Thursday, 27 November 2014

This War of Mine (Video Game Review)

For all the many times “war is hell” has emerged as a message in video games, many developers have always hit a snag with its delivery. More often than not this is down to it being tied to FPS modern military shooters, where the message itself is buried beneath the corpses left in the player’s wake. This War of Mine is the exception, jumping genres entirely and hitting home just how harsh the realities of war truly are.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eisenhorn: Xenos Interview

For all the varied video games depicting the nightmare future Warhammer 40,000 universe, few take the time to examine anything beyond the frontlines. Every title from the methodically slow-paced Space Hulk to Dawn of War’s high speed RTS action have focused more upon killing Orks with bolters than secret shadow wars fought between ancient powers. At least until now. Adapted from the first book of Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn trilogy, Xenos follows the career of Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn of the Ordo Xenos. Tasked with exterminating alien influences from across the Imperium’s worlds, the story depicts Eisenhorn’s efforts to annihilate a powerful cult and his own slow journey towards damnation.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why Zelda Should Be Assassin's Creed's Future

Of all the criticisms which have been leveled at Assassin's Creed: Unity, one of the big ones has been its apparent step backwards. Well, the big one besides the hilariously horrifying bugs, obvious glitches and embargo problems at any rate. Having abandoned seafaring combat in favour of a more traditional approach and effectively tacking on the much touted co-op angle as an additional mode, it's hard to disagree with this. While there have been obvious steps forwards in places, at its core the title seems to be stagnant, doing little to truly address some of its flaws in terms of how easy combat remains, guards so readily losing the player and the like.

The core problems remain at every turn and the big efforts to put new spins on things often seem for new games seem like one-shot gimmicks. These have plagued the series for years and the answer to combating this issue could lie with another famed franchise - The Legend of Zelda.

On the surface each game looks very similar. Each retains certain core gimmicks and sticks closely to its genre, each will always feature a very similar protagonist to its predecessors and each tries to have new ideas added to a repeated formula to give it new life. Yet despite this, Zelda is not nearly so frequent a target for this criticism as Assassin's Creed, and there's a few obvious reasons for that, all of which boil down to overall approach. 

Think for a moment about what elements each franchise have added to their titles and how they adapted their ideas to each installment. 

With Zelda, from the N64 era onward, there is a clear progression of changes and new ideas. 
Ocarina of Time introduced the musical and song elements along with time travel. 
This was then taken into Majora's Mask with a few tweaks, turning the time element into a set series of days and with sidequests they needed to keep track of. Then atop of this there was the mask mechanics, altering Link's form; each of the racial masks allowed for a new method of travel and exploration. 
Wind Waker dropped elements of both but kept others. Music and composing certain sequences remained a major part of the game, necessary for completing each dungeon. While outright transformations were largely ignored, added methods of travel were looked into with the addition of a boat, along with vastly changing the entire world as a whole.
When Twilight Princess came about, shades of each could be seen and even new versions of old ideas could be found in basic elements of it, with transformations making a return and the like.

At every turn Zelda tries to rework its ideas, revamp them and renew them. Even the very idea of music being at the core of the games doesn't begin with Ocarina of Time, and it's been an element present in almost all of the games. Each is carefully thought out, built upon the last installment in some way with prior ideas adapted and renewed even as additional ones are built atop them. There's a constant sense of progression from one game to the next, and while it retains the basic core gameplay, it the developers seem to be approaching it with the intent of not trying to fix what isn't broken. They take on-board new ideas, but don't lose sight of what made the games so effective in the first place.

Assassin's Creed does embrace many of these same points, but it's a very flawed equivalent of this for a few reasons. An earlier paragraph referred to the series' new ideas as gimmicks, and that's sadly what these come down to far too often. Rather than being directly integrated into the very core of the game, they're added more like bonus features or optional elements to try and spice things up. 

Ubisoft's approach was initially very clear in Brotherhood when the series' introduced the option to control and command bands on initiates. While they could be called upon in battle and even sent off on missions, this was rarely plot essential and many core missions even barred their involvement entirely. Rather than making it something essential to the entire game, it was instead added on around it and discarded when it got in the way. The same goes for later elements, with even the highly praised elements such as ship to ship combat. Black Flag only went in the direction it did thanks to the battles being one of the few highly praised elements in III, then abandoned for a completely different game when the creators moved onto Unity.

Sticking with ship combat itself for the moment, then also consider how it was implemented into each title. Many segments did surround the use of ship battles, with several blockade runs and big sequences being the highlight of Black Flag, but many critical sections seemed to ignore its involvement. Half the game was spent using the ship and then the other half, usually the one most critical to the plot, abandoned it entirely, instead falling back on the mechanics of past games. Rather than truly combining them or offering new opportunities from having a crew at their command, or even heavy artillery for that matter, Ubisoft's design left a clear divide between each part of the game. This has only been taken further with Unity, which has all but abandoned the very idea of working in a group as a part of the core mechanic. Instead it's left purely as a multiplayer mode, 

Perhaps an even bigger problem than this inability to truly build upon mechanics is the overall approach of making things bigger before truly fixing them. Now, no one will ever argue against the art design or mo-cap quality of any Assassin's Creed game; each has proven time and time again to present gorgeous locales, interesting environmental options and the ability to traverse the city as a white garbed Batman has never not been fun. However, as time goes by these flashier elements have become the focus of development and trying to rake in big crowds. Half of what Unity was promoted about was the ability to generate bigger crowds than ever, taller buildings to traverse and the like. The issue is that they focused upon building flashier and more extravagant elements without better improving the series' foundations.

Think for a second about all the criticisms surrounding the series. The very act of hunting down, planning and assassinating people has always been fun, but it's often boiled down to mass murder and frantic building chases. The likes of Dishonoured and even Shadow of Mordor have been praised as doing a better job with the concept, manipulating enemies and forcing the player to stick to the shadows. The very combat system itself has remained the same from the start, but none of the glaring issues have been fixed. Anyone who knows how to counter attacks or carries a few smoke bombs will immediately know how to win every fight, and even ranged attackers offer little real threat. This is not to mention entirely new issues like massive graphical glitches and failings in certain titles, like how, notably in Unity, NPCs can completely shapeshift as you approach them.

Say what you will about the Zelda franchise, it does stick to what works in a similar manner to Assassin's Creed, but the time was taken to fully iron out each issue in turn. The combat might be as basic, but the main focus is instead upon item gathering, puzzles and dungeon crawling, all of which they do well. There's no real flaws evident in their basic approach and no glaring issues which remain similar to Assassin's Creed's problematic combat system. The closest one which exists is the requirement to unlock items, but that has been reworked in the past and used to open up the world around the player rather than being left unchanged.

Perhaps the biggest point of all, the single greatest thing Ubisoft could learn from watching Nintendo, is this: Restraint. Nintendo might be traditionalists in every respect, for both good and bad, but as iconic as their characters get they tend to know where to draw the line in terms of overexposure. Throughout the last generation we saw a grand total of six games, seven if you include Rogue. In an attempt to have it be their answer to Call of Duty, Ubisoft is mashing out these things like they're coming off a production line. 

This yearly release schedule they have now has led to the series creatively stagnating bit by bit. The reason so many seem to be so similar, and we have had so few real advances or total reworkings is because the games are hammered out by various teams in insanely short spaces of time. It's not enough to truly patch out each sequel's problems or even fully consider exactly how to incorporate new ideas into the series rather than tacking them onto the title. Assassin's Creed II was the last massive leap forwards for the series and that was only given on additional year of development time, so imagine for a moment what the developers could accomplish with that again. 

With longer development times Zelda doesn't suffer from this issue, but more importantly it doesn't suffer from overexposure. A franchise's flaws are all the more obvious when they are seen over and over again, in rapid succession with no efforts to truly improve them. It might be a venerated franchise, but the Legend of Zelda has rarely seen more than two releases per console. As a result the continual dungeon crawling, the collection of the same items, even the re-use of certain enemies and ideas can still seem fresh. Interest in the franchise itself can be maintained by an established fandom, which Assassin's Creed most definitely has, or even by having the characters show up in minor secondary games. 

While many other points could be drawn up, these are the key areas which Ubisoft could look at and use to improve their beloved franchise. Assassin's Creed is by no means bad, but it seems very strange that they cannot take the time to look at prior successes or venerated franchises and see what works with them. If they were to really stop and examine both, the quality of games focusing upon the Assassin/Templar war would almost certainly increase exponentially.

These are of course only personal thoughts however. If you have your own opinions or even disagreements with this, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Monday, 17 November 2014

God of Mars (Book Review)

Following directly on from the bombshells left in the wake of Lords of Mars, the latest novel by McNeill is a very strange tome indeed. On the one hand it’s the perfect example of a possible angle for Warhammer 40,000 novels to approach, focusing away from the battlefields in favour of a space opera and ongoing tale of conflicting agendas and secrets. Brighter than the average setting of the universe, more akin to Gotrek and Felix than the Ultramarines series, the Adeptus Mechanicus books are a clear way to break away from the perpetual grimdark style some readers have come to hate. With a plethora of fascinating characters, the rare 40k setting of a true space opera and a wealth of new opportunities, it should be a shining example to all of Black Library. On the other hand, it never seems to truly embrace all of this and many points keep trying to be less Battlestar Galactica and more Star Trek: Into Darkness, often pulling back into familiar territory. This is taken to the next level in Gods of Mars and it badly hurts the series as a result.

Friday, 14 November 2014

BlazeRush (Video Game Review)

The Rock N’ Roll racing of a new generation, BlazeRush is the kind of explosive fun you’ll instantly recognise. It’s the sort of game anyone who grew up with the original PlayStation will have seen in spades, with no plot, an isometric fixed camera and a massive emphasis upon multiplayer mayhem.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Space Hulk Ascension Edition

The second outing by Full Control to depict the Adeptus Astartes making perilous expeditions into long lost, xenos-infested starships, Space Hulk Ascension Edition is a massive leap forwards from its predecessor. Along with a far broader mix of chapters, many of the massive criticisms levelled at the previous game have been directly addressed here, from atmosphere to progression.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

2015's Fantastic Four Film - Doctor Doom Is Dead

As if fans of Marvel's first family didn't already have enough reasons to hate Josh Trank's decisions of late, they now have an entirely new gripe to fume over. Rather than featuring the Fantastic Four fighting the famous metal masked dictator of Latveria, they will be fighting a Russian blogger.

No, really.

Revealed on Colldier, the following information was discovered on the DVD release for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Speaking with Toby Kebbell, who will be playing not-Doctor Doom, he conveyed the following information to audiences:

"He’s Victor Domashev, not Victor Von Doom in our story.  And I’m sure I’ll be sent to jail for telling you that.  The Doom in ours—I’m a programmer.  Very anti-social programmer.  And on blogging sites I’m “Doom”."

A full video can be found on the link covering the entire interview, but notable terms picked out from quotes were Kebbell stating "even in the cartoons, when I was watching them I was like, “So where’s he from?”" and further confirming Trank's approach to be "lo-fi". This only further slams audiences with the confirmation that no one on this project even begins to understand the basics of why Fantastic Four works. It has never been about being lo-fi, it's not about extreme street level grittiness, it's about high adventure and outlandish science.

As mentioned in previous articles, the creative forces behind this project are trying throwing the source material completely out the window. They're trying to write the Fantastic Four as a group they were never intended to be, and even ignoring past mistakes which were made by previous creators. Turning the Four into teenagers, making their powers act like disabilities, trying to turn Doom into a more "believable" character, these were all attempted in the Ultimate universe. You know what else as well? That incarnation of the team split up and never again reformed, only really working once they were integrated into other parts of the setting.

There are many teams this could work with, X-Factor, the Morlocks, perhaps even the recent Inhuman outbreaks in comic, or even the Runaways at a stretch. They were built from the ground up with this sort of thing in mind and it's since been well integrated into their style, their mythos, their overall identity. Trying to turn the Four into this is not only driving away the most interested group in seeing a film, it's also making terrible use of the source material. There are ways certain ones can be interpreted into a wide variety of different viewpoints, ideas and shifted to fit certain concepts. However, when a film goes as far as this one does though, with the creators behind it apparently being openly ashamed and embarrassed of what they're working with, it takes a miracle to get anything truly good out of it.

Ultimately this idea has removed anything fantastic or remotely fun from Doom and seems intent upon ignoring anything which could work as it might not be taken seriously. The problem is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already shown many times over people can happily accept some of the more fantastical elements. If directors tired to do the same with them, it would spell disaster.

Imagine if Tony Stark was envisioned not as a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist but as a homeless man living off of scraps or someone at a dead end call centre. It would lose half the idea behind the character, his entire drive, and the core message which was at the very heart of his creation.
Imagine if Thor was never used as the actual God of Thunder, but as a deluded lunatic locked away in a mental asylum merely thinking he was the god. The entire film would lose all of its biggest strengths, in terms of characters, setting, motivations and the contrasting cultures which gave the films their best gags.
Imagine if Captain America was reduced to being a failed genetic experiment stuck with half his body trying to actively kill the other half, living his life as a cripple and unable to fight.

Iron Man 3 was the closest any film came to doing this, which still offered plenty of big battles and futuristic tech scenes. Despite doing so, even then that film received flak from sizable parts of the fandom over trying to dodge the more outstanding elements of the comics. Audiences don't want to see this sort of thing with characters who were never intended to embody it, and this is just spelling disaster for the film.

On a personal note, I do truly hope that this film does somehow manage to capture some elements of what made the comics so good to begin with. That said, a Doom best known for being grand, operatic and bombastic, master of science and magic? How could that ever be seen as the weaker option when compared with "Internet troll gains super powers, goes insane"?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Lords of the Fallen (Video Game Review)

Wearing its influences on its sleeve, it’s clear that Deck13 Interactive’s Lords of the Fallen is a title trying to capitalise on the success of Dark Souls. Yet rather than being the soulless cash-in many would expect, Lords of the Fallen puts a unique spin on things to help it stand out on its own. Here the player takes the role of Harkyn, a convicted criminal in a world where every man’s sin is laid bare for all to see. Released with a chance for redemption he is sent on a seemingly suicidal mission to halt a demonic invasion.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Doctor Who: Dark Water & Death in Heaven (Series Finale Review)

Some of you will have been wondering where all the reviews have been. Even with my previous announcement of things slowing down on here for a bit the Doctor Who reviews are something often gotten out on a weekly basis. Well, the truth was that after seeing Dark Water, it seemed best to cover this as a single piece. Why? For a number of reasons, but foremost because so much of Dark Water itself was set-up more than anything else. Also to let the firestorm of controversy surrounding a certain line die down a bit before approaching it.

No prizes for guessing which one that was.

Dark Water

After many tumultuous revelations and secrets, Clara has finally decided to reveal to Danny everything. Planning out exactly what she needs to cover, she prepares to explain her adventures to her boyfriend, only to hear him run down by a car while over the phone. In an act of desperation, Clara returns to the Doctor and asks him to do the impossible - Bring Danny back, find him or alter time somehow to ensure his survival. What they find when they go in search of the former soldier is far worse than either would have ever imagined.

The sad thing about each episode is that all the elements were there for something truly outstanding, but both the set-up and writing are what holds it back from greatness. When taken on their own, the scene of Clara hearing Danny's abrupt death and her confrontation with the Doctor are executed magnificently. The acting is great, the cinematography fantastic and each is remarkably well staged even for this series, the moment itself works fine. 

The chief failing of the scene comes from the rest of the series. Even after multiple episodes with him, no writer has known what to do with Danny. We know that he's a soldier, and that he suffers guilt, but no writer seems to truly know how to turn those traits into a fully realised character. As such, the impact of his death doesn't have the resonance that the episode's creators clearly wanted, and lacks the real gut-wrenching effect it should have featured. In all honesty, if this was the first time we were truly introduced to him, the story might have actually had far more of an effect. It would have at least inspired investment to know just who this person was to Clara, inspiring her to go to the lengths she does later on.

This isn't just here either, we also have Missy as well. Having been arbitrarily shoved into episode after episode, almost tacked on rather than truly integrated or left to slight hints, the wham moment of her reveal is severely blunted. With so many theories and ideas surrounding the character already, people had already guessed her identity from the name, look and the fact writers were practically shouting she was the main villain from the rooftops. It also didn't help that the big fan theory, the ridiculously obvious one, turned out to be the right one.

While this review won't reveal Missy's true name for the sake of spoilers, between it and the black clothing you can likely already guess who she is. As such, when he is introduced as River Song clone #265 (lust for the Doctor, snark, quirkiness, etc) the revelation doesn't work. She doesn't stand out as who the person she's supposed to be, and it's clearly the fault of the writing here. While I was initially not a fan of Michelle Gomez's portrayal a few scenes do show she has the chops to pull off a great version of this character. Instead we're just left with a poorly mashed together combination of the incarnation who fought David Tennant and Madame Kovarian. Unfortunately rather than the bits which radiate menace or some true traditionally villainy, we're treated to more scenes of snark and going after the Doctor in all the wrong ways.

These really are the true problems in what could have been a fantastic episode. Dark Water itself did answer many fan criticisms, with it being a finale where it was once again a true alien invasion rather than all of reality was not at risk, and it seemed to be trying to emulate past successes. The problem is that these are critical parts to any episode, serving as both the inciting incident and big antagonist, and without them it loses a lot of its initial punch.

With all these failings pointed out however, the rest of the story was largely decent. For the first time since the series began, Danny looked to be getting some proper character moments which actually started to work. The parts surrounding death (again, besides one major problem which requires its own article) do retain a good mixture of humour, grim themes and the possibilities present are well executed. The casting choice of Chris Addison in particular stood out as a good move, as he's talented enough of an actor to sell the lines and concepts his character Seb is supposed to convey. The whole scene where he talks about what death might actually be is intelligent enough for real consideration and sounds potentially plausible in that universe. Something which makes one point all the worse, but again let's save that for another time.

The reveal of who the muscle were for Missy was equally excellent, slowly building towards the eventual reveal. It was an introduction reminiscent of Bad Wolf's reveal of the daleks. While they were always in plane sight and obvious to any viewer, how they were slowly peeled away and gradually revealed to the audience radiated with menace, showing the Cybermen with the sort of gambits they are best known for. Being a race of coldly logical machine-men, they can happily afford to wait and will bide their time to infiltrate society, and this was the rare occasion where a modern series episode really looked into just how far that could go. It's just unfortunate that the promotional team didn't get the memo that this particular enemy's arrival was supposed to be a surprise.

The cinematography and camerawork was equally on top form here, with some especially memorable shots and moments when it came to the big villain's reveal. The way each shot linked into the next during some of the especially dramatic scenes such as the volcano moment gave some real weight to what was at risk. How the camera capture'd each actor's presence while building up a scene's atmosphere is one of the best aspects of the entire episode, and it's present throughout. Say what you will about the quality of this series but it's rarely shot badly save for a few especially notable episodes.

All this said however, much of Dark Water was just building up to its second part. It did establish what was at risk and to really serve as the opening act with a cliffhanger. Much of the real drama and weight of events seemed to be being held back, and while there was some substance to the events, it drew the line just as things were truly becoming interesting. The story's whole success was left for the second part, Death in Heaven, and everything rode upon that story's execution.

Was it good? Well, yes and no.

Death in Heaven

With Missy's plan in full swing, the Doctor faces down the potential annihilation of Earth. Despite retaining all the power he could ever want, he finds himself at a complete loss at every turn. With seemingly no way to halt the extinction of the human race, help may come from an unexpected source.

In many respects Death in Heaven amplifies the strengths and weaknesses of its first half, with the same good and bad aspects and problems remaining, but shifting slightly as a result of the writing. There's obviously good here, but the quality zig-zags up and down from scene to scene, depending upon what subject it's looking into. Also depending upon how often Moffat's writing opts to give actual reasons for things.

At many, many points in this episode it's hard not to pause and wonder "did they really just do that?" or be left baffled at just how the hell something occurred. A critical scene which is supposed to show off Missy's villainy ultimately ends up underwhelmed as, by fault of either the writing or direction, she only becomes a capable foe through the power of bad editing. No, really, one scene in a cargo hold has her pulling off a truly villainous moment by teleporting across the room between cuts and having the two armed guards behind her not bat an eye at this.

Such "this happened, don't question or think about it" moments are rife throughout the episode, and it hits Missy especially hard. How so? Well, her entire motivation and plans for the Doctor are at best self-defeating and fail to even really be justified by raging insanity. It adds a level of total obsession never present in the character's worst days and many unnecessary elements such as setting up the Doctor and Clara's entire companionship. It only gets worse when, at the end of the day, the story presents no real reason as to why this had to be an episode involving her. The entire plan and gambit could have easily been accomplished by the Cybermen alone, and it never plays into any truly interesting developments or outstanding moments with her. It also doesn't help that the episode took things a step further by having her start imitating moments from Jekyll atop of everything else.

While Missy might have been bad in her own way, the Cybermen felt largely wasted. On the one hand they were offers far more interesting and threatening moments, especially when they opt to start arising from grave sites in a Hammer Horror-esque scene and go after the Doctor. On the other, they never seemed to be the direct threat, merely a means to an end, thugs and weapons for Missy to wield. This becomes quite literal by the end with them all being controlled by a bracelet (yes, you read that correctly) and being shoved mostly into the background of crucial scenes. If you were to replace them with some unknown threat, there would have been no difference, and they really just seemed to amount to fan-service.

Oddly, it was actually Danny and Clara which helped hold together some of the stronger parts of this tale. Despite being wasted for most of the series, Danny here actually shone through with some truly great moments, commenting both upon the Doctor and in his rather unfortunate state. Having been given something to actually work with besides confused background elements, irritating child characters and a love life, Samuel Anderson showed just what he could pull off in the show. Had he been given this sort of treatment and focus prior to this story, the character would be better received by most audiences. It's just a damn shame it took the very last story of this entire damn series to actually get him right, and for some truly touching moments with Clara.

Clara herself was shown to use her intelligence to buy some time and survive the initial Cyberman invasion, and the eventual resolution of her story arc with the Doctor proved to be surprisingly fitting. The way each leaves the other is a good way to close out their journey in the TARDIS given how often each had kept secrets from one another, and the closing shots are a fitting end to this series.

Where the episode seemed to be at its strongest was when it was focusing upon the Doctor trying to come to terms with Missy's plan and the character relationships between this series' core characters. While there were a few head-banging-against-wall worthy moments (especially when it comes to certain UNIT decisions) it did make up a core part of the story where things were in full momentum. There was an obvious threat, a big objective and the the pacing remained excellent throughout. Once it actually came to dealing with the last part of that plan and Missy herself though, things just fell to bits.

Really, these two parts do summarise series eight as a whole. It works in bits, some parts are great, while others are facepalming disasters of bad writing. It's often at its best when scenes are allowed to actually focus upon themselves, but when the story actually comes down to trying to focus upon any series-running elements, they just make the tale all the weaker. 

So, is it bad? No, there's enough good moments for it to dodge true hatred, but it's undeniably lazily written and suffers from some gaping flaws here and there. It's certainly countless times better than In The Forest of the Night, and after Time of the Doctor it would have to strive extremely hard to be the worst finale ever made, but it's not the one Capaldi and Coleman deserved for their efforts.