What I thought of Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 is the latest game from Rockstar and is is one of the greatest bits of entertainment you’ll ever experience. If you’re an experienced gamer or someone picking this game up for a play because of the hype then you’ll experience something that doesn’t just subvert games, but it takes time to tell its story rather than bursting through levels to power your main character up ASAP to fight the end bosses.

Your main character here is Arthur Morgan; an outlaw and a cowboy in the final dying days of the Old West, and the early days of industrialisation in 1899. As Arthur you get to ride round the simply enormous map in a super-detailed way and you get to experience yourself things like the forests being cut down or the railways expanding, or more industrialisation sneaking into your world. The world changes around you but there’s still loads of wilderness which means it can take minutes for you to ride from one mission to another, and the exploring I mentioned takes hours and hours. There is a fast track method of travel but it doesn’t immerse you as riding around on your horse, which of course is customisable in a way that makes you grow fond of this digital animal as you would a flesh and blood one.

From here on in there’s spoilers, so be warned.

You play as Arthur, part of the Dutch Van Linde gang and essentially his right hand though Arthur has also had Hosea to help raise him so the game sets up the device where the main protagonist has essentially two fathers (we find out during the course of the game that Arthur’s read father is a bastard he was glad to see die) who have ensured a vague code of honour for the gang to live through. As the game opens, something has went wrong in a heist and the gang are forced to run to the cold snowy mountains to hide and regroup before finding somewhere warmer to settle for a while.  This first few hours of the game are basically your tutorial levels and you get to know the gang slowly. You also get to know Arthur and discover what he is as the game drives you into gunfights and train robberies where you decide whether to beat people to death or shoot them or let them go.

The honour system decides what sort of person Arthur becomes as well as defining how your experience of the game proceeds. So if like me you were killing everything in sight for the first 20 or so hours and then realised that the game was failing to give me the rewards I’d read about I changed my game. Also, I’d grown tired of Arthur as a killing machine so I stopped killing bystanders as well as looting their bodies, and my honour improved. My experience of the game improved as those first hours are hard before you end up being given the freedom to do what you want. When you are given that freedom you have the ability to explore possibly one of the best realised worlds you’ll see in a game.

The game is constructed into chapters that feel more like a season in a TV programme. The first few chapters lure you into a familiarity as well as a video game like invulnerability for your cast. It isn’t til the gang go to St. Denis (a very thinly disguised New Orleans) in what is supposedly Dutch’s big plan, that things start really going horribly wrong, and the Dutch of the start of the game who is a crook, but not a psychopath, is very much on the road in becoming a lunatic. The story then becomes how the gang splinters after Hosea’s brutal death as Arthur and Dutch go their different moral ways. By now I’d started playing Arthur as a bad guy trying to be better, so I realised the game lured me in and I’d become so immersed in the world and the life of this digital character called Arthur that I wanted him to be the doomed melancholic hero I wanted him to be. By now of course you know Arthur is going to die as he has TB, so your task is to redeem him while giving him a decent life (which you can through a few side missions) before he dies.

And dear god, this game is glorious in character building. It takes time to do anything which forces you to be patient, because when the game delivers what you want, it does so extraordinarily well. This from near the end of the game is one of the few moments I found myself laughing at how well, and how perfectly done, everything was.

I haven’t mentioned Micah, but as a bad guy Micah serves his purpose. He’s not Rockstar’s greatest villain (look to GTA: San Andreas for that) but as an out and out bastard he’s brilliant a he nudges Dutch towards being darker & less honourable. Dutch himself is a character you can use to hit those people who thinks video games can’t develop nuanced characters or relationships because Dutch and Arthur prove that to be wrong.

Eventually you come to the end, and depending on how you’ve live your life you die either in agony with Micah’s knife in your back or peacefully with the sunrise shining in your face. It’s a perfect end which makes the epilogue an often tedious task as you start playing as John Marston, the protagonist of the first game which is fine but you’ve invested so much into Arthur that having to actually shovel shit to get to the point where, eventually, you get to kill Micah. In fact the epilogue is one of the few negatives of the game (alongside a simply fucking awful targeting system that can be sort of fixed by fiddling around in the settings) but even then I can sort of see the point of having this slow epilogue that leads to something horrendously violent and cathartic but once done and you’ve sat through the credits (which is essential) you get to carry on playing as John, so you can visit Arthur’s grave where, depending on your honour, interesting things can happen…

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a triumph. It’s a work of art which makes you sad when you leave a fully realised world in a game that forces the player to reassess how games are played or experienced. You live as Arthur and through a mix of writing, acting and your decisions you form this amazing experience that is going to be hard for Rockstar to top. Indeed, I look at the entire industry and think how can anyone top this (Death Stranding looks promising) or even how Rockstar can top this?

I look forward to finding out out how the industry can go better than this game, but for now we have a work that is not just a spectacular bit of entertainment, but a genuine work of art that’ll be talked about for as long as we play video games.

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What I thought of Daredevil season 3

I didn’t mid season 2 of Daredevil. Yes, it did die off after the first half of the season and ended in a terrible final episode designed more to set up The Defenders that provide good storytelling. Also the Marvel series on Netflix are overlong, with some episodes being glacially slow or just there to pad out the season. Daredevil season 3 is as good as the Marvel Netflix universe gets. It never feels padded out, there’s no filler episodes and the story moves to a satisfying ending that essentially would have set up future seasons had Netflix not cancelled the series,With Marvel/Disney being coy as to whether this cast returns.

Season 3 picks up after The Defenders with Matt Murdock (still played wonderfully by Charlie Cox) battered and broken being cared for by Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley reminding us that she’s still a talent) while Foggy and Karen carry out their own fight against the Kingpin (a fantastic Vincent D’Onofrio). 

Season 3 also throws in Bullseye, though he’s never referred to as that name, it very definitely is that character and he gets a backstory too where he’s either a broken child or vicious bastard depending on your point of view. And this moral nuance is embedded throughout the season as characters aren’t black and white, but various shades of grey. Even the Kingpin isn’t a total bastard as there’s some humanity there but overall he’s still a monster, as well as Marvel’s best cinematic villain. Forget Thanos or Loki, Wilson Fisk is magnificent with how evil his corrupting influence is being the slow burn of his evil this season as Fisk uses one good man to his own needs.

That good man is Agent Nadeem played by Jay Ali. Nadeem is a good man working in the FBI trying to do what’s right, but desperate for money after paying for his sister-in-law’s cancer treatment so he pushes himself into a position that places him next to the Kingpin and Matt Murdock/Daredevil. This season Daredevil sheds his red costume for the plain black one he started out with, as Matt struggles with himself trying to work out who and what he is.

There’s a lot going on this season, which means there’s no padding, or filler episodes. Indeed one episode which could have been a filler (Karen) gives us essential background on Karen Page plus it allows Deborah Ann Wolf to show us what she can do. Overall all the main players get their moment, the introduction of Bullseye means we’ve got an equal in fighting ability to Matt which also means plenty of scenes where Daredevil takes a beating, in fact there’s a lot of fight scenes where various protagonists take a hellish beating.

Daredevil season 3 is the best thing Marvel’s done for Netflix. It’s an almost perfect crime/superhero drama that uses the potential for these characters while utilising the comics history of them to tell new stories. After the cludgy second seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (not seen the second season of Iron Fist & probably won’t) this shows how things are done just in time for it to get cancelled as Marvel/Disney pull as much of their intellectual property back in-house. Whether Disney/Marvel will have the creative bollocks to do something like this season of Daredevil in-house remains to be seen (and I’m wary they will) but this will stand as testament to what can be done when creators work together to do something good.

What I thought of Star Trek: Discovery season 2 episode 1

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery contrary to what some fans said, wasn’t actually bad as it tried to do something different with the Star Trek formula, though the season was let down by a staggeringly awful final episode which wrapped everything up so poorly that it undid much of the good work the season did though the last shot tease of the Enterprise was a nice touch.

Then comes this first episode which in one fell swoop brushes away many of the criticisms of the first, so the overall tone isn’t as grim, supporting characters suddenly have names, and although it takes much of its tone from the 2009 J.J Abrams reboot though buried in what is a pretty action packed episode is something akin to Star Trek.in the what is the season’s overall arc which is finding out what the strange red bursts happening across the galaxy are..

Sonequa Martin-Green returns as Michael Burnham, while Anson Mount débuts as Captain Pike, the first captain of the Enterprise who plays it like the the film version of Pike rather than the original series. These two are clearly the main two protagonists but it feels slightly more of an ensemble piece that last year so all is good right? Not everything. It feels slight and there’s not enough in it to detract from the feeling it’d rather be about the action that anything else. As a whole though the series kicks off well; it’s fast paced action with a touch of fun missing from the first season that seems to be intent on taking us on an adventure rather than just tread the grounds of the first year.

So good start, let’s see where it goes from here.

What I thought of Doctor Who: Resolution

I’ve not minded the first series of Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker. She has massive potential, and the soft reboot is a still a great idea as is changing things up with the music and a larger budget spent on episodes. The problems still lie in scripts and in the New Year’s Day special the problems started right away.

The story starts with a bunch of Vikings beating an impossible alien menace in the 9th century, and in victory cutting the creature into three parts to hide across the world with one of those parts ending up in Sheffield in 2019 as its uncovered as part of an archaeological dig. Brilliant start, great setup and we’re in for an hour of action and adventure as the new Doctor comes face to face with the Daleks for the first time.

And we get that. The pace and speed of the opening ten minutes or so are breathtaking then we get the introduction of Ryan’s dad and suddenly a B plot is introduced which manages to suck the life out of the episode stone dead. Literally all the momentum is drawn out as the story stops for a long scene where Ryan and his dad have a long conversation. Sure, the storyline picks up again but it’s fell to pieces by this point as we have no idea what the tone of the episode is meant to be? Is it family drama? Is it an action/adventure ride for a bank holiday? Is is a satire? The writer and showrunner Chris Chibnall decides on all of the above while trying to ram it into an hour of screentime which means things go missing including the plot-thread about the other two parts of the Dalek and what’s happening with them, and more importantly, the Doctor.

Now I like Jodie Whittaker a lot. She’s got huge potential and she can act. Just look at her at the start of the clip below. Its terrifying subtle stuff.

Resolution has the problem in it doesn’t know what to be. It doesn’t settle on a tone, and instead slaps around like a drunk on a speeding bus on Christmas Eve battering its way from scene to scene because Chibnall hasn’t decided what he actually wants the episode to be. Because of this the Doctor gets lost which means we get her coming into a scene, saying a few lines and then being drowned out by the large supporting cast and because Chibnall seems scared to actually explore the potential of a female Doctor mixed with often piss poor direction, Whittaker is massively wasted.

Doctor Who can be anything it wants each episode. The show has infinite potential and a minimal respect for continuity, and unless you’ve got the skill of a writer like Douglas Adams or Robert Holmes trying to mix and match as you’re going on ends up in a mess like Resolution. Yet it doesn’t need to be like this. Take Legends of Tomorrow, another time-travel based show which struggled with tone in its first season. It didn’t know what it was. Was it fun and games based superheroics that threw everything at the wall or was it grimdark stuff for the Edgelords? In the second year they decided to throw out the grimdark stuff and have fun. Sure, it sometimes gets serious but most of the time it adopts a tone where you can have scenes like this.

If something flits tone too sharpish, or worse, takes you out the story then it becomes harder to reinvest the time back into something, and if it keeps doing this then why bother?

But it can be fixed. Less companions. Better scripts. Pick a direction and stick with it but most importantly, let Jodie Whittaker develop because a series into her era I have no idea what her character is. I did with Capaldi, Smith, Tennant, Eccleston, McCoy, etc and hell, I even got the jist of Paul McGann’s Doctor who had an hour or so of screentime. Whittaker isn’t being allowed to explore the role except in tiny glimpses where something glorious is hinted at.

So the next season hasn’t started filming yet. I hope the production team listen to criticisms (not the ”ITS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD” type as I’m glad the show is becoming political again after Moffat’s era)  and come back in the autumn with am improved show that allows Whittaker to show what she’s capable of.

 

What I thought of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

A day ago Netflix announced a new Black Mirror film called Bandersnatch with zero previous publicity. A Bandersnatch comes from the works of Lewis Carroll and that knowledge should provide a clue as to what this new bit of Black Mirror is all about, and if you’ve played a ‘choose your own adventure’ type game back in the day either with a book or work like The Hobbit for the ZX Spectrum.

See this is a story set in the mid 80’s and as a period piece is almost perfect. I especially liked the old shit-brown livery of the W.H Smith branch Stefan (the main character) goes into at one point, as well as a perfect reconstruction of the stock it had in it. Stefan is a programmer working on adapting a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, Bandersnatch, into a computer game.So far this is prime Charlie Brooker, and the scenes in the game company office seem ripped from his days as a games journalist.

The thing is the version of Bandersnatch I watched will be different to the version you watch as it too is a ‘choose your own adventure’ story but the difference here is that Stefan as well as Colin, his idol in the games world, are aware they live in a story but have no control over their own destinies. but in thinking you as a viewer have power, you suddenly realise you’re being manipulated by the programme makers in making certain choices. Essentially this is a giant work of meta-fiction influenced by the likes of Philip K. Dick, Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock and especially Grant Morrison’s work on Animal Man. Issue five’s The Coyote Gospel especially with it sort of being referenced into the film itself.

Does it work? On the whole yes but at times it does fall into itself as it shows off how clever it’s being, with one ending (there’s five main endings and loads of other lead-ins) that references Netflix itself and the technical prowess needed to make such a film, which to be honest, is just distracting wankery.  The story is what’s important and although well acted and directed (the vastly underrated David Slade directs) it suffers from being stilted at times, plus if you opt out of the end the first time, you lose the sense of being trapped in a never-ending hell.

As an experiment and episode of Black Mirror, it works fine. The performances are good, the script is fine and the direction is excellent and while all the meta-textual stuff is good, there’s always this feeling with Brooker that he’s sharing an in-joke but that this time the viewer is the object of that joke which is of course, the entire point. We’re the victims of modern technology and we’re not in control of it.

What I thought of Hey Kids! Comics!

The other day at work I was waiting to grab myself a coffee when I was standing behind someone with an Iron Man mug. I recognised the design to having being inspired by Steve Ditko’s version of the Iron Man armour. In those seconds I stood there watching my cup fill I wondered just how much income Ditko lost over the decades because he was ripped off by an industry which still sees the creator as a minor part of what is a sausage machine grinding out product and associated merchandising.

Then I got home and the last issue of Howard Chaykin’s Hey Kids! Comics! was sitting there to be read and it ended up being just the scream of primal rage for creators shafted by the industry.

Hey Kids! Comics! draws its title from the innocent blurb American newstands used to lure children into buy in decades past.

Thing is as one gets older you hear more about how the Marvel Bullpen wasn’t making Jack jolly, or how creators would be dumped in the gutter, and that’s where the comic opens as the analogue for Jerry Siegel (who along with co-creator Joe Schuster was royally shafted by National/DC over the rights and profits from Superman) living virtually as a down and out as he joins the crowds at the opening of the Superman (called Powerhouse here) musical.  

From this grim, bleak opening Chaykin tells the history of comics through three people, Ted Whitman, Ray Clarke, and Benita Heindel who travel down the decades from the 40s til their deaths in the early years of the 21st century when comics as an industry has transformed into a billion dollar one, but has remained a breeding ground for bastards and con-artists. Though to be fair the amount of actual gangsters in the industry has fallen of late.

Using these analogues, Chaykin tells a lot of those stories you only hear in convention bars, or the occasional critical book on the industry and some of the incidents in these five issues are familiar ones to those of us who know bits of the industry’s history so things like Mort Weisinger’s legendary cruelty through to Stan Lee sitting the the office waiting for Jack Kirby’s work to turn up because his creative role was at best, minimal. This book is not for those who see the industry on a purely surface level or those who canonise the superhero as the pinnacle of the medium.

But Hey Kids! Comics! for all the cynicism, bitterness, hate and bile recounted in these stories has a love for the medium as the core of the book. It just says that people involved in the industry were crooks, racists and bastards but the industry itself is full of people who believe there’s a future for the medium beyond superhero stories. This is a book for those of us who love the medium but want to deal with the awfulness of the history of the industry at the same time so it makes an often harsh read as after all, we want to cling onto our childhood heroes. This comic will see people many see as heroes being portrayed as somewhat less than that (the fact issue five came out not long after Stan Lee’s death adds an extra thrill to it) but these stories are an essential part of the history of the industry. They need to be told because if they don’t the next Steve Ditko is going to see his work made into mugs to help make corporations money while they get fuck all.

Purging the stereotype of 1990’s comics

I watched this video about Marvel’s pretty dismal reboot of some of their titles back in the 90’s, and on the whole its fine but uses the lazy stereotype of 90’s comics being all bulging Liefeldesque characters and really, not very good.

It seems to be the view of Millennial commentators that the 90’s were crap but the truth is the 90’s were probably the decade where one could still be surprised by what the mainstream would do with even Marvel producing quality work at the end of a decade where the majority of their output was instantly forgettable

Say the 90’s to a certain age and type of fan and they’ll think of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Spawn, Jim Lee’s X Men or Image work, but many will think instantly of this piece by Rob Liefeld .

There’s nothing defensible about that piece. In every way it is awful It represents a small part of 90’s comics. It doesn’t represent say, Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, Grendel, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Concrete, Nexus, Yummy Fur, From Hell, Bone and Hate plus many, many other titles showed a real diversity when one walked into a comic shop.Even mainstream superhero titles weren’t all bad with Marvels, Kingdom Come and enjoyable runs on Batman stood out in a decade where you could still get a variety in terms of comics.

But of course there were piles and piles of trash much of which still live in dealers 50p boxes but as a decade, the 90’s were more diverse and adventurous than most of your YouTube generation critics give it credit for. Indeed one could make the argument that it was a golden decade for comics and personally, I like to think it was as the number of great comics that came from that decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror.

What happens is though, that there’s an assumption for history from people that look only at it from one point of view which is often the view of the lazy consensus. As is often the case the truth is more revealing, not to mention interesting than the commonly accepted view of it.