Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Injustice 2 (Video Game Review)


Following any smash hit is always a risk. Even if you have every creative force from the original to back it, even if you have a plan in motion to capitalise on the last tale, you can still screw things up. Each sequel needs to be loyal to the original while improving upon it in almost every way, and Injustice 2 largely succeeds in this regard. It’s flashier, bigger and definitely punchier, with an infinitely more interesting roster of characters.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Doctor Who: Oxygen (Episode Review)


So, here we go then, from one horror trend to the next. It seems that this new series is bouncing back and forth between eras, giving it a bit more balance than the prior outings. We've had a pilot which went everywhere, a jump to the future, a past story, a modern day story, and now it's the future once again. This can help to give the series a little more variety, but given how soon this current story follows on from one with very similar horror elements, it seems ill placed.

Rather than old secrets this time, it's technology which is slowly killing the denizens of the far future, albeit of a very different sort than Smile. As the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive on a distant space mining station, they soon find it filled with the bodies of the dead. There are only a small handful of survivors left, as the rest have been killed by the very equipment intended to keep them alive.

The Good

This is another teaser which gives the game away, but it proves to be much more akin to last week's Knock Knock over Smile. Rather than completely giving away the twist, it leaves you questioning just how in the hell certain things are taking place, and introduces the audience to the big threat of the story.  While sadly drawn out, it is at least good enough to keep you hooked and build up a sense of dread as the Doctor and co. walk into a situation where they are under threat from the moment they exit the TARDIS.

There's a clear sense of dread as they poke about the station, uncovering a few of the corpses and trying to put the pieces together as to what has gone so horribly wrong. It's very classic Who in that sense, and while it only lasts just long enough to get a few points across, it's succinct and direct. There's little dead air or blather present here, and the episode leaves little room to really seem as if it is dragging its feet or trying to avoid the action. The moment one idea ends it moves quickly onto the next, meaning you're never left overexposed even to foes which are effectively technological zombies. The fact there's even a visible ticking clock, or something which is almost as good as one, also helps you to stay focused upon the fact the heroes are living on borrowed time, and the slightest thing going wrong could easily harm them.

The story is also another one helping to introduce Bill to the Doctor's life, or at least parts of it. After three episodes she has a solid idea of what time travel will entail and even the issues of heading into the distant past, but this is a chance to once again show something entirely new. Future trends, changes and even a few oddities are always a fun contrast to see with modern day companions, and Bill's reaction to seeing an alien for the first time is one of the episode's more humourous highlights. Normally this initial episode would try to show the wonders of the far future or even suggest a brighter hope for what is to come, but by instead showing a grimier and darker era it manages to retain a sense of freshness to events. We already know just how brilliant time travel can be, something which Thin Ice established quite nicely, so delving into the more horrifying qualities of discovering dark secrets is a nice contrast. In fact, combined with Knock Knock it even helps to establish the idea that everywhere has its secrets and nowhere is truly safe from the Doctor's foes.

It has to also be said that the character moments present, while fleeting, were solid on the whole. Nardole has sadly been given little to work with since his re-introduction, and while he is an excellent foil for the Doctor, his presence can seem understandably superfluous. Here though, it's clear he's present to do a few of the things Bill can't. His greater experience means that he can constantly try to hold back the Doctor and remind him of his duties, or work the more advanced sci-fi equipment, along with offering someone else for the two to converse with. Something which, even in characters who were often regulated to background roles, has always helped substantially in keeping the plot moving. It's a good touch, and the final couple of scenes do help to fully cement this fact, even if some of his efforts are put down to comedy more than drama.

Still, I imagine some of you are wondering more about the strength of the story and the scares over long running series themes. Well, the story certainly has its moments. There are some flaws, some big flaws, here and they do stand out, but the script has a few clever moments despite this. Zombies - because that's effectively what they are - have become incredibly overdone, and even throwing them into space isn't that big of a gimmick these days. If you bring that up, people just think of Dead Space. However, the enemy here is creepy because it has something of a unique edge. It's a dead body on auto-pilot, hijacked by the very thing which was supposed to keep them alive. There's something insanely grim about the concept, and time and time again we see processes and procedures which were supposedly meant to safeguard the workers turning upon them.

The story even avoids a few of the more typical zombie tropes. There's purpose to their actions, a kind of singular group approach to every failing and problem put before them rather than merely milling about. So, while they might indeed be limited to a few lines of thought, the intelligence of their procedures still makes them capable of overcoming many unexpected problems; forcing the crew to often approach them via unexpected blind spots. This keeps the story going and makes sure that there is some new threat which arises just as soon as the old one starts to disappear, ensuring that the tale never drags and you're rarely left waiting for something exciting to pop up. Plus, someone on the creative team must have been working overtime, as the moment things start to seem overly dull or unremarkable something pulls you back in. It could be a line, a shot or even a musical cue, but it's enough to keep you focused upon the tale, and a personal favourite is the reveal of the "zombies" on the ship's exterior.

Unfortunately, there are some problems here. Big ones, which holds back the tale from being the first true classic of what has been a solid but somewhat unremarkable season so far.

The Bad

So, what's the great failing above all? The message. Capitalism is bad? Yes, thank you Oxygen, I think we all know it has its problems. There's a very puerile approach the story takes to the subject, and it's unwilling to give any middle-ground, showing capitalism as a whole as some Sauron-esque entity. While a few ideas certainly work like oxygen being paid for in breaths rather than time and some of the unsafe procedures, it just keeps going until it becomes farcical. It keeps undermining the story at a few points, and when the Doctor says "It's us against the suits!" it's difficult to know whether to laugh or facepalm. 

The fact that its themes and ideas are so openly broadcast to the viewer means that the twist ending is obvious from the start. Oh it's smart, and the visuals which gives the tech a HAL 9000 look would have been a brilliant way to distract someone from the possible reveal, but there's practically no hiding the truth here. The writer all but placed a big sign saying "THIS IS WHY EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG!" over the closing scenes, destroying what should have been a fantastic final moment.

Perhaps most of all though, Oxygen never manages to actually capitalize on any of its themes or ideas. Space is dangerous, very dangerous, and a fantastic opening speech by Capaldi describing the effects of explosive decompression is chilling. Yet, this only comes into play for a single scene, before its forgotten. Equally, while the whole "counting breaths" idea on how much oxygen they're allowed is solid, it's just a background element. It never serves as the proper ticking clock the episode needed, nor does it actually come into play as a serious danger outside of a couple of brief mentions that they're running out of time.

Perhaps most pressingly of all however is the ending. There's a big shock twist which is supposed to serve as a hook, or to keep people interested for what follows, but it only works if you ignore a few things. Without giving too much away, the Doctor is hurt. Badly. He's practically disabled in his current state and vulnerable to attacks, and there's no clear way to fix it with what they have on hand. The problem? Time Lords can regenerate at will, and if the excess energy of that can re-grow a hand, then it seems unlikely that his wound would even slow him down. Atop of this, the TARDIS can go to any time and place, and we have seen miracle surgeons practically resurrecting people over and over again.

It's a well executed final scene to keep people hooked, but it only lasts until you actually start to think about how easily it can be overcome.
The Verdict

Oxygen is ultimately very hit and miss. There's plenty of great stuff which goes throughout the entire tale, and some very fun scares, but for every step it makes forwards, it almost immediately takes one back. It's worth watching a couple of times, and it is definitely one of the best thus far this series, but there's no hiding its critical flaws. Give it a look if you're at all interested, but be ready to wince at a few moments of abject stupidity.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Alien: Covenant (Film Review)


So, here we are again. It's been several years since Prometheus, and with Ridley Scott having flip-flopped a few times over what he was going to do with this one, it was never wholly clear whether we were going to see it. So, was it worth the wait? Definitely. Is without its flaws? Definitely not. This is certainly a very enjoyable film, but one with more than a few major failings present within its storytelling, which might well put you off of this one.

The story this time follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant as it travels to a new world. However, after interstellar anomalies damage the vessel and a human signal is picked up on a nearby world, they opt to investigate, hoping to find a closer destination to make their new home. Unfortunately, they soon discover they are not alone, and the answers to what happened in this horrifying world lie with the mysterious android who awaits them there. His name? David.

The Good

Now, let's get the obvious out of the way first - This is a beautiful film. In terms of cinematography, visuals and CGI, it is astoundingly gorgeous. Scott has never directed a bad looking film in his life, and Covenant isn't about to break this winning streak. While he certainly experiments with a few key ideas, everything from horror driven close-ups to an airborne battle scene, all of it looks spectacular. Even the lack of colour, dulled and subdued as it is, proves to be remarkably effective given the bleak nature of the tale, breaking up only for certain secondary atmospheric moments.

Many of the film's key horror scenes themselves both play towards older alien films and break away from it. Many of the major fight scenes are infinitely more visceral, tense and downright bitter compared to anything before them. When a xenomorph clambers atop of someone, it isn't just stabbing them, it's gouging its way through their flesh and ripping them apart. Equally, many of the major chestburster scenes - barring one late exception - prove to be just as violent and horrifying as the original, adding in some spiteful or disturbing element to make the very act of it all the more harrowing. In fact, while the new variations of the old creatures are quite clearly a proto-xenomorphic creation, their features, bodies and designs, but their general behavior still makes them stand out.


The actual planet itself proves to be almost a character in of itself. We have the hostile world vibes despite it seeming almost identical to Earth at first glance, but there is much more to it than just that. We see an entire city of Engineers, covered in the petrified bodies of fallen aliens, and falling into ruin. We see a workshop of horrors and dissected creations left on display, and even the ship itself has an oddly chilling atmosphere to it. You can tell it is lived in, and is less the sort of grimy oil rig the Nostromo was, but that manages to still make it all the more chilling. In fact, when it does eventually go full horror-show towards the end, it almost seems more thematically fitting as you know that there is something horribly wrong stalking about the place.

This is perhaps the core of Covenant's success above all else, as it is a film which is willing to use old ideas but not rely on them. Sure, we might be seeing a lot of old Alien tropes in the film, and it's even focusing upon the return of the original xenomorph design, but it still is willing to try and be its own entity. The return of the android David, and his upgraded replacement Walter, are clear signs of this. Many of their conversations prove to be the film's highlight where they discuss the subject of self-determination, perfection and creativity; with a few distinct ones opting to follow only a single shot with few to no cuts. David was always a major highlight in Prometheus, so anything to give him more screen time here is a gem to behold, and it seems that Scott himself fully understood this fact.


While many also might have complained about the excess CGI present within the film, there is no denying that the blend of digital imagery and practical effects stands out well. The xenomorph in particular moves with vastly more agility, speed and strength than almost any past depiction, and there's something unsettling about its motions. Everything from the movements of its tail curling about a ladder to running across walls is the sort of unnaturally agile mobility these creatures have always been famed for in additional material.

Finally, the ending is a work of true genius. It's the kind of incredible twist of the knife which justifies sitting through every flaw which is about to be outlined below. While it cannot be truly covered, and you might even predict it a few minutes before it fully pans out, the execution is absolutely stunning. It's the sort of depressing, horrifying conclusion which makes it clear that there's really no happy ending here even when the protagonists win.

The Bad

Surprisingly, Covenant is arguably narratively weaker than Prometheus. The two might be very, very different films (and this is coming from someone who loved Prometheus) but there were some notable idiot plot moments used here to drive the story forwards. Perhaps the most infamous among them is when the man who has been acting aloof, mysterious and outright villainous since the crew arrived is trusted implicitly for quite some time. Even after he is standing over the decapitated body of a crewman, admiring the creature which slew them, and has to be talked to telling the truth at gunpoint, characters still somehow allow him to walk them into perilous situations. This doesn't arise too often, and a few moments can even be put down to blind panic, but several critical points exist only because the crew acted like morons.


In addition to this factor, the story suffers from an extremely weak start. Visually it is stunning, and there are some extremely atmospheric moments to be sure, but the story quickly rushes through several crucial events. It starts with a bang, moves onto a question, and then heads right for the planet. You never get a chance to learn just who is who, or a real reason to truly care about them. In fact, even the protagonist herself is given little chance to be truly established outside of a brief conversation and a look through her dead husband's effects. This might not have been too bad a point, were it not for the fact this runs throughout the entire film. With Prometheus you were aware of who was who, what made them distinctive and how they ticked. With this one, there's nothing outside of a few gimmicks. In fact, of the initial group of six survivors, only three left any kind of impact.

The film is evidently in a hurry to get things over and done with as well, to the point where we have what's effectively a sped-up chestburster scene in the middle of the first act. There's little tension, no questions or even a chance to build up any dread. While the actual scene itself is excellent and quite horrifying, it lacks a lot of the initial momentum needed to help it leave any substantial impact. In fact, the same goes for a lot of major points within this film. These are humans who just learned alien life exists and that a whole culture was destroyed. Their reaction? Nothing. Most of their crewmen are dead, a deranged android is on the loose and the fate of the long lost Prometheus expedition has been established. Their comments, thoughts and ideas? None.


Even these could have been forgiven were it not for the fact that there's just no time spent trying to question or act like these are trained professionals. There are no efforts made to keep an eye out for hostile flora, fauna or lifeforms in general, leading to the two initial burster scenes. When they come across the Engineer ship there's no real sense of wonder or major questions, it just happens and it's forgotten again within moments. These are problems which were highlighted in franchise films decades ago, and combined with the insanely accelerated growth of a xenomorph and the "splitting the party" horror trope coming into play more than once, it's disappointing to be sure. For all the great ideas it had, it honestly would not be surprising to learn that this was patched together from multiple drafts.


The Verdict

Alien: Covenant is decent. It's not the smash hit others claim it is or something to rival the first two films, but it is still entertaining. There's plenty of good horror moments and some very solid scenes, but the links between those bits tend to be very weak. Combined with how the story seems to almost skip steps to reach the fun moments, its flaws are obvious. Still, it's saying something when little to none of that really seemed to lessen my initial enjoyment, and I was hooked from the landing sequence to the end credits.

If you're an Alien fan, grab a few friends, get it at a lower price or on rental, and have some fun. Just be ready to facepalm at a few particular moments.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Space Between Stars (Book Review)


So, what next? It’s a question everyone asks at some major point in their lives, once everything has been disrupted, upturned and seemingly destroyed. Having departed into space, Jamie Allenby discovers that those on the ship might be the last of their kind following the outbreak of a deadly virus across Earth. However, as a garbled message promises them what might be a new life, and that others have survived the disaster. Yet, with tempers flaring, and despair weighing heavily over the crew, many question if they are capable of making the journey. Or, for that matter, do they even deserve a new beginning?

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Prey (Video Game Review)


Space is a goldmine for any aspiring horror writer, with countless elements, which immediately work in the genre's favour. You have characters that can be immediately trapped with the monster, very limited supplies and no end of entertaining ways to die. Prey seems to realise this, as it provides one of the most hostile and chilling settings seen since Alien: Isolation. You have guns, you have powers, but in the face of what you're fighting that means very little.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Playne and Simple - 10/05/2017


So, as I mentioned a while back, part of the slower pace of work on here is due to being employed in three separate jobs at the moment. One of these involves writing several articles per day for them, and that has been my main focus of late. That said, it seems wrong not to share some of these articles. So, from here on, once per week there will be an article like this listing off a few of these games.

The main purpose of Playne isn't to say whether a game is good or bad (though i'll admit i've yet to encounter anything so dire as Aliens: Colonial Marines) but cite its strengths and what they share with similar games. It's a way for you to look at one game, and try to find similar releases you might have otherwise overlooked. Speaking personally, this has actually been good for me as well, and I have noted quite a few fun games while researching these that I would have otherwise ignored. Honestly, Transformice might sound like a bad knock-off but it proved to be one of the most entertaining experiences I have had this year.

So, without further delay, here's a few games and their Playne.com articles:





Monday, 8 May 2017

Doctor Who: Knock Knock (Episode Review)


You wouldn't think it at first glance, but horror and Doctor Who have a long history together. Despite being firmly rooted in the realm of science fiction, the series has frequently branched out into other realms time and time again, adapting and altering itself to fit certain genre conventions or event styles of other series. Sometimes this can even take over the show entirely for a while, with Tom Baker's first four seasons often going full Hammer horror time and time again. Well, it seems that Moffat was quite nostalgic for that time, as Knock Knock is another Hammer tip of the hat. Not a parody, nor a pastiche, but a almost line for line translation of the same ideas and effects which made that era of British horror so memorable. In my personal opinion, it definitely worked.

The story follows Bill and a few fellow students hunting for a house. Unsurprisingly, for someone lacking the insane income required for such a venture, they soon find that they can afford nothing on the market. Nothing, that is, until an old gentleman approaches them with an offer - An ancient and forgotten building he is looking to rent out to others. While Bill is thrilled at the opportunity, it soon becomes clear that nothing is right in this place. Something lurks within the walls, and one by one they begin to fall prey to its attacks.

The Good

Your enjoyment of this one will ultimately hinge upon how fond you are of old horror ideas. If you're a little too burned out on ghost stories, Dracula and contemporary genre ideas, you're not going to have much fun out of this one. While it might have a twist, it's less of a typical Moffat one and proves to be something far more fitting of the kind of franchise it's trying to emulate. However, personally speaking, I think that's a major part of this story's strength. It is, in many regards, akin to Deep Space Nine's Necessary Evil, which equally tried to emulate the concepts and ideas of another show but without poking fun at them. By crafting them well enough into the existing lore, without cheaping out and simply replicating famous scares, gags or scenes, it reminds viewers of how engaging this style of entertainment can truly be.

The story is also paced extremely well and - after so many years of this having become a common trend - it needs to be said that taking its time to develop elements helps this episode in every sense. You need a calm start to help get things going, something to establish relative normality before diving into the insanity which lurks beyond. By spending the first ten minutes slowly establishing who is who (to a degree) and giving hints of something wrong, it offers a creeping sensation of slow dread. You're waiting for things to go insane, but it's a case of just when and how it might happen.

Many of the scares are what you would expect them to be, as you have a wide array of people on hand at any one time, with each one being slowly bumped off one after the other. Yet, what helps to make this effective is that you do not see what happens to them early on. You get hints, suggestions and even the odd scream as they are dragged away, but it's clearly something terrible. This could have proven to be an exceptionally cheap gag were it not for a few things. The first is that we are constantly given hints, very specific reminders, of just what is going on here. The house constantly creaks, things scuttle about the walls and there are odd noise no one can explain. This keeps both the audience and the characters on edge until we all but see someone consumed by these things, before witnessing the gruesome results of being attacked by the force within the house.

The show, unlike previous efforts, also opted to favour practical effects over the dated CGI many stories are often lumbered with. While there is some fairly blatant moments of copious computer generated imagery, it's largely limited towards the end and overshadowed by several spectacular creations which reflect just what Doctor Who can pull off given a solid budget.

The Doctor himself proves to be on point as ever with many of these scenes (something you shouldn't need to hear by this point) and his interactions with Bill remain fantastic as ever. This is particularly evident early on when he finally mentions his race, his travelling habits and issues moving the TARDIS from place to place. It's again a nice element of normality within the episode, but it's also used to help highlight certain elements of his life; especially when it comes to his reluctance to discuss the subject of regeneration. With that said however, praise needs to be heaped upon David Suchet here. The man is a veteran actor and it shows, as he's given exceptionally little to work here, but manages to craft a chilling foe, a tormented old man, and a regretful monster within an exceptionally few scenes. Without his performance the episode would lack the "face" it needed to pull off most of the horrific moments which built up to the conclusion, and create the engagement needed to truly pull off such a chillingly tragic finale.

This said, there are a few bad bits here, and they do need to be addressed.

The Bad

The student characters aren't good. We barely get to know them, they leave little actual impact for the most part, and most of the talented members among them seem to be bumped off early on. While few of them are truly dire here, some seem like they don't truly know what to do with the roles they were given, and because of this the story has this habit of feeling like a slasher film at times.

Furthermore, a major problem is that, while there is a tense atmosphere and a solid finale in the story sense, it lacks outright scares. It's chilling, even disturbing at points, but lacks the truly scary qualities to mark it out as a proper horror outing. In this regard it's more akin to The Thing From Another World to the actual The Thing. This is only compounded when the episode effectively hits the reset button hard, avoiding all of the murders present in the tale and reversing any bite it might have had. It's not hard to see why it was done, but it's too clean and too easy an ending to really feel like a satisfying finale to the story it was going for.

Finally, and prominently, we also have the actual ending with the vault. This is going to be a running theme throughout the series it seems, but the Doctor seems exceptionally chummy with whoever is on the other side of that door. This could be a double bluff, but many likely already know the answer from the teasers and after the River Song predictions it seems unnecessary. It's almost tacked on which doesn't help matters, and it seems to have taken the place of a proper ending to the main story in question. Overall, it leads to a weak final scene for what was otherwise a fairly great story.

The Verdict

Again, just to be clear, opinions on this will vary heavily, but this is a win so far as I am concerned. There is brilliant work on display when it comes to the cinematography, lighting, effects and (most of) the acting, and the twist is a genuinely great one while still sticking to Hammer tropes. Even if it's more creepy than outright terrifying, there's still something to be said for just how well it executes and develops those elements. Watch the trailer, take a look at a few other reliable opinions, and see what you think for yourself before going into this one.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Star Wars: Crimson Empire Vol. 1 by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley (Comicbook Review)


Everyone loves a good villain. While a protagonist can be great, and a hero can be fantastic, he or she rarely stands out unless they're pitted against a truly outstanding opposite number. You can likely think of a good thousand or so examples for this, but the big one people often come back to is Batman, thanks to his highly recognizable rogue's gallery. Yet, as great as they are, writing a story about a villain taking a leading role can be almost impossible at times. It's remarkably easy to push to far and turn someone off from watching a morally bankrupt maniac slaughtering innocents wholesale, or to overcompensate for their failings and accidentally turning the out-and-out monster into an anti-hero. Few indeed manage to strike the right balance, but Crimson Empire is one such story. In fact, it manages to beat the odds in more ways than you might expect.

The tale here follows one of the Emperor's Royal Guard, Kir Kanos, as he follow's his dead master's will. Hunting down those who assisted Luke Skywalker in killing his master, he has turned against the very Empire Palpatine forged, seeking to execute the usurpers who now lead it. Yet, as New Republic forces wage a guerrilla war on one of the Empire's outermost worlds, Kanos finds himself dragged into the conflict and questioning every side involved.

The Good

Perhaps the most laudable thing to cite about Crimson Empire is how it epitomizes the best of the Expanded Universe's qualities. This was a comic which took a few background figures - characters with no lines, perhaps two minutes of screen-time at the most, and not even a close-up - and fully fleshed them out. Throughout the story you see the rise and fall of this elite group, how they were formed, trained and dedicated themselves to Palpatine, and just what they were capable of. The story even drops a few interesting points without spelling its ideas out to the reader, like how their training mimics certain Sith and Jedi traits, and even leaves a few visual implications hanging for readers (and later authors) to follow up on. This is a story first and foremost, but the creators were always looking for fun ways to build upon what the films established.

In addition to this, the comic also quickly dispels that old myth that the EU required you to follow everything to understand it. Through an opening crawl style exposition dump, a villainous speech, and a few badass scenes by Kanos himself it quickly outlines all that has happened since Return of the Jedi. A New Republic has been formed, Palpatine was cloned and tried to revive the Empire but was slain in the attempt, and a ruling council is trying to reunite the fractured remnants of his domain. This makes the intro fairly exposition heavy, but it quickly breezes through the information while sticking to the satisfying details, and even throwing in new information for veteran readers, like how Palpatine's clones were actually sabotaged by someone within the Royal Guard.

Through this quite direct format, the story establishes exactly when and where it is, what the stakes are, who the chief players are and allows it to move on ahead. While this might sound crude at first glance, if anything it's a more pragmatic approach to the tale. Something which eschews the more common decompressed storytelling in favour of leaving space for bigger battles and character moments. Plus, when it does need to flesh out or develop an idea, Crimson Empire often delves into past moments of Kanos' life to better solidify his personality. This, combined with the fact he is effectively the tale's narrator, helps to give him far more depth than you might think at first glance, and makes him more engaging than the typical avenging villain.

Kanos is cold, professionally distant and blunt, but also honourable, respectful (in his own way) and doggedly loyal to his convictions. Closer in many respects to Talos Valcoran than the typical Star Wars villain like Malak, Asajj Ventress or Bossk, you can tell that he's a brutal killer and loyal to the near-definition of evil in that setting, but it keeps giving just enough good qualities to keep you engaged. Even when he ends up performing stunts you know are out-and-out villainous, they're usually directed against the Empire itself, at least until the very end. The comic goes to great lengths to show you how he viewed Palpatine, and even doubles down on it with some additional tragedy. You see, Kanos isn't simply a Royal Guard, he's one of the last two left in existence after they were betrayed and butchered. Where is the other one? He, Carnor Jax, is sitting at the head of the new Empire, having slaughtered his way to the top, even through his comrades in arms.

Jax himself is a much more traditional villain than compared with Kanos, but wonderfully so. The story frequently embraces many of the common evil overlord tropes but without unleashing the ham in his scenes or reducing itself to many common cliches. Better yet, while he treats his underlings as fodder and willingly sticks to the kind of treachery the Sith are best known for, he often avoids the stupidity typical of his kind. He never underestimates Kanos, and the few times the Guardsman gets the better of him is thanks to his underlings failing to comprehend just who they are facing.

The rest of the supporting cast play about with a few of the expected tropes, with Commander Mirith Sinn providing the role of a hard nosed Republic officer without diving head-on into Thunderbolt Ross territory. While few are offered any great insight, there's usually enough there to keep things interesting, suggesting greater depth rather than truly showing it. It really sticks to what helped Star Wars stand out in the first place, as by all rights it really is traditionalist space opera to a fault, but there's always enough of an edge or greater thought behind things to give it some surprising substance.


The comic keeps up a brisk pace from start to finish, but the highlights come from the constant action. This isn't relentless fighting, as there are breaks in between battles and moments for character development, but it's clear someone in the writing room was having a lot of fun thinking up these fights. From the opening bar room battle to the the showdown on the ruined Royal Guard training grounds, the tale here is spectacular in how it handles each fight. Every few pages you're offered something striking, some memorable scene to help highlight the battles, from Kanos managing to take out a TIE Interceptor on-foot to the surprising new arrival which forces a Star Destroyer to surrender. There's enough of these moments to always make you feel satisfied, and to think back to each fight one after the next. Plus, it helps that the final two major engagements are pure visual poetry. I will not show the fight in full, but here's how it starts:




While it might not be the personal gold standard for how to handle comicbook fights, the finale is always the one I have personally argued should be taught in classes. The one which highlights how best to present a duel between two old enemies, and to show how an elite squad can be overcome by a legend without making an open mockery of their skills. Frame by frame, how they are structured, paced and the fight escalates really is a joy to behold, and it even manages to overshadow the vastly bigger battles of the second act.

Still, this is far from a perfect comic and there are a few definite issues which arose while reading it. Which is something we'll get into next.

The Bad

The artwork here is oddly very mixed in places which can give the sense that the story is uneven. Certain expressions and details seem strangely off at times, and while artists Paul Gulacy and Craig Russell are talented individuals, it's clear that certain panels were hard for them to pull off. The big epic moments, the ones which will stay in your mind, work well and many of the shock moments are extremely well detailed. At the same time though, background figures, features and even textures can seem sparsely detailed, as if they were skimmed over in order to get to the meat of things. It also doesn't help that there's some painfully obvious late '90s CGI at work in certain panels, specifically in the space scenes. Each sticks out like a sore thumb, and the the volume even has the misfortune to end on one such shot, which is disappointing to be sure.


Another definite problem which hinders the tale is how it sometimes requires you to accept stupidity to work. The core characters themselves are certainly fine, and many of these flaws are well hidden enough at first glance to help you overlook them, but it doesn't take much to pick out on certain ones. For example, the major battle of Crimson Empire comes about because the Imperial Commander of the planet launches an attack on the New Republic base. This was against Jax's explicit orders, and even with some additional incentive, he's still disobeying the commands of a man who will kill him for it, no matter what. This isn't hard to realise, and the story still tries to treat his execution as a somewhat shocking moment. In addition to this, the very existence of Jax himself requires something of a logical blind-spot to even be possible. He is revealed early on to be a powerful Force user, yet the reader is supposed to apparently believe that Palpatine never picked up on this at any point.

Matters are hindered further when you stop to realise that - while it's well handled for what it is - the establishing speech is an "As you know" conversation. The type where two characters are reiterating information they both know, purely for the audience's sake. It's almost forgivable thanks to why it's set up, but not quite, and it means that it's easy to be put off of the story early on if you pick up on this failing. A few other moments also seem to veer more towards narrative continence or simply sticking to what people know over anything new, especially when it comes to the New Republic. The whole dynamic of the war as it is presented in the system seems to regulate it back to the Rebels vs Empire style of combat, over the better armed New Republic vs Empire dynamic which should exist now.

Finally, and most pressingly, there's a very obvious sequel bait in the conclusion here. It's painfully visible that Richardson and Stradley were aiming for this to be a trilogy and, while the core story is excellently well resolved, it's hard not to sigh in disappointment to see something more satisfying being given up for this.

The Verdict

Really, despite its flaws, Crimson Empire remains a very solid story and a personal favourite from Dark Horse Comics. You have action, drama, a great deal of lore, and it even manages to sidestep the cliches you might expect it to embrace wholeheartedly. Kanos remains a villain right up to the final page - Just as devotedly loyal to Palpatine's memory as when he started, and he certainly doesn't get the girl in the end. In fact, the few cliches it does truly devote itself to are often presented so well, and executed so effectively, that it helps to remind you of just why they became overused in the first place. If you're a Star Wars fan after something in the bigger universe, or even just an exciting example of what the franchise can pull off with the right creators, definitely give this one a look. 


Verdict: 8.5 out of 10

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Immortal Redneck (Video Game Review)


While implementing rogue-like (or light) elements into most genres has been a cinch, some have long resisted any effort to connect the two. First Person Shooters are at the top of that particular list, rarely managing to strike the exact balance needed between engaging risk, firepower and unpredictability, despite a few good efforts like Tower of Guns. However, Crema seem to have finally nailed it with Immortal Redneck, which mixes sheer insanity with rampant firepower to create something truly exciting.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Doctor Who: Smile (Episode Review)


So, this one took a little longer than expected to produce. Yes, while we're doing them slightly out of order here, each episode will be reviewed one at a time, judging their best qualities and greatest failings. Especially those which look set to plummet to the bottom of the barrel. The writer of this latest episode was the same man who brought us In the Forest of the Night a couple of seasons back, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and it shows. Oh sweet lord in heaven does it show.

The tale here is set far into humanity's future, tying into a time when humanity was forced to abandon the Earth. It's an event the show has tied back to a number of times, starting with the Ark in Space all the way back in Tom Baker's tenure, but it's mostly used to help justify the importance of keeping the few remaining colonies alive. Well, this one is going wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the very systems and servants intended to keep the population alive are murdering them simply for being unhappy. As the Doctor and Bill arrive, the last of them have been killed off, leaving the two time travelers to explore the seemingly abandoned facilities.

The Good

Despite the negative qualities of this story - and dear lord will that part be lengthy - there are some good ideas on hand here. The visuals in particular prove to be oddly fitting for this era and tie in well with the 70s aesthetic of the Ark in Space; far better than you might ever imagine. Clinically clean, sterile and retaining a few odd art deco traces to its design, it manages to retain traces of the science fiction elements without turning into full on camp. Better yet, when it does veer away from this into the dingier elements of the setting, the story gives it the impression of something intended to be kept out of sight. The grim and gungy industrial innards of something which is supposed to remain iPod white to any and all visitors, where you would end up placing a few blue collar workers to keep things running. It's simplistic in places, but it's a far better blend of modern and classic ideas than what we often get with the show.

Capaldi himself has also shown a few nice shifts in terms of his character here, and he does seem like a changed man in the wake of Clara's lost. Much of the bitter rage which once fueled his character has slowly dissipated, leaving him with more of the energy, scatter-brained enthusiasm and excitement his predecessor was known for. While such a change might seem strange at first glance, there's enough of the old figure left here to still show he's the same person, and Capaldi's skills as an actor helps him sell just about any scene he's in. It's important to note as this is far more of a character shift than we have seen with any incarnation of the Doctor - save perhaps for Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy's early runs - and could have been very much at odds with his old self. Instead, it's a quietly interesting twist and something which makes the new Doctor-companion dynamic have an edge we have not seen before.

Bill also remains a solid companion and, despite there being little to really see in the place initially, we are given a good impression of just how enthralled she is by the world. The things the series has so often taken for granted, and the more outlandish ideas such as food cubes and humanoid robots are fun moments within the episode, leading to some entertaining back-and-forth between her and the Doctor. Especially when it comes to the subject of how humanity has advanced and why some of the more perfect ideas she praises might not be quite the fixes her species' needs. This is tied closely into a few good moments which helps to remind audiences of just why the Doctor needs a companion so badly and how dangerous his life can be, how it can be equally amazing and horrifying at any moment. To give credit where it is due, many of the early bits do handle this extremely well, and it's enough to serve as a solid re-introduction to events without veering into outright repetition.

Finally, and most promisingly, the visual direction of this story is superb. Often opting for many of the more unconventional and odd shots other directors might avoid, it helps to give this sense of strange disconnection surrounding events. It's that right balance of other-worldliness and conventional cinematography which tells you that there is something very off and very different about this place, and keeps you on edge. While a lesser director might have pulled a full Battlefield Earth and turned the camera on its side for every shot, Lawrence Gough delivers the sort of thing which makes you feel as if there's something odd or entirely unique about the show's visuals. The sort of one where you'll know it's always there but without you completely putting your finger on it.

The Bad

So, what's bad about this whole thing then? Simply put - The story. It manages to be both completely banal to the point of being cliched while at the same time unconventional for the sheer sake of it. Quite the accomplishment given either one of these could have sunk an episode, but to double down like this is practically unheard of. 

The story structure ideas and presentation are all completely off, starting with an opening scene which destroys all investment of the viewer. You might have noticed that the synopsis of this review gives away what should be a big twist. Well, guess what, the episode does exactly the same thing, spelling out what's wrong, what's getting people killed and how to avoid it. This could have led to a solid Columbo style tale if handled well, but the episode botches it by just carrying on as normal, leaving you sitting there going "Look, I already know this, hurry up and get there already!"

The story itself really is just the typical "cancer within Eden" story we've seen so many times before. The sort where it shows a paradise where everything seems perfect but there's a deep dark secret there, and a threat to kill everyone. You can probably think of a good five hundred stories which match up with this. Now, think about what makes them uniquely stand out - usually the threat or the situation - and then think about how well that would hold up if you remove it. Well, if you can do that you're left with Smile.

The episode itself is built upon gimmicks to try and keep your interest. It's a by-the-numbers Doctor Who tale which is as generic as can be, splicing in other science fiction tropes to try and keep things going, but this once again only doubles down on the flaws. You end up with cliche after cliche being piled atop of one another, until the only originality of the tale stems from an idea which is rapidly going to date this story within just a few years: The emojis. What do they add to the tale? Nothing. Not a bloody thing.

This could have been a chance for the show to pull a full scale Black Mirror style plot (something it briefly attempts before backtracking as fast as it can) or even a good idea on how language could evolve. Perhaps turning them into something akin of hieroglyphics or using them to define a person's state in everyday life beyond mere electronics. It would have been difficult but certainly not impossible to do, but instead the whole thing really is just used as an excuse to show them off. It's really a "What are the kids into these days?" moment where it's slapped onto an otherwise unremarkable story to try and give it some life. The threat itself is at least somewhat interesting, at least in how it is presented, but that's pushed into the background almost as soon as it's introduced.

The episode also tries to hold your interest via a surprise twist, but this actually makes things worse. It tries to abruptly shift gears and turn itself into an Asimov robot story in the last act, rushing through events and opening up plot holes big enough to lose the TARDIS in. In fact, the final execution and resolution is so rushed that it sets up far more problems than what it actually resolves, until you're effectively counting down until the robots pull a Cylon uprising on anyone within the city. Yes, this isn't going to be spoiled here, but 

Overall, it's a simple plot filled with holes, a simple threat which doesn't manage to be threatening, and a simple solution which doesn't resolve anything. The only thing of real value which could be brought up here might be to show new writers how even the easiest of ideas can be badly, terribly, botched if given to the wrong person.

Verdict

You're just going to forget about this one within a year or two. There's so little actual impact here, so little substance, that you're just going to be left wondering "Wait, which one was that?" Until someone brings up emoji robots and you're left trying to remember if it was actually good or not. It's fluff, almost filler, and most of what it could offer to make things exciting was topped by Thin Ice in the following week. Skip it, ignore it, wait for a few of the fun conversations to show up on Youtube.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Episode Review)


For those immediately wondering - No, this doesn't involve the return of the Ice Warriors. Yes, I was disappointed as well, but despite this fact the story in question is surprisingly good. This latest series so far seems to be something of a re-introduction for people, establishing the new style, presentation and narrative arcs of the series. While "soft reboot" is too much of a stretch here, it's far less continuity heavy than past outings, and it seems as if each initial tale will cover a type of series story. So, with a modern day abduction tale done, followed by a far future outing (yes, we will be getting to that tomorrow, it just proved to be a difficult one to fully analyse in the end), we now have a historical tale.

"Historical" always has two meanings with Doctor Who. In the classic series, at least early on, it referred to tales which lacked all science fiction elements save for the Time Lord and his TARDIS. Mostly however, it now refers to stories which are set in a past era but have some unique or unknown threat thrown in, from aliens to far more supernatural things. Thin Ice is definitely the latter, a fact it tells you very early on.

Set during the 1814 London Frost Fair, the Doctor and Bill appear at the TARDIS' behest, seemingly fixated on this one point in time. Leaving for a bit of light entertainment, they start browsing the stalls and enjoying the best that London has to offer. Yet, as is often the case, things are not as they seem. People are disappearing beneath the ice, and as lights dance beneath its surface, it's clear something hungry is lurking down there, consuming anyone who crosses its path...

The Good

It has been quite some time since we have last witnessed a true historical outing for the show, and thankfully the new creators pulled out all the stops with this one. While the likes of The Snowmen and a few previous arcs limited themselves to a few select locations, Thin Ice makes sure you get a proper feel for the setting. While certainly limited to a few key locations, the variety of people, acts and costumes present at the fair itself offers it a sense of liveliness the show often lacks in such settings. Better yet, it fits this directly into the story without it seeming out of place, or showing how limited the sets really are. The entire key event is focused upon this one area, after all, and the Doctor is only given any logical reason to leave at one specific point before being returned. It really seems that the show was stepping back and looking at how best to use what they had on hand.


There are also more than a few themes here which emulate some of the early stories with Rose Tyler and the Ninth Doctor, particularly the sheer wonderment of it all. There is a push to just enjoy the sensation of travelling through time and the sheer spectacle of it all, which doesn't override the main arc. True, you know it's all going to hell and that there's a big monster in here somewhere, but the story doesn't let that override the entertainment of this. Compared to the break-neck speed of past outings, it's a nice change to give some much needed character establishment and development for both Bill and the Doctor himself.

When it does get into the main mystery, it equally doesn't rush into things. Events progress a little sluggishly to be sure, but the story here is all about establishment and re-establishment of elements. So, even if you're left waiting for a bit, it always makes sure to throw in something entertaining or interesting. This is evident when the two time travelers are forced to speak with a few orphans for a time, where the the episode does stop almost entirely. It's only for a few minutes, but it's for a brief montage showing Bill coming to (somewhat) understand how the Doctor works, how this incarnation of the Doctor has changed since Clara departed, and building the trust they need to get things moving for the rest of the story. It's the sort of slow but purposeful approach, methodically stepping forwards one moment at a time to avoid plot holes and establish new elements without them clashing with one another.


Speaking of the two for a moment, this is definitely a character driven tale when all is considered. It's very much akin to Gridlock in that the situation is important, life threatening and somewhat ties into a few past outings, but most of it comes down to establishing new ideas for the series to come. These are delivered entirely through dialogue and just the actors' expressions, and they're definitely the highlight of the whole story. A particularly strong one remains the discussion over Bill witnessing her first death and how the Doctor has effectively come to accept it. While he certainly doesn't like it, and he is hit hard by any loss of life, but you can see why and how he has come to almost see it as something they need to overcome rather than being caught up on it.

Also, as a final note, there is some fun closure during the finale. Something which shows the sorts of changes the Doctor can make to lives, even in the most hectic of moments and how history seems to rework itself to ignore certain events. It's certainly not a full "cracks in time" event, but plays more into the "amazing capacity for self-deception" joke presented in Remembrance of the Daleks.

So, with that done, as you might guess, there are certainly a lot of poor ideas to conflict with this as well, unfortunately.

The Bad


With all of the above said, there are many, many points here where the story almost seems to be on auto-pilot. Okay, that's not entirely fair, there is work being put in here, but it lacks the massive effort and sheer drive of other stories. Ideas are brought up, are interesting and are good, but they simply lack the impact or establishment they need. For example, the whole thing surrounding the monster in the Thames? We get perhaps two scenes of it, and beyond a great teaser and good conclusion it does little to really establish itself as a force in the story. Equally, the Doctor and Bill dive down, look at it, and then leave again with little to no lasting impact. Anything they do learn could have been just as easily accomplished via a periscope (with far less danger to themselves, it needs to be said) and that's it. In fact, the whole scene in question seems to only be there for the imagery to show up in promotional scenes.

The villain is definitely where the ball is dropped the most though, as it's a waste of a great idea and a great actor (the perpetually underrated Nicholas Burns). There are some good scenes, some great dialogue, and a few brief moments of entertainment, but there's no depth to his character. There's one fleeting moment here it looks as if he might start to excuse elements or even justify his ideas before it goes "Nope, villain!" This is also hindered by a very late introduction, meaning any scenes or establishment of him is rushed to hell and back, leaving little real impact on the audience.

Another definite problem which arose while watching it was how the story itself did seem to repeatedly pause at various points. There was no urgency behind events, no drive, no ticking clock or ongoing threat. There was just no real drive to resolve matters,which gave the story a lack of real impact. After the first death there should have been some drive to focus matters upon the impending threat, especially after the story left so many visual hints early on, but instead it keeps stopping for other things. On their own, these moments work well, but when there's a giant murderous sea monster bumping off passers by, it's very out of place.

Finally, despite some truly great visuals throughout the story, there are some major stumbling points which takes you out of the experience. For starters, after the CGI ranged from acceptable to great throughout the story we have an ending shot with is unconvincing to say the least. Equally, the last few shots of the fair itself makes it clear that this is all set on a sound stage. There's no sense of bitterness, cold or even exposure to the elements here, and it's the last thing we see in the story before cutting back to present day. To drop the ball at the last hurdle like this is astonishing to say the least, especially when it leaves any viewer with such a negative final impression of what had been great visuals up to that point.

The Verdict

This episode sadly seems like it retains a lot of filler at times. It's not the sort of auto-pilot outings we've seen from the series for sure, and visually it remains outstanding from start to finish, but the story is definitely stretched thin at a few too many points. It's as if the writers had a lot of fun moments they wanted to play with, a lot of great images, but stopped working on it all once it reached the "good enough" phase. So, what could have been something fantastic is just satisfactory instead. 

Should you watch it? Definitely, and you'll probably go back to view a few specific scenes a few more times in the years to come, but don't expect it to leave much lasting impact on you.