Tales of Zestiria (PS4) – First Impressions

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Tales of Zestiria sees the series make its first major foray into the world of open-world exploration. I was a bit nervous about this at first. Building an interesting and attractive open world for the gamer explore takes a lot of resources, and my concern was whether this resource investment would mean less of the high-quality writing and storytelling which have become the hallmark of the Tales series.

Zestiria takes a while to get going, with a fairly generic main character, Sorey, and what comes across at first as a very generic story and environment. However, having spent a few hours with the game I’m relieved and delighted to say that Zestiria shows all the signs of sustaining the series’ reputation for excellence. Once you gather a few characters into your party their interaction becomes hugely entertaining and very funny, and the English voice acting is superb. The story quickly starts to branch out and bring in all sorts of intriguing elements, as well as having the somber tone the series is known for. Although the graphics might not look quite as fancy as I expected from a PS4 game, the overall visual design is beautiful, and the character design is a high point once again. Well, apart from one mis-step in the form of Sorey’s bizarre earrings. The voice acting is consistently excellent and the game’s score is pretty good, firmly in keeping with other Tales games.

One of the interesting things about Zestiria so far is how it plays around with familiar RPG tropes. For example, one early encounter finds Sorey in the midst of what would normally be a standard fetch quest encounter. However, here he’s told not to get himself involved as an errand boy: if he does a favour for one person, everyone will expect him to do the same. Interactions like this subvert expectations, and it’s already possible to discern a theme about inspiring others to work at making the world a better place, rather than just waiting for a saviour to come and fix everything. Which is a bit ironic, really, because Sorey is a sort of messianic figure (‘the Shepherd’), but his role is to inspire people to do better rather than just to do their washing-up for them.

Combat in Zestiria takes place in a sort of battle area on the world map, rather than transporting you to a separate screen as in previous games. This adds a bit more immediacy to proceedings, but it means that camera problems are a regular issue. Fighting next to a corner or in front of a wall makes the camera zoom up extremely close, meaning you can end up with no view of the battlefield. It doesn’t happen in every fight, or even most fights, but it’s a glaring issue. It’s not something that has caused us to die or anything, yet, and it can normally be fixed by switching targets or making enemies re-position themselves, but still. It’s the one apparent flaw so far in a game which seems otherwise perfect.

Playing Zestiria is an absolutely joyful experience, in large part due to the mature and witty dialogue. This is a trademark of the Tales games as much as the co-operative combat; long may the Tales team continue to put out material like this. It’s certainly the most enduring and consistent JRPG series of the last decade and it’s a real pleasure to be discovering what promises to be yet another stellar game.

Mad Men (season two) – Review

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Don’t believe what the advertising people or the critical consensus tells you. For all the accolades it received, Mad Men’s second season is really bad. The first few episodes are satisfying enough: despite the focus on Don Draper’s constant and banal adultery there are a few promising storylines and tantalising glimpses of interesting secondary characters. But about halfway through the season, the writers make a clear decision to go all-in with the boring and lame soap-opera melodrama surrounding Don and his wife, Betty. By the end of the season I’d gone beyond irritation and anger and accepted that, despite what I’ve heard from so many people, this show almost certainly is not worth investing in for the long-haul.

The first season established Don Draper as some kind of quasi-mystical advertising shaman as well as a serial liar and philanderer. In the second season we barely see him do any work at all: he’s entirely unproductive, spending the first few episodes in the throes of a new liaison and the rest of the season getting deeper and deeper into a mire of self-indulgence and depravity. At the same time, he’s presented in a sympathetic light throughout, and everyone is endlessly nice to him (especially, of course, women). It doesn’t make sense: sure the actor is handsome, and several times an episode new characters, male and female, comment on his ‘beauty’; but much of the time he’s sullen and mean, practically mute, tongue-tied rather than silver-tongued. Hamm’s acting skills are limited, which is made obvious in those sections where he plays his younger self. One scene where he talks about meeting Betty he adopts a kind of lovesick puppy-meets-schoolboy schtick that made me cringe.

The show tries to add depth to Draper by associating him with works of culture or literature, showing him at the cinema watching an arthouse film or reading a book of poetry. The problem is that it never shows how this interest or experience manifests itself in his personality or his work, other than by making him some kind of decadent nihilist. It’s hard to sympathise with someone like this. I particularly resented how, late in the season, they show one of Draper’s floozies reading a few lines of William Faulkner’s The sound and the fury during post-coital bonding. It’s just about the most inappropriate book you could picture in those circumstances. I suppose something by Fitzgerald might have been better suited; but even then, I hate how they use a classic work of fiction as a prop, with Faulkner as a canvass for Don Draper’s skidmarks.

Betty, Draper’s wife, is not much better. In the course of this season she matures into an indolent and manipulative cold-hearted bitch who is unpleasant to pretty much everyone and consequently hard to relate to. But Betty and Don are the suns around which all our other characters orbit. The show would have done well to show more interest in the employees at Sterling Cooper, and indeed some of the best sections revolve around characters like Joan Holloway, Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson; or it could show us something of the life of Carla, Betty’s black maid who looks after her children. But no, everything revolves around Don and Betty. Roger Sterling, often the most entertaining character, is reduced to a figure of ridicule by the end of the season, while the liberal “intellectual” Paul Kinsey is just an egotistical buffoon. The show constantly seems to undermine its own characters in order to show how bad everyone was in the 60s, presumably compared to Mad Men’s intended audience of the knowing and superior liberal-minded middle class.

Colin Hanks, an actor I dislike immensely, was also an unwelcome presence here and dragged the season down even further. Hanks Jr previously did his best to ruin my enjoyment of Dexter and Fargo, and his turn here as a smug and smarmy Catholic priest made my skin crawl. One episode finished with him playing guitar and singing a song, about the most hackneyed and indulgent sequence imaginable. What’s worse is that he takes up most of Peggy Olson’s time during this season, preventing one of the potentially interesting characters from doing anything interesting.

Considering how much genuinely good TV there is out there, I don’t think it will be worth persevering with Mad Men much further.

5/10

XCOM 2 (video game) – Review

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XCOM 2’s story begins with rescuing the ‘Commander’, the player avatar from the first game, who has been abducted by the aliens and manipulated for their nefarious and mysterious purposes. The way the game starts gives grounds for resentment, as it completely dispenses with your victorious efforts in the first game. Even if you saved the world and managed a perfect run through each and every mission, the writers decided to make Earth lose anyway. It’s one thing doing this when you know there’s a long-term narrative in play, but to undermine the ending of a classic game for the sake of a sequel feels like a cheap and dirty trick.

Given that the developers seem to have basically wanted to make Enemy Unknown all over again, I understand why they did this. XCOM 2 sees your small, elite team fighting guerrilla missions against a global threat, much in the same way as the first game saw you firefighting against UFOs and a global invasion. The game’s pacing has the same satisfying rhythm, as you balance the needs of weapons and armour research against other forms of tech and the need to expand your base. It’s a proven formula for success, and this base-building side of the game is fun and addictive. That said, I wish it had been a bit more original: you level up your weapons and grenades in exactly the same way as in the first game, and your new research staff often say almost identical lines when describing the improvements that lead to plasma rifles or whatever. This familiarity is characteristic of XCOM 2 and conservatism is ultimately one of its main drawbacks.

Combat missions will also be familiar to anyone who played Enemy Unknown, as they play out in much the same way. One of the new mechanics is the Overwatch Ambush, where you can set up your team in Overwatch before startling an enemy and launching a potentially awesome attack on your turn. Of course, it can all go wrong if everyone misses, or if the enemies are all left on 1 HP and free to attack you on their turn; but that’s part and parcel of XCOM. Otherwise battles play out in much the same way as before, but with new or revised enemies to contend against.

As for your squad, the same classes return but with different names and a few new abilities. The strongest class are the Assault-style Rangers, who can use devastating energy sword attacks in addition to shotguns and stealth. Rangers are by far the most reliable and appealing class, often doing guaranteed damage, able to kill several enemies on one turn, and with guaranteed dodging abilities. Heavies and Specialists (Supports) are useful due to guaranteed AOE damage, armour shredding, tech damage against robots, and healing; but Snipers are practically useless. Although Snipers have a potentially high damage threshold, XCOM’s mechanics mean that you almost always have a chance to miss, and your Snipers will always seem to miss the easiest of shots. Snipers can’t buff anyone or de-buff enemies, and often can’t move and shoot on the same turn, meaning that they often feel like a wasted roster slot. For a game where building a team of badass alien hunters is a major selling point, the uselessness of Snipers is a big disappointment.

One new mechanic is dodging. Both your characters and the aliens will often dodge attacks, resulting in a significant damage reduction. Unfortunately, the chance to dodge is not given in the UI, meaning you can be regularly frustrated when enemies dodge 90%+ chance-to-hit attacks and receive 2 or 3 damage instead of 9 or 10. This just means that guaranteed damage (like explosives or drone attacks) ends up feeling overpowered. The terror of the missed shot is a big part of XCOM, but even so, there’s something wrong if you dread having to actually take a shot with your main firearm.

Combat is still good overall, though, and one area where XCOM 2 improves upon its predecessor is in the look and feel of your soldiers. Your squaddies have much more appeal and personality this time around, in large part due to the much wider customization options. Sunglasses, headgear, facial hair, piercings, tattoos, tobacco… All of your soldiers can end up looking like 80s action heroes. As ever, the game features a roughly 50/50 balance between men and women soldiers and an international crew, and this is another thing that gives the game broader appeal. For a game which is literally about xenophobia, it has an inclusive and communitarian feel.

In my First Impressions post on XCOM 2 I described my dissatisfaction with the technical problems that detracted from my initial enjoyment of the game. Firaxis/2K eventually shipped a patch that fixed some of the problems, but this was nevertheless a major failing and I don’t think they have been contrite enough about this. It’s probably foolish to expect humility or openness from major corporations, but I can’t help wanting more from the people responsible for the video games I love. Those who purchase the game now should largely avoid the issues that plagued early adopters, but XCOM 2 still has more than its fair share of bugs and glitches.

Despite all my complaining, XCOM 2 is an enjoyable and satisfying game for the most part, and at its best an almost euphoric experience. That it can be so despite its problems reveals this as a missed opportunity to make a truly great game. As it is, I will probably go back and play it again at some point, perhaps once all the DLC is released. Enemy Within was a brilliant enhancement of Enemy Unknown, and perhaps a console version of XCOM 2 could deliver the experience that this should have been.

8/10

REC 4: Apocalypse (film) – Review

 

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WHO BROUGHT THIS ON BOARD?

REC 4: Apocalypse moves away from the entertaining but divisive style of the franchise’s third installment. REC 3: Genesis showed us what would happen to a big wedding if it got crashed by zombies, and was a fairly satisfying romp but a move away from the serious tone of the first two movies. Well, those who complained have sort-of got their wish as REC 4 is a po-faced horror film set on a military vessel in the middle of the ocean. There’s not much in the way of humour here, except for a middle-aged fatso radio controller who is obsessed with chocolate bars and doesn’t know how to talk to women (but who’s supposed to be sympathetic). Sophisticated stuff.

REC 4 starts in the immediate aftermath of the second film, and there is some quite fast-paced and compelling action as armed police search the ill-fated building. This section is short-lived, however, as the story quickly moves on to the boat where we spend the next ninety minutes. The few surviving people who have been exposed to the infection are quarantined here with a bunch of military personnel and a few creepy scientists. Unfortunately, the film fails to build any interest in its story, or tension or suspense about the fate of the people on board. This is unfortunate, as the weird melding of religious imagery and iconography with familiar zombie tropes was one of the more curious, distinctive and frankly scary things about the first film, but it’s more or less forgotten in REC 4.

An outbreak starts once some infected monkeys get loose (seriously, who thought bringing a bunch of monkeys on board and infecting them would be a good idea?) and gradually people start dying. You know how it works. None of the characters are remotely likable or interesting, so it’s hard to care too much about their inevitable fates. Highlights include a demented old lady who asks for biscuits and an omelette. The zombies also just tend to come sprinting out of nowhere, and then suddenly fill an area, meaning there is no sense of space being controlled and no sense of reality or tension whatsoever. It’s thoughtlessly done and really stupid.

The film marks the return of Manuela Velasco playing Angela Vidal, the reporter from the first film. She is the main character here as those affected by the initial outbreak are kept under quarantine. The first REC film was released in 2007, and this final film came out about seven years later, meaning Velasco looks significantly older here. The character has been through a lot, but even so, the script should probably have addressed this explicitly. In the era of HD movies every wrinkle is visible, and trying to cover up ageing with makeup just doesn’t work anymore.

Velasco is still probably the most appealing actor, and a distinct improvement on the meathead who plays Guzman. He’s the ‘good’ scientist on board this ship where they are injecting monkeys with the virus and carrying out cruel experiments on survivors like Velasco. Whatever. His performance is terrible and the script is just as bad; someone alludes to him having ‘lots of experience in outbreaks’, but there’s not really anything else in the film which bears this out. It’s indicative of a terribly shallow and perfunctory plot.

It’s a shame the REC franchise petered out like this, as the first film was really quite good, and even the third film was fairly entertaining. One of the problems with crap sequels is that they can taint the franchise-forming entries, and I think there is a bit of that here. One to avoid.

3/10

 

Looper (film) – review

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Watching Looper made me feel strange, as if I was watching two films at the same time. The first film is an interesting and slightly unusual sci-fi tale about time travel and telekinesis. The other is a fatuous ego trip for Bruce Willis. On the whole, the first film wins out, and Willis doesn’t quite drag the rest of Looper down with him, but at times it felt touch and go.

Looper is set in a near future where humanity is on the cusp of discovering time travel. The main benefit of time travel seems to be for the Mob, who now dispose of people by sending them back in time to get whacked. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of many executioners, called Loopers, who specialize in killing people sent back from the future. The film’s first section does a fairly effective job of setting the scene, but suffers from corny and unnecessary narration by Gordon-Levitt. A film should be able to communicate its setting and characters without having someone literally spelling it all out for you. I can’t think of a film where narration really helped; I know that narration was one of the main reasons Blade Runner flopped on its initial release, and removing the narration was one of the secrets to its subsequent success. I don’t understand how the producers thought it would be a good idea here, and it must make Gordon-Levitt cringe to hear it.

Inevitably, Joe is faced with the task of killing himself (Willis) when he comes back from 30 years in the future. One of the movie’s good points is the way it depicts the relationship between the future and the past as a sort of dialectical relationship: the past determines the future, but then what happens in the future has the potential to change the past which in turn can change the future. The film doesn’t get bogged down in the details and instead takes a practical approach which works well. One of the film’s most harrowing sequences involves a man who ‘Let His Loop Run’ instead of killing him when he came back from the future. His present-day version gets captured by his pissed-off employers; in order to force his future self to turn himself in, they start chopping parts off his past self. Grim. Although really, couldn’t they have just killed him instead?

The darkest part of the film involves Joe’s purpose in returning to the past to stop certain events taking place in the future. This part of the plot is almost literally the same as the plot of The Terminator, and it’s badly done. Old Joe is ultimately an evil and selfish man and it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him at all. Young Joe suggests to Old Joe a simple course of action to prevent future catastrophe which wouldn’t harm anyone, but Old Joe stubbornly refuses and instead embarks on a series of actions that are really beyond the moral event horizon and quite rare in a film of this nature. It’s all the more jarring because of Willis’s self-righteous and sanctimonious demeanour. At one point he lays into Young Joe for things he hasn’t done yet, but which Old Joe literally did himself. Hypocrite doesn’t begin to cover it.

Willis is the worst thing about the film, even worse than the lame narration. He gives an absurdly smug and self-regarding performance, in sharp contrast to Gordon-Levitt’s largely understated, efficient killer. Willis is full of self-satisfied, unearned bravado and one action scene in particular felt like something out of Last Action Hero. An earlier scene, which shows the passage of time and one actor seguing into the other, also came across as a kind of sub-Matrix parody. Poor Gordon-Levitt does an earnest job of trying to believably look and act like a younger version of Willis and it’s sad to see his efforts go to waste in such a way.

The film also features Emily Blunt, and her interactions with Gordon-Levitt in the second half of the film are probably its best parts. There’s also a memorable and menacing cameo from the excellent Garret Dillahunt. They should have just sent him to makeup, added a few years and got him to play Old Joe instead of the flatulent Willis. As it is, Willis doesn’t quite ruin the film, but it looks like he had fun trying.

7/10

Arrested Development

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I was a late convert to Arrested Development. I wasn’t even aware of it during its original run in the 2000s, and it was only because my friends were talking about in 2013 that I checked it out. 2013, of course, was the year when Netflix brought out AD’s fourth season, reviving the critically-acclaimed show which had been cancelled in 2006 due to poor ratings. At the time, the season’s success was mooted as an example of the amazing promise streaming services had to revolutionize TV production. I watched it all and became an instant fan not just of the original run, but also of the very impressive (and increasingly dark) fourth season.

Season four picked up the lives of the Bluth family after a gap of several years. For those who haven’t watched it, the Bluths are a construction dynasty sort-of modeled on companies like Enron, embodying everything that is wrong about corporate America. The series follows the different members of the family as their company falls apart and their personal lives unravel. At the same time, they each find out more about themselves, which is rarely good–most of them are pretty terrible people–but the show is sympathetic while still being a biting satire. Season four was excellent, picking up after a slow start to really expand upon each of the characters, adopting a deliciously dark tone in doing so. It also boasted an extraordinary narrative style that told a convoluted story from a number of different angles. Remarkable writing and editing meant that by halfway through the season you started to see how everything fit together and I was astonished by its skill and audacity. But it was characteristic of a show known to tease and build up jokes dozens of episodes ahead.

Arrested Development is one of the select number of comedies which I’m able to watch over and over again, up there with Father Ted and I’m Alan Partridge. The best thing about it is that in contrast to those shows it actually has a lot of episodes over its four seasons, meaning it easily sustains repeated viewings. Its critical success and cult following has launched the careers of many people involved. In particular, Will Arnett has since made a series of other Netflix shows where he essentially played the same character, while Jessica Walter and Judy Greer became popular in the once-good animated comedy, Archer. Michael Cera is probably the actor who has attained most fame, but the whole cast is terrific and picking out individual actors doesn’t feel fair.

It kind of feels like AD has become a bit of a victim of its own success with Netflix. Although writer Mitch Hurwitz has said he has season five ready to go, and Netflix have repeatedly said they want it to happen, apparently the cast’s schedule conflicts are getting in the way. To me, this sounds a bit fishy. While they’re all well-known actors, none of them are A-list movie stars and none of them have been in anything much bigger than AD. It makes me think money might in fact be the problem, for example if some aren’t getting the same deal as others. If that’s the case then Netflix should just get rid of the shitty Will Arnett vehicles it keeps producing and make better use of its resources.

I really hope season five does get made, and the sooner the better. Arrested Development is the show that, in 2013, satirized American politics by getting the Bluths to try and build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants (they didn’t care about the wall per se, they just wanted the fat contract). A few years later and the leading Republican candidate is actually calling for this. Season four also ended on a murder cliffhanger, and apparently season five might have a murder mystery angle aping successful Netflix docu-drama Making a Murderer. I would gladly sacrifice any and every Marvel property in existence, never mind House of Cards and BoJack Horseman, if it meant getting this show renewed.

Aliens and XCOM 2

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Aliens is the definitive sci-fi horror film. I’ve probably watched it 20 or 30 times during my lifetime, and it’s one of my favourite films ever. You can’t overstate the influence of Aliens’ colours and environments on the aesthetics of subsequent movies and games, or the influence of the marines’ banter on the vocabulary and diction of the military in popular culture. Recently I’ve been struck by the debt owed to Aliens by one video game in particular: XCOM 2.

I’m a fan of XCOM 2 as well as Enemy Unknown, and they’re both good games on their own merits. But one of the things I like most about them is that they are so evocative of Aliens and, to a lesser extent, other 80s action films like Predator. One of the characteristics of XCOM is that your soldiers are all expendable, and largely lack meaningful back stories or personalities. However, they can be customized, and it’s quite easy to give each soldier a distinctive look or feel with accessories or hairstyles. This is quite reminiscent of Aliens where, of course, the marines are similarly expendable and generic. One of the areas where XCOM 2 improves upon Enemy Unknown is the greater range of customization, and it’s a lot of fun to kit out your team in a variety of sunglasses, bandanas, tattoos, facial hair, piercings, etc.

The default armour and weapons used in XCOM have a similar look and feel to the marines’ kit in Aliens, with a archetypal near-future design. In particular, the Heavy class feels like it has pretty much nailed the look of Vasquez and Drake in Aliens. The personality-type feature in XCOM 2–‘hard luck’, ‘intense’, ‘laid back’, etc–also ends up mirroring the marines in Aliens, from your laid back Hudson to your intense Hicks. The dropship used in XCOM is basically the same as that used in Aliens, and the shots of your squad on the way to and from missions is a recurring homage to the scene in Aliens where the marines land on LV 426. One of the recurring lines of XCOM’s female pilot is a quote from the film: “We’re in the pipe, five by five.”

In XCOM, these dropship sections are where you get a good view of your crew, and the line that regularly comes to mind is another one from Aliens: “Absolute badasses.” One of the best things about XCOM is how it captures this feeling, without actually giving your characters much in the way of back stories or identities, so you’re free to imbue them as you see fit. Aside from Aliens, the other film notorious for its cast of badasses is Predator. To Aliens’ Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez, Predator featured memorable and immediately distinguishable characters like Blaine, Mac and Billy, all of whom have influenced my own character designs. If there are no Aliens or Predator mods yet for XCOM 2, someone should make them.

What Predator doesn’t feature that Aliens and XCOM do, of course, is female soldiers. Like Aliens, XCOM’s squads feature gender equality and integration and it’s another big plus for the game. I’ve almost finished XCOM 2 now and my squad is basically being carried by four female Rangers who bring to mind the following interaction from Aliens:

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?

Vasquez: No. Have you?

Aliens is 30 years old this year. It’s strange to me to think that young people will be growing up and developing interests in sci-fi movies and games, but might not automatically think to watch the movie that did so much to shape the sci-fi horror genre. XCOM 2 goes to show how much we still owe it.