View Post

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Game, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In 2013 when Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise it couldn’t have come at a better time. Lara Croft was a beloved character in theory, but her most recent adventures at that point were lacking. The concept of seeing Lara before she was a gun-toting bad arse was a solid one, and the game remains an exciting, quite brutal, adventure experience.

2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to pitch itself as “what if Tomb Raider… but more?” The title was technically very slick, full of exciting set pieces and brimming with side content, but something was missing. Or rather, the lack of innovation in anything but technical specs was clear. Put simply: the graphics were gorgeous but the gameplay was more of the same.

2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider is closing out the prequel trilogy and, for good and ill, it continues Rise’s tradition of piling on more stuff without adding much in the way of innovation.

Now, for the record: if you’re really into this Nu-Tomb Raider trilogy you’ll have an absolute blast with the game. The jungle setting, Lara’s new ability to smear herself with mud and the apocalyptic plot are all rock solid, if surface-level, additions to the franchise. This is more of what you love, if you love it.

Those on the fence about these games, however, will find little that hasn’t been explored in the other two titles. The graphics are slick, the animation gorgeous, the voice acting stellar and the level design clever and intricate… and yet it really is business as usual. You’ll never be particularly surprised in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and other than a couple of plot points towards the end there’s little that feels destined to be memorable as, say, the hideous body pit in Tomb Raider.

In cinematic terms, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a solid, but unexceptional entry in a long running franchise. It’s Mission: Impossible III rather than Ghost Protocol. Or Tomorrow Never Dies instead of Casino Royale. In short: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an engaging action adventure with one of video game’s most iconic characters, but sadly bereft of the innovation and surprise that would raise it to ‘classic’ status.

 
View Post

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Game, Home, Review, This Week 1 Comment

There was a time not all that long ago when superhero video games were as ubiquitous as superhero films are now. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a dozen cape-happy titles released each year, including X-Men, Spider-Man, The Punisher and Hulk tie-ins. Some of these titles were fantastic, many of them were crap, but they flowed out into the sweaty paws of gamers in a near-constant stream. Somewhere along the way this stopped, possibly around the time Marvel Studios got their shit together and began (Avengers) assembling their cinematic universe, and the situation reversed. Now we have a jaw-dropping number of superhero movies, many of them excellent, but video games have been on the decline.

Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games is here to try and buck that trend, bringing everyone’s favourite web-slinger into the homes of PS4 owners.

Spider-Man gives us a more seasoned Spidey than the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming movie. The game’s Peter Parker is older, a little wiser, and has decked a few supervillains in his time. This is a good decision from a gaming perspective because it means there are more baddies to draw upon when the time is right, plus the introduction of Mister Negative – the major villain of this title.

Practically you’ll be swinging around a semi-open world New York city, completing main missions, side quests and fun little weird activities like catching pigeons and stopping street crime. Starting with a negative it needs to be said that there is little innovation in the open world space here. Collecting stuff, chasing icons, punching groups of thugs – it’s very much business as usual in a Batman: Arkham City meets Infamous kinda way. That being said, Spider-Man absolutely nails the movement mechanic and is easily the best web-slinging simulator since Spider-Man 2 back in 2004.

Honestly, it’s hard to overstate how good web-slinging feels. The sheer rush of gravity as you plummet past buildings, the giddy joy as you swing upwards, scraping the tops of cabs and pedestrians, yorping in primal glee. It never gets old. The combat, also, is fast and snappy, featuring upgradable skills and movesets that are fantastic at keeping the fights fresh and fun. The addition of numerous outfits with modular skills and supers frequently leads to clever approaches to the old kicky punchy, and it just feels right. And the story, while not exactly spectacular, is certainly engaging, although it suffers from odd pacing and a couple of not-terribly-interesting perspective shifts.

Ultimately your enjoyment of Spider-Man will come from your ability to look past the game’s mild shortcomings of imagination. If you don’t feel burnt out on Arkham-style gameplay, if you can still thrill to chasing icons around an open world, then you’re likely to have a grand old time, albeit one that falls slightly short of being amazing. And hey, if you’re a PS4 owner who is even casually interested in being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, well, you know what to do.

 
View Post

Strange Brigade

Game, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Back before it became a seething hellscape of capering reality TV stars and xenophobic Brexit voters, Britain used to rule the world. Quite literally, actually, they had a whole empire thing going on. This gleeful colonisation was glorious for them, although not so ideal for the rest of the world. That era of ‘stiff upper lip’ no-nonsense plummy invasion is the thematic premise for Strange Brigade, a four-player co-op shooter from those barmy chaps over at Rebellion Developments.

Set in 1930, right smack bang in the middle of the era described above, archeologist Edgar Harbin uncovers the dusty tomb of Seteki, a terrifying African Queen renowned for her cruelty. Naturally digging around in the tombs of evildoers is always a bad idea and sure enough, Seteki’s spirit rises up – bringing with her an army of the undead. Who can stop this terrible turmoil from beyond the grave? Could it be you, dear reader, do you have what it takes?

The titular Strange Brigade are a group of Secret Service agents with various appealing personalities and different skills that can be tweaked along the way. Ultimately, however, you’ll be shooting. A lot. Hordes of zombies, wraiths, monsters, insects and all manner of bosses swarm towards your team and must be dispatched tout-bloody-suite. You can aid the wanton destruction by incorporating traps and supers into the mix, plus some light puzzle solving will unlock enhancements for your weapon, but this is a group shooter through and through. Happily, Rebellion – creators of the Sniper Elite series – are no strangers to shooters. The gunplay is snappy and responsive, with headshots feeling satisfying and movements well tuned. Playing alone is possible but the general sense of repetition may hamper long term enjoyment. If you can find a group of three others, however, the game truly shines, offering an agreeable mix of horde mode with traps and bosses to spice things up.

Strange Brigade is charming, featuring a tongue-in-cheek narrator and a sense of style. This charm doesn’t quite disguise the fairly simplistic nature of the gameplay loop, but it gives the title a sense of identity in a crowded market. By yourself Strange Brigade is just okay, but if you can rope in some chums, by crikey you’ll be blasting ambulatory corpses and laughing with glee until the sun finally sets on the grand old British Empire. Pip pip! Cheerio.

 
View Post

Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 2

Review, Television, This Week 2 Comments

Boy, did Marvel listen.

The first season of Marvel’s Iron Fist landed with a resounding thud not unlike a noob kung fu disciple hitting the mat. Critics were unkind, fans were unimpressed, and the general consensus was that it was the worst of Marvel’s Netflix offerings so far.

However, it seems that the powers that be had considerable faith in Danny Rand (Finn Jones), heir-to-billions-turned-mystic-martial-arts-master, and after co-starring in The Defenders and guesting on Luke Cage, the wielder of the titular metal mitt is back in the saddle of his own series. And while Iron Fist is still not in a position comparable to the best of the MarFlix series (if you’re wondering, Jessica Jones S1 is the reigning champ), this season it has definitely found its feet, becoming a solid action procedural.

That’s chiefly down to some serious tonal retooling. Season 2, under the stewardship of new showrunner Raven Metzner, handily picking up the baton fumbled by departing incumbent Scott Buck. Metzner doesn’t retcon anything that has gone before (although to be honest, memories of Season 1 are rather indistinct…) but rather deftly pushes the whole operation in a new direction. The show now feels like it knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and that confidence is refreshing.

The changes are myriad but generally subtle. One thing that jumps out is that our hero is less of an asshole. Original Recipe Danny Rand was nigh-unbearable in his #worldtraveller smug wokeness, but this season he’s a much more humble and driven character, having taken up Daredevil’s vigilante duties in the wake of the events of The Defenders. Eschewing luxury, he’s moving furniture by day, mopping up criminals in Chinatown by night, and making a cute couple with fellow martial artist/former member of The Hand (there is so much backstory and jargon now – just go with it if you’re a bit lost) Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).

It’s a nice little superhero life, suddenly complicated by two things: the arrival of Danny’s old friend and rival Davos (Sacha Dawan), a fellow student in the mystical city of K’un L’un (so much backstory and jargon…); and the appearance of the mysterious Mary (Alice Eve), who is either a naive artist trying to make it in the Big Apple, a deadly assassin who can go toe to toe with Iron Fist, or both.

Davos functions as the now overly familiar “dark mirror” villain of the piece, a self-flagellating ascetic bad-ass who thinks he deserves to wield the power of the Iron Fist more than Danny, and is willing to do some pretty awful stuff to wrest our guy’s glowing hand from him. As for Alice, her agenda is murkier, but fans of the comics and denizens of the internet will already know that she’s the live action incarnation of noted Marvel villain Typhoid Mary, normally an opponent of Daredevil, and we’ll just leave this hyperlink here for those who don’t mind spoilers.

Whenever these plots intersect, violence erupts – and it’s good violence, too. For all its leaden pacing and poorly sketched characters, the first season’s biggest problem was that its fight sequences were embarrassingly lackluster – that’s a serious handicap when your show is literally and specifically about a guy whose main power is Super Punching. Wisely, the production team called in veteran fight choreographer Clayton Barber to bring this season’s action beats up to par, and the improvement is immediately and viscerally noticeable. Barber understands how to reveal story and character through action. While the show is still somewhat hampered by the practical limitations of time and money, each fight scene is its own beast with its own flavour. Of the first six episodes previewed, the two stand outs are a pretty nifty scrap in a restaurant kitchen that could fit nicely in a prime-era Hong Kong action flick, and a flashback sequence that sees Danny and Davos battling in a K’un L’un temple, all flowing scarves, graceful leaping kicks, and misty lighting.

While there are connecting threads to both The Defenders and Season 1, six episodes in, Season 2 seems content to be just a street level action drama, and that’s to its credit. The plot more or less just exists to get us to the next fight, and the fights exist because, well, properly choreographed and framed fights are cool – here, as in the best action cinema, action is its own reward. While shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage – and even, to a degree, Daredevil – have loftier thematic goals, Iron Fist is a straight-up chop-socky beat ’em up, and that’s fine.

 
View Post

In Darkness

Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

No stranger to the small screen, Natalie Dormer (Game of Throne, The Tudors) co-writes this gritty crime thriller alongside Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders). The first half of the film plays like a “Hitchcockian” thriller, accompanied by a nice suspenseful film score by Niall Byrne.

Set in London’s busy streets, the film follows strong female protagonist Sofia, a blind pianist who finds herself entangled in a world of murder and crime when she hears her upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) fall to her death. Soon discovering that Veronique’s father Radic is a ruthless criminal accused of horrific Serbian war crimes, Sofia is embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game between a dishevelled detective and the criminal underground festering with Radic’s henchmen.

Throughout the first half of the film, Sofia’s motives are at times questionable and she is not initially who she seems, as her own path of revenge is revealed. Mysterious thug Marc (Ed Skrein) seems to play Sofia’s knight-in-shining-armour, which at times feels unnecessary simply because of the fact that Dormer kicks-ass as a one-woman wrecking machine. But the connection both characters have developed makes for a nice twisted romantic part to the story.

The storyline is at times generic, yet it does have redeeming qualities. Anthony Byrne constructs a very simple, yet effective scene where a fight breaks out, but all you can see are fighting shadows on a wall; plus, tight pacing, slick sound design, plus Dormer’s strong blind person, who outshines all the other characters in the film.

The film provides a few too many twists and turns, which makes for a convoluted narrative and an unconvincing ending, however, you can also easily look past this to appreciate it for the impressively directed, clever thriller that it is. All-in-all a nice addition to the small screen.

 
View Post

Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition

Game, Home, Review, This Week, Trailer Leave a Comment

I’ve always considered myself to be something of a polyamorous geek; that is I can hold many different pop cultural passions in my heart at once. Certainly horror movies are my first and most notable love, but I also ardently adore video games, sensually worship excellent telly, vigorously exalt books and even give comics a friendly frotting from time to time. But for all of these most delightful lovers one particular branch of the gnarled dork tree has always eluded me: the turn-based fantasy RPG.

I’ve admired them from afar, mind you, and even dipped my toe into Pillars of Eternity and the first Divinity: Original Sin but something about the setting, characters and/or world always failed to grab me long term. That is until Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition came along and ignited a new passion in my old, cold, black little heart.

Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition (called Divinity 2 henceforth) tells the tale of a number of characters – both existing and user generated – who are “Sourcerers”: magicians who can command the power of Source. Because of this enigmatic power they are treated like second class citizens and at the start of Divinity 2 you’ll find yourself jailed by Magisters at Fort Joy – a prison island – wearing a Source-dampening collar. What you do from there is pretty much up to you, although forming a party and escaping the island is a pretty good first goal.

This isn’t a spectacularly original premise for a fantasy RPG – mysterious powers, unknown origins and a quest to embark on are all pretty well-worn elements of the genre – but what separates Divinity 2 from the pack is the quality of the details. Every character in the game, and I mean every character, is voiced and has a backstory. From the lowliest shopkeep to a random wandering crab (yes, you can talk to animals with the Pet Pal perk – and it’s highly recommended you do) you’ll find details, lore and even helpful hints on quests in the area. The game is dense with choice and options, featuring dozens of different ways to tackle even the smallest objective. Having trouble in a head-on fight? Why not sneak in via the back and sabotage a base’s oil barrel stash. Not feeling violent? Why not bribe your way into your objective, or disguise yourself as your enemy? Or turn invisible? Or summon a giant spider made of bone? Or… look, you get the idea. That’s not just for main quests either, every single quest feels meaningful and never ‘collect six radishes’ or ‘kill nine frog monsters’. Hell, I found myself investigating missing eggs for a group of chickens, only to find them murdered later – so I chatted with one of their ghosts – and had to take the surviving chook to meet its papa. Then the twist ending of that was the bloody kid was the murderer and I had the kill the bastard! Ended up with some nice trousers and a spear though so, you know, worth it.

This level of nuance and detail doesn’t come without a price, however. You’ll sometimes find yourself confused about what to do next and properly baffled by a few of the more Byzantine mechanics. Still, that’s nothing a quick trip to the game’s Wiki won’t help, and in a game as richly detailed as this there’s no shame in it. Less appealing were a half dozen or so bugs that reared their ugly little heads from time to time, but nothing a quick reload didn’t fix and one suspects they’ll be patched out soon enough.

Ultimately Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition is an embarrassment of riches. A complex, fascinating turn-based fantasy RPG of epic size and scope, with nuanced characters, rewarding combat and satisfying exploration. Whether played single player or in the game’s excellent co-op mode Divinity 2 is the kind of title that will have you calling in ‘dead’ and staying home, playing it for hours.

It also turned me into a new kind of dork and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

 
View Post

7 Days in Entebbe

Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Brazilian director Jose Padilha is no stranger to the action genre, best known for the Elite Squad series and the 2014 remake of RoboCop. This time, Padilha directs 7 Days in Entebbe, produced by Working Title Films, and penned by Gregory Burke (’71), based on the real-life events that took place on July 1976, when a group of revolutionaries hijacked an Air France flight carrying 250 passengers en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers set the plane down in Entebbe, Uganda, where they held hostages captive for one week. The film depicts the real-life “Operation Entebbe”, a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission launched by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and carried out by the Israeli Defense Force.

The film starts with an upbeat performance from members of the Batsheva Dance Company. Padhila uses the performance throughout the film, cleverly going back and forth to the suspenseful dance between certain scenes. However, the dance sequences are arguably the most attention-grabbing thing about this film.

The Entebbe hijacking has been retold through two 1977 films, Raid on Entebbe and Operation Thunderbolt. The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film also contains the raid as a subplot. Padilha takes a different approach; 7 Days in Entebbe offers us a ‘through-the-eyes-of’ narrative, focused specifically on two German revolutionaries. One a slightly timid Wilfried (Daniel Bruhl) and the other an edgy, yet fearless Brigitte (Rosamund Pike). Wilfried and Brigitte are just two members of the hijacker group made up of pro-Palestinians. The two Germans seem out of place in a group who have contrasting ideas of what a “revolutionary” is.

Nevertheless, Bruhl and Pike make the most of their characters. There are times where you feel sorry for them, even more-so than the actual hostages themselves. The regret and panic that overcomes them as the seven days are closing in, makes you want to believe that what they’re doing is good and they’ve just been misguided.

Adding to the mix of complex characters is Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his defense minister Shimon (Eddie Marsan). Rabin wants to negotiate with the terrorists, something Israelis insist they never do, whilst Shimon wants to take charge with a daring rescue plan. Then there’s Ugandan President Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who happily welcomes the terrorists and supplies them with troops and weapons. Idi Amin was a brutal dictator of his time, yet this film portrayed a somewhat nervous and feeble side of him.

Entebbe is a well-made film, although it falls just short of captivating. It’s a tough reminder that peace between Israel and Palestine are still a thing of the distant future. With high production values and a great cast, it was originally slated for theatrical release in Australia but after a tepid reception in the US it comes straight to the home here, which is where it belongs.

 
View Post

Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr

Game, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There are certain immutable truths in this strange world of ours. Hollywood will never stop churning out technically-competent-but-forgettable-remakes, films based on video games will invariably suck and the Warhammer series will continue to release a half dozen games each year, until humanity’s bones have long since turned to dust.

You can see the appeal, mind you, the tabletop gaming franchise exists in a realm of constant war, with epic battles spanning galaxies and featuring countless ghastly enemies – of the human and alien variety. And to be fair Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr (by the Emperor, what a title!) has a neat premise and engaging concept.

You play an Inquisitor (shonky future black ops types) who uncovers a conspiracy aboard an enormous abandoned vessel, and is sent on a mission that will take you all through the Caligari sector and beyond. Unlike most Warhammer entries there are genuinely intriguing concepts and ideas woven into the narrative, and playing through the story campaign feels rewarding as a result.

Unfortunately the gameplay, the majority of what you’ll be doing, is less polished and engaging. Based in a top down view similar to Diablo III, Martyr has you wandering through abandoned ships/planets/caves etc. and blasting waves of enemies as you uncover secrets and grind for loot. The shooting is… fine. It gets the job down but never feels like a joy to play, which is a problem when the action is this repetitive. You can unlock and build different weapon loadouts but they rarely amount to anything beyond ‘more bullets’ and ‘different flavours of explosion’. Plus the cover system is just terrible, having you latch onto objects seemingly at random, and never really justifying its existence.

Yet for all of that, Martyr is actually pretty fun. The environments are weird and atmospheric, the story is engaging and gleefully over-the-top and there’s a general sense of future grimdark horror/action that feels so unique it’s almost worth putting up with some of the weaker gameplay elements and general lack of innovation.

Ultimately Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr is a worthy if unspectacular addition to the already staggeringly huge (black) library of games, and while flawed this latest effort improves on the storytelling and is fun when grouped with like minded friends. It’s not the game that finally clarifies the appeal of Warhammer 40K to non-fans, but it’s another clanking mech suit footstep closer.