Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.




Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

A thousand years ago, the warlord Xu Wenwu discovered the mystical Ten Rings and gained tremendous powers, including immortality. Wenwu has guided world affairs from behind the scenes ever since, becoming wealthy and powerful. However in 1996 he met and fell in love with a skilled female warrior, Ying Li, guardian of the hidden village of Ta Lo. They had two children. More than twenty years later, after Ying Li's death, Shang-Chi and his sister are summoned back to their father for an important task: rescuing their mother's spirit.


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the proper start of the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Widow being more of an epilogue to the first three). New heroes are arising to deal with a series of threats to a world which is still recovering from the trauma of losing and regaining half its population. Twenty-five movies into a franchise, you could forgive the MCU for slowing down and smelling the roses, but Shang-Chi has no interest in conforming to cliche. Instead, it acts as a breath of fresh air in telling a complete story in its own right as well as hinting at grander things to come.

The film focuses on Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Awkwafina as his best friend Katy and Meng'er Zhang as Shang-Chi's estranged sister, Xu Xialing. Early scenes have a buddy movie feeling, with Awkwafina stealing every single scene with her impressive comic timing and everywoman WTF responses to the general insanity that goes down, but Liu holds his own thanks to a combination of natural charisma, impressive athletic skills and his own comic timing, honed over five seasons of the TV show Kim's Convenience (seemingly alluded to in a scene where he's mistaken for being Korean).

Hong Kong legend Tony Leung plays Xu Wenwu, who is contemptuous of both the nickname "The Mandarin" (feeling bemused at being referred to as an orange) and the terrorists who used his name to inspire terror across America. Leung achieves an impressive feat by making Wenwu both understandable and sympathetic, despite his undoubted crimes, and giving him a credible motivation revolving around the death of his wife Ying Li (an outstanding Fala Chen, given the small number of scenes she's in). Ben Kingsley also reprises his role as Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3, where he impersonated the Mandarin, and although it feels like he's basically shown up to apologise for that film, he also has some great character moments showing how prison actually worked in reforming him into a more positive person.

The film's signature attraction are the phenomenal action scenes. We've seen a lot of action in the MCU but not quite like this, with a pitch-note perfect combination of visceral, in-camera martial arts performed by actors and stuntmen at the top of their game (the opening bus fight is a masterclass in mixing tight hand-to-hand combat and more fantastical effects-driven carnage), and just the right dusting of CGI to complement but not overwhelm the action, at least until the inevitable Big Marvel Conclusion. Even that works better than most of the films, with the elaborate CGI being tactically deployed in imaginative and genuinely impressive ways. There's some particularly excellent creature work in the finale which feels impressive in its scale and mythic power.

The film is not perfect. Stepping back, the story of a semi-hidden society of more-advanced-than-they-look people who rally for an epic final battle does perhaps enjoy a few closer beats with Black Panther than was strictly necessary, and the mystical hidden city in a remote part of Asia is a trope we've seen several times in this franchise already (in both Doctor Strange and the underwhelming Iron Fist series on Netflix). However, these issues feel relatively minor.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (****½) gets the MCU back on track after the disappointing Black Widow. It has easily the best action and hand-to-hand combat scenes in the entire franchise to date, some excellent comic moments and one of the best, most human villains in the franchise. Great performances, well-handled action and impressive CGI make for an enjoyable blockbuster experience. The film is on general worldwide release now and will hit Disney+ in November.

Black Widow

In 1995, two Russian undercover agents in Ohio steal military secrets from SHIELD and escape to Cuba. The agents' two adopted children, Natasha and Yelena, are taken to the Red Room to train as Black Widows, elite agents. Twenty-one years later, Natasha and Yelena meet again when they discover that their former boss is trying to eliminate them. They have to reunite their family to take on an old enemy.


Black Widow is a bit of an oddball movie. It feels like a bit of an apologetic afterthought, Disney and Marvel giving Scarlett Johansson her own movie after a solid decade of playing great support to Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers in general. However, the movie also feels a little undercooked in terms of ideas and characterisation, whilst overcooked in terms of effects.

The film picks up after Captain America: Civil War and seems to be trying to achieve the same kind of grounded realism as the prior instalment in that sub-series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This makes sense, as Natasha/Black Widow is one of the least-overpowered heroes in the franchise, being solely reliant on her wits, intelligence and firearms skills. These are formidable, but the movie keeps putting her in slightly ridiculous situations where she's fighting off supersoldiers or running through exploding buildings. Things that would feel perfectly acceptable in a higher-powered Avengers movie feel off here, like Marvel are wasting one of their best assets who works best when the stakes and scope are a bit more focused and less grandiose.

The film is not helped by one of the weakest villains in the franchise: Ray Winstone is a phenomenal actor, capable of comedy and dramatic intensity, but is wasted here with poor writing and motivations, and forcing him to speak with a truly terrible accent. Most of the other actors do better, although you do wonder why there's barely any Russian actors in a film where most of the cast is Russian or from the former Soviet bloc. Rachel Weisz and David Harbour both provide solid support, but it's Florence Pugh who emerges as the movie's MVP with a terrific performance, melding comedy, pathos and tragedy, with a great handling of action. If Pugh has been positioned to inherit Scarlett Johansson's mantle, the film does a pretty good job of that handover.

In other areas the film is only adequate, with a few good action setpieces (Black Widow versus Taskmaster on the bridge), some decent ones (the prison breakout) and some pretty awful ones, drowned in iffy CGI (the grand finale). It's good to see what Natasha and Clint finally did in Budapest, even if it's let down a little by Jeremy Renner not appearing on-screen, and the ending does absolve Natasha of a lot of the guilt she's been carrying around for the whole franchise. I can see why they wanted to do that to the character ahead of her fate in Endgame, but it does sand off the rough, morally ambiguous edges to one of the MCU's most (hitherto) morally compromised and interesting figures.

Black Widow (***) is sold but a little uninspired. It feels a bit too late in the day, and does not service Scarlett Johansson as well as she deserves. However, if the film is not great, it's also not offensively awful and emerges as worth watching for Florence Pugh's scene-and-movie-stealing performance. The film is available via Disney+ worldwide now.

WHEEL OF TIME recasts lead actor for second season

Amazon's Wheel of Time television adaptation has recast one of the major roles for its second season. Barney Harris has left the role of Mat Cauthon and has been replaced by Irish actor Dónal Finn.

Harris had completed shooting of the eight-episode first season, which shot over an extended period of twenty months due to repeated delays during the COVID pandemic. Shooting began on Season 2 earlier this year after only a short break.

The reasons for the recasting are unknown at this time, although other shows have been adversely affected by COVID delays to shooting causing scheduling conflicts with other projects that otherwise would not have taken place.

Although unusual, the situation is not unprecedented: Aml Ameen shot the entire first season of Sense8 for Netflix, but had a falling-out with showrunner Lana Wachowski at the table-read for the second season and was replaced at short notice for Season 2 by Toby Onwumere. Game of Thrones recast the role of Daario Naharis from Ed Skrein, who played him in Season 3, to Michiel Huisman who played him in Seasons 4-6. The role of Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, was also repeatedly recast with three actors ultimately playing the role.

Like Harris, Finn is a newcomer who has only been active in the business for a couple of years, having graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in 2018. He had a small role in the second episode of The Witcher as Nettly (the peasant who hires Geralt to deal with a devil), and has also appeared in the stage play Albion, the film How to Build a Girl, the short film Love Have I Known and the TV shows SAS: Rogue Heroes and Cursed.

The first season of The Wheel of Time will debut on Amazon Prime on 19 November. Season 2 is expected to air in late 2022.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Watch_Dogs: Legion

International hacker collectivist DedSec has been blamed for a series of terrorist bombings that have ripped through London, killing hundreds. The British government has called on private security company Albion to replace the Metropolitan Police and stop further attacks, but the capital is now a morass of security checkpoints, heavily-armed guards with no accountability and constant drone surveillance. DedSec is regrouping with a new mission: to clear its name and expose those responsible for the bombings. But it needs new recruits...


Watch_Dogs: Legion is the third game in the Watch Underscore Dogs series from Ubisoft. The series has, to date, made an entertaining fist of its premise, which is basically being a Tesco own-brand version of Grand Theft Auto with worse driving, combat and storytelling, but the entertaining ability to hack the world around you. This gives the player some control over the environment, allowing you to remotely open gates, take over turrets, seize control of drones and wrestle control over passing cars and send them flying into a river, if you want.

Legion is the third game in the series and introduces a potentially very interesting and powerful idea: the game does not have a set cast of major characters as such. Instead, it allows DedSec to recruit literally any passing character off the street. Using the traditional Watch_Dogs device of scanning each passer-by's mobile phone, you can quickly discover their political leanings, sports team affiliations and medical or criminal history, working out if they'd be a good recruit for DedSec or not. Sometimes the recruitment systems is as easy as asking, "Wanna join DedSec, bruv?" and sometimes it triggers a mission where you have to do them a favour, like rescuing a family member who's being intimidated by thugs or deleting evidence about their criminal behaviour from a server. The only constants are Sabine, the sole survivor of the original London DedSec cell from before the bombings, and Bagley, a powerful AI that has been subverted to DedSec's cause and serves as your omnipresent "man in a van" assistant.


This initially sounds amazing, and for the first hour or so of the game it was as I had to undertake a series of missions with an elderly pensioner, which lent things a rather different vibe to the usual well-trained, young protagonists who feature in video games. After a while I'd built up a small team of what felt like everyday people, but I found myself defaulting to Myrtle, a late-twenties Irish construction worker who could legitimately enter many of the city's no-go security areas thanks to her job ID, and was impressive in hand-to-hand combat thanks to an unfeasibly massive wrench that was her signature weapon. Most impressively, she could at any time summon a cargo drone which she could use to get around the city and reach the tops of buildings, which a non-drone-equipped operative might have to go through a laborious infiltration mission to achieve. Myrtle became my default protagonist as I set about liberating London's boroughs early on, a surprisingly easy task which you can knock out in a couple of hours and unlocks a whole set of new, more powerful recruits. I did find myself swapping in Rosalind, a spy with a silenced armour-piercing pistol and a mildly ridiculous car with a built-in missile launcher and cloaking device, for missions that required heavy combat. When she got arrested on a mission, I instead deployed Ayodele, a formidable ex-hitman with a varied weapons arsenal. However, even Myrtle remained a viable character through to the endgame.

This signature feature of the game therefore ended up being both impressive but then undercooked: you'll probably find yourself defaulting to a small pool of 3-4 hyper-capable characters and ignoring everyone else. The game does offer up an ironman mode, so if a character dies, they die for good (and Legion's save game system is pretty much limited to saving on shutdown, so there's no easy way to do over missions if things go south), but it's easy to replace even hardcore combat agents with 1:1 replacements even if they fall on a mission. The game is also rather straightforward even on the hardest difficulty, so that's not a major obstacle.


Combat and stealth are functional rather than attractive. As usual for the series, setting traps and luring bad guys into them is a great way of thinning out the ranks from afar before you engage personally; many missions actually allow you to complete them by just using your spiderbot, a remote access drone which can merrily scurry through tiny vents to reach areas humans can't reach. The spiderbot is ridiculously capable, and after you've upgraded it, it can switch on a short-burn cloaking device and knock out enemies with an electrical discharge. I'd estimate I completed around 50% of the missions in the game using the spiderbot alone whilst the operator sat well outside of the mission area, almost impervious to detection. The game does try to make things a bit more challenging than Watch_Dogs 2 by only giving you a spiderbot and not an aerial drone as well, but there's so many passing aerial drones you can take over at any second, this really ends up not being a limitation at all.

However, the lengthy time spent carefully infiltrating enemy locations or hacking your way steadily to victory with a low body count feels a bit redundant when you can often shoot your way to victory in a fifth of the time. The first two games in the series encouraged you not to murder every security guard and police offer in sight, pointing out these were often ordinary people doing their day job. However, in Legion almost all areas are defended by either Albion security guards - whom you see punching pensioners on the street and arresting innocent people for no reason on a regular basis - or by the enforcers of Clan Kelly, a criminal gang engaged in people trafficking, slavery, gun-running and drug-dealing. This removes a lot of the moral nuance of the earlier games and gives you the green light to wade into areas with all guns blazing, especially as your characters in this game are hardier than Marcus in Watch_Dogs 2.


Legion's portrayal of London is excellent. The city itself is well-depicted, with major landmarks all present and correct but also many individual buildings, pubs and even flower stands. There is some compression - where there are five parallel residential streets in a row in reality, there might be one here, and Liverpool Street Station is bizarrely missing when the surrounding tube stations are correctly present - but overall Legion effortlessly becomes the single finest realisation of London in a video game to date.

More of a mixed bag is voice acting and writing. Not having a central protagonist or even a cast of protagonists is a major handicap. Procedurally-generated missions where you have to save one of your recruits who's been kidnapped have your character awkwardly saying, "We have to save our friend!" rather than their name, which sounds okay once but not five or six times through a mission. It's hard to see how this could be overcome, with apparently tens of thousands of name combinations and around twenty different voice actors with several versions of the script for each mission and cut scene, but it does add an artificial air to proceedings. The acting is mostly fine from the actual named, recurring characters, but many of the protagonists feel off, with extremely generic lines delivered in ways that don't always make sense. It turns out having an effectively infinite pool of characters with potentially infinite personalities makes voicing and writing for them in a reasonable timeframe impossible.


The game is pretty solid, but it does feel a little wanting in content compared to Watch_Dogs 2. That game gave you an absolutely massive list of optional activities to take part in, including car, kart and drone racing, and Uber-driving. None of these are present in Legion. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a more interactable environment, allowing you to blow up gas mains under the street to deter pursuit, change traffic lights to create chaos and frame people, even police and security, so they get carted off by the law and thin out enemy ranks before you engage them. None of this is present in Legion, either. Watch_Dogs 2 also had a fairly well-developed mobile phone you could interact with, playing with apps and watching news channels. Mobiles are still in Legion but are extremely limited in their use.

Watch_Dogs: Legion (***½) is a mixed bag, but ultimately enjoyable and worth playing, especially for its excellent depiction of London. The significantly reduced amount of content compared to its immediate forebear is disappointing, and the "play anyone" idea is an absolutely brilliant one which falters somewhat in the execution, but this kind of experimentation in the AAA space is rare and should be applauded, even if ultimately it doesn't entirely deliver on its promise. The game is available now.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Howard Shore & Bear McCreary in talks to join LORD OF THE RINGS prequel series as composers

Deadline has broken a story that will have many people cheering: Howard Shore, who scored all six of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies, is in talks to join the Amazon Lord of the Rings prequel series set in the Second Age as composer.


Fellowship of Fans has backed up the story and gone further to say that Shore actually signed on several months ago and is already working on the project. They also claim that Bear McCreary will also work on the show's music. McCreary is best known for his work on the 2003 version of Battlestar Galactica, as well as The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Outlander and the God of War video game series. McCreary's involvement has so far not been backed up by any other sources.

Shore joining the project will be well-received news by fans. Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy remains outstanding, netting him four Oscar nominations and three wins: Best Original Score for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, and Best Song for "Into the West." He received a fifth nomination for his score to the movie Hugo. His other film work includes The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Philadelphia and Seven.

Amazon recently wrapped filming on the first season of the series, which will premiere on Amazon Prime on 2 September 2022. A second season is in pre-production and is due to start shooting in January.

Wertzone Classics: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork, which at first glance is not unusual. But the nature of the murder intrigues Commander Sam Vimes and Captain Carrot of the City Watch. Their investigation of the case, aided by new forensics expert Cheery Longbottom, exposes an ambition that could plunge the whole city into chaos. Once again, Sam Vimes and his officers are the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city where it's hard to see where the one ends and the other begins at the best of times.

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel and the third to focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, following the excellent Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms. Once again, the City Watch must rally to solve crimes and stop a threat to the safety of the city, through a combination of Commander Vimes's cynicism, Carrot's good-natured optimism, Colon's stoic experience, Detritus's massively impractical siege weaponry, Angua's nasal intuition and, er, whatever it is Corporal Nobbs does. The Watch is here reinforced by new arrival Cheery Longbottom, a dwarf forensics expert with something approaching a secret.

You might expect the novel to be predictable - the City Watch sub-series is, at least in potential, Pratchett's most procedural sequence of books - but as usual Pratchett takes some delight in wrong-footing expectations. This is still a funny book, as Colon's close encounter with a psychotic lunatic of diminutive size and then a very angry bull can attest, but there's more of a serious side to it as well. Existential debates on the rights of sentient beings when no one can agree if they're sentient form a key part of the story as well, as Pratchett introduces the Discworld's golems, here used almost as robot slave labour until it turns out that they can think and feel, after a fashion, which raises thorny ethical questions.

The book is also marvellously, intricately constructed. Some other Discworld books feel like Pratchett has aimed an Idea Cannon at a wall, blasted out whatever came to mind and then assembled the resulting narrative morass into something resembling a coherent plot. That worked extremely well for some novels and not as well in others, but Feet of Clay definitely feels more pre-planned and structured. There are more distinct character arcs, not just for Vimes but for Carrot and Angua's relationship, new recruit Cheery whose quiet confidence over gender expression rapidly sparks a cultural revolution among the city's dwarfs, and even for series stalwarts and standbys Nobby and Colon. The former gets drawn into what feels like a Game of Thrones subplot, whilst Colon - distressingly several weeks from retirement - has a solo mini-adventure that he was not expecting.

There's even foreshadowing at work here, as Vimes visits his childhood neighbourhood and we get the feeling of unspoken secrets about his background. These will, eventually, give rise to one of Pratchett's great masterpieces in Night Watch, but that's still quite a few books off.

Feet of Clay (*****) is one of the best Discworld novels, if not quite at the absolute-best tier of Small Gods and Night Watch. It's well-constructed, naturally funny whilst supporting more serious ideas, and as marvellously characterised as Pratchett at his best. It deepens the worldbuilding of Ankh-Morpork, the Greatest Fantasy City of All Time™, and sets the stage for intriguing developments to come. The novel is Pratchett at his best: erudite, thoughtful and smart, creating a work where fantasy, satire and detective elements meet perfectly. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Friday, 17 September 2021

MECHWARRIOR 5 to get surprise second expansion next week

In a surprising move, Piranha Games have announced a second expansion to MechWarrior 5, their real-time mech simulator in the BattleTech universe.

There is supposed to be a video here. If you can't see it, go to the bottom of the screen and click "switch to web version."

The original game dropped in December 2019 as an Epic Store exclusive on PC. In May 2021 it launched on Steam, GoG and the Xbox console range, alongside a first expansion called Heroes of the Inner Sphere. This relaunch, helped by almost a year and a half of bug-crunching and revisions, seems to have given the game a new lease of life.

The second expansion, Legend of the Kestrel Lancers, is set during the Fourth Succession War, a major event in the history of the BattleTech universe. This war, lasting from 3028 to 3030, sees the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth join forces to launch a massive surprise attack on their mutual enemies, the Capellan Confederation, Draconis Combine and Free Worlds League, after an attempted assassination attempt of the Federated Suns' leader. In the fiction - explored in the Warrior Trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole - this war becomes a major turning point in the history of the BattleTech universe, paving the way for the union of the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth into a superpower.

The expansion will allow your mercenary company to join forces with the Kestrel Lancers, a veteran unit in the Federated Suns military, in a new story campaign. The expansion also adds multiple new biomes, including jungles, deserts and a new megacity style of map, with completely destructible buildings. Melee combat has been added (yes, you can now punch other giant robots in the face, or nearest comparable feature), and in the single-player campaign you can now hot-switch between the four 'Mechs in your lance rather than just being stuck in one. There will also be UI improvements.

Legend of the Kestrel Lancers launches on 23 September, or less than a week from today.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Paramount releases details for STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS

In addition to a lot of other Star Trek news, Paramount have released more information on their upcoming new series, Strange New Worlds.


In addition to returning castmembers Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One and Ethan Peck as Spock, the series will star Celia Rose Gooding as Cadet Uhura, Jess Bush as Nurse Christine Chapel and Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M'Benga, all of whom appeared previously on the original Star Trek series (with different actors, obviously). Additional actors include Bruce Horak as an Andorian named Hemmer, Melissa Navia as Lt. Erica Ortegas and Christina Chong as La'an Noonien-Singh.

Strange New Worlds is set on the USS Enterprise (OG Constitution-class, or at least the mildly-reimagined version which debuted in Discovery) some time after the events of Discovery's second season and some years before the events of the original Star Trek. According to both cast and crew, Strange New Worlds will be much more episodic than other modern Star Trek shows, focusing more on the original mission of exploring new worlds and getting into new adventures every week.

Strange New Worlds is expected to debut on Paramount+ in early-to-mid 2022.

STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC REMAKE officially announced

Aspyr Media are working on a full remake of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, arguably the greatest and best-regarded Star Wars video game of all time*.

Knights of the Old Republic, developed by BioWare in association with LucasArts, was released in 2003. Set roughly 4,000 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, the game tells the story of a war being fought between the Galactic Republic and its Jedi defenders against a Sith army and fleet led by Darth Malak. The player takes on the role of a character of their own creation who is roped into helping rescue a Jedi Knight named Bastila Shan from the city-planet Taris. As the game continues, the player acquires a large array of allies, such as the murderous and meme-generating assassin droid HK-47, and learns a shocking secret about themselves. Events culminate in a final battle between the Republic and the Sith Empire.

The game was immensely successful on release, generating both critical acclaim and high sales. It was followed by two sequels: the more ambitious but more divisive sequel, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) from Obsidian Entertainment; and MMORPG The Old Republic (2011) by BioWare themselves. Although set in an original universe, the later Mass Effect trilogy (2007-12) draws on some structural ideas from Knights of the Old Republic.

It is unclear how thorough a remake this will be, since no gameplay footage has been shown. The "remake" title and the age of the game and engine suggest that it'd have to be a much more thorough reworking of the game from scratch, possibly in a new engine, rather than the "retexture-and-polish" style of remakes like the Mass Effect Legendary Edition.

Knights of the Old Republic Remake is "early" in development and no release date has yet been set. So far, it has only been announced for PlayStation 5.

* Arguments for TIE Fighter, Republic Commando and Jedi Outcast can be heard at a later date.