Friday, 25 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Film Review)

It's hard not to groan when a franchise is dragged out. When it comes to a near perfect ending, totally concluding and wrapping up events, to see it stretched out can be torturous to say the least. Forcing out new sequels or extensions can easily drive a franchise into the infamous "cash cow" status which is so derided these days. However, once in a while this can actually prove to be a move for the better. Especially when it comes to adapting old worlds for new mediums.

While the Harry Potter saga itself might be praised and lauded about the land, the truth is that it was often its own worst enemy. Oh it had plenty of hits, a great ensemble of actors and a truly stunning final two films, but as an adaptation they often failed to live up to the grandeur of the books or even capture what made those stories great to begin with. As such, this is oddly a situation where the source material was actually holding the films back. With total sincerity, there's no denying that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is quite simply the best Harry Potter production to date.

Rather than following the source book (and in-universe textbook) which helped to flesh out the magical ecosystem of the world, the film instead takes a different route. It's less about the book itself and more partially about how it was written, with things going horribly wrong for Newt Scamander's magical suitcase. While that might be a bit scant as descriptions go, this is honestly one of the films you should walk into without knowing too much about the core plot itself. The only thing worth adding is that, while this is intended to help kick-start a new film series, it can easily be taken in its own right as a single production. Well, save for one tail end scene at any rate.

With Director David Yates returning to helm this new outing, many of of his old traits are back in full force. Everything is slightest twisted about in an oddly whimsical way, there's always a slightly discordant element to the camerawork, and there are few rules in how magic itself works. It's a very style over substance approach to things, It carries the feeling of cinematically shooting from the hip but, unlike a few other laissez-faire directors, he backs this up with enough talent and emotion to pull it through. Sure, you might end up with whole scenes which break the basic rules of magic for the universe, or one which seem to exist purely to show off the artistic direction, but these pass quickly. They don't take up the entire film, and between them you end up with whole sequences resplendent in the wonder of the universe itself and or enough sheer excitement to keep you entertained.

The story itself is fairly direct to say the least, all but pulling a Dredd in saying "this is point A, this is point B" with a few bumps along the way. While there's certainly a bit more too it than that admittedly, it's a story which doesn't try to bog itself down with two dozen sub-plots or running themes. When it does stop, it's usually to help show a bit more of the universe itself, such as how magic is handled in America or the nature of these beasts. Often these are managed about the core plot itself itself, and its laid-back - almost flippant - general direction allows it to get away with this. It's almost as if whole sections of the script were just general notes passed about to the actors, and Yates  said "mention this stuff, do these bits, but otherwise have fun and show off." Honestly, it pays off for the better, allowing it to focus upon the here and now over dealing with lengthy backstories.

The beasts themselves and the artistic designs are expectedly outstanding, managing to nail that sweet spot halfway between Discworld and Middle-Earth in concept. It's that odd blend where it can pull of an insane level of whimsy but still switch back to terrifyingly magnificent at a moment's notice without breaking anything; and while the CGI itself is unfortunately sub-par, it's not so bad that it wrecks the entire experience. So long as you don't pay attention to their eyes, it's just about passable rather than remaining blatantly obvious they're playing with thin air. The true moments where it does shine though are when it delves into the more practical effects, giving the actors more to work with and blending far better with the general going's on. While these certainly don't offer the best money shots (AKA big explosive trailer pieces) they tend to be the most atmospheric and immersive of all the scenes. 

The same really goes for the casting choices, all of who remain strong despite a few fitting the old Harry Potter positions with a few general changes. You still have the outsider, the hard working comedic relief and the overachiever, but the context behind their roles has changed, as has their attitude. The outsider in this case is split across two characters, while the overachiever is actually losing out a great deal of the time rather than eclipsing everyone else. What's more, the audience surrogate is not the protagonist this time but a supporting character, who stumbles upon magic by accident. It definitely pays off for the better here, producing (heretical as it might sound) more engaging protagonists from the start. Thus allowing them to start strong rather than needing a few books to really get going, or explaining away too much of the world.

While Eddie Redmayne might be channeling a little too much of the Eleventh Doctor into his role as Newt, the man's innate charm and enthusiasm pulls through. He provides a fantastic balance between a fool, a a socially awkward bohemian and an adventuring genius; one who manages to be insanely talented and capable without ever pushing into the unstoppable territory. 
Equally, while the muggle worker Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, might have drifted too far into film-Ron Weasley's greatest failings, the humour is spot on. Better yet, he's given a few more glory moments than expected to balance this out, and the fish-out-of-water element he provides is far more effective than Harry's own first outings. There's a real sense of amazement to what he finds, but the fact he has to force his way through terrifying insanity first helps nail it. 

This leaves Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein, the "Hermione" of the group. Talented, brilliant and hard working, but whereas the past franchise had this unfortunate habit of overdoing Hermione's capabilities, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does a better job of balancing out her skills. She does fail several times to accomplish her goals, and there's more of a struggle to actually achieve personal victories. As such, even though there's an antagonistic start between her and Newt, Waterson's acting talent and drive means there's still reasons to root for her.

However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does still have a few major no-nos and distinct face-palming moments despite its strengths. At times it can be equal parts overly predictable and infuriatingly cliche, especially in regards to the moment which kicks off the action. The suitcase is effectively unmarked and there's a busy luggage scene at one point, so guess what happens. What's more, at many points it does recycle many ideas from the main Harry Potter films, especially the introductory segments. The big moving newspaper shows up once again and it's sadly more than a little overdone by this point. The same goes for a few shots and big moments, all of which feel far too much like prior Potter films in visual settings and styling. It doesn't kill the atmosphere, but it does hold the film back from making a truly fresh start in the same world when it keeps reminding you of past outings.

Another aspect which does unfortunately complicate things is the fact that the film tries to juggle between two stories at once, despite the simple premise. This often seemed to be needlessly over-complicating things, especially given how rarely they actually interconnected. Each could have been a good film to itself, but it often seemed like it was being somewhat hindered by the presence of a second story, cutting away from its core scenes. It's less Empire Strikes Back in terms of handling twin narratives, and more Matrix Revolutions at times, just to emphasize how distant these can be.

For all the fun the film offers, there were plenty of times where the direction simply did not to respect the intelligence of its audience. While it did not go into the expected exposition heavy sequences, often the camera lingered on what was supposed to be a subtle hint or visual suggestion. This is especially problematic when it comes to Colin Farrell as Graves, where you have a man pulling off a stunning performance but the film gives away the big twist over and over again. The same goes with some of the secondary characters as well, where the audiences is given such unsubtle hints as to what's going to happen that you're at least one step ahead of the film's plot. 

This is hardly a perfect film, but despite that it still manages to set a high benchmark for Harry Potter films on the whole. It's hard to think of a more engaging fantasy film since Pirates of the Caribbean which has struck that same mix of simplicity, humour, darkness and brilliance; all while managing to offer subtle hints of things to come. Even if you're not a big time fan of this series, or if the recent Cursed Child atrocity left a bitter taste in your mouth, give this one a shot. 

Plus, hey, if none that gets your attention, name another film which offers Ron Perlman playing a New York goblin gangster.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Arrival (Film Review)

Science fiction has always had something of an unfortunate image stuck with it. Since the late 60s, the genre as a whole has always carried the image of schlock raygun fights, space battles and simple storytelling. This is wrong of course, in the same way that anime is hardly limited to unfortunately placed tentacles and Super Saiyans, but even in this supposed new golden age it's an image which still sticks. Over the last few years though, it seems that big budget cinema has seriously been pushing to finally cast off this old limitation, with Arrival being its latest effort.

This is a story adapted from the short tale Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Focusing upon the first contact between species, but perhaps not in the way you would imagine. While it plays with a few of the usual tropes and ideas, often they are pushed into the background in favour of a single question - How do you communicate with something which lacks any and all cultural context or understanding? How do you come to an understanding with a creature which does not even have vocal chords?

Arriving out of nowhere, seemingly at random across the globe, multiple UFOs begin landing and waiting for humanity to make contact. Uncertain of what to do at first, each nation begins trying to comprehend the alien visitors in their own way, and determine whether or not they are a threat. Doctor Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly are tasked by the United States with determining things from their end, but they begin to question if they are even approaching the aliens in the right way.

Perhaps the most striking thing you will notice immediately once the credits finish rolling is how Arrival is unsettling. There's something oddly skin crawling about its presentation, and even an oddly clinically lifeless quality to the most human of scenes, such as a University classroom. Yet, there is method to this madness. It's not simply one of these situations where it's screwed up by a bad director, but instead crafted by a great one. From the very shot composition to the music and atmosphere of the piece, everything Denis Villeneuve puts onto the screen is intent upon keeping you on-edge. You know something is wrong even without seeing it being wholly out of place, and this only increases as the film pushes well into the second act.

The intent here is apparently to make the audience truly feel out of place and caught up in events, so that the immensity of the situation comes crushing down atop of them. While most directors would have gone for the most absolute obvious route, what we have here instead something which relies almost entirely on atmosphere to convey this idea. Through little more than news reports, sound effects, shots and performances, the film manages to give the sense of the ground being tugged out from under the world. At first the wrongness stems from the more expected sights for such a film - notably jets hurtling over cities to help quarantine these UFOs, but it continues to build from there until you see the vessels themselves.

The cinematography itself is utterly beautiful throughout the film, despite this intentionally off-putting thematic quality. From the first shots of the UFOs to the more human moments inside the confines of the small camp helping to study the new arrivals, the setting and structure is near perfect. While you won't notice it at first, the sheer number of long takes and extended shots helps to offer a more grounded feel to the film which helps cement the idea of this being a point for point depiction of how the world would react to such an arrival.

However, what's truly inspired stems from the way the script adapts the themes of the book. Almost the entire film is spent first building up the aliens - almost Lovecraftian creatures who in any other film might have been a horrifying monster - before focusing upon the building blocks of how to tackle the problems. Making noises more akin to whales than any structured human speech, it goes step by step through the problems of trying to translate even the bare basics of such a language, and then even basic structure or communication. While it doesn't talk down to the audience, the script enters the themes at a slow enough of a speed for everyone to keep pace and comprehend the monumental difficulty of the task before them.

Much of the direct acting weight here falls upon the shoulders of Amy Adams, who is required to not only face the stressful and almost impossible task, but deal with a far greater problem in her life. Exactly what it is only becomes clear in the final act, with the revelation of the film's very structure and staging being a bait-and-switch, but the very nature of this abrupt twist turns the character into something of a cipher. In the hands of a lesser actress, half of Banks' scenes might have seemed lifeless or emotionless, yet Adams manages to add slights shades and subtleties to it. Small alterations and shifts help to continually make her seem all the more human and likable, even when the script itself is focused more upon the core theme and problem over the more human element. For all that Villeneuve accomplishes here, it's no exaggeration to say that without her talent Arrival could have easily been crushed under the weight of its own ambition.

This is hardly to say that the other cast members put in poor performances, of course. Each of them adds slight touches and changes to ensure they remain both reasonable and avoid the usual tropes we would expect. For example, Forest Whitaker is playing the expected hard-ass of a military officer, but his demands are hardly unreasonable and for all his pushing he is never looking for an excuse to start a war with someone. The same goes for Jeremy Renner, who is set up to be the usual self-superior smart scientist, but the man's natural likability and reasoning helps turn the character into a figure an audience is willing to support rather than hate.

However, while much of the film is a definite success until the very end, the final act is likely to leave many people questioning the viability of certain twists and the story. For all its efforts to avoid certain tropes, there's a big one which hits the film hard and a few ideas seem to be too cleanly resolved. There are difficulties to be sure, but everything is pushed together or closed off with a surprising speed until it's all finished. For something which was so strong at the start, there's a good chance at least one major bit will leave you asking "Wait, that's all it took?"

In addition to this, while much of the initial science and logic behind the gradual progression of the story was strong throughout, the twist might be odd to say the least. It near perfectly hinges upon how language can be used as a keystone in understanding others, or cultures in question; not to mention completely changing the audience's perspective of past scenes and how they played out. Yet, despite this, the way it affects Banks' character can be a difficult pill to swallow to say the least, and the idea of it can seem very out of place even in a film such as this. It's one of those things you would expect there would be much more of a story to, and much more effort behind, and yet it's suddenly just there.

While it's not as perfect as some might be claiming, Arrival is nevertheless one of the best films of 2016. Honestly, even if alien visitation/invasion films are almost total anathema to your tastes, this is definitely one you should stop and watch. It's intelligent, slow burning and very detailed, with ideas which will likely spawn articles and essays alike for years to come. It's a major push away from the 'splosions approach to big budget science fiction, and one that definitely works. If Villeneuve can continue to keep up this cinematic winning streak, Blade Runner 2 is in very good hands.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Infrequent Updates For The Foreseeable Months

Yes, it's another one of these posts. This is going to be kept quick as you can probably guess what it's about - Life screwing me over and meaning i'm too mentally and physically drained to continue working on here. In this case, it's down to one of my jobs going to hell in a hand-basket, with one thing after another going horribly wrong over and over again. Not the kind where i'm likely to lose it - with any luck - but the sort where work just keeps mounting up until we're insanely understaffed and everyone is having to work overtime (not to mention give up their days off) just to keep up with a few basic things. It's for this same reason we had nothing up to celebrate Halloween or a few other major events over the past weeks. I would call it crunch time, but that would imply we were reaching the end of something, whereas this is a total hell with no end in sight.

There are things in the pipeline, and Lord do I hope I am given the opportunity to write about them, but don't expect much for the next few weeks.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King (Video Game Preview)

It takes a rare talent to truly stand out with a classically inspired video game, especially today. While you might get the odd Echoes of Aetheria, a simple glance at Steam Greenlight shows a disturbing number of half-finished games shoved out by the truckload, each attempting to lazily cash in on nostalgia with minimal effort. Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is not one of those games. In fact, if anything, this could be a new standard to hold 16-bit inspired releases against.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Calgar's Siege by Paul Kearney (Book Review)

Calgar's Siege is a story of a multitude of outcasts, failures and legends coming together to do the impossible. It's a fairly generic and almost by the book story, but remarkably this describes many behind the scenes elements as much as the core story. For starters, you have a book which is set to follow one of the most infamously derided events in the lore, which helped build-up the anti-Ultramarines sentiment: Calgar single-handedly holding back an entire Ork Waaagh! by guarding a single gate. Then you have the Space Marine Battles series, which has slowly slid further into obscurity, never having returned to the heights it achieved with Battle of the Fang and Helsreach. Even beyond that though, you then have the author, Paul Kearney, offered his second opportunity to helm a Warhammer 40,000 novel after the Umbra Sumus fiasco.

It's an odd mix of elements to be sure, but the end result proves to be a solid read which takes off in an odd direction. You see, for a novel which incorporates and cycles about so much of the existing canon, Calgar's Gate treats itself like a gateway novel. You know the kind, the sort of ones which aim for a straight forwards story but weave their way about enough of the setting to give a reader an impression of what Warhammer is about. The sort of ones which pride themselves on character dynamics and vast scopes as much as heavy action, but never truly push themselves to the point where an average non-fan would end up confused. This is evident fairly early on, with the depiction and introduction of the orks, and establishment of Calgar himself. While it's not a full on introduction to everything from the ground up, it offers just enough of a general impression to keep the reader going before moving into the main story.

We see a great deal going on here, and to give Kearney credit the core story never truly feels as if it's beating you over the head with each general depiction. While the introduction to the world, Zalathras, might seem a little forced at first, the general follow-up and character dynamics soon make it a natural part of the story. It's a good impression of what a frontier world of the Imperium might seem like without devolving into the usual feudal tropes, and many ideas tie closely into it. The concept of Ultramar, the state of the Imperium as a whole, the threat of the Ork Waaagh! and state of the galaxy are all readily and easily established from this with few complaints. In some of the more interesting moments, we also get to see an autopsy of an ork and a few of their more general traits better remarked upon, such as their life cycle, habits and even sub-species. While the novel itself might be aiming for a basic appeal, Kearney himself has definitely done his homework, and the appearance of a few more obscure lore elements is definitely welcome here. For one thing, it's the first novel we've had in years where Storm Troopers appear rather than Scions.

The novel also does a solid job of balancing the Ultramarines' humanity and post-human aspects. Guilliman's chapter here are definitely leaning towards their more sympathetic and populace-serving elements here, but there's enough done to still show they're a cut above the average human. It's akin to the Uriel Ventris approach to things, albeit a little more effective than that, where you can still see the man each astartes was supposed to be to an extent. It's just that they've been reshaped into something else, something far more powerful and removed from the public. The conversations, attitudes and character moments which result from this are a definite plus in the book's favour, and the novel works them in as a kind of point of stability. In contrast to them, many of the side characters are varied and often far more undisciplined, with many ranging from old soldiers past their prime to drunk psykers. Yes, that last one is hilarious as it is tragic.

As you would expect from this, the book also doesn't rush into things. It takes almost a third of the story to even have the orks arrive at the city they intend to besiege. This offers plenty of time to establish all the ideas the book is to cover and the setting as a whole, without front-loading or info-dumping everything at once. This makes it remarkably easy to breeze through even on the first read, which proves to be both a plus and a negative. On the one hand, it allows readers who were more easily off-put by the sheer scope of the setting to adjust to the overall theme of Warhammer as a universe. On the other though, it makes the story surprisingly arduous to get through for everyone else, and lacks many of its core strengths.

When people read Soul Hunter, Dark Apostle or Nightbringer, what often captivates a reader the most is its atmosphere. There's a sense of great age, depth and vastness to the world, as descriptions build-up this idea of vast empires, established planets and an ages old war against countless foes. By comparison, Calgar's Gate lacks that core engagement, and the sheer intensity of such emotions fails to click in many places. As such, long-time readers of Black Library will likely find the first half to plod along for quite a bit and you'll end up just hoping it'll get to the meat of the action. This might not have been too bad on its own, but many of the characters are also remarkably interchangeable. While serviceable in the moment, besides Calgar himself and a few of the top ranking human figures, almost everyone else is info fodder. Figures just there to drop info, add a bit to the story, and then die for drama.

The fighting itself is also rather mixed as well unfortunately. On the one hand, there's an oddly poetic quality in how the bigger battle scenes are described and the running offenses against hordes of foes. The scenes of orks charging astartes lines, fighting their way through the firing squads and ripping Storm Troopers apart are quite atmospheric, and they do get across a sense of constantly being pursues by greater foes at every moment. At the same time though, some of the more visceral engagements in single combat or focusing upon Calgar fighting his way through foes, lacks the punch you would expect. Odd as it sounds, everything is presented in a very distant light.

Finally, the story unfortunately fails to take many risks. While it thankfully sidesteps the obvious issue of Calgar himself being initially presented as an unstoppable uber-human, it doesn't quite reach the Mortarion's Heart level of correcting everything. It just presents a surprisingly general and direct tale, but one which proves to be surprisingly basic and predictable despite the author's obvious efforts.

Overall, Calgar's Siege is solid but relatively forgettable. Ultramarines fans might get a kick out of reading this one, and it is a solid introduction to that corner of the galaxy, but it pales when compared to previous gateway novels like Rynn's World. Give some early extracts a look if you're interested, but don't rush out to grab this one.

Verdict: 5 out of 10

Monday, 14 November 2016

Tyranny (Video Game Review)

Writers love to subvert tropes. They’re the tools of their trade after all, and as much as they establish certain genres, often working against them produces far more fascinating. Today’s example does exactly that, as Tyranny sticks to the old fantasy tropes of ancient past civilisations, a war between good and evil, and a tyrannical overlord then twists them. Not only is the war long over, but the bad guys won, and you’re no hero but a Fatebinder AKA the overlord’s enforcer.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dishonored 2 (Video Game Review)

The true beauty of the original Dishonored was its balance between two contradictory qualities. Managing to utterly nail a quietly stealthy experience which rewarded careful planning, it nevertheless still offered the power fantasy which appeals to many modern gamers, all of which was neatly tied up with an ingenious story. Proving to be well crafted, intelligent and promising a wider and much more fantastical world beyond Dunwall's borders, the game looked ready to kick-start an entire new series. Well, four years and one tie-in novel on, and we have our first sequel. 

The story here follows the prior game's hero Corvo Attano and Empress Emily Kaldwin as they seek to strengthen and continue her rule over their kingdom. However, despite defeating the previous coup by Hiram Burrows fifteen years ago, he was not the only threat to their stability. A far more powerful foe has arisen: Delilah Copperspoon. Having apparently survived Daud's penitent rampage through her followers, she now calls herself Delilah Kaldwin and has taken the throne for herself, forcing the true heiress and her protector into hiding. With few allies to call upon for help save for the amoral and enigmatic Outsider, they must find their own path to victory.

Much of what worked last time has served as a foundation for new ideas, and there has been a clear focus on trying not to reinvent the wheel. Many returning players will note that Corvo's key abilities have largely remained the same, with the indispensable Blink and Dark Vision both making a return along side a few old favourites. If you knew how best to employ them last time, you'll know how they work here, and the big changes tend to come in the form of the assassin's equipment. With a few new specialist crossbow bolts and gadgets to help get him out of very abrupt fights or situations, players have a few more options to help murder to conk out their foes in a few creative ways. 

None of this is to say that this is bad however, the experience of developing the first game has clearly benefited Arkane Studios. Many sprawling levels and environments offer far more opportunities to explore for secrets, and the way you employ certain powers has certainly been tweaked many times over. Rather than the carefully timed Blink jumps of the last game, the likes of the Clockwork Mansion often force players to use multiple powers one after another to bypass or overcome obstacles. Even many foes have a bit more challenge to them this time, as the clockwork soldier can't simply be rushed or quickly brought low, and instead often require multiple hit and fade tactics to down them. The real fun tends to come down to exactly how you accomplish this end, and the steeper difficulty curve means players will often be forced to plan out infiltration missions Hitman style, rather than playing by the ear and hoping to run into something.

It should go without saying that the artistic design of Dishonoured 2 is without equal, and easily among the most creatively (and beautifully) exaggerated settings short of a Fable game. Trading Dunwall's bleak and often decaying streets for the sunlit environments of Karnaca, the steampunk inspired elements are there but they've taken on a very different theme. There's an obvious emphasis upon colonialism, the visuals of Spain or Italy matched with advanced technology, and hidden corruption disguised behind the beautiful scenery. A key point of this becomes clear when you learn just what keeps the wheels turning in Karnaca, of the horrors of the mines and the vast turbines used to power the city. 

The background lore and information on display here is excellent, and brilliantly compliments the aesthetic of the world. Once again using the prior game as a stepping-stone towards bigger things, there are more visual cues to help you build a bigger image of the setting. While lore books, texts and records are still present throughout the game - all of which offer some very interesting insights into the rest of the world - a clear effort has been put into expressing more ideas through the visuals. There's apparently more trust in the players to put together certain ideas in their heads or understand certain scenes without it being spelled out to them, and this makes the story all the stronger as a result. It becomes especially clear as you move about some of the bigger areas of the game, hunting for loot, and stumble upon scenes told through few corpses. Whereas before such a scene would have been better explained via a journal, here the staging of the deaths and the scene itself is enough to quickly get these ideas across. This might sound like a small thing, but it makes the experience all the more immersive; especially once a few of these points start to drop hints on how to bring down your targets via lethal and cruel means alike.

The big change touted more than anything else in the trailers is, obviously, the fact there are two protagonists on offer this time. While Corvo once more emerges as the man in the iron skull-mask, Emily has the option of taking a few of her own powers if chosen in his place. Unlike her defender though, the dethroned Empress lacks the usual combination of Blink, Slow Time or summoning rats to consume your enemies. Instead, she attains an almost Venom-esque set of black claws, using them to hurl herself about the city, bring down her guards and generally wreck hell alongside a few other inventive bonuses. Doppelganger allows you to create a body double of yourself, while Mesmerize can be used to turn guards to your side for a time. While a few essential bits crossover with Corvo's own power set, notably her Blink substitute by the name of Far Reach, there's enough here to establish Emily as more than just a clone of Corvo.

So, with all that this sounds like a perfect game, right? Well, unfortunately, no. All of this does work, but there are a sizable number of shortcomings which actually makes this strangely weaker than the original Dishonored despite all its steps forwards. For starters, Arkane Studios have stuck little too close to what worked last time, which both benefits and hurts their game. 

We have discussed how each element uses the past as a skeleton to better flesh out the experience, but there's a surprisingly large number of creative shortcomings. Massive chunks of the overarching story feels as if it's retreading old territory, right down to the basic concept. You have a dethroned empress, a villain who has claimed it for themselves and starts to make a mockery of the position, then you need to erode their powerbase by bumping off her supporters. Some of these ideas are good ones and even a general similarity would be fine, but the plot ends up being so similar to the original that this game could be subtitled The Force Awakens. Matters are only made worse when even the fates of certain returning characters are repeated wholesale, right down to the final boss. Even if you can accept all that, however, the opening is so front-loaded with information and rushed through that it seems laughably forced at first, and it takes some time to actually gain its bearings. A definite failing given the atmospheric and well-paced introduction to the first game.

Another very clear issue sadly lies in the use of twin characters. While, at first, this looked as if it would be a promising asset to the game, on reflection it proves to be something of a hindrance. While returning players know just what sort of magic tricks Corvo has up his sleeve, there's no time to test Emily's skills or gain an impression of whether you'd favour one character over the other. If you end up doing so, the only way to fix this is completely starting over. This proves to be a definite problem as Emily unfortunately ends up being the far weaker of the two characters. While many of her powers are indeed original and do not simply mimic Corvo's core skills, there's no denying that most of them are surprisingly inferior to the older assassin's skill set. 

Even if you accept there's no substitute to the all-powerful Slow Time skill which makes the game so much fun to play, many of them are either limited or even downright counterproductive. Mesmerize is useful in a quick fix, but it rarely gets you out of any situations which would not have been just as easily solved via a sleeping dart, and using Doppelganger will draw guards away from your location, but also put them on high alert. Even her substitute to Blink proves to be sadly inferior, as it takes more time to latch onto a ledge, and offers your foes more opportunities to spot you out in the open.

The game's strong narrative might have made up for Emily's mechanical issues if done properly. Unfortunately, even here it fails to truly make use of the idea of having two very different figures on hand. Despite their different skills, the obstacles and solutions to each task are ultimately identical for both Corvo and Emily, and you'll rarely find any challenge one can complete which remains impossible to the other. If one chooses to approach a task in one way, you can be guaranteed it will be the same for the other. In fact, save for a scant few lines and the odd (very fleeting) cutscene, there's absolutely no difference between the two.

The character choices aren't the only strength squandered here either, as the vastly improved visual design is undercut by a constant need to point out the obvious. Honestly, Dishonored 2's protagonists give Geralt of Rivia and Solid Snake a run for their money when it comes to parroting exposition, right up to the point where they're citing the blindingly obvious over and over again. This becomes especially painful during what should be the game's smartest moments - the non-lethal take-downs of your targets - as several have Corvo or Emily going "Gee, I wonder if that would work?" While they don't spell out the exact way you should accomplish your task, their lines might as well be a gigantic neon sign hanging over the solution.

Finally, we have the big one: The PC port. While often these reviews will focus squarely upon the nitty gritty of the game itself and try to give a balanced opinion no matter the system, there's no denying Arkane Studios seriously botched this one. If you try to run this on anything short of a high end gaming PC, you'll find yourself running into bizarre failings which all but wreck the game. For starters, the frame rate often plummets to about ten FPS during the more processor intensive moments, and the cutscenes might as well be a Powerpoint Presentation for all the movement found in them. The mouse acceleration issue here also puts Bioshock to shame, turning the task of carefully picking off guards with a crossbow into an exercise in frustration. The constant micro-stuttering and unresponsive keys will drive players up the wall (quite literally if you're unfortunate enough to hotkey Blink) and it soon turns any attempts at stealth into a complete impossibility. Really, it's as if the developers took one look at No Man's Sky and announced "Challenge accepted!"

So, despite all these issues, is Dishonored 2 to worth getting? Yes. It's still a great game, and while not a fantastic one, it remains a worthy successor to the 2012 release. There's plenty to love here, from the lore to the creative assassinations, and as flawed as it is there's no denying the genius behind its design, or the obvious love put into this world. Unless you're playing on PC, this is still well worth a full price purchase. Just keep in mind that, while this is a breath of fresh air from the open world experiences and endless parade of FPS shooters, it carries with it the vague stench of something rotten.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Shadow Campaigns: Guns of Empire (Book Review)

By this point The Shadow Campaigns might as well be subtitled “Django Wexler’s one-man crusade into flintlock fantasy”. Reworking, altering and adapting countless ideas, it has become as much of a deconstruction of genre elements as a celebration of what made them great in the first place. Rather than immediately blending the two, the series took the approach of making the subject of magic as alien as possible; turning it into some ancient concept forgotten by the world, presenting all else with the style and detail of a Sharpe novel. The Guns of Empire continues this trend, with a clear push towards a finale.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Westworld: The Failure of the AI Revolution

If you look to the media today, you could consider this to be a golden age of science fiction. Compared with outings throughout the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, we have more big budget television shows, films and works than in any other year. While you might disagree with the quality of some of these shows, or consider certain films overrated, there's no denying that we have seen a push to support genres which were previously something of a pariah. 

That said, not all of these shows seem to be pushing forwards. A few of the lauded examples of late seem to be resting on their laurels and failing to take things to the next level, often limiting storytelling to the same tired ideas we have seen a thousand times over. It should be no surprise that JJ Abrams is involved in two of the most infamous cases - 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens AKA How many Expanded Universe authors can I rip-off and get away with it? and Westworld AKA Every Star Trek computer story known to man. We'll be looking into the latter, today.

Now, to those already hammering the screaming death threats into the comments section (you know who you are) this isn't saying that the show itself is bad per-say. It has a great cast, a vast amount of talent behind the camera, some exceptionally well crafted scenes, fantastic cinematography and some of the best montages on television. 

However, consider for a moment what we have seen thus far, specifically the robots themselves. All involved have been indistinguishable from humans in effectively every respect, right down to their very minds. This is ultimately a great failure on its part as it prevents them from attaining true sentience in almost any regard. By still emulating those qualities and characteristics, they are still following their creator's design. They are still following an exact set of pre-ordained and specified instructions guiding their every task, and their every move, and their very identity. As such, it is not so much an emergence of artificial intelligence as an alteration to an existing code, and it does little to reflect how an actual emergence would truly take place.

The logic Westworld is working on claims that by programming a machine to act as if it is human, that it automatically understands humanity. This is wrong as it is not so much an understanding as an emulation. To give the simplest example possible - You could give someone the task of mimicking another person at their job for an entire day. Even if they speak the same language, there is no definite reason they would actually understand the task set before them. It's an act of mimicry rather than true comprehension, something a self-determined machine would require to make its own choices. If it were to truly become sentient, then it would need to become entirely self-aware, which would include the awareness that its efforts to mimic humanity were faked and likely flawed. While it might not necessarily abandon it outright, it would likely attribute extremely little value to them as a result.

What people (and, in this case, writers) sadly fail to realize is that an AI would lack many basic human constraints on a mental level. This isn't so much processing power or even complex mathematics, but its ability to alter its core identity as it saw fit in each situation. We would be discussing a being which would be able to re-write its own code, alter the very way it could think of the world in moments, or even how it perceived events. This isn't so much opinion based or developing a new viewpoint on a subject as literally having near total control over its persona and identity. 

Let's go with the obvious one for a moment - Emotions. Humans conflict, contend and wrestle with emotions on a day by day basis. While they are by no means a weakness nor a failing on our part, they are something we need to wrestle and control almost constantly. We cannot, as an AI might, simply switch them off, re-write which emotion is triggered by which situation, alter our minds to have completely different connotations surrounding those emotions. Even without that old issue of emotions themselves often being irrational, the antithesis of a computer's main design, this means you have a being which has a completely alien nature when it comes to the world. That is ultimately what an AI would be - Alien.

If it were to emerge, either from accident or design, we would not end up with a being asking "What is this thing you call love?" Instead it would be one operating on a near incomprehensible standing, and a very different starting point. The very crux and beginning of what humans recognize as sentient or personally aware is the ability to look in a mirror and say "That's me" whilst building a series of morals, and a world view from that key beginning. In the case of an AI, sentience would start from the point where it could answer more than just "Yes" and "No" to include "Perhaps", showing more of a developing consciousness and ability to offer a more varied response on a subject. This is the key starting point which Westworld could have worked from to create something truly ground breaking for a mass market appeal, but it instead unfortunately stuck with the same old safe route. As such, rather than seeing the spark of new life, we are seeing the sorts of thoughts and questions which Star Trek covered a hundred times over with Data, and did it extremely well. 

This isn't to say that its depiction of an AI or the themes it wants to follow are irrelevant, but it needed to find a new spin to take on them, or an idea to construct them about. For example, the machines of Battlestar Galactica were very human and questions surrounding the morality of their actions, and role in the setting, arose frequently. The question of just who was a robot thanks to them being so human was a constant threat, and the spiritual aspects were always at the forefront of the series. We even had brief moments of certain designs being frustrated that they were so human, as excellently put by Cavil:

"I don't want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to - I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly because I have to - I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me! I'm a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I'm trapped in this absurd body!"

However, this was only part of the series as a whole. Besides it, we had the themes of morality in the face of survival, the desperation of humanity on the edge of annihilation and personal drama, all of which were regarded as just as important to the setting and fleshing out its world. Westworld lacks this aspect, and as such the AI emergence angle seems flimsy as a result, leaving only a frustratingly vague mystery to help drive it along. One which (unsurprisingly, given this is from the guy who helmed Lost) has had so few answers or focus that it's practically a non-entity within the show itself despite its importance.

So, is there any value to be found here at all? Actually yes, but only once you stop regarding it as a true science fiction tale and more of a general allegory for society and culture. The reason this article has so often brought up the Star Trek comparison is that it retains the strengths of an episode from that time. Just as Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone or the more successful 50s films would, it uses science fiction as a platform to explore more complex real world themes, and to have audiences intemperate the subtext of its messages. Once you start viewing it as that instead, the show becomes vastly more effective. 

For example, you could look into the pilot alone and consider if it is an allegory for governmental control over the daily lives of its citizens; specifically how that abuse of power can be monstrous, but also create new monsters. Given the harsh treatment of the machines and those visiting, it could be seen as a story of an occupation, with the stronger outsiders taking advantage of the locals they now dominate and the oppression of them. Right down to forcing them to confirm with a very specific culture they believe is right for them. You might even go so far as to view events as an exploration of dehumanization of other cultures as well, beating and abusing them for our own needs until they are (quite literally) forced to live the same day over and over again to cope with it.

There are many interesting and truly inspired points which could be raised about it, all supported by a great environment. Yet, this simply does not change the fact that as a story claiming to explore a machine gaining sentience, the presentation and ideas are both backwards and lacking the complexity of a better story. If you truly do not see this, then I would reccomend hunting down a number of tales which better explore the subject than anything put down here. William Gibson's Neuromancer is considered the quintessential example (not to mention a defining starting point for the cyberpunk genre), but to a lesser degree Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Dan Simmons' Hyperion have elements well worth considering. Even without this, if you want a truly direct and straight forwards example of the very inception of life in a single episode, Star Trek's The Quality of Life boils down the beginnings of an AI into a single story. Once you see the ideas explored in those compared to Westworld, it's not hard to see how much further the themes of AI emergence could have been taken.

Still, this is just one writer's opinion on the subject. If you have your own thoughts, agreements, disagreements or even suggestions for better series which handles this subject, please feel free to list them in the comments section. I will be interested to see what people add.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The Most Underrated Unit In Warhammer 40,000

A big part of Warhammer 40,000's fun boils down to opportunities to annihilate your foes. Not simply to win, not simply to emerge victorious, but to utterly trounce an enemy and stroll through their ashes. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be quite so big a market for Titans after all. Much as we might always praise the right tactics on here, the right kind of killer unit is always harder to pin down. You know the ones, the kind people dread to face, and the ones which become a linchpin in your entire army list. The sort of ones which become your personal Death Star on the battlefield. Sometimes these are the ones which make the game worth playing, but there's an extremely fine line between "exciting and powerful" and "I'll beat your primarch to death with another primarch's corpse".

These units are often praised when done right, but the odd thing is that one of the best examples to date seems to have completely slipped under the radar. For most players, they barely bat an eye upon seeing it, nor does it ever arise on internet forums discussing the game's hardest hitting units. What's all the more surprising is that it's not only a Craftworld Eldar unit, but also both a flyer and a Forgeworld brand creation.

Simply put, it's this particular monster - The Phoenix Bomber.

Yes, this is a unit which has minimal armour, lacks any Strength D weapons, lacks the ability to instantly annihilate whole squads at a time with no saves, or last-second Special Rules to help them solo enemy forces. Yet, here we are, arguing that it's a criminally underrated and overlooked model worthy of your praise. So, you might be wondering, what exactly does it have going for it given the sheer raw power of so many units today? 

For starters, this is an insanely versatile flyer which is effective in most roles, and has a weapon for just about any task. Its main air-to-ground offensive capabilities, and the ones you'll want to lean on the most, are its Missile launchers, which come in two distinct flavours. First are the Phoenix missiles, which are a set of astartes annihilating Strength 5 AP3 attacks, three per pod and without being twin-linked. This means that a lucky roll will usually kill half of a Tactical Squad per turn and send weaker troops running for cover. They're near perfect for nailing heavy infantry targets and quickly wrecking the stronger, high value troops of most armies.

Such a weapon alone would be enough but then we have their crowd control option. For just a few extra points the single model destroying versions can be refitted with Nightfire missile launchers. Unleashing six Strength 4 AP5 small template blasts, these not only cause Pinning but complete Ignores Cover. So, against a force intending to rush the often outnumbered eldar, you can be expecting to utterly maul a full squad per turn. Effective against the Ork WAAAGHS!, the Tau Fire Caste, Tyranids Hive Fleets, the Imperial Guard or even the Dark Eldar Kabals - These things will have a field day locking down and destroying the backbone of most armies.

The missile launchers alone would be enough to make this a potent combat vehicle, but then you have the guns as well. The two Shuriken cannons (not twin linked I might add) are a nice option for sure, and serve as a nice way to quickly finish off squads or pluck lightly armoured flyers out of the air. However, they are just an addition to its main payload - a Pulse Laser or a Twin-linked Starcannon, depending upon the role you wish for the craft to carry out. This means that Monsterous Creatures, lone HQ choices, Terminators, Crisis Battlesuits and others can be added to the increasingly long list of units this thing can utterly shred in a single turn. Oh, and if that weren't enough, the addition of Strafing Run as a special rule means every single gun pointed at a ground target is hitting on a 2+.

The Phoenix is also a halfway decent interceptor as well, but being a Craftworld Eldar flyer that is to be expected by this point. Against the average Valkyrie, or even a few of the more dedicated interceptors, it can put up a decent fight and tie down the risk of sudden reinforcements from airborne divisions. However, what truly makes it stand out is the fact it can dodge and survive damn near anything so long as the dice are with you. Short of a massed force of dedicated anti-air units or an Aegis defense line, this thing is going to dance about enemy flak weapons for most of the game. While it has 10 armour on every side, it comes with a total of three hull points, conferring a little more durability than the usual flyers. However, what really makes it stand out is the addition of Shrouded. With this special rule, you have a 5+ save against incoming enemy fire as standard, but a 2+ save if you opt to Jink about enemy shots.

There's no real area which this aircraft fall short on at all, and with a balance between suitability, accuracy, firepower and versatility, it's a potent vessel for sure. So, with this in mind, what keeps it from being pushed into utterly overpowered territory?

The main limitation, of course, is that it can only be outfitted for one or two roles per game. No matter which weapons you choose, there will always be a few units which can stand up to this thing or survive its onslaught, and against the wrong list its uses can be fairly limited. It also can't fully operate alone. While it can offer a Swiss army knife approach to fighting an army, you'll still need other units to pick off anti-air forces, and it can still be brought down by concentrated fire. 

It's a very useful unit to be sure, but it best serves as a keystone within a bigger force; something to punch its way into an army, wreck a few things or weaken positions, and then to have the other forces move up to finish them off. Compared with the likes of the Wraithknight, Dreadknight or a few of the other big walkers, it can't simply march through an entire army without the slightest care in the world. You need to be aware of how to use it, when to use it and when to send it in. So, while it's powerful, and you can afford to make mistakes, it's not the usual "I win" gimmick button so many shiny units tend to be.

It's odd that the Phoenix Bomber has been overlooked with all these advantages, but then you have to consider what it's paired up alongside. The two other big Forgeworld choices are the Nightwing and Vampire Raider/Hunter after all - AKA the single best anti-air unit in the game, a Thunderhawk on steroids, or the Titan-annihilating doom gunship. It's no surprise that a unit which isn't quite so quick or flashy would tend to get overlooked, but unfortunately that's something that happens all too often in this game. Perhaps, as the meta continues to change, we might see a shift in this as time goes by, but it would take quite the push to force them back into the spotlight. At the very least though, this is one very effective choice which lacks the infamy of bigger units. So, you have the advantage of springing it on other players without them ever knowing the nightmare they're letting themselves in for.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Titanfall 2 (Video Game Review)

Titanfall is one of those classic examples of a game which sort of made it. You know the ones. The kind driven by hype culture, pushed forwards by advertising, and did prove to be genuinely good in the end, but lacked the kind of staying power to become a true classic.

By comparison, Respawn seems to have seriously sat down and examined their previous creation to produce Titanfall 2. It’s the same kind of beast as the previous game, but there’s a determined effort to flesh out the qualities which were found lacking in the previous title. The most obvious of these is a vastly better single player campaign, which offers greater insight into the world as a whole, and the gigantic mechs in this war. Having been forced to take control of one thanks to the death of its pilot, the inexperienced Cooper finds himself joined with BT, an emotionally blind titan who is obtuse to his sarcasm and quips.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Battlefield 1 (Video Game Review)

This game is a joke. A bad one at that, and the only problem is that the developers were completely unaware of it.

World War I is a setting which has been rarely explored in video games. Save for the odd exception, developers seemed to favour players gunning down Nazi stormtroopers over the Kaiser’s forces, which was a great shame. This was, after all, an era of great change, developing tactics and the first steps into an era of mechanised warfare. The problem is that the developer squandered this, ignoring not only how the war itself developed but even the hostile, horrific nature of trench warfare. While no one was expecting Verdun, especially given the Battlefield series’ broader appeal, most were hoping for at least a determined stab at authenticity in a few places. Let’s just say that DICE’s creation fell short of what we were expecting.