Portfolio

These are my portfolio pieces, the work I’m most proud of.

Alan Wake Review

Alan Wake is very nearly a masterpiece. Reviews aren’t supposed to start with such a bold claim, but then again, games aren’t supposed to be as gripping as novels. Alan Wake is one of those rare experiences that stands up and shouts, ‘look at me, I’m more than a game!’ And by God, you’d better be paying attention.

Alan Wake is a successful thriller novelist suffering from writer’s block, unable to put pen to paper for over two years. Travelling with his wife Alice for some much needed R&R to the remote town of Bright Falls, he hopes to get rested enough to feel better about his work. But when Alice reveals that she’s brought his typewriter along with them, Alan gets annoyed and leaves their cabin. That’s when all hell breaks loose. Alice screams in the cabin, Alan goes running, sees her under the water, dives in to save her, then-

BAM! Alan crashes his car in the woods. Dizzy, nauseas, confused, Alan discovers that not only is he missing an entire week, but in that time he’s written a whole novel staring himself in the desperate search for his wife. But something dark is after Alan and, using the pages of a book he doesn’t remember writing, he’s got to piece together the mystery of what happened and why.

Alan Wake is a storytelling triumph, easily on par with developer Remedy’s last work Max Payne 2, or even true classics like Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness. What seems a horror game quickly unfolds into an action thriller, the scares forcing you to keep playing, to find out what happens next. This is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliantly crafted scripts in videogame history. In fact, without the script being at the expertly crafted level it is, Alan’s search for his wife would have no meaning. The player is forced to care for her almost as much as Alan does, adding a sense of genuine panic to the unfolding horror. Also, a thousand points to the character of Barry Wheeler, who manages to be both best friend and comic foil, without ever being annoying.

The pitch-perfect writing is topped off by some of the best voice acting in videogame history. Each character seems to come alive through the dialogue, be they Wake himself, a one-line character or the disturbing enemy Taken. Complementing this is a stirring score that oscillates wildly between creating tension or drama depending on your situation.

The best part is that the game is broken up into several small episodes. Each one has its own complete narrative strand, characters, setpiece event and even a cliffhanger. It’s this incredible pacing that allows the game to divide up the way it torments the player. You’ll feel obliged to sample the game in small chunks, playing each episode on separate occasions, somehow forced to savour each small moment of the game. Rush it and you’ll feel glutinous, like an overeater surrounded by cake, being tutted at by a waiter.

The game oozes atmosphere out of every available orifice. Even the relative calm of the game’s true opening – asking around in a diner for a man with your cabin key – has an unsettling vibe to it that drips out of the screen. The town, as wide-open as it is, feels claustrophobic, the few shadows somehow too large and the inhabitants just a tiny bit too strange. It’s this atmosphere that separates Alan Wake from every other horror game ever made – the calm before the storm is almost as disturbing as the storm itself.

It’s also highly replayable for a horror game, thanks to hundreds of hidden items to collect, see or shoot tucked away in the few chapters. It would be nicer if there was some way of knowing exactly which chapter the missed items were in, but, still, it’s the thought that counts. There are also three difficulties, Normal, Hard and the incredibly intense Nightmare mode, which just about triples the challenge and throws in more hidden items to collect.

Most of the game is quite repetitive, which is the one irritation to the gameplay. The lush forests of Bright Falls are depicted here with such love and care that the woodland areas feel alive – adding to the horror enormously – but you’ll only really see them in the dead of night. Alan walks around in the day, exploring locations and checking out collectable items, before spending the night engaging in combat with the Taken, possessed locals wielding vicious weaponry.

Combat is fairly straightforward. Your weapons are mapped to the D-pad, with pistol and hyper-powerful flare gun on left and right respectively, while throwing weapons are on down and the game’s two shotguns and hunting rifle are placed on up. Complicating the straightforward task of killing slightly is the fact that the Taken can’t be hurt until they’ve been weakened by light. This forces you to train a flashlight on them for a few incredibly tense seconds before dispatching them back to hell. You can also dodge incoming attacks, which works very well with Alan’s ungraceful movements and stumbles, although he is maybe too good a shot at times.

The biggest problem with the game as a whole is that it suffers from the same flaw as every other horror game ever made. After the halfway point, the focus switches from scares to action and the force that seems to propel you through the game almost completely drops away. You could argue that the switch is to keep things fresh and interesting, but it actually hurts the game. Halfway through, you’re told all the secrets and then get to run through the town packing as much heat as the gun-toting Sheriff next to you. It simply isn’t as innately interesting as a man walking through a dark forest with only a flashlight for company.

This would be forgiven, however, if it wasn’t for how short the game is. There are a mere six chapters, each one taking roughly two hours or so to complete. This means that, in the game’s development time, Remedy have spent each year making two hours of gameplay. On top of this, the game doesn’t even end properly, instead providing a frankly pathetic pay-off that doesn’t resolve anything. To describe it properly would be to say that it’s like a novel with the final pages torn out. Speaking of which, Remedy are releasing new downloadable chapters that arrive this summer. In essence, Alan Wake is half a game, and for that slap in the face, it loses a whole mark.

In spite of that, Alan Wake remains an intense horror experience like no other. If the game’s untidy ending is to allow new chapters to be released every month, then maybe that’s a good thing. On the whole, this is a worthy purchase for fans of horror, action, or those millions of gamers starved of a damn good story. Alan Wake is very nearly a masterpiece. It’s so close it can taste it. Maybe it will be once the story is complete.

80%

Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

With Infinity Ward’s outstanding Modern Warfare games kicking the snot out of Treyarch’s horrendous World War Two shooter World at War, the ball is back in the latter’s court for the rematch. Modern Warfare 2 raised the stakes for both multiplayer depth and ridiculous action scenes, so it would seem from the title of this latest entry in the long-running franchise that Treyarch are going to do the sensible thing and go in the opposite direction, turning explosions into stealth and creating the best sneak-‘em-up in gaming history. At least, that’s what anybody with half a brain would think. And they’d be wrong.

Black Ops, or ‘Blops’ for short, puts the player behind the grizzled chin and furrowed brow of Alex Mason, a member of an elite task force who specialise in doing covert assassinations and secret missions on open battlefields. To be fair, this is a tad misleading – Mason carries out assassinations by kicking open the target’s front doors and shooting anything that moves with the loudest gun possible, while those battlefield missions are more like winning the war single-handedly. The game jumps back and forth in time during the early sixties as an interrogator drugs Mason and attempts to extract vital information from him that he unknowingly picked up at some point during his career. None of this matters, however, because almost all of the game is padding.

It’s a horrendously flimsy plot, even more so when you consider that maybe – just maybe – the game doesn’t actually need one. Surely a game based around a series of covert (emphasis on ‘covert’) missions against the many various targets around the world set against the rich tapestry of the Cold War would be twice as good as another generic action game? Nope, instead we’re given a game that’s a bland knock-off of its own franchise.

There are remarkably few sections in the game where you’ll actually feel like a member of an elite, clandestine unit of hardcore killers. The first mission asks you to break into Fidel Castro’s compound in Cuba and assassinate him, which involves, um, running from shotgun-toting cops, driving through barricades and murdering every single human inside the leader’s building. Another mission tasks you with sneaking into a secret Soviet space centre and taking out their rocket. This is carried out by four loudmouth Yanks who turn up in Russia IN AMERICAN MILITARY UNIFORMS. The leader of the group even wears a ridiculous bandana throughout the mission for Christ’s sake!

Naturally, you’ll only ever rarely do any form of sneaking and they’re easily better than any other part of the game. Every single mission has you shooting, or driving and shooting, or flying and shooting, your way through dozens of generic Russians or Viet Cong or both and there’s very little reason for any of it. Sure, there’s some kind of story involving a gas attack, but the villains are so bland that you may find yourself hating the Americans simply because everything that comes out of their mouths is a fat load of generic, muscle-toting shit.

The few sections that do allow you to do any form of sneaking are a delight – intense, visceral and often shocking in their graphic nature. One forces you to sneak in a Viet Cong village and murder the inhabitants with a knife while placing explosives around, while another sequence – possibly the best part of the entire game – has you delve into a Viet Cong tunnel with a torch and a pistol. It’s these moments that make you sit up and take notice, not silly scenes where you fire missiles at rockets or destroy a ship with a helicopter. Sadly, these sequences are too few and too short, often ending just as you manage to get into the spirit of the moment.

There’s literally nothing on offer here that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and better. This brings us to the multiplayer, which has at least done the decent thing and pushed the boundaries further than every before. There are more unlockables, more weapons, more secrets and more levels than ever before. While you’ll still be destroyed every two seconds by players with more experience and less social life than you, it’s a little fairer and more balanced than the previous games thanks to the inclusion of money. You earn money by scoring kills and levelling up and can spend it on purchasing what you actually want to upgrade your guns with, instead of having to use items you don’t want to.

Aside from the main two modes, Blops also sees the return of the Zombie mode from World at War. A brilliantly intense point-scoring game, Zombies has two levels, the first of which is a standard castle-based map set in Nazi Germany. The second is a stroke of utter, utter genius, beginning with a cutscene featuring Kennedy, Castro, McNamara and Nixon all gathered around a table for a meeting before tooling up to take on the undead. It’s so funny, so bizarre and so goddamned brilliant you’ll find yourself asking quite why in the hell the rest of the game wasn’t as fun as that twenty second cutscene.

So that’s Call of Duty Black Ops. Not big, not clever and nowhere near as exciting as it thinks it is. You’ll breeze through the single player on the hardest difficulty in a couple of sittings, get bored of Zombies pretty quickly and if the multiplayer is what you like, you’ll get your money’s worth there. Other than that, there isn’t much to recommend here. A hugely missed opportunity for an exciting series that’s past its prime.

65%

Harry Brown Review

‘In Northern Ireland they were fighting for a cause. For them, this is just… entertainment.’

Harry Brown is a man who knows the difference between violence and anarchy and he is going to ensure that every single person who watches this compelling British thriller understands that too. Don’t be confused by the appearance of the lovable Michael Caine: this film is a horrible beauty, a deadly rose – wonderful to look at but poisonous to the touch.

Aging former Marine Harry Brown (Caine) knows his time is running out. He’s slowly pissing away his remaining days trapped on a horrible council estate, visiting his dying wife in the hospital and playing chess at the pub with Leonard (David Bradley). Unfortunately, the violent thugs that rule the estate see to it that the few remaining things he loves come to a brief and bloody end, and once you back an animal into a corner, expect to get bitten.

Caine’s performance is as legendary as you expect. At once human, believable, sympathetic, deranged and hard as nails, he’s someone you can root for, but you’ll feel terrible about wanting him to murder his way through a group of chavs. If he wasn’t so easy to support, this would be the Daily Mail’s idea of cinema heaven.

The other actors in the film are equally excellent. Emily Mortimer’s Detective Inspector Frampton is an excellent bleeding heart, a woman of logic and passion in a world of irrationality and hatred. Iain Glen’s Superintendent Childs is slightly underused – seemingly representing the smug, preening face of a system that simply isn’t working and won’t admit it, but not quite coming across in the limit screen time given. Ten points to brilliantly hateful (and hate-filled) Ben Drew as masterful villain Noel Winters, a pawn who believes himself to be a king.

Writer Gary Young has done a remarkable job with each of the characters. While Harry is distinctive and likable, his villains are truly remarkable, arrogant, cocky, loathsome, detestable, yet equally damaged and broken, each with their own unique issue that’s made them the way they are. He doesn’t ask you to feel bad for them, only to understand their situation and appreciate what has pushed them down this path.

It’s a film so realistic it might have been directed by Ken Loach, instead of first-time feature helmer Daniel Barber. The estate is so familiar, so alien, so infested with problems that it could be a documentary. The film presents compelling evidence for the reasons society is crumbling as easily as it and delights in never pointing the fingers at individuals, instead letting the blame fall equally across all people.

The kids on the estate are just as much victims as Harry Brown – bored, useless, uneducated, trapped, full of hate and with nothing to do with all that pent-up aggression save ride motorbikes in parks and shoot at passers-by. You’ll hate them as easily as you do in real life, but you’ll at least get a small insight into the reasons behind this. Without motivation to do anything constructive, without guidance, without love or any real friendship, the only thing left to do is work for the equally vile adults that created the situation as a means to make a quick buck.

If there is a criticism that can be levelled at the film, it’s that the excellent build up and the social commentary feel too much like they are just fodder for the (admittedly good, if simple) story. At one point it seems like the film is about to stop informing you how the circumstances for these broken characters came about and instead will preach about how we, as a community, can heal our shattered souls. Instead it simply travels down the conventional route of all revenge thrillers: murder everyone. There is no hope. The system doesn’t work and the only way to fix our problems is to kill them off the face of the earth. That said, it is admirable how the film never manages to lunge in the ludicrous – even when it seems that it could turn into a Van Damme ‘man against the mob’ movie, it resists temptation. At its heart, this is a very personal, very English, story of vendetta and hatred, of a man with nothing to do with his life returning to the one skill he locked away in a box under his bed. By the end you’ll be asking which is worse: the thugs for their empty lives full of hate, Harry Brown for his remorseless vengeance, or yourself for so desperately wanting his revenge to be carried out.

It’s a powerful, compelling human drama; easily worthy of comparison to Caine’s other peerless revenge thriller Get Carter, but be warned – it will leave a very sour taste in the mouth.

4 stars

Resident Evil: Afterlife Review

Saying that a live-action Resident Evil film is bad is like saying that God isn’t real, politicians are all liars and that footballers will sleep with anyone who comes their way – it might be obvious, but a large portion of people will try and disagree with you. This time around, writer-director Paul WS Anderson has outdone himself. Oh yes, Resident Evil: Afterlife isn’t just bad. It’s so abysmal that it manages to transcend ‘bad’ and become hysterical. It’s this year’s New Moon.

After destroying Umbrella’s secret underground base in Nevada and sending her friends on to sanctuary in Arcadia, Alaska, Alice (Milla Jovovich) discovered a huge vault filled with hundreds of clones of herself. Alice and her clones head to Umbrella’s other secret underground in Tokyo where they are all magically killed (except for her) in a battle with Wesker (Shawn Roberts), the last remaining Chairman. Naturally, both the original Alice and Wesker survive and escape, leaving the director’s wife to wander around and look introspective while trying to find other survivors.

Alice manages to track down Claire (Ali Larter) and finds a whole bunch of other survivors holed up in a prison in Los Angeles, surrounded by every single zombie in Hollywood. There she discovers that the message of safety from ‘Arcadia’ is in fact coming from a ship moored off the coast. Unable to spot a trap when she’s staring straight at it, Alice leads the survivors out of their relative safety and gets them all killed.

Where do you begin with a film this bad? We could start with the utter incompetence of writer-director Paul WS Anderson, but that feels like a cheap shot – after all, without his ridiculous screenplay, none of this garbage would be able to entertain us. Let’s start with the slow motion.

There’s so much slow motion in this film that it would be half an hour shorter if it were played at full speed. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson clearly subscribes to the Zack Snyder school of directing, in that if something is slowed down, it must be far cooler than normal. Nope. In order to make action look good in slow motion, it needs to be well-directed at full speed. Essentially what’s on screen is a first year film student thinking that slow motion will make his film look the best. It doesn’t.

There are a few things in horror films that will always manage to destroy any potential tension the filmmakers have established. These are: rock music, overpowered protagonists and women with psychic powers that can annihilate whole armies by looking at them. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson has at least got a basic grasp on one of these problems and within fifteen minutes, Alice has her stupid psychic powers taken away from her. Unfortunately, this still leaves the annoying rock music on the soundtrack and the overpowered protagonists, who have enough ammo to take out anything that gets in their way. Presumably she Alice only has her powers removed because it would make it far too easy to escape later on if she could just kill them all.

There’s exactly one moment in this film where it treads on the dangerous ground of becoming relatively interesting, as Alice and Claire discover the survivors in the prison, trapped by every zombie in L.A. Sadly, it goes tits-up immediately as the supporting characters open their mouths and becoming downright loathsome. There’s the Mexican guy (he knows how to fix cars because, you know, he’s Mexican), the British girl (who sounds like an American attempting an English accent), the Dickhead (who is a prick to everyone for absolutely no reason), the Chinese guy (who is a wimp), the Old guy (who masturbates over women in showers) and the Black guy (who is tough). That’s basically the characters right there. There’s also Wentworth Miller – the actor who played Michael Schofield on TV’s Prison Break – who does a great job here playing Michael Schofield from TV’s Prison Break, although why he calls himself Chris Redfield is anyone’s guess. What’s most hilarious is that Miller, a TV actor, is leagues better than Milla Jovovich in the believability stakes. Jovovich is bland, talentless and utterly awful in damn near every shot she’s in.

The level of writing in this film plays out like ‘My First Screenplay’. Things just happen mostly because they look good without any consideration of what the hell is going on or what the context is. Instead of writing genuinely despicable villains, Anderson just has bad guys shoot people randomly for no real reason. Instead of writing sympathetic characters, Anderson tries to make them funny and fails. The opening is quite clearly writer-director Paul WS Anderson’s private fantasy – he’ll be touching himself while rewatching this, there’s no doubt – featuring multiple Alices all dressed in leather, looking hard as nails. Later on a pipe bursts, leaving Milla Jovovovovovovovich and Ali Larter to get all wet together in slow motion. You could drive a blue whale through the plot holes on offer, but as long as his wife looks good on screen, that’s okay.

As always with a Paul WS Anderson film, the script rips off a few other, better movies. The slow motion water fight echoes The Matrix, while Alice’s rooftop escape looks suspiciously like John McClane’s one in Die Hard. Bizarrely, there’s even homage to Transformers when Claire slides underneath a certain enemy and fires up at him. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson hasn’t even tried to be original; he’s just cribbed good ideas and made them look shit.

Of course, there are always going to be those who try and defend this film. Quite how they’re managing to breathe with that level of stupidity is staggering, even more so considering that the film doesn’t work on any conceivable level. A general rule of thumb in this movie is that whenever something or someone is off screen, they can reappear at any point from any direction. The rule applies when Alice and a survivor are standing in a shower room and suddenly find themselves surrounded by zombies which only came from one hole which Alice could see (and wasn’t visible previously). This rule applies when Wesker has Alice trapped against the only entrance into his room with dogs and Chris and Claire magically appear from behind Wesker. This rule applies when Alice stands in a massive, pristine while room with only visible exit that suddenly has an enormous trail of blood leading to another, previously unseen, door on the other side.

Talking of stupid things, in the previous film it was mentioned that the entire world had become a desert, that somehow all the lakes had dried up and that all life had died. If that’s the case, where do the forests come from? Where is all the sand? Why are there still cities that aren’t covered with desert? There’s also the small matter of the bizarre black hole bomb, a suitcase-sized device that obliterates everything within fifty miles. If that was installed in every Umbrella base – as we are led to believe – then how the hell did the T-virus ever escape Raccoon City? They could have just blown it up from a safe distance and carried on. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson can’t even keep his own storyline straight.

Characters survive plane crashes on a regular basis in this world. At the beginning of the film, Wesker and Alice flee Tokyo (and then crash into Mount Fuji, which is apparently right next to the city, but that’s another matter). Not only does Alice have her powers removed in this scene, but she then walks out of the plane wreck with no visible injury, despite the enormous fireball and the, you know, PLANE CRASH. A later character manages to slam a bi-plane into an oil tanker and somehow walks away intact. There’s no sense of realism here.

The zombies also change their rules on a whim. The first one shown in the film moves slowly, shuffles, and gets shot in the head. Later on, the zombies manage to get on top of a prison within seconds of the gate being opened and sprint across the roof towards the humans. Alice swings down on a rope and, just mere SECONDS after sprinting, the zombies revert to shuffling again, just so they don’t catch her immediately. Some zombies also figure out how to TUNNEL their way into the prison with no reason or explanation given.

Of course, since the last film was released, the game series of Resident Evil has moved on and now doesn’t feature either zombies or the Umbrella corporation. In a vain effort to keep up with the times, writer-director Paul WS Anderson has half-heartedly thrown in scenes and enemies from the latest game, Resident Evil 5. Of course, writer-director Paul WS Anderson’s exposure to Resident Evil 5 is that he saw the trailer on YouTube over someone else’s shoulder while he was on the phone. That’s the only explanation for this mess. Zombies now mysteriously have the mouth-tentacles from the Majini enemy, the Executioner makes an appearance and Chris and Claire enjoy a silly fistfight with Wesker. The problem is that none of it makes a single lick of sense. Some zombies just happen to have mouth-tentacles, the Executioner just WANDERS IN from nowhere, with no explanation and is killed with coins.

(Coins, yes. Alice apparently takes to reloading her shotguns with coins. However, there lies another problem: how the hell does that work? Her shotguns clearly only have two barrels each, giving her a grand total of four coin-blasts to fire. She’s never shown reloading once, so how the coins get there is a mystery. Are they placed in shotgun shells? We never see any empty shells. Does she place them in there? If that’s the case, why don’t the coins fall out of the barrel when it’s turned upside down? If they’re stuck in, why doesn’t the gun explode in her hand? Questions like this make you wonder why this film exists at all.)

There’s also a hilarious moment where a ‘secret’ scene tucked into the credits is spoiled by the cast list. A certain name rolls past as a member of the cast before appearing in the film. It’s this level of stupidity that really demonstrates how little writer-director Paul WS Anderson cares about anything beyond having making sure his wife looks good on screen.

The only way to get enjoyment out of this film is to play a drinking game with it:

1 finger of drink every time:
Alice looks blank or mildly angry (her two expressions)
A shot goes into slow motion
A character or zombie appears in an improbable location
There’s a bit of rock music over a fight scene
A character escapes death for no reason
Something happens that makes Alice look cooler than anyone else
You must also drink for every bullet fired after the gun should have run out of ammo.

This review could go on a hell of a lot longer, but, frankly, the writer needs to lie down in a dark room and forget it ever happened. It’s not as bad as Apocalypse (in which Nemesis became a good guy) or Extinction (where there was a lot of sand), it’s somehow worse. Afterlife is a movie beyond a movie: so bad it nearly becomes enjoyable. If you see this prepared to feel cheated and ripped off, you’ll still be short-changed by this film. Avoid it.

0 stars

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