Thursday, 30 August 2018

Star Wars - A Look at the Originals and Sequels [TV&Film]

It's coming two months after it was meant to, but better now than never. I started with the Original trilogy in terms of films, and say I prefer them over the prequels – Phantom Menace aside. The sequels have a special place having both released near my birthday. While my ordering of the originals on their own probably wouldn’t cause too many problems, when the sequels are added, then things start to get interesting. If you haven’t already, go and read my thoughts on the Prequel trilogy, then continue with my thoughts on both the originals and sequels here.

It can be jarring going from Rogue One to A New Hope in that the visuals are a definite downgrade between films. I never let the visuals deter me from enjoying a film, but with A New Hope there’s nothing really to call out. It’s effectively same world new style, and if you’re really going to get hung up on the visuals then there’s quite a lot you’ll miss.

The original that started it all, then. I really don’t have much to say. It favours style over substance in its set-pieces while at the same time making sure it fits the necessary detail about the world in-between. It’s a tale of a nobody finding their destiny but realising on their journey they had something special within them. It takes its time to build up what it needs to for a satisfying conclusion.

Luke is wanting a life outside of what he has. It’s clear he’s craving adventure. But he is held back mostly by his uncle. He gets a chance at adventure, but the loyalty – I call it that as Luke still has the bond to his family – isn’t allowing him to break it. It’s the Empire that breaks it, and Luke’s story is set. For Leia, she’s already active against the Empire, but has finally ran out of luck. Vader has her captured, but she remains strong in spirit. Up until the last moment, and even beyond then. I have no doubt that the destruction of her home planet only strengthened her resolve to strike against the Empire. It’s that set-up within the story that leads to the satisfying conclusion.

Han is definitely in it for the money. But I guess there’s something within Luke he sees that starts to eat at his sense of right-doing, shall we say. He believes he’s making a stand against the Empire in his own way and getting rich from doing so. He doesn’t need no hero’s honour. Even with Leia, I suspect he definitely sees something within her that he himself has – which is why the two don’t appear to get along. Of course, Leia won’t realise that until the next film, but we’re not there yet.

There’s a history between Obi-Wan and Vader, and it shows. Nearly everything about ‘the old times’ is all explored in the prequels, so having seen those first gives a different impression on these scenes. That impression is one of finishing what they started – which is obvious even without the history of the prequels.

A New Hope is just a standard fare for me. It’s always going to be. It’s a serviceable film, and it works the plot to give that great end. It’s the first hour of the film though. It offers a few bits of action, introduces the characters, and enough world building. But all the scenes on Tatooine drag on just a slight bit too long. Even more than Phantom Menace. Once the Death Star becomes a major part of the plot, things pick up, and maybe the slow pacing makes the ending feel better than it would had everything remained at the same pace.

The Empire Strikes Back takes the connections made during A New Hope and puts them to use. With the rebels found out on Hoth, they have to evacuate, though the Falcon gets into trouble without the ability to use its hyperdrive. Meanwhile, Luke is on Dagobah learning how to be a Jedi. Everyone comes together for a showdown on Bespin, where we get introduced to Lando.

Luke here seems a bit slow. As though he isn’t trusting anything about himself. Not even his Force sensitivities. Even on Dagobah, he fails to grasp the lessons being taught. Once he gets challenged by Vader, I see it as more his fear of the dark side and the true identity of his father that makes him let go and drop down the many levels of Bespin to what should have been his end.

Han and Leia are more interesting, and not just because of the romantic bond between the two. Han remained with the Rebels despite saying he would leave, and it’s clear he is only staying because of Leia. The two are still at odds, and there’s definitely the sense of this being pretty routine for the two. When they’re surviving within the asteroid field, the bonding through hardship is there, the closeness is there as the two continue to bicker but care what happens to the other. Then Bespin comes and the future uncertain makes them finally admit their feelings to each other with just a few simple words. It’s a progression that works, and something that Attack of the Clones could have used very well – despite the fact it already did copy the entirety of this romance plot but forgetting the key part.

Yoda is reintroduced here, and right from the start is testing Luke. However, even Yoda hasn’t learnt his lessons, it seems. Nor has Obi-Wan. Here the two are saying the future is always uncertain, there’s no way to predict what might happen, yet also insist that if Luke were to go he would be putting his friends in danger and destroy everything. They both have their own fears they don’t want to come to pass. Isn’t that what Yoda was always teaching – let go of everything you fear to lose? Yet here they are trying to keep Luke around for fear of him being turned.

Lando – from the little we see of him – is a different form of Han. He now has responsibilities but is clearly wanting the rush of not knowing what comes next. He has a different form of smoothness to Han, and the history between the two is shown mostly though these similar but different characteristics. He seems to protect and look out for only himself, but Han’s assessment that he doesn’t like the Empire is true enough that he risks everything to protect what he can of Han’s crew and undertakes the mission to find Han.

I find The Empire Strikes Back a lot better paced than A New Hope, with a lot of character interactions that barely seemed present in the latter. The action and impact of scenes is also better presented, with the final connections between Luke and Vader along with all interactions between Han and Leia being the strong points. Both of which being big parts of Return of the Jedi.

As much as I love The Empire Strikes Back, I find myself preferring Return of the Jedi slightly more. The Tatooine section of the film doesn’t drag with the build-up being executed well for that final payoff. There’s payoff for Dagobah in which Luke learns the most important lesson of all. Then we get to Endor and the end of the trilogy – which itself has been what the wins and losses of both sides have been leading to.

As I said, Han and Leia is a big part of Return of the Jedi. It marks the point that Han starts looking out for others rather than himself, having seen his friends risk everything to rescue him. And Leia played an important role in that, which he notes. Then come Endor and Leia is missing, Han leads the search for her. The two have some great interactions while together, with the bond between them solidifying during the Endor battle.

The other big part with Luke and Vader is the two finally realising the greatest lesson of all. Yoda’s death signifies one major lesson that at first Luke is unwilling to accept. That fear only works against you when you work against it. It was something Yoda had tried to teach both in different ways, but together the two finally understand the meaning. For Luke it is that he never gave up in his beliefs, even when it looked like his end was in sight. For Vader it is the understanding of his abilities and the choices he took that lead him to his current situation. He feared loss and tried to fight it. Thus, he made things worse. Now he instead uses that fear to his advantage to save someone instead.

The film is paced well with none of the dragging of A New Hope. The music works wonders here in setting scenes and giving character to the situations. And despite what some might say is the one with the least amount of plot, it doesn’t really need it when the characters are the driving force for the finale as a whole.

Despite the fact most of the plot elements are lifted straight from A New Hope, I actually feel The Force Awakens is more similar to Return of the Jedi. Yes, there’s just one current arc throughout, but the interactions between characters are what makes me say that.

Poe and Finn are the first pair I’ll highlight. Poe Dameron is an ace pilot of the Resistance, sent to Jakku to retrieve the piece of map to Luke Skywalker’s location. Finn is just a nameless Stormtrooper who sees the First Order for what they are and wants to run. The temporary alliance between the two to escape from the First Order bonds them together and cements that bond upon their separation. While we don’t see Poe’s journey off Jakku, Finn’s journey puts him into contact with Rey.

Both have been missing the bond of a real friendship. Rey has nothing but her own survival skills against a much tougher crowd. Finn has just had one friendship taken from him and now is placed into contact with a new friend – one he aims to protect. There’s also a similar situation to Han and Leia from Return of the Jedi where one of them saves the other which is then returned in a future event.

Han Solo. The weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. The feeling of being run down in a new era of lawlessness and chaos. He ran away from Leia when their son turned dark, ran away from his feelings and let them get the better of him. But the same can be said of Ben. Except Ben is emotionally vulnerable, as seen when he lets his anger overwhelm him and lashes out at whatever is available. Not people, though. After all, there’s still some good in him. Even his murder of his father works to the opposite effect of what he wanted, and by the end of the film, despite the fact he gets bested by Rey there the clear sense of him being a dangerous wild card in future events.

There’s a lot of great interaction in The Force Awakens, with maybe a few weak spots around. The callouts of Finn being a traitor – even though technically he is – hold no merit when there is no history in the film to say why this needs to be a big deal. The weak spots don’t detract from the overall film for me, with enough depth to the characters to carry the film themselves.

I still stand by what I said about The Last Jedi in terms of the characters. They are the most important part of this new trilogy, with every lead getting the focus and development they need to drive the story – even if the plot of this one could do with some work. And I say that not because of what most others have said. Think of it like this.

You expect the enemy to be toying with the good guys. That’s just what villains do. With The Last Jedi, how much focus on that particular point is there? It doesn’t just run through a scene or two. It pretty much is the whole movie. Everything is lead by the First Order toying with the Resistance. And that is the major gripe I have with it. As above, the characters remain strong, but when tied with a plot that could easily have been wrapped up as a win for the enemy and moved on to something else it leaves most of it feeling about as dry as the Tatooine wastes.

For the order, I hope this was made clear during the reviews, but for easier understanding I’m going to list them out.

The Phantom Menace
Return of the Jedi
The Empire Strikes Back
Rogue One
The Force Awakens
A New Hope
The Last Jedi
Attack of the Clones
Revenge of the Sith

And that concludes my look at all the Star Wars films. Solo isn’t included here as it is the latest film, but also because I was specifically waiting for the home release of it. As I said, all three of the new films have released very near my birthday, and without that incentive of celebration – even despite the fact it’s Star Wars – I probably wouldn’t have gone. Cinemas just aren’t my type of place to be for watching things, and aside from the new Star Wars films the only other film I watched at one was Power Rangers. As such, with the home release of Solo: A Star Wars Story next month, it’s possible a review from me will come.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

My Xbox Experiences: Part 2

I’m back again with my Xbox experiences, and this time it is all focused on the Xbox One. This is the machine that really accelerated my respect of the Xbox brand and allowed me to try a lot more of the first party lineup. However, at no point between 2013 and 2015 had I ever thought I’d be interested in getting one.

In 2013, I’d covered the Xbox One reveal conference and felt the One was unimpressive from what was shown, making note of the fact that E3 really needed to be great for them otherwise the One would be the losing console of the three – which is saying something considering we know how things turned out. E3 2013 gave a lot of u-turns on a number of things, and it had a whole host of games, but the WiiU looked a whole lot more attractive with Mario Kart 8 and the already released LEGO City Undercover.

I’d skipped out on covering E3 2014, but come E3 2015, it was clear I’d been won over.  Despite the little showing it got, Forza Motorsport 6 interested me greatly, and knowing that the console already had Horizon 2 on it made it a more attractive option. And this was also the E3 which Nintendo had faltered in a bad way. So, in October of 2015, I finally became an owner of the Forza Motorsport Edition Xbox One – complete with a download code of Forza Motorsport 6. Which was a surprise, as I was expecting a disc. It also meant I couldn’t get stuck into it until the next day, letting the game download overnight through the wired connection to the student home internet. And the next year and a half proved my reasoning for not keeping the 360 around was pretty weak when both the WiiU and One sat side-by-side in front of my TV.

When I played the game, it was as great as I was expecting, with some of my favourite tracks from the fourth returning and some interesting new ones that I found just as good. However, I wanted to explore more of the games on offer that I had missed over the last two years. Cue EA Access and the Vault, giving me access to full games within EA’s library. Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare and Titanfall were the two games I first tried, and both were pretty fun. I had reinstated my Gold subscription, and took advantage of the Games With Gold I was now able to claim again. Dirt 3 was one of the first, but didn’t get played beyond the first try. Forza 6 was just that good for me. Even the lure of a new Need For Speed wasn’t enough to pull me away from Forza Motorsport 6, though I did get a number of hours played on the trial. Same goes for Star Wars Battlefront [though ultimately I went PC on that one].

2016 and 2017 were packed full of releases and new additions to both EA Access and Games With Gold. The first lot being an average game called Zheroes and the charming Unravel. Oh, and GTA V. Yes, I’d already bought it on Steam and had made a great amount of progress in making my Online character a part of the world with houses, cars, and a style similar to my own, but I’d never touched the offline story content of the game. The Xbox One version would make sure I did. And I had fun with the story, much more than I was expecting. I already knew what I was getting come the end, and made the only choice that makes sense. Occasionally I’d be booting that completed save back up to pick the boys up again and go hiking up Mount Chiliad only to ‘accidentally’ knock one of them down the side of it. I enjoyed Titanfall more than Garden Warfare, but that didn’t stop me getting the second Garden Warfare game once it became available in the Vault. Perhaps not surprisingly, I played it less than the first. I had fun with Defence Grid 2 when I claimed that through Games With Gold, but just like the first it was a played once and never touched again game. I seriously have no idea what it is with me doing that with free games. Even ones I like.

Sunset Overdrive was also claimed on Games With Gold, and this one I didn’t find all that good. There was just something that felt stilted about it, almost as if the freedom that was advertised wasn’t there to the degree I was expecting. Though I have no idea what my expectations regarding the game were in the first place, so I can’t really be saying that without giving it a full chance. If Crackdown is any indication, I’ll pick it up again sometime soon and find myself in the groove enough to complete the main storyline. The Xbox 360 got a bit of love as I bought Midnight Club: LA Complete, though at the time didn’t dedicate enough time to it. This is another game I’d had fun with on the PSP, but with this one being the full game, it was easy to consider. As for the Xbox One, it was time to play catch up with the Forza series, buying both Horizon 2 and Motorsport 5 before Horizon 3’s release. While Horizon 2 kept me busy, Motorsport 5 just sort of sat there, and I had to admit to myself that the regular track racers just weren’t as exciting to me anymore. Or maybe it just five being a downgrade of six, as I was still playing the latter.

I won’t say much about this one, as I’d already reviewed it, but LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens released, and since the massive discount I was expecting the Steam version to have didn’t happen [after all, LEGO Jurassic World was cut massively in price just after launch] it was to the Xbox One for the game. Not only that, but 2016 was when I started dropping off from PC gaming, so nearly everything went to the One. Red Dead Redemption became part of the Backwards Compatibility of the One, and had a sale going for it, so I jumped at the chance to buy it. Worms WMD and a small game called Obliteracers were bought around that period, with Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate and SSX 3 being claimed from Games With Gold and the Vault respectively. There wasn’t much happening in 2017 with new games until April came with two at once. LEGO City Undercover had already been fully completed on WiiU, and while I wasn’t going to be repeating that, I did want to have the game on a console I was using a lot more. And Yooka-Laylee arrived as well, though I didn’t play it as much as I was expecting. I’d also downloaded Skate 3 from the Vault. And with Star Wars Battlefront now in the Vault, I could now play more, and also took the opportunity to get the season pass for it – something I had neglected doing on the PC version.

The Switch was taking over my gaming time as game after game released on it for me to buy, but I still found time for the One trying out both Watch Dogs games, along with playing through other games. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 had made it onto the Backwards Compatibility list, so it was time to replay the game I had originally played on the Wii and made some progress in on Steam. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far but had fun doing so. A number of games came along as well, with Need For Speed Payback being played through EA Access trial, Game Pass being introduced which allowed me to play Gears of War 4, and purchasing Sonic Forces and Star Wars Battlefront 2. Payback fixed the control issues I had with the 2015 game, but I didn’t find much to keep me playing. Gears was fun for the amount of time I played it, but I just couldn’t continue to the end as it got pushed to the side and eventually had to be deleted to make space. As mentioned previously, I was falling out from PC gaming, and a year after I’d bought it for PC I now had Steep for the One.

2018 was mostly Game Pass and Games With Gold for new additions, with Crazy Taxi, Split/Second, LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. I even trialled Burnout Paradise Remastered and The Sims 4 through EA Access. And then, the blowout of original Star Wars goodness. Both original Battlefronts were bought, along with Jedi Starfighter. I covered those three for Star Wars month, along with both Force Unleashed games and both EA Battlefronts. The next game I tried from Game Pass was Zoo Tycoon, and one that I found quite good. Sure, it doesn’t have the customisability of the old ones, but it’s still a decent simulation management game. Sea of Thieves was also through Game Pass and it is a great sandbox to explore. I don’t mind the fact there’s little content for it, as exploring the world and coming across secrets is fun. And the last game on this post is Fortnite – the great survival 1v100 game. I did try PlayerUnknowns’ Battlegrounds during a free weekend, but found it to be slower and less action-packed.

These six years with Xbox might have had gaps with few new things happening for me, but the games I have were definitely fun. I might still be a Nintendo-first gamer, but the Xbox has given me a new favourite series in Forza and allowed me to try out new games that Nintendo would never get. Plus, Microsoft seem to be going more user friendly in terms of services – so if Backwards Compatibility and Game Pass carry over onto their next console, I am so there day one.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Star Wars: Republic Commando - Triple Zero Review [Books]

After Hard Contact released in 2004, it was clear the series was just starting to get strong. In March 2005, a new Star Wars Insider released with a new story of Republic Commando – Omega Squad: Targets. This short story detailed a siege at a spaceport on Coruscant which Omega were called in to help with.

For the UK, the magazine was the only way to have read the story, though the US also got a second opportunity when Triple Zero released near the beginning of 2006. This second novel of the Republic Commando series introduced a lot more into the narrative of the overall series, and after the initial purchases of novels, this was my next addition.

The first chapter properly introduces Kal Skirata – who we’d only heard about in the previous book. It does so by taking us back to his first encounter with the clones – specifically the Null ARCs – and how that affects him. This first chapter is very strong in showing how Kal reacts to the situation of eight years before Geonosis, and it has such an affect on him that it changes his outlook on the universe – as does the eight years of training over a hundred Republic Commandos. In fact, his outlook has changed so much – and seeing the effects of the war on his boys – that his motivations are pretty much solely focused on them.

It’s been a year since the outbreak of the war, and things are not looking great. Terror attacks are striking the heart of war operations on Coruscant, and it needs to be stopped. After a bit of trouble that reunites Omega with Etain – with both being formally introduced to Delta for the first time – they all head back to Coruscant with no idea they’ll be spending more than a few days there and will feel the pain upon living a different life for a few weeks.

While on Coruscant – which is where the rest of the story stays – the anti-terror op is set. Bardan Jusik was introduced in the last story and is starting to really become a part of the larger family of Skirata – which is what he refers to both squads and his Nulls as. The animosity between Skirata and Vau and the effect that has had on the two squads is explored well here. There’s also the views of the two squads that Skirata tries to fix before it comes to serious blows.

Ordo is one of the six Null ARCs operational in the GAR, and he does what he needs to help Skirata out. He only follows Skirata’s command, and even goes undercover inside the GAR logistics to worm out the ones leaking information – and as such is introduced to Besany Wennen, a striking woman who he immediately suspects.

Etain is glad to be back with Darman, and the bond between the two of them deepens as they reach the understanding that the feelings they have for each other are mutual. Fi is happy for the two – as are the others of the squad – but at the same time is really starting to question things. All the clones are. They are coming to understand the differences between themselves and ordinary people and coming to resent their lot in life. But Fi most of all.

As for the mission itself, emotions are raw, distrust is everywhere, and things aren’t going to plan. They’re rooting out the enemy fast, but also having to deal with complications that keep arising. Everything is dealt with in a way that shows the realities of what this black ops team are doing, and their feelings on the various matters read great. The characteristics of individuals are really starting to come out, and now that everyone is together – including an appearance from Null ARC Mereel, the interactions between the varying parties really show.

The end is quick and final, with the tone of do or die set. Everyone gets to play their part, and any grudges are put aside to deal the blow to the enemy. Once the fight is over, the aftermath plays out fine. There’s hints as to the next story, and this one ends with the two squads ready to split while Skirata and the Nulls are ready to act on the hunt.

Out of all the series, this is the one that really starts to set things in motion. All the key players are introduced here and the motivations that play out throughout the rest of the series have their start here. The setting is also an interesting one, with Coruscant being explored at a more civilian level to really set the differences between the wider world and the close-knit clone community into stark contrast. This one is another great read that is highly recommended.

Star Wars Republic Commando Review Series