Monthly Archives: June 2018

Luke Cage: Season 2 Review

Starring Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Mustafa Shakir, Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, Reg. E. Cathey, Simone Missick and Finn Jones.

Spoilers for Season 1. Minor Spoilers only for Season 2.

I really wasn’t a fan of Luke Cage after season one. By which I mean the show, not Mike Colter’s character. Colter has always convinced in the role ever since he first appeared on Jessica Jones’ first season. But aside from several good acting performances (by Colter, Mahershala Ali etc.) Season 1 was very, very disappointing, and in my opinion, was one of the most critically overrated TV series (I’d give it a 2.5/5). Sure, it was a landmark event in that it was the first Superhero TV show centred around a Black Superhero and a majority Black Cast. But this doesn’t automatically make it good television, no matter how powerful its message is. It had a unique feel, sure, with a soulful soundtrack that worked wonderfully, but I wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone.

Luke Cage had three major issues in S1: its pacing, its villains and a failure to use its hero in an interesting way. Luke was often too sidelined in favour of the supporting characters throughout the first season, and his whole ‘reluctant hero’ schtick really wasn’t that interesting a character arc – it just made him seem selfish and jaded and didn’t let Colter’s natural charisma show the way it did in Jessica Jones and the Defenders. Worse, the nature of Luke’s powers meant he was completely invulnerable for the first 6 episodes, but then once a weapon that hurt him was introduced in episode 7, he kept going down far too easily (i.e. the familiar Superman/Supergirl problem). The shows pacing was all out of whack, as is usual with Marvel’s Netflix shows, and was definitely 3 episodes too long. The biggest problem, however, was the villains. S1 had 4: Cottonmouth, Diamondback, Shades and Mariah. Although the actors did their best with each of them, we never got any reason to care about Shades or Mariah, who were really bland throughout, Diamondback was very OTT and had a really hackneyed origin story (Luke’s resentful brother, I mean seriously??! talk about cliched) and Cottonmouth (the only decent one) was killed off halfway through.

I gave S2 another chance because, as I said, I like Colter’s performance and figured the show could do a lot better. Has it?

Yes it has. Thank God!

Luke is a much, much more interesting lead this season. He grapples with more compelling themes, struggling with anger issues, his newfound celebrity status, and his desire to do what’s right even when he knows he could solve Harlem’s problems more quickly by just killing Mariah or working outside the law. While he still feels a bit too sidelined at times, the screentime Luke does get is put to much better use. Colter clearly relishes the role he’s playing this time, whether its sparring with Claire and Misty over his methods or trying to reconnect with his estranged father (marvellously played by the terrific late Reg. E. Cathey, who the series is dedicated to).

The writing has also improved a lot, mainly because it focuses a lot more on character work, so that even when the plot slows up we still get some compelling scenes. The racial politics and progressive messages are still there, but are included with far more nuance, and aren’t so jarringly on the nose as they were in season one. As Black Lightning proved, these things work far better when they are simply shown, rather than being patronisingly spelt out for the audience. In other good news, the supporting characters this season (Sugar, D.W. Piranha, Comanche, Tilda, Anansi) are all much more interesting than Misty, Scarfe or Shades were last season. Thankfully, Misty is a much easier character to like this time round, simply because she’s clued in and on Luke’s side from the start. Even more surprisingly, Shades becomes one of the shows most intriguing characters this season, as Theo Rossi gets much better material to work with and gets the chance to really show his talent as an actor. Alfre Woodard gets a better storyline as Mariah as well, as the show does a better job of transforming her into a main villain, though arguably it gets too focused on her in the latter episodes of the season.

The show’s biggest strength, however, has to be new villain Bushmaster. Not only is this villain capable of going hand-to-hand with Cage (something which Mariah, Shades and Cottomouth were handicapped by their inability to do), but he’s also played with great charisma by Mustafa Shakir, who turns Bushmaster into one of the most memorable villains in Marvel TV (he’s virtually Tennant as Kilgrave good, and that’s the highest praise I can give). His fights with Luke are highlights of the season, and the fight choreography in general seems to have taken a massive step up this year – you’ll never get bored of Luke smacking down thugs or going toe-to-toe with Bushmaster, who is the first character to ever pose a genuine physical threat to Luke. It’s just a pity that Bushmaster gets sidelined in favour of Mariah in the last few episodes of the series, as he was definitely the stronger adversary of the two.

The series still isn’t perfect however. While it feels like you could get 13 episodes of story from the plot, each episode weighs in at 50-65 minutes, so the episodes do feel stretched out in places, normally because police incompetence or Luke’s reluctance to kill keeps some villains in play longer than they need to be. If you fancy a drinking game, have one everytime there’s an interlude mid-episode for a musical performance at Harlem’s paradise – it happens like every bloody episode and probably adds at least a good half-hour of runtime over the season. There’s also an Iron Fist crossover episode, which has its moments, but feels more like fan-service than actually adding anything to the plot (though I’m happy to say Finn Jones is much more likeable as Danny Rand now).

Overall, the shows character-driven scripts and cool fight scenes, in addition to a more subtle and nuanced approach to its political message, make this a huge improvement over season 1. However, it still feels stretched out and arguably focuses on the wrong villain in the final few episodes. Despite this, its probably up there with Jessica Jones’ second season in terms of quality, so I’ll give it the same rating.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Final Thought: Make sure you watch S1 of the Defenders before you watch this, because there’s a lot of references to the events of that crossover series here, particularly regarding Misty and Danny Rand’s role in events.

God of War (2018) Review

This one is something special.

Minor Story Spoilers – but only in terms of setting/characters, not plotline.

It’s been a while since a new PS4 game has truly gripped me. While COD: WWII and Batman: Enemy Within have kept me busy, I haven’t been blown away by anything new since Horizon Zero Dawn released last year. Until now.

This has a very different style from previous God of War games. Its more character driven, with more RPG elements and a much more open world than previous instalments. Kratos is a much more nuanced character here – in previous games he’s been defined solely by vengeance and tragedy, here he gets some slow but merited character growth. This is mainly because of his son, Atreus, who serves as Kratos’ companion and protégée throughout the game. Another change is that Kratos’ main weapon is now the Leviathan Axe, which works in a similar way to Thor’s Hammer (Kratos can recall it at will after throwing it) apart from the fact its abilities are Ice based rather than lightning based. Fans of previous games needn’t worry however, as Kratos’ Blades of Chaos do become available as an alternate weapon a third of the way through the game, which adds a bit of variety to combat. The biggest change however, is the move from Greek myth to Norse myth, which, if anything, proves far more interesting than the Greek. Kratos isn’t taking on the whole pantheon of Norse Gods here, but a few of them crash proceedings to make his task more difficult. The Norse idea of ‘Nine Realms’ is faithfully portrayed and engaging brought to life, along with many, many figures and monsters from Norse mythology.

Combat has also been significantly revamped, mainly because the third person camera is now much more tightly focused on Kratos, rendering him more vulnerable to flank attacks but giving you much better control of his own attacks. While combos still play a big part, it feels like a cross between Skyrim-esque hack and slash and the switch it up style of Arkham games – but is arguably far better than either. There are a wide variety of skill upgrades available which unlock more combos and increase damage, paid for by XP (given for defeating enemies and finishing quests). XP is also used to upgrade various Runes which Kratos can apply to his and Atreus’ weapons, which allow very powerful rune attacks and spirit summons that can only be used after lengthy cooldowns. Atreus’ bow and choke attacks are also upgradeable, and can prove very helpful in tough battles. There isn’t a levelling system as such, instead certain areas are locked off until you progress to a certain part of the story or receive a particular upgrade, usually preventing you from running into enemies that are far too strong for you (marked by a purple health bar). You are free to explore most of the map pretty quickly, but its advisable to get very good skills and gear before you even think of taking on Valkyries or other really strong enemies, who usually lurk in hidden, underground chambers.

The map size is significantly large, encompassing a sizeable part of Midgard (Earth) as well as Helheim (Realm of the Dead), Muspelheim (Realm of Fire) and various other realms from Norse mythology, all of which have a unique feel to them – and all of which look absolutely stunning. I don’t normally go for many screenshots or use photo modes while playing games, but God of War is absolutely beautifully rendered – even on my standard model PS4. I can’t think of a better looking game I’ve played. The soundtrack serves its purpose but only stands out in a few places – most of the time spent travelling instead uses background conversations between Kratos and Atreus which underpins their burgeoning  relationship and provides insight to the Mythology and History of the world they inhabit.

Aside from the main story, which I won’t spoil, there are numerous side quests from two dwarves called Brok and Sindri, who serve as the games’ shopkeepers and blacksmiths, who buy, sell and upgrade all of Kratos and Atreus equipment, in addition to the many collectibles which can be found in hidden chests or areas throughout the maps. There’s just so much to do in the 20-40 hours of gameplay, ranging from freeing imprisoned Dragons, to killing Odin’s Ravens, to defeating combat challenges in Muspelheim and solving puzzles to unlock Nornir chests and improve Kratos’ health and rage. To be honest though, exploring the map is such fun it doesn’t matter if its for a quest or just for the sake of exploring – its compelling either way – though I recommend you play through the main quest pretty frequently, as this unlocks more areas and gives you more XP than other activities (don’t worry – you can keep playing post main quest so it doesn’t matter what order you do things in).

Kratos and Atreus never feel overpowered, mainly due to the wide variety of enemies, including reavers, draugr, wolves, dark elves, trolls, werewolves, Valkyries, stone ancients and bosses, which include everything from giants to dragons to Norse Gods. This variety, added to the multitude of combos and rune attacks prevent combat ever getting repetitive or stale (the same tactics don’t work on every enemy – werewolves dodge too often for axe throws to be effective, frozen enemies are sometimes immune to axe attacks etc.). You have to switch things up a fair bit, particularly when completing challenges in Muspelheim or fighting Valkyries, who are a real challenge even on Normal difficulty.

The one thing I will say about the story is that it offers one of the most compelling Father-Son dynamics I’ve seen in gaming. Atreus and Kratos both have their flaws, but make interesting protagonists. The game does very much feels like a ‘part 1’ of their story, which can only be a good thing. Whether the Norse setting lasts 2 games or 3, I have a feeling that Ragnarok isn’t far away…

Overall God of War is the best game I’ve played on PS4. It balances difficulty, fun, story and gameplay exceeding well. I wouldn’t say its my all time favourite, but it probably is the best designed game I own. If you have a PS4, you need to get this. If you don’t have a PS4, buy one – because missing out on games this good is not an option. Who needs Elder Scrolls VI when you have this?

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Seriously people, just look at the exclusives Sony has at the moment. God of War, the Uncharted series, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us AND upcoming games like Spider-man? There is nothing on Xbox One or Nintendo Switch that even matches one of those games, let alone all of them. I get arguments about brand loyalty, price and controller layout, but the amount of quality games you can’t get without a PS4 isn’t even funny anymore. If you’re a gamer and have the cash, get one!