The Vincibles

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Time for another Arsenal post, as yesterday saw the Gunners lose 3-2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford in an insipid performance. This is comfortably the worst Manchester United side in over twenty years, but somehow Arsenal contrived to lose a must-win game against a team largely comprising a mixture of unproven youngsters and ageing has-beens. After their last-minute defeat of Leicester City a couple of weeks ago, Arsenal were supposedly back in contention for the league title, just two points behind Leicester. But Arsenal’s performances have been dire for months now, and yesterday’s thoroughly dreadful and tame display puts paid to any notion that this is a team of potential champions. Leicester and Tottenham both won this weekend, and Arsenal are now five points adrift of the league leaders in third place.

I recently read Invincible, an account of the 2003-4 season, the last year Arsenal won the league. The book reminded me of two phrases which were always used to describe Arsenal’s style of football back then: “progression with possession” and “explosive pace”. Those virtues could not be further from Arsenal’s current style, which is characterized by sterile build-up play, partly due to a lack of movement and control of space. It often feels like Arsenal players just don’t want the ball, and there are often no forward or even sideways options for a pass. Players are often careless in possession, especially the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott who regularly dribble into touch or opposition players, often turning the ball over in dangerous areas. Combined with an appalling reluctance to track back, such turnovers often result in goalscoring opportunities for the other team. Going forward, the team’s finishing ranges from woeful to disgraceful. In the last few minutes of the Leicestser game, before Danny Welbeck’s winner in the fifth minute of injury time, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott shinned wide brilliant chances from around the penalty spot, while Per Mertesacker headed wide from about six yards out when it should have been easier to score. Arsenal players have a pathological inability to score goals.

There has been a great deal of ink spilled over Arsenal’s need for a ‘world class striker’, which for me is wide of the mark. Olivier Giroud is no Thierry Henry but he has done a decent job for Arsenal, on the whole, and has largely carried the team’s attack this season. The problem is not Giroud but the fact there are no goals coming from elsewhere in the team. Last year Arsenal were massively overreliant on Alexis Sanchez. Alexis has been in dire form recently, but that’s probably due to mental burnout after two years of pretty much constantly playing, plus travelling around the world to represent his home nation, Chile. His (surely temporary) decline was completely predictable and Arsenal should have bought another proven goalscoring winger to take the pressure off Alexis. There’s a dearth of ‘world class strikers’ around, but even if you accept that finding a better striker than Giroud was impossible, there’s no reason Arsenal couldn’t have bought another winger like Kevin de Bruyne, Julian Draxler or even Mario Gotze if they really wanted to. Instead, Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger chose to ‘make do’ and run Alexis into the ground, with the results that we are seeing now.

Even Thierry Henry had Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and Wiltord to support him, but this Arsenal side has no midfielders who can be relied on to score goals. Mesut Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world and must be at the end of his tether over the inability of his teammates to do anything with the service he provides. Who could blame him if he decides to move on at the end of this season. This season Ozil has been regularly flanked by clowns like Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, players who can’t defend, pass, score, or assist, but who certainly specialize in securing lucrative contract agreements for themselves. Joel Campbell, an earnest and more modest figure than either of those two, has been banished for the team for unknown reasons despite the fact he can contribute a lot more to the team’s all-round game.

Arsenal’s defence looks good on paper, but has not performed well consistently for some time. Per Mertesacker is being phased out of the team, his lack of pace meaning he can be caught out of position from time to time. But much of this is not his fault but a function of the way Arsenal often give the ball away with seven players ahead of the ball, meaning teams can swiftly counterattack and isolate Arsenal’s big German. Rather than drop him they might want to reconsider their tactics. His replacement, Brazilian Gabriel Paulista, has put in some shocking performances lately, straight out of the Squill-vestre school of defending. Earlier comparisons to Martin Keown look misplaced now. Laurent Koscielny is a good defender but seems prone to dips in confidence and is not a leader on the pitch.

Arsenal’s midfield is a joke, without a central fulcrum who can make a pass. I have never been a big fan of Santi Cazorla but he did a decent job of transitioning play for Arsenal until a serious injury earlier this season. The ageing midfield pairing of ‘Flarteta’ have belatedly been cast out of the first-team picture; Mikel Arteta’s last performance saw him come on as a substitute, score an own goal, and go off injured. The absurdity is that Arsenal do not have one other player in their squad who is capable of reliably managing the transition in possession from defense to attack. It’s insane.

The person responsible for this mess is Arsene Wenger. This Arsenal team is 100% Wenger’s creation, and he has had huge freedom in selecting these players team. Arsenal these days are one  of the richest clubs in the world. Their rivals for the league this year have not been the richer teams from Manchester or Chelsea, but poorer teams. Man U, City, Chelsea, and Liverpool are all clubs in transition; there will never be an easier season for Arsenal to win the league. But they seem determined not to take advantage of the opportunity. For all that I hate the hackneyed use of terms like ‘winning mentality’ that lazy pundits rely on in the absence of any insight or understanding, it is actually true that a desire to win and to push yourself to your limit is important in competitive sport. Some of Arsenal’s players clearly lack that desire, and as a collective they are being shown up by teams with fewer advantages who seem to want it more (and also play better football).

Although this Arsenal team is particularly bad, they have been this way on and off for about ten years. The personnel have changed, but the one constant is Arsene Wenger. I have huge respect and admiration for Wenger and his achievements but he really should have moved on from Arsenal years ago. The routine humiliations by clubs like Man U and Chelsea were bad enough, but in the last couple of years Arsenal have shown themselves capable of losing to anyone. The club is crying out for a new manager. This season, for the first time ever I look at clubs like Spurs, West Ham and Southampton with envy. Who can say Pochettino, Bilic or Koeman wouldn’t do better than Wenger with these players? In the past, no matter how bad things looked I always thought Wenger would turn it round. Now I really feel as if his time at Arsenal has run its course, and he needs to leave. I don’t even think we’ll finish in the top four this season, at this rate.

Arsenal travel to Spurs next Saturday for a game every Arsenal fan must look at in horror. Spurs might not be top of the table but are the form team and surely must be viewed as favourites now to win this year’s Premier League title. Even in recent years as Arsenal have struggled relative to Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal have always been better than their bitter north London rivals. But this season Spurs are playing much better football, playing with belief and togetherness. Most importantly, the days of Harry Redknapp and Tim Sherwood are a distant memory, and in Mauricio Pochetinno Spurs have a young and astute manager. You also have to recognize the role of their chairman Daniel Levy for getting them to this point. While Spurs are over-performing, Arsenal’s under-performance is ultimately the fault of the board, owner Stan Kroenke and CEO Ivan Gazidis. At bottom, the club doesn’t care about winning and just wants to make a profit and have loads of cash in the bank. The attitude of the players on the pitch is a reflection of that philosophy (in some cases it is literally the same).

Wenger rightly gets credit for Arsenal’s success in 1997-2004. So too does David Dein, whose vision was instrumental in creating that side. But Danny Fiszman also played a vital role in shaping that success, by providing the funding for Arsenal to sign players like Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. That set the club on the road for the major success they enjoyed over the subsequent decade. In the end, it all comes back to money, and while Arsenal’s current regime is in place, there are few reasons for Arsenal fans to be cheerful.

Bioshock: Infinite (PC) – Review

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Bioshock: Infinite is an impressive game, and one of the best examples of video game storytelling in recent years. Its similarities to Half-Life 2 are striking, not just in how well it tells its interesting story, but in the freedom it allows you when interacting with its world. Infinite doesn’t feature anything as revolutionary as HL2’s Gravity Gun, but its Vigor spell system does give combat enough variation and colour to keep things interesting.

The Vigor system is important because Infinite’s gunplay is one of its weakest elements. Combat is always hectic and enjoyable enough, but you can get through the whole game with a couple of basic tactics, and enemies never really feel like they present much of a threat. The only exception are the Handymen, man-machine hybrids who are like this game’s answer to the Big Daddies from earlier in the series. Handymen present the game’s only serious challenge and are quite under-used; they also have an interesting backstory which doesn’t really come across very much. It’s a shame, as most of the rest of the combat ends up feeling quite repetitive. There is a reasonable variety to the game’s weaponry but combat often lacks weight and the explosive weapon types all feel very underwhelming, meaning you will normally end up sticking with a few of the available options throughout the 12-hour campaign.

Elizabeth is at your side for most of the game and is a brilliant companion. She behaves very intelligently and her pacing and positioning are flawless throughout. Although never involved in combat directly, Elizabeth does provide health and ammo supplies, picks locks, and can open ‘tears’ in reality which do things like establish friendly gun emplacements or provide cover. She’s a pivotal part of gameplay and the main reason the game remains fun to play for more than a few hours.

Elizabeth is also central to the story. Bioshock: Infinite is a model of narrative exposition, and Columbia’s peculiar environments are beautifully designed, well conceived and internally consistent. The personal drama at the centre of the story is interesting throughout, although I can take or leave its exploration of metaphysics and the nature of reality, which I felt was ultimately light-minded and casual. That said, this is a mainstream video game, so we shouldn’t expect too much I suppose.

But I do have one major objection to the game’s story. Columbia is a dystopian state run along the lines of a fascistic, white-supremacist, fundamentalist Christian ideology, where the poor and ethnic minorities are kept under constant, brutal subjugation. A major part of the game’s early stages see the popular, multi-racial ‘Vox Populi’ democratic movement rising up against the dictatorship of Zachary Comstock. Although it is never explicitly said, the imagery associated with the rebellion all comes from socialist and trade union movements. As the game progresses the rebellion swiftly degenerates into a campaign of indiscriminate murder and bloodshed, and the player is tasked with killing wave after wave of Vox Populi zealots. Essentially, the game portrays the two sides of the conflict–the fascist dictatorship, and the popular movement against it–as the same thing.

The first game in the Bioshock series made significant use of the cynical, individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand to shape its world and story. Although Infinite does not explicitly refer to Rand’s ‘Objectivist’ philosophy, I found the way the game demonizes collective action for progressive social change to be distasteful and offensive. This is a matter of personal taste, of course, and many people will be either indifferent to this aspect of the game, or even positively embrace it. But for me, it means that while I can appreciate and respect the game’s artistry and craft, this is not a game I like, nor is it one that I will come back to. Considering how much I liked the game when I started playing it, that’s too bad.

8/10

Django Unchained (film) – Review

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Abolitionist John Brown, whose ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry was a precursor to the American Civil War.

As a teenager I was a big Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs ranked among my favourite films, and I thought Jackie Brown was pretty good, too. I even found Kill Bill entertaining when it came out, God forgive me. But as I got older I’ve developed an increasing dislike for his films, and for his obsession with style over substance. Still, the revered cultural status of his work means his films are everywhere and I see them all eventually, and last weekend I saw Django Unchained on Netflix.

Set across the Deep South a couple of years before the American Civil War, Django Unchained follows the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is recruited as a sort of business partner by sympathetic white German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz soon decides to award Django his freedom and, because he feels responsible for him, also decides to help Django find his wife, who has been sold off to another plantation. Their search leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a place known as Candieland.

The film revels in portraying the horror and barbarity of slavery, with lurid punishment and cruelty on full display at Candie’s plantation. Indeed, the film is only really interested in theatrical violence, and Tarantino’s artistic temperament means he largely shies away from the endless drudgery and physical labour that was a slave’s daily lot. Slavery in Django Unchained comes across less as an economic system and more as the joint enterprise of some unspeakably evil white men. This is important to the film because it provides the mental framework for the catharsis experienced through its extreme, stylised violence, as Django shoots his way through Candie’s plantation. The success of Django’s individual campaign renders this less a work of historical fiction than a work of historical fantasy.

The early part of the film revolves around Schultz taking down assorted bad guys so he can claim their bounties. It basically serves as a long section to show off what a charismatic killer he is, while also being a fundamentally decent guy, thus showing that not all white people are evil. Waltz pulls it off fairly well, but the place of his role in the film reminded me too much of Inglorious Basterds, and I felt they should have cast another actor. The shallowness of the role is also exposed by the fact that Tarantino loses all interest in Schultz as soon as DiCaprio makes an appearance: Schultz goes from the brilliant centre of attention to an ineffective nobody in the blink of an eye. It’s as if Tarantino can only have (at most) one interesting character onscreen at a time.

DiCaprio gives a hugely charismatic performance, and Candie is one of the few interesting characters in the film; he also has a penchant for unspeakable cruelty. Candie is responsible for the two most excruciating scenes in the film, one involving a sort of gladiatorial fight to the death between two slaves, and another scene where a slave is ripped apart by dogs. But this is a very long film, and DiCaprio is only in about half of it, so he can’t carry it on his own. The film suffers massively whenever he isn’t on screen.

In the early part of the film Django plays a largely mute and passive role, although he eventually becomes highly proficient at killing slavers. It’s not explained where his skill comes from: he just seems to become a top-class gunslinger out of nowhere. I’ve never had much time for Foxx as an actor and his leaden performance here does not invest Django with any depth or personality. The character has no humour, finesse or subtlety. I groaned every time Django was provoked and his hand flew towards his pistol grip. Free man or not, the idea that one man on his own could survive in a situation like this while surrounded by dozens of racist slavers, armed to the teeth, all desperate to kill him, is just absurd.

This is what annoyed me most about the film: although it does show horrific cruelty and suffering, simultaneously it makes defeating slavery look like the easiest thing ever. There is a scene early on when a gang of about 50 white supremacist slavers are hunting Schultz and Django, who are able to kill and humiliate the entire group with one simple ruse. The slavers are made to look even more incompetent and foolish by a ‘hilarious’ section, featuring none other than Jonah Hill, about not being able to see out of KKK hoods. Scenes like this just make the institution of slavery look like a big joke. On the contrary, it took a civil war to abolish slavery, and its legacy is still fundamental to American society. Some people have criticized the film’s rampant use of the n-word, as well, and it certainly made me feel uneasy. The defense of ‘historical context’ can be used, but there are plenty of other areas where the film plays free and easy with historical accuracy (not least that there is apparently scant evidence for ‘gladiatorial’ combat between slaves in the American south).

Ever since Kill Bill, Tarantino has littered his films with references to Sergio Leone films, and this time he really goes overboard. I don’t like to acknowledge Tarantino’s nods to Leone, an artist I hugely admire, because they feel more like pastiche than homage. The most ostentatious reference is the cloying theme, composed by Ennio Morricone. The gratuitous violence probably owes more to Peckinpah than Leone, but whereas in a film like the Wild Bunch the context gives the violence meaning, here it feels surreal, done almost for laughs. Django killing slavers is like watching someone kill Nazi zombies in Call of Duty. Finally, at almost three hours, the film is very bloated, taking about an hour too long to tell its relatively simple story.

This is another film which received preposterous levels of critical acclaim and puffing up when it was released. Viewed now in the cold light of day, it comes across as a vacuous, insincere, exploitative film, with DiCaprio’s performance its one saving grace. More and more I see parallels between Tarantino and Hideo Kojima, not just in the hollowness of their work but in their critical status. They’re like artistic Pied Pipers operating in different media but with the same kind of cult-like critical and popular following. For me, their respective success highlights much of what is worst about our popular culture.

4/10

XCOM 2 (PC) – First Impressions

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I got my XCOM 2 and Body Harvest folders mixed up, but you can excuse the error.

The launch of XCOM 2 has been a model advertisement for console gaming. Developers Firaxis decided to make this game desktop-only, available only via Steam, in contrast to the last XCOM which came out on 360 and PS3 as well. The reason was supposedly so that development would be more straightforward and so Firaxis could focus on making the best possible experience for gamers (don’t laugh).

Having spent a few hours with XCOM 2 last night, I’m seriously unimpressed with Firaxis, publishers 2K, and Valve/Steam. Purchasers have reported widespread performance issues with the game, which do not affect every machine–but they certainly affect mine. Although the game’s cutscenes look good, the rendered graphics suffer from atrocious framerate issues, with massive jumping and stuttering. This is especially apparent during action scenes, but it even happens during dialogue and exposition, and it really spoils any sense of immersion. The mission environments also sport some really ugly textures. During the first tutorial mission I was, frankly, disgusted by the graphics, where the environmental textures and generic enemy armour skins brought to mind an N64 game or some cheap and nasty free-to-play game. Not at all what you expect from a brand-new, £35, supposedly AAA game. The game also sports the worst loading times I’ve encountered since playing an unpatched copy of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.

You might think it’s unfair to dwell on this too much, as the problems have been acknowledged and Firaxis say they are ‘working furiously’ to fix things. But it beggars belief that a game can get to launch with such rampant and ruinous issues–when it has been developed specifically for PC–without anyone at Firaxis or 2K putting a stop to it. The fact that the game is PC-only makes it even worse. At least if it was on consoles some gamers could choose to play it on another device. As it stands, it’s more or less pot luck whether the game will run properly on your machine. My own PC is not exactly super top-end, but it can run AC: Black Flag, Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution and RE6 on top settings without problems, so it should be more than adequate to run this game smoothly. (It doesn’t make any difference if I set the graphical settings to the lowest possible, the performance issues remain–although they are worse if I set the settings to ‘High’.)

Another disappointment has been the fact the game supposedly was developed with native support for the Steam Controller in mind. I foolishly pre-ordered a Steam Controller about a year ago, and since it arrived I have found it to be completely unusable; it feels more like a novelty tech demo than something anyone would actually expect to play a game with. So I was excited to try it with a game sort-of designed for it. I was amused therefore to find that the game informed me that controllers were not supported (lol), but I could try it anyway. After trying to start the game in Big Picture mode and waiting for 5 or 10 minutes for the game to initialize, I gave up. I had to close down the game and Big Picture mode in task manager and boot the game normally (using my mouse) to get it to load, which it then did immediately. Seriously, Big Picture mode and the Steam Controller just feel to me like monuments to Valve’s endless narcissism.

So… what about XCOM 2’s actual gameplay? Well, beneath all the technical issues this is still XCOM, and it’s good fun. I found the set-up for the game’s story kind of annoying, as it basically says “Remember kicking the aliens asses in the last game? Humanity lost anyway–LOL!” So the scene is set to go through more or less the same process as in the first game. Back in 2013, I thought aspects of the first game’s story strongly brought to mind Mass Effect, and that resemblance is even more pronounced here. But nobody plays XCOM for the story. Tactical combat remains fun, and although the tutorial is quite easy–I got ‘Flawless’ ranks on my first couple of missions despite making a few mistakes–it still feels tense and dramatic.

One change I liked is that the scenery is more destructible than before, which can make it easier for you to turn the tide of battle in your favour, by blowing up enemy cover. I expect it can be used against you later on, too. You’re also able to set up Overwatch ambushes, which is a really cool system that has the potential to set up some awesome emergent gameplay moments. Well, if your framerate doesn’t ruin things, that is. The soldier class archetypes are still there, but there is a twist to each of them which makes them feel fresh and edgy. I also liked how the look of the soldiers is more badass than before, with your squaddies sporting a plethora of cool hairdos, shades, and baseball caps.

So, there is probably a really good XCOM game in here somewhere, and I look forward to playing it. But it’s risible that the game was made available for sale in this condition, inspiring cynicism about everyone involved.

Bring back Advance Wars

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In my family, we’ve been playing Nintendo games for over 25 years, since we first got a NES back around 1990. Since then we’ve owned almost every system Nintendo have put out: two or three Super Nintendos, N64, two Gamecubes, Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Advance, two DS’s, Wii, Wii U, two 3DS’s. My brother and I joke about Nintendo’s fondness for remaking the same games over and over on new consoles: sometimes making virtually the same game, sometimes literally releasing the same game, except in HD, 3D, or whatever. But considering the unparalleled strength of the company’s stable of characters, and the unmatched quality of the back catalogue, it’s understandable.

I’ve just purchased my first 3DS, persuaded to do so at last by the release of the new Fire Emblem games. I love the series and played all of the other games released in the West on GBA and DS. It’s good to see that Nintendo is giving the series such love and that it has been commercially successful. But I was surprised when looking up developer Intelligent Systems’ other franchise, Advance Wars (also referred to as Nintendo Wars), that the last entry in that series was Days of Ruin, which I remember playing on the DS way back in 2008. That was before I bought my 360, ie, two whole console generations ago.

Advance Wars is a series of top-down, tactical combat games with a modern military feel but an (on the whole) cartoony and light-hearted aesthetic. Several AW games were released on GBA and DS and they were all critically acclaimed, especially the first. Unfortunately, it seems that the games didn’t sell exceptionally well; sales figures are difficult to find, but it seems none broke a million, selling a few hundred thousand copies each. Days of Ruin (called Dark Conflict in Europe) was a very good game, but suffered from a bizarre dual-translation–it was translated separately at the same time in North America and Europe, and the characters were named differently as well–and the ‘darker’, more mature theme was not well received. But the basic gameplay remained intact, and the game features a pretty awesome prog-metal inspired soundtrack, too.

Considering the mainstream success of Fire Emblem, I assumed that Nintendo would still be churning out AW games as well, but apparently not. There’s no hint of another Advance Wars game in development. I haven’t been able to find any statement on it at all, from either Nintendo or Intelligent Systems. Considering that in the mid-2000s this was a fairly major franchise for the Big N, at least on handheld, it seems weird. All I could find from trawling the internet was this post which discusses the troubled history of the franchise, but considering that most of that pre-dates the most recent games, it doesn’t explain everything. I wonder if there’s some kind of conscious decision to move away from the series due to its military nature?

In any event, I was pleased to see that my new 3DS should be backwards compatible, so at least I can fire up my old copy of Dark Conflict/Days of Ruin–if I can find it. But if you ever get a chance to bend the ear of a Nintendo executive, do me a solid and ask them what’s going on with Advance Wars, OK? Maybe they can find time to do another game in between remakes of old Mario and Zelda games. Both 3DS and Wii U would be well-suited to the mechanics, and the Wii U might even be able to improve on the old GBA graphics.

Check out some of Dark Conflict’s music below–Will’s, Lin’s and Tasha’s themes are particularly awesome.

We need to change the narrative around Resident Evil

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Resident Evil 6 is a much better game than it’s generally given credit for. I only know this by chance. Before it came out in 2012, I downloaded a very lackluster demo on the 360 which put me off. I didn’t buy it, influenced also by a critical consensus which panned the game. By that point, I was pretty certain it sucked and wasn’t shy about telling people that. Then last year, the game was on sale for PC and I bought it for a fiver, with the intention of playing it co-op with my girlfriend. That didn’t happen (its not playable on her Mac!) but I played through it anyway.

And I really, really enjoyed it. If you get a chance to play it on PC, you should. Resident Evil 6 is an innovative and challenging game with great gunplay, some very atmospheric environments, and a long and satisfying campaign. It features varied and imaginative monster design. It also has some absolutely stunning set-pieces, the campaign punctuated by high-octane chase scenes and all sorts of vehicular and architectural destruction. This aspect of the game has been widely derided with a ‘Michael Bay’ label. Don’t get me wrong, I loathe Michael Bay movies. But the one thing his films do get right is their sense of spectacle; and is capturing a majestic sense of spectacle something for which RE 6 should be ridiculed? I don’t think so.

Of course, this game is far from perfect. The writing and dialogue are terribly corny, as you’d expect in this series; the difficulty is uneven and some of the action sections can be frustrating, just as parts of the game can be repetitive and uninteresting. But this can be forgiven in a 30-hour campaign, particularly one with an unusually ambitious narrative structure. Eschewing the traditional series formula where the story follows one or two protagonists in one or two environments, RE 6 features four main protagonists alongside four secondary protagonists, many of whom are brand-new characters with their own story arcs; and the events of the game take place over pretty much the entire globe. The whole thing can be played in co-op. Considering the scope and ambition of the game, I thought the experience was artistically coherent and certainly impressive and rewarding. And despite the absurdity of the story, the writing maintains a basic humanity and sincerity which sets it apart from a series like MGS.

Ambition seems to be the most distinctive characteristic of RE 6. Capcom made a serious effort to expand and develop the franchise; the days of PSX survival horror are long-gone, and today’s technology allows for much deeper and richer action-oriented experiences. That said, parts of the game did play like traditional survival horror; and surely in a 30-hour campaign there’s scope for more than one type of gameplay. I thought RE 6 was a much better and more effective game than 5, its predecessor, and while flawed it felt like a true sequel to Resident Evil 4. (It’s also infinitely better than a modern ‘survival horror’ like Alien: Isolation.)

You can’t get away from RE 4. It’s legacy is unavoidable. It was a seminal game not just for this series but for the entire genre of horror and third-person action games. It single-handedly changed what gamers expect, not just from a Resident Evil game but from all triple-A games. It’s like when Brad Pitt took off his shirt in Fight Club and male actors everywhere groaned; the bar was raised for everyone. For me, whenever I play a game like Dead Space or The Last of Us now, I always compare it to RE 4. For better or worse, RE 4 transcended the survival horror genre, and it’s just not possible to put the genie back in that bottle.

With that in mind, I find the prevailing narrative about how the series has ‘moved away’ from its roots to be increasingly irritating. This is a major gaming franchise that has been going on for 20 years, and which arguably did more than any other series to revolutionize the action genre. Capcom have demonstrated a willingness to service the traditional fanbase, with a series of high-quality remakes of the early games as well as with a number of spin-off games. But the franchise has to develop if it’s to grow and stay relevant, and particularly in today’s video game market it simply has to appeal to more people than survival horror obsessives. Moreover, I suspect that many of the people who go on about this are not, in fact, people who grew up playing RE games in the ’90s, but are just regurgitating what they’ve read on websites and so on.

Capcom haven’t said much yet about Resident Evil 7. Considering the criticism of the last game, who can blame them? They must be tearing their hair out deciding what to do with it. It’s probably too late at this point, but I hope that if enough people start to appreciate what the developers tried to do with RE 6, their job will be made a little bit easier next time, and the final product will be a little bit better for it. If they’re punished for showing some honest ambition it doesn’t do anyone any favours.

Liara

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As I mentioned in a previous blog post, we got Liara six months or so after we got Gizmo. Part of the reason was so that Gizmo would have some company when we’re at work and so on, and also because of the nice symmetry in having two cats, a boy and a girl, one cream, one blue.

Liara was lovely when we met her and seemed happy in the home of the family who were selling her; but introducing her to our home was emotionally and logistically challenging, and took a while. We had to keep her in her own room, separate from Gizmo, for a month, and for a month after that we couldn’t leave them alone together. Gizmo was curious about her: he spent the first night after Liara moved in crying outside the door of her room, and T. had to walk him up and down the corridor for hours, rocking him like a baby.  As a nine-month-old cat in a new home with new people and an older, male cat, Liara was afraid, and would regularly hiss through the door at Gizmo and swipe at him if we let him in. It was difficult for us because obviously we wanted them to get on, and a big part of getting Liara was to try and improve Gizmo’s quality of life and get some more company for him. For a while it was touch and go whether we would be able to keep her, and we wondered whether a Ragdoll or something would be better matched to Gizmo’s personality.

If Liara hadn’t been so wonderful with us, there’s a good chance we would have re-homed her in the end. But despite her nerves around Gizmo, she has always been very friendly with people. She likes humans and has a becoming shyness about her when faced with a large group. She is much more typical of British Shorthairs than Gizmo, and hates being picked up, but loves being stroked and petted–so long as it’s on her terms. She’ll just shy away and scurry off if she doesn’t feel like it, or if she feels uncomfortable.

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We’ve had Liara for 18 months now, and although her and Gizmo have learned to share the flat without major problems, they’re still not as close as we would like. He often approaches her when she’s sleeping and clumsily tries to groom her, which always ends sooner or later in a wrestling match as she escapes his tender embrace. They’ve both been neutered, but presumably some of that instinct remains in them both. This threat of Gizmo appearing out of nowhere probably explains her occasionally skittish behaviour, and she’s more alert and wary around the place than he is.

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Not all of that is down to Gizmo’s presence, though. Although Liara is a pedigree cat, her pedigree is not as high as his; and there is a bit more of the street moggy about her. I think that’s the ultimate source of her relative nervousness and alertness: she is just a bit closer to the street than Gizmo, and less of her instinct has been bred out of her. Liara still makes a very good house cat–she’s friendly, lazy, and sociable–and in a way she’s a good counterpoint to him. Whereas Gizmo is the ultimate momma’s boy, Liara’s personality is definitely a bit more that of a streetwise daddy’s girl. Unlike Gizmo, she doesn’t mind going to the vet, where (again unlike Gizmo) she behaves impeccably. The only exception was the time we took them both at once, and Gizmo’s incessant crying in the taxi encouraged her to start, too. Fortunately the driver was more amused by our feline chorus than anything else.

It’s a cliche, but in our experience pets do bond more with an owner of the opposite sex. We each adore both our pets, of course, but there’s no question that Gizmo’s bond is strongest with T. and Liara’s is stronger with me. I don’t know whether that dynamic emanates from the cat, the owner, or both, but it’s real. Gizmo most often seeks out T.’s lap in the evening, while in the morning it’s me that Liara seeks out for a stroke before we leave for work. Liara hates it when I leave the flat, whether it’s going to work in the morning or going to the gym, and will often tip over on her side at the top of the stairs and indicate she wants to be stroked. (Of course, I have to oblige.) While she will rarely plonk herself down on your lap like Gizmo will, she does like to be in the same room as you, and I probably underestimate how much company and attention she actually needs. Maybe some of that’s down to the fact she’s much less vocal than Gizmo, who constantly talks to us when he wants a chat or feels like complaining about something (and before meal times). She does have an adorable kind of chipmunk chirrup, though, which she only uses when she’s very excited (about food) or wants your attention. If I hear that noise I know she’s overdue a bit of TLC.

Mass Effect fans will know this already but her name is a homage to one of the main characters from that series. She’s our own blue and true love.

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