Matt’s Best of 2012

It is now 2013. Another year is over, so here’s a brief look at what I thought of 2012.

Favourite Film – The Avengers

The Avengers
The Avengers

There’s so much I can say here but what it comes down to is that I’ve been waiting for this film for basically my entire life. Having been reading Marvel comics since I was a kid seeing all these characters brought to the big screen in a way that doesn’t suck on their own was good, seeing them all on-screen together in a way that doesn’t suck is fucking amazing. Because let’s face it: a lot of superhero movies suck.

You see it’s not just that this is a good film that makes it my favourite of the year, hell I’ll even admit that there are a bunch of objectively better films that came out this year, but The Avengers is the geek dream realized: comic book continuity brought to the movies. Proof that you can create an entire universe in film and the masses won’t reject it. Proof to the studios —finally— that their audience is full of intelligent people who are looking for an interconnected film series with characters that stand both on their own and as a team in a single universe. Yes, I realize I just said the same thing three times. If you think The Avengers isn’t a milestone in filmmaking consider this: Fox just hired Mark Millar to oversee X-Men continuity. DC had the ending of Man of Steel retooled to leave it open for a Justice League style team-up movie down the road.

And aside from all that, it’s just a damn good movie. It’s near-perfectly cast, they’re all clearly having fun, Joss Whedon’s script is lively and full of humour, and it features one of the best action set pieces of the year. Who knew basically destroying New York could be so fun? More than that though, Joss Whedon understands that what makes a large cast work isn’t the action or the bad guy’s plans, it’s the relationships between the characters and he completely nails this aspect of the film.

At the moment when The Avengers finally assemble for the third act of the film, I was one of the people standing and cheering, and I fully expect that the next time they assemble, I will be again.

Honourable Mentions

“I don’t want to talk about time travel, we’ll be here all day.” is my favourite line from Looper. This is the scene in which writer/director told us “stop worrying and enjoy this story because the story is what matters.” All of this is completely true. Looper is a film that tells you that it’s about time travel, but it’s really about love. That message, coupled with fantastic performances from the cast, a brilliant script make this a must-see.

Skyfall is the best James Bond story in years. It’s also the third act in a larger story that sees the latest Bond become fully realized and ready to move the franchise forward. Combine that with some of the best action direction of the year from Sam Mendes, and you’ve got a recipe for a great movie, which this is.

If you’d told me last year that one weekend in the summer all the guys I knew would be in a theatre watching a movie about a teddy bear (and all the girls were watching a movie about a stripper), I’d probably have given you a funny look, but that’s pretty much exactly what happened when Ted came out. It takes the ageing buddy movie schtick and manages to make it fresh again, it’s hilarious from start to finish, and it gives Mila Kunis a character to play. What more could you want?

Favourite Game – Punch Quest

Punch Quest
Punch Quest

I actually struggled with this category because, in all honesty, I don’t really have that many memorable gaming experiences from the year. There were a few flash-in-the-pans like Borderlands 2, but it ended up not holding my attention for more than a couple of weeks. Punch Quest, however, I can’t seem to get enough of.

There’s not really that much new stuff here; it’s an infinite runner that features punching. Strange at it may seem, that simple addition makes it completely addictive. Like all good single-player games, it engages me to keep playing by asking me to compete with myself and also by offering upgrades that make the punching cooler, routes that lead to boss battles or treasure troves, and a host of other “I can’t wait to see what comes next” moments in the gameplay.

Biggest Disappointment – The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises

You know I could go on and on and on about The Dark Knight Rises, but I am not going to go into specifics because I already did on the podcast but also because the specifics don’t really matter.

Sure, there are plot holes that you could drive a bus through, and there’s a lot of them, but you know what? Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both have some pretty big holes in them too. The difference is that where Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are both compelling stories, and The Dark Knight Rises is not.

Batman Begins had Bruce Wayne training and learning to become Batman. The Dark Knight pitted Batman against The Joker, his philosophical opposite. The Dark Knight Rises had Batman face off against his equal after learning to become Batman again, twice. This is not compelling; it’s repetition. Bane, despite Tom Hardy wearing the mask, isn’t interesting and a last-minute twist robs all his characters weight.

I feel like Christopher Nolan might have been going for fan service with this one (and let’s face it if the story were a comic book few people would complain because comics are strange), tried to work too much into the story and the end is a non-compelling mess.

And how did Bruce Wayne get halfway around the world with no money or ID in just a few days and then enter Gotham while it was on a total lockdown, anyway?

Dishonourable Mentions

Halo 4 may have made all the money, but I personally didn’t connect with it in the same way that I did the previous 5 entries in the franchise. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but every time I got stuck I got frustrated rather than spurred to push harder as I did in Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach.

Prometheus was meant to be Ridley Scott’s triumphant return to SciFi and the Alien franchise. It’s pretty safe to say that this was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, so when it turned out to be a convoluted mess, you could say that I was disappointed. Listen to the podcast episode in which we talk about Prometheus to get a better idea of how I felt.

Top Three I haven’t Seen/Played

I’ve tried to see Django Unchained twice now and both times I’ve gone down to the theatre every show has been sold out. Love it or hate it, people are certainly seeing it. I have mixed feelings about Tarantino as a whole, but I loved Inglorious Basterds, and this one looks to be right up the same alley of bloody American history.

I’ve heard very mixed things about Les Miserables but I very much want to see it for myself. I love the idea of live singing in a movie, but I can see where that might detract from the show as well. Plus it’s full of people that I like, including Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.

The C.I.A. says that Zero Dark Thirty isn’t realistic but I’m not sure I care. I’ve yet to hear a bad review, and it has one of the more interesting production histories of the year. Plus, Jessica Chastain. Just sayin’.

Conclusion

That’s about all I have for 2012. All in all, it was a pretty good year for film for me, but not so much for games. Hopefully, that changes in 2013!

Be sure to check out Simon’s Best of 2012 before you go, and have yourself a great 2013!

Simon’s Best of 2012

Best film – Looper

There’s so much to like about my film of 2012. Great script, stellar cast, strong direction from a relative newcomer…but Looper‘s best trick was what it didn’t tell you. The trailer would have you believe that you’re going to be watching a time travel action movie, young self hunting old in an indie twist on Terminator. What you actually got was a slow-burner that certainly had these elements in the background, but was really an exploration of family loyalty, the consequence of action, and how love can mutate and save at the same time. It gave us a further element to the age-old nerd dilemma: kill or spare young Hitler? Looper dares to suggest an alternative – change him, before it’s too late? It’s really something special, and the final message that Love Is The Answer resonated deeply over the weeks that followed the closing credits.

Also, it blatantly sidesteps the inevitable discussions on the holes in its time travel: Bruce Willis tells us directly that it just doesn’t matter. Deal with it. Watch the damn movie.

Honourable mentions:

Ghost Rider 2 – Really, one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Take away the need to “act”, let Nic Cage be crazy and mo-cap the shit out of him, use the Crank directors, combine for great success.

Avengers – Awesome superhero ensemble party with Whedon serving fine cocktails. High art? Nope. Amazing, enjoyable, thrilling and genuinely funny? Yep. In spades.

Skyfall – Not just a great Bond film, but a fantastic action thriller that will hopefully act as a blueprint for the future of the franchise.

 

Best Game – Super Hexagon – iPhone

What’s the meaning of life?

Sorry, let me backtrack a little and give you some context. Super Hexagon has a simple premise: don’t die. Walls of death approach and all you can do is rotate your tiny triangle around a central hexagonal spoke. Inch through the space, repeat. Score is time. One touch is death, game over. Press to restart. Over and over and over again. Time slows and seconds become milestones. First twenty, thirty, forty. Sliding forward, each instant restart a chance to improve and slice away at your best score. Last a minute, and the game tells you you’re wonderful. You feel it too, with a sense of elation that is unmatched by many other “deep” games. And that’s just the first level – knowingly labeled “Hard” – before you fling yourself further down the rabbit hole in comparative, superlative and Hyper versions.

How can something so simple – an iPhone version of a Flash game, for God’s sake – leave such a lasting impression on so many gamers? I think it’s the purity. There’s absolutely zero fluff or filler in the design. Story, character, Freemium DLC (spit) – all eschewed in favour of a single beating heart. It reminds me of the hours I spent playing the version of Geometry Wars Waves buried in Project Gotham Racing 4 (if you haven’t tried it, I recommend throwing five bucks on a used copy and heading straight to the arcade cabinet in your garage). It’s almost like it contains the very root of everything I love about gaming, distilled and concentrated in one single action.

But, then, it goes even a little further. It feels like its trying to tell you something about yourself, about life. The desperation to stay alive, the fact that you have to read the situation, make your decision, move and live by the consequences. You can never go back. Indecision is the enemy and leads to failure. Read, move, act with instinct and trust that deep, deep voice inside.

There have been a few times where I’ve looked at the encroaching walls and my brain has given up. You can’t do it, it says. That’s it. Game over. Then I watch passively as my fingers take over and lead me through the gaps with millimetre precision. Maybe that’s why the iPhone version is actually my favourite – the timing windows for the gaps are buried somewhere very deep in my nerve endings. It’s also with me all the time, and is the perfect distraction for the occasional spare two minutes between being an effective teacher and responsible parent. I play it and the world shrinks away for ninety seconds, the music vibrates my fingers, my heart pulses in time with the screen.

What’s the meaning of life? Who knows. But for me, this year, it’s been Super Hexagon; keep moving, trust your instincts, make your decision, and go. You can never go back.

Honourable mentions:

Journey – PS3 – Beautiful, moving and meaningful. So rare to get this from a game these days.

FTL – Mac – Just getting into this, but it’s already worming its way into my thoughts. It’s certainly made me consider doors as a higher priority.

 

Biggest disappointment (game or movie) – The Dark Knight Rises

I’m sure Matt’s chosen the same. You only need to listen again to our podcast to hear the abject disappointment hanging on every groaned syllable. His analysis will no doubt act as a highly-detailed magnifying glass over one of the year’s biggest films, but let me be the blunt hammer to his scalpel. The Dark Knight Rises ultimately does the unforgivable – simply put, it is just A Very Bad Movie.

Not a rarity, not this year or any year, but let me tell you why this badness is especial:

This is a Christopher Nolan movie

Inception has spoiled me. It’s practically ruined anything remotely in a similar genre. The last film that had that effect on me was Fight Club, especially as I was then a student of filmmaking who, right up to that point, arrogantly thought I could improve on anything with my unsurpassed dynamic vision and seemingly limitless talent. Fight Club left me physically shaking in a taxi, wondering how the hell I could ever be that good. Inception did the wondrous thing of telling a story that could only have been told in that medium, by that director. Insomnia, Momento, The Prestige; all additional rock-solid signs that Nolan utterly understands the silken weave between pace, time, story, setting and character. How could all this vision, this experience, result in something as wooden and splintered as Rises?

The Dark Knight exists

Batman Begins sowed the seeds of new Batman, moving away from Schumacher day-glo pyrotechnics to a version more grounded in the real. TDK then took this formula and dared to cast some young actor from A Knight’s Tale to continue Jack Nicholson’s Joker legacy. Do you remember the furore surrounding Health Ledger’s casting? I’m sure I even contributed to it. All the whining stopped immediately when the second film finally released. But was it just Ledger holding it together? No. Nolan’s a director who can bring out the best from all his actors (a reaction by Al Pacino in Insomnia is still the greatest piece of acting I’ve ever seen on film) so Ledger’s star turn is not a singular lynchpin. The script, slow and steady and full of malice. The characters, so well-rounded and interesting. The movie fit together as an intricate Chinese puzzle box. You left the theatre feeling like you’ve been exposed to what happens when the best are allowed to work together.

Conversely, DKR felt like I’d just read the readers’ questions section in Cosmopolitan.

The story is bad

I’m not going to list all the problems with this script and plotline (pro tip: Google them), but suffice to say they have more holes than an infinite golf course.

 

Disappointment is an understatement, then. An altogether dreary and unsatisfying ending to one of the most invigorating superhero reboots in cinema history.

Honourable mentions:

Cabin In The Woods – Great premise, wonderful execution, terrible ending that negated the actions of the previous fifty minutes. Shame.

Promethius – Went in with low expectations, found the end result to be even lower. Very beautiful but ruined by a terrible script with some of the worst space scientists I’ve ever seen.

Halo 4Halo is all about story for me. Note to 343 Industries -“story” does not mean “go here, do this set of three things, repeat”.

 

Top 3 I haven’t seen/played:

Cloud Atlas – I’m reading the book at the moment – and it’s entirely wonderful – so I’ve delayed watching the movie as I don’t want my imagination forced to picture Halle Berry instead of my own Luisa Rey. Really curious to see how on earth anyone could ever think they could make a movie of this book. Adored Run, Lola, Run, so it’ll be a visual feast if nothing else.

Smashed – I’ve been saying for a long time that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the best young actors working at the moment, and this seems to the film that finally supports this claim. It only had a limited run here, so looking forward to catching it before the Oscars so I can throw some support behind it.

Tokyo Jungle – The PSN title that lets you play as a Pomeranian, trying to survive post-human Tokyo amidst hyenas and lions. It sounds like an utterly unique gaming experience that could only have emerged from Japan.

 

 

Happy New Year!

Skyfall – Our Two Reviews

Skyfall

We both saw Skyfall this weekend and felt compelled to write individual reviews. We each have a lot more to say about this film so look for the next episode of the podcast for more in depth (and spoilery) discussion. For now, here are both of our reviews in their entirety.

Premium Bond: Simon’s Review

You’ve got to feel a little sorry for Timothy Dalton.

1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence To Kill saw him take over as iconic agent James Bond, rescuing the series from the latter campy efforts headed by Roger Moore. Dalton’s Bond was clearly a shift back towards the original spy of Fleming’s books, with serious realism creeping in and Dalton’s scowl replacing Moore’s insinuative eyebrow. They made money, for sure, but the latter was especially lambasted for being too serious in tone, too distant from the series’ preference for lightweight gadget fodder. The lengthy legal battle between MGM and Eon effectively killed his planned third outing, and the Bond reigns finally fell into the eager hands of Pierce Brosnan. I remember very clearly watching Dalton’s Bonds and really enjoying how the series’ new tone matched my own growing maturity. For that reason, he’s my favourite Bond. At least, he was – until Skyfall.

The first thing to note is that the story in Skyfall is actually compelling, interesting and twisty instead of being a mere backdrop for invisible cars and Playboy-level nuclear physicists. In a nutshell, a breathless pre-credits train-top chase leads Bond in pursuit of a lunatic villain – a character Javier Bardam savours so much in his portrayal – while using near-death as a catalyst for self-examination. All the main characters have skeletons in their cupboards, some more psychopathic than others. The aging cast is this time used front and centre as a reminder to us all that our bodies don’t always follow the vigor of the mind, and that sadness only turns into bitterness if stretched over decades. The chase unfolds in Istanbul, Macau and good old Blighty, the latter not filmed this beautifully in a long time.

Daniel Craig’s Bond resonated from the off in Casino Royale, finding an audience for his mix of seriousness and broken humanity. Craig lets us in on the journey from one point to the next, until we finally see that the assumed Bond “character” is as much a weapon as his fists or guns. It’s a clever, intelligent portrayal that’s subtle enough to not drift into melancholy. Craig’s casting was initially a hard sell, but it has proven to be a fine decision.

Skyfall sees Bond at his most resourceful and competent. The unfortunate side of both Casino Royale and the far weaker Quantum of Solace was that, as partial reboots, they really wanted to show you how Bond became this remorseless killer, a murderer for money. It took time for the character to settle into its rhythms, not helped by Quantum’s uninteresting story, but Skyfall doesn’t inherit any of these drawbacks. Here, Craig shows us Bond as a true agent, fielding ingenuity against bullets, never giving up even when the odds are stacked against him.

The other cast members are also steller. Judi Dench owns M more than ever, the extremely watchable Ralph Fiennes has great presence and even Ben Whishaw, as a new Q straight out of college, holds his own. The only downside is that the whole “Bond girl” aspect has been extremely downplayed. There’s a nice development involving Naomie Harris, but poor Bérénice Marlohe barely gets any time to shine. Flouting the girls around as Bond’s sexual conquests was certainly old-fashioned, but it did add a certain element to the Bond formula.

What a formula, though, and it’s crystal clear that director Sam Mendes absolutely understands it. From the thrilling car chase through Istanbul, a couple of stunning long takes (for both talking and fighting), through to a precisely staged finale in Scotland, every shot glows with style and confidence. There’s undeniable evidence that his experience with actors has brought out some career bests, especially the way Bardam exquisitely times the speech pattern of his bitter antagonist. Mendes also gives us time to wind down between set pieces. So many films get this wrong and hurtle along without any idea of calm before the storm. The script, too, has just the right mix of flavourful language with enough fan references to keep Bond purists happy for the next year.

It all builds to an amazing cresendo and positions itself as a solid base for the Bond films to come, even staging a final daring mini-reboot in many ways. It all seems so assured, so confident and rewarding; it’s hard to feel anything other than tingling anticipatory excitement when the closing credits gleefully announce JAMES BOND WILL RETURN. Just like it used to be, as it should be.

In Skyfall, we have the best Bond in years and a thrilling continuation of Craig’s interpretation. Actually, it’s not just one of the best Bond movies, it’s one of the best action dramas for a long time, with a main character that shows us how the reality of life should never have to keep us down for long. Timothy Dalton, my second favorite Bond, will be duly satisfied.

Bonding Experience: Matt’s Review

I am going to get this out of the way right now: Skyfall is a great film. Not just a great bond film, but a great film. It’s full of thrilling chases, great fights, and above all a solid story and superb cast to tell it.

Skyfall starts out like any great Bond film should, with a thrilling chase through a beautiful city using a multitude of vehicles. This, as with latter chases and action sequences are shot beautifully. The pacing is spot on, the camera works is amazing (thank the good sweet lord for the lack of Bourne style shakey cam) and the tension feels real. This is edge of your seat stuff! This leads into the classic Bond opening, and Adele’s “Skyfall” is a gorgeous song.

This opening sets up the basic plot of a list that shouldn’t exist falling into the wrong hands. You’ve seen this in the trailers, James Bond is back and he’s slightly worse for wear. It’s not often that Bond has been portrayed with a weakness but this weakness and vulnerability allows the character to grow in ways that The World Is Not Enough failed to really explore.

Many were unsure of Daniel Craig as Bond when he was first cast. Blond haired and blue eyed he didn’t fit the physical profile, and in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace his Bond was a harder man. None of the gaget tomfoolery or the casual feel that none of the previous actors except Timothy Dalton had brought to the part. He had his quips, but most of them were played with a cold and cynical attitude. This certainly wasn’t your father’s James Bond. While I loved those movies, yes even Quantum of Solace, I sometimes felt that the films and Craig had gone too far in this direction. I’m happy to report that Skyfall has found the balance between old school casual Bond and new school gritty, real, cynical Bond, and that that is a wonderful thing.

Judi Dench is back as M and she is delightful as the tough as nails head of MI6. If she wasn’t before, She’s certainly my favourite Bond girl now. Her portrayal is skilled and nuanced and the character is more in the forefront as the bad guy, played brillianty by Javier Bardem, is out not just to get Bond but M as well. You’ve seen tidbits of Javier Bardem’s first scene in the trailer and while I don’t want to spoil anything suffice to say that the only thing that I might like better than him as Silva fighting Bond would be Anton Chigurth fighting Bond.

Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw join the cast as a government official and Q respectively. Both are extremely capable actors and more than hold their own. Fiennes is basically always good, and I’m continually impressed with Ben Whishaw’s ability to throw himself into a part.

Where the film might be lacking is Bond girls. You might think the concept outdated or even sexist but it’s still an important part of the now 50 year old formula. That’s not to say that there aren’t Bond girls, just that neither Naomi Harris nor Bérénice Marlohe get as much develpment as they could, Marlohe especially. Harris does have a subplot unto her own, and her young fresh-into-the-but-unsure-if-she’s=ready-for=the-field agent plays well againts Craig’s unsure-if-he’s-still-good-enough-for-the-field Bond.

For those of you who felt that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace left too much of the Bond formula out, suffice to say or points are back. As with Craig’s Bond finding the balance between old school and new, the film itself works all of these elements with the same even handedness. Q is back yes, but there’s no car that turns into a submarine or scene where Q delivers a gadget that would only really be useful in a specfic situation he couldn’t possibly predict (which Bond inevitably ends up in).

And that;s what makes the film great. Balance. A balance of ideas from the old school of Bond with the new school of Bond storytelling rooted in a world that’s more grounded in reality. Sam Mendes has done a brilliant job bringing this world to the screen and making sure that Craig, Dench and Bardem all play their characters with complexity and layers, never straying too far into anger, sadness or mania as they each deal with their pasts. He also proves himself one of the best action directors currently working today, a slightly strange thought when you consider this is the guy who usually brings us more thoughtful character pieces like American Beauty, Jarhead and Away We Go. The script is brilliant, providing just enough fan service to put a smile on your face but not so much that it falls into the trap of camp so many other Bond films have.

Skyfall is really the third part of a loose trilogy. It starts witht he cocky new agent in Casino Royale who ends up letting his guard down and getting betrayed, continues with him reeling and recovering from this betrayal and heartbreak in Quantum of Solace, and finally coming into his own by the end of Skyfall. I won’t spoil the end, but what I will say is that Skyfall brings Bond full circle and provides a solid foundation upon which the franchise can move forward will a fully formed Bond in a fully formed world. As the credits roll the statement “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN” is on screen as it always used to be, and I couldn’t be more excited for when he does.

Reflections On The Past: From Driver to San Francisco

John Tanner – the driver of Driver – has had a tough journey, but it wasn’t really his fault. You can lay the blame at the feet of Rockstar, or at least at the metaphorical feet of their ambition, as their success in opening up video game worlds became the forced design aspirations for many a dev team. Reflections – one such team – fell into this trap and managed to turn an epic franchise into a despised mess.

The first game, released on the PS1 in 1999, was all flashing sirens, screeching tyres and alleyways stuffed with cardboard boxes. Featuring an ex-racecar driver as a cop so deep undercover that even his NYPD colleagues wanted to trash him, it was a wild taste of how cases would be solved if Starsky & Hutch was the official training reference.

The key element was the handling. Each car that Tanner threw around the game’s cities had a throaty backend with just a bare understanding of grip. What felt uncontrollable at first soon slid into place, and the feeling of taking corners sideways with raging police cars speeding up behind you was a sheer visceral thrill. To make things even more filmic, your every move could be viewed and manipulated visually within a replay mode that placed you as a film director of a 70s car chase movie. Imagine Bullitt: The Game, and you wouldn’t be far wrong.

So: a great game with a sturdy engine and critical appreciation to match the sales. What could possibly go wrong?

Reflections decided to open the car door and gave Tanner legs. Letting him escape his vehicle for the sequel was a bold move that didn’t entirely succeed. It preceded the singularity point of GTA 3 by a whole year but, while the ambition was commendable, the poor old PS1 just couldn’t take it. My main memory of Driver 2 is not about the tight freedom of driving, but of getting out of the car and trying to wrestle Tanner across the street as the frame rate dipped to flickbook levels. And his staggering amble couldn’t be ignored, with missions being written to incorporate the protagonist’s new trick. It sucked out the fun of what could – should – have been a generation classic.

Then the world gasped as the PS2 smashed what was thought possible, Rockstar showed us the shining grime of Liberty City, and Driver lost its relevancy. The pre-release hype machine whirred into place as Driv3r was announced and only increased in volume as it neared release. A few previews were positive, casting more hope onto Tanner’s comeback. Building to a massive buzz, Driv3r was finally released in 2004, and it was truly awful. Unbelievably buggy, ridiculously clunky and seriously outdated, it was crystal clear that it had been sent out before it was anywhere near finished. Of course, in these days of day-one patches, that’s becoming more normal (see the recent Medal Of Honor Warfighter – or even better, don’t) but the PS2 didn’t share this luxury.

The game quickly became a joke as word spread through gaming circles. It even got to the point where the few magazines that had published glowing reviews fell into scandal with accusations of under table payments, and it was hard to argue against them. Driv3r, for whatever reason, had just turned out to be a terrible game, made more disappointing by the marketing promises thrown around in pre-release.

The series hid after that, occasionally showing its face as a PSP title (Driver 1978) and a weak console offshoot (Parallel Lines), neither of which even trying to pretend that the crown of the PS1 original could be reclaimed. Many people – myself included – occasionally dreamed about how a modern version might look and feel, but it was always accepted that daydreams would remain just that.

So, when Ubisoft (who had bought Reflections) announced that Driver was having a full-blown Tanner-led sequel on modern consoles, the reaction was a pretty even split between glee and trepidation. After all, the effect of Driv3r never really disappeared and it was easy to imagine that the GTA legacy would surely dictate another on-foot disaster. However, it wasn’t to be. Maybe anticipating this suspicion, Ubisoft made it very clear from an early stage that the player never actually moves from behind the wheel. One car? Wouldn’t that get boring? Nope. One driver but multiple cars, made possible by a wonderful stroke of true high-concept imagination.

In the opening few minutes, Tanner is rammed into a coma by returning series baddie Jericho. The rest of the game takes place in his head, with every successful move towards the pursuit of his main target crossing over to aid his recovery in the real world (much like in the BBC drama Life On Mars). And it’s within this subconscious sandbox that Tanner finds he can jump from one body to another, effectively taking control of them – and their car – like a travel-happy ghost. It’s all expertly measured to fit into the structure of a video game, of course, but the fact that we know he’s in a coma from the beginning allows us to take whatever happens at face value. From the snappy script to the permanent magic hour golden twilight, it actually feels like a dream.

As you proceed through the game’s main missions, your power to jump grows stronger until you’re able to pull out to a map of the entire Bay area in order to travel quickly to your next target. For me, this kind fast traversal in an open-world sandbox is becoming more and more vital (perfectly epitomized in the amazing Just Cause 2) to the point where I know I’ll be subconsciously reaching for the hookshot button when GTA V finally releases. Being able to jump from behind the wheel of a cop car into an oncoming truck in order to swerve head-on into the getaway you’re still pursuing is pure magic. Actually, even though the game’s missions are generally good fun, I’ve been spending most of my game time just speeding round, finding new rides, enjoying the sunset. And it helps that every third vehicle is a car transporter with its rack in the declined position.

Once again, the handling is the star of the game. As meaty and thrilling as its PS1 forebear, every time I try to describe how it feels to drift around a corner at 80mph, I can’t help but rub my thumb and finger together. It’s incredibly tactile and, to steal from a better writer than I, to be any closer to the road would be to rub your face along the tarmac. The fantastic cars, clever missions, compelling story and many fan-service challenges (including a drive round the original’s garage testing ground, unlocked by driving a certain speed in a DeLorean) add up to an essential package that should have garnered far more appreciation than it did.

In the world of video games, just like in language, context is everything. I may have taken a long and rambling road to convey just how much I love Driver San Francisco, but its success is made all the more important because of the history it shares. To reverse the downfall and in turn make a game that’s actually better than the original is no mean feat, and one that should be applauded. I can’t wait to find out how it ends for Tanner, but in the mean time I’m happy to drift in the glow of the ever-setting sun.

Revisiting Halo 3 ODST

With the next Master Chief-led addition to the Halo universe looming around the corner, I’ve been doing a fair bit of introspection. The series of increasingly serious space epics has always felt like my perfect kind of FPS, from the orbital base jumps and gun-butting of Covenant Elites, to the dense growing layers of mythology and enemy headshots that reward you with explosions of ticker tape and cheering children.

The final game in the series from Bungie – 2010’s Reach – gave the player a unique close-up view of that entire world being wiped clean. However, Reach didn’t always “feel” like classic Halo to me – too somber, too light on day-glo purple – and that pushed me to try and pin down my favourite video game take on the mythos, at least so I could be mentally prepared to judge Halo 4. Interestingly, my final decision neatly contradicted a former strong set of opinions I had, and took me back to the time when Bungie decided to be a little more human.

Originally planned as DLC missions for Halo 3, ODST for the first time puts us in the boots of plain old humans. Highly trained badass humans, admittedly, but still far removed from the augmented flesh and seven-foot green armour that gives Master Chief such a brazen disregard for bullets. The game rotates around a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (voiced by enough Firefly alumni to justify a dreamy insistence that it’s an official tie-in) who are fighting away the invading Covenant in the lead-up to Master Chief’s explosive re-entry at the beginning of Halo 3. Microsoft’s insistence to turn it into a full retail release seemed to require more padding, so the set of missions is linked together by the silent Rookie searching through the city in search of clues. Every new clue prompts a new playable flashback.

There’s a clear noir-influenced direction in ODST, probably a result of circumstance – the game’s hub is the city of New Mombasa after a complete emergency evacuation, so its dark empty streets are the perfect place for pulsing neon billboards and dangerous lurking shadows. Even the soundtrack reflects this tonal shift, the classic Halo strings backing off to let in some crooning sax and light piano refrains. After the repeated chaos of the previous Halo games, this quietness at first feels…wrong. I remember rushing through these sections, desperate to find the highlighted helmet or gun that would activate the next story flashback. The way I rocketed past entrenched enemies, map waypoint dead ahead…it did feel a little like I was some kind of sci-fi streaker.

The missions, thankfully, were fantastic the first time and age has not damaged them. The split focus between the squad members – each with specific skills and weapons – meant that Bungie could really mix up the variety of objectives and locations. With a sharp script and snappy vocal delivery, it’s very easy to feel the jolt of going back to a silent protagonist at the end of each section. The final mission in particular is fantastic, a desperate fight across a bridge leading to a dug-in battle as you wait for extraction with a valuable asset. It felt enough to balance out the initial feelings of frustration and separation.

So, for me, that was it for a long time. A disappointing beginning that led to an exhilarating finale, in a package that just filled a gap before we got to be Spartans again. An interesting but flawed side project that put up a decent fight, but ultimately could never compete with the Chief.

Then time passed, other games got played, Reach got bought (amongst a gaggle of teenagers) at 12:30am, and ODST quietly sat untouched in my Halo collection. My fervent anticipation around Reach resulted in quiet disappointment over the end result (I’m not sure how it could have ever lived up to the Halo prequel my imagination conjured up) and the series finally felt like it had moved from my present into my past.

Thing is, ODST wouldn’t stay quiet. The idea of the human troopers was pervasive, not just the show-stopping orbital torpedoes that they insisted on using but also the fact that they had to fight in a very different way. Master Chief is designed to take the heat and stand tall as he fires a million rounds into an unlucky Brute’s face. That’s a vital part of his charm and the reason why players keep returning to him. ODSTs, however, don’t have this luxury. They are fragile, delicate meatsacks with a weak shield and paltry layer of metal being the only things keeping away the volleys of energy blasts and bullets. This calls for a distinct strategy – part stealth, part positioning and planning – and felt all the more human for it. We can never “be” the Chief, just daydream through his eyes, but the Troopers are only a few degrees removed from us in comparison. Self-preservation is a very strong motivator and it heightens every small victory.

It was actually through Reach’s lens that I grew to understand just how much I loved ODST. Firefight mode, which debuted in the latter, just didn’t feel as much fun in the former. Spartans don’t carry the same level of desperation in packs. Coordinated groups of these super soldiers are like sets of oncoming dumper trucks. This revelation led me to the realization that I missed the vulnerability of the Troopers as they provided a different kind of battle that required more of me as a player.

This is what made the muted shady structure of ODST’s hub finally fall into place. As I replay it again, I no longer have the urge to sprint. Now, I’m the human trooper up against absolutely massive odds, barely scraping through blazing battles with enemies that massively outnumber me, using strategy to win as much as weapons, before sneaking off down the streets, keeping in the shadows, listening for movement in the rain.

The quietness suddenly makes sense. It allows me to pick my route and plan my attack, which was never a real requirement of stronger warriors from previous games. The solace of being separated from your squad, of being forced to fight alone, is perfectly reflected in the gloom of the deserted city and the meanderings of the soundtrack. The back-heavy structure of the game allows me to find my feet and prove myself, before thrusting me back into the squad for the fight for my life against an army that is stronger in everything but intelligence and spirit.

And as Master Chief prepares to take my gaming world by storm once again, I find myself in the strange position of wishing I could be back as a Trooper, sneaking in the dark, battling in desperation, fighting the human fight.

Oscars 2012 Live Blog

Oscar night and I’m going to live blog the show. I was having trouble deciding where to start writing for the site and this seems like a golden opportunity really, just up and said “hey write about me!” So that is what I am doing. I will of course time stamp my thoughts as I have them, and hopefully provide you with enough context that you can read them without needing the show to be on in the background for you to understand what the hell I am talking about.

17:22: just getting set up with a place to write and record. Red carpet stuff is almost over, show about to start! Is a good thing we’re doing this without a screaming baby around. Oh wait….

17:30: Aaaaaaaand show starting. Morgan Freeman on stage. He’s welcoming us to the show, and also Billy Crystals parody montage.

17:35: Montage over. “Say ‘I’m Batman, it’ll help me!'” was hilarious, but all the jokes are pretty …. Uh…. Safe. I have a feeling this will be indicative of the rest of the show as well.

17:37: “Nothing takes your mind off these economic times like watching millionaires give each other golden statues.”. Awesome, if a little obvious. Now the singing. Oh the singing. If only Billy Crystal could sing.

17:41: I should probably point out how cynical I am about the Oscars this year, in case it hasn’t come through yet. I have a bad feeling there’ll be no risks taken tonight, and the jokes aren’t that funny so far.

17:43: First award is cinematography. Hugo wins. Second up is art direction. Hugo wins again. I haven’t seen this yet, but from what I have seen the film is gorgeous so this makes sense. I have no strong opinions about this either way really.

17:47: WTF is the band doing up in the box seats? Going back to Billy Crystal for a second my question is this: why the hell don’t they just get Hugh Jackman back again? Seriously; his song was way better and unlike Billy Crystal he can actually sing.

17:52: And now a montage of iconic moments in film. Brett from Flight of the Conchords is in the audience and I blew Simons mind by telling him that Brett is nominated for the songs in The Muppets.

17:55: The Artist wins Best Costume Design. Not surprised. Everyone looked great in it. The Iron Lady wins for Makeup. They did do a. Good job of turning Meryl Streep into Mrs. Thatcher and then aging the crap out of her.

18:03: Montage of actors talking about their first movie going experience. Mostly boring except that Brad Pitt dropped “War of the Gargantuas” which is kind of amazing. This is a movie which you need to see if you haven’t.

18:05: Sandra Bullock takes the stage. She’s about to speak Chinese. In German.

18:07: A Separation wins best foreign film. Iranian Film meant to be gorgeous. We wonder if it’s a political decision at all, but it is meant to be an amazing film. Is that too cynical? I can’t tell anymore.

18:09: Christian Bale on stage to give away the Best Supporting Actress trophy. Still hoping for Jessica Chastain. Simon and Wife taking the piss out of Christian Bale’s accent. Funny, most Brits I know do this, take the piss out of every other Brits accent.

18:12: Octavia Spencer wins for The Help. Everyone on their feet. Kind of brilliant. She was amazing after all. I maintain that the Octavia Spencer/Jessica Chastain storyline in The Help was the best part of the movie.

18:17: So far Sandra Bullock speaking Chinese in German, Iranian Director giving a political speech for his acceptance, and Octavia Spencer winning are the best moments of the show.

18:18: Ooooh Billy Crystal makes a joke that’s actually funny. “45 minute drive indeed.”

18:20: Christopher Guest and co doing what appears to be ad lib focus group for Wizard of Oz. Kind of right up my alley. “I didn’t like it until the flying monkeys.” Fred Willard FTW.

18:25: Girl With The Dragon Tattoo picks one up for best editing. Hugo for Sound Editing and Sound mixing. I realllly wanted Drive to win for sound editing, if only so that it could have an Oscar. Kind of wish that Transformers won for sound editing just to see everyone’s reaction and also the DVD cover a Transormers film that reads “Oscar Winner.”

18:32: Can we have more Fred Willard please?

18:34: Muppets on camera. It’s a good thing.

18:35: Cirque du Soleil interpreting “going to the movies” in dance. This could actually be pretty interesting.

18:39: I wish that at some point in my life I could be half as athletic as someone from Cirque. Seriously.

18:41: Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow presenting for documentaries. Not being very funny. Fuck I didn’t see any documentaries this year at all. Undefeated wins. Yay?

18:44: Huh, first instance of someone being played off. Even cut off the mic on the guys who won best documentary. Not really fair consider there were six of them.

18:46: Best animated film is Rango. Fucking amazing since its clearly the best animated film from 2011 and Gore Verbinski is overdue. Maybe a bit surprising that the film that was the best was chosen.

18:50: Any voice actors in the audience? I’d like to hear what you have to say abut Chris Rock’s little description of your job. I’d be willing to bet that you’re maybe wanting to go all Hulk SMAHSH right now?

18:54: Emma Stone is amazing. That is all.

18:55: Lots of good choices for visual effects but Hugo wins. Seems like Hugo is going to win all the technical awards. I wonder how that bodes for the beat picture/director awards… No I don’t, it bodes poorly.

18:59: Best Supporting Actor award. Christopher Plummer wins! Yes! About time. He’s generally speaking always great.

19:10: You know, I think they should just let the hosts of these shows run wild. When these jokes are so blatantly scripted they aren’t funny. If they’d just let them ad lib and make fun of the audience it might actually be good. So far Billy Crystals best jokes have all been off the cuff remarks, like the one to the president of the academy, “mister excitement.”

19:13: The Artist is totally going to win best score.

19:14: The Artist won best score. I mean, how could it not? The film is all music. On top of that the score is really good, too. Also John Williams had two nominations for the same score. YEAH I SAID IT.

19:18: Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiniakais presenting for best song. Muppets to win, right?

19:19: Bret Harrison of Flight of the Conchords is now an Oscar winning musician. Fuck Yes. Muppets FTW.

19:25: is it just me or is Angelina Jolie not looking super healthy? She looks like a stick figure. Either way, The Descendants just won best adapted screenplay. I’m sure it’s great but I was really pulling for Moneyball.

19:29: I really hope Woody Allen wins for best original.

19:30: Woody Allen wins. Fucking A. I’d really like to see him win best picture as well but don’t see it happening.

19:37: You know, the technical awards should get more than just a 2 minute recap. But maybe I’m a huge nerd.

19:39: Maya Rudolph and Kristin Wiig making innuendo about short vs long film should be cliche but somehow is just funny.

19:42: Are all the best documentary nominees seated in the nose bleeds? Do they get to give their speech after the next awards when they finally get to the stage?

19:45: That’s a capitol hat the guy who won for best animated short is wearing. Jaunty angle as well.

19:50: Michael Douglas is clone of Kirk Douglas right? Time for the best director. Thinking that The Artist will likely win. If something I don’t want to win is going to win though, let it be Hugo. If something I want to win wins let it be Midnight in Paris.

19:53: aaaand The Artist wins for best director. Le sigh.

19:57: Governors awards. Again, wish they weren’t given such a brief recap. Just make it part of the show. Or, better yet, replace the red carpet BS with them.

20:00: Only best actor, actress, and film are left. Not hopeful for anyone involved in films that don’t rhyme with “de smartest.”

20:03: Time for the in memoriam. Usually this is when we get to hear how famous people were by how loud the crowd claps, but no one is clapping. Fucking finally.

20:13: ok the show is starting to feel dragged out. But at least Natalie Portman is on stage to give ay the best actor award. I’m sure Rene Dujardin will win, but we’ll see. Nice little unspoken exchange between her and Gary Oldman as she talked about his performance in Tinker Tailor.

20:18: Jean Dujardin wins. Not surprised in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong, while I didn’t think the movie was worth all the awards it’s winning or even like his character? He did a brilliant job. That said, GARY OLDMAN WAS NOMINATED.

20:24: Here’s Colin Firth to give the best actress award. No idea who it will be. Meryl Streep won the BAFTA but that’s British isn’t it. Viola Davis needs to win, Rooney Mara I want to win, but I have a feeling it’ll be Bernice Bejo.

20:29: Oh wait Bernice Bejo wasn’t nominated. Fuck. I had kind of assumed that she was. Either way, Meryl just won and it’s about fucking time. Even if Viola Davis should have. But seriously, about time. 13 nominations between wins?? Too many.

20:32: Tom Cruise to present best picture. With a montage. It’ll be The Artist, but I really want it to be … Well, they’re all good, but Midnight in Paris. Or Moneyball.

20:36: And The Artist wins. Quel surprise. Between Hugo cleaning up the technical awards and The Artist cleaning up everything else it doesn’t seem like anything else won much of anything.

You know, this ceremony wasn’t very exciting. I hope next year there’s some risks, some more varied choices, and that the theme is a little more specific than “we like movies.”. I’m going to sleep on it and recap in a day or two with more feelings on who won and who didn’t but long story short: boring, Emma Stone hot, Angelina Jolie not hot, and very few surprises.