even making sense.

Remember what happened to Iron Man after the Civil War? The character who always rejected “the end justifies the means”? The one whose origin story had him turning his arms company into a high tech R&D corp and has entire stories of him panicking over his armour being turned into a mass produced weapon? He started scheming to start a war with a highly advanced nation.
His plan? Sic a nanite controlled Green Goblin, one of several supervillains Tony had stashed away in his basement, on Atlantis’ ambassador. An act which would trigger a war which could potentially kill hundreds upon thousands so those heroes who opposed his registration act would be forced to unite with him. A war which he planned to have his company make war profits off of to fuel more projects similar to the remote controlled villains. Like making lots of evil clones of Norse god, and lifelong friend, Thor to enforce his rule.
This was written with the intent of the reader siding with him on this matter; and this is just one of a multitude of instances like this.

Probably the biggest problem with all this is that the idea of Marvel and DC heroes constantly fighting just doesn’t work due to how they began. Other fictional universes like Wildstorm allow this to work because they were created to have less moral characters; and you know what? Even in some of their less than stellar tales they do this far better than Marvel has because the heroes can usually get over their squabble when needed. Case and point being The Authority: Prime event, where Stormwatch and the Authority both confronted one another over a potentially dangerous hidden base and ended up fighting. Rather than this coming out of almost nowhere, like so many of Marvel's ones, it was built upon past events which led to bad blood between them to make it feel natural. Things ranging from imprisoning someone inside the sun to one group disappearing when the other needed their backup the most resulting in the deaths of comrades.  Plus their characters already had bigger egos and greater flaws to begin with. Compare just one member of the Authority with the main characters of the Avengers and ask yourself which one you'd see fighting their allies on a frequent basis:

Midnighter – A sociopathic super soldier, completely headstrong, sure that he’s right and not caring whose fingers he breaks to get the job done. A character who would go through with a fight against just about anyone if they got in his way.
Captain America, Thor and Iron Man – Characters who had their flaws but were mostly written as being morally upstanding individuals and were near consistently written so they would try to make the right choice no matter how much they would have to sacrifice.

Marvel seems to have realised people were getting tired of this and were trying to move on but it’s not quite worked. Even after an announced Heroic Age, the supposed turn around after the minor Dark Age which began with Civil War, we get Avengers vs. X-men. In which the same damn things start happening all over again; demonising both groups involved and has them starting fights in every stupid way imaginable – Turning heroes who might have previously been relatable or readers could look up to into antagonistic thugs who might as well be starting fights for the hell of it. These conflicts are no longer written to allow escapism, be fun to read and even the emotional friction they generate does nothing to further the characters after the first dozen times in a row – They’re just pointless.

The final issue of AvX is soon to hit shelves so perhaps this Heroic Age will start to seem more “heroic” at long last. Better still, hopefully it’ll be the last time we’ll be seeing superheroes pointlessly kicking the grimdark crap out of one another for a while.

























...

That’s it, I give up.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy (Episode Review)



Last week’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a prolonged failure of an episode. It completely encapsulated what happens when every weakness of Moffat era Doctor Who is amped up to the max and its strengths removed. Well, conversely A Town Called Mercy is in fact the total opposite of this – Displaying every single strength in the series thus far without any of its weaknesses dragging it down.

You can already tell it’s a major improvement when the script addresses the exact criticism which was had of the last episode – Instead of beginning with a jumbled, chaotic series of events, jumping all over the place without rhyme or reason; this one just cuts straight  to the start.
After a genuinely good very short pre-credits teaser the Doctor, Amy and Rory appear on the outskirts of a Wild West town. Ignoring an obvious perimeter and warning signs they go in and proceed to learn that not only do the townsfolk have working electrical lighting over a decade before it is discovered but they know of aliens. A cyborg known as the Gunslinger is blockading the exterior, trying to starve out the town. His demands are that the alien known as “the Doctor” be handed over for execution. However, all is far from what it seems and the Doctor quickly discovers he might be fighting for the wrong side...

Unlike, again, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship this episode has the best sort of pacing. Each development happens in turn at exactly the right time with the audience being given just enough time to absorb information before the next stage is put into play. This is exemplified during the first attempt to outthink the Gunslinger and reach the TARDIS. In which hints are dropped suggesting the cyborg isn’t entirely what he seems when he refuses to fire upon innocents and leads almost directly into a revelation about his origins.

The level of zaniness and outlandish insanity is kept to a minimum and that was definitely a decision for the better, especially in the later stages of the episode. Mainly because of the moral choice the Doctor has to make and the dark secret which comes into play as a driving force behind many characters. There are certainly fun moments, such as the Doctor revealing he can speak horse to an astounded man, but it never becomes overwhelming prevalent. So villain of the episode doesn’t end up acting like a fool after murdering several people like David Bradley’s robots from last time.
Perhaps what helped this is the presence of Ben Browder as a guest star. Being best known for his roles in Stargate SG-1 and Farscape, Browder is no stranger to having to balance seriousness and humour in a sci-fi series. While he’s not given many chances to make jokes the few he does never feel out of place or at odds with the emotions of each scene. It also helps that he pulls off a very convincing cowboy and despite playing what is mostly a side character he never feels superfluous to the plot.

Adding to this are the other guest stars who are equally talented if not more so. Veteran actor Adrian Scarborough plays a man haunted by his inner demons and trying to outrun his past. Despite a playing sort of character this series has seen time and time again in recent years his performance makes him feel very human. Similar kudos goes to the actor playing the Gunslinger, Andrew Brooke, who manages to convey a surprising level of emotion through some extremely heavy makeup and a scarce amount of lines. While he doesn’t turn the “villain” into a memorable character he manages to elevate him above being completely forgettable and gives some suggestion of depth.

If there is one flaw to criticise its that there’s a point involving Amy and Rory which seems to be tacked on. In only a couple of episodes they will be leaving the series and this is highlighted briefly when a character manages to enrage and disgust the Doctor to the point where he draws a gun on them. The action results in Amy asking if this is what happens if he travels alone for too long. While it is laudable that they tried to maintain this emphasis upon their departure and what the Doctor is like without companions, it just sticks out like a sore thumb.
Remaining on the subject of the Doctor snapping, one part of the script I did like is how it made connections to his actions in the Time War without explicitly saying so. The series seems to be trying to move away from that part of the Doctor’s life and it’s good they were able to still utilise it without namedropping the event.

Honestly, this is one of the best generic episodes I’ve seen in a long time. It feels epic, is of a very high quality of writing, acting and themes and despite having nothing to with any overarching plot it’s great enough to watch to recommend to just about any fan of the series. This is not one to be missed.


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Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the BBC.

Stormwatch #1-6 (Comic Review) and an update

For those of you who have been following me for a while, you'll know that this will be the 100th uploaded article onto this site. However, this isn't a celebration in itself as a number of those uploads aren't reviews, some are updates, short stories or in one case an attempt to promote an artist. As such this week's one won't be the 100th anniversary, that's going to come later.

What this does feature though is an announcement that I've joined another reviewing website, http://thefoundingfields.com/ which will cover most of the paperback reviews of novels, comics and such. While all of the film, video game and a few of the longer in depth comic reviews will still be posted on paranerds.com, novels and the more condensed comic reviews will be submitted through the The Founding Fields and only posted on that site.

As this review of the first volume of the New 52's Stormwatch reboot will be posted over there with only a short teaser introduction here.





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Stormwatch and all related characters and media are owned by DC Comics.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

FTL: Faster Than Light (Video Game Review)



Immersion can be a strange thing. Often it doesn’t come down to how real the game looks or how well fleshed out the character are, but how real it “feels”. How freely it allows you to forge your own path in the universe and tell your own story without being railroaded in almost any sense - Limited only by how you can die, a few random events and with as unintrusive a story as possible.
It’s a quality which has kept many games being played long after they should have been otherwise regulated to bargain bins and it’s one FTL: Faster Than Light has all but perfected.

The plot for this one is very simplistic and largely serves as an amalgamation of a good dozen science fiction franchises. A rebellion has smashed the forces of the peaceful Federation and the scattered remnants are regrouping on the other side of the galaxy (Andromeda?). As a small Federation corvette carrying vital information for the war effort (hello Star Wars) you need to repeatedly jump from system to system. Moving ahead of the relentlessly advancing rebel fleet and doing all you can to stay alive even as your undermanned badly equipped warship finds itself outgunned at every turn (Ah Battlestar Galactica, was wondering when you’d show up.)
It’s effectively an excuse more than anything else. It provides a backdrop to the threats and gives you motivation to your actions and why the rebellion wants you dead, but it’s no great work of literature. Most of the actual story elements and interesting aspects from the journey itself rather than your end goal or directly combating the rebels.

With each jump you find yourself facing a random encounter, ones either beneficial or designed to completely rip you a new one. From each of them you can create your own tale for what is happening and despite being somewhat repetitious by the end you can easily roleplay through them.
Let’s say that you jump into a system and find a rebel scout in the process of destroying an unarmed transport. Do you risk your ship and the lives of your crew in an act which will most likely kill you and lose the Federation vital data? Or do you allow people to die screaming with no hope of their own survival. Knowing that you could have tried to save them at any time and understand you’re allowing for a dangerous vessel to prowl the surrounding systems for more targets?

It’s what you’d expect from a roguelike game but it does allow for a good balance between appealing to those who want a good story and those who just want good gameplay. Speaking of which, this is quite possibly the only title in a very long time I would call a proper starship combat simulator. The semi-turn based combat it sets up and the top down view of your ship is a complete change from the traditional problems many series have of treating capital ships as a one person starfighter. Rather than pulling off loops and rushing to guns you’re the captain, you’re ordering people to do their jobs and strategising how to stop yourself from being blown out of the sky.

This role also extends to simply keeping your ship working as everything has a cost. If your hull will take a pounding you’ll need to find a way to fix it. You shoot off missiles to blow something up? You’re going to need to buy new ones. You have to get almost everything down to finding fuel, and you’re constantly running low on something. The fact there’s few surefire ways to secure new supplies long term or even ensure that you’ll have enough ammunition to survive your next encounter adds a tangible sense of desperation. Something only enhanced by the prospect of death.
To put it simply if your ship is turned into a disintegrating fireball pinwheeling across space there’s no coming back from it. You won’t be able to reload an old save, won’t be able to be brought back from the depths of hades, you’re permanently dead and will have to start a new game right from the beginning. The same goes for your individual crewmen, if you lose one you’re not going to be able to resuscitate them resulting in even more problems for you. You could end up dying because you don’t have someone specialised enough in one area to take out a ship beating the snot out of you. At the same time you could also end up shooting yourself in the foot by relying too heavily upon one crewman in an already undermanned ship if he/she gets killed and you’re left with no one remotely competent to perform their task.

If you’ve not guessed this isn’t a leisurely game. It’s by no means Dwarf Fortress with spaceships but any loss will have a serious impact upon you and you’ll often be surviving by the skin of your teeth. This, the genre, and potentially the basic if clean looking graphics set are likely to be the only things which might drive people away. Otherwise I’d quite happily recommend this to practically anyone. No, really, if you’ve enjoyed any sort of tactical gameplay where you’ve given orders and understand the excitement of being on the absolute brink of losing but are still going you’ll enjoy this one.

FTL: Faster Than Light is available on Steam and GoG.com at under $10.00. It’s also got a 10% off deal for its opening weekend, AKA this one, so if you are planning on getting it I’d suggest doing so now.

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FTL: Faster Than Light and all related characters and media are owned by Subset Games.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Episode Review)



If you wanted an example of all the flaws found in the Moffat era Doctor Who’s writing look no further. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship seems to serve largely as a display of where the series falls short in its scripts and which aspects keep dragging its stories down.

To put it simply it relies upon the audience accepting things without thinking.
There are some gaping plot holes, mood whiplash is rife, characters are dropped in without introductions of any sort and the first act seems only to exist to be gotten out of the way as fast as possible. Rather than stopping to bloody well explain anything or spend time setting anything up; the entire episode is devoted to putting as much things on screen as possible and rush through them.

To give a quick example, the episode opens up with the Doctor having done… something in Egypt and queen Nefetiti being very interested in him. He then sees something alerting him on a card and the scene jumps to the present day in the Indian Space Agency where he is told an object the length of Canada will soon impact with the Earth. He has six hours to stop it. He then jumps back in time, grabs a Victorian big game hunter, Amy, Rory and Rory’s father then heads for the ship.
This is all within the first five minutes. Why does the Doctor not just travel back further to give him more time to stop it? Why does he want the Victorian explorer with him? Why is the Indian Space Agency dealing with this rather than UNIT? Why is queen Nefetiti of more titles than I can list still with him?
Not explained. Oh, and this is the short list of things which are never gone into. You wouldn’t believe how long the list of plot elements which are raced through at breakneck speed or brought up then promptly dropped is.

A good nine tenths of this stuff consists of things they could have easily dropped. Rather than giving us the distorted feeling of five scene transitions, multiple time travelling jumps and everything else the episode could have easily started with him picking up Amy and Rory. Worst case scenario is that one of them might ask the Doctor the same questions the audience had by this point – who the hell are the two people with him and why has he picked them up this time. It’s about seventeen minutes in and with a thirty second conversation that any semblance of an explanation for anything is given and the show starts to slow down a bit.

What’s more is that while Doctor Who usually has some zany aspects to it, especially with Matt Smith’s Doctor, the writers really amped it up to the maximum for this episode. It’s understandable that it would be greater than usual with the themes of dinosaurs on spaceships, but this takes it a good nine or ten steps too far.
For example, the threatening mass murdering robot henchmen who effectively wipe out an entire colony ship’s worth of sentient beings bicker like an old married couple, act as incompetent as humanly possible and are not terrifying in the slightest. In the very scene where they shoot a hostage and we are told they killed thousands of silurians; they’re shown to be arguing about manners and are used for light comedy. It takes a very rare talent and character to have a figure pull of being both hilarious and capable of giving people nightmares, and unfortunately for us neither robot even comes close to this. Nor does their master.

Their master in fact is given quite possibly even less personality than the robots. All we learn about him is that he’s callous, money driven and is so unimportant that we never even learn his second name. No, really, it’s like the writers realised at the very last minute “Oh hell! We actually need a proper antagonist!” and wrote him in as best they could. He’s given no background and the way he’s written makes him so forgettable that you’ll forget his name seconds after it’s said, just like many characters in this era.
Perhaps the only reason anyone might remember him is that the producers managed to get David Bradley for the role. The same goes for a lot of the characters with Rory’s dad, Brian, being played by Mark Williams and Rupert Graves is the Victorian hunter. None of who are given any vast amount of time to act out their parts and were it not for the calibre of actor playing them would be completely forgettable.

By the end of it the script is flimsy bordering upon non-existent and almost all the episode’s qualities come either from the effects department or the actors. The latter of who deserved a much better episode than this. It’s just too much by the end. Too many elements introduced leaving it overstuffed, too directionless, too many unnecessary characters leaving them somewhat one-dimensional, too much plot and scenes to get out of the way, and far too many jarring moments without warning or build-up. Perhaps the best part of the actual script was the hint of the Doctor’s identity being lost and the reason dinosaurs are on the ship, but these are very small elements of the story.
While we have seen much worse on Doctor Who, this is just not very good. It’ll keep you entertained for a while, but you’d probably just do better to go on iPlayer and re-watch Asylum of the Daleks.



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Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the BBC.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Fight to save the Middle-Earth Roleplaying Project


Since its past few games the Elder Scrolls series has become directly associated with mods, with fans diligently enhancing and altering the environment to tell stories and make improvements. Since Skyrim's release we've seen everything from mods to let you play as space marines to texture enhancements, but this is definitely the most ambitious out of any we've seen.

Having been in development since 2008, originally for Oblivion, the Middle-Earth Roleplaying Project is one titanic effort to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's universe to life and adapt it into a video game. We've had plenty of Lord of the Rings games over the past few years, but none have ever been to a scale such as this with the end result of this project being a complete accessible map of Middle-Earth.

Go to your PC, PS3, 360 or whatever you have it for and bring up the world map for Skyrim. Focus upon each location listed and think for a minute about how vast the environment was, how far you could go into the wilderness and explore areas otherwise ignored by civlisation. Think about how great it is each time you stumbled upon a quest rather than hunted it out like finding the ghostblade for the first time, a lighthouse overrun by falmer or even unwittingly activating the Thieves' Guild questline.
Now imagine if that world were bigger with more of those opportunities to truly adventure. Not just simply bigger, but a total of nine times Skyrim's size covering a much greater variety of environments than seen in an Elder Scrolls game. That's what the end result of the Middle-Earth Roleplaying Project will be if they are given a chance to complete their work. The mod openly advertises the fact that it will cover everywhere from "Forochel to Harondor and from Forlindon to Rhovanion and every town and great city in-between."

Were this not enough, you play the role of the ringbearer in this game and are given the choice to cast Sauron's greatest weapon into the fires of Mt. Doom or turn to your own selfish desires. Multiple battles from the films are planned to be included within this questline and there's even hints at greater opportunities such as joining the White Council.
Oh, and you can fight the balrog.

Now all of this sounds fantastic doesn't it? Like something too good to be true or will be a letdown once its released. Well, at the rate things are going we'll likely never know how well it would deliver upon its promises. The IP holders of Lord of the Rings in Warner Bros. have issued a cease-and-desist order preventing this mod's release or even further attempts to expand upon what has been done.
Repeated negotiations have been made to try and preserve what has been made thus far, even going so far as to remove quests and aspects to help solve the conflict, but their efforts were ignored at every turn. As such the mod's creators have turned to the only remaining solution: a petition.

While chances of success are slim and it will require a vast amount of support in the face of future films like the Hobbit, a petition has been raised to help protect the game and allow further work upon it. The list of names currently stands at just over seven-thousand-two-hundred, but a great deal more are needed to have any actual impact.

With entire villages, cities and Helm's Deep showing near completion it would be a hideous loss for it to end now, especially after four years of development. If any of this has interested you in the slightest, visit the mod currently under construction here on moddb.com and see what has been made thus far. If you think the herculean amount of time and effort put into it is worth saving, then the petition can be found here.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Darkman (Film Review)



There seems to be an unfortunate trend when it comes to critics and Liam Neeson these days. Some seem to claim that he’s resting on his laurels. That he’s given up on doing serious films in favour of dumber, explodier popcorn films like Battleship and Clash of the Titans as a way of getting an easy paycheck with less effort. Ignoring the vast number of counter-arguments which can be made to this it ought to be pointed out that this isn’t some sudden turn in his career. For every Schindler’s List he’s appeared in a Krull, and while they have more explosions not all of them are necessarily outright dumb or have Neeson putting in less effort. Case and point: Darkman.

This film is, to put it simply, Batman as done by Sam Rami. No really, he did it when he couldn’t get his rights to that franchise, and you can draw quite a few parallels between the two – Both protagonists are driven by traumatic events, have effectively no superpowers, use science and gadgets to defeat their enemies and are geniuses in their own right. This isn’t to say one is a carbon copy of the other, simply that you can see the parallels between the two. In fact it’s closer to Phantom of the Opera than it is any traditional superhero film. That or Batman where hobo scientist Two Face is the hero.

The film follows the scientist Peyton Westlake (Neeson) as he attempts to take revenge upon a criminal cartel which physically disfigured him and killed his assistant in order to steal a revolutionary new synthetic skin he created. Officially dead, he unknowingly undergoes a number of medical experiments while comatose which severs his pain receptors. This allows him to operate despite his disfigurements, and gives him adrenal overload, but leaves him unable to physically feel objects. Having lost effectively everything he begins to plan his retribution, using his creation to disguise himself as his enemies.

If you’ve not guessed it from that, this isn’t the most realistic of films. Even ignoring aspects of the synthetic skin core to the plot, such as its photosensitivity, Westlake survives an almost hilarious level of physical trauma. You also wonder how he can keep a high tech lab hidden and functional when effectively being homeless and the traditional Rami campness creeps in once in a while. Yet despite that the script still delivers thanks to its action set pieces, high quality of acting and above all else its character progression.

When Westlake begins his efforts to take revenge, you’re rooting for him until it becomes extremely obvious that he’s become potentially an even bigger monster than those he hunts. The only difference between Darkman and the criminal mob is that one is a monster completely focused upon killing those who wronged him, while the others are killing for personal power. This might sound somewhat generic, like a 90s anti-hero cliché, but the film handles it with care and turns it into something truly worthwhile.
Focusing entirely upon what Westlake has lost before slowly moving towards showing how he has become unhinged. One of the best scenes which represents this first point is where he realises he has lost all sense of feeling, which is uncomfortably harrowing and Liam Neeson’s performance conveys a serious sense of emotional pain with very little dialogue. He’s still sympathetic at this point but you can clearly see insanity beginning to creep in upon learning this, especially after all he’s already been through.

While aspects like the action scenes and effects are usually what the film is best remembered for, it’s a real credit to Neeson’s acting ability that he was able to convey such emotion. As he is near constantly covered by prosthetics and bandages, it’s astounding to see that he manages to maintain such a performance throughout the film. You’d have a hard time picking out any serious dips in his acting quality when comparing the scenes where he is allowed to show his face and where he’s bandaged up. It’s this which really helps to elevate the film in many respects as he comes across as being very human yet at the same time both very powerful and monsterous. Even if you’ve seen Neeson enough times to recognise him as an actor rather than character in his films, more often than not you’re going to see Westlake rather than the actor playing him.
Compare this with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Think of how you saw the Joker in that – In spite of it visibly being Heath Ledger beneath the scars and makeup you never really think of him as anything other than the Joker. It’s that small bonus which helps to elevate a film which would have been great without it to new heights.

Even ignoring the journey Westlake undergoes, though considering this is effectively a character study why would you, the action scenes have withstood the tests of time quite well. They often have the problem of putting characters in front of blindingly obvious screened backgrounds, such as when Westlake is riding atop a train but the stunts tend to make up for it. One specific scene which comes to mind is a freeway battle which has an astounding amount of pyrotechnics considering the film’s relatively slim budget.

Now Darkman isn’t without its flaws. While seeing them fall was immensely satisfying the villains felt occasionally underwhelming and not quite what you’d expect for a film of this genre. They need slightly more flavour to them in order to stand out or a much more singularly identifiable villain. The aforementioned problems with explosive backgrounds come up far too many times to simply be ignored and there were times when Westlake’s savage outbursts felt overly forced by the plot. These also tend to overshadow his attempts to rebuild his life and restart his relationship with his girlfriend Julie Hastings, feeling heavy handed even by this film’s standards. Yet at the same time these are trademark problems which frequently reoccur within Sam Rami’s productions and they never manage to ruin the experience of watching this for the first time.

For a genre which has had a serious resurgence over the past few years and many both strong and weak entries; Darkman is an underappreciated cult classic. It has more depth, intelligence and drive than you’d expect to see from an early nineties superhero film and I’d easily rank it alongside greats like Batman Begins. Just be wary that it has its age certificate for good reasons if you do seek it out.

Also don’t bother with the sequels. They ended up feeling like inferior copies of the original and a lot of aspects they introduced just seemed cartoonish and overblown, pushing suspension of disbelief that little too far.

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Darkman and all related characters and media are owned by Universal Pictures.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Mass Effect 3: Leviathan (DLC Review)




Having finally gotten around to playing it, I’ve got to wonder who asked for this? As has been said by many a person: A mystery is only interesting so long as no definitive answer is given. There are many reasons for this ranging from just guessing about what’s at the end to fans coming up with their own answers, which have the unfortunate tendency to be better than what we’re actually given. But someone must have been asking for Bioware to spill the beans on the last few mysteries of the MEverse, so here’s Mass Effect 3: Leviathan.

The story behind this one is actually fairly good and is rooted within the series’ mythos. During the events of 2, there was mention of the Leviathan of Dis. Leviathan was said to be the corpse of a genetically engineered starship found and taken by the Batarian Hegemony. The not-entirely-dead Leviathan was revealed to be a Reaper, and crippled the Hegemony’s defences for their invasion.

Turns out however, that’s not all to this story.

The Systems Alliance begins to find evidence of Reaper existence long before they were supposed to have been created, and questions begin to arise surrounding just what “killed” Leviathan to begin with. With time running out Shepard’s team must uncover the final mysteries behind the god-squid.

If you’ve not already guessed it, most of the appeal of this DLC is the story which has a great setup but a less than stellar payoff. Without giving anything away, it’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing from the Leviathan DLC. You can tell it’s well developed, the timing is great and the plot interesting but you can’t feel that there should be so much more to this.

The actual reveal all comes at the last minute in a delivery which doesn’t feel remotely as grand or glorious as it should. Hints don’t develop over time so rather than having the player build up their understand gradually all the answers are dumped all at once. A comparative experience would be like reading a murder mystery, but rather than having the characters find out clues over time almost everything is told in the final chapter. There’s some interesting things you’re shown on the side, moral choices, character discussions – all that great stuff; but you only get into the real meat of the DLC in one final conversation.

Another issue is this really feels tacked on. Previous DLC for 2 like Overlord and Shadow Broker didn’t have the fact they were effectively side-missions detract from the enjoyment found in them. They, while important, were side stories which didn’t have earth-shattering reveals linked into them. You could do them at any time, which makes them feel all the less pressing and it’s the same here. Only now not only do you have earth-shattering reveals to take into account but the finale for the entire series is within sight. It regulates this to being effectively a brief sidequest when it should be so much more.

The same really goes for the underwater sections which were heavily advertised in all the promotional material. You’re down beneath the surface for mere minutes then you shoot back to the surface. Also the fact he/she doesn’t get the bends while surfacing at the speed he/she does means we can probably add Aquaman powers to Shepard’s list of abilities. Story and seabed mission aside however, I can happily say that the rest of the gameplay is up to standard. DLC is always a chance to do something different, and Leviathan breaks the usual status quo as much as you’d expect.

Almost as soon as you start the usual thing of “go to quest-giver, shoot people/find object/scan planet, return to quest giver” is quickly shaken up. You’re forced to hunt through a lab of research notes, evidence and samples in a detective operation almost reminiscent of L.A. Noir. Bioware actually really seems to like using this as this is the third Mass Effect DLC it’s shown up in. The combat sequences are similarly well made, avoiding corridor gunfights in favour of more open areas with some genuinely interesting locales. One of the standout areas which comes to mind is when you’re exploring a mining colony which had gone to hell, and had some creepy moments which had me thinking “this is what Dead Space should have been”.
Perhaps the only flaw in this is that one point has a situation which is effectively a rehash of the drone escorts and “pizza delivery” objectives introduced to multiplayer in the Earth and Rebellion DLC. This might have been done due to a lack of time but that doesn’t detract from the feeling that someone got lazy while making this.

To top this off there are new War Assets, guns, mods and planets to view on your galaxy map which while nice additions are nothing truly outstanding. The real bonus actually comes in the form of the voices. Atop of having as good a vocal talent as we’ve come to expect from Mass Effect for the new NPCs, the main cast was on hand for this DLC. This is a first as there’s new Normandy based chatter, mid-mission banter between squadmates and the fact people talk makes the whole experience feel more complete. The lack of squad conversation in DLC was an issue Mass Effect 2 always had to skirt around, so it’s nice to see it truly averted here.

With both its strengths and flaws, Mass Effect 3: Leviathan is just about worth getting. You’ll likely end up feeling disappointed with the answers it gives and its additions to the canon, but the settings, presentation and fully voiced characters might offset feelings of negativity. If you felt that the DLC from Mass Effect 2 like Kasumi – Stolen Memory, Arrival and Lair of the Shadow Broker had been worth your money you’d do well to get this one. Just don’t expect it to be completely perfect.

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