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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.

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Edge of Extinction

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Is it too hyperbolic to say that post-apocalyptic movies are particularly timely these days? At the very least, the five-car pile-up of real-world events of the past several months have given audiences worldwide a taste for the worst case scenario on the screen, either as a form of doomsday prep by seeing how others handle that situation or just as a reminder that things haven’t gotten quite that bad yet. But given how the isolated nature of our current predicament has resulted in quite a bit of socially-distant malaise, there’s an argument to be made that this film represents the modern apocalypse better than most. It isn’t an argument in the film’s favour, though.

A very WalkingDead-sans-zombies take on the ravaged wasteland in the wake of World War III, this film likewise relies on its characters to keep things interesting. But what we primarily get are a collection of people that are definitely abrasive, but not in a particularly engaging way.

It holds the central idea that collaboration and unity is needed to rebuild or even just to survive, a common conceit for the genre, but it constantly shows this by highlighting those who vehemently reject that idea. The hunters, the cannibals, the scavengers; the people who grab any resource they can find, whether it be food, lodging or breeding stock.

It’s like a monochromatic wash of nihilistic misanthropy, made drearier by the more-than-frequent wonky line reads from the actors. Admittedly, most of the cast do well enough with their nameless characters, but none of them manage to imbue their roles with the life needed to make them engaging. It begs for an Alex Garland to balance out the displays of self-destruction with an understanding that that is only one piece of the larger human puzzle, instead going for a Purge­-ian simplicity that makes all the characters feel like ciphers.

But even that could’ve been suitable, as the actions of dangerous individuals is usually the reason why the apocalypse happens in the first place. And with how adequately staged and filmed this wasteland is, it might’ve made for a decent yarn. But at over-two-hours, there truly isn’t enough narrative content to make this feel like it deserves that much time to make its point. Even ignoring how plain the characters can get, what happens to them as far as plot and even the decent fight scenes don’t fill out the innards to an acceptable level.

Calling this outright ‘bad’ would be doing it a mild disservice, as it shows enough skill at film craft to pass the bar. But in a way, being this dull to sit through might be an even worse indictment, as the urge to fall asleep in the midst of all this bloodshed is way too strong to make this feel like a journey worth taking. Audiences shouldn’t be able to look from their screens to their windows, and think the latter shows a more entertaining end of the world.

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Ghost of Tsushima

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The samurai genre is rivalled only by the western for the dubious honour of earning the ‘least utilised’ guernsey in the modern gaming era. Certainly, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Desperados III paid memorable homage to the latter, but the former has been woefully neglected. Oh sure, we’ve had borderline entries like the Niohs 1 and 2 or FromSoftware’s punishing Sekiro, but those titles utilised fantasy elements to spice up the narrative. No, in terms of pure Kurosawa-esque samurai gear, it’s down to developers Sucker Punch Productions to finally bring the goods with Ghost of Tsushima, a beautiful game that plays it a little safe.

Ghost of Tsushima tells the tale of Jin Sakai, a young samurai who joins his uncle, Lord Shimura, in defending the Japanese island of Tsushima against the Mongol invasion of 1274. The spectacular opening battle goes poorly, leaving Shimura captured and Sakai left for dead. It’s then up to you, the player, to find allies for Jin, improve his combat skills, weapons and armour, and mount a campaign to save his uncle and then rid Tsushima of the Mongol threat.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Ghost is that it’s simply beautiful. The poetic Japanese scenery, the appealing character models, the warm sun glinting off sword blades and even the blood-drenched outdoor abattoir of a post-battle landscape all combine for a rich, immersive environment that never fails to captivate. Add to this an intuitive, robust photo mode and you’re likely to spend a surprising amount of time just taking in the sumptuous visuals this game has to offer. Movement too is smooth and slick, with Jin slowly but surely learning new combat stances, gracefully spinning and attacking around the battlefield, leaving many dead foes in his wake.

So far so good, right? Well… mostly. See, while Ghost of Tsushima is practically flawless in terms of presentation, the actual gameplay is at times a tad pedestrian. The combat is great mind you, particularly if you avoid the rather wonky stealth and go for straight up front-on battles, but the gameplay between these encounters is desperately familiar. If you’ve played Horizon: Zero Dawn, Days Gone, recent Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed entries or, hell, it seems like most AAA games these days, you’ve played Ghost. Areas to unlock, resources to farm for crafting purposes, main missions, side missions and collectibles. It’s not bad, mind you, it’s just very generic and overly familiar. There was an opportunity to innovate here and instead Ghost plays it very safe.

The main story and Jin’s character in general are also… fine. Intriguing enough to keep your interest for the duration, but not exactly mind-blowing or profoundly emotionally resonant. You’re unlikely to shed a tear here, unlike Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Last of Us. Interestingly, however, Ghost also comes equipped with some of the best side quests – which deepen your knowledge and relationship of existing characters – and Mythic Quests – that explore some borderline supernatural element and always end with you acquiring a fancy piece of gear or weapon. These clever, often beautifully written vignettes showcase Ghost’s best moments and almost make up for the lack of ambition in other quarters.

Ultimately, Ghost of Tsushima is a gorgeous game, an epic love letter to Akira Kurosawa and the cinematic samurai genre he arguably perfected, and the best Assassin’s Creed title in years… despite not actually being an Assassin’s Creed title. Slick combat combines with predictable exploration but with enough twists and turns to keep your armchair samurai adventure a worthy and honourable one.

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Skater XL

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There was a time, back in the distant days of gaming, when skateboarding titles were all the rage. Tony Hawk Pro Skater sequels shot into the clammy palms of loungeroom skegs with almost alarming regularity and for those who preferred their kickflips to be a little more nuanced and technical, EA’s Skate trilogy had you covered. And then, for reasons pertaining to the vagaries of the industry, they all just sort of… stopped. If you wanted to pop a sick ollie, you had to do so outside, in the disgusting real world of people and sun. Now, on the eve of a Tony Hawk remaster, a new contender has entered the ring in the form of Skater XL. A game that, while brimming with potential, makes an ironic mockery of its title.

Skater XL puts you in the comfy kicks of a skater, either user-generated or pre-existing, and after a brief tutorial, you’re sent out into the world. It features a fascinating, and extremely nuanced, control system that uses the dual analogue sticks as your left and right feet. It’s fiddly at first, but you’ll soon grow accustomed to the controls and pull off some genuinely stylish tricks, made even more intriguing by the fact that the game uses real physics. In practical terms, this means every move happens organically, based on your controller movements and not cueing a pre-existing animation, which lends a high degree of individuality to your sessions.

All good news so far, yeah? The problem? That’s the entire game. There’s no story mode, no overarching purpose, no multiplayer or even things to unlock. You just sort of noodle around, popping tricks until you get bored or need to take a slash. A handful of maps with rather dull “challenges” (which are basically extended tutorials) and a fiddly video editor so you can record and upload your sessions. Now, for some people this will be enough. Your humble writer has fond (albeit vague) memories of hanging out with stoner flatmates, popping tricks in Skate and making one’s own fun as the controller was passed back and forth. If you’re up for a languid, chill session like that, Skater XL may be the ticket. If you want some kind of feedback, some kind of sense of progression or interaction with the game? You might want to look elsewhere.

Skater XL’s faults are compounded by the fact that it’s currently retailing (on console, at least) for nearly seventy dollarydoos! This is the kind of experience that would feel justified for twenty bucks or so, but being within cooee of full price is absurd. The lack of content, the occasionally janky animation and clipping, combined with a general lack of purpose, leaves Skater XL feeling more like a promising tech demo rather than a full game experience. What’s there is good, sometimes great, but it’s nowhere near enough yet to justify a purchase for any but the most obsessive of skating game fans.

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One Man and His Shoes

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Netflix’s Michael Jordan/ Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance covered similar terrain as this documentary by filmmaker Yemi Bamiro. One Man and His Shoes explores the relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike and how together they created a third entity: Michael Jordan the brand.

Nike reaped the benefits of a shrewd decision to forge product sponsorship deals with young college basketball players (including a young Michael Jordan) that would foster a brand loyalty that would (ideally) extend into the player’s NBA career. That led to Michael Jordan as a rookie player, making a deal with Nike that comprised of various royalties and profit participations that were largely uncapped when the deal was made. The insane sales that followed took Nike by surprise and remade Jordan as a sporting icon, not to mention a billionaire. When first released, the original Air Jordan Nikes were quickly banned by the NBA because they weren’t white, so wearing them courtside meant Michael Jordan incurred a fine. The fine was happily covered by Nike, who benefitted massively from the publicity and subsequently sold a million pairs of Air Jordan shoes that year.

On the face of it, the documentary threatens to be a corporate hand job on the virtues of capitalism and the glory of Nike, but it’s undeniably fascinating to learn how a corporation found a way to occupy a significant amount of real estate in popular culture.

The fascinating ‘happy accident’ of Nike marketing executives seeing Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It was instrumental. In that film, Spike Lee portrays Mars Blackmon, a man devoted to his Air Jordan shoes, he even wears them during sex. Nike executives saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and asked Lee to direct a number of distinctive Air Jordan commercials, (with Lee starring alongside Jordan as the character of Mars) leading to a style and artistry in creating the ads that would go on to further cement Nike (and Air Jordans) as more of a cultural icon than a brand.

Nike’s ad campaigns and deliberate under-supply creates a demand that has succeeded in making the shoes a sought-after commodity, a status symbol. Collectors across the globe are interviewed, some with million-dollar collections.

The most compelling part of the documentary is when it calls into question the negative effects of the ‘Cult of Nike’ and in particular the criticisms that have been levelled at Michael Jordan: his disinterest in taking a stand on social and racial issues affecting young black Americans (while he and Nike are happy to take their money) and, in particular, the awful phenomenon of young people being killed solely for their ‘Jordans’.

Overall, it’s an examination of how popular culture can be hijacked and hacked, how humans can be manipulated into associating athletic ability, competitive success, self-worth, desire and esteem – with a shoe.

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XCOM: Chimera Squad

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What happens to society after an alien occupation is thwarted by humanity? Are all of the aliens dead? If not, where do they go? Internment camps? Poor neighbourhoods? Can they ever be trusted to join human society and what of their technology? These are the heady, sci-fi questions at the centre of XCOM: Chimera Squad, a standalone XCOM entry that follows on from XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen, and while not perfect, it is a fascinating insight into what we might expect from the inevitable XCOM 3.

Chimera Squad takes place in City 31, a model city where humans and aliens live side by side. Of course, old tensions and resentments simmer beneath the surface and when the Mayor is killed in a terrorist attack it’s up to Chimera Squad – a group comprising alien and human members – to get to the bottom of what’s happening before it’s too late.

The first thing to notice about Chimera Squad is the vastly different tone to XCOM 2. That fantastic game is, it has to be said, a tension filled nightmare that at times seems to delight in flicking a rubber band at your ballbag while cackling like a cartoon witch. The ticking clock, the ramped-up difficulty (even on lower settings) and the permanent deaths of your squad members all make XCOM 2 feel like a 30-hour anxiety attack. Chimera Squad, on the other hand, is much more forgiving, action-focused and has no perma-death. This makes it a much more approachable concern for newbies, although the stakes never feel quite as high and therefore the victories are never as dizzy.

Turn-based tactics remain the gameplay style, but a breaching mechanic, squad members with cool alien powers and easier-to-attain weaponry offer a more streamlined experience. This will likely not delight XCOM purists, but it does mean you get to appreciate the excellent world-building between missions, with genuinely clever ideas showcased in this brave new integrated world.

Ultimately XCOM: Chimera Squad is a bold, engaging experiment that delves into what might happen after the smoke clears from a defeated alien occupation. Some may be a little put off by the brighter tone and streamlined gameplay, but the charms here are many and using the same powers that so definitively kicked your arse in XCOM 2 is a hoot. An imperfect game, to be sure, but one that also offers an engaging and tantalising epilogue and perhaps a preview of things to come in future entries.

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Necrologies

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Anthology movies: The Adderall of cinema. A chance to essentially watch several films in one sitting, but with a caveat that there’s no guarantee for consistency within. And coming from six French directors, for most of whom this is their directorial debut, there’s also a chance that this could turn into a glorified sizzle reel for their future careers.

Bit of a shame that the film peaks right at the start with ‘The Call Of Death’ and ‘The Beast’, and not just because they are easily the most straight-faced of the bunch. The former plays out like a proto-Black Mirror episode as filtered through Tales From The Crypt (although, admittedly, that last comparison is true for pretty much everything here), acting as allegory for social media while sticking to decidedly lower-fi tech than that would imply. And with ‘The Beast’, we get a simple but effective ‘who’s the real monster’ parable that manages to get a lot done with very little, both in run time and in dialogue. Directors Nathalie Epoque and Fabien Chombart respectively can pat themselves on the back.

For the rest of it, though, it takes a very sudden dip into less-serious territory, from ‘Return Of The Lizardmen’ playing out like a found-footage version of Iron Sky: The Coming Race, with the same level of conspiratorial lunacy; ‘A Hell Of A Bargain’ hinging on awkward puppet work (director Alexis Wawerka has done some makeup work for Uwe Boll in the past and it shows), and ‘The Eye Of Taal’ somehow delivering another anthology within an anthology. It admittedly looks nice in its highly French New Wave stylings, but after what preceded it, it’s not enough to pick things back up.

It probably doesn’t help that we get the bare minimum as far as tying all of these together. Aside from a possible motif involving cell phones, the only thing connecting all of this is the requisite wraparound segment involving Delicatessen’s Jean-Claude Dreyfus telling these stories to a blogger he caught taking selfies in his graveyard. By design, it’s not meant to do much more than be the sinew for the shorts, but even as sinew, it doesn’t leave much of an impression. And that’s without getting into the Urban Gothic-ass conclusion, which is a serious thud.

As a whole, this is basically a third of a good movie, the bulk of which opens the film, and because it lacks a real throughline like Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories or Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, it doesn’t leave much of an impact. Individually, it can range from sombre to kitsch triumphant, but rather than the fun kind of kitsch, it just makes for material that not even a sudden appearance from the legendary Linnea Quigley can salvage it. Even the good parts aren’t good enough to override what comes next.

Available now on Prime Video

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Blood Vessel

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We don’t get enough horror movies set on boats. They’re such a great location – isolated, eerie and floating atop the bastard sea – and yet criminally underused in modern cinema. Some notable past examples include Deep Rising (1998), Ghost Ship (2002) and the criminally underrated Triangle (2009). More recently we’ve had, what, 2018’s too-wet-by-half The Meg? Not a sterling record, to be honest. Aussie flick Blood Vessel attempts to perform CPR on the nautical-set-genre flick and the result is fitfully entertaining.

Blood Vessel opens in late 1945, with WWII coming to a close, and a group of disparate characters set adrift at sea aboard a life raft. Just when their food supplies are about to run out they are apparently “saved” by a German minesweeper. However, once aboard, it soon becomes clear that they’d have been better off carking it in the ocean. Everyone on board the rather gothic-looking vessel is dead, save for a little girl who looks terribly hungry and speaks Romanian…

First things first, Blood Vessel’s setup is absolutely stellar. A period piece set aboard a Nazi ship with freaking vampires lobbing about the place? Shut up and take my money! Where the movie goes wrong, however, is in the scripting. The first 20 minutes of the film keeps shooting itself in the foot by having all of the protagonists bicker constantly in lieu of actual tension or character development. Even ignoring the dodgy accents, watching people snipe at one another like fussy toddlers is baffling when they’re literally crawling through an ominous, creepy ghost ship. Once the ship’s not-very-surprising mysteries start to get unravelled things improve, and while the script isn’t much chop, Justin Dix’s direction is assured and takes full advantage of the creepy old boat and its hungry occupants.

Acting wise, it’s a mixed bag, but Russian sniper Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke) and Aussie digger Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Phillips) both give solid performances, even when their dialogue doesn’t match their respective talents. Kudos too should be given to Dix’s company Wicked of Oz for creating the superb prosthetics and special make-up effects that wouldn’t look out of place in a movie with a much higher budget. It’s just a pity that same level of craft and care didn’t go into a better script.

Blood Vessel is a far from perfect film, laboured with a dodgy script and some wooden performances. However, the premise, production values and cool monsters will likely keep most genre fans’ interest afloat and it’s nice to see an Aussie genre flick that swings for the fences, even if it occasionally falls short.

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