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Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

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In 2012, approximately 745 years ago in video game terms, an action RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was released on PC, PS3 and XBOX360. Developed by Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, the game was a massive, sprawling, ambitious combination of rich storytelling (by acclaimed fantasy scribe R.A. Salvatore), strong imagery (by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane) and fast-paced, intuitive combat rarely seen in RPGs at the time. It launched to mostly positive reviews and sold in decent numbers. The assumption was, this would be the first chapter in an increasingly epic series, a fresh face on the RPG landscape. Fate, however, weaves a twisted tapestry and not long afterwards, 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy (due to staggering fiscal mismanagement) and Kingdoms of Amalur was destined to forever be known as that endearing one hit wonder. Cut to: 2020, unofficial year of the remaster, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is back as… Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning. Oof. And to be honest, the title isn’t the only misstep here.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning has one of the strongest openings in RPG history. You’re a corpse, manhandled by dwarves onto a groaning pile of your fellow deceased, when suddenly you shuffle the mortal coil back on and begin your adventure. Why and how you’re alive, what the deal is with the invading hordes and your connection to fate itself are all questions you’ll need to explore over the course of this extremely large (60-100 hour) adventure. So, that’s the story. What’s new in this 2020 remaster? Erm, not a great deal, just quietly. The graphics have been given a minor polish, and the animation runs at a mostly solid 60 frames per second, but in terms of meaningful additions or even quality of life changes (like the ability to loot multiple corpses at once), there’s sweet Fanny Adams on offer.

So, while the combat is still fast-paced and flowing, and the story remains intriguing particularly in the main quests, Kingdoms can’t help but feel very dated indeed. Multiple fetch quests, large empty-feeling environments and exposition delivered via text dumps all chip away at your enjoyment. At nearly a decade old, Kingdoms feels particularly molested by the passage of time. On the plus side, for console owners this represents the only way to get the game and it looks as good as it has ever been. For hardcore fans of the original this may well be enough, and don’t get us wrong – there’s a lot of game here and if you’re able to overlook its shortcomings, much adventure awaits. For those of us hoping the game might get a remaster experience comparable to the likes of BioShock: The Collection or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, sadly this has proven to be an epic fantasy.

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Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

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It’s hard to explain to the younger generations just how much the Tony Hawk games dominated loungerooms in the late ’90s/early 2000s. Afternoons, evenings, post-club kick ons and even cheeky sick days were spent mastering the bird man’s trickier moves, usually shrouded in a haze of bong smoke and concentration sweat. That sense of baked camaraderie, combined with the “just one more go” addiction spiral, made these games indelible parts of the video game landscape. Of course, the party couldn’t go on forever, and while it’s debatable which Hawk game finally sunk the franchise, things had well and truly died in the arse by the time the execrable Pro Skater 5 plopped out in 2015. It seemed that those halcyon days were well and truly over and then Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 dropped in and it’s like the ’90s have returned, except this time we’re old.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is much more than your typical remaster. It is, in fact, a ground up remake of the first two Pro Skater titles with gorgeous graphics, slick animation, familiar but tweaked gameplay and the original game’s steep learning curve very much present. In fact, due to the animation being so slick, and the frame rate so high, the game’s actually significantly faster than you might remember, which may well give your entropy-dulled reflexes a work out. All the great locations from the first two games are present, with some reimagined and tweaked elements (The Mall now looks like a post apocalyptic, deserted hellscape) and the tricks from later games – manuals, reverts, wall plants etc. – have been added. There’s also a robust Create-A-Skater mode, the character then able to be used across both games and online, and the Create-A-Park mode, which is a hoot for the very patient.

About the only misstep in this entire game involves its multiplayer modes. See, while you can link up with a mate and run through online challenges (like trick attack) with a bunch of randoms, you can’t just bum around a location that’s exclusive to the pair of you. No private matches, no co-op play through freshly unlocked levels and not even any bloody HORSE! It’s probably a tad churlish to complain about a feature missing that sure as hell wasn’t in the original, but in 2020 to not have that level of online interactivity seems a disappointing omission and something that would be wise to correct in this or future entries.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 probably won’t blow away newbies, and honestly, Skate was a better pure skating game (remaster or sequel, please, EA) but if you loved these games back in the day there’s a better-than-average chance you’ll love them anew here. Disappointing online selection aside, this is a near-perfect remaster and a delicious slice of rose-tinted nostalgia done right.

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Asian Cinema, Home, Review, sci-fi, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Exploring with deft-handed candour themes of existentialism and spirituality, writer-director Aratia Kadav elevates sci-fi storytelling convention with incisive grace in the Hindi language space-drama Cargo.

Gliding through space with the same gentle motion as a jellyfish moving through water, the crew of Demons (yes, you read correctly) on-board the Pushpak 634A are given the dubious honour of ushering the souls of the deceased, affectionately called ‘Cargo’, into their reincarnated afterlives.

Greeted by the deceased with a sense of bewilderment and desire for closure denied by the Pushpak 634A’s no phone policy, the lone duo helming the ship – telepath Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) and newly recruited healer Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) – navigate the complexities of their nine-to-five slog with a keen sense of duty.

Buckling under the weight of this shared sense of purpose is Prahastha and Yuvishka’s initial reservedness, with the zealous demons’ relationship developing far beyond a point of head-butting upon their continued self-reflection. The film flourishes as a result of impeccable performances from Massey and Tripathi, with their characters’ sentience and passing banter revealing the gamut of hardships faced by their Earthbound contemporaries.

These themes, particularly those relating to class and gender, are articulately executed with profound realism thanks to Kadav’s compassionately written, albeit slow-burning screenplay.

There is a retro quality to Cargo’s production design that is undeniably influenced by Kubrick and ‘60s Star Trek. It proves as stylish as it is an effective tool to express Prahastha’s exorbitant tenure in orbit. That said, Cargo’s modest budget becomes glaringly obvious when the film dabbles in visual effects, with examples of the ship passing through space – neither in sync with the retro aesthetic nor detailed enough to look realistic – detracting from otherwise attractive set-design.

Upping the thematic ante with a candid optimism for better, Cargo offers a stylish, thought-provoking and well-acted alternative to the influx of ‘straggler-in-space’ films dominant in Western filmmaking.

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Two Heads Creek

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The collective shadow of many essential-and-not-quite-so-essential Australian movies – Wake In Fright, Welcome To Woop Woop, Dimboola, 100 Bloody Acres, Dying Breed, The Cars That Ate Paris – loom large over Two Heads Creek, yet somehow this blood-and-gore laden slab of horror comedy still manages to feel fresh and original. Penned by and starring British actor Jordan Waller (who appeared in TV’s Victoria and the Gary Oldman-starring Darkest Hour, and makes his feature writing debut here) and directed by Jesse O’Brien (who debuted in 2016 with the impressive low budget Aussie sci-fi flick Arrowhead), Two Heads Creek garishly punctures the stereotype of the hard-drinking, meat-eating, xenophobic Aussie, and is far more interested in sly social commentary than it is in unforgettable kill scenes and creating effective tension.

When British butcher and mama’s boy Norman (Jordan Waller) discovers that his Polish mother wasn’t really his mother, he and his partially estranged sister Annabelle (Kathryn Wilder from TV’s Adulting and Frontier, and Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True) – a tough talking wannabe actress and current poster girl for a laxatives company – escape Brexit-bound England and head to far flung Australia in search of their real mother. Their destination is the remote Queensland town of Two Heads Creek, where the only thing on the menu are sausages and cans of Four X…needless to say, the foppish Norman and outspoken Annabelle have a little trouble fitting in. Pretty soon, however, they realise that assimilation is the least of their problems.

Boiling with broad humour, grotesque Aussie caricatures (the wonderfully over-the-top Helen Dallimore steals all of her scenes as a brassy tour guide with a few big secrets; Kevin Harrington skewers his nice guy Aussie image; and Gary Sweet and Kerry Armstrong go at it hammer-and-tongs in smaller but no less forceful roles), and kick-arse female characters (this is very much a post-“woke” affair), Two Heads Creek turns everything up to eleven (including its catchy clutch of vintage tunes by Skyhooks and the one and only Normie Rowe), and only occasionally wobbles under the weight of its own messy madness. It’s profoundly gross (at times maybe a little too gross) and while it moves at a cracking pace, some of its set pieces could have used a minor edit. The film’s energy, however – along with its genuine warmth for its eccentric characters and pointed commentary on our stop-the-boats mentality – more than paper over any minor cracks. Two Heads Creek is a splatter filled satire on Australia’s dark side with plenty of blood, guts and brains, of both the literal and figurative variety.

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Documentary, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In the world of professional boxing, Irish Olympic gold medallist and world titleholder Katie Taylor is as much of a champion outside the ring as she is inside it.

Training as doggedly as any other competitive boxer, Taylor, to the failure of society, is denied the equal treatment with her male contemporaries.

Exploring Taylor’s turbulent career and her fight for equality in a profession dominated by men, Ross Whitaker’s documentary Katie offers a spirited look at the strength of women.

Taylor’s rise from athletically gifted youth to world-class boxing sensation is told with loving candour. It is clear that there are no greater Katie Taylor supporters than her own family. Their deep admiration, seeping through every ounce of the film, is expressed through interviews and archival footage.

Whitaker positions boxing as a wider stand-in for gender inequity. He uses Taylor’s difficulties in accessing equal treatment through promotion and pay, to denote the systemic practices that disadvantage women. The contribution made by Taylor in campaigning for women to compete in boxing at the Olympics, an achievement not rectified until 2012, becomes a troubling example of the pace at which professional sports trails behind the times.

Katie Taylor does not need sympathy, nor does she need her struggle to be romanticised. What she demands is immediate action in the fight to have women be fairly represented in not only positions of power, but in all facets of society.

She will continue to push for this with a sheer determination in hand and an ego left at the door. Unfortunately, she just has to wait for the world to catch up with her.

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Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Set in Blacktown, Western Sydney, Benefited follows disparate tales of desperate youths living in modern Australia. Binding the tales together is Dity, played by the film’s writer/director Clare McCann, a 20 something who has fallen pregnant to her abusive partner, Ray (Ryan Bown). McCann plays with time as she bounces her audience back and forth to different points in their lives from first kiss to first brutal assault. Elsewhere, 15-year-old thief Will (Cristian Borello) struggles to connect with his half sister and finds solace in drugs and burglary.

This a thoroughly bleak film which doesn’t pull its punches, and with good reason. As proven by the film’s closing text, Benefited wants to paint a picture of domestic violence without the Hollywood lacquer painted over it. Ray doesn’t come into Dity’s life twirling his moustache and looking menacingly at the camera. He woos her after a festival; he defends her against her drunken stepfather. It’s the little things he does after this that are troubling, so slight that you wouldn’t notice. Even being the first to say ‘I love you’ is merely a ploy to control Dity.  It’s the mundanity of the things he does, that McCann writes about, which underlines the domestic terror her protagonist is in.

Elsewhere, perhaps less successfully, McCann tackles the state of Australia’s social benefits system; painting a world of grey cubicles peopled by apathetic office workers. Having managed to give Ray several layers, it’s a shame to see people Dity encounters on the dole as nothing more than pantomime villains, something to push Dity on a downward spiral.

A sad and down spirited film, Benefited might not be Australia’s answer to I, Daniel Blake, but it is the kind of film that can burst a few misconceptions people have about domestic violence.

Available now on Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, Prime Video, Fetch TV

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Zoey Deutch maintained a prolific run in the 2010s, but between the cloying Before I Fall, the aggressively pointless Why Him?, or even her turn in Zombieland: Double Tap which dragged the rest of the production down with her, she’s been in need of room to stretch her legs. And in the most seemingly-unlikely of places, she seems to have found just that with Buffaloed.

The film literally starts with Deutch screaming “Fuck!”, an immediate set up for her underdog hustler Peg (nicknamed Pegger, a fitting moniker for a woman dominating men at their own game). While still showing a level of warmth and sweetness, she is also apt at straight-faced intimidation and street smarts that is quite phenomenal to watch unfold.

Deutch isn’t the only one here who has landed a saving throw, as Jai Courtney’s portrayal of the hilariously pretentious debt collector Wizz shows that he’s definitely balancing out his own collection of dud script picks over the last decade.

Speaking of scripts, the very Wolf Of Wall Street style of predatory finance in this story (with  Brian Sacca featuring in both films), is given a more sideways take on bloodthirsty commerce, embodied through its main character’s actions, with Pegger shown as the china doll in the debt collection bullpen.

With her motto of “Fine is like mediocrity’s dumb cousin”, following Pegger’s arc from childhood, to her stint in prison, to her hiring of fellow sideways hustlers (phone sex operators, spruikers, prosperity evangelists, etc.), is engrossing stuff.

It also carves out its own niche within the larger trend of female-led crime dramas, as it directly asks a question that most of the others seem to dance around: Is it really possible to succeed in this male-dominated business without having to resort to their methods? And as we see with Pegger’s conflicts with her mother Kathy (Judy Greer in prime maternal form), lawyer Graham (Jermaine Fowler), and even herself, the expected fall from success becomes a vivid depiction of just how vicious this industry is. This is aided by the inclusion of real-world numbers, a few fourth-wall breaks, and even Big Short-esque jargon skewering, to make the reality of it all that much more apparent.

While it doesn’t necessarily rise above its competition, Buffaloed shows more than enough of its own flavour, emotion and redemptive acting pedigree to stand alongside them. May this truly mean the start of better things for Deutch and Courtney, as they’ve been deserving of better for a long time now.

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Wasteland 3

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It’s while I’m attacking the Gippers that I’m reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch about the self-aware Nazis. You know, the one where they ask, “are we the baddies?”, after realising that they’re very much on the wrong side of history. The reason it springs to mind, as I cover the floor with zealot blood and guts, is because what started out with the best of intentions has become a massacre. And while the Gippers are as mad as a sackful of rats – worshipping the memory of pre-apocalypse president Ronald Reagan and calling everyone “commies” – I’m not sure that they deserve this fate. When I exit the front doors of the Western White House, now spattered red, the Godfishers are waiting for me. I made a deal with them, you see. Told the lunatics I’d let them kill the Gippers in exchange for access to their territory, a promise I have very clearly broken. So, as my six strong squad of rangers readies itself for another battle, I can’t help but wonder: are we the baddies?

Welcome to Wasteland 3, the long-awaited post-apocalyptic RPG from inXile Entertainment, that puts the emphasis on tough choices, decisions that have genuine consequences and moral ambiguity that will haunt your non-playing hours.

Wasteland 3 puts you in the boots of two rangers, pre-made or user generated, the only survivors of an ill-advised journey to the frozen hell of Colorado. Once you’ve checked in with local leader The Patriarch, you’ll need to add to your team, take on missions, upgrade your HQ and – most importantly – decide where you stand, morally-speaking. Will you side with the Patriarch’s authoritarian rule or do you think that there are worthier leaders waiting in the wings? Will you bring peace and prosperity to Colorado or would you just rather shoot and loot your way through the various communities. Do you want a better world, or would you prefer to just watch it burn? All of these disparate concepts are viable options and the range of choices you can make is genuinely dizzying. Most RPGs, even the very good ones, deliver nothing more than the illusion of choice, but Wasteland 3 raises the bar, making the game one of the best pure RPG experiences currently available.

Played from an isometric point of view, Wasteland 3 certainly isn’t the prettiest game around. The backgrounds are often drab, the character models a little stiff and while the many turn-based battles that you’ll take part in look perfectly fine, this won’t be a game that knocks your socks off in terms of presentation. The voice acting, however, is very decent, with most of the dialogue voiced and the writing is stellar, with none of the bloat you usually find in this type of game. Performance-wise, it has to be said, the game does have a few bugs at launch. Animation glitches, some audio dropouts and even a few hard crashes to desktop (playing on a PS4 Pro), however, they’re likely to be patched soon. Pleasingly, load times are quite tolerable, particularly compared to the likes of Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin 2.

Ultimately, however, Wasteland 3 is all about the choices you make and the paths you take. Before you know it, you’ll be part of a civil war, unearthing conspiracies or, you know, accidentally wiping out two entire communities of religious fanatics because you prioritised mission success over human lives. Despite the game’s often lunatic sense of humour (with toey robot prostitutes and suicide bomber pigs), these decisions will weigh on you, have you thinking about them and probably inform a second or third playthrough. It’s rough around the edges, and needs a little patience at the beginning, but Wasteland 3 is one of the best RPGs in years and an absolute must-play title during these bizarre, dystopian times.

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Pathfinder: Kingmaker Definitive Edition

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Pathfinder: Kingmaker is the latest PC RPG to make the leap to consoles, transplanting keyboard and mouse gameplay into the realm of the casual couch and comfy trackie-daks. This has been going on for a while, with the likes of Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin forging the way to much success, particularly in the case of the latter. That’s not to say Pathfinder is more of the same, mind you, because while there are many superficial similarities with others, this epic title from Russian developer Owlcat Games offers unique twists on a now familiar formula.

Pathfinder is set in the Stolen Lands, and casts you in the boots of a character – either self generated or preset – who will need to gather a party, grow in strength, take on increasingly tough missions and eventually defeat a tough boss. Sounds familiar, right? And it is, with a lot of generic high fantasy tropes executed in a solid but unexceptional fashion. However, once you beat the baddie, a particularly nasty wanker called the Stag Lord, you’re handed a barony and new responsibilities that involve managing funds, building the right structures and keeping the populace happy and safe.

They’ve gone and put a bloody town management game in your RPG! You’ll still be required to go on epic quests, mind you, but now you’ll need to manage your increasing lands as well. It’s… kind of a lot, to be honest, and those who’d rather just dungeon crawl without reading the instructions should possibly look elsewhere.

That said, if you’re up for the challenge (and able to watch a few Youtube videos before you even begin), Pathfinder is an absolute game changer. One of the best aspects is the combat. Is it turn-based or real time with pause? It’s both. And unlike Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, you can switch between the two on the fly. Mid-dungeon fighting weak arse trash mobs of low level spiders or skeletons? Put it on RTWP and let the AI do the work. Come up against a tough boss that requires a little more strategy and finesse? Notch it back to turn-based and conquer.

It’s a brilliant addition to the genre and one that would be great to see embraced by other developers. Add to that a dizzying array of difficulty customisation options – wherein you can change the level of AI, the fail states and even switch the kingdom management to “automatic” if that sort of fiddly nonsense isn’t your bag – and you’ve got a game that feels like it can be honed to your specific style of play.

The graphics are crisp and colourful, the sound and music solid and even the load times, the inexplicable bane of this genre’s console ports, are better than most. On the downside, the story and script never really rise much above the level of perfectly adequate. You’ll have fun, you’ll be engaged but you’re unlikely to be shocked by something creative and unexpected like Divinity: Original Sin 2. Difficulty spikes can be an issue too, although there’s usually a lateral, albeit nerdy, solution to most problems. The Stag Lord, for instance. Rather than face him head on, you can turn half his lieutenants against him, kill those who won’t be convinced and even rope in his pet bear to join the boot party.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker Definitive Edition comes packaged with all the DLCs, offering literally hundreds of hours of gameplay. While it doesn’t deliver the easiest experience for old school style RPG noobs, careful and patient investigation and experimentation will have your party feeling powerful and ripping through dungeons in no time. Once you get your head around the multifarious systems, Pathfinder: Kingmaker reveals itself to be one of the most nuanced and satisfying RPGs of 2020 and a delightful surprise for those with the patience and time to really hook in.

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The Boys: Season 2

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The Boys comic book series, by writer Garth Ennis, seemed destined never to be adapted for the small screen. Unlike some of his other works that include Preacher, Hitman and Punisher MAX, The Boys was simply too violent, too misanthropic and, frankly, too disgusting. The ultra-controversial series ran from 2006-2012 and in that time pretty much managed to offend everyone on earth, with its mixture of profane humour, savage superhero satire and bloody ultraviolence. It was also, it has to be said, daks-browningly hilarious and like much of Ennis’ work, contained a lot of heart, particularly in its excellent conclusion. It’s pleasing then, not to mention surprising, that The Boys has ended up being the best representation of Ennis’ work thus far – certainly much better than the ungainly Preacher adaptation – and while it plays fast and loose with the comics, it captures Ennis’ subversive spirit shockingly well.

The Boys season two (with a third already confirmed!) picks up where we left off in the previous season. The Boys are on the run, Butcher (Karl Urban) is nowhere to be found and Homelander (Antony Starr) continues to be an absolute mad bastard with the power of a living god. Super powered terrorists (aka “super villains”) are popping up all over the world and The Seven have a new member in the form of Stormfront (Aya Cash), whose sly wit masks the fact that her powers might even match those of Homelander himself. Meanwhile, poor wee Hughie (Jack Quaid) has to try and keep his troubled relationship with Annie January (Erin Moriarty) aka Starlight alive. Oh, and Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) takes centre stage, setting up a conflict that starts nasty and only gets bloodier from there.

Season two continues to do the things you loved about the first. The superhero satire is back, Karl Urban’s accent – that somehow makes him sound like he’s from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously – makes a triumphant return and the gore that made you chuckle guiltily the first time around is enthusiastically prolific. Episode three, in particular, really showcases the bloody best this series has to offer, with a mixture of slapstick, eye popping gore and the kind of language that is likely to make people who use words like “problematic” come down with the vapours. It’s business as usual, certainly, but business is good and for fans of Ennis or subversive pisstakery in general, The Boys is an absolute treat.