Monday, 19 February 2018

Now Watching: The Justice League

The Justice League is the best comedy of 2017. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so much or so hard whilst watching a film. It’s also really bad. I consider it to be the worst of the DC Cinematic Universe films, not just because it’s bad, but because it’s so damn bland.

I can at least say Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman were bad in an interesting way. But there’s nothing interesting or surprising about TJL – it’s as safe and by the numbers as you can get. I don’t know how much of an impact the reported re-shoots / change of director had, but the inconsistencies in tone, style and structure are clear to see.

Visually, the film looks off, as if the colour gradient is all wrong, and many scenes look ugly as a result. This isn’t helped by the poor CGI. I’m not sure what’s worse – the big bad Steppenwolf, who looks like he’s just stepped out of a Mortal Kombat cut-scene, or Henry Cavill’s fake upper lip. They’re both hilarious, though.

What’s not hilarious are the numerous, extremely awkward and bizarre attempts at humour. Many of these misguided quips fall to The Flash, who is unfortunately the only character with some traces of a personality.

The plot is paper thin, the villain is a joke, the action is poor and everything looks fake as f**k. Cyborg looks like a cartoon. There’s no sense of stakes, tension or emotion. It’s flat, drab to look at and poorly scripted. The only redeeming aspect of The Justice League – and the reason it didn’t score lower – is because it’s so damn bad it’s funny.

The film opens with a music montage – never a good sign – lamenting the death of Superman. But the sad music and glum faces only serve to remind us how poorly the death of Superman was handled in BvS. DC, in a misguided attempt to keep pace with Marvel, is riding roughshod over what should be major plot and character developments in the series.

The Justice League desperately wants to be The Avengers and fails miserably at it. Aside from Superman (to a limited degree) and Wonder Woman, none of these characters have been appropriately established. What’s the rush, DC?

The Wonder Woman film felt like a step in the right direction, but The Justice League isn’t just a step back – it’s a flying leap. I honestly can’t see a way forward for the DCU at this point. I think they need to scrap the entire project and start over from scratch. The Justice League is just . . . embarrassing. It’s a joke.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Bayonetta & Vanquish (PC)

I’ve played Bayonetta on 360, Wii U, the Wii U version emulated on PC, and now the official PC release. I’ll also be picking up the Switch version. To say that I love Bayonetta would be an understatement. The question, I suppose, is which version do I think is the best?

At the time of writing, I’ve not yet played the Switch port, so I can’t comment on it, but if it’s equal to, or even a slight upgrade of the Wii U version, it will probably become my favourite. Because I must say, despite the sharper graphics and more consistent frame rate of the PC port, I actually still prefer the Wii U version.

Why? The extra, Nintendo themed costumes, mostly, some of which add some pretty fun gameplay effects. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing through Bayonetta again on PC – I probably won’t come back to it once the Switch version is released. But if you don’t have access to a Wii U or Switch, then the PC port is a fantastic alternative.

The PC version of Vanquish, on the other hand, is easily the definitive version. With sharper graphics and a rock solid frame rate, it’s the best Vanquish can possibly be. I wondered if I’d enjoy Vanquish more on PC, and I did to a degree – it’s nice not having the frame rate tank whenever there’s a missile spam. And switching to the precision of a mouse is a great – although it does make the game significantly easier as a result.

But overall, I still feel Vanquish is one of the weaker Platinum titles. The story/characters aren’t bonkers or interesting enough for you to care, and if you skip all cut-scenes, the game is only about 5 hours to play, with about 30 minutes of tedious ‘walk and talk’ segments.

The levels are kind of bland and don’t really do anything interesting with the enjoyable gameplay mechanics. Once you’re half way through the game you’ll have seen every enemy type Vanquish has to offer, and from that point on it just starts to recycle and double down on everything. It’s still damn fun to play and a game I’d recommend, but it’s a shame the game surrounding the combat mechanics isn’t more elaborate, extensive or clever.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Now Playing: Game of Thrones

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Or just die, in this case. Because you’re not really playing Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series – you’re just watching a scripted story play out and occasionally pressing a button to progress to the next scene. I’m going to be pretty hard on GoT in this review, not because it’s a terrible game, but because it’s so damn lazy and shoddy.

I’ve played a number of Telltale titles and enjoyed all of them to one degree or another. They’re titles that live and die primarily on the strength of their narrative and characters. They’re interactive stories which present choices to the player – choices which shape both the characters and how the narrative will progress.

I’ve never had unrealistic expectations for how divergent the narrative in Telltale titles will be. I’ve always said there’s going to be a limit to how far a plot can branch based on player choice. But it’s also an aspect to these games that I’ve wanted to see improve.

Considering that GoT was released after both The Walking Dead: Season 2 and the excellent The Wolf Among Us – not to mention the strong potential of the Game of Thrones licence – I expected far more. Instead, GoT takes a significant step back.

Graphically, GoT is shoddy, with poor environmental textures and character models. Animations are stiff and awkward. There’s also a number of visual bugs, such as characters winking in and out of existence in the background. It feels rushed, and somewhat incomplete – playing with subtitles on, it was funny to see so many lines appearing that actually had no VA.

The ‘gameplay’ segments of GoT also feel lazy and pointless to the point that they may as well not exist. You’ll be given control of many of the characters for short ‘walking’ segments where you only take five steps before it triggers another scene. The few environments you get to ‘explore’ are small and the items you can interact with entirely irrelevant.

It’s like they just didn’t know how to incorporate these gameplay segments into the the title – or just couldn’t be bothered to try. Who thought having you walk slowly along The Wall lighting torches one at a time would be an engaging gameplay segment? It’s just – like nearly all of these segments – filler. It adds nothing to the experience but irritation.

Fortunately, the overall story is okay. It’s not great, but it keeps you fairly engaged. Which can’t really be said about the characters, some of whom I just found annoying to play as, and as a result, I didn’t really care about what happened to them.

Not that what happens to them is in any way under your control. This may be the most restrictive title I’ve played by Telltale as far as its ‘choices’ go. It became clear during the first episode that nothing I did or said would result in a different outcome.

Even dialogue choices don’t really change scenes, as other characters just respond with generic ‘one size fits all’ dialogue. Some of the episode ‘recaps’ even played dialogue I’d not chosen – not that it matters, but it gives you a sense of how poorly this title has been put together, when it can’t even properly keep track of your choices between episodes.

People may argue this isn’t that different to previous Telltale titles, but at some point, surely we should expect them to step up their game? And a GoT title was the perfect opportunity to create their most complex, divergent narrative yet. Instead, we get a title with practically zero narrative branching.

It’s only at the very end of the title that your choices can change things – but only in a potential sequel that may never come, and if it ever does, will probably ignore and make those choices irrelevant anyway.

And when you know your choices won’t actually change anything, you just don’t care about those choices – dialogue or otherwise. You’re not concerned about the impact your choices will have on these characters, because their fates are predetermined whatever you do.

With the GoT licence, Telltale had an opportunity to deliver their most ambitious title yet, but instead delivered a title that doesn’t even try. It’s a step back from their previous work – both graphically, technically and narratively – when it should have been a step forward.

As I said, it’s not a terrible game. The story and characters are decent enough to see you through – even if it does often feel like someone’s mediocre fan fiction. Overall, it’s a disappointing title. It’s lazy, shoddy and should have been so much better.


Sunday, 28 January 2018

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Now Watching: Blade Runner 2049

After seeing Blade Runner 2049 someone asked me ‘was it good?’ and all I could think to reply was ‘it wasn’t bad.’ I was conflicted. It took some time – and a second viewing – to figure out exactly how I felt, but I finally struck upon the word that best summed it up – inconsequential.

Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a ‘soft reboot’ but a direct sequel to the original – detrimentally so, in my opinion. The opening act is strong, as we’re introduced to Officer K (Ryan Gosling) and Joi (Ana de Armas). Their relationship, and K’s investigation build a compelling and engaging first act. The second, with the reintroduction of Deckard (Harrison Ford) is equally so.

But it’s with the opening to the third and final act, that I feel Blade Runner 2049 loses its way. Everything up to this point in terms of pacing, structure and dialogue is nearly perfect. But as the film should be building upon this fantastic foundation to an equally fantastic conclusion – it rapidly falls apart.

The dialogue becomes noticeably clunky. The pacing is off. The plot suddenly feels contrived. It almost feels like the entire final act was rewritten and re-shot. Either that, or they just didn’t know how to appropriately end it. It’s hard to be sure, but I get the impression they had one eye on a potential sequel – and in doing so, didn’t deliver the satisfying conclusion this film desperately deserves.

The ending to Blade Runner 2049 feels like misguided sequel bait. It’s a real kick in the nuts, because it results in a film that ultimately feels inconsequential. I felt deflated at the end, as if nothing I’d seen had really led to anything. It felt a little like sitting through a two and a half hour prologue to the next story they want to tell.

In many ways, I kind of wish 2049 wasn’t a direct sequel at all, and instead focused on its own original story and characters. After my first viewing, I wondered if it was the old plot elements intruding upon the new that bothered me. But after my second viewing, it became clear the problems only really begin with the opening of the third act.

As a result, 2049 doesn’t end in a manner that feels satisfying for either K or Deckard. Very little feels resolved. It’s an awkward, abrupt final act that bothers the hell out of me, because everything up until that point is so damn fantastic.

Overall, I’d probably say I enjoyed 2049 more than the original, but it just doesn’t provide the satisfying conclusion I feel it deserves. It fell flat for me, leaving me confused and disappointed and wondering why it went so wrong. It ends up feeling like a misfire – so much fantastic build up, only for the final shot to be a dud. But hey, at least it’s a very pretty one.


Monday, 15 January 2018

Now Playing: The Long Dark

The Long Dark is a first person, wilderness survival game. It launched as an Early Access title in 2014, but has since officially released – though it’s still not entirely complete. There are two main modes of play – Story and Survival. The Story mode is episode based, but only two of the planned six episodes are currently available. The Survival mode is a customisable sandbox where the goal is to simply stay alive as long as you can.

I began The Long Dark with its Story Mode. You play as Will, a pilot who crashes in the wilderness following some kind of natural ‘geomagnetic disaster’. Your ultimate goal is to track down your missing ex-wife, which means following her path through the wilderness whilst also trying not to die of thirst, hunger, the cold or angry wolves.

The first episode is essentially the ‘tutorial’ designed to teach you the basics of survival. It does a decent job of it, but there’s still a lot you have to figure out yourself via trial and error. Unlike the Survival mode, there are NPCs to interact with – one in each episode – and these give you additional missions and objectives you’ll need to complete in order to progress.

The first episode feels a little rough, and I encountered a few bugs mostly to do with item interactions not triggering when they should. The second episode is a little more polished, with 3 connected maps and more compelling story elements. A lot of the NPC quests do devolve into basic ‘fetch me X amount of Y’ bullshit, but episode 2 does add some fun ‘set piece’ style sequences in the form of a bear hunt and your final escape through a dam.

The integration of the story and missions into what is primarily a sandbox focused title doesn’t always work, but episode 2 makes some smart choices to balance this out, and hopefully they’ll continue to learn and improve upon this balance as further episodes are released.

In all, I played the Story mode for about 20 hours, so it’s a pretty substantial piece of content, even incomplete – although it should be noted that a lot of that time is spent travelling or fetching stuff. By its nature, The Long Dark is a very slow paced game, so it’s easy to clock up a lot of hours without much really going on.

Many will consider the fully customisable Survival mode to be the real meat of the title, but a part of me prefers a more objective focused adventure to just survival for the sake of it. It’s an impressive mode, no doubt, with so many difficulty settings to choose between, plus an extensive range of custom options, but I’m not sure how long it can really keep me engaged.

Like so many survival games, once you get yourself established with a regular supply of heat, water and food, you fall into a repetitive pattern. You have to, really, because it’s the most ‘efficient’ way to play and survive. The mode uses a perma-death system, so taking risks isn’t exactly encouraged. It’s very enjoyable in the early stages, as you scavenge for supplies, tools and weapons, but becomes more of a monotonous grind as you progress.

Time, in many ways, is your most valuable resource. Everything you do requires time – eating, drinking, cooking, crafting and exploring. Managing your time is key to your survival. It can feel a little silly at times, as even basic actions take far longer than they really should.

Even with a decent axe, it can take up to 45 minutes of game time to break down a rickety chair, which in reality I could probably disassemble by hand in about 10 minutes. The way the game handles thirst and hunger can also feel a little . . . off. During one stretch of Episode 1, it seemed like I was eating five steaks a day and my guy was still complaining he was hungry – although I suspect this may have been a bug, because it seemed to settle down after hitting another story trigger.

As far as the general survival mechanics go, The Long Dark is fairly comprehensive and provides a compelling and enjoyable experience. It’s not striving for absolute realism, but to walk that fine line between realism and fun – and in that sense, it does a pretty damn good job. There are a few oddities – such as your inability to jump, or even climb over a tiny fence, but this may just be an engine limitation.

Wildlife has some terrible path finding, but it’s not a major issue. Graphically, its cartoon style doesn’t detract from the serious nature of the gameplay, and lends itself to some lovely environmental visuals.

Overall, The Long Dark is one of the few titles that’s emerged from early access in a more impressive state than it began. With regular updates and fixes, and what appears to be a good level of community engagement, it’s a great example of early access done right. Despite my concerns about the longevity of Survival mode, I am looking forward to the next Story episode to see where it goes.