Friday, 25 August 2017

Now Watching: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a sci-fi action film directed by Rupert Sanders – most famous for, uh . . . Snow White and the Huntsman, I guess? – and starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s an adaptation of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995) which itself is an adaptation of a manga series (1989) of the same name. I’m not familiar with the original manga, but I have seen the anime and the subsequent ‘Stand Alone Complex’ series.

This latest incarnation of the Ghost in the Shell story sees Major Mira Killian (Johansson) working as an elite operative of the anti-terrorist agency Section 9. Killian, whose parents were killed in a terrorist incident has, understandably, both a personal and professional investment in her work.

Killian was also nearly lost in the attack that killed her parents, but she was saved by Hanka Robotics. They made her the ‘first of her kind’ – a human brain transplanted into a fully augmented, cybernetic body. She’s seen as the future of humanity by Hanka – but also the future of their company. The story strays some way from the anime original, but many of the core themes remain intact. Themes of self, identity, consciousness and the concept of the soul – or ‘ghost’ . . .

. . . sort of. Ghost in the Shell touches upon these themes, but only very lightly. It doesn’t stray too far from the more action oriented experience general audiences will expect – perhaps understandable, given its budget and the risks involved in selling a Japanese manga/anime adaptation to a Western audience.

That said, the action in Ghost in the Shell never overshadows the plot. It’s used thoughtfully, appropriately and the film, overall, is well paced and strikes a good balance between drama and action. Many of the action scenes are directly lifted from the anime original – most notably, the final confrontation.

It successfully weaves these scenes into its own variation of the original plot. These scenes are adequately shot but not particularly impressive, though I am thankful they remain grounded within the reality of the world and the Major’s capabilities.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell looks quite impressive – but that’s to be expected. The visuals, the world, the technology, costumes and weapons are easily the strongest components of the film. Unfortunately, the story and more importantly the characters, are its weakest.

If there’s one good aspect to the story, it’s that you don’t have to be a fan of previous incarnations of Ghost in the Shell to understand what the hell is going on. The film does a good job of explaining the world, concepts and characters to an unfamiliar audience. That said, this version of the story has little to no surprises, even for an unfamiliar audience.

But whilst the plot is sadly predictable and by the numbers (and doesn’t explore the original themes of the manga or anime to a degree some fans may desire) that wouldn’t be such an issue if the characters were better handled.

The majority of the supporting characters are poorly developed and receive little attention and screen time, which is a real shame. Especially in the case of Batou (Pilou Asbæk) who brings genuine heart and humour to his role, and plays exceptionally well against this more ‘stoic’ interpretation of the Major.

Now, it should be noted that it’s been such a long time since I saw the original anime, that my general ‘impression’ of the Major character is more likely based around the SAC series. But I don’t recall the original Major being quite so . . . bland. The plot may be playing the ‘I can’t remember my past’ angle, but that’s no excuse for the Major to be little more than a dull, blank slate.

There are brief flashes of personality, but these are too few and far between. It’s a real problem, because the Major is the character we should be connecting with, yet she remains disconnected not only from her fellow characters, but also the audience. I understand this feeling of disconnection is an important element of the plot and her character, but we needed to see more of her, of who she is once you strip the machine away – to see her ‘ghost’.

But the film sadly lacks this important connection, and it’s what the audience needs to go on this journey of self-discovery with the Major. Without it, everything falls a little flat despite the great visuals and solid, if unspectacular action.

Though not a bad film, it’s hard to recommend Ghost in the Shell, because I don’t really know who it’s aimed at. Fans of the original may be pleased to see a big budget adaptation, but may also be displeased at the changes to the story, characters and the lack of exploration of the original themes.

And I’m not sure audiences unfamiliar with the original will find much to connect with, either. The visuals are nice, the action is competent, but the story and characterisation are weak. As a result, the film is ultimately rather forgettable and bland. It’s kind of lifeless and, rather ironically, lacks an identity of its own.


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

E-Book Release: High Strangeness

UFOs, Aliens, Angels, Poltergeists, Animal Mutilations & Mysterious Men in Black. With the relentless summer sun came the High Strangeness to the sleepy English village of Aversham - ‘A paranormal party to which everything you never believed in is invited.’

But the Strangeness is more than a gathering of supernatural forces. Its presence foretells a coming disaster, as sixteen-year-old Beth Wells learns from the enigmatic Felix Clark. At odds with her family and struggling to accept the reality of what she has seen, Beth has six days to uncover the truth and attempt to prevent the disaster before it can strike.

High Strangeness is a four part, young-adult novella series of horror and mystery. Reader discretion: High Strangeness features some mild bad language and scenes that may disturb a younger reader.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Now Playing: Outlast

Outlast is a first person horror game. You play as Miles Upshur, an asthmatic trapped in an insane asylum, hunted by crazy naked men. Will he learn the truth of the nefarious experiments? Will he escape? Will he survive? Will you give a shit?

I can’t help but wonder if I’d have enjoyed Outlast more if I hadn’t previously played Alien: Isolation, SOMA and more recently, Resident Evil 7. It’s not a bad game as such, just . . . not as good as any of those titles.

I completed Outlast on its Normal difficulty in 4 hours. It’s not a very substantial game, and the replay value is low. I can’t say I’m honestly interested in playing through it again. But there are harder difficulties and collectibles to discover if you like that sort of thing.

Miles is a journalist investigating the mysterious Mount Massive Asylum. He’s decided the best time to do this is in the middle of the night and without a phone. He’s not particularly bright, and given his ridiculously and hilariously heavy breathing, it seems he also forgot his inhaler.

He’s armed with a trusty camcorder from 1991 which runs on AA batteries and needs to be regularly ‘reloaded’. I don’t really see the point of the battery mechanic. It’s a minor irritation more than anything and the game certainly wouldn’t lose anything without it.

You’ll need the camera to traverse the dark environments of the asylum using the battery draining night vision mode. Its creates a neat kind of ‘found footage’ style, but the reliance on the camera and the limited range of its night vision can become tedious.

It’s no surprise that one of my favourite parts of the game was when Miles lost his camera and had to retrieve it. Finally, the game could use its rather good lighting and shadow effects in a very effective and tense sequence. The game really does get the visual aspects right, as it does the sound. And sound, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is a key part of a successful horror title.

No, it’s not the visuals or sound of Outlast that I have an issue with, it’s more the general gameplay. Outlast is very much a ‘hide and seek’ game or, in my case, a ‘run like f**k from A to B’ game. It’s incredibly linear with heavily scripted sequences. There are small areas with a little more freedom to explore, but these all involve the same gameplay pattern.

There will be two switches, two valves, three fuses, two buttons or whatever within a limited environment that you need to turn, touch, press or collect whilst being hunted by something. It uses this gameplay sequence repeatedly, even during the final ‘boss’ part of the game.

The problem with these sequences is that they’re just a game of trial and error. The idea is that you should sneak from one objective to the next, but in reality it’s far easier to just leg it because you can easily outrun your foe. Once you know the ‘correct’ and only route (because there’s lots of locked doors you might try by mistake) it’s just a case of running (and wheezing) your way from A to B.

You can’t fight back, which I don’t really have an issue with. I think, as we saw with Isolation and Resident Evil 7, that you can still make a game tense whilst giving the player the ability to defend themselves – but that doesn’t mean every horror game has to. Outlast certainly doesn’t, but if it’s relying on stealth and evasion, then it needs to provide far more engaging and meaningful mechanics than ‘hide in locker’, ‘hide under bed’ and ‘run like f**k’.

There’s nothing really to Outlast’s gameplay aside from running and occasionally hiding. It’s a straight shot from A to B with the odd (admittedly effective) jump scare mixed in. I can’t deny that it’s damn tense at times. Some of those early chase sequences really had me on the edge of my seat. The problem is, that’s all it really has to offer. It just repeats the same sequence, albeit in a slightly different location with a slightly different objective.

In terms of story, Outlast starts well but ultimately loses its way. It really goes off the rails during the last section of the game. You find yourself being chased by a stupid ghost thing and, once again, just running from one objective to the next until you can press the ‘game over’ button. It’s dumb. It’s not tense. It’s not fun. It’s certainly not scary.

I wonder if I’d have enjoyed Outlast more if I hadn’t played RE 7 the day before. Seriously, I started playing RE 7 on a Saturday, finished it on the Sunday, started a second run on Sunday, finished it again on Monday, before starting, playing, completing and now reviewing Outlast all on Tuesday.

Nice visuals and sound. A few genuinely tense and unsettling moments. Outlast is a decent little horror title, and easily worth the couple of quid I picked it up for. I don’t want to be too harsh on it. It’s really not that bad. Unfortunately, it’s really not that good, either. 4 hours. Little replay value. Dumb story. Totally forgettable. Try RE 7 first. Or Alien: Isolation. Or SOMA.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Now Playing: NieR Automata

Near a Tomato is one of the best games I’ve played this year. But it’s not a game I can recommend. Not on PC. Because the PC version of NieR has severe technical issues that may at any time render it entirely unplayable. I’d heard about these issues upon release, which is why I waited for a sale and the expected patches. But no patches came. At the time of writing, it seems that the PC version of NieR has been left to rot.

I wish I could just talk about how good NieR is as a game but I can’t just pretend these issues don’t exist and that they don’t impact negatively upon the experience. At one point in the game with over 16 hours played, I suddenly began to experience the dreaded ‘white screen’ crash every 5-10 minutes. I’d experienced a handful of these crashes prior to this point but the game was now unplayable and I could no longer progress.

After 2-3 hours of trying various ‘fixes’ and replaying the same short section more than 10 times, I eventually made it through and continued on my way – although my ‘fix’ didn’t prove to be permanent and I experienced several more crashes before I finally completed the game. In addition to the ‘white screen’ crash issue, which seems to be most prevalent on NVIDIA cards, NieR also has problems with resolution settings that can only be fixed by use of a third party mod.

But here’s the thing – if NieR wasn’t a good game, I’d have just quit and refunded the title. The fact that I was willing to deal with all this shit should tell you just how much I liked it. But the sad reality is, these issues did impact my enjoyment of the game, and how severe these crashes are seems to be entirely random from one player to the next. And that’s why I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR, as good as the game may be.

So what is NieR Automata? It’s a third person action RPG set in a desolate future where Earth has been invaded by aliens using an army of deadly machines. In response, the few surviving humans have fled to the Moon and use their own army of androids to strike back in an attempt to reclaim the planet. The way the game handles its narrative aspects is one of, if not the most interesting thing about NieR. It’s a great example of how a narrative can be presented in a way that’s uniquely suited to this medium.

The game shifts between multiple playable characters, multiple ‘routes’, multiple gameplay mechanics, multiple endings and unexpectedly interactive sequences (the final final credits) that tie together many of the themes of the title in a surprisingly effective and fascinating way. NieR isn’t a game I want to spoil for anyone, but it’s important to break down the basic structure of the title to explain why, in many ways, I find its structure to be more interesting than the game itself.

When you begin NieR you begin route ‘A’ and play as the character 2B – a combat android. Route A will introduce you to the world and characters of NieR. It’s a fairly large open world split between three main themed areas – city, desert and forest. You have, as you might expect, core and side quests to complete. As you progress you’ll level up and acquire new weapons and ‘programs’ you can use to customise your build.

Route A is fantastic. It has a great variety of environments, quests, enemies and some extremely enjoyable boss fights. When you reach the end of route A (about 16 hours for me) and the credits roll, you should be fairly satisfied by the experience. But it’s not the end of NieR. Not by a long shot.

Completing route A unlocks route B in which you play as 9S – a scanner android with a specialisation in hacking. Because 9S accompanies 2B for much of route A, you will replay many of the core quests, although you’ll be seeing these events through the perspective of 9S. Whereas 2B relies upon light and heavy attack combos, 9S is most effective when hacking opponents – either to damage them, subjugate them, or to directly control them.

The hacking ‘mini-game’ you enter will vary in difficulty depending on the size and importance of your enemy. Some may find it overly repetitive, but it’s up to you how much you wish to use it, and there’s enough variation in the mini-game so that it never gets too dull – when the achievement popped telling me I’d hacked more than 100 machines, I was honestly surprised I’d used it so much.

Route B does vary in places from route A, as 9S is separated from 2B. We see more, learn more and experience things that 2B did not. Route B also unlocks new side quests, and any side quests completed in route A remain so. But completing route B isn’t the end, either. Because route B unlocks route C and another playable character – A2.

Although route C continues the story where it was left in A and B it must be said that, overall, it’s probably the weakest part of the title. It begins very strongly, but loses its way as it progresses. Narratively it’s interesting, but in terms of gameplay – it’s lacking. It’s real problem is that by this time, the game doesn’t really have anything new to throw at you. Aside from a couple of unique enemies, you’re mostly fighting your way through everything you’ve already seen and as a result, it can feel like a bit of a grind.

Thankfully, route C pulls it all together at the end and the game does finally end quite strongly, making all your struggles feel worth it. It’s a wonderfully bleak but also surprisingly hopeful ending, and I loved the way the game handled the final struggle through the last credit sequence, making it a part of the narrative itself. Like I said, the way NieR handles its interactive narrative is something that’s unique to this medium and that’s what makes it so interesting – even more so than the game itself.

That’s not to say the gameplay of NieR isn’t also interesting. The way the game can seamlessly switch perspective and gameplay styles is fantastic. It’s part third person action game, part top down shoot ‘em up. My only issue with the gameplay is that neither of these aspects are particularly deep.

The third person combat though fast, fluid and remarkably fun, is also rather shallow with a very limited combo set. This is improved somewhat by the decent selection of weapons, each with its own style, but it’s still not a particularly in depth system. The same applies to the shoot ‘em up sections which may be quite exciting to play, but aren’t very challenging either. I wasn’t exactly expecting Bayonetta level combat, but I was hoping for something a little more involving than what we got.

I played the game on Normal, so I can’t comment on higher settings, but I found it very easy to abuse the upgrade chips to make myself essentially immortal. I could regain health by taking damage, doing damage and by destroying enemies. I never really needed to use my extensive inventory of health kits because I was practically invulnerable. Checking my stats upon completion, I only died 4 times during my entire run.

But even once you ‘finish’ NieR there’s a lot of stuff to see and do. Completing route C unlocks a chapter selection that will let you go back and complete any remaining side quests or add to the world information archive that’s compiled as you progress. There’s a ton of ‘joke’ endings to be found and all manner of little secrets. I finished route C with nearly 40 hours played, but there’s still stuff I’ve missed that I want to find – if I can play it without the regular crashes, that is.

Visually, NieR is great, though a little rough in the open world. The soundtrack is fantastic. As I said, I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR as it is, but maybe things will change in the future. The issues I experienced did have a negative impact on my experience, but the fact that I was willing to persist with it should give you an idea how impressed I was with the game itself. It’s one of the most unique and interesting titles you’ll play this year, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. It’s such a shame the PC version is f**ked.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Now Watching: The Mummy

The good: Sofia Boutella. The bad: everything else. The Mummy is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year. Tom Cruise is horribly (and embarrassingly) miscast as a cheeky thief who unearths the prison of an ancient Egyptian princess – Ahmanet (Boutella). She’s the titular Mummy and by far the best and only redeeming aspect of this total shit show.

Tonally, the film is a complete mess, attempting to balance action, horror and comedy and failing miserably at all three. The story is very simple, but needlessly and repeatedly recapped.

The Mummy wants to stab Tom Cruise with a dagger to make him an immortal God with the power over life and death. This is a bad thing, apparently. Immortal? God? Super powers? Beautiful Egyptian princess? Wait, what’s the catch?

But Cruise must ‘resist’ and seek help from Russell Crowe, and that’s when the film really goes off the rails. Because The Mummy isn’t just its own thing. It’s also meant to serve as the launch pad for a new ‘cinematic universe’ of classic movie monsters. Ha! Good luck with that!

Crowe plays Mr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – although Hyde has a hilarious cockney accent which I suspect Crowe did for a laugh just to see if he could get away with it. Crowe and his team of evil hunters (?) or whatever the f**k they are capture and torture the Mummy and plan to dissect her. If the movie was trying to make me sympathise with the monster rather than the ‘heroes’ it was doing a good job.

The Mummy is a mess. It’s poorly shot, poorly edited and Cruise is horribly miscast. The action isn’t exciting. The attempts at comedy fall flat. There’s no ‘horror’ to speak of, not when the most interesting and sympathetic character is the ‘monster’ herself.

The 1999 Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser is everything this movie is not. It’s the perfect mix of action, horror and comedy. It’s pure fun, wrapped up with engaging and enjoyable characters. Go watch that instead.