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5 Years of Blogging: Top 5 Writers and Directors

After a few gaming related updates, I felt like doing a more film/tv focused one, so without further ado, here’s my favourite 5 writers and directors from TV and film.

Top 5 Writers:

5: The Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things): I have to give the Duffer Brothers credit. When new sci-fi shows are constantly failing to deliver (Star Trek: Discovery, Lost in Space, Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who) or failing to connect with audiences (Netflix’s Nightflyers and Another Life) Stranger Things has delivered 3 seasons running, and that’s largely due to their excellent writing producing great characters, engaging storylines and genuinely funny comedy. Stranger Things may not be all that original, but it is consistent in its quality and entertainment value, so the two of them have to make it onto this list, seeing as they have written the majority of episodes thus far.

4: Joel Fields and Joe Weisburg (The Americans): Given that the Americans is arguably the best and most consistently written show this decade, I had to put the two lead writers on this list. Between them Joel and Joe wrote all of the premieres, finales and a lot of other episodes in between, including some of the ones with the largest plot developments. If you’re yet to catch this remarkable (if very slow) TV spy thriller, then the writing is the main reason i’d recommend checking it out. Character development is consistent and nuanced, the plot doesn’t suddenly veer into left field for no reason, and of the 6 seasons, 5 are fantastic and the remaining 1 (season 5) is still good, if uneventful. Only the fact that these writers haven’t worked on much else yet prevents them going further up the list.

3: Robert Holmes (Classic Who, Blakes 7): I like sci-fi, even old sci-fi like Classic Who and Blakes 7 where the special effects are neither special nor that effective. Old sci-fi had to rely on writing and acting to keep people invested, and there was no better TV sci-fi writer in the 70’s and early than Robert Holmes. If you see classic Who episodes on Top 10 or Top 20 lists in Doctor Who Magazine or online websites, odds are there are Holmes’ ones. He didn’t write all the best episodes, but he wrote an awful lot of them. Who’s debt to him is enormous, and that doesn’t just stem from him being the scriptwriter during the shows most popular classic period (1974-1976, i.e. Tom Baker’s first three seasons). He created the Autons and the Sontarans, introduced the Third Doctor and the Master and wrote Peter Davison’s fantastic regeneration story: The Caves of Androzani. His work on other sci-fi shows like Blakes 7 (where his story Orbit ranks as one of the darkest and best) shows he wasn’t a one trick pony. Russell T. Davies has often highlighted Holmes as one of his favourite Who writers, and for once I must agree with RTD. The man was a legend in all things Who, and the show was all the poorer for it after Holmes tragically passed away in 1986.

2: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve): Anyone responsible for two of the best new shows in the past few years has to be a great writer. Waller-Bridge’s trademark dark humour and quirky yet believable characters has proved an award winning mix twice now, first with Fleabag and then with Killing Eve’s first season. The news that Waller-Bridge has been drafted into to work on the final Daniel Craig Bond film has got me far more interested in what the eventual film can deliver. Both as an actress and a writer, Waller-Bridge is a hit right now, and anything she writes is going to be something people take note of. Her status as a rising star wins her the second spot on this list, but who knows? If I rewrite this in 5 years, she may top it the rate she’s shooting to stardom.

1: Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Coupling, Sherlock, Jekyll): It’s was always going to be Moffat. Being head writer for one of my favourite shows was one thing, being lead writer for four of them is another. Moffat’s ability to write complex, engaging stories with high quality comedy, horror, suspense and drama makes him easily my favourite writer for television. He has the odd weakness as a showrunner, but his writing is very hard to fault. Just look at the episodes he’s written for Doctor Who: The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Eleventh Hour, The Day of the Doctor, Listen, Heaven Sent, World Enough and Time… they are all masterpieces. His hit rate is astonishing (and all the more impressive given the clusterfuck the shows been since he left). Sherlock and Jekyll are great shows in genres I don’t normally follow, and Coupling still ranks as one of my favourite comedies. So Moffat has to take the top spot. Other writers like Waller-Bridge may eventually surpass him, but Moffat’s consistency and great run of hits mean he’ll be my favourite for a while yet.

Top 5 Directors:

5: Antony and Joe Russo: (The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War, Endgame) The Russo brothers are responsible for pretty much all of the best MCU films, and were a step up from Joss Whedon as the showrunners for the main avengers films. Direction in the MCU is very haphazard – especially during fight scenes – Black Panther looked downright terrible at points in its third act because of bad direction coupled with weak CGI (those stupid rhinos), while Spiderman Homecoming’s major flaw had to be its fight scenes. You don’t get those problems with the Russo brothers – The Winter Soldier is arguably the most grown-up and best put together film in the series, while Civil War, Infinity War and Endgame were all exceptional Blockbuster epics, and I can’t remember any scenes where I’d change one thing about the direction. A very safe pair of hands – and ones who consistently deliver.

4: Ron Howard (Rush, Angels and Demons, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) Howard’s not the best director in the world, but he’s up there. Just look at the types of films he’s been responsible for – historical biopics like Rush and Frost/Nixon, thrillers like Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code and big budget space heist movies (Solo: A Star Wars Story). He’s a versatile director who doesn’t just stick to one genre. He’s been responsible for some of my favourite movies and while he’s had the occasional misstep (his adaptation of Inferno for example) he knows how to make entertaining films and is very consistent at doing so. It helps that he seems to have Hans Zimmer on speed-dial – the two have collaborated a lot, and its a pairing that works – as is Howard and Tom Hanks, who’ve worked together frequently many times to great effect.

3: Rachel Talalay: (Doctor Who – Heaven Sent, Dark Water, Twice Upon a Time, World Enough and Time). Doctor Who’s directors have always been a mixed bag – particularly towards the end of the Moffat era and the transition to the garbage that is Chibnall’s current reign. One who always shined regardless of the material she was given was Rachel Talalay. Just look at the episodes she directed – there’s a reason Moffat kept trusting her with his series finales and Capaldi’s final episode. She excels at delivering the darker, weightier, scarier instalments of Who. So many great scenes (such as the Missy Reveal, Breaking the Wall and The Master’s return) owe a lot to her standard of direction. In a way its a pity she only came in at series 8 – the 50th anniversary in her hands might have been even better than it already was. That’s how good she is!

2: Miguel Saponchik: (Game of Thrones – Hardhome, Battle of the Bastards, The Winds of Winter, The Bells) Game of Thrones had some excellent directors during its run, whatever you think of the writing. But the most amount of credit has to go to Saponchik, who directed some of the shows most ambitious and memorable battle sequences. The White Walkers’ attack on Hardhome, Jon Snow’s battle with Ramsay, Cersei blowing up the Sept of Baelor, The Night King’s assault on Winterfell and Daenerys’ destruction of King’s Landing – all were brought from script to screen by this guy, who managed to produce battles worthy of cinema on a fraction of the budget a blockbuster film would have. Can’t wait to see what he works on next.

1: Christopher Nolan: (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar, Inception) It had to be really. Nolan is renowned as a director and filmmaker and there’s a reason fans are constantly badgering him to have a crack at a Bond Film. He’s one of the few director you can honestly say has never made a bad film, and might even be the only one who has ALWAYS made great or amazing ones. The Dark Knight trilogy is what he’s most known for, and rightly so, but his other films like Dunkirk, Inception and Interstellar have all got warm receptions from critics and audiences. If he has a weakness its shooting hand-to-hand fight scenes (this is the sole weak point in Batman Begins), but his grasp of action scenes in general is amazing. Ultimately, this is the man who made Batman cool again after Joel Schumacher nearly killed the character’s status off for good in 1995. Nolan’s amazing track record coupled with the fact he’s responsible for 3 of my favourite films means he was always going to come top of this category, and I doubt many people will disagree with that.

5 Years of Blogging: Top 5 Expansions and Remasters

It is slightly unfortunate that video game companies seem obsessed with squeezing more and more money out of consumers. DLC and Remasters are a fact of life now, but fortunately, unlike microtransactions and lootboxes, there is actually a point to DLC and remasters and they can be really fun – these lists highlight the ones I consider the best in the business. Enjoy!

Top 5 DLC and Expansions:

5: Dawnguard (Skyrim) Dawnguard is still my favourite of the 3 Skyrim DLC’s. Although Hearthfire adds some welcome features and Dragonborn adds a new location to explore with some fun quests, Dawnguard arguably is the most memorable. Not only does it make playing as a Vampire or Werewolf much more fun (adding perk trees which allow you to greatly expand either’s abilities) but includes one of the best questlines in the game – whether you play as the Dawnguard (Vampire Hunters) or the Vampire Lords, the story is engaging and the quests are memorable (especially the trip to the Soul Cairn). The crossbow is a great new weapon for archers – it packs a hell of a punch but has a realistically slower reload time than normal bows, and can be upgraded repeatedly if you side with the Dawnguard. The DLC also includes Serana, the vampiric daughter of Lord Harkon, the main antagonist of the DLC, who is one of the best companions in the game. Ultimately, if you have Skyrim, you need to play this!

4: Old World Blues (Fallout: New Vegas) Fallout has a very patchy record with DLC, but Old World Blues is probably the first example of them getting it pretty much spot on. The plot sees your character abducted and partially lobotomized by a cabal of crazy scientists (who are now all brains plugged into robotic platforms) and the main quest involves you gathering equipment to help you retrieve your original brain (the scientists having replaced it with a mechanical one). Its mad, its hilarious and gives you a great new area to explore, full of messed up experiments, berserk droids and particularly nasty variants of the Mojave wastelands most irritating mutants. This is fallout embracing its crazy, wackier side for probably the last time (Fallout 4 had nothing as zany by comparison) to the extent that the main boss fight features a giant robot scorpion with a laser cannon in its tail. Fun and memorable, its only flaws are that of its parent game: i.e. occasional crashes or lag.

3: Citadel (Mass Effect 3) Mass Effect 3’s ending was made palatable with the free Extended Cut DLC, but Citadel gave the series and fans a proper goodbye. With a lighter story than the main game, tons of fun Easter eggs, great additions to companion romance arcs and a pulsating new combat arena, its pure fan service, but in the best way. It terms of content, humour and challenge (enemies give out pretty hefty damage here) Mass Effect’s never done better with its DLC. Even ME2’s excellent lair of the Shadow Broker doesn’t have the same depth this does.

2: Kingdoms (Medieval 2: Total War): Every Total War game since Rome 1 has featured some kind of expansion or DLC, but Kingdoms is arguably the best because it is four campaigns in one. No matter your preferred playstyle, Kingdoms gives you something to have fun with. Love stomping your foes into the dirt with heavy cavalry? Fight as Jerusalem or Antioch in the Crusades campaign and you can do just that. Prefer defensive playstyles? Wales’ wide range of missile units in the Britannia campaign are your jam. Want to conquer the map with hordes of heavy infantry? The Teutonic Order and Denmark spend the whole of the Teutonic Campaign doing just that. There’s also the Americas campaign, which pits Spanish, French and English expeditions against the vast numbers of Mayan, Aztec and Apache armies, some of whom are capable of learning the European’s technology and turning it against them. Put simply, if you love Medieval 2, you need to buy kingdoms. Fortunately, steam now sells them as one item!

1: Far Harbour (Fallout 4) Its rare for a DLC to be better than the actual GAME its a part of, but Far Harbour is just that. All of the problems of Fallout 4’s main campaign and side quests are absent here. Whereas the Commonwealth was quite a dull place to explore outside of the Main Quests, the Island is teeming with interesting vaults, warring factions and tough creatures to battle. It has a great atmosphere, with a radioactive fog cloud blanketing the entire island and danger lurking in every bog, marsh or piece of shoreline. The three main factions are all interesting to interact with and aren’t as boring as say, the Minutemen in the main campaign. You can even call in the Institute or the Brotherhood of Steel to deal with the Synth faction if you so wish. Even the stupid, repetitive build mechanic is hardly used here, and certainly isn’t critical to any missions. If you own F4, but don’t have this expansion, you’re missing the best that game has to other. Also – find the hidden vault – it sparks off a murder-mystery quest with Robobrain Residents that is one of the best sidequests in the whole damn game.

Top 5 Remasters:

5: Bioshock: The Collection: The remaster itself doesn’t really add much, which is why this collection is only fifth on this list, but I have to credit how brilliant this trilogy looks in HD. Rapture has always been one of the most memorable and well-crafted settings in video games, and seeing it realised on current gen was worth the upgrade. Shorter load screens are an added bonus, as is the fact this bundle contains all 3 games with all the DLC (it scraps Bioshock 2’s multiplayer mode, but that’s no huge loss) make it great value for money.

4: Modern Warfare Remastered: Call of Duty 4 is for many one of the franchise’s best entries. It has a great campaign and great multiplayer – in my opinion, only COD4 and MW2 can claim that – every other one is weak in at least one area (or has a bad zombies/survival/spec ops mode). Either way, it was no surprise that when Modern Warfare Remastered released, it outshone and outsold COD: Infinite Warfare, which, while superficially fun, lacks any real depth in its campaign and whose multiplayer the fanbase just wasn’t interested in. MWR harkens back to a time when call of duty multiplayer was balanced and had a good selection of maps – there’s only 3 killstreaks here and everyone has them available from the get-go, giving newbies more of a chance. While there are some maps you will dislike (in my case Wet Work, since Snipers and Grenade-spammers have a large advantage) and a couple that are just a bit forgettable (District and Downpour) the vast majority are all fun and allow the use of multiple playstyles. It still has a good player base (at least on main modes) 3 years after release, which is always a sign of quality. It’ll probably fall off the grid if the modern warfare reboot is any good, but MWR was one of the few remasters that people not only wanted, but actually delivered where it counted. Pity it has random loot drops, but this is COD. There’s a reason none of the developers got on my best gaming companies list.

3: Catherine: Full Body: Remasters tend to focus on improving gameplay, performance and graphics (or in the case of lazy cash-grabs, just graphics). Few add new content. Catherine: Full Body not only adds additional levels, but a new key character, new cutscenes, challenges and a complete revamp of its puzzle levels (the player can choose between the original or remix versions). Still one of the oddest games I’ve ever played (half anime-esque drama, half platform puzzle horror game) Catherine is a game that will make you ask ‘what the f*ckkkk?!?!?’ at least twice an hour. The full body edition is sexier, with more depth and more variety. Probably not a game that’s to everyone’s taste, but I have to give them credit for the effort they put into this comprehensive remaster.

2: Skyrim Special Edition: Skyrim was always a great game, but there was some roughness to the original. Load times got more and more ludicrous above level 25 and there were a large number of game-ending freezes and crashes. The Special Edition fixes both issues – loading times are now measured in seconds rather than minutes, and while there can still be odd crashes or freezes, they occur very rarely compared to the original. The graphical upgrade is a welcome addition – with great weather and shadow mechanics which make the world feel that bit more alive and real, and even more of a beautiful place to explore.

1: Spyro: Reignited Trilogy: This is a remaster with ambition – given that the Spyro games were a PS1 trilogy, turning it into a current-gen remaster was no mean feat. Every level and character is lovingly recreated here – the game looks superb, plays brilliantly and retains the charm of the original – they even brought back the original composer to work on the revised but faithful soundtrack. A treat for original fans and newbies like me alike, this sums up everything a good remaster should do – providing a huge graphical upgrade, refining gameplay and level design, and bringing a classic to a new generation. Add in the relatively low price (for 3 games in 1 remember!) and this is a must buy, one that in my opinion, is the best remastered collection out there.

Hope you enjoyed, next update will be up tomorrow, focusing on my favourite writers and directors in TV and film – see you then!

5 Years of blogging: Top 5 Game Developers and PC Games

There’s plenty of Game Developers who make good games. But after the past few years of microtransactions, loot boxes, overpriced season passes and terrible releases, a lot of companies have plummeted in fan estimation. Just look at Bethesda – in 2011 when Skyrim released, they were easily among the most popular companies in the business. Now, after the lacklustre Fallout 4 and the omnishambles of Fallout 76, fan trust is at an all time low. On a similar level, Bioware was one of the best RPG makers in the business at the start of the decade – now resentment over Mass Effect 3’s botched ending, Andromeda’s poor launch and Anthem’s notoriously poor quality has left them subject to much berating online. So, I thought I’d celebrate 5 game developers, who, while not perfect, the gaming industry would be much poorer without. I’ve also thrown in my top 5 PC games for good measure.

Top 5 Game Developers:

This aren’t the developers who pump out the most games – these are ones with consistency and less annoying business practices that I personally am a big fan of.

5: Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, Detroit Become Human) They’ve made the least games of anyone in this top 5 (only 3 in the last 10 years) but they are some of the best storytellers in gaming. Prestigious actors are often a part of their games (including Ellen Page, Lance Henriksen and Willem Defoe). I’ve found all three of their recent games to be extremely compelling, with considerable replay value. Sure, they don’t have the best gameplay in the world (they mainly rely on quick time events or QTE’s) but they deal with hard-hitting subjects and adult themes in a way few gaming companies do. Interactive Drama is probably the best way to describe them, but if you love story led gaming, you need to check these out. A company with a small output, but a great one which is always looking to deliver something new with its releases.

4: Creative Assembly (Total War): Unlike the other 4 companies on this list, Creative Assembly has had its share of controversies and the occasional backlash. Empire Total War and Thrones of Britannia were not good games, and games like Rome 2 had decidedly shaky launches. CA releases a lot of DLC for its games, which at times is expensive for what your getting. Why then does it make this list: simple – it learns from its mistakes in a way that COD publishers, Bethesda and Bioware have not. When Empire overreached and suffered as a result, but its sequel Napoleon scaled back the action and delivered a much better experience. Slowly but surely, with DLC campaigns and patches, Rome 2 is now a much better game than it was at launch. Thrones of Britannia was lambasted for a weak campaign system, but Three Kingdoms has improved on that in many ways. The DLC may occasionally be on the expensive side, but its hardly a rip-off, especially given that Total War is part of Steam sales fairly regularly. Overall, Creative Assembly lack the greed some other companies seem to have – yes there’s DLC, but no microtransactions or season passes. Its hit rate is noticeably higher than other long running franchises (way better than COD or Assassin’s Creed – both of whom have similar yearly release schedules) and has a much better tendency to innovate. They aren’t perfect, but no one else is anywhere near them in the real-time strategy market.

3: Obsidian (Fallout New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, The Outer Worlds) Obsidian are a rarity in that when they make a game for an existing franchise, they tend to outshine the parent company. Fallout New Vegas is a case in point – its often highlighted as the best (or 2nd best if you someone who prefers Fallout 3) of the modern Fallout games. It’s also the only one since F3 not made by Bethesda. When you compare New Vegas and Fallout 4… the two aren’t even close. Obsidian are a smaller company, which often results in games that can be buggy, but are very good quality underneath. They are not someone who adds multiplayer for no good reason or cuts half the game out to sell as DLC later – Obsidian are a real gem, and when the Outer Worlds (their latest game – by the looks of it a spiritual successor to F:NV) releases, I’ll be buying it on day one. There’s very few publishers who give me the confidence to do that anymore.

2: Insomniac (Spyro, Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, Spiderman) If you’re a play-station gamer from any era, you know Insomniac. They’ve made some of the best PS exclusives (and best single-player games) of all time. Spyro made a lot of peoples childhoods on PS1, Ratchet and Clank did the same on PS2 and PS3 and Resistance is still one of the most unique shooter trilogies you can find. Spiderman won critical and commercial acclaim as one of the best games of 2018. Insomniac’s record is simply amazing – the only ‘bad’ games it has made were spin-offs, its main games are all good or great – whether they’re to your taste is the only question. Their games are extremely fun – Insomniac games feature compelling leads, memorable enemies and level designs and a huge variety of guns and gadgets to use. As long as they are exclusive to Sony, Xbox simply can’t match up.

1: Naughty Dog (Crash Bandicoot, Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, The Last of Us) From one Sony pillar to another, Naughty Dog are a gaming legend. Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter remain very popular franchises well over a decade after their last original release. Uncharted produced 5 good games out of 5 (3 of which were amazing) which is a virtually unheard of strike rate in gaming. The Last of Us is a strong contender for best game of the last decade, and you can bet its sequel will be a contender for best game of the next. Naughty Dog really does seem to put its customers first – very few of its games feature DLC, and when they do, its both really good and value for money. Another PlayStation exclusive, so if you don’t love them, you’re probably an Xbox gamer. I’ve never had a bad word to say about Naughty Dog, and while Insomniac run then close, I have to name them my favourite Game Developer.

Top 5 PC Games:

Note – this list is heavy on Nostalgia. I’m more of a console gamer, so if I play a game consistently on PC, its because I absolutely love the thing. Don’t expect this to be a list of the best games you can buy on PC or the best exclusives on PC. It isn’t either – it’s just my 5 favourite games to play on PC. All but 1 are PC exclusives though and all are very well regarded by the majority of gamers that play them.

5: Galactic Civilizations III: Galactic Civilizations II was probably the last PC game I was heavily into before I became permanently side-tracked by console games. Of all the PC games I’ve brought this decade, its sequel, GC3, is the only one I’ve logged really substantial hours on (some I haven’t got round to yet, some I definitely need a better PC to run properly). Galactic Civilizations is kind of the everyman’s 4X game. 4X stands for games that require you to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate – they’re mostly space based games, with some exceptions like Endless Legend. In 4X games you take control of one of a number of races or factions and guide them to supremacy, usually using a mix of military strength, economics, diplomacy and research to gain superiority over the other races. Galactic Civilizations is probably the easiest game of this type to get into for beginners (the user interface is simple but the game itself has plenty of depth)

4: The Simpsons: Hit and Run: A game everyone has fond memories of, this was one of the highlights of my (and many others) childhood. Oft described as GTA for kids, the Simpsons was a great game with a wide variety of missions, races, collectibles and jokes. You play as Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and Apu and interact with everyone from Mr. Burns to Professor Frink to Kang and Kodos in 7 levels of pure madness and joy. Mission highlights included destroying Laser Gun stands for Krusty, capturing monkeys for Dr. Nick and helping Snake complete some ‘community service’ (which in reality saw him and Apu destroying an armoured car). Endlessly entertaining, laugh out loud funny on occasions, its a classic. The fact we’ve never got a sequel or a remaster is a crying shame. I’ve played this on PS2 at a friends house, but my copy was PC, so I will always think of it as a PC game.

3: Dawn of War: Dark Crusade: Warhammer 40,000 has perhaps the most video game adaptations of any Warhammer genre. Dark Crusade represents one of the few really good ones (Total War Warhammer 1+2 being basically the only others). The other dawn of War games are a disappoint by comparison, and unfortunately Dark Crusade is likely to remain the best game in the series for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, its a bloody good game and you won’t be desperate to replace it anytime soon. Featuring 7 available factions (The Imperial Guard, Space Marines, Chaos, The Tau Empire, The Eldar, The Ork Hordes and the Necrons), the game has a lot of variety in its faction rosters. The Imperial Guard has weak infantry but really strong tanks and artillery, the Orks are quite weak in general but have huge numbers and really strong top tier units, Chaos has a huge variety of infantry but a very limited range of vehicles etc. There’s a fare few unique things about each factions’ playstyle, but in general, its a case of capturing strategic points to earn requisition, building up your bases to gain power and recruit better units and finally throwing your forces in an all out assault on the enemy’s bases.

2: Rome: Total War: The game that got me into Total War, I probably spent more time on Rome 1 than any other video game I’ve ever owned. Its a pity it doesn’t run well on Windows 10, because its still a great game even now. Sure, the diplomacy stops working pretty early in the game, factions will betray you randomly and Rome is overpowered compared to the other factions, but for all its flaws, it is so fun to play. The variety of factions is great (particularly if you edit the game files to unlock all factions – which is very easy to do). Whatever playstyle you like, there’s something for you – want to crush your enemies with elephants? Go for Carthage. Want to reign arrows on foes then pull back before they can retaliate? Scythian Horse Archers are your friend! Want to carve your way through hordes of ill-disciplined Barbarians? The House of Julii welcomes you. If you ever get bored of the main campaign, there’s plenty of mods out there to try as well. Any game from 2004 that’s still mentioned fondly by Youtubers is one that is iconic in the eyes of the fanbase – this one more so than most.

1: Medieval 2: Total War: While Rome is perhaps the most fun Total War game, Medieval 2 surpasses it by the virtue of being a touch more refined, with a lot more depth. Diplomacy actually works, there’s no weak factions, the Crusade/Jihad mechanic is very fun and the Mongol and Timurid invasions provide a reason to keep playing long after its clear you’re going to win. The sheer scope of what you can do here is great – the campaign can see you try to survive the Black Death, master the use of gunpowder and discover America and conquer the Aztecs. If you’re a Christian faction, you’ll also have to contend with the pope, who will send you missions, demand you take part in crusades and (if you piss him off) send inquisitors to try your generals for heresy, excommunicate you and cause you public order problems, or even declare a crusade on you! I won’t claim the game is perfect (the first 50 turns are definitely the most fun – only crusades, mongol invasions and timurids can threaten you after that if you know what your doing) and the AI could definitely be better, but its still a lot of peoples favourite Total War game – me included. The Kingdoms expansion is the icing on the cake, and there’s more mods out there for this than any other Total War game. If your looking to get into the series, i’d recommend starting here – as an old game its very cheap on steam!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this, the next top 5 list will be up tomorrow!

5 Years of Blogging: Top 5 Books and Authors

For the second part of my 5 year anniversary of this blog, I thought i’d give an overview of my top 5 books and authors. I don’t review novels that often on this blog, so I felt this was long overdue.

Contains no spoilers for the books mentioned other than brief plot or genre overviews.

Top 5 Authors:

5: Dan Brown: Dan Brown’s work can be divisive, but you can’t deny the success of his Robert Langdon novels (or his other works such as Digital Fortress or Deception Point). The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Inferno are great romps with satisfying plot twists and hunts through glamorous locations like Paris, Rome and Venice. While Origin and The Lost Symbol fail to match up, all were engrossing first-time reads and whenever one of Brown’s new books comes out, I take notice, so he gets the fifth spot on this list.

4: Rick Riordan: Riordan’s works are mainly geared towards teenagers, but as a classist I can’t help but love his fiction focusing on modern day adventures of Greek and Roman demigods. Awash with humour, pop-culture references and characters who are easy to root for, his Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series are excellent ways to encourage younger readers to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, while his entertaining style makes them a joy for all ages. He takes a couple of books to really hit his stride, but once he does, he delivers really consistently.

3: George R.R. Martin: While I haven’t sampled his other series, Martin makes this list solely for his Game of Thrones related work – there’s very little that matches the sheer scope and scale of his world-building, gargantuan casts of characters or detail-rich prose. If the man wasn’t so damn slow at finishing his ‘magnum opus’, he might be a bit higher on this list. Nevertheless, there’s a reason his books inspired one of the most successful TV series of all-time – one that could never hope to match the complexity of the original novels.

2: Simon Scarrow: Scarrow is a master of military focused historical-fiction. Whether its his long running ‘Eagles of the Empire’ series focusing on two Roman soldiers or his 4-part series contrasting the careers of Wellington and Napoleon, his works are always engaging. Scarrow’s knowledge of military tactics and structures helps create believable narratives and conflicts, and has written stories with settings as varied as Ancient Britain, Imperial India and WW2 Greece. There’s no better writer of military fiction.

1: Robert Harris: Harris rarely fails to deliver. His Cicero trilogy is a sublime piece of historical fiction that eschews more famous Romans like Caesar and Pompey in favour of focusing on one of the greatest orators who ever lived and presenting a compelling tale of his strengths, failures, flaws and triumphs. The variety of his work is notable – novels have focused on Chamberlain’s dealings with Hitler prior to WW2, a fictional papal election, and most memorably a murder investigation in Germany in an alternate history where the Nazi’s won WW2. Harris is a prolific writer who can turn his hands to many a setting, and in my opinion is the best of the authors whose work I follow closely.

Top 5 Books:

5: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: Containing the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Daenerys’ conquest of Slaver’s Bay, Jon and Ygritte’s doomed romance and Jaime and Brienne’s journey to King’s Landing, this 3rd entry in the Song of Ice and Fire series is still the undisputed highlight, with compelling twists, great character development and a great overall story. Martin has yet to better this, but then again it would take one hell of a book to do so.

4: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: Zahn is one of the most established and beloved Star Wars novelists – his work in the 90’s helped sustain interest in the series while it was off-screen, mainly due to his ‘Thrawn Trilogy’, which Heir to the Empire is Book 1 of. The Thrawn trilogy is no longer canon after Disney brought the franchise, but to be honest the three novels (and the two-part Hand of Thrawn which follows it) make for a far better follow up to Return of the Jedi than Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Set 5 Years after the Emperor and Vader’s deaths, Heir to the Empire focuses on Luke, Leia and Han’s efforts to protect the fledging New Republic from a resurgent Imperial Remnant led by the tactical and strategic genius Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is arguably the most popular Star Wars character created in the novels, primarily because he’s a villain who isn’t a Sith Lord but presents a real threat to the heroes. This first entry is my favourite Star Wars novel, simply because it presents a believable follow to Return of the Jedi and presents the Empire in a more nuanced way that simply being evil for evil’s sake.

3: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling: The Harry Potter books are still a good read as an adult, and Half-Blood Prince was always my favourite of the 7. While the film wasn’t as good, the book shines with a lighter tone to balance out the increasingly dark plot, greater emphasis on Dumbledore than previous books and significant revelations that set up the final book perfectly. If I’m feeling Nostalgic, this is still one of the first books I’ll turn to.

2: The Generals by Simon Scarrow: Scarrow’s four-part tale of Napoleon and Wellington is at its apex in this second entry, which follows both men as they begin to forge their careers in earnest and win great successes in Italy, Egypt and India. Napoleon’s story is definitely a shade more compelling, but Wellington’s tougher journey to the top still has dramatic value. A great piece of military fiction – if you’re interested in the Napoleonic Era, this is a must read.

1: Inferno by Dan Brown: Inferno’s mix of hellish imagery, Dante’s Inferno influences and over-population fears combine to create Brown’s best novel, and the one I’ll probably return to most often. I won’t claim its the best book ever written (Langdon’s amnesia is a lazy plot device, even if it works wonders) but its arguably my favourite and one I will happily pick up again and again. A real page-turner, this isn’t a book you will find easy to turn down. Pity the film adaptation was so weak and disjointed by comparison. Please don’t get put off if you’ve seen the film but not read this – its got far more depth and its ending plays out completely differently.

Hope you’re enjoying this series, I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top 5 PC Games and Game Developers. See you all then.

5 Years of Blogging: Top 5 Racing and Shooting Games

It’s five years ago this week that I started this blog, way back in 2014. To mark this, i’ll be doing a week long series of Top 5 lists, with topics ranging from gaming to tv to films and books.

Hope you all enjoy it – not sure how much longer I will keep doing this blog, depends if post views improve or not, but either way I’ll make the most of it for the rest of 2019.

Without further ado, here’s my top 5 racing and shooting games (feel free to disagree, as with any list of this type, its subjective).

Top 5 Racing Games: (Pure racing games only – excludes games like GTA which have racing but are mainly focused on other things)

5: Motorstorm (PS3) Motorstorm was the first racer I brought on PS3. The fact I still play it speaks volumes about its quality. Races in Motorstorm games are utter carnage, with vehicles ranging from Bikes to Trucks crashing through circuits set in Monument Valley, which range from deserts to mudpools to huge, massive cliffs. Still very fun, with player needing to finish in the top 3 to gain points and progress, which isn’t easy. While its sequels, Pacific Rift and Apocalypse have their moments, the first one is still my favourite. If it had split screen, it would be perfect.

4: Onrush (PS4) Onrush is an unusual racer in that of its four main modes, there’s none which requires you to cross a finish line first. Instead the modes (which are all team-based, both online and off) have targets of wrecking opponents, crossing checkpoints, capturing mobile zones and scoring more points via wrecks, overtakes and reaching new top speeds. The game actively will sling you back into the action if you fall too far behind, so its easy to pick up, but hard to master. This also means there’s few cheating or balancing issues online, making it one of the most balanced multiplayer racers I’ve played. With bikes, buggies, cars and trucks available, there’s something for everything. This is Motorstorm evolved.

3: F1 2018 (PS4) F1 games have come a long way. The first one I played in ’06 was pretty hopeless, but since 2016 the series has peaked to the point where each new release is merely a case of refinement rather than revolution. With every circuit, car and team lovingly recreated and an AI difficulty and assist system which gives you total control over how realistic and challenging you want the sim to be, this is an extremely accessible racer, if not one that will win you over if you aren’t an F1 fan. Fortunately, race length and rules are easily customisable, while mid-race saving makes full-length races genuinely possible. Only weak driver models and a pointless interview mechanic hold it back. 2019’s version adds a few tweaks, but the two are of very similar quality.

2: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (PS3) This is still the best single-player racer I’ve ever played – its lack of a split screen mode is all that hold it back from the top spot on this list. Playing either as a racer or a cop, you compete in various events, such as time trials, duels, races, interceptors and hot pursuits. All are fun – time trials are challenging because of the penalty for collisions, duels and races can really test your abilities to manage boosts and use shortcuts, but the most fun has to be hot pursuits. Both racer and cop cars are outfitted with weaponry and gadgets to use to either takedown the opposition or evade them. This includes spike strips, EMP’s, jammers, turbos and in the police’s case, the ability to call in roadblocks or helicopters. There’s a huge range of cars too, particularly with the three dlc packs, which add a host of faster cars such as Lamborghinis, Porsches and the mightily fast Bugatti Veyron.

1: Mario Kart (Wii) It had to be. I got into Mario Kart a bit late, but ever since, I’ve absolutely loved it. There’s no better split screen racer out there. The Wii version had to win (later versions have all been disappointing slow or bland) with plenty of great tracks, including Grumble Volcano, Maple Treeway and one of the best Rainbow Roads in the series. The single player mode is a lot of fun, with mirror mode being hard to master initially, but the games core is split screen with your mates. I’ve had some epic battles on this thing, whether doing a series of 4 race grand prix or the absolutely mental option of doing a 32 race marathon with Items switched onto frantic. You’ll have some great memories from playing this game, whether its the first time you dodge a blue shell, recovering from 12th to gain an unlikely win or hitting a friend with a fake item box on the final corner of rainbow road [sorry Oscar ;)] you’ll have a great time – if you put the effort it. In my experience, people are either great at this game or hopeless, so your only problem will be finding a balanced group to play with.

Top 5 Shooting Games: (Again, these are all shooting-focused gamesĀ  – games like Uncharted and Mass Effect have shooting, but its hardly the main point or appeal of them so I’m not counting them for this category).

5. Borderlands 2 [PS4] The best ‘loot shooter’ I’ve ever played, Borderlands poses a genuine challenge but throws in a memorable story, compelling villain and hilarious side-quests to distract from the occasional frustration. It’s ‘second wind’ mechanic where your character gets fatally injured but has a limited time where they can heal themselves by killing an enemy, is a great way of rewarding aggression. Its vast range of weapons (Shotguns, Snipers, Pistols, RPG’s, Assault Rifles and SMG’s, all with fire, corrosive, shock and explosive variants) prevents things from ever feeling too same-y. With a host of excellent DLC, this is a single player or co-op shooter that you could sink well over 100 hours into. For a shooter without competitive multiplayer, that’s a lot of bang for your buck.

4. Resistance 2 [PS3] The resistance trilogy were PS exclusives that (briefly) proved a rival to more established shooters like COD, Battlefield and Killzone. The first and third games had more of a horror-shooter vibe to them, but Resistance 2 doubles down on fun weaponry, huge boss fights and wacky sci-fi gadgets to deliver a memorable campaign, a great 8 player co-op mode and a chaotic but memorable competitive multiplayer. Alas, the player base ran out a few years back, but its still one of the best shooters I’ve played, and if the PS5 ever includes a remake, reboot or remaster of these games, i’ll be sure to check it out.

3. Star Wars: Battlefront (2015) [PS4] The game may have its detractors for its lack of a good singleplayer mode or campaign, but frankly, this was the most fun multiplayer I’ve experienced on PS4, and was a damn sight more satisfying than its more ambitious sequel. Focused solely on the original trilogy, the game lovingly recreates battlegrounds on Yavin, Hoth, Tatooine and (if you buy the DLC) places like Bespin, the Death Star and Scarif (from Rogue One). While not all its modes were great, there were so many of them you were bound to find one you liked (my favourites where capture-the-flag-esque Cargo mode and Heroes vs. Villains, which pitted Luke, Leia and Han against Vader, The Emperor and Boba Fett, with more characters like Lando and Chewy being added via DLC). Having sunk a lot of hours into this game, it had to get a spot on this list, but its back-to-basics approach for the series limits it to 3rd place.

2. Bioshock 2 [PS3/PS4] Bioshock was one of the most consistent gaming trilogies. The settings (an unwater metropolis and a city in the sky), characters (including Andrew Ryan and Sofia Lamb, two of the best villains in gaming) and plasmids/vigors (which give you abilities to hurl fireballs, unleash swarms of bees or crows, freeze enemies in ice and hurl enemy missiles and grenades back at them, just to name a few). At its heart though, its a shooting game, just one with an unusual amount of depth (pun intended). Bioshock 2 may be the least innovative of the 3, but its still my favourite, mainly because of how fun the combat is (though its still a decent challenge on normal and hard). Dual-wielding guns and plasmids gives you a host of combat options (the guns include a rocket launcher, shotgun, speargun and heavy machinegun, with a mechanical drill for melee). All can be upgraded and have multiple ammo types, so most playstyles are viable.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 [PS3] I didn’t expect 4 of these 5 to be the 2nd game in a trilogy, but clearly that’s where gaming keeps hitting the sweet spot. Modern Warfare 2 takes everything that was good about Call of Duty 4 and makes it bigger. Adding touches like thermal scopes, airdrops, chopper gunners and nukes made the multiplayer insane at times, but the maps were brilliant and the challenges fun to pursue. It all introduced the Special Ops mode, which to be honest has never (yet) been bettered as a series of co-op COD challenges. The campaign is equally strong, and had some serious balls to simulate a realistic conflict between the United States and Russia. With a soundtrack by HANS FUCKING ZIMMER, this game had some serious atmosphere and kick-ass music which really ramped up the intensity of the gunfights. Sure, there were a few balancing issues and OP perks, but there’s very few multiplayer shooters where that isn’t the case. If the servers on PS3 weren’t hopelessly hacked, I’d still be playing it today.

Hope you enjoyed, feel free to comment your own lists below.

Joker Review

Spoiler-free review

Starring Joaquin Phoenix

Joker is unlike anything you’ll have seen in a long time. Calling it a superhero movie is wrong on a lot of levels. Comic-book movie is closer, but again, not accurate. Joker is a kind of in depth character study that’s more commonly found in thrillers and is as far from a blockbuster action epic as you can get. There’s no quipping, no CGI, no bland heroes, no forgettable villains and no weak cop-outs or last minute resets. After 10+ years of the MCU’s good but frustratingly formulaic schtick and frequent blunders by DC and Fox, Joker is fucking refreshing. Actions have consequences here, the characters are human and believable and the final act contains no world ending threat, lame showdown or stupid CGI vortex in the sky.

Long-story short: this feels like an apology for Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad is the worst Superhero film of the past decade and represents DC’s biggest misstep in its failed (and now rehashed) cinematic universe. Jared Leto’s Joker is still an embarrassment to fans of the character worldwide. There’s a lot of ways Joker can be portrayed, but Leto’s vision of a drug-lord in clown make-up isn’t one of them. No wonder he won’t be in Birds of Prey. By contrast, Phoenix’s Joker is up there with Ledger’s (The Dark Knight) and Hamill’s (Animated Series, Arkham Games) as the best of the bunch. Even the negative reviews of Joker (of which there are some, by woefully misguided reviewers who clearly lack the intelligence or attention span to appreciate it) give credit to Phoenix – he really commits to the character, and if he doesn’t get an Oscar for this, it will be a tragedy rather than a comedy.

Joker is set in the 1980’s, when Bruce Wayne was just a young kid and Thomas and Martha Wayne were still alive and kicking. The Wayne’s and Alfred are the only connections to the Batman universe – don’t expect cameos from Gordon or Harvey Dent or anything, this film remains utterly focused on its lead. Seeing Joker without Batman is a refreshing change and proves the character is compelling (and terrifying) enough to work on his own. Joker’s story ties into the Wayne family’s in ways that are both surprising and plausible here, and would make me very curious to see how a sequel with Batman would go. Not that Joker necessarily needs one. Phoenix nailed it, and his vision doesn’t need revisiting or tampering with unless the script and story is worthy of it.

The most striking thing about this film, which effectively is a origin story for Joker, is how unnervingly plausible it is. Arthur Fleck (Joker’s original name) initially comes across as a troubled, unhappy man who society has failed, who is stuck in a thankless job, with a non-existent social life and a dream he will likely never fulfil. You will feel some sympathy for him for at least the first hour of the film. Then, the film pulls the rug out from under you and shows just how deeply disturbed Fleck really is. He becomes increasingly violent, unpredictable and maniacal as the film goes on – in short, everything the Joker has always been – the second half will cull any sympathy you have for him, and don’t listen to some reviewers – it doesn’t glorify him in any way. His origin takes inspirational from some versions found in the comics, but its very much its own thing here. The problem with some Joker interpretations is that however compelling they are, the character never feels real. This one is terrifyingly possible, as is the broken, crumbling society that unwitting gives birth to him. This is as bleak as Gotham has ever looked onscreen, but its issues (wealth divides, corrupt elites, thuggish louts picking on the weak) feel relatable.

Looking at the other aspects of the film, it has very few, if any, flaws. The direction is superb throughout, and combined with the loud, abrasive, at times oppressive seeming soundtrack makes this tense and in places downright uncomfortable viewing – which is exactly how a film about the Joker should feel. The supporting cast are limited in screen time but all perform to a very high standard, particularly Robert de Niro as a talk show host who Arthur is a fan of. The movie can feel a bit slow in the first 40 minutes, but slow-burners have a habit of building to a satisfying (or in this case, disturbing) crescendo, and you will be on edge for the entire second-half of the film.

I’ve deliberately avoided discussing the plot or the exact journey that Arthur Fleck goes on to become the Joker – this is something you want to experience for yourself – not be told in advance. I can’t promise this will be your favourite version of Joker – for me Phoenix ties with Ledger and Hamill at the top of the pile – but its definitely one who will leave an impression. I also can’t promise you will like this film – but I can say that you should definitely watch it and find out for yourself – because there has never been a comic-book movie quite like this before!

Overall Joker is a dark, tense, compelling study of one of DC’s most iconic villains. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerhouse of a performance and a terrifyingly realistic version of Joker that does the character justice. Its not your standard comic-book movie – but that’s a good thing in my book.

It is however, a film only DC could make. Marvel doesn’t have the balls to do something like this, but DC has a record of taking big risks with its films – this time it has paid off.

I was going to give it 4.5/5, but just because I’m so impressed by the risks they took with this and how well Phoenix nails the character…

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Joker is the best movie DC have made in a long time.

Get your arse to a cinema and watch it!

Warning: you will be emotionally drained after. But its totally worth it.

Rugby World Cup Group Stage Predictions

I don’t usually comment on sport on my blog, mainly because I lack interest in Football and my personal favourites (Snooker and F1) aren’t popular enough to be worth the effort. However, with the Rugby World cup in full swing, I thought I’d have a crack at predicting how the tournament will pan out now that every side has played 2 matches each.

While I’m no expert pundit, I watch Six Nations religiously and have followed every World Cup since ’03, so this isn’t just blind stabs in the dark. That said…

Warning: Predictions may be wildly optimistic/inaccurate.

Here’s my predictions on the way the groups will play out…

Group A: (Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Samoa, Russia)

The only prediction I can make with any certainty with this group is that Russia will finish last with 0 wins (if they don’t I will be mocking Ireland/Scotland for the next 4 years – there’s no way either should win by less than 30 points minimum, even if Russia’s players have shown spirit so far). After being annihilated by Scotland, I think Samoa will finish fourth – they lack the pace and consistency to trouble Ireland and Japan’s spirit and home advantage should overcome them. The result of the group should come down to Japan vs. Scotland, which is very hard to call. I want Japan to win, I think they definitely can win, but Scotland will be desperate to avoid crashing out in the group stage and will be a major threat. This will either focus them or make them buckle under pressure… its a 50/50 call knowing the Scots. That said, it may all come down to bonus points – if Scotland fail to gain one against Russia, they will be utterly screwed.

Group Winner: Japan. Runner-up: Ireland. 3rd: Scotland. 4th: Samoa. 5th: Russia.

Group B: (New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Namibia, Canada)

Group B is a bit easier to predict. New Zealand will sweep Namibia aside and while Italy are capable of scoring against them, their defence isn’t good enough to beat them, so the All Blacks are pretty much guaranteed to win the group by a mile. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, I think Canada are equally likely to finish dead last. NZ and Italy both tore them apart, as will South Africa, and Namibia have to fancy their chances of beating them and scoring their first ever group stage win. The only question mark in this group is who finishes second – on paper it should be South Africa. But the Springboks are nervous about Italy, with good reason. Italy looked very convincing against Canada and have played better than they have in a long time in the tournament so far. Two bonus point victories have left them confident, and while an upset isn’t exactly likely, it definitely looks possible. If they start strong and the crowd get behind them, Italy might just do the impossible and knock the Springboks out in the group stage… its a long shot, but if there’s another shock result in the groups, I’d put money on it being this one.

Group Winner: New Zealand. Runner Up: Italy. 3rd: South Africa. 4th: Namibia. 5th: Canada.

Group C: (England, France, Argentina, United States, Tonga).

Another hard group to call. England haven’t played a strong side yet, and both France and Argentina have had unconvincing spells in both of their games. Tonga have beaten France before, and if France play like they did against the USA, it’s definitely possible. Likewise Argentina can’t slack off against the US – they look nowhere near as group as in 2015 and the USA will definitely think they have a shot at victory. The scores so far suggest Tonga should beat the US, but to be honest that game is a 50/50. The USA don’t look capable of maintaining their intensity over 80 minutes though, so I’ll back Tonga. On paper England should beat both France and Argentina comfortably on what we’ve seen so far. But expect both teams to raise their game against the side they most want to beat. Given the fact Argentina need to win to have any chance of exiting the group, that’s the match I am more worried about right now. But never rule France out.

Group Winner: England. Runner Up: France. 3rd: Argentina. 4th: Tonga. 5th: USA.

Group D: (Australia, Wales, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay)

This group should already be settled – despite Uruguay’s shock victory over Fiji and Wales’ narrow takedown of Australia, its played out largely as expected. Uruguay won’t trouble Australia or Wales and Georgia lack the quality to test the Australians, so those matches will all be pretty one sided. The only question is where Fiji come. For them to come last would be shameful, so I imagine they will give their all against Georgia and Wales. Wales are probably too strong for a repeat of Fiji’s shock victory in 2007, so it’s all down to Fiji vs. Georgia. My money would be on Georgia, who are desperate to prove themselves worthy of being added to the Six Nations (they aren’t, but that dream seems to be spurring them on and they did draw the second half of their match with Wales).

Group Winner: Wales. Runner-up: Australia. 3rd: Georgia. 4th: Uruguay. 5th: Fiji.

If these predictions are right, the Quarter-finals would look like this…

England vs. Australia

New Zealand vs. Ireland

Wales vs. France

Japan vs. Italy

These look like four great match ups – and yes, while there’s a good chance Scotland and South Africa will be there instead of Japan and Italy, for the sake of variety, I hope the two underdogs can meet each other in the Quarters. It would be great for the sport, and more importantly, something we’ve never seen before.

I’ll do another round of predictions at the actual QF stage – hopefully we still have some great matches before then!