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  • Misfits

    December 30, 2011 by Nick

    The new series of Misfits has ended. Shown on E4 and happily available on Youtube. It took the probation serving super powered teens of the previous series, dispatched one before the series even started, added a new one and had an episodes focusing on each character in turn. There were subplots, character arcs and endings. And some really, really good jokes.

    Starting with the replacement of Nathan with Rudy, I felt that the series had a clumsy inception and tried ramming a new character down our throats and making him edgy and entertaining and just tried way too hard. As a character, he had his moments, but he was probably pushed to the forefront too often and to the detriment of some of the existing characters and their dynamic.

    The guy who sold people’s powers became part of the core cast, by means of a romantic tryst. He had his flaws and didn’t really redeem himself, but showed depth and was probably a better addition overall than Rudy.

    The story lines invoked and echoed quite a lot of super hero tropes. We had time travel, zombies, stalkers, massive comic references and destiny and sacrifice. I genuinely felt moved by the last episode and impressed by the circularity of the plotting and the way dangling plot threads from the previous two series were neatly tied up and used to advance the story while adding resonance to the whole show.

    The series was very, very funny too. The episode where Kelly has problems in the hospital featured one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on television. Absolutely sick, in the worst possible taste and utterly hilarious. I was roaring with laughter and trying to find someone else who had watched the show to talk to about it.

    The only problems for me, overall, with the series are the characters who have been written out were amongst my favourites and that I do find Rudy annoyingly full-on. Whoever the next series adds (and I do have a great deal of faith that there will be a new series) will have some large boots to fill. The show will need a new overriding storyline and driving force, and there is an argument the show has lost its emotional heart. A couple of new Rudys will not make the show better.

    Black Mirror

    December 22, 2011 by Nick

    Black Mirror was a series of stand alone dramas screened on Channel 4 on consecutive Sundays with a thematic link of current and near future technology and the impact that it could possibly have. I watched them all, but I am unsure as to how much I actually enjoyed them.

    The first of the three was the strongest, and arguably required the least suspension of disbelief in that everything presented was probably already possible and used. It harked back to the allegations made against John Leslie and Ryan Giggs and how this information was disseminated and leaked.

    It’s a murky tale, where no one is particularly noble and the only character beyond criticism spends her time sedated and incapacitated. The public are ghouls who live vicariously by chasing spectacle. The prime minister is vain and too preoccupied with his own image to do the right thing. His aides are corrupt and preoccupied with the party and his electability over any greater morality. Those in the media want attention, regardless of the moral implications of what they report.

    It’s all pretty believable and well done, but not as tense as I felt it could be and the ending seemed a little weak and unfocused. I am not sure if we were meant to feel sympathy or admiration for the kidnapper, if we were meant to view twitter with suspicion and distrust, if the prime minister was to be commended or mocked. It felt a little like old media attacking new media without understanding it and setting up its own scenario to bedevil it while echoing back to the recent past. It was also the best of the three dramas.

    The second in the series was probably the weakest. In a dystopian future, workers are forced to peddle on generators (I think) all day and watching reality tv is pretty much mandatory. There was some sort of point about how people will do anything for fame and a slightly nicer gilded cage, and how counter culture is a packaged commodity, but there was precious little that felt insightful and the whole thing seemed woefully contrived and particularly obvious.

    The third in the series was somewhere between the two extremes, it featured future technology  but not a particularly contrived or unrecognisable society. It was subtler, and all driven by character interaction. Revolving around a love triangle and one character’s descent into paranoia, but his descent exacerbated and facilitated by the technology underpinning the whole story.

    The problem with the series as a whole, but especially the last two episodes, is the nagging feeling that they are not the most interesting stories being told in the scenario that is presented. As a backdrop to a human story, rather than the logical extrapolation of the ramifications of the technology, these are adequately told and presented stories. But they’re slight. And they’re not as interesting as the possibilities they present. I felt like I was fiddling about in the margins of a great story, rather than engaged by the great story.

    The Dark Knight Rises Trailer

    December 20, 2011 by Nick

    The Dark Knight Rises trailer has been released. Legitimately. It shows us snippets of the film to give us an idea of what will happen and what the set pieces may be, but it also hides quite a lot away. We see precious little Batman or Bruce Wayne, even though they are the titular character. This is probably an intentional decision as Nolan doesn’t want to let us know what Batman’s arc is in the story or also what physical condition he is in. It’s hinted, but you probably need a knowledge of the comics to understand it.

    The trailer does hint at time having passed, Selina Kyle tells Bruce that he and his friends have benefited from the status quo for so long and that this will change. James Gordon will be replaced as police commissioner because he has served his purpose and things have changed. This being a dramatic scenario, we can assume both these things are foreshadowing a coming storm. But they also suggest a decent amount of time has passed and that Batman has been successful and become unnecessary. It suggests the Dark Knight Returns, and the naming of the films as well as the seeming message of the trailer (that it provides closure to the story and that it is the end of the arc for Batman) also echoes that.

    The trailer has a couple of set pieces: the complete destruction of an American football field during a game and signs of a battle between a Batmobile and a large armoured vehicle. There is also some sort of flying vehicle, possibly the Batplane. My gut instinct is that what we are meant to think is the Batmobile isn’t an that the larger vehicle is the Batman’s. But this is pure speculation on my part.

    Unfortunately, the film isn’t out until July. It’s going to be a long, long wait until then. I can only hope that The Avengers provides adequate distraction.

    Dark Knight Rises Prologue

    December 17, 2011 by Nick

    Thanks to an old work mate and the magic of the internet I was saved the chore of having to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to see a preview of The Dark Knight Rises. With apologies to Simon Pegg, this makes me very happy indeed. I had no real desire to watch Tom Cruise but I really wanted to see what Christopher Nolan had for us next.

    What Christopher Nolan has for us next is an action scene that is a step up from Inception or The Dark Knight but has similarities to both, in execution and theme. We see an introduction to Bane. Bane the plotter. Bane the executor. Where the Joker was manic, Bane is cold. Both seem one step ahead, but for different reasons.

    And the action sequence is spectacular. It’s huge and it is daring. Although the roaring of the wind makes people’s voices hard to hear and it may seem a little cluttered. A lot happens in a short space of time.

    There are glimpses of other parts of the film. Batman carrying some sort of electrical gun. Gary Oldman convincing as Gordon eulogising someone he no longer believes in (as an aside, Oldman has often had to sell the clumsiest dialogue in the trilogy, dumping exposition as if it were conversation). Catwoman in a domino mask. Catwoman in her civilian guise. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt as something, a brief glimpse. Bane and Batman fighting, Bane in a trenchcoat descending steps in the snow, mobs swarming a street as batmobiles block a junction. 4 Batmobiles. A batplane. The batpod is back. Bane is dropping a shattered batman mask. There is a lot to digest. More, still, to speculate on.

    Apparently there is a new trailer that will be airing before the new Sherlock Holmes film (in America, at least) and was leaked briefly online the other day. More to digest and speculate on. I may now have to go and see a Guy Ritchie film at the cinema.

    Growing Old

    December 15, 2011 by Nick

    Recently I have been going to the gym with my friend Wayne. One of the downsides to this is discovering that I am getting quite bald: my hairline has receded into a definite widow’s peak and I have two bald patches growing to meet each other on my crown. Earlier in the year I discovered that I had white hair in amongst my beard growth and have had to keep my stubble shorter so as not to look older. The baldness left me at a quandary as to how to deal with my hair: shave it completely, trim it short or try to somehow disguise the baldness. I went with the middle option, it is too cold to shave it all off and I have an odd shaped head which doesn’t particularly suite being bald.

    There are other signs of aging too: my chin doesn’t have as taut skin on it as it used to and I have creases in my cheeks where once I had dimples as I smiled. My forehead shows more lines when I am pensive and I am sure I never used to have this many crow’s feet. I also find weight harder to shift than before: I have gained at least a stone (14lbs, just over 6kg) in the past couple of years that is only coming off very slowly (see: going to the gym) and I have to watch what I eat far more than I used to.

    Of course, I am told that growing old brings wisdom and perspective. All I see is it brings me patience and an ability not to worry about things as much as I once did. I am not sure if this is purely a factor of age rather than experience, though. Conversely, I do find myself believing music was better when I was younger, worrying about the mindset and knowledge of the youth of today and sure the standard of teaching in schools was better when I was younger. The number of times I catch myself saying “who taught you . . .” is worrying.

    That’s not to say I don’t like many aspects of modern life, I love the technology and I do find that I enjoy a lot of films now. And we have gone back to proper winters, although some sun in summer would be nice. I just find myself in a world that isn’t the one I grew up in with the realisation I am old and not quite sure how I should act.

    Defense Grid: You Monster

    December 13, 2011 by Nick

    So, the new downloadable content for Defense Grid came out. I have to say, in many ways, I was underwhelmed. A lot of the maps have previously been seen, although they are tweaked a little. I got silver medals on all the maps on the first play through, and the only notable addition to the game is the fact that the gameplay changes mid way through some of the levels, with enemies suddenly changing direction or tower types suddenly not being available. Other than that it is a disappointing addition as several maps are too similar to what has gone before and there isn’t much in the way of taxing challenge apart from where you have to change tactics mid way through a level because of the underlying mechanics of the game changing.

    That is not to say there is nothing to recommend in the addition, as more of the same when what you are making more of is great isn’t necessarily bad. However, the supposed story content is incredibly thin and the gameplay is pretty much identical if you have the sound off (which is how the story actually unfolds) apart from the shifting objectives in the final mission.

    I have yet to try any of the new gamplay modes that the map pack adds, so it could be that I find more challenge and enjoyment in those. It is worth noting that Steam has the game (and DLC) at a special price up to 14th December and, even if I am lukewarm in my recommendation in You Monster, both it and the parent game remain very good value for the amount of entertainment they give you for a very low price. I think I just expected more.

    The Dark Knight Rises Prologue

    December 11, 2011 by Nick

    Next year the final film in the Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale trilogy of Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises, will be released. I am looking forward to it so much I seriously considered buying the Empire Magazine issue with an article about it in. Before it is released, however, some of it will be shown on Imax cinemas before the new Mission Impossible film.

    Now, not many Imax screens will be showing this, there are only about 40 or so globally. However, one of the four in the UK which will be doing is right here in Bradford. Which means I will almost certainly be going to see the new Mission Impossible film at the Imax when it opens. Hell, I may even watch the film instead of just leaving after the Batman segment.

    Now, The Dark Knight Rises sounds interesting because it allows the Batman story to have an ending. Certainly within the constraints of what Nolan has been doing with it. It also sounds to have a distinct theme and villain (or villains) than the previous two films. Which were very different from one another.

    In the first film we get a rookie Batman working out who he is and what his modus operandi will be. He trains and makes mistakes, before settling on his own identity. We have the villain who is his former mentor and there are a lot of references to his father as well as seeking to become his own man in defiance of his mentor’s wishes. There is a definite theme there.

    In the second film we have a more veteran Batman who is looking to stop being Batman and pass his mantle to someone else. We have pretenders to the throne in the form of amateurs, and a dashing hero in the form of Harvey Dent. Then we have chaos in the form of the Joker. Whereas the first film was about discovery and planning, the second film is about weariness and chaos. The villains are different, the stakes are different and Batman is a different person. It is also a bleaker film.

    The third film is subject to much conjecture. It’s set 8 years after the last. The villain is much more physical. Its title echoes The Dark Knight Returns, in which an aged Batman comes out of retirement to save Gotham City from new threats. Some of which are just the citizenry itself. Could this be what the new film is about?

    Or is it about Batman finally getting to retire?

    Mark Millar

    by Nick

    Mark Millar is a writer of American comics but comes from Scotland. Initially entering comics as a co writer of Grant Morrison, he had a run on Superman Adventures (an all ages Superman comic drawn and written in the style of a cartoon) before replacing Warren Ellis on The Authority.

    Now, The Authority was one of my favourite comics. The first 12 issues stand up as some of the best superhero comics ever produced. Mark Millar’s run was apparently subject to quite a lot of censorship and had the problem of losing Frank Quietly (the artist) early on and delays and different artists. It also had a great moment where a group of corporation heads are discussing their deity creation and the fact they own the likeness.

    But it also features a plot that Millar keeps returning to: super heroes exist in the real world, we start to see the effects their presence would have and, before we can see how this would really change things or the dramatic effects of this, super villains turn up and they have to fight them.

    I’ve seen it in the Authority (where I quite liked it), in Wanted, Kick Ass, Nemesis, Superior, War Heroes (which is seemingly abandoned, unfinished) . . .

    And it really isn’t good enough. When Millar is teamed with the right artist he more or less gets away with it. But recently his work has started to feel incredibly similar and the stories much too slight. And the single best element in Superior (a cosmonaut talking monkey) is stolen wholesale from Grant Morrison’s The Filth.

    Which brings me back to the Authority. The rumour is that Millar was too ill to write the book and Morrison helped him out. Including writing the deity scene mentioned above. As good a self publicist as Millar is, as much as I have enjoyed some of his work (The Ultimates is really just an excuse for Bryan Hitch to draw some absolutely massive fight scenes, but Hitch draws the best fight scenes in the business), I can’t really go on buying it and getting the same story issue after issue, year after year.

    I really do feel he has turned into a one trick pony and, as much as I sometimes like the superficial elements of his work, he really isn’t challenging himself or entertaining me.

    Defense Grid

    by Nick

    Defense Grid is getting some new downloadable (paid) content today. Now, Defense Grid is not a well known or particularly heralded computer game. THis is a pity. Because Defense Grid is actually really rather good.

    Available on the PC through the Steam delivery platform, and on the XBox through XBox Live (I believe), Defense Grid is a tower defence game where you build towers in a series of build platforms (you are limited to where you can place them, but you can choose which of the platforms you utilise) to kill aliens who are trying to steal power cores from a power plant.

    This is all very standard, but it is the quality of execution that rises Defense Grid into a game I really recommend. The graphics are all of a piece and attractive enough (although sadly won’t run on very old graphics cards) and the aliens design allows them to look distinct. More than this, however, the aliens are genuinely distinct: they have different strengths and weaknesses, different attributes and require different approaches.

    This is the second place where Defense Grid really raises its level: you have different towers with very different capabilities which you can upgrade several times. Some towers help you to afford further towers, some only attack flying aliens, some slow aliens down, some only attack ground aliens, some are better with groups and some are better against solo enemies.

    A lot of thought has obviously been expended on making sure there is a lot of variety in the game and that the player can’t complete it by adopting a single strategy. Different levels require different combinations of towers, built in different orders. They also require towers built in different places, which is often something you discover through experimentation. Luckily, there are a series of save points on each level so you can go back to a previous save rather than having to start the level from scratch as you experiment.

    There are also a variety of game modes, from the straightforward, to placing limits on you in terms of how many towers you can have, which you can have, by increasing the strength or amount of enemies or reversing the direction the enemies come from. This, coupled with a series of achievements for killing enemies, doing so efficiently, using different combinations or levels of towers and myriad other metrics give the game a replayability and make it excellent value for money.

    Rage

    December 5, 2011 by Nick

    Rage, the new game from ID Software (who, apparently, are now part of Bethseda) was released on 7th October 2011 and, ID Software fan that I am, I had it on pre-order. It’s a FPS at heart but has additional components, which may actually be the problem.

    First impressions are encouraging. You awake in a post apocalyptic future and are the sole survivor of your team. The graphics are fluid (very, very fluid, you won’t see any slow down playing Rage) but the textures sometimes take a while to draw in. Imagine having to focus on something and gaining detail as you do so. That is what happens here.

    The environments are huge and the sky a long way above your head. This is not corridor territory. And then a NPC (computer controlled Non Playable Character) rescues you from some would be assailants and things diverge from what we expect of an ID game.

    There are immediate RPG (Role Playing Game) elements here, with missions you can choose to undertake, or not, for equipment and money. There is a certain amount of non-linearity and a lot of interaction with characters you don’t kill. There is being a passenger in a buggy (which looks great) and even driving your own buggy. But there isn’t enough killing hordes of enemies in tight spaces.

    The best bit of the game, for me, has been the sewer missions that came as a bonus for pre ordering. The area is claustrophobic and the enemies swarm you. It feels like an old school ID shooter. In a lot of the areas there is simply too much open space. And the enemies fall between twin stools: there aren’t enough at once to feel there is a horde in the open areas, but their intelligence is mainly limited to ducking behind cover in between charging at you. They don’t feel particularly distinct from one another and none of them are particularly memorable.

    The weapons, too, have problems. Initially you are limited to what weapons you have and what ammo types you can get (another RPG element) and the weapon animation and sounds are pleasing. But they don’t feel powerful enough, it requires a lot of shots to put down enemies. Unless you use the rather wonderful boomerang styled weapon, which is probably the best part of the game.

    Driving a vehicle is sadly underwhelming, too. It seemingly skates on the surface, the wheels not moving quickly enough in the animation and their speed not altering. There is no bob or pitch in relation to the surface and the view zooms out from first person to top down. This is inconsistent and reinforces the difference in using the buggy.

    The RPG elements, although seemingly numerous, are pretty superficial. At no point do you feel you get to display character through your choices and there is no sense of divergence depending on which missions you do. They are distractions from the core of the game.

    There are parts of Rage I really enjoyed, unfortunately they are too far apart and separated by rather pointless RPG elements and driving. This is a compact shooter stretched way beyond a size and shape it can support and filled with distracting by halfway implemented elements.

    So, really, ID have done what they are always accused of: made a decent game engine in search of a decent game. The sad thing is, fluidity aside, the engine is not actually that far in advance of others that currently power games. I didn’t feel the old magic in many places.