Sunday, 26 August 2012

Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel (PSP/Comic Review)

Speak to just about any fan of Metal Gear Solid and they’ll usually claim the PSX title is their favourite. Shadow Moses, Vulkan Raven, Metal Gear REX; these are all things of nostalgia and harken back to a different time. Back before Raiden, back when the D-pad was used to awkwarly make Snake bounce off walls and when the incomprihencible plot was only near-incomprihencible. Naturally with this attitude, a comic adaptation was inevitable to milk the fandom of a bit more cash.

“Oh but this isn’t just any comic adaptation” Konami said “it’s a redone version of our IDW series - A first-of-its-kind Digital Graphic Novel, avalible only on the PSP.”
So, was it a genuinely interesting new media or cheap new gimmik used to try and justify an additional price tag? Let’s find out.

The plot to MGS is one well known within the gaming community. Praised, mocked, criticised, analysed, affectionately parodied through webcomics; the vast majority of people know at least the basics.

Called out of retirement by his also retired CO Colonel Campbell, Solid “Dave” Snake is abducted to deal with a major situation brewing in Alaska. A unit of the disbanded FOXHOUND spec ops has taken control of the nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses, taken two high profile hostages and is threatening a nuclear strike. As the only dude bad enough to save the president of Armstech and kill the terrorists, Snake is sent in via torpedo.
What follows is a conspiracy involving a cyborg ninja, a new metal gear, an advanced biological virus and sci-fi science which would make a genetacist cry.

This is the real problem behind it all – the comic isn’t really needed. Everyone knows the story, 90% of the interesting conversations are too clunky to put into a comic and half the flawed charm of the original came from it being a video game. You can’t really adapt things like the full involvement of the large support group, greater sense of desperation due to the difficulty settings or how it leaned on the fourth wall.
The entire story structure of the original only really works as a video game. With its villains dying at the end of each area in boss fights and Snake himself coming across as a distant, tired killer. As such a lot of literties are taken to keep things interesting – Some for the better and some for the worse.

Obvious alterations were made to the personalities of a few characters – some with good reason, but each of the loses something for everything they gain. Case and point - Psycho Mantis.
In this he’s less laughable and vastly more disturbing. This isn’t the Mantis who hijacks your controller – this is a derranged lunatic given the power to kill with mind bullets. Atop of his fight with Snake and Meryl, which is far more disturbing than in the game, “pages” are spent showing him mentally crippling Grey Fox. Eroding what little remains of the ninja’s psyche and trying to break someone who is already effectively brain damaged.
So on the one hand the story gains more of an effective psychic villain and imagery. On the other it loses some of its iconic humour and the fourth wall breaking which helped make it famous. No matter what’s done, something is lost with each change and believe it or not this is probably the best alteration. The worst is with Snake himself.

As Snake was mostly characterised through those long codec cutscenes, his character had to be streamlined. Or in other words completely changed, turned into a wisecracking action hero. Yes that’s what he becomes. Okay, it does give him some more colourful dialogue but it turns him into someone whose not Solid Snake. When he tells Revolver Ocelot to “cram the supervillain rhetoric” he’s not the old soldier; he’s Guy Pearce from Lockout. Thankfully the liberties taken in the writing never get more excessive than this, but it’s difficult to see Snake in the comic at all due to this bravado – Something not helped by the art.

As you might be able to tell comparing the screenshots, there are some very diverse styles used here. It seems like every few pages the artist, Ashley Wood, decides his current style isn’t working and changes to something else. He never seems to properly settle on just one until the second half and some of his drawings feel very out of place. One very sketchy style looks like it’s right out of IDW’s Silent Hill comics and while effective in a couple of stills most of the time it’s just not needed. Especially in one shot where Meryl is exposing her particularly angular arse like a mandrill. It’s also moments like that where the comic really loses its nostalgic feel.

So the story takes liberties with the characters, the art frequently swtiches between different styles, some of which are not suited to the story, and some of the original’s charm is lost. Is there anything it does right? Actually yes, there is.

Konami advertised the whole Digital Graphic Novel thing as an entirely new medium and tried to use it as a huge selling point – with good reason.While the rest of the industry seems to be catching up, the I Am Legend DGN comes to mind, this remains one of the best displays of the potential behind this sort of comic. It basically shows how limited animation, sound effects and altering how a comic is presented can give an issue a very cinematic feel. Comics have their own unique style to how they present things, movement for example, showing pannel by pannel progression to natrually flow between events.
DC, IDW and Marvel have tried to show digital versions of this in most of their releases through the screen panning from individual pannel to pannel at speed, focusing upon each action in turn. Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel on the other hand displays this through clever editing and altering the comic to make the characters move. It’s hard to fully explain in words so here’s an example in the form of one of the comic’s early fightscenes. As you can see, it manages to retain the presentation of a comic but has a much faster pacing and punchier overall approach. One perfectly suited to any comic using frequent, brief bouts of combat.

Final verdict – If you’re looking to get it to see how well comics can be adapted to a digital medium, definitely buy it. It’s worth your time and money even when the story and artwork fails to deliver.
Otherwise, if you’re looking to get this because you want to see how the overarching plot elements to MGS began, just get the original game. Speaking as someone who first played it when Snake Eater was hitting the shelves, it holds up well and is still very fun to play today.

Prices for the game/comic/whichever-you-want-to-call-it on Amazon range from £6.91 to over £30.00 so look about to compare costs before buying.


Metal Gear Solid and all related characters and media are owned by Konami and Hideo Kojima.

Friday, 17 August 2012

5 Changes 6th Edition Codex: Space Marines Needs

There’s not much to be said about the last few Space Marine codexes produced by Games Workshop. Rules wise they were increasingly cheesy and broken, plus background-wise they were badly written jokes who spat on the franchise's mythos. There was one exception to this, the Space Wolves, but every other codex created for the fifth edition was a complete failure.
With the sixth edition of Warhammer 40,000 out now we have some hope for the first time in four years of having a vanilla Codex: Space Marines players won’t hate and self-respecting Ultramarines players won’t feel ashamed of. Will they get it right? That remains to be seen but let’s take a look at the top five improvements we need.

5 – Bring Back The Funny
This is a very obvious one. The last few codexes have been taking themselves increasingly seriously. Not a bad thing in of itself, but the last codex took it too far. It was written “seriously” by an author without a bone of competence in his body and couldn’t write something truly decent to save his life. As a result the book felt dead and lifeless, with no variation in tone and reducing it to a very dull read. Assuming you weren’t distracted by the often insultingly bad writing.
Adding humour to a codex can really help even things out and make the book fun, a concept certain books seemed to have lost all understanding of lately. We’re not asking for slapstick comedy or for it to be quite so prevalent as in the Codex: Orks, but just the occasional bit to add some variety. Just make sure it’s something worth laughing at.

4 – Foundings And Secret Chapters
One of the big problems in a lot of books as late has been the various foundings of Space Marine chapters: almost all of them are either “unknown” or Ultramarines. Now the Ultramarines are going to have the most successors, no problem there, but they seem to be having increasingly more and everyone else increasingly less.
The White Scars have been retconned to only make up 10% of the overall number of space marines. The Iron Hands have been reduced to the point where they’ve been stated to have only two or three successors, despite a good five or six having been named in the past. Then look at others: The recent Blood Angels codex consisted of nothing but saying “WE’RE DOOMED! WE’RE DOOMED! WE’RE ALL DYING OUT AND SO FEW IN NUMBER!!!” which was a huge change from previous books. The Salamanders have gone from having no recorded successors directly after the Heresy to none at all and even less space marines than a normal chapter – not to mention the genetic mutation forced upon them. Hell even the Grey Knights have been reconned to being fewer in number in the badly written fanfiction which replaced Codex: Daemonhunters.
We’ve gotten to the point where the only ones with a reasonable number of successors behind the Ultras are the Imperial Fists, and statistics simply don’t match up any more. Add more successors to foundings, give us more of the White Scars, Raven Guard, Dark Angels and Iron Hands, not less of them. I can already hear a few of you crying out that it’s against the fluff or the multiple problems behind this – my answer is simple: have secret foundings.
It’s a fan idea to solve this issue which actually sounds like it has some merit to it. The Imperium is so vast and has such trouble keeping track of events across vast distances that it isn’t too hard to see secret chapters and foundings being set up and created. Take the Black Templars for example, there’s only an estimated number of them overall and thought to be at least five thousand battle brothers. With their crusades so split apart, divided and everything else, is it really that hard to see a hundred or so being able to change their name and colours to start a new chapter? Perhaps to hold the line against some threat, guard relics or perform a task they don’t want the rest of the Imperium to know of.
It’d be an age before the Imperium knew, if they found no records of them it could be put down to any number of problems or issues like a chapter clawing its way back from the brink of destruction.  Multiple times chapters turn up at full strength after being declared wiped out, the Lamenters have done it so many time’s its almost a running joke for them. Even if the Imperium did choose to test them they could still be found pure.
Atop of all this it’s not like we don’t already have existing chapters which don’t have listed primarchs or founding chapters to turn into these. Perhaps ones like the War Bearers are secretly a Raven Guard successor, or the Star Dragons are a Salamanders chapter.
It’s not like there’s not enough reasons or existing fluff to already justify this. Just look at the Dark Angels, they want to hunt down the fallen without being seen and are quite happy to slaughter loyal imperial forces to keep their secrets. Is it really that much of a stretch to think they’d secretly create new chapters? How about the forces looking for their missing primarchs, guarding old secrets or even searching for relics left behind by their forefathers who can operate more easily without the administratum watching them?
You want a canon example of a secret founding? The Astral Claws were able to hide their growing numbers for hundreds of years until there were thousands of them, and the only reason they failed is because Huron went about it like a moron.
Warhammer needs more variety of chapters and successors, not simply to focus upon one faction above all others. Which brings me onto the next point.

3 – Focus upon the Adeptus Astartes as a whole
Stop limiting the codex to focusing upon the Ultramarines. The Ultramarines are a core part of the Imperium’s history and deserve a good amount of focus, that's completely fine, but things have just gotten ridiculous of late. Just look inside the cover at the history of the Horus Heresy in the current codex. The current record of the Heresy is kept the same as the fourth edition codex, skipping many events and giving a brief rundown on what happened. That was done due to space issues but when the fifth edition one was given a much higher page count it was kept the same. The additional pages following it were instead used to glorify Guilliman and tell his history when really his only noteworthy accomplishment was rebuilding the Imperium.
It’s like we’ve been reverting back to the second edition, where Codex: Space Marines is Codex: Ultramarines with almost all focus placed upon the blue armoured smurfs. That was supposed to be something the game was to evolve beyond, a stepping stone towards something better, not something we were supposed to regress back to. There is a vast amount of fluff which needs to be covered and so much left out which the codex could easily be used to cover.
Take the Howling Griffons for example, an Ultramarines successor which has been about for at least seven thousand years. We’ve been given notes upon their crusader-like mentality, that they have extensive honours and were part of several major imperial wars in the last hundred years alone – but they’re barely mentioned in any codex. Almost all of what we know of them comes from the Soul Drinkers novels and the Imperial Armour volumes covering the Badab War. We know absolutely nothing of the Heralds of Ultramar, Absolvers, Brazen Claws or Angels of Penance; wouldn’t it be better to hear about their accomplishments than adding yet another achievement to the already obscenely long list of Ultramarines ones?
Even ignoring the minor chapters think about something for a minute – There are many famous armies we only know very little about. The Crimson Fists are a chief example, they’ve been about for ten thousand years in fluff, decades in the game and were the only chapter besides Ultramarines to be featured on the cover of Codex: Space Marines. Yet they’re only known for almost being wiped out on Rynn’s World. There are some mentions of them in other things like the Declates Crusade, but almost all their tales focuses upon when or just after they were almost completely destroyed. There’s ten thousand years of history, wouldn’t it be better to hear of their traditions and crusades than have pages which could feature those devoted to yet another Ultramarines character?
Speaking as an Ultramarines fan and former player, I don’t want to open up a codex which is supposed to cover almost all chapters then find more than half has been devoted to one out of a thousand. I don’t want to see them alone getting the same number of stories told about them as every other chapter, with the latter being primarily used to make other forces look weak and ineffective. I, like so many other players, want to pick up a codex and read one great Ultramarines story listed alongside a multitude of other ones covering other famous chapters. Perhaps the Iron Warriors invasion of Ultramar as it best represents what the Ultramarines are capable of with their backs to the wall. Also as an apology to Graham McNeill for Ward pettily trying to retcon his books from the canon. The other tales shouldn’t be used to beef up Guilliman’s chosen and promote them as being better than everyone else, but shows the as equals to them and gives people reasons to want to play as them.
In all honesty there’s really no reason for it to have such tunnel vision when it comes to the Ultramarines. The only excuse I’ve was from one very self-important fan who declared that “Because other chapters get their own codexes and special units, we deserve to be listed as the best and have the book devoted to us.” Feel free to facepalm at that.
The chapters of the Astartes are entrenched throughout the universe, let the codex tell their stories – Not simply those from Ultramar.

2 – Give The Codex Back Individuality
One reason the fourth edition codex was so good was because it allowed for much more individuality and freedom than in previous books. In all previous editions the closest you could get to having an individual army in terms of rules would be through having specific characters or sticking to certain fluff. For example having a White Scars force without dreadnoughts, led by a chaplain on a bike and lots of Rhinos during the third edition.
That changed a lot during the fourth edition, when some codexes started to allow for much more diversity between armies; this was especially true for the space marines with the introduction of chapter traits. Chapter traits allowed for you to field a force which matched your background with strengths and weaknesses. It was nothing complex but it started to allow player created chapters and those who had previously been overlooked the chance to finally branch out and stand out with their own rules set. It was a really good idea and a natural extension of what we’d had before.
Then the fifth edition came out and stamped right down on the whole thing.
“You want to have individual armies?” Games Workshop said “well bugger off, they’re all going to be based around characters now. Here, you can repaint them to use in your army or claim the Ultramarines lent you Telion to improve your scouts.” As with the aforementioned with the fluff focus, it was like some of the rules were regressing back to second edition. It was a massive step backwards and a huge mistake in every meaning of the word, replacing creativity and the chance to experiment with the hobby with using recoloured versions of the author’s favourite chapter. Which would explain a lot considering he devoted a page to effectively announcing whoever ignores or deviates from the codex is a backwards fool who is doing it wrong.
Writers – we don’t want more characters from a single chapter. New ones if they’re used to give attention to otherwise ignored chapters or changes to the old ones perhaps, but we don’t want armies to be purely built around them. Give players back the freedom to customise their own chapters and create individual forces.

1 – Ignore All Of Matt Ward’s Works
Did you expect anything else? To put it simply the guy is the Karen Traviss of the 40K universe but with far less skill. He has gotten progressively worse with every codex and there’s only two he has failed to screw up. One was the Necrons, who I liked but were admittedly a blank slate, and the other was Codex: Sisters of Battle which had many other people on it so he couldn’t completely ruin them. Neither of which are particularly good when it comes to their overall backgrounds, passable at best.
What’s more is that he has no regard for established canon, other people’s works and everything he writes suffers from both rampant favouritism. He’s infamous for, besides writing broken rules, killing off the Sisters of Battle in incredibly stupid ways and making almost every space marine chapter he works on worship the Ultramarines. Not to mention his personal vendetta against any who ignore the codex in favour of the teachings of their own primarch. The White Scars being one example which he retconned into being completely codex adherent and he proceeded to list the following about the two most famous chapters who told Guilliman to shove his book up his backside:   “Others, such as the Space Wolves and the Black Templars, remain stubbornly independent, looking to their own founder's ways of war and caring little of how they fare in the eyes of others. These aberrant Chapters were always few in number and their presence diminishes with each passing decade, for their gene-seed is no longer the source of fresh Chapters."  

The guy completely ignores anything but his own works, goes through the rest of the franchise like a bull in a chinashop and is dumbing down the entire universe with every new release. Simplifying it in order to make it edgy or be more in line with what the game was like when Ward first played it. Hell, he can’t even work well with other more talented authors actually producing halfway decent stories. His response to The Chapter’s Due, a huge attempt at damage control with what he’d done to the Ultramarines, was to try and retcon it out of existence and wage an undeclared war upon Graham McNeill’s books.
To make matters worse, he lacks any actual talent when it comes to writing any fluff. To buff up whoever he’s writing about the enemy in his books act like utter morons and he seems completely incapable of understanding any tactical attacks short of frontal assaults. The biggest example of this is one encounter between the Eldar warhost of Biel Tan and the Ultramarines. Being a dying race of stealthy ninjas facing an entrenched opposition the Eldar in this story opted to attack in waves. Not infiltration attempts, air strikes, ambushes or any of that; no they just ran at the gunlines like they were being commanded by General Douglas Haig. He can’t even get the basic principle of “show don’t tell” right, and even after four years of writing for Games Workshop still shows no sign of understanding it.
If you were to remove all he had written from Warhammer, it would only improve the franchise. His books are so out of place and disconnected with everything else that the worst you would have is a few unexplained characters in the novels of authors who attempted to keep up with the products of his crude scribbling.
Anyone who is working on the sixth edition codex should just pretend his works never happened, go back to the fourth edition codex, and work off of that. Perhaps then Warhammer 40,000 might start to get back on track at long last.

So those are the top five changes which need to be made to the next Codex: Space Marines. Serious improvements on writing and direction are what is needed rather than dramatic changes to the rules. Though considering the power creep with space marine codexes in recent years that could be a problem as well but at least with good fluff that might be excused. It would certainly have made the likes of Sicarius and Kaldor Draigo more tollerable if they were written as characters rather than simply “badasses” without rhyme or reason.

Still, if you have your own top five I’d be interested to hear them so feel free to leave your own criticisms or suggestions in the comments section.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Them! (Film Review)

You know, this film really is like watching a moment in cinematic history. Not that Them! is a great recording of historic events or life in 1954, even without the giant ants it’d be bad at that, but you can see where inspirations for horror films and video games have come from. To get the most obvious examples out of the way - you remember It came from Red Alert in C&CRA2 and Greyditch in Fallout 3? Yeah, both of those were intentional references to this.
If the poster hasn’t given it away yet, Them! is about giant ants attacking people during the Cold War. At about when Godzilla was marching his way across Tokyo for the first time, the USA put out this film as both a giant monster flick and an anti-nuclear testing message. Having gone unnoticed by everyone, no we never learn quite how, radioactive colonies of ants mutated to the size of semi-trucks have begun sprouting up in in New Mexico to threaten isolated settlements.
Already from this beginning description you can probably see one eventual horror trend - The monsters themselves don’t appear until a good way into the film. Much of the beginning is instead spent building up the mystery behind them, showing the devastation they have caused, even a few of their victims. While it might not have been the first film to do this, there are arguably earlier examples, it was the first to do this so effectively. Creating a strong sense of menace before introducing them at the end of the first act. Admittedly the “mystery” in question was ruined by all the promotional posters which seemed to broadcast “HEY THIS FILM HAS BIG ANTS!” as loudly as possible. If this sounds familiar it might be because you’ve seen Jaws, which did the same thing due to limits on the animatronics showed the creature’s results rather than the shark itself for most of the film. The ants were probably not shown for a similar reasons, if a great white was difficult can you imagine trying to animate multi-limbed drones?
Speaking of the ants themselves, the movie is often discussed in relation to James Cameron’s Aliens because of them. While textbooks usually mention Them! as an example of 1950s radioactive monsters or in one case trying to use it as a Freudian example of anal birthing, page 363 Film Genre Reader III, it’s often considered where Cameron got a lot of his ideas from. If you look at the scenes within the hives you can often see easy comparisons between the two. Sickly organic walls and tunnels making up the environments; dimly lit, with prowling drones lurking in the shadows and with similarly cylindrical sacks of eggs littering the ground. There are differences between the environments certainly, this one definitely lacks H.R. Giger’s unique techno-organic look but you can see where the designs crossover with one another. Hell, even without that you could probably just look at the script to see where one film took inspiration from the other. For example Them! features:
-          A traumatised small girl who survived when her parents were killed by the monsters.
-          A queen creature laying its eggs in a secret chamber, with one hive located within a major population area.
-          Marines with flamethrowers and heavy equipment having to navigate the hives as they investigate each one.
Seeing this stuff is half the fun of watching it after all, but how well does it stand up if you’re watching it without thinking about those things? Well, yes and no. The film was never quite so campy that it deserved the MST3K treatment but the animatronic ants haven’t aged well. It’s their lack of mobility and the furry antennae which really makes them look ridiculous, the times when they’re best used is when they’re mostly out of shot. Sometimes they’re passable but that’s only when the camera is filming around them specifically rather than the actors to make them look mobile, something which unfortunately happens only a couple of times.
Atop of this it does have the tendency to drag during the second act and has a much weaker second half. The acting is good all around, usually enough to carry the film at the worst of times which helps to offset this and it does have some of the greatest closing lines in film history. The writing is also fairly strong for its time. Showing more logic than you’d get out of most monster films and going out of the way to cover its own plot holes more than once such as when the ants board a cargo ship.
If you were able to enjoy other classics from this era like Invasion of the Body Snatchers you’ll get a kick out of watching it at least once. Otherwise look this up if you’re interested in the development of the horror genre at the beginning of its progressive slide from fantasy towards science fiction.

Them! and all related characters and media are owned by Warner Bros.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Laid off Obsidian Entertainment employees to create Steam Bandits: Outpost

It seems these days everyone and their grandmother is trying to create a kickstarter campaign to get their ideas off the ground. The whole thing has become somewhere for people to launch a ditch effort to gain the finances they need for tabletop games, off-the-wall ideas, personal projects, but especially video games. Most of those trying to gain backing are of a varying quality, usually indie developers lacking an official company, but this specific campaign definitely has some serious talent behind it.
The team, laid off by Obsidian recently after their title North Carolina was axed, consists of individuals who have worked on a few successful projects you might know of. Diablo 2, Diablo 3, Warcraft 3, World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2; all titles which at least one member of the group has worked on with almost all having contributed to the development of Fallout: New Vegas and its DLC. This level of talent makes it perplexing as to just why Obsidian decided to drop them but they seem to be making the most of it, starting up Iocain Studios to start producing games of their own. The kickstarter project? That’s to help fund one of their three starting games – Steam Bandits: Outpost.
Taking place in the same universe as the other two yet to be announced titles, Steam Bandits is set in a steampunk world of floating islands and isolated towns. Aside from giving it graphical look and location somewhat reminiscent of Bastion, this latter point is the main appeal of the game with you controlling one of these towns. It’ll be your job to construct each building, customise each character and help the town to prosper through trade. Turning in a profit as you work as an outpost for a company which controls the world’s steam – an unsurprisingly major resource in the universe of Steam Bandits.
While making it, the team had an emphasis upon trying to avoid the problems present in other online town-building games. Jason Fader, the creative director behind Steam Bandits, stated that he wanted to create a game which “won’t pester your friends and won’t stop you playing unless you spend money”. While you can spend money to help customise your town and develop the characters within it, you will be able to quite happily play the entire game without forking over anything. This is comparable to some MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online, allows you to play through the entire game for free but bars you from certain items or quests unless you spend cash. Considering how long that game has kept going for, plus others they have taken inspiration from like Team Fortress 2’s spending scheme, it’s a system which seems to work.
Fader has also described it as being “kind of like a diet version of Civ”. Their promotional video has described their objective as to have the depth of games like Simcity 4 and Civilization V but has the free to play model outlined above. It should also be noted that while casual it will not be available on Facebook, an unusual choice for the genre but an understandable one with the direction the team is taking.
The idea within Steam Bandits in terms of community seems to be intended to have more connectivity than the average town building game, and some shades of Kymera Keeper. Namely that final product will be made to link into the other two aforementioned titles across multiple platforms. One is intended to be an action RPG and the other a flight simulator in the same vein as Crimson Skies. In an interview with Kotaku, Fader described it how they will connect as this: "Let's say in my captain game I'm on a quest. I pick up a really weird item, a crafting recipe. Now there's no crafting in the captain game; it's RPG and combat focused. I can take this [recipe], hand it off to my girlfriend who's playing the town-building game. She can build it up. I can equip it on my airship... We're taking quests a layer above an individual game and spanning it across an actual game world." He also further detailed that players of other games will be able to use friends’ islands in Steam Bandits: Outpost as their port of call and visit them at will, giving out rewards and production boosts if they sponsor them.
All of this is an extremely ambitious project and only time will tell if it’ll be as good as has been suggested here. Yet with this much skill at the helm and a clear plan about how things are to be done it seems that there is a good possibility of them delivering upon what has been promised.
The kickstarter project has gained two thirds of their $30,000 goal, but with only a few days to go it has yet to be seen if Iocain Studios will get the finances they need. Assuming everything is successful, Steam Bandits: Outpost is set to be released sometime in November on Steam, iOS and Android with others following. Only time will tell how things will turn out for them.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Phantasm (Film Review)

It’s confusing to think that a lot of the world seems to have forgotten this film. It was just a cult classic from the very late 70s but looking at it you get the feeling that it should be much better remembered than it actually is. Highlander, Beastmaster, Evil Dead, it’s a film which is quite easily on par with them had has that same sort of aged charm. Also gore. Lots of gore.
Phantasm’s story is part horror, part mystery and revolves around two orphaned brothers. The younger of the two, Mike, goes against his brother’s wishes and watches a friend’s funeral from afar and witnesses the mysterious undertaker known only as the Tall Man easily lifting a coffin. Eventually following him inside the town’s mausoleum he is witness to an extremely grisly murder as the result of a flying sphere and begins to realise there’s more to the Tall Man than first seems.
The film’s real strength is that it is very dreamlike, and blurs the lines of reality while setting up a mystery which keeps leaving you curious to see how it ends. It’s hard to describe exactly how it goes about this but the cinemtography and the atmosphere it creates helps keep your attention throughout. Even when it does start to go off of the deep end and feature some ridiculous things which remove a lot of the tension and feeling behind the film. Usually the result of one or two eyebrow raising effects choices like when a dismembered part of the Tall Man comes to life.
Thankfully this doesn’t happen very often. Instead the film relies upon two things for its scares: The Tall Man himself, who has very few lines but is played in an extremely creepy manner by the actor, and his Jawa attack squad. That latter one is nowhere near as dumb as it sounds when you actually watch the film; it’s just what you’ll instantly think of when first watching it. The best scenes with them are usually when they’re shown as little as possible and director Don Coscarelli seemed to realise that when making it. The more effective minions the Tall Man employs is a number of flying metal spheres which even the dated effects don’t diminish their gorily glorious menace. Trust me; you’ll see for yourself if you watch the film.
The heroes are also written as fairly likable characters, flawed ones definitely and with a few moments of awkward acting but nothing which really makes you want to see them die. They’re flawed to be sure but the fact the film actually tries to give you reasons to see them live puts it above a lot of others which come to mind. Looking at you Friday the 13th sequels.
If there is one thing which really does drag it down, it’s the ending. Like Lost it seems like most of the film was focused upon raising questions and spinning enough ideas to keep you entertained as the ending just seems ill conceived. It manages to feel both like two clich├ęd conclusions at the same time, as if it were both saying “it was all a dream” and pulling that last second “the killer comes back” thing which was popular in the 70s and 80s. It really just diminishes the entire film and feels like it was added it the very last second. Even if you were fine with the logical leaps in the rest of the film this bit will still have you stop and wonder what the hell just happened.
While Phantasm looks on paper like a film which would be the worst kind of low budget bargain bin title its tone, bouts of sheer insanity and originality are what makes it worth watching. Even with a botched conclusion the rest of the film definitely holds up well and is vastly superior to the swarms of unoriginal slasher serials which dominated its era’s genre. In the end does it make a lick of sense? Not in the slightest but that does nothing to diminish the fun of watching it.
Definitely a worthwhile cult classic you might want to look up if you’re a horror fan.

Phantasm and all related characters and media are owned by New Breed Productions.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction (PS2 Video Game Review)

There are some ideas which just don't work in practice. No, not the idea of combining Aliens with Predator, in spite of the films that has been a largely good - I mean this game specifically. AvP has consistently been an FPS series with the option of playing as a predator, a xenomorph or a remarkably durable colonial marine. It was an easy thing to do, two classes had big guns and a fun variety of gadgets in their films while the xenomorphs they gave the ability to run up walls. So you have to wonder what the developers were thinking when they decided to make Extinction an RTS.
The story behind this one is, well, not much of a story at all actually. No really, you’d be lucky to remember anything besides the bare basics behind each faction’s backgrounds. For example the predator campaign has your clan claiming hunting rights on a planet, going down there and hunting. You end up with fights against another clan infringing upon your hunting rights, hunting down very dangerous creatures, but that’s about it.
One mission quite literally came down to “some o’ them smartgunner boys are great warriors, so let’s go get rippin’ their skulls! YEEE-HAW!!” Admittedly this is usually what the stories come down to, but they tend to at least be passable due to a good atmosphere. In this case the presentation comes down to a loading screen with about two paragraphs of text and possibly some actual meaning to the mission itself. The only good thing you might see in it is the occasional bit of decent artwork. So if the story is uninspired what does Extinction bring to the table?
Well, it’s from the PS2 era so you know the graphics don’t hold up well. It’s an RTS so there’s going to be no really recognisable or fun characters, so that just leaves the gameplay and level design.
The levels themselves will feel familiar if you’re someone who grew up reading the AvP comics due to the overall look of the environments and some background elements. For example, the three key types of locations seem to be desert areas, places overrun by xenomorphs with that classic LV-462 look, and jungle environments. The first of these is especially evocative of the first planet from the comics, Ryushi, with the same vehicles flora and fauna present all over the place. Aside from the nostalgia though the levels are actually well designed and seem to have been made to make the best of each faction’s unique abilities. Large areas are left wide open to allow for killzones to be made with the ranged specialised marines, varied levels of terrain for the xenomorphs to take advantage of with their greater manoeuvrability. Also stuff for the predators to actually stand a remote chance of winning. Yeah, they got shafted in this but it wasn’t due to favouritism, simply trying something which didn’t work.
You see to try and make the game unique they gave each faction a very different play style relating to how they gain cash. The predator economy is based upon killing things. No, quite literally the more skulls from heads the more moolah you get. On paper this sounds great, it fits in with the hit and fade tactics the designers were going for and forces players to balance out casualties with potential kills. Why doesn’t this work? Someone had the bright idea of making predators completely reliant upon an un-cloakable, slow moving shrine for purchasing new units. Meaning that you can easily get dragged into full scale battles which will just screw you over.
Xenomorphs meanwhile can come down to being “zerg who can’t zerg rush”. While they have an advantage in terms of moving over terrain and can turn an enemy’s numbers against them due the way they gain new units, I.E. facehuggers, they have an unsteady recruitment rate. They can’t simply call down new reinforcements and need comatose bodies to make new units. This combined with the attrition rate of the more fragile drones and warriors means that it’s rare to have any advantage in terms of numbers.
Humans meanwhile, despite usually being the ones to die the most, have a huge advantage over the other two. They have units which can see through predator cloaking, have a high population cap, the largest number of long range weapons, and upgrades which buff starting units up to obscene levels. To give an obvious example – you can instantly upgrade basic infantry to have grenade launchers and com. officers to deliver orbital strikes. To make this more obscene they can easily get more cash in a few minutes than others can gain in an entire mission due to their ability to repair atmospheric processors. Perhaps their only weakness is that you need a mixed variety of units to work rather than just bringing down swarms of infantry, but that’s not much of a hindrance.
Even were it not for the faction imbalance though, there are still problems present with the units. Namely their navigation. Now if Hundred Swords had a few problems with this, Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction is a digital monument to how not to do it. Oh they’re fine when guided individually but when moving large numbers of units en-mass someone will bounce off any tiny piece of terrain and ricochet around the map like they’re in a pinball machine. A good nine times out of ten you’re going to trigger something early or find an enemy stronghold because a rogue unit has gone in completely the wrong direction and stumbled into them. This really isn’t helped by the interface which makes selecting units far more tedious than it should be, turning what should be a minor irritation into a frustrating chore.
Rather than clicking and dragging, a circle expands out of your cursor the longer you hold it down and you select anything which ends up inside it. Upside – this gets around the monumental problems consoles have with clicking and dragging. Downside – this comes at the cost of speed and precision. Rather than split second selects you have in most RTS games it can take a good four seconds to select your entire force, something which makes movement remarkably frustrating, and you can kiss co-ordinated strikes goodbye.
The real shame in all this though? There’s never any time playing this that you can’t see the potential this title had. No, really, even when you’re suffering from all the problems in this game you’re constantly thinking “this could have been really good.” The playstyles of the xenos and preds, the lack of base building, the different ways of getting money; all were really good ideas. The bad pathfinding, balance issues, story - all that could have been sorted out with a couple of months more development, two or three tops if the developers were focused. Instead we just ended up with a failed experiment which ended up delaying Aliens: Colonial Marines by close to a decade.
If you’re looking for a good combat focused game with RTS elements and no base building try Confrontation. It’s not perfect but it is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than this one. Otherwise just stick to the classic AvP FPS titles.

Aliens Versus Predator: Extinction and all related characters and media are owned by Electronic Arts.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

U-571 (Film Review)

“America wins the war.”
There, that’s it, that’s all you need to know about this. I could try breaking you into this by going through the good points in this flick, perhaps some of the history behind it, even the praise it has been given but no. That one line there sums up this film - it's an embarrassment to World War II films, one easily on par with George Lucas’ cinematic blight Red Tails. You know something is wrong with when Captain America, which features one American superhuman vs Nazis armed with superweapons of Norse gods, manages to be more historically accurate than one based upon real life events. At least in Captain America there was the acknowledgement that other countries were fighting the Axis forces.
Right, as I can’t spend the whole review ranting here’s the plot; in 1942 an American submarine during World War II is making its way across the Atlantic. Its target – A downed but still active German U-Boat named U-571. Its mission – Steal the U-Boat’s Enigma machine and get it back to the closest allied port AKA the United Kingdom. If you have any amount of historical knowledge, you’re probably staring at this screen in a mixture of rage and disbelief right now. For those not in the know here’s a few reasons why, all related to that one date 1942. The real U-571 was not captured but in fact sunk off of the coast of Ireland two years after this film is set and the first enigma machine was captured years before it’s set. Atop of all this, not only by the time the film is set the Allies had in fact captured multiple Enigma machines, codebooks and cracked the whole code long before the United States became involved.
All of which was accomplished without any involvement from the country this film glorifies and heavy involvement from the British Royal Navy and Polish Intelligence. Both of who were crucial to the war effort in gaining such devices. In fact the original script delivered a “screw you” specifically to the British by having the only reason we ended up with an Enigma machine and not the USA was due to a lack of fuel. People, this is just the basic synopsis, it keeps getting worse from here.
The acting is, well, not great at best. It consists of mostly B-movie actors, not an entirely bad thing in itself, but when Jon Bon Jovi is playing a major character you know you’re in for some bad performances. Even if that weren’t the case I don’t even think BRIAN BLESSED could make any of this dialogue enjoyable. It can be so bombastic and has so little self-awareness that you can get lines which have you openly yelling “WHAT!” at the screen. Then most likely rewinding just to be sure you heard it right before yelling again. A standout example of this whole damn thing is the facepalming moment when the German U-boat crew is captured and black actor T.C. Carston yells “It’s your first time looking at a black man ain’t it? Get used to it!!” It’s almost as if the writer had next to no knowledge of historical events or political attitudes.
If there is actually something worth praising it’s that a lot of the environments and visual effects are remarkably good. They look very genuine, and both on the surface and in the sub itself it’s hard to pick out anything which looks unrealistic or drags you out of the film. Perhaps the only thing which might be seen as breaking the atmosphere once in a while is the lighting in some scenes. While most of the U-boat is shown to have a dark grimy look, there are a few standout moments in which very bright clear lighting is used to show scenes. This just breaks the whole feeling for the film and makes things look inconsistent, not to mention cheap. That’s really it as far as good things go. The soundtrack sounds very generic and every time a character opens their mouth or an event happens, the film just becomes all the dumber. It did at points become so ludicrous that I was briefly tempted to recommend this film as an unintentional comedy until I learned of one thing.
This related to the portrayal of the German crews as being baby eating two dimensional evil overlords who would have Sinestro saying “Dude, tone it down”. Initially I just put this down to the writing quality of the rest of the film, and that whoever did this was incapable of creating something more complex than a morality play for five year olds. Then I found the opinions of the director, Jonathan Mostow, in an interview back in 2000 relating to the acclaimed German miniseries Das Boot. In the interview he claimed it was “based on a lie” and that “it pretended that the captains and crews were submariners first, and only incidentally Nazis. They were dedicated Nazis; they had to be to fight that hard.” Yes, the director believed that showing the crews on the opposite side of the war as people rather than outright monsters was wrong. Ignoring that the U-Boat arm of the German Navy was by far the least political of the whole war there were multitude of reasons they might have had for serving in the military. Just keep his comments in mind if you see the opening scene of the film where the ruthless German captain guns down unarmed British sailors. Oh yeah, the British navy is actually in this but all they do is get slaughtered. Charming.
Even with that last bit before the credits noting the Royal Navy’s victories and the inaccuracy of this film, there’s nothing to make it worth watching. At best it’s inaccurate, brainless and badly put together, at worst it is outright insulting. Most of those who tend to defend this film are the same ones claim America “won” the First World War and that the promotional campaign Assassin’s Creed III is in no way racist or offensive.
Really, there is no reason to see this. If you’re looking for semi-historically accurate films just watch the vastly better Enemy at the Gates or Last Samurai. If you’re looking for a good World War II submarine story, just look for a copy of Das Boot or The Enemy Below. Really, don’t go spending cash on this nonsense.

U-571 and all related characters and media are owned by Universal Pictures.