Monthly Archives: February 2016

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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Snake showing off his new hand

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain impressed many people upon its release in the summer of 2015 for numerous reasons. The first game in the long-running series to utilise an open world setting, Konami’s latest stealth extravaganza manages to take advantage of the various benefits of the new setting, without disregarding the features and idiosyncrasies that have made the series a worldwide success for over two decades. Garnering as much attention as the title’s release, however, was the news that this will almost certainly be the last Metal Gear Solid game in the series to be overseen by creator Hideo Kojima, due to his acrimonious departure from developers Konami shortly before the game’s release. This could be then, the last time fans can enjoy the beloved franchise in all its fantastical glory.

Of course, as with all games in the series, The Phantom Pain has a typically unique plot that combines heavy themes such as the brutal realities of warfare with bizarre, supernatural elements and even humour. The story follows legendary soldier Snake, aka Big Boss, in his quest to uncover the identities of the men behind a vicious attack on his mercenary force nine years prior; an attack that left Snake in a coma for the intervening nine years along with numerous other, grievous wounds. Set between two vast landscapes in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border during the 1980’s, Snake searches for the men responsible for the attack whilst attempting to rebuild his army (now called the Diamond Dogs) with the help of his trusted comrades Revolver Ocelot and Kazuhira Miller. As the story develops, Snake discovers a conspiracy directed by the enigmatic Skullface (in true Metal Gear Solid fashion, the appellation is literal) that threatens to change the world. Throughout the fifty plus hours of playtime, the narrative retains a consistent pace that matches any game in the series for complexity, without seeming unnecessarily convoluted. Thankfully many of the signature, movie length cut-scenes frequently used in previous titles have been replaced in various ways, which helps to preserve the fluency of the narrative. Cassette tapes and codec communication (more or less a hands-free phone system, familiar to all seasoned players) along with simply shorter scenes are used to great effect to convey pertinent information far more concisely – though admittedly the prologue is as slow and ponderous as any passage from the previous titles. While noticeably different from its predecessors, the narrative style of The Phantom Pain will please both new and old players alike because of this more balanced approach to storytelling.

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Sneaking through the desert bases of Afghanistan

Characters and their motivations are always extremely important to a Metal Gear Solid game, with few protagonists or antagonists ever portrayed as entirely good or evil; a theme continued here. In The Phantom Pain, we learn more about Snake’s personality and how he came to be the complicated character so important to the wider series. Sometimes cold and pragmatic, here we see a Snake who nonetheless exhibits a definite sense of honour, valuing loyalty above all else. Voiced by 24 star Keifer Sutherland (who first took over the role from gruff-voiced David Hayter on the prequel title Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes) Snake feels more human than ever without losing any of the charisma the character is known for. The supporting cast is, largely, well rounded too. Ocelot, Miller and Hal Emmerich (father of franchise mainstay Otacon) are all written and portrayed brilliantly, with special credit going to Troy Baker for his performance as Revolver Ocelot. That being said, villain Skullface doesn’t compare favourably with the likes of Liquid Snake or Colonel Volgin from the original Metal Gear Solid and Snake Eater respectively, due largely to the frequent shift of focus between Skullface, the Diamond Dogs and the multitudinous supporting cast. More frustratingly, however, is the character of Quiet the sniper. As silent as her name suggests, Quiet’s mysterious nature is genuinely intriguing; causing the player to constantly question her motives and true purpose. However, the decision to have Quiet spend the entire game in just her undergarments detracts from the absorbing character Kojima creates, achieving nothing except to further an outdated, negative stereotype of female characters in games.

Moving on to more positive aspects of The Phantom Pain, the gameplay itself proves to be an absolute triumph that gives the player greater freedom when deciding on a strategy for a particular mission and what equipment best suits those tactics. Though guards still patrol specific areas as in previous titles, their movements are now far less predictable and more reactive. Enemy soldiers now have the ability to upgrade their equipment to counteract your style, for example using night-vision goggles if the player relies on undertaking missions at night. Complementing this sense of freedom is an even larger array of weapons and support items, as well as old favourites such as the cardboard box (now customisable with a variety of posters that inexplicably confuse or entice guards) and stealth camouflage. Moreover, using the Diamond Dogs’ research and development team, players can develop new equipment to help overcome particularly challenging objectives or to simply increase the efficacy of existing items. This segues nicely onto one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Phantom Pain; base development. As commander of Diamond Dogs, Snake can ‘recruit’ incapacitated soldiers using the Fulton extraction system and assimilate them into the player’s mercenary force; for those unfamiliar with the system ‘Fultoning’ is essentially airlifting people, animals or vehicles from the battlefield using balloons – a feature that’s ridiculous, humorous and prototypically Kojima.

Accompanying the player on their missions is a playlist of original music, along with cheesy, 80’s pop hits which serve to provide a touch of comic relief in between the darker plot elements. Capping off this wonderful gaming experience are exquisitely rendered graphics that give the numerous bases and settlements an authentic, inhabited feel set amidst beautiful landscapes the equal of any PS4 titles currently available.

Engaging, immersive and immense in scale, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an unequivocally successful debut in the open world setting. Arguably the most accessible game in the series whilst retaining its identity, Kojima’s stealth series could well have reached its peak with The Phantom Pain; a fortuitous accomplishment given the likelihood this is the last Metal Gear Solid Hideo Kojima will ever create.

8/10

John

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Final Fantasy Type-0 HD 2015 Review

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Ace – nominal protagonist of Type-0 HD

Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is a substantially different game to other titles in the long-running series. For starters, the 2015 PS4 release is a port of the game originally released exclusively in Japan for the PSP four years before in 2011. Additionally, as the lack of a numerical designation would suggest, this game also falls outside of the main series of games. Instead, Type-0 HD is part of a subseries of titles sharing a common mythos known as Fabula Nova Crystallis, which also includes the recent Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, as well as IOS and Android exclusive Final Fantasy Agito.

Set in the world of Orience, Type-0 HD puts you in control of fourteen students belonging to a prestigious military academy, located within the dominion of Rubrum. Collectively known as class zero, your heroes and heroines are combat prodigies dispatched to complete important missions in the fight against the neighbouring Militesi Empire. Led by the tyrant Cid Aulstyne, the Militesi are attempting to conquer all neighbouring peoples; the crystal states of Orience. Though the plot itself boils down to the same, regular Final Fantasy tropes (magic crystals, teenage heroes etc) many of the themes explored in the game are much darker in tone than the majority of the previous titles, illustrated by the use of blood in the opening cut-scenes. Topics such as war, power and the effects of combat on soldiers are covered in a surprisingly skilful and responsible manner, giving the narrative real edge.

Conversely, little can be said of the characters as individuals, except that they pale in comparison to the cast of previous Final Fantasy games. On the surface at least, all fourteen characters look suitably dissimilar (complete with reality-defying hairstyles and weapons) to help the player differentiate between the party members, however, the story fails to explore the history or motivations of any playable character. Enough is learned to recognise Ace as the main character, that Queen is the brains and Nine the impulsive warrior; but nothing more. To a certain extent, this is understandable given the size of the task – writing and developing fourteen unique and fully fleshed-out characters, in an average size JRPG (one originally released for the PSP at that). Not to mention the various villains and subordinate characters also requiring due attention. One thing that is inexcusable however is the abysmal voice acting that plagues the game. Many of the performances are so bad; the player will be left cringing during the larger scenes.

The gameplay meanwhile, follows a style similar to that of last gen Final Fantasy titles and the Kingdom Hearts series. Rapid, real-time combat is favoured over the traditional turn-based setup, with an emphasis on switching between any of the fourteen characters during battle. Personally, I feel Square Enix’s efforts are far less successful here than on titles such as Final Fantasy XIII, in terms of implementing a new combat style. Frenetic rather than fluent, combat boils down to monotonously spamming the standard attack button, which largely eliminates the strategic elements the series is known for; indeed, even during boss battles, it’s rare you’ll need to dip into the pool of techniques unique to each character. Aside from combat, the number and diversity of side-quests available will keep players sufficiently engaged to persist with the game to the end, especially as the game is approximately forty hours in extent – brief compared to modern, open-world sandboxes. Moreover, as some of the side-quests are only possible when playing on new game plus, there’s even enough motivation to ignore the negatives and play through Type-0 HD multiple times.

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A typical battle between teenagers, soldiers and tiger-esque beasts

The game looks as expected for a PSP port, though this will do little to lessen the sense of discontent the graphics will produce on gamers used to modern consoles. Closer in appearance to a PS2 game, the characters look wooden, stiff and only marginally more animate in appearance than a dressmaker’s mannequin; the background artwork is similarly mediocre. An indistinct colour scheme combined with ill-defined buildings and vistas produces a world devoid of spectacle and fails to capture the imagination. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is pleasant enough, without matching the peerless scores used in older titles of the series.

All things considered, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is a somewhat disappointing game. Seemingly released to make extra money out of series collectors (like myself) who’ll buy almost anything named Final Fantasy. That being said, there are enough positives to make this a worthwhile purchase, especially for the £20 it currently costs on Amazon.

Therefore, on balance, I’d rate this game 6/10.

John

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Until Dawn 2015 Review

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The characters looking forward to a relaxing break

A surprise success in the summer of 2015, Until Dawn is a loving (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) tribute to the teen-slasher genre presented in a style similar to Quantic Dream titles such as Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain. Complete with a fantastic cast of characters, familiar to any fan of horror and clothed in some of the most gorgeous graphics seen on modern consoles, Until Dawn is a must have for any PS4 owner. The following review is free of spoilers.

Developed by Supermassive Games as a PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn puts you in control of eight teenage friends who’ve gathered together at a remote cabin in Canada’s Blackwood Mountains for the weekend (a cabin owned by the Washington family) to commemorate the disappearance and presumed death of protagonist Josh Washington’s twin sisters from the same location, at the same time, the previous year. Almost as soon as the party arrive, mysterious events occur causing them to question whether the disappearance of the twins was more than an accident on one of the perilous mountain paths – fearing instead the hand of a vengeful killer rumoured to despise the Washington family. From this realisation, it’s not long before events spiral out control and the friends understand they’re in grave danger; however, because of a snowstorm, they’re stranded on the mountain until dawn (I wonder if that’s how they got the title? I guess we’ll never know). Ultimately events aren’t truly revealed until the final scenes of the game, at which point the player discovers what’s really going on, what happened to the twins and who’s really to blame for all that’s happened. From this description, the story may seem rather derivative and uninspired; however, the execution is anything but. Largely tongue-in-cheek, the writing is such that many genre tropes are used to subvert the players’ expectations, creating a sense of uncertainty and even tension as the story unravels. I have to say that although I was slightly disappointed with the climax, due mainly to the change of tone in the narrative roughly ¾’s of the way through, there are plenty of people who think otherwise.

Meanwhile, the gameplay is comparable to titles such as the aforementioned Heavy Rain, utilising quick-time events and branching dialogue trees to progress the story in a manner that is fully reactive to the players’ choices, even allowing you to alter inter-character relationships and the events themselves as you switch between the eight protagonists. Though derided as being lazy and dull (with unfair vehemence in my opinion) the use of QTE’s suits the style of Until Dawn perfectly. A sense of urgency is created which keeps the story moving at a consistent pace; so successfully I might add, that many opponents of the style concede its worth in this game. There are some innovations too. The developers utilise every feature of the DualShock 4 controller in a largely efficacious effort to add diversity to the gameplay. One technical issue does arise from this control scheme, however, namely the difficulty of keeping the DualShock 4 sufficiently steady during the rare occasions when this is required. Even if you have the firm hands of a keyhole surgeon you’ll find yourself failing this task as often as not, which can consequently result in the death of a character in certain areas of the game.

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Nothing’s scarier than wooden horses

Complementing the enjoyable story and fast-paced gameplay are beautiful graphics that push the PlayStation to the limit; everything from the huge mountains that loom overhead to the individual snowflakes that fall persistently during the night is given due attention and looks sublime. The cast is equally impressive and credit has to be shared among the talented voice actors, which include Peter Stormare, Hayden Panettiere and star of recent Amazon Prime hit Mr Robot Rami Malek.

All things considered Until Dawn has been a huge success, especially considering how little heralded it was prior to release. A short game under ten hours in length with a multitude of possible endings that make it highly replayable, Until Dawn’s unique take on the slasher genre and brilliantly written characters, will have you making the ill-advised mountain trip over and over again – 8/10.

John

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Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris Texas 1984

Paris, Texas – IMDb 244/250

It’s been a while, but I’ve finally found the motivation to watch and review the next film on my IMDb top 250 list, Paris, Texas (1984).  A moving and thought provoking drama, Paris, Texas stars Harry Dean Stanton as Travis Henderson, a man who mysteriously wanders back to society from the desert after disappearing for four years.

After his brother Walt, (Dean Stockwell), picks him up from a doctor’s clinic, we learn more about Travis’ life before his disappearance, including his troubled marriage and relationship with his wife Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski). We soon learn how he abandoned his son from this relationship, Hunter, before disappearing without a trace.

As the film progresses we see Travis slowly reconnect with his son, and the two go on a journey to find Jane, who went missing soon after Travis’ own disappearance, leaving Hunter with Travis’ brother and wife, Anne Henderson.

Paris, Texas is a hard film to describe, particularly without giving away too many details about the films plot. I found it a very unique experience, having seen nothing like it before, and it came from the brilliant mind of director Wim Wenders, whose style exudes throughout the film.

The story I found absolutely captivating after the initial slow build up. Once Travis is talking and back living amongst his family, we slowly begin to understand what happened and this intrigue into his history and life stays throughout the film, culminating in a truly lovely scene at the end in a peep show club (always the setting for the most heartfelt scenes), where Travis reveals more about his relationship with Jane.

The mood and atmosphere created by Paris, Texas is difficult to describe as well. On the one hand it is sort of uplifting, cheery, and at times funny, with an almost road movie like quality to the film when Travis and Hunter go out to search for his mother, and as they travel the two bond in a subtle but really heartfelt way.

The beautiful look of Paris, Texas

The beautiful look of Paris, Texas

But at other times the film is rather melancholy and questions Travis’ actions and character, such as essentially abducting Hunter without really worrying about Anne and Walt and how they’ll feel not knowing where there adopted son is. The ending follows this trend of being a little bit happy and a little bit sad, which only makes the film that little bit more interesting.

Whether or not you can say Travis is a very likeable character is up for debate, no matter how good a job Harry Dean Stanton does of making you care for Travis.

At first he is mute, almost annoyingly so to his brother who simply cares about him and wants to find out what’s happened to him. He simply abandoned his son with no explanation, takes off with him without telling his adopted parents, and at the end you find out more about his dark past. But this only makes his character more interesting, and easier to invest in.

The performances of the actors in this are what truly makes this film special. Harry Dean Stanton is superb as Travis, and Nastassja Kinski gives a wonderfully understated performance as Jane. But the true star of Paris, Texas is Hunter Carson, who plays Hunter Henderson.

I have a tendency to find all child actors in film and television aggravating to say the least, (e.g. the kid that plays Carl in The Walking Dead or Macaulay Caulkin in Home Alone – let’s face it we all want the robbers to win when we grow up), but Hunter, who would have been only 11 when filming this is excellent, he is charming and likeable with a childlike innocence to what is going on around him, shown particularly in a moving scene when he is telling his father about the Big Bang Theory. (Not the TV show.) It really amazed me when I saw that Hunter Carson’s career never took off in a way his performance in this would merit.

Another aspect of this film that is highly praised is the soundtrack. With its western sounds over the beautiful Texan landscapes and deserts, there is a real American authenticity to the film, something that is perhaps lost on us as a British audience but in a way makes viewing this a more enriching experience as it is so different to our own landscapes and backdrops.

Seeing as I had never heard of or knew nothing about this film, watching Paris, Texas proved to be an amazing experience for me. Going in with no expectations at all, I came away loving this film, knowing that I would be recommending it to everyone I know, (so about 4 people), and adding it happily to my DVD collection rather than selling some of the others I will watch on this list – and yes, people still buy DVDs.

So for anyone reading this review, if you don’t need your films to be full of explosions, action and Hollywood one-liners, then watch Paris, Texas.

My Rating: 9/10

PW

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