Batman: Arkham Origins – Game Review

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It’s Christmas Eve in Gotham City.  Black Mask has placed a $50m bounty on the head of The Batman and hired 8 of the world’s deadliest assassins to take him out.  And they have one night in which to get the job done.  Cue nerdgasms, everywhere.

Batman: Arkham Origins has been one of the most anticipated games of the year since its announcement in April 2013, and it’s finally here.  Does it hold up though?  And more importantly, (because I’m lazy) is there a single word that could possibly sum up a game with such intrepid promise?  Well, there is;

Recycled.

Recycled mechanics, recycled plot points, hell, even the map is mostly made up of Arkham City, though disappointingly – as the general public are nowhere to be seen.  I’m fairly certain Batman: Dark Tomorrow presented a more vibrant and lived-in Gotham. 

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"Don’t worry, I’ve got a couple of BatTrojans".

It takes everything that was unique and interesting about City, and sullies it - Joker’s swan song during the credits of City, one of the most disturbing things in recent gaming history, is repeated at the end of Origins without a cadence of distress.  On first inspection the game seems to have much more in common with DLC than it does a highly anticipated Batman blockbuster – it’s as if WBIE just hired whatever the digital equivalent of an Interior Decorator is, and told them they didn’t want to spend too much money.  Seriously, the layouts of some of the set pieces are alarmingly similar.  It seems a little counter-intuitive to deride the game for adding little in progression to the franchise, considering its nature as a prequel, but then, why make it so?  

Arkham ‘Origins’ – what of it?  The title seems to be a red herring, as the plot deals with neither Batman’s origins nor Arkham Asylum’s, bar one line of dialogue in an epilogue voice-over, similar to Ocelot’s reveal at the end of MGS1.  Although Batman is in his second year of crime fighting, the gadgets are all there, including ones the user had to earn in later titles, the Batwing is his main method of transportation, and the only villain not on his radar, is The Joker – who makes a decidedly underwhelming first impression.

That said, the Clown has a much larger role than the trailers suggested – and whilst I’m all for a little Joe Kerr every now and then, Origins marks his third appearance as the primary antagonist.  Even Sonic the Hedgehog mixed it up every now and then.

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Which is quite the nice segue.  Fans around the world were distraught when it was finally revealed that neither Kevin Conroy nor Mark Hamill would be reprising their roles as Batman and The Joker, and hesitant when voice actors Roger Craig Smith and Tory Baker were announced. 

Well, rest easy. 

Though Smith has the unenviable task of following whom many see as the de facto Batman actor, he makes the right choice in largely ignoring previous incarnations and carving out his own niche.  This is not Conroy’s Dark Knight, no sir - Smith plays Batman like Jack Bauer got his head stuck in a wasp’s nest, and it is perfect.  This guy is angry.  Baker, on the other hand, slips into the role with flair.  There is enough of Hamill in his performance to ease the transition for fans, whilst simultaneously injecting the character with a little more youthful vigour.

In that same vein, WBIE absolutely kill the visual presentation – the cut scenes especially, have a palpable sense of urgency and kinetic energy to them, which pulls you into the action in a way that the previous games sometimes lacked. 

A MAJOR blunder on the part of WBIE, sees the PS3 version’s frame rate drop to an almost unplayable spec at times.  Though we have been told that a patch is “on it’s way”, that doesn’t particularly help those across the world who have already reported the game slowing to 2 frames per second.  There are other less intrusive glitches, such as the game forgetting your objective markers after cut scenes, and the audio coming in/out during the Batwing segments, but let’s not be picky, eh?  A cynical person would say that the game was rushed out, so that WB didn’t have to release the game against Assassins Creed and Battlefield 4, which I guess it what I’m saying.

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The score however,  helmed by DC go-to-guy Christopher Drake, delivers quite possibly the most complete emotional arc not only of any Batman game, but Batman movie.  Though there are subtle nods to Hans Zimmer’s overwhelmingly operatic opus throughout, this is very much the culmination of Drake’s own work on the Batman mythos, dating back to his contributions to 2008’s Batman: Gotham Knight.

Now superficial elements aside, this review may seem overwhelmingly negative.  It must then, be stressed that this is not a bad game at all.  In fact, it is rather brilliant.  The Boss Battles are varied and original, and the additions to game play, slight as they may be, have an immediate effect on the narrative, which in itself is largely interesting and fulfilling.  The additions to the Crime Scene tech really put the ‘Detective’ into ‘Detective Mode’, and provide a nice change of pace to the wanton destruction.

The problem then, is that this game doesn’t do enough to distance itself from its predecessors, if anything it seems like a step backward.  A Batman game with this level of talent involved was always going to be good, perhaps even great, but its mishandled execution has left fans with a buggy product that is more Batman Forever when it could have been Batman Begins.  

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6/10

MAN OF STEEL Ruminations…

I’ve been thinking about MAN OF STEEL a lot over the past month or so, trying to express my thoughts and feelings on it, whilst also attempting to understand it’s most common criticisms.  This is what I came up with.  Spoilers ensue.

"They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fail. But in time, they will join you in the sun".

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Whilst Man of Steel might not live up to Russell Crowe’s lofty expectations, what it does do is introduce a personal weight and physicality to the Superman role, which is in turn complemented by an absolutely visceral thrill ride of a movie. No it is not perfect, and yes it does stumble at times and perhaps even fails at others, but MOS has undoubtedly set a concrete foundation in place that will act for the betterment of the DC Movie Universe.

After seeing it twice, I certainly understand the film’s more common criticisms - that this wasn’t the Superman people knew, that the violence was mindless and the destruction far too ridiculous. And I agree for the most part, no, this isn’t the Superman you know. I don’t like the idea of a dark, moody SuperMAN any more than the next guy, but there’s a reason that the MOS title comes at the end (although it seems to be annoyingly in vogue to do that now) of the film. This is the Casino Royale of Superman films, the first half of Batman Begins, the rough-round-the-edges SuperGUY-WHO-ISNT-QUITE-AS-CONFIDENT-NOR-SELF-ASSURED-TO-BE-SUPERMAN-YET. To echo the words of Kevin Costner - “You just have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be, Clark” - this is THAT story.

Yes some of the action is a little numbing at times, but I find it hard to be angry at Zach Snyder for perhaps over-compensating in an area that has sorely lacked since 1978. Personally I found the action to be kinetic and palpable - much better than the cartoonish action prevalent throughout The Avengers. But that’s just me.

And the destruction. Yeah, it was kinda ridiculous. But like I said, this isn’t Superman the finished product. He’s still in beta. He’s hidden himself from the world for 10 or so years, actively avoiding human interaction on a large scale. This isn’t a guy used to looking out for collateral damage, this is a dude who moments before threw an 18 wheeler into a tree because its driver was being a jerk. This is a guy who not-so-subtly steals a spaceship from underneath the Army’s nose. A guy who destruction seems to follow around.

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And I’m not saying that he doesn’t know the value of human life, he risks himself time and time again to save others (even at the behest of his Father), it’s just that he doesn’t for a second trust that they will reciprocate. He gets in, does his thing, and gets out. When he’s saving all those dudes on the oil rig, in the school bus - these are situations he has stumbled across, don’t forget he’s travelling the continent for his own selfish reasons, to find out who he is. He’s been taught by his Father that humans are people to be weary of; he doesn’t have a responsibility for them - chances are they’ll hate him!

Did I miss the Clark Kent, Daily Planet stuff? Yes, of course, it’s a vital part of the Superman DNA. But I can also accept that this, as an origin story, has a finite amount of time in which to introduce and expand upon its leading characters – and in what is essentially a sci-fi alien invasion movie, the character of Kal-El is much more important than the facade of Clark Kent reporter. That’s not to say I can’t wait to see what they do with ol’ CK in the sequel, I’m incredibly intrigued to see whether or not Henry Cavill can handle the plurality of the character better than Christopher Reeves? Probably not, but one can hope.

And that brings us to the end. You know what I’m talking about.

Clark is now directly responsible for the people of Earth, after unwittingly sending a distress beacon into space that is intercepted by Zod. Do I have a problem with him snapping Zod’s neck? Surprisingly, no. There are people that will tell you that Superman has on occasion, in the past, killed people. Those people are liars. To the best of my knowledge, in current continuity Superman has never made the conscious decision to end a life. But, and feel free to disagree with me, not for one second did I ever think that the twisty head scene was about that violent act.

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Superman is faced with an impossible choice. He has endangered a world full of (to him) children, children he has grown up around, learnt (through the course of the film) to respect and perhaps even trust - and now there is another adult threatening to kill them all. Zod is not Superman’s equal - he is a trained and skilled warrior who is genetically programmed to protect and serve the interests of Krypton. And all that’s standing in the way of the resurrection of his homeland, are a few pitiful ants and one confused refugee.

Again, for me this was never about the kill. It was always about Kal-El having to make the decision of which part of his heritage he was going to embrace. When presented with the impossible decision, who does he listen to? Pa Kent? Jor-El? Will the people of Earth see him as a God, or will they fear what they don’t understand? Superman tries to restrain Zod with a suspect-looking sleeper hold, but he will never submit, never stop, and he knows it. There isn’t a prison on Earth that can hold him. The Phantom Drive/Zone can’t be accessed now that the black hole thing above Metropolis has vanished. He doesn’t listen to his pleas, tells him straight up that one of them has to die.

And then Zod sees the family.

He fires his heat vision in their direction, makes them watch their impending doom. And don’t for a second think that the father’s next action is happenstance. He leans over, and wraps his arms around his son.

The father protecting the son.

Jor-El died protecting his son. Jonathan Kent died protecting his son.

And both times Kal-El was unable to do anything about it.

But not this time. He has the power now to stop what he couldn’t before. To save who he couldn’t before.

But still, can he bring himself to sever the last remaining tie he has to Krypton - to his homeland, his race, his past, his parents? By killing Zod he knows that he is losing a part of himself.

He does, and, he does.

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The Superhowl and then the crumble into Lois’s lap was a great visual I thought. He is forced to mourn the death of both Krypton and his own innocence.

Writing about it now I’m getting shivers down my spine. Though I thought this moment was masterful, I fear that the weight of the film and this choice especially, becomes a little lost beneath its sheer volume

(What I don’t understand is how come I was the only one raging when Batman ‘killed-but-not-really-killed-because-I-only-left-you-to-die’ Ra’s Al Ghul in Begins? That was a much less morally gray area than Man of Steel.)

I think, more than anything, it’s the exceptional groundwork and promise of a compelling future for the franchise that earned Man of Steel such a high rating in my book. That, and Henry Cavill shirtless. Holy Moses that guy got jacked.

Plus, that Hans Zimmer score? Man oh man. Much better than his Dark Knight trilogy.

EDIT: THERE ARE MOTHERFUCKING DRAGONS ON KRYPTON!

STARBURST: A Haunted House Review

Happy Endings.  The Last Boy Scout.  White Chicks.

Clearly, the entire Wayans family, all 163 of them, have impeccable taste when it comes to picking fantastic projects to be a part of. This however, is not one of them. A Haunted House has the potential to be the most embarrassing movie of the year, depending on whether or not you saw Scary Movie V. It’d be difficult to say that it’s the worst movie of 2013 with the IMDb plot keywords “anal + rape”, because, well, you’d have a really weird year if that’s all you watched.

The ‘plot’ is driven by what we can assume is a poltergeist (though it’s never referred to as such) terrorizing Marlon Wayans’ character Malcolm and his girlfriend Kisha, after it is revealed that she had made a deal with the devil years before in order to get a pair of red-soled Louboutin shoes. The film begins with an excitable Malcolm preparing to welcome his girlfriend of two years, played by Essence Atkins (who should really only be referred to as ‘the sister from Smart Guy’) into his home. She pulls up onto the driveway, her car packed to the brim with all of her earthly possessions, excited to be finally moving in with her boyfriend, and promptly runs over his dog, Shiloh. Cue the same dead dog gags that felt exhausted even in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary.

Head over to the Starburst site to continue reading!

And remember, for all the latest geek news, follow @kalshanahan and @Starburst_Mag on Twitter!

"BRAINIAC WOULDN’T LAST 10 MINUTES INSIDE MY COMPUTER" - A SUPERMAN: UNBOUND REVIEW

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Superman: Unbound, the latest offering from the DCU, is the adaptation of Geoff Johns’ 2005 Brainiac arc, first seen in Action Comics #866-870.  These issues radically changed the landscape of the Superman world, becoming the precursor to the New Krypton and World of New Krypton storylines, which saw Supes rescuing and then trying to integrate 100,000 Kryptonians into society on Earth.  And whilst this 75 minute adaptation chooses to address these events on a slightly smaller scale, it is perhaps the most thorough and sentimental deconstruction of the Man of Steel’s personal relationships that there has ever been.

Unlike previous DCU adaptations, Unbound makes a stark departure from the comic book’s artistic direction – opting for a younger, more angular Superman, as opposed to artist Gary Frank’s original Reeve-esque design.  The reasons for the change aren’t particularly obvious either; whilst the movie chooses to depict this as Superman’s first interaction with Brainiac, he is far enough into his career to have revealed his secret to Lois and have begun a relationship with her.  The new character model shares no obvious likeness to voice actor Matt Bomer, nor current Superman Henry Cavil, so for now it remains a strange editorial choice.  Lois too, has a pair of big bright purple eyes, ridiculous enough to warrant mentioning.  Perhaps she’s channelling Elizabeth Taylor.

That said, the animation is fantastic.  The colours are deep, vibrant, and truly add to the spectacle of the story, especially in the otherworldly sections of the narrative.  The character model for Supergirl has her own, slightly brighter colour palette, reflecting her naivety and youth, and looks absolutely fantastic.  A little bit Swedish too.

Unbound is actually as much Supergirl’s story as it is Superman’s.  Kara opens the film as she haphazardly foils a robbery and hostage (read: Lois) situation, earning her a scolding off of her cousin Kal-El, which leads to a nice, healthy dose of exposition and the first deconstruction of these Super relationships.  Even with the cosmic scale of the film and the menacing threat of Brainiac, it really is at an intimate level, about these relationships; Clark and Lois, Superman and Supergirl, and the two Kryptonian’s heritage.

The film also re-introduces Daily Planet chauvinist Steve Lombard, which makes for some truly hilarious musings about Lois and Clark’s dating status, and Clark’s sexual orientation – and that’s without him knowing about the tights!  Though the inclusion of the character seems a little innocuous at first, he really serves to root their relationship in the monotony of normal, everyday working life, which is something Unbound examines thoroughly. 

And although limited screen-time forces the film to prioritise and perhaps streamline the characters present in the comic, the exclusion of Cat Grant’s re-introduction, her somewhat depressing facade and her below interaction with Supergirl is nothing short of criminal.

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This clash between the normal and extraordinary elements of dating a superhero are thrown into a tizzy when Superman intercepts one of Brainiac’s scout drones, and leaves for space to pre-emptively save Earth.  After witnessing the destruction of another alien planet, and experiencing firsthand Brainiac’s penchant for taking shrunken cities as souvenirs, the Last Son of Krypton confronts the Collector of Worlds aboard his Kafkaesque ship.  Shenanigans invariably ensue.

There is an entire set piece developed for the movie not present in the comic, which sees Superman trapped inside the infamous bottled city of Kandor, where he is able to interact with his people for the first time.  The movie here takes elements from the aforementioned New Krypton and World of New Krypton storylines and transfers them into this new situation, which is a nice work around.  Superman has all these questions about his heritage, and suddenly they can all be answered.  He has peers, a family, and it humanises him – throws him into a completely relatable situation.  His Uncle Zor-El is wonderfully allegorical and summarises the film’s central theme, that you cannot control a living thing without destroying what is alive about it.  And though he may be referring to Brainiac’s modus operandi, the viewer is left to muse on whether or not Clark being overprotective of Lois, is really all that different.  Not only does the sequence add some clarity and levity to the situation, the downtime is much needed in a film which has the uneven running pace of a peg-legged pirate.

It seems a little redundant at this point to praise Voice Casting Director Andrea Romano, as she once again exhibits an extraordinary talent for matching actors to their perfect roles.  John Noble is phenomenal as Brainiac, exuding a cold, mechanical confidence, whilst being genuinely scary at times.  Stana Katic makes the rambunctious role of Lois Lane her own, injecting each line with enough pep and vinegar to make you forget she hasn’t played the part before.  The star of the show has to be Molly C Quinn though.  Her Supergirl retains that wild, impetuous charm we all know and love, whilst infusing it with the vulnerability of a scared teenager.

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The disc is packed with a number of Special Features.  There are some related episodes from Superman: The Animated Series, a feature on the History of Brainiac, and a preview of the next DCU animated movie, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.  Interesting but not remarkable.

The blu-ray edition includes an exclusive look at the History of Kandor, and some extra commentaries not found on the DVD.

One of the biggest problems with Superman, is that he fights like an angry two year old.  The guy has 37 super powers that are all pretty elite in their own right – which is why Aquaman hates him.  Those same powers used in conjunction though, should make him practically invincible – which we do get to see a little more of during Unbound.  The fight scenes are varied and intense enough to remain electric, painting Superman as a formidable brawler with a dozen party tricks.  Also, his laser vision for the film was sponsored by some sort of Lasik company: which is the only thing that could possibly justify its ridiculously frequent usage.

In many ways ‘Superman: Unbound’ is the best Superman story out there, though that isn’t to say it isn’t deeply flawed.  The parallels drawn between the Man of Steel and Brainiac – their almost compulsive need to control the things in their lives makes for a truly compelling narrative.  The impending threat and sense of dread are woven into the film’s DNA, and force each of the characters to conquer fears both physical and spiritual, both external and internal, which is highly satisfying as a viewer.  On the downside, the film feels rushed in some places and episodic in others, which is rather confusing considering its short run time.  There is a Big Brother-esque surveillance plot thrown into the middle which goes nowhere, and the ending lacks the emotional punch of the comic.  Plus, a villain who can be beat with a series of pop-up ads for ‘Sexy Singles in Your Area’ should never be taken seriously.

It all being said, you cannot go wrong with a Superman: Unbound purchase – you’re getting a robust DVD that is certain to drive up yet more interest and excitement for ‘Man of Steel’, when it is released in the UK on June 3rd.

And remember, for all the latest geek news, follow me @kalshanahan and @Starburst_Mag on Twitter!

The Arecibo Message

A signal sent into space in 1974, encoded with vital information about our planet, solar system, and anthropology.  The binary digits conveyed;

(left to right)

  1. The numbers one (1) to ten (10).
  2. The atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
  3. The formulas for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA.
  4. The number of nucleotides in DNA, and a graphic of the double helix structure of DNA.
  5. A graphic figure of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth.
  6. A graphic of the Solar System.
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish.

I just always found this really inspiring.  I highly recommend further reading.