The Dark Knight Rises

In many ways, Christopher Nolan had set himself up for a fall with his Dark Knight trilogy; no director had ever had a third crack at Batman. Coupled with the phenomenal critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight, then following it up without the late Heath Ledger and the biggest stars of Batman’s rogues gallery already used up was a tall order. That Nolan has been able to round off his vision for this group of characters and give each one an appropriate send-off is a triumph enough; that it’s an engrossing, epic and thoroughly enjoyable experience at almost three hours in length is even better. And to top it all off, it’s an awesome representation of one of the biggest superheroes of all time. Tidy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a more important film than its predecessor, no doubt about it. The Dark Knight was all about seeing how far things could be pushed after the success of Batman Begins. Characters, setting, tone and Bat-related support had all been established, now it was time to see how far they could be stretched. TDKR has to react to that in the sense that there were expectations that had to be met in terms of scale, antagonists and threat. Couple that with Nolan confirming this was his Batman swansong, a fitting end had to be constructed. It all begins by keeping the focus away from the cowl, with Bruce Wayne’s self-imposed exile shaken by the monstrous terrorist, Bane, his attacks on Gotham and the apparent bankrupting of Wayne Enterprises. With Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman)in hospital after a Bane-related attack, and the city crumbling, Bruce’s apathy is smashed long enough for him to don his costume once more. But after eight long years spent mourning the death of Rachel Dawes at the hands of Joker, and with his body ravaged from years of fighting his endless battle against crime, it remains to be seen whether or not he has the strength to overcome Bane and his army of mercenaries.

What Nolan does spectacularly, albeit slowly, is up the ante. As mentioned, Bruce is trapped very firmly within Wayne Manor as the film opens and doesn’t seem willing to escape his mourning. Gotham is still mourning Harvey Dent, and the secret behind his death is slowly consuming Gordon. This allows Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (never mentioned by name) and Tom Hardy’s Bane to initiate their own plans for taking over Gotham whilst Bruce gears himself up for yet further fisticuffs. With Gordon out of picture, it’s down to the emergence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic good-guy cop John Blake to help lead the Police charge, which swaps the authority role quite nicely for a good chunk of proceedings. Michael Caine gives a far meatier turn as Alfred with his total opposition to Bruce’s re-emergence as Batman offering up several highly charged scenes, whilst Morgan Freeman successfully if unspectacularly reprises his Lucius Fox role.

As with The Dark Knight, the antagonists do provide some big hooks to the experience. It’s no great shock that Catwoman toes the line between crafty burglar and Batman’s ally, but she appears capable of kicking butt in a much more hard-hitting fashion than previous incarnations. Nolan’s reimagining of Bane from the goliath Mexican wrestler of comic  lore to the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless revolutionary provides a seminal take on the character, offering Batman his biggest physical test on film to date. As such, their fight scenes are awesome to behold, both highly charged, emotional and brutal. Bane’s plans for Gotham are more elaborate, calculating and more focussed than Joker’s in The Dark Knight, making him much more malevolent even if not quite as engrossing as the clown prince of crime. Hardy does a wonderful job of projecting Bane’s authority even with a mask, thanks to some smart work with his facial expressions (what you can see of his face, anyway) and an oddly regal but commanding, articulate voice. And then you’ve got Christian Bale, offering up his strongest turn in the Batman role. He takes both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego through hell and back, offering up more power, command and humanity to contend with the character’s biggest challenge yet.

Without wanting to divulge too much of what is a quite intricate and detailed plot, Nolan has managed to do a lot right with TDKR’s long story; offering Batman a credible, physical adversary, plunging Gotham into its bleakest moments yet, casting a group of actors capable of carrying this tale to its conclusion and offering necessary endings for each of these big characters.

The easy criticisms for the film stem from its tone, which is admittedly quite bleak and laced with little shade. Criticising such a stylistic choice feels somewhat pointless when the stakes are considered; Batman and Gotham City are facing its biggest threat yet, and for that to be believable, the tone has to be dark, and perhaps somewhat suffocating. Contrary to some reviews, it isn’t humourless, it rightly doesn’t overdo it in the laugh department. Those looking for greater depth in that field can always bugger off and watch Batman & Robin instead.

Could the film be a bit shorter? For the story Nolan’s trying to end, probably not. He makes some bold moves, but makes the odd misstep within those decisions; a visual representation of Alfred’s described dream of seeing Bruce happily wed having never returned to Gotham was utterly unnecessary, and appeared to suggest his audience had no imagination.  TDKR connects with some big points from Batman Begins, so the level of flashbacks and references to the trilogy’s beginning is understandable but handled in such a way that it too becomes a distraction and a detriment. Also, for a series so rooted in Gotham’s salvation, there’s so little time spent with the citizens at the mercy of the film’s villain.

These aren’t major gripes, because Nolan has managed to do a huge amount right with this saga’s conclusion. There are plenty of nerdgasm-inducing moments for the die-hards to latch onto, the scale of Gotham’s terror is unreal and, most importantly, there’s a solid ending for the most important superhero film series of our time.
9/10.

Advertisements

Call Of Duty: Black Ops

One of the strangest things about Black Ops is that even though it’s beaten Modern Warfare 2 and become the most successful entertainment product of all time, the buzz surrounding it has died down tremendously. A year ago, Activision were releasing regular statements to harp on about how MW2 had sold a gazillion units, but this time, they’ve remained quite tight lipped about the success of this year’s COD installment. After the very public war of words with the now-former heads of Infinity Ward (MW’s creators), Activision’s credibility has taken a bit of a bump, so perhaps it’s a wise move to let their COD-centric studio Treyarch get on with wowing the world for them. Their latest baby, Black Ops has already sold a buttload of copies, but is it worth all the fuss?

Off the bat, the campaign is one of the most personal you’ll find in the COD series. You take control of SOG operative Alex Mason in 1968 as he’s strapped to an interrogation chair reliving memories from the past decade in an attempt to stop a nuclear threat on the States. You’ll shift between different perspectives and shoot the hell out of various locations including Cuba and Vietnam, but perhaps the biggest difference is that your character actually talks and responds during battle as opposed to being mute. Little things like seeing Mason in cutscenes and hearing his voice during fighting makes you more connected to the story, and it makes you wonder why the hell this hasn’t been done in any of the other recent games in the series.

Without delving too deeply into the plot, it’s worth noting one rather large fault with the campaign; well, there’s an explosion, then another one, someone dies, a lot of bad stuff happens, then another explosion……are you seeing a pattern here? COD has prided itself on dramatic set pieces for years, and there are certainly some pretty spectacular moments on offer, but there’s barely any pacing to speak of. Sure, the campaign is involving and intense, but it seems to be afraid of losing your attention so it bombards you with action every two seconds. A bit of pacing never did anyone any harm, Treyarch. It’s also worth noting that Blops features some of the most violent scenes the series has ever seen, and when you take Modern Warfare 2 into account, that’s saying something. The violence is linked in well to the desperate tone of the plot, but it does go a little overboard at times.

There’s little point in mentioning changes with the gameplay, largely because there aren’t any. COD found an effective, exciting formula for first person shooters a long time ago, and to be honest, it isn’t really getting old. The biggest changes come from the multi player with the introduction of a points system that rewards your achievements in battle with currency to buy new guns/equipment etc. You can also complete contracts such as getting a certain amount of kills in a game to further your character, which is another nice touch. Largely, this is the same multiplayer experience that players have been blitzing since Modern Warfare, but again, it didn’t necessarily need a massive overhaul, so a few tweaks are welcome. Nazi Zombies also make a return, along with a quite fantastic arcade zombie shoot-em-up entitled Dead Ops, which is stupidly good fun. In short, there’s enough to get your teeth into here once the campaign is over.

All in all, Black Ops represents what the COD series has turned into; a familiar yet refined experience. Nothing about the way this game plays will surprise you, so it’s left to the campaign’s plot and its setting to keep you interested, which it just about manages despite that poor pacing. Multiplayer’s still great fun, but you’re left to wonder where the hell the series can go from here. It’s in something of a comfortable rut at the minute and you can’t help but think if this’ll be the same case with the next installment in the series.

7.5/10

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Games Wallpaper: Call of Duty - Modern Warfare 2

If Activision are reading this, here’s an idea for the tagline for Modern Warfare 3. Ready? Hem-hem;

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Officially the biggest thing ever in the history of man. EVER.

Modern Warfare 2 isn’t quite on this same level yet, but it’s pretty bloody close. What is it, $500 million dollars made in the first week of release? Christ knows how many hours of multiplayer have been racked up across all three platforms so far, but it’s been getting love from every review, youtube loser and noob under the sun.  Is it worthy? Yeah,  pretty much, but you didn’t come here to read everyone else’s thoughts, did you? Let’s rip this bad boy open.

Throughout the campaign, it’s clear that developers Infinity Ward never really felt they were going to get the chance to make MW2, such is the way it haphazardly continues the story from Modern Warfare. Characters that you saw on death’s door by the end of the first game make miraculous recoveries and form a huge part of MW2’s cast, which definitely points towards a bit of laziness in the character-creating department. Having Gaz (under the handle of ‘Ghost’ and wearing a mask) , Captain Price and Soap back isn’t a problem whatsoever, it just feels a tad lazy.

But it just adds to this idea that the campaign has been ramped up to a bombastic, self-important Hollywood production. It’s got this attitude where continuity and a traceable narrative just seem to vanish. It insrinsically bleeds into the gameplay too; I’m not joking, you will fake-die so many times during set-pieces it almost gets frustrating as opposed to the intended shock you’re meant to feel. Coupled with the fact that quite a few key plot points simply happen without any explanation or reasoning, you can’t help but feel like this is a step back from the first game, at least in terms of story. Of course, it’s still an enthralling, intruiging and intense experience, it’s just not as good as it could be. It clocks in at just around 5 hours too, which is frustratingly short.

Any discussion of MW2’s campaign wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that most controversial of levels, No Russian. In case you’ve missed it, this is the level that has you assuming the role of an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, assisting in the mass murder of civilians in a Russian airport. When playing through it for the first time, the level of violence will definitely stun you; it’s certainly more brutal and horrific than anything else the series has seen in the past, but within the context of the story, it works well and doesn’t seem to have been included purely for shock value. As far as the content itself, it’s fantastic to see a game tackle such a controversial subject such as terrorism in an adult fashion. Gaming is a very interactive entertainment medium, far more involving than film and television so why shouldn’t it visit the same controversial subjects seen on our small and big screens and produce mature, adult stories aswell? Considering MW2 is poised to become the biggest entertainment product of all time, its developers should surely be allowed to tackle difficult issues in whatever way they see fit.

Away from controversies, and back to the game at hand. The introduction of Special Opps is certainly welcome as a way of fleshing out some levels from the campaign and adding some extra challenges.  They’re a lot of fun, ranging from killstreak-centric survivalism, Snowmobile races and air support, suitably amping-up in difficultly the more you complete. Considering how much of MW2 is online, Special Opps certainly helps flesh out the offline experience and can be enjoyed with the handy addition of local co-op. Considering Infinity Ward consistently shoot down the idea of campaign co-op, Special Opps is definitely welcome.

Of course, the real selling point of MW2 is the multiplayer. Simply put, as soon as you finish your first match, you’ll be lost to your loved ones for a good while. Everything is improved upon; killstreaks, match-making, the addition of deathstreaks for the noobs amongst us, new game modes….it all feels new and exciting whilst maintaining that addictive accessibility that made the last game’s multiplayer such a fantastic time waster. It claimed a ton of social lives two years ago, and now, the most annoyingly engrossing competitive online game is even better. Be prepared to let it own you for a good few months.

 

Does MW2 live up to the hype, then? In a way, yes. It’ll please gamers and reviewers everywhere as its essentially more of the same fantastic product, but in a sense, you do worry that the series itself might be becoming a little too big for its boots. It’s such a massively successful franchise that you cant blame Activision for beaming with pride every time a new press release comes along updating us on the how well the game has sold and how much money it’s made. The problem is that there are signs creeping in of the success of the Modern Warfare franchise beginning to dilute the experience of its product a little, even if it is only the campaign. When MW3 inevitably arrives in 2011, with this success in mind, it does make you wonder how much of it will go to Infinity Ward’s head.

So, in short, fantastic game with massive story-telling faults. It’s not the best game of all time despite the sales, but if any game is going make this much cash and cause this much of a stir, it might as well be one as good as this.

9/10

Batman: Arkham Asylum

This game could’ve been terrible. Around the time The Dark Knight was making a killing over a year ago, there was a big likelihood that the next Batman game was going to be a hideous movie tie-in. So it was definitely a relief and certainly intruiging when Arkham Asylum was announced to be the next Batman game, and to have nothing to do with Christopher Nolan’s film. At first, expectations can’t have been too high considering how many forgettable comic book hero games there have been, let alone terrible Batman ones, but damn if this game didn’t start off looking great, and continue along that route until it reached Awesome Town. Having spent some quality time with Arkham Asylum over the last few weeks, I can happily report that it’s definitely the best Batman game there’s ever been, and easily one of the best of 2009, period.

The story plays out like your classic Batman v Joker tale; Joker was attempting a robbery, and got caught by Batman. The caped crusader is returning him to the maximum security of Arkham Asylum, but is suspicious as to why Joker would let himself get caught so easily. Sure enough, Joker breaks free just after his arrival and with the help of some friends, takes over the entire asylum. Trapped inside with a host of old foes, Joker’s henchman and the asylum’s inmates, Batman has to survive a hellish evening by himself with only an arsenal of gadgets, a superior intellect and expert combat training.

What? It’s freakin’ Batman! He’ll do ok.

Arkham Asylum plays out like a third-person action/adventure title with a fantastic hand-to-hand combat engine, stealth elements and some detective work thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a mashing of gameplay styles, and to an extent it is, but each element is combined so well you barely even notice. The fighting is ridiculously easy and very satisfying, so you’ll be racking massive combos up in no time even with ten enemies surrounding you. You’ll be fighting often, but during your quest to take back control of Arkham, you’ll also find yourself in large rooms with armed guards waiting to fill you with bullets blocking your way. You may be Batman, but you can’t just rush into a firefight. This is where the stealth element comes into play; you’ll use high vantage points, grates and walls to avoid being spotted and are then pretty much free to take out your enemies as you please. Batarangs, glide kicks, hanging them upside down from stone gargoyles or exploding walls, it’s an intensely gratifying system and one that rewards patience and ingenuity as opposed to speed and power. You’ll often hear the remaining guards getting more and more aggravated as their buddies are picked off, which is a great touch.

Outside of the main story, there’s an embarassing amount of side quests and things to do. 240 individual challenges hidden across each area of the island by The Riddler will provide you with hours of exploration, which will in turn be rewarded with biographies for almost every villain within the Batman universe, character trophies to view and interviews with Arkham’s more high profile villains. It’s clear that British based developers Rocksteady have taken full advantage of the DC Comics licence and created an extended love letter to Bat-fans, and it shows in every part of the game. The characters themselves are heavily comic book influenced, which was certainly the way to go considering the last two Batman films have gone for a hyper-reality that just wouldn’t transfer too well from cinema to console. Rocksteady have even gotten established voice actors of the series to take control of their characters, calling upon Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) to reprise the same roles they’ve been doing in animated series’ since the 90s. Hamill inparticular steals the show as the prince of crime; every time he’s on screen, Joker demands your attention and even when he’s speaking on the island’s PA, his quips are so delightfully demented that you don’t want to miss a single syllable.

It’s touches like employing Conroy and Hamill that make Arkham Asylum feel so authentic, so damn Batmanish. Rocksteady have really nailed what Batman is about and what controlling the dark knight should be like. There were no problems big enough during my 15 hour playthrough that proved a distraction from an absorbing, dark and intense game. Ok, the game’s ending didn’t quite feel like a decent pay-off after everything you’d just been through, and Rocksteady saw fit to leave us with a teaser that surely points to their involvement in a sequel of some sorts. But on this sort of form, you’d be insane to have anyone else taking over the Batman gaming licence, because just as Christopher Nolan rejuvinated a character who’d been stuck in the cinematic doldrums for years, Rocksteady have given us a definitive interpretation of what Batman should be in 2009.

Intense, dark and brilliant. Even if you aren’t a Batman fan, you’re looking at one of 2009’s highlights in Arkham Asylum.

9/10

District 9

I’ve got to admit, this film has been annoying the hell out of me. I saw it last Monday with a spring in my step and my backside on an extra comfy cinema seat, and I can honestly say I haven’t been so fantastically let down by a film like I have with District 9. I don’t think I’ve ever left a cinema feeling so horrifically empty after watching a movie, like my life (or at least in the short term, my afternoon) would’ve been better if I’d have just stayed home and watched Top Gear reruns on Dave. I’ve been sitting on this review for over ten days, and after running into yet more folk who seem to love it, I’ve decided it needed a good seeing to. Take it or leave it.

The story goes that after Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp’s attempt to make a picture based on the massively popular Halo game series fell through, Jackson and his production company Wingnut gave Blomkamp $30 million to make ‘whatever he wanted’. Blomkamp, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa who grew up during apartheid chose to make a sci-fi epic about aliens settling on Earth, but certainly not being welcomed. The prawns, as they’re nicknamed, arrive on a Mothership (don’t they all?) hanging high over the skies of Johannesburg having run out of fuel, and are forced to settle on earth. They live in squalid conditions in shanty town shacks in a place dubbed District 9, and face prejudice and poor treatment by the local humans. Determined to curb the problems the prawns have brought upon the city, a company seemingly created to foster relationships between humans and the visitors decides to attempt a mass-relocation to a new site, essentially a concentration camp.

We follow office worker Wikus Van De Merwe around District 9 as he heads the relocation operation. Wikus seems to have a good understanding of prawn behaviour and can understand their language, which sounds oddly like a collection of clicks and belches, but he, like the soldiers and officials he travels with has a passive racism towards the prawns, treating them as a sub-species throughout the alien evictions. However, it all goes horribly wrong when Wikus accidentally becomes infected by a prawn biological agent, which begin to transform is body horrifically into one of the prawns. His company turns on him and experiments on his changing body, but Wikus escapes into District 9. Soon after his arrival, Wikus learns he must form an alliance with the prawns to restore his transforming body and return home to his wife.

Ok, so far so good. The idea of having native South Africans vehemently opposed to the prawns was an engaging touch, and worked very well. In tandem, the opening is one of the film’s strong points, and is told in docummentary style, interspersed with interviews with prawn experts and employees of the company Wikus works for. This was going really quiet well until Blomkamp decided to use interviews referring to Wikus negatively, seemingly stating that he had turned from the company and betrayed them. Great. So now we already know something terrible happened to our main character and we’ve barely even started the film. I’m stunned that Blomkamp decided that such blatant storytelling and spoon-feeding was necessary this early on in proceedings, as it’s not a particularly nice way of treating your audience. Blomkamp clearly decided that his audience would be focussed on Wikus for most of the film’s first half hour, which is pretty detrimental to the rest of it. Wikus, after infection, isn’t feeling too good by the time he gets home, and has a surprise party thrust upon him as soon as he walks through the door to his loving wife. Who we barely see. For the entire film. Now, the relationship between Wikus and his wife is the real core of the film, because she is why Wikus does what he does. How are we supposed to believe in it if we barely know anything or see anything of the relationship?

Such criticisms don’t overshadow District 9’s strong opening. Oh no, that distinctive honour is left almost entirely to the second half of the film. We abandon the docummentary style and instead follow Wikus on a high-octane action thriller ride as this meek, ill and scared man wields devastating alien weaponry and decapitates, explodes and maims enough soldiers to constitute a war. Wikus’ action hero turn is just about forgiveable, because it makes sense for his character to be upset, and willing to do whatever it takes to get his life back. But from the point that he teams up with his prawn friend and attempts to storm the offices of his former employees, all of the promising build-up work, intelligent dialogue and plot is just thrown out of the window, never to be seen again. In its place, what we get is a dumb, bloody, explosive summer blockbuster. It’s impossible to take District 9 seriously from here onwards, especially when the violence is cranked up to stupendously hilarious proportions.

I’ve had a good look at reviews for District 9, and quite a few people have forgiven the film for this rather gigantic lapse, but why? If you went to a restaurant and had half a good meal followed by a disgusting dessert, would you still mark it highly? Films shouldn’t get free passes just because they look cool, or they start off well. Consistent engagement is something that was clearly beyond Blomkamp when making District 9, which is a shame because there are some good points. Sharlto Copley is quite impressive as Wikus, transforming his character’s behaviour as the film dictates it must. This is Copley’s first film role, and when I discovered that the interview segments conducted with Wikus in his office were ad-libbed, I was certainly more impressed. Sadly, there are no other real performances of note. The worried wife, the lethal businessman, the maniacal shocktrooper are all stereotyped to a T, and are simply functional performances. Again, that engaging secondary apartheid between the prawns and South Africans that was presented so well at the beginning of the film is a missed opportunity to make District 9 into something more, something bigger and ultimately, something worth taking seriously. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen.

Trust me, I did want to like District 9. Really. This isnt criticism or negativity for the sake of evening out the praise heaped upon the film, as I can understand why people regard it so highly. It wouldn’t surprise me it Neill Blomkamp came back with a much better second effort in a few years time, because there’s some impressive groundwork laid here. It’s just a shame it all fell through before the film was over. Recommended if you don’t feel like thinking for too long.

5/10