26 September 2013

Late to the Party #3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Rostopher is usually...

#3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Spoilers throughout. You have been warned.

So it has come to pass - Rockstar's generational opus is upon us, as may have been hinted at ever so slightly in the last issue. And now, I've had an opportunity to play it! Shocker, I know, but it seems curiously necessary to point out that now, I have actually played the game. Well, most of it. It's just that a lot of the cricism came way to early for people to have actually played through the whole thing. Just throwing that out that.

Any-bally-hoo, we'll start with a micro-review, and about half-way through it, we'll move on to the actual meat of the matter, because...well, that's where it is: half-way through a review! 
GTA V is a really quite brilliant game. On the technical side, it's hugely impressive, particularly given that it's currently running on 8-year-old hardware. The fidelity of the world is the highlight - a self-contained, satirical snapshot of modern American society. Los Santos' rotten, corrupt heart hidden beneath a sheen of sunshine, fast cars and palm trees; Sandy Shores, a blistering, dust-covered hickville...sorry, 'home of rural Americans'; Grapeseed, your quiet little whitebread town; and Paleto Bay, your tiny beach community. Despite the triple-protagonist gimmick eliminating their necessity, you'll still find yourself setting out on drives from one mission to another, or indeed from nowhere to nowhere else. 

Allow me to paint a picture - and in no way will it do justice to the majesty of it, but I'll do my damn best.

I had been messing about on a jetski as Michael, the mobster archetype protagonist, and found myself in Paleto Bay just as the sun set over the water. I beached the jetski, and wandered into town, locating a suitable unmanned vehicle and performing the titular crime. The radio tunes in to a station playing some impressively smooth jazz, and I pull into the local garage to clean the car up. I checked my map, and saw that Michael's next mission was back at his house in Rockford Hills, a wealthy suburb in north Los Santos. I set my sat-nav marker, and set off, the route carrying me along the west coast of San Andreas, chasing the sun as she hid herself beneath the horizon. On the cusp of her disappearing, I vanish into the tunnel that takes you underneath Fort Zancudo, and emerge into the night. Streetlights, brake-lights and headlights streak past as I cross the bridge over Lago Zancudo, and I take the turn-off onto Route 68, clambering steadily uphill and then heading down into the winding, challenging road through Tongva Valley. The hills either side suddenly give way, and I'm greeting by the glistening, festering, neon-glinting jewel that is Los Santos, the full moon hovering low over her, welcoming me back.

Something like this. Only with more smooth jazz.
I pulled over.

Sounds good, no? This is Rockstar's true achievement with this piece of software - a living, breathing, dynamic, infinitely intriguing landscape to explore. It's literally jaw-dropping.

Controls-wise - whilst a bit fiddly to get to grips with in some scenarios, and not without occasional frustrations - are a slick hybridisation of three distinct gameplay types (namely third-person action, driving and piloting), and they're each satisfying enough that you can forgive some occasional control quirks. On top of the astounding diversity of stuff that you can mess around with - guns, bombs, cars, planes, bikes, boats, frikkin' submarines, and yes, the list goes on after 'frikkin submarines' - there's an outrageously deep veneer of customisation.

It's quite simply the most technically accomplished sandbox game released this generation, and a perfect generational swansong - showcasing exactly what the supposedly aging hardware in the Xbox 360 and PS3 was capable of all along.

But it's in the story-telling, and its unexpectedly varied interpretation that we're going to be dwelling on for the rest of this piece.

As you are probably aware, Grand Theft Auto is gaming's grand crime saga - all set in the same fictional, twisted version of America, they tell tales of nobodies achieving the American dream rather more violently and sordidly than strictly necessary. This rodeo is a little different, primarily in that there are no less than three protagonists - which, in absolute truth, was the next logical step in GTA's evolution. But there's also the fact that all three are wash-ups, in their own way, rather than nobodies. Franklin, a sardonic gang-banger who alienates everyone around him; Michael, a witness-protected ex-bank robber whose lack of empathy is causing his family life to fall apart; and Trevor, a certifiably insane pseudo-Canadian redneck (yeah, get your head around that one!).

Their stories begin separate, but slowly intertwine as your progress through the game. You pull heists, run drugs, work for movie producers, and more, all in the name of making that sweet, sweet dollar.

The writing is great - sharp, acerbic and bitterly satirical, Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries and Micheal Unsworth emulate Parker and Stone as they tar everyone with the same brush. Celebrity culture, gang culture, nerd culture, corporate culture, capitalism, communism, conservatives, liberals, crap TV, rednecks, white trash, gangsters, psychologists - everything is torn asunder, revealing corrupt, festering hearts within each by way of an elegant, biting (and occasionally delightfully juvenile) sense of humour.

But most intriguingly of all, the game carries a fairly broad, blaring message, written in neon lights as glorious as Los Santos' nightscape:

This shit don't pay off. 

Not in the long run. Heists go bad, loyalties are questioned, terrifying murderers (or, as they're more commonly known, governments) irreversibly pissed off. The only way to actually earn the stacks of cash required to buy up property in the game is to honestly invest - and dishonestly skew, if so inclined - in the virtual stock market it presents.

Which makes those decrying it for corrupting our minds, for being morally bankrupt, quite odd indeed. I'm going to say it - did these people actually play the game? Did they take it in as a whole?

Is it the torture? It's the torture isn't it? Yeah, I thought you might say that. It's a fallacy, though. Sure, if you strip out every ounce of context, and presented me with a game that was literally just the torture part of the scene, I'd question your sanity, based on the fact that the barely interactive three-minute cinematic that you have there doesn't qualify as a 'game' in any sense of the word, saying nothing of its grimy, grotesque content.

But here's the thing - taken as a whole, Trevor is presented from the get-go as an unhinged psychopath.  

There's not a single shred of moral consistency to his actions, from his fluctuating approach to the value of human life, to his catastrophic mood swings (he loses his rag at the mere mention of the word 'motherfucker'), to his flip-flopping between embracing and vilifying his Canadian-tinged accent.

Heck, he's the closest thing the story has to a main antagonist, in story populated solely by antagonistic figures. You are playing as the villain when you engage in the torture scene - it's not glamourised, it's not fun, and the disturbing look of glee in Trevor's eyes is a technical marvel. It's meant to disgust you - that's what the scene wanted you to feel. 

It means you're a good person - give yourself a pat on the back!

This look glamourous to you? Then you need help, my friend.
Then there's the broader point - the torture is contained within a segment whereby the torture is enacted on behalf of the 'FIB' (switching the letters! Subtle!), and it ostensibly extracts information about a high-value terrorist target. The victim himself all but admits that he's telling them anything to get them to stop. Yet the FIB act on the information, issuing the order to the cold, heartless Michael to execute the target, without a second thought given. By anyone. The scene in its entirety decries this method of 'warfare'. 
The thing is, the one thing that I actually did think crossed the line hasn't been touched upon at all in mainstream media. The Escapist noted it in their fairly critical review of the game - a sequence wherein you unknowingly plant a bomb in the prototype of a smartphone about to be presented at a press conference, and proceed to detonate it on national television. I honestly went in expecting an ingenious, humiliating technological prank, not a brazen act of terrorism. This coupled with the fact that it's literally the only crime in the game with no risk of failure (a preceeding 'stealth' section is not challenging in the slightest) or any ramifications down the line makes it all the more unsettling. Yet the denouncement of torture is what gets us?

These're two ten-minute sections of a 25-hour-plus game. Did it attack the issues a little too bluntly? Maybe, but this is no reason to renounce the game unto Satan. 

It doesn't cross the line any more than any other media portraying torture, violence or depravity. I mean come on! We had a collective critical aneurism at the sheer bold brilliance of a scene that features a pregnant woman getting stabbed repeatedly in the belly in Game of Thrones. We must afford Grand Theft Auto the courtesy of being regarded on the same intellectual level, surely?

18 September 2013

Late to the Party #2 - Don't Hate the Game, Hate the Human

Rostopher is usually...

#2 - Don't Hate the Game, Hate the Human

So once again, Grand Theft Auto has drudged up the age-old 'video games are corrupting our souls!' argument. It's sad that the BBC, the Daily bleedin' Mirror (who I will not even dignify with a backlink. Google it), and even The Escapist felt the need to stoke that particular fire, lending credence to the fact that the attack in London was motivated by a need to acquire specifically GTA V; instead of, y'know, being a crime of happenstance where the individuals were after anything of value that the victim happened to be carrying. Like his phone. And his wallet. Both of which were also taken in the attack. But no, GTA V is crowbarred into the headline, because 'vidya garms cores violins!!!1111'.

However, in a surprise twist, I'm going to open(-ish) by saying something that may initially seem like I'm contradicting myself: violent video games do affect us.

Stay with me. I would follow up by saying: 'in the same way that literally anything else violent affects us'. It's true - our advanced thinkerboxes are but one facet of our dominance of planet Earth; we're also fully capable of some really rather imaginative methods of offing other creatures, including each other. If one of us does snap and decide to go postal, are we going to use the violence that we've personally witnessed as reference? You bet we are. There are, after all, no true originals left! But it's in the same way that we might reference, say, a funny line from a movie when we're trying to impress someone (or is that just me?).

The actual question that we should be asking ourselves is whether or not video games are a factor in the snap itself. The answer is a resounding no. (Imagine it echoing in a cathedral; that's the sort of resounding I'm going for.)

Take Sandy Hook, when the media attempted to shoe-horn Call of Duty in as the scapegoat. But Adam Lanza was a deeply troubled person - the autistic son of a woman who was a gun enthusiast and 'apocalypse preperationist', if tales told are true. The already anti-social shut-in was probably not imbued with any sense of love for his fellow man, and he learned to shoot from his mother, in a rifle range in their basement; not from a video game - the notion of which is fundamentally ridiculous:

Essentially the same device! Right?
When you look at each and every other case of this happening, the perpetrators are motivated by their own personal psychosis. The denouement of each inevitably has shades of whatever violent media they took in, but to blame video games - or films, or books, or rap music, or whatever else - is to ignore the actual problem.

Now, maybe those arsehole kids were specifically targeting that poor guy in London for his copy of GTA - there're several plausible narratives that see this being the case. 

But video games are a macguffin in every single one. Replace videogames with 'a kitten'. (I know it's silly, but I'm making a point, dammit!) Do you blame the kitten for the attack? Or do you blame an irrational and violent response to a need to have something that's otherwise unavailable? 

The problem is that we as human beings seek a conclusive answer to fucking everything. We need one big answer enshrined in stone, held aloft by some dude with a beard on a mountain as thunder cracks behind him. But the problem with the random attacks issue is that there is no single explanation for all of them. Each case is disquietingly unique, but we pounce on the easiest common thread to blame - the one that's seen as most inconsequential - whilst failing to recognise the single thing that they all do have in common: humans. We just won't accept that sometimes, people do really awful shit to other people, for their own reasons. 

Dowwwwwner! Here's the kitten:

How could you blame this?! YOU HAVE NO SOUL!!!
Honestly, though? I would agree that there is perhaps an over-abundance of violence in video-games these days. It's an art-form in the final throes of a rebellious adolescence, over-saturated with boobs (hehehehe! Boobs! (I slapped myself, don't worry)) and aesthetisised violence. Of late, however, both the industry and gamers themselves have shown signs that they're growing up in their approach to both. But this is a separate issue - they still don't force people to vent their frustration with the world by shooting at it. 

I've been playing video games for a long damn while. Some of my earliest memories are of playing Snapper (a.k.a Pacman But Not Pacman) in gaudy 8-bit-o-vision on the BBC Micro with one of these fucking things:

The joysticks don't even auto-centre. That's how old-school we're talking.
But as the popular greetings card - and one of my t-shirts! - points out, none of us are flitting about dark rooms as we chase ghosts, pop pills and listen to repetitive electronic music! Okay...maybe not none of us...

And heck, I'm an avid shooter fan - but I've only operated a firearm for a grand total of about 36 minutes (three separate occasions; none of which I actually had a choice in, I would add). It is an experience that I never, ever wish to repeat - the prospect of wielding an actual physical object designed to end another human's life repels me completely. 

But the rush of pulling off a perfect strafing run on the enemy team in an attack helicopter in Battlefield? Of silently taking out a platoon of oblivious security guards in Splinter Cell? Sign me up! Why? Because it's all the associated adrenaline that stems from the aggressive nature of our species, but none of the risk of - or indeed actual - death.

If anything, anything at all, violent video games - and other violent media where we can get our fix of this sort of rush - are healthy and cathartic to indulge in. A way of reconciling the scholar with the savage, without a single drop of blood spilled. And who knows? Maybe James Wan and Eli Roth would be out there right now, enacting the awful things they thought up for the Saw and Hostel movies if the movie industry didn't exist. Instead, they made a film that let the rest of us closet psychopaths - that's all of us, by the by, and I'm using the term in the colloquial sense, before any psychologists pounce on me! - get our fix. Thanks guys!

But the out-and-proud psychopaths (again, colloquial) who perform these senseless acts of violence ultimately just hate other humans - however they arrive there, that's their conclusion. We should send that hate right back at them, not at an innocent kitten. I mean goat. I mean...ah fuck it, you know what I mean. To demonise something that brings enjoyment, comfort, and health benefits to millions of people the world over because of one arsehole who played one video game one time is just...just...

...really fucking DUMB.

Peace, y'all!

11 September 2013

Late to the Party #1 - The Goddamn Batfleck

Okay so this is a new feature that will be semi-regular. Because fuck knows I don't post enough on this blog. Basically, I'd going to stream-of-conscious type my thoughts about a recent nerdy issue that may or may not be bang up to date. For those skim-reading, I've highlighted the key points in bold. Ladies and gentlemen (and you, Din), I give you, typing errors and all...

Rostopher is usually...

#1 - The Goddamn Batfleck

So Ben Affleck is Batman. And what an absolutely massive uproar about it there was too. Which was fun! Took a while longer than I expected to die down, but thankfully it has, and whilst there are of course still the so-called 'haters' out there, there's at least now what could be described as 'lukewarm' feelings towards the prospect.

To throw down my say early, I'm actually pretty happy with this casting. Sure, Mr Affleck has been in some stinkers - but it's been shown time and time again that to dismiss someone completely based on past performances is folly. Think Heath Ledger as The Joker; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine - heck, super-hero movies in and of themselves are rife with 'huh?!' choices that went good.

Affleck is as good a choice as we were going to get, and don't read anything negative into that statement. After Bale's (and balls to the naysayers) towering performance as both halves of the character, literally no-one will feel right. 

He's got the jawline, he's the right height, build, and hair colour, so it's not like he won't look the part (pending any decision on Batsuit nipples... *shudder*). Daredevil and Paycheck (again, say what you will) showed he can competently beat the crap out of wave upon wave of Generic Non-Super Canon Fodder, and in truth, he's become a far better actor in recent years than Pearl Harbour and Gigli. Seriously, are those the only two Ben Affleck movies the naysayers have seen? And if so, are we really taking any complaint from these people seriously? These fools who haven't seen Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, The Company Men, Argo, The Town, Dogma, Shakespeare in Love (Britishfleck!), Hollywoodland or State of Play? He was also - I'm reliably informed - the bomb in Phantoms, yo.

Okay, so I see their argument. This is the man who got nominated for the Razzie for worst actor three times, for no less than six films. In fairness, this may have been less to do with his actual performances, and more to do with the fact that he was the exact epicentre of a massive media fuore, and it was somehow his fault that the movies surrounding him were terrible.

'He's BEN AFFLECK! How can he make a bad movie?!' was the sentiment of the time. 

It's simple.

Pearl Harbour was too long, badly written and held a tone that was at odds with Michael Bay's explosive sensibilities. Daredevil is actually okay, if you watch the director's cut - it still suffers from bland direction and Colin Farrell during his terrible phase, but the script and story are sound, and the castings are otherwise pretty good (Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin?! Genius! RIP, you massive, massive man.). Jersey Girl was Kevin Smith's attempt at doing something more serious - something to which he was and is ill suited. Paycheck was a fucking John Woo movie - what were we expecting? Whedon?! And the less said about Gigli (horrifying celebrity couple vehicle) and Surviving Christmas (throwaway holiday trash) the better.

Basically, the regrettable fact is that when Affleck was...shall we say, not at the peak of his acting prowess, he was also at his most prolific and scrutinised, for reasons technically outside of his control. These three things do not mix well, and he had a bad run. Any critic will tell you this - but since then, he's hardly put a foot wrong. Hollywoodland, and his entry into the directorial game with Gone Baby Gone were the gamechangers. His enjoyably daft cameo in the enjoyably daft Smokin' Aces aside, the work that followed was decidedly higher quality.

But when you examine Affleck's vast and varied filmography, it's clear that his performances vary with how challenging and interesting the material is. And when he has total creative control? Turns out he's a damn fine filmmaker all round - one that rises to the occasion as the material demands.

So this brings us to the talent that he will be working with come Superman vs Batman, and that's where the real rub is. I liked Man of Steel. I did. Despite the fact that I really rate Snyder, I can understand why those who don't...eh...don't. But the movie that we got was far better than one could've possibly expected, given the circumstances. To completely garble a quote from its oft-quoted nemesis, The Dark Knight Trilogy - it was way better than the Superman movie we deserved (after the kicking we gave the hideously under-rated Superman Returns ("You want more action? Here's Zack Snyder, fuckers," said the 'evil' movie executive)). But not as good as the Superman movie that we needed. Disappointment is a relative term, my friends.


But here's the thing - the main point raised against Man of Steel was that there was no way that a) Superman would allow that much damage to happen; and b) he would've killed Zod at the end. When I quizzed a since-childhood fan of Superman - whose comics you should read, or else! - on why it wasn't right, why Superman couldn't kill just once, and he said something that was equal parts profound and obvious: "He always finds a way." And that's Superman in a nutshell, isn't it? The very best of us - a man who has considerable power, but never uses it to harm or oppress the innocent. He's right too - in Man of Steel, Supes is practically reckless; as I pointed out in my review, he's a rougish brawler who steps up because he can, and kinda makes a mess of it, but wins out through plucky determination.

***** SPOILERS END *****

But this is also very much a Superman for the modern era, where collateral damage and the death of innocents constantly sprawls across our news headlines. It's also a crushingly realistic portrayal of super-strong, super-tough, gravity defying individuals going at each-other like gangbusters.

And who better to tame this rogue superpower, to teach him the value of damage prevention, subtlety and the power of a symbol, than fucking Batman, fully formed and having been fighting crime in Gotham for years. Given the speed at which the production is rolling forward, it's hard to not believe that this was the plan all along.

Another complaint re: Man of Steel is that Superman was more broody and dark than previous incarnations. Assuming that the above was indeed the plan, surely if anything, the casting of Ben Affleck promises a sly reversal of the darkness and light in this particular relationship. This has been done with comic-book characters before - and with Batman no-less - and it made for genuinely interesting stories - what's to say this flick can't pull the same coup?

The point I'm plodding towards is that there is no reason to think that the story of this next film will not work. Superman and Batman crossover plenty, and work almost exactly as often - Geoff Johns' current work in New 52's Justice League, as well as the supplement story 'Ghost Lights' at the end of Batmans # 19 and #20 are recent examples of how good this can be. But it's a challenge that needs to be risen to - and as we've established, Ben Affleck is a man who does just that.

If Superman vs Batman is going to be bad, it's not going to be because of Affleck. We should be more worried on two counts - first, Christopher Nolan is no longer presiding over matters. Second, Snyder is helping craft the story and script. Massive warning signs on both these - but in theory, given Affleck's directorial and screen-writing creds, coupled with his known love of comic books, he can help temper there more insane urges. If any single conclusion can be drawn at this stage - which, as we have not seen the film, is as close to impossible as it gets - it's that Ben Affleck's involvement is a step in the right direction. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

5 September 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Review

One has to remain open to these things. One does - one day, they'll make a good'un, and you kinda have to be there to see that when it happens.

Okay, wow, way to give the game away early, Ross. Fuck it, have this, I'm putting my feet up:

Oh...you're still here. Fine, I'll write something...Jeez, you guys are pushy.

So I was clued into this by a friend who's read the books - according to both her, and the literary community at large, they're actually a pretty neat riff on the whole 'urban fantasy' thing, and were begging to have a movie made out of them. I can't honestly comment on the books - I've not read 'em, and I'm assured that they're 'completely bloody different!' from this trainwreck, so let's proceed to verbally beat the shit out of it, shall we?

I suppose the most disappointing thing is that there was almost certainly a good film to be made from the script as is. A few cheesy (and we're talking Camembert levels of stink here) lines and some braindead decision-making aside, the story is actually surprisingly solid: in a modern world where 'every story you ever heard is true', there exists a breed of human known as the Shadow Hunter, who spend their waking hours fighting the unwinnable, but essential war against the forces of darkness. Clary is not one of these people - but she can see them, even when they use runes tattooed onto their skin to turn invisible. As she tries to figure out why, she becomes embroiled in a plot from within to undo the hunters, and their hidden-in-plain-sight base, The Sanctuary.

It's at the very least interesting on its own terms - the mythology surrounding it in particular is most intriguing. It's a great shame that the execution is a stumbling, shambolic mess.

This is almost entirely down to director Harald Zwart. The cast is decent, the production values solid and the script, despite the aforementioned stinkers, is a surprisingly tight adaptation - there's even some pretty decent special effects thrown into the mix. But Zwart botches it - it's clear that the extent of his familiarity with the fantasy genre is that it exists, and is mildly popular just now. There's not a single ounce of flair, style or substance in any of the framing, fight choreography or staging. Battles lack any sense of tension or threat. Romance comes off as dumb and corny as shit because of a soundtrack that's either intrusively, obnoxiously obvious, or as dull and pointless as the staging.

Worse, Zwart fails to recognise when the characters he's marshalling are being utterly, utterly stupid. Case in point? Our heroine develops a power that can freeze adversaries in time - but rather than butchering the demons where they're stuck with their fancy demon-slaying weaponry, they move through the pack of claw-based death and leave them there. We're then supposed to care when the creatures reanimate themselves after the spell wears off, and murder a bunch of werewolves. You do know swords have unlimited ammo, right guys?

The only thing that saves it from being thrown in the same bin as AvP2 and Battlefield Earth is that admid the turgidity, there're a few few-and-far-between moments where the strength of the story and mythology shine through. A flame-thrower that appears to fire holy napalm? Awesome. Mozart was actually a musical engineer who developed sequences of chords that sounded lovely to humans, but like nails on chalkboard to demons? Genius (even if Clary brazenly forgets this fact a mere 8 hours after she learned it). But as said, there's just not enough of them present for the film to pull itself from the mire. The cast are actually also do admirably considering the non-entity at the helm - Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower were perfect castings, if the fan art I've googled is to be believed, and Robert Sheehan (of Misfits fame) sports an impressively honed American accent, and a decent performance to boot. In fact, his part of the film is the only one that's not hideously mishandled, and there's no doubt that it's down to his chemistry with Collins that this works.

It's just a massive shame all round - this had the promise to be the anti-Twilight, a Shadowrun for tweens. Alas, what we've got is a watered-down pap - an incredibly basic film that's intended to sell its crappy teen-pop soundtrack and pictures of the admittedly highly attractive leads. Nothing more. Nothing about it works, it's only sporadically enjoyable, and if you've ever seen a single action-fantasy movie before this one, you'll facepalm at least three times in its bloated run-time. Unless you're interested in your eyeballs attempting to escape from your face in desperation, avoid.