REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan's back to finish off his Bat trilogy, but does the threequel live up to its predecessors?

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spidey's back, with Marc Webb's controversial reboot finally swinging into cinemas. Can he justify it?

REVIEW: Rock of Ages (2012)

So, as it turns out, yes, Tom Cruise *can* sing. What more do you want?

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott marks his return to sci-fi with this sort-of-an-Alien-prequel. But does it live up to the hype?

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Yep. It's all in Spanish. And it's all batshit crazy.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

FIFA 11 [Review]

It’s been nigh-on eight years since I owned a non-handheld football game. Nowadays it’s all about the shooters, the music games; heck, even the LEGO games have become frustratingly addictive. So why invest in FIFA 11? Not least because it’s supposedly just ‘FIFA 10 with new kits’, as some scorners would have you believe, nor with last year’s game dropping to the price of a McDonald’s meal the second this launched. The answer is painfully simple: a change of pace. But a fresh change of pace, nonetheless. And boy, does it deliver.

Let’s start on the surface. Graphically, FIFA manages to show off the technological prowess of today’s next-gen HD glory with confidence; whilst admittedly not reaching the dizzying heights of games developed exclusively for PlayStation 3 (here’s looking at you, Uncharted 2), it’s still something to write home about. Animations are spot on; players react instinctively to the ball, linesmen dive, hands over heads, as they fall victim to another misplaced cross, and even the referee is guilty of a little human error every now and then, getting in the way of a perfect pass or tripping over somebody’s heels. Weather conditions are good, but not perfect: I’d like to see shadows fall further over the pitch as the match progresses; to the best of my knowledge, the Earth rotates around the Sun, thus allowing for a 24-hour day cycle. It seems in FIFA 11 you’re getting 24 hours of afternoon haze.

The sounds are all there too; crowds screaming ambiguous chants, players calling to each other, interacting and reacting realistically to situations (“Man on!”), the usual sound effects and menu music. But that’s where things change. Got a few gigabytes of music stored on your hard drive for a rainy day? No need to reach for the umbrella; FIFA has you covered. A few clicks and you’ve got your very own personalised menu music, stadium chants and winning songs. I’ve had 'Sweet Child o’ Mine'  blasting throughout ‘Valley Parade’ (read: renamed generic stadium) every time Bradford City score a goal - so in reality I’ve heard it about twice this season - and a sorrowful 'Under the Bridge' upon suffering defeat, a tune which has played far too often for my liking.

A slightly less brilliant feature of FIFA 11’s sound banks is the commentary. Ah yes, the ‘wonderful’ Martin Tyler and Andy Gray, legendary in football commentating, and more grating than sliced mozzarella. Captain Obvious and his wonderful sidekick Andy will just about manage to get you through the first half without you tearing your hair out. Then half time’s over and you’re flat out, bald as a new-born churchmouse, tears rolling down your cheeks. “Stopping the ball; that’s an important part of his job today,” balks Tyler, obviously coming to the sudden realisation that the goalkeeper is more than just a pretty face. Of course, they’ll offer the odd witty remark, commenting on the two teams’ league standings, perhaps, or having a chuckle at the referee’s negligence when he wanders into the middle of a strong attack. But for the most part, you’ll want to turn the commentary way down, and everything else up. Even the constant sound of Rooney grunting at his teammates is more bearable.

But beauty (for the most part) is more than just skin deep. The gameplay handles swimmingly, though not perfectly, with differences in skill level obvious between different leagues. That said, though, much relies on the human controller: I managed to grind out a 1-1 draw as Oxford United against Argentina (admittedly losing 3-1 in extra time). Passing is fluid, but the ‘power’ behind each touch makes little difference, with strong passes remaining infrequent, and often the ball trundles along the pitch at intolerable speeds. On top of this, playing with lower league teams is frustratingly inconsistent; as Bradford City, one game I might beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 whilst the next I face a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Gillingham. Players rarely run to keep up the flow of play, lazily allowing the ball to be intercepted by the opposition. Whilst you might think this is simply a result of Bradford being rubbish - and I might be inclined to agree in part - it’s evident in higher leagues too. Heck, even the international teams suffer; my England vs. Germany replay was more painful than the original 2010 World Cup hammering.

With all this negativity, you might be baffled as to earlier mention of beauty and swimming and whatnot. But fear not: football isn’t called ‘the beautiful game’ for nothing, and FIFA 11, on a whole, manages to capture it. Whether it’s driving home an overhead kick, breaking off for a completely unprecedented counter attack and winging it past seventeen defenders, or simply walloping Leeds United 6-0, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sense of satisfaction in gaming, not least from a football game.

You’ve probably played a football game at some point in your life. You know how it works. All you really need to know is this: the gameplay is solid, if a little touchy. Barring commentators, sound-wise, everything is spot on. And graphically? It’s astounding. But most of all it’s the little things you’ll be amazed at in this. And you’ll still be stumbling upon them by the time FIFA 12 is out.


Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Windows, iOS, PS2, PSP, Wii, DS
Genre: Sport, football, simulation
EA, 01/10/10

See also: FIFA 10 (2009), Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 (2010)

Images: The Guardian, EADestructoidXboxer360

The Hurt Locker [Review]

If the phrase “Groundhog Day” scares you in the slightest, then at around the one hour mark in this film you may be visited by a sudden urge to stick your fingers in your ears, shut your eyes and begin humming away as loudly as possible.
For while The Hurt Locker accomplishes many things, it does not manage to avoid that which was this reviewer’s cause of concern from the beginning. The setup is worryingly simple: a three-man bomb defusal squad, consisting of Will James, Sanborn and newbie Elridge, go about their duty in Iraq, locating and defusing or otherwise removing hostile explosives.

It seems then, that to put it simply, The Hurt Locker is more a collection of vignettes than a continuous story; there is an auspicious lack of an overarching narrative. While this may simply be down to the content – the film is, after all, following a unit in their everyday duty and therefore it can be expected that the same style of scene may be witnessed more than once – it nevertheless makes for a jarring experience, with no real flow between each event. Luckily, all is not lost. The story finally shifts when James discovers a body of an ally and puts himself to the task of delivering justice upon the attackers. This is when you take your fingers out of your ears.

Because, while the first half of the film may feel as if it is slightly tedious and repetitive, it is perfectly executed to simply become a front for what the film is truly about: the relationship between these three men. If you take the time to see the film for what it is – an emotional and captivating story of three brothers in arms – rather than any preconceptions you may have of it being ‘just another war film’, then you may be pleasantly surprised. The Hurt Locker is far more Saving Private Ryan than Bridge on the River Kwai; a gritty, emotional gut punch. It is not just a war film. It is war poetry.

As could be expected with the subject matter, the feeling experienced most during viewing is that of utmost tension. In such a war, filth and poverty ridden city as Baghdad, anything could happen – and that it does. Heart-stopping roadside shootouts and risky defusal operations are matched perfectly with the camerawork, which director Kathryn Bigelow must be praised for; shaky-cam Cloverfield style shots intersect with focuses on insurgents, creating a frenzied atmosphere that only increases the tension further. However, intense sequences are often broken up by simple distractions; tumbleweed rolling past or a cat digging through rubbish.

This sudden and often brief shift in shot type marries perfectly with the usual rapid movements and zoom techniques to great effect, delivering edge-of-the-seat cinematics. The ‘distraction’ sequences also successfully manage to give the impression that the inhabitants of Baghdad are accustomed to this way of life - they continue to go about their lives every day with the risk of potential slaughter. Through this the film sends home an important message to the viewer, especially that of the importance and bravery of the troops to put their lives on the line to save these people, who, unlike us here in Britain, face terrorism as a constant threat, and have to live every day with the paranoia of it being their last.

The relatively lesser-known cast of The Hurt Locker put in an exceptional performance; protagonist Will James (Jeremy Renner, of 28 Weeks Later and The Assassination of Jesse James Ford) is suitably cocky, trying to prove himself, and his emotions are perfectly believable – the audience can easily empathise with his feelings when a young boy he knows is killed by insurgents. And on that note, we come to the actual plot of the film; the events setup by the first half to introduce our characters and allow them some admittedly rather impressive development.

Rather than the usual ‘unit go out, unit defuse bomb, unit argue a little, unit come home’ structure we’ve become so accustomed to by this point, we’re treated to something slightly (whisper it) different. James’ attempts to avenge the death of a small boy he had befriended ultimately lead to an albeit not-very-surprising climax to the film. This sudden shake-up throws off the possibly now sleeping viewer, giving a sudden wake-up call that events out of the norm do occasionally happen now and then.

But the plot is not the focus here. If you can overcome the lack of story in the first half of the film and concentrate on the more emotional and deeper aspects of The Hurt Locker, and look at it as not simply another war film, but as war poetry, you may be amiably taken aback by what you find in this valiant story of three brave war heroes serving in Iraq.

See also: Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001)

Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Voltage Pictures, 131 mins, 28/08/09

Synopsis: An exposé on the day-to-day lives of an elite army bomb squad, forced into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse - in a land where every object and every person is a potential threat...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood [Review]

The annual leapfrog contest had taken a turn for the worse...
Before going into the main review, I feel I must concede that I had reserved judgements about Brotherhood; Assassin’s Creed 2.5? The lack of an unoriginal setting or protagonist worried me. Whilst Assassin’s Creed II was a joy to play, and Ezio de Auditore a formidable vehicle with which to unleash Ubisoft’s unique blend of killer capabilities, I felt his story was done; yes, there were a few loose ends, but an extra batch of downloadable content could have cleared that up, leaving the way for a brand new assassin (possibly in a Victorian London locale?). Luckily, any doubts I had were assuaged almost immediately - and that was before I got stuck into the online mode.

Brotherhood follows on from its predecessor in the manner the second game took towards its chronology; months and years can pass and you’ll never know any different unless you happen to notice the date given at the start of each sequence. Much in the same vein, it’s difficult to tell just how soon after the ending of ACII this is set based solely on differences in location and character. The story opens much in the way I assumed life would be like for the protagonist following the end of the last game; a legendary assassin, capable of saving the free world… retiring to a quaint country home. Of course, it doesn’t last; else this would be a review of Country Living Simulator 2011. The menacing, murderous and incestuous Borgia clan have come to wreak havoc upon Italy, taking over Rome, and inevitably the burden falls to you to free the city from the shackles of tyranny. With just one city featuring in Brotherhood, the game might at first feel heavily downsized from ACII, but this is soon rectified by its scale, with all its emphatic beauty and historical accuracy making it a pleasure to travel through. On the other side of this, of course, having one larger city does inevitably lead to a lot of travelling; by the time you reach the final memory sequence you’ll know the citadel like the back of your palm. Of course, that doesn’t negate the large amount of running around on horseback you encounter, but it does help to alleviate the stop-start nature of having to look at your map at every corner.

No animals were harmed during the making of this game. Probably.
Whilst Brotherhood’s single player may feel strenuously similar to ACII for the first few memory sequences, a multitude of subtle improvements have been made. The ability to fight on horseback removes the need to stop at every guard post to bump off a few troublemakers - ride, swing, and stab, ride, swing, and stab. It’s a well-implemented system, not to mention efficient. An almost excessive amount of side quests also help to keep you busy during the course of the game; everything from repairing aqueducts to burning towers to rebuilding shops. A feature you might remember from ACII, the shop system has been upgraded here, further stressing the economic fluency of the game - for each area, first the captain must be assassinated, and then his watchtower burned, in order to release it from Borgia control. Then all shops and merchants in the area become available for renovation, which, whilst carrying an initial outlay, provides several advantages: discounts, new items and, most importantly, a higher revenue stream in the bank.

With all this talk of rebuilding cities, purchasing upgrades and such, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve suddenly started reading a review for the next Elder Scrolls game. Brotherhood contains elements of an RPG, admittedly, but at heart it’s purely about the adventure. The abundance of side quests is merely a momentary distraction for those with short attention spans (or perhaps the obsessive trophy collector), while the real meat of Assassin’s Creed sits purely in its main campaign. An even greater variety of mission styles greets you here than with Brotherhood’s predecessor; stalking your opponents, infiltrating enemy structures and gatherings, straightforward ‘running and gunning’ - even impersonating masked officials in order to reach your target. The depth and detail of the bustling city of Rome will not fail to astound as you work your way through the memory sequences, which are never a chore. And at around fifteen to twenty hours’ worth of campaign to be had at, there’s plenty to get stuck into. Roll on the inevitable downloadable content (the first of which is rumoured to concern Da Vinci)! 

Who said men can't multitask?
While Brotherhood’s ending will leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth - suffice to say we can expect at least one more instalment - there’s no reason it should stop you exploring the main addition to the series. The online-only multiplayer offered at the title screen is a first for the Assassin’s Creed games, and sets up a ‘cops and robbers’ style environment contained within a range of moderately sized maps. Filled with identical character models of various classes, the primary objective of the [admittedly few and far between] game modes centres on identifying your target amongst the masses. If done right, this can result in tense and thrilling games, stalking your prey for the slightest hint of human error that might give away their position. Of course, there’s always the odd fool who’ll run across the rooftops and alert everyone to his presence within seconds - but the game rewards subtlety; more points are given for the killer your target never sees coming, until his carcass lies on the dusty pave below, whilst minimal score is awarded to those who gallivant about in broad daylight. In effect, this means just a few well-placed assassinations can win the game against someone with ten kills who blunders about noisily. Brotherhood rewards the art of the kill; the style, sophistication and subtleties of the Creed. And it is in this way that it succeeds. Call of what?

It’s to Brotherhood’s credit, then, that it does its online component so well. With such similarities in character and style to ACII, the multiplayer might even be argued as its main hook - and it’s a hook which will hold Ubisoft’s series high, high up for as long as it might see fit (that is, until next time). The single player campaign is simply a bonus, and a ridiculously in depth one at that. To say that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is well deserving of its praise would be quite an understatement: it’s a gleaming, bloody blade of triumph for Ubisoft’s killer series. 

Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Windows, Mac OS X
Genre: Historical action/adventure, stealth
Ubisoft, 19/11/10

See also: Assassin's Creed (2007), Assassin's Creed II (2009)