Monthly Archives: April 2018

Call of Duty: WWII Review

Sometimes, simpler is better.

As I mentioned in my article about a possible MW2 remaster, the Call of Duty Series has lacked direction for quite a while. Infinite Warfare, quite rightly, got a massive backlash from gamers, not even because of its quality, but because they disagreed with the entire direction it took. COD is not Halo and never should be. A general rule is that the more futuristic the COD series has got, the more its popularity has declined. Advanced Warfare’s Combat Exo-suits and 2050 setting were about as far as you should push either the timeline or the technology in this series. The original Black Ops and the Modern Warfare trilogy remain the most acclaimed games in the series, and its easy to see why. They were grounded, they were relatable, and the multiplayer felt balanced.

Fortunately, the series’ producers seemed to notice that fan enthusiasm was waning, and decided to take the Call of Duty series back to its roots: World War 2. This meant no exosuits, no stupid wall-running, no drones and no OP killstreaks. And boy, is that a breath of fresh air. As a result, they’ve actually made a decent multiplayer for the first time in what seems like forever. All the standard game modes are back (Team Deathmatch, free-for-all, search and destroy, domination etc.) with the addition of a new War mode, which features teams either attacking or defending a series of varying objectives. The maps are actually all pretty good for the first time since MW2, varying from London Dockyards to a USA battleship to German artillery installations, there’s enough of them that you won’t get bored or need to purchase the expansion packs for extra variety. All playstyles are viable, even if you’ll find yourself sticking to assault rifles or SMG’s for most of it. A real bonus is that snipers are no longer as overpowered as they used to be. They’re still an ever present threat if they find a good position on the map, but most of the time they’re pretty easy to flank, and its no longer an option for snipers to try 360 no scopes and other stupid trick shots. If they try, they will die constantly. Similarly, grenades and rocket launchers will get you some kills but are far less effective than previous games – spamming the damn things doesn’t work very well. All of this provides a much more realistic experience and actually makes it challenging to earn kill/scorestreaks. These streaks range from Molotov cocktails to flamethrowers to strafing runs from fighter planes and bombers. While some are quite powerful, you won’t get one player decimating entire teams with successive kill streaks like in previous games. This all makes it far easier to get into games at low levels, and rewards skill a lot more than some previous games. The multiplayer is a definite highlight.

Zombies mode is also pretty great, and feels more accessible than it has done in a long time (it’s easier not to get hemmed into tight spaces on the maps, although you still have to know what you’re doing). The maps seem better designed than they have in a while, and the variety of zombie types has definitely improved. David Tennant even voices one of the four playable characters. Ultimately I’ll spend more time with the multiplayer, but the Zombies mode is a good one for fans who are mainly after that.

The only disappointment is the campaign. Admittedly, the gamemakers have done a good job of bringing the horrors of WWII to life. It feels real and visceral in a way other World War 2 games like COD 3 did not. But there’s nothing new on offer here. It’s the same mix of the usual COD levels (provide sniper cover, clear out enemy positions, defend chokepoints, infiltrate an enemy base ex cetera). It’s reasonably fun to play through, if not particularly challenging, but it’s really not all that memorable. Even Advanced Warfare and Ghosts’ campaigns are a cut above what you get here (as well as being significantly longer). It seems a bit like they threw something together because they thought fans expected some sort of campaign, not because they had a particularly great idea of what to include in one. Honestly, I can see why there are rumours Black Ops 4 will ditch the campaign entirely. The same old stuff just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Overall, the campaign might be a few hours of token adventure you won’t remember a day afterwards, but the fun zombies mode and brilliantly back-to-basics multiplayer make this the best Call of Duty Game since Modern Warfare 3. I’m not convinced the series is getting back to its best anytime soon, but this is a step in the right direction.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Black Panther Review

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita N’yongo, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis

Warning: Contains Spoilers (it’s been out two months so why not)

It’s difficult for superhero films to stand-out at the moment. There’s an average of 6 or 7 of them a year currently, and while my enthusiasm remains high for Infinity War, the showpiece of Marvel’s phase 3, I’m getting slightly fatigued by all the others. After the twin disappointments of Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok, which both wasted a lot of potential, I was hoping the generally positive reaction to Black Panther was justified.

It was. It’s entertaining and stands out from the crowd. But it’s far from the classic some people have made it out to be. First off, the good stuff. Chadwick Boseman gives other sublime, confident performance as T’Challa (he’s definitely a character with enough potential to lead the Avengers once Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans bow out as Iron Man and Captain America). The other cast members are equally good: Letitia Wright is a stand-out as T’Challa’s adorably kick-ass younger sister, while Martin Freeman makes the most of his expanded role as Everett Ross, one of only two white characters to have a significant role in this role. It is refreshing to have a superhero film NOT set in America, and the African setting and the majority-Black ensemble cast give this film a unique feel. It is definitely ground-breaking for a superhero film, and Wakanda’s culture and technological superiority is well-conveyed without the film getting too bogged down in world-building or info-dumps.

Unfortunately, it all never feels quite real. Between the overly CGI Wakandan city and the fact all of the main characters are tribal leaders rather than ordinary-people, you can’t quite fully immerse yourself in the setting. It also kind of lessens T’Challa’s turmoil about the film’s central issue (should Wakanda keep itself hidden away or try and help those in need) that we never see what ordinary Wakandans think about the issue. T’Challa’s decision at the end of the film never really seems in doubt, so there’s no real tension anywhere. This, arguably, is the film’s biggest weakness: its predictability. Oh look, no one dies here except the villains and the hero’s mentor. Where have we seen that before… Honestly, for 17 films out of 17, Marvel has utterly failed to EVER make me think a significant character might actually be in jeopardy (okay, the Infinity War trailers confirmed at least 3 of the main cast survive, but even supporting character’s like Ross and the tribal leaders are never really under much threat).  Other typical Marvel clichés are rife here: the good guys are saved by a convenient change of heart late on that EVERYONE could see coming! T’Challa’s fake death halfway through is irritating through its sheer pointlessness (we know he isn’t actually dead so why hide him off screen for 20 minutes?). Ulysses Klaw is ANOTHER weak marvel villain (not helped by Andy Serkis, who for the first time that I can ever remember isn’t an asset to the film, mainly because his OTT arms dealer feels like a caricature rather than a genuine character). Although Michael B. Jordan’s Kilmonger is much better as the other villain, the film doesn’t really do anything interesting with him. Yes, his backstory is sympathetic and he gets more screentime than most Marvel villains, but he’s still no Ego or Loki.

Back on the positive side of things, the production is nevertheless strong. The dialogue is never clunky or convoluted and the film isn’t hamstrung by an over-emphasis on humour like Thor: Ragnarok was. The action scenes are generally better directed than they were in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ragnarok (a car chase in South Korea and a ritual combat atop a waterfall being the standout set-pieces), even if the final battle isn’t as emotionally charged or thrilling as you might hope. The music fits the film well even if it isn’t particularly memorable. The film looks great for the most part (the sequences where T’Challa communes with his dead father on the ancestral plain are visually stunning). Ultimately, your enjoyment of this film is probably down to how sick you are of repetitiveness in Marvel films. What we get here is good, but we’ve seen too much of it before, which like Doctor Strange in 2016 limits the score I can give it.

Overall, Black Panther is an entertaining, well-acted film that breaks plenty of ground, but one that remains hamstrung by the traditional Marvel clichés. There’s a lot of potential for future adventures in Wakanda, but this one doesn’t quite hit the heights it could have. It’s a step up from Thor: Ragnarok though, which bodes well for Infinity War.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I’ll do a couple more Marvel related updates in the run-up to Infinity War – which hopefully will be the perfect knockout hit we all want it to be. But there really needs to be some genuine fucking consequences in that film, or my interest in the MCU will be permanently broken, no matter how entertaining it is.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Series 2 Review

Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes

Spoiler Free

I loved the Series of Unfortunate Events books as a kid. Like many, I was slightly disappointed by the film adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, which lacked the soul of the original. While Series 1 of the more successful Netflix adaptation was undoubtedly a step up, it still wasn’t quite on par with the standard of the books. However, as books 1-4 weren’t exactly the best in the series, I was curious to see if the TV show would improve when adapting better material frim books 5-9. Has it? Sort of.

As with series 1, my main praise would have to go to the show’s cast and production. It looks amazing and you can’t really pick out a weak link in the cast. Neil Patrick Harris excels with most of his various guises (only Detective Dupin from a Vile Village is disappointing, and I’d blame that firmly on how poorly he’s written rather than Harris) and the Baudelaire’s actors keep the children easy to root for. The new additions to the supporting cast are generally great. Lucy Punch in some ways overshadows Harris as Esme Squalor, while Carmelita Spats is done absolutely perfectly in Austere Academy. Fellow newcomer Nathan Fillion also makes Jacques Snicket one of the best things in the first half of the season.

Unfortunately the writing isn’t always as spot on as the casting. While the series gets a strong start with Austere Academy and Ersatz Elevator, the Vile Village adaptation is resolutely dull. Hostile Hospital is watchable despite being based on one of the weakest books, while Carnivorous Carnival is a game of two halves (the first episode is great, the second not so much). I feel like one problem the series has is that the two episode per book structure is hamstringing some of the more slow-paced books, like Vile Village, as the increased focus on the Volunteers and the Villains forces the show to condense a lot of what the children got up to in the books. Books fans might also be perplexed by one or two changes from the novels (for example, two of Olaf’s henchmen who died in books 8 and 9 are inexplicably still alive at the end of series 2, for no apparent reason).

While there’s a lot of fun to be had from the performances, I still feel like this show doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. It isn’t funny enough for a dark-humoured comedy and its tone isn’t dark enough (despite the subject matter) for it to be a great drama. Sure, it’s entertaining, but Olaf is still nowhere near as menacing as in the books, and you don’t feel tension anywhere near as often as the show seems to want you to.

In short, this is slightly better that series one, but only because it’s based off some of the better books, not because they’ve drastically improved things. So if you liked the first series, the second will happily give you more of the same. If the first series left you sceptical, the second won’t change your mind. Hopefully Series 3 can end this adaptation on a high, but I’ll be watching it for completionists’ sake, not because I consider it essential viewing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Next up, I finally get around to reviewing Black Panther…

Jessica Jones Season 2 Review

Starring Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss and Janet McTreer.

Warning: Minor Spoilers Follow for Season 2 and Major Spoilers for Season 1

Jessica Jones is easily the most interesting of Marvel’s TV superheroes. Her first season was gripping in a way that Luke Cage and Iron Fist never came close to. Yes, it was three episodes too long (like almost ALL Marvel Netflix productions – even the 8-episode Defenders had that problem) but for the most part it was very engaging stuff, helped immeasurably by Krysten Ritter’s tortured ‘not-a-heroine’ Jessica and David Tennant’s chilling villain Kilgrave. The series 1 finale saw Jessica finally get the upper hand and snap Kilgrave’s neck, which begged one obvious question: how the hell do you follow David Tennant as a villain?

Season 2’s answer is to have multiple antagonists. Between dickhead lawyer Pryce (Terry Chen), fellow Metahuman Alisa (Janet McTreer) and scientist Karl (the one who gave Jessica her powers) there’s a lot of potential bad guys floating around. But, unlike the black and white films Marvel is so fond of, there’s a lot of grey here. Jessica, Trish and Hogarth all go to some pretty dark places this season, while none of the villains are the out-and-out monster Kilgrave was. This helps keep the season somewhat unpredictable, even if none of the new characters come close to being as memorable as Tennant.

Fortunately, even if the show can’t live up to season 1’s villain, it does fix a lot of that season’s other problems. The pacing, while slow for the first few episodes, never feels padded out in the way season 1 was. There’s actually 12-13 episodes worth of story to tell here, not 8-10 stretched out like was the case last time. The show also cuts out some of the slack from season 1 (Simpson’s role in events is minimal but effective, Hogarth’s storyline actually leads somewhere) and develops the supporting characters a lot more (Trish and Malcolm have very different season long journeys, while the Jessica who comes out of episode 13 is definitely not the one we see in episode 1). The show also gives Jessica a new love interest who is a really good replacement for Luke, which I wasn’t expecting. The various plot twists don’t derail things the way they scuppered Luke Cage’s last season either, even if the mid-season twist is equally cliché.

Its not all good: the first episode is pretty dreadful, the season’s arc takes a while to become clear and Hogarth’s storyline isn’t always engaging, but overall I think I actually preferred this to season 1. Even if Tennant’s involvement is minimal, the season is much better structured and the production, direction and writing are all pretty consistently strong from episode 2 onwards. If you like darker, more meaningful superhero shows that feature actual detective work and real consequences, Jessica Jones is still the only Marvel offering worth looking at… well unless you happen to find Daredevil interesting (I don’t but I know plenty of people do).

Rating: 4 out of 5 (I gave the first season 3.5/5)

Next up: My review of the second season of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. Or Black Panther if I finally find time to see it.