The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

This poster looks about as computer-edited as the film itself.

This poster looks about as computer-edited as the film itself.

Okay, so having just seen this film a few hours ago, I wanted to post a couple of impressions I came away with.  Please be aware of potential spoilers.

  1. Distance and scale in this film seemed wildly out of whack.  More orcs than were at Helm’s Deep seemed to be available for this conflict, but 13 dwarves can make a difference?  A little confusing.  What’s that, Bilbo’s at Erebor?  Now he’s at Dale?  Back at Erebor again?  Oh, and now he’s gone to meet Thorin on the mountaintop.  Well, good thing that battle’s still going on.
  2. Excessive use of CGI.  I know this has been a major concern for me in the Hobbit films, when compared with the amount of physical effects used in Lord of the Rings, but Battle of the Five Armies had some especially egregious examples.  Excessively airbrushed Legolas jumping off falling blocks in mid-air like a mid 2000’s platformer game; a host of identical computer generated wood-elves running around in the background of any shot of Gandalf and Bilbo; also, I hope you like ever-shiny CGI gold that never looks quite right, because there sure will be a lot of it, just like last time.  If you’re going to have a treasure horde that is bigger than all the gold that exists on Earth (no really, look it up), then please make sure it looks like actual gold.
  3. Padded out plot.  I still feel like the Hobbit films would have made a single film of decent length, or at the very least two films.  I cannot shake the impression that every film has at least 30 minutes of material included just to pad it out.  This film includes such highlights as an entire storyline with Alfrid Lickspittle, otherwise known as the Master of Laketown’s weird Wormtongue-light assistant, that basically goes no-where and has no conclusion or real comeuppance for an incredibly annoying character.  His story could really have been sorted with a 3 minute scene ending in some form of humiliation, but alas, it was not to be.  I think Peter Jackson has some strange obsession with these frustrating characters.  This film also shows how pointless it was to introduce Bolg in the last film, only for Azog (of Defiling fame) to once again become lead villain in this film.  Yet another wasted scene.

Just a few observations, hastily typed up after watching.  Let me know whether you agree or not in the comments!

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Review: Justice League: War

Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.

Cover art copyright Warner Home Video.

I just finished watching Justice League: War, and I thought I’d post up a few comments about it.

Let me first say that while I am a big comics nerd, my love for comics generally lies with Marvel, so I haven’t read a great many DC comics, with the exception of big stand-alone titles, such as Batman: Year One, Superman: Red Son, Kingdom Come, etc…; I find DC’s monthly fare to be pretty substandard, but they tend to do iconic stories about their heroes very well, and they’re often a joy to read. DC does well when it paints in broad strokes and tells me about the characters that I care about doing interesting and different stuff.  I want to see Batman, Superman and the rest of the big names in DC pushed to their limit or doing incredible things, not just going through their weekly routine of fighting villains and bumping into 2nd and 3rd string characters who I really don’t understand or care about.

It’s for this reason I’m often so enamoured with the DC animated/cinematic universes, despite not following the characters anywhere near as closely as I do Marvel’s.  These offerings tend to either be new takes on existing material, in an attempt to pull in a new audience, something which I always find interesting to watch, or a rendering of an iconic past story, which is generally where I feel the Justice League and their ilk get interesting.

So, that said, I was excited to watch Justice League: War, knowing pretty much nothing about it, other than it was the latest DC Animated Original Movies offering, which is normally enough to make me want to watch it.  As the plot started to spin up, I was surprised to find that I had actually encountered this storyline before, and after a quick wiki, I found that Justice League: War is based on the New 52’s Justice League: Origins storyline, which I had read a couple of issues of back when it came out.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the comics when I read them, but I was happy to condense them into an hour or so of animated fun.

If there’s one phrase that I feel fully encapsulates Justice League: War it’s “hit and miss”.  Some characters were artfully portrayed, most specifically Batman and Green Lantern, who had some real character development throughout the film and some good banter in the beginning which really hooked me in.  Wonder Woman as well was pretty excellent; although her character doesn’t progress through much of an arc, she’s one of the most entertaining characters in the film.   Cyborg was interesting, but the film maybe lingered on him a bit too much.  His concept is pretty simple, and I felt that time could have been better used for rounding out other characters a little more.

Other members of the League were pretty uninspiring; Flash became pretty much boiled down to “fast-guy”, which I guess he is, but I would have liked to have known anything about him as a character.  As it stands, he just shows up, runs fast, and pings a few lines off of Green Lantern.  Shazam/Captain Marvel (they never call him the latter in the film) was also a weird one; he’s probably my number 1 DC hero, and I want him included in as many things as I can, but given that they gave almost no time to explaining what he was or how his powers worked, or anything really, he was pretty uninspiring, especially in a film that also has Superman as a main character.  I guess Shazam’s powers are pretty much 90% throwing balls of lightning around now?

The worst offender was in fact Superman himself.  If there’s one thing that’s important across any iteration of Superman, it’s that he be a “boyscout”, that he is essentially trying to be a nice guy.  He doesn’t always have to know how to do that, or what the right thing to do is in every situation, but he has to be trying to be the best he can be; he’s not smart, he’s just a good guy.  I would say that this film (or perhaps just Superman post New 52, I’m not 100% sure since I can’t say I’ve kept up with it) does the worst job of portraying Superman than any I’ve seen.  I’ve read and listened to a lot of commentary around Man of Steel, and a lot of people comment there about the destruction caused and people who die, and also the ending, but in that film, those things happen because he is trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t know how to do it, or what it is, at least not all the time.  In Justice League: War, Superman is just a cocky asshole; we’re introduced to him by having him beat the tar out of Green Lantern and Batman, without a word really traded between them, and he just continues to punch and destroy throughout the whole film, only pausing to try and get into Wonder Woman’s pants, like some popped-collar frat boy who just happened to come from Krypton.  I’ve never seen a portrayal of Superman that strays further from what I feel he should be.

There were definitely some cool scenes in this film, and I would recommend that anyone who likes the Justice League or just superhero films in general give it a watch.  Some of the final battle stuff with Darkseid is pretty excellent, but once again, he is a character who gets almost no explanation; we just have to accept that he really wants to take over Earth.  He has no connection with any of the other characters and almost no dialogue, and because of this, I don’t really feel he has much of a presence in the film.  He could be any other really strong villain.

Finally, I would say that, like a lot of offerings that include a significant team of DC superheroes, it begins to feel pretty awkward pretty quickly whenever Batman gets involved in a big fight.  We all know he’s an incredible guy. with some incredible skills, but this film tends to treat him as much the same as any of the other heroes in terms of the action.  It goes so far as to make it pretty explicit that the other heroes are shocked he’s just a guy in a cape, but he can apparently punch out Parademons with the best of them.  Maybe I’m being picky, but I think it’s fine for Batman to accept he’s outclassed in a straight up fight against certain enemies, and be thinking of a way to win without having to punch a 10 foot tall armoured space monster.

All in all, I would say Justice League: War is good, but with some really glaring problems that seriously impact on my enjoyment of it, and when compared to some of the other recent DC animated works, such as Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, really starts to show its flaws.

Review: Dungeon World

I’ve been introduced to a new game recently, Dungeon World, and to be entirely honest I think it’s the first game I’ve played in the last few years for which I have nothing but praise. All credit for introducing this game to me goes to my friend Mike, my usual supplier of arcane and obscure indie games (or at least games that seem arcane and obscure to me, until he points me in their direction of the internet).

For me Dungeon World is my new primary fantasy adventure game. If anyone mentions to me that they want to play a fantasy game or a dungeon crawl, Dungeon World is my new go to game. Hell, I’m tempted to use it for almost any game that lends itself to a group of adventurers who fit into classes or archetypes, with some modification of course.

It’s beautifully simple; first each class has a character sheet with everything you need to know to create or play the character printed on it, including your hit dice, the numbers you can allocate to which attributes, everything. It’s all on there. No trawling through books for spells or special abilities; people pick their class and make their character, and it’s all done in about 15 minutes flat.

But the things that really make Dungeon World my new system of choice and future life partner are still to come. Firstly, the sheet that the players fill in prompts them to make characters beyond the numbers and abilities they are choosing. It asks them to pick a build, and a style and a look, which means that those players who would normally just put the numbers on their sheet and give no thought to how their characters would act or appear are prompted to go that extra step and inject some real life and personality into their characters.

The second gem hidden at the heart of this system, something which I feel is really unique, is that it gives just as much support and page-space to the GM as it does to the players. Obviously most games have pages of rules which allow the GM to run the game, but often it’s the equivalent of handing someone a toolbox and asking them to build a shelving unit, but without any instructions as to how to go about doing this. Obviously, some people know how to do this from scratch anyway, and that’s fine for them, but Dungeon World provides the GM with his own rules and systems to go about building their world and running their game.

With regards to world building it provides sheets to fill in for GMs to use in planning their adventures, but put together in a similar way as the player sheets to encourage you to create a world, challenges and antagonists, but without just assuming you would know how to pull a story out of nowhere and put it together in a manner that plays well, which is an assumption I think too many games make.

Actually running the game is a very strange experience for an old school GM, but one that I now wish all games would embrace. Initially any encounter generally sparks off in one of your already created set-pieces, which you are prompted to create using the world building system mentioned above. These set-pieces have built in consequences for player actions, and built in antagonists and challenges, but all built in by the GM when they put the campaign together. Furthermore GM/NPC actions are generally only taken as a result of player actions. The bad guys don’t get their own initiative, they react only in response to player’s actions. Sure, if they lie in ambush or initiate a combat, the antagonists might make the initial attack, but there’s no roll to see if they hit the players. It’s the players who defy danger, and their roll decides whether they succeeded, failed or somewhere in the middle, and prompt the GM to make a further action.

To people who’ve been playing roleplaying games for a long time, it seems a strange system, but even to an experienced GM the dance of action and consequence between players and the games master really take a lot of weight off of your shoulders. You’re not single handedly running the whole universe like some kind of massively powerful next generation console; you’re simply sitting at the helm of the adventure, tugging levers occasionally and pressing the odd button, to prompt the machine that is Dungeon World to further adventure.

In short I cannot recommend this system enough; at its core it has something for everyone. It’s ideal for brand new players, as it’s one of the simplest games to pick up and play I’ve ever seen, while still having enough depth and complexity to fund sessions and sessions of play. It’s also well placed for introducing players who have only played more “crunchy” systems, such as any of the Dungeons and Dragons games, to games where narrative is more important that the powers written on your sheet. It carries over just enough elements from classic roleplaying games to avoid looking like a totally free-form adventure system, but isn’t constrained by any of the same issues that I find drag games like that into the dirt, bickering about weapon ranges and base attack bonuses. Finally, I think it’s a breath of fresh air for any GM; it puts some of the onus of running a game back on the players, leaving you free to really enjoy the adventure, which I feel is a feature lacking from most other games out there. Classically as a GM you tend to think of yourself as “running” a game for your players; I think Dungeon World is one of the few games in which the GM can really say he’s playing as well.

Dungeon World can be found at http://www.dungeon-world.com and I heartily recommend checking it out.

Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

Poster art copyright belongs to the distributor of the film, Warner Bros.

Poster art copyright belongs to the distributor of the film, Warner Bros.

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Wednesday last week, and have been mulling it over in my head since. The problem with it as a film is that I am inevitably going to compare it with one of the best film series of recent years, everyone’s favourite, Lord of the Rings. And I don’t think it’s unfair to do so, after all, it’s the same people making the Hobbit and, as you will probably realise if you’ve seen it, it very much wants you to have seen Lord of the Rings before watching it. The problem with that is, however, that I’m not entirely sure The Hobbit stands quite as tall (hurr, hurr) as its predecessor.

Before I go to deeply into any flaws I feel the film might possess, I would first like to say that The Hobbit was an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable film that probably still rates among my top 5 films this year. It was as visually impressive as we’ve come to expect from these film-makers, and did a spectacular job of bringing the fantasy world of Middle Earth to life once again, and while I may have some gripes with all the extra material added into the film, which I will go into later, I loved seeing all the edges of the setting brought into the limelight (for instance, I’m yet to speak to anyone who didn’t love Radagast).

However, that said, I don’t think I can give The Hobbit a 100% approval rating. Firstly, I feel I need to point in the direction of its somewhat contorted story. While Lord of the Rings took a long story and kept it together in a continuous and tight trilogy, the Hobbit is really stretching to find material to fill the screentime. At around 2 hours and 50 minutes long, it’s certainly carrying on the tradition of long films, but I’m not sure that the source material really has enough interesting events and plot to fill all that time, and they’re very much reaching out to other books in the Tolkien mythology to fill the gaps. While this does mean that we get to see things that previous films may have only left to the imagination, the constant cuts away from what feels like the main plot to other events, often happening far in the past of the current story left me feeling somewhat disjointed. It’s like watching a film with all the scenes normally reserved for the DVD special edition included. Sure, it’s a lot of interesting and awesome stuff, but I can’t help feeling like I should be saying “yeah, I can see why they cut this out”. It doesn’t flow and constantly distracts from what feels like it should be the main plot.

Now, it could certainly be that I’m just mistaking Bilbo’s journey with the Dwarves to fight Smaug as the central plot, and in fact what is happening in the background is actually more key to what’s going on than I’m giving it credit for, but if so, they’re very much depending on the goodwill Lord of the Rings has generated for people to come back and see that payoff. I feel they definitely could have worked harder to make the extraneous scenes feel more integral to the film.

In addition, there seemed to be a lot of assumptions that you would know who these characters were from the previous films. Now, I don’t know how hard it would be for a person coming fresh to these films to pick up on who is who, since neither myself nor anyone I know has managed to avoid the LotR trilogy, and to be honest, I doubt I’ll ever know, but characters like Gandalf, Saruman and Galadriel are presented with little or no explination as to why they are figures of such importance in the mythos. Obviously, a lot can be picked up from inference, but I wonder if new viewers would be left a little lost as to who these characters are, and why the things they say are given such weight within the film.

If it feels like I’m just trying to find flaws within the film, don’t be surprised, because mostly that’s what I’m doing. The Hobbit is altogether an excellent film and does a great job of showing the universe of Tolkien’s mythology while still managing to have a central plot and story, even if it does seem to briefly go awry in places. The visuals are, as always, spectacular and while the film may rely heavily on its viewers having seen the preceding films, I’m not sure I can entirely criticize it for that. After all, if you haven’t seen Lord of the Rings at this point, may I suggest your first port of call should be a shop to pick up the trilogy (probably for the price of a cinema ticket nowadays…) and marathon that first.

In short, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is great viewing. Dramatic, funny and interesting, it’s well worth the price of admission, although I’m not sure it really stacks up as well compared to its epic predecessors.

Also, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

(I’ll get back to talking about RPGs soon, I promise. I just need to play some!)

Review: Halo 4

This cover art copyright belongs to Bungie and Microsoft Studios.

This cover art copyright belongs to Bungie and Microsoft Studios.

How can you differentiate buyer’s remorse from simply wishing a good game was longer? This is the question having played and finished Halo 4 has left me with. Before I delve into the game itself, let me elucidate you on how the situation stands between Halo and I. Firstly, I’m definitely not someone who can be described as a Halo Devotee. I’ve never played in 8-player deathmatches, either in LAN or over the internet. I’ve never squatted to dangle my armour-clad ass over a fallen warrior. I am in no way obsessed with it.

I do, however, quite like it. I’ve played around half of the Halo games (Halo 2, ODST and now Halo 4 are amongst my conquered victims), and I can quite honestly say that I’ve never come away from the experience dissapointed. If there is a game where I want to be a burly superhuman shooting aliens, I very much consider Halo to be in my top two games, although I think gaming would be in a better state in general if “burly superhumans shooting aliens” wasn’t basically a genre in itself right now. I also enjoy the setting of the games, which has obviously matured with time, and Halo 4 certainly pleases me, serving up another heaped scoop of background material.

So, when it comes to Halo, I think I’m on quite a level playing field. I’m not bonded by deep and terrible oathes of fealty to talk about how much I enjoyed pwning newbs, etc…, but nor am I predisposed to dislike it, despite it being the forerunner (Huh? Huh? Get it!) for most things that I don’t enjoy in modern gaming. Although don’t count on me for accurate description of online multiplayer. Any game where I need to spend several days mastering it before I can be allowed to do anything before being immediately shot in the head is not something worthy of my, or anyone’s time. However, I won’t blame Halo for that; it’s the same with any online game and basically boils down to some people having way too much time to spend playing video games (how I envy them!).

So without further ado:

Gameplay

First thing’s first, for those who care, this is definitely still Halo. I know a lot of people were concerned that with the move to 343 Studios after Bungie were done with the series, the game just wouldn’t be the same; I definitely don’t think that is the case. Compared to ODST it plays much the same. Of course, there are some mechanical differences; as far as I can tell there’s still no dual wielding (a feature I always enjoyed from Halo 2), and some of the classic guns have dissappeared, especially some covenant weapons. The plasma rifle has been replaced by the Storm Rifle, which is essentially the same gameplay wise, and, according to the fluff, is the replacement for its now outdated predecessor. Still, I miss the classics.

However, as far as I can tell, the gameplay sticks to the classics, which is an obvious move on the behalf of 343. They know Halo will sell, and if they can produce a game that provides the same experience as the last few, then people will praise them for it. However, as was my experience with ODST, there’s nothing new. The armour enhancements from Reach are still included, with a few extras, I think, but I feel there’s very few true innovations in the game. They have come up with a whole new suite of weapons to compliment the new enemies in the story, but it’s so much money for old rope. There are some standout weapons, and the design of them is definitely impressive, harkening back to Tron Legacy in design I feel, but in reality it’s the same combination of assault rifle, battle rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun and rocket launcher. Sure they do fire and work differently enough to be different from the human and covenant weapons, but once again nothing new.

I’m also of two minds on the length of the game as well. On the one hand I was a bit bored with all the repetitive FPS action by the time I got to the final levels, but, after I’d finished it, I felt like I was a good few levels short of a full game. Thinking back, I don’t think it’s any real amount shorter than the other Halos, but I think the phrase it left me wanting more definitely applies.

I won’t linger long with regards to the online/multiplayer, mostly because I didn’t linger long myself on these aspects. The Halo 4 multiplayer was what I’d come to expect. I got shot. A lot. Woo. However, I did very much enjoy the Spartan Episodes; co-op play with a group of other random players vs a couple of missions that look to be updated on a regular basis allowed me to enjoy online play much more than before.

But, as a final word for this section, that doesn’t stop me coming away from this game having had a good time. Sure, it’s all jumping around incredible looking landscapes blowing up alien monsters with the aforementioned list of weapon types, but it’s still great fun. There’s a reason we’re now around 6 games deep into the series. The formula works.

Story

If there’s one thing I have to compliment Halo 4 on, it is definitely its story. In the same way that the main game is compact and to the point, its story doesn’t go through whirling loops or throw any red herrings. Land on planet, find evil alien, kill evil alien. At its core that’s what it boils down to. And in reality, I don’t really want anything other than that for the main plot of my Halo game. I don’t want to wonder whether this alien is right or wrong. He’s wrong and needs shooting. Lots. And maybe also a grenade.

However, for me, the standout element of Halo 4’s story is the interaction between the Master Chief and Cortana. Ever a strong element of the series, this episode really does it for me, contrasting the Chief, a human who might as well be a machine and Cortana, the machine who might just be human, at least inside. As the game draws to a close, and it lingers on the idea that there are hundreds of other Cortanas out there and that, if things go badly, the Chief might even end up partnered to another of the same, but it wouldn’t really be her, really cuts to the core of the situation for me. Oh, and the final scene is as close to heartbreaking as I think a game like Halo can ever get. It really exemplifies how a supersolder like the Chief, built for nothing but constant war, struggles to express emotion. Good stuff.

Presentation

As always, Halo looks good. 343 have clearly spent a lot of time making sure that, on any amount of close examination, Halo 4 can hold its own stood next to any other member of the series. The animation looks beautiful, the skyboxes and backgrounds suitably awesome, and the detail on the character models is exquisite. I really can’t fault the game in this area. If I had to pick one thing that bugged me, the only thing I could say is that by the end of the game I felt a little bit sick of fighting the same enemies over and over, especially the new Prometheans, who I felt were somehow more repetitive.

Conclusion

I was pleased by Halo 4, it was the same short burst of sci-fi action shooter that I had come to expect from the series, and considering it had been handed off to the new 343 Studios to develop, I suppose that is a compliment. I can’t say it was worse for having changed hands, and achieves the same benchmarks as the rest of the series.

As I stated at the beginning, I’m still not sure whether I feel that the game was too short and compact for the £40 price tag, and therefore I feel a little bit cheated, or whether I felt that it was just the right length to stop me getting bored. Or they should have varied the gameplay a little and added a few more levels. I really can’t decide which I would have preferred. Regardless, my conclusion is still the same; this is a good game. It’s enjoyable, action packed and has a story that, while not gripping, may at least make you shed a holographically generated tear.

Review: Shards of the Exalted Dream

Shards of the Exalted Dream, or just Shards, as it has come to be known, has been out for a week or so now, and I’ve read enough of it that I think I’m just about able to pass some form of comment on it. For those of you who don’t know, Shards of the Exalted Dream is a new book from White Wolf in their Exalted line, and it presents a number of new and different ways to approach and play Exalted. There are four alternate settings in the book, one of which encloses and entirely separate system, and there are also a lot of new rules in there for doing different things with your Exalted game; it includes rules for guns and driving, with charms and artifact cars, motorbikes and guns to compliment.

As described by Drive Thru RPG

The world of Exalted has been reflected in the minds and stories of players across the world for over a decade. Now the mirror shatters, and White Wolf presents a collection of unique new visions of Exalted, shards of imagination to take your games through alternate realities, twisted histories, new genres, and even to the stars. In addition to re-imaginings of the classic setting, this book also contains a plethora of new rules to support those visions, or for enterprising Storytellers to use to create their own new takes on Exalted. What worlds will you forge from your dreams?

I’ve browsed most of the book, and read pretty thoroughly through most sections, and I have to say I am impressed. Gunstar Autochthonia is the first setting, in which the Exalted lost their war with the Primordials, and as a result they were forced to flee Creation en masse, using Autochthon as a mighty spaceship, which, over the last 10,000 years, they have rebuilt into a mighty warship known as the Gunstar. This setting draws from a number of different sources but the one that struck me as the strongest influence was Battlestar Galactica; the feeling of being constantly pursued across what is a largely unknown void by powerful enemies that, if conflict occurs, you can only really hope to hold off until you can flee really reminds me of the recent series. And I have to say, that’s something I like.

The next setting is Burn Legend (a name I always feel like someone should be yelling in a deep voice as your press the “Start” button on a games loading screen), and is basically the RPG version of a 90s action film or fighting manga. This setting is the one that diverges most from “vanilla” Exalted. It’s set in the real world, or at least the Burn Legend version, where your characters, powerful martial artists running the span from mere heroic mortals who know american wrestling and muai thai, to shapeshifting Okami and demonic Yama Kings who harness supernatural powers in their martial arts. This section is lacking somewhat in exactly what you would do in a game where everyone is a badass martial artist, but it still seems like a lot of fun. The elemental martial arts styles in particular, taking clear influence from Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra’s elemental bending (going so far as to call themselves elemental binding…), really draw my eye. I’m not sure a whole campaign of this is in the cards, but I can imagine some memorably one-offs being spawned. It’s a very streamlined system, with 3 main stats, a list of your techniques and then just backgrounds to resolve everything else, and combat comes down to playing cards to activate your martial techniques, some of which auto-defeat other kinds, but others calling for roll-offs. I’m hoping that this will mean the combat plays fast and furious, but I’d be worried that it could get bogged down in mechanics and card-choosing. If you’re interested in taking a look for yourself, see this link for the technique cards free to download from Drive Thru RPG.