Archive for April, 2009

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I have nothing to say today.

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Doctor Who ‘Planet of the Dead’ Review

As concepts go, putting a double-decker London bus on a sand-covered alien planet is pretty high. As episodes of Doctor Who go, this is one of the lamest.

Opening with a horrendously clichéd thief-takes-valuable-item scene (with guards that don’t look at the object they’re monitoring), the episode moves on to what is writer Russell T Davis’ only good idea for the story – getting The Doctor and a busload of forgettable misfits stranded in a desert.

From here on, roughly nothing happens. At all. Michelle Ryan’s expert thief Lady Christina proves to be bland, boring and contrived. The best part of her character is the magic backpack that holds out every useful item under the sun, like shovels and axes, which she so clearly needed for a rooftop theft.

The pace dies as Tennant’s Doctor tries to liven up scene after scene of boring character introductions and exposition, from explaining how they got to the planet (SPOILER: wormhole), to chatting up the Token Psychic Bus Passenger. Because there’s always a Token Psychic Bus Passenger when The Doctor needs warning about the upcoming Regeneration.

The episode goes from barely watchable to downright intolerable as The Doctor and Christina bump into the worst aliens since the fat penguins – flies in boiler suits. The only conceivable purpose of these characters is to have a crashed ship containing the Token Plot Device Crystal that is needed to get the bus back to earth.

It’s here that a much more interesting story is discovered, discarded and forgotten. There is a storm approaching the bus – a storm made of metal manta rays. If they get through the wormhole, they will turn the earth into a desert, just like they did to the planet they now fly around. Wouldn’t it be a much more interesting episode if the bus turned up in the middle of the city being eaten alive by the manta rays? Why must we be forced to watch this dross instead?

The episode then staggers to its climax, featuring three manta rays escaping to earth behind a terrible CGI flying bus and being shot down by an unusually bloody-minded UNIT. Lee Evans makes a cameo appearance as a comedy bumbling scientist and The Doctor helps Christina escape, for no real reason.

All in all, a very bad start to the year of special episodes. The only saving grace is that Catherine Tate isn’t in it.

1/5

Crank: High Voltage Review

Let’s get one thing out of the way first – Crank: High Voltage is the best film ever made.

Beginning literally seconds after the original, Jason Statham’s harder-than-hell assassin Chev Chelios is scraped off the pavement by Triad gangsters led by Johnny Vang. This leads to Chev’s indestructible heart being replaced by an artificial one with limited battery. That’s the set-up for even more mayhem and destruction than last time around, as Chev has to murderize his way through Latino and Chinese gangs in order to restore his pumper, while keeping his battery constantly topped up.

Make no bones about it; this is a film that completely understands its audience. Within five minutes, Chev has shot four people dead, shoved a shotgun up a gangster’s arse and been told he has a big dick. From then on, the filmmakers stop at absolutely nothing to bring the laughs and action in equal measure up to a face-melting speed that spits in the face of very other action movie ever made.

This is, without a doubt, Statham’s finest hour. He sprints from car smash to shootout without batting an eyelid, always with a slightly self-referential look and constantly giving every frame one hundred and ten percent of his seemingly boundless energy.

And energy is something that this film has in spades. The decision to shoot the entire movie in a fishbowl view – ala a skateboarding video – is a risky move, one that is slightly disorienting fir the first ten minutes, but adds an incredible layer of frenetic energy to the film, giving even the ‘slow’ sections a kick up the arse.

Of course, you can describe a ‘slow’ section in Crank: High Voltage as being ‘without explosions, chases, smashes, crashes or gun battles’. Being a film aimed squarely at ADHD-inflicted twentysomething males, all scenes without violence or explosions feature naked women. You know, in case your mind wanders.

What’s most shocking (pun intended) is that no two scenes are the same. Each set-piece is different to the one before it, with each bringing its own separate laughs, shocks and thrills. The sex scene – taking place at a horse racing track this time – easily rivals most whole comedy films for sheer belly laughs.

In short, Crank: High Voltage is a solid gold masterpiece. The best action movie of the year? Try the last ten. Try the best movie of all time. All Hail Statham!

5/5

Pokémon Platinum Diary: Week 1

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to you now – no, paperclip, this is not actually a letter – to inform you of my travels thus far in Pokémon Platinum.

I have not played a Pokémon game in some twelve years, since the dawn of Red and Blue, as the first wave of hysteria gripped the hearts and minds of the young and warped them into collecting every single item, nick-knack and collectable that had the Pokémon branding emblazoned proudly across it.

Needless to say, the age group that was most afflicted in this frenzy of marketing was my own. I was there, on the front lines, Pokémon cards in hand, stored next to the Pokémon figurines, playing the Pokémon game in my lunch breaks at school, trading, swapping, battling…

By the time Gold and Silver were released, I had already freed myself of the grip of the one hundred and fifty strange-looking beasts. I had gone on to bigger, but not necessarily better, games. My time in that first region remained dear to my heart, my Pokédex compete of all one hundred and fifty (one!) monsters.

Precisely one week ago, I decided to ‘get back in the game’, as I suppose one’s children are wont to say, and purchased a copy of the newest Pokémon game, entitled Platinum. One wonders what other jewels and colours there are in the world left for Nintendo to name their games after!

The first thing I noticed was that very little had changed. You are still given the choice of three starting monsters, each with a different ‘type’ – grass, water and fire. You still have a rival – even though he is a friend this time, I still found him to be rather odious – and he still chooses the Pokémon type that is technically superior to yours. The Pokémon themselves still can only learn and use four moves, keeping the state of play incredibly simple and very complex – do you want your monster to specialise in one type of attack, or do you want it to be fair and balanced?

Naturally, the first Pokémon I chose was all three. Trading with a friend is still possible from the off, allowing you both to obtain all three Pokémon each. The downside is, it takes roughly six hours – quite the downside, I’m sure you will agree.

The things that have changed in the past twelve years and fifteen games are that you can now choose the sex of your character. This invariably changes the sex of your rival and of your love interest, who chooses the Pokémon that is weakest to yours. Also, there are now double battles, where you can team up with another trainer and take down two Pokémon at the same time.

Aside from that, the gameplay is largely unchanged. Aside from the obvious additions to the Pokémon roster – there now appear to be four hundred and ninety three Pokémon.

I have been investigating the Sinnoh region for twelve hours in the past week and have seen forty two, captured twenty seven Pokémon.

I am completely addicted to this game again.

Until next time, gentlemen.

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We have fun while we’re out and about.

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Sunday Funday: because Jack takes a week to draw a single page. Today’s comic by Nikki. Thanks darlin’.

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Yep. He escaped the retail grind for a more fulfilling job with a bigger pay packet. Jammy motherfucker.

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Ah… and I’m back. Sorry this went up late. I spent a very nice day drinking from a ready-made cocktail and having fun in the sun.

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Dead Space Review

Posted: April 5, 2009 in Review
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Dead Space

You’re trapped on an old ship stranded in space. There’s no way off. The power is down across the ship. You know that there are over one thousand corpses on board. There’s a vicious alien life form stalking you. And you have no gun.

That’s the intro in-game cinematic to Dead Space, a master class in isolation, both virtual and psychological. Within ten minutes you know the situation, the enemy, the problems you face and the challenges that lay ahead. If the opening proves anything, it’s that EA Redwood is one of the few Western developers that totally understand horror.

The game’s strength lies in its ability to constantly deceive the player. The Necromorph enemies are smarter and far more mobile that you; if you see one across the room, it’ll dive into the nearest air vent and attack you from behind. Corpses tip-toed past several times in empty corridors can suddenly become a major hazard if they aren’t immediately stomped into pieces first time through. Necromorphs will shrug off direct hits to the chest or head. Make no mistake, this is a game truly designed to terrify from the off. In fact, it feels like an even darker version of Resident Evil 4 in space – high praise indeed.

The cinematic influences are felt throughout the game. Obvious nods to Alien and its sequel are the most obvious, with traces of The Thing, Night of the Living Dead and even Event Horizon getting a nod. The game plays as though the greatest, scariest parts of the best horror films have been ripped out, boiled down to the basics and shoved into a pitch-black ship with no exit. Yes, there are scares and set pieces designed purely to make the player jump, but these are lovingly crafted, rarely repeated (the ace tentacle-dragging moment is worth playing the three times it occurs) and never feel out of place, hinged on the shock of sudden action lunging out of the ever-present dread.

The atmosphere that Dead Space seems to bathe in leaks out of every pore – it delights in forcing you to walk down a long, dark passage, armed only with a measly pistol, passing dozens of air vents that could crash open and reveal a Necromorph at any moment. Adding to the atmosphere is a series of top-notch design choices by EA Redwood – Isaac, the protagonist, is armed with a torch throughout. However, by choosing to spread light in the gloom, you sacrifice the option to run. Also, in a potentially disastrous move, there is no quick-turn option, turning every battle into an outstandingly gory intense run-and-stop-to-shoot brawl.

And this is a violent game, make no mistake. Enemies’ limbs are their weakest points, forcing you to cripple arms, legs, necks, leaving a writhing torso dripping with gore, waiting to be stomped into the ship’s deck.
Another brilliant design decision is the addition of zero gravity areas, where both you and the Necromorphs have the ability to jump to almost every surface accessible – walls, ceilings, the sides of pillars – creating a wonderful feeling of paranoia to offset the dread.

The story is totally engrossing and deftly handled. While it is almost exactly like Aliens, it is riveting and engaging enough to keep dragging you back. The two side characters, Kendra and Hammond, are very well written, with not a single stereotype between them. Borrowing from Valve, EA Redwood have made the wise decision to not allow Isaac to have a single line of dialogue in the game. This simple idea instantly makes Isaac a standout protagonist who doesn’t become irritating at any point.

However, there are problems with the game. Whilst the atmosphere forces breathless intensity, the various puzzles often pull you back out of the lovingly-crafted world. Each of the twelve chapters features one major set piece puzzle that get harder to solve as the game progresses. Unfortunately, the penalty for failure seems to be fixed on ‘instant kill’. Fail to time a jump onto a meteor correctly and you’ll be sliced in two, or sent drifting out into space. The excellent navigation system (a small line pointing to your objective, available at the touch of a button) sometimes appears to have logic issues, wanting you to walk back two feet, turn around, and continue where you were headed. Also, the camera has a habit of getting confused in zero gravity, which leads to enemies attacking you from off-screen. It can also become very repetitive – after just a few chapters, you’ll become familiar with the way the game works. Every button pressed plunges the room into total darkness and sends a swarm of horrors towards you. By the end of the game, you’ll be prepared for them before they happen, the exact opposite of the spirit of fear. Similarly, there’s very little variation in the enemies. The monsters met at the game’s opening simply become faster and tougher by the closing.

Upsetting all the great design decisions lovingly placed in Dead Space is the use of text. Like all good horror games, backstory and extra information can be gleamed from finding and reading various text logs scattered around. Unfortunately, the text used is so small, only a 52-inch plasma screen will be able to see it clearly, meaning anyone playing on a normal TV will have to choose between squinting or ignoring text logs completely.

The game’s biggest problem, however, is in the weapon selection. By choosing to upgrade from a mere pistol to one of several other sci-fi inspired weapons, ranging from flame-throwers to saw blade launchers, you unwittingly make the game easier. Enemies can be killed almost as soon as they appear in one hit with no thought, while ammo can be purchased with little fuss.

Problems aside, it’s an engrossing, incredibly well designed horror game with enough scares and suspense to last it at least a handful of replays. Play it in a darkened room and pray for daylight: Dead Space is the new king of this generation’s horror.

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