Thursday, 25 July 2013

Pacific Rim Review

Go Big or Go Extinct

Go see this film. Stop reading and go. Now.

Pacific Rim is fun. It is entertaining and an absolute blast to see in the cinema. I would seriously recommend you see it in the cinema too. Even if you only have a passing interest in it, do not wait for the DVD or for it to come on Netflix, experience it on a huge screen with thundering speakers surrounding you because that is half the reason why Pacific Rim is so fun.

When a group of giant monsters, known as the Kaiju, begin to attack earth through an inter-dimensional rift, the Earth's nations band together to create a group of giant defensive robots known as Jaegers. However as the Jaeger program seems to be faltering against the insurmountable odds posed by the Kaiju, the last few Jaegers remaining on Earth are brought together for one last assault.

Ok. Go back and read that last paragraph again. Giant monsters. Giant Robots. This film is everything you could expect from just those two phrases alone. The scale of the action sequences is mind blowing, the choreography of the fight sequences defy you not to smile as the stakes just get higher and higher with each ear rumbling punch thrown.

Surprisingly, it isn't all just dumb fighting on a gigantic scale. Guillermo del Toro manages to create quite a smart, all be it basic, futuristic world with well thought out incidental details (for example slums that spring up against the remains of the Kaiju bones). The neural bridge that is used to connect the two pilots simultaneously controlling a Jaeger proves to be a surprising touching element. The thought of sharing someone’s memories and being in their head is quite the romantic notion.

The most note worthy element to this film has got to be the art direction. A lot of work must have gone into creating the design of the Jaegers (each one looks different) and the look of each Kaiju (who look completely different from one and other). They look authentic (as authentic as something like that could look!) and seem to be based on years of evolution, as each one is adapted to its mission and surroundings.

Pacific Rim won't win any awards for Best Actor. It's screenplay won't be remembered as a great work of art, revered in Universities in the future. Pacific Rim sets out to entertain you and it thoroughly does so from start to finish. If you have a passing interest in Sci Fi, robots, monster movies, action, cinematic experiences or just plain having fun go see this film.

As I said before. Go see it!


Monday, 22 July 2013

The Last of Us

Please note, there are no spoilers in this review.

On Playstation 3

The Last of Us represents the end of an era in many ways. It is one of the last big titles on the Playstation 3, it represents the culmination to a body of work from developer Naughty Dog and it embodies a high point to a particular style of game we've seen many, many times this generation.

Throughout the last ten years we have seen more and more big budget titles, with blockbuster presentation values and grandiose stories. Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Bioshock and Uncharted are just a few that come to mind. The Last of Us is the climax to that particular ideology and design philosophy. It is by far the best amongst them.

One of the main talking points about The Last of Us is it's story. Set in a post apocalyptic world destroyed by a cordyceps virus (a spore fungus that infects the brain and triggers mutation), The Last of Us follows the journey and relationship of Joel and Ellie. Without giving any details away, the narrative is gripping, it is tense, it is emotional and it asks many questions. Key among those: how far would you go for the last of yours? There are many variants of the “us” within the game. Separate factions and groups, all who answer that very question in different ways. Whether that answer may help our protagonists on their journey or not. More often than not that answer is also incredibly violent and morally grey.

Joel and Ellie are wonderfully realised in a manner that is not commonly found in video games. Both feel real, their relationship feels real and the ups and downs within that relationship feel real. The performance, through voice work and motion capture, made me care immensely. Both go on an emotional journey, both have flaws and are paradoxical, and together they make you emotionally invest in their story.

Their story is really the highlight here. Gameplay, while serviceable, is nothing to rant and rave about and this has become a common theme throughout this particular style of game. The Last of Us shares the same flaws as Bioshock Infinite, Max Payne 3 and many others. There is a disconnect between the gameplay and narrative – however unlike previous titles, The Last of Us takes significant steps to reduce the dissonance. Resources are scarce and scavenging becomes both a game play mechanic and narrative element. The gameplay doesn't award points for stealth or action, both are what they are and either choice isn't celebrated or punished. This is a fact of the world The Last of Us is set in.

It is a violent world and violence is just tolerated, it is a fact of life. The slow movement and “tanky” controls help to convey the underlying tension that runs throughout the narrative as every gun fight becomes a game of resource management and self preservation – exactly how it would in a barren wasteland world.

My biggest gripe with the gameplay is the fact that when you are in control, Ellie cannot be detected by enemies. It rarely plays a factor but when it does become obvious that she is essentially invisible to them, it does take you out of the moment a little. Here is a story based on survival, survival of this couple and yet her safety is not a factor when you are in control.

This is where improvement needs to be made. Talking about character and narrative is fine but form and craft has to be taken into account. A perfect delivery of dialogue is both performance from the actor and the crafting of a director. In this instance the craft needed to be of a higher standard to keep in line with the high quality narrative. Treating the narrative and gameplay as two separate entities is a flaw of the particular design philosophy and ideology The Last of Us exploits to it's advantage and, at times, disadvantage.

Regardless of the gameplay slip ups, The Last of Us is still a fantastic game. It is the best game on Playstation 3 because it tells a story with conviction, with passion and heart. The big moments are not huge explosions or fight scenes but quiet, tender moments in a car, with two characters conversing. The key moments are not the blaring gun fire but the eerie guitar strum and a lingering camera shot across the desolate landscape. It steps away from conventional “press X to be hero and O to be villain” and presents an unflinching and uncompromising ending that many may not see coming.

The Last of Us represents, to me, the very reason why I dream to get involved in such an industry. To be able to lose yourself in such a lovingly crafted world is the best form of escapism, it has been true for the longest time with novels and stories. It is the same with this.


Saturday, 13 July 2013

Brave New Expansion

Civilization V – Brave New World

Available on PC. Requires Civilization V to play.

If you follow me on Twitter or know me personally you may have known that over the last few days I’ve been lost in the world of Civilization. I've managed to, wilfully, spend hours upon hours on this iconic franchise. You can't help but think... just... one... more... turn. You really can't!

Civilization V, when released a few years ago, was met with mixed reactions. Many called it's predecessor, Civilization IV, a better game and up until the recent expansion I would have agreed. Brave New World manages to elevate Civilization V to heights beyond the games that came before with the introduction of Tourism, World Congress, Archaeology, several new civilizations to choose from, enhanced trading, revamped social policy trees and the introduction of an ideology tree.

These new features, combined with features introduced in the first expansion Gods and Kings (FYI – the Faith and Espionage systems introduced in Gods and Kings come with Brave New World – the additional Civilizations from this expansion, however, do not), help shape every section of a typical play through into something engaging, dynamic and devilishly captivating.

Before this expansion, I often found late game to be about the acquisition of whichever currency lead to your desired victory. Science, Culture, Gold or Units for military dominance. Gods and Kings introduced Faith to make the early game a little more dynamic with the ability to slightly enhance and buff your civilization to tailor your needs. The espionage mechanic allowed for trickery and spying, stealing peoples technology or setting civilizations against each other which made the mid-game more intriguing. Brave New World seeks to make the end game a lot of interesting and one of the key mechanics to do so is the World Congress.

Once the Industrial Era has been reached by a majority of the Civs in the game, the first Civ to have encountered every other player in the game earlier becomes the host nation for World Congress. This congress can vote on various policies and rules that change the rule set of the game going forward. Congress can vote to embargo certain players or civilizations. They can outlaw certain luxury resources (say Ivory or Sugar) deeming them immoral and worthless. Congress can impose larger restrictions like a World Religion with the Civilization that founded said religion gaining huge benefits or eventually meeting to elect a World Leader. Being elected World Leader is a key stage in attaining a diplomatic victory and the pursuit of such a victory creates for fantastic political intrigue, backstabbing and drama.

In a recent game, as the USA, I put all my focus into controlling the political stage. I did this through my economy. With the wealth I was able to amass I was able to buy tiles with the resources I would later need for trade, I was able to buy the influence of the City States within the game granting me their votes at Congress and I was able to keep certain opposing players in check with bribes of gold. Everything was going swimmingly. I was able to wrest control of World Congress and name myself the Host Nation with a majority vote. I was on track to becoming World Leader and winning the game. Twenty Five turns to turns to victory. The United Nations was about to convene for the Fourth Congress of Washington and then war broke out. A massive global war, lead by the treacherous Spanish who had been my allies for the entire game. The rest of my opponents declared war against me and my City State allies. They even went as far as to invade and capture the City States I was using to vote for me. They invaded every city I owned and pillaged my network of trading posts and factories.

I came so close. As frustrating as it was, I would have done the same if another player was close to becoming World Leader. I should have dealt with some of them earlier and this really is the beautiful thing about Civilization V. The constant feeling of “I can do better!” and the ability to tell your own sweeping stories that span the entire globe and through era upon era of time. There are no story lines, there are no cut scenes. This is a game about exploration of mechanics which provides you with the beautiful ability to create a story around your play time – like I just did above.

This inherent history is taken advantage of through the games Archaeology system. At the very start of the game, as you set the founding blocks of your first city, barbarian camps and ancient ruins frequently spawn. As you clear these camps and ruins to protect your new nation or to make room the game keeps note of what battle took place where. When Archaeology is discovered thousands of years later, those same camps and ruins return as dig sites where you can discover great works of art and ancient artifacts to increase your Tourism rating.

Tourism is another new addition to the game and the best way I can describe its use is by referring to Tourism as an offensive statistic and Culture as a defensive statistic. Tourism is how appealing you are to other nations and Culture is a currency that you can spend to further augment your overall persona. Some are happy to follow your ways of life, others not so much. Manage to be the most influential Civilization and you'll win. The buildings that you produce in your cities also come with Great Work “slots”. These slots are filled by the artifacts and great works produced by your Civilization, or through trade, increasing your Tourism. Additionally, these buildings can be themed and if you manage to match the theme for a specific building (for example, great works of art from the same time period and civilization) it increases that bonus even further. This create quite an addictive little mini game as you barter with your enemies or allies for certain pieces of art from a certain age, or scour the world for dig sites before you opponents can snap them up.

Nothing is perfect though and sometimes the AI can really be rather dumb. A few times AI controlled players have been utterly unreasonable about trade. Demanding obscene amounts of resources or heavily stacking trades in their favour. Sometimes decades of peace can lead to political strife for no apparent reason. Their voting can sometimes be questionable at the World Congress table, with smaller Nations just “going with the flow” rather than banding together to make a more viable difference.

Still, these minor quirks a side, the additions brought on by Brave New World manage to create a game that will grab a hold of you and only let go when you are crawling away suffering from starvation and fatigue. All with a smile on your face about the deal you made for Sugar with Portugal that one time in the 1300's

Still not convinced I hear you say?!

It seems like a difficult game to get into?

Well how would you like to try out Civilization IV? Because I have not one but TWO free copies to give away on Steam!

All you need to do is share/retweet the relevant link that brought you here and leave me a comment telling me something funny! (This part is optional but it might increase your chances of winning! :P). I'll randomly pick two lucky winners on Friday 19th July 2013. Obviously, you need some form of a Steam account and a PC to play the game.


Monday, 8 July 2013

Inner Fire

It may not be a huge thing to some people. I know a lot of people are able to say the same thing however this is huge to me. I'm graduating!

I'm not going to sit here and rave about the degree or my marks or anything like that. It's done and i'm very proud to have a degree in English Language and Literature with Creative Writing. What I do want to say is this:

Thank you to my family. Especially those who have stuck around for the last decade while things didn't always go the way I wanted them to do. I'm not going to go into minute detail here however over the last ten years my life was beset by set backs, family tragedies, health issues and a general sense of negativity. It's no secret that some of the members of my extended family don't keep in contact and I'm not angry at them, not any more. I'm thankful for the impact they've had on my life. They too have helped shaped me to become the person I am today.

Thanks to the friends that have been around, those of you that have come and gone over the years. Even though at times I never wanted to see that you guys were around, you were. In person, over the phone or over the interwebs you guys were around and you kept me going when I didn't want to go any more. Some of you i've only just met at University, students and staff alike, and you have become my closest friends. I hope to keep in touch and continue the wonderful relationships I have with you people.

Lastly, and this really is the main reason why i'm writing such a post, is to send a message to anyone out there who might be reading – whether I know you or not. There were times when I didn't want to wake up in the morning, when I hoped I wouldn't. There were times when things got so bad or I lost some really important people that I didn't know where I'd find the strength to make it another day. There were times when I was physically unable to do what I wanted or what I had looked forward to. These times got me down. These times informed most of my day to day life. These times cost me relationships and opportunities.

Not any more. It takes a moment and that moment may come in some way you may not expect. For me it was a realisation that I was not living up to the advice that one of my closest cousins gave to me – someone who I miss very, very much to this day. That realisation lit a fire under me that still burns to this day. Until then I had lost hope.

You might be down. You might almost be out. There may be people around you telling you pick yourself up, to do this or that. There may even be people around you that are keeping you down. Everything you knew about your life my change, fall apart and crumble. Don't lose hope. Change will come but you have to find it within yourself to grasp that momentum, to take that helping hand and to move yourself forward in a positive manner. Self conviction and belief are the two key things you need. I believe you can do it but it doesn't matter what I believe, it's up to you.

Normally I wouldn't really take it upon myself to write a post like this. I like to talk to people and help them out as best I can but doing it in this way just isn't me. However it wasn't until a friend of mine, who i've really only just got to know and I regret I never made the effort to do so earlier, told me that she smiled at my dumb tweets filled with bits of positivity. That really made me think. I didn't know I was having that affect on people. Maybe I can make someone else smile with this, maybe I can give them that little bit of hope.

Some of you may think this is directly aimed at you. I can honestly say that i've not had anyone particular in mind when I wrote this but if you feel that way then take it as such. I am talking to you. Yes, you. You can do it. I did.