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 The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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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Stranger Things: A Reflection 

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Netflix Original Stranger Things came as a pleasant surprise last month. A bold, heartfelt throwback to eighties pop-culture that crafted something inventive and memorable in the process. From its music to characters, it sparked feverous discussion online and proved to be an instant hit. It is, in essence, a love-letter to numerous films, books and cultural artefacts from that decade. But it’s also something much deeper. Stranger Things is a salute all those who watched such pictures; who read those comics and had their lunch money stolen as a result. It is, put simply, one for the nerds.

The series itself spans eight episodes and gravitates around the disappearance of Will Byers; a child living in eighties Indiana. Backdropped by an Area 51-style conspiracy, we see a relatively lacklustre village face an inter-dimensional monster — a Demogorgon to coin the Dungeons & Dragons phrase — terrorising its local community. This is compounded by a Cold War cover-up, namely MK Ultra to ‘Stay one step ahead of the Russians’, drawing a small-town cop into something well beyond his pay-grade. Yet beneath this, lies something far more relatable. Three young friends and a bereaved Mother trying to make sense of it all.

This mix of fantastical, if not ridiculous adventure, with tangible humanity feels familiar. It’s textbook Spielbergian adventure. It has whiffs of horror, action and sci-fi, but it’s largely a tribute to those great Hollywood adventure flicks. Indeed, Stranger Things is a cocktail of famous texts: from throwaway nods to outright pastiche. But it does so explicitly enough to remain charming in the process. Although such references deserve attention — I discuss them in due course — it’s rather the camaraderie between the boys and the escapee ‘Eleven’ that drives the show forward. It binds it with a youthful optimism that celebrates its more nuanced moments. Making Stranger Things a rather complex, but deeply satisfying blend of nostalgia and creative thought.

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In Defence of Event Horizon


Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror remains, to this day, a divisive picture. Almost unanimously condemned as a crass, clumsy and predictable contribution to the genre; Event Horizon receives little time from serious critics. It is, however, my biggest and guiltiest cinematic pleasure.

In short, the film takes after the Alien (1979), Solaris (1972) and later Sunshine (2008) format of spaceship horror. A crew are sent to investigate a distress beacon from the Event Horizon –– a ship capable of interstellar flight –– that has long since been missing. It has retuned from the edge of our known universe and appears unmanned; tasking the rescue team with damage assessment on an intergalactic scale.

The frights are fairly obviously choreographed. An invisible parasite, not dissimilar to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) now haunts the ship, whilst a paper trail alludes to the fate of those originally aboard. Anderson purposely sidesteps from explaining too much here, leaving the fragmented and jarring fate of this crew relatively unexplored –– only to receive ham-fist conclusions towards the end. For this reason, I believe the general criticism regarding the film’s writing to be rather fair. It is inconsistent and at times feels as if it was written on-set.

But as the crew explore the ship, there is a tangible sense of horror. Laurence Fishburne establishes himself well as the stubborn Captain Miller, at odds with the irrational designer of the Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil). They’re joined by a sortie of apathetic space servicemen who all, in turn, lose their minds aboard the ship. Although none of the characters feel particular inventive: the stern military man and obsessional scientist are hardly new arcs, they drive the narrative adequately enough. The downfall, it seems, is that the focal point is about them: their inner turmoil and subsequent breakdowns.

‘This ship […] knows my fears, it knows my secrets!

It gets inside your head and… it shows you!’

The crew are possessed with little nuance; the mix of cabin fever, repressed trauma and imploding personal chemistry feels too abrasive to be particularly meaningful. The themes it touches upon, however, prove powerful. Where the Horizon has been, what it has brought back and how it is presented. Indeed, my affection towards this film is not for its overarching tale. But rather the fleeting moments that occur inbetween. The artistic direction, the editing and the overall tone that can be extracted –– and celebrated –– despite the murky shell that embezzles it.


To call this film a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ is an understatement. It scatters a number of great ideas throughout its ninety minute running time. The film’s aesthetics represent a good example. The use of colour and baroque set design is surprisingly inspired. With an emphasis on drab greys and greens, its colour palette reinforces the gritty, industrial feel that Kubrick and Scott established. The interiors throughout the ship(s) compound this further: with an enclosure that accommodates the mental episodes that soon escalate. But there is something more creative within this backdrop. It exhibits a strange gothic quality. The Event Horizon is part haunted house, part heavy-metal show. The winding corridors are perhaps a given, but the fabled ‘gravity drive’ is truly a design of its own. This spiralling, spike-laden velodrome leads to the unsightly death of one of the crew members. It also becomes the set-piece for Dr. Weir’s final all-work-no-play breakdown. Its presence is deeply menacing: an unconventional device with a fitting appearance. It extenuates the Oppenheimer quality as well, being a transgressive work of science. It all goes to serve what faults this picture: an important but hardly vital piece of set design seems to have incurred more thought than the screenplay surrounding it.


Another point of contention regards the Horizon’s disappearance. Whilst the film proposes a realistic science fiction aesthetic –– it’s more Silent Running than Star Wars –– the Horizon’s absence beyond the known universe descends into something more spiritual. In the simplest, spoiler-inducing sentence: such a place is hell. Or, indeed, some scientific derivative of it.

‘She’s been to a place you couldn’t possibly imagine. And now it is time to go back. […] Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse’

This inversion of perceived realism may be a cop-out. I’m not entirely sure how well it fits with the film that its first half attempts to set up. I do think, however, that it works remarkably well in isolation. In fact, it’s precisely why I feel to defend it. In essence, the rescue team learn of this through recorded material in the Captain’s Log; a grotesque and harrowing sequence where the original crew are tortured by whatever inter-dimensional zeitgeist took hold of it. Albeit the eye-ripping captain to the violently sexual images around him: this sequence does not hold back. He then pans to the camera and recites verses of Latin –– an ancient language in 2016 –– least not for the film’s in-date of 2047. It’s a memorable and damning scene. We are given hints to a haunted presence in anticipation to this, but nothing with such severity.

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‘I thought it said liberate me, save me. But it’s not me. It’s liberate cute me: save yourself. And it gets worse. […] I think that says ex inferis. Save yourself… from hell.’

This use of ritualistic, satanic discourse works well with its unabashed gore. The ship had been to hell and the dissonance between the cold reality of the Horizon with this perverse, graphic force it brought back is jarring. It also offers enough to shock without exposition. For the lack of a better phrase: this sequence is entirely fucked up. The  textbook ’cause and effect’ horror structure allows it to throw the audience without asking too many, plot-hole inducing, questions.

This is further refined by the editing. Flashbacks from the possessed Dr. Weir throw half-frame snippets of the tortured crew: with maggots, blades and sadomasochism to boot. It’s almost a useful exercise to watch this picture with your finger on the remote. Recently, internet forums have capitalised upon its darker imagery, deeming it ‘uncut’ and ‘unseen’ footage from the potentially better film it could have been. These images, however, are not new. They are merely passed over in a blink of the eye. They’re buried within the same picture that Robrt Ebert considered all ‘style’ and no substance. The same film that garners a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score and that one Washington Post critic remakerd:

‘If you want to have that “Event Horizon” experience without spending the seven bucks, try this instead: Put a bucket on your head. Have a loved one beat on it vigorously with a wrench for 100 minutes.’

Yet it is the very ‘style’ that shines brghtest. These flickering moments of shock –– the quick edits and flashbacks –– coupled with its interesting and eerie artistic design brings a gravitas to any narrative misgivings. It may rely on knuckle-dragging spectacle during its action sequences, but it attains a darkness that few of this genre have reached. It is for this reason I consider moments of satanic imagery, especially in flashback, as rationale to defend this film altogether. It cements the Horizon in a unique and troubling universe.

This approach has deeper cuts. Science fiction antagonists can, rather easily, become caricatures of their former selves. The minute Ellen Ripley jettisoned the Alien from that airlock, its caracas launched into space along with any tension we once felt for it. But a ship that has returned from the bowels of hell, that tip-toes around what it has attained –– which proves to be a Biblical iteration of evil –– is undeniably scary. The presentation of such bolsters it. It gets under your very skin, as this haunted-house comes into its own.

Put simply, Event Horizon merges the fantastical horror and modern science fiction to great avail. The vessel takes on fleshy overtones as it becomes increasingly more alive. Again, the contrast between industrialism and mangled human tissue is both striking visually and thematically. It also succeeds in avoiding the reality of the situation to ignite more fear. Whilst, all the same, incorporating supernaturalism better than the average sci-fi flick. In fact, Event Horizon is in the minority of genuinely throwing me after multiple watches. Not because I care about the characters –– that wears thin rather quickly –– but for precisely this graphic content. It presents the unpresentable, the oldest of all evils, with enough vibrance and aurora to maintain dramatic effect.


Event Horizon is, quite frankly, a curious picture. And note I’m not ranking it alongside the Blade Runners and Space Odysseys of the world in writing this. But when it descend into its darkest moments, it does so with a ferocity that deserves high merit. The themes it flirts within the process of Dr. Weir’s questionably-written breakdown are little short of tremendous. It’s also a damn entertaining film. I feel critics overlook that as a mind-numbing escapism –– perhaps Anderson’s forte given his later work –– it’s a bloody good movie.

Yet it remains something unique in my eyes. A rough mix of sci-fi and horror that reaches some truly gut-wrenching moments. A lacklustre screenplay, sure, but coupled with fantastic artistic direction.  And as rumours circulate regarding the now lost Director’s Cut –– a darker,  X-rated redux –– I can’t help but wonder what this film could have been. Nevertheless, for what it is, Event Horizon is worthy of your time. The product of a director clearly in an experimental phase. One, perhaps, trying to put his name on the in-traversable sci-fi/horror map. And whilst it is far from perfect, there is some eloquence in the flaws that bestow it.

Indeed, Event Horizon is more than a ‘good-bad movie’. I also wonder if I’m being harsh calling it a guilty pleasure: the very parameters of guilt are set by a cork-sniffing critical reception. I won’t deny it’s shortcomings, but I will celebrate it’s triumphs all the same. Event Horizon has a truly contagious quality to it. One that I happily re-watch from time to time. It’s a enigmatic experience above all else, with a design and tone that sits with you long after the credits roll. Which perhaps leads to the most pertinent conclusion of all about Event Horizon: ‘it gets inside your head’.


An Ode to ODST: A Retrospective


Halo is perhaps the first gaming franchise I ever truly clicked with. I picked up Combat Evolved in around 2003 and I regularly cite its sequel as my favourite video game ever made. Whilst I never profess to being a ‘gamer’ — I care little for the ‘master race’ and competitive playing — even Halo 2’s turbulent production and ending does not deter my affection for it. Nothing rivals the jubilation of a nine year old getting his copy a day early, nor the genuine awe its narrative, gameplay and soundtrack brought to the table.

Nostalgia aside, I have replayed the Bungie titles a number of times. A welcoming familiarity surrounds them, like returning to a favourite book. Indeed, my affinity has always been towards the lore and expanded fiction: the novels and stories that enriched its more knuckle dragging, Nukem-inspired segments. This year I purchased an Xbox One, largely for its exclusive titles, and to revisit the games of my childhood. Whilst my interest in the franchise has certainly declined in recent years — I followed the first decade or so of the canon — it’s been a cathartic experience. The prospect of the remastered Master Chief Collection resonated with the nostalgia junky in me; not only to beat challenging moments of old favourites but also to see how well these games hold up. The most revealing title, however, proved to be the most overlooked of all. The 2009 expansion, Halo 3: ODST.

Released on the Xbox 360 seven years ago, this ‘spin-off’ of sorts garnered the robust —frankly excellent — gameplay and engine of Halo 3 and poised it towards new territory. Replacing the iconic, Master Chief with a silent Orbital Drop Shock Trooper; ODST flipped the given tempo tremendously. And it did so remarkably well.

The gameplay offers a departure from the one-man-army that has come to define the series. As an ODST, one is inherently more vulnerable and susceptible to damage. You’re no longer a shielded Spartan, nor are you seven-foot-tall, either. Brutes appear naturally more formidable, with even the once-laughable Grunts and Jackals posing a more serious threat. This changes the given dynamic, forcing the player to rethink any habitual  trigger-happiness. This is, to some extent, all the more skilful. Whilst the sandbox elements see smaller Brute packs that those seen in Halo 3; the overall campaign hardly reduces the quantity of enemies. Ergo, the player, known only as ‘The Rookie’, are left to their own devices. AI characters, whilst scarce, help direct fire in that classic Halo sense — they’re useless in a firefight — meaning ‘The Rookie’ faces no less adversaries than his green counterpart. As a result, the single player gameplay becomes rather challenging. It’s slower and more systematic but deeply, if not more, satisfying. It has also aged remarkably well. The dichotomy between stealthy silenced weapons with bombastic vehicle segments manages to appease the principle elements of the game — whilst injecting a rare overture to the franchise.


The structure of ODST is equally refreshing. Halo is loosely recognised by its linearity. Levels flourish like chapters of a book, with only combat choices offering moments of structural diversion. ODST changes this: an open sandbox on the streets of New Mombassa links its levels together. ‘The Rookie’ finds clues to where his displaced squad have landed and flashback missions explain how that came to be. The player investigates the streets at their own pace, avoiding Covenant forces in due course, and piecing together the almost epistolary narrative. It works exceedingly well: with overtones of Film Noir and detective novellas coming into play. So much so, the level design effectively doubles back on itself: ‘The Rookie’ explores the very same landmarks his comrades fought alongside, in both the day-time flashback and this shadow laden sandbox.

This also leads onto a more pertinent feature of the game: its artistic direction. With whiffs of Blade Runner and Out of the Past, this futuristic noir feels incredibly matured. It is a world that, whilst inherently small, breaths with a natural livelyness.  Halo, as franchise, is famously colourful. Albeit the beaches of the Cartographer, the grass of its eponymous second level or purples of covenant ships and weaponry. ODST sidesteps from all of this. Although those elements are still there — notably in flashback levels — the overarching design is much darker, burned out and resolute. The shadows and deserted towns are isolated and eerie. Even its metropolis backdrop with metallic metro stations and abandoned ATM machines ground it in a mundane reliability. It all serves to compliment its down-tempo gameplay wonderfully.

ODST‘s soundtrack takes this sentiment further. In a similar departure from awe and spectacle, Marty O’Donnells epic suites are replaced with a moodier, jazzier score. It flirts with the electronic moments — electric bass, distorted guitar and so forth — that seem reminiscent of  Halo 2, but it really crafts something of its own. These more avant-garde moments abandon any ‘Hollywood’ tendency to perpetuate this dectective theme that runs throughout the whole game. It’s also a testament to Bungie’s excellent world building. In the same vein that the scale of design, music and gameplay that defined the Master Chief’s exploits; ODST carves its own empire within that very same world. From the largest set piece to the tiniest orchestral motif: it has an identity and heart.


As for its developing story, ODST is simple but effective. It follows a drop team as they are separated by a slip-space rupture in their opening launch. It slots in nicely with the middle section of Halo 2’s timeline; with the opening cut scene literally cross-cutting between a canonised event in the 2004 title. This sort of interconnectivity works well; the game needn’t establish a whole world or conflict but rather elaborate on the untold stories that surround it. The game incorporates recognisable vehicles, enemies and other semantic elements to great avail.  We even see a familiar face in the closing Epilogue. But it purposely steps away from the mean, green protagonist and his more conventional traits, to form its own identity. It is this capacity to remain familiar whilst grossly different that makes ODST so mesmerising. It also introduces the Engineers, a long standing characters within the wider lore, with great charm. By revealing this lovable and complex species, it grants the relatively short campaign a much larger pay-off .

Whilst the main characters aren’t fully fleshed out: Buck gets a little bit too much attention in lieu of a downplayed protagonist, it works with the material it has. I would argue that Micky, Romeo and Dutch appear more interesting, if not funnier figures to explore, but its eight hour campaign can only do so much. (n.b for this reason it is recommended to play Legendary Solo; not only got the ‘full experience’ but also a healthier  timespan). Their dialogue and quips reveal a humanity that is often amiss between the Master Chief and his counterparts; furthering the title’s ability to enrich an already standing universe.


The story’s continuity with its aforementioned design, gameplay and score is also worthy of note. The narrative has a certain piecemeal quality to it; but the missions themselves reiterate those darker, exhausted undertones within the genealogy of its pacing. The majority of levels are about survival, escape, evading capture or glassing. Where the Master Chief is very much an agent of change: he would kill a Prophet, steal the Index, rescue Cortana and save the world. In ODST, we are very much on the back-foot, struggling to regroup and survive. The majority of the game alludes to team members being killed; making this less about triumph and more about sacrifice. The flashbacks lend itself to this weighted feeling and bolster its noir-ish quality without feeling clumsy or tact on. The execution — the delivery of all these components of design and composition — is remarkably strong. Even the easter-egg hunt audio logs, that for many represent merely an Gamerscore Achievement, reveals the civilian tale as to why the Mombassa streets have been evacuated. There is a coherency in the very arteries of the game. It wants to tell a story and breathes with a spirit  that is, at times, not even expected. It something all the more rare in titles today, least not those considered mere add-ons to much larger titles.

Above else, replaying Halo 3: ODST reminded me what I love about this franchise. Whilst I enjoyed 343’s foray into the series as a sleek, sci-fi shooter: it desperately lacks the creative fibre of the Bungie titles. It’s not my place nor desire to debate the merits of either studio, but ODST certainly serves to remind us how rich the Bungie-Halo universe had become by 2009. The expanded fiction complimented the games and the games did so vice versa. It had not become bloated nor confused about its direction. Given the turbulent production cycle for Halo 2 and 3; this is a testament to the studio’s innovation to prolong the franchise with such finesse. It is as if the fighting spirit of ‘The Rookie’ and his comrades extends well beyond the fictitious New Mombassa and into the development team themselves.

In its simplest form, Halo 3: ODST is an inditement of the world building prowess of Bungie in their prime. It also proves there are better stories aside from the standard, now exhausted, formula. Where Reach capitalised upon alternative characters in a feature-length title; it feels more crucial than ever to explore other avenues beyond Master Chief and his tiring tirade. I feel a Contact Harvest adaptation or ODST sequel would revitalise the series greater than the — frankly tedious — Promethean nonsense of recent titles. But perhaps the mature, experimental nature of ODST is a product of its time. Of a franchise both big and brave enough to take a risk. From a studio still hungry to prove themselves with a title that remains, to this day, a highpoint of the series.

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