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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Editorial: Four Historical Settings That Would Make Great Assassin's Creed Games.


Editorial: Four Historical Settings
That Would Make Great Assassin's Creed Games.





We've had a bunch of Assassin's Creed games come out recently - or two, at least, one of which was rather unexpected until shortly before its release. Something that Assassin's Creed fans are almost always pondering is 'what would be the best place to set the next game?' Being the sort who can't keep his opinions to himself, I thought I'd put forward my suggestions.

(Reecey is still outraged that Thomas Paine wasn't a major character in Assassin's Creed III. Same, Reecey, same.)


The rise of the Ming Dynasty, China.

The Ming Dynasty is probably the Chinese dynasty everyone knows about, and it is regarded as one of the greatest periods of stability in human history - but it didn't come to be without a fair share of blood, as it came about due to the collapse of the Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty, a process which involved several different rebellions, famines and plagues, before Zhu Yuanzhang (there's a historical figure that can be buddy buddy with our Chinese assassin) raised a force capable of toppling the weakened Yuan Dynasty, becoming the Hongwu Emperor.

We've not really had any Assassin Creed games set in the far East yet - indeed, they seem to be getting progressively more and more about white Westerners - so it would be a breath of fresh air, and for a game which is largely about scenery, the gorgeous landscapes and beautiful architecture of China would be a massive boon.

Also, we've very briefly seen Chinese assassins before, in a short film about Ezio's death, and the one we saw was awesome, with hidden blades in her feet. I want to play that.


The Battle of Stalingrad, Russia.

Usually, I'd be firmly against a WW2 Assassin's Creed game, as I think most everyone is. We've all had our fair share of WW2 video games in which Americans desperately and rather snivellingly attempt to convince everyone that they were especially relevant or important during either world war.

But I like the Battle of Stalingrad, insofar as anyone can like large, extremely long, bloody battles. Lasting over five months, the battle was marked not just by bloody, close-quarters combat, but also by prolonged psychological warfare from the Russians, as they did things like play an assortment of tango music from loudspeakers constantly.

That's a great setting for an Assassin's Creed game. A Russian assassin is caught in the Battle of Stalingrad, and must seek to end it by assassinating key figures in the German army (and/or traitors amongst the Russians), all while attempting to cope with the immense strain and pressure the prolonged battle is having on everyone.


The Indian Rebellion of 1857.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was an uprising against the East India Trading Company, which, let's face it, are pretty much the natural and unambiguous villains of anything they show up in (unless you have something which has the US in it, because as awful as the East India Trading Company undeniably was, they still abolished slavery before the US). Building up slowly, the rebellion eventually broke out into out-and-out revolt,  with several large battles and sieges that would be perfect for an Indian assassin to have a 'make your way through this battle and kill someone' set up that Ubisoft enjoyed in Assassin's Creed III. 

India has beautiful cities, an incredibly rich culture, and an interesting history that would all work in favour of an Assassin's Creed game - and with Ubisoft's increasing trend towards more modern settings for their games, a period that was less than one-hundred-and-sixty years go would be right up their alley.


Iraq, 13th Century. 

People tend to forget (read: they never knew or they just like to pretend so) that Iraq was practically the height of civilisation at the time between the 8th and 13th century (and, for a very, very long time, would remain unmatched).

An assassin in 13th Century Iraq would have no shortage of interesting cities to ply his trade. Baghdad, a centre of scholarly pursuits in which massive advances in technology, medicine and art were being made spring to mind. Erbil, an ancient city dating back to 6000BC and an early centre of Syriac Christianity. Mosul, a riverside city that was (and is still today) heavily contested over due to its importance to trade. Basra, a vast city which grew out of a military base and was the site of a large mosque. Samara, the centre of power in the region and a hub of politics and religion.

But the 13th Century was also a time of great upheaval, brought about in large part because of invading Mongols led by Hulegu, Genghis Khan's grandson, and in large part because of the imperialist ambitions of the Ottoman Empire. A 13th Century game could see an Iraqi assassin struggling with, among other things, the brutal and destructive Mongolian siege of Baghdad.



Friday, 28 November 2014

Character Spotlight: Kamui Kirito, Psycho-Pass.


Character Spotlight: Kamui Kirito, Psycho-Pass.



Why is it that all of my character spotlights are for characters with names beginning with 'k'? 

Eh, probably just coincidence.

Kamui Kirito, the villain of the second series of futuristic dystopian crime series Psycho-Pass, has pretty much been an enigma from the moment he appeared. In a world where everyone is measured, tracked and judged by an all-seeing computer, Sybil, Kamui is a ghost, invisible to the computer and seemingly possessed of almost supernatural abilities, able to lower people's crime coefficients by talking to them, brainwash them into being his loyal followers, and disguise himself almost perfectly as other people.

There was always going to be a bit of a struggle when it came to finding a villain for the second series. Makishima Shogo, the villain of the first series, was beloved by fans despite being more than a little dull, being a more or less cookie cutter arch-manipulator with a fondness for exploiting the mentally ill. So it seems that the writers went as far in the other direction as they could: While Makishima is pale and yellow-eyed and generally villainous looking, Kamui is adorable and looks like he should be one of the good guys; while Makishima is knowingly exploitative and uncaring, Kamui genuinely believes that he's helping his followers (he's not); Makishima's plans lead towards an obvious goal, while Kamui's motivations are more alien; while Makishima is of undeniably sound mind, Kamui is clearly seriously mentally unhealthy. 

In all honesty, I find Kamui a lot more interesting than Makishima, and the reveal of his motivations has only made him moreso. While Makishima's motivations were vague, hinging partly on thinly sketched out guff about revolution and self-governance (which is definitely something that needs to happen in the Psycho-Pass universe) and partly on lip-service to a tragic backstory of always feeling like an outsider, Kamui's motivations feel a lot more personal, and start to frame him as a victim as much as he is an (undeniably awful) villain. 

Pictured, Kamui doing something awful.

All Kamui wanted was to go on a school trip with his friends, and events entirely out of his control caused the deaths of a hundred and eighty four of his friends, who then all had body parts (including living brain matter) implanted in him for reasons unknown and, it seems likely, very petty. He's a victim of conflicts between other people who has quietly ingratiated himself into society at large, with tendrils and influence reaching everywhere. 

A villain who you can feel sorry for while simultaneously being repulsed by their actions is always pretty interesting, and Kamui fits that mould perfectly. His actions are definitely repulsive, showing a level of visceral brutality unmatched by anyone else in the Psycho-Pass universe, but he has a strangely sympathetic backstory. Not to mention, he's visibly and genuinely devastated by the deaths of his followers, seems to have fostered friendships with them, and seems to have absolutely no idea that they're all pretty brainwashed. 

The other key difference between Kamui and his predecessor is that Kamui seems more convincingly a genius than Makishima. With Makishima, we are mostly told that he's intelligent rather than being shown it: Scenes in which he rhapsodises about books and art are intended to establish him as a cultured intellectual, but most of what he does is acting as a glorified networker, drawing on the abilities of those with special talents. Kamui, meanwhile, is seemingly much less cultured (and much less keen on lavish demonstrations of his intellect), but is a true polyglot, showing talent in the fields of medicine, computer hacking, hologram creation, factory logistics, and god knows how many more, since we know that he utilises one-hundred-and-eighty-four other identities that occupy 'every sector of society.'

Also, he wears ridiculous teal sweaters.

Gotta love a villain who wears ridiculous teal sweaters. 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 4: Amid the Ruins.


Telltale Games' The Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 4
Amid the Ruins.



Remember how in my last review I mentioned that the third episode of the first series was a kind of slower, breather episode where not a great deal really happened? Well, Episode 4 is that episode for Season 2, it turns out. 

Which isn't surprising, the preview made it pretty obvious that that's what it'd be, and the purpose it serves is clear: To give players some breathing room before the dramatic conclusion, and to give characters time to develop and endear themselves to the player so that it will be more tragic when they inevitably die. 

Amid the Ruins has Clem and company meeting up (more or less - Luke and Sarah have to be collected, we'll ... get to that) at what I think is a hiker's centre, and being forced to find shelter in order for Rebecca to give birth to her child. While there are two set piece zombie attacks in the game, it's mostly a character driven episode, with Clem having to deal with Kenny's grief, Jane's totally understandable pragmatism, Sarah's everything, and a dalliance between Luke and Jane that Luke may have taken a lot more seriously than Jane did. 

Which is good. Character driven episodes may not make for the most exciting playing, but they are necessary, and in this case, it also builds on an arc that started in the first episode of this season: The 'Clem is stronger than the people around her and they only drag her down' arc. That arc has been brewing in the background in every episode so far, but it was acknowledged outright in her interactions with Carver last episode, and this episode has Kenny acknowledge it and Jane quite frequently urge Clem to accept that fact. This is clearly going to be relevant in the final episode, to one degree or another.

Also, snow.

This episode deals with the problem of Sarah, too. Sarah is, I know, a fairly popular character amongst the fans. I'm not sure why, though, because I take issue with her, and this episode actually has characters acknowledge my issue with her: Sarah doesn't try. She acts less like someone who is neuroatypical in any sense and more like someone who has no sense of personal responsibility, and characters have died because of it. The game finally acknowledges it in this episode, with Jane and Luke both noting that Sarah doesn't seem to try at all to ensure her own survival, and Sarah herself indicating more than a little awareness of what she's doing. They also liken her to Jane's sister, who just wanted to die rather than be left in a ruined world with very little hope, but Sarah clearly doesn't want to die. Suicidal tendencies are not the issue here. 

She also gets eaten by zombies in this episode. Which is a shame, but it's The Walking Dead, I'm not confident any of these characters will survive to the end of the next episode, apart from Clem and maybe Kenny. The latter seems to have supernatural not-dying abilities, after all. How did he get out of that alleyway literally swarming with zombies too thick to even move through freely, in the city teeming with crowds and crowds of zombies? We've never had that clearly explained.

Actually, let's talk about Kenny for a bit. When we find him, shortly after Sarita dies (chopping her arm off didn't do much good) he's devastated, angry, suicidal, all of the things you'd pretty much expect him to be. But then what can only be a matter of hours later at most, he seems mostly better. Sure, he's getting creepy about a baby, but he's functional. He's functioning again a lot more quickly than I can rightly believe anyone would be after losing someone close to them, especially given what Kenny has already gone through.

This is not how she died in my game. It was much more violent
and bitey.

That's not a criticism - and even as I write this, I'm recalling that Kenny was in exactly the same position during Season 1's 'slow episode', having just lost his wife and child, and was still able to adequately function enough to drive a train - but it is interesting to me. I don't really like Kenny much as a character, because I'm still not over how he hated Lee for about three and a half episodes because we weren't entirely happy with him smashing an old man's face in with a brick, but his reaction to grief stands out as all the more odd and unhealthy in an episode where we have Sarah pretty much shutting down entirely after her father dies.

The episode's dramatic climax comes with Rebecca giving birth while zombies besiege the building the survivors have taken shelter in. It's the standard issue Walking Dead set piece, not all that dissimilar from the one we had at the end of the last episode. Quicktime events and a choice - in this case, whether to try to save Sarah. I didn't, because at that point she was already neck deep in zombies and had literally no way of getting to safety, so it seemed better to focus my attention elsewhere.

The set pieces are getting a bit repetitive by now, but they serve an obvious and important role in breaking up an otherwise very talk-y game, so that's fine. Oddly enough, this episode was very set piece heavy for an otherwise very slow episode, though. We have the conclusion of last episode's set piece zombie attack at the beginning, then another involving zombies besieging a house that Luke and Sarah are hiding in, then another very short one at a museum, and then the dramatic one towards the end.

Woo, zombie set piece.

In contrast, Episode 3, a much more quickly paced episode with a lot more plot developments and action, only had a single one, and it worked all the better for it, even if we were rather railroaded into it.

Overall, a good, if slow episode, and one that ends on both a tragic note and a cliffhanger. It'll be interesting to see how that pans out into the final episode, for which we had no preview this time. That's - concerning. Potentially.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Gotham, Series 1, First Half.


Gotham
Series 1, First Half.



Raise your hand if you were a little baffled that someone actually ever had the idea to do this series. Imagine how the pitch for that must have gone: 'Right, so. We want to do a series set in Gotham, revolving around the Batman mythos.' 'Bro, we can't use Batman, for legal reasons.' 'No, no, no. This will be about this one Batman supporting character who is well-loved by fans but really only known to most people as having been played by Gary Oldman. He doesn't have any superheroic stuff, though, he's just a regular police detective.' 'By jove, that's genius!'

Gotham, if you didn't figure out from that slightly stilted opening spiel, is a series set in Batman mythos grimdark noir city Gotham, and revolving around a young Jim Gordon before he became police commissioner. In the immediate wake of Thomas and Martha Waynes' deaths, Gordon sets out to discover the conspiracy behind their murder, only to find himself running up against Gotham's corruption, and the warring mob families of Falcone and Maroni. 

So, here's question number one: Why did this have to be set in Gotham? The answer is pretty much 'to cash in on Batman' obviously, but the series itself could really be set anywhere - Chicago, New York, a fictional city other than Gotham, anywhere - and it wouldn't really change, because the story is just one about a detective fighting back against corruption, and those have been around as long as we've had detectives and corruption. The clumsy attempts to insert Batman-ery into the series are just, well, clumsy. Villains like Two-Face and Black Mask (and, it's implied, a pre-Joker Joker) show up as men already grown while Bruce is still a ten year old child, leading one to the conclusion that by the time Bruce dons the cowl in this universe most of his enemies will be using walking sticks to get around, and Arkham Asylum will be the hip replacement capital of the world.

Fish Mooney is the big exception, being an original character for
the series. Or at least only a very minor comics character that I've
never heard of.

Some of the attempts to insert Batman's allies are even worse. Renee Montoya shows up as one of Gordon's contemporaries in this, and is utterly out of character, being cast as a weird 'bitter lesbian' archetype pursuing old flame Barbara (who implies in none too subtle terms that her relationship with Renee was just a phase, and that she's really straight) while levelling a strange vendetta at Gordon. It's not only out of character, it's an incredibly creepy and backwards path to go down. It's 2014, we should not still be trying to insist that women eventually always go back to sausage casserole, while breathing heavily and rubbing our stomachs thoughtfully. 

The series itself is - odd. The gang war plotline is solid, and the detective-fighting-corruption plotline would be solid if Gordon was more interesting than a damp cardboard box at an accountancy convention, and the Bruce-slowly-developing-into-Batman plotline is fine too, but every time the series attempts to mesh any two of the three together it feels about as natural as a really unnatural thing. 

No, you two need to stay in your own plotlines.

That feeling of 'this is unnatural and awkward and stilted' is there throughout the series: Attempts to insert Batman villains? Awkward. Clumsy. Unnatural. The setting, a hodgepodge of elements from the 20s, 50s, 80s, 90s and modern day forming what my GCSE Drama teacher called a 'timeless void'? Really unnatural and awkward. Every time Gordon tries to emote? Please stop, you're making me uncomfortable.

(The acting is, by and large, okay, though. Sean Pertwee is good, if a little strange, as Alfred, and Jade Pinkett Smith is excellent as Fish Mooney. Robin Taylor makes a surprisingly good young Penguin. Ben McKenzie as Gordon is really the only bad performance of the lot.)

Is this anger? Sadness? Confusion? Arousal?
I can't tell.

I don't think the showrunners really know where they're going with this series, either. I, and I think most people, except possibly people who are really big fans of Once Upon A Time and Supernatural, have picked up a sense of when a television show is sustainable, of how long it can feasibly last before the quality, such as it is, starts to drop sharply as the writers start to run out of ideas, the cast starts getting bored, so on, so forth. There's a scale, and at the least sustainable end is Reign and at the most sustainable end is, I dunno, Pokemon and Doctor Who, whose premises are so immutable and flexible that they could theoretically keep just keep going into eternity

Gotham is a lot closer to Reign than it is to Doctor Who, and I can't see it lasting beyond two, maybe three series before it just starts dying a death. Which bothers me, I like things to either have clear plans for how long they're going to be, or to have sustainability built into them, and Gotham is limited in how long it can run and what it can do - it's limited by its premise, by its setting, and by its need to keep including tidbits of Batman canon to keep the interest of fans who might well only be watching for that.

This is not a show destined for great things. It is the Manbat or Killer Moth of television shows.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Sleepy Hollow Series 2 First Half.


First things first, Kamen Rider Drive reviews that would usually go live on Tuesdays are now going up on Mondays. Find this week's one here.

Second things second, a friend of mine has just penned an article for the Huffington Post. Go read that.

Third things third, and most importantly of the three, a grand jury in Missouri chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown yesterday. Here is a petition for President Obama and the US Attorney General to arrest and prosecute Darren Wilson under federal charges.  I urge as strongly as possible that you set your hand to it, so to speak.

Now, onto the review.

Sleepy Hollow
Series 2, First Half.



I think Sleepy Hollow was amongst my big round-up of American TV shows that I did earlier in the year when they were all ending. That was before I was doing six posts a week, back when I was doing, like, three, so you can rather see why I might not have been too eager to give each one an individual post. 

My opinions could roughly be summed up as: Good fun, hitting greatness at times, even though it got off to a very slow start. 

Sleepy Hollow is the story of Lieutenant Abigail Mills, a sheriff's deputy in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and Ichabod Crane, a man from the American War of Independence who has been sleeping for hundreds of years. As Ichabod awakens, he and Abbie come to realise that they are Witnesses, tasked with preventing the apocalypse, a task made more difficult by the rise of the headless Horseman of Death. 

At the close of the last series, their ally Henry had been revealed as Ichabod's son and the Horseman of War, Abbie was stuck in the dimension of Purgatory, Ichabod had been bound and left in a coffin, and his wife Katrina had been kidnapped by the horsemen. Things were looking fairly bad.

That all gets resolved pretty quickly, save Katrina's abduction. This is one thing that does kind of annoy me about cliffhangers and their resolutions.

What are they looking at?

In many ways, Series 2 of Sleepy Hollow is more of the same. An episodic apocalyptic-threat-of-the-week format in which the solution is invariably something to do with the Founding Fathers, and humour is derived from the contrast between Ichabod's fish-out-of-water nature and Abbie's straightforward, pragmatic modernity. It's a simple format, it usually works, that's all fine.

They made some changes. The first is the addition of Nick Hawley, played by Matt Barr, as a supernatural arms dealer and a potential love interest for Abbie. He doesn't really change things up much, but he does present some conflict for Ichabod and Abbie.

The second is the evolving villain camp situation. In the first series, the touch of the villains was fairly light: Demonic entity Moloch was a kind of distant, blurry villain who would dispatch supernatural threats to do his bidding, while Death was a more personal villain who only showed up infrequently. In this series, though, we spend a lot of time with the villains: Henry takes the reigns as a central antagonist, functionally acting as Moloch's representative, while Death is humanised and becomes practically a main character, appearing in almost every episode as Henry's angry, shouty, attempting-to-romance-Katrina-y subordinate. 

-Barry Jones music plays quietly in the background.-

It's a much more interesting dynamic, all told. In fact, while I deeply enjoy Ichabod, Abbie and the rest of Team Not Have Everyone Die, I found the more fractious dynamic of the villains (and Katrina) a lot more fun to watch, and I'll be fascinated to see how that develops once they add more Horsemen to the mix.

Still, one of the key issues with Sleepy Hollow is starting to show now, and that it's formulaic nature. A supernatural threat appears, either conveniently timed with or prompting some manner of personal crisis for Ichabod and Abbie. By looking over various books, they discover that there is an item or spell (usually involving an item) that can neutralise said supernatural threat. They neutralise said supernatural threat, and learn something about themselves in the process. Somewhere, Henry smiles evilly and starts on his next plan.

It's not a bad formula, but it gets old, fast, when there's not much variation. Where are the stories that tie wholly into the arc plot? Even the Autumn finale revolved around finding a magical item and facing a one-episode supernatural threat, even if the greater purpose is to smite the main villain with it. Where are the stories where the villains properly strike back with just outright violence, rather than with an elaborate plan of some variety? There is so much variety that could be strained out of this premise, and it feels like it's being wasted. 

On the bright side, Doll!War.

My other key issue with Sleepy Hollow is the enthusiasm with which it treats the American War of Independence. As I've probably noted on this blog before, it was a historical event of remarkably little importance even at the time, and one which marked one of many stepping stones in the ongoing genocide of a native people. It seems strange and a little uncomfortable for the show to frame it as a battle for the fate of the world, when all it really was was a battle for whiny rich white English people not to have to fulfil the social contract they signed when they chose to depart to the colonies. 

Anyway.

The acting is pretty uniformly strong, though, the soundtrack is good enough that I'm annoyed that I can't buy it anywhere, and the showrunners clearly know how to appeal to their fans. It's nice too to see a series that actually has a decent spread of representation, with multiple prominent female characters and many prominent non-white characters.

All in all, I would give it my recommendation, just - maybe don't marathon it. It's an 'enjoy in short bursts' kind of show. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E7: How Was That Decisive Moment Captured?


Why is this on Monday instead of Tuesday? Well, there's no Doctor Who anymore, so I may as well.


Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 7
How Was That Decisive Moment Captured?



First things first, I totally made a mistake on last week's bingo. There was a slot I left unfilled when it should have been filled. So here's the correct-as-of-Episode-6 bingo card:



I really liked the last episode, so I went into this one hoping for good things. It can (a bit ironically, in the case of this series) take a while for a series to kick into gear, after all, especially when you're dealing with a series as long as a Kamen Rider series, and you may want to hold things back for later episodes. One thing Gaim did really well was keeping the pace pretty consistently fast throughout, and it did that mostly by playing all of its hand early and then dragging in decks from other card games (like Uno or Cards Against Humanity) so that it could get new hands to play. If that makes sense.

In this episode, Shinnosuke and Kiriko (who appear to be having some strife. It's being framed to make you think it's because Kiriko's in love with Shinnosuke, but I think literally everyone watching has probably figured out it's because Kiriko wants Shinnosuke to accept her as his police partner) investigate several collapsed buildings, and Shinnosuke finds himself stalked by a reporter. It quickly turns out that these two things are related, as the reporter's old friend, Kusaka (oh god no) has been taking eerily perfectly timed shots of the destruction.

It was a bit of a disappointing episode, all told. Granted, it's the first of an arc, and traditionally they're always the slower ones in a pair (and that was true in the last arc, as well, which I ended up quite liking), but still, it struggled to keep my attention. 

Shinnosuke and Kiriko are fun, but Shinnosuke seemed to lack any of the snark that made him fun to watch in the last few episodes - although we did get a great moment where he dramatically announces that he shall be the one driving the car, and in the next shot is sulking in the car while Kiriko drives. It's a very Shotaro moment - never let it be said that Sanjo doesn't have a type - but it was also probably the funniest part of the episode. Kiriko, too, seemed to lack much verve here. She was there, she was severe, and that was that. I like Kiriko, but I really want to see more from her. 

Heh. Sulking.

(On the villain side, Heart, Brain and Chase were great to watch, even though they only showed up about twice. This episode took to giving them the slightly abstract 'we're all standing too far away from each other to really be talking and none of us are looking at each other, but we're having a conversation anyway' thing Kamen Rider sometimes does with its villains - OOOs in particular was extremely fond of this trope - and while that makes absolutely no sense, it always makes for some very dramatic scenes.)

Chase is involved in this conversation, by the way.
I mean, if it was just Heart and Brain it'd be a little less silly,
but Chase is absolutely a participant in this discussion.

Where the episode really fell down was the plot, though. I never felt the urgency of stopping these buildings from collapsing, even though I know it's a bad thing, because it's so impersonal - that impersonal nature of large scale disasters is a big part of why Den-O, Double, Fourze, Wizard and so on all used a 'victim or involved individual of the week' format, wherein you would meet and get to know a character who had a personal stake in the situation. Gaim didn't need to do that because it had an entirely different structure that revolved less around monster attacks and more on politicking and subterfuge amongst a large ensemble cast, but Drive does if it's going to make me care about what its monsters of the week are doing.

There is a vague attempt to introduce somebody like that, in the form of news reporter Takasugi, but I never really felt like he was that involved in the situation. He never feels like he's at risk, either emotionally or physically, he just feels like he's there, vaguely knowledgeable about what's going on but not really invested. We get some guff about how Shinnosuke likes him and is reminded of himself, but we never really see anything that suggests that they're that similar.

(I feel bad writing this, because I'm trying to be more positive about Drive. Maybe it'll pick up next episode, guys?)

In the meantime, fashion.

As for the fight scenes, they're - not bad? They're perfectly serviceable. Chase is immediately back to fight Shinnosuke again, though, and although he brings with him a cool new electrified whip weapon, I'm getting a bit weary of seeing these two fight. I had thought and hoped they were done after last episode, at least for a while, but that doesn't seem to be the case. It's not that the fights between them aren't good - in fact, the Chase vs Shinnosuke fights are some of the best in the series so far, with the exception of their very first one several weeks ago - but too much of a good thing does get a bit wearisome after a while. 

So, I wasn't all that impressed. But, you know, that's fine. There are always episodes that don't really impress me, it's nothing new. Next week, it looks like we're getting more about how Chase is actually totally just Proto-Drive, along with the probably quite predictable conclusion to the Kiriko-Shinnosuke strife.

Anyway, here's the bingo.



Huh, filling up nicely.



Saturday, 22 November 2014

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead S2E3: In Harm's Way


Telltale Games' The Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 3
In Harm's Way.



I remember when playing the first series that Episode 3 was the weakest episode for me. Possibly it was because I was a bit worn out from the cannibal shenanigans of Episode 2, or possibly it was because it was a bit of a bridging episode, in which you spend less time making choices and more time doing watered-down point-and-click adventure busywork to try to get a train running. Long Road Ahead, the first game's third episode, was very much the 'calm down and relax a while' episode of the bunch before the relative insanity of the final two episodes, and it wasn't really a good look for it.

I wasn't really apprehensive about this season's third episode, though. A lot of that is to do with the pretty strong set-up of it: Carver had established himself well as a villain, Lee was in the wind, and Clem and the others had all been kidnapped to go to Carver's utopian (har har) community. Which, it turns out, is the community Tavia was telling people about in 400 Days. 

For anyone who doesn't know, 400 Days was the DLC of the first season, and a 'bridging episode' of sorts between the two series. It revolves around four characters at various points during the zombie outbreak, each undergoing their own trials and miniature stories before ending up at a campfire at the end, where a woman named Tavia approaches them and asks them to come join her 'safe community.' Some of the characters we see in Carver's community are ones from 400 Days, even: Ex-con Vince has a cameo, as do sisters Shel and Cissy, and Bonnie is a major character in this episode.

(My playing companion did wonder why I was being so harsh with Bonnie. It was mostly because she, you know, lied to us, abused poor Walter's trust, and led Carver straight to us in the previous episode, but also, I remember you killing an elderly woman with a rebar, Bonnie. I do remember that.)

So that's a nice bit of continuity.

If Long Road Ahead was, well, long and kind of flat, In Harm's Way is short (both in the sense of its abruptness and in the sense that on my playthrough it weighed in at about one hour forty minutes) and - sharp? It might be the most visceral of the episodes so far this season, having many characters dispensing beatings or, in one case, a shove-off-a-rooftop to others, with the king of the beatings without a doubt being the prolonged, brutal one that Carver delivers to Kenny. I wasn't that fussed, never been keen on Kenny, so it kind of failed to produce the emotional reaction intended.

Still, harsh, Carver.

On the other hand, it has never been more obvious than in this episode just how much your choices sometimes don't matter in this game. You can protest all you like, make as many moves as possible towards another plan, but one way or another, you will be using Carver's PA system to draw in a herd of zombies, and you will be fleeing through that herd. It was a good story, but the illusion of choice held a lot more thinly here than it did in other episodes, because the dramatic set piece it's building up to is utterly inevitable, and not in the fun 'it's very obvious, in the manner of a Shakespearian tragedy, that you cannot avoid this fate' but in a 'well, we'll pretend you can avoid it, but we'll just drag you back that way anyway' way.

Choice can be difficult in games. It's a fine tightrope you have to walk, wherein some of those choices will inevitably be illusory, and some of them really have to affect the plot if you want to keep your credibility. Some games, like the otherwise mediocre Alpha Protocol, excel at walking that tightrope. This episode of The Walking Dead didn't, and that's an issue in a game that markets itself on choice, from a company that markets itself on games about choice. 

But the actual story was a very good one, and there were some really gut-wrenching moments here. Kenny killing Carver especially - which also made a rather good end to a compelling villain (and a timely one, too. Carver's a good villain, but he would've been outstaying his welcome a bit if he survived past this. This is not a game series built for a long term villain) and a nice capping point to the story so far. 

Ah, Alvin. Not in my playthrough of this episode, because my
folly got him killed in episode 2.

One thing that is starting to vex me from a storytelling standpoint is Sarah, though. Obviously she's neuroatypical, but the game portrays her as cartoonishly incapable in a way that actual neuroatypical people usually aren't (I say as someone who is very much neuroatypical). Sarah seems to be meant to be the 'one you protect' - the Clementine to Clem's Lee for this season, and it doesn't work. Sarah comes across instead as a liability. 

I enjoyed this episode, though. Next week, the gang takes shelter amongst some ruined buildings, there's a search for Sarah, and - stuff. It looks like Bonnie is properly with the group now, so. Yay. I guess. Still bitter at her for leading Carver to us. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

How To Get Away With Murder (First Half)


How To Get Away With Murder
(First Half).


I actually only started watching this show maybe three or four weeks back. Possibly less. More for reasons of finding time than aught else: The series had caught my interest from the moment I first saw descriptions of it, but every week it would come up and every week I wouldn't watch it. I don't remember what made me change my mind, although the answer was probably 'I was bored and it was there', since let's face it, much of my TV consumption can be chalked up to 'I have an expansive capacity for boredom.'

(Pretty much all of my film consumption, meanwhile, is for this blog. Awkward things, films. Too short to fill a period of boredom, but too long to just quickly watch before doing something else.)

Hi, Wes.

How To Get Away With Murder is a legal/crime drama about five law students who are hired as interns for their enigmatic and brutal defence professor, Annalise Keating, under whom they learn the fine art of making sure that (usually guilty) people don't go to prison. There is trouble brewing, though: In flashforwards, it is revealed that the five students are to be engaged in a cover-up of a murder, and in the present, the investigation of the murder of sorority student Lila Stangard starts hitting unpleasantly close to home for both Annalise and student Wes.

Let's get one thing out of the way: I hate flash-forwards. Hate 'em. Hate flashbacks, too. Hate anything that involves flashing and movements through time. As you might imagine, this has presented issues in the past, such as while watching Arrow, The Flash, Lost or Once Upon A Time, but unlike those four shows, I'm not going to waste ten minutes of your reading time with a by-the-numbers side story about one time four years ago when I was watching OUAT and wasn't impressed, intercut with me sitting and looking pensive.

In this instance, though, it actually works out okay. The flash-forwards are pretty sparing, and although they're never the most interesting parts of the episode, they set things up well for the final episode of this half, by establishing facts and evidence about the murder that's yet to happen and allowing the audience to play detective, figuring out who would ultimately be the one to bash somebody's head in with a trophy.

(The culprit, it turns out, was painfully obvious just for narrative reasons, making the protestations from the cast that none of them predicted who it was feel just a shade hollow.)

Hi, Annalise and title.

The meta-plot for the whole series, then, both regarding 'who killed Lila Stangard' and 'who will commit the future murder', is set up well, and the two are interwoven into each other and the plot in a way that feels very natural but sometimes causes a rather inconsistent balance of meta-plot to episodic plot. 

The episodic plots are also very good. Typically they're more character focused than anything, with the courtroom shenanigans serving as a backdrop to some kind of character struggle (Asher and his feelings about his father), arc (Conner and his learning to be a decent romantic partner) or identifying process (Wes being the diabolical spawn of Machiavelli and Satan), sometimes leading them closer to the murder at the end of this half. 

Hi, kissing.

It is, ultimately, a very character driven show. Some shows are about characters thrown into a plot, some are about plots being painstakingly put together by the characters' inabilities to overcome their own fatal and crippling flaws, and this show is definitely the latter - so, it's necessary to have a strong cast of characters and actors. For the most part, it does: Despite Alfie Enoch's somewhat tortured attempts at an American accent, the acting is by and large very good, with Viola Davis and Jack Falahee being the two most outstanding members of the cast. The influence of some cast members over the show's writing has also, surprisingly, only led to good things: It was at Davis' suggestion that the iconic scene of Annalise removing her 'battle armour' - make-up, wig, fake eyelashes - was included, and that remains one of the most striking scenes of the first half of the show.

The set design is also lovely, and the soundtrack - which includes, at one point, Bastille's 'No One's Here To Sleep' - is also very good. So that's always nice. Nothing more I can really say about that. 

It's not a perfect show, but I think one of the reason it pings so hard on my 'not entirely perfect' radar is that it's so close to being so (or practically so, at least). It's definitely one of the best US TV shows of the season, and one of the most popular, which is a pretty big deal considering that its principle six person cast has three black people and three women, and we all know how antsy and disquieted Americans get by the mere suggestion that black people or women could ever possibly be the leads on television or, indeed, anywhere. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Editorial: Four Marvel Characters Who'd Make Excellent Films.


Four Marvel Characters Who'd Make Excellent Films.

Like with the DC version of this editorial, we're not really talking about which Marvel would be excellent at putting together a script and shooting it - although there's one on this list who probably would be very good at it.

No, with Marvel expanding their stable of film properties, it does beg the question of what they could expand into next? Who amongst their many, many characters could carry their own film? Well, never fear, because I'm here to assert my own opinions on the matter and then sulk a little if you disagree with my choices.

Heh. 'A little.' I crack me up.


She-Hulk.

She-Hulk is great. I will fight anybody who says otherwise.

She's charismatic, engaging, flawed, and a high-powered lawyer whose storylines are often half beating-things-up and half courtroom shenanigans, which you can't deny would make for a fantastic film: A kind of How To Get Away With Murder and Iron Man fusion. 

She's also one of the most positive female role models I can think of in comics: Jennifer Walters isn't a perfect, idealised human being with no issues. Jennifer Walters is intelligent and brave, but also flawed and lacks confidence - and she overcomes her lack of confidence by literally becoming her own power fantasy. 

That seems like a great message for a film: Push yourself to become your own ideal person.


The Sentry. 

The Sentry was originally only meant to be in a single miniseries, so I am envisioning a single stand-alone film with the rest of the Avengers involved here. 

The Sentry's schtick is that he is a ridiculous Superman-esque hero: He's super-strong and fast, he can fly, and he can project energy from his hands. He's basically unstoppable, one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe. But the Sentry has an arch-nemesis, the Void, a living, writhing mass of shadows.

He seeks out other Marvel heroes to warn them that the Void is returning, but none of them remember him or the Void. It's like neither of them ever existed. As he tries to find out why, the Sentry discovers that he is the Void, and that before becoming a superhero, he may well have been a genuinely awful person. 

See? That's an interesting film premise. 


Photon.

Photon is great. She was Captain Marvel once before assuming her own superheroic identity, and she both has really cool powers and some interesting plots and arcs to bring to bear, like the fact that her main power, turning into energy, is insanely risky to her health and has caused her to become extremely sick before.

She's also led the Avengers before. Which is a plus.

Photon is just really cool, okay?


The Runaways.

The Runaways are one of my favourite groups of Marvel heroes. The children of supervillains (including one who is the child of Ultron), the team - which includes a witch, a girl with a telepathic dinosaur, an alien, and a super-strong mutant - bands together to stop their parents, who seek to summon the Gibborim, fallen angels who have promised to destroy the world and create a better one in which six humans can live forever (which the parents have decided will be their six children - except Ultron, he's not part of this particular plot, he comes later).

The great thing about the Runaways is that they're fun. Their storylines are often quite dark, but they always have a sharp, sometimes cutting and sometimes fluffy sense of humour about it. They're also probably one of the most diverse sets of teen heroes in comics, and let's face it, Marvel hasn't really tried to tackle the teen market yet (not in earnest, at least - never let it be said that their current crop of films doesn't have a massive teenage fanbase). 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Maleficent (2014).


Maleficent (2014).



Once Upon A Time has a lot to answer for. I am totally blaming it for the whole 'let's show another side of the villains' trend that's been afoot in Disney lately. They did it with Frozen and that was pretty terrible. They're doing it in Maleficent and that's - well, if I say what that's like, there won't be a review.

Maleficent is the story of, er, Maleficent, main villain of Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. Told by a mysterious narrator, the film explains how Maleficent was actually wronged and mutilated by Aurora's father, King Stefan, and became a bitter and angry dark queen, before being redeemed by her maternal love for Aurora.

The trailers, featuring Angelina Jolie doing her rendition of a famous scene from the original film, were jumped upon by critics and fans alike as evidence that the film itself would be an amazing feat of cinema. Which is understandable: Angelina Jolie's performance in that trailer, and in the film itself, cannot be praised enough.

I mean that. It cannot be praised enough. Angelina Jolie is an excellent actress who does the rather iconic role all the justice it deserves. She's charismatic, magnetic, controlled and engaging, but ironically she's at her best when she's playing Maleficent as an out-and-out villain. Her best scene is easily the one from the trailer, where Maleficent is at her most overtly villainous. 

The horns look odd without the wrapping.

The rest of the film is - eh. It can never really decide on a tone, to be honest. It switches, often abruptly, from 'dark meditation on the nature of evil' to 'comedy of errors', and the plot feels stifled by its attempts to fit into the framework provided by the original material. It feels like a very utilitarian film, speeding from Plot Point A to Plot Point B with very little regard to tone or character development.

I mention character development because nobody really grows or changes as a character in this film. The two principle characters who might develop are Stefan and Maleficent, but Stefan goes from 'nice young lad' to 'pure evil' in the space of a scene change, and Maleficent's period of being evil is incredibly brief, unless you define lounging in a tree and saving little girls as 'evil'. 

There is another glaring problem with this film, though. Sleeping Beauty was a film about women: Don't let Prince Philip silently hacking things with a sword fool you, Sleeping Beauty is about a power struggle between the good fairies (all women) and Maleficent (another woman), with Aurora, Philip, et all, as pawns in their game. Maleficent is a film about a woman struggling against a man, which somehow feels - less feminist. In Sleeping Beauty, the presence of men is almost immaterial to proceedings. In Maleficent, it is massively important, and the film goes as far as to add men who weren't even in the original story in to round out the sausage quota (hi, Diaval). 

Hi Diaval.

I'm also a bit headtilty at the push for 'non-romantic forms of love can qualify for true love's kiss.' I mean, yeah, I get it. It's a good moral, that love doesn't have to be romantic to be strong. But it kind of presents a plotting issue, because familial love is the most common love around. If all these curses can be broken by a parent's love (hey again, Once Upon A Time), then they kind of lose their teeth, because, hey, unless you're an orphan or your parents are awful, you have an instant curse-breaker right there. No need to search. Done. Dusted. Never worry about sleeping curses again.

This isn't so much a problem for this film, as Aurora is separated from her parents for most of her life, and her father is kind of awful, so that conflict is still there, but as a general trend it presents issues.

Speaking of, Aurora needs to be a shade more snarky.

But it's pretty. It's got very nice scenery, the CGI is very good, the costume design is nice. A lot of Disney's money has clearly been poured into making this film look gorgeous, and it's paid off. The soundtrack is very good as well, and I'll probably look it up later. But it's style without substance, and that's painfully obvious when you watch the film. 

I'm struggling with this review because there's not a lot to say. It's a - film. It's there. If you took the Disney name off it, if there was no connection to Sleeping Beauty, this would be a middling, unremarkable fantasy film that would probably have made good sales and gotten okay reviews but wouldn't really be remembered.

It was a bit of a disappointment, all in all, and I'm glad I didn't see it in the cinema because I would have kicked myself for wasting ten quid (it'd be Jack the Giant Killer all over again). But, hey, Angelina Jolie was good. 


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Kamen Rider Drive E6: Who Does The Warrior Fight For?


Kamen Rider Drive
Episode 6
Who Does The Warrior Fight For?



Before we start, let's just refresh our memories of last week's bingo:



This week was definitely one of the better episodes of this series so far. I'm not going to talk too much about what actually happened, because the plotting was incredibly dense this episode and this review would be about eight-thousand words long if I did. I have about as much inclination to write that as you have to read it. 

Dense plotting is good, though. At the close of the last episode, we were left with several looming problems: A group of criminals creating and smuggling an illegal explosive compound, the meddling of the Public Safety Bureau, Chase doing his thing, a powerful Roimyude addicted to said illegal explosive compound (and his mate), and perhaps most importantly, Shinnosuke poisoned with a deadly neurotoxin.

For all that my opinions of this episode are mostly good, it does begin with two things I absolutely hate: The cliffhanger resolved within the first few minutes, and Deus ex Machina. Specifically, after escaping Chase and Brain with the help of Dream Vegas and a river (checking that off the bingo), Shinnosuke is almost immediately healed through the use of the Mad Doctor shift car. I'd warrant that we're never going to see it again, either - and quite possibly that we'll never see Brain's deadly neurotoxin again either.

Friendly reminder that we never saw the Medical Switch used again
in Fourze. 

We did get a nice scene in the hospital afterwards though, where Mr. Belt tells Shinnosuke about a scientist who created something for good reasons and had it used as a weapon instead - prompting Shinnosuke to surmise that Belt was the scientist, only to be rebuffed with 'Nah, his name was Nobel. Gave his name to the Nobel Peace Prize.' 

Which is sort of true. Alfred Nobel created dynamite to use in mining work and clearing debris, not to be used as a weapon, but he was involved in several armament companies, and he was certainly aware that it could be used as a weapon. He was, however, so bothered by people's totally understandable concerns that his dangerous invention was dangerous -  remember, while much, much safer than just using nitroglycerin on its own, early dynamite would still explode if subjected to physical stress, and in heat would 'sweat' nitroglycerin (which isn't good for you) and then explode (which is also not good for you) - that he considered naming it 'Nobel Safety Powder'. 

From there we move straight into a plot about the Public Safety Bureau shutting down the Special Crimes Unit to protect the evil explosives-creating company, who they're in cahoots with. It's not a plot that lasts long - it's a twenty minute episode, after all, and they have to spare time for fight scenes - but it's pretty effective, as we get to see the Special Crimes Unit actually doing some police work, along with the reveal that Rinna was a double agent for them all along, subtly slipping them information that they could use in their investigations. 

I even liked the Chief in this episode, even though I normally despise him. He played the role of eccentric but ultimately competent leader of a group of oddball detectives to the hilt this episode, and I'm interested to see the inevitable episode where he actually does some detective work of his own and (presumably) reveals how surprisingly adept he is at it, since that's how this always goes.

Also, the Chief is very tiny.

We didn't have much villain time this episode, but what we did have was good, establishing Brain as the angry tantrum-y hot-blooded one of the Evil Power Couple, and Heart as the calmer, more calculating one. With Chase as their slightly weird best mate who they just want to set up with that nice Kamen Rider boy. 

The fights were actually pretty good, too. I've been a bit leery of the Drive fight scenes as a whole - they don't tend to be very well choreographed or paced. But the Type Wild fight scenes were actually pretty great. Shinnosuke vs Chase was a lot of fun (and now that Chase has been rather decisively defeated, I wonder what's next for him - because usually a decisive defeat in Kamen Rider means that you're done doing villainous stuff, even if you don't actually die, since there's little actual conflict left in you facing off against the protagonists), and the Bad CGI fight between a giant snake and a ... dune buggy? Is that what that car is? Anyway, that was actually pretty fun as well.

I watched Kiva. I remember how bad CGI fights can be. 

Also, nice suit design. I prefer it to Type Speed.

As the episode ended, we discover that actually Rinna was in on the Kamen Rider schtick all along, and was their chief mechanic. It makes sense, someone had to be - and I'm wondering now if actually the entire Special Crimes Unit is in on it, and Shinnosuke just doesn't know, and one by one they're all going to be revealed as having been involved all along.

Shinnosuke's reaction is hilarious, though. He's so sulky. I actually am really starting to like Shinnosuke, between the last episode where he was basically a one man snark machine, and this episode where he's kind of petulant and sulky. Also, I like tall characters, and they keep juxtaposing him against people who only reach his chest. I'm shallow.

Next episode, we have the standard 'a journalist wants to know about kamen rider' episode, including a bitter, angry journalist who may end up turning evil. 

In the meantime, here's this week's bingo:



Less spaces filled in than last week, but still, we're making good progress. See you all next week. 


Monday, 17 November 2014

The Lego Movie.


The LEGO Movie.



This was probably always a pretty difficult proposition for a film. Entertainment products slapped with the Lego name (gosh, that was an awkward and ambiguous sentence) usually tend towards parody: Canon events from things like Batman and Star Wars filtered through a heavy lens of parody and with, of course, a Lego block aesthetic.

It becomes a little more difficult when your film is just about Lego. Because Lego isn't really a distinct thing, it's something that you build other things out of, which is why you can take pretty much any property and give it a Lego spin. 

Anyway, the film is about Emmet, a young Lego construction worker in a dystopian Lego world ruled by the evil Lord Business, who secretly holds a superweapon called 'the Kragle'. Discovering a mysterious block called the Piece of Resistance, Emmet learns that he is the Special, who the wizard Vitruvius foretold would save the world from Lord Business and the Kragle.

There are certainly more than a few shades of the pop culture parody that is the bread and butter of the wildly popular Lego video games: Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Superman all have speaking roles (with Batman being a main character), and Princess Unikitty, another main character, is clearly a parody of My Little Pony. There are also cameos from several Star Wars characters, Shaquille O'Neal, Dumbledore and Gandalf, among others. Most of them are pretty ruthlessly satirised, especially Batman,

He needs to feel free to party with a bunch of strangers.

The main thrust of the film is about building, though, and creating stories. The whole plot is reminiscent of a child making up a story as he goes along (and for good reason - since that is, after all, what usually happens with actual Lego kits), with characters instantly travelling from metropolises to Wild West deserts to technicolour ponycat utopias, encountering literally two-faced police officers (played by Liam Neeson, doing his Taken voice for 'Bad Cop' and what I can only describe as an impersonation of the Father Ted cast for 'Good Cop') and giant robotic pirates and 1980s astronauts, before eventually besieging the 'infinitiest floor' of Lord Business' evil tower.

The pace is lightning fast and the jokes are pretty much constantly coming. There's never really a period of longer than thirty seconds without humour, and surprisingly, all of the jokes are really good. They're very often cheesy, but equally often they're surprisingly subtle and nuanced, working on several levels - and both kinds of jokes work really well for the film. It is laugh out loud funny in a way that I'm not sure the trailers really did justice to. 

A lot of that is down to the writing - it's a very tight script and you can see that not only has a lot of care been put into every part of it , but also that any dead weight on it has been trimmed off pretty thoroughly, with the exception of one section towards the end where it starts to slow down slightly. An equal amount of that, though, is down to the writing: Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks, playing the two leads, are both excellent, as are Will Ferrell and Liam Neeson as the villains. 

Her name is Wyldstyle, yes.

Also helping the film are that it has a great soundtrack and, obviously, a unique animation style (because I doubt anyone else is legally permitted to emulate it. There have been greater victories for originality, I admit). The main song, Everything Is Awesome, is ridiculously catchy, a lot of fun, and also intensely creepy, especially when you consider the context it usually plays in.

The film does have flaws, though. I'm really not keen on the 'ordinary dude discovers that he is special despite not earning it' trope, especially when it's inevitably coupled with the 'much more skilled woman is not special' trope: The film is clearly aware of how tired that trope is, as it subverts it pretty hard towards the end of the film, and does its best to parody it earlier on ("You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe."), but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. 

It also, as mentioned before, has a point towards the end where it slows right down. This is largely due to a plot twist. The plot twist is great, it makes perfect sense for the film, and while I did see it coming, it's still probably one of the biggest plot twists in a film this year - but it does unfortunately cause a bit of a lag in pace. Not a vast one, just enough of one to be noticeable.

On the other hand, big stompy boots.

But overall, it's a very strong film. Definitely one of the strongest this - did it even come out this year? Definitely one of the strongest of whatever year it came out in, and I recommend it. Especially if you like Liam Neeson doing Father Ted cast impersonations.