Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum –– The Handmaid’s Tale: Series Review


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Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has finished airing in the UK –– and to near-unanimous acclaim. The 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel has bolstered the book back into public discourse, raised discussion about our own, unsettling, political climate and has already been commissioned for another season. It is, on the whole, an enjoyable show –– to the extent such content can be considered ‘enjoyable’ –– and one that I actively admired in its direction.

But what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so interesting is in many ways what distances it from the original text. And I am a huge fan of Atwood’s original vision. For years I’ve cried out for a credible adaption; for both its unyielding political pertinence and the rather lacklustre 1990 motion picture. But this is not a note-for-note adaptation, rather, one that makes tasteful decisions for the visual medium and its newer audience. In doing so, it hits notes that its thirty-something counterpart simply cannot, whilst opening up a whole world of creative, if not harrowing, possibilities.


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In short, the ten episode season follows the turmoils of Offred (Elizabeth Moss), a handmaiden living under the theocratic regime of Gilead: formerly the United States of America. Her role as handmaiden is purely reproductive; serving, literally, as a fertile surrogate for a ruling class family. This is justified under a thin mantra of religious scripture and need to repopulate, alongside a fiercely autocratic police state. It’s a dark and often unsettling experience to watch. Throughout the ten-or-so hours, we are given flashbacks to the rise of this society –– events that seem inherently more exciting than Offred’s plight –– alongside the politics, repression and rebellion it incites along the way. We are given hope, horror and a slow-burning sense of exposition. And it ends, rather abstractly, just like Atwood’s novel.

My intention here, naturally, is not regurgitate every plot-point –– I implore you all to read and watch it for yourselves –– but rather, to dissect when it shines and where it can go from here. No doubt, Atwood’s text is a remarkably timeless novel. Embedded in the AIDS epidemic of the mid-eighties, her vision of a militant patriarchy propped up by Old Testament scripture was one of tangible plausibility. Its nuanced gender politics: where women were valued on a primal capacity to bear children, whilst ‘Wives’, ‘Aunts’ and ‘Marthas’ held their own moral jurisdiction within the family home, invites feverous discussion. It is a world where sexual subservience and agency are literally acts of duty and rebellion. Offred’s Gilead –– her friends, resistance, torment and hope –– are as rich and vibrant as the red cloaks we associate with it.


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But in Hulu’s direction, come a number of changes. Primarily, these feel logical; to land heavier blows with an audience unfamiliar with this new world. Indeed, whilst its chronology remains unclear, Hulu places Offred (or, rather, ‘June’) in a modern, contemporary America. This is a millennial generation –– one of Tinder and Uber –– rather than an America lamenting the seventies. In fact, the nods to these apps, ‘promiscuous sex’ and ‘sluts’ are used explicitly to justify the regressive politics. Where Atwood drew inspiration from homophobic protest in the eighties –– with fundamentalists viewing AIDS as a form of sodomite punishment –– the fertility crisis in this tale is prefaced by a modern dilemma. One that blames environmental pollution, sexually transmitted infection and the demise of the family unit as inviting penitence. It leans on the apps, lifestyle choices and individual freedoms of today, to strike a discord with the world of tomorrow.

It also takes a number of less obvious turns from the text. There’s certainly a greater emphasis put on June’s husband –– both with Moria and the extended flashbacks –– that set-up a wider narrative beyond the initial text. It also blurs the racial connotations by incorporating a black actress as a handmaiden; instead of maintaining Gilead’s ardent white supremacy. This has sparked some debate, one I feel less qualified to indulge, but it certainly reflects that desire to modernise the ‘pre-Gilead’ world for heightened feasibility. Alongside emphasising the calculated nature of the regime: one that, ironically, does not discriminate –– and is even happy to maim its subjects –– so long as they remain fertile.

And Gilead feels terribly plausible as a result of all this. There is, undoubtedly, a relationship with recent political movements and the chilling reality of The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s not to say Autocratic Christianity is on the rise, but that the steps that accommodate authoritarianism feel increasingly digestible. It’s a crucial part of Atwood’s vision. The ‘silent majority’ that allowed ‘Gender traitors’ to be incarcerated; that allowed for a militant patriarchy to arise for the ‘greater good’. What we see as moral bankruptcy, they see as justified. Atwood, and indeed Hulu, carve a sense of rationale and routine in Offred’s world, that punctuates the drama on screen.


‘All remaining fertile women should be collected and impregnated. By those of superior status, of course.’

‘You’re talking about concubines.’

‘I don’t care what you want to call it.’

‘There is Scriptural precedent.’

‘”Act” may not be the best name from a branding perspective.’ ‘The “Ceremony”?’


There is resistance, of course, in the formative days of the regime. But then comes acquiescence. The lost hope and the mundane sense of duty. Not another stoning… I hate stonings’. And it is precisely that acceptance, that feeling of letting it happen, that makes The Handmaid’s Tale all the more frightening.

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The adaptation excels on a technical level, too. Its has a bold and engaging visual style. The costume design is especial notable: with a visual dissonance between the different ‘ranks’ that feels far removed from a once cosmopolitan America. It also pays on the most visceral elements of the text. The executions, the protests, the interrogations and, unsurprisingly, the sex. This may feel a little crass, but it carefully extrapolates the most engaging moments for the screen, with scenes of riots and rallies offering the most immediate visual spectacle. There is also a grandiose quality –– almost Riefenstahlite in its imagery of fascism –– which certainly touches a nerve. The flashback sequences also provide a welcome change of tempo, as the Gilead regime is naturally more stable. This back-and-forth not only crafts a slower, more intriguing story-telling, but one that places frantic, dashes-across-the-border alongside droll walks to the supermarket.

That said, there are some shortcomings here. The day-in-day-out of Offred’s ordeal (and subsequent rebellion) ties into a normalised sense of routine. It’s a cornerstone of Atwood’s text –– the ritualised nature of ‘the ceremony’ especially –– but at times this feels at odds with the direction of the show. These moments of great visual spectacle and action appear a little conflicted. It forms something of a ‘mid-season bloat’, where the show feels torn between a loyalty to follow the cues of the book and doing something different. It’s not an overbearing problem –– it certainly doesn’t detract from the overall experience –– but it is worth highlighting. The pacing can feel a little jarring, if not frustrating, at various junctions.


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Returning to my opening point, though, the deviations from the text remain where the show is strongest. The moments where it really indulges, graphically, in the horrors of Gilead. In the ways a text simply cannot. To some extent, this is why I am so excited about the prospect of a second season. Margaret Atwood knowingly admits she does not know the future of Offred: her fate now lies, precariously, in the hands of the Hulu’s show-runners. But in a similar fashion to The Man In The High Castle –– curiously, another dystopian novel with an oddly metaphysical ending –– there is a world beyond the book. In fact, I argue that Amazon’s fantastic adaptation is actually stronger than Philip K. Dick’s original vision. He, similarly, built a vibrant dystopian future, but one that was far more interesting than the story that actually drove it. Amazon’s choice to extrapolate the more visual facets; to allow us to explore, smell and taste this world, is a creative masterstroke. And I hope Hulu takes notes from this approach. Given the creative talent on board, there is huge potential for to explore Gilead –– the resistance, the reparations and Offred’s family beyond the border –– all through the lens of this stylish and enthralling production.


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On the whole, The Handmaid’s Tale is an intense, sometimes unwatchable, journey through an unsettling future. It is a tremendous production with a meticulous attention to detail, even if at times, it feels caught up in those details and the groundwork Margaret Attwood laid. No doubt, her text takes on new life in this programme –– and it still feels honoured and respected despite careful changes. And to what end? Beneath the shock, awe and fancy camera-work, lies a tale of solidarity; of feminism, of rebellion and compassion. Of quiet submission and rebellion. The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant now as it was decades ago. And that’s not necessarily a positive statement.

But its future –– and ours –– is still unwritten. Where The Handmaid’s Tale goes next is entirely uncertain and open to debate. Yet this ambiguity births what I consider a new freedom; for new ventures, new platforms and essentially a more liberated vessel of storytelling. Which is precisely why I have hope for such a miserable world.

Praise Be.


Collecting Time: A Quantum Break Review


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Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break is a peculiar title. A game that, roughly twenty minutes in, had me audibly laughing at what it proposed. A multi-media, live-action hybrid –– starring Littlefinger from Game of Thrones –– and with a script seemingly riddled with pseudo–scientific cliche. It felt preposterous, indulgent and woefully overproduced. But what transpired was a title that, in time, won my attention. One that I actually grew to enjoy; even mull over its meandering narrative whilst away from my console. A game that, for all its shortcomings, left me suitably intrigued all the way through to its closing credits.

Quantum Break is a far from perfect game. But it is an ambitious, cross-media form of entertainment. It merges AAA-budget gameplay with live action sequences that feature the actors and characters we encounter along the way. Its story, gravitates around a flawed by engaging time-travelling thriller, one that actively rewards your engagement with it. In fact, through its campaign the player is given a number of ‘choose your path’ options, which changes both the direction of the game and the episodes we watch in tandem. It’s an altogether noble premise –– one that feels worthy of your time –– if not entirely for concept over execution.


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Of course, its premise isn’t entirely new. A relatively forgettable protagonist (Jack Joyce) is drawn into a time-travelling conspiracy, no thanks to his genius brother’s machine that –– shock, horror –– disrupts the space time continuum. It borrows philosophy from many of this genre: playing on whether time is fixed or if we can carve our own fate. But it does offer a heightened sense of interactivity and replay-ablity, by providing different paths and supplementary material.

For example, the evolving narrative plays on the idea of time ‘fracturing’, with disruptions becoming more pertinent as we try to reverse the effects of the machine. These fractures affect the gameplay quite tangibly –– literally causing time to freeze and fluctuate –– which reflects a genuine mediation of the different mediums at play. Moreover, navigating the ever-changing timeline(s) encourages a closer reading of its story: something that is satisfied through the live action shorts and [frankly colossal] amount of material presented through in-game collectables. Quantum Break, in many ways, leans on more traditional methods of storytelling when appropriate. Sometimes it uses filmed media, sometime it tells short-stories through diary entries or office emails. This doesn’t always work –– which I address in due course –– but it all serves to enrich the surrounding world. And it certainly demonstrates what can be achieved by taking this broader approach.


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In fact, there are moments of true ingenuity. As the player develops a clearer understanding of what is at stake –– largely through said collectibles –– character motivations become inherently more conflicted. The main antagonist, Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen) –– who I consider the strongest asset in the game –– has his justification for opposing Joyce. His empire and ‘Noah’s Ark for the elite’ seems increasingly more logical when read from his side. This actually amalgamated to the point where I began questioning my role as the protagonist and whether or not I was indeed the villain. Yet this development is best conveyed through his laptop and diary entries, rather than the somewhat ropey dialogue during their animated cinematics. Which suggests that this cross-media approach can compliment, even rectify, the main vessel of storytelling throughout the game.

There are some shortcomings to this ambition, though. Whilst Serene and Joyce carve a decent binary, the supporting figures –– namely Charlie Wincott and Fiona Miller –– feel a little half-baked. At times, they seem added almost entirely to satisfy the need for live action segments, with only Liam Burke and Beth Wilder significantly confronting Joyce in-game. Putting faces to emails does’t feel entirely warranted, nor are their on-screen escapades particularly interesting, either. And the story more-often-than-not relies on McGuffins to justify its linearity. With that said, Wilder’s arc eventually reaps some well punctuated heartfelt moments and Martin Hatch adds a compelling third-wheel; one that welcomes a second play-through. Especially given the convoluted ending.


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As for the gameplay itself? Quantum Break sits somewhere rather awkwardly. It boasts a generic but perfectly serviceable run-and-gun mechanic –– with Timesplitters style ‘super-powers’ to combat harder foes. It’s fun and for the most part well paced; with platforming segments really utilising the breadth of these time effects. But it seems on the whole at odds with the easter-egg hunt for exposition that defines the bulk of its storytelling. Large shoot-outs are often offset by frantic email-reading and collectable scouring. This can become jarring and is only heightened by the fact players have to watch up to thirty minute episodes before each chapter, cueing an inevitable desire to jump straight into the action to little-to-no avail. Frankly, it’s for this reason I feel Quantum Break never manages to capitalise on its true potential. Its live action sequences are not written well enough to stand up as television and its gameplay isn’t engaging enough to make for a solid action title, either. It has moments where the two mediums compliment each other effectively –– at times wonderfully –– but it generally spreads itself a little thin. Which is a shame, because when the platforming/action/story-telling work in harmony, it’s damn good fun. And the long, unwinding plot certainly accommodates it.

Its production values, conversely, deserve almost unanimous praise. The live action sequences have a glossy, ‘4K’ tinge to its digital photography, with a sterility that matches the animated characters rather well. The game, too, runs and looks fantastic. The set-pieces are bold and there are moments –– especially when avoiding collapsing environments –– that feel genuinely exhilarating. If its aim was to blur the lines between filmed and computerised entertainment, then it does a fine job of striking that conjecture. It is an immersive ordeal, one that is improved exponentially by how willing the player is to buy into it. No doubt, Quantum Break boasts a confidence in its every step it takes: something that is mirrored in every expensive camera angle, in-game collectable or blockbuster level design. Even if that confidence is a little misplaced.


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On reflection, I think my immediate hostility towards Quantum Break lies in misunderstanding. It is a grossly overblown thriller, with outrageous production values and its fair share of cliche. For many, it is hard to look past that. Yet all the same it’s a narrative and text-heavy adventure. One that is far more sensitive and slow-burning than its car chases and shoot-outs would have you believe. And if you’re willing to get on board with it’s frivolity –– by reading the in-game collectables, levelling-up your powers and weighing up the pathway options –– it offers something of a rewarding narrativised journey. My initial play-through became notably more enjoyable as I dug deeper into this muddled world. It’s also a considerably lengthy game by modern standards. No doubt this is buffed out by the live action segments, but it’s certainly in the double figures, which is surprising given its linearity. This is not a free-roaming RPG –– at times it’s little more than glorified quick time event –– yet it still maintains a longevity in its story telling. Which is a noble feat.


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Above else, though, Quantum Break is a charming, daring but equally frustrating experience. It remains a deeply pretentious and self-assured ‘creative project’. And in terms of gameplay, it brings little new to the proverbial table. But it’s still a title that won me over. A game that had me engrossed; despite my initial skepticism. A game that feels like a conceptional masterstroke, even if its struggles to balance the tempo of its combat, live action and seemingly endless endeavour to collecting things. In many ways, it feels let down by the very ambition that makes it an interesting game. It’s glaring faults come as a result of its dizzying heights. But it is, if anything, a title that encourages an active engagement with its storytelling, whilst trying to discover new ways to do precisely that.

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Quantum Break is Microsoft’s glossiest IP. Whether or not it achieved its divine goals of cementing the Xbox One as a gaming machine has yet to be seen. It certainly divided opinion upon launch in 2016 –– and it’s perfectly clear why it did just that. But in an era where single-player games invariably play it safe: the blind ambition of what is attempted here earns its dues, regardless if it falls short of its full potential. Quantum Break is, in my opinion, worth your time –– even if that time, or indeed your concept of time –– will be thrown through a blender of Whovian nonsense by the end of it.


Twilight of the Innocents: 10 Years Later


Today marks ten years since the release of Ash’s fifth studio record, Twilight of the Innocents. An album that signified the band’s return to being a three-peice –– touting a new, matured sound –– as well as their final contracted release with Infectious Records. It also stood a full decade after their widely-acclaimed debut, 1977.

I’ve always held a strangely specific – ‘product of my time’ – nostalgia for this record. One wrapped up in mid-noughties social media, message boards and the start of secondary education. I was 12 years old in 2007. And it’s taken me a considerable amount of time to view this record objectively. But given this anniversary of sorts: it seems all together appropriate to indulgence in precisely that nostalgia; to reflect on the time that has passed and how this album holds up today.


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For the sake of context, Ash were my favourite band as a pre-teen. Although my first concert was the [once-entertaining] Kaiser Chiefs in 2006, it was upon hearing Meltdown –– an extension of the excellent Republic Commando Xbox game –– that offered an entry-point to Ash. Their mix of pop-rock hooks and searing guitar riffs was inexplicably brilliant to where I was in my life. In fact, it was precisely this sound that inspired me to pick up a guitar. Following my first festival, Glastonbury 2007, I concluded that I wanted to learn the instrument: if not entirely to be Tim Wheeler.

This eventually lead to Twilight of the Innocents being the first Ash record I bought upon release. I scraped together my pocket money to buy the Deluxe CD in July 2007 from my local HMV. I recall constantly watching the music video to ‘You Can’t Have It All’ on my 1st Generation iPod video in anticipation. I even joined the Ash message board soon after. Hell, I literately made friends as a result of this.

The point being: I invariably associate this record with that summer. Of starting secondary school, of starting to find new music, friends and fancying girls way out of my league. Of trying to learn Wheeler riffs on a broken Squire Strat and so forth. I was also entirely aware that I was the wrong generation to be an Ash fan. But I see it –– more so now –– as a credit to their longevity that a relatively late release can be so tied to one’s adolescence and growing up. In many ways, this was ‘my 1977‘, albeit a decade too late.


 


Listening back, Twilight of the Innocents feels something of an undersold release. It shifts away from the bombastic, ‘American’ sounding Meltdown (2004) –– with the song-writing adopting a moodier, more introspective tone. It also seems far removed from the chart-topping hits of Free All Angels (2001). But the attention is garnered at the time, at least in my opinion, overlooked its subtlety. No doubt it sat rather awkwardly against the likes of The Fratellis, Arctic Monkeys and the new-wave indie at the time. Its production – which admittedly hasn’t aged as well as Meltdown – is more post-punk, ambient and orchestral. But the writing is incredibly consistent. In fact, I’d argue that Twilight of the Innocents contains some of the most ambitious arrangements the band have ever released. The string sections in ‘Polaris’ and title track; the sweeping floor-toms of ‘Shattered Glass’; the middle-8 in ‘Blacklisted’. It feels like a band surprisingly energised on their fifth release.

Indeed, the whole album maintains a melancholic yet melodic feel that really locks together. It’s full of the hooks Ash are famous for, but with a matured, almost ‘cinematic’ quality to its arrangements. The guitar playing, especially, is worthy of note. ‘Shattered Glass’, ‘Ritual’ and ‘Princess Six’ contain some of Wheeler’s most tasteful solos. All mixed with a rich, spacial quality. Equally, the rhythm section is impeccably tight. Rick McMurray’s drum fills are huge: with a variety and complexity that really adds depth to each track. There also seems to be an abundance of newfound creativity: with even its b-sides (specifically ‘Saskia’ and ‘Seventh Circle’) ranking amongst my favourite Ash tracks ever.


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If anything, Twilight of the Innocents represents the band a decade on from 1977; still wanting to grow and move forward. I’ve always admired this quality to the group, even if the radio stations and record label had little time for it. But I guess this is equally where the album falls short. For every magnificent guitar solo or moving B-side, there’s no Burn Baby Burn or immedate hits. Twilight of the Innocents is not career defining like 1977 or Free All Angels, nor does it reach out to anyone new, either. But rather, it offers something a snapshot of a band in transit: doing things on their terms and on their own back.

Of course, the likes of ‘You Can’t Have It All’ and ‘I Started A Fire’ are perfectly accessible pop-rock songs –– songs I wish received better attention at the time. But it’s through the deeper cuts where the record shines brightest. Tracks that certainly wouldn’t have made great singles nor topped the charts. Songs like ‘Shattered Glass’ and the title song are especially ambitious productions –– almost ‘prog-pop’ –– that have in many ways stood the test of time as fan favourites. Even if they come from a band, or indeed an album, that can be easily dismissed as well past its sell-by-date.

On reflection, I now see this debacle as something inherently positive. It’s precisely in it’s reluctance to buck the trend –– to avoid the 3-and-a-half-minute pop tunes – that make Twilight of the Innocents such an interesting album. It’s at its best when most ambitious; as a band breathing freer, taking greater risks and perhaps not scoring every goal. But it is a record that serves a purpose –– one that exists well beyond my nostalgia for 2007 –– and deserves greater attention as a result.



Above else, I have a lot of love for Twilight of the Innocents. It’s the more misunderstood member of the Ash discography. It might not be the trendiest or most critically acclaimed release from the band –– and it’s not even my favourite record of theirs –– but it’s an album that preluded the A-Z Series, arguably their most ambitious era, and gave the band space to recalibrate. It also had a profound effect on my relationship with music, of which I will always struggle to separate from the album at hand. But for all its riffs, hooks and orchestral moments –– and even the sugarier tunes like ‘Shadows’ –– it’s a  record that enchants in a very peculiar way. An album that, despite being a later release from a seasoned artist, means the world to someone born in 1995. And for that I’m eternally grateful.

Oh, and if you’re reading lads: I’d kill for an anniversary tour.


 

Aiming High: DOOM, Titanfall 2 and the FPS campaign


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There’s little doubt that the First-Person Shooter genre has faltered in recent years. From overblown set-pieces, undercooked narratives to excessive downloadable content: the number of inventive and thought-provoking shooters — at least on a AAA budget — seem far and few between.

Many point to annualised releases for blame; blockbuster franchises have stifled ambition by enforcing a factory-line production. It second-guesses what fans want and creates a race to the bottom between developers, itching to outdo each other on Micheal Bay theatrics. Even as a once committed Halo player, the most recent iteration of 343’s sacred-icon felt like a confused cocktail of other shooters. The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.

To my surprise, however, two of the most bombastic and outrageous shooters of 2016 proved to mediate many of my issues. Titles with such creative and crafted single-player campaigns that I genuine stopped to realise how much fun I was having. Yet titles, all the same, that wear all the hallmarks of being symptomatic of the idiotic spectacle that constitutes for modern shooters. Alongside our insatiable desire to reboot existing IPs.


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DOOM (2016) and Titanfall 2 (2016) offer something new in their single-player packages by being entire self-aware of their context. This extends beyond tonality and into their very construction and level design. These are games that opt for that trendy fast, high-octane action over anything entirely meaningful. But they do so with such care that this actually becomes something worthwhile in itself. They’re composed with a sort of musical orchestration: prefacing fast combat sections with eerie build-ups, breakdowns and crescendos. They offset all-out carnage with exploration and platforming segments to capitalise upon their penchant for agile movement. And whilst political and philosophical referent is sidelined for this action: they ascertain a coherent enough story to engage the player throughout the performance.


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What makes DOOM so enjoyable is its flagrant non-conformity. It takes the dynamics of its twenty-something predecessor and repackages it to sit alongside modern-shooters. That fluid, outlandish jaunt of double-jumping, demon-slaying and nigh-on infinite waves of ammunition wears a fresh coat of paint. But it’s much more than a simple re-skin. Whilst I’ve written extensively about my love for realism and the ‘Ranger Difficulty’ Metro titles — where one is frequently down to the final bullet and forced to run — there is something deeply cathartic about this style of gameplay. In DOOM, the player is actively penalised for playing tactically, taking cover and being at all conservative. Our fabled space marine wields a seemingly self-loading shotgun and acquires mythical power-ups along the way. One is therefore forced to entertain the theatrics DOOM encourages, on its openly ridiculous terms, and reap the benefits accordingly,

In fact, the strength of DOOM is not so much its lineage and nostalgia, but rather that these elements are mutually aligned. Design and dynamics work in tandem. We move from industrial research labs to satanic rituals almost seamlessly. The level construction rewards this exploration and style of open combat, but remains linear enough to avoid getting lost. Combat situations have limitless solutions, so ammunition and weapons are aplenty to facilitate that. It also juggles its larger set-pieces with claustrophobic and juxtaposed combat to keep the player on edge. Where one is more startled by a handful of imps jumping from a dark corridor, than the hordes of Hell we have to face head-on.

It’s also accompanied by one of the strongest soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years. Mick Gordon’s aggressive score blends Periphery style guitar parts with Nine Inch Nails synths and percussion. It’s a subtle throwback to the scores of yesteryear: namely Duke Nuke 3D and Trent Reznor’s infamous Quake soundtrack. But it really ties into the game’s sense of moment and pacing: adding a tout and foreboding facet to every environment we visit, whilst allowing for clear signifiers between chaotic and calming moments.


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A similar line of thought enchants Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2. Whilst it takes a seemingly more realistic stance — realistic in that includes talking, flying robots but does not extend to storming the bloody gates of Hell — it retains that marriage of design and pacing. In fact, it’s raison d’être is literally a distinction of tempo: in its ‘pilot’ and ‘titan’ play-styles. Whilst the former can mount walls and scale buildings in a traditional FPS format, the latter is rather a slow but heavily-armed AI mech. My preconception here was that this would make for an opaque, ‘one of the other’ gameplay — but it proved to shift between the two inventively.

These ‘pilot’ segments require platforming and fast combat. Shootouts are often backdropped with moving environments, conveyer belts and so forth, whilst the ‘titan’ moments offer larger and more intense encounters. Yet it’s the moments in-between, where the player is separated from their titan for a brief interlude — only to return for the boss battle — that it really comes into fruition. These moments demonstrate precisely that musical quality that DOOM attains though its side-rooms and exploration. That the game is not merely stitching together key battles but rather building a coherent body; a world and narrative, that allows the player to enjoy all it has to offer.

Titanfall 2 also flirts with time-travel with a unique creativity. In one level, the player has to navigate a destroyed building by seamlessly switching between different time periods. The requires carefully bouncing between combat and platforming, as the ‘past’ iteration of the building is full of armed militia. This leads to some wonderful moments of carefully timing impossible jumps and avoiding gun shots. And more strikingly, this feature is never exhausted to the point of boredom. The game moves swiftly onto the next problem, environment and encounter: maintaining pace and intrigue along the way.


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In terms of basic story-telling, both games follow similar themes of rampant corporatism and shooting before asking questions. DOOM flirts with the bizarre prospect of mining Hell for renewable energy, meanwhile Titanfall 2 opts for a more classic ‘freedom fighting’ affair. Whilst neither story is particularly noteworthy, they are palatable given they actively facilitate the gameplay on offer. In other words, they accommodate the action and set-peices, whilst maintaining an intelligible sense of what the stakes are and who we should care about. (The latter point is often oh-so overlooked) And to its credit, Titanfall 2 carves a particularly warming relationship between the pilot and his AI titan by the end. It’s loaded with ‘your-humour-does-not-compute’ gags, but it’s a welcome handrail for the unfolding adventure.


On balance,  Titanfall 2 and DOOM flaunt a frivolous and light-hearted tone that is easy to scoff at. They appear to be quintessential products of our time; boasting style over substance. I have purposely avoided discussing some of these factors: multiplayer, graphics and technical elements and so forth, because, whilst stunning, we should expect nothing less from these departments. Yet upon further inspection, both titles posses an attention to detail that does feel overdue and thoughtful. They are, above else, well composed forms of escapism.

They also ignite some sense of optimism for the future of first-person shooter campaigns. Given Titanfall 2‘s predecessor was an entirely online affair; this single-player campaign was added almost entirely in response to prior criticism. DOOM, on the contrary, was a title that no-one particularly asked for, nor expected to fare so well.  Yet we have titles  here that seem to quell a great deal of the angst gamers have towards this genre. They offer something fresh without faring too far from the beaten track. They have confidence and heart, without relying upon expansion packs or shameless re-skins. And even as explicit products of franchising: they stand (or wall-run) on their two feet, all the same.

DOOM and Titanfall 2 provide intense and rewarding single-player campaigns that never allow combat or gameplay to stagnate. There is a technicality and ‘method to their madness’ that holds true. And whilst neither title is particularly intellectually stimulating or life-changing, they offer quite literally the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in a very long time. And there is absolutely nothing wrong or crass about achieving that.


Lost in a Forest: Firewatch Review


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Camp Santo’s Firewatch was released last year to relatively high acclaim. It garnered a strong following for an indie release and it won two BAFTA  Games Awards last week. And it’s a relatively simple premise. One that I am admittedly late to — but one that I am still compelled to share my thoughts about.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure, gravitating around a fire-lookout working in a Shoshone National Park. Prefaced by a troubled family life — the everyman ‘Henry’ moves to escape his past — only to find things are not as they seem.

Throughout the game, the player interacts with the forest in the classic point-and-click format and reports his findings to his faceless supervisor, Delilah, via a ham-radio. But as paranoia blossoms, the player invariably finds themselves caught amongst something of a conspiracy. Suddenly, perusing this lush and inviting environment becomes increasingly tense and puzzling. And with only Delilah on the radio for company, the player is bound to isolation.


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The game itself opens with a interactive text segment — allowing the player choose minor details to their backstory. Whilst this is not representative of the main drift, the gameplay is defined by its simplicity. It has more akin with those forms of text puzzles, that add weight and consequence to decisions, rather than anything technologically complex. In fact, the gameplay itself borrows a lot from other titles. It has the context-less meandering of Myst — where the player interacts with items and tries to make sense of their surroundings off the back of this. Players can unlock supply caches and stumble upon the remnants of previous Rangers. These photographs, notes and memos add more tangibility to the world than anything particularly rewarding. They are not used, for example, in the Far Cry or Tomb Raider sense to unlock greater prizes, but rather they offer humorous, non-essential supplements.

But as the story unravelles, this method works increasingly well. The heart of Firewatch is precisely this nonchalant attitude. That it defies certain conventions because it’s striving for something a little more human. Threats are introduced with a confused back-and-forth with Delilah rather than a dramatic cinematic. Supply caches are locked under the same ‘1-2-3-4’ code because, naturally, look-outs always forget the sequence. There are even items — namely books — that have absolutely no hidden meaning or relevance to the game. They add a normality to proceedings that is strangely refreshing. All those years of Broken Sword had me looking for secret keys in pinecones that were literally just part of the foliage. Whether or not this is fun, is a little more contentious. But the dialogue exchanges with Delilah typifies this well. It’s certainly the game’s strength: adding a wonderful humorous facet that offsets the lonelier or more tedious objectives. Backtracking across the forest is more palatable with her small talk and quirky jabs. And as the game gets increasingly darker; as does our relationship with Delilah. Making our trust part of the emerging struggle.


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Of course, for such a narrative heavy title, there is some overarching expectation regarding its pay off. With a well paced but short running time, the extent Firewatch makes for a satisfying ride its a little less clear. Indeed, the game opens with some rather heavy, personal topics — but it does little to tie up the loose ends of both Henry and what he finds in the forest. And there is a fair but of misleading throughout the middle that some may find underwhelming. But on reflection, Firewatch isn’t really about the conspiracy within the National Park. It’s not really about Henry or Delilah’s past, either. It’s about their cynicism. How this experience and bonding changes their outlook on life. To some extent, it’s also about how the player can learn from that. Even the central mystery of the game — the nerdy Brian Goodwin and his militaristic father — injects some sweet overtones about personality, youth and what constitutes for good character. I actually found the experience immensely bitter-sweet. The photographs during the end credits were especially striking; blending  player expression with linearity. (No spoilers!)

All the same, Firewatch is wrapped up in a charming art-style that really lends to its premise. It marries this character driven adventure with a simplistic, oversaturated design. Although I found an underwhelming graphical performance on the Xbox One — as always — with considerable frame-rate lag when sprinting — it served its purpose perfectly. This design brings a timeless to this adventure along with some rather memorable views, too. Its soundtrack is equally as understated –– with bass guitar segments driving tension over soothing piano chords. It solidifies both the thematic tones of this ‘tranquil paranoia’ along with its modest production values.


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Ultimately, Firewatch is a touching experience. It’s a game about people and how people can be. Good, bad and that murky middle ground. It plays on memory, love and loss but it’s surprisingly funny, too. And for a title that I had no real expectation for –– it captivated me immeasurably.  It stayed on my mind in between play sessions and I expect it will continue to do so, for time to come.


John Carpenter at London Troxy [1st November]: Live Review


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John Carpenter is my favourite director. His diverse, charming and down-right bizarre pictures captivated me from an early age. They directly shaped my appreciation for cinema and despite my efforts to avoid fetishising individual film-makers: he is one of few auteurs who resonates with me so consistently. From sci-fi masterpiece The Thing (1982) to more abstract political commentary They Live (1988); his depth and character has had a long term affect on both myself and the movie industry.

No doubt, a large proponent of this comes from his soundtracks. His analogue synth-lines define his punk — somewhat authoritarian — approach to film-making. The opening score to Escape From New York (1981) sets a palpable tone that only Carpenter could craft. His Halloween theme is frequently cited alongside Bernard Herrmann’s Physco; cementing his work amongst the musical greats. More recently, his Lost Themes — two full-length instrumental records released in 2015 and 2016 — have pushed his musical credentials further. These ‘picture-less soundtracks’, co-written with his son and god-son, saw his distinctive style blossom to great avail.

The prospect of seeing John Carpenter live, therefore, is something inherently close to my heart. But following the success of his instrumental records — and undeniable cult status — Carpenter formed a touring band and took his scores on the road. For the first time ever. I was fortunate enough to catch the final UK date at London’s Troxy, the follow-up to his sold out ‘Release the Bats’ Halloween show, the night before.



What made ‘Release the Bats’ so extraordinary is that Carpenter could have merely played his scores to satisfy the fans. Offering the bare minimum here would have been suffice given the circumstances. I’ll be the first to admit that seeing him in the flesh immediately justified the entry price. But he actually offered something greater. A carefully curated retrospective of his career, which demonstrated real foresight and attention to detail.

In short, the live band burned through a number of Carpenter’s memorable tracks, with extracts from Lost Themes thrown in the midst. Sequences from each film were projected behind him — with a genuine understanding of their content. Footage was carefully spliced to match the respective tempo and duration of each song. Whole two hour pictures were condensed and summarised into their finer moments. From Lo Pan’s henchmen in Big Trouble In Little China (1986) to Christine’s headlights (1983)  — it worked exceedingly well. The production designer, who one presumes to be Shaun Kendrick, can only be praised for this. It made the whole event more intuitive and the lighting only served to compliment this. The live theatrics offered the same: albeit the smoke-laden stage for The Fog (1980) or the band’s sunglasses during They Live. Carpenter’s comments about ‘ghost stories’ and ‘driving home safely’ also brought a heartiness to it all. It was a genuine celebration of his career and artistry. Even despite its relative  swiftness — roughly a 75 minute set — it still felt extensive and well orchestrated.


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The quality of the performance also deserves some attention. Carpenter fronted the group with unquestionable aura — yet with dad-dancing that reflected his light-hearted humility. Cody Carpenter played keys; complimenting his father’s playing and providing a tremendously wide spectrum of sound. This was abetted by two guitars, bass and a full drum-kit, too. Despite Carpenter’s penchant for electronic music, his live show translate an authentic, traditional rock feel. Lead Guitarist Daniel Davies — son of Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies — was the undeniable highlight here. His sheer precision and tonality left me a little lost for words. As a disclaimer, I am very rarely impressed by live mixes — but Davies genuinely conjured some of the greatest guitar tones I’ve heard in a live environment. And I’ve been lusting for a Gibson ES-335 and a Vox AC30HW ever since. To their credit, the whole group sounded incredibly tight and rehearsed. The mix was rich and tout whilst boasting all the nuance that Carpenter’s compositions are famous for. The Troxy accommodated the sound perfectly, with great acoustics and visibility throughout. And its various posters added an extra touch.

Above else, ‘Release The Bats’ was an experience in every sense of the word. John Carpenter is one of few artists I offer a ‘blank cheque’ should they consider touring the UK. But the set-list was glorious and satisfying. To witness such an event — with fantastic sound, musicianship and visual accompaniment to boot — made it entirely worthwhile. There’s an idiom somewhere about not meeting your heroes. But Carpenter and his band delivered on everything and more. And I only hope that they continue to tour again.


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Masks, mutants and ‘the book is always better’: A Metro Review


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Last summer I read Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033. Despite briefly playing the opening of 4A Games’ 2010 adaption some years prior to that, I recall little more than a survival shooter with some rather dramatic lighting. So the novel, invariably, stuck with me. An ambitious blend of horror, action, science fiction and political commentary in a lengthy — albeit poorly translated — literary package. I enjoyed its world building and conceptual premise. The idea of a post-apocalyptic world set within the Moscow Metro (or tube lines for us Brits); with respective stations operating under different regimes felt rich and well conceived. The rival factions, bandits, fascists and communists hypothesised how humanity would order itself when all is lost. It even touched upon how religion would explain and justify the end of the world to those who grew up beneath it. All whilst the protagonist, the confused and cynical Artyom, acted as an envoy for a reader trying to make sense of it all.

But Glukhovsky’s text had many shortcomings. It juggled the task of establishing this world whilst providing a coherent narrative arc. Artyom’s role seemed too eager to satisfy this: with his journey to Polis quickly detouring to other stations; to the surface and became increasingly like a tour-guide of the metro rather than anything particularly feasible. Although this world was fascinating — and I was eager to explore it — it became a little muddled and unrefined in its presentation.


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I have, however, recently completed Metro Redux on Xbox One. The award winning remasters of the original video game adaption and its 2013 sequel, Last Light. I played these on Ranger Difficulty and did so with only the knowledge of the original novel in mind. The experience I found was little short of breathtaking. A cinematic and immersive journey that was gruelling and rewarding in equal measure. It merged thoughtful gameplay with precisely that captivating world Glukhovsky built. It was also inexplicably terrifying at times. In fact, these titles struck me in a way that I did not expect. They not only excavated the better qualities of the source material but crafted something inherently better in the process. It is a living, breathing iteration of that very world. And it holds two cigarette-charred fingers up to ‘the book is always better’ mentality.


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Victory at Sea: Festival Review 


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This August Bank Holiday I attended Victorious Festival in Southsea, Portsmouth. Boasting a heavyweight line-up at a remarkably modest price; I enjoyed a belated birthday weekend of Britpop and beer. But I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite a variety of festivals under my belt — from the juggernauts of Glastonbury and Reading to much smaller, cheaper affairs — this was my first year at the seaside. And with a number of my favourite artists on the bill, coupled with the promise of a shower and a clean bed every night, I entered with an open mind.

What I found was rather exciting. Victorious offers something of a mediation. A sweet-spot between the larger festivals that I’ve become increasingly jaded with something far more accessible — if not inherently more enjoyable. Big names, a cheap ticket and an interesting site to boot? It seems almost too good to be true.


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Rogue One: Trailer Analysis


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2016 has become a bleak year. It’s a world without Bowie or Prince, and a world where Donald Trump may well be elected president of the United States. It’s also a year where in mass media, the heartache of lost legends has been punctuated with a number of disappointing — but hotly anticipated — releases. Big-budget marketing campaigns and fan anticipation have grown to almost farcical proportions. In the last month alone we’ve seen the not-what-we-promised universe of No Man’s Sky and the Leto-less Avengers-lite, Suicide Squad, divide public opinion.

This makes Gareth Edward’s foray into the Star Wars universe, set for a December release, a difficult prospect. Catalysed by the weight of one of pop-culture’s most beloved franchises and a number of forced re-shoots; the extent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be a success remains naturally unclear. Yet despite its turbulent production — with rumours spanning from an ‘un-Disney like’ first-draft to additional continuity tweaks — Edwards’ vision for ‘WWII in Space’ seems to live on within the material we’ve seen. The initial teaser, released last year, introduced Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Mon Mothma’s Rebel Alliance tasked with securing the fabled Death Star Plans. It alluded to a more traditional — if not inherently better — style of filmmaking, with models and replicas in lieu of ‘dense’ CGI. This approach was cemented by a short ‘Celebration Reel’, which gifted a number of production clips displaying extras to intricate set-design. In such, Edwards also gave something of a mission statement: ‘I’ve been making a film that’s right touching my favourite movie of all time. But then if you’re too respectful of it [and don’t] take a risk, then what are you bringing to the table?’. Which is encouraging, to say the least.



Today a new trailer dropped, a video already screened to Star Wars Celebration Europe attendees under an Imperial-grade data protection act. It expanded upon previous footage and gave us greater insight into Edwards’ creative ‘risk-taking’. But it is a trailer that gives me faith. Both in light of its worrying re-shoots and this terribly disappointing year. Everything from the art direction to the casting suggests Rogue One will not only be a good film — but the film — that Star Wars fans have been craving. And what follows is an evaluation of such.


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