Skip navigation

Category Archives: Reviews

As a poor man, I don’t play as many games as I’d like. Nowhere near in fact. Yet in spite of that I’ve still managed, on average, a new game a month so yay for me. With 2016 mercifully almost at an end, I thought I’d have a look back over what I’ve played and select some winners in some arbitrary categories I’ve come up with on the spot. Because bollocks to preparation.

Surprise of the Year
Contenders: Doom, Final Fantasy XV
Winner: Doom

26821586162_fc16630066_b

Image from BagoGames

As much as Final Fantasy XV is a return to form, it has to be Doom. After some not unsubstantial concern before release, with an unimpressive multiplayer beta and slow looking gameplay previews, Doom turned out to be a masterpiece. Eschewing the approach of many modern FPS’s, Doom prioritised it’s single player campaign and was all the better for it. It wasn’t just a warm-up for the multiplayer a’la Call of Duty and Battlefield, but an honest-to-God story, one with plot and everything. The no-nonsense Doom Guy also had a surprising amount of depth, treating demons and allies alike (as well as robots, computer screens and machinery) with a disdain normally reserved for dog mess on the bottom of your shoe. Doom 2016 was everything that Doom 3 wasn’t. Well crafted, well balanced, engaging and above all a ton of fun.

DLC of the Year
Contenders: Destiny Rise of Iron, The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine, SWTOR Knights of the Eternal Throne
Winner: The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine
csashapweaa8g1v

If this had been a standalone game it would probably be up there in many writers Game of the Year lists. As a coda to what I would say is the best game of the generation so far, Blood and Wine is as perfect a conclusion as one could wish for. Moving away from the war-torn, grim locales of the main game and Heart of Stone makes it almost feel like a whole new game, so drastic is the change in tone and atmosphere. Throw in vampires, court intrigue and Geralt’s continued befuddlement at the behaviour of the locals and you’re onto a winner. Combine that with a great story, achingly pretty new locations and it’s a wonderful send off for our rugged Withcer. You couldn’t ask for more.

Most Anticipated of 2017
On paper, 2017 is already shaping up to be a stronger year than 2016. Not to say 2016 was bad, just that a lot of the stuff that achieved critical acclaim didn’t appeal to me (I’m looking at you, Overwatch and Dark Souls 3). 2017 sees Rockstar returning to the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption 2, more piss-taking shenanigans in South Park: The Fractured But Whole and Link’s return to the home console scene with Breath of the Wild.

27557588891_e1579f462b_b

Image from BagoGames

But for my money the one game I can’t wait to get my hands on is Mass Effect Andromeda. I’m super excited to see where Bioware take the Mass Effect franchise. The early footage looks promising, with lots of lessons learnt from Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition. Replacing Commander Shepard will be one hell of a task, but one I trust Bioware to pull off.

Disappointment of the Year
Contenders: No Man’s Sky, Uncharted 4, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2
Winner: Uncharted 4

15370011671_9cc0f7aed4_b

Image from BagoGames

Right, now bear with me. I loved the first three Uncharted games. Even the third one which for some reason nobody seems to like anymore. When it came to the fourth entry, it just fell flat for me. The middle third is a meandering mess. Doing repetitive nonsense in Madagascar was bad enough, but following that up with a God-awful island hopping adventure that makes the jet ski sections in the first game look good was the final straw. It may not be the headline grabbing failure that No Man’s Sky was, but as an exercise in falling short of expectation I don’t think you can look much farther.

Game of the Year
Contenders: Doom, Rise of the Tomb Raider (PC), Final Fantasy XV
Winner: Rise of the Tomb Raider

17723424214_555b31925d_b

Image from BagoGames

It came out on PC at the start of the year, it counts. In short, it has all the strengths of Uncharted 4, but with good pacing, less tedious set pieces and a more enjoyable story. If Tomb Raider 2013 was the perfect 8/10 game, this took it to the next level. Giving Lara more agency in the game helped to harken back to the classic Tomb Raider games, but without losing the sense of who this version of Lara was. She was still the same character we saw trapped on a cloudy island in the reboot, but with more knowledge and more of an edge. It suddenly didn’t seem so odd to see her gunning down mercenaries left, right and centre without batting a TressFX rendered eyelash.

Advertisements

Well this is a pleasure. Being able to write a review on a Star Wars film that I not only enjoyed, but that was also a good film in its own right.

A great deal of what makes The Force Awakens stand out is due to the new cast. In Rey, Finn and Poe there’s a new trio that’s also immediately likeable, but different enough from Han, Luke and Leia. Many of my preconceptions of what these characters would be like turned out to be completely wrong. Poe is no Han Solo for instance. Yes he wisecracks but that’s about it. After Finn helps him escape, he’s supportive, reassuring and trusting. There’s no cynicism in him. He may be, as Oscar Isaac said “the best goddamn pilot in the galaxy,”, but he’s also a believer in the Resistance and in people.

To go any further without mentioning the incredible Daisy Ridley would be a disservice both to her and to the film. The character of Rey may well be one of my favourites of the whole saga. Whilst it would be easy (and correct) to draw many parallels between her and Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, she’s no clone. There’s no whining here. Instead we find a capable young woman making her way. The moment she embraces her destiny is not only the best part of the film, but one of the best in the series.

There’s also an emotional punch that for the prequels were often a swing and a miss. Adam Driver does a marvellous job as Kylo Ren, showing inner conflict in a far more convincing manner than Hayden Christensen ever managed with Anakin. Yes there’s the temper tantrums when things don’t go his way, but there’s a fear factor that echoes Vader rather than his moping alter ego.

Crucially, there’s an atmosphere to The Force Awakens that distinguishes it from the Prequels. It feels much more like the lived-in universe of the Originals. Much has been made of the use of practical effects in the production and rightly so. There’s an ideal balance between the practical and the digital that makes what your seeing feel both real and fantastical.

None of this is to say the film itself is perfect. As good as the special effects are, certain parts of CGI are a bit off, primarily Andy Serkis’ character, Supreme Leader Snoke. Think Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy before he gets all his bits back and you’re not far wrong. Fingers crossed that gets worked on before the inevitable larger role in Episode VIII.

It’s not just the odd bit of CGI that detract from the film either. As many have pointed out, the film borrows liberally from A New Hope. Viewed from a distance it can at times feel more like a remake than a sequel. I imagine watching the films is order may result in a major case of deja vu. I will say that a second viewing made this far less of a problem for me.

The sequence after Rey and Finn escape Jakku and are picked up by Han and Chewie also feels superfluous. JJ Abrams is a bugger for a monster set piece and I shan’t hold that indulgence against him, but it doesn’t really contribute to the story beyond giving Han and Chewie something to do.

As an overall experience, The Force Awakens is a triumphant return to form. How it compares to the Original Trilogy only time will tell, but on first impressions it probably sits at number 3, just behind Empire and Jedi. It certainly feels like a set up for the rest of the trilogy, far more than A New Hope or The Phantom Menace did for theirs. As a result it feels less self-contained and perhaps can only be truly judged once VIII and IX are out. May 2017 never felt so far away.

4/5

vlcsnap-2015-09-14-19h25m35s891

Fear the Walking Dead came back this week with it’s best episode so far. Damning with faint praise, considering the hit-and-miss nature of the first two episodes, but it continues to show potential. For example, police brutality as a reason for why people aren’t taking the zombie infection seriously is unexpected and clever. With that in mind, I find it problematic that the show continues to kill more minorities than your average US police department.

In addition to the three black guys from the first two episodes, we now have Madison’s Asian neighbour zombified and promptly shot in the head. It’s not that ‘Fear…’ doesn’t kill off white people. The first zombie we see in the show, Gloria, is a young white female and the first ever zombie for whom the fuck, marry, kill game doesn’t have an immediate answer. In ‘The Dog’ we had a white zombie chowing down on the titular canine. Taken in isolation this wouldn’t be so bad, but with The Walking Dead’s history of offing people of colour, it’s not a great start.

More and more characters are also jumping aboard the idiot bus. This week it was the turn of the previously reliable Travis. Considering all he’s seen so far (a zombified Calvin getting run over repeatedly only to get back up, multiple zombies getting shot but only going down with a bullet to the head, the zombie taking a shotgun blast to the face in his living room), his stance on guns is frankly ridiculous. Not only are there riots going on, but there are flesh eating monsters that can’t be reasoned with roaming the streets. Whilst not as mind-numbingly stupid as Lori not wanting Carl to know how to shoot as late as season two of The Walking Dead, it’s a worrying turn for a previously sensible character. Thankfully we now have Daniel Salazar to add to the list of characters with their head screwed on, along with Tobias and Nick of all people.

Madison was also greatly improved from previous episodes. It makes sense for her to be further along in her willingness to kill the undead following her encounter in the previous episode, but she’s still too slow in doing the actual deed. Her hesitation in killing zombies, though understandable, can only go for so much longer and she shouldn’t have allowed herself to be talked down by Travis. I think that in the coming episodes she’s going to wish she’d been more decisive. They might have been able to make a clean getaway from the suburbs and be safe in the desert when things get inevitably worse. Also, nobody gets excited at the prospect of Monopoly, let alone during an apocalypse.

It’s my hope that as the show grows it expand on it’s finer points. The crumbling of society, a closer family dynamic and characters wising up as things quickly go south. As it is, I’m worried there’s not enough to set it apart from it’s parent show and it’s repeating a lot of the same mistakes. Given time I think it can be a worthy addition to the franchise. I just hope it gets that time.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 22.17.19

Unfortunately those tracks turn out to lead to cannibals, but you can’t have everything.


 

I think it’s fair to say that The Walking Dead is a hit and miss show. Apart from a largely excellent first season, each season has had one good half without much to write home about in the other. The first half of season two was a complete mess, the second half excellent. Season three started strong before going off the boil and that trend continued into season four. The two Governor centric episodes aside, season four had a fantastic opening. The plague storyline allowed for Herschel’s character to grow and culminated in his brutal murder at the hands of the Governor. And yet in the latter half of season four the episodes have flip-flopped more than an indecisive trout.

As viewers, we’ve been blessed with fantastic episodes like Claimed and The Grove, but suffered through the unremitting bullshit that was Still, with varying shades of mediocre in-between. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the finale was approached with some trepidation on my part. Not helped at all by the experience of the season three finale, Welcome to the Tombs. Thankfully we were treated to one of the best episodes of the series so far. Easily the best since Clear in season three, maybe even the best since the pilot.

It’s been a long road to travel for the show to get to this point, not least for Rick Grimes who finally seems to be in a place where he can be seen as a competent, decisive leader. From season one he’s had people in the group holding him back. From Lori’s constant hen pecking to Shane’s insubordination to Dale’s naivety. The only person whose caution and gentleness has really aided Rick’s evolution as a leader is Herschel. In showing him he doesn’t have to be a warrior all the time, Rick’s turn from benign to brutal when necessary is all the more notable.

Nowhere is this more evident in the scene near the start of the finale with the showdown with the Marauders, Joe’s pack of wandering hicks and nutcases. I’d argue it’s one of the best scenes the show’s ever done and it shows how Rick has evolved to be a true survivor and one who isn’t to be fucked with. One minute he’s sitting round the campfire with Michonne. The next he’s ripping out a guy’s throat with his teeth and cutting his son’s attempted rapist from balls to brain with a knife and stabbing him 20 times for good measure. It’s a scene that in previous seasons would’ve had Lori whining “she doesn’t know the person she married anymore” or Dale castigating him as a “danger to the group”. Yet the way these characters have developed over the years has hardened them to true steel and any less of a reaction would feel weak and a betrayal of these characters as survivors. And it’s hard to argue that the show is worse for levels of violence these people are capable of.

In stark contrast to the violence of Rick’s group is the cunning trickery of the residents of Terminus. As soon as you see Tasha Yar cooking huge slabs of meat on the barbecue at the end of the previous episode it’s pretty obvious they’re going to be cannibals. Despite what we’ve just seen Rick do, there’s still that line in the sand that you don’t cross. You simply don’t eat people. Daryl may have found the Marauders code rightly stupid, but that’s a rule you can really live by.

What makes this episode stand out amongst other great episodes is the quality of the writing and directing. Showrunner Scott Gimple has been responsible for some of the series’ best episodes (Pretty Much Dead Already, Clear, This Sorrowful Life, The Grove) and combined with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones alumna Michelle MacLaren you can be sure this won’t be a standard episode. The shot selection is smart, scenes blend together naturally and there’s great foreshadowing with Rick teaching Carl about the snare. MacLaren also gets a great performance out of Chandler Riggs (Carl). Working with child actors is always a risk and we’d not been blessed with great performances from the two girls playing Lizzie and Mika throughout the season. Riggs’ acting could so easily have been a weak spot in this episode if directed by someone else.

For so long what’s held the show back is AMC’s seeming reluctance to splash out on consistently good writers and directors with a proven track record. Look at some of the episodes from this season and their writers and directors. Curtis Gwinn, writer of Dead Weight also wrote for such high quality drama such as NTSF:SD:SUV and Fat Guy Stuck in Internet whilst Julius Ramsay, director for the worst rated episode of the show on IMDB in Still, had never even directed before. It’s ridiculous that for a show with such potential and aspirations and that’s making a ton of money for AMC they aren’t getting in people the likes of HBO take for granted.

Hopefully for season five AMC will let Scott Gimple have much more of a say in the way the show goes and doesn’t leave him hamstrung with financial constraints. I get that they had to deal with one hell of a mess following Glen Mazzara’s stint in charge, but with a whole season of his own there’s no excuses now. They’ve set up something great with Terminus, a strong group of survivors (shit even Tara’s tolerable now she’s stopped with the fistbump nonsense) and a darker direction. If they manage to screw it up from here, they’re in trouble.

4290622577_553eee3945_oAs a keen gamer and someone who tends to horde digital media and then not actually get around to using it, the idea to complete four games from my Pile of Shame was a highly tempting one. As is the way of such things, the games I ended up playing and finishing bore little resemblance to my planned four. Initially, it was my intention to complete Metal Gear Solid 3, Demon’s Souls, Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge. Whilst I did play all four of those, not one of them was completed.

Starting with Metal Gear Solid 3 I had high hopes. I’d loved MGS 1 and 2 and heard 3 was the best of the lot. However, I must confess to being disappointed. Admittedly it’s been a good while since I played an MGS game, but I didn’t remember the controls being so bad. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising for a game that’s a decade old, but I’d been spoilt by the Halo Anniversary edition where the gameplay has aged incredibly well. Unfortunately for MGS3, despite a new lick of graphical paint, playing it is a torturous experience. It’s not helped at all by some frankly terrible dialogue and some OTT misogyny (I mean seriously, pressing R1 to stare at some woman’s tits. Really, Konami?)

I then moved onto Assassin’s Creed. I’d managed more progress on this game than I had MGS3 before getting distracted by something else. However, again I found poor gameplay let down what was otherwise a decent game. Whilst the free running is very enjoyable, as soon as you enter into a fight you stop being this agile and nimble assassin and instead lumber around as though you’re wearing concrete boots. Compare the combat to something such as the Arkham games and it really comes across as being half-arsed and frustrating to deal with.

So with two games put back on the pile of shame, I was at a loss for what to attempt next. Thankfully I remembered my Playstation Plus subscription and started playing Spec Ops: The Line again. Now that’s more like it. Whereas the gameplay in this was nothing new, that wasn’t a problem. A tried and true third-person mechanic allowed you to concentrate on what is a great story. An abandoned, sand covered Dubai makes a great setting and whilst I doubt the geography is remotely accurate, the sense you’re working your way through this devastated city was incredibly atmospheric and gave a real sense of purpose. It helped being a massive Apocalypse Now fan as the game takes a lot of inspiration from the novel Heart of Darkness. Plus, hearing Bruce Boxleitner’s voice is always welcome.

I then went from the sublime to the pretty shit and managed to complete Rage. Rage is a fairly odd game. From the makes of Doom and Quake, it’s certainly got pedigree. Unfortunately it also has a whole host of health problems like you’d expect from something with said pedigree. Whereas the tried and true method of gameplay benefitted a game such as Spec Ops, in Rage it just feels old and creaky. To give id Software some credit, they managed to make a very interesting world and lore but utterly failed when it comes to basics such as gameplay, characters and plotting. It’s almost as if they’d seen Fallout 3 and excised the bits that made it good. Despite that, I did actually manage to have some fun with the game. The weapons are good and driving around the wasteland firing rockets never gets old. However, it’s a game that suffers from obviously being rushed. The final mission that the game had been building to is a massive anti-climax. There’s no challenge, no culmination of the plot and no sense of accomplishment.

The final game I completed is a little bit of a cheat in that it’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition. Now technically I’d not completed this. However, I did complete the original Halo about a decade ago on the PC. But considering I’ve not got a Game Completed achievement I think this counts. One thing that’s remarkable about this HD update is how much the gameplay hasn’t aged. Compared to something like MGS3, which feels like it’s from the Stone Age, Halo Anniversary barely feels as though it’s aged a day. The gameplay itself feels largely untouched and the graphical overhaul is remarkable. This is made all the more apparent by the ability to swap between the original and updated graphics. In my memories, Halo still looked fairly pretty. Those memories were promptly blown out of the water by a couple of taps of the back button.

With one game left to complete my Four in February, I resolved to trying to complete one from my original list. As I’m not insane I decided against Demon’s Souls and plucked for Mirror’s Edge. My understanding was that it was a game you could blitz through in a couple of hours. Unfortunately it turns out to be a 6-8 hour game and as a consequence just feels too long. The running is good platforming fun and the first person perspective really brings you into the environment as you leap among the rooftops. However, combat is a complete pain in the tits. When you do manage to disarm a guard, the aiming is slow and unresponsive and you’ve no idea how many shots you have. Whilst I appreciate that the aim is to run and avoid combat, sometimes there’s no choice or it’s simply easier to take the guards out than try and dodge them. In spite of these flaws, Mirror’s Edge is a game I can see me returning to when not rushed for time. It’s got a fairly decent story and it’s nice to play as a strong female protagonist for a change. It would’ve been very easy to have made the character male and no-one would have batted an eyelid.

Overall, whilst I wasn’t able to complete my entire Four in February I’m pleased with the three I did manage to finish and just the sheer quantity of games I’ve managed to play. I’m over halfway through Halo: Reach, almost finished Halo 4 again, nearly done a full season on F1 2011, reached Level 38 on Simpson’s Tapped Out and on the last level of Bioshock Infinite on Hard difficulty (more like Impossible). Considering how much I’d put gaming on the backburner recently, it’s been really nice to settle down and get back into my PS3 and 360. Here’s hoping it’ll continue now I’m back at work…

vlcsnap-2014-02-24-19h23m33s123Firstly, I feel I should preface this review by saying how much I think 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film. A great deal about it is utterly sublime. From a technical perspective aspects such as cinematography, acting (particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) and score are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It’s also the only other film besides Requiem for a Dream I’ll probably never watch again just because of how uncomfortable it made me feel. It certainly isn’t afraid to beat you over the head with the horrors of slavery, horrors which I’m sure don’t come even close to the full extent of reality. To paraphrase Bass, Brad Pitt’s character, Solomon’s story is amazing and in no good way.

And yet I can’t shake these niggling feelings that detract from an otherwise brilliant film. 12 Years a Slave is a perfect example of why I don’t like to give ratings or scores. It’s technically brilliant, but let down by a few minor quibbles that prevent it from achieving it’s true potential. For instance, some of the shots dotted throughout the film seem superfluous or overlong. The one that immediately springs to mind is right near the end after Solomon’s conversation with Bass, where Bass promises to pass on word about Solomon to people in the North. There’s one long, lingering shot of Solomon out in the woods with nothing but him and the sound of crickets in the background. It’s a beautifully framed shot make no mistake, but is utterly redundant. It follows on from one not long before where he smashes up his violin after whipping Patsey, finally sliding into the pit of despair he swore never to fall into. Whilst I recognise that long, uncomfortable shots are something of a trademark of McQueen’s, is another one so soon really necessary?

Whilst the acting performances from the main cast are all well worthy of praise, many of the supporting cast just come across as caricatures and clichés. Tibeats (Paul Dano) is your typical inadequate bully, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a relatively benevolent slave owner feels like something straight from TVTropes and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) is little more than a panto villain as the jealous wife of Epps (Michael Fassbender). Speaking of Epps, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t just come across as a simple sadist. Whilst he is obviously sadistic, there’s a degree of nuance to Fassbender’s performance. McQueen has to be praised for continuing to get the best of Fassbender, who I maintain is the best British actor around at the moment (sorry Cumberbatch and Hiddleston fans).

My other main gripe was that for a film called 12 Years a Slave, the passage of time barely registers. Whilst Solomon looks noticeably greyer by the time he’s freed, I would expect a dozen years of hard labour to have much more of a negative effect on his appearance. It’s not helped when during his reunion with his family, he apologises for his appearance. All that serves to do is draw attention to the fact he doesn’t look dramatically older.

It must be said that these complaints are minor shouldn’t give a false impression of the film’s quality. Like I said, it’s a very good film dealing with a very tough, sensitive subject. Over the last couple of years there’ve been three high profile films dealing with slavery in Lincoln, Django Unchained and now 12 Years a Slave. They all deal with slavery in different ways and a good essay could be written on a comparison between those three and how they broach the subject. What I will say is that as a white British male 12 Years a Slave certainly comes close to what I imagine slavery to have been like. McQueen does an excellent job of capturing the horror of it and the main cast are all excellent. I just wish that I could say I thought the film was perfect.

So it’s finally released and I have to say I’m not disappointed in the slightest. Despite the bad reviews and the bad press regarding the frame rate, I can honestly say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great, fun movie. It’s not without it’s flaws and it doesn’t hit the highs of The Lord of the Rings, but what you do get is an exciting film and a promising start to a new trilogy. To expand on that:

Pros:

  • Riddles in the Dark. The best chapter of the book and by far the best part of the film. Hell probably one of the best moments from the Middle Earth films. Martin Freeman is excellent in this scene, going from humouring Smeagol to being genuinely terrified when he slips into being Gollum. And for good reason. There are moments where Gollum is genuinely unnerving, particularly when his eyes catch the light and go a ghoulish blue. As good as Freeman is in this scene, it’s Andy Serkis who steals the show. It’s a pity we shan’t see any more of him in the second and third Hobbit films.

 

  • The Necromancer. Though seen only fleetingly, the sequence with Radagast exploring Dol Guldur is certainly tense and a good prelude of what’s to come in the second and third movies. Sylvester McCoy is wonderful as the eccentric wizard and it shows in his scene with Gandalf that the two are good friends. This is contrasted wonderfully with Gandalf’s later scene with Saruman in Rivendell where he seems dismayed to hear his sonorous voice booming out behind him to announce his arrival. That whole backstory with the White Council and Dol Guldur has always fascinated me and I look forward to seeing more.

 

  • The development of Thorin is a welcome expansion on his character. Whilst re-reading the book he does seem rather one-dimensional, at least in terms of what’s portrayed in the book. What the film does well is to show you the motivation for his quest and to also make his aloofness more understandable, in particular his hatred of the Elves. As well as that, Bilbo’s actions towards the end of the film allow him to thaw somewhat and to accept Bilbo as one of their company, something that is essential if we’re to care about this character for another two films. The inclusion of Azog as a large albino Orc who is hunting Thorin and his company also provides the film with a running antagonist in lieu of Smaug. The history between those two will add an undercurrent to the remaining films, leading up the climax at the Battle of the Five Armies.

 

  • One concern I did have going into the film was that in having 14 characters on this quest, the film would spread itself thin trying to give each one their own moment. Thankfully this was not the case as the film focuses mainly on a few select members of the company. As well as obvious focus on Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin, namely Fili, Kili, Bofur, Balin and, to a lesser extent, Dwalin. Hopefully the remaining dwarves will get their time to shine in the second and third films, but for this one it benefits it to focus on only a few.

 

Cons:

  • Though the set-pieces of the film are by and large fantastic, the scenes linking them all together can be a bit weak. Even for a Middle Earth film, there are a lot of shots of people walking up hills and down dales. Yes it’s a staple of these films, but it does make the film rather segmented rather than one that flows, something that The Lord of the Rings films managed.

 

  • The CGI in places is quite ropey. The Great Goblin, whilst not bad enough to make you go: “hang on…” is hardly Academy Award worthy. Similarly, scenes of Radagast in his rabbit powered sleigh take all the powers of suspension of disbelief I can muster. However, it must be said that Gollum looks amazing with updated CGI, so all in all a mixed bag.

 

General points:

  • I can’t be the only one who was slightly disturbed by the load of bird poo down the side of Radagast’s head, right?

 

  • Saw the film at the conventional 24fps 2D and it looked fine. If you really are worried about the higher frame rate then don’t bother risking it.

 

  • Something to mention that I think a lot of critics missed out on is that it’s much lighter in tone and more fantastical than Lord of the Rings. If you’re going into it expecting it to be just like LOTR, you’re in for inevitable disappointment. Yes it’s in the same universe, but it isn’t the same tone or style and nor should it try to be. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens do a great job of incorporating neat little references to the LOTR without copying it.

 

  • I didn’t expect Smaug to be pronounced like that.

 

  • Finally, the film manages funny without being forced, mostly due to Martin Freeman’s excellent delivery of lines. If you take nothing else from this film, take away Freeman’s performance because it really is top notch.


At long last Game of Thrones has returned to our screens and the first episode of the second season certainly pulls no punches. We have incest, poisoning, mysterious new religions, political machinations and a good old fashioned bit of infanticide to top it all off. Just another day in Westeros, really.

Unlike the first season, where I hadn’t read the book before watching it, I’ve now read a decent way into A Song of Ice and Fire. I was worried that this would potentially affect my enjoyment of the show, but thankfully that hasn’t happened. The new characters introduced in the first episode are mostly how I pictured them. Melisandre, the red priestess influencing Stannis Baratheon, is pretty much spot on. The right mixture of cunning, mysteriousness and sexiness. Craster, the Wildling north of the Wall with a penchant for marrying his daughters, is perfect, managing to be both menacing and downright creepy. Davos Seaworth, the former smuggler-turned-knight under the employ of Stannis is played brilliantly by Liam Cunningham. Though  I must say, based solely on appearance, I’d have been tempted to swap him and Stephen Dillane (who plays Stannis) around.

Handily, for those with poor memories and haven’t seen season one in a while, there’s a recap at the very beginning. Even for someone who’s read the books and has a great memory for these sorts of things, it was good to see old faces like Ned Stark. It made the scene with his son, Robb, confronting Jaime Lannister and discussing the return of his fathers body all the more powerful after reminding you of Ned’s fate.

Perhaps the least surprising thing about this episode is just how excellent Peter Dinklage is as Tyrion. Even though he isn’t in this episode an awful lot, he manages to steal every scene he’s in. Thankfully we can expect to see much more of Tyrion considering how central he is to the second book. If he carries on this way, a second Emmy is pretty much guaranteed.

Another strong point of this episode is its structure. The use of the comet to link story lines and characters together, even if they’re a continent away, is really clever. Hearing the different interpretations of what it means and how that varies from culture to culture is a great little way of showing the diversity of the Game of Thrones universe without beating you over the head with it.

One scene I can see a lot of people having an issue with is the very last one, with the City Watch seeking out and murdering the bastard offspring of the previous king in order to eradicate any claim to the throne through his legitimate children. This includes taking a baby from its mothers arms and killing it in front of her and also showing a dead child being carried by the leg by another guard.. Personally I thought it was a powerful scene, necessary to show the levels to which certain characters will go to get their way. However, it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer and infanticide is, to put it mildly, a touchy subject.

For me, if this episode has one flaw it would be the scene involving Shae, Tyrion’s personal prostitute. Sibel Kikelli just doesn’t convince me as an actress and her lines feel forced. Yes she’s meant to be a prostitute so it’s highly likely that she is forcing herself to say these things, but it doesn’t come across that way, just just that she’s a poor actress. It’s all the more apparent when next to Dinklage, who shows her up quite badly. Unless her acting skills improve sharply over the season, I can see this being a recurring complaint.

Overall it’s a great season premiere and creates a whole host of new plot lines for the audience and some fantastic new characters for us to try and figure out. Though it’s impossible to judge a season on its first episode, if the rest of the season is only half as good we’re in for a treat.

Image

This season of The Walking Dead has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the first half of the season was dire; slow, meandering and devoid of any threat, both internal and external. However, since its return from the mid-season break, the show has gone back to its season one heyday. The tension that had been slowly building between Rick and Shane this latter half of the season came to a close last week, with Shane attempting to murder Rick two too many times and promptly getting a knife to the gut, only to return as a zombie before getting shot by Carl. 

Now we finally get to return to a zombie threat as the herd, seen at the end of that episode, descends on the farm.

This is easily one of the strongest episodes of the show so far. What makes this episode so good is the fast pace of it. Forty-five minutes flies by and whilst some may have wanted it to be a feature length episode, the fact it’s a standard length ensures we end the season on a high. There’s a good ratio of action to character moments and often to two are combined.

The body count isn’t as high as I was expecting, though. Only two characters bite the bullet and they’re the two lesser-seen members of Herschel’s group. Coming off the back of the deaths of Shane and Dale, seeing these two nobodies get devoured means virtually nothing. Honestly, would the show have been worse off for losing Carol, T-Dog or the blonde girl that tried to commit suicide a couple of weeks back? Hell, seeing as how the show has diverted so much from the comics, maybe even Glenn for a tug at the heartstrings? The Walking Dead’s biggest problem, as I see it, is too many characters. It doesn’t have the acting skills or the writing to carry off a cast this large. With the added characters a new season inevitably brings, some serious pruning will be needed at the start of next season.

Speaking of new characters, it’s fantastic to see Michonne, especially this early. Honestly, she’s one of the best characters in the comics and will bring some much needed level-headedness to the show. I can see her getting on well with Daryl, which should be interesting given that she’s a black woman and we’ll likely see the return of Daryl’s racist brother, Merle.

One thing that struck me as odd was the way Rick decided to inform everyone of him killing Shane. Yelling: “I killed my best friend for you people, for Christ’s sake!” wasn’t one of his brightest moments. It’s hardly going to endear him to the group, even if you do let them know it was self-defense. Thankfully that scene does show that Rick is finally getting to grips with being leader. All throughout the show they’ve looked to him to make decisions. Now he’s making unpopular ones like trying to keep the group together and they don’t like it? Rick’s right when he says it’s not a democracy, not when most of the people in the group are as moronic as they are. Their priority is to survive and splitting up is the surest way of ending up dead. At this point, Rick is the only one I’d trust to make decisions, especially now that Dale is dead and Herschel is content to take a back seat from the decision making.

Ultimately, the episode does precisely what a good season finale should do. Many of the loose ends have been tied up and new plotlines hinted at. It’ll be fantastic to see the Prison next season. It’s easily the best plot line in the comics and with a ton of material. Considering they managed to stretch Herschel’s farm out to a whole season, the Prison could easily be two.

I must confess, after the first few episodes of season two, I was close to giving up on the show. Now I’m disappointed to see it go. Bring on season three!

I finally finished Mass Effect 3 at around three o’clock this morning and I’ve never felt this conflicted over a game before. On one hand, you have this utterly amazing game 99% of the time that’s a vast improvement over the previous two instalments. Unfortunately, it’s that 1% right at the very end that puts a massive damper on what could easily have been one of the best games ever made.

Before getting to the ending, I think it’s important to go into more depth on just how excellent the game is besides. So much is improved upon and refined. The way in which you explore the galaxy and collect resources (in this case War Assets, salvage and fuel) is easily the best of the trilogy. Gone is the repetitive Mako missions and tedious planet scanning. Instead, you scan the system and outrun Reapers who detect and chase after you. Perhaps the best thing about the War Assets is that they give even the most mundane side-quests a sense of weight and importance that they didn’t have before. It actually feels like you’re making a difference.

The weapon customisation makes a welcome return as well. Though not as extensive as in Mass Effect 1, it’s a system that works better. You get upgrades but you aren’t left with the older versions of those upgrades, it replaces them. You also have a weight limit, restricting the weapons you can take with you on missions, meaning you have to think about your equipment, rather than just give yourself the most powerful weapons.

I’m also rather fond of the soundtrack for the game. As disappointing as the departure of Jack Wall is and the fact that Clint Mansell is only responsible for two tracks, Sam Hulick. Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan do a great job on the rest of the score, though I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t have been nice to see what Mansell could have done if given a free-reign.

As for the gameplay, that’s been upgraded nicely. I was worried when playing the demo that it had become clunkier, but I found myself pleasantly surprised at how fluid it felt in the final product. It’s not changed all that much from Mass Effect 2, but I didn’t think it really needed to; they’ve just improved on a winning formula.

The highlight of the game for me is the character moments. There are lots of them littered throughout the game and the emotions they generate can leave you crying or laughing. The new characters are also done very well. James Vega, contrary to my earlier expectations, is actually a decent character. Secondary characters like Cortez, your shuttle pilot, and Samantha Traynor, the replacement for Kelly Chambers, are great additions with a good deal of depth to them. Plus, they finally have crew interaction on the Normandy, either by commlink or by visiting them in their quarters. It adds an extra dimension to life aboard the Normandy where people aren’t separate but do in fact talk to each other, in some cases even forming relationships together.

Really, this game would be damned near perfect if not for the ending. Now, I’m not going to be like some people and say that it ruined the game for me. I cannot stress enough how fantastic the game is prior to the last fifteen minutes. It just makes no sense and there’s a real lack of closure, a quite literal deus ex machina plot device and plot holes you could fly the Citadel through. It’s incredibly lazy writing on Bioware’s behalf and I can’t believe that it was okayed by management. It’s not even that it’s a sad or tragic ending. I could deal with that. Instead, you’re left remarkably unfulfilled and with a very bitter taste in your mouth.

What is so disappointing is that it’s such a lost opportunity. If the ending had been done that bit better then Bioware could pat themselves on the back for creating probably the best video game trilogy ever made. Now, with the fan backlash generated by the ending, they’re left in a difficult place. Do they release some DLC to alter the ending to provide something more palatable for fans à la Fallout 3? Personally, I think that’s what they were planning from the beginning. The ending is left highly ambiguous and gives ample scope to be able to retcon. Of course this will generate backlash from those who liked the ending as well as from those who hated it, seeing it as profiteering from fan anger as I’d be amazed if it was free.

Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 goes from the sublime to the ridiculous at a rapid pace of knots. Does it deserve the merciless bashing it’s getting across the internet and the precipitously small user scores on the likes of Metacritic? No. Is it as good as it could be? Definitely not.