The Sopranos (season five) – Review

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T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.

Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.

I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.

A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?

The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.

4/10

We need a Persona 2 remake

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The last few years have seen a craze for remakes. On the whole, I’d say this is a good thing. So long as they’re not merely cashing in on nostalgia, remakes and ports play an important role in bringing classic games in front of new audiences. We’re at a point now where young people are playing games without having grown up with classic consoles like the NES, Super Nintendo or even PlayStation, and making classic games available helps develop an appreciation of video game history. Remakes and remasters can also help games find an audience if they were released on neglected or commercially unsuccessful consoles like the Dreamcast or Wii U. The PS4 has seen a glut of remakes over the last year and a half, and I caught up on games I missed on PS3 like The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. I also played a bunch of Resident Evil HD remakes, while on Nintendo consoles I was finally able to enjoy Majora’s Mask and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

Of course, it’s important not to get carried away with remakes and re-releases. It’s arguable that you shouldn’t have to fork out for the same game on multiple consoles (like repeatedly buying the same port of a classic game on different iterations of Nintendo’s Virtual Console). Moreover, publishers need to be warned away from relying on cheap and badly done re-releases as an easy money-spinner: a rash of low-effort remasters is bad for the future health of the industry if people spend all their money on classics rather than trying new games.

But there’s one game I think is crying out for a remake: Persona 2. Persona 2 is actually two games, P2: Innocent Sin and P2: Eternal Punishment. They were released for the PlayStation in 1999 and 2000, and developer Atlus has since ported them to different Sony consoles. However, they’re still hard to get hold of: in the UK, you can only play Innocent Sin on PSP (and who plays PSP now?), unless you still have an old PSX knocking around and are prepared to mess around with NTSC discs off ebay. And even if you find a way to get the game up and running, you’re faced with a seriously outdated gameplay system and have to contend with an unreasonable number of random battles. Basically, the only way for a contemporary-minded gamer to play it now is with a walkthrough open the entire time.

The Persona series is big business these days, not just in Japan but in the West too. The games are loved for their stories, characters, and dialogue; areas where Persona 2 does not disappoint at all. The game’s story needs to be brought to a modern audience, many of whom would be put off by the game’s frustrating and old-fashioned mechanics. The graphics actually hold up pretty well, but would be easily improved; while the excellent soundtrack, which was re-done for the PSP version, barely needs any work at all.

Atlus could potentially release both games as one “Ultimate” version of Persona 2, perhaps even containing the original games as “extras” for the few diehards who might want to play them that way – the memory requirements are pretty trivial these days, after all. The overall play time for the two games combined would likely be around 80-100 hours, which is pretty standard now for most AAA RPGs. It would also help fill in the release schedule nicely before the next mainline Persona game. Finally, we know Atlus is not averse to ports and remakes: their release schedule is full of them, many of which were originally series spin-offs in the first place like Strange Journey or Devil Survivor. The sales ceiling for a P2 remake is much, much higher – even if the risk of damage to the brand is higher too.

This brings us to the small matter of Innocent Sin’s… unusual story, which is awesome but does contain time-travelling Nazis and at times adopts a surreal tone which might be poorly-received by some games journalists today. But this is surely not insurmountable. Persona 2 is a game which really deserves to be enjoyed by more people, especially considering how many have fallen in love with the series over the last decade. Atlus asked fans for their opinion on a P2 remake earlier this year, so they’ve clearly considered the idea. Now it’s time for us to apply the power of positive thinking!

Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) – Review

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Beyond: Two Souls is a sort of spiritual successor to Heavy Rain, the brainchild of writer and “director” David Cage. Two Souls keeps the heavily narrative-driven style of Heavy Rain, so much so that it’s arguably more an “interactive drama” than a video game as such. Originally released for PS3 in late 2013, it was remastered along with Heavy Rain for the PS4 last year. The critical reception for Two Souls was somewhat harsher than for Heavy Rain: although, for me, it’s a superior experience overall, by the time it came out the novelty value of these kinds of games had started to wear off. Moreover, Two Souls came out a few months after The Last of Us: another PlayStation exclusive, and one which not only matched Two Souls for graphics, but surpassed it in story and gameplay.

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It probably didn’t help that Ellie in The Last of Us strongly brought to mind Ellen Page – a point seemingly not lost on the actress herself. Still, played now out of its original context, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty worthwhile experience. The story is told in the form of episodes from main character Jodie’s life: when she was a young girl, a teenager, and a young woman. Jodie was born tethered to an “entity” she refers to as Aiden. Aiden is invisible and can float and shift through walls and objects, but can only move a short distance from Jodie. He can interact with the physical world, and though quasi-autonomous is bound to Jodie and generally co-operates with her. As you’d expect, Jodie’s relationship with Aiden causes all kinds of social and developmental problems for her and she is entrusted to the “care” of the military while still a small child. As she gets older, Jodie tries to assert some level of independence in the face of the military’s demands, while managing her relationship with Aiden, and also navigating the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. She has a tough time of it and you can’t help but feel very sympathetic towards her, even if the character never really shows the kind of growth you would like and expect.

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Two Souls showcases sophisticated motion capture, and excellent facial animations, which allow it to do justice to strong performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the latter portraying government doctor/researcher Nathan Dawkins. The young Jodie is also really adorable. However, the game proves that actors and technology can only take you so far without a good script. Although the plot is for the most part compelling, the dialogue and characterization is lackluster. The main characters lack depth, and scenes which should resonate often fall flat. Jodie endures some terrible ordeals over the course of the game, but it is only right at the end that the script really allows her to respond to her experiences in an emotionally convincing way. The game regularly provides you with options about how to react in various situations – such as being honest, evasive, or lying – but when you realize that “honest” and “evasive” answers can be virtually indistinguishable, it tests your investment in the story.

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While Two Souls rarely plumbs the depths of bathos seen in Heavy Rain, it still relies too heavily on socially unrealistic situations and behaviour. There are long passages in the second half which see Jodie amid a homeless community, and then staying with a Native American family. These seem to have been included just to remind us what a good person she is, but they’re shallow, unconvincing and superfluous to the plot. Throughout the story, people swing from one emotional extreme to another at a moment’s notice, and are willing to go along with ludicrous plans without hesitation. That includes Jodie, and the contrived way that the narrative tends to lurch forwards is irritating in a game which likes to pretend you have a degree of control over what happens.

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On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the action scenes so much. Two Souls has some really well-directed cinematic sequences which reminded me of James Cameron films like The Abyss and Aliens (no doubt in part due to the blue-heavy colour scheme), which was a pleasant surprise. These sequences are especially good when you’re controlling Aiden. Jodie can hold her own in combat, too – thanks to her CIA training – and is often called upon to defend herself in various situations. There is actually a fairly robust third-person stealth system which is, disappointingly, only used in one or two very effective sequences. Otherwise, the gameplay in these sections mainly involves moving the right analogue stick in a certain direction, in line with Jodie’s limb movements. In theory, it’s an intuitive system, but in practice it can be frustrating as it’s not clear until too late which body part you are supposed to be following. It’s hard to fail these sequences outright (I don’t think I got a game over at any point) but messing up too many times might result in an outcome you’d rather avoid.

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Two Souls is longer than I expected, clocking in at between ten and twelve hours depending on how leisurely your play style is. Replay value is limited but, while it may have been hard to justify a full-price purchase when it first came out, it’s fairly well discounted now and a decent pickup for a tenner or so. I really enjoyed Two Souls’ first few hours, and although the second half contains some overlong sequences that really should have been cut, things come together in time for a dramatically satisfying and quite moving conclusion. As much as I found Heavy Rain to have been overhyped and undeserving of much of the acclaim it received, Two Souls is probably an underrated experience that most fans of narrative gaming and sci-fi would appreciate.

7/10

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Warlock (film) – Review

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Warlock is a campy 1980s Gothic horror film, featuring Richard E. Grant as witch hunter Giles Redferne and Julian Sands as the eponymous villain. The film’s plot bears a certain resemblance to The Terminator, as Sands escapes from the clutches of witch hunters in 1691 Boston and enters the present day  – well, 1988 anyway – in search of pages from an ancient grimoire which has the power to destroy the world. He’s followed through time by Grant, who sports a hilarious hairdo and silly outfit. Both of them really give it a go, and the film is well-served by having two such capable actors in the main roles. It helps elevate some otherwise silly fare.

The film also stars Lori Singer as Kassandra, who acts as Redferne’s reluctant helper and guide in modern America. The warlock casts a sadistic curse on Kassandra which makes her age 20 years each day, which obviously limits the amount of time she has to lift the curse. Allegedly, Singer didn’t want to wear the facial prosthetics designed to make her character look older, and this results in a somewhat unconvincing ageing process.

Sands is great in the title role. Films about witches aren’t that common – compared to, say, vampires, zombies, and ghosts – and films about male witches are pretty rare. But Sands’ character is as evil as he is powerful (read: very), and is established early on as a huge threat. Although the special effects are lacking, this is by no means a no-budget film, and it’s surprising to see some relatively gruesome content here reminiscent of so-called “video nasties”, which managed to make me wince. Sands is an effective villain and he carries out shocking and despicable acts in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Warlock reverses the normal trope of the witch hunters being evil: in this case, the witch hunters are completely in the right, and God help us all if Redferne is unsuccessful. Apparently writer David Twohy attempted to write a movie about the innocent victim of a witch hunt “escaping” to the present day, where he faced the same sorts of problems and biases as he did in the 1690s. However, Twohy gave up because it was too complicated, and so we have this instead. It probably worked out for the best, as Warlock is a really entertaining movie: it’s fun, well-paced, and you’re unlikely to tire of it before the end. The special effects look very, very bad these days, but this adds to the film’s undeniable camp appeal. It’s definitely worth a watch for all aficionados of horror and 1980s “style”.

7/10

Valve, gaming’s Uber

Read the full article here: www.polygon.com/2017/5/16/15622366/valve-gabe-newell-sales-origin-destructive

From the article: “Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a ‘platform that connects gamers to creators.'”

Good to see Polygon provide a forum for someone to “speak truth to power” for once. Makes a change from their endless brand promotion for Netflix, Blizzard, etc. I have had similar thoughts about Valve for some time now. I would add to this that Valve’s incorporation of gambling mechanics in and around games like Dota 2 and Counter Strike is also profoundly irresponsible and deeply troubling.

Stake Land 2: The Stakelander (film) – Review

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2010’s Stake Land was a refreshing take on the vampire genre. It went against the grain at a time when franchises like Twilight and True Blood were going all-out to make bloodsuckers teen-friendly, glamorous and sexy. By contrast, the vampires in Stake Land are a brutal, feral breed with low intelligence but unmatched viciousness and ferocity. Set in a world ravaged by the vamp-ocalypse, Stake Land was a flawed but effective film that brought to life the sort of world familiar to fans of Fallout, The Last of Us, and The Road. The story was derivative, but felt substantive and well-paced enough that it made you care about its characters, and the end result delivered scares but also reflected on human relationships. Specifically, the film was a moving tale of the difficult necessity of maintaining links with other people even if the world is dying around you.

Stake Land earned a solid reputation and a decent following, and so a sequel was always a possibility. The daftly named Stake Land II: The Stakelander was duly released earlier this year on video-on-demand, and now finds its way to Netflix. Sadly, it turns out this is one of those cases where a sequel wasn’t really needed. The writers don’t seem to have anything new to say, and the film mainly consists of an inferior re-hashing of the events of its predecessor. The first big problem is that Stake Land 2 immediately negates the upbeat ending of the first film, callously killing off Martin’s family again in an apparent effort to recreate the dynamic between him and his erstwhile mentor. Hoping for revenge against the vampires who killed his family, Martin seeks out the vampire-slayer and general badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici). The script suggests the world is an even more hopeless place than it was a few years earlier, but the disappointing cinematography doesn’t really bear this out. Cannibalism is now rampant, and the closest thing to an organized human force is The Brotherhood, a far-right Christian outfit who are in cahoots with the vampires, who they think have been sent to “purify” mankind or something.

Mister has continued his one-man crusade against vampires and the Brotherhood since the first film, but it’s a losing struggle. Moreover, vampires themselves now seem to be developing a knack for organization and strategy which bodes ill for the few remaining human settlements. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take this anywhere. Although in the first film the vampires felt tough and menacing, they don’t have the same effect here, partly because of how they’re filmed. They hardly ever go straight for their prey: normally preferring to knock people over, then scream in their faces for a few seconds, or however long it takes for someone to stab them in the back. Doing this once or twice is fine, but when it happens over and over again, it becomes really annoying. The lead vampire also makes liberal use of the head tilt, surely one of the laziest and most overused horror gimmicks around. In fact, the look and feel of Stake Land 2 reminded me of nothing more than 30 Days of Night, which is not a flattering comparison. That film was shit.

One of the big dangers in making a sequel like this is that it brings to light latent problems you couldn’t quite see in the well-liked original. As well as ruining the ending and sullying fond memories of the first Stake Land, Stakelander also has some troubling implications for its treatment of women. The main female character here is probably the vampire leader, who doesn’t have any lines, and who spends most of the film screaming and head-tilting; and, well, you can probably guess her fate. The other female character is an improbably well-groomed and attractive feral human who was supposedly raised in “the wild”. Mister and Martin sort of adopt her after rescuing her from some cannibals who were treating her as a pet/slave; she then bonds with Mister like a cat would with its owner. She doesn’t have any lines, either. The actress isn’t exactly given much to work with, but even so, it’s a pretty cringeworthy performance in a pitifully bad role.

One of the only things that Stake Land 2 has in its favour is its short length. It would be wrong to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because the film doesn’t have a good reason to exist at all. But a run time of 85 minutes goes by pretty fast. Even so, this is a hard film to recommend. Fans of Stake Land will likely be disappointed, and could find that this outing mars their enjoyment of that far superior film. And if you weren’t a fan of the original, why would you consider watching Stakelander in the first place?

4/10

 

Resident Evil Revelations 2 (PS4) – Review

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The first Resident Evil Revelations was a well-received spinoff in the much-loved horror franchise. Its hipster status was probably helped by the fact it was first released on 3DS (a console hardly anyone owned in 2012), combined with the fact it came out around the same time as Resident Evil 6, a much-maligned game which it was cool to hate. Revelations was a decent game and it did well enough to earn a sequel, which was released on a variety of platforms in 2015.

Revelations 2 doubles down on the episodic structure introduced by its predecessor, and comprises four main episodes (and a couple of bonuses) which weigh in at about two hours each. Each episode is roughly divided in half as we follow our dual protagonists, Claire Redfield and Barry Burton. Claire and Barry are both second-tier franchise characters. Claire is much like her brother Chris, in that she is about as generic a lead as you can get: she’s not unpleasant or annoying, but she’s very lacking in charisma, and doesn’t really get a memorable story here. Instead, the emotional arc of Revelations 2 mainly revolves around Barry and his teenaged daughter Moira, who acts as Claire’s partner through most of the game. Barry is accompanied by the mysterious young girl Natalia, who he encounters while looking for his missing daughter.

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Revelations 2 has an unusual asymmetric co-op system, where one player controls the ‘main’ character (Claire or Barry), who can use guns; while the other character controls the sidekick. The sidekicks can’t use guns, but they have other uses: Moira wields a crowbar, while Natalia is able to avoid detection and see invisible enemies. Yes, unfortunately Revelations 2 continues the trend of introducing more and more frustrating mechanics, outdoing even the invisible Hunters of its predecessor. This time, we get huge invisible fly monsters who can one-hit-kill Barry once they get in range. Invisibility or insta-death are bad enough on their own; whoever thought it would be a good idea to combine them, is a sadist with no place designing video games.

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This is an extreme example, but the alacrity with which Revelations 2 frustrates the player is a prevailing problem. This is a difficult game, and the challenge is compounded by a terrible sense of pacing. Revelations 2 ignores some basic tenets of storytelling, one of which is knowing to follow a stressful or climactic scene with a bit of downtime to let the audience recuperate, catch their breath and replenish their ammo. Here, we have long periods where the gamer is thrown into into the meat grinder time and again with little or no respite. The effect isn’t thrilling, just exasperating and depressing. In a way, it’s odd that the game suffers from such bad pacing. In Resident Evil 4, the franchise already has the perfect example of how to tell a story like this. I suppose part of the problem might be that in trying to outdo previous games, it just dispensed with too many of the “boring” bits that are actually essential to a satsfying experience.

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Revelations 2 is set in the nondescript, fictionalized version of Eastern Europe to which the franchise retreated after the contrived “racism” controversy that met RE 5’s African setting. As far as the storyline is concerned, Revelations 2 features some surprisingly serious and poignant family melodrama revolving around Barry and Moira. Of course, the larger narrative that provides the overarching context is absurd, and the script is chockablock with bad puns and memes. This sort of silliness has always been part of the camp, B-Movie DNA of the Resident Evil series; but you can have too much of a good thing, especially when you stumble across a story with some heart. It’s a bit too much to see Barry, supposedly at his wit’s end looking for his daughter, running around making references to Jill Valentine memes. This is all framed by po-faced and pretentious nods to Kafka, largely in the form of vapid quotes between each mission. Without playing it yet, my impression is that Resident Evil 7 has tried to move away from all this childishness, towards more of a stripped-down narrative and a less overblown identity. If so, that can only be a good thing.

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It’s a shame Revelations 2 is so much less than the sum of its parts, because the core gameplay is strong. Killing monsters is fun, and the gunplay can be exciting and rewarding, particularly when the game isn’t trying to force some gimmick down your throat. This is shown off in Raid mode, another variation on the Mercenaries minigame. But just when you’re starting to enjoy yourself, the game will throw some invisible arseholes at you, force you into an excruciating stealth section, or make you fight a boss with no ammo. Sometimes, in order to go forward, you just have to go back to basics.

6/10