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I’d say this was a Revelation

Wednesday, 7 December, 2011 14 comments

Is there anything better in the gaming world than skulking across rooftops to then dive off and land on an unsuspecting victim, giving him a short sharp jab with a blade hidden in your sleeve? If you don’t think so then you’re probably a massive fan of the Assassin’s Creed series. Either that or you’ve been sitting under a rock waiting for such a game to be developed.

With the exception of the original title, Assassin’s Creed as a series has been one of my favourites within the last few years. The story of Ezio has been developed steadily across two games, and now Altaïr and Desmond also get increasing roles in order to start closing up some of the loose strings the players have. Revelations takes Ezio to Turkey in search of the masyaf keys to access Altaïr’s library. In this new land you’re greeted by new assassins and a new assassin leader, Yusuf Tazim. Tazim then aids Ezio in the search for the keys. Revelations also boasts several gameplay additions based on the pieces that felt missing from previous titles.

Ezio and Yusuf during an early cutscene

Borgia Towers are now replaced with ‘dens’. The initial gameplay mechanic works the same: you take out the captain and then light a fire in the tower. However you now have to defend these dens once they’ve been captured, throwing you into den defence mini-games. These are similar to tower defence games with Ezio overlooking a street and ordering assassins on to various roofs under which waves of templars and other guards will attack. You can also build barriers to slow your enemies down, and Ezio himself can shoot his hand cannon to thin the numbers. The addition is a welcome feature and allows for more gameplay than the Borgia Towers in Brotherhood provided, however the feature can become repetitive and even annoying as the defence marker has a habit of popping up just when you’re in the middle of something else. The tedious city renovation still plays a big part in earning money, and the mechanics are the same as Brotherhood, wandering around Constantinople this time, buying up buildings and shops in order to increase your income. This is my main bugbear with the game, and it seems like Ubisoft doesn’t want to stop expanding a game mechanic that is so benign and unnecessary that it’s merely an obsessive compulsive distraction. Looting gets you pretty much every ingredient and piece of ammunition to last you through the game and by the time you’ve got all the weapons you’re literally just earning money to buy more buildings which earn you more money.

Ezio using the hookblade on a zipline

The new hookblade is a feature you acquire very early in the game, which acts as a new weapon but also gives Ezio the same faster climbing ability that you needed to unlock in the previous two games. I must say this is a brilliant idea from the developers because introducing skills in one game which you then take away from the character in the next really removes an element of continuity. The other new mechanic is bomb crafting, which lets you choose from a range of ingredients which effects when your bomb explodes, how it explodes and what comes out. This is an interesting addition but after a time you end up just using the same three types of bombs and the crafting mechanic stops being relevant.

It will be intriguing to see how well Revelations deals with the triple layered story, as well as bringing in a surprising character that we didn’t expect to see make an appearance. You’ve heard many references to him but now he appears in the flesh…well kind of. Overall, Revelations is shaping up to be a well refined game that polishes many of the flaws that were noted in Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed 2. The game flows at an unmatched pace and the combat is still fresh and immersive with the new weapons and flourishes available that add a bit more satisfaction.

Film Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Monday, 5 December, 2011 1 comment

Three Star: ***

More things go bump in the night, but did that include the writer’s head? Prepare to go parallel to the series, in this paranormal prequel

In the 1980s the concept of home CCTV was a brave new world powered by shoulder mounted cameras and VCR tapes limited to six hours’ running time. However, after hearing strange noises in the night, such a niggle does not deter Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) from setting up his own amateur system to watch over his family in Oren Peli’s third installment of the supernatural shocker series. This bare bones prequel might reuse the same old formula to get its scares, but a creepy atmosphere is present as always and you will find yourself scanning the screen for the slightest anomaly, with your chest tensed against the inevitable moment of terror.

Of course, two movies later, many of us have grown accustomed to these scare tactics: easy-to-believe shocks, such as a moving curtain or pan falling from its hook, or even someone jumping out of a closet with a mask on and shouting “Boo!” These cheap thrills still have their place though. After all, they continue to work extremely well! It caused the two girls to the left of me to whimper into their popcorn for much of the film. In fact, they were flinching so much, they even ended up booting the row of seats in front of them. That said, the frights are a little more fun this time, with some innovative efforts having been made (including an ingenious modification to an electric fan) in order to give us something new to see. In one scene the tension is achieved with a single simple sheet. The violent undertones are heavier than ever too, and the being itself seems to appear at moments, suggesting evil energy in its rawest form. Flitting shadows are an unnervingly believable manifestation and is by far scarier than falling furniture.

The bulk of the plot focuses on the friendship between Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and an entity named ‘Toby’, which, obviously, takes a sinister turn for the worse. As before, the spirit becomes malevolent towards her and sister Katie (Chloe Csengery), to the extent that this likable family has to flee their home. However, this is where the unexpected occurs and it deviates from the original plot devices. Even though PA3 is about the same two sisters, nothing is explained from PA1 and PA2. In fact, the saga is actually complicated by having things added to it instead. In some ways, it almost becomes another film entirely, and there were traces of The Last Exorcist in its rather disappointing ending. Even the demon seemed to be different to the original and I was unable to decide whether this was intended, or not. If the film had been a stand-alone picture, it would have made little difference. The big questions remain unanswered.

And so this apparent reinvention of the plot seems to suggest that there will be several sequels before we get our answers. Such a notion leaves me feeling a little concerned for the series. It would be a shame if it ended up like the Saw franchise, done to death and relying on upchucks of the same old shocks in order to get a cheap laugh.

Review: Fortress (DVD) – Borrow or Buy?

Wednesday, 30 November, 2011 52 comments

Four Stars: ****

“No B-17s were harmed in the making of this film!”

It is a war story which has been retold many a time, and yet it never gets old! The tale of a bomber crew up against all odds, who yearn to trade the flak-blackened skies for the comforts of home, as they struggle to complete their tour of duty. And there is no better example of this than the crew of the Flying Fortress Lucky Lass, operating from a sandy strip in the Algerian desert, during the 1943 bombing of Rome.

Despite having a pretty much unknown cast (Bug Hall, Donnie Jeffcoat and Sean McGowan anyone?), as well as the fact that it relies completely on CGI for the battle scenes, the quality of this B-movie was a pleasant surprise over the usual straight-to-DVD releases.

Seeing as there are only 12 flying B-17s left, the film-makers can be forgiven for not being entirely authentic (this is even addressed in the credits, in a very tongue-in-cheek manner) although only extreme levels of scrutiny will reveal any flaws. In other words, you would need to be the ultimate spotter, who can identify incorrect rivets on a gun turret window frame, to notice and/or be bothered by it.

For the rest of the time, the rapid pace of an air war makes us forget that we are looking at a digital rendering, persuading us that the Lass is airborne once more! She looks and sounds just as she should. The attention to detail is not just limited to the aircraft; it would have been so easy for the makers to use generic patch-work quilt landscape scenery, but when we find ourselves peering down the bomb-sight we see an actual rendition of the city of Rome, complete with Coliseum.

Much has been said about the inauthentic dialogue too. Some scenes go as far to suggest the crew are none other than the grandfathers of the lads who star in American Pie, because of the way they speak of birds and boozing during their down-time.

A side-plot even involves a home-made (and thoroughly illegal) still, in which the characters extract alcohol from aviation fuel to make their own moonshine. Fittingly, the still’s owner is a red-haired lad called Bert (Chris Owen), who was none other than the Shermanator in the teen romp comedies! He even speaks of his still in the same way his adolescent alter-ego might talk of an elaborately constructed beer pong game many years later.

But, while this portrayal has been criticised by some, I actually found it strangely authentic. So perhaps they do speak in a fairly modern way … apart from the odd moment, it is not at all that noticeable! Considering the grim reality of fighting in the skies, it is not surprising to learn that crazy hijinks were not an uncommon way to unwind on an airbase. To quote one of the actors: “There’s more to being a bomber pilot than just flying.”

As for the crew’s actual fate, well, just remember that their moment of glory will come at a time when there was still no end in sight for the war. Whatever they achieve now will soon be buried under more bloodshed, and many more young men will be sacrificed before peace is won. Watch this in memory of these magnificent flying machines and the people who flew and fought in them. It might not carry the same impact as Memphis Belle, but I’d certainly watch this one again.

Image courtesy of Pete Markham, Flickr.

Welcome Back the Warfare

Friday, 18 November, 2011 Leave a comment
064-365 - I've Been Called to Duty Again

Image by eha1990 via Flickr

Modern Warfare 3 hit our stores ten days ago, designed to be a new marvel in the previously sensational series by Infinity Ward. Now I’m not sure what went wrong; whether it was the fact that Infinity Ward crumbled and joined with Sledgehammer Games, or some other technical issues I’m not aware of, but I was under the impression that Modern Warfare 3 was a new game. Now there are some good things about Modern Warfare 3. Its campaign is roughly ten hours (that’s being charitable, I played through on Veteran) of quick paced, fun gameplay. There’s some nice aesthetics and a range of different mechanics; from driving a military personal hovercraft to controlling a small remote-controlled assault vehicle. The main problem is that this is all the ‘unique’ gameplay that Modern Warfare 3 has to offer. For the other two games modes (Multiplayer and Spec Ops) it just feels like you’re playing on a Modern Warfare 2 map pack.

Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games have been so incredibly lazy on many fronts of this game. The interface has been ripped out of Modern Warfare 2 and put into Modern Warfare 3 relatively unchanged. It uses the same menus, the same little box when you kill someone or get killed, it even uses the same damned font. Now come on, if you’ve got a budget the size of a Call of Duty title, you could at least change something in the interface to keep things fresh, because despite many people (including me) buying it, you’re gameplay simply isn’t going to. Saying that, they have tried to include two new game modes, only one of which I think can actually be counted as new whereas the other is just as if somebody’s played with the coding of Capture the Flag.

Kill Confirmed is a really well executed new game mode in which, upon death, players drops their dog tags. The killer will get credit for the kill and their own personal points, but the team won’t benefit from the kill until the dog tags are picked up. However, if a member of the dead player’s team runs over the dog tags first, the kill is denied and they receive a point instead. First team to 65 points wins. I’ve spent quite a few hours playing Kill Confirmed, because it adds an extra level of gameplay to the overly used Team Deathmatch. Yes, it can be infuriating to kill four people only to be shot and have all four kills denied, but at the same time being the person who manages to deny half a dozen kills in the space of a few seconds makes it worthwhile.

The other new game mode is Team Defender, a Capture the Flag based game in which the first person to die drops a flag. That flag then remains on the map and must be held by the teams for as long as possible. Anyone who played the older Call of Duty games will remember something similar to this, called Hold the Flag a few years back. It’s essentially the same mode except the flag doesn’t appear until some poor sucker runs into a barrage of lead.

There are new game modes available in private matches but the majority of people I know aren’t in groups who play them, but if you’re one of the ‘lucky’ people who are you can look forward to six ‘new’ modes. Infected is the British Bulldog of CoD, where one player is infected and gradually infects other players who then join the infected team. There’s Drop Zone in which a team holds a drop zone to score points and receive care packages. Last of the original new modes are Team Juggernaut/Juggernaut which sees either two teams each with a juggernaught or a juggernaut against the rest of the players, fighting for dominance. Finally there’s Gun Game/One in the Chamber which former fans will remember from Black Ops’ wager matches.

When it comes down to what’s important, people will always buy Call of Duty games. I bought this Call of Duty game and will probably buy the next one if it promises to be better. Whether it lives up to its promises will be seen after Activision have my money and start using it to fund the next game, and so the vicious cycle continues. However, when I don’t want to think, and when I want to take a break from working painfully through coursework and exam prep; I still find Call of Duty fun…and in that respect its a success.

Book Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Blackwood’s Guide To Dangerous Fairies

Saturday, 5 November, 2011 1 comment

Three Stars: ***

An eerie Gothic tale, and not one to tell as a bed time story…

For centuries the ‘Hidden People’ were confined to fairy tale and legend, often told to entertain and scare children into obedience. But in this pseudo non-fictional prologue/field guide to the recent film release of the same name, the very origin of such stories is questioned. Based on the journal extracts of one Emerson Blackwood, we learn the fate of a man plunged into an increasingly insane world defiant of the rationale that he came to know as a naturalist, after he discovers an ancient link between science and folklore. Leading up to the chilling point which starts the movie, anyone who has watched it with a curious disposition towards the eerie ash pit the creatures spring from, would be well advised to indulge in this tale of obsession and destruction.

Guillermo Del Toro is a highly esteemed monster maker, and he has created a variety of hideous creations for the film industry, most notably in the Hellboy series and in Pans Labyrinth. Indeed, the child-eating ‘Pale Man’ from the latter, a demented figure with its eyes in its palms, is something from the worst of active imaginations. Here, his hungry horde of tooth guzzling goblins do not disappoint, although the pages of the guide itself conceal a whole host of horrific beings.

The bulk of the narrative is just as the title suggests, a guide cataloguing unpleasant creatures world-wide, in order to warn the unsuspecting of their dispositions. The names of these ghouls, such as Trolls, Pixies and Boggarts, will already be familiar to some, likely recalled from their own childhood or Harry Potter. Of course, the gruesome details of why these foul beasts should be avoided, are perhaps not. And some, like the French Croque-Mitaine and Chinese Xiang Yao, are even pictured, their spooky forms sketched in 19th Century style etchings. They are truely the stuff of nightmares and the images alone would be enough to deter any traveller!

It was a pleasure to find that the text mirrors a 19th Century format too, including traits such as a strong attention to detail, which helps build up a picture of the events going on around us. Of course, it is written in the first person perspective, but this only adds to the supposed authenticity. There is almost a Bram Stokeresque quality to it! The presentation is also to be applauded, the hardback cover adorned with the creepy mural of Emerson’s son being dragged to his horrific fate by the underground monsters. Such an image makes it look like a book you would expect to find only in the darkest corners of a library. It has a very Grimm feel to it indeed. Even the pages are pitch black.

While the back story of the Fairy Folk is explained in some detail, the narrative largely focuses on Emerson’s character and his mental status, as the years pass by and he inevitably arrives at his great tragedy, which is incidentally what this story is all about: a man succumbing to his own hubris, his thirst for knowledge. The field guide itself is really just an overview, and those who wish to know everything about the fairies and their Netherworld, might be a little disappointed to find that a lot is still left open to speculation! At the end of the day, we are limited to Blackwood’s own knowledge, and such questions can only be answered by his theories. For now.

Film Review: Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

Sunday, 23 October, 2011 5 comments

Fairy good creature feature: should be brought to light!

It is not unusual for an old house to make noises but eerie whispers are the last thing Sally, abandoned by her mother to the custody of her father and his new flame Kim (Katie Holmes), expects to hear coming from a vent in the basement of the 19th Century Blackwood Estate.

Angst: Sally (Bailee Madison) hears things that go bump in the night...

At first the voices seem playful and entice the girl’s curiosity, even encouraging her to remove the grill over the vent. But there are sinister motives at work in Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash, and when the owners of the voices reveal themselves in a terrifying encounter she sees them for what they are: homicidal fairy folk with a taste for children’s teeth!

Although it has been criticised for failing to work as a horror movie, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark does very well in other ways. The main focus does revolve more around the strained relationship between the girl, her father (Guy Pearce) and her step-mother, but this allows the film to illuminate a key theme: the angst of a terrified little girl, left to face her fears in isolation while her father deems any disturbances as a by-product of her irrational childhood behaviour.

She could easily be saved and yet he is too wrapped up in his own life to stop and care. Kim appears to eventually get through to her and realises something ominous is going on, but even her efforts are limited. In short, Sally is doomed from the start.

Del Toro’s creatures, ugly little grey goblins, are certainly hideous to look at but they spend a lot of time in the limelight. While this means audiences can contemplate their mysterious origin all the more, it does, apart from a couple of jumpy moments, make it rather difficult for them to scare us.

We become accustomed to their odd appearances, to the point where some have even described them as “cute” (I do not share such sentiments). Their mischievous and skittish nature, involving botched attempts to capture their prey, makes it harder still, to take them seriously.

Then again, their terrifying motive generates a sinister atmosphere from the start. You certainly wouldn’t want your children playing with these beasts, no matter what they say.

Before long, their latent viciousness is revealed, and they up their game, raiding the groundskeeper’s tool box for sharp objects! Perhaps this isn’t a scary horror, but it is a disturbing supernatural thriller.

After watching this one, you might feel happy enough to sleep with the lights off, but don’t be surprised if you find the creepy notion of the ‘hidden people’ staying with you a little while longer.

Four Stars: ****

Gears of War 3

Thursday, 13 October, 2011 Leave a comment
Gears of War (series)

Image via Wikipedia

2011 is the year of trilogy-ending instalments. Among the games with ‘3’ stapled to their titles this year was the one I was most looking forward to. For the past five years, Gears of War has been the driver of cover-based shooters. Many gamers see the Gears series as leading to generic shooters and a genre based on chest-high walls and slow, precise gameplay.

Gameplay

The new gameplay elements make this instalment feel a little more fast-paced than the others, with the turning a bit more responsive and the balancing of the weapons to mean that, especially in multiplayer, there’s less emphasis on just running round with overpowered shotguns. The weapons have been changed so that they all feel fresh: the hammerburst has a unique first person iron sights mode, the new retro lancer has a bayonet charge as well as the traditional lancer with its chainsaw; and there’s a range of new weapons including the aforementioned retro lancer and the Oneshot: a sniper rifle that kills enemies in, erm, one shot.

The game introduces four player cooperative play as well, which for some may be a really great addition to the series: for me it’s amounted to a painful amount of hours trying to gather up four people on Xbox live to get the sodding achievement for it. The single player campaign will take you somewhere between 10-15 hours depending on difficulty settings and your general skill, though if you intend to find all 57 hidden collectables/COG tags, you’re going to be there for a lot longer. some of them are excruciatingly hard (and I had to look up two of them online). I’ll go into them in more depth in a second, but Horde has now also received an upgrade, and I must say that Horde 2.0 is rapidly becoming an addiction of mine; and Beast mode is an all new mode with similar elements to Horde but you play as variants of the locust army out to kill the humans.

Graphics

They’re like Gears of War graphics have always been, with a bit more colour than brown. The settings this time around are largely more varied that in the previous games in the series. You get to roam around the underbelly and deck of a COG warship, the harsh streets of hammer of dawn-torn stranded territory, a tropical beach and a large destroyed holiday resort, to name a few. The game’s slightly more vibrant, with the dull greys and browns replaced by…well, often lighter greys and browns, but it’s Gears so you can’t really blame them.

Characters

Normally I wouldn’t cover characters in a review but there are a few pointers I want to put out there, and a few things that made me chuckle. The game brings in a couple of characters that the player won’t recognise from the previous games. One of these is Jace, and the other being Sam. However, this is where Epic Games has been incredibly clever, because Jace was actually in Gears of War 2 (heard but not seen) and Sam, well that’s even more subtle. Samantha Byrne, a COG and new member of Delta in Gears of War 3, was introduced in Gears of War: Anvil Gate. That’s the third in a series of four novels based on Gears of War, a brilliant step to promote the canon material of the series and one I respect Epic Games for including.

Another face that the players welcome in the newest instalment is Clayton Carmine, the third and oldest of the Carmine brothers. His armour, laden with the words “Grub Killer”, “Keep your head down” and “Practice reloading” offers a grim yet comical reference to his brothers’ fates, mirrored by the many near-death experiences he has in the course of the game. But the main question is, does he die? There’s a few surprises (provided you’re not up to speed on the novels) with some familiar faces returning.

Horde 2.0 and Beast

Horde 2.0 is a revamped, refuelled and revitalised version of the Gears of War 2 Horde mode. New additions include the ability to build fortifications around various ‘Command Posts’ and the inclusion of ‘boss levels’ every multiple of ten, which could spawn anything from a couple of berserkers to a brumak. Horde mode in Gears of War 3 is a thoroughly intense experience and is punishingly difficult in later levels, with the final level (50, as in Gears 2) being an infuriating dance with death on many occasions.

However, there are few things more satisfying than placing a headshot on a defenceless drone caught in your barbed wire, or the squelch of a bullet leaving a Silverback and entering the bowels of an unfortunate locust. Beast mode is the all new, shiny addition to the Gears series. Instead of playing as your beloved COGs in the quest to quell waves of locusts, you’re turning the tides and playing as one of the variants of locusts instead. Starting with a choice of five (Ticker, Wild Ticker, Wretch, Savage Drone or Butcher) you fight through twelve waves of increasingly higher amounts of humans and ‘hero’ characters (main game NPCs). For everything you make go boom, you get more money to spend on bigger locust to cause even bigger booms. What’s not to love?

Multiplayer

The multiplayer in Gears of War 3 was hotly anticipated, with a generally well received beta testing and the promise of a more balanced experience. And it’s been pulled off relatively well for the most part. The maps are generally small, with distinct sections that are easily distinguishable and make the maps easy to learn.

Unlike multiplayer modes in games like Call of Duty, you don’t unlock better weapons for levelling up. This means that players on level 100 have access to the same arsenal as those beginning the game. This makes the game all about your ability. Practice will get you better, and you don’t have to worry about someone coming up with weapons that are far more overpowered (we’ll leave the sawed-off shotgun debate well alone here…yes, I do use it).

What’s more, due to the tweaking that’s been made to the weapons, the new multiplayer is no longer a shotgun free-for-all as Gears 2’s multiplayer became; the rifles are powerful and shouldn’t be overlooked. Ribbons and medals offer a good incentive to play the multiplayer, but Epic Games have really faltered on the key point of not making the ribbons and medals public. To me, this defeats the object of collecting such things for the purpose of ‘bragging rights’ if other players have no way of actually seeing the things you’ve achieved. There’s still hope that this may be patched at a later date, but I’m sure they have far better instalments planned for the DLC.

My Verdict

While I am resting my review on a point of being an avid fan of the Gears of War series, I’ve always had nagging complaints about the game: horribly easy final boss battles, sluggish gameplay in places, and schizophrenic storytelling in others. However, I do say with quite some conviction that I couldn’t think of a better way for them to have wrapped up first Gears of War trilogy. Gears of War 3 is a smoothly executed game that has provided and will go on to provide many hours of brilliant gaming.