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Black Mirror Season 4

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2017 has, by any objective metric, been an unholy garbage fire trundling down a mountain of excrement. It’s been a time in which we’ve seen the true faces of our heroes, watched a cadre of mad despots busy themselves ruining the planet and been witness to many attempts by nature to rid itself of our malevolent taint.

Plus season eight of The Walking Dead has been a bit shit so, you know, bad times all around.

Just in case your being isn’t yet fully suffused by existential dread, Black Mirror season four is here to stab your optimism right in the kidneys. Although this latest outing of Charlie Brooker’s notably bleak peek into the future of technology has been experimenting with a new flavour: hope.

Yes, although season four has its share of nightmarish tomorrows, it also delivers some moments of light in the darkness, and is all the more effective for doing so. Obviously picking “the best” episodes is subjective, but in terms of overall quality standouts include: “Hang the DJ” – about a society where companionship is dictated by an app, “Crocodile” – a tense tale of retribution superbly directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), and “Metalhead” – a black and white vision of a terrifying utopia directed by David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) and unlike anything Black Mirror has ever produced before.

On the slightly-less-successful-but-still-decent side we have “Arkangel” – directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) in an effective, but rather predictable look at parental intervention and “USS Callister” – a movie-length look at geek culture that is fun, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The only real dud in the bunch is “Black Museum”, an anthology episode that drags and is way too similar to 2014’s “White Christmas” which was itself a bit naff.

Ultimately Black Mirror season four is another solid outing, and while nothing quite hits the giddy highs of last season’s “San Junipero”, the overall quality is more consistent this time around. It’s not always an easy watch, but Black Mirror remains one of the smartest slices of speculative fiction around. All six episodes will be on Netflix from December 29, so why not see out the year curled in a fetal ball, dreading the future, and occasionally experiencing fleeting moments of (very) cautious optimism.

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Wolf Creek Season 2

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Few horror franchises have capitalised on the inherent creepiness of the Australian outback like Wolf Creek. With the possible exception of Razorback (1984) and Wake in Fright (1971), the Aussie outback tends to be the sight of cinematic spiritual awakenings or the backdrop for epic movie road trips. Greg McLean’s robust horror franchise has managed to straddle multiple mediums, including two movies, various books and now a second televisual outing with Wolf Creek season 2. The question you may be asking is ‘how?’ How does such a seemingly simple premise lead to so many stories? The answer is Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Mick is such a quintessentially Aussie antagonist, an uncomfortable reflection of the sunburnt country’s darker impulses – ready to strike at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to him. He’s also extremely easy to adapt to different genres.

Case in point: Wolf Creek season one featured a one-on-one grudge match between Mick and Eve (Lucy Fry), the latter of whom was on a one woman hunt to avenge her slaughtered family. Season two of Wolf Creek flips the script yet again and this time we’re travelling into the outback with a group of international tourists, keen on exploring the Aussie outback with Davo (Ben Oxenbould). A chance meeting of Mick and Davo sparks the killing urge in our favourite tourist hunter and Mick decides he’s going to take these soft city folk on an outback adventure they’ll never forget, and most of them won’t survive.

It’s a classic horror premise, and interestingly one Greg McLean has been toying with since before the first Wolf Creek movie (check out our interview). Over six episodes Mick puts the tourists through various hideous trials, whittling them down one by one until the inevitable, and grisly, climax.

Wolf Creek season two feels like a more pure horror experience than the slightly more experimental previous season. The scares are solid, the tension palpable and the kills effective, if occasionally slightly ropey. The cast acquit themselves well, and while no one is quite as standout as Lucy Fry from season one; Tess Haubrich, Laura Wheelwright and Matt Day all provide compelling personalities under duress.

Best of all director Greg McLean is on hand to deliver some of his best work to date, providing a cinematic-quality genre experience you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your undies.

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Star Wars Battlefront II

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In 2015 Star Wars Battlefront released to muted reception. On the one hand you had a title that faithfully recreated big battles from the beloved franchise set in a galaxy far, far away. On the other, the game was almost shockingly devoid of content, lacking anything even resembling a single player campaign, and seemed custom designed to sell players the DLC; where the allegedly “good” content was hidden.

The general consensus was, the game had good inside it, but had slipped too far over to the Dark Side. “Perhaps in the sequel,” we said, optimistically, “perhaps they’ll get it right in the sequel.”

Cut to 2017 and Star Wars Battlefront II is here and… well, shit, there’s a lot to unpack.

First up, let’s focus on the positive. Star Wars Battlefront II is a beautiful-looking game. It features massive multiplayer online battles and a solid, albeit slightly truncated and unambitious single player campaign. Also the flying mechanics are much improved and the actual stellar battles in Star Wars are good for once. If you’re an adult with a few mates keen to shoot online, then this is a good time, especially if you can grab it during the post-Christmas sales.

On the negative side? The game’s a mess. Not mechanically, mind you, some early onset server issues aside the game works well but the title’s progression system, the grind, is an absolutely broken, baffling clusterfuck. See, originally EA had most of the game’s content hidden behind loot crates that you – the player – receives for playing the game. These loot crates would deliver crafting materials, skins, and Star Cards. The latter of these can be used to upgrade character’s traits or weapons and unlock heroes like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Originally this progression could be hugely assisted by purchasing loot crates directly – in other words, paying real world money on top of the hundred bucks you’d already dropped on the thing.

The public outcry to this pay-to-win fiasco was prolific and emphatic, so much so that EA has (at time of writing) disabled microtransactions in the game. However even without this rather insidious brand of incentivised gambling the progression in Battlefront II is an exercise in confusing tedium. Really enjoy playing as Assault Class and want to upgrade as you play? Tough shit, the loot boxes are full of randomised gear, most of which you won’t ever use. This leads the experience feeling hollow and strangely unrewarding, as opposed to Destiny 2 which is almost too generous with the loot (which is a conversation for another day).

It’s genuinely sad that a review of Star Wars Battlefront II has to feature so much gear about EA’s shonky practices, but it’s a spectre that hangs over the title. This game should have been a lay down misere, a hugely popular franchise you can play with your mates and have a few laughs. Instead we’re left with a compromised and unfulfilling experience that may be patched or reconfigured in the future, but right now this is probably not the game you’re looking for.


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Hidden Agenda

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Supermassive Games caught the attention of gamers and genre movie fans alike with Until Dawn, a title that played like an interactive slasher flick complete with numerous endings, splattery deaths and a clear affection for trashy 80s cinema. Hidden Agenda is their newest attempt at an interactive movie and this time they’ve gone all serial killer thriller, and the results are pretty good.

Hidden Agenda has you, the player or players, assuming the roles of homicide detective, Becky Marney and district attorney, Felicity Graves. These two are trying to reveal the truth behind a gruesome serial killer known as The Trapper, who comes off like a low rent Jigsaw with a penchant for creating grisly traps and killing first responders.

Unlike Until Dawn you won’t be using the controller to move your characters around the map, rather utilising the PlayLink app you’ll make dialogue choices, search rooms and complete light puzzles and quick time events with your phone. The added twist is that you can play with a group – a kind of democratised storytelling where majority rules on the decisions made. Picture Telltale Games by vote and you’ve got the general idea. It’s an interesting concept and one that benefits from three or more players, as anything else feels a tad redundant.

The story itself is quite brief, coming in around two hours, with a heavy emphasis on replaying to get better or just different endings. It’s a great idea let down a little by a script that doesn’t quite work and technical oddities where the decision you make, say to answer something sarcastically, doesn’t quite line up with what the character is doing on screen.

That said, a group of film savvy, sarcastic (and perhaps drunk) friends will have a hell of a time mocking the characters and each other as they strive to uncover the villain’s… obfuscated motive.

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Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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2017 is an important year for the Assassin’s Creed series. The last full scale game was 2015’s Syndicate which had its moments but ultimately was a bit too samey to stand out in a franchise that had been treading water since Black Flag in 2013. Assassin’s Creed Origins, benefiting from a longer development period, attempts to inject fresh life into the prolific series by going back to beginning and setting the caper in ancient Egypt. The results are good… for the most part.

Let’s start with the positive. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a beautiful game. Like, stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Egyptian setting proves to be the Creed’s most compelling environment in ages and you’ll lose hours, perhaps days, just wandering around the sun-dappled vistas, deadly swamps and snake-filled tombs. New character Bayek proves to be an engaging protagonist, as he embarks on a journey that begins as a fairly standard ‘revenge for the death of a beloved child’ plot but morphs into something bigger. Plus the new loot system – whereby you can grind for new weapons and armour – is addictive and rewarding, giving a genuine sense of progression and a reason to explore all nooks and crannies.

That’s the good news, now the not so good stuff. The major problem with Assassin’s Creed Origins is that what you’ll be doing remains essentially unchanged throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. You’ll begin by exploring areas, taking on missions and side missions, assassinating your targets… and then you’ll move to another area in the game’s outrageously enormous map and do it all again. You’ll get better gear, certainly, but the core gameplay loop remains frustratingly static. This becomes truly irksome in the game’s third act when the ending is gated by missions far too high above your level, so it will literally insist on your grinding lower level missions just to be able to play them. This kind of artificially extended gameplay is baffling in a game that is already massive and doesn’t need it at all.

Combat is conceptually a step forward, with the game adopting a hitbox system that means you’ll actually need to be near an enemy to make contact, and in a one on one situation there is fun to be had. However enemies tend to attack in group formation which makes the fighting frequently messy and lacking in precision. Hopefully Ubisoft will continue to hone this mechanic as it’s definite improvement, but not quite enough.

The story, also, feels a bit half-baked. There are certainly intriguing elements, and Bayek’s relationship with his wife, Aya, is extremely strong, but the overall narrative is so diffused and protracted it never feels as engaging as it ought to. The same applies to the voice acting which, main cast aside, is extremely ropey and veers from deadpan to broad caricature with baffling frequency.

Assassin’s Creed Origins starts strong and initially appears to be the shot in the arm the series needed, however its insistence on artificially extending gameplay in the third act and an overall lack of genuine innovation keeps it from being a true revelation. It is a good time, but it’s also a long time – and not always in a positive way. Still, if a lengthy visit to ancient Egypt sounds like your jam you’ll probably find a lot to dig in Origins – just be prepared to deal with the series’ usual baggage.

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Friday the 13th: The Game

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Just how into the Friday the 13th movies are you? Do you know how Jason “dies” at the end of every chapter? Can you explain which entries special effects maestro Tom Savini worked on and why they’re the best? Do you have a lengthy, detail-oriented pitch regarding a new F13th film that you’re happy to share with friends, strangers and the poor hapless people down the bus stop? The answers to these questions directly inform how much you will or will not enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game.

The game, you see, is a bit of a mess. Conceptually it’s kinda brilliant, mind you. It’s an asymmetrical online multiplayer dealy with up to eight players. Seven people will play as camp counselors, and they will search drawers, craft traps and try to escape the map alive. The lucky eighth player will assume the role of Jason Voorhees (currently available in ten different flavours) and hunt and kill the camp counselors before the time runs out. And that’s the game, simple and effective. Playing as Jason is a hoot, all of his various incarnations possess different powers, upgradable skills and unlockable kills – some of which are spectacularly gory and nasty. Pulling off a well-executed environmental kill or managing to burst through a closed door at just the right time is legitimately exciting, especially for an ageing gorehound who loves slasher films.

Playing as a counselor however is… less fun. See, the counselors in the movies were taking drugs, drinking and getting laid – it was a Friday the 13th tradition! In the game, however, you’ll be searching for loot in randomised locations and hoping you get lucky, and it’s just not that great a time. Most galling of all, playing Jason occurs randomly. So you could be solo queuing for an entire day without donning the hockey mask (or sack) of the big man once, which is to say nothing of the game’s numerous server issues, buggy connections, and legion of other technical hitches.

There is, however, one guaranteed way to enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game, but it’s kind of fiddly. You’ll need at least four mates, preferably seven obviously, and you just start up a custom game and only play with those friends. That way you can take turns playing Jason, band together more successfully as the camp counselors and enjoy the game to its full potential. When I played using this method it was an absolutely unmissable experience – funny and violent and scary – and showed what the game could be given the right set of circumstances.

Ultimately Friday the 13th: The Game is a lot like the Friday the 13th movie series: much better with mates, who’ve had a few drinks and are ready to overlook some quality issues and concentrate on the splatter.

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Jigsaw is the eighth film in the long running, albeit recently dormant, Saw franchise. It follows 2010’s disappointing Saw 3D (aka “The Final Chapter”) and is directed by Aussie brothers, Peter and Michael Spierig (Daybreakers, Predestination). With such talent behind the camera one could be forgiven for expecting a higher calibre sequel, and while Jigsaw is certainly better than the last three or four Saw entries, that’s a pretty low razor wire-covered bar to clear.

Jigsaw is essentially two narratives intercut with one another. One involves five strangers who wake up in a room with buckets on their heads and chains around their necks. A familiar gravelly voice speaks over an intercom, telling the unfortunates he wants to play a game and, well, you know the rest. Games are played, elaborate traps are sprung and secrets are revealed as the cast are whittled down in suitably gruesome fashion. Outside the room, forensic pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) are embroiled in a related mystery involving corrupt detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) who may or may not be involved in the Jigsaw case in some fashion. But wait, hasn’t John Kramer (Tobin Bell), aka Jigsaw, been dead for over a decade? The answer may surprise you…

Despite containing elements of sequel, prequel and reboot, Jigsaw feels very much like business as usual. Some of the traps are mildly inventive but most of the characters are too obnoxious, shouty or willfully stupid to care about. The story has a couple of decent twists buried underneath about a dozen average ones, and you can almost hear the screenplay’s spine snapping as it bends over backwards, attempting to rationalise some of the more unlikely third act revelations.

Ultimately Jigsaw is an above average Saw film, but a fairly ordinary horror film. It proves that no matter how many elaborate death scenes you stage, or twists you unleash, without interesting characters or a compelling story – it’s game over before it even begins.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jigsaw

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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is, in essence, the story of Craig Anderson. Craig’s an affable chap with a lifelong dream of writing and directing a feature film. When we first meet Craig he’s quite frank about the fact he’s not getting any younger – and opportunities haven’t exactly been falling into his lap – so he decides it’s time to get proactive and make the bloody thing himself. As the title of the doco suggests, Craig’s dream turns dark pretty quickly.

Red Christmas is the film in question, a polarising Yuletide slasher flick that in Craig’s own words, “[is] about an aborted fetus that returns and kills its family – of course it’s going to be terrible!” While the eventuating feature is a niche proposition, Horror Movie itself is absolutely fascinating. There’s a palpable sense of tension throughout the two-part doco’s runtime, where our scrappy hero and his band of friends realise they may have bitten off way more than they can chew.

Scenes where Craig borrows ungodly amounts of money from his brother, tries to negotiate the complexity of America’s SAG rules to land Dee Wallace (E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Howling) in the lead role and attempts to explain some of the ropier aspects of his script to dubious cast members are a mixture of fascinating and cringe-inducing. Director Gary Doust (Making Venus, Next Stop Hollywood) has crafted an intimate look at the world of low budget genre filmmaking in Australia and portrait of a man who lives for movies, often at the expense of his own well being.

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is about what happens when a wide eyed dreamer with visions of success meets the speeding semi-trailer of reality and the ensuing carnage. It’s at times hilarious and heartbreaking, brimming with pathos and well worth a watch for those with even a casual interest in the grisly sausage factory that is making movies on a shoestring budget.

Basically it’s the Hearts of Darkness of Chrissy-themed killer fetus slasher movies.

Part 1 airs on ABC October 31st 9.30pm, and part 2 on November 7.