Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A River Runs Through It

Oh. My. God. What the hell was that?

Not wishing to miss a single minute of Saturday night’s Doctor Who, I set the recorder timer five minutes early and caught what appeared to be a bizarre nightmarish quiz show featuring Jason from The Gadget Show and a robot hare. I can only pray it was some kind of one-off Easter weekend ‘treat’ and not a virus that will be attaching itself to all my future Saturday tea-time recordings.

Thank Moffat for what followed.

True to say, he’d have had to come up with something seriously screwy to look bad in the wake of the Easter Bunnybot. As it was, it was only madcap in a good way.

In some respects it was a familiar Moffat medley. Much playing with time, including the Doctor sending messages to himself; quantum-theory-inspired aliens – in place of the Weeping Angels who only moved when you weren’t looking at them, we have aliens who are only memorable while you’re watching them. An homage to a number of RTD episodes – the titles of which escape me for the moment - if ever there was one. In appearance, the creatures here are like a creepy hybrid of the classic abduction-myth alien with a hint of Oodishness and the tall, spindle-limbed Gentlemen from Buffy. Makes you wonder whether Moffat is working towards an homage to the masterful Buffy episode Hush with his ominous, mysterious ‘Silence’ that’s still a threat lurking in the wings from last season. Wherever we are headed, however, this first episode was infused with Moffat’s customary energy, drive and wit, tinged with darkness and tragedy, laced with healthy doses of downright creepiness and spiked with a dozen intriguing hooks.

It’s a potent concoction and although like many a two-parter before it, it could all fall apart next week, at this stage it’s managed to generate a positive buzz in the way that last year’s Time Of Angels did. The expectation and anticipation are all very much there for a great second half. To say nothing of a host of speculations and theories, all of which I’ve no doubt will be proven wrong. Whatever I think the answers are, another familiar element to the Grand Moff’s writing is his capacity to surprise.

There are niggles so minor they’re hardly worth mentioning, but I will just to be fair. First and by any means least, River’s gun, when she fires off a few shots at the eponymous Astronaut, makes revolver sounds but there’s no smoke from the barrel. Nothing. It’s only a stupid little detail, but it did give rise to a momentary disbelief-suspension malfunction.

It was great to see Mark Sheppard, from BSG, Firefly, X Files and a host of other things, involved as the impressively named Canton Everett Delaware III, and the throwaway reference to his marriage being illegal was as deft a hint of a character’s sexuality as I’ve ever seen in modern Who.

But his character seems a bit underused so far. I’m not sure what purpose he serves, least of all in the four invites to witness the Doctor’s death. His older self declares, “I probably won’t see you again, but you’ll see me.” So presumably he was invited there for, what? His own sense of closure, a chance to say goodbye? What? Inquiring minds need to know, Mr Moffat. Still, that’s part of the mystery – the niggle lies in his younger self’s role – apart from advising Nixon (a passable and entertaining turn from Stuart Milligan) to hear the Doctor out, all he’s done thus far is tag along and get biffed on the head. Rory, brilliant as ever, seems similarly sidelined and/or displaced. Here’s hoping we see both get to do more integral proactive stuff next week.

Likewise, since they went to the trouble of filming on location, I’d like to see more of America. I’m not talking Oval Office sets. More use of real-world setting, whether scenery or identifiably American interiors – even though I appreciate they’ve made life difficult for themselves by zapping back to the 60s.

Otherwise, fantastic. As dull as a conclusion that is, I’m sorry but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The chemistry between the Doctor and Amy (I’m sure I’ve mentioned how much I love Karen Gillan) and River (I think I’ve mentioned how much I love Alex Kingston) creates sparks all over the place and it’s all too easy to get caught up in their interchanges as well as the pace of the whole thing. And yet Moffat is careful to make sure it’s not all break-neck speed. We get moments to reflect, time outs like the lakeside picnic and River’s confiding in Rory, so that when the accelerator ramps up we really feel the rush. The suspense and the scares are all very well handled, the shot of all those aliens lurking in the tunnels, caught in River’s flashlight beam, is a particularly great slice of chill. And Amy’s and River’s grief at the Doctor’s death is played with such conviction, it’s genuinely affecting. Sure, we know he’s not dead and there will be timey-wimey trickery at work, but the reactions lend it the impact it needs. The Doctor’s immortality may be a certainty in episode one of a new season and it’s all so clearly staged like an Agatha Christie murder mystery where the host wants the guests to believe he’s dead, but I definitely feel invested in the how and why of the resolution.

Obviously I’m not going to share any of my wild speculations here, for fear that they are far too wild and I will end up looking a fool. Except, River Song is an anagram of Snog River... Coincidence? I think not. Something to ponder anyway.

Meanwhile, I am anxious to discover how long I have to go without seeing that robot hare before it fades from memory. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011


When I first encountered Elisabeth Sladen, it was love at first sight. As crushes go, it was all very innocent: I was six going on seven years old at the time. And it’s fair to say I knew her as someone else then. A plucky reporter named Sarah Jane Smith.

The role of a companion in Doctor Who is vital. We’re enjoying the adventures in the TARDIS vicariously through them. Lis Sladen embodied that role perfectly, engaging with great warmth and charm, and a wonderfully balanced blend of intrepid spirit and vulnerability. The ability to scream with conviction when it counted without undermining the courage, strength and independence of the character. To feel the fear and face the monsters anyway.

I was there facing those monsters with her all the way through from 1973-1976.
I cried when she left. I was nine. And there have been companions in the series since – and previous companions I discovered later on in life when watching episodes that hailed from before my time - that I’ve liked and even loved, but I can’t think of any with whom I empathised to the same extent. Obviously it’d be tough for anyone to compete with someone who made such an impression on me during such formative years. But that takes nothing away from what she meant to me and so many others on our Saturday tea-time travels through time and space.

Did we see her a lot after that in any other role on TV? Even if we had, could we have seen her as anyone other than Sarah Jane Smith? I don’t know. She convinced us as Sarah so heartily, she’d created an unshakeable memory. And when she returned to the role – in K9 & Company and The Five Doctors (1983), for instance – it was always a welcome pleasure to see her. In the episode School Reunion (2006), I shed tears over her departure all over again. And then she was capturing the imagination - and I’ll bet the hearts too – of a whole new generation of young fans in her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

In 2005, when I attended the Gallifrey convention in LA, I met actually met Lis Sladen for the first and only time. (I’d seen her at Longleat’s Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Celebrations in 1983, but only for a passing photo op.) You can’t know anyone from a brief encounter, least of all when your heart is aflutter with fannish infatuation, but she was warm and charming and gracious and friendly and spoke with infectious enthusiasm for Doctor Who and the role of Sarah Jane, as you might expect. And she showed an interest in what I did as a writer. That’s a memory I treasure, as is the farewell hug. I also met my wife to be but she understands the competition for my fond memories of that convention.

People often remarked on how great she looked for her age, which is true. But then, she’ll always look fantastic to me.

Today my thoughts are with her family and friends, those that knew her personally. This is just my own small farewell to a lady who brought magic to a lot of young lives and who’ll be greatly missed. Part of me is that nine-year-old boy again, shedding tears at having to say goodbye.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Epic Fail

It seems thematically fitting to follow up on my Evil April Fool’s gag with a review of an actual video game. Although make no mistake, the Evil game will happen – but when it does, I hope it will be a much more rewarding experience than Dragon Age II.

I suppose the clue should have been in the II. It’s a sequel, so it stands a fair chance of being a disappointment. Still, in my (admittedly limited) experience, the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply as frequently in the game industry as it seems to in the movie biz. What you tend to get more often than not is more of the same - with improvements. And, for those games where it’s about more than the shoot-em-ups or the beat-em-ups, a new story. Which is great, because that is precisely what you’re looking for.

Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 is a great example of this, managing to pare down or expunge the more laborious aspects of the space-exploration experience, while retaining so much of the feel of the original game. Heck, if it hadn’t made the unfortunate error of omitting the lesbian sex it might have scored 10 out of 10.

The previous Dragon Age output (Dragon Age: Origins and the Dragon Age: Awakenings expansion) scored high on the interpersonal interaction front, quite a remarkable feat considering your character was mute, his or her words left implicit from the text dialogue choices at the base of the screen. Primitive, but it did mean you had a wide range of characters to choose from, with no worries about whether the voice talent fit the appearance. Similarly your relationship choices were broad, accommodating pretty much all tastes and (non-bestial) proclivities. The mechanics of interaction were quite straightforward and part of me still hankers for a game where the handling is subtler. (Where, for example, the hostility-friendship scale is hidden from the player and AI responses are not purely player-prompted – I mean, wouldn’t it be great if an AI unexpectedly propositioned you for a change?) But there was no denying the freedom of choice and the supporting cast of characters (in Origins at least) were a terrific bunch of misfits. (The lot in Awakenings were for the most part so lame that you’d be more likely to keep the Ring and hurl the Fellowship into the cracks of Mount Doom.)

Alas I can’t tell you whether the same freedom of choice is available in Dragon Age II, because – in contrast to the original - a second play-through just wasn’t something I wanted to contemplate. In Dragon Age: Origins your choice of hero(ine) really did alter the experience. In this next-gen version, I didn’t get that impression. I could be wrong, but frankly I’m not going to invest another 40-plus hours to find out.

40 hours. Wow. I used to think of video RPGs as interactive movies, but that’s getting on for three seasons of a US TV show. Time cheerfully invested if you’re finding it gripping and entertaining and if the main characters appeal and if it delivers with each season finale.

An especially useful analogy here, since at its heart Dragon Age II has a promising central concept: three separate years picked out from the history of one city and a hero(ine). Okay, great, because each segment can work towards a climax and developments over the years can build into a compelling overall arc.

Storywise though it’s all a bit Babylon 5. Since the war against the Blight (read Shadow War) is over, we’re mostly left with the political-economic fallout and the growing tensions between mages and templars (read Telepaths and Psi Cops). There are clear pointers that there are greater menaces to come (in Dragon Age III, I’ll warrant) but for the time being it leaves this instalment feeling a lot like filler. It doesn’t help (at all) that the big final battle in this arises from the singularly twattish actions of one character – who happens to be one of those lame chumps from Awakenings. Seriously, when it came to that point, even my noble-hearted heroine had to kill that idiot for what he does. He reminded me in fact of that complete dufus who leads the Telepaths in Babylon 5 and if B5 had been interactive he would have met a similar end at my hand, much earlier on in the fifth-season arc.

Anyway, Blandalf (as we shall call him) plunges you (and the city) into disaster and it seems that no matter which side you choose you will end up having to fight both mages and templars anyway. Call me picky, but I’d like to feel my choices made a difference. But that aside, there are two key facets of the climactic battle that make for a significant letdown from a story POV.

Imagine you have reached the last episode of the third season of that hypothetical show. Imagine that the last episode is such an immense struggle to get through you have to restart it I-don’t-know-how-many times. And then imagine that once you finally get to the end there’s no actual closure. No reward, no chance to bask, just a cryptic epilogue that appears to have more to do with leading into Dragon Age III and close to precious little to do with your story.

Sure, part of that is down to game mechanics. This is one area in which the developers elected to make ‘improvements’.

Now to be fair, where they did succeed was in borrowing from the Mass Effect series and – despite the resulting limitations on character choice – the decision to apply some voice talent to the hero(ine) does work in terms of lending the dialogue sequences a much more cimematic non-static quality. (Complete with the signature blood-spattered faces in post-battle talks.) And it’s good voice acting – which, believe me, can make or break a game – even if the female rogue does sound a bit posh. Also it’s worth mentioning that among the supporting cast, the character of Merrill, as voiced by Torchwood’s Eve Myles, is a wonderful creation. Her passing observations on the Dragon Age world are a beautifully scripted and exquisitely delivered treat. And I didn’t even like her in Torchwood. She should do more voice acting. Likewise, Kate Mulgrew makes a much better witch than she ever did a starship captain. Anyway, about half the members of the adventuring party are great characters, with plenty of appeal and I’ve no doubt any player would grow attached to at least one or two of them.

The graphics have evolved too and, with the removal of the little rings around each active combatant the fighting feels more immersive and dynamic and less tactical. The few programming glitches I encountered were of only minor irkdom level – e.g. at one point one of your team gets abducted and, very sensibly, you can’t include him in your party – but you can still go visit him for a chat over a pint in the local tavern. The music, as ever with these Bioware mega-productions, is gorgeous. Movie-soundtrack quality. And there’s still girl-on-girl action on offer.

So much for the pluses. Because the main ‘improvements’, put simply, aren’t. For one thing, that more dynamic battle feature makes it awkward to target different enemies quickly. Many’s the time I couldn’t activate a special ability because my character wasn’t lined up just-so on the screen. To exacerbate matters, your party members are driven by an artificial intelligence with a very small i and not very much ntelligence. Which means if you want to get them using their best abilities, you have to keep pausing the game and telling them what to do and point them at the desired target. Which, er, is not very dynamic. Then some weird let’s-make-it-stupidly-tough mentality appears to have crept into some of the battles.

Me, I am up for a challenge. Especially in those climactic confrontations. Bring it on. But when you’re swamped and totally overwhelmed and dying repeatedly when the game’s been notched down to casual difficulty, that’s the point at which you can stop bringing it. Game suggests to me it’s meant to be fun. Not hard bloody work. (Bloody is okay – there are swords involved, after all.)

It’s not only the final battle that’s stupidly over-egged in this way. The best (ie. worst) example comes earlier on with an encounter with a ferocious dragon. Great, because the battles with dragons in the original were something not to be taken on lightly, but they were nonetheless a challenge to be relished. They were enormous, ferocious beasts and tackling one would test your party’s abilities and if you defeated it you’d get a nice sense of satisfaction. In this, apparently the majestic mighty dragon was not enough. No, for this, what was needed was a dragon plus repeated waves of smaller dragons thrown in at intervals throughout the confrontation. Totally overdone. The game’s climactic battle felt even more never-ending and, like I said, isn’t even followed up with a chance to bask in your immense sense of relief once you’ve finally scraped your way through. It’s as though the game is finished with you, rather than the other way around.

The middle-year finale is better-judged by far, with a one-on-one duel against a tough-bastard opponent (watch this trailer for a falsely representative - but impressive - impression) and you get some time to enjoy the results of your endeavours.

Fantasy tales of yore have been replaced by a tale of chore. Epic struggles are part of adventure, tis true, but thankless toil against overwhelming odds feels too much like my day job when what I’d prefer is a dash of challenging escapism.

Dragon Age II is by no means a total failure. But the level of disappointment is proportionate to how much I enjoyed the original game. Turnabout is fair play, as they say, so now Bioware have to face overwhelming odds in convincing me to buy a third game in this series. Good luck, guys.

Not that they need worry too much. They’ll be getting my money for Mass Effect 3 later this year. The swines.


Friday, April 01, 2011

Evil 360

Naturally enough, it's always been our aim here at Evil UnLtd to take over the universe. So it's with immense (evil) pleasure that we can announce a new development that will allow us to expand our conquest into the virtual world. After all, why stop with reality?

Although dates have yet to be finalised and much development to be done between now and commercial release, we're proud to announce that the world will see an Evil UnLtd game, initially available for the XBox 360, but sure to spread like a contagion to other consoles.

If it weren't for our efforts to maintain a Dexter Snide-like dignity and aloofness, we'd be tempted to say this is the Most. Exciting. News. Ever.

The virtual Evil universe will offer a wide variety of gameplay, involving a great many challenges and profound moral choices - whether to be just moderately wicked or downright irredeemably Evil with a capital E. Play as one of the main Evil UnLtd characters or create your own villain and build your empire, all the while having to battle bothersome heroes and not so much avert universal disaster as bring it under your control and turn it to your advantage. Think Mass Effect meets Grander Theft Auto.

Watch this space for further news. Currently we're anticipating the first playable demos to be available as of next April 1st.