Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Injustice 2 (Video Game Review)

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

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Doctor Who: Oxygen (Episode Review)

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 May 2017

Alien: Covenant (Film Review)

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Space Between Stars (Book Review)

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

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Prey (Video Game Review)

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

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Playne and Simple - 10/05/2017

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

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

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

Monday, 8 May 2017

Doctor Who: Knock Knock (Episode Review)

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

The Verdict

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