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Fallout 4

F4_Wiki_BannerI really enjoyed Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I played both of them to death, despite the bugs. It was therefore, no surprise to me that I was super excited about Fallout 4 when I heard it was being released.  The only issue really, was Bethesda, they’re not well known for releasing bug free stuff, and on top of that, I’d found Skyrim to be lacking any soul.  I feared that perhaps Fallout would be gutted, ripped of its sense of being and left cold and emotionless on the floor.

I needn’t have worried.  I’ve read reviews and comments from people who find Fallout 4 lacking; they say it’s just a big tower defence game, or there’s little purpose beyond travel to point A, shoot the enemy to death, and then return to point B.  I’d argue that’s no different to Fallout 3 certainly, although Fallout: New Vegas was a little richer than that.  However, the key with all three games is that the main quest line, and in fact, most of the side quests, aren’t where Fallout games get their humanity, their soul, or their poignant introspective.  They get those from the little letters, terminal messages, holotapes, non-main-quest NPC dialogue and other sources of background information.  Seeking those out, reading everything is what gives me the sense of enjoyment from the world, and Fallout 4 delivers on that level as well as the others.

Power Armour Army
Power Armour Army – about half the suits I eventually collected. There they’re displayed on top of the three story house I built for myself.

There are tales spread throughout the whole of the Boston, Massachusetts (the location for Fallout 4) of people living, dying and being reborn in the aftermath of the nuclear war.  Yes, there’s a main quest (mirroring that of Fallout 3 in many ways), and yes there are factions (bringing something from New Vegas more formally into Fallout 4).  Yes, the Brotherhood of Steel turn up (of course), and there are raiders and supermutants and ghouls.  There are vaults and mercenary groups, and bars and shops and blasted wasteland.  All of these things are there.  They’re all to be explored, and shot up.  But the soul, the jam in the centre of this delicious doughnut is the treasure trove of hidden history that you only get by digging through the bodies of those you have vanquished.

Knee deep in ghoul remains, trying to find a vacuum tube, you discover a hastily scrawled note.  A husband, telling his wife where he has gone, and that he will be back.  You know he never made it.  Half dead from a deathclaw attack, you open a cabin door and find the remains of a young woman, running away from home to be with her lost love.  She never found him.  Resplendent in your new power armour, you find an abandoned room in a sewer, and huddled in the corner is a skeleton, grasping the last Salisbury steak box a 10mm pistol and 5 rounds of ammo on the ground.  You know they made a last stand, defending the boxed meat product from all-comers.

This is Fallout 4, this is why it still has a soul, and this is why I played it for over a hundred hours.

Power Armour - Back View
Here are the suits from the back

The main quest is clearly signposted as always, but you’ll struggle to simply follow that and do nothing else.  As with Fallout 3 the second location you need to reach is a fair hike across the map and unless you have excellent luck and incredible tunnel vision, by the time you get there you’ll be knee deep in side quests.  F4 has companions and factions which affect which quests you get offered, which ones you can complete and how the game ends.  Having to repair weapons and armour has gone, and the crafting system from New Vegas has been boosted with weapons and armour being highly customisable.  The two key new features are settlement building and the way power armour is handled.  I won’t talk about how those features work (the web is covered in that) except to say, I really enjoyed the settlements, and while the new power armour has advantages and disadvantages, I enjoyed it, and found it less game breaking in some ways than the power armour in F3.

The all new voiced dialogue was interesting, and although I don’t think the game needed it I think it benefited from it.  Dialogue wasn’t quite as witty as Fallout: New Vegas, but it was still engaging and at least on my first play-through of a quest (i.e. assuming I didn’t die and have to do it again) I didn’t skip any dialogue (which I’m notorious for, even when it’s unheard).

The locations are interesting, with some new approaches and some old classics.  I did find some of the z-axis layouts very hard to understand and deal with – both inside buildings (their own discrete areas) and in the open world setting.  There are some very high places you can reach through some very convoluted routes, which frustrated me several times.  I’m sure other people love them, and I learned to deal with them, but as with F3 and F:NV, it’s not always obvious how to navigate around key locations.

NPC companions are varied and interesting, and their dialogue is all spectacularly different, which was enjoyable.

Power Armour - Side View
Dramatic shot of power armour!

Some of the faction quests were very repetitive (especially the Minutemen), and they didn’t always feel joined up.  I often completed a Minutemen quest for a settlement which had already joined the cause, only to be told it was great to get another settlement on-board.  I didn’t personally suffer any significant bugs, certainly nothing quest related.  I did get stuck in the scenery once and had to reload a save (Greté played on the PC, and the one time she got stuck she used a console command to get out, I was very jealous).  There were times when my character just stood still after dialogue, both he and the NPC kind of playing chicken to see who would walk away first.  It always resolved itself eventually but I’ve read some people getting stuck like that and having to reload.

Faction-breaking quests (where you cause one faction to hate you) are clearly telegraphed, and for the most part I knew if my actions were going to upset someone.  However, as with F3 and F:NV it is possible to do the quests in such an order that you confuse the NPC’s who won’t let you hand a quest in because they’re eager to talk about something else.  Also, as with all Bethesda games, I found NPC’s would assume I had knowledge of an event long before I actually triggered it.

Even with those flaws though, Fallout 4 was absorbing, engaging and fun.  A worthy successor to Fallout 3 and although some might argue it doesn’t make enough of a step change, I always prefer evolution rather than revolution in my game sequels.

Play Fallout 4, it has a heart, and it wants to be your friend.  If you’ve played Fallout 3, take time to look for all the connections that Fallout 4 has to that game.  NPC’s, locations, events, and even the main storyline.

Note: The screenshots are from my Xbox One play through.  It’s ridiculously complicated to get screenshots out of a game on the Xbox.  In the end I had to sign up to One Drive, save them to that, and then get them on the PC via the One Drive web interface.

Lord of the Rings Online – The Rise of Isengard

The Rise of Isengard is a full expansion for Lord of the Rings Online.  It’s not free content, you have to pay for it, and it brings new levels (10 to be precise).  That’s the same number of new levels that we got with Moria.  Along with the levels, ROI brings three new areas, hundreds of quests, some new skills but more importantly, a complete revamp of character attributes and itemisation.

In the weeks and months up to the release of Isengard, classes underwent several changes, mostly to tweak unused skills or providing missing functionality.  Isengard has built on that for most classes and in some cases, such as the Minstrel, has fundamentally changed their skill line-up.  The overall intent appears to be to make the classes more balanced, and provide all players with a role in groups.  I won’t cover the changes to all the classes here, there’s too much to go through, instead I’ll just describe my experience with Isengard and my overall enjoyment.  The article got a bit long – sorry about that.

Getting There

It’s traditional in LOTRO to move you between one area and the next using the Epic quest line.  You don’t have to do it that way usually (Moria was an exception) but it’s clearly the intended or preferred method.  Rise of Isengard is no different, you receive a letter, asking you to report to one of the Rangers in Enedwaith, eventually leading you into Dunland, which is the entry point to the Isengard expansion.  A nice little unique element is that the Epic provides two routes via two different quest lines.  Following one doesn’t exclude the other, since you can go back and retrace your steps, but it’s clearly designed to offer choice and prevent massive overcrowding.  Dunland itself is south of Enedwaith, and the quests take you either directly south, or south-west and into the new land.

ROI is not as big as Moria.  Let’s face it, Moria was just huge.  It achieved that size through a combination of vertical movement, forced routes (making you track back and forward in a location to generate more distance within the same volume) and lots of distinct locations with their own look and feel.  ROI doesn’t have that luxury, there are only 3 different major locations (described below), but the developers have tried hard to make them feel distinct.

Dunland

Dunland is a vast open area that you reach south of Enedwaith.  It is populated very much like Enedwaith.  There are a series of encampments with native men, who may be allies or enemies, spread throughout a mixture of terrains.  Dunland is probably larger than Enedwaith overall, but not by a huge amount.  The level of creatures and enemies increases from 65 to the high-70’s as you progress across the landscape.  In order to make the area feel larger than it is, Turbine have employed the ‘having to run around large pieces of scenery like mountains’ so you need to cover more ground to get from A to B than it would take as the eagle flies.  I understand the intent, but it can be frustrating to be standing right next to a quest ring or NPC only to find out you’re another 5 minutes away and have to circle back.  Once again, almost every camp has a stable master, and Galtrev in the centre acts as the major hub for this region.

Gap of Rohan

The Gap of Rohan looks very much like Dunland, but is significantly smaller.  There are two or three major quest hubs with smaller quest NPC’s scattered throughout.  The Gap is a really narrow strip of land, and is where you finally begin to engage full time with the Riders of Rohan.

Isengard (Nan Curunir)

Isengard is split into three locations.  The outskirts (Nan Curunir), the area just outside the tower, and the tower itself (accessed through various instances).  For me, this is the most interesting set of locations in the game, although the outer terrain is also the most frustrating.  There’s nothing worse in my view, than scenery you can see over, but can’t jump over or easily move through (in this cases, fallen trees that you can’t jump).  As a consequence, moving around here can be very frustrating, but it’s worth it.  It gives an excellent feeling of the bleak and terrible impact Saruman is having on the landscape and contrasts really well against the bright heather-strewn landscape of Dunland.

The Story

Rise of Isengard continues and apparently will conclude your journey with the Dunedain that started all those books and epic quests ago.  Like Enedwaith, this story basically describes how you help the Rangers travel through hostile land, win over the trust of the native tribes (or not, as the case may be) and how you learn of Saruman’s treachery.  There’s not much to say on it to be honest, it feels like a footnote in the epic quest so far, and not that epic, but it’s inoffensive and if you love the Rangers you’ll enjoy interacting with them again.  It does have some tongue-in-cheek moments I think, for example, you get to watch the Rangers collecting wood, running errands and gathering apples just like they’ve made you do for the last hundred epic quests.

Outside of the epic specifically, Dunland is a land besieged and under the thrall of Saruman even if the natives don’t realise it.  War is coming, none can avoid it, all must choose sides, and as usual you’re the catalyst in that process.

Reputation & Rewards

There are two reputations in Rise of Isengard.  Men of Dunland and Theodred’s Riders.  The early part of the expansion offers mostly Men of Dunland, with the later parts and the later epic providing Theodred’s.  You’ll hit Kindred with Men of Dunland by just doing the quests, but you’ll need to work harder with the second reputation, repeating daily quests and doing as many tasks as you can find.

As is common now, both reputations have vendors, but this time the currency is regular money!  No odd flowers, or strange branches or lumps of rock.  The prices of some of the reputation items (and there are a lot) are quite interesting, some of them over 2gp.  I like the new approach, the quests and mob drops give a good cash input, and you can earn cash anywhere else in the game you like and then come and buy reputation items.

The quest rewards are many and varied, and in part, drive the problem I have with itemisation (you’ll read that bit later).  Many quests give a choice between three items, it may be 1 piece of jewellery, 1 piece of light armour and 1 cloak, or 1 piece of heavy armour, 1 piece of medium armour and 1 piece of jewellery.  Because of the new itemisation, and the move away from 1 x light, 1 x medium, 1 x heavy or 3 pieces of jewellery, you have to pick your quest rewards carefully, plan ahead and hoard what you get in order to successfully use them as upgrades.

Questing

Questing in Rise of Isengard for the most part matches the experience in Enedwaith and Mirkwood.  Quest hubs provide introduction quests, and then move you around the landscape.  There’s a common theme in ROI, where a quest NPC will give you 3 quests, and then another 3 once those are complete.  Many of the quests are standard fair, collecting items, killing the enemy, but there are signs that the Turbine team are trying to find new questing experiences.  There’s a quest to return lost horses which was quite nice, and some of the instances have new mechanics (specifically where you lead teams of good guys against lots of bad guys).  I’ll say no more so I don’t spoil some of the better instances.

The vast majority of the quests are soloable at ‘even con’ (i.e. the same level as you), and the XP gains mean if you do all the quests you’ll level at the right speed.  It’s a bit frustrating, I liked the old style quests where they were soloable with a challenge, much easier as a duo or trio, and the last stage tended to require a group.  I know they’ve moved away from that format, but I really did prefer it.  One very annoying feature in recent expansions is the exact opposite position, where the first few quests are out in the open, and then end in a solo instance.  Some of those instances are uneven in difficulty and some classes might struggle, although after one or two goes you learn the best approach.    ROI adds a new style of instance which ‘is designed to be solo but can be completed as a duo’.  I’m really not sure what the intent was here, one of them configured like that doesn’t even involve any killing and it’s not consistent, some of the hardest are enforced solo, and others seem to randomly allow 2 people.

I would much prefer the Mirkwood approach where the final stage is actually a skirmish and so can be done with 1, 2, 3 or 6 people.  My feeling is that Turbine ran out of time, and there are signs of rushed content all over the expansion.

Overall, the quests are like much of the rest of ROI – not hugely challenging and based on the concept of running around a lot.

The Enemy

Like killing Orcs?  Like squishing Goblins?  Enjoy defeating Trolls with 75k morale?  You’ll love Isengard.  It’s Orcs, Half-Orcs, Goblins, Trolls and Wargs.  The staple diet of the Lord of the Rings enemy list.  Those bad guys are interspersed with the usual wolves, some new lizard-like creature, massive turtles, undead, birds and native men.  The enemy ranges from level 65 to 75 as you would expect, and I found them generally easier to kill than those in Moria.  Some of them have a few tricks (watch out for the nasty fire DOT) but in general, there are few surprises.

The Good Guys

The good guys break down into three groups.  Native people who you are working with to free from Saruman’s grasp, The Rangers you’ve been travelling with and the newly introduced Riders of Rohan.  There’s the odd elf and dwarf thrown in for flavour, but that’s about it.

The Epic

Covered briefly in the story section above.  The epic is okay, some of the quests are quite innovative, adding some functionality we’ve not seen before.  There’s a definite sense of the team trying out new styles of quests and new ways to engage the characters.  Overall though, it’s pretty boring in terms of actual content, once again we’re being point for the Rangers.  I think Turbine recognise this, and they have announced we’ll be leaving the Rangers behind and instead, collecting bandages and digging up treasure troves for the Riders of Rohan going forward.

Crafting

Isengard adds an entire new level to the crafting scheme, which I’m quite happy about.  They’ve also taken the excellent decision to reduce the different kinds of raw craft resources for each craft, and then introduce new recipes to build intermediate ingredients.  For example, rather than 3 or 4 types of metal (Khazad Iron, Khazad Tin, Khazad Gold, Khazad Copper) there is just one type – Skarn.  That ore can be turned into low quality, medium quality or high quality ingots, using increasing amounts of the raw materials to do so (there’s also a shortcut, which I’ll leave you to discover).  The end result is that resource collection is less complex and less frustrating (additionally improved by a huge increase in resource nodes), but recipes still have multiple layers and levels of complexity to work through.  I love the new system frankly, and think it has greatly improved the crafting.  I’d like to see them retrofit it for the previous levels but appreciate that would be a huge undertaking.

The new recipes are mostly interesting, although they suffer from my dislike of the new itemisation.

Along with the new craft level is a new craft guild reputation level and the associated tokens.  That has definitely extended the time taken to move through Isengard because it gives you something else to focus on (some say time sink, others say interesting addition).

Some people are upset that you have to travel to Isengard to be able to complete recipes (I won’t give away why) which makes their tradeskill alts useless.  Personally, I think if you’re going to learn how to craft in the style of The Westfold, it makes more sense that you have to travel there to learn it.  My craft alts are all of an appropriate level anyway, so personally I think it’s a good thing.

New Levels & Skills

Ten more levels – not much to say except it’s nice to see the XP bar moving again after so long out of Mirkwood.  Levelling is trivial, there’s almost no challenge in the game if you start the expansion at level 65, and it’s essentially a matter of just investing time to hit 75.  I never died on my Guardian in the entire 10 levels, most of that was solo, and sometimes I found myself just fighting AFK while I made a drink.

The new skills are a mix of nice and boring.  Some classes get just upgrades, albeit with some interesting twists (for example, Guardians get no new skills, but their upgrades are interesting), while some classes get new skills which are a bit weak (Wardens get the ability to ‘store’ a gambit, but it’s not particularly exciting in the solo / group game).  Isengard is lacking compared to previous expansions, Moria was far more progressive in terms of the new skills.  Moria also felt tougher at the outset as well.

Character Stats

I won’t write a whole bunch on this – suffice to say Turbine have rationalised the character stats, and reduced the number of them down to a better level.  It was getting crazy with 20 or 30 different statistics.  I like the changes, I’m happy with the lumping together of some numbers.

Turbine have also added Finesse – a way to bypass your enemies defences.  I’m not sure of the value of this for group / solo players, it still seems to be there primarily to make raid targets more challenging without a lot of gear upgrades (i.e. an enemy that has such high Block that you need 12,000 Finesse just to dent it).  We’ll see if it survives longer than Radiance.

Legendary Items

Ten new levels of legendary items, and another revamp of the stats on relics thanks to the changes to the character stats.  Nothing too exciting to cover, many people complained that for non-weapon LI’s there was no reason to upgrade away from their level 65 2nd age item.  For weapons, you have to upgrade eventually just to get the DPS increase.  Some of the artwork for the new items is quite nice, I prefer the one handed axes to the Mirkwood versions.

Itemisation

It will come as no surprise to my friends from in the game, that I think the itemisation changes in Rise of Isengard are a huge black spot on an other wise okay expansion.  Turbine have taken the decision to polarise gear choice.  Items now provide large bonuses to a small selection of character stats.  For example, you may get +89 Vitality and +54 Might on a breastplate, but almost nothing else, or a neck item will have +50 Will, +50 Vitality and +50 Fate.

Read the developer diaries for the apparent reasoning behind this, the claim is that it makes gear choices more flexible.  To me, it makes it significantly harder to manage your equipment choices.  In the past, you could consider an item of equipment and compare it to your existing item and decide if it was an upgrade, a sidegrade or a downgrade.  You could pretty much do that in isolation.  Sure, sometimes you might want to augment a stat that you had lost elsewhere but gear tended to improve all your stats to some extent.  Now when you see a chest piece with a huge armour increase, you can’t actually equip it without hugely impacting say your Power or Fate scores.  Overall, a single piece might be a downgrade, and it’s only an upgrade if you also move around 3 or 4 other pieces of gear to compensate, or re-trait, or change your relics.

Gear management has become a spreadsheet and calculator affair, rather than something you can just eyeball and get a good feeling about.

You can’t slowly, incremental upgrade your gear.  This is especially true switching from pre-Isengard gear to the new structure.  Next time it might be different, but this time the change is painfully difficult.  If you get a piece of gear as a quest reward, and equip it, you will end up being worse off in some regards, and you will need to compensate.  If you are offered the choice between some Power heavy gear or some Morale heavy gear, you need to have a plan in mind otherwise you might choose Power gear only to be need to switch it out later when even more gear brings Power you don’t need.  I refer to this as forcing Upgrade Cascades.  You need to hoard rewards and gear and crafted items in case you need to radically re-arrange your gear to prevent the loss of some vital stats just to get a gain elsewhere.

What appears as a huge upgrade initially ends up being a trivial upgrade because you need to replace other gear to compensate.

Anyway, if I don’t stop it’ll end up being the whole article.  My closing words, maybe I’m in the minority, maybe I think about this stuff too much, but I hate the new itemisation and the amount of work you will need to invest just to work out if a new piece of gear is an actual upgrade, and it has absolutely diminished my enjoyment of both RoI and LOTRO in general.

Is it any good?

So, here we are at last.  Is it any good?  I’ll damn it with faint praise, it’s okay.  It’s nowhere near as iconic as Moria, it’s not as well put together as Mirkwood, it’s not as exciting as Moria either.  It’s just okay, inoffensive, easy to progress through, offering very little challenge in-game.  The greatest challenge is working out how to upgrade your gear.  Some of the quests show a spark of originality, some succeed more than others, but many feel rushed and not quite finished.

Worst Bits?

Two things.  Firstly, it’s too easy, there’s just no challenge.  Secondly, there’s nothing to come back to later.  There are 3- and 6-man instances in Moria and Mirkwood that I have still never finished and want to go back and complete.  I’ve finished Isengard twice; everything except the raid.  Even casual players will chew it up and then move on to another game.

Best Bits?

You get to kill a lot of Orcs.

I wanted much, much more from Rise of Isengard.  Instead, I got an extension of Enedwaith; Forochel without the frost.

Inception

Some films are there to purely entertain, some are to encourage you to think and ask questions.  It’s a rare flick that manages to include both elements to sufficiently please a diverse crowd of people.  I knew the basic premise of Inception before I watched it,  and I was expecting to be confused after hearing some comments.  But it’s not actually a confusing movie.  I was expecting to be left asking questions when I saw the ending, but for me personally, I think the questions were answered.

Inception is a story of dreams and the people who can enter them to extract information.  Much more detail than that and you begin to ruin the story, which I’ll try to avoid.  It’s set in a contemporary or very-near-future setting, and sees our main protagonist Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) unable to return to his family and seeking employment as an extractor.

This leads us on a journey across continents and into dreams, where we being to question what is truth and what is real, along with Cobb and the supporting cast.  The story is truly interesting, the characters are engaging and the pace is pretty solid.  There are some moments where I felt things were under-explained, not to add mystery but almost because they ran out of time, but overall it’s a solid, cohesive story.

I didn’t find the visual effects particularly breathtaking and I think too much emphasis has been placed on them in the trailers or hype running up to the film.  This is a pretty personal story and any effects are really there to encourage us to believe what we’re seeing is not real.  There is however one set of scenes in which one of the characters operates in zero-gravity, that I thought were exceptionally well done.  This isn’t an action movie, although it has a lot of action, and it’s not a sci-fi movie although it has some speculative fictional elements, and it’s not a love story despite a core element of it being about a relationship between two people.  It’s hard to place it into a single genre.

What it is, is very engaging.  You do have to think, not to keep track or work out what is going on, but to question what you’re seeing and why, and if what the characters believe is even true.  Through multiple layers, both on a story level, and a dream level, we are encouraged to consider whether what is happening is real or not, at every stage.  It’s very hard to write a review without giving away too much.

I enjoyed watching it, and I’ll want to watch it again to see nuances I may have missed first time, but it didn’t leave me punching the air or grinning like a fool.  It left me considering Nolan’s brilliance, and the performances of some of the actors (personally I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent, and likewise Ellen Page), and the self referential ending.

The movie starts with the concept that ideas are like viruses, and it ends with a question that plants an idea and leaves you wondering, if you want to.  Well worth watching, well worth talking about, and considering it’s an original screenplay, pretty impressive stuff.

The A-Team

In a year filled with ensemble action movies, The A-Team was surely the one with the best known back story?  Maybe that didn’t do it any favours.  While many of us loved the series, at the time, countless repeats and plenty of piss taking later meant there were concerns about it transferring to the big screen.

Would the new actors be able to pull off the old characters?  Would it feel like a sad pastiche?  Would we accept the new faces in the old roles?  Would they be bogged down by the memories of countless episodes in which no one gets seriously injured, not even the bad guys?  Would a modern audience accept the ludicrous solutions the team are well known for?

I’d heard mixed reviews about the film before sitting down to watch it – and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Someone I know said ‘do they expect us to believe this shit?’  Well, my answer is no, they don’t.  They know it’s unbelievable, but they don’t care.  If you want to enjoy this movie you’ll take the step and willingly suspend your disbelief.  If you have no intention or ability to do that – then the director isn’t interested in trying to entertain you.

The A-Team tells the story of how the famous four get together, the crime they are supposed to have committed and the attempt at clearing their own names.  It’s a contemporary set-up for the series, a prequel, and as such a very clever decision.  Just another long episode would have been harder to pull off, but giving us the start of the story in an up-to-date setting worked very well.

The actors take on the roles without ever really trying to do second rate impressions of the previous team, for which I was quite grateful.  There’s a moment early in the movie where they crush BA’s van which is almost a statement from the director – yes, these are the same guys, but no, this is not the same cheesy 80’s series.

From that moment the action ramps up and we are led through a series of chases, captures, and betrayals that get us to the defining moment – when the team must break out of prison, prove their innocence and save the girl.

It’s funny, it’s totally entertaining and it’s entirely insane.  It’s everything that was good about the A-Team without the 80’s cheese, instead, it brings along the 80’s vibe and the 80’s good feeling.  There’s clearly room for a sequel, and I’d quite happily go and see it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I didn’t see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the cinema, because at the time there were some other movies that I felt would be better on the big screen.  Scott Pilgrim looked, from the trailers, like it would do okay on the smaller screen.  I was wrong.  This is why.

Scott Pilgrim is visually the most memorable and exciting movie I’ve seen since The Matrix.  Sure, Avatar was pretty to look at and the CGI was a step beyond anything we’ve ever seen.  Yes, 300 was a revelation in terms of colour and style.  I agree that Sin City brought us comic book visualisations like we’d never really seen.  But Scott Pilgrim vs. The World presented a mixture of real life, comic book and computer games in a single visual package that blew me away.

The clear craftsmanship that went into every single shot, the attention to detail, the mixture of sound effects, on-screen visuals and cinematography working together in a way I’ve just not seen before.  If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was an ice-cream flavour, it would be Strawberry Mint Choc-chip with Raspberry Ripple and Cookies.  And it would work.

Stunning visuals alone don’t make a good movie, and therefore it’s with some relief that we discover Scott Pilgrim has a heart, a plot, an excellent sound track and some very funny and touching moments.

Based on a graphic novel, the reasonably simple story plays out thus.  Scott (Michael Cera) plays in a band, hangs out in the arcade, and finally meets the girl of his dreams.  But early in their relationship he discovers he must battle and defeat her seven evil exes in order to date her.  The brilliance comes from the mixture of the real and the unreal.  The fights are done very much in the style of computer games, the movie is strewn with on-screen flashes of comic book style text and computer game style popups.  They never get in the way – they simply enhance the sense of involvement.

The girl of Scott’s dreams is the enigmatic Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  The character is both engaging and interesting.  The supporting cast around them is also excellent, the rest of the band in which Scott plays, and a small circle of friends and past-partners.  Alison Pill (as Kim Pine) steals every scene she’s in though, she is superb and delivers some of the funniest moments in the whole movie.

As we and Scott work our way through the various evil exes we learn more about all the characters, and in parallel we watch the band (Sex Bob-omb) rise in status.  The interplay between the characters is really the soul of the story and I’ve intentionally not mentioned a lot of that.  While the battle against the evil exes is the part the trailers focus on, the real story is the continuing personal development of everyone involved.  That’s where the heart of this story lies.  Although not constantly laugh out loud the movie has some excellent comic moments.  But again, it is the quality of the shots, the care with which each frame has been prepared and the beautiful cinematography that give that soul and comedy something to stand on.

The finale is both brilliant and satisfying and the final outcome was just what I hoped for.

Not everyone will like this movie.  It speaks in a language that may put some people off (some gaming culture and comic book references), although it’s more accessible I think than Watchmen.  I get that, it’s fine.  But a world with only one flavour of jam would be a terrible place (even if it was Strawberry).  And likewise, a world in which we only see huge action movies do well in the box office, or even get funding, would be a sad place.  I should have gone and supported Scott Pilgrim at the cinema.  Not just because it would have been an incredible movie going experience, not just because it’s probably the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen for a very long time, but because it deserved to get better box office numbers to show that people do want this kind of stuff.

And we do.  The DVD / Blu-ray sales will be excellent I’m sure.  But it should have gotten better box office takings.  I already apologised to Edgar Wright for my part in that.  You can do your bit.  Buy this movie, watch it, love it, and next time, go and support movies like it in the cinema.

Predators

When Arnold stepped out of the jungle, covered in mud, and stabbed the alien predator thing in the face (metaphorically), he was doing so with the weight of the 80’s action movie genre behind him.  Any movie which tries the same post year 2k does so with the weight of the 80’s action movie clichés crushing them from above. The 80’s gave us the new face of the Action Movie, and then it was caved in mercilessly during the 90’s and early 2000’s by the likes of Tarantino and the Wachowskis.

In the late 90’s and 2000 onwards, the action movie had to smarten up and add something new.  And it needed to be cool, otherwise it just got slated and slotted into the ‘another 80’s cliché movie’.  But these days, it seems to be okay to relive the glory of that decade.  Sometimes you have to poke a little fun at your age (The Expendables, Red) and sometimes you need to accept the clichés and deliver some interest and excitement anyway.

Predators is an ensemble movie which takes us back to the jungle and pits a group of natural killers against the universe’s paramount hunter.  There’s no apology and in fact the whole movie setup apes the lack of depth- our ‘heroes’ are dropped into the jungle unconscious, to wake up (hopefully) as they fall from the sky, their parachutes opening at the last moment.

Nimród Antal (director) couldn’t have made the point any clearer – don’t worry about why these folk are here, don’t worry about where they came from, or who they are.  Worry about how they’re going to survive – that’s all they’re doing.

If you do that, and if you settle back to enjoy an action movie which knows that’s all it is – then you should enjoy this.  A collection of unlikely heroes who slowly get hunted and killed by the Predators.  Surprise alliances, surprise treachery and some madness along the way.  The action is exciting, the dialog is kind of interesting and Laurence Fishburne turning on all he has for the lone survivor stint adds some grit.  Adrian Brody pulls off action hero better than I thought he would.  A simple complaint is that although I don’t think anyone should artificially bump up or down gender roles in a movie, would it have hurt to have a few more women in the pack of killers?

The surprise turn is from Topher Grace but I’ll leave you to guess why.

The pace is quite tight, it doesn’t try to tease us with aliens we’ve already seen, and it adds plenty of fun.  Predators is better than I expected, and as good in it’s own way as the original movie it makes reference to.

Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex is a very short movie.  I can’t help but wonder where the rest of it went.  The film is carried by Josh Brolin, his onscreen presence propping up an otherwise ordinary story.

Jonah watched his family murdered and vowed revenge on the man who did it, only to find out he died in a fire.  He goes on a bounty hunting rampage, kept alive throughout many gun fights by his desire for revenge and the skills of the local native Americans.

Suddenly the old enemy is back with some overly complicated plan involving a bizarre weapon.  The plan involves somehow crushing the newly formed Union of States.  The president, somehow aware of Hex’s existence has him drafted in to hunt and kill his old enemy.

There’s a beautiful woman involved as well (depending on your tastes) played by Megan Fox and supported, literally, by her corset.  Her role is under-used and reasonably pointless and I wonder if the missing bits of the movie fleshed out (see what I did there?) her role in more detail?

Anyway, there is gun slinging and one liners and fights and bad guys and dark good guys.  It ticks the boxes, no more, and delivers a short but meaningless 88 minutes of nonsense.  Not bad, not good, just present.

Centurion

Neil Marshall’s output has been a little bit hit and miss for us.  I’m not a big fan of the overt horror in Descent, although I loved the blackly comic Dog Soldiers, and I enjoyed Doomsday despite the flaws.

So I wasn’t sure what Centurion would deliver.  Set at the time Hadrian started building his wall, the movie kind of tells the story of the Roman 9th legion.  Kind of, because it’s actually about a Roman soldier who’s not in the 9th legion, but joins it temporarily.

The legion comes up against the native British Picts, and the movie really covers the results of that encounter.

Centurion contains Neil Marshall’s trademark gore.  The hand-to-hand fighting is brutal and blood soaked, there are exploding heads and departing limbs a-plenty.  There is significantly less comedy in Centurion than Dog Soldiers, but it’s not lacking entirely.  The commander of the 9th is particularly colourful and his introduction gives us a little glimpse of the magic scenes from Dog Soldiers.  The story in Centurion is pretty simple, a straight forward tale of betrayal with a hint of love.  The depth in the film comes from the incredible breathtaking scenery juxtaposed with the brutal combat and the rigid sense of honour in the lead from Michael Fassbender.

Fassbender is compelling, and his counterpart in the story (the mute hunter played by Olga Kurylenko) provides a worthy adversary.  There’s a reasonable amount of tension, and it’s never really clear who’s going to make it through to the end.  Treachery comes from all angles, while  Quintus Dias (Fassbender) struggles to keep his men alive.

I enjoyed watching Centurion, and while it had some excellent moments, it didn’t deliver the constant high quality of Dog Soldiers.  Worth a watch, especially if you’re a fan of Roman historical fantasy, probably higher quality than Doomsday but not Neil’s best.

Salt (Directors Cut)

I can’t think of many major spy action movies in the last 20 or 30 years which had women in the lead roles.  I can think of three if we count movies which include women as assassins who may or may not work for the government.  La Femme Nikita, Mr & Mrs Smith and Salt.

The last two both star Angelina Jolie.  I’m sure you folks can think of a few more (considering how narrow my movie experience is).  But it’s still pretty telling.  It’s trivial to reel off loads of spy action/thrillers starring men, and it’s no surprise that this is the case.

Salt was originally written for a male star (Edwin Salt was the character), but after negotiations didn’t work out, they turned to Angelina and re-wrote the lead as Evelyn Salt.  Personally, I love Angelina’s acting and that colours my perception of any movie she’s in.  This is an action movie first and foremost, lovingly employing many of the tropes we expect from the spy movie genre.  The role is no less physical than it would have been if the character had remained male, I suspect, and for me, Evelyn’s actions were more believable than perhaps a male characters would have been.  I expect, of course, that the bits which make a lot of sense for a female role were added after Jolie was cast, but still, it works well.

The plot is reasonably simple (I’ve seen some reviews saying how it was horribly complex, but not so for me).  Early in the movie, Evelyn Salt is accused of being a double-agent, and the movie centres around her subsequent actions and peeling back the onion-layers of her life so we can find out the truth.  Whether she is or not isn’t really that critical, it’s how she behaves and what she believes she has to do as a result that matters.

In this respect, it’s similar in story to the first Mission Impossible movie, but then, when you’re writing about spies you only have so many options.

Jolie is excellent in the lead role, supporting actors are good enough although there aren’t many other roles.  While I liked both Liev Schreiber (her CIA boss) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (CIA counter-intelligence), if I have one complaint about the movie it’s that they weren’t strong enough and could have done with more screen time.

The pace is excellent and non-stop once the initial bomb is dropped, and although I was able to work out pretty early on what was really going on, it didn’t spoil the actual film, and I did start doubting myself before the big reveal.

I cared about Jolie’s character and I cared what happened to her.  I wanted her to succeed whatever side she turned out to be working for, and she sold the emotional elements of the role very well.  The fights were choppy and I felt she was underused in some sections when she demonstrated in Wanted and Mr & Mrs Smith she’s more than capable of pulling off the physical stuff.  But that’s a minor gripe in what otherwise was an enjoyable and entertaining spy action movie.

It’s not going to turn into a classic, but it was classy, well groomed, well paced and well received in this house.

The Expendables

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of action movies.  Movies are a form of escapism, and heroic sacrifice driven action movies always take me away from the mundane world and keep me amused.  I can cope with a lot of cheese if the action is dramatic and the quotes memorable.  I don’t need much of a plot.  Some good guys, some bad guys, a reason for the good guys to be after the bad guys, and I’m a happy man.

Cool shots, dramatic action, sassy dialog and plenty of sarcasm and the movie is approaching action nirvana.

I grew up with two kinds of movies.  John Hughes / Harold Ramis / John Landis comedies, and Stallone / Schwarzenegger / Willis / Lungren / van Damme / Gibson action flicks.  My tastes are clear.

It was therefore with both excitement and trepidation that I sat down in the cinema today to watch The Expendables.  So much potential, so much that could potentially go wrong.  There have been three ensemble action movies this year.  The Losers, The A-Team and The Expendables.  Unable to commit to seeing them all – we picked The Expendables by dint of timing and health.

Was I going to leave the cinema regretting it?  Was it going to sour lasting memories of enjoyable 80’s action flicks?  (Could anything sour it more than Twins?)  Was I going to be left with a lasting image of 60 year old men trying to relive their best years?

No, no and well, yes actually in that order.

The Expendables gets plenty right and only a few things wrong.  I thought it was actually too slow in places, some of the bonding scenes didn’t have enough pace or enough wit to elevate them to the right level of interest.  However, that’s a minor quibble in what otherwise was an excellent homage to the 80’s our rose tinted glasses show us.  Don’t be fooled by the trailers, this is actually quite a small cast.  Willis and Schwarzenegger have tiny walk on roles (and I’m not even sure they were all in the same room).  The focus is Stallone, Statham and Jet Li and for me that ended up working really well.

I love Statham and he plays this role to the hilt, I wouldn’t describe his acting range as ‘broad’ but this isn’t the Transporter or Crank or Lock Stock.  His by-play with Stallone is great and if they’re not great friends in real life I’ll eat my socks.  Jet Li is suitably amusing, Stallone is superb, Dolf is hulking and brooding, Randy Couture was surprisingly entertaining and Terry Crews was okay.  The weakest roles were the bad guys, they were pretty flat cardboard cut-outs and never really delivered any serious menace.  I could have done with a Hans Gruber or a Karl, maybe even a Mr Joshua.

After the setup to demonstrate how Bad Ass our heroes are, and an underused relationship bit with Statham and Charisma Carpenter, we are given the rest of the plot in 3 scenes and then slowly watch the tension build (too slowly at times).  Just before the final epic action sequence started I was thinking ‘there hasn’t been much actual shooting yet?’  But they fixed that!

Mickey Rourke added an interesting reflective moment, which you can take on the surface to be banal and patronising or you can choose to accept it for what it is – a statement that if we give up on others, then we’re basically giving up on ourselves as well.  I was glad they used Mickey as the wizened old wizard archetype, I’m not sure it would have been credible watching his pot belly take on the bad guys.

As I said, the interplay between Statham and Stallone was excellent, and the chemistry between all of the main good guys was very good.  These guys clearly respect each other and clearly know how to poke fun at themselves.  The conversation with Schwarzenegger felt forced but it got some good laughs (he wants to be president).

There’s plenty of exploding bullets, vehicles and bodies once the action gets going, and I laughed as much as I cheered.  I’ve seen reviews which say the movie was tired, awkward or ancient.  I can’t disagree more.  Rather than remake the movies of the 80’s and get it so glaringly wrong (hello Clash of the Titans), Stallone has lit a candle for the memories we have of how good those movies were, and given us something to cheer for in an otherwise bleak world of terrible reality.

The Expendables – it is what it is and it’s very good at being it.