Hard to Be A God (2013) Review


Friends, I have finally managed to watch Hard to Be a God. This medieval science fiction epic is packed to the brim with mud, piss, shit,snot, blood, mud, shit and did I mention mud and shit? Alexei German’s final film confronts us with the dirtiest and most incredible visual rendition of a barbaric medieval world. Unfortunately, that is about all it does.

But before I discuss that, let me briefly explain the premise. This film centres around the idea of an enlightened Earth civilization searching space and they find this planet, earthlike in almost every respect, caught up in it’s own medieval period and on the verge of a Renaissance. Or at least, that is what the scientists believe. Of course, this doesn’t happen and they are stuck in this world of shit and barbarism. It is all very Star Trek but with a depressive Russian sensibility. The film primarily follows one of these scientists, Don Rumata, who the local people believe to be the son of a deity. Don Rumata has naturalised himself with this world and the film follows him as he does stuff. Beyond this, it is difficult to tell what the film is about. The biggest problem with this film is that not only does it seem to take forever for there to be any narrative to grasp on to. It is unclear what any of the character’s motivations are, except for a faction called the Order, who are basically analogous to hyper religious types, although exactly what they believe too is unclear. Don Reba’s motivations are unclear. Don Rumata’s motivations only become somewhat apparent closer towards the end. The film is also 3 hours long. It is obtuse in a way that at times reminded me of Solaris, except  Solaris had characters with motivations that were understandable, which made the characters resonate and the philosophical tone of the film work. Nor is it obtuse in a mind bending or surrealistic way that works like say, Inland Empire or deliberately nonsensical and absurd like Cosmos.

What has happened here with Hard to be a God is the narrative structure was lost to the point where some things are just plain confusing. There is one sequence where Don Rumata is arrested for some reason that isn’t clearly explained, possibly heresy or something like that. Then the very next sequence he is free. This was very confusing, considering we didn’t see how he got free. Things just seem to happen in ways that don’t quite make sense, as if those sections had been dropped onto the cutting room floor. The philosophical veneer of the film doesn’t quite work either because of these problems with the narrative of the film and a lack of enough dialogue or exposition. This philosophical dimension only really rears itself fully towards the end, but it is not properly developed.

But enough complaining, let me talk about what the film does right.

What I did love about this film is that it has the most incredible and richly detailed mis- en-scene I have seen in a film like this. It’s shit filled world is presented in such fantastic detail that it is impossible to look away. Even with the problems with the narrative, the visuals of this film are so fantastic that on their own, they manage to keep the film engaging. Almost every frame is a grotesquely gorgeous painting. I also liked the long take style of filming that was smooth, sometimes claustrophobic but always drew me in. The way some objects got in the way, characters looking or sometimes talking to the camera, in combination with the positions and movement of the camera made it an immersive experience. The film also has some excellent performances.

Another aspect of the film I appreciate is in spite of the tone of pure misery it is going for, it is rather restrained in its depiction of violence. It would be easy for a film like this to bathe in blood, but this one bathes in mud and even though it has graphic violence of its own, it never become ridiculous. There is one sequence where Don Rumata is walking through the courtyard of the order and we are treated to these brutal devices of execution that are large wooden penises with spikes operating with some kind of drop and pulley system. They are caked with blood and the gore of woman’s interior, whilst the people attending the device explain how this works in such a matter of fact way. We don’t need the film to show us how it works, the information we get is enough to put the image in our heads and that is enough to be horrified. This sticks out to me as the most potent indicator of the barbarism of the place of Arkanar.

What else is there to say about Hard to be a God? There is little soundtrack to speak of and I have not read the novel the film is based on, so I am not currently any authority on how it compares to the source material. What I can say to conclude this review, however, is that I really wanted to like this film more than I did and that for me, it was a bit of a disappointment. It excels in the visual department, but in regards to it’s storytelling and philosophical intent, it falls flat. However, it is still worth watching if only for the excellent visuals on display, just don’t expect a coherent narrative.



Titanfall 2 (2016) PS4 Review-In-Progress


This review in progress is based on the multiplayer portion of the game.

With Titanfall 2, I broke a few of my own rules in buying it. First, it’s the first EA published game I have purchased since Battlefield 3 and secondly, I don’t normally buy shooters on console (although I did play Black Ops 3 on PS4, but that was a gift). But so far, with about 10+ hours of the multiplayer, this feels like a superb shooter, perhaps one of the best in the past few years.

Titanfall 2’s mechanics should feel like putting on a comfortable pair of gloves, with it’s responsive controls and smooth frame rate that keeps a stable 60fps, anyone who has played any recent Call of Duty should be able to quickly get themselves accustomed to the feel of this. However, the movement system here is far better than any recent Call of Duty that has attempted a similar thing. Here, unlike last year’s Black Ops 3 whose wallrunning and added movement systems onto the standard CoD feel felt quite clunky and often superfluous, doubly so in the campaign, the movement system in Titanfall 2 is at the core of the experience. Skilled players, with the right loadouts (aka using the grapple hook) can jump, swing and wallrun their way across maps in seconds, which is quite exhilarating. The actual shooting is also tight and highly enjoyable with a good variety of weapons that aren’t excessive in number, each type feeling different and can be levelled up with perks and attachments and be granted skins from the levelling or completion of challenges, such as achieving a certain amount of headshots.

The other part of the experience are the titans, which are basically huge mechs with different abilities, such as one of my favourites, Ronin, who has a gigantic sword. These mechs are much slower to play, but not frustratingly so and provide a fun counterpoint to the zippy infantry play. These titans also have customizable loadouts and weapon skins. In matches, titans are obtained on a cool down, but by completing objectives or killing enemy players, the wait time is decreased.

The pace of the game is also very fast, perhaps one of the fastest multiplayer shooters available on consoles. The movement system, combined with low time to kill, keep things moving very fast.

In terms of maps and modes, there is a good variety and decent amount, with all the maps having a good blend of tight urban-like and interior interiors integrated with more open lanes for titan combat. While these maps are well designed, there currently aren’t piles of them, however the game will be receiving free maps and modes, so there is a good amount of potential longevity. One criticism I have with the maps is that since the standard player count is 6v6, they can feel a little barren. But on the flipside, that eliminates frustrations over being killed every few seconds. Some players might not like this, at least at first, but the breathing room is appreciated. There are also a good variety of modes, however, at least in my region, only two are really played. The first, Attrition is your standard team death match. The second is Bounty Hunt, which pits two teams against each other trying to rack up as much cash as possible through killing various types of AI infantry to rack up cash and to bank it at the end of each wave. Whichever team banks the most cash wins and killing enemy players means denying them half of their currently unbanked currency for each death, so there is good motivation to be on the hunt for AI and the lookout for other players.

There is also two major quality of life improvements over other shooters that I appreciate here. One is that you don’t have to wait until you’ve finished the match to use newly unlocked skins or attachments. Each class can be fully customised in the middle of a match, which is great for trying out different things but also going back to what you previously liked if that thing isn’t working for you. The other thing, which was added in a very recent patch was an FoV slider that allows you to increase from the default 70 degrees all the way up to 110 degrees, which in my experience is extremely uncommon on consoles. This is good for people who have various different needs and preferences and makes the console versions much more playable at various viewing distances, whether on a television at recommended viewing distances or sitting close to a monitor and will be especially appreciated by those who get motion sick from low FoV games.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2016) PS4 Review

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was one of this month’s Playstation Plus games (ordinarily it would cost about $20USD) and it is absolute shit. But before I tear into this latest effort from Dear Esther developer, The Chinese Room, I will point out some of the positives.

One of the most noticeable things about this game are the graphics which, for the most part are impressive, with lush foliage and a beautiful rendition of an English village in the mid 1980s. The environment design is great and everything looks lived in, providing a fantastic sense of place, along with some good vocal performances and ambient sounds and melodic music. The production values are quite good and the map itself loops quite well and feels logically designed.

However, that is all the praise I can give. The reason being that there is no game here. It is just a walking simulator and a bad one at that. The movement speed is painfully slow, probably about as slow as when both your legs are crippled in Deus Ex. It really is quite a slog schlepping through the town, which on a blind playthrough serves to pad out game length. This speed slows even more when the game arbitrarily restricts your movement speed. You can hold R2 to move a bit faster, but the speed is still painfully slow. The frame rate is also totally inconsistent with it sometimes being smooth but often dropping dreadfully low to almost slideshow territory in some instances. Combined with a rather aggressive motion blur effect, the game made me feel almost queasy at times and I usually have a strong tolerance for this sort of thing and don’t get motion sick easy.

Furthermore, the game has basically no interactivity. Sometimes you can open doors or flick on a light switch, but any instance of interactivity is meaningless and the world remains almost totally static, indifferent to player action. There’s even an achievement for beating the game without interacting with anything.

So, what about the story? The story is told in a non linear fashion (in addition to it’s environmental storytelling) in certain key spots or through radios and telephones, which act like audio logs from Bioshock and any NPCs are just an abstract vaguely human shaped particle effects. The actual story involves a quarantined now derelict small english village who have mysteriously disappeared and this mystery is incredibly easy to figure out so the rest of it becomes a mind numbing time wasting exercise. But if I am to be charitable, much of the dialogue is about the characters, reminding me a little bit of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia but far less interesting or engaging. Of course you can miss out on pieces of the story and still complete the game, which is supposed to create replay value, but you probably won’t want to replay it considering how dull it is.

Ultimately, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a pretty looking and pretty sounding experience (mostly) but there is absolutely nothing of substance and is a mind numbing exercise in tedium. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it but if you feel like you want to experience the story, I’d advise you to watch it on youtube alternating between 1.25x speed (for talking bits) and 1.5x speed for everything else.


Dune (1984) Review


It’s been quite a number years since I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, which blew my teenage mind with it’s level of complexity of political intrigue, psychic powers, environmentalism and it’s rich world. I imagined it as an aesthetic mixture of advanced science fiction combined with a somewhat antique medieval or renaissance look. This film adaptation looks a whole lot different to what I imagined and looks very strange, but for the most part looks alright, if dated in parts. The character shields, for instance, look like transparent hitboxes in video games but I can let it slide due to the film’s age and it being the early days of CGI. That said, the gigantic sandworms look incredible and most of the sets look believable.

This film is perhaps the most conventional film in director David Lynch’s filmography, which follows a pretty clear 3 act structure. The film follows the rivalry between two Houses: the Atreides and the Harkonnens, whose rivalry end up coming to a head when the Atreides are sent to the desert planet Arrakis, which is home to mining a mineral known as the spice, which is the lifeblood of the universe. It also follows Paul Atreides (Kyle McLachlan) who is their heir of House Atreides, who is essentially a chosen one type, who becomes a TE Lawrence like figure to the Fremen.

While the technical qualities of the film are quite good and the main theme of the film makes one feel pretty hype, there is one glaring problem: the pacing. While the first act seems more or less appropriately slow, the rest of the film from the second act onwards is far too quick. Once Paul meets the Fremen in the second act, the rest of the act becomes something that might as well be a training montage and leading into the third act, there is narrated timeskip. That said, the second act contains some of the best parts of the film in visual terms. Probably one of the biggest evidence of this is the romance with the Fremen woman. First, Paul sees her in a premonition. Then, Paul meets her for real, fulfilling the premonition. And in the next scene, they’re kissing. It feels as though this romance was cut dramatically and only the residue left in the film. There’s no real chemistry or emotion felt between the two because of this. We also don’t get a strong understanding of Arrakis or the Fremen culture and the whole thing just feels a bit rushed. By the time we get to the end of the film (which does have a pretty cool and mostly realistic knife duel) , we are left only semi satisfied but still confused. While people who might have a good knowledge of the Dune novel will easily be able to fill in the blanks, those of us who have a rusty knowledge of the novel or even no knowledge will find themselves somewhat confused by the ending.

Dune is quite an ambitious film, but with it’s run time of only just over 2 hours, this film clearly should have been longer. Supposedly, the original screenplay had the film at around 3 hours long. However, in spite of all it’s problems, it is still a film that is at the very least interesting visually and still entertaining. But it’s a movie that merely resides as decent to good when it could have been great.


No Mans Sky (2016) PC first impressions review


The much anticipated and mired in controversy No Mans Sky is finally out. Every time I saw this game promoted I wondered “besides walking around procedurally generated planets, what do you actually do in this game?” Now that I’ve given it a bit of a spin, I now know and I’m underwhelmed to say the least.

Before I give this game a lashing, I will start with the positives. The first positive is that the retro pulp sci fi aesthetic is really cool with the bright colours and weird worlds and the scan line filter and all that. The next is that the procedural generation tends to work pretty good, at least on a cosmetic level for the planets and from what I’ve played, have yet to see creatures that are totally nonsensical. However, the wonder of this wears of very quickly. The third is that the soundtrack seems pretty nice. Also, I am running it at high settings at 1440p and seems to be performing decently for me, as well as having a decent set of graphics options. As an aside, the lack of multiplayer doesn’t really bother me, although it would have been nice.

But that is about the extent of the compliments I can give it. The game is lacking in satisfactory mechanics and loop. You start the game on your own unique planet and you need to find the necessary materials to repair the ship and craft the items to repair the ship. Once you’ve done that, you’re free to pilot the ship, and travel to other worlds so that you can continue to mine and craft things to improve your equipment so you can better mine and craft things. There’s other shit to do like finding landmarks and learning an alien language but it doesn’t seem tied into the game or narrative (which is non existent) other than some far too vague lore that prevents coherency. Piloting the ship is also so basic that flying about in space becomes boring. There are barely any NPCs and there are so few spaceships and what little there are seem to be window dressing that don’t engage the player in any meaningful way. When I go into hyperdrive, I can take my hands off my keyboard and only have to pay the barest minimum of attention to what is happening.
First person shooting is also present in the game, but it’s so underdeveloped. All you do is hold M1 at the sentinels or aggro’d creatures. No crouching, cover, ADS, enemies with interesting AI. Nothing. In short, the combat mechanics here don’t seem to add anything to the game and feel like a mere formality rather than a necessary and coherent feature of the game.This game wants to be played for hundreds of hours, but it can’t. The mechanics are just so dull when looked at individually or as a whole. I think I have figured out what this game truly is: another indie walking simulator in disguise that is only barely above these walking simulators.

To make a long story short, the game is a bore. The mechanics are so dull and uninspired that the procedurally generated planets just can’t carry the game. And because the ambition of the game is so broad in scope, there seems to be a failure of any coherent design. The redeeming factors are mostly only aesthetic and in terms of features, the game seems like an Early Access title, except you have to pay full price. I very much wanted the game to be good, but it simply did not turn out good. In it’s current state, No Mans Sky is a No Mans Buy.


Solaris (1972) Review


Tarkovksy’s Solaris has been described as “Russia’s answer to 2001.” I would have to disagree with that sentiment, because apart from being slow paced and mostly taking place on a space station. This is by no means a bad thing, they’re simply different and both brilliant in their own right.

Solaris has Tarkovksy’s signature camera work at play, with plenty of wide shots and long, contemplative takes, with minimal cutting. It also has in these sequences characters speaking philosophically, similar to his later film, Stalker. It’s a movie that wants you to drink in the scene and absorb it’s details and brilliant, real and lived in sets that look absolutely gorgeous on the blu ray copy I watched. Pouring rain, the launching of a rocket, the cluttered, but colourful space station are superbly shot, as well as nature shots. It gives you the necessary time to process the ideas it’s presenting, which are absolutely essential to this movie. These ideas, in particular, at least what I gathered on this viewing relate to love, as well as consciousness and reality. In the portion of the film before our protagonist, Kris, reaches the Solaris station, we are treated to a lot of exposition and some sequences, such as a long drive on what looked a Japanese urban centre could have been shortened. However, after this initial hump, once Kris gets to the Solaris station, things start to get more interesting.

That was a good segue into trying to summarise the basic plot of the movie, which is straightforward in my opinion. Essentially, the people of Earth have been researching a strange planet, the titular Solaris, for many years and are trying to make contact with what appears to be a lifeform or consciousness, but the research is on it’s last legs and Kris is sent up to check up on the remaining researchers. At least that is how the film gets started. There is also a very interesting romance plot that drives a significant amount of the movie, and for me to call a romance plot in a film interesting, rather than the ‘human core’ or ‘lame’ means it must be good. Which it is.

The film is in Russian language, but the subtitles on this copy of mine were clear and seemed well translated enough, but as an English speaker it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the dialogue. But they never sounded flat and each character was different in relevant ways, with the movie having enough strangeness to keep you interested. Conceptually, I never felt too confused on a fundamental level, which is great for a film like this and is quite the achievement to have something that doesn’t compromise on the presentation of it’s complex ideas nor makes them so complex as to be almost incomprehensible. However, some lingering shots are difficult to decipher the meaning of or the intended meaning due to Tarkovksy’s general reluctance towards the use of symbolism in his films. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. These might be the only somewhat confusing parts of the movie.

This film is also a very quiet film. In fact, so quiet that even when I had it on fairly loud, the sounds of the clock ticking and water cooler running were often louder than this most of the time. However, dialogue was also loud and clear. I’m not sure whether this is to do with not enough volume from the audio mix or whether it’s to do with the audio being in mono or maybe the sound wasn’t perfect originally. Or it could be intentional. Whatever the case, the movie is quiet. The music is also very subdued and sparse in direct contrast to 2001‘s loud and regular use of classical music.

Should you watch Tarkovsky’s Solaris? The answer is yes if you have the patience for these types of movies. If you don’t, or the philosophical dialogue is something you dislike or goes over your head totally, you probably won’t like it. It’s got an almost 3 hour run time and I did feel sleepy throughout but when I watched it I was tired beforehand and I managed to stay awake without being totally lost. It’s definitely one of the great sci fi films and rather than the Russian answer to 2001, it’s the Russian companion to it.