THE SINNER SEASON 3 REVIEW

The advent of television streaming has lead to a true golden age of television, with the quality going far beyond what came before. Crime and drama are two genres that have been revitalised and the first season of The Sinner was a riveting ‘why-dunnit’ and managed to tell a different kind of crime story. Going into season 3 after the solid second season The Sinner struggles under the weight of it’s premise.

Like season 2 The Sinner does away with the characters of the previous season, barring detective Harry Ambrose who anchors the show. Season 3 centres on the aftermath of a car accident involving two old university friends Nick and Jamie and their complicated relationship with religion and fate. Aspects of the story are fantastic, challenging both the characters on screen and the audiences expectations, like the prior seasons the plot twists and turns in unexpected directions. It’s all held together by stellar performances, Bill Pullman and Matt Bomer in particular, who have great on screen chemistry. Bomer is a particular standout as Jamie, a troubled teacher who struggles under the weight of his own mortality and whose mental health questions how masculinity and men’s relationships with one another can affect those around them. The romantic subplot involving Jessica Hecht’s Sonya could have been explored further and comes across as an after thought, under-utilising the actresses talents.

The Sinner is generally a good watch and is constantly engaging, the central mystery will keep you on the edge of your seat, but there are bumps in the road. The series often makes you suspend disbelief, I often questioned whether some of the events that take place would ever happen in real life and whether Harry’s methods for solving his cases are not only inappropriate but against protocol. Characters do mention that Harry’s methods are unique but it just doesn’t seem feasible, it’s an issue I felt throughout the first 2 seasons but the most recent one intertwines Harry and Jamie so tightly it’s hard to imagine it ever unfolding in the real world.

The season also suffers from characters constantly monologuing about their thoughts and beliefs, this can make the pacing a little on the slow side in the mid-season but it does pick up again in the final 2 episodes, cumulating in an exciting season finale.

I’ll be interested to see if The Sinner goes for the fourth season, the quality is still high but the ideas are beginning to wear a bit thin. The intrigue of the working out why people are involved in the deaths of others has dampened considerably and with both seasons 2 and 3 not quite living up to the Jessica Biel fronted first season.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

MRS AMERICA REVIEW

Mrs America was completely unknown to me, I wasn’t aware of its creation and it was by chance I came across an advert on social media that caught my eye – Cate Blanchett was reason enough but the stellar all-star cast and an intriguing premise really sold me and got me on a BBC iplayer binge I’d not been on since Rupaul’s Drag Race UK.

Mrs America follows the progress of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that would change the constitution to give equalised rights to women, the story follows the lives of the women at the forefront of both sides of the political spectrum – including the second wave feminists fighting tooth and nail to get the ammendment passed and Phyllis Schlafly a famous right wing campaigner who lead the women of “STOP ERA” movement.

Cate Blanchett brings Phyllis Schlafly to life with an incredible accuracy, from the hardened stares, to the southern drawl and the biting wit the real life Schlafly possessed. It’s a terrifying recreation of a character that’s abhorrent in her views, it’s one the best TV performances I’ve even seen this year and if it doesn’t win her an Emmy or Golden Globe I’ll be shocked. On the other side of the political fence is Rose Byrne playing feminist Gloria Steinem, a woman still active today – Byrne plays the role to perfection like Blanchett there’s a sense of excitement every time the character appears on screen, in episodes where she is featured less, her presence is missed and manages to steal the lime light from others even on limited screen time. The clash of these two titans is a thrill, but oddly the two characters never actually come in contact with one another, it’s face off that would have delighted audiences but as it never happened in real life – it never occurs in the show.

All the performances are fantastic, there are no weak links here; Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman and Sarah Paulson all do great work in their respective roles, playing close to the real-life counter parts with excellent accuracy and emotional weight. Sarah Paulson’s character is one of the few fictionalised characters in the show, which is why it’s surprising that the penultimate episode features her so heavily, it’s one of the few missteps in the series, though Paulson is great in the role – the fictional context of her dedicated episode feels more “Hollywoodized” than prior episodes that are often so close to the actual events the series could be classed as an educational dramatized documentary.

One of the biggest hooks of the series is how closely aligned to historical accuracy it actually is, so much so that I found myself looking up individual characters in the show to gain a better perspective of their roles in both the ERA movement and their past and future political careers. This is a clear sign of the series engrossing nature as I wanted to immense myself even more in this thrilling and frustrating world. Phyllis Schlafly is incredibly interesting despite her horrible political views, a woman of determination and high intellect – who can easily outclass her male counter-parts but due to her political leanings has be willingly side-lined by her male counterparts. Her stance in the show is intriguing and contradictory as she strives to keep women as housewives while also doing everything to further herself and her career away from her duties as a wife and mother.

The 1970’s has been beautifully realised in the show, from the cinematography, the sets and excellent costume design. Gloria Steinem long hippy hair with aviator glasses is absolutely iconic and as Brit who is totally unfamiliar with the women featured in the show I was instantly obsessed with each and every one of them. There are some pacing issues here and there, with such a large ensemble some characters can get lost in the noise. And one cannot help but see a certain bias towards the portrayal of the ERA ladies compared to the STOP ERA ladies, though I certainly prefer this to the other end of the stectrum – it’s a shame Schlafly’s supporting characters were given a lot more creative license rather than being based on real women, this makes the two sides feel a little disjointed at times and probably why the 8th episode “Houston” sticks out so badly compared to the rest of the series.

CONCLUSION

Mrs America is a fantastically acted, beautifully realised miniseries, whose subject matter is still relevant even today. All the real-life characters are compelling and the show will make you want to research the era in detail to understand the background even more. Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne steal the show, the whole thing is worth watching for their performances alone. So much love, craft and talent has been put into Mrs America, it makes it a must-watch for anyone who loves a political drama.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros

  • The acting – especially Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne
  • The period costume design
  • Excellent production design
  • Interesting period of history, with accurate portrayals
  • Excellent cinematography

Cons

  • Sometimes a little slow to get going
  • Schlafly’s supporting players aren’t as well realised
  • “Houston” episode throws realism out the window

WHY TOMB RAIDER 2 DESERVES A REMAKE

Tomb Raider 2 the myth, the legend, the legs. Tomb Raider 2 the boom, the bombast, the breasts. Tomb Raider 2 the guns, the female empowerment, the poor fashion choices (shorts in the Tibetan foothills, really?). It was a far more confident outing than the original, increased graphical fidelity, tighter storyline, new abilities, less rigid controls, vehicle sections and of course the ability to lock your butler in a freezer at Lara’s mansion – with his groans sounding like a whoopie cushion with a slow puncture – it was legendary! My all-time favourite level in all the entire Tomb Raider franchise features in Tomb Raider 2, Venice, tearing around the canals in a speed boat, whilst solving water puzzles and leading to the crescendo of smashing though the windows of a building and leaping from your boat as it detonates a load of water bombs, it’s absolute perfection.

Tomb Raider 2 often ranks as a favourite among fans and critics and I personally prefer it over the original. I think this is down to variety – where the original game had an incredible sense of awe and isolation, Tomb Raider 2 felt far more like the Indiana Jones experience it was obviously emulating. There were more varied enemies, the platforming was trickier but more finessed, it challenged the players in new and exciting ways especially with the underwater levels. The puzzling was also the best it has ever been, Tomb Raider 3 and The Last Revelation’s puzzles were incredibly tough to the point of barely being puzzles as some of the solutions were so obtuse, but in 2 they made sense and relied on the players reading the environment rather than a walkthrough. Then there’s the soundtrack, one word – sublime. From the iconic theme song (why this was removed in later games is anyone’s guess), the classical piece that plays in Lara mansion, the dark foreboding string sections in a darkened cavern or the 90’s thudding electro when you discover the snow mobile. Judith Gibbons provided the voice of Lara, her perfect delivery of Croft’s snarky no nonsense attitude has yet to be beat, plus who could forget the toe curling screams as Lara plunges to her death because you were 1mm off course (I know some of you killed Lara on purpose, you animals!). This is the Lara we loved, she’d shoot a tiger in the face and make a witty remark, she’d destroy an ancient building and do nothing but pout, she’s just like Judy Dench but instead of Shakespeare there’s mass murder. (Petition for Judy Dench to play/voice an elderly Lara Croft… anyone?)

By today’s standards Tomb raider 2 is rather dated, though it’s level design is still genius, it’s also a victim of its time. The grid based “tank controls” were perfect for what the game was setting out to do, but in the modern era the game just feels clunky and unforgiving. Plus those graphics have not aged well, Lara my have lost her cone-like bosoms from the first game and gained a moving ponytail but she still looked like sexy version of a sleep paralysis demon. And this is why Tomb Raider 2 deserves a remake, not remaster, not a reboot, a remake.

Tomb Raider can learn from it’s past while embracing it’s future. Combat was never Tomb Raider’s strong suit, but finally the developers mostly nailed it with the 2013 reboot onwards – add in the incredible graphical fidelity of these newer games, the smooth platforming but with the level design and pacing mostly intact from the original and we could be onto a winner. Plus there’s the vehicle sections which in the original game handled like a lorry with square wheels, give them a modern control scheme similar to the jeep sections of Uncharted 4 and the varied levels of Tomb Raider 2 could be transformed into a thrilling rick-rollicking action adventure game of the next generation.

The recent Resident Evil 2 remake has shown that a game from the 90’s can be updated for the modern era, not only was that game one of the best remakes of all time, it was one of best games of 2019 – this is a game that was created in 1998 competing and succeeding against games created with a modern audience in mind and yet it remained very faithful to source material. The first Tomb Raider game had a remake in similar vein to Resident Evil in the form of 2007’s Tomb Raider Anniversary. Utilising the control scheme and revamped platforming of Tomb Raider Legend – it was great game marred by the eras reliance on QTE’s and the aforementioned auto-aim combat. Still fun and certainly more accessible than the the 24 year old original, but when you defeat a T-Rex by making it run into a wall like Wile E Coyote you start to realise 2007 game design had some issues.

Square Enix’s unwillingness to make a proper remake of the game has prompted fans to take it into their own hands, with fan Nicobass remaking the game in Unreal Engine 4 using the controls from the Tomb Raider Legend era of games. It’s fantastic that a fan has created such excellent work, but it’s difficult not to imagine what a big budget remake could look like. The rebooted Tomb Raiders while great in their own right have faced a lot of criticism mostly their drab and melodramatic tone, a humourless Lara Croft and samey structure. Sometimes publishers and developers need to look at what made the games special in the first place and the best place to start is with fan-favourite Tomb Raider 2.

Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics, Edios Montreal if you’re reading this, you probably need to find better things to do with your time…. but anyway I beg of you please remake Tomb Raider 2, the fans want it, Angelina Jolie wants it, Karen from finance wants it, even Jesus wants it! Now don’t you think you’ve seen enough. If you want to see my Top 10 Tomb Raider games go to https://draggedgaming.com/2020/07/10/top-10-tomb-raider-games/

By Jay Johnson

Originally posted on metro game central

HOW XCLOUD COULD REVOLUTIONISE MOBILE GAMING

Console and high-end PC gaming will always have its place in the gaming pantheon, but there was a time towards the end of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation when analysts believed mobile gaming might completely eclipse console gaming. That obviously did not happen, and AAA gaming is as strong as ever, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of mobile gaming. Games like Candy Crush and Angry birds have been cultural phenomenon’s spawning films and various other types of lucrative media and merchandise. Console games like Fortnite and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds have found a home in the mobile space too with both games now ported to Android and iOS, they have been huge successes even allowing cross-play with console and PC. But the AAA console experience hasn’t quite translated over into the mobile just yet, despite fairly capable mobile hardware and attempts from free-to-play games to blur the lines we’re yet see any real strides from major publishers, until now.

Netflix has revolutionised how we consume media and every entertainment medium would like a slice of that pie, game streaming might be in its infancy but it’s also becoming more viable with widespread 4G connectivity and easily accessible high-speed broadband. Google’s Stadia has stumbled out the gate with a small selection of games and a bizarre pricing structure, but Microsoft’s game streaming service XCloud looks like it could be the service to bring game streaming to a mainstream audience.

XCloud is a unique proposition, positioning itself as the true “Netflix of gaming” with Microsoft first party content releasing day one on the service with no extra costs incurred. With AAA games like Halo Infinite and Gears 5 playable on the service along with a huge variety of 3rd party games from studios big and small all for a low monthly cost. Removing the barrier of entry of a £400+ console, is a genius play by Microsoft meaning at last mobile gamers can play console games with an ease they’ve never had.

What elevates the service beyond the others is it allows for multiple control schemes with touch screen controls, as well as 3rd and 1st party controllers and a rumour of a “Switch style” add on for ultimate portability. XCloud is currently in its infancy and is still in BETA with a full release date rumoured for September. Despite this it still works rather well, its main drawbacks being slowdown, buffering and input lag, the latter of which can be especially frustrating when playing faster paced games. But for the most part XCloud is the first service to truly bring the console experience to a mobile phone, and it will only get better.

None of this would matter without the games, which is another area Goggle’s Stadia has struggled. The line-up on Gamepass is incredibly healthy and the upcoming slate coming from Xbox first party looking extraordinarily strong. XCloud could usher in a new era of mobile gaming – with games having near parity with high powered consoles, it’s an exciting time that’s for sure. Whether mobile gamers will embrace this new way to play remains to be seen, but with console gaming about to become the most accessible it has ever been, maybe a mobile gaming revolution is on the (Forza) horizon.

A HISTORY OF LGBT+ CHARACTERS IN VIDEOGAMES

EVERYBODIES GONE GAY!

The landscape for LGBT characters in the media has exploded in recent years and the representation of diverse and realistic gay characters has come a long way. TV has always been ahead of the curve from Mikey and Ian in Shameless to Lavern Cox’s trans character in Orange is The New Black, the stories have been varied and interesting, and with the recent popularity of Rupaul’s Drag Race, it’s almost as if the gays are taking over your screens and lets face it things are far more fabulous that way.

But the gaming landscape has been slow to pick up on the hype – both PlayStation and Xbox put out social media posts in support of Pride last month, to the dismay of the more backwards right winged gamers. But even with both platforms outward support of the community, there has been surprisingly few LGBT characters in videogames. Sam Greer of Gamesradar found that in 2018 there were only 8 playable LGBT characters in videogames, where the characters were pre-written as a queer instead of a character creator. So I’m looking back over some of the more popular characters that represent the rainbow flag and how we may be going into a golden age of LGBT storytelling.

THE JAPANESE AND THE 80’S  

The 1980’s was a strained time for gay relations and the general public, an era with the rise of AIDS and very little support from those in power, general LGBT representation was low across all mediums and was often demonised especially in the USA and UK. One of the earliest examples of representation came from Nintendo and Super Smash Brothers 2 where the character of “Birdo” was described as “a male who thinks he is a girl”, it’s not the most politically correct terminology, but for 1988 it was a pretty bold choice. Japanese developers were really the only ones who were willing to represent the community – with various examples of side characters being gay. Pretty much any western characters at the time were treated with ridicule or jokes and more often than not were censored, with their “gay tendencies” being taken out. An example being Phantasy Star’s USA and UK version of Usvestia saying male characters “look smart” instead of “look cute” as in the Japanese version. Another 1994’s Streets of Rage 3 had mob boss named Ash who was portrayed with tight clothes and ‘effeminate’ movements but he was still censored in many western versions of the game.

GAY FOR PLAY

Role playing games have been the best place for representation with Bioware’s Jade Empire and Lionhead’s Fable were some of the first western games to allow the playable character to engage in homosexual activities – Fable even allowed gay marriage in its world before the UK or USA did. As the world was starting to turn in favour of the LGBT community so too did game developers – but as games were still portraying women with oversized proportions, appealing to a predominantly heterosexual male audience, the characters were still underdeveloped and rarely playable. Major Japanese publisher From Software had openly gay character Makoto in the 2006 Xbox 360 RPG Enchanted Arms – Makoto openly admits his love for a fellow male character and though he is portrayed as a stereotypical camp man, he is a leading character with a major influence on the games story and playable in combat sections later in the game.

Rockstar surprisingly haven’t shied away from featuring LGBT+ characters in their games both Bully and Grand Theft Auto have featured them, The Ballad of Gay Tony from GTA 4 being the most famous example. Playable character Trevor in GTA 5 is presented but not confirmed as being pansexual, though not necessarily a positive representation of the community, to have a multi-layered character feature in one of the biggest games of all time is a big deal.

GAYME OVER

Huge strides have been made in recent years, Mortal Combat featured their first gay playable character with Kung Jin, nephew of Kung Lao. The Life is Strange’s Chloe Price is a deep and flawed character, whose mental health problems will resonate with many LGBT youths as she struggles with her sexuality and her place in the world. Obsidian Entertainments The Outer Worlds gave us the delights of Parvati; a sweet, caring and shy young woman but also a capable mechanic and fantastic friend, she quickly became the most popular character in the game. Even more impressive was her relationship with Junlei and the difficulties they face with their physical relationship, something rarely explored in any kinds of narrative and depicted with the utmost respect.   

Naughty Dog have been pioneers of storytelling in the videogame medium and with The Last of Us Part 2 we go on a journey with lesbian character Ellie. What makes this game so special is Ellie’s sexuality is never exploited, it’s also not shied away from either. We see her as a powerful woman with a lust for revenge, as a mother navigating a broken world and as a human coming to terms with her grief. It is an excellent character study from Naughty Dog, it will hopefully lead the way with more playable gay characters in future AAA games. Things are progressing slowly and some vocal minorities would like to see LGBT characters erased. It doesn’t seem to have affected game sales with both The Outer Worlds and The Last of Us Part 2 selling well – so it looks like going ‘Woke’ doesn’t lead to going ‘broke’ after all. Dontnod’s upcoming Tell Me Why will feature the first prominent playable trans character in a videogame, which will hopefully tell a unique story with different point of view – it’s a bold move and one that will be scrutinised by those on both the political left and right for different reasons, it’s a balancing act for any game studio willing to take on the challenge. To see my list of Top 10 LGBT characters in Videogames go to https://draggedgaming.com/2020/07/09/top-10-lgbt-characters-in-videogames/

By Jay Johnson or Ladonna The Drag Queen

Originall published here https://metro.co.uk/2020/07/18/history-lgbt-characters-video-games-readers-feature-13005976/

A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE REVIEW

The success of the Assassins Creed franchise has ushered in a plethora of stealth action and horror games, from the brilliant Batman Arkham Games to the terrifying Alien Isolation, each have their own unique take on stealth and how it works. Now even games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider have shoehorned in stealth, often to the detriment of the game itself. The recent release of The Last of Us Part 2 (click here for my review) was a masterclass in refinement of stealth gameplay, but one that still lacked the deep immersion of gameplay systems which feature in games like Hitman, or smart AI that the Xenomorph possesses in the aforementioned Alien game. For The Last of Us the narrative hooks far outweighed any shortcomings in gameplay. A Plague Tale: Innocence attempts something similar and with a team of around 40 people at developer Asobo, it’s a valiant effort and well worth your time. Here’s my review for A Plague Tale: Innocence.

STORY

A Plague Tale’s setting of 1348 rural France is certainly unique, following Amicia and her brother Hugo during a time of disease and famine. Early in the game you learn that Amicia and Hugo barely know one another, with her brother suffering from a strange disease that means he’s been isolated his entire life. When the inquisition come looking for the young boy it sets the adventure in motion as Amicia is tasked with protecting her brother whilst trying to find an alchemist to help with Hugo’s condition.

It’s an intriguing premise for a AAA game to have two children as it’s protagonists and their relationship is definitely the most interesting aspect. Hugo and Amicia build a bond over the course of the narrative going from annoyance and lack of trust to sharing a traumatic experience that binds them forever. Amicia’s protectiveness over her little brother is believable and will certainly resonate with other gamers with annoying younger siblings. Other teenage characters join the story as the game progresses, which ties into the stories theme of innocence brilliantly – all of them are likeable and mostly well developed. The game gives off a historic Stand By Me vibe in some ways, with these kids learning what their capable of and having to grow up quickly well before their time.

The Plague aspect of the game features heavily throughout with towns and villages ravaged by rats and disease – it’s a brilliant re-imagining of real life history and something I’ve not seen done like this in a videogame. It’s a bit of a shame that the last third of the game does away with the realistic approach and decides to go on a supernatural route – it doesn’t make the narrative fall a part but it does make the game go from an intriguing real world drama that uses alchemy for the games mechanics to a cheesy wannabe blockbuster complete with a truly terrible villain whose motives are completely ridiculous. It’s a massive missed opportunity with the setting, time period and characters there could have been a real moral quandary at play with the antagonist that could have tested characters resolve and their newly formed bond, instead it does what almost all typical videogame narratives do.

GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS

As mentioned A Plague Tale is a story driven stealth game and it does an OK job of maintaining an interesting gameplay loop through its 15 hour campaign. It’s a perfectly passable stealth game, where hiding and learning enemy routes is important for succeeding in each section. Amicia is initially only armed with a rock sling shot, it’s slow to load but packs a satisfying punch as you head shot enemies – her arsenal increases over the course of the game, but only the sling shot provides the player with an aggressive approach to combat, everything else helps you turn the tide using your environment. The rats are a huge aspect of the game and are brilliantly rendered, 100’s of the critters can populate the screen at a time – it’s skin crawling and the feeling never subsides. The rats are scared of light, which provides the game with its biggest mechanic, extinguishing lights and breaking lanterns so the rats will feast on your enemies is a seriously twisted and gratifying way to dispense of them.

The rats provide clever but pretty easy puzzle solving as well, it breaks up the monotony of constant combat but barring one genius moment at the mid-way point involving clearing rats out of a castle, it’s a real shame this wasn’t a bigger focus as it was the most memorable aspect of the game and it’s largely ignored in the latter half of the game.

Combat doesn’t quite hold up through the latter parts of the game, enemy AI is incredibly poor, with communication between them almost non-existent barring some scripted moments. Enemies will completely ignore your presence where I could run up behind them with no one noticing and then another enemy will immediately see you from miles away. Amicia controls smoothly, but her speed varies and once fully seen by groups of enemies it’s pretty much a death sentence, turning the tide is next to impossible, especially in the late game with archers shooting at you from out of range of your sling. Taking an aggressive approach also means Amicia will automatically stand out of cover and is venerable to being seen, this started to cause a lot of irritation as it meant experimenting with different tactics was pretty much impossible – her sling is also slow and sometimes annoyingly inaccurate, using an auto-lock on that would slip from target for no reason, resulting in my death – it started to try my patience as I had to redo stealth sections that weren’t that fun the first time.

Graphically the game is really beautiful, scenery is dark and dank which is perfect for a place overcome with disease and plague. France is rendered very realistically, with stunning lighting. Sunrays shine through the tree tops casting realistic shadows, clothing fabric and environmental textures look true to life – it’s an incredible achievement for a game with a team this small. Character faces are less favourable with a serious case of uncanny valley, lip-synching is OK but once again isn’t quite up to the standard of say Hellblade. It’s a shame as the character voice work is mostly excellent, with believable performances all round. The games score is a fantastic, setting the mood with haunting strings that are perfectly in keeping with the games setting.

CONCLUSION

A Plague Tale: Innocence is manages to combine a tantalising narrative with unique stealth gameplay that proves satisfying and thrilling in the first two thirds of the game. Dumb AI, slow restrained combat and a narrative that falls a part by the end sadly hold the game back from true greatness. It’s still worth your time though especially while the game is available on Xbox Gamepass. If there is a sequel to the game (and I hope there is) I could see it being a proper alternative to The Last Of Us, the characters and mechanical foundations are there, but expanding and broadening all this with a better narrative could make for an exceptional sequel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros

  • Generally great characters which are well voiced acted
  • The rats!
  • Fantastic setting with beautiful graphics
  • A great puzzle at the mid point of the game
  • Superb music and atmosphere
  • Realistically portrayed sibling relationship

Cons

  • Narrative takes a silly supernatural turn
  • Long loading times
  • Poor and uneven enemy AI
  • Close quarters combat is messy and inaccurate
  • Poor villain

OBSERVATION REVIEW

Games have the power to transport to worlds better than any other entertainment medium, they can make you experience things you don’t want to do – they can make you see through the eyes of a person you love and they force you see things you didn’t want to see. That’s the power of videogames, but so few developers even attempt narratives like this and will often go down the well worn path of a typical heroes journey with characters that have very little emotional impact. But every so often a game will come along and challenge the film industry and the game industry in tandem making us evaluate what you can do with videogame narratives. Hellblade did it, The Last of Us did it and Observation does it too.

STORY

Observation is a short game, clocking in at around 4 hours and it’s better for it, the narrative is tight and well paced – it never outstays its welcome. Taking heavy inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the plot centres around a crew working on the titular space station Observation as it orbits earth in the year 2026, an unknown event damages the space station and causes it to spin out of control meaning the crew loses contact with each other and earth. It’s here we are introduced to Doctor Emma Fisher and her AI assistant SAM (Systems Administrations and Maintenance).

As the story progresses we learn what truly happened in the accident, weaving an intriguing plot incorporating time travel, extra-terrestrials and the dangers of what advanced artificial intelligence could mean. It’s a thrilling and original sci-fi plot, one with touches of horror. Observation is a thriller in every sense of the word, slowly building to an electrifying and unexpecting conclusion.

The characters are all very well acted, Emma Fisher in particular conveys fear and uncertainty with convincing realism and voicework of Sam is perfectly unnerving and robotic. The acting is supported by a well written script that avoids the pratfalls of other sci-fi videogames and manages to weave exposition into the narrative without feeling like an information dump.

GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS

Observation is a indie game but it just about manages to keep up with a lot of it’s AAA counterparts when it comes to graphical fidelity. The space station is beautifully detailed, with the lighting in particular giving the game world a creepy and foreboding atmosphere that keeps pace with the narrative directions of the story. Character models are a big disappointment though, feeling stiff and emotionless with a bad case of uncanny valley in their eyes. It’s a shame as the rest of the game is so well rendered that this one aspect sticks out like a sore thumb and can’t keep up with the excellent performances of the cast. Occasionally characters would clip through scenery too, which just adds to the “Indie” feel the game has. The art design is superb and floating over Saturn is exciting, as you move towards its beautifully rendered hexagon polar storm providing an eye catching feature for the back drop of space walk elements of the game.

The gameplay was the biggest surprise to me, as I was expecting a typical first person walking simulator which couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a puzzle game where you take on the role of the AI programme SAM, from a gameplay stand point and narrative one it’s a perfect way to tell this story. SAM’s is integral to the mystery of the game and your actions have an adverse effect on the characters you encounter, it’s incredibly well thought out and I’ve never played a game quite like it. The moment to moment gameplay is different sets of minigames, from switching on back up power generators, to trapping an enemy in a room with different pattern locks and controlling various CCTV cameras to help characters get into blocked rooms. It’s a gameplay loop I thought I would grow tired of, but the different systems and smart level design meant it rarely outstays its welcome – offering challenges that never get too frustrating but provide a proper sense of achievement when you finally crack them. Some parts of the game task the player with having a fully mobile sentry, whereby you can free roam in first person perspective, this is the main aspect of the game I truly hated, whilst exploration of this beautifully designed world was welcome the controls are absolutely awful, meaning you’ll spend more time hitting into walls than you will solving puzzles.

Music and sound are handled very well, with the vacuum of space convincingly portrayed, alarms and noises inside the space station helping to generate thrills as the story begins to unfurl. The score adds the perfect amount of tension to scenes and knows when to ramp up and pull back. All in all this is a very well directed game.

CONCLUSION

Observation is a perfectly paced, beautifully realised, story driven puzzle game that manages to create a lasting impression even in its short run time. An intriguing story with immersive gameplay make it a must-play for fans of twisted sci-fi stories and unique puzzles. If you have Xbox Gamepass I would highly recommend giving it a go.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros

  • Excellent script and intriguing story
  • Well realised environmental design
  • Accessible but challenging gameplay
  • Great performances from the entire cast
  • Well paced and perfect length

Cons

  • Poor character models that can’t keep up with the actors
  • Awful and frustrating first person controls
  • Useless map and navigation when in first person perspective

THE OLD GUARD REVIEW

Comic book films are two a penny these days – Marvel and DC have carved out their own universes, with the former creating an intertwined and grand narrative unmatched in the film making, while DC have changed tactics by releasing individual unique experiences to varying degrees of success. With these two juggernauts dominating the conversation to such a degree that sometimes other comic book adaptations can get lost in the noise. The Old Guard comes somewhat from left field, it’s a violent mid-budget comic book film adapted from source material barely anyone has heard of and released immediately to stream on Netflix.

The Old Guard immediately grabs the views attention with its striking and exciting opening fight sequence, it’s far better than the typical action movie fayre, this sequence gives the viewer immediate character development and introduces us to what makes this film unique. We meet Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) as they attempt to save a group children being held hostage in a military camp, but the kids they are trying to save turn out to be a group of mercenaries whose purpose is to reveal their secret – we learn in this first sequence that our protagonists are immortal with their gun shot wounds immediately healing Wolverine style, their centuries long lives as warriors mean they’re skills in battle are unmatched – they can dispense of their enemies easily. The frenetic action is well shot, director Gina Prince-Bythewood in her first action film has great skill with capturing the crunch of a punch or the fluid movements of a dodge.

This opening sequence sets the story in motion as some evil conglomerate tries to exploit these powers for evil deeds, but in the guise of helping others – it’s here we enter mundane and well trodden territory of comic book films and the villain played by Harry Melling is unconvincing and silly, when he should be menacing and complex, he comes across like villain from a different film, all he would need to be a more obviously sign posted “bad guy” is a moustache to twirl. We also encounter a new member in the immortal fold Nile (KiKi Layne), a US marine serving in Afghanistan – whose introduction enables the audience to experience the much needed back story for the heroes and enables the script to delve deeper into the moral quandaries of morality and immortality. Charlize Theron is the stand-out of the film, her performance as a 7th century warrior whose devotion to her adopted family is poignant, you can see the pain in her eyes from the ones she’s lost over the the years – it’s the multi-layered performance you’d expect from an actress of her calibre, Theron would be forgiven for phoning it in here, she doesn’t and she holds the film together even when it threatens to fall a part. Supporting characters do a mostly admirable job, Kiki Layne proves convincing as a hard as nails marine, whose morality is tested after killing someone for the first time – the script sadly doesn’t quite explore this as well as it could, but it’s a decent effort none-the-less.

The Old Guard’s surprise is the gay relationship between Joe and Nikki, it’s a sad moment when it takes till 2020 for Hollywood to feature completely out gay characters, that even share a kiss – but at the same time the characters are handled excellently and major props to the creators for the representation and how well the characters are handled. These are side-characters whose relationship is treated with as much respect as any romance from a comic book film – it’s satisfying.

The film feels ever so slightly too long and occasionally exhibits moments where the lower budget becomes more obvious. Some of the sets can feel empty, especially in final showdown where they feel cheaply put together. The music choices are… interesting, a forgettable score is made worse by the inclusion of modern pop and hip hop that feel incredibly out of place. It’s a shame as there are plenty of opportunities for the music to heighten both the action and the drama, instead I found the music made me raise my eyebrows with how out of synch it was with the film.

CONCLUSION

The Old Guard is a brilliantly directed action film, with fantastic LGBT representation and a stunning performance from Charlize Theron rarely seen in comic book adaptations. Despite a by-the-numbers plot, the unique protagonists and interesting fight sequences keep the film engaging. The biggest issue I had with the film was the horrendous music choices that come out of no-where and don’t fit the film at all. I would love to see where a sequel will take the franchise and I hope with the films streaming success we get to see one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros

  • Excellent action sequences
  • Incredible performance from Charlize Theron
  • Fantastic LGBT representation
  • Mostly adept character work
  • Interesting mythology

Cons

  • Awful music choices
  • Been there done that plot
  • Cheesy villain
  • Missed opportunity with exploration of morality and mortality

XBOX : A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Microsoft have had a turbulent time when it comes to their hardware, Windows Phones failed to take off, the original surface convertible was a clunky mess and only their software managed to capture any kind of mass audience. But their one success is in their incredibly popular Xbox console, but it’s not been a smooth ride. I decided to take a look back at Xbox from it’s inception through to it’s current iteration

Announced in March 2000, Microsoft’s aim was to stop Sony’s PlayStation from getting monopoly on the gaming industry, an admirable cause for a company with a monopoly on the PC market… Released in November 2001 with a slew of top-quality exclusive games like Dead Or Alive 3, Project Gotham Racing, Jet Set Radio Future, and of course the legendary Halo: Combat Evolved, the console was ready to take on its rivals. But this wouldn’t be an Xbox console without some pratfalls. The original controller, the aptly named ‘The Duke’ was so large that eventual first party developer Lionhead stole the Japanese ‘S’ controllers without the Microsoft’s knowledge. The Xbox could not have felt more American compared to the svelte designs of its Japanese rivals; it was big, bombastic and powerful – it may be one of the reasons the Japanese have never embraced the Xbox brand. The internet capabilities of the console were its proper unique selling point, it seamlessly incorporated online into the system and Halo 2 provided game-changing matchmaking capabilities that are still used even to this day. The original Xbox did a lot right, it was a powerful system with must-play games, excellent third party support, and forward-thinking online features but it had only modest sales of 24 million and was largely ignored everywhere except the USA. Dethroning the PlayStation 2 was always going to be a tall order, especially with Xbox releasing 18 months later. The launch of the original Xbox is estimated to have lost Microsoft $4 billion and only managed to turn any kind of profit at the end of 2004.

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Microsoft went all in on their follow-up, the hugely successful Xbox 360. Releasing in the winter of 2005, the Xbox 360 felt like a much more calculated approach to console gaming than its predecessor. It was a massive leap in graphics over the previous generation, Xbox Live was fully integrated with dedicated friends lists, the design was contemporary and sleek, and the controller was refined – becoming one of the best controllers. Releasing a year before the PlayStation 3 and at a much more digestible price, the Xbox 360 enjoyed massive sales and was the market lead for the majority of the generation. Despite the hardware issues that arose from the Red Ring of Death and the lack of a Blu-ray drive, the Xbox 360 still managed to eat away Sony’s huge lead from the previous generation. The release of the Kinect gave Microsoft a small taste of the Wii’s success, however this is also where things started to go south. Game development shifted dramatically away from traditional console games and despite acquiring Twisted Pixel and Press Play in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Xbox started relying heavily on third party games and partnerships which would cause severe consequences going into the next generation.

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Most gamers will remember the shambolic reveal of the Xbox One in May 2013, its DRM policies, mandatory Kinect, lack of power, high price, and emphasis on its television functions did not sit well with the gaming community. After the reversal of much of these criticisms and despite a reasonable launch line-up and the promise of stellar-looking games like Sunset Overdrive, Titanfall, Fable Legends, and Project Spark coming soon the Xbox One looked like it might be OK. But the mandatory Kinect inflating the price of a less powerful console was a tough pill to swallow and with the memory of the Xbox boss telling gamers to buy an Xbox 360 if they didn’t like it were still very fresh. Add to this, Microsoft Studios was in utter disarray. Bungie (arguably Microsoft’s crown jewel) had already flown the nest during the Xbox 360 generation; Lionhead, Press Play, and Ensemble were shuttered; and Twisted Pixel went back to being independent. Microsoft had 343 Studios, Rare, The Coalition, and Turn 10 to make games in what was becoming a rather embarrassing exclusive line-up, relying on their solid but increasingly tired franchises. Xbox One sales haven’t been officially revealed, but sales are thought to be near the 50 million mark, by no means the failure some would have you believe, but certainly a fall from grace from the 84 million the Xbox 360 achieved. Announced at E3 in 2018, Microsoft put their cards on the table as to what their future might look like. They acquired four new studios, including Forza Horizon developer Playground Games and Ninja Theory, developers of the critically-acclaimed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, as well as forming a new studio called The Initiative. Later in the year they announced three other acquisitions including Obsidian Entertainment, one of best western role-playing developers in the world. Their decision to bolster their first party output has yet to yield results, but the future certainly looks brighter than it did.

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The Xbox Series X was revealed in December 2019 and Microsoft seem to be going all in with their Netflix style service Game Pass, a fairly genius play considering where the film and music markets have ended up – first party games releasing day one could be their trump card if their games are worthy. The announced games Halo Infinite, Hellblade 2: Senua’s Saga, Project: MARA, and Everwild all look incredibly promising. Looking to Xbox’s July event we can truly see if Xbox is back in the game or if they are destined to limp along beside their rivals. I am hopeful they can pull it back. I believe Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft need each other to thrive and to count Xbox out of the game this early would be a mistake.

TOP 10 TOMB RAIDER GAMES

Over the course of 24 years Tomb Raider has been a pioneer of action adventure videogames and heroine Lara Croft has cemented herself as an icon. One of the most successful franchises in gaming, Tomb Raider has had peaks and troughs with 12 mainline console games and numerous handheld and spin off titles, Lara has been through many different adventures and ranking my favourites is a difficult task.

The thrills of shooting a T-Rex in the face and the fear of missing a perfectly timed jump and the bliss of locking your bumbling butler in the walk-in freezer – Tomb Raider provides an experiences unparalleled in the genre.

Here is my Top 10 Tomb Raider games.

10. TOMB RAIDER : ANGEL OF DARKNESS (2003)

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Coming in at number 10 is the game that is often held responsible for the downfall of original Tomb Raider developer Core Design and for good reason. The tank controls from the original PlayStation era returned and were somehow made even more clunky, the game was riddled with bugs, featured bizarre levelling up elements, awful stealth gameplay and dialogue tree’s which while good in theory were completely superfluous.

But looking back many people overlook what Angel of Darkness did well, a challenging puzzle game, varied locations bought to life with vivid and beautifully realised graphics for the time, along with one of the most accomplished and incredibly tense stories Tomb Raider has ever done. Combining a film noir style of storytelling with a sweeping orchestral score sets the mood beautifully, along with Core’s excellent level design, Angel of Darkness succeeded where it mattered for a Tomb Raider game.

Though the game certainly feels rushed and an extra 6-12 months in the oven would have resulted in a far superior product, Angel of Darkness is worth your time – once you get past the games many quirks.

9. SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER (2018)

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The most recent entry in the long running franchise is a solid game and builds well off the two games that preceded it in the reboot trilogy. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an incredibly refined experience, with tight controls, beautiful graphics and striking soundtrack.

There’s a lot to love about the game, the real stand out of the experience is the actual Tomb Raiding and puzzles that make a massive comeback in both side quests and main questline, as well as excellent difficulty settings so you can tailor the experience to your liking. The tombs themselves are tricky and give an excellent sense of achievement when they’ve been solved.

However the Shadow suffers in a couple of areas, mainly the story telling, a poor script that tries to explore Lara’s mental state with all the subtlety of jackhammer, poor pacing, a silly plotline and an underwhelming villain. Add to this a boring open-world hub where costume changes are limited and an over abundance of stealth over shooting add up to make Shadow the poorest entry in the reboot trilogy – sadly the balancing act of making a Tomb Raider game the best it can be wasn’t met with this entry, Shadow was a boring conclusion and a bit of missed opportunity.

8. TOMB RAIDER III (1998)

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The third and fourth entries in the original Tomb Raider run are both guilty of the same sins, both have puzzles that are virtually impossible to work out without a guide. Tomb Raider 3 is better than it’s successor mostly because it still feels like a bold globe trotting adventure, where Last Revelations Egyptian setting becomes monotonous over its long running time.

Tomb Raider 3 operates in a similar fashion to its predecessor adding a couple of extra moves to Lara’s arsenal including a sprinting and crouching. Though the new moves don’t quite provide the gameplay diversity they should, only used sporadically. Also returning is vehicle sections, but an awkward kayak mission makes their inclusion more of an annoyance than welcome distraction.

Tomb Raider 3 is still an enjoyable romp despite its drawbacks, with a mission in Area 51 being a personal favourite, plus the best implementation of Croft Manor in any of the original Tomb Raider originals.

7. TOMB RAIDER UNDERWORLD (2008)

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Tomb Raider Underworld took what worked in 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend and opened it up – sprawling levels that were beautifully realised on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s superior hardware. It’s a thrilling conclusion to the Crystal Dynamics first games and in some ways is the best of first reboot trilogy.

The game is more open than Legend, so exploring is a more viable option than before, though the game still very much retains a linearity that the previous games also had – meaning the openness can feel somewhat hollow which is disappointing – exploration doesn’t amount to much more than seeing more of a level. Combat is refined with its auto lock-on shooting incorporating melee into the proceedings, so encounters can be approached in various ways.

The story manages merge Legend and Anniversary pretty well, with legendary character Jacqueline Natla returning from the first game and Amanda from Legend. Exploring Norse mythology has never been so fun and the game cleverly intertwines many myths believably. Issues with the camera, minor bugs and awful quick-time events mar what is a stellar action adventure title.

6. TOMB RAIDER LEGEND (2006)

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Legend followed Angel of Darkness at a time when Tomb Raider could have been finished, taking over from Core Design, Crystal Dynamics built legend from the ground up creating a completely new style of Tomb Raider with an emphasis on story and free-flowing platforming.

Leaving the tank controls of the original games in the past where they belong, Lara’s 360 degree movement was a change the series desperately needed – taking heavy inspiration from the Prince of Persia series, platforming went from the originals static precise grid gameplay to leaps, bounds and swinging that smoothly connect together in an almost balletic fashion.

Legends story is tight, interesting and well paced, the game delves into Lara’s past and gives her a much needed personality boost. She’s still a English explorer with a twinkle in her eye, but her motivations are more interesting and her backstory is enticing – Tomb Raider finally has an emotional pull and it’s all the better for it. Legends biggest drawback is it’s incredibly linear structure, feeling more like a set of corridors rather than open explorable spaces and a short length – with the game taking a mere 6 hours to complete.

5. TOMB RAIDER ANNIVERSARY (2007)

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Tomb Raider Anniversary is faithful adaptation of the very first Tomb Raider game, the story, the puzzles and the pacing are nearly identical, but with Legends updated gameplay and the graphics now more closely resembling real places instead of the pixelated triangles of the original.

What elevates Anniversary above the likes both Legend and Underworld is it sticks to the originals games structure, so the the game retains the more open structure that was absent in the aforementioned games as well as far higher difficulty – it has a better balance of gameplay with a more adequate running time.

Anniversary is a stellar entry and one the series best, QTE’s being one of the few drawbacks – turning some of the most thrilling moments of the originals into annoying button presses, it also removes the shock and awe of encounter with the T-Rex which is a shame. It’s a minor gripe with a game which pretty much defines what it means to be a Tomb Raider game.

4. TOMB RAIDER (2013)

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The reboot trilogy is a touchy subject for Tomb Raider die hards, the games takes a big leaf out of the Uncharted playbook, going for grand cinematic storytelling rather than the platforming and puzzling of the original games. It may have fallen apart had it not been for the interesting story and well crafted character study – Lara is young and uncertain of herself but still fearless and capable. Though there’s an element of cognitive dissonance with the story, it’s a minor gripe with one of Tomb Raider’s most interesting plots. As the game progresses her “kill first ask questions later” attitude from the original games begins to come back and it’s great to see. But this is a fundamentally different Croft, she feels like a woman more grounded in her environment and lacking the wit and charm of the previous Lara’s.

The game goes in a different direction with it’s structure – choosing a semi open world Metroidvania style that opens up as Lara obtains the right gear. The Japanese influenced island in Tomb Raider is one of the games greatest strengths, this is a thrilling land to explore – combining tight linear corridors and open spaces with excellent design choices by Crystal Dynamics.

The combat in the reboot finally reaches the standard of the rest of the game, with it’s 3rd person shooting mechanics being near best in class for the time – the bow and arrow providing a satisfying weapon to take on enemies silently. Though I miss the dual pistols, at the time Lara’s bow was the best implementation of the weapon and has since been used in almost every game since.

3. TOMB RAIDER (1996)

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The original game, the one that started it all. A game that took the world by storm thanks to its ground breaking level design, its fiery protagonist and its chilling atmosphere. Lara Croft became an over night sensation as one of the first female protagonist in gaming, her oversized proportions were the big talking point, but it should have been her incredible confidence and cheeky wit, Lara was so much more than her looks.

Before the advent of the open world game, Tomb Raider’s enormous levels with hidden nooks and crannies were a world away from the other 2D games of the 90’s and the ability to explore them at your leisure was a joy. The controls were stiff and ridged meaning the platforming tasked the player with precision, lining up jumps perfectly could be the difference between life and death, it’s thrilling.

Tomb Raider is a challenging game, but one that feels rewarding to conquer and on a modern PC without the horrible save system it’s still a fun game to return to.

2. RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER (2015)

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A more confident Lara, a larger more beautiful world, a bigger emphasis on exploration and platforming, the sequel to 2013 Tomb Raider is better experience in almost everyway. Where Shadow fell down was in its attempt making the world bigger but it felt more empty. Rise expanded the world, however still feels dense with every inch of the map thought-through, all of the map was designed for a reason and not just to be larger.

Rise is still even now one of the best looking games of all time, the realistic snow deformation, the towering mountains and the realistic wildlife make it a beautiful lived-in place. Like its predecessor Rise’s story is tight and well told with good performances from the cast – the villain of the game is a notable step up from the predecessor with a personal attachment to them that makes their relationship far more captivating than a typical bad guy .

The combat encounters are far more varied in Rise, offering options to go all guns blazing or stealthily – both are viable, though stealth is still a largely simple with all enemies able to track your location once your spotted, which is a minor annoyance with the system. Rise of the Tomb Raider was everything a sequel should be, it added lots more Tombs to solve, refined the combat and told a fascinating story at the perfect pace.

1. TOMB RAIDER II

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Tomb Raider 2 is a near perfect example of how to make a Tomb Raider game, it mixes combat, exploration, platforming, puzzle solving and a captivating story told across multiple varied destinations. Adding in the ability to control vehicles adds a new layer of gameplay that breaks up the gameplay loop nicely, tearing round Venice in a motor boat has never been so fun.

Far more human enemies in the game provide a serious challenge with them able to take you on from a distance as well as running at you with their dogs, better utilising Lara’s weapon arsenal and her acrobatic skills to stay alive. The puzzles in the game are tricky, but working them out involves reading your environment rather than an online walkthrough, it’s the mark of good design design.

With stronger narrative involving an ancient dagger that gives the holder command of a grand army and the power to transform a person into a ferocious dragon. Taking on a group of thuggish cultist has become a mainstay of the Tomb Raider franchise and Bartoli and his goons are some of the best. The final showdown at Lara’s home is a thrill and one of the most memorable moments from the entire franchise.

Tomb Raider 2 is the best Tomb Raider game of all time and a Capcom Resident Evil 2 style remake would be absolutely welcome – taking the excellent design of the original games with updated controls and the combat from the reboot games could be a match made in heaven. Come on Square Enix DO IT!