Monday, 18 September 2017

Now Watching: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the sixth (?) film in the Alien series, a sequel to Prometheus, but a second prequel to the original Alien, a film that never needed a prequel, let alone two of them. But here we are. Again.

I didn’t hate Prometheus. Though the execution was flawed, I quite liked the concept, and there are themes explored in Covenant that carry on from Prometheus, albeit in a less interesting way. But I do think both Prometheus and Covenant would have been better movies if they also weren’t trying to be Alien movies.

Alien Covenant is about a colony ship that makes an unnecessary detour to investigate a strange signal. We know it’s a bad idea. They know it’s a bad idea. But they do it anyway because plot.

Covenant has a needlessly slow start, in which we’re expected to sympathise with a character we’ve just met, over the death of a character we never met. Things do pick up when our hapless heroes land on a mysterious planet, but rapidly fall apart with the arrival of David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus.

But before we’re reintroduced to David, we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious scene in which our crew become stranded. We’re also treated to a rather poor CGI alien. Seriously, it’s like they’re interacting with a cartoon.

The crew of the Covenant are incredibly stupid and remarkably incompetent, which makes it rather hard to sympathise with them. David may have rescued them, but when he leads them into his secret lair surrounded by thousands of dead bodies, you’d think they’d have a few reservations about trusting the guy.

It’s so dumb it becomes comical. One of the crew is killed, despite David telling them they’re perfectly safe. The Captain then observes David having a polite chat with the alien and instead of immediately shooting David in the face, instead decides to follow him (alone, and without warning the others) into the heart of his lair, where he confesses to making monsters.

If that doesn’t get the alarm bells ringing, he then invites the Captain down into his creepy basement full of strange looking eggs. He tells the Captain to stick his face into one of the eggs – it’s perfectly safe, trust him! – and the Capitan duly obliges. You’ll never guess what happens next!

What’s frustrating is that there are so many ways they could have set up this scene and not make the Captain seem like a complete moron. The original Alien and its sequel Aliens, got this shit right. Even if the characters weren’t always successful in their plans, or perhaps underestimated what they were dealing with, at least they behaved and reacted in a way that made sense.

The problem is, the characters in Covenant don’t feel like real people. They do stupid things because apparently the plot can’t progress unless they do. Except it can. Quite easily, in fact. The film just spirals off the rails from here into a poor amalgamation of Alien and Aliens that feels and looks like a straight to DVD Alien knock off.

I can’t recommend Covenant. At least Prometheus had an interesting concept, but Covenant has nothing. It’s forgettable. It’s dumb. It’s so dumb it’s insulting. It’s almost Into Darkness dumb, that’s how bad it is. It’s not worth your time, and I feel bad wasting my time writing this review. Avoid. Go watch the original Alien and pretend these ‘prequels’ never happened.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Now Playing: Battlefront

I played Star Wars: Battlefront in beta prior to release. I enjoyed it a lot, but not enough to pick it up. You can read my impressions of the beta here. And honestly, my criticisms of the beta still apply. Because though Battlefront is undoubtedly fun, it’s also a very shallow, repetitive and content sparse experience.

Visually, Battlefront is excellent. It’s easily one of the best looking shooters you’ll play. And despite its impressive graphics, the performance is remarkably solid. If there’s one thing that Battlefront truly excels at, it’s capturing the magnificent spectacle of Star Wars combat.

A big part of this is not only visual, but audio. As I said in my beta impressions, Battlefront wouldn’t be half as good without the use of the Star Wars licence, particularly when it comes to audio and music. This is a game that is significantly elevated beyond its rather shallow gameplay and weak content thanks to the strength of its source material.

But damn, am I glad I didn’t get this game at release. Even with all additional post-release content, Battlefront feels thin on the ground. Yes, there are a lot of modes, but outside of the three 40 player modes – Walker Assault, Supremacy and Turning Point – everything else is essentially dead. And I can’t imagine they were very active to begin with.

Why? Because people enjoy the (somewhat) large scale that Battlefront has to offer. It’s in those 40 player modes that the game really comes to life and immerses you in the middle of a spectacular and authentic Star Wars experience.

Unfortunately, there’s not exactly an extensive selection of maps, which wouldn’t be such an issue if map quality was high. But instead, we’ve got a handful of excellent maps, with a handful of not so excellent ones. Thankfully, the few excellent maps do have a lot of replay value. Hell, I sunk nearly 20 hours into the Hoth Assault map alone during the beta.

There’s no class system, and character customisation is extremely weak. There’s an extensive selection of weapons but very little variation, and some weapons are so clearly and objectively more effective than others that it’s a little silly. The fact they’re introducing classes and more unique and distinct weapon types in Battlefront 2 is a welcome change. I also hope they do far more with class and character customisation.

There’s no single player campaign – once again, a welcome addition to Battlefront 2 – but there is a Skirmish mode that lets you fight bots alone (offline) or with a friend (online) on the original Walker Assault maps. It’s a nice addition because it means that you can still enjoy the game years down the line when the online is entirely dead – but I’m going to bitch about it anyway.

Why didn’t they update Skirmish to include the DLC content? And why didn’t they expand it to include the other modes? It feels a little half assed and honestly, the bots aren’t particularly great to fight with or against. Sometimes they just stand around and do nothing.

The core gameplay, though a very basic and shallow shooter, is still fun. The ships still handle like ass though. The online is still fairly active (at least for the 40 player modes) so you can currently find games fairly easily, although this may change come the release of Battlefront 2.

It almost feels like a waste of time reviewing Battlefront at this point, especially when Battlefront 2 is coming and looks to have addressed many of my criticisms of the original. I’ll be sure to give any beta a try and I’d seriously consider picking it up on release. The lack of any season pass is a good sign, but this is EA we’re talking about. They’re sure to f**k it up somehow.

Overall, it’s hard to recommend Battlefront with Battlefront 2 just around the corner. But for 8 quid, I’ve already put in over 30 hours and had a lot of fun both in skirmish and online, so I can’t say I haven’t gotten my money’s worth. People hacking online is a problem, but not too prevalent. But it’s clear at this point that the online aspect of Battlefront has largely been abandoned so it’ll probably only get worse.

Battlefront still feels, in many ways, like a beta. Hopefully Battlefront 2 can deliver not only the high visual and audio quality we expect, but also improved and more in depth gameplay, in addition to far more content. But until then, Battlefront 1 isn’t a bad way to waste some time.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rising

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play No Man’s Sky again following my review back in January. But since then, we’ve had two major content updates, the most recent of which is Atlas Rising. So I decided to hop back in and give it a spin. And I have to say, I’m impressed with how No Man’s Sky has evolved and improved since that disastrous release.

This update includes numerous smaller fixes and quality of life improvements to various aspects of the gameplay and UI. The most substantial addition is a new story campaign to serve alongside the previous Atlas Path quest. It incorporates elements of the previous base building expansion as well as the new faction system. But is it any good? Well, what I played of it was okay, but I didn’t actually finish it for reasons I’ll explain later.

I started a new game with this update to see these changes from the start. I said in my review that it was important for No Man’s Sky to include micro-goals on your journey through the stars. The base building was a key part of this, but the new faction / race reputation and mission system is another important step forward.

Yes, missions. These are randomly generated from one star system to the next and involve a fairly basic rotation of destroying things or delivering things. There’s no complex multi-system/stage missions which could be another potential expansion in the future – further to travel, but greater rewards.

The missions will gain you reputation with new guilds and the existing alien races. And reputation now serves an important purpose, as you must now purchase various technology upgrades from vendors based on your reputation level.

Ships are now defined by class and type with bonuses to shields, damage and hyperdrive range based on their quality. You can also finally rename your ship too. There are new technologies to discover, new materials to harvest and new items to craft. The base building quests have been tweaked and improved and they’ve even added an entirely new ‘exocraft’ facility so you can drive about worlds and harvest on the go.

All of these fixes, improvements and additions both large and small go a long way to making No Man’s Sky the game many always wanted it to be. But it’s not quite there yet. These are all good steps forward, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Most notably, planet terrain and life really needs to be extensively expanded and overhauled. I said in my review that the limited assets mean you’ll see pretty much everything No Man’s Sky has to offer when it comes to alien terrain and life within a matter of hours – and that still hasn’t changed.

So would I recommend No Man’s Sky in its current state? Probably. I put another 30 or so hours into it before I grew rather tired of the repetitive gameplay loop of land, scan, harvest and repeat. Because despite these additions, you’re still going to be doing a lot of tedious grinding for resources in order to continue on.

But I had fun with it, for a time. And I’ve now put 80 hours into a title many considered a disaster upon release. Part of that is because I like my space stuff. And another part is that sometimes you just want a mindless time sink to keep you busy – and No Man’s Sky is a decent option.

That said, I’m pleased No Man’s Sky has kept on going and is slowly winning people over. It was an ambitious title that fell flat on its face but now seems to be picking itself back up. Slowly. One step at a time. It’s nice to see.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Now Playing: The Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us is an interactive, episodic adventure developed by Telltale Games. It’s based on the ‘Fables’ comic book series by Bill Willingham and serves as a ‘canon’ prequel. You play as Bigby Wolf, Sheriff of Fabletown. Your job is to investigate the murder of a fellow ‘fable’ – a storybook character seeking refuge in our world.

I wasn’t familiar with the original comic upon playing The Wolf Among Us but the game does a good job of explaining things with little exposition. As you progress you’ll unlock information boxes that provide more context to various aspects of the world, characters and lore.

If you’re familiar with other Telltale adventure games you’ll know exactly how it plays. It’s a very narrative heavy adventure with a few small ‘exploration’ segments and QTE heavy action scenes. It also promises that the story will change depending on your unique choices but, as is usually the case, that’s not entirely true.

There are 5 episodes each taking about an hour or so to complete. That’s a little shorter than some other Telltale titles and particularly disappointing in this case. Because despite not knowing a thing about the original comic going into The Wolf Among Us, I thoroughly enjoyed what I played and came away with a strong connection to this world, its story and its wonderful cast of characters.

As far as the central narrative goes, I really have no complaints. It’s an engaging and enjoyable tale from start to finish. But it’s also very short and it doesn’t leave you entirely satisfied at the end. Considering the depth of the source material, The Wolf Among us could have easily been at least twice the length – which would have really fleshed out the story, world and characters to a far more appropriate degree.

The Wolf Among Us sets up so many potential story threads but drops so many of them as it focuses entirely on the core narrative. This gives the narrative a great sense of pace, but it’s incredibly frustrating when so much of its world and characters are teased but barely explored. Like other Telltale titles there’s a lot of notifications that ‘X character will remember that’ but very few, if any, pay off by the end.

Even when you think you’ve made a decision that will change the narrative it doesn’t really do a thing. That’s always been a problem with Telltale and the ‘illusion of choice’ but it feels even more pronounced here because this game, as I’ve said, is a canon prequel to the comic series. As a result, everything has to end in such a way that ties neatly into how the comics begin. So no matter what you do, or what choices you make, you don’t really have any influence on the overall narrative.

What you do have, however, is the ability to shape the character of Bigby – how he responds both verbally and physically to the various situations you’ll find yourself in. Do you try to be the law abiding sheriff that Snow White wants you to be? Or do you give in to the beast inside? That struggle is at the heart of the narrative and thanks to some great VA for Bigby and the supporting cast, it’s that struggle that keeps you engaged throughout.

I won’t get into story specifics because the narrative is what makes this game great and it’s best to discover it on your own. I just wish the experience was far more substantial and not so heavily restricted by its status as an official prequel to the comics.

Despite my disappointment at its length and how it largely glosses over your choices due to those restrictions, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Wolf Among Us and I’d be interested in seeing more of this world and these characters.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Suburban Killbot: YouTube Update

In January 2016 I set up the Suburban Killbot YouTube Channel, but I didn’t invest a great deal of time or effort into it. But I’ve always wanted to do more with it, it was just a question of what I wanted to do, if I could do it and if I had the time.

And that’s what I’ve spent the last few weeks figuring out. I’ve decided that in addition to raw gameplay videos, I’ll begin a trial of commentated Let’s Play videos. I’ll begin with Total War: Warhammer campaigns, the first of which will be based on the latest DLC – Norsca. I’ll also be doing some shorter instructional videos such as battlefield tips and tricks and unit showcases.

I’m also planning to transfer blog content into video content. I’ll still be doing my regular written posts of game reviews and impressions, but I’ll also be creating video versions too. I may also do video film reviews, but that’s currently undecided. My time is limited, so I have to pick and choose what I want to focus on very carefully.

I want to keep quality high, so don’t expect more than a couple of videos per week. Raw and commentated gameplay will obviously be quicker to upload than video reviews which will take more time to produce and edit.

I don’t really expect the channel to take off and generate a dizzying amount of traffic, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already begun recording my first campaign and I’ve found that commentating as I play adds an interesting and enjoyable dynamic to the experience.

But I don’t want to throw myself in too heavily and burn out. I’ll be taking it slow, seeing how things progress and try to find a nice balance with all the other stuff I have to do.

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.