Thursday, 18 May 2017

Work in Progress: DOTJ

DOTJ is finally complete. I actually finished it a couple of weeks ago but I’m a little behind on updating the blog. I’m fairly pleased with it, I think. It’s always hard to judge your own work. It helps to step away for a few weeks and forget about it. It will probably need some more love, but I think it’s in pretty good shape as it is.

It was one of the most difficult novels to write that I’ve worked on, but that was more to do with how stop-start the process was. Although I began working on it back in July 2015, I didn’t really get stuck fully into writing it until towards the end of 2016/early 2017 because the project kept being put on hold.

DOTJ is technically a prequel to my other project QOTTS, but it’s only a very loose relation. But it does share a similar tone, style and theme. It’s something I’d like to expand and explore in the future. The same world, but with an entirely new character and setting.

The question is – what now? DOTJ will eventually go out on submission to publishers, but that’s a lengthy process and I need new projects to keep me busy. I’ve got so much older work slowly rotting away that I really want to do something with. I’m looking at releasing some more e-books later in the year depending on how things go.

As for new stuff, I really don’t know. I’ve got odd ideas, but nothing fleshed out, so I guess I could try putting together some rough outlines and see if anything sticks.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Now Watching: Children of Men

Children of Men is a dystopian sci-fi thriller directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen. Although a critical success upon release in 2006, it was also something of a commercial flop. So bad, apparently, that Cuarón fell into a seven year funk, not directing another film until Gravity in 2013.

(Unlike Children of Men, Gravity was both a critical and commercial success despite being absolutely terrible. Seriously – f**k that movie)

But Children of Men is f**king great! Set in 2027, the world has gone to shit. The human race has, for some unexplained reason, become infertile, and no children have been born for over 18 years. The human race is slowly dying out and it doesn’t seem like anything can be done to save it.

So it’s an ‘end of the world’ type movie, but not of the sudden, explosive bang variety. Instead, it’s a slow, gradual decline of human civilisation. It’s bleak, depressing and perhaps a little too realistically portrayed for comfort.

Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, once a political activist, now a jaded, cynical and emotionally hollow man living in a Britain which has survived the decline with some degree of law intact – but now transformed into a totalitarian state. The borders are closed, pro-state and anti-immigrant propaganda is rife, and order is maintained by the barrel of the gun.

Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) and asked to escort a young woman to the coast. Theo agrees – but is he doing it purely for the money, or because he still cares for Julian? Either way, he doesn’t quite know what he’s getting himself into.

The best thing about Children of Men is the world that it builds. The attention to detail is fantastic, and what’s particularly impressive is that the vast majority of the world building takes place in the background – there’s very little exposition.

Beginning in London, things seems fairly ‘normal’ at first, but as we follow Theo on his travels, we come to see just how f**ked up this society has become. And what’s great about it is Theo’s reaction – or lack of reaction – to the depressing world about him.

Theo passes through it, ignoring it, passive to it, accepting it for what it is. He doesn’t comment on it. He’s numb to it. It’s just the way his world is and he’s resigned to accept it – what else can he do? But the story, in many ways, is really about Theo believing in something again. Snapping out of his stupor and finding hope.

Because the world of Children of Men is a world without children and a world without children is a world without a future. And a world without a future is a world not of hope – but despair. Thankfully, the film is never overly preachy or heavy handed with its themes, which makes them all the more powerful.

Children of Men looks fantastic, it’s perfectly paced and features a couple of exceptional long takes that must have required a ridiculous level of preparation and timing. Performances are all solid, though appropriately subdued. And I liked the little character/world touches – such as the car that refuses to start, or Theo’s unfortunate shoe situation – humorous little touches, but ones that lend a degree of realism to proceedings.

Children of men is bleak and depressing, but also offers a message of hope. It may not have found the commercial success it deserves, but I’m sure it will be remembered fondly regardless. And with its message of compassion and hope, it’s a film we can all learn from. It’s one that sticks with you. Highly recommended.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Suburban Killbot Year 5

The mosaic returns! I skipped out on this last year because of how big it was getting, but I decided to fill it out this year and add in all the other titles I’ve rated highly since.

As you can see, I added Titanfall 1 to the image rather than Titanfall 2. If you’ve followed my various posts on the sequel, you’ll probably know why. Whereas TF1 only improved over time, TF2 hasn’t improved at all – if anything it’s actually worse now than at release.

As always, I’d hoped to use this post to share exciting book related news, but as always, I don’t have anything good to share. Do you know what the definition of insanity is? Yes, yes I do.

This year has been pretty good for games so far. It’s nice to actually have a few titles lined up that I want to play. I also want to play some of my old Wii library now I’ve got my Wii U set up. Maybe the No More Heroes games.

I’ve been thinking of other ways to expand the blog – maybe some film related posts. I’ve also been thinking about potential video content – maybe some gameplay montages or something. I’m not really interested in doing full Let’s Play type stuff. I don’t have any decent editing software though or a particularly good mic. I’ll try a few things, see how it goes.

As far as my writing goes, I’ll have an update later this month on my new book and I might finally be releasing some of my older work in e-book format depending on how things pan out. Yeah, not exactly the most exciting yearly update, but there’s always next year, right?

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Now Playing: Bayonetta 2

I said in my Bayonetta review that ‘it doesn’t get much better than this’. I was wrong. It does get better, and by ‘better’ I mean Bayonetta 2. As fantastic as I thought the original Bayonetta was, it wasn’t a perfect game. Graphically, it was a little rough in places and the frame rate would take the occasional hit.

The camera could prove awkward during some battles, particularly some of the larger boss battles. Oh, and by far the worst aspect of Bayonetta was the rather unforgiving and pointless insta-death QTEs. Even playing through the original twice on 360 and once on Wii U, these moments still catch me out. I really don’t like them at all.

Bayonetta 2 fixes all of these issues. The frame rate is rock solid. The camera is always perfectly placed. Graphically, it’s very polished, and they removed the QTE nonsense entirely. But not only did they completely fix my issues with the original game, they even improved upon nearly every aspect of the original.

Visually, Bayonetta 2 is stunning. Whereas the original was more dark and dour, the sequel is bright and vibrant. There’s more variety to environments and enemy design, all of which look absolutely amazing. Bayonetta 2 is one of the most graphically engaging titles you’ll ever play. As for the music, it’s all pretty good, but I do think Bayonetta 1 had a stronger overall soundtrack. If there’s one thing Bayo 1 did do better, it’s that.

The combat, of course, is the most important element of Bayonetta 2. I adored the combat of the original so much that I didn’t want some fights to end. And yet, they’ve actually improved upon the combat in some small, but very important ways.

The combat of Bayonetta 2 feels refined to perfection. It feels more fluid, with smoother transitions between combos, dodges and animations. The controls feel more tight and responsive. It’s hard to say exactly why it feels better – it just does. I can’t be sure, but I do wonder if they’ve made the timing for dodge and combo inputs slightly more forgiving, giving you an extra half a second or so to pull them off.

As a result, Bayonetta 2 does also feel quite a bit easier than the original did, at least on the default Normal difficulty. But I don’t see this as a bad thing, as these tweaks do make combat feel even more fluid, responsive and enjoyable.

This is also a result of a far better camera. Even during the larger fights, the camera sensibly sweeps back and forth to give you the most appropriate angle. Unlike the original, you won’t be taking cheap hits because you couldn’t quite see what was coming.

Like the original, Bayonetta 2 features multiple weapons, each with their own attack style. You can combine them to create your own preferred style and switch between custom sets on the fly, giving an incredible variety to fights and a fantastic degree of replay value. You can also unlock new characters to play. In fact, there’s so much to unlock in Bayonetta 2 it’s kind of ridiculous – new weapons, a varied range of combat modifiers, new moves, characters and outfits.

The main story mode will take roughly 8-10 hours to complete, but there’s a great degree of replay value through its different difficulty modes, collectible items and, as I’ve said, the ability to play as other characters with different weapons and attack styles. There’s also a ‘trials’ mode you’ll unlock once you complete the story.

Oh, and they also included a new ‘tag climax’ mode which is an interesting mix of co-op and competitive play as you fight alongside – but also compete against – either an AI or human companion through a series of challenging fights.

One thing I think you could argue the original did a little better is story. The original has a surprisingly emotional aspect to it which is a little lacking in the sequel. But I don’t think the sequel really needed to retread the same narrative ground. The story of Bayonetta 2 expands on the world and characters in a wonderful way.

It takes Bayonetta, quite literally, to hell and back. Purely as an excuse to showcase an even greater variety of environments and enemies, it’s pretty damn good. I also thoroughly enjoyed the trip through time, which cleverly ties together and expands upon various aspects of the original story.

Bayonetta 2 is one of the few games that I think comes close to being truly perfect. But I’m not giving it a 10/10. Why? Because there’s one thing that disappointed me, and that was the music – or lack of a particular track, should I say.

At no point in Bayonetta 2 does the fantastic Bayonetta 1 cover of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ play. I was waiting for it the entire game, but it never came. If that track had kicked in during the final phase of the final boss we’d have my first perfect 10/10 game. But it didn’t! Oh, and no final dance number?! So close, Bayonetta 2! So close!


Friday, 21 April 2017

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Now Playing: The Wind Waker HD

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was originally released on the GameCube in 2003. Spin on 10 years, and Nintendo released a HD remaster of WW for the Wii U, which is the version I’m going to be reviewing. It’s an important distinction to make, because the Wii U remaster doesn’t only overhaul the graphical quality of the original, but also includes alterations and additions to various aspects of gameplay.

I played WW on release and it quickly became one of, if not my favourite of the Zelda games. Does this HD remaster do the original game justice? Do the changes they’ve made improve the experience or weaken it?

Honestly, it’s hard to say. It’s been over 10 years since I played the GC version, and whilst I remembered quite a bit of the original going into this remaster, there was a lot I totally forgot about.

Also, in the years since WW released, numerous other games, including new Zelda titles, have arrived and improved on many aspects of what WW did right . . . and not so right. It was always going to be strange playing WW immediately following Breath of the Wild, because BotW was such a radical departure from the Zelda ‘formula’ that WW so rigidly adheres to.

Has the open freedom of BotW made previous Zelda games seem less . . . good? I don’t think so, but I don’t think you can ignore the impact it’s had on the series as a whole, both past and future. Because although WW does adhere to a very rigid and linear structure of progression, that’s not really my issue with it. No, it’s not the strict, structured progression that’s the problem, but rather how the game handles it.

Something I didn’t remember about the original game was how easy the whole thing is. We get off to a rather slow start as the game walks you through an extended tutorial segment. The problem is, it never really stops walking you through the content. The game will always tell you exactly where to go and what to do.

There’s no real challenge to the game. There’s no sense of mystery, of figuring things out on your own. The solution to the dungeon puzzles are all too obvious, as are the patterns to the boss fights. The Wind Waker is easy, which isn’t itself a serious issue, it’s more that it’s insultingly easy.

The world of WW is a fairly large open ocean broken down into individual tiles, each with its own unique island. But only a handful of these islands are particularly substantial or important. And until you progress far enough to unlock various items, the majority of these islands won’t even be accessible.

If you’re playing Wind Waker, you really need to follow the main quest because there’s very little point to exploration until you’ve unlocked all of the main items. It’s also far more enjoyable to explore once you do, because without abilities such as the fast travel system, or the new HD addition of the ‘upgraded’ sail, it’s rather tedious getting about.

There is side content in WW, but very little of it is advertised and none of it is tracked. There’s some good stuff to be found, but you really need to seek it out. And whilst many of the islands in the game aren’t very important or offer any substantial content, they do nearly always contain a treasure to collect or a puzzle to solve, making your exploration feel worthwhile.

And it’s important to note that whilst I dislike how heavily WW walks you through its core content, and how easy it is, that doesn’t mean the core content is bad. In fact, it’s actually pretty good. All of the dungeons were fun to complete. Each was unique visually, but also in terms of enemies, puzzles and bosses.

Each dungeon had its own ‘theme’, usually based around a particular puzzle mechanic or key item. And each featured its own unique boss with a unique pattern to defeat. They’re all pretty clever, even if they’re not particularly challenging. In this respect, WW has far more entertaining and interesting dungeons than BotW.

And I did enjoy a return to that sense of mechanical progression that BotW somewhat lacked. Each dungeon gave me something new. Something that opened up the world just a little more. The problem WW has though, is that whereas BotW didn’t gate its content at all, WW gates its content too heavily.

You can never really shake the feeling that the game is just walking you through everything, step by step. And this is even more apparent in this HD remaster when it comes to your final main quest prior to facing Ganon. It involves tracking down eight shards of the triforce.

In the GC original, you had to first track down a sea chart for each, pay for each chart to be deciphered, and then find the islands where the pieces were located. But a lot of people apparently didn’t like this, which is why they altered the quest in this remaster so that only three of the pieces require a chart. The rest it just tells you exactly where to find them.

I can see why people would prefer this change, but it kind of bothers me. I don’t recall having any issue with the way the quest was handled originally. In fact, I remember quite liking that stage of the game. With all my key items unlocked, I could now explore the ocean as I pleased, taking my time with each chart until I discovered every shard.

But now the game practically just gives them to you, without any real work. I can see why many may dislike the original version of this quest and may find it tedious and slow, but I’m just not sure the way they handle it in this remaster is the best possible solution.

Graphically, this remaster looks fantastic. Link in this game is so damn expressive. It is, overall, a more light hearted affair, with more humour and silly characters and situations than some of the other Zelda games, but it can be serious when it needs to.

In fact, the story of WW is very good, and I really like the way it plays upon a previous game in the series, as well as how it handles both Zelda herself and especially Ganon. Here, Ganon isn’t just a giant smoke monster, but an actual character. And when you reach the end of the game and learn about what happened in the past and why the world is the way it is, you can almost sympathise with the bastard.

I also really like the ending, which is both bitter sweet, but also hopeful for the future. Oh, and your final fight against Ganon is a lot of fun with what may be best delivered final blow in the entire series.

Some other minor irritations I have to mention are the dodgy auto-jump which doesn’t always work exactly the way you want. You may, for example, just want to drop down from a ledge, but instead Link decides to take a flying, suicidal leap. The game does have some unfortunate frame rate issues. It really tanks whenever you get a few ships firing cannons at the same time.

Overall, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is a good remaster of a good game, but I can’t really shake the feeling that I enjoyed the original more. I don’t know if that’s because of the changes they’ve made, or simply because Zelda, as a series, has evolved and improved since. Even so, WW is still a lot of fun to play. Sailing across that open ocean remains as enjoyable today as it did all those years ago.