Friday, 27 April 2012

Avengers Assemble Review

Yesterday, I saw Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, in a cinema, twice. I’ll admit that my own terrible scheduling was primarily responsible, but I loved it both times. That’s the kind of movie we’re talking about. It’s a big deal, too- the long awaited super-hero super-movie, titled simply Avengers in several places I don't live in, has a giant budget, a big-name director and an all star cast- can it possibly meet the hype?
Without giving too much away, the plot is exactly what you’re expecting. Loki, god-like alien from the other end of space, decides he’s the boss of earth now, and has a deadly robot army to back him up. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), director of world-defense agency SHIELD does not want this, and seeks to assemble a team of superheroes to stick it to Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Despite some initial quarrelling, the heroes are brought together by the peril facing humanity, and a titanic showdown ensues between the newly-formed Avengers and Loki’s otherworldly minions. It took a little while to get going, but the opening and early scenes, which I initially thought were kinda dull, do really contribute to the overall arc of the film. 

It’s plainly obvious that the film was a Joss Whedon effort- Whedon’s trademark wit and humour courses through the film’s bloodstream. I was struck by how genuinely funny the film was; this isn’t a comedy, but the dialogue is razor sharp at all points. At both showings I saw, the audience was laughing hugely throughout. This is great, but in places it was almost too funny for its own good- several jokes seemed to be missed either due to their subtlety or that the audience was literally laughing too hard at the last crack to hear the next. 

Characters are similarly master-crafted. All the Avengers feel very natural and well cast, and their personalities are clear and distinct; Captain America (Chris Evans) is straight laced but sometimes puzzled by modernity, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the brilliant eccentric and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)  has a very strained and deliberate calm. I had suspected Downey Junior’s Stark might outshine the other characters before seeing the movie, even joking about going to see Iron Man 3: Now With Pals; Tony Stark, the brilliant rogue with drink issues seems to come very naturally to Mr Downey Jr, for some reason. My fears were unfounded, however. All the Avengers are played well, and have big parts to the narrative- even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), lesser in power and reputation to their comrades, worked great. Hulk in particular was on smashing form, though seemed to have lost some of his unpredictability. Hulk isn’t supposed to be a force for good or for evil, but a force for force; unstoppable, uncontrollable and totally destructive. Here, though, Banner managed to exert some sort of control over ‘the other guy’, but I’m prepared to chalk it up to artistic license. This diversity and quality of characters made their eventual union all the sweeter- despite their different circumstances and agendas, they came together when it really counted- heroism of the truest kind. Special mention has to go to Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki. He really made the character his own, putting across an air of genuine menace and haughty egoism. His wounded pride was very clear, and his evil grin genuinely unnerving. 

One thing a superhero film can be relied upon for is action, and Avengers does not disappoint. Some real kick ass set piece battles give excuse for sequences of large and expensive things, like secret laboratories, experimental aircraft carriers and the entirety of Manhattan, to be destroyed. The usual pitfall of mindless explosion is sidestepped for the most part; almost every explosion occurs with good reason, and action sequences have some proper charm- Iron Man's hijacking of a PA system to blast out AC-DC as he blazed in to battle Loki was a brilliant addition to an already intense fight scene. The CGI was used well and sparingly, mostly to lend the alien creatures and locales that extraterrestrial shine.

I really, really liked this movie. At a sizable 140 minutes, it was big on experience without dragging out or feeling flabby. The intelligence and humour of the dialogue had me genuinely grinning start to finish, and the characters all worked beautifully. I’m the wrong kind of nerd for comic books, alas, but my comic consultant was very satisfied. Whedon clearly knows both comics and filmmaking, so we’ve got a movie with both fan and mass appeal. I would note that between the 12A certificate and the general light-hearted tone the movie felt kind of edgeless, especially compared to films like The Dark Knight, though for about eight seconds I genuinely thought that Iron Man might be killed off. That’s personal preference, though- Avengers Assemble was a riotously good time. See it twice or more, but preferably not by mistake like me.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

First Look: Pokémon Black and White 2

Like every rational creature, I love Pokémon. And why wouldn’t you? Entertaining adventures, ruthlessly addictive monster collecting and accessible but deep battling make for a fantastic handheld game. That the franchise has grown pretty formulaic doesn’t bother me- it’s a nice formula, it works. Nonetheless, it’s pretty exciting when there’s a substantial change to that formula, and so there has been! The next Pokémon release, following last year’s Pokémon Black and White, won’t be a Grey version, or even an enhanced remake of Ruby and Sapphire, as previous form suggests. Instead, we’re getting Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. But what exactly does that mean?

Details are currently pretty sparse, but have been slowly filtering out since the announcement. These, as the name suggests, are direct sequels to Black and White- a couple of years have passed since the events of those games, and while we are revisiting the same region, some changes have occurred in the interim. We’re gonna have new player characters, new gym leaders and a new rival. Additionally, it seems that Black and White’s all-new Pokémon approach has been dropped, and the old school mons will be more readily available. Legendary Ice Pokémon Kyurem has apparently been wrecking shit, as legendary Pokémon inevitably do, and seemingly has multiple forms echoing the Reshiram and Zekrom legendary monsters from Black and White. 

At this point, that’s about all we know. What is interesting is that almost all of these are different from the very formulaic approach the main series Pokémon games have taken to date. Instead of a slightly enhanced third version as was the case with all previous generations, these seem to be pretty decent approximations to new games. They’re also direct sequels- while Gold and Silver took this route, there’s been nothing of the sort in the series since then. Perhaps most puzzling of all is that these are going to be released on the old DS, and not new-hotness 3DS. I never got a 3DS, so it suits me, but it seems very strange- Black and White 1, in the eyes of many, should have been 3DS games, and I would have thought Nintendo would mandate a 3DS exclusive release to drive sales and secure the console’s very slightly shaky market. 

Perhaps I’m just gushing over trivial crap, but what little we know about these new games all seems unusual, especially for a franchise as notoriously static as Pokémon. Personally, I hope these games deliver some of the polish and singleplayer quality that went AWOL between the brilliant Heartgold and Soulsilver remakes and Black and White- I and others sorely missed features like the enhanced interface and walking Pokémon that HG/SS brought to the table. Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 are scheduled for release this summer in Japan, this fall in America, and presumably at some point in Europe. I’ll be sure to keep my readers posted with the latest news on these titles, provided I remember and can be arsed.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Toyota GT-86 and Subaru BRZ Impressions

Japan hasn’t been putting out many sports cars lately- great cars like the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Honda NSX have been out of production for years now. Even recent editions of Mitsubishi Evolutions and Subaru Imprezas have been a little tame. While Nissan have been holding the fort with the 370Z and GT-R, that’s pretty much it. It’s a damn shame if you ask me, but fortunately, Toyota and Subaru have been working together on a new sports coupe. The Subaru BRZ and Toyota GT86 are going on sale in the UK later this year.

The car has a two-litre flat-four powerplant provided by Subaru, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox. It’s a compact, lightweight, 2+2 coupe, with a super-rigid chassis and aerodynamic stability from all angles. It is designed for sporting purity and driving experience. And it looks nice. Look at it, shit!

This isn’t a continuation of the Japanese GT car tradition, as I had initially thought. It is instead a car from the MX-5 school of design- not so much a performance car, but a sports car in the purest sense. We’re talking about a car that’s about driving purity as distinct from track-day performance, and reports say that it achieves these goals marvellously. It’s unashamedly old school, and I do approve. Nonetheless, to me that styling writes cheques that a naturally aspirated two-litre engine can’t possibly cash- those lights and the overall profile of the car are real aggressive. I’m not alone in this; in Japan, where sales have already blitzkrieged estimates, customers are saying that they want more power. Word is that Subaru are listening- so it seems pretty likely that we’ll see a jacked up STI version, probably turbocharged and slimmed down, within a year or so. Hard to say whether or not the Toyota will get the same treatment- I don’t know what kind of deal the two companies have on the project (what do I look like, a fucking motoring journalist?).
If I had the £25,000 that the car is speculated to cost (and a driver’s license) I would definitely be looking into this machine. I really like the way it looks, and the purist philosophy is very appealing indeed. As for which to go for, I’m not quite sure. Only nuanced differences are present in the styling, but I think those nuances are nicer on the Toyota. Apparently the BRZ has sportier suspension, and it’s likely to be a little more exclusive, with noticeably lower sales estimates than the GT86. Fact is, though, that it looks like either would be a great car. Not one that my punk ass can afford, alas. Maybe once that book deal comes through, eh?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Gran Turismo 5 review

Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 is the latest in the very long running series of Playstation driving-sims. After a protracted development with repeatedly delayed release, the game finally came out in November, 2010. Why am I writing about it in April 2012? I don’t know, whatever, shut up. I’ve been playing it a bunch recently, and maybe you want to hear my thoughts on it? Well you’re in luck! Here they are. 

Make no mistake, that lengthy development wasn’t the sign of struggling design, financial troubles or creative incompetence, á la Duke Nukem Forever; the game took eons to make because it is fucking outrageously enormous. GT5 packs over a thousand faithfully recreated cars, 70 tracks both real and original and chillingly accurate physics. This is the psychotic autism school of game development, but the obsessive attention to detail cuts both ways- it’s abundantly clear to play the game that while it soars close to perfection in some areas, others have been left by the wayside somewhat. Car handling, for example, is basically as good as it is possible to be (and I can’t stress enough just how good the physics and handling feel), but AI drivers are soulless automatons, often seeming oblivious to the player’s car. 

 Race physics are top notch.

The career gameplay is fairly open ended. Basically simple, too- buy cars, race cars, use winnings to buy more cars. Most events have some kind of theme, often emulating a real-world race discipline such as NASCAR or Super GT, but many simply confined to a specific nationality or period of car.  There’s an experience level system that places restrictions on the cars you can buy and the events you can enter- family hatchbacks are level 0, while dedicated race cars can be level 20 or even higher. I guess the idea is to give the gameplay some structure and a sense of progression, but it can feel artificial and forced at times- for me, filling a virtual garage with ever more exotic driving machines is progression enough. There’s also B-spec racing, which trades the hands on approach of A-spec for an indirect driver management experience. It’s a little clumsy, and I’m far too fucking ADD to enjoy handing the wheel to some AI chump, but it’s a pretty neat feature. Licence tests, a series staple, return, though they aren’t quite as vital to advancement as in previous editions, but these coupled with a variety of academy-style special events do provide decent instruction to new drivers.

 There's a Photography mode which lets you dress up and parade your car like a daughter you don't really love.

Where GT5 shines, and where all that development time and funding has gone, is in the technical stuff. Gran Turismo always was a good simulator, and GT5 has the best physics yet. Every car sounds and drives just right. Visuals are a little bipolar, however- only about 200 of the cars on roster are so-called “premium” models, with full detail and interior views. These look fucking amazing. “Standard” cars, which make up the rest of the roster, though notably mostly older and unremarkable cars, take a hit to graphical fidelity (most of them seem to be lifted from earlier games), but are nonetheless accurately modelled in their behaviours. Damage, both visual and mechanical, appears for the first time in the series, and works adequately, though most events don’t have it enabled- cars get scuffed and crumpled from collisions, bits fall off after several hits, and the behaviour of the car reacts to the ruination your shitty driving has brought to steering, drivetrain and aerodynamics. 

 This shot looks exciting, but I'm actually driving the van.

If I’m totally honest, there is a slight out-of-touch-ness here, but in an endearing way; few to zero concessions have been made for accessibility, refreshing in today’s market of brain-dead Call of Duty clones. GT5 is a simulator, in the purest sense, and as such it’s a game for car people rather than for game people. Car geeks will find no end of entertainment in the automotive cornucopia that’s on offer here, between collecting and tuning hundreds of cars and driving them in the games very varied selection of tracks and races. I think even non-petrolheads will be somewhat taken by the meticulous attention to detail on display, and I defy anyone not to crack a grin when they open the throttle on a Plymouth Cuda down the back straight, but like I said, this is really for the car guys. That being said, some added usability would definitely be welcome- the game does feel a little obtuse and awkward in places. Since, by now, prices should have dropped dramatically, I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in cars- there is so much raw content here that, with a little patience, it becomes the ultimate motoring toybox.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Braaaaains and the Lack Thereof

Zombies are awesome, right? Biting, moaning, shuffling, all that shit. It’s great, it really is. But as my Ferrari dealer told me as I entered his office the sixth time that week, you can have too much of a good thing. So it is, I feel, with zombies. Zombies, I feel, have become so played out in popular culture that the entire subgenre has grown stale and boring from overexposure. Recently, I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead, and I think that this show exemplifies what I mean.

Don’t get me wrong; as I said before, zombies are awesome. They make for great monsters, and interesting things can and have been done with them; dilemmas about the ethics of killing what were once people, the horror of witnessing loved ones turn and the very unsettling notion of a self-propagating plague spreading through all mankind are all really cool narrative ideas. However, they’ve all been done to fucking death- un-death, even, hur hur. I think zombie fiction has become so commonplace that it’s very difficult to do something new or exciting with it. 

This is where The Walking Dead comes in. I had hoped that this show, which came to me quite highly recommended, might be the shot in the arm that the genre needed. Alas not. It’s very much by-the-numbers zombie fiction- there’s gore, tense scenes, fearful protagonists and shambling corpses. As ever, the outbreak took everyone by surprise and ran improbably rampant. Nothing you wouldn’t expect happens- a band of survivors gets together and battle daily to keep on living among the dead. I mean, it’s well executed- the zombies look great, the action is thrilling, but shit! It’s so fucking dreary and predictable, because zombie fiction always plays out the same goddamn way. 

For example- there’s always a moment, and there was in TWD, where someone says something like “This is gonna sound crazy, but the dead are rising up and killing people!” No, you fucking asshole, it doesn’t sound that crazy, it sounds like a zombie movie! This is a scenario with which, despite its improbability, I am quite familiar, thanks to having seen it play out often in fiction! Instead, however, our intrepid hero is shocked and confused, and goes on to make the same stupid mistakes as every other protagonist you’ve ever seen. It’s dull, and gets to the point that it harms characterisation; the characters on screen are not behaving like real people, because real people have seen a zombie flick at some fucking point. Ignoring this flaw in the fiction suckers you into the cliché; acknowledging it is difficult to pull off without it coming off as goofy-ass parody. Hell, even Shaun of the Dead’s nerdy protagonists, who by all rights should have been shamble-savvy, had a hard time in understanding what was going on.

So what can we do? I would be tempted to just stop making zombie fiction, at least for a while. Give it a rest, you know? A brief respite for the dead horse. That’s a little bit of a cop-out, though; it would probably be better if we were, somehow, to reinvigorate the genre. How? I got nothing. Maybe you create your characters with the prior knowledge, but have it work against them as the outbreak plays out differently to what they expect? Answers on a postcard, people, but one thing is clear- the dead can’t keep walking the same direction forever.