My Memories of The Resignation of Lord Frederick North

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Portrait of Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guildford, by Pompeo Batoni – 1753

Back when I was a student, one of our tasks was to create a short story from a portrait of our choosing in the National Gallery. I chose Lord Frederick North, former Prime Minister who presided over America’s greatest day and, until recently, Britain’s greatest loss – The American war of independence. After much researching online and through the British Library (in which the main point of contention between accounts was whether or not it was snowing or raining), I created this dramatisation of the events which you would now call one of the biggest political “mic drops” in history. So as it’s Independence Day in America and a week of continuing resignations in the UK, I thought I’d let this out in to the wild.

Sean

 

My Memories of The Resignation of Lord Frederick North

It was March the 28th, in the year of our lord 1782. Some ten years before my friend Lord North, The Earl of Guildford passed away. I stood in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament looking out of the window over the Thames. Its majesty dampened by the falling of snow and the freezing weather. The reflection of the House lost on the surface of water. It was not unheard of, an early spring day in March, for snow to fall and cover the streets so far past Christmas and Whit Sunday. The horses would make small punctures in the otherwise perfectly white sheets above the cobbles as they pulled their carriages. Carriages, for which, we were awaiting. Not long after the New Year of 1782 had dawned on us that our Prime Minister, Lord Frederick North, was fighting three battles. All of which he was ready to surrender. The first was America. Since news of Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown had reached North in November of 1781, he had argued that ‘Peace with America was necessary.’

A view not shared by our King. George III had legislated the taxes that created this war, and he saw no end to it that wasn’t awash with blood, something that North had tried desperately to avoid in his attempts to first, suggest peace and later, resign. The final battle, the one with the House of Commons, was today. They had forced the King’s hand in accepting his resignation after a vote of no confidence. Today he finally surrendered, although if there was any relief in the man, it did not show.

Lord North stood in the doorway of the entrance to the Members Lobby. His resignation accepted. The House adjourned. The ministers gathered in the Central Lobby after leaving the spectacle, the snow starting to fall more rapidly outside. The rumors of the Kings final words to him circulated. North had been in constant communication with the King for months now. The King, stubborn as he had been in creating this war, refused all of North’s recommendations and resignations. Lord Cavendish, Rockingham and his Whig’s all made sure of his eventual demise from office. Picking off his party one by one. But the King did nothing, until now. North had come straight from Kew and had been told ‘it is you so desert me, not I you.’

He looked composed. He always looked composed, even when you could see the ills that had befallen his mind recently. But here and now the weight had been lifted and it showed upon the man. I’d spoken to him but a week ago about one of his many meetings with The King at Kew. ‘I will not be dictated upon,’ The King had said. ‘The house thinks that our way has been lost and our hard fought enterprise to the west has fallen afoul of greed and war. But I will not have it. They will starve and they will beg when their incredulous rebellion is brought to judgement. I will not bow to what God has granted us through victory to a population of peasants and rogues.’

North had told me in confidence, ‘I agree that The King is most correct. We shall not have this rebellion in our own house. But this war will, if it is not to be won, then be brought to conclusion through virtues of peace if not for a short time. But I am not he who can bring this to pass. I am no longer the keeper of our Empire’s interests in the eyes of our nobles and government. The King knows this but cannot see it or renders himself blind out of faith.’

‘The King has lost touch,’ I said.

‘I consider him a friend as well as my ruler and I respect his honourable charge. God has granted us fortune in battle. America, Spain, and Waterloo are some of the finest hours our navy and our empire have seen. But the King cannot see that Peace, in its nature, is not to lose. It is not to win either, but to compromise. This power over our Commons is not his to yield. It is my power and my responsibility.’

‘You intend to resign?” I enquired.

‘I have resigned in all but official record. The King will not abide by my decision and refuses to summon opposition to the House.’

‘You risk his wrath by defying him,’ I pointed out. ‘This could be seen as Treason by the King and you could be hung!’

‘That is so, yet the sacrifice of one man may be better employed for our continued victory, than to have him weigh down the stern of his fleet. I shall do what must be done. The King must see that, or more men will be lost to a futile battle in America. We have the French and the Spanish on our doorstep. We must pick our battles or risk losing all. America is lost. As is my government.’

 

Nearly five months after Yorktown, after months of motions for resignation and continued attacks from the opposition, he had finally resigned. The new parliament needed to be formed. A few people shook hands with North as they left the Members Lobby and one who was still loyal to him gathered behind him in a show of support. I decided to join them both. North greeted me warmly, quite obviously thankful for my continued loyalty in this dire hour for him. He returned to the rest of the exiting ministers with stillness in his eyes and his expressions. Eventually everyone had left the Members Chamber. North studied them all. Congratulating themselves, laughing, shaking hands to new allegiances and making plans for meetings. You could overhear people mentioning that they had defeated the King, that America was theirs for the taking, and that the Crown needed to be brought to heel in the wake of such a defeat. It was true that this was a big defeat for King George. The partnership of government that North and him had formed had lasted for twelve years. They were more than peers they were friends as well. It could not have been easy for North for have risked his friendship with The King, nor could it have been easy for him betray his wishes. If what the King had said was true, and that countenance had been paid, then their friendship was lost. In his later days, North did not recover well from the loss of his friendship. He was always ailed by his failure that brought this personal catastrophe, more so than his later blindness.

North was too busy studying the assembled crowd to bother thinking about such notions. Even if he was thinking, his face did not portray it. A porter appeared and advised North that his carriage was ready. North thanked him and began to smile. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said to us, his gaze not faltering from the crowd. ‘You two have been loyal supports of me and I value your friendship at this difficult time. Please allow me to invite you to my home. The day is still young and we have many things to discuss.’

We both agreed and were ready to leave, but North waited. The day was young. It could not be long after 4 in the afternoon. Big Ben had only tolled its bells a short time ago. The crowd had begun to look at each other, slightly worried. They had seen the porter talk to North, but their carriages had not arrived yet. Plans had been made between them all to visit houses, pubs, inns, and all manner of places. But they had no means to get there and the conversations were beginning to run dry. There was no way in all their gentry they would brave the snow. They would hardly do it in the dry. All the carriages had been sent away, the peers expecting to have taken much longer in deliberating North’s departure. This was their time to criticize to insult and to establish their own positions before Parliament would be recalled the following Monday. North had robbed this from them and now it became clear that out of the Chamber, their noise was powerless. The noise itself in the lobby had dropped and North signaled us to follow him. He cut a commanding figure as he began to cut through the crowd. North, being a robust gentleman was not someone you wanted to get in the way of, lest you be knocked to the ground rather unceremoniously. People parted and the chatter dropped to an even quieter level. North just strutted through to get towards Westminster Hall, and to his carriage outside.

 

The Marquis of Rockingham stood at the end of North’s path. He stopped him briefly as if to gloat in front of him. It was the Marquis and his Whig’s that had engineered the fall of North. Although his policies had failed, and North would freely admit this, his connection to the King and his absolute resolve in implementing his wishes was his downfall as much as their military losses. They stood together staring in to each other’s eyes. The King could have entered the hall and no one would have notice. The silence was ready to be entertained with Rockingham’s ferocity. It did not come. Rockingham moved out of the way to let North past. Chatter raised behind us as we walked through the hall. It wasn’t audible but idle gossip never is. The crowd had started to follow us out and by the time we had reached the entrance, the mass of people looked like a mob from the Gordon Riots of a few years before. The snow was still falling and a carriage stood outside with North’s and he offered us entry. ‘After you, gentlemen,’ he said and we went on ahead with North carefully treading behind us.

The crowds had begun to spill outside behind us and were getting covered in the snow. Their jackets picking up the flakes before they melted under their body heat making them more and more sodden. The Marquis of Rockingham among them. Next to him Lord Cavendish held a face that seemed perplexed by these events. Other peers gathered around them and behind them, forcing them further out into the elements. We entered the carriage, steam rising from our breath and from the horses, like a chimney bellowing smoke into the air. North went to get on board and paused, turned to face the gathered crowd and addressed them. He said, pointing to us, ‘I have my carriage. You see, gentlemen, the advantage of being in the secret. Good night.’

He climbed aboard, smiling. No one said a word. I was dumbstruck by his words. The wit and intellect he had possessed to orchestrate this entire event amazed me. Even in his lowest hour he had won a victory. The faces of the crowd were equally as amazed. The carriage driver snapped his whip and shouted an unintelligible noise as the horses started to pull us. The clopping sound of the horses metal shoes against the cobblestone underneath echoed between the high walls of the building. The snow, soft, gentle and serene, still fell as the horses made their little puncture marks in the sheet below us, the wheels of the carriage cutting through the sheet also, creating a trail for anyone to follow us. We left Parliament into the streets as we headed towards Lord North’s residence. London, even in the snow, was working. The day was still light and people around us went about their daily routine. The snow did nothing to stop them. ‘Well gentlemen,’ North started. ‘I do hope you’re in the mood for a feast. I have a great selection of meats and cheeses at the house and wine that needs to be drunk.’

He started to laugh, and nervously we joined in. This was the measure of the man we knew, the Prime Minister that lost America.

 

The EU Referendum is more like a Wrestling Show

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You’d be forgiven for being confused what side you are on over the EU Referendum. For so long the media has given us clear sides and divides – These people are Tories, those lot over there are Labour, the Lib Dems were here but I can’t see… Over there? No, that’s the Green’s and the SNP.

As the movers and shakers swap and intermingle, the scene has become bloated and confusing. Who do I like? Why are they siding with them? Why is everyone fighting amongst themselves? That’s when I realised that the EU Referendum we’re seeing on screen is nothing more than a professional wrestling storyline.

Wrestling – a predetermined contest taking place in a narratively driven feud, with the WWE being the most globally recognised company. You have good guys (Faces), bad guys (Heels) and if someone changed their ways from bad to good, or visa versa, this is known as a turn.

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Not Boris Johnson.

The EU referendum is playing out like this. Political stars are moving back and forth, swapping allegiances to make the best play for their own agendas and careers, fighting through the current storyline so that when the next feud starts, they’ll be at the top, ready for a run as “the leader of the Conservative Party.”

In the mid-90s the biggest star of wrestling, Hulk Hogan, jumped ship to a rival company and “turned heel”. Gone were the yellow trunks, the patriotic American zeal and in were the egomaniacal power plays of a Hollywood autocrat who was (legitimately) bigger than the business. Comedic hair aside, enter to the fray Boris Johnson.

Boris is quite possibly the smartest guy in the Leave campaign room and his move from ex-Mayor to Leave figurehead is quite like Hogan’s switch. At the time of the move, Hogan had a “creative control” clause added to his contract that meant he got the final say on anything the character did.

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I mean, come on. Look at this man with his Blake’s 7 space cockpit.

Before Boris was seen as the clownish parliamentarian, a man who has written a novel about a fictional Islamic terrorist attack (Seventy Two Virgins). The Observer review of the book said:

Boris Johnson has written a witty page-turner, but not quite a novel. Digesting this book is like listening to a seasoned raconteur holding court rather than reading a work of literature.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/oct/03/fiction.features1)

It’s this Boris that we have seen for the years, holding his London court, ably playing the dandy whilst the new guard of his Conservative party squabbles for control. Now the time has come to rally his troops, the mix of the old guard and the Cabinet ‘powers,’ and make his play. Gone are the conversations with Paxman over sausages; in is the rhetoric of numbers – the £350m.

Whilst I’m not touching on the politics itself, I do know the benefit of a good hook – £350m. It’s a number, it’s tangible and it is something for the crowd to get behind. Bret “The Hitman” Hart used to say he was “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” And he proved it by winning championships and out-wrestling everyone. It was a believable statement. Was it true? Maybe, but either way it sells T-Shirts. Is £350m true? Who knows, but it sounds good and it fits in headlines very easily.

Eventually Bret Hart jumped ship because he didn’t like the new direction his industry was taking. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston has jumped ship because the £350m that could go to funding the NHS “simply isn’t true.” As a doctor herself, you’d think what she was saying would be believable, quantifiable, and would suggest truth. Much like the older guard of UK politics like Sir John Major and Tony Blair who, differences aside, both believe that the campaign from the leave camp has been, as Major puts it, ‘deceitful” and “misleading”.

Then you get the power play of Lords, those top aristocrats, business owners and general vacuums for economic gain. JCB chairman Lord Bamford wants to leave, explaining to his employees in an open letter that the EU isn’t relevant anymore and we can cast it off, presumably like tectonic shifts cast the North American Plate off from us 200 million years ago. Lord Lawson entered the debate supporting the leave campaign. The two combined bare more resemblance to Harry Secombe’s Mr Bumble from Oliver than empathetic characters. Given the big business leaders we’ve seen in front of MP’s this week alone, should we really trust their opinions? Much like wrestling’s all-powerful McMahon family, who run the show, when they say it’s best for us do we really believe it after everything they’ve done to our heroes?

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MORE??? Only if we leave the EU *sniggers*

Then you get the biggest turn (which is presumably a face turn because being in power, you are naturally the bad guy unless you’re Justin Trudeau or Mick Foley) with David Cameron.

This is the man the left have vilified, the centerpiece of everyone’s vitriol, and now, he’s switched sides. Except he hasn’t, he’s still on the same side for his party but he wants to remain. So he has turned, all of his buddies are now ganging up on him like some betrayal that deserves retribution. Like when Batista turned his back on Triple H and Ric Flair because they wanted him to play ball, and he wanted to do what he felt was right. The betrayal of a “stable” (wrestling term for a group) is common place and suddenly you may find yourself either supporting or jeering the one who has gone out from the group to defend their freedom of opinion. But are his days numbered as the blue-on-blue conflict begins to rally back bench momentum?

Wrestling has recently done a similar ousting with the return of the WWE owner’s son, Shane McMahon. He sees the way the company is falling in ratings and stock and it is time that his youth and exuberance took over the company and made a change for the better. Would Shane, a not too shabby businessman in his own right and a man forever trapped in his father’s shadow, get the best out of the WWE? Who can tell, but you’ll tune in to find out! Would the UK and the economy be better under new leadership, leaving the EU and returning to a long lamented and dubiously fictitious pastiche of Good ol’ Post-War Blighty? The one that has hung over our British patriotism like a father’s shadow? Ask Boris Hogan.

In a final and rather coincidental parable, the WWE is splitting themselves in two. Their two shows Raw and SmackDown will become their own entities and brands with separate performers on each. They did this before in the early to mid ‘00s, which was partially successful but ended up rejoining as a whole. Why? Because one show was always going to be the favourite son and the other became a stale forgettable contemporary. If the UK leaves the continent and the union that it helped forge, do we become the favourite son, or do we ebb away into obscurity and ask to come back because together, business is better? Stay tuned…

The Problem with Dramatic Conspiracies

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This is in response to The X-Files recent return to television which, let’s face it, was great. It was fantastic, it didn’t feel like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. The unflinching direction that hallmarked the nine years of television we all watched in the 90s (and we all watched it, even if we didn’t like it) was not emulated, not homaged, but continued. As far as television has come along in quality of drama, direction, technology and writing, it’s amazing that something that really petered out around sixteen years ago still worked so well today.

There are obvious reasons why but all of them boil down to good material and the wonderful work of Duchovny and Anderson, both of whom bear no typecast or shadow from the original’s time. In episode five, Mulder goes full Hank Moody and in several episodes, the fun side of Scully is matched by her proportionate intensity to counteract the inevitable. As the series has aged there is something that now sticks out like a sore thumb and, ironically it is the show’s original premise.

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If you watch all of The X-Files from the beginning, the story is very apparent and is, arguably, very dated. The U.S. Government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrial life on Earth and using what they’ve learned or pillaged for their own nefarious needs, or are being manipulated by an order of wankers who have united to do whatever is needed for a greater good (nefarious needs). The story stops there because I don’t want to spoil anything and like most conspiracy theories they die rather flatly in the face of empirical evidence. But if things get strange, you start to worry that this could be a case for Mulder and Scully.

Such is the power and cultural relevance of the way The X-Files delivered its fiction that it’s become an production trope, utilised by everything from hilariously implausible documentaries to the endless entertainment of heavily effected stock footage of people in suits with torches in dark basements between dramatic narration and eyewitness accounts that barely register any usable sentences, and presumably were filmed in a diner toilet off the I-25.

The problem we have watching this now and why, in my opinion, the two conspiracy episodes in the new series and a lot of the previous series are the weakest episodes is thus: We are unable to viably believe the scale of such an event or misdirection in a production and introspectively small environment as a television drama.

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In the end, The X-Files themselves were about one thing, mysteries to be solved. But the show became about something much more important to us as humans (which is weird given the importance of the shows subject) and that is the relationship between Mulder and Scully. The show, whilst driven narratively by Mulder’s self destructive approach to find out the truth and Scully’s skepticism, became a story about how we want love and affection to still blossom in the face of alien apocalypse, death by our own capitalist implosions, deals with the devil, or anything – The story was about a connection that never needed the words to be said because we saw something pure come to light. In the new series with events that have previously occurred, we see this come to the fore and it’s wonderful and painful all at once. Even after sixteen years of their on-screen absence in the roles and their drama, it makes you wonder and realise how so many of us can’t get our shit together.

But it was pure. Sure, it was a man/woman dynamic which in the land of entertainment only leads to sexual tension, but this wasn’t a show about that. It was about scary monsters, untrustworthy bureaucrats and world domination, and as the millions of viewers who were watching were adults and children, the prospect of two people copulating was really a precedent only set by the media that covered it. For the viewers we knew what it was, it was a genuine love that wasn’t guided by physical attraction but by less carnal desires.

The conspiracy works of course and is entertaining as a thread but to say it has lost its lustre in a larger, more connected day an age isn’t accurate. Utopia had the same problem for me and it’s a problem with the medium of television. The scale for us to appreciate such an impact that results from the conspiracy cannot plausibly be conveyed with the production budgets afforded to the small screen, no matter how big those budgets are. In Utopia, we had two series of five friends and a few other people associated by a grand conspiracy to release a virus that would lower the population strategically to ease the burden on dwindling natural resources and food production. But for most of it, we followed a small group of friends, with an average age of around 23, around colourful fields, empty estates and homes, whilst avoiding practically any technological contact with the world. Sexual tension was there for no other reason but to dramatise affection and as a viewer the impact of the conspiracy (in threat or practice) is never realised.

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The X-Files does a lot more than many have and can in this regard but even so, when your story is about your leading pair, a middle management servant in Walter Skinner and the face of the evil, the Cigarette Smoking Man, the wider world really gets lost. In the new series we have Tad O’ Malley, a conservative talk show host and politician who has also been able to find out things relating to these conspiratorial secrets. But even so, our only avenue to broadcast coverage of a serious problem is limited to the screen time of the O’ Malley show’s segments and regardless of how good Joel McHale is, he can’t convey the drama of an entire country, or an entire planet, slowly discovering its own pre-determined destiny by these conspirators.

Whilst we are entertained as viewers, it is never by the wider threat but more the impact it has on our two characters and, after ten years of television, The X-Files has finally realised that and does as much as it can to resolve the giant alien elephant in the room and get to where the real story is – Mulder and Scully. In truth, nothing can scare us anymore thanks to rolling news and the entrenched fear we are all programmed to live in by it. No longer does the narration of Orson Wells cause panic at the news of martian attacks, nor do the characters of Michael Crichton attempting to stop a deadly disease brought to earth by a fallen satellite, or Bernard Quatermass apologising to the world for what has become of Astronaut Victor Caroon and the danger he has caused. I even remember a made for TV B-movie (although the name escapes me) that was the apocalypse being broadcast as rolling news with reports all over the world coming in as the presenters know their sign off will also be the sign off of mankind.

The thing is that the conspiracy stories can work, and do work in books and even in movies. The first X-Files movie is a testament to that. But the limitation that TV has, not only for production costs but practicality behind everything and most importantly time to produce, edit and sell a series, sadly renders at times a bigger picture in a largely undramatic way. Thankfully The X-Files became more than that and its return should be a lesson to all: Never lose sight of where the drama truly is. Unless things are getting strange and you’re starting to worry…

I’ve already done that pun.

Shit.

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Oh and episode three was fantastic, it was the payoff for every comedic big monster episode ever and was funny, transcendent and just beautifully shown, especially with the mementos to crew and colleagues now departed. So shut it.

VideoBrains Talk Transcript – When Bad Guys Are Good

Right. I did this talk for VideoBrains back in October. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t a good talk but now having watched it back five months on, I’m less scathing of myself. However, due to my fast and at times inaudible speaking, I’ve decided to put the script here. Yes those puns were mostly all written, including the one about wearing a tie for Jake.

You can find out more about the wonderful talks and tickets to future events at http://www.videobrains.co.uk/.

 

My original plan was to come out here in a black leather jacket and shades with Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destoryers playing. Thankfully I changed my mind, mostly because I thought Jake would kill me for not wearing a tie.

My original plan also included looking at my experience of playing as a bad-guy or an anti-hero. I thought it would go well with the theme. Although I have to say that it has also been interesting to find the differences between a literal interpretation of an anti-hero and what we consider in an modern entertainment context to be an anti-hero.

But before I list a few of these characters that we all know and love or loath, I think I should share with you the games that inspired me to talk about this in the first place.

Back in 1994, I had my first PC. A slightly rescued and rebuilt IBM 386mhz PC with a floppy disk drive. Moving on from the fairly linear design of the console games available to me in my local Blockbuster Video, and the growing impatience at my Spectrum’s ever failing keyboard, I found many games that I just could not stop playing. X-Wing of course was first, but it was TIE Fighter that gripped me. Here I was, an aimless pawn in the story arc of my then favorite trilogy. I was a nameless, faceless piece of cannon fodder who rose above it to see this fictional conflict from another viewpoint.

I was shield-less and ballsy, shooting rebel craft in to polygons and leaving nothing but waste for the vacuum of space. But for years I had a very binary notion of good and evil. The rebels and the Imperials by their nature sound as they should, which when you think about it is eloquently designed to engender empathy for the side of the fiction’s protagonist. I imagine Orwell would have had a field day with Star Wars in that regard.

But in a strange way, because the game was designed to be harder and reflect that almost Japanese WW2 airforce dogfighting dynamic, I became more attuned to the Imperials. There was more to lose here, more to prove and therefore, more to gain in success.

Then there’s Dungeon Keeper, the titular inspiration of this month’s topic. What a game Dungeon Keeper was. The magnificent Richard Ridings, whose voice I first heard introducing the Polymorph on Red Dwarf, exudes the most deliciously evil tone, like it oozed out of my Packard Bell’s speakers back in ’97. It’s at this point that most of you have probably decided to put the word ooze on par with moist in your forbidden lexicon.

For those that only know the freemium travesety, Dungeon Keeper was one of those pre-Milo Molyneux games that followed an isometric building/strategy formula that his Bullfrog studio made famous with Theme Park and Theme Hospital. Of course, ever the guy to subvert convention, the idea for this building game was to construct dungeons and attract minions in your quest to take over the land. A land of fantasy prospered above the surface where you built your halls, libraries, training rooms, treasuries and chicken pens. Your imps would dig out rooms, mine for gold and take over areas, digging faster with a gentle slap of the “god hand” cursor. You could then possess any of your minions, including the rather bemused chickens and run around, preparing for when the knight of that realm decided to come down and challenge you. And eventually lose to your never-ending wave of corruption, destroying the entire kingdom before it.

Basically, whilst actually being a good strategy game, it was the first one that I played that actively celebrated you being a complete and total bastard.

As a thirteen year old I never questioned it but as a man well and truly fixed in his early twenties, please don’t correct my maths, I’ve become more fascinated as to why I enjoy this subversive frivolity.

Terry Eagleton is a renowned literary critic and theorist. Writing for The Independent whilst promoting a book he had written on evil, he said this:

When did evil start to look so alluring? One answer might be: when goodness began to look boring. We can blame this on the puritanical middle classes. It is they who redefined virtue as thrift, prudence, meekness, abstinence, chastity and industriousness. It’s not hard to see why some people should prefer zombies and vampires. Goodness came to seem negative and restrictive. As the poet Auden wryly remarked, the Ten Commandments consist in observing human behaviour and then inserting a “not”.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/so-bad-its-good-why-do-we-find-evil-so-much-more-fascinating-than-goodness-1965587.html

 So, in this aspect, I enjoy playing evil because I’ve been surrounded by so much socially acceptable, middle-class driven virtue, that I am instinctively programmed to seek the antithesis of this. I also worked in telesales for seven years but I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with it.

Eagleton is of course referring to something more classic with his words and the rise of the gothic and more fantastical strands of literature over the course of the Victorian era. But all of this leads to the conclusion of escapism. Which of course is the default explanation for anything that doesn’t involve you just being happy with your below inflation office employment and the ever retracting welfare support system you’ve been forced to rely on.

Escapism: “The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

Well. Shadow of the Colossus is in the fantasy setting. I’m not going to go in to it too much because many people are much better qualified to wax lyrical about the game. But escapism certainly is a subjective experience here.

Playing as Wander, the “protagonist” depending on your viewpoint, you go on an heroic quest to destroy the Colossi in order to save Mono, but as you progress you realise this comes at a cost with your own soul becoming more corrupted and the destruction of nature by your hand changing the balance of the entire realm.

Now, we have some empathy here with Wander because, even though the reasons are presumably selfish, we can understand at a human level the need to save and not lose what we love. We understand the avoidance of grief and the extension of comfort. To us, Wander is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons.

You’d think right now that I’m going to go straight in to the anti-hero but I’m actually going to disqualify some characters first, before we go in to that strand of thought, because there is a definite separation between an anti-hero and a hateful character.

Trevor and Michael from Grand Theft Auto V. In fact pretty much any main character from this series of games. It may seem like a strong word, “hateful” but that’s what they are. We should hate their guts for the pain and torment they blissfully put others through in the process of fulfilling their narrative agenda. Trevor needlessly tortures a man, so you can’t get more hateful than that, surely? We should be totally disgusted by this.

But we aren’t and for an explanation of this, I’m turning to… Ken Levine.

No, not that Ken Levine, but I will point out something he said to IGN earlier in the year about character in his new game that:

‘”to make an interesting character, you have to have a character who has a bunch of passions, wants, and needs”… Levine says a character’s wants and needs are the heart of who they are. “It’s not their skin color, not their religion, not their sex. It’s what they want, what they need, and what’s in their way.”

http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/04/10/ken-levine-talks-characters-and-relationships-in-his-next-game

 It’s a statement that the Ken Levine I’m actually going to talk about echoes completely. Ken Levine is an Emmy winning TV writer, producer, and director and has worked on everything from MASH to Cheers to The Simpsons. Hateful or evil characters are quite hard to sell in TV because usually they alienate you as a viewer. The most recent example of this was probably Watch_Dog’s Aiden Pearce, whilst not being hateful, he isn’t exactly likeable. So why do we even attempt it?

Because they’re interesting. 

 Evil characters create drama and suspense. They stir up the pot. They surprise us. They make choices that we wouldn’t make.  They say things we’d like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It’s fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can’t wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both. Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS? 

http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/why-do-we-like-hateful-characters.html

So this is where we start differentiating the anti-hero from these other more psychotic characters. Looking this up on Psychology Today, I found this blog post by H. Eric Bender MD. Trying to define an anti-hero as a more morally ambiguous character who did the right thing, despite their “antisocial behaviour”:

It might be because their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own. They’re flawed. They’re still developing, learning, growing.  And sometimes in the end, they trend toward heroism. We root for their redemption and wring our hands when they pay for their mistakes. They surprise us. They disappoint us. And they’re anything but predictable.

 While the antiheroes’ incompatibility with societal rules lays the foundation for compelling drama, it’s their unlikely virtue in the face of relatable circumstances that emotionally connects us to them.  Consider the moments that we spent cheering for Tony Soprano.  Typically they involved his efforts to overcome his anxiety—a relatively common condition—and his attempts, at times unprecedented, to protect family, both nuclear and crime.

 Similarly, Walter White garnered our sympathy when we initially learned of his cancer, lack of financial stability, and inordinate medical debt. The failures of our society are not unique to Walter White, but are a common, shared experience between the character and his audience.  He feels our pain as he, too, has been pushed too far by a broken healthcare system that threatens his family’s —let alone his own—survival.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/broadcast-thought/201309/rise-the-antihero

So here’s a few video game characters that fit that bill, Alan Wake, John Marston and Joel from The Last of Us.

Then of course there’s the characters that you create in role playing games like Fallout, Skyrim and Mass Effect. They are bound by their own worlds but your decisions are what make them the virtual projection of your own human values, unless you purposefully set out to be a cannibal or something.

Then there’s the more linear choices you make in Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead, the actions you take in Lionhead’s Fable games and even now as we speak, Halo’s Master Chief who is being promoted as a renegade that we know is doing things for the good of mankind.

Our relationship to anti-heroes is based very much on our own limitations of what we can do and what we want to do. Anything from revenge to redemption, restitution to reconciliation, revelation to retirement.

I think that’s something we can all agree on, right?

No.

Because I wasn’t happy with this and wanted a better, more definitive definition, I went back to my degree (I studied English Literature and Creative Writing, hence being a games journalist), I wanted to find something formal, something concrete. And so I took to my bookshelf and found my Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Want to see what it said?

“A ‘non-hero’, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic, deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful.”

 “The anti-hero is the man who is given the vocation of failure. The anti-hero – a type who is incompetent, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish – is of ancient lineage.”

This description then goes on to note various examples, highlighting Greek New Comedy, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy. Even Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses is mentioned.

Which makes me think that the definition in a modern sense, especially across other entertainment has changed, or at least how we see them.

And if we see some of these traits in a modern game character – unlucky, clumsy, tactless (which means showing a lack of skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues) – then we have our classical anti-hero.

Max Caulfield.

Max, a troubled late teenager struggling to come to terms with her new found independence, is trying to impress herself among the new faces in her life in a place she no longer knows. But without the fall back of other figures to guide or correct her path, it’s left up to her own judgment that, once gifted with power proves to be both naïve and brave. Her selfish actions also reveal her selflessness.

The thing is with all of these characters and these games, especially now in our current era of entertainment, character and game design, it’s impossible to have such a complete and binary explanation of what an anti-hero or a bad person is. Everything is so subjective and fluid that there is no definitive list that says what the characters are.

That leads me to conclude only one thing, which is the terribly cheesy notion that these characters are us, because of the way we play them and how we project, not only our desires but our fears too. The things that scare us, the things that make us jump, by extension make our characters jump too (even if they don’t actually jump). We are all our own anti-heroes only because we are all so different.

Which only tells me something I already knew from the start, which is that I am a complete and total bastard.

Side One – Track Ones (Part. 1)

 

I’ve included the above just for some context from one of my favourite movies and favourite books and favourite book to movie adaptations… I had a pang to list some things in this way. A bit snobbish but what the hell, it’s fun to write.

The Side One – Track One is ultimately a thing long lost to the veil of history as digitisation conquered all, but the thing that stands out for this is that traditionally, the best ones are album tracks. It’s kind of cheating when the first track on an album is the single and a predominantly successful single, as happened and still happens en masse. As someone who’s played music, your first track on an album is setting the tone, destroying preconceptions and making you feel comfortable that you picked a nice beer, sat in the comfiest chair with the best headphones on and decided to dedicate forty minutes to an hour of your life to this musical work you have on.

So, looking at albums I personally own, I’m going through some of my favourites. I’m going to miss loads because I probably don’t own them and music streaming does often make me forget how much good music is out there that I’m missing. If I included all albums, I’d be here forever. But please, share your own favourite first tracks. There’s no need to be as picky with rules or anything, but this makes for an interesting conversation, no?

Five Years – David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972)

You can see what I was listening to that drew me back in to this internal conversation. Recent events really did show just how transcendent Bowie’s music was across any era. My first experience of this song was watching Old Grey Whistle Test compilations that my dad had taped from the TV in the late 80s as the show was drawing to a close. But this song is often regarded as one of the best opening tracks for an album. It’s got all of the character from Bowie’s previous albums in the strings, punctuated by the other worldly echo that ends the song compared to its incredibly crisp beginning.

But the Bowie that came before had changed. You could tell in his tone, his lyrics and his confidence. It was harsher, less forgiving and, most importantly contained the swagger of a new character. You could hear the groundwork for it in songs like Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory, but it came to its full characterisation as soon as you start playing Ziggy. Go from The Man Who Sold the World through to Ziggy and you’ll realise as soon as Five Years starts that you got where the music needed to go.

Apocalypse Please – Muse (Absolution, 2003)

Before Absolution Muse had released two studio albums, Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry. Showbiz had some excellent tracks on it and showed a competent band who had a unique sound (you might remember the song Sunburn being used for various Apple adverts around the late 90s), but it was a style of music that was quite safe at the time with bands like Feeder and Stereophonics – radio and MTV2 friendly. Origin became the complete opposite, a heavy Prog Rock monster doused with classical motifs and sonic noise that owed more to its progenitors than the clash of nu-metal, pop punk and radio alt-rock of the early 2000s. Come Absolution, the shrill of Matt Bellamy’s voice had been perfectly nuanced and tempered between the extremes of the previous two albums. Gone was the enforced reverb and echo to create a sonic madness. Instead was the beautifully captured natural sounds from recording processes in the UK studio sessions.

Apocalypse Please starts with a drum intro, the militaristic drone that comes towards you, inspired by the anti-war protest and sentiment of the time, peppered with the barking of orders like a Roger Waters/Pink Floyd song. Then out of nowhere the hard, smashing piano riff hits you at a beat you aren’t expecting. The monotony of doom is perfectly interrupted to bring you the scale, the impact and the immediacy of music that’s coming. But it’s welcoming because it’s also incredibly clean. There’s no feedback, no insane effects, with Bellamy’s voice slightly peaking to gain some natural distortion and strength beyond the low, loud hits. Followed by a soft almost impossibly synchronous chorus of harmonic voices like those heard from Queen thirty years before. This clean sound carries on throughout the album, even with the effects and Bellamy’s talent at getting the most unique, odd and interesting sounds from his guitars and Chris Wolstenholme’s bass. Rich Costey does a perfect job at keeping the rhythm section as simple and punctuated as possible and that means that nothing else is competing, everything can be heard perfectly. Absolution is certainly my favourite Muse album thanks to this, as well as the amazing Storm Thorgersen cover, and I know that Apocalypse Please did eventually become a single, but it introduces everything about that album and about what Muse had become perfectly.

Bombtrack – Rage Against The Machine (Rage Against The Machine, 1992)

Again, this is another song that became a single eventually, but not until a good eight months had passed since release so it’s ok, I think. It’s hard to find songs that didn’t become singles because that ultimately means they aren’t strong songs, especially in the 80s. The 80s normally had a bad habit of sticking the singles within the first five tracks of an album and leaving it as that. But as it hit the 90s, a bunch of radicals (I don’t want to use the sub-genre terms of rock’s culture at the time) formed and waited until their music found the right label to keep their message. Pushed together from the ashes of punk bands, Rage Against The Machine set out to make an immediate impact.

Around the time, remember, you have Nirvana riding high and the Seattle grunge sound taking over the radio and TV airwaves – Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. Rage were never in this commercial space and their high energy, politically charged message came loud and clear, visually and musically. The striking cover of the vietnamese monk, the creeping bass and guitar that hits a tempo which is immediately slowed by the heavy riff laden, distorted funk beat. Zack de la Rocha’s rap begins and you realise that this isn’t a band bound by convention. It’s the fusion of years of oppression that has found its way in to music, the freedom it has borne and a generation of young talented angry kids who knew how to up tools and harness it for their needs. Repeated chorus lyrics continue like a riot chant. The music slowly grooves but with enough intricacy to keep your ears and your body moving. The faster riff at the beginning reminding you this isn’t just a rock band with funk undertones. Edwin Starr, Black Sabbath and Public Enemy, all fused in to one, outspoken group. Bombtrack doesn’t let you forget that.

 

More to come in part 2…

 

Fallout 4 – Review

Fallout 4’s greatest strength is also at times its greatest weakness, which can be summed up/forgiven/excused/berated (delete as appropriate to your preference on this) as “being a Bethesda game.” Even since the initial reviews came out and having talked with many people about this, it has become a bit of a Marmite subject in that you love this or hate this. But to make such an arguably condescending phrase for the game really shadows some of the problems the game has and, equally so, hides some of the best things that Bethesda Games studio has done with this entry to the Fallout franchise.

Fallout 4 moves the action of the post-apocalyptic America to Boston, giving us a world where lots of scorched woodland areas and small satellite villages surround the massive city. It is incredibly huge and I know I missed places in my run that I’d seen in videos online, so it is entirely possible for you to miss places, no matter how dedicated you are to exploring the landscape.

It is a rather beautiful landscape, even if it is borne of destruction. There’s something about the desolation of society’s constructions, mixed with reclamation by nature, which is wonderful but hard to pull off. There are times that the scope is too much for the game and concessions are made with lower resolution textures and occasional lag in the texture streaming. This becomes a lot more evident in the built up areas but there is a lot more going on that takes your attention away from the obvious issues.

The video you see above (don’t worry, no spoilers) is the wonderful Andy Kelly of PC Gamer fame (@ultrabrilliant) and his award winning Other Places series, showing you the first area of the game and how wonderfully it highlights the sense of desperation the game evokes. This is down to a multitude of things that the Bethesda Game engine does very well. The colour palette is wonderfully vibrant and dour, capturing both the positivity of the pre-war age and the decay of the post-war world. This is apparent all throughout the world in larger historical structures or even the smaller pop-up shack communities you encounter. The grass and the ground is arid, dying but not quite dead, along with the concrete blending in with its cracked and broken roads and fallen structures. Nothing ever feels like it’s the same but it’s all disorientating enough to make you think you might have been there before, really helping with the need for exploration. The lighting doesn’t do a lot compared to other RPG visual feasts but it doesn’t need to when the morning fog rolls in, or the dark electrical storm shades the sky and your immediate vision in hues of murky brownish green.

The problem with this and the design of the world and the buildings is that it doesn’t feel very human, or it feels too tied to the more angular, broken edge feel that the last generation of Fallout games had. At times the apocalypse seems to have abandoned all curvature and the more you play, the more you feel this is down to the game design and engine rather than artistic choice. The draw distance as well, with the graphical issues of texture pop in can sometimes take you out of the fantasy and into the frustration of loading. In the actual menu screen there’s one low-resolution stretched texture, and it’s obvious and sticks out like a sore thumb.

fallout-4-hd-screenshot-2077

Once you move in to the world and explore, along with your now voiced character, you get to meet the typical people you’ve come to expect from the franchise, those being the deliciously maniacal, the weaselly, the addicted, the persevering, the cynical and the violent. These people of the Commonwealth live and die by your actions, and your assumption of responsibilities. Whether it is by building a settlement, defending one for the Minutemen or making yourself a made person in some of the bigger city communities. All of the people have interesting stories and need you to do interesting things for them that will put you in mortal danger, and at times it can feel like an over reliance on the fetch quest or clearing an area of nasty things. But it also feels, more importantly, like you aren’t really in control of your character, even when the decisions on loyalties, allegiances and betrayals come to distort your moral compass.

You might find abandoning your RPG play through of the game until you’ve done it at least once to be a good idea. For long periods of the game there is much more of a focus on the gunplay and action/adventure style than there is on interacting with the world in a unique way. One of the things that the old games were great for and has been much lauded and celebrated was the freedom in how you play and approach the world with your character, like Jake Tucker’s great piece on being a cannibal in New Vegas highlights. If anything, this game suffers from two things in the story and character interaction. Firstly, it’s entirely possibly that we’ve over eulogised the previous games and were expecting, with the voice and the better speech choice system, a new advancement to the freedom we want to have. Secondly, the story and the way the narrative is constructed really limits your choices as to what you can do, at least for the initial run.

kFaizMI

What do I mean by this? My example in Fallout 3 is that you are a young man just going out in the world looking for your Dad, a feat that you probably didn’t expect to actually complete, therefore you can do what you want. In New Vegas you were a nameless courier who is shot and has only the drive to find out who shot you and get revenge, therefore you can do what you want. In Fallout 4 there’s a central event that drives your character that is very human and informs that relation you have to your character. It’s incredibly hard to make your character do all the bad, evil, good, charitable things you might want them to do because the human instinct to resolve the game’s central plot stops you from really doing it. It’s hard to explain it without spoiling the story, but initially it isn’t the RPG you’re probably expecting.

When it comes to customisation though, I have three minor problems. There should be a higher camera when it comes to building the settlements so you get a better look at what you’re building. There should be a bit more of forgiveness for being over encumbered, especially as scavenging for junk now has a practical purpose, like allowing a fast travel to a local location or something. I also want to be able to wear armour whilst wearing any type of underclothes like a suit. That’s my only feedback for things I want, everything else is a great and welcome addition. Whilst the settlement construction options aren’t massive, they are excellent as a side distraction, compared to the side quests available before in previous games for escapism. There are some rather excellent ways to adjust your guns and armour, and all of these things require a smart and well educated use of the new levelling and perk system, which is simplified and much more succinct in its practical uses. But it’s because of these things that I am really excited for the mod function to become available for the console iterations of the game.

fallout-4-screenshots-6

The games issues don’t stop with the textures, or the story, or the ancillary questing being very focused on a simple fetch or kill target. There are big frame rate issues on the console during battles thanks to the overload of AI and particles, and occasionally in areas where the build up of buildings and items can lag the game down from a mostly consistent 30fps to a lot lower. Obviously the PC users don’t have that problem but it is rather annoying and can hopefully be worked in with various patching and optimisation.

But the more time you spend with the game, its quirks, its characters and its environment, the more you forgive it its faults. In a way this is the closest you’ll get to experience Stockholm Syndrome with a game. You’ll lose hours of your life and you’ll see something in the game design and construction that will make you think that the game hasn’t come on as much you would have hoped or expected in the eight years since Fallout 3 or the five since New Vegas. But then you’ll carry on, going to the next area, wanting to find where the hell Dogmeat has got to now, and you just can’t leave it. You shouldn’t be enjoying it, everything about you is saying you should stop, but you can’t.

The biggest problem with the game is the expectation, that we didn’t know we had until the game was announced, hasn’t really been matched once we got it in our hands. But much like the other iterations, it’s the repeat play, it’s the exploration and it’s the ability to have a new experience every time you start a new game that will forgive the technical limitations, even if you don’t feel it the first few hours that you play. You can say that all of this is what Bethesda does and that “it’s a Bethesda game,” but in truth it is both Fallout’s greatest weakness and also its greatest strength.

Summary

Fallout 4 might not be the game you’ve been expecting or hoping for. There’s a definite problem in that the scope of the game isn’t realised in the technical ability of the console, at least without further patches or optimisation. As such, the controls, the feel and the general atmosphere of the game feels like the last games and by association, last generation. But in truth, we wanted more of the same but better to look at, better to control and with more things to do, and that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Good Points

  • Amazing, large world
  • The new weapon modification and settlement building is a great addition
  • So vast that you’ll need several play throughs to fully experience it

Bad Points

  • Graphics and frame rate are disappointing
  • The game feels more action/adventure than RPG at times
  • The story can sometimes feel limiting to your role playing freedom

Why a 7.5?

The hangover from the previous games is most evident in that the graphical optimisation is pretty bad at times with texture pop-in lags and frame rate drops. Plus the experience you get from it isn’t really the same as you might have had previously, and might be a bit too action focused in places compared to previous games. But it is great and much more rewarding once you’ve got in to it and play it again the way you want to. There’s lots to learn and relearn but the story and the technical issues the console versions face can sour the experience.

 

This review is based on the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game.

 

 

Star Wars Battlefront – Review

From the 17th to 19th Centuries, Nostalgia was thought of as a disease. If that’s the case then Star Wars is an epidemic. There isn’t a childhood memory amongst us that doesn’t involve Star Wars in some way, even if you aren’t a fan and your best mate over hyped it. But what’s incredible is that for many of us born before the late 90s, our fascination, our love, our passion and a canon of books, games, cartoons and toys all came from only 6 hours and 39 minutes of source material.

I point this out because Star Wars Battlefront takes from that time, at least in the core version before DLC. So when it comes to content that you can enjoy and play, the selections are limited. This has been well known and discussed. The majority of the mostly Online only game comes from the original movies experience and includes such levels as Hoth, Tattooine, Endor and the once mentioned Sullust (It has been mentioned in two movies but was cut from A New Hope, and has since been established in to the wider video game cannon).

quick-look-star-wars-battlefront-beta-494201-4

That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the lack of a cohesive narrative campaign doesn’t really give you an introduction to the levels or at what part of the story you enter them. Of course you already know so that’s not an issue, it’s Star Wars, everyone knows. But there’s a certain arrogance in that mindset and the game gives you the levels and just says “there you go, shoot everything.” I think that’s why I’m a little annoyed at the lack of a “story” mode, for want of a more descriptive emotional word. But in some ways the game is better for it. It doesn’t have that corny attachment to a certain sequence of events and is in many ways given more freedom to express the gameplay without the need to pick sides.

Which is what really should be the champion here because Battlefront is the best Battlefield game I’ve played. I have to admit that my earlier issues and problems with the game, the engine and the style are mostly unfounded. I’ve played the PS4 version but if the Xbox One release is anything like the beta was then I’m sure its visually awesome. The technical specs are that the Xbox is doing 720p, the PS4 900p, much like Battlefield 4, DICE’s last outing. But the main thing here is that they’ve refined the experience now so that they can achieve the 60fps they desired (with the occasional dip) and have the gameplay experience as close to the PC as is technically possible on these consoles. Which is a terrific achievement but it does show that the Frostbite Engine is definitely a powerful beast that requires much taming.

swbbeta2

The level design is not your average FPS level. Yes it has the various required elements but it is rather constricted by the source material and the size needed for the scale of the battles. As such, we get incredible lush foliage and startling snow, but we do lose a bit of a competitive edge when playing. Sullust on Walker Assault ends up with two or three flash points that are death funnels and the scale of the height means that vehicle play can be a tricky exercise in not accidentally dive-bombing into the arse of your own AT-AT.

The thing is that it doesn’t bother me and unless you are a serious, almost competitive level PC FPS player then it shouldn’t bother you at all either. What Star Wars Battlefront has nailed is the casual element of picking up, playing, having fun, putting down and returning in a few days time when you get the itch again. It’s not a constant must play-shoot-unlock guns-level up affair that so many others are and, quite honestly that will irk some players. But it does mean that it’s a game that won’t just jump off in to levels of frustrating play against people far more powerful than you. In this regard, its very nicely balanced with a small range of weapons and grenade/special gun loadouts that best serve you rather than being ridiculously overpowered.

swbbeta1

In fact, the only thing that does make the game unbalanced in places is the level design in certain game modes, although that really depends on how the rest of your team do, as you might have found out if you played the beta. The best way to play this of course is with friends and the co-op wave modes are great and frustrating fun, even on local split screen and the drop to 30fps. But it harkens back to the days where AI wave games were basic and fun, and I honestly haven’t had as much fun in this kind of mode since Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight. The challenge of continuously using active reload is great and the whole gun play feels as loose and wild as the movies have always portrayed.

The other problems come from a lack of spaces and map choices. Each map for each type of game does feel suitably different given the same location but it still can get a bit predictable after the tenth go around. Sullust in particular comes up way to much and doesn’t really offer a lot in enjoyment either, and it is totally a homage to the various locals from the prequels they couldn’t do (think Geonosis and Mustafar). This could have been a problem in taking the cue from the original movies as it really limits the actual planet surfaces you can use. Although who wouldn’t have loved some modes in Cloud City or even inside Jabba’s Palace.

But the veneer of Star Wars is what will entice you to this game. Not even the music but the overall atmospheric, despite some naff voice work here and there. It’s the clean and easily relatable gloss that the franchise has the power to do. But what that actually takes away from slightly is how good the base game is underneath it. I don’t know if it’s that both serve the other very well, or even if the modes would work as well without the franchise, but the marriage of both has made an excellent experience. Take away the franchise and the title and DICE have done something very good by giving us a game that is a “return to basics” simple multiplayer game and it excels because of that.

Summary

Star Wars Battlefront provides the best, the easiest and the most accessible pick-up-and-play multiplayer shooting experience on this generation of consoles. Its simplicity is enhanced by its smoothness and by really good optimisation of the Frostbite engine. This isn’t a big competitive Call of Duty type game, and that will put a lot of people off, most notably on PC. It is a video game for genre fans who might not really be as hardcore as most FPS fans and if you are the latter, you’ll see why you need to play it in moderation. The lack of a story mode and maps, along with some occasionally too open level design is the only criticism in an otherwise great casual shooter.

Good Points

  • Easy pick up and play
  • Looks beautiful
  • It’s Star Wars

Bad Points

  • It doesn’t have much to offer hardcore FPS players
  • Lack of maps, or held content for DLC
  • Some of the levels aren’t that well designed

Why an 8?

In truth this is a hard game to score because it’s such a subjective subject. Is this a good FPS game? Yes for the more casual/younger player. Is this a good Star Wars game? It looks great but in actual Star Wars content, probably not. Is it short lived? Well that entirely depends on how you play it. There are so many variables but I’m constantly being drawn to the fact that DICE have created a brilliantly accessible game in a genre that can really be dominated by die hard players and difficulty extremes and successfully whacked one of the worlds most popular and enduring franchises on it seamlessly, and still kept it fun.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

WWE 2K16 – Review

As a wrestling fan, I feel equally as good about this year’s WWE game as I do bad about it. There has been a lot promised like a bigger roster, more creation options and just a general improvement on everything in the game. In many presentations and demonstrations we saw, this game was being referred to as “Year One”. In the minds of 2K, WWE and Yukes, this is the first game in their WWE Franchise canon. To give you some history on this, WWE ’13 was the last THQ game before the company went under and the licence was acquired by 2K. The first game, 2K14 was basically THQ’s game, engine, everything which was repackaged. It all happened rather quickly, too quickly to really change anything in the development.

So we thought WWE 2K15 would be the first true 2K experience, but the game had a lot of omissions, a few glitches here and there and just felt rather stale. Although a lot of work was put in to the graphics and in the Visual Concepts face scanning tech to get the most realistic looks they can. So when 2K16 is seen as the first true game by the company, we have to kind of put the 2K15 experience to one side and judge this game on its own merits… Right?

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Well you’ll have noticed that a lot of gamers, critics, etc. are also big wrestling fans, and as such wrestling game fans. It’s possibly a bit cliche but a lot of people will say that either WWF No Mercy or Smackdown Here Comes The Pain are still the best games. So this game, for a new generation, has a lot of work to do, which its predecessors arguably haven’t. WWE 2K16 does at least try to address a lot of the issues that the previous game had.

The gameplay is a lot smoother and after a lot of the release bugs have been patched, although it’s still very heavy on reversing at ridiculous times. It’s a very good wrestling experience with quite an intuitive control system but those controls and the gameplay are normally only let down by the mechanics behind it. For example, the tie-up in a corner animation that seems to take an age to play out, the really frustrating submission mini-game and the incredibly frustrating AI in games with multiple characters. But everything else seems pretty good. Yes there are a few instances where people can glitch through things but with so many variables at play, it’s hard to get that right at the speed which the game operates. The only problem is that it still at heart feels the same as it has for the past four years. There’s lots of little refinements and additions but the whole thing needs a ground up shakedown to move itself forward to a new generation of consoles and fans. It might be interesting to see what cues this game takes from others in the genre that are coming over the next year.

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The showcase mode is an interesting look back at the career of Stone Cold Steve Austin but it falls incredibly flat thanks to a lot of the atmosphere it tries to create. Interestingly this comes from the commentary more than anything. JR and The King are back to re-record certain parts and it’s flat, boring and lacks any of the adrenaline and excitement that the time and they conveyed. It’s made even worse by the fact that The King is 98% less toady in this commentary than he was and I wonder if it just would have been better to use archive commentary just to get back the Jerry Lawler we all loved and loathed. And I don’t think I ever recalled JR saying “Mr MACMAHHHHN” so often.

The Showcase mode also lacks a certain accuracy thanks to various licencing issues (I’m presuming) that leaves Wrestlemania 14’s Mike Tyson to be a generic guy. The whole unlockable Attitude era thing is certainly great and leads to much nostalgia but frustratingly, it has already been done as recently as WWE ’13. The unlocakble roster of that time is also frustratingly similar to that game as well. It is better than the CM Punk/Cena snore fest of last year but it is incredibly deriviate of what’s come before it, for wrestling fans anyway. My only problem visually was that I wanted the quicktime events in the showcase mode to be more apparent for PS4. Get some colour on there, please.

The roster is big, but it does seem to suffer from a lack of entertaining choices, which again is probably down to licences. But if you’re going for legends, why not put in Roddy Piper or Owen Hart (who was a big part of the Austin storyline). If you’re visiting the old WCW periods, why not put in some of those superstars like the Harlem Heat tag team, Goldberg, or the early Ron Simmons? If you’re going ECW alumni, why not Dreamer or Sandman, or even the Dudley’s (who are now under WWE legends contracts). The most criminal thing though is the lack of the women’s division, the Divas. In a year where the women have broken out and made the rest of WWE’s PG era take notice, they are almost totally absent. Whether or not this is planned for DLC, I have no idea, but if it isn’t it should be. At least four are missing that should undoubtedly be here.

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The career mode is much better than it was last year with, as promised, much greater options when it comes to creating and downloading custom made logos and wrestlers. Although the layering system is still a little clunky and doesn’t exactly give people an easy ride in making their creations, it is quite powerful once you know how to use it. But again there are a few issues with the whole system. You can’t use downloaded arenas in the exhibition mode, only in creating a new show in the WWE Universe mode – a mode that I still personally find highly inaccessible and bloated for a casual fan wanting to just make their own show.

Creation and sharing is the best part of this game. Especially when you and your friends created wrestlers can “invade” and appear in your career mode, a mode that’s been heavily refined since last years first attempt in to the 2K style we’ve all been waiting for. But, it is still very difficult to be a heel, although a lot easier than it was, and the interview cutscenes are atrocious with their lack of name use and very limited and repetitive answers. But with the creation around you, it’s very easy to get in to a career and invest time in it.

All told, WWE 2K16 does move things on from the previous year and arguably they have most of the basics down that we all wanted. What we need to see now though is a big improvement in the “reverse everything” gameplay mechanic, a bit more work on the ancillary things in career modes and most importantly, finding a way to capture the atmosphere and unpredictability that wrestling, whatever its era, has always had.

Summary

WWE 2K16 tries to break the mould of previous games by going deep in to its creation and its appreciation of one of WWE’s icons in Steve Austin’s career showcase. But it’s nothing the series, albeit not in this guise, hasn’t done before. And with a host of issues that shouldn’t be forgiven, I found myself enjoying trying to go for the belts. If you’re a fan and you’ve missed a few years then it’s worth a look, but the series needs to show further progress in improving its gameplay.

Good Points

  • Fun Showcase mode highlighting some of Steve Austin, and others, better moments.
  • Large creation options and community sharing
  • Easy to jump in and play regardless of age

Bad Points

  • There are a lot of missing bits that can spoil the experience
  • Submission minigame is utterly frustrating
  • Gameplay needs the overhaul the rest of the game is getting

Why a 6?

The game does actually have a lot of charm and enjoyment once you can get past the issues. Which is something, admittedly, that you shouldn’t need to do. But as a fan of wrestling, I’d rather have something that’s showing improvement than nothing at all. I love No Mercy and the great games we had fifteen years ago, but that was fifteen years ago. This is definitely the best 2K game and the best since WWE 13 for the wrestling experience and the career mode is fun. But it does need to move the gameplay forward and improve the whole thing, not just update in bits and pieces.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam – Interview

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Christopher Brookmyre’s Bedlam is now out on PC, Xbox One and PS4. You can read Andy’s review of it here, but Sean has keenly followed the game’s progress over the past year and enjoyed his time with the game and its concept. He also a massive book nerd, so we got him to chat with the author of the book and the game, Christopher Brookmyre and ask him a few questions.

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Sean Cleaver: So how did this novel turn in to a game, and how did you decide to change the protagonist’s dynamic in both forms, book and game?

Christopher Brookmyre: A lot of it was assisted by the fact it was conceived of as one thing, when I was writing the novel I’d already written the outline for the game. So I was picturing a first person perspective, which is what you do when you’re writing a novel. You genuinely are picturing how the world looks to one character at a time. But when it came to adapting it for the game, it’s all about the dialogue at that point, because you can only describe so much. Obviously the level designers bring that to life so it was all about telling the story through the things characters were going to overhear and I think it’s quite satisfying to the player instead of them being held up and forced to watch a CGI cutscene, no matter how impressive the CGI cutscene is, you still feel like this is the bit where you’re no longer interacting with the game. You’re just watching something. I think it’s far more satisfying to the player if they are overhearing things. And not everything they overhear is necessarily relevant. I think that’s sometimes the trick, to give texture and detail to the dialogue to create characters but really kind of drip feed the clues as to what’s going on. The fun part with that was creating a character like Heather (Athena) and making her vulnerable and yet confident in herself at times. So it was a great vehicle for creative swearing, very, very well brought to life by Kirsty Strain.

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SC: That’s another interesting dynamic as you’ve got some of the cast of comedy show Burnistoun to voice the characters in the game, adding this very Scottish nuance to the vocal performances. How did that come about and how did you decide to change the lead character from the book in Ross Baker, to Athena in the game?

CB: I suppose the first stage was having decided to have a new protagonist. Having quite early on in the development we discussed how we didn’t want you to play as Ross Baker because I think if you’re playing as a character who’s story has already been told effectively, I think that kind of takes you out of it a wee bit, you like to think it’s you doing it. The point of reference we had very early on was how exciting it was when you played Half Life’s Opposing Force expansion pack when you occasional catch a glimpse of Gordon Freeman who you played as before but you see that he’s still out there. And we thought that would be exciting for anyone who read the book to be in the same universe as the book and that Ross Baker would be in there too and you’d be trying to catch up to him. We thought it would be better if you felt like you were telling your own story. And I didn’t want to just create a whole new character, because I thought that would essentially be creating Ross Baker with a different name, so that’s why I thought I’d make it a woman and that will give me as a writer a whole new impetuous. The novel and the game is an affectionate pastiche of tropes and conventions of video games. So to make it from a female point of view gave it a whole new dimension for me. So I wrote it all out and I had great fun with it but at that point, I didn’t know who was going to play the character.

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I’d done some stuff on stage with Rob Florence. he was creating a section of the Glasgow film festival and he did a video game event with guests on stage, and we talked about the game. And every so often he’d get in touch and ask how it was going and how it was developing. It was one of those lightbulb moments and I thought “why don’t I ask him if he wants to do the voice?” And then when I thought about that, I thought what about Kirsty Strain? The thing that struck me was that these were people that did Sketch Comedy and in that you have to create many different characters. So I thought they’d be ideal for doing Bedlam because they might have to voice a few characters. As it happened they didn’t so much. Kirsty does a few other voices in there, but when you’ve got characters that you’re going to hear a lot of, you don’t want them to do too many voices.

We had a fantastic time doing it because it was one long day in a studio in Glasgow. Kirsty wasn’t quite as well versed in gaming so I would sometimes have to explain what it was that her character was reacting to or why she was saying it in the way she was saying it, but she just brought such qualities of vulnerability and charm to it that she nailed her lines. And in the afternoon that day when Robert was in we absolutely battered through that recording, and he at one point stopped me and said “are you not going to give me any direction?”, but because he’s so well versed in games culture he knew exactly what he was doing with every line, he was nailing every line first time. But that was a fantastic experience for me and almost every other voice in the game apart from those two is me, because we obviously didn’t have the budget for a massive cast. One of the god like voices you hear at some point in the Real Time Strategy world in the story is voiced by Harvey Summers who did the music and sound design for the game. But almost everyone else is me with various clever sound effects so it doesn’t all sound like me.

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SC: Of course the biggest thing in this is that you’re a gamer, so what kind of games are you playing now?

CB: The whole project was like a big love letter to games down the years. I can’t lay claim to being such a big gamer now in recent years, I know it sounds terribly grown up but I’ve just been so busy doing various novels and actually working on the game and everything that goes with it. But my son’s a big gamer so most of my gaming is done vicariously over his shoulder. Which means I do stay up to date with what’s going on but I don’t get to play as much. But I was hugely involved in the early, what I regard as pioneering, days of online gaming culture in the UK. I played in clans for Quake 2 and Quake 3. I’ve written about it quite a bit and what really appealed to me as a project was that I could really just write about the things I love. That’s something I’ve tried to do with lots of my books, is write something I’m passionate about.

I’m getting to see it but my son has his PC in the same room as mine. So I see what he’s playing but I’m really not getting to play much at all these days. Every so often there will be a gap in the schedule so I get to play something. So I played Alien Isolation, or cupboard simulator as I started to think of it, and that was terrifying. I think my glory days are brought out in the novel. Anyone who knows games will be able to see there’s a point at which whoever wrote this has ceased to evolve. Which is why there is very much an emphasis on the late 90s and early 2000s shooters in there. But I’m fascinated by what I do see and how much more sophisticated the games are able to get, and in that I suppose I’m talking about open-world games and RPGs. What amuses me about the FPS, as Bedlam is very much about the evolution of the FPS and it’s evolved in a lot of ways but there’s a lot of ways that it hasn’t evolved at all. I mean the gameplay dynamic of Doom is still in there and whatever FPS comes out next.

SC: So now you’ve seen it all brought to virtual life, what’s your favourite level in the game?

CB: Oh!, Well… I played a lot of the early levels far more because of how the early access structure allowed me to go through them. But for me the one I like the most is the Planetfire, the second of the Planetfire levels was kind of up in the clouds, because I like if anything for me it sums up what we were trying to do with the game, it’s that you’re in this quite modern looking, quite comparatively polished in terms of the graphics, and I loved the level design but most importantly, you’re being strafed by a sort of voxellated, pixellated 3D version of a 2D arcade game Defender type ship. So that to me is what we were trying to do, it’s as if something escaped from one game in to another. So being strafed by this Defender 2D thing whilst running around in a far more futuristic looking shooter, that I think there’s something quite elegant about that level so I really kind of like it.

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[author]

PES 2016 – Review

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I’m just going to come out and say this straight up. PES 2016 is the best football game in years. It’s definitely the best football game of the past five years and definitely the best on this current generation of consoles. Is it the best ever? No, but that’s not because of anything the game does, more of the times we live in and I’ll tell you for why.

Before playing the game for review I was lucky enough to play it twice, once at Gamescom and once at an event in London and the passion in the rooms for this return to form was evident. And as a football cliche, “return to form” has appeared a lot in regards of PES 2016 chatter, because it truly has. The game is going from strength to strength and with the dissolving of everything console for Konami except PES, the full attention it’s getting can only mean good things for the franchise’s future.

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It’s a future that has been built on solid ground here. Every single mode you would expect is here, the classic Master League, the challenging online play, the tournaments, licensed tournaments and the card based myClub feature. In fact, the game modes are probably the least important part of why PES 2016 is the best game at present because, whilst they are fun, they aren’t what makes the game fun to play.

But there are annoyances with these modes because of things like the teams not being up to date. I don’t mean the heavily publicised data update with transfers, but the teams themselves aren’t the same teams that are in this year’s Europa and Champions League competitions. It’s not a big issue but it’s one of the licence things that cannot be got around. The myClub feature is good and the coaching dynamic works quite well. It does feel a bit more football manager like than FIFA’s FUT but my experiences have been fraught with glitches and disconnections, some the games fault and some the players.

The Master League mode is as deep as it ever was and you can do as much or as little as you want in regards to forging your career and controlling the team. The main thing is that the menu screens are fairly easy to get around, although that’s been a thing that has plagued football games in recent years, and PES isn’t completely innocent with putting various settings in hard to locate sub-menus at times.

There are also a few things that keep the visual aesthetic apart from FIFA. You don’t have as much crowd atmosphere, a limited number of stadiums, the commentary is still a bit naff (although in truth PES commentary always was and is always better played with the Spanish commentary, because as British players it sounds more exciting and we can’t tell how broken it is), and the overall presentation is at times still trying to emulate that FIFA/Sky/Premier League visual style which would be great if not for everything else making it apparent that’s all it is, a style.

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The second biggest thing that the game has is pretty much for PS4 owners only, which is the ability to import data files and images for team, league and kit customisation. Much like its PS2 forefathers, this PES has the ability, with a great community of modders, to get around that sticky licensing issue and give us the teams. It’s not the simplest thing to do and it will take you a good hour or so to get it all edited to be the way you want it to be. But it’s worth your time doing. This is thanks to Sony’s policies allowing this, so sorry Xbox owners.

Which leads us to the most important thing – This is the best playing football game that there is available on the market right now. FIFA for all of its refinement and depth is still a very arcade run, skill and shoot affair for the most part. PES has an almost physical connection to how you play the ball, how aggressive you are, how much you pass the ball, how gassed you are when you run, the battles and tussles you go in to. This is down to two things, which are the engine and the animations. PES has always been a bit weightier in how you play, realising that the laws of physics do apply unless you’ve won many Ballon D’ors. FIFA has always been quite interchangeable in how any player can do a decent 50 yard run and shot on goal, regardless of if their stats and real life counterparts reflect that.

PES has taken a lot more care in the making sure that someone like Andy Carroll is going to be dominant in the air and a great person to hold up the ball, but is less likely to open his engines up down the wing and deliver a cross with accuracy. The FOX engine is great at making minute animations mean a lot more in the game. The physicality of a challenge is matched by new animations that help your player feel more realistic, like not having full control of a header as you’re backpeddling and off balance. What this does is it makes you respect, not only the player, but their ability and how they play. It opens you up to many different ways to actually play football, to adapt your tactics and play to your squads strengths, not necessarily your own gaming strengths, and that is magnificent.

Nothing has done that before or come close to it, and I doubt that anything will in the immediate future. In a perfect world, the contracts and money would loosen up a little and the ability to get a more immersive and in depth representation of world football would be available to the PES team. Or they would go “sod it” and completely abandon the areas of the game where it tries to do what FIFA does and makes the gameplay the stand out part of the game, much like the PS2 era did. But for now, this is the best that we have and despite some post-launch support niggles, it thoroughly deserves that praise. If this wasn’t an age where presentation and TV style run rampant in sports games, arguably over the good simulations that some games do, then this would be the best football game ever. But it’s close, damn close.

Summary

PES 2016 is the best football game available and the best that there has been for a long time. There is no doubt that the lack of FIFA sheen can put off people but, you aren’t playing football, you’re playing playing FIFA. Even some poor post-launch support hasn’t dampened the quality of the game and the experience. It might be some time before anything can better that and if anything, its attempts to present itself like FIFA at times inadvertently highlights its weaknesses.

Good Points

  • Excellent graphics
  • Great fluid and physical gameplay
  • Customisation and PS4 data importing

Bad Points

  • Poor post-launch issues
  • The non-football atmosphere is a bit naff
  • Outside of football, tires to be too much like FIFA

Why an 8.5?

This is the best football game available at the moment. It’s not the most refined, the biggest or even the most accessible. But it is the best simulation of football available now. It’s not the best ever though, that honour still goes to PES 5 for me, but in this day and age of TV and rights and licenses, it’s the closest we could possibly get.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.